Tuesday, October 16, 2007


I've engaged literally in theatrics only a few times, although life requires some form of performance most of the time. Teaching, everyday politeness, and responding to unexpected questions, for example, are three kinds of interaction that require a level of performance.

I remember Larry King's having interviewed Marlon Brando toward the end of Brando's life. It was a terrible interview because King was intimidated by Brando, and Brando was being Brando. At one point, however, Brando tried to demystify acting. He asked King to imagine a real-life circumstance in which you're sitting at a bar having a drink when a stranger comes up and sits beside you and behaves somewhat oddly. Brando started to say, "So when you respond to that person, you're acting--you're presenting yourself so as to have some control over what seems a strange, possibly threatening, situation" [or something like that--I'm paraphrasing]--but then King cut him off and asked something uninteresting (to me).

I wanted Brando to finish the thought, the kernel of which seemed to be that everybody acts all the time. Of course, that's different from being a trained actor who actually gives a sustained performance, but Brando was trying to teach King about one simple basis of acting.

I tried out in high school for the lead role in The Crucible and so overwhelmed the director of the play, Mr. Murphy, that I was cast in a bit-part, as Ezekiel Cheever, the court-bailiff. I think Mr. Murphy just needed bodies; otherwise, I may not have been cast at all. Perhaps the apex of my acting-career occurred when the actor playing the judge blanked on his lines. He was supposed to order me to bring in the prisoner. I waited a beat, and then I ad-libbed, "Shall I bring in the prisoner, judge?!" The judge-actor said, "Thank you!"--a wonderful double-entendre. Decades later, I "acted" in a short film called Cliche and thereby, absurdly, landed my name on IMBD.

When I go to live theater, I often watch the edges of the performance--actors' shoes, the faces of other people in the audience, the ceiling. I don't do this in any obtrusive way, and I'm sure the actors would rather I suspend disbelieve completely and get immersed totally in the drama. I do re-focus on the drama, but I also like withdrawing from it for a moment. I especially like plays in which people come on the set to change the set right in front you. I pretend the people are actors pretending to be set-changers.

I don't know the theater-world well at all, but I assume that back-stage people get weary of actors and that actors, by the same token, feel as if they're the ones risking everything out there. With regard to plays or films about theater, I'm partial to The Dresser (1983), a film with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay; Shakespeare in Love; Anton in Show Business (a play); and a recent film, Bigger Than the Sky (2005), which is about a regional theater (Portland, Oregon) that puts on Cyrano; the director casts in the lead-role a person with no training in acting, and we go from there. The film seems to capture "theater-people" well, at least as I see them from the outside of that world, and it's a very thoughtful presentation of the phenomenon of regional theater and the obstacles such theater faces with regard to what to produce, how, and why.

Here's link to a nice poem, by Clay Derryberry, about theater:


And this little poem concerns theater-backstage, at least I think it does:


Reality doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
We sawed boards into shapes of clouds,
worked polymers into blue sky.

Adam and Eve enter left, spew their lines,
name a fashioned set. Backstage we hear
each board creak. The sky moans like a sick duck.

Somehow the better drama’s back here—
heat coming off the stage-manager’s neck, lust
unspoken between me and the set-dresser.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom
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