The wild comedic imagination of Eleanor Morton takes the gender switching theme from the Robin Williams film, Mrs. Doubtfire, and transplants it into Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror story. A really brilliant turn by Ms. Morton.
There have been many enjoyable memoirs about an actor’s life in theater and film– the autobiographies of Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando come to mind–but one of my favorites is David Hare’s Acting Up. The British-born David Hare is not a professional actor, but rather an acclaimed playwright and director who talked himself into taking the main–and only–role in his play Via Dolorosa. He kept a diary of his rehearsals and performances, and published it. Here’s a radio piece I did recently, expanding on a brief essay I had written previously.
Click the triangle or mp3 link above to hear the piece, as broadcast today on Arts Express on WBAI FM NYC, and Pacifica stations across the country.
Here’s Part Two of our Mark Harris interview about his wonderful new biography called Mike Nichols: A Life. In this part we focused on the director’s eclectic and fabled film career, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,The Graduate and Angels in America.
Click the triangle or mp3 link above to hear part one of the interview Mark gave on Arts Express, as broadcast yesterday on WBAI FM NY and Pacifica stations across the nation.
Is the most famous and recognizable voice in America that of Homer Simpson? Or is it Krusty the Clown, Grandpa Simpson, or Willie the Groundskeeper? Voice actor Dan Castellaneta gives voice to all of them in this interview on the Conan O’Brien show.
What do Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Laura Linney, and Patti LuPone have in common? They all were students of Moni Yakim, the legendary acting teacher at the Julliard Drama Division, who is the subject of a recently released film documentary, Creating A Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy.
You can hear my review of the film as broadcast today on WBAI 99.5FM NYC, WBAI.org and Pacifica affiliates around the country, by clicking on the triangle or mp3 link above.
If you are at all interested in acting or teaching, I highly recommend this film.
This month we celebrate the birthday of author Jack London, born January 12, 1876. London wrote the great nature novels Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he was also a committed socialist who wrote two volumes of essays about socialism called The War of the Classes and Revolution and other essays.
I performed a reading of London’s “How I Became A Socialist” for the Arts Express radio program. Click on the triangle above to hear it as broadcast today on WBAI 99.5 FM radio and Pacifica affiliates cross the country.
Corn. After a long war against the Volscians, the hungry Roman peasants demand the release of the captured stores of corn. The victorious general Caius Marcius, later crowned Coriolanus, finds the revolting peasants revolting; he mocks their demands even as they agree to crown him Emperor. All they ask of him in return is that he say a word or two in support of the common people. But the narcissistic Coriolanus refuses to repeat niceties as any usual politician would; finally, all the various political factions find him so intractable and so obstinate that he is exiled. In bitter resentment, Coriolanus offers to lead the opposing Volscian army to victory against Rome, only to fall in crushing defeat.
It’s with some trepidation that I attend a Shakespeare play that I’m not already familiar with, but in Dan Sullivan’s recent excellent Public Theater production of Coriolanus at the Delacorte, the story line was always crystal clear, and each scene unfolded understandably even to these virgin ears.
It’s a play that has an obvious double in Julius Caesar: the Roman setting, the questioning of the godliness of the Emperor, the fickleness of the public, the perfidy and two-faced nature of professional politicians, the arrogance of the powerful, and the persuasive power of words. In terms of language, there are passages in Coriolanus that are the equal to anything in the Shakespeare canon, and characters that are as rich and complex as any that Shakespeare has written. And yet the play is not frequently performed in modern times. The Public Theater’s last production of Coriolanus was forty years ago. What is it about Coriolanus that makes it so … unpopular?
Perhaps because, as Dan Sullivan’s production suggests, the play is a remarkably uneasy and bleakly nihilistic tale. It’s an indictment of society’s glorification and morbid fascination with all things military, including the worship of military heroes, and the fetishization of them as a separate breed. There’s no easy patriotism, no stirring celebration of valor as in Henry V. Here, war is horrible, brutal, thoughtless, and accomplishes nothing; worse, each class in society is more self-serving and deluded than the other. It’s a play with not one hero. No one remains unscathed, the audience can applaud no one.
Which is not to say that the acting ability of some in this production is not heroic. The excellent actor Jonathan Cake’s approach to the role is to treat Coriolanus as an elite, highly trained specialist in the art of war who believes that the rest of society is incapable of understanding him. “You can’t handle the truth!” is always burning inside him, a hair’s breadth away from the surface. Cake reproduces the speech patterns we’ve come to associate with an Oliver North or a Navy SEAL. He could have come from a television ad that extols, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” It’s the persona of the man who thinks that in his ability to kill—and therefore to lead—he knows something that the rest of society is afraid to admit to itself: that nothing, nothing at all matters, not corn, not the trappings of power, not royalty, not politics. One thing and one thing only matters: the power of might, the power of the sword, the power of murder and death. It is only from that ability to kill that all other power flows. And it is that knowledge, that absolute certainty, that leads to the contempt of Coriolanus for everyone else.
Coriolanus was written around 1608, in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Shakespeare, like Coriolanus, had always been suspicious of the fickle rabble, and as Shakespeare settled more and more into his bourgeois life, it made sense that he would become even more intolerant of them. It’s not surprising that an Elizabethan playwright would have a love-hate relationship with the common folk—he’s got to put bottoms into seats, or stiffs into the standing pit; if he fails to do that, then he’ll have as Hamlet says, a play that was “never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million…” And the peasants aroused to rebellion in Coriolanus were not just some far-off problem for the Romans; rather, A.L. Rowse reports that contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s later years there had been a peasant uprising in the English Midlands fueled by —wait for it—the price of corn.
And so Coriolanus is exiled. In about five years after Coriolanus‘s opening, Shakespeare, too, will himself become an exile, although in his case, self-imposed, leaving London for the big house, New Place, back in Stratford–Upon–Avon, some 100 miles from his theatre. He was a man of the theater who had gotten his hands dirty in London as playwright, actor, director, producer, financier—a man who had had his hand in all phases of the theater. The old legends had it that he had begun as a stable boy for the theaters; literally someone knee-deep in theater shit since his teen years. But now he must have been beginning to think of retirement. He’s come off a string of hits. He’s tired? Maybe. But I get the feeling of something else. What if this: what if for some reason he is in effect exiled from his own theater company? Maybe he thinks he’s entitled to more money or more shares in the theatre corporation that he and the others founded. Maybe he goes off in a huff because the rest of his company can’t get along with his dictatorial ways anymore. Maybe there are “artistic differences.” Maybe he feels disrespected the way Coriolanus feels disrespected. After all I’ve done for you. In this view, Shakespeare becomes what Coriolanus becomes—a talented bitter man who has done great service and who, betrayed by a fickle public, goes into exile.
This is all speculation of course. But that aspect of Coriolanus’s personality more than anything else stands front and center in this play: the disrespected man of action. What Coriolanus can’t see is that war is a monster that eventually swallows up everyone and everything. The business of making oneself a servant of war, a wager of war, is no guarantee that it won’t destroy everything for all time. Like theater, war is all encompassing.
In the end, in Sullivan’s production, the victorious soldiers of Volscia are as unpredictable as the Roman rabble: with Coriolanus’s dead body in front of them, they unexpectedly disobey their own general, Aufidius. They refuse to take up the body of Coriolanus as a respected fallen enemy general, as Aufidius commands them. Instead, the ragged soldiers seem to realize that Aufidius has more in common with his enemy, Coriolanus, than with themselves. They are sick to death of other people taking their power and using it in the name of war and aggrandizement. No, they will not listen to their general, and if Aufidius looks uneasy at the end of Dan Sullivan’s production, it’s because he knows that he may soon be the next to go.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays you see the old order restored, and the rightful heirs coming back to the throne, or the forces of good becoming the new line of royalty. But in Coriolanus there are no forces of good, and we see no glimmer of redemption. And maybe that’s why Shakespeare had to sell his story as a Roman one, safely distanced from his Jacobean reality: the leaders are no good, the public is no good, your patriotism is no good, your hero generals are no good, it’s all a pile of wreckage and ashes. Better to go back to Stratford, make out your will, and figure out who’s going to get that second-best bed.
This month we celebrate the birthday of Herman Melville. He’s best known for his epic Moby Dick, but Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” about a strangely resistant office worker, is a favorite of ours. Though academics have long argued about Bartleby’s meaning, and we could outline our own point of view…we would…prefer…not to.
We hope you enjoy our adaptation and performance, as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC.
Woman At War (Kona fer í stríð) is the most thrilling film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the story of an Icelandic woman who decides to take direct action against the new money vultures who are invading her country. The slick capitalists are bringing in their heavy industry to destroy the Icelandic environment and change the Icelandic collective way of life, so this humble woman, Halla, a choirmaster, decides to take responsibility. She drags her bow and arrow across the moss-covered Icelandic interior moonscape and shoots a line of metallic wires across the newly built, landscape-spoiling, power lines. Snap, Crackle, Pop. The lines short and knock out the power to the new aluminum plants. The Mountain Woman has struck again.
The authorities, of course, do not take kindly to such shenanigans. They are on the lookout for this “criminal” and they use all the powers of a newly minted surveillance state. For these new capitalists, who seek to extract as much as they can from the previously clannish Icelandic village way of life, can only impose their will by enforcing it with an extensive surveillance and propaganda effort. Within hours of the power knock-out, the government apparatchiks have laid down the outlines of their counter-offensive. The Mountain Woman is immediately labelled a terrorist. The film neatly shows us how the discourse rapidly spreads from the politicians’ mouths across television, radio and locker rooms. The media buzz insists that it’s the resister and her friends, not the slick politicians who are the threat to democracy. She is falsely labelled as armed and dangerous with remarkable speed. The newly installed surveillance cameras and drones across the country make her a woman on the run, but still no less determined to accomplish her mission with the help of well-wishers and fellow travelers she meets along the way.
You can’t help but identify with the righteousness and intelligence of the woman, Halla, who gets pursued across the country. The film is constructed so that it is thrilling up to the very last moments. And in the end, in a daring and hilarious twist, our hero ends up having eluded the authorities, even as the rest of her—and our—future remains uncertain.
The acting of the lead character Halla, by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is a marvel. The one thing that can not be faked on a large screen is intelligence and depth of conviction. Perhaps I have been watching the wrong movies, but I almost never see this on the American screen. Ben Kingsley achieved it in his portrayal of Gandhi, but it is very rare to find an American actor whose internal political conviction and understanding is developed enough. Perhaps this is because of the difficulty of becoming a successful artist in this country; what is rewarded and what becomes the surrounding artistic environment is one of triviality, where political affiliation is a fad of the day, more like team sports, and the propensity to actually risk one’s moral convictions with action is nearly non-existent. But Ms. Geirharðsdóttir is not only fully convincing onscreen, you know she would be fully convincing off screen as well.
As if to counterpoint the seriousness of Ms. Geirharðsdóttir’s performance, the writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson contrasts the weighty theme with many elements of humor, not the least of which is the introduction of a character who is Halla’s twin sister—also played by Ms. Geirharðsdóttir. The portrayal of the sister is a funny, canny performance of a woman who looks inwardly towards meditation and yoga, in contrast to her twin who looks outwardly towards political action. I blinked a few times watching the two sisters together, because although they seem physically similar, their attitudes are so different that it was only with rolling of the credits that I was able to confirm that they were both played by Ms. Geirharðsdóttir.
Director Erlingsson also introduces some Brechtian-like characters who break the fourth wall, including a trio of musicians who show up at key times in the story, like a Greek Chorus. They inhabit the same space as the other characters but are unseen by them. There is also a scruffy bike-riding fellow wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt who keeps getting arrested for Halla’s crimes, but who is always let go for insufficient evidence. If you’d like to think that these characters are a commentary on the fact that when one person takes a strong moral stand and acts, there are always unseen supporters and allies, then we’re in agreement.
I was initially exhilarated by the movie, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. My wife and I had spent a brief time in Iceland last year and we both enjoyed seeing locations and streets that we recognized. It brought back memories of the basically egalitarian society we found there that was on the brink of challenge from the super-capitalists.
And yet a few days later, the movie had me down. Because as thrilling as the film was, as wonderful as it was that the forces of good won out in the end, it became clear to me that the story was a fairy tale. The director puts in Brechtian elements, but forgets why Brecht did so: Brecht wanted always to point out that what was onstage at any given time was just a story, not reality. Don’t get too caught up with the characters and forget about what is really going on in the real world, says Brecht. In Brecht’s TheThreepenny Opera, this is illustrated in the most direct way possible: through a set of coincidences the hero is saved from hanging by the authorities at the very last moment with a pardon from the Queen. A happy ending. But the cast slyly declares that this is just a story, and in real life, it doesn’t happen that way. In real life, people get hanged. Don’t get too caught up in the story, says Brecht. It’s a story. A fairy tale.
But Woman At War gives no such reminders. The hero in the story gets saved over and over from perilous circumstances by sheer dumb luck. She is followed by drones, tracked by police helicopters, surveyed by cameras, followed in cars, demonized by the worst, slickest media propaganda, stripped of allies by a populace anesthetized by the inanity of the discourse of capitalism, yet still always escapes. This is perhaps a story that is perfect for Iceland, because it is a society that is still on the precipice of the old and the new; it is a society that has worked very hard to move towards an egalitarian society, rooted in a collective memory of a people who had to rely on each other for survival. The relatively new neo-liberal vulture capital class is seeking to overturn all that. You can see the tension between these forces even in a casual visit to the country. The story, fortunately, has not been resolved in favor of the capitalists yet.
In a stroke of irony, though, I just read that Jodi Foster has bought the rights to this film and is going to star in a re-make. She will set it in Midwest America. I have great respect for Jodi Foster, but it’s a mistake. This can only be an Icelandic movie. The forces of capital have not reached the same tipping point there as they already have here. Here in America, we are surveilled, numbered, data mined, credit checked. We are militarized, racialized, families pulverized, children incarcerated. It’s too late in America for Erin Brockovich or Karen Silkwood. Their time has passed as possibilities. Julian Assange is thrown in prison. Chelsea Manning, once pardoned, now in prison, too. And both major political parties couldn’t care less. We are way beyond the point in this country where such a fairy tale would even have meaning: even a fairy tale has to have some plausibility. We in America have lost.
Our American cinematic fairy tales now are only of force, comic book tales of being able to beat up, destroy others. The Marvel and DC Worlds. We cannot even think in any other dimension. Perhaps Iceland…
Despite my reservations, this is a great film. It will have you thinking about courage and the State and just what it is that we can do as human beings to resist the madness around us.
In 1998 the acclaimed playwright and director David Hare took on his most challenging theatrical task to date: to act for the first time since he was in grade school. Granted, he would play himself in his own play, Via Dolorosa, but doing so would not only require him to tread the boards for the first time, but also to hold forth on stage alone for a full ninety minutes.
Fortunately, Hare kept a written diary from the first day of rehearsal, on to performances in London, and then to the final curtain on Broadway, a hundred performances later. I say “fortunately” because it is a wonderful read about learning to act by someone who had been in the theater all his professional life, but who finally had to come to grips with a craft he knew little about from the inside.
As such, it’s quite different from most texts about acting. It’s full of quirky insights about the joys, frustrations, and struggles of learning to act, told contemporaneously as he wrestles with each day’s rehearsal or performance. It’s one of the best books I’ve read about acting and the theater because it takes the reader on the actor’s journey as it unfolds performance upon performance. In Hare’s previous playwrighting and directing work, he had collaborated with some of the greatest actors of the English stage, so throughout the diary Hare reflects on what he has learned from those performers, but also what he has had to sort out each day for himself.
It’ a funny, profane book and Hare is a cranky, boozy character who names names and is ruthlessly honest about himself and his colleagues. I’ve excerpted some of my favorite comments about theater from the book below. An essay could be written about each individual excerpt, but I’ll be quiet now and leave you to enjoy and mull over them yourself.
[On receiving direction at the first rehearsal from director Stephen Daldry]: “I am confused by a mix of feelings brought on by direction about something I understand better than anyone else in the room, i.e writing, and something I do worse than anyone in the room, i.e. acting.”
“The slower people speak, the harder they are to understand. Dialogue is rhythm, and there is some scientific rhythm which I believe corresponds to the natural pace of activity in our brains.”
“I have always had a problem with assistant directors. . . What the fuck does the assistant director do, except wield power without responsibility? In the arts, opinion is cheap. Only people who are risking something on the outcome have the right to shape the performance.”
[Hare directed Anthony Hopkins in King Lear; Hopkins said]: “I know I’ve got the performance worked out for the nights when the juice is there. But what worries me is that I still don’t have it for the nights when I don’t.”
[Ingmar Bergman said]: “It’s part of a director’s duty to be in a good mood at work.”
[After a seemingly unresponsive matinee performance] “I came off swearing …that they [the audience] were the worst bunch of motherfuckers I’d ever encountered. I walked back to a solid wall of cheering, almost the best reception I had ever had. Stephen [the director] told me it was the best show he’d seen. What do I know?”
“As soon as you achieve a particular way of doing anything you can at once see the charms of doing its opposite.”
“There are two kinds of directors…I call the two types editors and interventionists. Crudely, interventionists possess a vision of the work towards, which they are, at all times working….Editors, to the contrary, work pragmatically, looking all the time at what they are offered, refining it constantly, and then exercising their taste to help the actor give of their best…Neither kind of director is necessarily superior to the other.”
“Doing it ‘better’ doesn’t seem to make it any better. Is the greater part of an actor’s effort directed to a five percent improvement which no one notices anyway? Is it the thing itself which people respond to and are all our obsessive efforts around just on the margin?”
[Mike Nichols who Hare directed in The Designated Mourner said]: “Only the very greatest actors can convince you that other people’s words are their own, and that there is nothing at all between you and their feelings.”
[Harrison Ford who was being considered for a part in a Hare film, said]: “When I’m offered a part, then I’m aware that I bring a certain amount of baggage with me, in terms of how the audience views me. So the first thing I question is whether the baggage is going to be helpful to the picture or not.”
“The play is not the play. It is the interaction between the audience and the play.”
“[Voice coach] Patsy Rodenburg, from London, describes to me the frustration of regularly auditioning young actors who arrive to see her, well turned out, presentable, competent, assured. Yet they lack the element that would make sense of their chosen profession. They do not convince you of their need to speak.”
Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in a great, funny send-up of a Shakespeare acting class.
The two of them were poking fun at a popular British television series of the 1970s where director John Barton and the young actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, like Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley and Judi Dench, were put through their paces.
Back in 1985, the brilliant Martin Short captured the weasel-like quality of certain political figures with his portrayal of Nathan Thurm, uncontrolled liar. As a bonus, in this comedy sketch Short also appears as the character Irving Cohen, a 90 year old vaudevillian who gets called before the House Un-american Activities Committee.
The first line of Hamlet, like many first lines of Shakespeare, announces the theme: “Who’s there?” For Denmark, like the countries we inhabit, is a place where no one is sure who is watching whom, who the enemy is, or on a more metaphysical plane, who makes up the person one calls oneself. Identities are questioned from the outside and the inside. Who and what is real? Can we know others? Can others know us? Can we know ourselves?
Denmark is a prison says Hamlet. It’s a country that seems to be perpetually at War. In such a world, where the enemy can sneak upon you at any moment, nothing is private. The State dominates through surveillance of actions and thoughts. The dangerous one is the one who keeps to him or herself. The notion of privacy has disappeared.
In No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s book concerning the revelation of ongoing, illegal, mass warrantless surveillance by the American government, he makes a point that is often overlooked: it is not possible for human beings to grow and develop normally in a society where there is no privacy. Privacy is a necessary condition for being able to try out different versions of ourselves, to both invent and to find out just who we are. To keep sane.
But Denmark is a prison.
In a government where the will of the people is feared, the alarm must sound for Hamlet—Claudius warily declares that “madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” Hamlet feigns madness as protection, to save his true self from scrutiny. Madness acts as a protective shell, the soul’s attempt to keep from being “too much in the sun.” There is no place for Hamlet to feel his feelings without the glare of the court on him. Even his most intimate conversations with Ophelia are watched. Like the sacred ceremony being recorded by an anthropologist, sacredness evaporates. There is no room for the sacred under such conditions, even though humans must have such a place or go mad. The early Shakespeare commentators asked whether Hamlet was really mad or only feigning it. He is both: he feigns madness and is driven mad by his panopticon society.
Hamlet eludes. He puts on an antic disposition. He play acts. What is a human being that s/he can act? For centuries, actors were reviled and cursed, classified with beggars, thieves and prostitutes. They were shapeshifters, untrustworthy, not what they seemed. Worse, an actor seems to have no center. Indeed, Borges once wrote that that was Shakespeare’s glory and curse—Shakespeare was everything and nothing. Everything because he was nothing.
Denmark is a prison. It’s a prison because there is nowhere to hide. A place becomes a prison when there is nowhere to be alone, no way to find out who you are. You are constantly being defined by others, being told who you are, who you must be, what you must do.
But the actor escapes definition. The actor is subversive of the whole notion of fixed identity; subversive of the notion of control. It’s, paradoxically, in the act of acting that Hamlet finds the truth and frees himself.
When we wonder whether art can be revolutionary, an act of resistance, it serves well to remember that every government in the world throughout history has sought to control its art. Surely that must be a salve to those who are not certain whether their efforts are useful. We don’t always know what kind of art will be effective or not, but the possibility that art can be a strong weapon always exists, even when it may be in ways we don’t always fully understand. The actor on the stage is always the promise that we contain multitudes and have the capacity to transform ourselves and society.
The suspenseful Fireside Mystery Theater has become an unexpected podcast success, with over a million downloads of its contemporary radio performances of macabre and off-center scripts, reminiscent of the Golden Age of Radio. You can listen to an interview broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program over WBAI FM that I did with the two creators of the company, Ali Silva and Gus Rodriguez, by clicking on the grey triangle above.
A quirky, funny, and ultimately cryptic short film about a would-be magician who can’t seem to find his way in life. Rob Zabrecky plays the stunted soul under the thumb of his mother. Zabrecky is a true film actor: his face, even in silence, reveals the anguish within.
It’s hard for a modern magician to adopt an extreme persona without seeming corny, but Rob Zabrecky’s funny warped psycho magician character humorously illustrates what it might have been like had Norman Bates taken up magic as a hobby.
A few days a week I work at a public high school for new immigrants here in New York City, and one of my students, Lamine, asked me to act with him in a scene from a play for the school’s Talent Show. So we worked up the following which you can see in the clip above.
It was a lot of fun to prepare and perform. The student audience last Thursday really appreciated the dynamics of the father-son story: the son has just moved out of his parents’ house to his older brother’s apartment, leaving only a letter behind to announce his decision. He thinks he’s on his way to a hot date–but when the doorbell rings, it’s his father.