The Actor’s Freedom

I first read Michael Goldman’s The Actor’s Freedom as a college student in the early 1970s. The book has shaped the way I think about theater ever since.

I thought about Goldman again this week after seeing Simon McBurney’s remarkable The Encounter here in Ann Arbor. It’s a one-man show about—goodness—everything. The power of story, our need for story, the utterly shady border between fiction and fact, the linguistic and cultural barriers that impede communication (and at worst, breed violence). Climate change. Cultural imperialism. Parenting. There are long disquisitions on material possessions and on time. Time, the invisible Pied Piper who hauls us along with him, sometimes willingly, mostly not.

Above all, The Encounter is about the actor. The prodigious McBurney is onstage by himself for more than two hours, no intermission. His monologue, abetted by wizardly technology, is pretty much nonstop. He alternates between an authorial figure (a McBurney think-alike) and a real-life figure named Loren McIntyre, who was briefly, and terrifyingly, kidnapped by an Amazonian tribe in the 1970s. The performance has McBurney ranting, whispering, running as he deals with a range of unseen characters: an insomniac young daughter, a tribal chief capable of telepathic communication, a blood-seeking rival, dinner guests.

Part of McBurney’s power comes from the dazzling technology (every member of the audience wears headphones, so that the story effectively unfolds inside our skulls). But most of his power comes from his sheer physical presence—what Goldman labels the actor’s “freedom.” McBurney’s mercurial transitions and transformations (from character to character, scene to scene, past to present) remind us of the actor’s uncanny ability to transcend time and space, to embody (and thus tame) what terrifies us, to act in the face of paralyzing events.

And, in this case, to enter, almost literally, our minds. It’s hard to describe the pleasures of experiencing a play spoken directly into the ears. I’d initially been put off by ads for the performance, thinking the last thing I wanted to do was spend two hours sitting in a theater wearing a headset (how would that work with a hearing aid?). But I’m a convert.

As Goldman writes, the actor “is a figure of fear or awe, and of extraordinary delight, by virtue of his skills, whose power is felt throughout the audience—and must be felt if we are to respond well to his acting. […] He is beyond us because he is disguised; he both is and is not himself.” McBurney’s Encounter is one of the most striking examples of this truth I’ve ever seen.

Unmasked

I’m struck by pictures of Hillary Clinton these days: hair unstyled, face free of make-up, lines and circles visible (though the smile is still radiant). The Times ran a small piece about this yesterday, accompanied by selfies taken with the former candidate in places as ordinary as the woods near her home and an indie bookstore.

Her performance—at least the one conducted over the past two years—is over, the long run ended, the star shorn of props and costume and setting. I find myself wondering whether, had she won, we’d still be seeing the helmet hair and military pantsuit. (Never mind the Kevlar vests.)

There’s so much theater here—so much about the way women, in particular, must gird themselves for the stage(s) of public life.

Just as 19th-century actresses were treated with a contempt and suspicion far beyond anything to which their male counterparts were subjected, so this woman warrior—this actress impersonating a man (did she ever appear in a skirt?)—endured a level of scrutiny her male competitors were spared.

When Victoria Woodhull ran for president in the late-19th century, she suffered accusations and attacks that would have felled someone of lesser mettle. The feminist Woodhull persisted, convinced of her calling. She dressed not unlike a man. When she appeared onstage at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1874, she wore a plain black dress with white cuffs and collar. Still, critics reviled her. “We do not clearly see what manly privileges Mrs. Woodhull wants that she does not enjoy,” one charged.

Black performers knew something of what Woodhull experienced. I think of Bert Williams, the brilliant, turn-of-the-20th-century, mixed-race performer from the Caribbean who found he was most successful when he performed in blackface. And so he went with it—and died with it, collapsing onstage one night in Chicago and being carried off, his face still caked in burnt cork, never to return.

Why was his real face less appealing—less lucrative?

What truths about Woodhull did people not want to see?

Why did Hillary feel she needed to arm herself with highlighted hair and airbrushed skin?

Perhaps it’s their humanity which, like our own, we know to be flawed. Rather than confront their (and our) mortality, we ask our stars to be larger than life, more resolved, higher-definition.

Williams was profoundly saddened by the discrepancy between who he was and who he pretended to be. He knew that audiences were more comfortable with a cartoon black—a man who knew his place and his limits—and he hated it.

A century later, here was Hillary, masquerading in whiteface. It’s nice to see her dispense with it so quickly post-election. May she persist.

Audiences

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“Sir, the public is here.”

“Show them in.”

Last week in Madrid I attended a new opera version of Lorca’s El público at the Teatro Real. I’d bought tickets online and was able to walk through the long-ish queue of people waiting to get entradas an hour before curtain (at the civilized Spanish hour of six p.m., so you’re out in time for supper). The crowd—Lorca’s público—were mostly Bohemian types, in jeans and tights, on spindly heels, one or two in something resembling Birkenstocks, many with long gray hair and chic eyeglasses. An intellectual set, or so I want to think, given that I was among them.

Audiences live in obscurity, especially at the Teatro Real, one of the glorious old Madrid theaters that rises in semi-circular tiers around a single orchestra floor. The true believers took the cheapest, most compromised seats high in the opera house heavens. Not quite as ardent (perhaps it comes with middle age), we parked ourselves a tier or two below, in a crowded semicircular box with limited sightlines. We couldn’t see the orchestra (more than 35 musicians, including a guitarist and several percussionists backed by rows of gongs) or much of what took place in front of the curtain. But the stage itself was mercifully deep once the curtain lifted, and we were able to catch most of the action and the critical surtitles, though I had to sit up very straight to see clearly, and by intermission my back ached.

 

a2Lorca left the manuscript for El público with a friend in the summer of 1936 when he took off for Granada days before the outbreak of the Civil War, convinced he’d be safer there than in Madrid. How he might have revised the play had he lived to see it produced is one of those vexing unanswerables. The new opera’s librettist, Andrés Ibañez, says given the unfinished, almost hallucinatory state of the script Lorca left behind at his death, the work “seems the perfect candidate for conversion into opera.”

Music freed the play from the constraints of logic, and for once I yielded with pleasure, not confusion, to its jumble of images and ideas. The text itself became a component of the whole, not the dominant thing, and so its inconsistencies and surprises distracted less. This difficult work about love and erotic force and sacrifice and death made new sense. (A nod to composer Mauricio Sotelo for his captivating use of flamenco in this least-flamenco of Lorca’s plays.)

“One must destroy the theater or live in the theater,” Lorca writes in El público. I’d always understood this to mean you have to obliterate the tedious bourgeous theater (still so dominant—a production of Lion King was playing a few blocks away on Madrid’s Gran Vía) or else abide in it, but the opera made it clear we can’t destroy the theater, because that’s all we’ve got: masquerade and scene-playing, the props with which we perform our lives. Without them, human existence deteriorates into base instinct.

It all has me thinking about the experience of being an audience, part of el público. Crammed into a little box, unable to see, acutely aware of the people around you—the woman who sat beside my husband, for example, who kept turning her head violently away from him, as if he might contaminate her (maybe she craved a solitude she couldn’t afford). The airline had lost our luggage, and I was wearing new pants and a new cotton shirt that wouldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t cool down. I’d had wine with lunch and was thirsty, and my shoes, also new, pinched. The discomforts we endure as audiences aren’t far from the discomforts of travel, it occurs to me. Tight and costly seats. Little to no leg room. Yanked from the known and plunged into darkness with only our carry-ons for comfort. Wondering how the journey will affect us, whether we’ll arrive intact and return safely, whether we’ll be changed. And willing to pay dearly for the experience, again and again.

Sightings

In this week’s New Yorker, Nathan Heller asks, provocatively, “Who goes to the theater these days, and why?” (He spells it “theatre,” but oh well.)

Funny, because I’ve been thinking a lot about theater this week. I’ve just seen and blogged about two fine stage productions—Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew, both by the superb all-male British company Propeller, in town here in Ann Arbor for the past week.

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Spotted owl

Heller notes that live stage productions are usually viewed as “the spotted owl of American art,” a rare species, hard to find. He mentions how busy we are. How preoccupied with Twitter and YouTube and Facebook and TV. And then comes the money quote, the one that’s got me wondering, for perhaps the millionth time in my life, how to answer the question he poses.

“And yet, for all that,” Heller writes, “the theater has proved strangely resilient, selling (even selling out) cascades of seats and claiming more college degrees than film and clinical psychology combined.” Say that again: more college degrees than both film and psychology???

“Something is going right,” Heller continues. “Perhaps the question isn’t why some give up on the form but why others keep falling in love. What can the theater do that books and screens can’t?”

Heller never really answers the question (which appears in a profile of the 31-year-old playwright Annie Baker). I’m not sure I can either, except to say I think it’s got something to do with how we play-act as kids and grow up envisioning our lives, forward and backward, in scenes. How the miracle of a live actor on a real stage in front of you in this moment in time has an uncanny power that no film or TV sitcom can achieve. How the transformation of that actor into a character is real—not the product of some film editor’s witchcraft—and how that metamorphosis prompts us to question the nature of identity: the actor’s, the character’s, our own.

My hope in this screen-besotted age is that live performance—not just theater, but music and dance—will make even more of a comeback. Because we need it, if for no other reason than to remind us that we’re human, not digital, beings.

May the spotted owl proliferate.

From the pulpit

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Memorial plaque, Fulton Theatre rear exterior

Some weeks ago I received an e-mail from a friend telling me her pastor had referenced my book Staging Ground in his Sunday sermon. That’s a first. What’s more, he’s a Mennonite pastor, and when I mentioned this to friends in Michigan, they said, to a person, Mennonite?! I thought they were conservative.

It’s not anything I expected—a Mennonite pastor citing my book about a theater in a part of Pennsylvania that’s more Bible than Borscht Belt.

But it’s the sort of impact I hoped Staging Ground might make. Ever since I learned about the massacre of the Conestoga Indians on the grounds of what later became the Fulton Theatre, I’ve wanted to write about the event. (The same desire to shed light on a horrific injustice lies behind my biography of García Lorca.)

My friend’s pastor, Chad Martin, spoke at length about social justice in his sermon. I listened to it online: he had a soft, thoughtful voice, and a gently deliberate way of making his points. He talked about the “systematic oppression” of various groups: Palestinians, African-Americans, sexual and religious minorities, the innocent Indians who were massacred on the grounds of the Fulton Theatre in 1763, just a couple of blocks from the church where Martin was preaching. He quoted what I’d said about the massacre and talked broadly about the necessity of respecting people outside our own cultural and social and religious norms. More astonishingly, he called for compassion for the transgender community—many of whose lives “have been lost to discriminatory and hateful violence.” Martin said he mourns “the many ways our community and our churches have judged and ridiculed transgendered people.”

“Our history is riddled with glass ceilings, red lines and gated communities,” he said.

In her new book, the evocatively titled Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, Rebecca Solnit writes of “how change can be wrought in the streets and by retelling the story.”

One of the ways we retell stories is through ritual. More than once, Martin repeated a a point I’d tried to make in Staging Ground, that “in the performance of symbolic actions we apprehend the sacred.” He described how simple acts, such as the public recitation of the names of transgender victims of violence, can summon the sacred and go some distance toward achieving social justice. Theater, of course, is all about the performance of symbolic actions—and at its best, like all the arts, nudges us toward compassion for the sacred Other. I’m indebted to a Mennonite pastor for helping to make that point.