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Artistic "Journeys" and Other Terrible Metaphors

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-10-13


I finally learned to stop buying "Special Edition" DVD sets of favorite movies because I discovered that knowing the behind the scenes secrets of the film making process actually detracted from my enjoyment of the movie. It's interesting to know, for instance, that Martin Sheen was really drunk in the famous drunk scene in Apocalypse Now, the scene where Captain Willard freaks out and punches the mirror, but ultimately this knowledge interrupts my connection to the narrative — I quit thinking of Willard's torments and start focusing on Sheen's. I usually watch Apocalypse Now once a year, and I find that that scene always stops the movie cold for me. It's like reading a novel and having to deal with a long-winded footnote--you lose your place. Perhaps film making belongs to that tired, hoary (but true) cliche about legislation and sausage — you don't want to see the crudities of how they're made, you just want the finished product.

I have to admit, though, as an artist, it is usually illuminating to watch the "deleted scenes" extras of the special features DVDs. If the movie was any good, invariably you'd see that every single "deleted" scene absolutely deserved to be shelved. In fact, I can't recall seeing a single "deleted" scene on any special edition DVD where I thought, “Boy, that should have stayed in the movie.” In Stephen Frears' High Fidelity, the "deleted scenes" section showed a number of well-acted, well-photographed, very funny scenes that were taken directly from the book (as was much of the movie) and seemed in tune with the flow of the narrative. Yet they didn't work. Watching them, you felt that if you were given the job of editor of High Fidelity, you would have made the exact same cuts. It's a credit to Stephen Frears for having the ruling creative intelligence to know what didn't belong.

In Fascinating Rhythm, Deena Rosenberg's 1991 history of the Gershwin brothers' collaboration, the author described a typically frenzied rehearsal process as the brothers tried to get their score into shape for an out-of-town tryout. Something wasn't working in the show, and the brothers were trying desperately to figure out how to remedy the situation. The spent endless hours reshaping scenes, re-vamping songs, moving sequences in and out of chronological order, adding characters, voices, then deleting them, then trying something else. And they couldn't solve the problem. Finally, though, and shortly before the opening, they discovered the source of the show's imbalance — one song, in the first act, stopped the show cold, and though the brothers loved the song itself, they knew it couldn't stay. Dispassionately, with cold resolve, they yanked the offending song from the show like a prairie dentist would yank a tooth. And the show had a successful run.

It's the kind of story that inevitably has a kicker at the end, so you shouldn't be too surprised that the removed song, "The Man I Love," became one of the Gershwin brothers most enduring standards, and one of the greatest torch songs of the 20th century. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine that such a peerless song not succeeding in any environment, yet in Lady, Be Good!, the musical that the brothers were trying to finish, it simply didn't fit. I've always admired artists who had the discipline to leave some of their greatest work on the chopping room floor, lying next to other misshaped pieces that also couldn't find their way in.

I'm supremely annoyed by actors who like to rhapsodize about any rehearsal process as "being a journey," for it always sounds grandiloquent and usually has no bearing on reality: you didn't go to Mordor, Slick, you just remembered your f-----' lines. But I grudgingly have to admit that any collaborative, artistic project has a definite arc of discovery and exploration, and it's essential for the artist to be aware of what's going on while the sausage is being created. I hate the weak "journey" metaphor but there's no denying that, in theatre, a lot of ground has to be covered from first reading to opening night.

Whenever I tackle a new project in theatre, I like to arm myself with anecdotes and truisms about the peculiar ways that performances come to life. In Steve Martin's excellent memoir, Born Standing Up, a look at the comic's stand-up years, he makes a very canny observation about what really helps to mature an artist:"The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was always easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances."

Without talking about theatre directly, Martin actually nails a common problem so prevalent in theatrical performances: the dead Saturday night. If you've been in theatre, you've seen it countless times: a sloppy production, seemingly headed for disaster after weeks of terrible rehearsals, suddenly comes to life the day before opening, and with desperation and adrenaline fueling the actors, the opening night goes surprisingly, smashingly well. Relief all around, with a sense of bewildered joy from everyone involved, but guess what? You have to do the same thing tomorrow night. Inevitably, the second night is flat, if not an outright catastrophe, and the actors usually blame the "dead" Saturday night audience for the duff performance. Truth is, the entire cast had set opening night as the finish line, not the start, and the beleaguered actors simply didn't have the resources to pull off another miracle. The "great" opening actually hurt the production; far better would be a "good" opening, which could set the table for a "great" run.

It's reassuring to read Steve Martin's book, for you realize that the seemingly effortless mix of oblique and visual comedy that so identified his early stand-up years was actually the result of a furiously disciplined process, with the artist refining some bits, lopping off some others. Here's how Martin describes himself as a young artist: "There was a problem. At age eighteen I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent." Martin seems to believe that dumb, brute hard work is often the reason for success onstage. And a little bit of gumption doesn't hurt: "Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naivete, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what your are about to do." For anyone preparing to embark on an epic, artistic journey across the wilderness of creative exploration, Born Standing Up is a pretty handy guide. That, and remembering your f-----' lines.

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