An actor doing … nothing
By Patrick White Special to InPlay Capital Region
I took an acting workshop with Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill several years ago, and one of her first tasks was to go around the room and ask all of us to think of a performance that amazed us. She wanted a theater performance. This was, after all, a class with the artistic director of the Capital Repertory Theatre, who has directed over 100 plays and musicals in that now-shuttered, beloved and cursed Market Theatre at 111 N. Pearl St. in Albany.
Later, Maggie asked what we remembered of those performances that amazed us. Mine was John Malkovich in his 1982 New York debut as Lee in “True West.” I remember many things about that performance. It was insinuating, silly, taunting and especially dangerous. But the first image in my mind is the lights coming up in the morning on the cheery suburban kitchen set with birds tweeting and him standing by the sink -- with the window behind him -- staring distractedly into the middle distance, drinking a tall boy and scratching and playing with his balls for what seemed like minutes. It was disturbing and funny and gross, and you had no idea what he was going to do next. The rest of the play -- which was directed by co-star Gary Sinise -- was set up with this opening image, and the audience was titillated, repulsed, fascinated … and immediately hooked.
The rest of the class gave their favorites, and many contained specific moments from the performances they cherished. A few people mentioned speeches or feelings that the actors had gone through, but almost everyone mentioned something an actor did in the role. Maggie’s point was that we remember what performers do, the action they take, their activity and tactic in getting what they want. Actors act. They do something. I’ve asked this question of my classes numerous times, and it usually works out that 90% of the fantastic performances they remember mention an action.
Well, after weeks of social distancing, I am stuck. Some of my shows have been canceled. There is no class. No reviews. No day job. Like many others, I’m not doing much. I am at odds with how to contribute to a blog celebrating Capital Region theater when there is no theater going on and there is no prospect of getting back onstage or in the audience anytime soon. Perhaps I should take inventory and see what’s in the cupboard to see what I need to stock up on.
First and foremost, I am an actor. I have been one since the high school director of my first show, “Carnival,” called me out in front of the cast and praised my preparedness and imagination in trying something new in every rehearsal, saying “This is an actor!” Honestly, I was just looking for fresh laughs and reactions every day; that’s why I always came in with new business. I have branched out into other endeavors, but all because I was an actor and mostly because I wanted to grow a more hospitable environment for unsatisfied actors such as myself.
I started teaching because I wanted others to make the most of their myriad opportunities, especially the most worthwhile ones available in the Capital Region. I wanted to teach not only how actors take tactics to get their objective, but how to be a member of a community. That’s the best place to learn how to act if you aren’t onstage. Over 25 of my students came to see “Ben Butler” at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham, and a few are now directing, creating opportunities for others. Before everything went to hell, I had past and present students involved in over a dozen shows preparing to go up.
I wanted to build and grow a community that supported and created opportunities for everyone, so I started directing at places where I could select shows that had inclusive casting, such as “Grand Concourse,” “An Inspector Calls,” “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” and “Men on Boats.” I’ve directed a dozen plays in the past five years, but those four plays alone had roles for 25 women and 22 actors of color.
I also felt I could sell more tickets being in the director’s chair than being on the boards. As a director, I had no reservations I had as an actor about selling the shit out of a show and pursuing every publicity outlet available. I chose shows that were vitally important to me, so I had no problem writing 1,000 words about why a particular show moved me ineffably and emailing it to 1,000 of my closest friends.
There wasn’t enough being written about the great work going on Capital Region stages, so I started reviewing. I easily overcame my reservations of many years after hearing a beloved theater maligned, and I plunged headfirst into this endeavor with zeal. I wanted to celebrate and highlight the exceptional work that was happening every weekend night and persuade you and your friends to buy a ticket. I wanted to tell the community that I see and value their work and I want them to keep growing and pushing our theater to be more daring, adventurous, supportive and inclusive. I’ve probably written 100 reviews since I started last July. A good friend told me he caught one of three performances of Confetti Stage’s “The Mountaintop” because he found out about it because of my review. If nothing else, my 100 volunteer reviews were worth it to get one other soul to witness Angelique Powell in this play.
And now? STUCK! I don’t want to write a roundup of streaming sources or virtual-play readings or reminiscences, things that might be seen as necessary during this time of isolation but which just draw us away from the live theater. My mission is to create impactful work with a community that celebrates and values challenging, inclusive theater. How do I avoid self-aggrandizing opinion pieces such as this one and be of service to the community? How do we take action to move theater forward when everything is in a state of stasis?