It has taken me most of my life to begun to understand that one of the greatest shortcomings of our modern western culture is the “professionalization” of art, and creative expression that came along with industrialization. I started writing about this in the current issue of Musing with the Muse and will continue here.
When I was ten, I decided I wanted to be an actor. It had nothing to do with recognizing that I wanted to act. I had never acted in anything. I was claiming an identity: Professional Actor. From then on I acted in any play I could. I hung around the entrance to the old Republic Studios on Radford, in Studio City, at the end of the block where my parents had a dry cleaning store. Some customers were non-celebrity character actors. I was thrilled whenever one of them came into the store when I was helping out after school.
It wasn’t until I was 16 that I had my first taste of what theatre, what acting was really about. I’m eternally grateful to my parents for hustling me off to an arts summer camp every year. I started with the Junior Players, acting out fairy tails the teacher would read to us and went on to High School Drama. At 16 I played Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Quite a leap from “East of the Sun West of the Moon.” Suddenly I was being asked to look at death. To ask questions about an afterlife. To understand what the word soul meant to me.
I hadn’t been the director’s first choice but the kid who had been cast didn’t want to have to memorize so many monologues. Mephistopheles was played by a tall raven-haired girl with whom I fell in unrequited love. For three weeks I lived in a heightened, even altered state inside Marlowe’s incandescent blank verse.
What I experienced had nothing to do with a profession, a career or a livelihood, but the only way to re-enter it was embark on a course of training to become a professional. At least that was the only way anyone seemed to know.
It took me five years to have an experience remotely comparable to Faustus. It was in my last year in the Theatre Department at UCLA. Finally I found a faculty member who seemed to care about theatre as much as I did. He was a self-proclaimed Marxist and a devotee of Brecht but was somehow untainted by doctrine. He cast me in a small role in Brecht’s first play, Baal, an expressionistic paean to polymorphous sexuality unlike any of his more sophisticated, ironic, political, later works. James Kerans, who died not too long after that time, offered no magical key to unlock the mysteries of acting, but he offered a vision of the world he wanted to create on stage. My part was that of a drunken street person Baal encounters on Corpus Christi day. The drunk is obsessed with the trees nailed to doorposts that are a part of the traditional German celebration of that holy day. He sees them as crucified beings and identifies with them. I had been working outside the university with an acting teacher who was the first I ever heard say that acting depended upon the unique experience, body, memory and creativity of each actor. In Baal, I was able, at last, to understand this. Though I was only twenty, I found where that drunk lived inside my own psyche.
It was beginning to dawn on me that I probably wouldn’t be able to do much work like this as a professional actor in the conventional theatre.
The next thirteen years of my life were split between two somewhat conflicting ambitions. One was to work outside the mainstream pursuing visions of forming a theatre collective that would support the approach to acting and creativity I discovered in Baal and one or two other innovative productions. The other was to become a successful actor in film and television.
I felt fortunate when I started making a living in TV and film. But after ten years of it, I had to admit that the work I was being paid for was, mostly, meaningless or worse. It demanded so little of me that it was easy to become cynical and give very little to it. The real energy in that life occurred at the moment of getting the job: being picked, chosen, validated by the powers. Between paying jobs, I would pursue the waning vision of a vital, life-changing theatre. But all of us who shared those dreams were all too willing to abandon them whenever our agents called with an offer of “real” work.
I reached my “bottom” when, out of pure greed and a lot of delusion, I accepted the role of Don Quixote in a really loathsome project that ripped off the images of Quixote and Sancho to make a painfully un-funny cartoon-like, slapstick, salacious and ultimately incomprehensible mess of a film. I was relieved that it never got released, and as far as I know was shown only once or twice on pay TV in a Hawaiian hotel.
After the Quixote fiasco, the Provisional Theatre, an L.A. company that had grown out of the anti-Vietnam war movement, invited me to work on a new project and to tour with them for two months. I jumped on it. During the six months I spent with this group, I learned that I was capable of more hard work than I had ever imagined. Whether I was schlepping the set or creating a character, performing or driving the van, I was part of a tribe of wandering players in which everyone did everything and everything we did was meant to serve people spiritual and political nourishment.
Even though I chose not to stay with the Provisional as a permanent member for reasons I’ll get into some other time, the experience re-aligned me powerfully. Like Rilke’s statue of Apollo, it told me to change my life.
After two years working in New York with Joe Chaikin (yes, clearly another story) I called two friends and colleagues together to create Traveling Jewish Theatre, now in its 29th year of existence.
As an actor, I had discovered that I didn’t want to be a “professional” who rarely has any choice of what she will act, who auditions, gets hired (if lucky), and does his best to please the director who hired him. I didn’t want to be a specialist who has permission to only perform one task that is her specialty. Such as acting. Such as acting one certain type of role over and over. I wanted to make theatre: to act, write, direct, explore, question, discover, construct, compose, shape, edit, with people who excited me, at the service of whatever seemed most compelling, most necessary at that moment.
I see no reason why anyone who is willing to do the plain hard work required, should not make theatre in that way or music or painting or dance. As the wise and wonderful Oliver Sachs recently said in a lecture, “There are forms of neurological organization that can only be addressed by art, not by logic or reason or systematic things…The arts are an absolute necessity in life.” (On Cambridge Forum. Download or listen)