How Michael Jackson Influenced My Acting Process

Posted by A Quiet Man with a Loud Voice | Labels: , , , , , | Posted On Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 10:47 AM

It’s been a while since I posted last and a lot has happened since then – but not all of it has been good. Shortly after posting the entry entitled “The Breakdown” I went off to an even worse rehearsal. I’m convinced I jinxed it. I’m not going to delve any more into it – because we had enough negativity floating around last week.

I am happy to report, however, that things have moved into a tremendously positive direction since then. We’re only slightly behind where we should be, and the rehearsals these last three days have all been gigantic leaps forward. Which is a good sign – tech week (sometimes known as Hell week) starts on Monday and we open on Friday. Boy, time just flew right on by.

Anyways, there are a few things I noticed at rehearsals that I wanted to expand upon for the purposes of this blog…

And they are the challenges in staging a play with Deaf actors.

(Note: I struggled for the better part of a day to find a word that fit what I’m trying to express. The word challenge makes it seem as if putting Deaf actors in a play is just asking for trouble. It’s not. To paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk, “Challenges is not the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.”)

I’ve been acting onstage for nearly all my life. I first stepped in front of an audience at the age of eight and as I grew older I began to notice things in the theatre world that hearing actors take for granted.

First: Cues.

What is a Deaf actor to do when his cue is given and for some reason or another, he cannot make out what is being said? There are three solutions.

The first option is the use of lighting changes. Light design is one of the most important and underappreciated technical aspects of a show. And because lighting is so necessary for to establish mood and setting – this option is not always available. It’s usually my cue for an entrance at the beginning of the scene or a scene shift, but beyond that, it can’t be used for anything else or you risk unsettling the audience as they wonder why the hell the lights are flickering all over the place.

So instead you move on to the second option, physical cues. By the end of the rehearsal process most actors have begun to lock down speech patterns, body language, and blocking to a semi-permanent state. There may be subtle variations in the movement, but for the most part it remains the same. In one instance, I was seated at the far end of the stage while a conversation between a pair of actors was going on at the other side. My cue was to approach the duo from across the stage. But the problem was both actors were seated and not facing me for dramatic reasons. So I could neither see their lips nor read their body language. Instead I approached the actress who would be delivering the line directly before mine and asked her to make a small in-character movement with her hand. Once I saw her tuck her hair behind her ear, I knew that was my cue to approach and I could continue on as normal.

The third method tends to be the method I utilize the most. But first I think I need to a little more detail about my type of hearing loss.

I have a moderately severe to severe hearing loss in both ears caused by nerve damage. What this means is that without the help of my hearing aids I am essentially deaf to the world. I can hear loud sounds like the El train passing nearby, but for the most part I am unable to comprehend much of anything. With my hearing aids in the range of my hearing is dramatically increased to the point where I can hear voices. I, however, am not able to pick up the subtle variations in voices that make a person’s speech patterns unique. I have a general idea of what a British accent sounds like (and I can duplicate it poorly) but I cannot tell the difference between Ian McKellan and Michael Caine based solely on their voice. I’ll probably recognize the hanging vowels as British, but beyond that – I’d be clueless.

I also read lips (though not very well) and combine lip reading with what I can hear to understand what people are talking about. While I can probably figure out what you’re saying just by relying on lip reading (though again, I’m not very good at it) – it is highly unlikely that I’ll be able to comprehend you if I was unable to see your lips. It’ll sound like incoherent mumbling. Imagine Chewbacca with a muzzle on and you’ve got the gist of it.

There is an exception, however, and it’s something I discovered by accident when I was very young. My very first music album was a copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, which I listened to for hours on end. I’d follow along with the lyrics he helpfully printed out in the cover notes, and dance (badly) and sing (even badly-er) along. One day I was riding along in the car and a Michael Jackson song came on, and I found I could hear every single word he was saying – because I had memorized all the lyrics. The sounds made sense – I couldn’t read his lips, but I knew exactly what he was saying.

"Holy crap!" I said to myself, "so this is the secret to enjoying music! Memorize the lyrics!"

A couple years later, after I finally got a big role in a children’s theatre production, I found that I was having trouble picking up my line cues for various reasons and I hit upon the solution. It’s not enough for a Deaf actor to just memorize his lines and the line cues – he must memorize the entire show. Or at least the entirety of the scenes he is in.

Shakespeare’s the easiest to memorize, the iambic pentameter and rhymes lend itself to quick retention. Harold Pinter? Good luck. Random changes of pacing, stilted dialogue, and other such nonsense just drives me insane. I can still remember entire sections of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but ask me to recite a line from a performance of God of Hell by Sam Shepard and I’ll be hard pressed to come up with anything more than a single line or two.

On the plus side, when someone screws up – I’m usually able to improvise a line to get the show back on track since I know everyone’s cues and I have used this several times over the past dozen years or so. On the negative side, it’s just a lot of work and I probably would have quit the theatre a long time ago if I didn’t enjoy it as much as I do.

There it is, three ways to help bring Deaf actors into the mainstream theatre world. Well, three ways to include Deaf actors who communicate primarily through speech. When you have Deaf actors that communicate primarily through sign, it’s a different set of rules – but can lead to some very interesting possibilities. And that is one of the reasons I’m enjoying the process of the show so much – watching how artists who communicate almost exclusively through sign has been a fascinating experience for me.

The Breaking Point

Posted by A Quiet Man with a Loud Voice | Labels: , , | Posted On Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 4:26 PM

"Lord what fools these mortals be!"
-a Midsummer Night's Dream III, 2, 115


Near the middle of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream a troupe of actors are rehearsing a play when that merry hobgoblin, Puck, comes along and decides to have some fun. And what can be more fun than screwing with a bunch of presumptuous actors? So Puck changes the lead actor into an ass. The other actors scream and flee and the audience laughs uproariously.

I’m convinced that the spirit of Puck is alive and well – in every single show there is a moment when the shit hits the fan. Lines are forgotten, props break, entrances are missed, the power fails, a light fixture explodes, an audience member suffers a seizure, etc.

Side Note: All of the above have happened to me in various theatre performances I have either performed in, crewed, or watched.

Poor actors blink in the face of Puck’s mischievous prank and the show descends into disaster. Good actors maintain composure and push onwards. And great actors somehow turn the disaster to their advantage.

I’m reminded of a story of a show in Broadway where a famous actress (whose name escapes me – I want to say Carol Burnett) is onstage with a dog. The dog pees right there in front of the audience who bursts into laughter. The entire troupe freezes except for the leading actress who simply walks offstage nonchalantly, returns with a mop, and cleans it up as she continues on with the show.

That’s the very definition of a great actor.

Such incidents are funny, but sometimes Puck’s prank takes the form of something not quite as amusing. And if you’re lucky it happens during the rehearsal process. If you’re not – it happens during the run of the show. A few years ago during Othello – tragedy struck after the first weekend of the performance. One of the lead actor’s family members was very severely injured and the show had to be cancelled.

That’s a very extreme case, but in theatre, people say, anything goes. There’s lots of cases where actors have died, theatres have burned down, and in one very special incident – a president was assassinated.

Sometimes the figurative ‘shit’ that hits the fan is quite small. But it’s still important for the people working on the show to bounce back from it. It can take the form of something as seemingly insignificant as a bad rehearsal. I’ve seen a single bad rehearsal drag an entire cast down to the depths of mediocrity before.
Like last night’s.

The rehearsal stunk. There’s no other way around it. I stunk, he stunk, she stunk, we all stunk.

Dropped lines, missed cues, missing actors, and so on and so forth.

We stunk. And we all knew it. And we deserved every word that came out of our director’s mouth chastising us. We can go, “Well, so-and-so wasn’t there!” – but that’s just an excuse, and a piss-poor one at that. When the shit hits the fan and things get bad – it’s up to those of us onstage to soldier on and make something out of it.

But we didn’t. The energy levels last night was so abysmally low that I felt depressed while I was onstage. I’m not saying everyone is at fault for this – because some certainly did try to maintain the status quo of good rehearsals – but those of us (myself included) that stumbled every which way brought them down with us.

And for that, I am pretty pissed off at myself.

Theatre, more than any other art form, is collaborative. And one person stinking up the process has the potential to drag down the entire cast and crew. Tonight’s rehearsal will be a test of our fortitude – we will see whether or not we can bounce back from the awfulness that was last night’s rehearsal and turn it into something positive.

I sincerely believe we’re up to the task. I believe this because I know that we’re all very passionate individuals and we’re all determined to make the play succeed. So I’m not worried – but I wanted to express the feeling of a bad rehearsal so those people who read this blog (and are not theatre people) realize that the process of putting a show onstage isn’t all sunshine and roses. There’s plenty of bad moments to go around.

It’s how we bounce back from those moments that will end up defining the show.

And like I said, I’m not worried. I know we’re going to be fine. In my experience, Puck never wins. In the end everything gets put back together the way it should be.

The Deaf Experience

Posted by A Quiet Man with a Loud Voice | Labels: , , , , | Posted On Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 2:53 PM

This morning in Carol’s class we discussed the ‘Deaf Experience’ and started to go into how it relates to the literature we would be reading – but we ran out of time. I did relate my own ‘Experience’, or at least some of it, to the class (half of whom are in the play). I figured it would make a decent blog entry for tonight since we’re still blocking stuff and being boring.

Especially since Death’s primary role in the last half of the play is to watch – which leaves me with very little to do for the remainder of the blocking period.
I was born with a moderately severe to severe hearing loss in both ears, a trait I inherited from my father. Like my father, my left ear is slightly better than my right one. When I reached the proper age I was placed in a school for deaf children and this is what happened:

(I apologize if people become offended, but these are pretty much the words to come out of my mother’s mouth)

”We put you into a school for deaf children and for the first two days you sat in the corner quietly by yourself while all the other children screamed and yelled and cried and wailed. On the second day you walked up to the teacher and said, in perfect English, “Teacher, will you play with me?

“As soon as she heard that, she picked you up and took you straight out of the classroom. She called us to pick you up and said that you were far too intelligent and smart to be in that class and needed to be in a mainstream school.”


Confession: for a very long time after that, I refused the label of ‘Deaf’ because I felt that I was smarter than those weird people who couldn’t speak and had to sign. If someone called me Deaf, I would become instantly combative. This persisted for a very long time, I am sorry to say. It didn’t help that I never met another person with hearing loss until around my junior or senior year of high school.

Up until the end of my college career, the only Deaf members of society I had associated with more than once were my ASL teachers. I took about three semesters worth of ASL before graduating, and picked it up relatively quickly. Unfortunately, in the four years since my last ASL class, I have forgotten almost everything. Everything except cursing.

These days, I am happy to report, I no longer consider myself ‘better’ than Deaf people. Instead I consider myself better than everyone.

Just kidding.

…but not really.

Anyways.

…I never made much of an effort to connect with the Deaf community, despite the fact there is a thriving segment of the population in my hometown. This play, For Every Man, Woman, and Child is the first true interaction I’ve had with people who suffer the same prejudices as me. And I’ll probably be all the better for it.

Now, as for the play…

Warning: Annoying In-Depth Character Analysis to Follow

As always, this note bears repeating:

Any textual analysis in this blog will usually involve me blowing smoke out of my ass. I over-analyze everything. By the end of the rehearsal process, when I've "locked down" the character, I've discarded most of the ideas I've been kicking around. I'd estimate that I only end up using 20% of the concepts I've played with.

To begin with, the character of Everyone in this version of the play has been split into two roles – representing the male and female halves of humanity. When I first heard of this decision, I could not help but think of The Origin of Love from the play Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The above video is captioned but is probably not suitable, thematically, for younger audiences. If you are a young person and reading this blog, go do something more age appropriate and look at online porn.

When Death is onstage – he is, more likely than not, standing between the two halves of Everyone, serving as a bridge between the two of them. In the text Death also serves as a bridge between the Great Spirits of the Universe. Death, in essence, is written as a connecting force between two opposites: whether it is the divine and the mortal, or heaven and earth, or the future and the past, or life and… death.

The most intriguing aspect of this bridging? The choice of the author to have Death communicate through mime. Death does not sign (except once when he fingerspells his name), and he does not speak. Death is serving as a bridge between the hearing and Deaf cultures by breaking down the language barrier and communicating in a way that they can both understand.

That’s the idea, anyways.

Some phrases are actually proving far more difficult than expected. How does one mime ‘sister’ or ‘cousin’ without resorting to sign language or speech? It’s proving to be quite a task and I’ve spent countless hours on a gesture only to realize it makes no sense and had to start all over. These mimes have to be crisp, clear, and easily recognizable.

I can only hope I’m up to the task.

On Directing Styles

Posted by A Quiet Man with a Loud Voice | Labels: , , , , | Posted On Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 10:45 PM

Attempt to blog after every rehearsal? Fail.

I don’t know how Angela does it.

It’s not that I haven’t had time or anything. It’s just that the blocking portion of the rehearsal process is the single most boring thing to experience. We’ve currently blocked a little over half the show so far and are off-book on the first two scenes of the twelve scene show – so we’re probably ahead of the game. Now if only we’d focus and get things done!

Actually, we’ve probably done a lot better job of focusing and getting things done than any show I’ve done in a long time. I am really surprised to see people running lines and blocking together before rehearsal starts, after rehearsal ends, and whenever they’re not onstage.

But this entry isn’t about that. This entry is about the director-actor relationship.

Let me start off by mentioning how lucky I am to be working with Dan Nadon again. I’ve known him since I was a kid and have taken several courses that he has taught. But this is my first ‘real’ play he’s directed that I’ve been in. I did perform as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for him once, but that was Children’s Theatre so I don’t really consider it a 'real' play.

Plus, I sucked then.

I’ve always known Dan to be a very open person willing to listen to what you have to say and share his own opinions. And he brings this same mentality to directing. Earlier today I went to the theatre early to discuss the character of Death with him and walked away with a better understanding of his mentality. And it was a real discussion, a back-and-forth between the director and an actor where some ideas were clarified, some were thrown out, and some were left open for further exploration.

Example: I still can’t wrap my head around the idea of Family being considered a non-essential facet of life. At some point before the show opens, I’ll discuss this – because it’s probably the single most intriguing idea of the whole show for me. In fact, I’m currently attending Carol Robinson’s class where I hope we’ll dive into deeper detail about this.

Back on point:

Not all directors are very open. I had an acting teacher once who also directed several shows.

Disclaimer: I auditioned for two of the director’s shows but was not cast. While I was bitter at the time, I now consider it a blessing for the following reason:

This director/teacher was one of those, “do it this way,” directors. He would tell you exactly how to do a role in class. Right down to blocking. He was not in the least bit interested in exploration. If we tried something new he would inevitably say, “That’s nice. You should try this,” and if we came to class next day with something different – he would reiterate the original suggestion. One time I mentioned to him that I tried his suggestion at home but couldn’t make it work.

His response: “It works. You’re just not trying hard enough.”

After watching several of his shows I started to notice that all of the characters in his plays were the same. They all walked, talked, and acted like him. They were well staged, but I never saw anything resembling a collaborative effort onstage.
That, my friends, is Shitty Director Number One.

Shitty Director Number Two is the complete opposite.

If you ask him questions about the character he’ll inevitably say, “I don’t want to tell you how to do your character, you need to figure it out yourself.”

And that is an incredible copout.

Yes, the actor should have freedom to explore – but when the actor comes to the director with a question, it is because he needs help. If you don’t give them help? You suck as a director, sir. You don’t even deserve the title, you’re nothing more than a glorified babysitter.

I, thankfully, have never had this problem. Though I have been regaled with stories from those who have.

And the third type of Shitty Director?

The Incompetent. You may think Shitty Director Number Two is incompetent, but you would be very wrong.

The incompetent director chose a play that he doesn’t understand. But he saw it once and it looked cool and is doing it exactly like the show he saw. And the leads in his cast is made up entirely of his actor friends who have zero respect for him and just do their own thing. This director is the kind that just lets you do whatever the fuck you want. If you want to play Puck like Iago, he’ll laugh and say, “Interesting choice!” but doesn’t have the balls to tell you you’re wrong.

Dan Nadon, thankfully is none of these. It’s been a great joy the last two weeks discovering new things in For Every Man, Woman and Child with him and I continually look forward to rehearsal to see what the next idea he brings to the table is.