Acting (in) Company: Part 2
It’s been almost three months since I last wrote, and it seems only fitting that I pick up the proverbial pen (Macbook) while riding the bus through Ohio and on into Canada. The bus has become more than a second home but less than a first home. What it is in fact is a shifting domicile that provides sanctuary and community to 13 actors, a company manager, staff repertory director and of course, the bus driver.
We shuttle from place to place so quickly that the bus provides our closest semblance to permanence. For the majority of our tour thus far permanence is what we lack. Perhaps out of this deficit comes opportunity; opportunity for what? I’m not sure yet, but I’m hoping to get some insight on that soon enough.
Our stops thus far have been 1-2 nights, giving us just enough time to work out, find a decent meal, snap a few pictures and maybe chat with a local. More often though, we are in and out of a town so fast you’d think we were criminals on the lamb. The constancy of movement has been the hardest thing to get used to. The whirligig of pack, unpack, shower, show, pack, unpack, shower, show, etc., has taken its toll. The rigors of touring have begun to threaten the primacy of the mission; to bring quality theater to communities across the country with little to no access to such work. So the question that has continually pressed upon me throughout has been, how do we do that?
To say that this tour has been a roller coaster is such a boring cliché, but I’m going to use it anyway because my brain has literally turned to mush. I think somewhere around Mansfield, Ohio or Hilton Head, South Carolina or St. Johnsbury, Vermont I lost my ability to think straight and I turned into a farm animal.
Nothing against farm animals, it’s just that I feel much more like I’m part of a herd of cattle rather than an actor. I shuffle from one town to the next, stopping long enough to barely eat a meal before I’m entering as Mark Antony to find out that the leader of Rome and my best friend has been stabbed 33 times. Hamlet says the readiness is all, and lord if that ain’t the truth. Readiness is perhaps the thing I’m learning the most about.
I think the thing that has been most surprising and challenging about touring is actually doing the show and doing it well. When I’ve been in a run of a show at a regional theater the consistency of the run helps you find your rhythm and learn in a quick way the contours of the role. The opposite seems to be true on this tour for me. I perform 3-4 times per week as opposed to 8. The venue is different practically each time, as well as the demographic of the audiences. We go from poor underprivileged communities to the exact opposite in the span of 24 hours. The inconsistencies are what have been the most educational because they demand a readiness for the unexpected, even though your body may not be ready at all. This is a lesson I hope to take with me into my next job.
The inconsistency of this life has also led to a slight depression. This wasn’t exactly what I had romantically envisioned when taking this job. I thought—or at least naively hoped—I would be joining an illustrious heritage of thespians treading the boards in a different town each night, carousing with the “locals” and spreading the uplifting antidote of live theater to the masses of common folk just dying for some culture.
I thought that I would be on fire with the gospel of theater, reveling in my association with a long line of actors who’ve traveled the country putting on plays. In reality, I’ve been playing to cavernous auditoriums in the middle of nowhere with a scarcity of people in the house. Our student matinees are more often than not our largest audiences, but unfortunately those kids are there because they are required to be. There have certainly been some wonderful shows, but on the whole if I were to use this tour as a barometer for the country’s interest in live classical theater, I would say it doesn’t look good. Not to say there aren’t people out there who are devotees always and forever, but this is not what I’ve experienced for the most part.
As a result, I’ve found myself falling in and out of a slight depression, but ultimately out. I began to wonder if what I’m doing doesn’t really matter? It’s true that I don’t really know if that is entirely the case, and there may certainly be individuals out there who have been affected in a positive way by our work, but I can’t say for certain that I feel that as often as I’d hoped.
In light of this I have sought the silver lining as often as possible. As I said in my first essay, I was interested in learning something about company on this tour, and I think I have. What I’ve learned more than ever before is that being in a company is damn difficult, but damn necessary and that no matter where and when and for whom I am doing the show, I must keep the fire of my artistry alive.
I do this most successfully when I put all the other challenges of company life aside for the few hours I have each night doing the show. Company life has taught me this in a more immediate way than a regional run, because you are open and susceptible to other people’s energies more than ever because of the constancy of your contact with one another. Therefore, the skills needed to switch gears and block that out are perhaps even greater. It’s kind of like having a constant case of poison ivy, but you still need to perform.
This isn’t always the case, and I feel great affection for my fellow company members, but take any group of adults and throw them on a bus and truck tour and they will inevitably go a bit bonkers. To have this to contend with has only strengthened the preciousness of time on the stage. It is my time to block it ALL out and do the work of the play. This has probably been the most valuable acting and life lesson I have learned from doing this job. I’ve never done a role this large for this long a period of time, and it has pushed me to investigate how to keep it alive and fresh while staying as focused as possible. Being part of The Acting Company has undoubtedly pushed me to deepen my commitment to what is required of us to be great on the stage each night.
What I sense from traveling around the country is that people don’t really know if they really need theater anymore. Students come because they are forced, and many others come because they feel an obligatory sense to try to be “cultured.” There are always those out there who feel a strong connection now and forever to the theatre, but their numbers are dwindling.
When I’ve felt uncertain about my purpose on this tour, I’ve been able to rely on my company members to reinforce for me our mission and sense of purpose. I take great comfort in the fact that we are gathered together to do something that we believe is important and necessary, and that belief can be contagious. Even if we are outnumbered at times, to be part of a group of people who want to do this has strengthened my belief enough to help me keep the faith and learn a lot about myself as an actor.
I wish I had more to say at this point. I think that because I am still within it and processing it all it’s hard to understand the impact it is having on me as an artist and the impact the work is having on these communities. I hope that with time I come to a greater understanding of what it is to be part of an acting company and in particular, The Acting Company.