The Theatre

Just as I was preparing to shut down my laptop for the night, Chloe Veltman’s article in the NYTimes about ACT caught my attention. She nails something that has been a nagging problem with ACT since Bill Ball left in the 1980s. Bill’s departure may have been necessary — the accusations (and reality) of fiscal impropriety that swirled around the colorful director rendered his tenure untenable. But in the years since he left, the company has failed to capture something that was undeniably present in Bill’s heyday: an effervescent and visceral relationship with San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Perhaps I’m too much of a devotee of Bill’s magic to be a completely objective observer. I was a student in the Advanced Training Program for actors at ACT in the 1980s. Bill taught a class during my two years on Geary Blvd: Heroics. We were to learn ten lines of Shakespeare or other verse that required a suck-it-up-and-let-it-all-hang-out delivery. The final session of that class was held on the Geary Theatre stage. Each of us took turns delivering our ten lines at the top of our lungs, from the bottom of our heart, and with a prayer and a wing. Bill would sit and listen, offering encouragement. “You’re perfect, darling,” he might call out.

Bill attracted great people. I remember Allen Fletcher. A brilliant director, and a really sweet guy. (He could get angry when he directed but it obviously pained him when he did.) I remember Frank Ottiwell, our Alexander Technique teacher. He was a gentle loving mentor. Sydney Walker who taught us about auditioning was a stunningly talented character actor, and also a loving, kind soul. Actors Liz Huddle, Joy Carlin, Michael Winters, Raye Birk, Ray Rinehardt, Barbara Dirickson, Michael Learned, Marsha Mason — I could continue — the list of people who Bill attracted to ACT is filled with actors who knew how to reach out through the fourth wall and create a visceral relationship with the audience. The material might not have been as intellectually challenging as what the current Artistic Director, Carey Perloff likes to present, but it touched you emotionally.

I would never argue that intellectually challenging material can’t also engage the audience on an emotional level. But often, intellect is the enemy of emotion —especially in the theatre. Actors and directors who become obsessed with regaling us with the power of their intellect can often miss out on the opportunity to convey their humanity. As audience members we want to identify with the characters on the stage. We want to feel the character’s emotions and share their joy and their sorrow. That requires a special gift from the actor — an open door into the heart. When actors (often encouraged by directors) fail to open that door because they are preoccupied with the intellectual content of the play, we in the audience feel left out. I know that many people go to the theatre to be challenged and stimulated intellectually, and the playwright has a profound responsibility to deliver that kind of challenge. It is the responsibility of the director and actors to give the play life. That requires breath, a heartbeat, and passion. It helps to know what you’re talking about, and I think many actors are pretty darned smart. But the better actors are the ones who don’t feel compelled to impress the audience. It’s one of the great paradoxes of good acting — to really shine in the role, you need to make really shining in the role a low priority. (I think Konstantin Stanislavski said it well: “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”)

Carey Perloff has a reputation for being a brilliant woman. And I’m sure she’s earned it. Perloff’s arrival at ACT was separated from Bill Ball’s departure by Ed Hastings’ stint at the helm. Ed took the wheel in the chaotic years immediately following Bill’s departure and carefully steered the company into calmer waters. It was a lifesaving maneuver, but ultimately, what ACT needed after Ed’s steadying influence was a new rainmaker. Someone who could bring back some of Bill’s passionate and colorful leadership. I don’t think that’s what ACT found. And I think San Francisco and the Bay Area are poorer for it.

Bill Ball and his ACT had a passionate love affair with the community. We might sometimes hate what he gave us, or we might adore what he presented. Under Bill’s leadership, ACT did more than make us think, it made us FEEL. That’s what the theatre is supposed to do.

Posted 31 January 2010 by Mark ·