1969: I remember a crew member on the set of M*A*S*H (the original film, not the TV series). He wore a safari vest with many pockets, one of which contained a supply of dexedrine capsules which he would occasionally share with me. I relied on them when we were shooting the football game near the end of the film. Rather than relying on a scripted scenario, Altman had us play an actual game over the week or two we shot that sequence. Inspired by what would happen spontaneously, he’d introduce interactions and complications as we went. Having never played or watched more than a few minutes of an actual football game, I had no idea what was going on. Altman had cast a couple of real football players – Tim Brown and Fred Williamson – in the film and then brought in more pros to play the opposing side’s “ringers.” At 23 I was only 6 years out of high school and experiences of locker-room bullying were still fresh. Taking pills and smoking grass was how I coped with my fear and confusion. Altman, Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland and the rest of the nearly all-male cast were really into the game, so I stayed high and got into endless meaningless conversations I can no longer remember.
One day, Altman came up with a “bit” for my character, Captain Bandini. I was to catch a pass and become paralyzed with amazement at my accomplishment while one of the pro players tackled me around the legs and lifted me over his shoulders. I was thrilled to finally be in the action. I practiced catching the pass. We worked out the tackling move with a stunt co-ordinator. We shot it. I caught the ball, got tackled, the crew applauded. The scene like many others ended up on the cutting room floor.
1978; The only time on a TV job that a director actually directed me was on Barney Miller. Noam Pitlik, a former actor was directing. I was the leading guest, playing an Abbie Hoffman-like character. An activist who had gone underground and had been brought into the precinct after being caught shoplifting. He doesn’t realize that he and the Vietnam war are no longer big news. He expects the FBI and the press. But nobody shows up. He tries to pick fights with Wojo, and other characters. I had tremendous respect for the ensemble of veteran character actors – Hal Linden, Max Gail, Ron Glass, Steve Landesberg and James Gregory – who made the show one of the funniest and smartest of the era.
By 1978, after a decade of small, forgettable roles on forgettable shows, I’d become thoroughly cynical about television work. But this one was different. I was shocked to realize that these people were hard-working artists. Most of the directors I’d worked with on television never went beyond telling me where to stand or when to sit. I was not used to having serious discussions about character, intention or timing. In my mind, that only happened in the theatre. But Barney Miller shattered my preconceptions. Suddenly I was scared. I was going to have to work.
It was a “Three-Camera” style shoot, in which the entire episode shot as one continuous performance in front of a studio audience, like a short play. That process, hardly ever used for narrative television these days, is the most stressful I’ve ever experienced. It requires the technical precision of all on-camera works – always knowing where the cameras are, hitting marks taped on the floor – as well as the energetic momentum of live performance. Unlike oter film work, you can’t stop the scene if something goes wrong. The audience expects you to just keep going. On a three-camera show, you rehearse for five days and shoot it on the sixth. Every day, after rehearsal, I’d work on my scenes with my friend (and co-founder of Traveling Jewish Theatre), Naomi Newman. She helped me find the character’s unusual combination of arrogance, loneliness and broken idealism while maintaining the bright tempi of a comedy.
That episode was the last TV job I had before Traveling Jewish Theatre became the center of my life. It was a good way to say goodbye. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sFaamWk6j0
I never intended Crow to be a solo work. The work I’d done alone, through the summer was preparation. I’d created an arrangement of about a dozen of Ted Hughes’ poems that formed a loose narrative of the life and adventures of the mythical bird-creature-trickster called Crow. Now I needed collaborators.
I asked Elizabeth Murphy and Alex Daikun, two actors I’d worked with in McCabe and Mrs. Miller a year earlier, to join me. I met a cellist, Suellen Primost, who I invited to jump on board. Finally, an expat from New York, Gary Pogrow, agreed to direct the project.
It was the early seventies and one could live in Vancouver fairly cheaply. My summer work qualified me for Canadian unemployment insurance. I found a theatre that agreed to host us for rehearsals and work-in-progress performances. For the first time in my life I had everything I needed to create and perform an original piece of theatre.
In my memory, rehearsals were a euphoric flow of creativity straight through to opening night.
I remember Alex leaping in the air, I remember matching the tones of the cello with my voice. I remember the old brown tights with suspenders that we wore. I remember getting very stoned in a van that Rodney drove, taking us to our furthest gig in Nelson, B.C., east of Vancouver.
I remember reading the first, terrible review we got after opening. I think the critic’s name was James Barber. The headline contained the words “Noisy Birdwatchers…” and complained that all the theatricality of the piece obscured the poems. Damning me with faint praise, he went on to say that we – and the audience – would have been better off if I’d just read the poems, since I “obviously” understood them.
I arrived early at Vancouver’s Actors Workshop for our second performance. Alone in the black box theatre, I felt utterly defeated. The critic’s words ran through my blood like curdled milk. I knew I could not perform Crow in this condition.
I started warming-up with my usual stretches. When I lay on my back on the floor to begin working my voice, I felt a presence with me in the space. I wasn’t seeing things, but I knew that my inner distress had taken outer form. I stood up, continuing to vocalize. No words. I used sounds to push hard against the presence. I leaned and shouted. I leaped and roared. I felt as if my life was at stake. If I allowed this internalized/externalized state of self-hatred to win, I’d never be able to make theatre again. I howled and sang until I reached a place of silence. The demon-critic was gone. The show could go on.
Years later, I understand that it wasn’t the Vancouver drama critic’s words I was exorcising, it was that part of myself that latched on to his words as evidence that I was no good.
Years later, I often repeat something I heard Joe Chaikin say. “The actor must forgive herself – constantly – for the imagined shortcomings of the previous moment.” That’s a paraphrase. I don’t remember his exact words. I thought he also wrote it in his book, The Presence of the Actor. But when I look for it there, I can’t find it.
And now, it would be easy to stop this writing and lose myself in Joe’s book. Seeing his young face in the accompanying pictures, I feel, all at once, his presence and his absence. When he died in 2003 I was out of the country. When I returned, I found an email from Robert Hurwitt, the San Francisco Chronicle’s theatre critic who wanted to interview me for the obituary he was writing.
I keep thinking of Joe’s insistence on forgiving. I’ve repeated that advice to countless students. For years, as I practiced different kinds of Buddhist meditation, sometimes sporadically, sometimes consistently, I learned to notice the eruptions of my inner-critic. The Vancouver exorcism was definitely not permanent. But lately, it occurs to me that noticing– while essential – is limited unless compassion, love and kindness come with it. The inner-critic is a master of disguise and manipulation. It can seize upon the very perception of its own appearance as a chance to inflict punishment. “Uh oh, you’re being self-critical again! What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you learned anything?”
And now, no less than ever, the inner-critic/judge/pundit/punisher who sometimes speaks in the voice of my father, sometimes in the voice of Mr. Sussman my senior English teacher at Palm Springs High, can easily seize on this very process, this writing and complain at length about the many ways I’m doing it wrong.
“You’re undisciplined. You’ve always been lazy, in love with sentiment and short-cuts, with surface shine and cheap tricks. You try to ennoble your sloppy habits by speaking of ‘associative connections’ and spontaneity when, in fact, you just don’t want to make any difficult choices.”
True enough, my imagination leaps from one thing to another. I start writing about Crow and before I know it I’m writing about Joe and the inner-critic.
The author Barry Lopez recently said that a spatial metaphor for consciousness might be a funnel. A container that is wide at one end, narrow at the other with openings at top and bottom. His job as a writer, he says, is to help us move from the lower, constricted part to the more spacious upper portion.
When I performed my solitary exorcism in Vancouver, I was able to move from the narrow place where nothing is possible to the wider space where anything can happen. The only space in which imagination can flourish.