If you’ve kept up with my blog, you know that, having been denied its funding allocation for the season, the theatre staggers to keep afloat…even alive. Early this summer, because of serious philosophical differences with the new board president and what threatened to be an untenable working relationship with her, I resigned from the board.
At an appropriate point, I’ll have more to say about the systematic chipping away at a theatre that was doing some exciting work, had great potential, and was the only real hope for professional theatre in Lexington. There is probably plenty of blame to go around, from both within and without, that has led to its teetering in its current precarious position.
But in all the many discussions about the theatre’s problems, professional theatre, and the state of Lexington theatre in general, that have occurred in the newspaper, online, and just in personal chats, I keep hearing this phrase from a lot of local theatre folk about “pursuing one’s passion.” In light of the fact that many of these practitioners are not attempting to pursue a professional career, have never attempted to pursue a career, and some are even disdainful of it, I wonder if we have the same definition of “passion.”
I always thought that to “pursue one’s passion” meant that you had to pursue it, well...passionately.
Far be it for me to question or doubt anyone else’s passion and I’m sure one can pursue a passion not in a professional context. But “Passion” to me means more than just affection, love, enjoying a diversion.
Passion has always had for me the aura of obsession and compulsion. It conjures up words like “hunger” and “driven”. You eat, think, sleep, live passion. It possesses you. It consumes you. A passion for theatre is not something you dabble in during your off-hours, something you do after work for three hours from seven to ten at rehearsal (or, God forgive, as it is often referred to here, “play practice”).
To “pursue” means “to go after”, “to give chase”, “to try and capture”. I think to some people, the idea of pursuit has the same equivalent of reaching from the couch to the coffee table to pick up a bag of chips. If it’s easy, if it’s fun, if it doesn’t take too much effort; if the gold ring’s within reach, they’ll grasp.
But “pursuing one’s passion” is about reaching beyond your gasp; indulging in it when isn’t fun or easy. It takes a lot of effort and sometimes, no matter how passionate you are, especially in the theatre business, you never snatch the gold ring. Passion is the mistress you woo whether the door is invitingly open or slammed shut in your face.
I liken it to the explorers of old, daring to set out on an endless sea with only the horizon in view. They may drown in that sea and they’ll never reach the horizon, but their belief in themselves and their commitment to their passion, might bring wondrous discoveries.
Pursuing a passion is not a hobby or avocation. It’s not even a job or a career. It’s a way of life. I'm not sure I even adovcate passion. It can make for an emotionally exhaustive existence. Nor am I sure passion is something one can find. It may find you. It may even be a condition of birth -- there are passionate people and then there are those who function quite well imbued with rational equilibrium...maybe function better. But I'll let biologists debate that.
I recently spent a pleasant, stimulating evening with Rick St. Peter, erstwhile Artistic Director of Actors Guild, and Bo List, a talented director with local roots. The conversation carromed all over the theatrical map…sometimes amusing, sometimes serious, and hopefully somewhat intellectually gratifying. At the end of the night, Bo said, “How nice to have conversation about theatre culture and not just theatre.”
What he meant by that was that it was not just about immediate, individual personal theatrical concerns…what shows are going up, who got cast, the latest gossip…but about theatre in general, theatre as an aesthetic, as an idea.
That’s part of having a passion for theatre or drama…being driven to understand its legacy, its history, its place in a world context. Passion fuels curiosity. And curiosity is a necessary component of Passion. Sometimes the curiosity I see with those professing a passion for it extends no further than wondering whether they’ll get cast in a show.
Necessary components of Passion other than curiosity? I have a stone vase next to my bathroom sink that my wife, Julieanne, gave me at the opening of one of my movies. On the vase is carved the word “create”. Several smaller stones adorn the bottom of the vase, each emblazoned with its own carved word, these are “love”, “”courage”, “risk”, and “passion”.
And while each of these words inform the word “create”, I think all four of the others inform the word, “passion”. I’m sure some can create without passion. I don’t believe I could. One of the things I always tell writing students when I guest-lecture is that “I always write to my passion”…which simply means I must find something in the material to get passionate about.
The very few occasions when I was lured to a gig by an obscenely lucrative pay-cheque rather than my initial excitement for the material have been disasters. On such instances, I’d eventually find a way into the material that stirred my passion…but it usually didn’t stir anyone else’s (You never saw JAGGED EDGE II, did you? I wrote one.) and the compensation wasn’t worth the torturous time I spent summoning up my passion. That’s why there’s been “very few” such occasions.
But what about “love”, “courage”, and “risk”? I’m pretty sure one cannot be passionate about something if you don’t love it. Now it may not always be a happy love affair -- running through spring fields and tender spooning under a smiling silver moon. Sometimes it’s more Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, violent embraces mingled with anguish, recrimination, and torment. One’s love affair with passion can be Byronically unhealthy.
Again, whenever I teach or lecture, I impress this aspect on my listeners. “If you can be a happy, whole human being doing anything else, go do it. This is a sickness, sometimes it’s a Grand Sickness, but a sickness nonetheless.” I do this, because I know nothing else…and more importantly, I don’t want to do anything else. My passion has overwhelmed me.
Recently, my pal, actor Larry Drake, and I were joking that if we…who have spent our adult lives pursuing our passion…had to find real work, we’d only be fit for Wal-Mart Greeters…we have no other useful skills. All has been sacrificed on the altar of Theatre (and Theatre with a capital “T”, for me, means any dramatic story-telling endeavour).
(me & two-time Emmy winner Larry Drake)
And that’s where “courage” and “risk” come in. You have to have enough courage (or resiliant innocence) to take the risks you need to pursue your Passion. I was speaking to some high school English classes at my alma mater, Highlands High, in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, a few weeks ago and the inevitable questions of how hard is it to go about pursuing a theatrical/ film career came up. The answer I gave is the same for any career you pursue or any “passion” you have: “How badly do you want it and what are you willing to sacrifice for it?”
A very talented, young friend of mine here who I believe does have a passion for theatre, confessed that it would eventually probably kill him: “I’ll never have a house, a wife, or kids…”
I understand and sympathize with this kind of single-mindedness. I've lived with it. I didn't have a house or a new car until my mid-thirties, after I had made several films. I wasn’t married until I was 37. My social life was dependent on my work status. If I was working in theatre I had one; otherwise I was coming home from pay-the-rent jobs, working another 6-8 hours “pursuing my passion”…writing, reading, working up audition material -- whatever it took to take the next step closer to the dream.
I knew my profession would be in the Creative Arts once I got passed the “I wanna be a fireman-cowboy” stage of childhood ambition. It probably unconsciously became my passion when I was making up stories playing with my toy soldiers, reading Tarzan under the covers with a flashlight, writing copious bad fiction, watching twelve to twenty movies a week on TV (before cable, Video, and DVD). I was always preparing for my ambition and when it consciously evolved into my passion, I stopped having cop-out college majors like journalism and telecommunications and became a full-fledged theatre arts major. I took no minor, I disdained any back-up plan. I was either going to succeed…or fail spectacularly.
And all through college, I continued to pursue my passion. After graduation, I spent one more year in Lexington building up a stake to get out of Lexington, getting a few more plays under my belt, and waiting to see if anything was going to happen with the 1930’s musical I had written with Roger Leasor, OH ME, OH MY (A Musical Idyll) which was stirring some interest. Despite it supposedly winning some contest in New York, we never heard from the promoters or producers again, but it was an experience worth having.
That Spring, at 23, I went to SETC, auditioned, got a gig…got two actually…I took the cheaper of the two (50 bucks a week and a room) because it was Shakespeare (the other was an outdoor drama) and was further away – The Globe of the Great Southwest in Odessa, Texas. The rest as they say is history. I never looked back and never came back (except for visits) until thirty-two years later…going wherever I had to go to pursue my passion.
To this day, I have no real hobbies or interests outside my profession. Pretty much everything I do informs my passion. I can’t read a book without wondering whether it will make a play or a film.
I’m not regaling you with this as an example of the way things must be done. God knows, there is no formula in this business. There are many ways to pursue one’s Passion. The point is: I pursued it!
I try to impress this on my young talented, passionate friend who has bared his breast to the sacrifical knife of the Theatre Goddess (why do I think it a woman?): If you’re this committed and willing to sacrifice to the point of abjuring all else, go where you can truly pursue your passion and the sacrifice might pay off. Don’t remain immobile in a small pond where your talent struggles to thrive and grow and your passion can too easily become insular and impotent…where you’re not likely to make a living at it and you’ll become bitter and frustrated, dreaming about what you might have accomplished if you’d only taken a chance. Don’t let your passion sour to sad regret. True, you might have the courage to take the risk to finally pursue it hell-bent-for-leather and still end up bitter and frustrated, but at least you’ll have tried! At least you’ll know. There is no disgrace in failure; only in never having tried. And the small pond will always be there.
The courage to risk is the biggest failing of most people’s passion. They are simply afraid to go out and test their talent, challenge themselves in an environment where the bar is high and the stakes are real. The fall may be greater, but the rewards are also greater.
I’ve known many extremely talented people who didn't have a passion for the business and chose to pursue other passions. Though I might bemoan unused talent, it’s frustrating for my passion, not theirs, and I have to just leave that alone. But it is infuriating to see people…remarkably talented people…who call Theatre their great passion and then don’t really pursue it full throttle.
Word Baker, the director of the original FANTASTICKS, once said to a group of young actors, me being one: “Every actor has to think he’s going to be a star.” He’s right. Like chasing the horizon, you may never get there, but you’ll travel further than those who never move. Unlike my friends with talent who chose to pursue other passions and use other talents, those folk who dream of being in the Game, have genuine talent, but don’t make the effort, don't dream big enough. It’s as if they’re waiting for it to come to them.
That just doesn’t happen. And the dream alone is never enough. Talent is never enough. Even passion is not enough, it has to be pursued. As my old theatre mentor Charles Dickens used to say: “Ninety percent of talent is knowing what do to with it.”
Or as writer/director Paul Schrader once put it: “Why should we open the doors for young talent? The people who knock down the doors are more interesting.” And that’s because the people who knock them down are more passionate. They may not even be as talented as others, but they’re more passionate. And that gives them the advantage. They’re the hungry ones who want to be there, in the thick of it. They’re the ones truly pursuing their passion!
IN MEMORIAM - JACK PARRISH
Jack Parrish as Polonius
Actor and friend Jack Parrish died of cancer last week. Jack had both directed and acted at Actors Guild. I was fortunate to be in two shows with him. THE UNDERPANTS was the AGL acting debut for both of us. Jack had taken the small role of the King at the end of the play as a favour to Rick St. Peter and, in his three minutes of stage time, killed and got uproarious laughs to sweep us to curtain.
We shared more stage time in Hamlet, I as Claudius, he doubling as a marvelous Polonius and funny Gravedigger. I did a rehearsal/show blog for the theatre at the time. Here’s a few snippets I wrote about Jack:
Oct. 7, 2007 – …I was pacing in the upstairs lobby outside the rehearsal room, declaiming. Jack Parrish, doing double-duty as Polonius and the Grave-Digger (both quite amusing) and our most experienced Shakespearen, stormed by me on his way outside for a smoke, script clenched in fist, mumbling iambic pentameter. “I’m too old for this shit,” he growled at me, as he went by. "It isn’t fun anymore.” Jack is younger than me.
Oct. 29, 2007 – Our company is amiable, easy, and very professional. Jack Parrish, a delight to act with and to just watch act, has also become good company backstage. Being roughly the same age, we share common experiences and concerns about theatre. Our conversations range from how to make Lexington…a city with certainly the right demographic and population…a professional theatre town (naturally, a concern for us…both being Equity) to just old war stories. Jack actually mentioned a dinner theatre he had played in Manassas, Virginia…and I went, “My God! My play WHODUNNIT,DARLING?...had a successful run there.”…He and I are probably the only two in the cast old enough to remember dinner theatre’s glory days and steamboat rounds of roast beef. For all their faults and bad plays, dinner theatres were in their own unique way wonderful things and kept a lot of actors employed at the time.
(My dinner theatre mystery written with Larry Drake. Poster art by Eric Johnson)
Southern Theatre Magazine has a feature every issue called “400 Words”. It’s my four hundred words for the Fall 2009 issue, entitled “Let’s NOT Give The Audience What It Wants”. I’ll probably slapped it up here in the future, but you can find it online by hitting the highlighted link.
BEGUILED AGAIN…at Actors Guild…lots of great Rodgers & Hart songs
33 VARIATIONS…at The Ensemble Theatre in Cincinnati…Terrific production in a great little theatre. This is going to be a regular destination for us. Also saw their SEAFARER earlier this year which was swell. Next seeing our pal, Brian Isaac Phillips in DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE. I also went to their reading of THE LARAMIE PROJECT…TEN YEARS AFTER, commemorating the anniversary of Matthew Shephard’s murder.
SLEUTH…at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park…Still one of my favourite venues. Strange to watch this play, knowing all the tricks and plot points, but quite well done on an stylish set.
LION IN WINTER…at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company…Again, a play I’m so familiar with, it’s strange to re-visit. Once I shook off the indeliable memory of O’Toole and Hepburn, I quite enjoyed the ensemble’s take on the piece.
I’ve also been seeing a lot of theatre on DVD…
CONDUCT UNBECOMING…this is the film version of the British Raj mystery play by Barry England…I’ve been a fan of the play for years, but hadn’t seen the movie in some time. Though they throw some exterior shots in it, it remains essentially stage-bound…which is perfectly fine with me…and has a great cast: Michael York, Stacey Keach, Chris Plummer, Susannah York, Richard Attenborough, and Trevor Howard. The plot is actually a tad shaky, but slick playing carries you through and lets you forgive some of the dubious details. I’m a sucker for any of this “For Queen and Empire” stuff anyway. Michael York, who I’ve met and know slightly (we once discussed doing a film of Gore Vidal’s JULIAN, about the Emporer who tried to reinstate the pagan gods after Rome had gone Christian. He was also slated do to a reading of my play THE EBONY APE at Stratford, Ct. Doug Sills ended up doing it and doing it grandly) does a nice commentary.
LOOK BACK IN ANGER…A production directed by Judi Dench, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Very nice.
SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER…a dvd of a live production that I saw at the National Theatre a few years back, done in collaboration with the Out of Joint Theatre Company and directed by Max Stafford-Clark. I enjoyed it live and I enjoyed it here.
SECRET SERVICE…a stylish production of William Gillette’s classic melodrama, starring a young John Lithgow and Meryl Streep. Also Marybeth Hurt, Charles Kimbrough, and a very young and thin Jeffrey Jones.
SINGING DETECTIVE….never a play, of course. And while it has its moments, it doesn’t hold a candle to the original Dennis Potter miniseries that starred Michael Gambon…The Great Gambon.
POGUE’S LISTENING TO:
TWO FOR THE SEESAW…Andre Previn’s jazz score to the movie starring Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine.
HOAGY CARMICHAEL, Stardust And Much More…the sub-title pretty much says all.
THE UNBELIEVEABLE TRUTH…comedy/quiz show hosted by witty David Mitchell, playing out its current season on BBC 4
UNSEEN ACADEMICALS…Terry Pratchett’s latest entertaining entry from Discworld. The wizards from Unseen University play football.
THE SECOND HANDSHAKE…Will Fowler’s amusing memoir of his famous writer father Gene Fowler and all his equally famous friends…John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, John Decker, Jack Dempsey, etc.
Sorry, I was away for such a long-time. So what’s new with you? Any thoughts about my latest spewings…?