• The Secret Books
    The Secret Books
    by Jorge Luis Borges, Sean Kernan
  • Among Trees
    Among Trees
Teaching and Lecturing

An evening of theater: what did I learn...if anything?

Alan%20and%20sean%201.jpgIn the spring I was involved in a piece of theater, and back then I mentioned in some post or other  that I might write about the experience afterward if there were anything to say.  It has taken me this long to mumble my way to something.

The whole thing began with the chance to read a play for  an audience. I’ve studied a lot of theater in the past 6 or 8 years, mainly as a way into a direct experience of creativity.  Theater games are great for that because  you have to make something out of what is happening there in the moment, not in your head. (There’s an article about this here.)

But there is a difference between  a class, where you are working for insight and stretch,  and a performance, where you really have to deliver.

So the play was Virtual Reality by Alan Arkin, and it was to be done as a benefit for the Mother Road Theater Company in Albuquerque. The best thing was that I got to read it with the author, taking the part he’d played in the New York run, while he switched to the other part just to see what it was like. The narrator was read by Jonathan Richards.

I started working with the text months before, trying to get familiar enough with it so that my nose wouldn't be't stuck in the script the whole time. And although you're not supposed to do this, I couldn’t help but imagine how my character  (a low-level wiseguy) might say particular lines.  In spite of myself I  began to build a mental version of how the thing might go.

Then one day I got a friend to read it out out loud with me. And we were just awful! We sounded as though we were a couple of guys from  New Jersey who had heard that there was an open audition for the Sopranos. Except we were a couple of WASPs from Far Hills, and we were just imitating what we thought these guys might talk like if we had ever heard them...which we hadn't.  It was that bad. I was shocked awake.

A few days before the performance I got to rehearse with Alan and Jon. Now there was someone to talk to and, more important, to listen to. And I was under the guidance of the man who knew this play, these characters best. I got better…to a point...a point about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

A few days later it was time to go live. We began, and a few minutes  into it I nearly fell off my seat when everyone suddenly burst out laughing. Was that line funny? How did I miss that? Once again, I was out of my head and into the moment.

So the play went on, and I relaxed enough to start to toy with things a bit. And in the end I didn’t embarrass myself or Alan or anyone he said, anyway.

But the really interesting and surprising  thing about all this  only came when I got  home. I had brought some calligraphy brushes out West with me because Alan said he wanted to try it, and I showed him how to make the stroke with the arm, not the hand, not the fingers. He made this rather cramped little line, looked at it, and yelled, "God! That's terrible!" I pointed out that it was his first line ever, and why on earth should he expect his first line to be perfect.

Then when I'd flown home and  listened to the recording of the performance, I emailed Alan. "God! I was terrible! I'm just yelling everything!" And he said, "Remember the calligraphy? Why should you expect your first performance to be perfect?" Why, indeed?  If we had done these things at age 4 or so, we would have just done them. No need to be good. Where does that come from? And, more important,  how can I get rid of it?

I thought going in that this whole experience might hold a lesson. I think  that was it.


Turns out it isn't easy... both do something and comment on it. In fact, I have enough trouble doing one thing at a time, let alone two,

I have been working up some kind of entry, but doing it in the spirit of the workshop. So, for example, we all tried to keep things up in the air--experiences, conclusions--instead of summing them up too soon. I am trying not to wrap things up toop neatly. There was so much going on, and I don't want to trim it down to the scale of my thoughts. Instead, I want to scale my thoughts up.

The other thing we tried to do was to  treat the workshop as something that didn't have to wind up in a particular place, with particular lessons and conclusions. For years I have warned participants that my classes end quite raggedly, and this one did so more than ever.

So this was one of the brodest investigations of this kind I've ever done, and I will convey as much as I can as soon as I can do so honestly and broadly. 



Russell Kaye's blog

It is a great take on what went on That Week. 


Continuing the cop-out...

I have returned home with head and heart overstuffed, and am taking a few days to "make sense of it all." (Does that mean manufacture sense or discover it? Another thing we touched on during the week.)

Meantime, John Paul Caponegro has done a great job of summing up one of the most telling assignments of the week and the wonderful responses to it on his blog, here.

Over to you, JP 


To come

I'm still trying to get my head around all of what happened, and failing so far. But I will post something here in a day or so.