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Monday, January 08, 2007

To Run Where The Brave Dare Not Go

Had my semi-annual 14/48 dose this past weekend, as an actor, as opposed to my usual cooking extravaganza. I have to say I was feeling some ambivalence coming up on the weekend. It's been two and a-half years since I was last on-stage (at a previous 14/48 of all things), and although I was definitely looking forward to seeing, and perhaps even working with a lot of friends, I was also carrying around a sense of dread. What if I didn't have "it" anymore? Performing is like any other skill, it generally demands constant exercise in order to keep the instrument limber and in-shape, and I hadn't so much as picked up a script to memorize for quite some time. And 14/48 is designed, in a very deliberate sense, to push participants beyond what they think they're capable of doing, or die (metaphorically at any rate) trying. It requires you to not only attempt something that shouldn't even be possible to achieve given the limitations of time and resources, but to succeed, and spectacularly, or else go down in flames and have your name never be mentioned again in conversation. Most likely anyone who had never heard of the event before would simply say flat-out that it WAS impossible; they simply wouldn't believe such a thing could be done. And to be perfectly honest, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to hack it.

Nevertheless, Friday morning saw me sitting in the basement of Capitol Hill Arts Center (aka, CHAC) with about 60 other people: actors, writers, directors, designers, support staff, crew and volunteers waiting to see what script I'd be doing and with whom. It's all done randomly, you see; nobody knows ahead of time what play they're going to be doing, or who will be directing, etc. Everything is decided by basically pulling names out of a hat (or in this case two oatmeal containers: one with adorned with a picture of Tom Sellick, another with Farah Fawcett - boys and girls, get it?). Mine was the second or third name picked for the first 10 minute piece. "Number one on the runway," I thought, which is a good position to be in for this sort of insane endeavor. First spot in line means you don't have to do a lot of waiting around: you get to work your show with the tech crew first, and you get to do your show first in the two evening performances, which means it's over and done with before anyone else, so you get to wind-down, relax, watch other the other shows and drink beer while the keg is still relatively cold - and full.

The theme for Friday was "Critical Mass". Our piece was about a young woman, desperately anticipating her first date in two years, who is suddenly confronted with the fact that, not only did said date bail out at the last minute, but that her ex-boyfriend who set her up has brought along a couple of losers as possible rebound dates. I played one of the rebounds, a blue-collar working stiff biker with an inflated ego. Naturally, it was a comedy. Our director was sharp, to-the-point, had great insights, and kept the rehearsal process running smoothly all day long. My castmates were a fun group, one of whom I've known for more than 10 years, but never before worked with. So, by 8:00 p.m. I was feeling pretty good, aside from the usual anxiety one gets from standing up in front of an audience to perform a piece one just learned mere hours ago - and is in fact still trying to learn, right up to the curtain - and based on the feedback I got later, the piece went off well in both shows.

Saturday, the whole thing starts all over again, except with a new theme: "Jump Start". I could very much relate, having spent the better part of the previous evening/morning trying to metabolize a long day's accumulation of caffeine and adrenaline. This time, I got the last slot (#7) of the evening, which meant on the one hand, I'd have more time to prepare before the first show, but also that I'd need to keep my energy level up until close to midnight when the final show ended. And of course, in typical, totally randomized 14/48 fashion, I ended up with the same director as the day before (good!), and was cast with one of the actors I had also worked with on Friday, plus another good friend that I've never worked with, along with a couple of other folks, one of whom I'd never met prior to our introduction when we started rehearsals a few minutes later.

And of course, it was a completely different part, in fact, about as different as you could get: a dying geriatric suffering from Alzheimer's who is about to be moved out of his home by his children and placed in a hospice. Not quite so comedic as before it would seem, plus my character was the central focus of the piece, and had the biggest line load. If I had just been nervous about getting through the previous night's piece with most of my lines intact, today I was carrying a much heavier burden of responsibility, and with much of my natural energy reserve already depleted.

Fortunately, my director was patient with me when I got confused over who was whom while trying to sort out all the character relationships, and gave me some great things to work with as we rehearsed throughout the day. I knew right away we had something particularly special; people don't usually start crying at the first read-through, but that's what they were doing - and didn't let up for a good part of the rehearsal day.

Needless to say by 7:30, I was getting to be a bit of a wreck. The 14/48 staff does a great job of keeping people fed (as who should know better than myself?), but it does tend to be carb-heavy, which makes me sleepy, especially when I'm already low on juice, and so I decided on using the "crutch" of an energy drink. I'm also not prone to irrational outbursts, but I momentarily succombed to a brief panic attack when I temporarily misplaced my wallet; like they say around here, "be prepared to bark with the big dogs or get off the porch", and I was starting to yap like a chihuahua. Fortunately, the crisis was averted when I found the wallet tucked safely in the pocket of the prop coat I was carrying around like a security blanket. After that it was all a matter of trying to keep my head together while waiting for our slot.

According to the plan we had worked out with the tech crew earlier in the afternoon, in the transition between piece #6 and #7, they were to set up our furniture, at which point I and another actress were to come on stage with our props, settle into our chairs, and then the lights would come up and the piece would begin. Unfortunately, the person running the light board jumped the gun, and I was caught, still in the middle of draping my jacket over the back of a chair, and a good three feet from the one I was supposed to sit in when suddenly I was in full view of the audience.

Normally, this would be the point where the real panic takes over.

But, instead from someplace deep inside of me, a tiny voice cut through the chaos and whispered, "just do what you need to do. Take your time." And so, I set the other props, sat in my chair, took a moment to settle in, and (thank you band!) waited for the music to start, which was my cue to begin speaking.

Nine minutes isn't all that long of a time by objective standards, but in the subjective realm of stage-time it can either feel like an eternity, or flash by with the speed of a freight train. Suddenly, it was all over, the other actors were rushing up to take our group bow, and I was left with the realization that somehow, through some miracle, I'd made it all the way through, having only skipped one line, and more importantly NOT having fallen flat on my - er, back in the process.

By the time of our second run, roughly 12 Midnight, I was still fully revved up from the combination of Red Bull and adrenal excretions; perhaps a little too much, as I noticed a bit of involuntary twitchiness while standing backstage waiting for the preceding piece to finish. (Later, someone would specifically mention how "realistic" my Parkinsons-like palsy had appeared on stage). Then suddenly, the lights went out, the other cast was making way, the tech crew was setting up, and it was our turn to once more take the stage.

And then, the light guy blew the cue again.

Well, we were used to that by now, and it didn't phase us nearly as much as the first time, so we just did what we needed to do get ourselves set, and then we started.

There's a strange thing that happens sometimes when you're on-stage, a sort of an out-of-body experience where, while performing, you have the sensation of being separated from yourself, of observing your own actions, as if from a point just beside where you happen to be standing. I felt a bit of that during the last performance, but it was also accompanied by an acute sense of focus and clarity when time just seems to become suspended, like what happens when you are so concentrated on a specific task that hours can pass in what seem like minutes. Everything in your peripheral vision melts away into nothingness, and all you see is just the people on stage with you - you're all in the same world, but it's one completely separate from that of the audience. The people watching you become like ghosts, a presence felt more than seen.

Then, suddenly it was all over, I was back in the same room with the audience again, and I found myself spontaneously hugging my scene partner as the other 60+ participants crowded onto the tiny stage to take what would be our final bow of the weekend That was it, all done. Nearly 30 hours worth of work crammed into a 48 hour period, and all for the equivalent of about half an hour's worth of performance.

And despite the exhaustion, despite the fear and uncertainty, despite all the odds, it felt really, really good.

Actor's are by nature egoists, and their self-absorption is tempered only by a large dose of masochism, so by any stretch we are generally not the best judges of our own work. Still, I knew we had a great script, and that I'd been given a good role, and I have enough experience to know with a fair degree of certainty when I've at least come up to the level of the material. But, I really wasn't prepared for the response I got afterwards. I can't think of many times in my career when I've been in a position to receive the kind of praise and admiration I got from that last audience, many of whom were friends and professional colleagues; people whose opinions not only matter a great deal to me, but whom I depend upon for an honest critical assessment. So, it was both gratifying to know that I do still in fact have "it", but also humbling because I get so few opportunities these days to use the skills I spent such a significant portion of my life developing. One is always afraid of atrophy, of decay, of losing the edge, but according to the people who took the time to speak to me late Saturday night, I think I'm allowed a small measure of satisfaction in knowing that "it" is still down there somewhere, waiting patiently for the next chance to be called into service.

Thanks everybody, I really needed that - even the panic.

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Posted byCOMTE on 6:10 PM

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