Aborigines and Community Theater

Mary El opened in “Grey Gardens” this weekend. I couldn’t be there for the shows because both boys had Little League games this weekend, but I was able to catch a rehearsal earlier in the week. Mary El is extremely good as Little Edie, amazing really. I know, I know…what else am I going to say about my own wife. In fact if I had a nickel for every time I heard someone’s mate was “amazing” I’d have, I don’t know, twenty, twenty-five nickels. But she really is. Can’t wait to see her next weekend.

Community theater is a peculiar thing. It is filled with authentic passion, along with a variety of different talent levels. The outcome is usually a bit dubious. I’ve seen very, very few shows that strike a balance between the good and not so good. There are people who do it because they love it, people who do it because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, people who do it because they don’t like bowling and people who do it so other people will look at them. There are people who know their limits, those who are good enough to give a role a go, and those who are so far off in their self-regard that they think everything they do is magical. If there’s one criticism I would make of community theater in general it’s that the majority of its actors, directors and choreographers think they are WAAAAYYYY better than they actually are. The tech people are solid, and often deserve higher billing.

Actually, I have another criticism. The worst offenders, usually in the category of those who crave attention and think their poop don’t stink, have a tendency to withhold complimenting anybody who is outside their little circle of self-congratulation. I’m a playwright, so I’ve had to develop ten extra layers of skin to deal with the overwhelming amount of rejection that comes my way. Between theaters saying no to my work and critics sometimes being savage, I’ve had to build up a resistance to negativity. Sometimes there is a grain of truth in negative comments that can help the progress of the play. Other times it’s just people trying to prove how much smarter they are than everyone else, or how nasty they can be from their bully pulpit, or how outraged they are at the thought of someone trying something new. Separating the grain from the chaff is a big part of the job, and recognizing the source of criticism is paramount. Does the critic have the good of my work at heart, or do they fall into one of the above categories? In the end, I’ve had to develop a rock-solid assuredness about my writing that can withstand anyone’s attempt to tear it down, because there are those people out there who endeavor to do just that for whatever reason. I take criticism quietly and attentively, then decide whether or not it’s warranted, whether the source can be trusted, etc. afterward.

Actors are a bit different. For one thing the performance is done with by the time you receive criticism, because it’s not like a script that can be amended and improved. What you did onstage is the show. I once was approached by someone after performing McMurphy in “One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest”, and was told my rendition was “over the top”. I got lots of positive feedback for that show, and I liked what I was doing, so I don’t want to come off like I was tremendously affected by her statement. I just kinda agreed with her and said yes, it’s a very over-the-top character. What could I say? The show was over. I suppose I could have toned it down the rest of the run, but I didn’t think I needed to. The point is, there is necessarily a truckload of ego that comes out on that stage with you every night and it’s very easy to have your self-worth trampled by idiots who think they know better than you because they’ve been involved in the “the-A-tre” for X number of years and have directed or appeared in X number of shows. Doesn’t impress me. Maybe they all sucked! And the ones who withhold their compliments, out of envy or mean-spiritedness or their own precious ego, really need to be ignored themselves. Given their hunger for attention, that’s the worst thing you could do to them.

People with real talent don’t need to tell you how talented they are, or prove it with a resume, or try to make other people less by promoting themselves as more. Really talented people can afford to have an open heart about other performers and directors and writers because they have nothing to prove. A talented person WANTS to see others succeed, because their success does not diminish him or her. Much is made of divas and egocentric actors and directors, and aloof, quirky writers. The truth of the matter is that those behaviors are only tolerated of the top .001% of the most talented, and even then it is a shame. The overwhelming majority of very talented people have learned to seek out other talented folks with which to surround themselves. Theater above all is a collaborative art, and while ego is always a part of the equation, playing nice with others is FAR more important. In the REAL acting world, do you know what tooting your own horn and tearing down your fellow actors will get you? Not hired. And a bad reputation to boot. I never pursued acting as a career, but I know enough people in the business and I have been around enough people who are professionals to know this to be true. If you are negative, bitchy, a “me” performer, think too highly of yourself, or make a cancer of yourself backstage, you had better be a superstar talent. If not, you won’t even get roles you’re good for, because nobody will want to work with you.

I took a Sociology class a million years ago and read about this Aboriginal tribe that hunted caribou, I think it was. As in any competitive activity, there were tribesmen who were more adept at tracking and killing the animals, which served to feed and clothe the entire tribe. When a hunter had a particularly good kill, the other hunters would inspect the carcass and begin to denigrate it– “very skinny”, “I think this one must’ve been sick, for you to catch it so easily”, “this will not feed many”. The hunter, rather than defend his kill, would agree. “You are right, it is a paltry animal. I should have left it for the birds.” It is a cultural game they play with each other—all of them know the kill is a good one and the hunter is commendable. But they withhold glorifying the hunter and his deed, and the hunter refuses to take credit. It is built in, cultural modesty, a way to immediately undercut pride and egocentricity.

I think I’d like to see these Aborigines do a version of “Hello, Dolly!”

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    • Jim Pillmeier
    • May 9th, 2011

    Just wondering how much of which parts of this I should take personally??!!

    • Jim Pillmeier
    • May 9th, 2011

    I must also say, MaryEl is indeed marvelous in this production!!

  1. Just the parts about the Aborigines doing “Hello, Dolly!” They’re using your blocking script.

    And yes, she’s wonderful. Looking forward to seeing the rest of the show (you and Sherri) Sat or Sun!

    • Joe Gayton
    • May 9th, 2011

    As a director, I’ll cast someone less talented over a diva nightmare anyday. Thank Gawd Mary Ellen is a dream to work with, and yet THAT talented to boot…

    • Ron Morehead
    • May 9th, 2011

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!
    I can honestly say that 95% of the resume droppers and perma-critics that I’ve met have absolutely no money where their mouths are.
    The most talented people I’ve ever met (of which you and your beautiful wife are two) have done nothing but prove their talents on stage time and again without having to say a word.
    And btw, I will absolutely be the first in line for tickets to the aboriginal Hello Dolly.

  2. @ Joe–As you can probably tell, I have a “no diva” directing policy as well (male or female!)

    @ Ron–Right back atcha, dude. Between you and Jimmy we have an audience and a director. Now we just have to round up some singing Aborigines…

  3. Great piece, Brian!

    Wait a sec….Heyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!!!

  4. At the very least if something’s good you say so, Matt!

  1. May 9th, 2011

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