“The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
– Sir Winston Churchill
There are times when I’m positive I must be driving most of my colleagues bananas. Some things never change. I see, and then I ask; I hear, and then I ask; I read and of course… then I ask, usually with a degree of wonderment, the where and whence of almost everything. Most of the time, I’m talking to myself. It’s kind of like stream of consciousness. Often, the actual question is a rather common one: “Did you ever wonder why?”
I guess I have taken “practicing one’s craft” to extremes. I know for sure my constant wonderment and comparison process is shared by many of my colleagues.
When I search through a past era, I see establishment; people like you and me, with daily common travails and joys, each of their conditions in various degrees of consequence to be bourn by others, cut from a similar cloth. Change their clothing, bringing them forward to meet us, and you still have people administering to their own current life’s condition. You will always remain with antagonist and protagonist, even if you happen to be talking to yourself.
No two actors or producers had a better grasp of the human condition than the two young men who joined forces to form the “Mercury Theatre;” it was August of 1937. One of the first plays they produced was “Julius Caesar.” Theirs was a theatrical first. Their actors were attired in the current contemporary clothing of the day. And so, they not only looked back to a past condition, they brought it forward to the audience’s daily visual ties. It was considered at that time to be pure production genius; Orson Welles and John Houseman had a way of doing that. Theirs, as pure and as impure as life itself, would dictate. They looked back and sought the excitement of the future. The costumes were present day.
They reversed the process by bringing us all into the future when they shocked the entire country with their presentment of “War Of The Worlds.”
Note: It was also known as “The Mercury Theatre Of The Air.” In December of 1937, it became “The Campbell Playhouse”(as in Campbell Soup). Most of the writing chores were taken over by two of the founding stalwarts, John Housman, and Howard Koch.
“The Campbell” début show was “Rebecca.” It was followed by Bram Stoker’s, “Dracula,” followed by “Treasure Island,” “A Tale Of Two Cities,” “The Thirty Nine Steps,” “Abraham Lincoln,” and “The Count Of Monte Cristo.” It was the precursor for the many radio productions which followed.
The Broadway theatre and the movies of Hollywood supplied a plethora of top flight performers; insuring a steady increase in the ratings.
Being a big name actor did not guarantee an automatic booking. Orson had complete and total right to refuse any of the casting selections. Undoubtedly, Orson enjoyed making selections from the likes of Hans Conreid, Margaret Sullivan, Katherine Hepburn, Burgess Meredith, Helen Hayes, Madeleine Carroll, Laurence Olivier, Gertrude Lawrence, Joan Bennett, Lionel Barrymore, and many more stars of the era.
By reading about their common exploits, my wonderment was stimulated to the point of no return. Past became present and the present experienced the future, all theatrically by wondering why, searching and asking questions, developing and doing real life character breakdowns.
Questioning and reacting with what I thought to be the proper show of wonderment was part and parlance of what my life had been, what it was, and what it was to become. Curiosity didn’t kill this cat; it provided constant energy. Keep in mind, I was just going with the flow. I had no idea of what I was doing, or what I hoped to accomplish. It has been this way from as far back as I can remember. Perhaps the same curiosity bore the responsibility, which stimulated my reading habits. Reading proved to be an inexpensive learning and entertainment vehicle. My public library card was the key to just about anyone’s kingdom I cared to question.
The world’s best biographers were at my beckon call. It pleased me to find out the human condition was in existence long before Harvey Kalmenson came along. The biographies of great people forced me to uncover my personal naiveties. I had been under the impression that the greatness of man guaranteed graciousness. After all, if he or she was a genius, they had to be liked, even adored by everyone. All agreed without reservation, Orson Welles was a boy genius. But as I discovered while reading his life’s story, there were some who couldn’t handle working with or for him because of his micro managing bent. His attention to detail apparently could drive lesser men to distraction. It never seemed to bother any of the other creative true geniuses Orson worked with. I would have given anything to hear a conversation between Hans Conreid, Burgess Meredith, and John Houseman in discussion over what would be the driving force behind what a character should be thinking at a particular moment. Well, all we can do is read about them, while imagining what might have been. I guess I am in the minority – one of the few who got to work with each of them as individuals; Orson and Burgess as actors, and John Housman as a teacher.
Conried was born Hans Georg Conried, Jr. in Baltimore, Maryland. His mother, Edith Beyr (née Gildersleeve), was a descendant of Pilgrims, and his father, Hans Georg Conried, Sr., was a Jewish immigrant from Vienna, Austria. He was raised in Baltimore and in New York City. He studied acting at Columbia University and went on to play many major classical roles onstage. Conried worked in radio before breaking into movies in 1939, and was also a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company.
Once Stanislavski became part of my life, the questioning became time consuming. Between Sigmund Freud, and Anton Stanislavski you begin to understand how and why I was a touch confused. Both of these gentlemen used reflection in order to get a handle on things. Sigmund helped you to look back and place blame at the origin of your problems, while Anton used all the world and people as cause and affect. I found little or no joy while reading any of Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, I will never stop marveling at the Stanislavski process.
The question of why I was reading never entered my mind (at the time). Was I reading because of the enjoyment factor, or was I striving to propel myself past my personal ignorance and inadequacies? The more I read, the more I realized how little I knew.
But for sure, a vast dam with unfathomable depths had been discovered.
At age twenty-one, I didn’t have time for fiction. It was one biography after another. I had a system. I would make notes about all the worthwhile and meaningful characters, which were mentioned in any particular biography I was currently reading, and proceeded to check out biographies of their lives. Regardless of the era, actors’ names appeared on a regular basis.
(Nothing appears to have changed; heads of state, as well as everyone else enjoys hobnobbing with the show biz crowd; that is as long as you don’t move in next to them, or are seen dating their daughters.)
I was reading and asking questions about real people. My discoveries were of enormous consequences on my future as a member of any truly creative team.
(Speaking of creative people…)
I will never forget the first time I sat in on a table reading of a new play. Listening to the writer, the producer, and the director immersed in a character breakdown, brought forward some unexpected emotions in me. (I’m about to say God) My God, these were people, like myself, asking each other questions, and then offering evaluations concerning the answers they were just given. It became loud, and charged with a sphere of emotions unrestricted by what we refer to today as “Political Correctness.”
Within each new play, and within each new audience we have a constant representation of the past. The playwright has long since done his or her delving. Each of our players is charged with the responsibility of presenting them with something insightful. Being in the present during the depiction of a former era cannot be accomplished by use of a single equation. Creative form is a development; a process. The older and more experienced I become, the more I find myself a believer in the “Stanislavski “ process.
“Where will they delve in order to derive a magic substance?
How will they reflect upon the past, and still covet the presence of the moment they’re in?
Perhaps in recalling the past, as if it were today; regaling over what once was; blushing over a moment; sharing a tear; or being so alone and inward comprehension of a depressive state of being is more real than any audience might expect.”
And so the Stanislavski beat goes on. Method is a process. Reading and asking questions is part and parcel of the process of continual growth, some refer to it as studying one’s craft, or being an actor.
An eight year old Reflecting
How was it we were always able to find something to laugh about? It wasn’t just my family. It seemed the entire neighborhood where I grew up was filled with people seeking out the humor in and of life. It was a time when it was easy to frown, easy to cry, easy to disparage the very best efforts of anyone and everyone. But that wasn’t the case for us. We were all fun loving children at play, while our parents and older relatives paid close attention to the important and life changing moments of our time, known as World War II.
To an eight-year-old boy it represented a time to develop one’s pride in his flag and country. As the men returned, each of our neighborhoods found more reasons for smiles to return, and laughter and frolicking to take its proper place. Most of the guys were treated as returning loved ones. I can’t remember any talk of them being heroes, other than in the movies.
Today, I find myself in a condition of wonderment. What happened to our spirit? Where is the real pride in our country? Why are we constantly being reminded of all the things we might have done wrong as a people?
As a child, my thoughts were usually about all the good provided by this great country of ours. In the streets we played all the favorite kids games: Cops and robbers, kick the can, cowboys and Indians – oh no it’s not politically correct to say the word “Indian.” I’ve had it explained to me, but I still don’t understand. I never had anything against Indians. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite icons while I was growing up was the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto. Even that gem was recently taken from me when I was advised the name Tonto meant something really bad in another language.
My dad, may he rest in peace, would think we’ve all lost our minds. Poking fun at one’s self was one of his most favorite things to do. Dad loved playing with the sounds of peoples names, especially all the Russian and eastern European names. Dad would take the most American of names and add a ski, or a vitch, or a combination of the two. A name like Smith could easily be turned into Smithskivitch. But, always in fun, never as a form of ridicule being pointed at an individual.
He (dad) never meant harm. He never harmed. We listened together to the rhythms of our times. Streets were part of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods meant people. There was nothing strange about it. Schools, schoolyards, playgrounds, barbershops, movie houses, churches, synagogues, grocery and hardware stores, the shoemaker, and many, many more.
We kids learned from each other; often we learned our lessons the hard way. None of us reasoned we were growing up in a bad neighborhood. Our commonality was just that, our commonality. Our differences were what constituted our sameness. Sure, the Italian, Irish, and Jewish neighbors had different dialects, but the similarities were massive. It appeared as if each family set out to deliberately crowd the streets with more children than their next-door neighbor could tolerate. Every inch of blacktop or concrete was occupied. The term birth control meant the couple wasn’t married yet. I mean there were brothers and sisters all over the place. Having a big family was what it was supposed to be. A family like mine with only three kids stood out from the others.
While we might have been a mixed bag of eight-year old boys, running, hanging out, and learning about sex (school yard fashion) we all had one massive similarity. Each of us was experiencing some form of religious training, whether we liked it or not. I never heard the word “atheist” until I became a grown up. If it was mentioned during my earliest reading exploits, it went unnoticed. Don’t get the wrong idea, we did have some harsh words being thrown around from time to time; usually one group might have difficulty understanding why there had to be any other religion other than theirs in existence. To me, a schoolyard to play in was a good thing regardless of what sect happened to be running it.
The “American Idol” of our day was “The Major Bows Amateur Hour.” (I never knew the guys real name. He was just Major Bows.) Adults and children alike would be ardent fans of the show, just as they are with American Idol today. The show was on once each week, and each week they would crown a new winner. The prizes were like next to nothing. Every kind of act imaginable was on the show. There were singers, dancers, impersonators, comedians, and people who played every kind of weird instrument in existence. I think back and smile about our family sitting and listening to the radio as the good major introduced a contestant who was going to tap dance for all of us.
Question: How many of you can reflect on a time when you and your family shared a cramped space in an apartment, sitting around a radio listening intently to a person tap dancing, or playing a musical saw, or believe it or not tapping out a number on his own hollow head? If ever there’s a call for an actor to play the part of a kid listening to a radio with his family, I could help bring some truth to it.
WRITER’S NOTE: If you gained nothing from what you just read, I really can’t find anything to apologize about. Just add it to your reflective tank for another day when the role calls for you to be contemptuous over me being bold enough to share my own personal, unsolicited enjoyment with you.
How dare me do that? I honestly thought I was giving you something.
I guess I was thinking about another Winston Churchill quote:
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
… And speaking of giving, I wonder how many actors realize their presentment and their characterization goes forth to another who becomes a receiver – one who will determine the depth of their life’s involvement at that moment in time.
Forever they have been known as they are known today: They are your audience. They are in your present. And though your character and time frame may be from another day or century, your receiver – the audience is in your present. Keep them there and you’ve got it made.
And speaking of the present, I must tell you about the most beautiful orange in the world. I never did get to see the orange. I’m merely telling you what was told to me, without solicitation I might add.
One extremely busy day at our studio, I was involved with a complex audition. We were hired to find the voice of a talking toilet bowl. The script had the toilet telling us of how he had been maligned in the past. It seemed the children in his household were calling him names, and poking fun at his discoloration. Some of the kids, believe it or not, were refusing to sit down on him. Anyway, I think you get the picture. Although we weren’t doing Shakespeare, I never the less continued my arduous task as if we were preparing for a New York opening. Actor after actor, from early in the morning until late in the day expounded on the benefits of a product which would make your toilet a pleasure to sit on.
We were approaching the end of the audition when the last actor scheduled, offered a reading I wasn’t prepared for. “I know you’re into gardening,” he began. I looked up from my console, through the glass, and gave him some form of affirmative motion to get on with it.
“I left it outside, but I wanted to tell you about it. I know you’re very busy, but my orange is the most orange orange I’ve ever seen. Its skin glistens when the light hits it. My children love to look at it. Even the neighbors come by to see my beautiful orange.”
He grew silent. I looked up and he had this marvelously angelic look on his face. I said without hesitation, “Okay, you can read it that way.” And so his orange became our talking toilet. And our talking toilet became the most beautiful toilet in the world.
Stanislavski would have been proud. Who knows what Winston Churchill might have thought?
Leave a Reply