Sunday, April 30, 2006

Failure

This morning I had what may have been my worst audition ever. Worse than the time I had to be a Solid Gold Dancer. Worse than the time they wanted me to be a corporate cheerleader. Worse than the time I froze and lost my place in the middle of a monologue.

This was for an annual event in Chicago that's more of a "happening" than traditional theatre. A mix of music, art, sketch and audience interaction. For the audition you get 30 second to do anything you want. Traditional monologues are discouraged. Two years ago I performed this funny song I wrote, accompanying myself on guitar. Last year I performed part of this faux beat-poem I wrote. Since none of that succeeded, this year I decided to do a dramatic reading from my weekly grocery list. I guess others have had success reading from the phone book or laughing hysterically for 30 seconds.

But this morning I got the notion to do something different. Why come in with a rehearsed piece, since they value audience interaction? So I thought, why not improvise something? And the more I thought of it, the better it sounded. Sticking to the food theme, I would ask them to name their favorite soup. Yeah, that's right. And from that suggestion, I would just talk, and come up with something engaging.

Then I talked myself out of it. Don't be stupid, I thought. Then I thought again about getting out of my comfort zone and challenging myself and going with my gut instead of my head. So I did it.

Tomato soup was the suggestion. It went alright at first. I talked about my childhood and went off on a couple of points. And then it sort of died. In a very big way. In a fabulously excruciating way. I stopped visibly cringing every 3 minutes sometime this evening.

What helps was, I had other stuff to do. Like the other audition a few hours later, where I guess I did pretty well -- they already called me to come back Wednesday. And then our final understudy rehearsal for Back of the Throat which, again, went very, very well.

I think that's the key. Stay busy, keep a lot of lines in the water.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Mein Kampf

I don't know how actors with full-time day jobs do it. In the past two weeks, work has been the busiest it's been in years and I'm going crazy. Five client projects in various stages, one of them an all-hands emergency, another very time consuming and a third really pressing. Two sort of "out there" and not going away, pestering like gnats.

On top of that, I did another staged reading this week, so Sunday to Wednesday nights were spent in rehearsals and performance, with work most of the day, sometimes coming home at 9 or 10 to do more work, and often getting up at 5 am to work. And it's all writing and editing, so the stress and mental taxation is far out of proportion to the actual time spent. It's like dog years or something. Three hours of writing is almost like 5 or 6 hours of regular work. Even when you're good at it. And even when it's "fun" writing as some of it, believe it or not, is.

What adds to the stress is that I stubbornly cling to preserving a certain way of life. I must work out every afternoon, for instance. I try to get most of my errands and household stuff done during the week. I try to eat regularly and well. That's the life I was seeking when I left the office world. Control, peace of mind, physical and mental health. I've already given up on the leisure time part. No more afternoon walks by the lake or sneaking out for coffee or a movie with friends, or even taking the laptop outside. Never mind the personal commitments I'm neglecting ...

So, together with performance stuff, 60- or 70-hour weeks are not what I signed up for. Which, when I type it, doesn't sound like much. But I think the fact that the time is fragmented over so many diverse activities -- rehearsals, performances, auditions, lines, marketing, client relations, client work of all different varieties -- makes it seem like more. But the money. It's very ... alluring. Especially after living a couple of years in George Bush's America, where economic disaster is just one of a handful of calamities.

And I actually have a measure of control. Again, I feel really bad for the people who come rushing into rehearsal after spending 9 hours in a cube slaving away for the man, making money for someone else. Now that sucks.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Gay Actor Stuff

This is not a post about gay actors, for they are plentiful and fine with me. It's instead about the gay stuff actors do. And I recognize that "gay" is a ridiculously adolescent descriptor but it seems apt. Should I instead say "retarded" actor stuff? Would that be better?

Anyway, not having been a member of my high-school drama club, or having any exposure to acting until just a few years ago, I am mercifully unschooled in some of the more annoying theatrical affectations. I mean, I've gotten used to saying "break a leg" instead of the dreaded "good luck" or, better still, as a very funny guy I know always said before we went on stage, "Don't fuck up!"

But there's this one little superstition that came up in last night's rehearsal. Apparently you're supposed to never utter the word "MacBeth" inside a theatre. Instead, you refer to it simply as "The Scottish Play." I learned this one a couple of years ago when I went to see a friend performing as Lady MacBeth. The show's program explained the whole nonsense, and how it's terrible luck and brings great calamity on anyone and any production or company where the dreaded word is uttered within the theatre's environs.

Last night somebody brought it up and there ensued a debate over whether referring to the character is okay, as opposed to naming the play. But I was in a production last year, chatting backstage with the other actors, and it seemed a couple of people were going out of their way to bring up "The Scottish Play" simply for the sole purpose of indulging in this silly inside-actor stuff. Or perhaps it was meant to annoy the people who were quite visibly perturbed by the mere allusion to the cursed work.

There's lots of crapola like that, and I find it all hopelessly gay. It seems like whatever group I'm in I always feel a little bit like an outsider. Probably because I'm always analyzing and judging. Probably because I'm a dick.

So there you have it.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

That's a Wrap

We finished shooting Differentials today. Back out to Palos, where we completely reshot the closing scene, throwing out all the dialogue (including brand new dialogue we improvised in rehearsal) and doing it all with action and expression and just a little canoodling.

We didn't get everything done. There were things we needed to reshoot because of poor light or sound, but there just wasn't enough time. As it is, we closed the day in a frenzy, speeding back to the city so I could make my 6pm Back of the Throat rehearsal, chugging up the Stevenson and Lake Shore Drive with the production van driving alongside and shooting us through the window. There was very nearly an "unfortunate incident" as each of us, distracted with our own duties, none of which seemed to involve staying alert to road hazards (me at the wheel and acting, Ebru passengering and acting, and in the van, the director "driving"/directing and cinemaphotographer shooting), failed to notice that our two lanes were rapidly becoming one.

From there straight into rehearsal, where the director said I was "100%" improved over last week which, of course, makes me feel bad about last week, not good about this one.

Saturday was a great day. I had it all to myself. No real obligations. I was actually so excited to get things done, I woke up before the alarm, before 7. I worked and I cleaned the apartment and did a bunch of organizational and financial stuff both acting and business-related, and I cleared through a backlog of audition notices that had been accumulating over the past two weeks, sending out headshots/resumes for 8 film and theatre productions.

It feels very good. Now if I could just have one more weekend day to do nothing, that would be cool.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Understudy

As an understudy, I am now "on-call" for five shows a week -- Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, plus Saturday and Sunday afternoon -- which means that 30 minutes before curtain for every performance, I call in to the stage manager to make sure the two actors I'm understudying for have arrived and are in shape to perform. It also means, of course, that when I call in I have to be within 30 minutes of the theatre, and in shape to perform myself -- i.e., clean and not drunk. That's a lot of responsibility. Especially as the weather gets warmer.

We're also required to attend two shows a week, which is actually fun and very helpful. That's in addition to our weekly rehearsals, which are going ... pretty well. I don't know. Since I'm understudying two roles I am constantly switching back and forth in rehearsal, and a lot of the time I am in a scene with myself, doing both characters talking to each other. It's a ridiculous amount of lines. I keep saying that, but it is. Easily 70% of the play's lines are spoken by these two characters.

In my two guaranteed performances I'm only doing one of the characters, but I need to know them both, just in case. Sean, the actor who plays the other role, has assured me that's he's gone on stage with a 105-degree fever, so that's some relief. Nevermind the lines, though, what about the acting? We've got maybe a third of the rehearsals the principals had. And this guy, this other role, is really hard and complex. He drives the whole play. The tone, the pace, the rhythm, is all on him.

Stay well, Sean.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Bad Auditions

We've all had 'em. Well, those of us who audition have had 'em. Anyway, last week I go for this on-camera audition. Oftentimes the info you get from your agent is vague. I was told "Nintendo," "industrial video," "hip casual" and "no script." This is pretty typical. You show up and they tell you what they're looking for.

So I go into the room, step onto my mark, the guy hands me a little gameboy-style gadget, hooks a microphone to my shirt, points the camera and says he's going to tape me for a minute or two playing with the game. I do my thing and leave. About a block-and-a-half later, I realize ... I never said a word. Which is fine when they tell you they're not doing sound. But they hooked a freaking mic to my shirt! And I never said a word!!

So I beat myself up about it for a respectable amount of time, until the next thing came along. Then yesterday my agent calls. I got the gig. Go figure. I can only assume they thought my not speaking was a bold and deliberate choice. And, in fact, it may have been a good thing, as I was focused completely on conveying my emotions with my facial expressions, which is something I think I've gotten pretty good at.

Anyway. Simple gig. Except for the driving 30 miles out to the South suburbs part. Other than that, me in hip suit, standing outside on train platform, playing the Nintendo DS as the 12:11 Metra Electric pulled into the station. All without sound ...

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Into the Woods

Next weekend we go back to Palos to re-shoot the climactic scene of Differentials. It had all kinds of problems. Dying light, airplanes going over every 30 seconds. But mainly the filmmaker wasn't really happy with the dialogue she wrote. So yesterday we got together and improvised for a couple of hours, which was fun. We came up with some really interesting stuff that she will turn into a script and we will comment on. It's a fun way to work, to have that kind of input.

We also got to see a few clips, which were wonderful and scary at the same time. It's so funny to see parts of you on film that you don't normally see in real life. Like I've discovered the area just below and behind my left ear is very unsexy. My co-star had long ago figured out her "good" side. She claims that from the other side she looks like Mr. Burns, from The Simpsons. Which is hilarious and false. Either way, now I know that the right is my good -- or, perhaps, less bad -- side.

Here are some stills from the shoot:

Ebru, the director and me setting up the opening scene.

I have no idea what we're doing with our faces
but we're amazingly in sync as we wait for action to be called.

Here's me learning how to open up the car door for the lady.

This took forever. Setting up the camera from 3 different angles.
First, the hood ...

... And then both sides, driver and passenger ...

And then a fourth time, from the dolly.
This one was surprisingly quick.

Okay, I peed in the woods. What of it?

Sharing a light moment.
After all, what's not funny about a miscarriage?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Advice from grandpa

On the set of Differentials

I remember when I was just starting out in the work world, my grandfather was visiting and said something along the lines of, "Never turn down an opportunity for more responsibility." Of course he also said, "Always be the first to come in and the last to leave the office," so his notions of the workplace were a little quaint I suppose.

But I still always think of that when I'm in the position of having to turn down a project, which I don't do very often. Last summer a feature film was in town -- I think it was the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock one -- and they wanted me as an extra, saying the director had specifically chosen me for a specific (non-speaking, but supposedly significant) role. I had to turn that down because it conflicted with a show I was in.

Now there's this film opportunity. A guy who worked the little film I just did wanted me for his, and I just had to say no. Back of the Throat has calmed down some but I still have obligations there and, stupidly, I signed on for another staged reading, whose rehearsals started up just as BOTT's were winding down (after all, what would I do with my weeknights without rehearsal to go to?). But the biggest thing is I am absolutely slammed with work. Clients keep popping up -- the latest having a 4-week project that's compressed into 2 weeks. So right now I just had to go with the money.

Then, of course, last night I hear that the director of this film is pretty well-regarded, and the fact that he is shooting in 35mm is a really big deal and he's been flown to LA and such. Yeah, well, what can I do ...

Grandpa would probably be happy, as it would be impossible explaining to him the point of working for no money. Anyway, the workload wouldn't be so unreasonable if I had a 40- or 50-hour work week to do it in. But the performance stuff alone often takes up 40 or 50 or 60 hours. Nevermind the writing I should be doing ...

At some point I'm going to have to choose.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Nice review

Cool. The show got a very nice review from Chicago Tribune:

'Back of the Throat' offers taste of civil-rights debate

By Nina Metz
Special to the Tribune
April 10 2006

American civil liberties have acquired a few bite marks since 9/11, and playwrights have squared off on this theme with varying degrees of success. "Back of the Throat," by Seattle-based Yussef El Guindi, manages to finesse the conversation with far more nuance, wit and style than, say, Sam Shepard's tantrumlike "God of Hell." What El Guindi achieves is something closer to Kafka's "The Trial" or Dostoevski's "Crime and Punishment." The play also happens to be getting a stellar production by the Silk Road Theatre Project.

It is the company's inaugural show in its revamped space at the Chicago Temple, which is now the classiest church basement theater in town. Stuart Carden's crisp direction lives up to the expectations of the troupe's new venue.

Suspected of possible links to terrorism, Khalid (Kareem Bandealy) finds himself on the business end of an increasingly nasty inquisition. Even his name raises a flag, with its phlegmy "back of the throat" pronunciation.

The interrogators — Tom Hickey and Sean Sinitski, playing a game of catch with their good cop-bad cop personas — soon dispense with their phony smiles and put the screws to their man. Khalid makes a lot of claims that could be plausible. Or not. This ambiguity is the play's strongest asset. It is impossible to get a bead on the guy, but that is precisely the point; Khalid is a mystery to himself, as well as to others.

As the tension squeezes as tightly as a blood-pressure cuff (it dissipates, oddly, when the violence kicks in), El Guindi weaves in entire swaths of dark, absurdist humor. The feds hand over evaluation forms and ask Khalid, in all seriousness, to assess their performance. Flashbacks spill out of the closet, like so many secrets, including Elaine Robinson's thoroughly amusing, cowboy-hatted stripper. The G-man as bogeyman characterization feels like a subtle joke too. You half expect Khalid to channel "Glengarry Glen Ross" and start sputtering about their Gestapo tactics.

El Guindi's scenario might lack veracity — it's hard to believe an interview of this sort would take place in someone's apartment — but the paranoia, fueled by legitimate concerns, is as "now" as it gets.

Copyright © 2006, The Chicago Tribune

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Opening Night

Opening night went great. This is a really complex play. It has light and dark (very, very dark) moments, so it's a razor-thin line the actors need to walk to make the most of both the comic and dramatic elements without undermining either of them. (And all five actors need to be perfectly in tune with each other.) There was constant experimentation and adjustment through rehearsals and previews and last night it all came together.

I hope the reviewers like it. The advance press on the show, the theatre company and the newly constructed venue has been like a runaway freight train: "A Play That Asks Tough Questions" (Chicago Tribune), "Silk Road Breaks in New 99-Seat Home" (Chicago Sun-Times) and "God Smiles on the Silk Road Theatre Project" (Chicago Reader), among other writeups and broadcasts in local, national and theatre media. I hope it can live up to the hype.

Yesterday was weird. All day I had that anxious feeling you get ahead of opening night. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't me going on stage. Nevertheless, I felt a real stake in the proceedings. And the credit for that goes to the producers and director -- actually everyone in the crew and cast -- for making us understudies feel part of the team all along the way. From asking our opinions to giving us a couple of guaranteed performances to putting our headshots up in the lobby and program alongside the other actors'.

And now I have 32 days to prepare for my shot on stage.

Friday, April 07, 2006

You know what it is?

This is what it is. (What makes you miss so much the thing you were doing -- the play, the production, whatever it was ...) It's not just the people or the amount of time you spent with them or the intensity of the work or any of that. I mean, that's all part of it.

But what it really is? It's that, for a very brief time you lived and breathed and felt in a world where things really happened. Where moments were huge and decisions were black and white and feelings were intensified to the nth power. Just like in the wildest imaginations of your childhood dreams. Where anything is possible and everything is at stake. Where you lived, truly lived, to the full extent of your abilities and emotions.

What on earth could possibly be better than that?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

After-words

I always have trouble "coming down" from really intense, all-consuming experiences, whether it's a big project or a meeting for work or a play or this film we just shot. For a brief period you're putting everything you have into one thing. Your life has a very precise, singular focus, then suddenly you're back in the real world.

So for the past few days I've had a sort of hangover. Really tired and, in spite of all the hassles and the early calls, kind of missing the shoot. It didn't help that I had to go straight into work (and by "into work" I mean into my living room to my laptop) Monday morning to meet a couple of client deadlines, not to mention right back to rehearsals for Back of the Throat. There was no time to decompress, really.

One of the many cool things about acting is, you learn a lot about yourself as a person. Even when you think you've got yourself pretty figured out. Example. In one scene, my character is having a bitter argument with his girlfriend. She turns her back and walks away. I was trying to come up with an honest reaction and the director asked me, "What would you (Rob) do in real life?" I thought for a second and said, "I'd probably throw a rock at her." I'm kind of mean that way.

At another point the director said, "Think of someone who broke up with you and how you would react when you saw her again." All I could think of was anger, spite and revenge. I guess I'm a bad breaker-upper.

I may need to work on some things ...

Monday, April 03, 2006

Movie moments

I always assumed film acting would be really boring compared to performing for theatre. And yes, there is a lot of downtime and a lot of waiting around for lights and cables and cameras and backgrounds to be set and re-set. But the moments when you do get to actually act make up for it. They're different -- they're more focused, concentrated. They're purer.

Film is a much more visual medium than theatre. And you're often conveying a lot more in a shorter amount of time. And with the camera so close you have an opportunity to communicate in ways you can't on the stage. With small gestures and expressions. With your eyes, especially.

We filmed this one scene yesterday that was really intense. Just the two of us, talking on the couch. There were so many great moments and we were connected on a level that I don't always get to on stage. And yes, you have to do take after take after take, but that's actually fun when it's a really great scene. You challenge yourself to top your last performance, or add something new or ratchet up the intensity.

Again, acting with your eyes is so cool. There was one 10 or 15 second moment where we just looked at each other. Sometimes I would communicate hurt and other times anger or bewilderment or betrayal or love, and then that affects your scene partner's performance, so she gives you something new in return, which then affects your next line.

It was really amazing, actually. I think one of my best acting moments ever. And a real breakthrough for me, maybe. I've always had trouble tapping into genuine emotion. I generally feel excessive displays of emotion in real life are a bit, I don't know ... tawdry? I guess I value discipline and reason. But great actors always have these strong emotions swirling just below the surface, ready to be tapped. I have to drill farther. Anyway, I think this experience will help me a lot down the road

And I can't wait to see what it all looks like on screen.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Workin' 6 to 6

Nobody should have to get up at 4 am. Except the paper boy. It's downright unholy.

For this film there are so many outdoor, daytime scenes that we have to use every last (and first) photon of light the sun's gonna belch. So it mean getting up, getting on set, made up, shooting and getting home is a 4 am to 7 or 8 pm proposition. That was Friday and Saturday and now, as it turns out, that will be Sunday, too.

Friday was a ton of car work. We don't have the budget to put the car on a trailer hitch, so we drive it for real. And the scene has to be shot from three angles, which means they rig it three times, with a camera on the hood, then on the driver's side, then on the passenger side, and we shoot the scene a minimum 3 times for each angle, but in reality, as many as 6 or 7 times each. Driving and acting is hard. And the background scenery you're driving through doesn't always cooperate. Nor do the airplanes or the frogs or the wind. Or the crappy little Geo you're driving that's packed with you and the other actor in the front and the sound guy and director crammed in the back. The rain held off 'til the end, but everything took longer than expected, so we got behind.

Today we were stationary, at least. We spent most of the afternoon making out. It turns out movie kissing is a lot different than stage kissing. It has to look (and be) pretty damned real. You still stop short of tongue, but ... well, it's pretty intense. And weird, with a camera literally in your face and a half-dozen people crowded around you (I think the director actually cleared the set to make it easier on us because most of the time there were a dozen or 15 crew members running about.) I had it easy, though. The poor girl I was macking on got a really severe case of razor burn.

It's all a fascinating process. A ton of work. A thousand things to think about (making sure your gestures are the same from take to take, for instance, or trying to create "reality" in a decidedly unreal, unnatural atmosphere). At least the director's boyfriend is a gourmet cook, so we've been eating very well.

But I am whipped. This is a very intense drama, so I have emoted more in the past two days than I have in the preceding two years. And we head out at 5:20 tomorrow morning. I may actually go to bed before 10 for the first time since I was, I don't know, 8?

Oh fuck, I just remembered we lose an hour tonight! Crap on a stick!!