Frances Ford Coppola is a great director. That can be said because of the results of his process. But his process usually involves ‘wasting’ millions of dollars in over-production, ignoring executives who are only interested in making money and that artistically could be described as pinheads, but he is great because his genius is strong enough to see beyond all of that, and his stamina is strong enough to overcome those obstacles. He had to fight with those pinheads to get Brando to play the lead in “The Godfather”. He had to create a mountainous labyrinth of film that went in scores of directions to make “Apocalypse Now” work, and all because his medium is film. Such tricks would be harder than reincarnating Ibsen to try them on today’s modern theatre.
Tonight (Friday July 26, 2013) in the next to the last performance of the fleeting moment that is the live theatre of our production of Harvey, some thoughts crossed my mind. It was the sixth successful performance of a seven performance run. The house was full, save “Table Ten” that was occupied by family members. It included a nine year old who enjoyed the show, but is easily distracted. Sitting next to me was my son who was in an early production of the play ten years ago with his girl friend at the time, and his present fiancé who enjoyed every moment as she basked in the intimacy of our cabaret styled theatre. But the performance was stellar and my only distraction was that this was the next to the last playing of the song.
For the first time I saw that some of the my actors had actually peaked. Another ten or twenty performances and they would remain consistent but this was it. A proud moment, but the moment was now. Then I thought across the years to a remarkable summer at Sam Houston State University. The Texas Educational Theatre Association had conceived a summer graduate program designed for theatre teachers. Looking back there was not a single reason why this crazy idea should work. The idea was to bring together from across the state a small company of actors who would work together for five weeks and in repertory produce two very different plays. It was 1989 and I cannot for the life of me know why I decided that was a good idea or what I was thinking when I signed up for that crazy program.
What we ended up with was a perfect collection of experienced, moderately experienced, and greatly experienced theatre teachers who magically dropped into two productions. One production directed by Ron Caspers, already respected as a stellar director: Spoon River Anthology – a show that I had not particularly cared for previously but would come to love for the gentle/powerful poetry that embraces the stage. The other production was Peer Gynt, a very ambitious staging from a Texas university master, Dr. James Miller, the dean of SHSU Theatre and incoming president of TETA. The experience of working under those two directors, in those two productions, for seven days a week, for five weeks, from 9 to 12 hours a day was unbelievable. Our heads were so full of theatre, the plays, each other, that the rest of the world seemed so far away.
But the punch line to the story is the plays were being prepared for the TETA summer workshop. One of the artists invited in that year was Cliff Osmond. Now most people have seen him perform in films and cable TV movies, and probably don’t remember his name. That’s because the real thing that is Cliff Osmond, is that he is a teacher – specifically a teacher of actors
Jim and Rod invited him into to see the near dress rehearsal performances of our plays. At that point we’d shared so much, experienced so much with each other in a remarkable university setting that we were all pretty high on just how cool we had become. Osmond in words very gentle, very direct, very honest, and memorable showed us how, although we had a performance we could be proud of, also showed us a part of our minds that had never considered what great could be.
More than twenty years later, no more than that day, I cannot adequately describe what I felt upon the realization that there was a higher level to this ancient art. But I saw it then, and I think I understood it on stage in the performances that punctuated all of our work. But I don’t believe there are words that I can write that can describe that feeling.
There is technique, there is mime, there is a parroting of emotions we seek in order to imitate what we believe to be what we want seen on stage. And there is real characterization, that is an expression of the soul of the inner being that has been divinely inspired on a mystical level, and that is muse. It is found in deep human drama, and in thoughtful, cerebral comedies like Harvey.
For a moment tonight, watching the direction that my actors fulfilled I believed that I could honestly take some of them to that next level – were there only the chance. But I know there is no time; there was never the opportunity, only this flash of a dream . . . but perhaps that is heaven. Perhaps that’s where I was briefly in 1989 with another very special troupe for that brief moment. But I know that I must be grateful for the brief interaction of this diverse group whose only commonality is to perform on stage.
My actors wait while well intentioned patrons finish their breaded chicken and speak of grandchildren, and trifles. Those theatre goers wait too long and then go to the bathroom. They pay too little attention to the careful, thoughtful efforts that has gone into their inexpensive evening shared in a Presbyterian Fellowship Hall.
But this theatre. And at the core it is the same as it has been for thousands of years – the greatest and most beautiful, and least appreciated of all of the arts.
And I am thankful for it.