In the Room with Zack Fine
This is an essay about Mark Rylance, the astounding actor of recent Broadway acclaim and numerous Tony nominations; Mark Rylance of protean, luminous virtuosic stagecraft that has inspired an entire generation of artists; Mark Rylance who has the balls to mock/elevate the inflated pageantry of awards shows with his ironic performance art poetry readings in lieu of self-aggrandizing, sycophantic and sentimental speeches. Yeah, that Mark Rylance y’all. A badass.
But first, a personal story. Warning: this story is kind of intense. Seriously.
The other morning I was on my way to clown class. Oh yeah, clown class, baby. You see, I spend most of my free time studying clowning and commedia dell’arte with Christopher Bayes, Master Teacher at Yale and Julliard and creator of his own school—aptly titled The Funny School of Good Acting. If you don’t know Chris, look him up. He’s like Rylance—a total badass. He’s incredible and brilliant and I could spend the rest of this article talking about him. But I gotta move on.
So I’m waiting for the 6 train at 51st and Lexington to go to clown class, like I do, and suddenly, to my right some shit is going down. Now, as New Yorkers, we all know that “shit” goes down around us all the time. Sometimes quit literally, as in “shit” goes down under your damn feet on the sidewalk, and just as often figuratively, as in, “you see that shit?” Crazy people asking for money, parents screaming at their kids, relationships starting, relationships ending; for better or worse your personal space and sense of privacy are constantly subjected to/assaulted by other…shit.
We spend our mornings nose to nose with hundreds of strangers whose names we don’t know and more often than not don’t really wanna know. It’s a harrowing experiment in the art of preserving your humanity amidst a barrage of attempts to dehumanize you ever day. As William Butler Yeats said, “love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.”
It’s Saturday morning, as I said, and I’m waiting for my train to go to clown class, and I’m as excited as always. I love clown class. Can’t get enough of it, in fact. If I could go to clown class everyday, I think I would.
To my left I hear the distant thunder of the train heading my way as the light on the tracks creeps its way towards the station. To my right I hear commotion. I think, why are those two dudes about to have a fight at 9 AM on a quiet weekend morning? But before I can answer that question, one of the two men has pushed his friend back to the wall and zigzagged his way to the edge of the platform and to everyone’s surprise, he leaps.
Yes, that’s right, he leaps.
Onto the tracks he goes, and as if time truly did begin to slow down, he hangs in the air for seconds as screams of “NO” surround him from all directions. Time is speeding up and slowing down with rapid consistency as all eyes assess the scene that is unfolding. The thought that keeps spiking through my brain is “this is happening this is happening this is happening.”
As he lands in the tracks, I turn again to my left; the train is barreling its way towards him with no chance of stopping before impact. To my right I see so many details sparkling through the drab browns and greens of the subway platform. I see him: a silver-haired white guy, with long, narrow features, dressed casually but respectably in a plaid pastel button-down and a crisp pair of khaki pants.I notice he’s got a real nice pair of brown suede shoes on.
When he lands in the middle of the tracks he loses his footing for a moment, but he steadies himself with calm and determination. I run towards him, while the train is gaining on me from behind. I’m close enough by now to make out the shape of his nose and the fact that half his shirt is soaked through and the other half dry as a bone. I can feel the train on my back, getting closer and closer, closing the gap between us faster than I’d expected.
Suddenly I stop. I’m 20 feet away from him, my eyes fixed on his face which is an odd mix of deadly calm and resigned vacancy. Finally I come to the awful realization that I am not willing to risk it, and I have no choice but to watch. A full 2 count passes before impact.
A moment of silence, then screaming.
I walk up the stairs, a bit dizzy and pumped thru with adrenaline. Before I know it I’m out onto Lexington and a moment later back down to the subway at 42nd street. I hop the first train that comes. I sit silently. I’m in utter confusion until I arrive at clown class, bewildered by what my morning has turned into.
Before I go on, you need to know some things about clown class.
If there is one thing you need to know, it’s that you gotta bring it, for real. Don’t come unless you are gonna bring the thunder. The human thunder, that is; the goo and mess and beauty and simplicity in every particle of your body and soul: that’s what you gotta bring. The courage to play with abandon and let yourself be seen in all your hilarious confusion. Because although clown class is about exercising the funny bone and putting on a red nose, and dancing around the mystery of what makes certain things funny and not funny, ultimately, clown class is about YOU.
It’s about your fears and foibles and your courage and stupidity; your laughter and your tears and the whole mess in between. That’s the clown. Not some crazy freak with a smiley face painted over a frown and big shoes and ridiculous hair trying way too hard to be happy (while sometimes those things can be awesome, that’s a whole other thing). So how do you bring all that? By warming up, playing games, singing songs and having boatloads of courage. That is how you bring it. It also helps when you have Christopher Bayes there to guide you through. It helps a whole hell of a lot.
Each day after warming up, we split off into groups of 3 or 4 and are given a song title to work with. Each group takes ten minutes to come up with a chorus, some choreography and a group name. Each individual in the group will also sing a solo. That’s right, a solo made up on the spot with no rhyming. On this particular day, my assigned song title was “It’s So Scary.” Our group had ten minutes to devise a song all about what is so scary for us.
I knew what I had to do. The moment came for my solo and I stepped out and sang a song about what I had just seen. I didn’t think about how I needed to do it or why or whether or not people would like it or not; all I knew was that I had to share it with these people. I had to tell them what I had just seen and this was my opportunity to do it. I’ve never felt such an enormous need to share something with a group of people; to purge the experience somehow and find some sort of solace in their listening. It was the least contrived experience I think I’ve ever had as an actor.
I finished my song and returned to the group. In that instant something became a little clearer than it had been for the past three years of clown class. I felt the filter get thinner between the audience and me. I realized that this is what people go to the theater for; to see and feel your experience. I know it sounds so basic, but for me it was a revelation.
For a moment I felt that I could let the audience see into me, and that I could also actively share with them what I was seeing and feeling, because I had to. I had no choice. If I didn’t tell those people what I had just seen, I would have just retreated into a shell of depression and confusion. The revelation for me was that simple reminder that I could let the audience see all my mess and confusion about the horrific event I’d just witnessed and somehow a little bit of healing could come from this for us all.
Since that experience, I’ve reflected more and more on what it must feel like to be Mark Rylance. In truth, not only Rylance, but any great actor who stands out there and finds the courage or need to share with everyone what they’ve experienced. But most of the time it’s Rylance I’m thinking about. For so many reasons, but mostly because he can make it all so wonderfully funny. I mean, how can any actor not imagine what it must feel like to be so liberated, so seemingly fearless, so hilarious and so, well, so…profound?
Mark Rylance is perhaps the greatest living example of why I go to clown class everyday. He lets us watch him play. He lets us see something in him that is so simple and yet so elusive to describe that all we can say is that there is a child-like innocence to his work. He seems to operate not from a place of ego, but from a place of true generosity. He allows us to be the repository for his extraordinary imagination; for his tender empathy and sublime humor. He elevates the stage to something tribal and mystical and irreplaceable. He is a living, breathing example of inspiration. And at the end of the day, after all the platitudes, I think he is quite simply just a clown.
This is why I gathered a group of friends together to talk about him. He inspires not just me, but so many of my friends in a way that I’ve never experienced before. He brings out in us a desire to be better actors. He reminds us that the stage is an act of tribal memory; an opportunity to commune with each other through breath, and to find solace in a shared moment of humanity. Above all Rylance creates complicity with us, the audience. He somehow brings you into the present moment, because you feel the present moment so alive in him, and that in a nutshell is what creates presence.
Sharing my story in clown class that day was the most present I’ve ever felt while on stage. Granted, it was a story from my real life that had just occurred and I have no desire to witness such a horrific event ever again. But, we are all witness to so much every day, and as theater artists we strive to translate our experiences into story. We have an obligation in fact. Clown class has helped me navigate this tricky terrain between experience and performance with grace and humor.
I’ve seen “Jerusalem” twice now, and in each viewing it felt like I was seeing the same performance but yet at the same time it felt completely alive and fresh. Not different, just alive and happening in front of me in that moment. That confirmed for me that not only is Rylance attuned to the muses in ways most actors could only dream of but that it is a technique. He does it every night. He is that present every night, that spontaneous and that willing to fail.
That level of courage has been what is so inspiring to so many of my friends and will be his lasting impact upon us. If this man is willing to trust the present moment the way he does, then maybe we can each step out on that ledge a little further and evolve our work to a place where technique and spontaneity commingle with delight. This is what I hope for in my own work, and what I hope for in our theater. I never knew how possible it was, until now.