Some years ago, I was acting in the play, “Mary Barnes”, in Los Angeles. If you don’t know it, it’s a three-act, three hour drama, concerning the true life event of doctors living together with their schizophrenic patients in 1960’s London as normalization therapy. Written by David Edgar, who adapted “Nicholas Nickleby” for the stage, it’s a complex piece. We were fortunate to have a talented cast who were also supportive of each other—(always a plus.)
Did I mention I played a schizophrenic? And one that got into fights. The kneepads I wore were helpful; the actress jumping on my back every night was not. I found myself at the chiropractor’s office 2 to 3 times a week.
As we rolled into the third month of performances, I was tired. Despite the fact we had Monday and Tuesday off, Wednesday always came around too soon. Around the second week of that third month, I drove to the theater with the thought I might just auto-pilot my performance that night. Why not? I knew the lines and the staging, what I needed to do and when. Couldn’t I just get through it rather than committing the mental and emotional energy to the evening? Save myself for one night? To the audience, it would look like the same performance, surely.
I carried out that plan. Around me, my dozen cast mates were doing their usual fine work, and I was an island unto myself. Though no one said anything, they knew something was off. Although the audience seemed to enjoy my performance that night as much as any other, I drove home feeling miserable. The lesson was clear and in all caps bold print: ALWAYS COMMIT.
We’ve all seen those performances, those that feel a bit lifeless; competent, but unengaged. They don’t serve the material. It’s up to the actor to illuminate the role and its place in the framework of the play in total. Every night. That’s what a play is. Otherwise it’s merely words and movement. And even if tired, the actor has to marshal the energy and concentration it takes. Or he should find another job.
I write, direct and teach now. The last time on stage was twenty years ago. I was engaged every moment. Drove home happy every night.
--Falling into a “professional pattern” of ‘what you do’ can be deadly. Must always look through fresh eyes.