Monday, March 29, 2010

Conan McCarty on Becoming George W. Bush

Icarus Continued...

The first rehearsals of any play are always fascinating. You reconnect with the director, many times for the first time since you met at the auditions. You meet the other actors, and for the first time hear the play through their voices (and they always seem to be so much better than you were when you were playing all the parts yourself). You meet the stage managers, the guys who hold any production together, and the other members of the creative team and the staff of the theatre where you all will gather to dream together and then present this dream to the public in the hopes that all involved and watching can come to some greater understanding of themselves and the world they live in.

We are blessed with Paul Meshejian as director. Paul runs PlayPenn, a work space here in Philadelphia for the development of new plays, and his expertise with new works quickly becomes evident as he breaks down the script and brings the three actors together, making sure we are at least on the same page. A director friend of mine likened her work to walking backwards the length of a steel girder atop a skyscraper still under construction, coaxing the cast away from the support beams and out onto unchartered territory, trusting that the girder you are on is long enough to make it to the other side. While I like the image very much, I am afraid of heights. Still, IF I was a betting man, I’d put money on Paul.

Peter Schmitz plays Piet, the Dutch employee of the hotel at The Hague where our play takes place. He has done prodigious amounts of research on all things Dutch, and has become an extraordinary font of knowledge. I would not be surprised if he has taken to wearing wooden shoes around his home, and there are rumors he will be giving a masters’ class in Appreciation of Seventeenth Century Dutch Painting. Actually , I am starting those rumors, because what he has brought to the play is incredible.

Kim Carson is one of the gamest actors I have ever met. She rehearses her role as Anna-Lisa, a Bosnian refugee, with us all day and then goes off to People’s Light and Theatre so she can be banished by her cranky old father, come back to save him, then die by hanging in a prison cell in King Lear. Talk about a rough day in the office! She is remarkably self-possessed, and the city of Philadelphia should delight in watching her for years to come.

The glue holding us all together is Tom Helmer, our stage manager, ably assisted by Danny Guy. They keep the rehearsals on schedule, make sure we get our breaks, relay questions back and forth between us and our writer, and always manage to have one eye on the script to remind us (me especially) when we are saying things that do not remotely resemble anything the playwright actually wrote. Someone in the asylum has to be responsible for the inmates, right?

It is a priviledge to be an actor. Biased opinion, I know. It can certainly be a tough line of business. At any given time 85% of the members of Actors Equity Association are unemployed, because there are simply not enough jobs to go around. Partly because theatre is not really viewed as a source of income for the community at large (New York City and its relationship with Broadway being an exception to that rule), partly because there is so little emphasis on culture in America. I actually think we spell culture here with a capital ‘K.’ Check your television listings, more people would rather watch ‘The Biggest Loser’ than ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’ And in the end, we are the biggest losers. Regardless, with the possible exception of armed combat, no profession I know makes me face more of what I fear on a daily basis, and that’s a good thing. And the outstanding people who are bringing SEA to life remind me once again of Ben Hecht’s comment: “if I should make it to Heaven when I die and find that the streets are peopled by actors, I should not be unhappy.”

We are now several days into this Awfully Big Adventure; the rehearsals are a lot of fun, but very intense because there are only three of us and we are onstage A LOT. I come home beat each evening, and my voice is beat up a little because Dubya never shuts up and I caught a small cold just as we started, but it has been an awfully long time since I looked forward to work every single morning. They say that the greatest thing you can share with someone outside of your labor is your love. And if you are fortunate enough to share both, than you are truly blessed.

- Conan McCarty

Read past entries of the Icarus Chronicles: Parts I & II, Part III, Part IV Part V

Find out more about InterAct's World Premiere of Lee Blessing's WHEN WE GO UPON THE SEA

Friday, March 19, 2010

Watch 2010 Young Voices' THE PATIENT by Jacob Fagliano

Written by Jacob Fagliano, who is a sophomore at Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, THE PATIENT was one of 15 student-written monologues that appeared in 2010 Young Voices High School Monologue Festival, produced through a collaboration between InterAct Theatre Company's education program, InterAction, and Philadelphia Young Playwrights. Along with the other winning monologues, THE PATIENT was chosen from over 400 submissions written by Philadelphia area high school students to be professionally produced as part of 2010 Young Voices, which was held on the Mainstage of The Adrienne, February 3-6, 2010.

Directed by Dany Guy and dramaturged by Rebecca Wright, THE PATIENT opens with 24-year old Geoffrey Daniels (played by Thomas Choinacky) lying on a hospital bed, loosely wrapped in hospital bedding and connected to an IV. When his nurse (played by Bi Jean Ngo) enters to check on her patient, Geoffrey, who is clearly attracted to her, feels he needs to explain himself. Hilarity ensues as we follow Geoffrey’s extremely ridiculous telling of all the events that lead up to his hospital visit.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Conan McCarty On Becoming George W. Bush

Icarus Continued...

Not really interested in doing an imitation of Dubya for this show; though I would like very much to have speech patterns and a couple of well known gestures to give a little extra weight to certain moments in the play. So I went to the Museum of Television and Radio here in New York and watched many speeches and press conferences; paying special attention to those speeches that marked turning points in Dubya’s foreign policy. With the hindsight of history, some of these speeches were fascinating. He first verbalized the policy of Preemption (“If we wait for threats to fully materialize we will have waited too long.”) and paved the way for the Iraqi invasion in the commencement speech at West Point on June 1, 2002. In November 2003 he announced a new policy of establishing Democracy in the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy, and in his second Inaugural Address on January 20, 2005 he spoke of ending tyranny in our world. His body language is exceptionally eloquent in these speeches.

Then I turned to the professional impressionists, because these guys are much better than me at finding tell-tale Bush-isms to feature. I speak of Steve Bridges, Will Ferrell, Frank Caliendo, and even Josh Brolin. Thoroughly enjoyed this part of my research. Steve Bridges has a particularly funny clip on YouTube in which he appears with Dubya at an event and basically plays what the President is REALLY thinking.

As for his personal motivation, justification, id, what have you; I struck oil when I listened to Oliver Stone’s director commentary of his film, W, which is not a bad film at all, but I think Mr. Stone rushed it out a little too quickly for the 2008 election, and it wasn’t entirely formed as to what it was trying to say. Stone mentioned The Bush Tragedy by Jacob Weisberg enough times that I had to pick it up, and it knocked my socks off. Dubya has said many times that he is his mother’s son in temperament. Mr. Weisberg points to the Walker family, his father’s mother’s family; specifically the patriarch, Herbert Walker, source of both President Bush’s middle names. Weisberg feels that impatient, impulsive Dubya we see far too often comes from those genes: “the Walker ethic of masculine risk-taking, conquest, and domination….. Bert (Herbert Walker) was rowdy, profane, and generally obnoxious. Even an approved family history describes him as ‘coarse…..’ The current owners of a ten-thousand acre hunting lodge have preserved the bullet holes left in the dining room ceiling when Bert fired at a wasp that stung him… Many of George W. Bush’s most distinctive traits don’t seem to come from his mother or his father. He is impatient, aggressive, often angry, and sometimes cruel. He’s a plunger, not a careful analyst or a patient builder. He loves to compete but can’t stand losing. The man’s a Walker, through and through.”

Weisberg made another comment that gave me pause. Can’t locate it as I thumb through my copy now, and besides, the best director Oscar is about to be announced, but the gist of it is that there is nothing out of the ordinary about Dubya’s Oedipal struggle with his father. What is extraordinary is that he chose to wage it on the world stage. This calls for serious psychoanalysis, so I picked up Bush on the Couch by Dr. Justin A. Frank, noted Washington, D.C. psychoanalyst. This is packed with all kinds of good stuff. Indulge me while I quote from the introduction: “If one of my patients… presented an inflexible worldview characterized by an oversimplified distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, allies and enemies, I would question his ability to grasp reality…. I have observed with increasing alarm the inconsistencies and denials of such an individual. But he is not one of my patients. He is our president.” Both these guys said things that made certain passages of Woodward’s books I mentioned in the last entry reverberate with resonance.

Lastly, a grounding place, a touchstone for the role to which I will always return: some kind of archetype character. Weisberg makes a compelling argument that he is a very dark Prince Hal from Shakespeare’s HENRY IV, PARTS ONE and TWO, and HENRY V: ‘Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, may waste the memory of the former days.’ Could he be the Prodigal Son? Or maybe a Warrior King, saving the world from Evil and achieving World Peace? Perhaps Yosemite Sam? Some of each of these strike me as right. But I like Icarus, who wanted to exceed his father and flew beyond his reach.

- Conan McCarty

Read past entries of the Icarus Chronicles: Parts I & II, Part III, Part IV

Find out more about InterAct's World Premiere of Lee Blessing's WHEN WE GO UPON THE SEA

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Conan McCarty On Becoming George W. Bush

Icarus Again...

The decision to go to war is one that defies a nation, both to the world and, perhaps more importantly, to itself. There is no more serious business for a national government, no more accurate measure of national leadership.
- Bob Woodward

As SEA... opens, a former President of the United States is about to go on trial at the World Court in The Hague. There’s a sea change for you. How on earth…..?

A character can be explained by nothing less that his entire history. That said, it would behoove me to bone up on the causes, justifications, and prosecution of Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath. Bob Woodward is a real go to guy in my opinion; he’s shared two Pulitzer Prizes and has written about a dozen best sellers, he doesn’t shy away from his own part in the Valerie Plame incident, and I just think he writes a very clear, precise, and straight forward book. Not to mention Robert Redford played him in the movie. So I got all four volumes about Dubya’s presidency: Bush at War, Plan of Attack, State of Denial, and The War Within. As of this writing, I have worked my way through the first three and am about halfway through The War Within.

They are all excellent. Each volume stands alone, the sum total is extraordinary. There are also companion books I have glanced through or plan to do so; some I already had because when I worked the NY streets raising money during the ’04, ’06, and ’08 campaigns I wanted to really know what I was talking about. These include Chain of Command, Hubris, Fiasco, and Cobra II. There are plenty of others out there as well. And I also had a copy of A Matter of Principle, a collection of humanitarian arguments in favor of the war, so that I’d understand the opposing point of view. That I must get to before I go to Philly.

The New York Public Performing Arts Library has an archive of theatre on film and tape, so I went up one afternoon to watch the Public Theatre’s brilliant production of David Hare’s STUFF HAPPENS, a stark look at the run up to the war. The title comes from Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote regarding the looting of Iraqi museums, and yet also serves as a summation of how, in Hare’s opinion, the war came together. It is an extraordinary production, magnificently directed by Daniel Sullivan, and I had the added pleasure of watch Jay O. Sanders’ fine performance as Dubya so that I could pilfer as much as I could.

And then about a week ago, I realized there was a massive leak in my preparation. The Justice Department issued its finding that John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and others would not face legal action for their extraordinary conclusions re: enhanced interrogation practices. I mentioned earlier in this blog that a flurry of emails sailed across the internet between Paul Meshejian, my director, and me. I started to think about what the actual charges in the court room would be. Granted, it is enough to be accused of starting a war on false premises, but what about Guantanamo Bay, enhanced interrogation, and rendition? Paul sent a copy of 'The Elements of Crime' in the Court. That was interesting. I admit my knowledge of the law consists of playing a criminal lawyer and a judge on "Law & Order," but I could see an argument for five Crimes against Humanity and up to 15 or 16 War Crimes. Some of those are absolutely a stretch, such as destruction and appropriation of property, but I figure if you’re going to throw the book at a former President of the United States, you might as well throw the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. So now my bookshelf is graced with The Dark Side, The Terror Presidency, The Torture Team, and War by Other Means by John Yoo himself. Thank goodness I have an account on I had seen John Yoo on “The Daily Show,” and it was strange to see that ‘The Torture Guy’ has a very wry sense of humor. I cherry picked my way through a couple of chapters of his book, and again, I have no legal expertise whatsoever; yet it seems to me that his arguments hinge on the fact that “Congress also only prohibited ‘severe physical or mental pain or suffering.’” Ooooh. Now that rehearsal is about two weeks away, I don’t have time to read everything, so what to pick? I opened The Terror Presidency by Jack Goldsmith, Assistant Attorney General, Office Of Legal Counsel, for nine months in Dubya’s first term. His preface opened with a story that it is customary for senior officials in the Justice Department to hang portraits of former Attorneys General in their offices. When Goldsmith went to claim his, all the ’good’ ones were gone, and Goldsmith had very little to choose from. He wound up with Elliot Richardson, much to his disappointment. Two months into his job, he says he found he was thinking about Mr. Richardson a great deal. I liked the story, so that’s the one I picked. The first task Goldsmith was given was to ascertain whether or not Iraqi terrorists were protected by the Geneva Convention. After much legal analysis, he decided the terrorists were in fact under the protection of the Fourth Geneva Convention. He was to report his finding to Alberto Gonzales and David Addington. His superior in the Justice Department warned him, “They’re going to be really mad. They’re not going to understand our decision. They’ve never been told ‘no.’”

This treasure trove of information and insight has helped me establish a time line for the events and justifications that led Dubya, the nation, and the world up to the second the curtain rises for WHEN WE GO UPON THE SEA. I give great thanks to the Theatre Gods for the luxury of Time afforded me on this production. I was cast in mid-December, three months before rehearsals started. Lord knows I needed all of it.

- Conan McCarty

Read past entries of the Icarus Chronicles: Parts I & II, Part III

Find out more about InterAct's World Premiere of Lee Blessing's WHEN WE GO UPON THE SEA