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In-the-moment done deals: The joy of an Indy Actors' Playground cold reading

For years, two critiques of theater by famous novelists have stuck in my craw, and I can't say that either one is easy to dismiss. I can minimize them, though. So I was happy to be confirmed in my belief in the viability of stage drama by the richness of Indy Actors' Playground's January "cold reading" last night. Attempts by John Updike and Martin Amis to disparage theater rest on two different foundations, both of them worth considering, yet faulty.

Lou Harry and Paul Hansen, co-masters of these long-running revels, once a year depart from the format of a reading chosen by one actor, who selects a cast of fellow readers; then the ad hoc troupe comes to the Playground with minimal to no rehearsal.  In IAP's "cold cold reading," actors are invited to participate by the founders and handed an envelope with their parts marked. It's showtime. Until a given signal to begin, they don't know what's inside.

Monday's show, an amusing but overstuffed travesty of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," with an overlay of satire aimed at British pop culture of the late 20th century, required a cast that spilled over the sides of Indy Reads Books' cozy stage. The actors had me believing in an inherently incredible spoof. Through them, I knew these people, even they were the most transparent of caricatures.

A significant part of the entertainment was the opportunity to be awed by how thoroughly trained actors can puff life into characters they've just met. Believable impersonations, instantaneously realized, resulted. An actor's imagination and his/her ability to convert its work into a simulacrum of reality on the spot  partakes of the miraculous in my admittedly skeptical view of miracles.

Venue for a miracle: The bookstore stage for Indy Actors' Playground
Of course, there's usually years of training involved. As with most advanced skills, there was surely in everyone onstage an early knack for getting it right, which they built upon. And there's current involvement in theater to keep the requisite chops fresh and applicable to new teams and new roles, not to mention the stress of door-opening auditions. To be sure, as among classical musicians, there are variations in the poise and accuracy of sight reading among artists whom adequate rehearsal (with coaching and direction, where necessary) eventually puts on the same level playing field before the public.

But I'm continually struck by the snap-crackle-pop of impersonation. The great drama critic Max Beerbohm always referred to actors as "mimes," a word we too exclusively apply to pantomime, the wordless artistry of Marcel Marceau and his descendants. But "mime" also draws upon the origins of the word in ancient Greek and Roman shows of simple, often ridiculous imitation. There's a comic aspect to pretending to be another person, a kind of parlor trickery, even if the vehicle is tragedy.

This potentially uncomfortable basis of the art provides a way in for the scorn of Amis and Updike.  The American author, who died in 2009 after a staggeringly prolific career as an honored man of letters, somewhere says that theater rests on the weak basis of making utterances and actions that have been scrupulously prepared seem to be spontaneous.

The studied aspect of theater erected an obstacle for Updike, even though he wrote a sort of playable play about the only president to come from the author's home state of Pennsylvania, James Buchanan. To Updike, theater's artificiality was insurmountable and false to life. What characters do and say in a novel or short story takes place in a perpetual present; readers and re-readers make it happen as they proceed through the text. Dialogue and action in a staged play happen within a span of time — a span that's replicated and similarly filled more than once, for audiences, by people assigned to represent events and utterances that pretend to be unpracticed. How can that be anything like life?

The parlor-trick aspect of acting also bothers Amis, but mainly as a way to cast into suspicion the whole literary genre. Amis heaps disdain upon a playwright's collaboration with a host of others; the playwright necessarily distances himself from the lives he purports to represent.  There are too many others involved. Amis seems to be asking, Where's the artistry in that? "All he has done is finished the dialogue; and, as any novelist knows, compared to the other exertions of fiction the demands of dialogue are negligible."

The essay in which this appears seconds Vladimir Nabokov's own dislike of theater, despite the book under review being a volume of  the Russian-American writer's early plays. Amis makes an exception for Shakespeare, but for him it's an exception that proves a dismal rule. In a typically vivid comparison, Amis explains: "The fact that Shakespeare should have been, of all things, a dramatist is one of the great cosmic jokes of all time — as if Mozart had spent his entire career as second wash-board or string-twanger in some Salzburg skiffle troupe."
Voices of the opposition: Martin Amis (above) and John Updike

It's an amusing but nonsensical analogy, really. But novelists, who are apt to exaggerate the heroic loneliness writing fiction, may be peculiarly susceptible to it. They may play well with others, but working well together is beyond the pale. In his Paris Review interview, Ernest Hemingway said truly that "the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit detector," but its mechanics tend to break down when applied to one's own work, as his did. Novels aren't workshopped or devised, and more's the pity, perhaps. (Hemingway came up with a provocative, short closet drama about the Crucifixion, "Today Is Friday.")

Another prolific English novelist, Anthony Burgess, suggests in "Nothing Like the Sun" that Shakespeare yearned to be a lyric poet, but resorted to the theater as a fallback career choice. Hmmm....did we really need more of  "The Phoenix and the Turtle" or "The Rape of Lucrece"?

So there you have it: Drama is a either a slender reed, always propped up, crafted by committee, and on the brink of wilting and withering in the garden of art (Amis) or it's a scam, since everyone knows that the mimicry is basically contrived deception, at too far a remove from how people actually talk and act (Updike).

To me, though readers' theater is not the ultimate expression of its art form, it may indicate how lifelike working unprepared from a script can be. It largely sidesteps the objections of Amis and Updike. It puts collaboration, except for what is happening immediately before our eyes and ears, at a minimum, and brings to the fore the sprightliness of the text itself, thus coming close to the immediacy of spoken dialogue in real life. It may help win this argument, but it remains rudimentary to what drama is all about.

Novelists, I love you, but please tend to your knitting. I'll still often want to drape myself in the finery of theater, in its blend of natural and artificial fabric.

IRT's 'Morning After Grace' brings some unresolved difficulties of older lives to the fore

Angus and Abigail confront the meaning of their night together.
Some people feel a calling to be helpful to others. Some feel a calling to have others help them. Often they are the same people, which gets complicated. There was a lot of this in my generation, where my place was at the front end of the life stage that grips the three characters in "Morning After Grace," a knotty comedy by Carey Crim now in production at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

We mixed up selflessness and selfishness, imagining we were tearing down walls. Let me tell you a story: In graduate school, I joined a T-group, shorthand for a sensitivity training group, which enjoyed a vogue in the late 1960s. We went deep into each other's lives in regular meetings, guided by a professional counselor. A half-dozen or so of us anxious scholars, approaching the end of the paid-for sessions, were feeling incipient separation anxiety.

The bond we were so certain of had been created and sustained largely through Myron's gentle professionalism. One of us had a bright idea, outside the scheduled session: "We've all become good friends, and Myron is as much of a friend as anyone," she said to unanimous agreement. "Why don't we keep going as a group, and ask Myron to continue with us?"

The idea should have appalled the rest of us, but it didn't, not openly at least. It meant we would no longer pay Myron. Surely this wise, older guide was such a great, open-hearted soul that he would go along. We presented her idea to him at our last scheduled session. Somehow he declined so gracefully that the nervy idea vanished into thin air, with no evident hard feelings. But we had crossed a line, and no one spoke up to object to the cheap, unethical ploy. The world revolved around us, and all barriers were to be demolished through the force of our wry idealism. The fact that Myron was credentialed and paid to be as good as he was shouldn't matter, right?

OK, boomer.

That phrase, which tersely sums up the occasionally just critique of my generation by millennials, could well function as a dark subtitle for "Morning After Grace." The play throws together three professionals, retired or close to retirement, heading toward the Biblical limit of three score and ten. One of them, Abigail, still practices her profession of grief counseling, but she is called to be helpful in this play to assist resolution of her own griefs as well as those of her one-night-stand lover, Angus.

The key departure from what my T-group asked of Myron is that this is a voluntary application of Abigail's skills
Pot party: Climax of the funny stuff in "Morning After Grace"
that goes well beyond her three master's degrees and the fact that her professional bond with the third character, Ollie, focuses on the death of a pet. The raucous comedy set-up is rich at first, including a hilarious marijuana episode as the second act gets under way, but the darkening of the palette is expertly applied under Janet Allen's direction.

All three of these sympathetically portrayed people have self-work to do. The most real assistance any of us can make use of is probably through actual relationships, with payment in terms other than financial. Like every generation before or since, the one that came of age during what has been called "the American high" had to learn this. But it was our fault we forced ourselves to undergo greater disillusionment. We thought life was all about gift exchange, but we wanted that tilted toward our advantage. It's "easy to be hard," the song from "Hair" warned us; but we mocked it (at least the guys did) as "It's easy to get hard."

Henry Woronicz plays Angus displaying his usual gift for keeping a character's mask in place until it has to be thrown aside. He has crudely followed his wife Grace's funeral with an impulsive hooking up with Abigail, an accidental guest at the ceremony who nurtures a deep need to get back into action, her husband having dumped her. "Funerals are our singles bars," Angus says flippantly. Like Abigail, he also pursued a "helping profession," but in contrast to her, his work as a human-rights lawyer seems no longer pertinent. He lives in a blandly gorgeous dream condo, which scenic designer Bill Clarke has captured to perfection, as far as I can tell.

Angus' privileged status has some parallels with Abigail's life, though she has the advantage of relevance that retirees often struggle to sustain. As played by Laura T. Fisher, her wit and gift for repartee are linked to a firm notion of self-worth, undercut though it is by unmet emotional needs. Abigail's emergent vulnerabilities were poignantly delivered in the January 19 performance I saw.

Privilege is most compromised among the three charaacters in Ollie's situation. Hobbled by a hip injury, he is a former major-league baseball player further challenged in status by the sexual orientation he must keep hidden from his homophobic father, a nursing-home resident in Arizona. Ollie is also black, and commendably the playwright has little need to underscore that disadvantage on the top of the other. Compared to Abigail and Angus, he has the benefit of a stable, long-term relationship. Spats with James, his unseen partner, arise from his stark reluctance to come out to his father. Joseph Primes' performance was classy and resilient, revealing Ollie's eventual triumph of grace under pressure, thanks to Abigail and his own inner resources.

Evoking that Hemingway phrase brings me to the significance of the characters' names. "Angus" appropriately suggests anguish; the two hard consonants near the front of "Abigail" hint at her toughness, though the way the name softens and its sharing of an initial vowel with "Angus" gets at her tenderness. "Ollie" is deceptively soft on purpose, I believe, with a touch of irony. And how differently we would process this play if Angus' deceased wife were named Betty or Lauren! Grace is a quality that needs to emerge eventually from the play's roiling conflicts. It carries religious weight, so it is not absurd that Abigail's bringing up her clients' reports of butterflies or birds accompanying bereavement is confirmed by a cardinal's appearing to Angus through the skylight in the second act. Someone sitting near me said "Oh, no!" when this happened, but it worked.

The tension in the second act becomes nearly unbearable. The director's pacing has a masterly appropriateness;
Angus' defenses collapse as he comes to term with his wife's death.
the silences that mark Angus' pain are deafening. There was audience reaction: someone started applauding in anticipation of the final curtain, short of the play's necessary resolution. And, unprecedented in my theater-going experience, a man in my row left in front of us within ten minutes of the true ending. Nothing can break the theatrical illusion more thoroughly than someone even momentarily blocking your view. I tamed my annoyance by speculating that he had a really urgent call of nature. Then I hoped that if he had been triggered emotionally he might get the kind of help that eventually benefits Angus. Earlier, my own feeling at the successive departures of Ollie and Abigail in the second act I will credit to Crim: It was "please don't go" and "please come back." They did go, and they did come back. I had been on the floor there with Angus.

I'm also grateful to the playwright for not larding her script with topical Baby Boomer references. "Morning After Grace" doesn't need them. We don't have to hear the grief counselor talk about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, or the ex-Tiger allude to Stormin' Norman or that hoss Kirk Gibson as he mimicked pulling a chain-saw rope while rounding the bases. In "Morning After Grace," we are placed in the now of life's approaching twilight and asked to understand the power of grace as it may come to us, whatever generation we identify with.

Mine may deserve such grace more than my T-group had any right long ago to implore a professional counselor to abandon his standing in order to answer our illegitimate "calling" to him to be friends. The way he answered that request has given me space to generate my own reproach.

So thank you, Myron.

And I'm sorry, Myron.

OK, boomer.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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