Of course, these days it might seem stodgy or old-fashioned to have to have any sort of purpose for one’s actions… especially in the arts, where “Hey- just do what feels right, right?”
Well, I had been doing what felt right for a while, when I was in college, and I became aware that there might be a higher purpose to operate with.
In the sometimes desperate and anxiety-provoking field of acting, for example, having a purpose might seem like a nice fantasy; the reality being that one is usually happy to take any sort of part, as they are few and far between. (When I see actors interviewed with the inevitable “What made you choose a particular role?” , I always dub in “Because somebody wanted to hire me” as the non-PR answer, not “I’ve always been interested in the dynamics of the world of people working at a Dude Ranch…”)
But to my mind, if I was going to hunker down and become a professional actor, instead of a painter or illustrator, I had to know what direction I would head in, irrespective of what opportunities would be offered me based on my appearance, status, etc.
So I labored to find some kind of answer to the question, “What is honorable about being an actor?”
I had certainly, by about 1981, acquainted myself with the dishonorable part, (it is odd that there doesn’t exist a “dishonorable discharge” from the acting profession, probably because there is always some reality show waiting to scoop up and hire former stars who might have, in earlier times, been put in the stocks for a fortnight for their misadventures.)
The worst thing I ever did, the one that really ushered in my interest in an answer to this question, (and for which I should have been put into the stocks for a night or so) happened in my next to last year of college.
A fellow student who was a theater major asked me to appear in his senior thesis production that he was directing– Easter, by August Strindberg.
Feeling very full of myself to be courted, I decided to be magnanimous and agree to do the role. I had tremendous feelings of undeserved confidence at that time, much of it brought about by a regular consumption of inappropriate chemicals.
The role, naturally, was a character role, that of Lindquist, “The Creditor”, a grey-bearded old Swede. It was the kind of part Orson Welles would have called a “Mister Wu” role– a character that everyone speaks about and foresages throughout the first acts of a play, and then, once he arrives, hardly has to do anything at all to have an enormous impact.
Welles had played the part of Mister Wu in a play by the same name, was spoken of exhaustively by the players in the first act, and didn’t actually appear on stage until a moment before the curtain fell before intermission, saying nothing but simply appearing in the distance. Welles said all that was heard out in the lobby at the interval was, “… And wasn’t that guy who played Mister Wu great?”
The Creditor, in Easter, a depressing Strindberg play (to be redundant) was such a character; feared, dreaded and bemoaned about in great detail until the final beats of the last of three acts, when he enters and… well.
I didn’t like standing backstage for two and a half acts.
We did about four or five performances, and with each succeeding show, I grew more and more restive, despite my commitment to “do a favor for” my friend.
Not knowing at that time the story and lesson of Orson Welles and Mister Wu, and being possessed of enormous resources of ill-placed self esteem, I contrived to sabotage the last night of the production. It was going to be my “pay” for waiting around backstage so much, wasting the valuable time I could have been spending investigating how much beer I could get into my stomach.
My purpose as an actor, it might be said, was under-developed at this moment.
Lindquist, arrives at the door at the end of the last act, confronts the propitiating male lead who owes him a lot of money, and in an act of far-fetched mercy, forgives him the loan, supporting the redemptive theme of Easter, the title of the play.
I worked it out that instead of being admitted to the house through the front door, on the final night I would come crashing in thru the window. I even made a make-shift ramp out of a low table so that I could really catch some major air before I entered. Premeditated.
Where did I get that idea? Who the hell knows. It became a kind of private dare, one I couldn’t resist taking. In those days, any feeling of giddy anticipatory fear was a kind of command to obeyed.
So, on the final night, an audience of students, friends and faculty were treated to the surrealistic and jarring event of a grey-haired and bearded man in Victorian garb crash splinteringly through the wooden mullions and delicate lace curtains of the front window and land with a thud onto the floor of the stage.
An act of terrorism, as far as the world of theatre is concerned.
The remainder of the play, including, of course, it’s timeless message of redemption and personal integrity, was washed away by a flood of senseless improvisations by the other actors, who rightly assumed that nothing could salvage the show, and valiantly struggled to save themselves until the lights came down.
Afterwards, I felt very self-righteous about the whole thing, even though some distant warning bell in my psyche clanged a signal that perhaps this was not my finest hour.
The young director, whom I ostensibly was doing a big favor for, didn’t speak to me for about a decade. I think it speaks very highly for him that he ever spoke to me again at all.
That ignoble event, unique in my career, I’m relieved to say, marked the beginning of my search for a worthwhile purpose as an actor. I think deep down I did not want to continue to lead a life of artistic crime.
I then began the lonely search for a reason why being an actor was a noble pursuit, and how a flawed chap such as myself might participate in such a purpose. Luckily, I got some valuable help along the way.