The Rules Of The Game

July 31, 2007

I swear I’m not going to quote the entirety of The Shifting Point here. Really, I’m not. Nor is this blog going to become The Peter Brook Show. I promise. But, I just have to share another little nugget of wisdom that I came across the other day. Further proof that Brook can read my mind.

In his essay, “There is Only One Stage,” Brook writes:

“…to my mind sport gives the most precise images and best metaphors for a theatrical performance. On the one hand in a race, or in a football match, there is no freedom at all. There are rules, the game is calculated on the most rigorous lines, just as in theatre, where each performer learns his role and respects it down to the last word. But this all-guiding scenario does not prevent him from improvising when the event occurs. When the race starts, the runner calls up all the means at his disposal. As soon as a performance begins, the actor steps into the structure of the mise-en-scene: he too becomes completely involved, he improvises within the established guidelines and, like the runner, he enters the unpredictable. In this way, everything stays open, and for the audience the event occurs at this precise moment: neither before or after. Seen from heaven, every football match looks the same; but no match could ever repeated, detail by detail.”

I love this quote for two reasons: the first is that it makes me look at something that’s been on my mind for several years now in a different light. I’ve grown to believe that sports is a very apt metaphor for theatre, but have always thought of it more in relation to rehearsals and preparation (more on that in a moment). Here, Brook applies it to the event itself and is dead-on yet again (I know: I should’ve had a V8). Even though there are a prescribed set of rules and customs linked to both a theatrical performance and a sports event, the in-the-moment vagaries of both are limitless. That’s what makes all of the following – a last-second Hail Mary by Doug Flutie, a rambunctious Zero Mostel inserting random utterances of “Trick or treat!” at the Halloween performance of the original A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Robert Horry – possible.

The other reason I love this quote is because I think it’s cool that Peter Brook and I are on the same wavelength. Who knew he even paid attention to sports? And who knows: maybe my belief in this metaphor stems from first reading his words about it over 15 years ago and not consciously remembering it? I’m discovering quite a lot of that re-reading The Shifting Point: many aesthetic, theoretical, and ideological points of agreement between Mr. Brook and I, all of which make me wonder if I didn’t just pick them up from him in the first place.

As for my own thinking about the sports metaphor, I relate to it more in a pre-production and rehearsal mode. I very briefly touched upon this back in May, in a completely un-related blog post in which I wrote:

“I’ve always viewed the director’s role as being similar to the coach of a sports team. In sports, the coach designs the overall playbook, and tailors the gameplan to the strengths of the team roster. The coach implements the strategy and the philosophy, then its up to the individual players to execute as a unified team.”

Elaborating more on that, I kind of view the whole cast of a show as a sports team. Everyone on the team has a role to play, and knows what their job is. Sometimes you see teams built around one or two stars and a reliable supporting cast of role players. Other times you see teams where there are no stars, only role players. In both cases, there are always one or two benchwarmers who rarely see playing time, and are only brought in under special circumstances that are tailor-made for their skill set. Everyone on the team, however, knows their role and they all have a chance to be the hero every time out.

The key difference between sports and theatre? For me, it’s the obvious lack of an opponent. Actors go out every night and try to win over the audience: that’s how they win the game. Taken in those terms, every performance is an opportunity to win the championship. The actor’s job, like an athlete’s, is to go out and execute the gameplan to the best of their abilities. If an actor faces any opponent it’s himself. Actors must leave whatever insecurities, worries, hangups, and fears they have backstage or else they won’t be able to execute.

I applied this thinking and approach in an even more specialized way when I started working on my last show: I went into training. I quit smoking, cut back on the social libations, changed my diet, started exercising a bit, and changed my overall lifestyle in several other ways that were more conducive to being mentally and physically prepared for the show. It was amazing how much my mental outlook improved the more I altered my physical regimen. I felt better, happier in every way, and was a wellspring of positivity and zen-ness by the time the show opened (at least, I felt like I was). It was a very beneficial experiment for me, and one that I’m going to repeat when I start rehearsals for my next show (whichever and whenever that may be).

So, what’s your take on this whole sports/theatre metaphor? Does it sound good to you or like a bunch of hooey? Perhaps you have your own sports-theatre metaphor you’d like to share. Or perhaps you feel like one of my fellow nytheatre.com colleagues who calls sports “the great leech sucking the life out of the American working man.” Whatever the case may be, let me have it.


Peter Brook Must Be Psychic

July 14, 2007

Peter Brook must be psychic. No sooner did I post my last blog entry than I flipped open The Shifting Point for more nourishment and found, at least in part, an answer to my question.

In his essay, “What is a Shakespeare?,” Brook writes:

“…authorship as we understand it in almost all other fields…almost invariably means ‘personal expression.’ And therefore the finished work bears the mark of the author’s own way of seeing life…Now it’s not for nothing that scholars who have tried so hard to find autobiographical traces in Shakespeare have had so little success. It doesn’t matter in fact who wrote the plays and what biographical traces there are. The fact is that there is singularly little of the author’s point of view – and his personality seems to be very hard to seize – throughout thirty-seven or thirty-eight plays.

“If one takes those thirty-seven plays with all their radar lines of the different viewpoints of the different characters, one comes out with a field of incredible density and complexity; and eventually one goes a step further, and finds that what happened, what passed through this man called Shakespeare and came into existence on sheets of paper, is something quite different from any other author’s work. It’s not Shakespeare’s view of the world, it’s something which actually resembles reality. A sign of this is that any single word, line, character or event has not only a large number of interpretations, but an unlimited number. Which is the characteristic of reality…What Shakespeare wrote carries that characteristic. What he wrote is not interpretation: it is the thing itself.”

Exactly. No writer has covered more facets of humanity or life than Shakespeare has. His reflection, his imitation of life is so vivid and accurate that it has come closer to giving us the real thing than anyone else’s has before or since. They say truth is stranger than fiction? You betcha – especially in Shakespeare (Cymbeline, anyone?). The invention of the human, indeed.

I think Brook’s comments go a long way towards answering, in a general sense, Shakespeare’s enduring popularity. But what about Hamlet, in particular? Why this play now? Fellow blogger and Hamlet junkie Gabriele Schafer weighed in with some terrific thoughts on that here. I definitely agree with her about the play’s motif of deceit, and the lies we tell others and ourselves. In today’s current climate, there is something about that motif that resonates throughout the political aspect of Hamlet: a man ruthlessly attains power through villainous means without giving any thought to who or what it will affect (wouldn’t it be interesting to sit down and discuss this with President Bush, Al Gore, and John Kerry?).

And yet, there are other ways of looking at Hamlet‘s appeal. One of the things about it that jumps out at me these days is its function as the archetypal dysfunctional family story. In a culture that has now been overrun by such tales, from Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to American Beauty and Little Miss Sunshine, no one does it better than Shakespeare. In a sense, Hamlet is the original moody goth; his mother and stepfather are the predecessors to all those beastly parents who’d rather spend the weekend dining at the country club than having quality time at home with the family.

The other aspect of Hamlet that stands out for me is its depiction of a man who is heartbroken by everything he holds dear to him – life, his family, his friends, his girlfriend, etc. The aggregate amount of misfortunes that fall on Hamlet’s head simultaneously short circuit both his ability to mend himself and his sense of social decorum. Politeness goes out the window as Hamlet lashes out at the world for his pain. Such emotions are familiar to anyone who has ever lost a parent, gone through a divorce, been dumped by a partner, or [insert your choice of hardship here].

Of course, that’s just how I feel today. Ask me again tomorrow and I might say something different. But, as Brook so astutely points out, whatever I say tomorrow would most likely be supported by the text.

I eagerly await more comments and feedback about this. What do you think makes Hamlet the play of the moment? Or is it? You tell me.


The Greatest Experimental Work Of All?

July 12, 2007

I’ve been re-reading Peter Brook’s collection of essays, The Shifting Point, which is just chock full of stimulating wisdom, and recently came across something that really stuck in my head: in his essay, “The Theatre of Cruelty,” he called Hamlet “the greatest experimental work of all.”

Wow. Bold statement. But, it got me thinking…

Hamlet has been on my mind a lot lately, and it seems I’m not alone. 2007 has already seen four different productions of it (at least, that I know of), with who knows how many more to follow between now and year’s end. What is it about this play that still compels us after 400 years?

I’ll admit, I’ve been a Hamlet junkie for a long time. When one of my all-time favorite actors, Laurence Olivier, called it the greatest play ever written, I jumped on it and have been kind of obsessed ever since. After I performed a scene from it in my college acting class I got a taste of what Olivier meant when he said that the title role, once you’ve played it, is one that gets under your skin and haunts you forever.

There seems to be no limit to how one can approach this behemoth of a play. No matter how many times one sees it, it continues to reveal new shades of meaning and subtlety, especially depending on where one is in their own life. Hamlet means something different to me now (i.e. a man tries to soothe the pain of his father’s death, among other things) than it did when I first saw it 25 years ago (i.e. the Mount Everest of acting). Clearly, that has something to do with who I was then and who I am now.

But, I think it also has to do with how each individual artist approaches it. Hamlet means something different to Olivier, Brook, Kenneth Branagh, Franco Zeffirelli, Mel Gibson, Ingmar Bergman, Ethan Hawke, Adrian Lester, and the countless others who have either played or directed it over the years. The centuries have shown that it can withstand a multitude of interpretations and justify most of them in some way.

What are your thoughts on Brook’s comment? Is Hamlet the greatest experimental work of all? I’m thinking it’s definitely one of them. And, why do artists and audiences keep coming back to this work? Why is it on the mind of so many different theatre artists all the time right now? I’d love hear your thoughts on this – especially if you’re someone who’s ever tackled this beast and lived to tell the tale.


Pretentious Finale

July 4, 2007

Some of nytheatre.com’s contributors and related personnel, both past and present, made a big splash at the Pretentious Festival’s closing night awards ceremony this past weekend. Alumni contributor Jeff Lewonczyk emceed a supremely raucous and tongue-in-cheek event that bubbled over with shenanigans.  These were some of the highlights:

The coup d’etat came when Brick regulars Aaron Baker, Bryan Enk, and Stacia French were given the award for Master of the Bard (they all appeared in two of the festival’s three Shakespeare productions – Ian W. Hill’s Hamlet and Macbeth Without Words), then called fellow Brick-er Christiaan Koop and yours truly onstage to help them with their acceptance speech, which turned out to be nothing less than an abridged performance of Julius Caesar (perhaps the only chance I’ll ever get to play Mark Anthony, so I took it).

Seriously, though: congratulations to all of my award-winning friends and colleagues here at HQ. Well done, people! Let’s all take a bow and do it again next year.


My Turn To Wax Nostalgic

July 1, 2007

Now that my show is over, it’s back to business as usual here at the blog. Which means it’s time for me to wax nostalgic about nytheatre.com’s 10th birthday, a milestone that was commemorated recently in a lovely blog post by The Boss. His words got me thinking about my own tenure here at HQ, and inspired some reflection.

I celebrated an anniversary of my own during the month of June: one year on the job here. Next week will mark another anniversary: six years since I originally came on board as a volunteer reviewer.

Wow. Six years. Where has the time gone?

If you’d told me back in 2001 that I would eventually be working as a theatre reviewer, podcast moderator, and general all-around Guy Friday for a nonprofit arts advocacy organization, I probably would’ve said, “Yeah – in my dreams!”

And yet, here I am, in 2007, doing all of those things. Unbeliveable.

It’s been quite an adventure so far, one that started innocently enough back when my longtime friend Don Jordan and I used to run a theatre company together (which was many moons ago) and were trying to get people to come review our shows. The Boss was the only reviewer who ever came to see us on a regular basis. To this day, I don’t know why he did, but Don and I were grateful for the attention and the feedback. We were first introduced to The Boss through his reviews of this show and this show.

His review of the latter, especially, made an impression on me that lasts to this day. It was the first time I’d ever read a less-than-ideal review of a show I was in and thought: this guy is right. I liked how the review was both encouraging and honest, and it made us all feel like we’d accomplished something worthwhile even if we hadn’t quite pulled it off. After that, I became an avid reader of the site.

Several months later, I got in touch with The Boss and asked about the possibility of reviewing for him. Now, keep in mind, that we had never actually met. I was just a regular reader who liked his writing. But, I noticed that he wrote pretty much all of the site content, and it made me wonder if he needed any help (this was long before the site had any kind of steady writing staff). I had been wanting to develop some kind of regular writing habit, and the thought of seeing theatre for free sounded good to me, so I figured I had nothing to lose.

To my great surprise, The Boss emailed me back and we agreed to have lunch. At our meeting we talked about the website’s philosophy (to err on the side of generosity and constructive criticism without an axe to grind), and about what I wanted to get out of doing this (free theatre tickets and a chance to write). Once our cards were on the table, The Boss agreed to take me on on a trial basis: I would write three reviews, and if we both liked the way things were going after that we would continue. I’m happy to report that we never needed to have another meeting on the matter. I met my quota, and neither one of us has looked back since.

There have been many highlights along the way: six Fringe Festivals (including my first in 2001, when a small handful of volunteers including Tim Cusack, David Fuller, Trav S.D., Eric Winick, The Boss, and myself covered nearly 60 shows – quite an achievement at the time), numerous readings and book events for the NYTE anthologies (I took my dad to the Plays and Playwrights 2001 launch party at Under St. Marks, which featured a hilarious excerpt from The Elephant Man – The Musical that he got a big kick out of), the first ever Indie Theater Convocation (an event whose long-term ramifications still have yet to be fully felt, but which has already spawned the birth of our newest website: indietheater.org), and the inception last summer of our podcast program, the nytheatrecast. These events, and many others over the years, have all carried the exciting, shivery thrill of the unknown, as we embarked on uncharted territory and hoped for the best. So far everything has worked out better than we could have ever imagined.

I had lunch with The Boss on nytheatre.com’s 10th birthday. Joined by his cunning associate, The Mix Master (who is the nytheatrecast sound engineer), we talked about future plans. That’s something I love about our meetings: we never talk about the past, only the future. Whatever laurels we may have to rest on, there is no time to do so. We have too many new ideas to try out. The past is past. All that matters now is tomorrow and beyond.

It has been an amazing journey so far, one that has enriched my life more than I can say. And, I look forward to much more of it. I’m not even kidding when I say that the best is still yet to come. Stay tuned everybody.