I saw something extraordinary last weekend. Roger Guenveur Smith and Mark Broyard’s “Inside the Creole Mafia” is a hilarious and thought-provoking examination of Louisiana culture and identity through the lens of a man doomed to an eternity of “making a living as a Hollywood actor too white to play black and too black…”
Ten years after Katrina, Guenveur Smith and Broyard revived their existential vaudevillian romp at the Bootleg Theater for a limited run.
Beginning with trumpets, Mardi Gras beads, and all the fanfare of the French quarter, followed by an hour-plus of sidesplitting transformations, audience interactions, and Godot-esque clowning, the lights went dark, and, as the actors bent at the waist, the audience stood up to applaud. But in the very moment the actors lifted from their final bow, a woman in the front row said in full voice that she lost two loved ones in Katrina and she was still grieving. Broyard and Guenveur Smith embraced her. And, as much as it could, our applause embraced them all.
I was reminded that, as actors, we are part of a powerful history of helping people through storytelling. As such, we should begin our scenes with at least a moment’s regard for the hallowed ground on which we are inviting our audience (and each other) to enter. Unfortunately, it seems that in an attempt to be lifelike, many modern actors transition from ordinary life into “rolling” without taking a moment to consider why they are doing what they are doing. While this may aid the relaxation needed to perform, it may also deprive the actor and the audience of the compassionate generosity and magical potential of our art form. Especially on camera, which can feel more isolated than the stage, a formal moment of acknowledgment, reminding us of our sense of purpose, can awaken the actor’s ability to bring people on an imaginative journey.
I recently grabbed my copy of Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theater” to read a quote to my class.
“What’s the very first thing you do when you sit down to read a story?” I asked.
They looked dumbfounded. With a twinkle in my eyes, I responded, “Open the book.”
That little action is an often overlooked but sacred ritual invitation into an imaginary world, filled with possibilities.
“Opening the book” can happen for an actor in any number of ways. At my studio we practice Spolin’s suggestion of calling “Curtain!” to begin a scene. Practiced enough, the transitionary moment of calling “curtain” is substituted on set by the director’s voice calling “action.”
Sometimes my clients will arrive on set for the blocking rehearsal and physically open an imaginary curtain before they begin as a way to remind them of the magic that they are about to create. Still, others prefer to make meaningful eye contact (or even physical contact) with their scene partner at the start. Whatever you do, remember that you are a part of an ancient tradition. Ours is a legacy of people who lead their communities, helping people to process and come to terms with the emotional complexities of everything from heartache to war. If we begin with purpose, we can be like Broyard and Guenveur Smith and elevate the audience from the humdrum doldrums of parking in Los Angeles to the dignified memorializing of a lost loved one all but forgotten or unknown by everyone around you.
As one of my students, the actor Paul Haitkin said, “If you have a broken leg, see a doctor. If you have a broken society, see an artist.”