Tim’s Blog: #7

Before I came to LA I was reliably informed that it wasn’t a theatre town. LA was film and television. Theatre, I was told, was the poor relation. Plays were produced as showcases for the ‘industry’. Playwrights wrote plays that would expose their talent for writing putative screenplays. It feels that the last week of An Oak Tree at the Odyssey Theatre has enabled me to retire that theory. LA is a theatre town.

Sitting inside a bright blue, rather disheveled shack on Sepulveda Boulevard is an idea – an idea that seems to have ignited an impulse that connects with something more fundamental than castings and agents and pilots. Before film and TV there was live theatre – a story being received by an audience in the live moment of its telling. A transaction unmediated by technology or focus groups or million dollar budgets. In An Oak Tree a story is told and a transformation is achieved with little more than a word. The simplicity of this alchemy is what seems to be doing the trick. A performance is created without headshots or resumes, without casting or audition, without consideration for career move or financial gain. Without even rehearsal. Someone arrives at the theatre an hour before the show begins. Someone with curiosity, with fear and a sense of adventure. Someone prepared to step into the unknown in front of 99 strangers. This is the impulse that got us in to acting in the first place – or at least it should be. And this impulse is alive and well in LA – attracting both actors and audiences.

I’m here because I’m here to do this work. This is what I want to do – and I’ve had the most amazing week.

Wednesday January 13th – Jesse Burch. This is wonderful. Jesse is the friend of Clancy Brown whom Clancy banned from seeing the show the previous week – with the insistence that he must do it. Jesse is the man we met in the bar after Clancy’s performance; whose presence at the bar prevented Clancy and I from talking about the show. Now it is Jesse’s turn – and Clancy is in the audience again! Jesse is, as you Americans say, ‘psyched’. He becomes almost a punch bag for the show. The story swings at him and he goes down again and again – sometimes literally, a heaving, sobbing mass on the floor. Then he’s up and asking for more! Afterwards, the show is everything he wanted and more. He thanks Clancy for his action in allowing him to experience it. So many promises upheld!

Thursday – Dan O’Connor. I had the honour of seeing Dan play the part of Price in an entirely improvised Shakespeare play at the Theatre Asylum last Sunday night. Shakespeare Unscripted is a group of blisteringly good improvisers who make up long form plays in the style of Shakespeare. I am in awe of their abilities. One of them is one of my producers, Michele Spears. She played Millicent the night I was there, the gypsy maid, sister of Price who ended up marrying the Duke of York (don’t ask….). Michele is thrilled at the prospect of Dan in An Oak Tree. He is a hugely experienced improviser – working all over the world. I tell Dan that my play is improvised, but that it’s not improvised with words. So this is a new discipline for Dan – and he rises to the challenge. He is simple in the play – a quality that is so under-rated and so hard to achieve. He moves through it without guile. I watch his improviser’s instinct grapple with the constraints of a set text. And, rather than responding with an empty flourish, he responds with honesty and innocence and presence. Michelle is overjoyed. The audience is full of fellow improvisers, many of whom come to the bar afterwards. With a beer inside me, I half offer to come play at one of their sessions. I ask my second actors to step out of their comfort zone; it would be disingenuous of me not to do the same….

Friday – Jennifer Leigh Warren. What is it that makes an actor agree to do this show? It’s not the money. Each actor gets $50. It’s not the showcase potential. It contacts something – almost a dare. Jennifer is stunning – immaculate smile, immaculate hair, immaculate clothes. She’s a singer – with Broadway credits and a photograph of her and Stevie Wonder on her web site. Her agent told her about An Oak Tree and she said ‘yes’! Than you, Jennifer, for you bravery! She’s nervous when we meet and I work hard to calm her. She walks on stage at the beginning and the enormity of what she’s agreed to do starts to gently hit her. It is a wonderful process. At times her voice fades out and then in again. She looks like she’s in the middle of a tornado. At the end she searches for words to describe the experience. We head to the bar and start to unpick her experience. She is keen to come back and see what it is she’s just done!

Saturday – Beth Grant. Beth and I talk about children and family and marriage and whether she’s wearing the right pants (in English, trousers) and acting and love and theatre and film and schools and careers. At one point in the bar after the show she, her wonderful husband and her beautiful daughter all have their iPhones out and are showing me photos of each other. I have rarely seen a family so integrated and in love. This foundation becomes the bedrock for Beth’s performance in An Oak Tree. She is fearless – she understands loss and love. She flings her hands out, she holds on, she attacks and parries. She is a true line throughout and she pushes me. I follow her.

Sunday – Joe Orrach. I’ve met Joe earlier in the week when I go into USC and talk about my work to the MFAs. My old friends David Bridel (who did An Oak Tree with me in New York in 2006) and Brian Parsons both work at USC and my presence in LA is a chance for us to meet and share and catch up. Joe Orrach is in the first year of the MFA acting programme. He looks about 38, but he’s a fair bit older than that. And he has lived. He started out life tap dancing and brawling on the streets of the Bronx. He went on to tap dance with Gregory Hines as well as becoming the air force welterweight boxing champion. He has now started to probe deeply into his life and work – pulling together his experiences, starting to work out what he has and where he’s going. David Bridel selected him for An Oak Tree and it was a good choice. Joe is built like a poetic muscle. Shaven headed, powerful, light on his feet and heavy in his soul. He could sit in my play, not do a thing, and it would be devastating. Before we start he tells me that he’s not going to ‘act’. After we stop he says he acted ‘too much’! He’s still a little suspicious of ‘acting’ and, looking around at what’s on offer, I’m not surprised. But Joe doesn’t need to doubt what he’s doing because it is extraordinary. At one point, caught in the emotion of the moment, he pushes me with the flat of his hand and I feel his energy. Good luck Joe. And thank you.

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