On Observing Artists in Their Junior Year

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I’m in Seattle this week.

Some very nice people have made it possible for me to speak, in my capacity as a critic, to a class of university theater students on why to become professional theater practitioners. They’re lovely kids. I’ve met some of them; I’ve seen some perform; I’m going to deliver the first lecture tomorrow. I guarantee I’m more excited about it than they are.

Last night I saw a junior class put up a ten-minute play festival. Watching people half my age act in stuff their peers have written, under the direction of yet other peers, all for a grade, is an experience that makes for delicious nail-biting.

There’s very strong work here. It’s not all perfect. It’s not all ready. It’s in the machine. It’s coming. You can see the habits that will turn into asset or progress-crushing handicap. You shout, wince, gasp at the fine, the good, the what-was-that? I love them so: less because once, there went I, than because they matter desperately to an open future.

Here’s why: I’m old. Not dying-old, but curmudgeon-old, surely; not-easily-impressed-old, definitely. Old enough to have developed convictions and fear that they will be proved correct. So when I see young people I want them to surprise me by heading in the right direction.

Some of the young actors smoke. I was very glad to see this. Continua are important to old people.

Most of the young performers still have self-conscious limitations that make them specific actors. I was glad to see this, too, for the same reason. If they aren’t yet capable of the most neutral approach, they might grow into that; you can’t effectively bring yourself to a traditional Congreve or Sophocles without a degree of neutrality, but not everyone wants to. The worst thing a young artist thinks can happen to her is to lose her specific voice, to have the memorable eccentricity taken away. It’s narcissism of the most adorable and tedious sort. I wish I could say I have grown out of it.

Many of the young actors have already discovered their particular strengths. Having a facility for language or movement is a fine leg up. Whether those strengths will become coaching specialties (“Here’s a flyer for my Alexander classes”) or superpowers (“Just booked another lead in a drama set in a dance company”) is very much in question for all of them. Edge of my seat.

Many have already discovered their personal Kryptonites. Some are, admirably, building lead garbage cans. But some may be mistaking Kryptonite for a yellow sun. Casting directors will tell you that you should lead with your easiest idiosyncrasy: if you naturally carry a lot of anger, drink whiskey in the morning and stab your audition partner on-camera; if one leg is shorter than the other, wear a platform sole on the long side and change your name to The Gimp. This may be good advice when trying to get a single gig. But like us all, casting directors are interested in making their jobs easier. They aren’t generally looking out for your long haul. Getting over your tendency to mumble or stumble or rumble is a personal growth devoutly to be wished.

The young writers whose work I’ve seen here are juggling the same exact issues. Knowing you can write dialogue and are weak on story, do you try harder at creating active characters, or do you concentrate on making them sing? Same with the directors: if you’re good at working with actors but can’t figure out how to make them move, do you want to be known as the one who got that actor to his most moving, and static, performance of the year?

I want them all to win. I want every one of them to get perfect. They won’t, all. Some of them will never work professionally – don’t ask me: ask the numbers. Many of them won’t be trying in five years. They’ll be working at the jobs their aptitudes and temperaments, and limited academics-provided skill sets, have best equipped them to fill.

The ones who keep making art will see me in the audience. I hope to god they’re excellent. Because if they haven’t been working hard, if they haven’t been true to the lessons they learned at school and on their feet, I will rip their fucking hearts out. And if you think I’m a tough critic, try a paying audience. Or a producer. Or your mom when she asks you again whether you’ve looked for a job this month.