Friday, November 25, 2011

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"honesty is not easy to perform. iago's is the longest part, but othello's is the hardest."

Originally broadcast in the early 1980s on BBC Radio.

GOING ROUND by Alan Bennett

To Go Round means to visit an actor or actress in the dressing room after the performance, and I am not sure whether it is a ceremony peculiar to the theatre. Do clergymen, worshipping in alien churches, feel it incumbent upon them to go round to the vestry afterwards to congratulate the vicar on his conduct of the service? “The litany had me on the edge of my seat. And that canticle! I was on my knees.”

Are judges in their underpants surprised by colleagues who rush into the robing room in ecstasies over the summing up or the severity of the sentence? Do dons go round after lectures? Or footballers after a match? I think not. It only happens in the theatre. And it is one of the great advantages that television has over theatre that with television, you never have to go round. Or if you do all you find is dust, an old copy of Gardener’s Weekly and the vertical hold.

Which is actually slightly more rewarding than what you find at the back of a theatre. If, that is, you can find it. In the West End, stage doors are obscurely situated, often in streets so distant and unrelated to the front of house it almost pays to take a bus.

Like the box office staff, the stage doorman is seldom a lover of the performing arts. Persons wishing to see an actor or an actress are invariably regarded with hostility or regaled with the doorman's memories of Dan Leno. Of the two, the first is preferable.

Once past the stage doorman you start to look for the dressing-room of the actor or actress, and at this point I think I must stop saying actor or actress every time and for conciseness' sake just stick to actor. The gender of actors is in any case a fairly murky area, and they are often pretty vague about the matter themselves. But as you scour the bare stone corridors for the right dressing-room, you very soon realise that backstage of most theatres is a hell-hole. It is cold. It smells. And it is a labyrinth. In this labyrinth the situation of a dressing-room varies inversely with the status of the actor. The grander the actor, the lower and therefore nearer the stage his dressing room will be.

Suppose you are lucky enough to be going round to see one of the principals. You knock on the door and are told to come in. You do so and find someone extremely famous in a state of Considerable Undress. It is a fact that very few leading actors are in the least bit self-conscious. Speaking as one who can scarcely remove his tie without first having a police cordon thrown round the building, I find this unself-consciousness very disconcerting. An actor can conduct a conversation heedless of the fact that he is removing not only make-up and costume but also elastic stockings, corset, even his false teeth. He is standing without a stitch on and you do not know where to look. All in the public view. There will be people who will tell you that since an actor leaves the real person on the stage, he regards the rest as so much scaffolding. This is fanciful. It may be that he is just brass-necked. Which is probably why he is an actor.

However, do not be stricken by the sight of the actor in his smalls that you fail to embark on your compliments as soon as you have thrown open his door. Or, better still, before. Begin your enthusiasm coming down the stairs. Feel unable to control it. Let it bear you bubbling into the room. Because this is what you are here for. You have Come Round. He has performed: now it is your turn.

For that is what it is, Going Round: a performance. A performance which, if it is to convince, has to equal and indeed to surpass the one you have just seen on the stage. And whatever you thought, even if you slept through the whole of the second act, you have to go in there saying it was all marvellous. Marvellous. It was MARVELLOUS.

The actor is properly gratified. He is also suspicious. Other friends have been round on other nights who have not performed as well as you are doing. So he has his doubts. Actors are very uncertain creatures. And he is particularly uncertain because some well-wishers have gone round and told him he was terrible. Whereas here you are saying he was marvellous. And going on saying it. Which you must. Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous.

He stops you. “But tell me,” he says, ”what did you really think?" Take NO notice. And, above all, don't tell him. “Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous.”

So far, so good: he thinks you thought he was marvellous. But wanting (you fool) to introduce a note of reality into the proceedings and, by implying a criticism of someone else, to enhance how truly marvellous he has been, you add, “But I'm curious: what made you choose this play? I mean, who persuaded you?” And has the person concerned (though you do not say this) been forthwith committed to an institution for the criminally insane?

He is on to you like a rat. “Why, didn't you like it?” You instantly realise your mistake, and recover. “LIKE it? I thought it was marvellous, MARVELLOUS. You were marvellous. The play was marvellous. I've had a marvellous evening.”

He probes. ”What did you think of her?”

“Her? Well, I thought she was marvellous too. She was... marvellous.”

This is a mistake. Actors never like praise to go to anyone but themselves. Unless, of course, they are saints. And if they are saints they are in a damp vault below the south aisle after a life of exemplary devotion. If they are actors they are in a damp vault below Shaftesbury Avenue after a not so exemplary performance of Private Lives. The damp vault is about all they have in common.

But now his face has fallen. You thought she was marvellous. This must mean that you did not think that he was as marvellous as she was. It is, after all, well known that there is a limited quantity of marvellousness in the world. And someone else is getting a share. It is tragic.

Some visitors, thinking they have given the actor his due, now make the mistake of switching the conversation to topics other than the play: the furnishings of the dressing-room, for instance; the whereabouts of the loo; the air-conditioning in the theatre or absence of the same; the other members of the audience or absence of the same. This is fatal. “They came round,” he will go home and say, “and never a single word about the play.”

Whereas the single word you have to say is “marvellous”. Never stray too far from that.
But I have no room to talk. For on those occasions when I find I have actually enjoyed a play and want to go round and make my feelings known, then I invariably say the wrong thing. Or say the right thing, but in such a diffident way (wanting to be thought honest and not one of those frightful people who go round and just say “Marvellous”) that I end up convincing the actor that I hated him. Honesty is not easy to perform. Iago's is the longest part, but Othello's is the hardest.

And make no mistake about it: the actor knows. He knows you didn't like him, even if you did. He heard you not laughing. He saw you not crying. He knows; and in his heart of hearts he knows, too, that nothing you can say will help. The only thing that will help will be doing it again tomorrow night.

But when you have closed the door and thankfully departed he is left. And if he has given a bad performance he knows, and there is nothing one can say. So often, Going Round is like trying to comfort the bereaved. Except, when an actor has died a death, deceased and bereaved are one.

Alan Bennett is a British playwright, screenwriter, actor and author. His work includes "The Madness of George III" and the film incarnation "The Madness of King George," a series of monologues "Talking Heads," the play "The History Boys," and popular audio books, including his readings of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Winnie-the-Pooh." 

© Alan Bennett, from his collection "Writing Home", published by Faber & Faber (UK).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"oh shit oh shit oh shit... look, a flower."

when rhinos fly. the sad, beautiful, surreal sight of an endangered rhino being airlifted to safety. pretty cool.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

thanking... thanking...

an energetic young japanese boy rings a bell at the kiomizu temple in kyoto, japan.

"that's when the music takes me..."

...takes me to a brighter day."

a howard greenfield lyric to one of my favorite neil sedaka songs.  greenfield's lyrics were often filled with enough sap-laden, sugar-coated, syrupy sweet sentiment to make even the most rabid barry manilow fan feel a little sick to his stomach.  but greenfield's sap - "life is a smile so find it, put your face behind it," - always managed to cheer me.  make me smile.  embarrass me a little, yes, but still -- lift me out of any duldrums.  turn any frown upside down.

lately, the music seems to take me to fewer and fewer "brighter days."

more and more i find myself wiping away a tear or two when i listen to a favorite song - whether it's one i've loved for years or a new one i've just fallen for.  tears of joy, sometimes, yes.  but mixed with the joy is more often than not a tinge of melancholy, a touch of longing, a hint of ...could it be regret? 

nah.  no regrets

maybe it's time i'm feeling sad about. or a perceived lack of it.  the older you get, the more you feel time slipping away.  what once seemed like an endless summer -- an open road ahead, days upon countless days and tomorrows and on -- now seem to be ever so gently shifting to autumn, or at least the end of warm weather.  the band may not be gearing up for "auld lang syne," but the subtle rust red outline is beginning to creep further toward the center of the leaves.

i am aging.

we all, of course, are aging.  it starts the moment we're slapped on the bottom and put in our mother's arms.  but it isn't something you conciously feel until, well, you feel it.  in your body.  in your breath.  in your spirit.

the spirit, mind you, is still strong.  the spirit is still 23 at times.  still a boy.  but there is heaviness too.

please.  this is not a bad thing.  realizing your time on the planet is not limitless can help you appreciate things your younger self no doubt took for granted: a friendly smile from a passer by,  a sincere compliment from a friend or co-worker,  a happy exchange with a loved one.  a hearty laugh.  and there is something in this aging that drives you to feel and care more deeply than ever.  more intensely than a younger person might.  than a younger you might.  because now... you know.  you just.  know.

and there's the rub.  once you've grown old enough to appreciate it all so genuinely and sincerely, there is less time left to live it.  something you squandered as a youth you cherish as an adult.  and now there is an innate desire to somehow be transported back to those days so you could appreciate them with the knowledge and experience you have now.

theatre.  work.  the next job.  "going for it." acting and auditioning and agents and my book and my headshots and my resume and my career and, please, my career.  promotions and bottom lines and investments and dividends and money and the rest.  getting ahead, making it big, hitting the jackpot.  enough of that for now.

how's your mother?  when's the last time you talked to your dad?  is your sister-in-law's cancer still in remission? when is the last time you had a really good cup of coffee?  did you happen to walk past those lilacs yesterday?  didn't they smell amazing?

this past summer i went to a wedding reception for the first time in i can't remember when.  (probably since i was in the band playing at the hall, calling for the bride and groom to slow dance to the theme from ice castles.)  that night, for an hour or two, time stood still.  the music, the dance floor, the world seemingly, was full of life and joy for nothing but the moment.  no yesterday.  certainly no tomorrow.  it was now and now.  while we danced to a great old stevie wonder song, or an earth, wind and fire classic, or james brown or anybody.  nothing else mattered in those vivid, beautiful moments but the music, the people around me, and the movement.

it was heaven.

and truly, as the end of life just barely comes peeping into view, if that's what heaven is like then there's nothing to be afraid of.  i just hope i can dance like that again and again and again and again until i finally dance like that forever.  when the music truly does take me to a brighter day.