"ANNIE GET YOUR GUN" CLOSES ON JULY 3!
JAMES BEAMAN WILL JOIN TAFFETY PUNK THEATRE COMPANY AT THE HISTORIC FOLGER THEATRE TO PLAY THESEUS IN "THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN" ON JULY 26.
We are moving into the final stretch with "Annie Get Your Gun," and the entire company is feeling the first pangs as we watch the calendar wind down on this special production. Summer is in full flower here in the Connecticut River Valley, the boaters and bikers are out enjoying the fine sultry weather, and the lovely air conditioned Goodspeed Opera House has been full to capacity. We all hear exciting things about "Carnival!", the next Goodspeed offering, which promises to provide chills and thrills with its diverse company of acrobats, singers and dancers. The show is based on the 1950s film, "Lili," which was one of my favorites as a kid. It's from a novella by Paul Gallico ("The Snow Goose," "The Poseidon Adventure") about a disillusioned dancer who returns wounded from the war and is forced to take up work as a puppeteer in a traveling carnival; an innocent waif wanders into the world of the carnival and brings love and wonder back into the wounded dancer's life. Quite a beautiful story. We are hoping we will get a chance to see a run through of the show before we pack up and leave East Haddam.
I thought I would devote my blog this week to a subject that has been very much occupying my thoughts of late: an actor's ambition. I don't think there has been an actor, since time immemorial, who has not entered upon his career with thoughts of glory. No one sets out as a performer with the dream of being a supporting player, or of filling out a crowd scene. No dancer labors daily at the barre without a passionate vision of him or herself thrilling audiences from center stage. No singer runs through their daily scales thinking, boy, would I love to sing backup! It takes big dreams and a lot of guts to commit to a career as a performer and the fuel for that fire is a dream of greatness and success on the highest levels. Of course, as one matures, these dreams become tempered by experience, hard knocks and a realization of the hierarchical and whimsical nature of the profession. One then finds oneself perhaps shedding one's glorious visions of stardom, and scaling one's ambition back to a simple wish: Please, Lord, just let me be hired to do something.
I was a precocious child, and my early exposure to the theatre was through my brilliant artist parents, so I had a more intense and informed notion of the theatrical profession than most kids.
I became obsessed with the idea of greatness, and I learned that the great actors of history were those that assayed the great roles of Shakespeare and the classics. I began, at the age of 12 or 13, to read voraciously about the grand traditions of British theatre; I collected books about Laurence Olivier, who, in my youth, was the acknowledged 'greatest living actor.' I devoured the plays of Shakespeare and I produced tiny paper spectacles of his plays on my little toy theatre stage, playing all the characters as I recorded the voices, with suitably dramatic musical accompaniment, on my cassette recorder. I saw myself as being the American inheritor of the legacy of the great classical actors: Garrick, Kean, Macready, Gielgud, Olivier.
It was a strange sort of bewilderment that overtook me when I got into undergraduate drama school and realized that my teachers had a very different idea of what my trajectory as an actor would be. A 5'6" actor playing the great heroes of Shakespeare?? Pish posh, my boy. You are a character actor!
(Never mind that Edmund Kean, one of the greatest actors the theatre has ever known, was shorter than I). I spent four years playing walk ons, old men, and bit character parts, all the while hungering to tackle the great parts. When I graduated and pursued training in London, the head of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art auditioned me and told me that my vocal instrument was not dramatic enough to speak Shakespeare and I should pursue other avenues of expression. Devastating criticism such as this further eroded my confidence and I began to cultivate other, more marketable skills--like singing and dancing. Musical theatre requires enormous technical prowess, larger than life presence, and great skill, and, in our country, the highest level of the theatrical profession, Broadway, is dominated by musical theatre. My young ambitions were not limited to being an interpreter of the great classical roles, but also performing in lavish Broadway shows that would take their place in the annals of theatre history.
Over the years my ambitions continue to burn within me. And often, I have struggled to get the profession to see me as I see myself; one of the great frustrations is to know, with greater and greater certainty as one develops as an actor and matures as a man, the astonishing things one is capable of and to find oneself frustrated by the vagaries of the profession. It appears one can't get on Broadway without Broadway credits; one can't get hired to play leading classical roles at major theatres unless one already has such credits, or unless one attended one of three elite acting schools. The business is hierarchical, it is a sort of ladder--and one's importance and value are tied up inextricably in what opportunities have been thrown one's way, regardless of the years of training, effort and persistence. The leading actors get the best housing, they get the highest salaries, they get the standing ovations, and their names are mentioned in the reviews. It can be a demoralizing experience to know with the certainty of every cell in one's body that one is a leading actor, and stand upstage watching someone else get the glory.
I do not, for one moment, devalue the work that has come my way. I have not had the easiest road as an actor and have had to log in more than my share of hours at thankless day jobs, year in and year out. Few actors I know appreciate and revel in the simple wonder of being EMPLOYED as an actor more than I, and I always apply my best efforts and the highest level of commitment and skill to each role I play, large or small. It is what gives my journey meaning. Knowing that I have given my best helps me to look in the mirror each morning with a sense of pride and self respect. But there are times when I wonder if I will yet fulfill that 12 year old's grand dreams of success. Over the years, I have produced my own work in an effort to be in the leading position. I created six different shows for the cabaret stage, two of these intended to become a full length theatre piece. I tailored my shows to my unique talents, I hired musicians and designers and press agents and financed all of it with my earnings from a retail job and an inflated VISA card. I went back to school at the age of 38 and earned a master's degree in classical acting in order to reclaim my original goal of doing the great roles of Shakespeare. And I have had the chance to play a few: Macbeth, Mercutio, Talbot. And even now, I am in the process of motivating a couple of projects just so I will have the opportunity to play meaty, challenging roles that the profession may not ever give me the chance to play. I wonder, sometimes, in the dark silent hours, whether or not I will ever achieve what I set out to achieve; whether or not this profession--so whimsically and stubbornly attached to the trappings of fame and success and so cowardly about taking risks on extraordinary talents and ideas--will ever give me the chance to shine my true light and unleash my true power. Perhaps the only thing to do is not to wait. To make it happen myself. I am reading a fascinating book right now about little known British actor Donald Wolfit, who was one of the last great actor-managers, touring his own Shakespearean company and playing all the great roles in the canon. He was not the ideal of the leading actor of his time, but he knew what his destiny was, and he seized the reins of his own career unequivocally and undeniably. I will close with a quote from that book that inspires me these days and helps fan my inner flame.
"'I must back myself or not be backed at all,' he wrote. All his life, this ambition had been constant. From bitter experience, he must have realized how little he conformed to the fashionable ideal of leading man; he was, by nature, too impatient to wait to be asked to play the great roles which he longed to encompass." ~ Ronald Harwood, "Donald Wolfit"