american angel notes from amsterdam – 1

We asked the actor Bernard White to keep a journal of his experiences rehearsing Wings of Desire in Amsterdam. Bernie responded with a series of really wonderful entries, an edited selection of which we’ll be posting on the blog over the next few weeks. As you’ll see, they’re often very personal, and reveal a great deal about the process of creating a role, and the excitement and frustrations of an actor working and living far from home. Bernie played Cassiel in Amsterdam, and will be performing Damiel at the A.R.T.

8/22/06 amsterdam

so, here’s how it goes:

“it’s 4 in the morning the end of december,
i’m writing you now,
just to see if you’re better.
new york is cold, but i like where i’m livin’.
there’s music on clinton street all through the evening.”
leonard cohen, “famous blue raincoat”

it is 4 in the morning. 4:03 now. it’s this area of amsterdam called silodam where a bunch of hippies used to live on the sand. now it’s these luxury apartments. it’s august 22 and it’s as quiet as denmark under prince hamlet.

i am far from the lotus cafe on clinton and stanton.

i am far from the tunnel cafe at the end of the one street in williamstown.

i am far from caffe etc. on the corner of selma and cahuenga in hollywood.

gideon mentioned to maybe keep some kind of diary. some kind of notes from amsterdam kind of thing.

so, here goes;

we had the meet and greet yesterday after the first reading. the wine welcomed us to amsterdam. i spoke with peter, the head of the actors. i didn’t fully understand his position. a cross between an equity deputy and an agent. i don’t know that this position exists in american theatre. a wonderful man. seemingly in love with his job and his actors. i was curious at the “whiteness” of the company. curious at the birds of a feather deal that seems to still hold sway.

i was somehow proud to learn that toneelgroep amsterdam is the premier theatre company in the netherlands. 21 actors. a real company. we all met yesterday. a good number of women named ingrid.

my sister’s name is ingrid. sri lanka was a dutch colony.

passed three notable landmarks as i rode my bike with andy (the man whose accidental email brought me to this project) to the first rehearsal yesterday. the intercontinental hotel where all the movie and rock stars stay. which just seemed dumb when there must be all these amazing small hotels. a junkyard looking circus community called “angels place”. a compound of sorts along a canal. (everything’s along a canal). this is where the hells angels of amsterdam live or play, i’m not sure which. supposedly they were involved in a murder recently. this was a very wim wenders looking location. and the third was what boasted to be the largest container village in europe. a prison looking place. brightly colored cargo containers stacked on top of each other with one little window. people lived in the containers. seemed a easy way to solve housing issues. the village seemed like a college campus prison situation.

our rehearsal space is a half hour bike’s ride from central station. a clean ride along the amstel river.

in about 5 and a half hours andy and i will make our second ride. i will eventually figure this city out.

the sleep thing will even out, too. could have kept sleeping now but i’m just too damn excited. the thought of the wide open costume choice for my angel character really woke me up. really got me out of bed and to this computer.

like gideon my luggage was also lost. mine got lost in minnesota and arrived a day and a half later. gideon’s got lost in heathrow along with 20,000 other pieces of luggage.

U2’s “all that you can’t leave behind” comes to mind.

i’m lonely here. living in an as beautiful apartment as i’ve ever lived. coming from sleeping in theatres of late to this is quite a wonderful adjustment. yet, i’m been living in community. a kind of poverty in community. here i am alone in luxury.

yesterday, got the first real pangs of “what am i doing?”. found out that lili taylor is doing that television series that i turned down in favor of this job. it was a good script and a good part and lili will bring a seriousness to the deal and i am here, and it’s 4:25 and i want to read the book of revelations as preparation.

i am here and i will stay here. i’m telling everyone i know that this is the most important theatrical event in the world.

i truly believe this. and i am part of it and even scorcese’s offer of the lead in his next picture could not pull me away.

i am here. I’ve been here.

ola expressed her anger with some of us americans today. that we’ve had the script for two months and we didn’t know how to pronounce the little dutch and french that we have to speak.

at dinner after the meet and greet, mam, jesse and i felt guilty and defensive. all of us barely knowing how to read the script.

i recorded the thing and listened to it as i drove from greenwich village to venice beach.

ola, herself said, “don’t work too hard. we will discover it together in rehearsal.”

i’ve been playing of late with being off book by the 2nd or 3rd rehearsal. i’ve been playing with immersing myself in the world of the play more through research. for cusi’s play at williamstown, for example, a lot of bolivia immersion. music, history, photos.

how do you research an angel? one whose memory is the entire history of the world and before.

perhaps the first fact is that angels don’t sleep. it’s now 4:33AM. angels also don’t have jet lag.

you know, the point us, i have no idea how to prepare to play an angel. my daily prayers seem to help. i will have to approach it from a catholic biblical base.

i’ve put a carravagio painting of an angel holding a reclining st. matthew on my desktop wallpaper. it’s beautiful. there’s the book of revelations. milton’s paradise lost would be useful.

i’ve brought three books from the states. the bible. dante’s inferno. and c.s. lewis’s the problem of pain. these will guide me.

been listening to a lot of leonard cohen and jesse lenat. and tupac shakur.

both jane siberry and rickie lee jones have blessed this project. i must email them to tell them both we’ve begun and that we miss them both. also wim.

stephen payne is our ex-angel. such a lovely man. he does a bukowski solo show. he’s left a wife and a fourteen year old daughter back home. tried to pour him some wine for a toast yesterday and the wine landed on the floor of the toneelgroep’s kitchen party room. dark red. it looked like it belonged there. didn’t even think to clean it. bukowski certainly was an angel.

fedja and i have made a date for dinner and to walk the streets of amsterdam to prepare for our eternity’s friendship. he is familiar.

hadewych, mam, frieda, noraly, regina, loesje, edith, dirkje, vera, all the ingrids and of course ola; all these women here are as beautiful as women.

sleep would help my morning’s work.

“if it pisses, we still ride here in amsterdam.” that’s what punk rocker andy told me. andy’s more like a kindergarten teacher than a punk rocker. but i hear he’s a punk rocker. i thank God i can follow him on my bike to rehearsal.

what we’ve been told is to embrace the chaos. to embrace the words “i don’t know yet.”

the first reading was very tight. a lot of fear and shyness at the table. a certain respect and awe and wonder at what we’re beginning. i liked this. it was proper to the thing.

jesse’s beautiful song made me proud to be an american. the soul of america. the emotional freedom of the american experiment.

german bukowski drunk on the streets of hollywood.

we’re fuck ups and we celebrate it. biblically speaking, we’re the sinners Christ hung out with.

jesse’s songs are stunning. we have one of america’s greatest singer/songwriters in our midst. a true descendant of guthrie and dylan and browne. his music today was the highlight.

i’m more american here than i am back in the states. my character both here and in boston is the “american angel”. wonderful for a boy from the dutch colony of sri lanka.

just a little more sleep would be good. yet, i’m wide awake and the rain has begun again outside. my view is of water dotted with all these white balls that turn into swans in the light. i’m going to have to buy rain gear.



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