Thursday, 27 November 2014

Bringing the Magic

by E. Amato

Mike Nichols' passing made me unduly weepy. Of course, he was an idol, of course,  The effing Graduate, of course, Virginia Woolf.  The Real Thing.

The Real Thing. That text. That intimacy of Close and Irons. The grace of the vehicle. I thought it was Stoppard. I thought it was the actors. And in many ways, it was. Great plays allow great productions. Great actors allow themselves to be in service to these.

And yet, I saw a revival  on Broadway with actors Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane - I mean, I practically tumbled over myself to get tickets to it - and what I remember most about it is that I stood on a street corner in the rain waiting to cross the street next to Dillane afterward. I don't even remember who directed it.

Where was the magic?

Mike Nichols brought the magic. That's what he did. He allowed the magic to happen. He breathed into the works. He created an environment of openness for things to happen. He did not impose ideas on the text, he uncovered them. He let them float up to the top and just be there. In a recent Hollywood Reporter article, Glenn Close recalls her experience doing The Real Thing:
"...He gave Jeremy and me a wonderful direction: 'If you ever get lost, just drown in each other's eyes' …"
There's such a lightness to that direction, but one that allows intensity to flourish. Even Woolf, one of the heaviest texts in twentieth century theatre (alongside all things O'Neill), doesn't have an external heaviness to it. It's an internal percolation Nichols achieves, a combustibility we are witness to, but never asked to carry. There is no "Mike Nichols film" - there are films by Mike Nichols. Texts, actors, and shotmaking in service to the themes of the work itself. The Mike Nichols psyche is not in evidence. I cannot create a character profile of Nichols without looking at interviews with him and those who knew them. The movies do not tell me who he was; they tell me who we are.

This is what I was taught to do as a director: respect and elevate the text. Get out of the way. I try to do this with my own writing and performance as well - get out of the way and let the audience in. This is what I love to do - unearth the meaning and put it into human form.

The work is about the audience, not the author, director, or even the actors. It is about our experience of it and relevance to our lives. Nichols created life-changing moments that still resonate. Seeing The Graduate was a clear warning of the awful direction I was headed in life. As they sat in the back of that bus, I knew that I, too, would change my trajectory and err on the side of personal truth rather than the expectations of others.

When I watch films now, which is becoming infrequent,  I am overloaded by the personality of the director in a way that makes me feel the auteur theory has gone much too far and is in need of massive course correction. Watching a Darren Aronofsky film, I feel as though I am sitting with him, as if he is watching me watch the film and telling me how to watch it. Paul Thomas Anderson movies do the same for me. The first one or two had freshness and poise, but at some point personal style and bias overtake the material and that becomes tedious. As much as I love Wes Anderson's films, I can see why some people don't. There is a constant wink and a feeling of "see how I did that?" about the movies.

These films do not let you in unless you are already in. And that in, although it is still the dominant culture of white masculinity of a certain age, is shifting. When artists step out of the way of the texts and the work, anybody can get in; when they step in front of them, it is at best an attempt at relevance instead of actual relevance and at worst, an attention grab.

In the midst of my weepiness, I was taken to see the production of Wedding Band at the Antaeus.  I came to see the wonderful Mma-Syrai, but was immediately taken in by the play, the actors, the experience. Wedding Band is a bit of a revelation; a play by the accomplished Alice Childress written in 1966, set in 1918 and barely ever produced. It has clearly been lying in wait for a production like this and its central story of a condemned interracial relationship is sadly as relevant today as when Childress wrote it and when she set it. The text is open, honest, and subtle. There are no histrionics; this is not a melodrama. It's a poignant slice of life with some serious musings on race and love, punctuated with the small moments of simple joy amidst the devastations of grief.

Its subjects and frankness are clearly things no one wanted to tackle for many decades. The courageous New York Shakespeare Festival produced it six years after it was written, but very few have touched the material since then. It is a shame. This play deserves recognition and we deserve this play. We deserve this level of dialogue on these issues, in fact, we should demand it. That the Antaeus has undertaken the text and given us this resonant production is a blessing. That the discussion post-show was of the issues themselves, the emotions they brought about and the relevance to contemporary society is a clear indicator of the high level of the work by all involved in this production. The actors allow themselves to live in these characters words, bodies and times. The set feels like their home. You can imagine them washing these clothes and hanging them on the line we see at the beginning of the play. Gregg T. Daniel's direction is the best kind - it's invisible. He has let the actors set sail to the text; he has trusted his partnerships and the material as far as he might in order to fulfill them.

The Antaeus has done some heavy lifting here to give new life to Wedding Band and they should be rewarded. They may not be, but they should be. The calibre of the work here, and the actors, perfectly illustrate what routinely goes missing in LA theatre; the large institutions focus on imported productions and the smaller ones focus on actor vehicles. The idea of an LA theatre gets lost somewhere in there, but Antaeus has clearly defined it with this production - quality, professional realizations of challenging texts. It should not be that difficult to achieve in a town teeming with high level creative professionals, but it is still a rarity.

I saw this production last week, while heavy in thought about Nichols, the meaning of theatre, or film, for audiences, and if it was still necessary for us to have these kinds of experiences. I write this now amidst the feelings left by the Ferguson Grand Jury decision, and know that Childress' text clearly speaks to this rift:  between acceptance and justice; between right and law. Whatever happens next week, I've no doubt Wedding Band will have thoughts to share on that, as well.

There are still opportunities to see this show and I hope all the seats will be filled. Go if you can -- bringing the magic is no fun without an audience ready to receive it.

Zestyverse Editor/Publisher E. Amato has woven a creative life that moves fluidly between words, stages, film, and practical activism. She was a member of the 2011 Los Angeles Slam Team and has competed at Poetry Slam Nationals and WOWps. In 2010, Zesty Pubs released her first collection, Swimming Through Amber, her Kindle book 5 in 2012, and her second poetry collection, Will Travel, in 2013. In 2007 and 2008 Down Home traveled to the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, garnering 5-star reviews consecutive years – a rare honour. She recently produced Homeless in H

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