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Monday, August 30, 2010

What, and give up show biz?? Part 2

Then again...

As I said in the last post, some of the most sublime, epiphany moments of my life have happened in performance. So it would also be false to say it's all a thankless grind.

One such experience was an independent production of Yasmin Reza's "The Unexpected Man", a two-hander set on a European train, between a famous, self-loathing writer of painfully introverted mittel-European fiction, and a woman who is a devoted lover of his books. She is reading one of his books on the train. It is told in a series of internal monologues until the last ten minutes when they speak to each other. She knows who he is, he does not know she knows, but suspects she might. She does not know he suspects, etc.

plus, who stands on a train?

What happens in the last ten minutes is an emotional cataclysm, banked up during the preceding hour during which they each reveal their own loneliness and desperate desire for the transcendence only love can bring.

The rehearsal process was transformative for everyone, I think, as the play demanded both burning passion and titanic restraint. I remember when the flood gates open in the last ten minutes, feeling that my insides were being pulled out by a speeding locomotive, so strong was the rushing forth of love and release.

The critical acclaim was overwhelming.

Total fee for a month's rehearsal and three weeks of performance? $75. Each, for the director, both actors, the lighting guy, and the designer (who designer an ingeniously simple yet haunting set).

You read that right: $75 each.

Admittedly, such plays are not to everyone's taste, and it was, after all, performed in a small theatre in Adelaide.

But here's the point, friends--experiences like this are why we get into acting in the first place. we don't get into it in to do dog food commercials (more about that later), or voice-overs for messages-on-hold, or instructional DVDs or even crappy films made for the great brain-dead mass audience.

Or Tom Stoppard, even. Travesties, 1983

Like most of my peers, I got into it to do Shakespeare, and Ibsen and Shaw and Miller and Mamet and so on and so forth. Things that turn you inside-out and change you, lift you up on the wings of the writer's genius and leave you feeling enlarged. It's just that I have come to realize that it's not realistic to expect to make a living from that. In fact, doing it for this sort of rush may even be the height of selfishness.

And for most of my life, making a living at it, being paid for freelance acting work, was the only measure of being a "professional' actor. I took pride in the range of my CV--from talking books for the blind, to TVCs to doing Shakespeare on the London stage--as the true mark of the professional journeyman actor, along with the acquisition of arcane skills in accents and stage combat.

An arcane part of an arcane art form

Looking back now at the hodge-podge bits of work and eccentric skills racked over the years, the range and variety only speak to me of the desperation of a life "on the make". A waste of time and of talent and energy.

Like Scrooge in the Dicken's classic, I always considered myself a "good man of (the) business". And just like Scrooge, a voice like Marley's ghost now rings in my ears:

"Business! MANKIND was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business! The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”

Damn conscience...
I have, I reckon, about 20 years of ministry in me until I'm 73, say, before (I imagine) I will not want to move about much. I can't roll back the years, but I'll be damned I don't use the coming years of usefulness to devour the 30 years past, flesh and fell.

Finally, an actor joke to end this two-part rant about a profession that won't much miss me anyway:

Guy goes into his doctor's office. Says he feels depressed all the time and can't concentrate on his work. Doctor asks him what he does for a living. Guy says he works in the circus. Doctor says that sounds like a lot of fun. Guy says, nah, I follow around the elephants all day and scoop up their copious piles of dung. Doctor says, well I can see why you've been depressed. Why don't you quit?

Guy says, "What? And give up SHOW BIZ?"

Moving on now...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What, and give up show biz??? Part 1

Lately I've been offered a lot of friendly peer advice about giving up acting, all variations on the theme of "you'll-be-back-it's-in-your-blood-you'll-never-really-stop-being-an-actor." All it would take is the right gig, they assure me, and I'll come crawling back.

This is worrying, not because I think they're right,  but because this is the logic of the crack-head.

Just as a junkie is always on the hunt for the "perfect" high, so the actor persists through long stretches of unemployment, commodification, and the thousand other natural indignities that the profession is heir to, in the hope that ONE DAY that breakthrough will come and the indignities will cease.

Tell me again, who's the fairest of them all?
AND it's in your blood--even if you're married, mortgaged, with kids in school, you'll chuck any civilian job (no matter how useful or honorable) like a live grenade if Dr. Greasepaint calls your agent and whispers those sweet nothings.

This is worrying too, not because I think they're right, but because this is the logic of pathology.

"I saw the best minds of my generation--starving, hysterical, naked, roaming the the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." I think I know what Ginsberg means.

The "natural-born actor", who does it because he can do no other, looks on the surface like a heroic meme about authenticity and integrity and commitment. It's very romantic and so lends itself naturally to actors' reflexive grandiosity and self-regard.

But, young'uns, there's nowt heroic about it.

Not the first or last time I died in front of a paying audience.
After all, if you're doing something you've no choice about, and have no control over, it requires not an exercise of will, but simply the following of an inclination. Doing what you already feel like. So where's the moral credit in that? Everyone does what they feel like.

Plus if you're blindly driven, what's driving you? How can one lay claim to the moral credit actors regularly permit themselves, if they're being driven by inner forces they can't help?

"Dignity, always dignity"
No, I think actors (and their 'shadow artists'--agents, critics, gurus and other enablers) indulge this mythology, this fiction, to mask persistent self-doubt, to allay fears of irrelevance, and generally to nourish the ego necessary for a life of "Look at me, ain't I cute".

So for one to reject the life rationally, willingly, suggests that one could take it up rationally, willingly, as a genuine choice, rather submitting to it as a pathological condition. And why would one choose a life so insecure, with so little guarantee of success, unless one were inherently masochistic?

And even if one DID meet with success, there's no guarantee of it continuing. You don't build acting careers in the same way that one builds a career in an organisational hierarchy, gradually, patiently. Have a look at all the hit TV shows of the '80s and ask yourself how many of those people, who were then at the top of the money and fame tree, are still working. Damn few.

The truer narrative that nobody reads about (because it doesn't reprise the heroic meme), is that more people have left the profession than have stayed in it. From the perspective of normal actorly delusion, such stories, such decisions, read like cowardice or lack of will.

Ah, but "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" I can almost hear. Only the brave stay and persevere. Bollocks.

Back in 1998, I was working at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and we were hanging out some with British comedian Jenny Eclair. We both had daughters about the same age, and were living nearby, so we arranged some play dates, lunches, etc. We were really enjoying each others' company, until she found out that I had quit acting before, in my early thirties.

"Well, you must not have really loved it enough," she said somewhat dismissively. And the temperature of the relationship distinctly cooled.

Do you see how closed this logic is? Passionate attachment is the only motivator. A life governed by passions is the only honorable life. Chucking it is a kind of moral cowardice.

This cooling of relationships with other actors is happening all over again now. It is as though it's impossible to comprehend that it's reasonable to require the relationship between the artist and his craft to have some degree of reciprocity. I love acting, of course, but if it doesn't love me back, at least a little, then why the hell should I stay in a relationship which regularly alternates between abuse and neglect?

Optimal: good work on a good character in a good production of a good play.
That's not to say it hasn't loved me some. Mamet says that acting is the best feeling it's possible to know. Stanislavsky said that the job of the actor is to bring to the stage the life of the human soul. My experience tells me both these things can be true, when things are optimal. But optimal is the exception rather than the rule.

It has loved me back from time to time, but it's like being in a relationship with a sociopath (don't ask). You can never tell from one day to the next if your heart will be filled or crushed. To hell with that, I say.

Maybe it's the age I'm getting to be, but I begin to want the carousel rather than the roller-coaster. Equanimity rather than drama. Reciprocity rather than being the one who gives all the time. This may sound like weakness, but to choose freely what you take to be in your best interests is never weak.

Commercial directors, in my experience, are less sanguine about the essential nature of the acting business. I actually heard one refer to the actors as "meat puppets" once. And there you have it all boiled down to essentials--you're a commodity, you are manipulated, and someone else is always pulling the strings.

But I want to be a REAL boy someday--as Pinnocchio said.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Things can only get better?

Illness prevented me from speaking in support of same-sex marriage at a rally last weekend, which was a shame, not least because I wrote rather a punchy, rabble-rousing bit of tub-thumping oratory. If I do say so myself.

I'm pretty sure I'll never get to use it again, though, since the arc of history is bending ever closer to wide-spread acceptance of marriage based on love and commitment rather than one of the partners having a "y"chromosome. Or is it an "x"? (Biology class was so long ago...)

Anyway, a glance at the graph below would seem to indicate that what was a minority issue a generation ago, is now accelerating toward being accepted as common sense. Some day soon these trend lines will intersect and diverge the other way.
What with global warming, economic instability, peak oil, and an Orwellian state of permanent war, perhaps people who previously would have dismissed same-sex marriage as radical and weird, have figured that there are bigger things to worry about, and if people want to commit to each other out of love, what the hell business is it of mine, already? Or the state's?

Some social and human rights issues do indeed seem to be getting better. Behaviours considered deviant a mere generation ago are becoming more widely accepted  as part of a more diverse "norm". Bisexuality, "blended" families, sustainable lifestyles, openly gay public figures, a female (or a black male) running the country.These and such other freedoms the sixties generation wanted all at once, instead took their own time to realize and got there eventually.

But you could think of a whole suite of other issues that haven't seemed to move since the sixties, and in fact may arguably have become worse. Xenophobic racism and jingoism, despite a shrinking planet and global flows of people, capital, and jobs. Corporate power despite the environmental havoc it wreaks. The surveillance society despite free  societies' much-vaunted love of freedom. And of course endless war on an amorphous threat that is everywhere and endless and intractable, despite its obvious futility and breath-taking costs in blood and treasure. Grinding poverty in the midst of vast affluence.

Why do SOME such issues seem to get better easily and naturally, and some, like original sin, never seem to go away?

Perhaps, from a traditional Marxist view, it's just that some social issues, like same-sex marriage, just aren't  a threat to global capital flows, so there's no need to spend time and money constructing them as deviant, and it's just a matter of peoples' sensibilities catching up to the reality of new behaviours and practices.

In fact, capitalism may actually LIKE gay culture because it offers new marketing possibilities in fashion, interior decoration, and other forms of consumer-driven practices. Why do you think "Queer Eye" got enthusiastic sponsors?

Others issues, like war, are simply too profitable ever to stop doing. The disassembly of human beings by ever-evolving technologies is the ideal capitalist scenario--there are always new human resources to act on through the endless issue of consumable bullets, bombs, etc. Which is why, I suppose, those large-scale weapons of destruction, like nuclear weapons, sonic cannons, and micro-wave blasters (which have been developed) have never, or seldom, been used. No cost benefit. No economy of SCALE.

Hmm. A purely Marxist/materialist view of the question seems to turn on the issue of powerful elites benefiting or not benefiting from social change.

This does not mean there's a cabal of evil billionaires colluding on these issues. When interests converge, you don't need a conspiracy. And one thing capital knows, is where its interests lie.

Still, even if same-sex marriage does play into the hands of capital, it's heartening to see more love and commitment in the world. Can there ever be too much of either of these? The market's invisible hand may shape the event, but its genesis is still in the human heart.

Below is a picture of my parents' wedding, in 1942, the start of a marriage which lasted 62 years

62 years in sickness and health. Now THAT'S commitment.

Monday, August 16, 2010

So much depends on a crappy old bike

Apologies are due to William Carlos Williams for appropriating this title from his poem about the red wheel barrow. But as I undertake yet another process of winnowing out possessions before another international move, I am finding it hard to consign my 20-year-old Marin to the landfill of history.

It should be easy to ditch--it takes up much needed space, it is a decidedly unhip 80's colour combination of hot pink and matte gray, and its collection of scuffs and dings and caked-on grit in hard-to-reach places make that colour combo all the more tragic. Plus which, the cogs, through 20 years of hard gear-changing, are ground down like an old dog's teeth. This bike is f***ed. I've actually left it against lamp-posts, unlocked for hours, and it's still there waiting for me faithfully when I get back. Its homeliness is its own security system.

That leaves recycling or the landfill.

Yet every time I consider stripping the usable accessories and hauling it to the recyclers, what stops me is that it's more than a collection of sprockets, cogs, cables, and tubes. It is a site and repository of memory.

I bought it in the summer of '90, when I was newly a single-parent Dad. A child seat went onto the back, and into the seat went my 3 1/2 year old Kate. For the rest of that summer, and for many years following, we travelled the English countryside at the gentle pace and "present tenseness" that leisurely, aimless bike rides provide. I'd get exercise and Kate and I would talk about what we'd see--animals, pretty houses, big trees. We'd stop for lunch at pubs that had play equipment in their beer gardens and Kate would (as always) find mates instantly and jump and swing and slide, fuelled by Orangina, while I'd rest my legs and swallow a fortifying pint.

In unplanned trips like these, we'd come upon common things that were all the more wonderful for not being anticipated--a village fete with its unique local colour, a polo match, street markets, and once, improbably, and Alpaca breeders gathering, complete with rides for the kids.

And always around 3-4 pm, we'd find tea rooms and have cake or scones.

At the end of such days, after our adventures--calories burnt, wonders seen and talked about--I'd grind the Marin homeward, and often Kate would have fallen asleep  in the seat, slumped side-long like a rag doll, lulled by the rhythmic miles.

The bike was the portal of wonder, but more than a vehicle, it was the site where a particular relationship was formed and perfected. It was forged on that bike as surely and completely as a new shoe is forged on an anvil, mile after mile, day after day, relationship to each other and to the world. Still, yet always moving.

I remember wondering at the time if this wasn't a strange kind of relating. After all, conversation was thrown over my shoulder, and her immediate visual experience would have been the straining sinews of my gluteal muscles. To counter boring stretches of the road, I wore a bum-bag full of small toys and such within her easy reach. Of course, I underestimated her ability to make gold out of the long miles. She spent most of the time singing.

Though once, we were on a stretch of road in the Berkshires, and I noticed people who kept passing me in their cars were beaming at me in the way people do when something unutterably cute is happening. I looked back and there was Kate, with a bottle of soap bubbles and a bubble wand, wafting a trail of bubbles in the bike-made breeze, back along the road as far as I could see. She looked back, too, admiring her work.

Over the years, the old Marin has seen her grow to be too big for the child seat. It then became a companion vehicle which shepherded her own bike (once she'd learned) on other adventures. When Rosie came along, the seat got a second life and the cycle repeated itself. So to speak.

Such thoughts as these keep flooding back when I think of re-cycling the Marin, although I wish they wouldn't. I wish I could behave with practicality, like grown-ups are supposed to do. The bike is past its useful life, surplus to need and in the way, but I wish there was some way to consecrate and preserve what it's meant to me, how on it I learned how easily beauty can be happened upon, and that through it I discovered all I needed to learn about love and innocence and hope.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Generational change

A recent post from my cousin Jean to say my Aunt Kate passed away. She was the last survivor of the generation of fathers/mothers and aunts/uncles from my extended family. She had a long and happy innings and a peaceful passing.

My brothers, sisters, and cousins are now, it seems, the elders of this tribe. We are the "old farts", as Jean puts it, for the legions of sons and daughters and cousins to wonder about. "My sister remembers the Kennedy assassination". "My dad was in Vietnam." "My crazy aunt drove a cool retro Corvair." "My Uncle was the first in the family to have an Apple IIe--before the internet."

And so on.

Except there's this huge difference between my experience of extended family and what I suspect is our kids experience, between the baby-boomers we are and the GenX's we've spawned.

The word that leaps to mind is "atomization"--the reduction of something to parts, usually resulting in annihilation. The tribe is much less cohesive than it was. I suspect we're not the only tribe to experience this.

For one thing, the tribe has spread out geographically. Whereas the tribe used to occupy the industrial regions of the US northeast--Pittsburgh, Baltimore, D.C. (plus a brief abberation into Florida), all within a few hours drive. Holidays were thus something we could coordinate, and summers at Ocean City Maryland regularly coincided with the holidays of cousins and aunts and uncles, and we'd see each other in the evenings, when the grown-ups would drink high-balls and play cards, the teens would hang out on the boardwalk and play pinball, and there'd be a big group breakfast the next day at the Lackawanna restaurant.

Geographical spreading-out was a chosen thing. Happy hunting grounds of better jobs and cheaper suburbs were always developing elsewhere--the factory-rich Ohio valley, the lush Pacific Northwest, and sexy, beckoning Florida. A better life was always elsewhere.

I should talk, of course-- the biggest bedouin, and most footloose nomad of the lot.

Funny that "westward the wagons, through the sands of time" ethos, which is so American, resonated so strongly in my family of Scots-Irish immigrants.

But it's more than the tyranny of distance and the pioneer spirit that's atomized the tribe out during the past generation. I sense people just need family less and less, or think they do.

Is consanguinity being consigned to myth--the idea that ties of blood create a special relationship that transcends ties with friends and colleagues? After all, we can't choose our tribe, and therein may feel constrained--less free--than in relationships we've chosen to have. Is this generational change, which seems to priviledge family less than it used to, a final push for personal freedom?

Perhaps too, I am seeing the past through the lense of nostalgia, as all old farts are wont to do?

Or perhaps, my boomer generation--spoiled and indulged by depression parents who were glad the war was over and the good guys victorious--are simply less good at keeping the tribe cohesive, as we set out, over last fifty years, ruthlessly to seek our fortune in a world that had been won for us.

I don't know the answer, but it's worth thinking about, as we attempt to wear the mantel of the wise elders, if we would have our kids generation learn from our experience.

I Do know, that I miss the tribal get-togethers, and the sense of deep, safe belonging it lapped me in, and which I now find no where, and may never again.

This is a picture of my Dad's family on vacation at Lake Erie in 1935. All gone now.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Links to various video addresses from the Unitarian Church of SA


As a nod to our increasingly oral culture, here are recordings of many thoughtful addresses from myself, from our minister, and from many members of the congregation. If you particularly want mine, you can search under my name.

Happy viewing!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Minister as Prompter

No matter how I reflect
  • and draft
  • and reject 
  • and revise
  • and labour over
the writing that frames worship services, the result always feels like someone else has said it all before and better. Which, of course, they have. The material I draw from is certainly worthy--the result of someone's genuine accomplishment, with depth and weight.

But since Unitarians have no set liturgy and no canonical text to repeat and re-appraise and re-consider over and over, like the Bible, or the Koran, or the teachings of Buddha, or the Analects of Confucius, I have a sense that a certain degree of variety and of novelty is required by congregations.

Novelty and variety--the handmaidens of lateral thinking. And valuable material can indeed come from a variety of sources. But I suspect that increasing lateral access to materials must necessarily result is a sacrifice of depth.

So you see the problem: I don't want to limit scope, since no one source has a monopoly on truth; likewise, I don't want to focus repetitively on a clutch of "core" material, since that would suggest orthodoxy or textual fanaticism, albeit a broader one than most conventional faiths.

A third path between these equally unsatisfactory routes might be to testify strictly from my own experience. What that gains in authenticity, it may lose when you consider that "my own experience" has been shaped by what the sources I know have said or written. As the communication scholar Gunther Kress said: "Every sentence I write  draws on what I've heard or read before." Or something like that. Inevitably I end up standing on the shoulders of giants.

Maybe it's just a case of my trying to "say it better" in the context of a worship experience, meaning focussing on how I say it. This of course is where performativity creeps in, and worship isn't a show (notwithstanding those ministers, preachers, etc., who are able to move people by their performance of a single text).

Or maybe the presumption of the value of originality needs looking at.

Rev. Jo Lane said once that being a minister is like being a theatrical prompter, reminding the actors (the congregation) of the "missing lines" they've forgotten. This notion certainly accords with a somewhat  view of idealistic view of education--the belief that the truth is in them already, they just need to have it "educed"--or drawn from them.

Prompters don't pretend to be the playwrights, (though sometimes actors and directors do!). So that role, at least, affords a proper humility toward the material one draws on for services.

I suppose then, managing expectations is part of ministry. Why should anyone expect another human, no matter how well read or trained, to be a fountain of original wisdom?

If that's what a congregation really wants, what they really want is God.

And that job's taken.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A secluded chapel in the silent woods...

Shady Grove Unitarian chapel, est. 1858.

I gave my final service of worship there this past Sunday, after 2 and a half happy years doing so every 1st Sunday of the month.

Susan and I married there, one of the happiest days of my life.

My dear friend Michael Hill had his daughter Alex formally named there.

Many happy memories. None more beloved than the time spent there, as at a monk's or hermit's hut, alone or in company, wrapped in the silence only the Australian bush can offer.

The chapel itself is made out of the very and rocks of the bush in which it has sailed its stationary voyage through lengths and breadths of time. Its simplicity is its charm--rough cut wood floors and beams, white plaster walls, and arched windows lending just a hint of the gothic. The acoustics are marvellous, built as it was by people who wanted to hear, wanted to communicate deeply with each other.

No minister can ever have a had an apprenticeship in such a perfect setting.

And so I am deeply grateful to have drunk deep of its particular magic these years.

Visit it if you get the chance.

I will miss it more than I can say.