Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Woman in Row 3

Acting is a tough racket.

I'm not 100% sure I can adequately describe the absurdity of this pursuit within the confines of this blog- it may more appropriately take a full book to clue you in on what happens here in Hollywood.  But please, take my word for it: this industry is FUBAR.

Allow me to elaborate:

-This is the only industry I know in which talent and hard work matter but don't count.

- I once assisted a casting director on a project for a network television show.  We saw 10 girls.  One girl blew everyone in the room away.  And yet one of the soulless shmucks running the audition said her hair color reminded him of an ex-girlfriend so she wouldn't do.

- One cannot get union work if one is not in the union.  And one cannot get into the union unless one has had union work.  If you figure this out, let me know.

- Acting in commercials is good money.  Auditioning for commercials is quite possibly the most frustrating, humiliating and sometimes embarrassing experiences one can encounter.  And driving to these auditions can quite often bring one to edge of insanity.

These are just a few of the many many many many batshit experiences an actor encounters day-in and day-out.  We actors are often poor and mostly out-of-work (even the successful ones).  Many of us work our asses off (and spend money on degrees and classes) to become good at our craft only to watch the airbrushed, undisciplined and spoiled stars of the Disney channel sign onto major motion pictures and television shows worth millions of dollars only to have them give us uninteresting, safe and stale performances.

There are, undoubtedly, times when I stop and think: what the HELL am I doing?

A few years ago, I was hired to replace an actor in a production of West Side Story. The role was "Riff"- the Mercutio of this legendary adaptation- and it was a role I had wanted to play since I was a kid.  I was hired in the audition and the conversation went something like this:

Director: "You're hired."

Me: "Amazing!"

Director: "See you at rehearsal tomorrow!"

Me: "Great! (As I begin to leave the room) By the by, when does the show open?"

Director: "Next Friday."


Excuse me? NEXT Friday? As in 13 days from now?


I have no way of knowing how many of you out there in the internet world are familiar with West Side Story (WSS), but it is a HUGE show.  Specifically the role of Riff requires learning intense choreography, 2 solos, a number of group songs, staging and fight choreography.  Not to mention, I have always viewed Riff as a guy whose only measure of importance in this world comes from the gang he leads... nothing else matters.  This makes Riff a bit of a wild card- cool under pressure but also fiercely protective of what is his.  He's a real person and I think Riff tends to get played as a caricature too often.  So, in addition to everything else I needed to learn in 13 days, I also had to turn this character into a real person.  It was going to be tough...

but it was what we as actors live for: the challenge of doing what we do to the best of our ability in even the most hectic circumstances.  How dramatic!

By opening night, I was exhausted.  Thrilled but exhausted.  Opening weekend came and went- and we were a hit.

But it was in weekend 3 of the 6 week run that the biggest reward came.  WSS tells the story of two young kids who fall in love despite their ties to fiercely rival gangs (the Jets and the Sharks) in New York City.  Now, in my 2 experiences with WSS I've found that a natural rivalry also ensues backstage between the actors in most productions.  Practical jokes are pulled, cliques are formed, romances develop within said cliques.  In our production, it came down to this:

"America" was the show stopper.  The amazing music, high-energy dancing and magnetic quality of the actresses (specifically the wonderful Janet Krupin who played Anita).  As you can imagine, that pissed us Jets off something awful!  Especially me.  I was enamored with the song "Cool"- which in the stage production immediately follows "America" and almost comes across as a response to its predecessor.  "Cool", to me, is everything a musical number should be: an honest, raw, explosion of feelings.  "Cool" is the Jets' attempt at dealing with this chaotic world around them, at coping with their anger at the cards they've been dealt and trying to gather strength to hold onto what little they've got.  And as Riff- the one who leads the gang in this catharsis- it was my responsibility to make "Cool" the show-stopper I knew it to be.

By no means was "Cool" a dud.  We definitely did our job and did it well- and I knew every night that our audiences were with us.  However, I didn't believe that we had reached them on quite the level "America" had yet.  So, one night- after "America"'s 18,000th standing ovation... I turned to my boys (and girls) backstage and said:

"You hear that shit?  That pisses me off."

The lights changed and we went on.

I'm not going to say I was responsible for what happened next, but I do think I had extra motivation in the scene leading up to "Cool" and perhaps that motivation was what we all needed to get to where we needed to be.  Before "Cool" even began, we all felt it.  The lyrics came out of my mouth with extra poignancy, our snaps were crisper, our eye contact was more direct. One of the most brilliant things about Leonard Bernstein's song is that it builds and builds and builds and the SONG tells the story.  It tells you what the Jets are going through- it makes you feel the eruption that is coming.

And erupt it does.  When "Cool" works, it works.

Being downstage of everyone else, I couldn't see anyone behind me during the number. But I could feel it.  We were ON.  And we were being real.  And it was showing.  The song crescendoed into a moment where we all meet in the center of the stage and right as the music pops we charge the audience and burst out into one group movement, the music pulsing along with us.

And there she was... I could see a woman in Row 3.  Plain as the nose on my face despite the lights in my eyes and my mind being elsewhere: she was groovin'.  This woman was INTO IT.  She had a mouthful of white teeth pulled back in a big ol' grin and her head was moving side to side, fingers snappin' along with us...

and I knew we had her.  We HAD her.

For the rest of that number, I was telling HER a story.  I was performing for her.  I wanted her to feel everything we were doing.  The denouement of the song began and the number ended...

and we got it.  We got our standing ovation.  And it wasn't just an obligatory "we-stood-up-for-America-let's-stand-up-for-these-guys-too" ovation... it was real. And it was intense.  These people understood what we wanted them to understand.  We had made them feel why "Cool" was so important to us.

And THAT is why I do what I do.  That is why I am an actor.  Not for the recognition, not for the promise of riches or some measure of fame (although riches would certainly be accepted), but because I believe in telling stories- and I believe in helping people to love the experience of them.  I go through everything I go through because of The Woman in Row 3.  I know that for every crappy experience I have, there is someone out there who is being changed- even if for a fleeting moment- because of the stories I tell.

In this world, especially today, I think escapism is important. But it's more than that.  Watching or reading about people trying as hard as they can to overcome their issues is a way of telling ourselves that our own problems are not insurmountable.  That we, too, can fight like the Jets are fighting on-stage.  Sure, I sometimes work for productions that don't really have a lesson to teach... but that makes the moments that I have that opportunity all the more important and special.

So to everyone out there, I hope one day I can tell you a story that makes you groove in the audience too.  I hope you enjoy it every bit as much as The Woman In Row 3 did.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cooking Shows and Freud

Don't lie... you all watch Food Network.

You know you do. Or at least have. The sooner you admit to this, the happier you'll be. Denying such an act is only going to bring you shame and self-loathing.

I watch. I've come to terms with that. This was hard to face at first, considering there is always a nagging sensation in the back of my mind that I am watching a network with the craziest mixed messages ever...

It wants to be:
a healthy network
a comfort food network (read: NOT healthy)
a network for women
a network for men
a network for both
a network for families
a network for single parents
a network for world-travelers
a network for traveler-wannabes
a network for people who never want to leave the town they're currently in. Ever.

But I must be honest... watching the Food Network has taught me a lot about myself. At this point in my conflicted Food Network viewership, I have pulled recipes from (almost) all of the prime daytime chefs. Hell, I've even pulled from Two Fat Ladies (if you don't know who Two Fat Ladies are, click on the show title... you can thank me with pastries or some sort of bland pork entree. Think Paula Deen, but british... and there are TWO of them!). So I cannot complain too much about the chefs they choose to broadcast.

From week to week, my favorite of these shows changes. I find that I cannot commit to one show as my hands-down favorite for too long before I decide I like another one better. While some may see this as non-commital (a trait I might have picked up since moving to Los Angeles), I actually see this as a positive character trait- for in my observation I have deduced that there can only be a certain type of person to constitute a faithful viewer to each major chef on the Food Network. Allow me to expound on this theory with a kind of horoscope for viewers of the following...

If you watch:

Paula Deen- You love life. You come from the South and you understand the appeal of every single dish she makes. You can just hear your momma in the background yellin' at you that you're gonna sit at that table, young man, until every last bite of that Cream-a-Potatah Casserole is finished/I didn't slave over a hot stove all day for you to just stare at mah food! Food is enjoyable not just on your taste buds, but also in your heart... and despite any effort to stave this off, you will eventually have to loosen a notch on your belt. Maybe two. And, in most cases, even more than that.

The Barefoot Contessa (or as I lovingly call her "Ina"): You may have a sweet demeanor, but you're slightly awkward and all of your relationships are just on the verge of uncomfortable. Even with your husband/wife. You clearly have a sophisticated palate, but with each passing episode, er...week, you realize that you are just not in the physical shape you used to be and would rather just have friends run out to the store and pick you up a platter or two from Ralph's and convince your guests that both the cuisine and beautiful plating are products of years of self-taught, French-inspired cooking. Oh, and you also love to invite your effete Latino friends to decorate your dining room with the most nauseatingly colorful designs and the occasional rock or twig from "your garden."

Giada deLaurentiis: You're pretentious. And dumb. Why dumb? Because you have a penchant for over-enunciating words in your "native tongue" to the point of absurdity. People also see through your tricks... you may have a huge, toothy smile that may come off as charming- but after a while, everyone knows that when the curtains are drawn and no one is looking, you're a RAGING BITCH.

Guy Fieri: You have something to prove.

Anne Burrell: You like to break things and people fear you.

Down Home with the Neelys: You're the type of person that wants everyone to know that you "have a black friend."

Rachel Ray: You will eventually be lured into joining a cult. A really annoying cult, but one that nonetheless makes quick and tasty meals.

Ten Dollar Dinners with Melissa d'Arabian: You have a made up last name. And you're cheap.

Sweet Genius/Cupcake Wars: You're currently in a deep state of depression.

Two Fat Ladies: You have a wonderful sense of humor. And a death wish.

Restaurant: Impossible: You have a sincere passion for seeing someone get a second chance... and you're plotting how to find Robert Irvine in a dark alleyway and beat the shit out of him.

Worst Chefs in America: You have a superiority complex.

Chopped: I tried to give myself a break on this one. I really did. This show is extremely exciting and educational in my humble opinion, and I love every second of it. However, people who watch Chopped on a regular basis are on the same plain of existence as those football fans who jump up and scream "You're playing like shit, Tom Brady! Even I could have made that pass! With my eyes closed! Ya big pansy!" Oh really? Well, we'd all like to see you try. We'd all also like to see you create a dessert in 30 minutes using eggplant, bacon, duck fat and pickle juice as your required ingredients.

Now, word of warning... I am not a psychiatrist, nor do I have a degree in psychology. As a matter of fact, I took half a semester of Psychology in high school and that's as far as I got. So, if you happen to be a regular viewer of any of these shows, then I apologize. I know how tough it will be for you to be correctly analyzed by someone with such little training- after all, no one likes a mirror to be involuntarily shoved in front of their faces.

However, one thing I have always tried to do is to call 'em as I sees 'em. And I will not yield, I will not fold, I will not cease in that pursuit simply because it offends people... not even for fellow Paula Deen fans.

My final diagnosis: watching Food Network, like life itself, is fine when taken in moderation. Learn a new skill, teach yourself how to flambe, make a romantic dinner that doesn't come out of a can... but remember: too much of a good thing can make you act just like the host.

Something NONE of us want... especially Giada deLaurentiis fans.

Am I riiiiiiigght?