August 30, 2014

A Labor Day Salute to Actors Via Two DVDs

The temperature in New York has been so unseasonably cool this month that it prompted a friend to post a comment on her Facebook page declaring “August is the new September.”   

But now Monday will mark not only the beginning of the real September but Labor Day as well. And that means that, as I’ve done for the last few years, I’m taking time out from my regular posts to salute the work of some of the people who make the theater that folks like you and me love.

Over the past few years, I’ve tipped my hat to casting directors, playwrights, composers and lyricists but it’s been a while since I last singled out actors. Watching two recently released DVDs over the summer convinced me that it’s time to do that again. 
The first DVD is “Now: In the Wings on a World Stage,” a chronicle of the Richard III production that director Sam Mendes and star Kevin Spacey toured around the world in 2011.

The second is "Theatreland," an up-close-and-personal look at London’s historic Theatre Royal Haymarket, from its founding during the Restoration period that brought the British monarchy back to the throne and theater back to London after both had been chucked out by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan brethren to the 2009 productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the musical Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 

Bioth documentaries offer peeks at the process of putting a show together, from the jitters of the first meet-and-greet rehearsal straight through to the parting farewells of closing night, with lots of time in between to show the grit and sweat that go into making the magic we see onstage.
Richard III was the final production of the three-year Bridge Project that Mendes and Spacey conceived to bring British and American actors together to do the classics. So Spacey decided to film the behind-the-scenes workings of that last show and even took on the task of distributing the doc himself (click here to stream it or order a copy).  

The result is a fancy version of a home movie and it focuses almost entirely on the good stuff (backstage feuds or other backstabbings are totally absent). But it’s still fascinating to hear company members talk about the challenge of mixing styles between the Americans (some of whom had never before done Shakespeare professionally) and the Brits (for whom speaking the Bard’s verse is virtually a native language). 
And equally compelling is the chance to watch as actors on different levels of the success ladder interact with one another. Almost everyone is initially intimidated by Spacey, who is not only an Oscar winner but, until next year, the artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre. But many also are in awe of the British stage vet Gemma Jones, whose career stretches back nearly 50 years.

So it's fun to watch as the walls come down. At one point during the tour, Spacey rents a yacht and gives everyone a luxurious day off. Several of his cast mates have never been on a boat that big. “I’ve got to get more rich friends,” says one. Meanwhile, the 70 year-old Jones admits to having a crush on one of the buff young men in the cast and it’s sweet when you later see the two of them innocently canoodling. 
But most of the 90-minute film deals with the nuts and bolts of being an actor on tour—the logistics of doing the same role in different playing spaces from the ancient Greek amphitheater of Epidaurus to a high-tech new theater in Beijing, the pre-curtain rituals that help each actor prepare for his or her performance, the loneliness of being away from home and family for such a long stretch.

By the time the actors who also had stops in Istanbul, Naples, San Francisco, Sydney and Doha, say goodbye to one another after their final performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I found myself having enjoyed the documentary more than I enjoyed the production itself (click here to read my review of the show). 
"Theatreland," (which you can find by clicking here) is divided into eight episodes that total 201 minutes, and a lot of that time is centered around the celebrated revival of Waiting for Godot directed by Sean Mathias and starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as Beckett’s existential hobos. 

The production also had a triumphant run on Broadway last season and the documentary shows McKellen and Stewart as they originally rehearsed, performed and promoted the show. The stars are, of course, thoroughly entertaining to watch but the most memorable moments belong to the film’s bit players.  
An aspiring young actress who has been hired to work as an usher is giddy at the prospect of serving tea during the intermission to the theatrical grande dames Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, who is also the widow of Laurence Olivier. 

In another episode, an understudy gets to go on when Stewart loses his voice. It’s the biggest night of the understudy’s career and he basks in the applause of the audience and a gracious backstage compliment from McKellen. But when it comes time to leave the theater, he walks out unnoticed and heads for public transportation home as autograph seekers wait for the well-known face to come out. 
In the end, both films seem to say, the greatest reward for theater actors—those famous and those not—is just the chance to create magic on a stage. And as we head into this Labor Day weekend, it seems a good time to say that I appreciate their work and am grateful to them for doing it.

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