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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

By Heart

When I auditioned for "The Foreigner," the play I'll be appearing in next month, I didn't give much thought to what getting the role would entail.  Of course I knew there would be rehearsal and lines to learn - but I guess I'd forgotten how hard it is to learn something by heart.  We have just about two weeks left before we open and I still have a lot of lines to memorize. It occurred to me that it's been a good 15 years or more since I really had to memorize something sizable like this.  And unlike things I had to learn in school for a test, this 'oral exam' is in front of up to 400 people in the audience on six different performance nights.  Fear is a strong motivator.

When I gave trolley tours in the early 1990s, I had to learn several scripts - one for Boston, one for Cambridge, another for Key West, and yet another for Portland, ME.  Each time it seemed like more information than my brain could organize and recall.  But eventually, I'd internalize the words and be able to spew out the stories time after time after time.  But with a trolley tour, one is not required to use the same exact words each time; there is a bit of latitude.  One is not required to say those words in response or with the exact timing that a play's dialogue requires.  And with a trolley tour, you're often driving by the site or attraction that you're talking about.  There are visual cues to prompt you as a guide.

There are some similarities between the trolley tour and the play, though.  There are certain parts of the play where you're cued based on what is happening on stage.  You get to a certain part of the play and you know what the topic is.  Still learning the exact lines, knowing precisely where you're to stand, on what line you're to move elsewhere on the stage - these are things that come with practice - and it seems to me that we need more of it than we have allotted.

For the past several weeks, we've been rehearsing a couple of hours three days a week, but that will increase in the final two weeks before the show opens.  The set is still being built and we haven't worked in the various effects that take place.  In short, there seems an awful lot that has to happen before opening night on March 12th.  I've been told by some of my fellow and far more experienced community theater mates that we're no worse off than is normal for them.  There is a certain urgency in our discussion, but panic has yet to prevail.

And for me, there's an acute sense of immediacy in my learning my lines.  To complicate the effort, the character I play, Charlie, is thought to not speak or understand English - though he very much does.  To perpetrate the ruse he has to often make up a language - a language that I as the actor have to be able to speak as if it were my native tongue.  At other times I have to effect a slight British accent.  And in other scenes, I have to become something like a possessed entity from a science fiction story.

A friend of mine recently told me that if he had a choice between being ill prepared for running a 100 mile ultra marathon through the desert, such as the Badwater race, and performing in front of a live audience, he'd choose the race.  The comment served to remind me that despite the natural anxiety I feel in making my theatrical debut, I am not pathologically afraid of public failure.  And in many ways, it's the same way I feel about my life's endeavors.  One instant in time does not define who you are.  If I should stumble over a line, it will exist only in that moment after which I'll necessarily move on to my next line.  The show, whatever the show, must go on.

You can come see "The Foreigner" at The Bradley Playhouse in Putnam, Connecticut March 12, 13, 19, 20 @8pm and March 14 and 21 @ 2pm.  Click for ticket information.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Take It Easy

"Don't let the sound of your own wheels 
Drive you crazy"
  --Jackson Brown, Glen Frey

Where the hell does the time go?  It's a cliché but like all clichés it's born out of truth.  It was brought to my attention last week that it had been some time since my last post.  And while my readership audience is, shall we say, an intimate group I was suitably guilted into action.  I don't have a great excuse as to why it's been two weeks since I wrote other then the oft used "I've been busy."

To wit:  My son was home sick all last week.  I have been training for a marathon.  I've been rehearsing for my play and devoting time to studying my lines.  I have been doing legwork on the bed and breakfast project - meeting with builders, architects, accountants, etc.  And then there's the whole house spouse role I play.  All of this has been going on just as the Olympics have begun.  Lots to do.  Where the hell does the time go?  Frankly, if you spend too much time wondering where it went, it means you're not aware of the time you have right now.

I got some feedback from my last post in which I highlighted a poem by Robert Burns.  One comment ponders how the poem, as viewed through a contemporary lens peers into "the modern struggle --finding peace and happiness as a result of simple presence rather than keeping pace with the American dream."  The commenter asks if "this meditation calls the utility of certain daily practices into question. Things like the use of technology, the trappings of wealth and the confusing complexity of our social contracts, be they mortgages, bank accounts or political efforts).   I guess it's to say, how much of modern American life has become incompatible with Burns's poetic vision of peace and contentment? And if it's the case, just what to do in light of this observation."

What's interesting to me is that Burns' poem was written in 1785 in Scotland well before "an American life" had come to signify any specific lifestyle.  Burns wrote about the pain of regret and the folly of worrying about an unknowable future.  He envies a mouse whose only concern is staying warm in winter.  While it's true that in the 225 years since the poem was written, we are now exposed to many more messages about what we ought to have done and what we still should do, the constant is that as human beings we possess the unique ability to reflect and imagine.  What is seemingly more difficult for most is to press a pause button on those two skills and simply be.

Unless you're truly enlightened (in a spiritual kind of way), you're going to struggle with attachments, desire, guilt, resentment, and all forms of mental pain.  The question is - short of joining a Buddhist monastery - what can you do to find regular balance in your day?  To me the first thing you must do is be ever self-aware.  As a first step, try to spend time analyzing the nature of your inner monologues.  The better you become at being aware of thoughts that take you out of the present, the more quickly you'll be able to live in the present,  be happy and grateful, and let's face it, generally more pleasant to be around - even when you're by yourself!

With that in mind, I will continue to write, but I have to be cognizant that there is a life to be lived.  Living a full and enriching life for me sometimes means being away from the computer.  In the coming weeks, demands for my time will increase and commensurately so will my need for relaxation in my truly free time.   I try to follow my own advice and just be.  I won't reflect too much on what I haven't accomplished (some gaps in my writing) and won't waste too much time projecting a future that surely won't be exactly as I envision (a perfect marathon).  Instead, I'll do what I can each day to appreciate that time for what it is:  a gift.

What can one do to combat the trappings of wealth and confusing complexities of our social contracts?  I might offer that you first be aware of them, then decide what their true value is to you, make appropriate changes and then carry on with your day in peace.  The worse autoimmune disease is the resentment of your own choices.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"foresight may be vain"

But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Many modern clichés emanate from literary past.  We often hear the expression, "The best laid plans" - referring to plans gone awry, the pointlessness of expecting a particular result from a specific stratagem.  We employ the words as a verbal shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, "Oh well - what are you gonna do?" when an an idea fails to pan out.  The phrase comes from a line in a Robert Burns poem,  "To a Mouse."  (Burns, often referred to as Scotland's national poet, was born in 1759 and died 37 years later in 1796.  "To a Mouse" was written in 1785.)

We often put so much of ourselves into our future plans that when reality inevitably differs from our minds' eye we are left to, or at least given, to lament the present.  We lay the blame squarely on ourselves for the 'mistakes' we made in either creating or executing the plan.  Many of us shoulder the failing as if we could or should be able to accurately predict the future.  The lesson we fail to learn, heed or internalize is that despite our expectation to the contrary, we can't know what's going to happen and so can't rationally accept responsibility when the future differs from expectation. Yet we do this time and again.   We habitually beat ourselves up for what we perceive as a personal failing rather than an immutable law of nature.  Even a laboratory mouse learns how to avoid an electric shock after a few trials, but we humans seem unable to avoid this mental trap.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Shame on us.

Admittedly, it's hard to live life without occasionally feeling the pain of disappointment.  But disappointment can only occur where expectations exist.  There are some who would argue that if you don't have any expectations you can't be disappointed.  They say that if you don't have your hopes up you can only be pleased by the unanticipated 'positive' result.  And while there's truth in that, it also seems a muted way to pass through life.  Indeed it is hope that makes us unique as mammals.  We can imagine the future; we can dream big; we can strive for things that might otherwise seem beyond reach.  Politicians thrive on hopes and dreams - and certainly we need them to.  JFK dreamed of the moon, while Reagan pledged to make America great again.  And Obama became president because he embodied hope and change - words that by definition allude to the future.  (Before you rail against any politicians campaign promises, remember that the best laid plans....)  Our difficult task is to live a meaningful life in which we understand the past, hope for the future and strive to have deep and abiding appreciation of the present.

In the last stanza of "To a Mouse" Burns writes that though the meager mouse has tribulations, it is the mouse who is actually blessed by living eternally in the present.  The author, and by extension we humans, tend to look backward, often regretting choices made, actions taken, ruminating on the unalterable past.  And if we're not living in the past, we're attempting to project a future we can't possibly know, too often with paralyzing angst and apprehension.  While we know we can't plan the future, we spend an inordinate amount of time doing just that, trying to make it just so.  The madness in replaying the past or projecting a unknown future is self-evident and part of the human condition - as Burns notes:

Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

The lesson, of course, is to do your best to live in and value the present.  It really is all you ever have.  Everything else only exists in your mind.  The past is past and the future is future.  The present is now.  This moment.  Discontentment, disappointment, disillusionment can only arise when a comparison is being made between the present and past, between the present and future.  If one can truly dwell in the present, one finds there is only the now and the sense of peace and contentment that engenders the serenity we all crave - lasting happiness.  Most of us have at least momentarily experienced this in nature. It was the night you paused and reflected on how incredibly bright the stars were.  It was the vista you inhaled from a mountain top.  Others of you have been brought to this place by the arresting beauty of music, of a singer's impossibly powerful or soulful voice.  Athletes sometimes get there via a 'runners high." And in that moment of orgasm, you are most certainly not in the past or future.

I am not so naïve as to believe that this kind of zen equanimity is easily attained or maintained.  I just think it's worth our while to habitually make the effort.  The fact is you don't need to view or experience something seemingly magical or beautiful to benefit from the present  All one really needs to do is learn - and practice - how to turn your brain's attention away from the past or future.  Start small - take a closer look at the scenery, but don't think about it - just appreciate it.  Focus for a time on the sensations in your body.  Listen to your breathing, connect with your sense of touch.  Be aware of when your mind drifts to events past or a future not yet experienced and actively pull yourself back to the moment.  You won't be disappointed.
Burns Original Text

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie, 
O, what a panic's in thy breastie! 
Thou need na start awa sae hasty 
Wi bickering brattle! 
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee, 
Wi' murdering pattle. 

I'm truly sorry man's dominion 
Has broken Nature's social union, 
An' justifies that ill opinion 
Which makes thee startle 
At me, thy poor, earth born companion 
An' fellow mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve; 
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live! 
A daimen icker in a thrave 
'S a sma' request; 
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave, 
An' never miss't.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin! 
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin! 
An' naething, now, to big a new ane, 
O' foggage green! 
An' bleak December's win's ensuin, 
Baith snell an' keen! 

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste, 
An' weary winter comin fast, 
An' cozie here, beneath the blast, 
Thou thought to dwell, 
Till crash! the cruel coulter past 
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble, 
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble! 
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble, 
But house or hald, 
To thole the winter's sleety dribble, 
An' cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain: 
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men 
Gang aft agley, 
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, 
For promis'd joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me! 
The present only toucheth thee: 
But och! I backward cast my e'e, 
On prospects drear! 
An' forward, tho' I canna see, 
I guess an' fear!

Standard English Translation

Small, sleek, cowering, timorous beast,
O, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With hurrying scamper!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!

I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.

Your small house, too, in ruin!
It's feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December's winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!

You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough past
Out through your cell.

That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter's sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.

But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!