Strive for the art in yourself

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff, Theater and Dance

Duff ‘n Stuff, July 22, 2012

I couldn’t wait until Tuesday to get on with this blog. So many stories, so little time!

A lot has been happening to me (for me) in the past four weeks.

I’ve hung my hat here at Whidbey Art Source, for one thing, and am eternally grateful that I have found a place to write (about and for all of you.) Thanks for following our launch and I would like to talk about the new site in a different post, but first, I really want to talk about acting for a moment if you’ll indulge me.

When I was 5 years old, I taught myself to ride a two wheeler. Every morning for about a month I would spring from my bed and rush down to the basement of our suburban New Jersey home and stand the brand new red Schwinn bicycle that my parents had given me for my fifth birthday next to the bottom stair and throw my little leg over onto the seat. The basement was full of cement poles and it was somewhat of an obstacle course down there, but I was ecstatic at the challenge of it and completely satisfied at the outcome. I was a natural at riding a bike.

I relate this experience only because the feeling I had from tackling that feat of teaching myself to ride a bicycle, was the same feeling I had only a few times later in my life, and one of them was when I learned to become an actor. It was a skill for which I thought, “Here is something I am meant to do and to do well.”

That leads me to my recent experience in the emerging Black Box Theater. Yes. It has a name. Or at least that’s what it is presently being called.

Here are Jennifer Bondelid and me before a performance of “Oh What a Lovely War,” in the wonderful old WPA period building with all those nostalgic woody smells.

What was, until recently, the Fine Arts Building at the Island County Fairgrounds is now, officially and utterly, in all its black box glory, a theater, and the permanent home of Outcast Productions.

Thanks to Diane Divelbess, the Langley artist and director of the Whidbey Island Fair’s visual arts show, which until this year was housed in the “fine arts building,” now the theater.

(By the way, art entries for the fair are due from between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4 in the Pole Building at the fairgrounds.  Artists can register online at www.whidbeyislandfair.com. Here’s the pole building being transformed to a gallery.)

Divelbess graciously gave up the space so that Outcast could create a proper theater, with risers, a backstage, lighting, dressing rooms, a kitchen for concessions, the whole thing. (Also, the  new seats are tres chic and absolutely comfortable.)

The arts show for the fair will occupy the pole building behind the theater now.

You see. There’s a typical example of the generous gesture I often see made in this community. It’s good. It adds to the quality to life.

Thank you, Diane.

But I digress.

The play that ran in part of June and July was “Oh What a Lovely War,” a World War I political and musical satire about the war to end all wars. (Wouldn’t that have been nice?)

The director, K. Sandy O’Brien, one of the founding artistic directors of Outcast (along with Ned Farley), asked me to be in the show just after she had directed me in “Gertrude Stein and A Companion,” a great theater experience for me. I’ve been acting in the theater for more than 25 years now and, since moving to the island almost seven years ago, O’Brien has directed me in five shows.

This is San.

(She’s a little kooky, but in theater you kind of have to be. She’s also one of the most creative people I’ve ever met and an excellent director.)

So this play, which began its rehearsals in May, ran into some trouble spots with casting, which seems to be a problem for the ever-expanding community of stages on the island. There are just not enough skilled actors to go around and it seems hard for some folks to completely commit to a project that will take five or six weeks, with rehearsals four nights per week, followed by three weekends of performances.

“Oh What A Lovely War” is a particularly challenging play with songs to learn, dances to be choreographed and lots dialects to tackle within a script heavy with characters.  We all played a variety of parts in the ensemble, and so it took everything the 13 of us had to get it up.

But we did it and audiences were more than enthusiastic. Here’s most of us.

As I said, I’ve done my share of theater, studied it in college, studied it again in Boston, made a go of it as a profession for 10 years in Chicago, where I continued taking classes. The acting game is extremely hard and eventually I went to graduate school to study writing and ended up here on Whidbey Island as a writer by trade. But I enjoy acting here fairly regularly in the community theater.

I’ve had classes in acting, dance, voice, theater movement, mask, Commedia dell’arte, circus, Alexander Technique, Meisner, Stanslavski’s “method,” on-camera techniques, you name it. I worked very hard at acting, and what I came away with most is that it’s a craft that requires much more than just to memorize one’s lines and remember the blocking (where the director told you to go on the stage). An actor needs also to know the nuances of the collabortive process. Kind of like the collaboration I had with my bike and those poles.

Here are Noelle Weiner and Marta Mulholland collaborating in the dressing room for “Oh What A Lovely War.”

As you may know, I also wrote about South End theater quite a bit during my six years at the South Whidbey Record, doing regular previews and reviews of shows at Whidbey Children’s TheaterOutcast ProductionsWhidbey Island Center for the Arts, Island Shakespeare Festival and the odd South Whidbey schools show or two. So subsequently, I’ve looked with a critical eye at the community theater being done here on the island, as well.

One thing I’ve learned from all this experience is that if one decides they would like to be an actor and join in the community fun, that’s great. But, acting, just like playing an instrument or any other craft, requires at least some skill and hard work if it is to be done for an audience, who, one should consider, are usually paying a ticket price.

There is a place for all levels of actors on the community theater stage and that’s what makes the whole endeavor so charming. But I would encourage the folks who audition again and again for these stage performances to perhaps delve a bit deeper into the process and tune up their instruments from time to time, as all actors need to do, and learn the etiquette of the theater process.

Here’s our patient and talented pianist Robert Marsanyi (left) practicing his theater etiquette, while listening to ensemble member Paul Mathews warm up his pipes backstage.

Not a whole lot is required for learning the basics of theater, just some.

Take an acting class, or a scene study class at WICA; dare to take your first ballet lesson or modern dance class at Island Dance; ask Outcast Productions what classes might be offered there; take Argentine tango lessons (I took some of these lessons; wonderful and a very sexy dance!) at Tango Popolare (email secure@cnw.com); and read up on what it is to take direction. Find the connection to your body.

Here’s Jennifer, one of my favorite dancer collaborators and the choreographer for “Oh What A Lovely War.”

(Jennifer teaches ballet and other forms at Island Dance, by the way. Edgar Degas might  have loved this photo.)

Most important of all, I would encourage local actors to learn to use one’s voice (project! enunciate!) so that the audience can hear every word of a play. What’s the point if the audience can’t hear the story?

Choral singing is an excellent training for the voice; or scene study.

(Auditions for the new season of the Whidbey Chamber Singers with director Rob Prosch will be held the evening of Aug. 6, beginning at 7 p.m. for all voice types.  There is a scene study class throughout the year with theater director Andrew Grenier. Find out more at www.wicaonline.com.)

What I’ve noticed most about beginning actors is that they are excited by the prospect of being onstage and they have this great first energy. But too often, inexperienced actors fail to understand the concentration needed when listening to the director. An actor must give up all ego and insecurity and be ready to hand one’s tool (the body, voice, emotion) over to the director for her or him to use to translate their vision of the play. Remember, a direction is not a criticism; it is a way into the character and, ultimately, to the through-line of the play. And it is completely satisfying if you get it right. Actually, there is no other feeling that compares to getting it right, in my experience.

The legendary director of the Moscow Art Theatre, Konstantin Stanislavski, who wrote what some would call the actor’s bible, “An Actor Prepares,” once famously said, “Love the art in yourself and not yourself in the art.”

No, none of us are going to be professional actors on the small stages of Whidbey Island, but at least we can strive for that bit of art in ourselves.

From the heart,

Patricia Duff

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