Tonight is Industry Night for TIMON OF ATHENS. And I’m inherently nervous. It’s my first big Industry Night in Philly, and I’m worried about… well, everything. So let’s try and put an end to this, shall we?
A funny thing has happened to me over the past few weeks. I think I may have started to... relax. A little bit. If you know me at all, this may be somewhat alarming for you to hear. Let me explain. I came into rehearsals for this production extremely nervous. My thoughts would fluctuate every single second of rehearsals, sounding something like, “Holy crap, look at the cast! Holy crap, look at that production team! Oh crap, look at me… No, don’t look at me! I’m not ready, I’m not prepared!” I’ve been that way for a while - always worrying I’m not working hard enough, or maybe I’m working too hard and I’m forcing something. These thoughts are, to say the least, annoying. It wasn’t until runs of the show started that I was finally able to get my thoughts together and come to a somewhat relieving realization.
Being in a Shakespeare piece, something that happens to be around four hundred years old... It starts to put things into perspective. After weeks of worrying, I’ve come to learn something: This is all so much bigger than me. This production is so much bigger; this play is so much bigger. And I have two choices: (1) I can worry about how unprepared I feel, and pace and fret backstage before every single scene, because of who might be watching tonight and what they might think of me. Or (2) at some point I can accept my place in this world and give it all up to something bigger. And I do mean the world of the play… mostly.
In the world of this play, I’m a servant to Timon. In “real life,” I work in a restaurant, refilling water glasses and polishing utensils and glassware for people who have a lot more money than I do… Not so different from what I’m doing in the play, I suppose. So it really shouldn’t be that hard to relate. Of course, the stakes are a little higher. Okay, a lot higher. But it’s not my job to force those stakes on the audience. My role in relation to this production and this play is also somewhat the servant. It is my job to hold the door and hopefully not get in the way.
This play is much older than any of us, and its message much stronger than anything I could try and play at on the stage, or type here for you now. It’s already profound enough, without my trying to ad to it. So instead, why not give it to you simply? Why not just hold the door open, and let you walk in yourself? There are very few points in the show when the focus is actually on me. And that is a HUGE relief. Seriously. At this moment in my life, it is completely relieving and enjoyable to offer the heavy lifting to other people, and just be there to fill the wine, so to speak.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am in no way saying my role is insignificant. In fact, I mean just the opposite. If there’s anything I’ve learned throughout this process, it is that everyone is essential. And I mean everyone. It is a truly wonderful thing to be a tiny cog in a big, beautiful machine. Working as part of the apprentice company has been incredibly eye opening, and it has taught me that every little bit helps. The people at the PAC are not afraid to ask. And that’s a comforting thing. It’s kind of nice to be asked, isn’t it? It is. Honestly, it is nice to feel needed. It is a very good feeling to know you’re helping a company of people you believe in, and know you wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
So, that brings us back to the play. Someone’s got to say these lines and fill these wine glasses. And if that means getting to be a part of the telling of this great story, lifting up this text to a new audience every single night… then Sign. Me. Up. I will hold all the doors and fill all the glasses in the world to just be in the room every night and be a small part of that experience.
But really, no matter the size of the role, I think that will always remain true. With what we do, there comes a certain responsibility. And that responsibility can be frightening at times. But I think it’s helpful to remember that it’s not just my responsibility. I am one of many people united in telling this story. At some point, all of us must admit to ourselves and accept that we are simply serving a greater message, a greater purpose. And we can find true comfort in that. So with that, I walk into the theater tonight and hold the door open for you. Come and listen to this story. And hopefully I won’t spill wine on you.
PAC Acting Apprentice
To be an artist in the theatre is something special. Theatre is similar to film in that it has writers, directors, technicians and so forth, but theatre lacks a permanence that film possesses. Your favorite film remains the same every single time you watch it (which is lovely), but theatre is necessarily temporary. You can never quite pin it down. Admittedly, a single theatrical production will likely have the same director, actors, designers, crew, script, etc. from night to night, yet there is something fundamentally different from one performance to the next. Just as a moment is captured, it disappears. It exists only in the space and time that living people are in a room together. It exists between the actors, yes, but more importantly it thrives in that fraught space between the actors and the audience. Sometimes, it only lasts the length of a breath.
By nature, a theatrical production lives, changes and - perhaps most importantly – it dies. Ultimately a play lives only in the minds of the people who were in that room. And if you weren’t there, then no number of photos or reviews or stories at the bar can recreate it. Now, this is all very well and good, and it’s part of the magic that we all love so much. But if those of us in the theatre are ultimately sculpting in butter, then the great question “Why?” can rear its ugly head a lot. And the “Why?” is what keeps me honest. And keeps me up at night, as my wife can attest.
If everything we are doing ultimately disintegrates, then I feel a great need to be a part of something larger. This is where the classics come in. They are a direct link not only to the musty-dusty “past,” but to our very history. By working in classical theatre, one becomes a part of the larger theatrical narrative.
Shakespeare’s plays (for example) were here for centuries before I was even a notion. Centuries before my great-grandfather sailed for America from England. And they will be here long after I am dead. These plays, and their relationship to our very culture, are larger than any one person, or even one group of people. They have been translated into countless languages. They have been taught, in some form or another, in nearly every corner of the English-speaking world (much to the chagrin of many high schoolers everywhere). They have crossed borders of countries in times of extremity and war. They are quoted, intentionally or unintentionally, by most folks in their daily lives.
By working with these texts, one gets the chance to become part of the history. In a business devoid of permanence, an artist can claim a foothold. Now that is something.
Now, this is not to say that every production of The Tempest or Macbeth is immediately ennobled. But anybody who’s played Lady Macbeth in their church basement as part of their community theater’s spring show is now part of the story. And the story just keeps unfolding. It’s a bit like the “begat” section in the Bible – you can trace the lineage all the way back. I saw Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero, who saw her father Michael Redgrave give his Prospero, who saw Robert Atkins’, who saw Benson’s, and so on back to the first. Back to the first.
It’s one of the reasons I love the classics as much as I do. It’s one more way I remind myself that the work ultimately isn’t about me. It’s about something larger. A direct connection with our history as artists, storytellers, people. And there’s a responsibility that comes with it. One isn’t simply creating an ‘evening out’ that can be forgotten within a few days but, rather, doing everything possible to do right by all those who came before.
Classical plays can feel like medicine. There is something sickly familiar, vaguely sweet yet ultimately distasteful as we swallow them down and mutter to ourselves how it is for our betterment that we take in these necessaries. But my hope, my goal is something very different. These secondary classics have the opportunity to thrill and challenge us in unexpected ways. It is far less likely that we can quote passages of Timon from the dark of our seats.
Timon of Athens is a particularly curious case. There is no record of its ever being performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime – it exists within a fractured history. Never popular, and often regarded as a co-authored piece or an unfinished manuscript, the responsibility to its history becomes very large. We can only trace it back so far before it disappears into a cloud. In this case, the story of this play is a mystery. And our job as artists is not necessarily to try to solve it, but to give you the pieces of the puzzle and let you try to figure it out on the car ride home. In that way, you are part of the history as well.
Co-Founding Artistic Director
Philadelphia Artists' Collective
Thanks for reading the PAC blog, where we share what's happening behind the scenes, what we're thinking about this week, and what classic stories are inspiring us right now.