Why does it matter?
I'm directing a musical called Keep on the Sunny Side for The Legacy Theatre in Atlanta. It's the first musical I've ever directed. To help me feel more confidant, the friend who hired me (my college roommate Mark) called it a "play with music." There are no dance numbers, the musicians are all on stage, the music is very organic and within the world of the play. Mark came to see a run-through tonight. I was nervous. He gave me a lot of great notes and fixed a lot of problems. It's always so nerve-wracking for me, having someone come to give notes on something that I've directed. I'm very self conscious and scared and protective of my fragile ego. More so as a director than as an actor or a writer. I suppose it's a matter of experience and confidence. I'm fairly confident as an actor. I'm somewhat confident as a writer. I'm less confident as a director. I have zero confidence as a home-owner and grownup. That's the hierarchy of my confidence.
So after Mark gave me some great specific notes and suggestions, he got to the big point. We had a wonderful discussion with lots of thoughts and words and sentences, but it all boils down (in my opinion) to this: What's it about? What's the point? Why does it matter? It was about the overall thing. The overall story, the overall event, the overall experience that the audience is going to have. It was scary and invigorating and I feel like I have awoken from a year-long sleep. (I don't know if Mark knows how grateful I am, but I hope this blog entry will suffice. A face to face thank you might be too much for me to handle.)
So then I said to Mark, "Okay, let me talk to them," and I made the long walk down the steps of the house to the stage to address the actors, all of whom are talented and kind and a joy to be around.
Getting broad notes as an actor is irritating to me. When a director says things like "the whole play needs to feel more like a carnival" I get frustrated. I like specifics. But I don't like line readings. I like to be praised, but not too much. I like to be called on my deficiencies, but only if it's on my terms, which are impossible to articulate. It's a wonder directors and actors can co-exist at all, much less accomplish something. Sometimes "the note" can't be specific. Sometimes the note has to be "the whole play needs to feel like a (insert noun here)." Sometimes the note is "Why does this matter? What's the point? What's it about?"
Step four is "we made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." And tonight I realized that this is what it's all about. Every story. Every play. Every film. In some way it is a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Ourselves as human beings trying to live with other human beings and trying to live with ourselves. And it must be fearless. We are flawed. We are selfish. We are human. And playing and writing characters in plays has been just about as important in my life as the real step four.
I worked with a director recently who said a great thing about making choices on stage. He said "make the choice that hurts the most." Which means make the most dramatic choice. The choice with the highest stakes. I stole that tonight (Thanks Peter!). Say your character is obsessed with his work and throughout the play explains his obsession with his work and why it's so important until his wife leaves him. Then say you as the actor have to decide or discover the motivation for the big fight scene. Not the conscious motivation, but the subconscious. The real reason. The truth. Is it merely that he believes his work is very important? Or is it that he prefers his work to being at home with his family? Which choice hurts the most? Exactly. "But I don't think he's that bad of a guy," the actor might say. To which I reply, "Yeah he is. He must be, or I don't care."
I was reminded of a Saturday morning several months ago when I was still asleep and my wife wept as she shouted "Would you please get out of bed and give this child some chocolate milk?!"
Made a searching a fearless moral inventory of ourselves. The selfish parts. The ugly parts. The secret parts. The nooks and crannies that we don't want to talk about or reveal.
That's the point. That's why it matters. That's what it's about.
And here's the kicker... it's a charming little musical about the Carter Family. It's called Keep on the Sunny Side for crying out loud. And it's a testament to the artistry of my friend Mark that he didn't let me leave the most important stones unturned.