Difficult Plays

The beginning of our first five show week-end! We haven’t done the play twice in one day yet (it’s going to be quite the challenge, I think!) Trying to conserve energy as best I can. Will suggests we perform the second show first, so that we aren’t tired for the second show. I wonder if that’s possible, or if Einstein could have worked that out?

I also wonder how many calories one burns just by talking? I guess not much, or else Rush Limbaugh would be thin… Maybe there’s a “Copenhagen” diet we could push: do the play twice a day as your workout. Eat some grapefruit. Voila!

After each performance, audience members and fellow actors (many of whom have performed the play themselves) remark on the difficulty of performing “Copenhagen”, which made me think about other “difficult” plays and roles, and why I might of thought of them as such.

“Copenhagen” is probably the most challenging play intellectually that I’ve ever performed. “This is not a play for cowards”, Will remarked in the dressing room one day. On a practical level, the amount of lines are of course staggering. But also trying to get into the minds of these people, their complex relationships to one another, what they want from each other, what they must keep hidden from second to second, is infinitely complicated and requires an enormous amount of mental juggling.

On the other hand, “Copenhagen” requires the actors to perform verbal gymnastics, rather than physical ones. Frayn doesn’t require the actors to leap thru flaming hoops while speaking the text. (Many solo shows are like that: the theatrical equivalent to an athletic event!) So, ultimately, the play is tempered in that it’s not as physically challenging as, say, “Richard III” was for me. I remember having shooting arrows of pain up and down my arm and spine during “Richard” (from keeping my arm frozen in one position and wearing different sized shoes for the duration of the show) and there’s no difficult stage combat in “Copenhagen” (we had a knock down, drag out fight at the end of “RIII” that was as complicated as any ballet). Richard had a lot of lines, certainly, but he also got to be off stage every now and then (thank God for the Clarence murder scene!)

“Pillowman”, on the other hand, was difficult because it was a hard play to carry around emotionally all day. You’re on stage for two hours being tortured by two sadistic policemen, then you have to kill your brother (who is the only person in the world you love), then you get executed, and then, after being shot, perform a final monologue. Then you take all that home with you each night. And wake up each morning with it. I had to take a shower after each performance of “Pillowman” to wash all the blood off, and I needed it to wash some of the play off as well.

“Godot” had the same effect emotionally: it’s a play, like “Pillowman”, that taps into existential questions that we spend most of our lives trying to avoid. So while it’s cathartic for the audience to see it, it’s even more of a challenge for the actors who must perform it with integrity each night and keep on performing it for weeks at a time and stay sane.

“Copenhagen” certainly packs an emotional wallop for me personally: it’s difficult, when trying to understand and re-create the father/son relationship between Bohr and Heisenberg, not to think about my own Dad (he passed away around this time six years ago, and I still – and will always – miss him). I think, also, how difficult it must be for Jochen Heisenberg to see the various productions of this play, to see an actor play his father, a man I’m sure he misses very much.

Now, I’m not a “method” actor – in that I don’t necessarily take things out of my own life and apply them to my character (I ultimately think the character is ALWAYS far more interesting than me!) – but sometimes the play you are working on will trick you, will bring you back to memories, to difficult times that you didn’t mean to dwell on.

Part of being in a play is to be in constant contact with the emotions/ideas/demons/ memories you might like to avoid or forget. To feel raw at all times.

I tell my students to think of your performance as a gift you are giving to the audience: it has to be an act of absolute generosity. You can never expect anything in return. The worst actor above all is the selfish actor.

Thanks for reading!

John

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