June 13th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Coming to Terms with "Playing the Heavy"

Apologies for not getting anything written yesterday. I had day-time plans both days of the weekend, and after getting used to sleeping during the day, I couldn't make myself sleep more than a couple of hours of the night. So I ended up very nearly sleeping around the clock Sunday night and Monday. The Sunday event was for St. Louis Pagan Picnic; I was arm-twisted into volunteering to help kukla_tko42 reprise one of her recurring bits of interactive theater, Living Tarot.

When I got to the Paganic (as we used to call it), the place smelled like hippy and looked like a particularly poorly run refugee camp; the previous night's storm winds had pretty thoroughly torn the place up. When I woke up, it was still raining. Frankly, part of me was hoping, when I checked the weather forecast, that it was going to rain through the afternoon, and thereby wash out the performance. I kept thinking about why I was thinking that all the way through the performance. (I obviously wasn't the only one, either; an unprecedently large percentage of her actors flaked out on her. These are people who want to think of themselves as actors, who want to enjoy being on stage when they feel like it, but who seem to be incapable of understanding the first moral principle of theater, which is, "The show must go on.")

The odd thing is that in hindsight, I have never actually enjoyed working in theater, whether acting, doing tech, or even just financing a performance. It is hard work, done constantly on the ragged edge of failure (the play Noises Off is a documentary), in ways that are guaranteed to crush the ego and the spirit, for audiences the vast majority of whom completely miss the point of almost any of what they're hearing and seeing even if they enjoy it, working almost entirely with people who are obviously and perceptibly deranged. Nor does it help that, frankly, I suck at it -- and that knowledge was very dearly bought, let me tell you, because like every mediocre to poor actor, I fought against that realization for decades. And for what? Well, yes, to serve the God, the twice-born son of Zeus, who obviously chose me for his servant whether I will or not. But for what? I'll never know, maybe, I just keep doing it.

Nor has it improved my appreciation of my theatrical experience that I have never, once, in almost three decades of trying, been offered a part I actually wanted. Even though I can wrap my head around the implicit stereotyping that says that a 250 to 300 pound man with sunken eyes under a prominent brow ridge on an impassively immobile face is never going to be cast as an action hero or a thoughtful person or (ha) a romantic lead, it wounds me every time, even harder than not being perceived that way in real life, and I don't know why. Even Kukla, who loves me approximately as dearly as I love her, and who has known since she was a wee little thing that I haven't an ounce of malice or threat in me, casts me in dark, twisty parts at least half of the time. Hmm. OK, now that I think of it, I can remember one theatrical performance I came close to enjoying, my bit part as the tribal chief in that tiki-themed dinner theater piece we did at Lothlorien two years ago. And it occurs to me because it may have been the only time in my life that I wasn't cast as some kind of a villain.

And it's unreasonable for me to complain about this, unless I'm willing to do what it takes to fix it, starting with losing about a hundred pounds. The simple fact of the matter is that while we've gotten rid of the character masks, audiences need to know who the character is when they see them, before that character even opens their mouth. Which means that the 290 pound bald guy is a biker, a thug, a monster, or a pirate. Oh, in theory a guy meeting that description could also be the comic relief, but I obviously lack the talent for that; even Kukla can't imagine me playing Nicely Nicely in her (has never gotten off the ground) effort to perform Guys and Dolls, and has her heart set on casting me as Harry the Horse. And the curse of it is, I have to admit that I'm good at playing the heavy. I just don't like doing it. I don't like going there in my mind. I don't like seeing people scared or troubled or put on the defensive by what I say. If I could get past that, and embrace my God-fated roll as a perfect theatrical villain, if I could find a way to enjoy playing the heavy, my life would go a lot easier I suppose. Maybe I could work my way up to the kind of jovial but still sinister heavies that the late, great Sidney Greenstreet made a living at, if I could stand having people see me that way.

Which, I say with a sigh, does not suggest or even hint that the next time I'm asked I'll say no. If it weren't enough that it's for Kukla, for crying out loud, it's theater. And that's important. Because the show must go on.