“All you really have to do is connect. With the other actors. Live moment to moment; that’s exactly how Macbeth is living.” – Geoffrey
Humility is a theme echoed over and over again in this week’s installment of Slings and Arrows. Geoffrey must swallow his pride to get Henry back, just as Henry must swallow his to take his seat at the negotiating table. Richard must face his share of responsibility for the catastrophic marketing choices made by Frog Hammer. Ellen is given a lesson in humility by the reverence shown to her by her audit agent.
Perhaps the biggest lesson in humility, though, is taught to us by understudy Jerry, in all of his behavior, action, and effort as he stepped into the role of Macbeth. Jerry, rightly, is our hero this week, and most of my thoughts right now are on the thrilling journey an understudy takes as he or she steps into the spotlight for the first time.
This is one of my favorite episodes of the entire run of Slings. It could easily be referred to simply as “the understudy episode”, and people would know what you’re talking about. It’s one of the handful you could easily pull out of the run and show it as a beautiful example of how right this show really does by theatre.
Every beat of this story rings exceptionally true, having both done a bit of coverage work myself, and having worked with many more. Terror and uncertainty fill the minds of everyone, especially Jerry, when the news comes down from Geoffrey. The fight call at understudy rehearsal has everyone fearing for their lives, and half-joking requests are made to not slash us in the face, thank you very much. Geoffrey pours mountains of information on the unsuspecting Jerry, and all he can do is stand there and hope something, anything, sticks.
(to watch the entire episode, see below)
Jerry’s got a tough job ahead of him, as evidenced by the audible “boos” he hears over the P.A. when Maria announces to the audience he will be playing the role instead. Geoffrey reassures him that “Everybody loves an underdog”, even if they don’t necessarily want one going in.
As we in the theatre know, though, it all ultimately boils down to one thing: adrenaline. Once that play begins, once the foot is on the gas petal, there ain’t no going back. Jerry is Macbeth. The cast is there to make it work (and the support shown in Jerry’s “big walk” to the stage is very lovely). Jump three pages with a wrong line? That’s why you’ve got an SM! Drop a line? Emily’s time to shine, at last! Executing your fight choreography on the razors-edge of accuracy? The audience is on the edge of their seat!
And Jerry, you can be sure, makes the blunders, jumps the page, and scares his SM and cast mates to death. However, in doing so, he lives the role in a way that Geoffrey had yet to see in Henry’s measured, technical performance. The cast and ASM have his back, and the actor playing MacDuff, in a lovely moment, whispers to his friend, “You did it, man!”, just before chopping off his head. There was a viscera to Macbeth with Jerry in the role that couldn’t be denied, even by jaded Brian and a reluctant, in-denial Henry, both of whom decided to attend his performance. Brian reminds Henry that productions like this come along once in a lifetime, and persuades his friend to return to the negotiating table.
Jerry’s adventure has done wonders on the other side of that equation, and the company is now united, but Ellen reminds us of the plight of the understudy: “Jerry had a great night, but he’s not Macbeth. And the next time he’s onstage,” without the intoxication of adrenaline, “he’s gonna realize that, and it’ll kill him.” Geoffrey must invite Henry back, and swallow his pride to do so.
Of the two men who must humble themselves, though, only Geoffrey truly succeeds. He’s in the right, but kowtows to Henry’s need for apology, while Henry isn’t able to offer Geoffrey the same. A matured, compromising Geoffrey is inclined to accept defeat gracefully, but Brian of all people encourages him to stick up for his vision. But how does one do that when your lead actor is playing a different game entirely? Geoffrey asks Maria to call a company meeting, sans Henry, to hatch a plan…
Elsewhere, we are reminded that “humility” doesn’t mean “humiliation”, though the two do share that root word and all. Poor Anna (is someone keeping a tally of these?)…she meets a nice playwright, and they share idiosyncrasies, have a few good times in the bedroom, and then he goes and puts it all onstage in his new play workshop.
This is a sensitive issue in the theatre world, the idea of the private becoming the public. “You used my words”, she says, hurt. As cruel as it seemed, Lionel does have a point when he, in explaining himself, tells Anna, “Because you said them to me. When you say them to me they become my words,” part of his own experience. It’s the fundamental way that artists function, and their experience is all they have. You have to commend Slings for appreciating the nuance of this, as Lionel rightly and sensitively offers to shelve the play out of sensitivity to Anna’s feelings. It’s only when he tosses that sensitivity aside to pursue the off-Broadway producer that he really appears as the ass he is.
The person who motivates Anna to stand up for herself is, shockingly enough, Ellen, struggling with her own identity issues. Nothing rubs an artist raw like a wake-up call from the Real World, and isn’t that exactly what an audit is meant to represent?
Of course, an artist/real world story wouldn’t be complete without giving the artist a little humility, and Ellen gets that when she realizes her counselor is a fan of hers. She sees Festival shows every summer, and it’s a very special treat. Such a fan is she that she even begins quoting Pauline from Winter’s Tale to Ellen, as an example of the strength she’s seen Ellen have.
Ellen immediately begins to cry, and wonders why she didn’t say anything, and the counselor’s answer is everything here: “I didn’t want to complicate our relationship.” It’s played for a laugh, which it gets, but it is at the heart of Ellen’s whole dilemma – she can’t compartmentalize the different emotional worlds she lives in. We see this throughout the episode, as Ellen just can’t stop telling people she slept with her brother-in-law. Ellen’s no sociopath, of course. She brings it up so as to say, “aren’t I messed up?”, but that doesn’t change the fact that’s she’s screwing up here.
Richard, however, is screwing up monumentally. After a conversation with Sanjay where Sanjay seems to be packing up the office, the authorities show up to drop an anvil on Richard – Sanjay is a con man, Frog Hammer isn’t real. Richard put his fate in the hands of a mad man.
Once again, and perhaps one final time, I’d like to tip my hat to Colm Feore. Richard visits Sanjay in prison, and here you can see a man absolutely committed to his convictions. Sanjay (or whatever his name is) truly believes all this stuff that he’s told Richard, even if he’s made it all up. “Youthquake”, he says, is coming! Young people buy impulsively, so don’t worry, your tickets will sell! Richard, finally, is able to wriggle away from Sanjay’s grip, but the damage is done, and now Sanjay must politely resign the account (!). Richard is so powerless that he can’t even effectively fire Sanjay while the man is in prison.
Richard has messed up colossally, and the board member he’s been confiding in all season wastes no time in telling him so. In fact, he will take great glee in hanging Richard out to dry, refusing his offer of resignation, instead preferring to gleefully fire him at the next board meeting.
Sounds like a good set up for a finale to me!
From Caitlin Griffin
What a piece of work is a man. He is neither head nor foot nor arm nor face nor any other part belonging to a man. He is all made of sighs and tears, all made of fantasy, of passion, wishes, all humbleness, all patience, and impatience. He is man. He can reason. He has passions. And he is flawed.
One of the key reasons we bang on about for why Shakespeare’s work endures is because it remains relevant. No matter how much time spans his lifetime and ours, he used his work to explore so many facets of human existence that we revere him almost as a philosopher. Geoffrey’s problem with Oliver’s (and Henry’s) vision of Macbeth was that he wasn’t a rounded man. It was a real failing of Oliver’s that we saw in the first episode of Season 1 so long ago that he couldn’t hear the characters’ voices through his vision of the play. He knew exactly how the play should look and who should perform it, but didn’t actually seek the humanity in the words. Oliver is a great director for vision, but Geoffrey is the greater director of textual meaning. For a production like this, you would need them both in order to get the full story.
Darren’s having a similar problem – it turns out he’s directing Romeo and Juliet not to touch or kiss because he doesn’t view them as people with wants and needs and motivations – but rather as icons. Paper people breathed into air saying the words without feeling because words, themselves, cannot feel. Paper cannot feel love. The characters remain abstract for him. He has a long way to go.
Because the theatre is magical when the balance is just right: when you have a man onstage playing a man in turmoil and the audience suspends their disbelief and allows themselves to relate to that man for a couple of hours – to see themselves in him. To explore their suppressed feelings of ambition or fear or whatever else it is they’re feeling with him. To empathise. What Geoffrey wanted, and what Jerry gave him, was a man living moment to moment – unsure of his next steps and afraid of the consequences of his failures. What if we fail? And somehow he is able to screw his courage to the sticking place and get through that show – proving to everyone, including Brian and maybe even getting under Henry’s skin just a little – that the play is not about a cocksure soldier – but about a man who aims too high. That it could have been any one of us, not just any husky confident guy, but any of us is what Jerry shows us. Even Nahume is all about the show while Jerry’s on.
An aside, from my personal experience, the audience is most always on the side of the understudy. While this audience booed at the announcement that an unknown actor would be replacing the famous lead, they were all on his side as soon as he took the stage. My husband and I honeymooned in London, and decided to see Les Mis on a Tuesday night with the usual understudy in the lead role. 15 minutes into the performance, right after Jean Val Jean was granted his reprieve by the Bishop, and sang about making a new start, the show abruptly halted. The actors beginning “At the End of the Day” were as confused as we were. An announcement told us that we would resume shortly and that the role of Jean Val Jean would now be played by Simon Shorten. We scanned our programs, and realized that Simon was a swing. 15 minutes into the show after being in the ensemble for just about a year, he was going to play JVJ for the first time, ever. He had about 10 minutes to prepare and get into costume and suddenly had a scene and then had to sing “Who am I?” The irony was lost on none of us. We – the audience, all of us – were pulling so hard for him to do well. Not because we needed him to justify our time and money, but because we wanted him to have that experience of being amazing. By the time he got to “Bring Him Home” we were on the edges of our seats, and we didn’t stop applauding for a long while.
That’s theatre – that moment where you know you’re seeing something amazing because you are THERE NOW, IN that moment.
Geoffrey wants that kind of feeling for every performance of this show, and shouldn’t we aspire to that? Have you ever felt that kind of magic in the Theatre?
Watch along with us:
1) Borrow the complete series DVDs from a friend. Trust me; someone you know owns them. If you want to drop the cash, they sell the DVDs in the Shakespeare Theatre Company gift shop and on Amazon, where the whole series is $38.99.
2) Netflix! has the series available on DVD.
3) Amazon Prime. If you’re paying for the year-round two-day shipping ($74.99 a year), you already get it for free as part of their unlimited streaming content.)
4) Amazon Instant. $1.99 per episode, or $8.99 for each whole season.
Quotes and Stray Thoughts:
“I was just making it up as I went along.” – Patrick
“You have strong improvisational skills.” – Stephanie, to Patrick, following his very first time having sex with a girl.
Stephanie lies about Patrick not being in her bed, and Henry lies about being at home when he’s actually at the bar. Location lies aplenty.
“Which would you prefer: an empty house with a great play, or a full house a piece of garbage?” (without any hesitation) “GARBAGE! GARBAGE! I WANT GARBAGE!” – Geoffrey and Richard, or any artistic director and any managing director, really. One of my favorite quotes in the entire series.
“I know the soliloquies cold, it’s just the … parts in between, not so much.” – Jerry, on his prioritized preparation for the show. I think any understudy can relate to this.
Henry manages to insult Jerry while seated three seats away from his estranged wife. Add it to the list of “reasons to hate Henry.”
On the subject of Jerry’s wife: I love every bit of this story of her reengaging in his actor life by getting to watch him really shine. I also love how they just CAN’T get a moment alone backstage. Popular guy, that Jerry!
“I’m an actor, everything is personal!” – Ellen, feeling insulted by her payable audit amount.
Some highlights from Darren’s Romeo and Juliet rehearsal:
“Please don’t try to do the play, don’t kiss each other! Don’t touch each other!”
“I don’t want you to play anything! Why can’t you understand this?!”
(in response to some back-talk) “I don’t want to hear anything coming out of that mouth unless it’s a line from the play, spoken flatly and without emotion!”
“They are signifiers!”
“You were great, Jerry. You were really great…” “But I’m not your Macbeth.” “You were last night.” – Geoffrey and Jerry, perfectly encapsulating the beauty and sadness of an understudy’s big night, before the “real” star comes back.
“That is the language of defeat!” “That’s because we’re DEFEATED!” – Sanjay and Richard, with Sanjay still perky even in orange.
“Stand up for who you are; don’t be like a gnat from Winkler.” – Ellen, encouraging Anna to not be like “Annette”, the character based on Anna in Lionel’s play. Ellen is made of tact, she is.
“For God’s sake, Maria, for once in your life forget that you’re a stage manager!” “I can’t…” – Geoffrey appealing to Maria’s less fastidious side to get a cast meeting behind Henry’s back. She conforms at last: “Alright, but if Equity finds out…”, “Tell them it was a … safety thing”, Geoffrey offers.
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