Theater Musings Discoveries of Stagecraft: Gary Beck

Gary Beck
As the Artistic Director of an off-off Broadway company staging the classics in the 1970s, I faced difficulties that theater professionals will be very aware of. One area in particular was the mixed quality of actors willing to work for token payment, with demanding standards, in an ongoing ensemble process. A further complication was an unusual production commitment of months of rehearsal, workshop performances, then touring colleges and culturally underserved communities, finally a six week run at our theater. In my particular process I generally worked in different periods for two years, Italian Commedia, French Baroque, English Restoration, ancient Greek drama, etc. Ideally I wanted the actor’s commitment period for two years, almost inconceivable in American theater. But congress abolished the draft, and the press gang was passé.
I was fortunate to always have several talented, capable actors who stayed with me for years, functioning as a nucleus for the company in each production cycle. However, in order to do large cast classics, I had to accept actors of minimal qualifications. Since I was working with  a company, it was imperative to introduce the newcomers to an intense process that compelled them to commit to the company, or depart. It was virtually impossible for an ongoing Off Off Broadway company, an anomaly in itself, to get good older actors. The able ones wouldn’t work for token payment and long hours, as well as an extreme time commitment to the production schedule.

Of course there was an extensive supply of retreads, retirees from the corporate world who suddenly decided to become actors. They had no conception that it takes years to develop the craft. These carpetbaggers could possibly work in tv commercials, or superficial showcases, but they were totally unsuitable for serious performance. I found myself playing Pantalone, Gorgibus, Blepyrus, invariably old fools, since I couldn’t find a better old fool. This was a tremendous investment of my time and energy that took me away from some of my other commitments. I had many demanding obligations, but my love of performing made the opportunity a wonderful compensation.

In a long on and off directing career I hadn’t done much acting, filling in if someone was sick, AWOL, possessed by the devil... So I saw the stage in an entirely new perspective as an actor. Suddenly I had questions that never came up in my director studies: How do you manage the pace of a play without music? How do you regulate the stage energy to maintain the fabric of the play from beginning to end? How do you compensate for weak actors, frightened actors, willing but inexperienced actors? I confronted many other questions about stage life and functioning.

I was reminded very quickly that the stage was a challenging environment with no tolerance for dysfunction. The play demanded full participation from every actor, or it would suffer deflation. As I have seen in many shows there were actors who were afraid, who not only didn’t contribute to the stage life, but were even a negative presence. That was rarely the problem with my company, because the actors wanted to be there. They just may not have been able to produce the requisite contribution to the life of the play. I found myself exercising skills like lending focus, projecting energy, sending benevolent theta waves to struggling actors, maintaining a pace and rhythm that kept the play moving properly, as well as many other devices that helped sustain the world of the play.

One situation that occurred occasionally was an actor who was excellent in rehearsal, but couldn’t function in performance. Rather than have them deplete our efforts, I chose to make them virtually invisible on stage by focusing energy and attention elsewhere. This left them as non-negative, virtual occupants of the space, who could not contribute to the world of the play, but did not subtract from it. It became very simple for me. If I looked at an actor onstage in character and they weren’t properly responsive in character, I sought stage life elsewhere, putting the need of the play ahead of the problem of the actor that prevented good performance. I don’t know if any of the actors rendered invisible were aware of what happened. No one ever said anything to me. I never discussed it with anyone.

It was a great treat for me to work as an actor. The down side was I had so many ongoing demands that I could put little time into the preparation of my characters. I always made sure that all the other actors were progressing satisfactorily. One amusing incident occurred in our production of Sophocles’ Antigone, a timeless play that can always reach audiences if presented with passion, vitality and confident characters. I played Tiresias, the blind prophet, and for a change wasn’t an old fool. One complication was that a BBC production of Antigone was to be aired on tv the Sunday evening before we opened our show on Tuesday evening.

For several weeks some of the actors fretted that they would be unfavorably compared to a big budget production, with prestigious British actors. A few were not consoled when I told them: ‘It doesn’t matter what they do, we are still going on’. One irony was that Tiresias was to be played by Sir John Gielgud, (or one of the Queen’s knights). I didn’t waste a moment worrying, or even thinking about him. No matter what, I always tried my best, so I never felt bad if I failed. But I did assume I’d be unfavorably compared to Sir John. I had a similar experience once before. A noted Broadway critic was pleased to tell me in critiquing our production of Aristophanes’ ‘The Birds’, that I wasn’t Zero Mostel. Fortunately I never suffered from mental illness, or was trapped in a delusional state and believed I was Zero Mostel. I certainly didn’t resemble him. I had no doubt who I was.

The Sunday broadcast of Antigone turned out to be a sonorous declamation of excellent diction and poise, typical Brit performance, with a total absence of passion. It was closer to a well organized reading, rather then a vital play. Of course I assumed their ornate production would set a standard for audiences unfamiliar with Greek drama. Our production was so different that by opening night the company was confident in our show, for which we thanked the goddesses of Athens.

I had an interesting experience as Tiresias. I didn’t have much time to do character work and just assumed the righteous mantle of an outraged prophet, denouncing the dangerously stubborn Creon who was heading for disaster. As I made my blind way onto the stage everything I had prepared felt completely wrong. I had worked with the very talented actor playing Creon many times. I knew he would deal with a new presentation effortlessly. Instead of being outraged, I was lovingly disappointed in his rash actions, and gently tried to make him be reasonable. In fact, this gave Creon much more scope to be distraught, rather than angry, which would have resulted in two characters shouting at each other, a sterile stage activity. My immediate reward for this inspired change was a member of the audience called out: ‘You tell him, preacher’.

In an era of hi-tech film and tv dazzling audiences with special effects, it is exceedingly difficult to create stage beauty without sufficient funds for the visual elements of production. It is even more challenging without highly capable, talented, well-trained actors, only found by unusual coincidence Off-Off Broadway. This led me to develop my own process to prepare actors to work as an ensemble. It was very clear at the beginning of each cycle when I added new members to the company that this was my best option to do the level of work I aspired to. My intention was not to teach actors, all of whom had attended college drama programs, but to prepare them to work together in a format that would allow mutual support and participation in sustaining the world of the play.

I auditioned new prospects with a demanding process that went well beyond a monologue and reading. Some actors consulted former auditioners to better prepare in order to feel confident and look good, often without any intention of joining the company. This was a not infrequent practice by many well paid bartenders, more comfortable dispensing drinks then delivering lines. Some actors got through two callbacks and when I interviewed them and described my work process assured me they worked like that in college. I started new actors on a two week trial basis, which gave both of us the opportunity to decide if we were right for each other. The college citers rarely got past the first rehearsal, which put highly intense demands on them to function or depart. There was a variety of challenging mental, physical and emotional exercises, some of which caused the candidate extreme stress that precipitated a rapid exit, stage right. The lambs from protected environments were unprepared for the wolves of reality, Off Off Broadway.

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn't earn a living in the theater. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 32 poetry collections, 14 novels, 3 short story collections, 1 collection of essays and 5 books of plays. Published poetry books include:  Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways, Displays, Perceptions, Fault Lines, Tremors, Perturbations, Rude Awakenings, The Remission of Order, Contusions, Desperate Seeker and Learning Curve (Winter Goose Publishing). Earth Links, Too Harsh For Pastels, Severance, Redemption Value, Fractional Disorder, Disruptions, Ignition Point, Resonance and Turbulence (Cyberwit Publishing. Forthcoming: Double Envelopment). Motifs (Adelaide Books). His novels include Extreme Change (Winter Goose Publishing). State of Rage, Wavelength, Protective Agency, Obsess and Flawed Connections (Cyberwit Publishing. Forthcoming: Still Obsessed). His short story collections include: A Glimpse of Youth (Sweatshoppe Publications). Now I Accuse and other stories (Winter Goose Publishing). Dogs Don’t Send Flowers and other stories (Wordcatcher Publishing). Collected Essays of Gary Beck (Cyberwit Publishing). The Big Match and other one act plays (Wordcatcher Publishing). Collected Plays of Gary Beck Volume 1 and Plays of Aristophanes translated, then directed by Gary Beck, Collected Plays of Gary Beck Volume II and Four Plays by Moliere translated then directed by Gary Beck (Cyberwit Publishing. Forthcoming: Collected Plays of Gary Beck Volume III). Gary lives in New York City.

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