10 March 2010

“For Real Actors, Eyebrow Grooming Is Not The Highest Art”

by David Macfarlane
Globe and Mail [Toronto] 31 May 1999: “Cheap Seats”

[David Macfarlane, a Canadian novelist and playwright, was an arts columnist for the Toronto, Ontario, Globe and Mail until 2003. He wrote this column, an appreciation of actors, when he was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Having trained as an actor and then having tried to make a life in that profession, I’ve always had a special regard for actors, especially stage actors, among all artists and performers. I offer this in the same spirit I think Macfarlane intended it.]

Let's talk about actors. I don't think they'll mind.

But let's not get into movie stars. For a change. Here at this end of things, we write far too much about movie stars already. Just the other day, while spending a little time at your end of things, I was reading in a newspaper about how Tom Cruise attends to his eyebrows.

As informative as all this was from a personal-grooming perspective, it did indicate to me, on the column-writing side, that there is nothing more that I can possibly contribute on the movie-star front to the astonishing wealth of knowledge already at our fingertips. Somewhere out there, someone much better informed about these things is probably writing an article about how Gwyneth Paltrow or Ben Afleck trim their toenails.

But with the Shaw and Stratford openings upon us, and with Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company in the first of its five summer productions at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, I think we should make a point of not rushing from our seats to get to our parked cars at the final curtain. We should take a moment to thank actors. Real actors, if I might put it that way.

That is to say, actors who do not arrive at work in limos, but rather on bicycles, or on foot, or in cars that aren't paid for yet. Actors who don't fly Concorde but who still know what buses and trains are, and who post notices in the Green Room asking if anyone's driving to Edmonton next week. Actors who don't take a suite at the Four Seasons, but who live in rented or borrowed rooms--in Stratford, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Fredericton or St. John's.

Actors who don't eat at Prego or Balthazar, but who eat pizza in a rehearsal hall or a bowl of cereal at the kitchen counter at midnight after getting back, too tired to cook, from an evening performance. Actors who start off dreaming of doing Hamlet or Cordelia in the West End, and end up dreaming of doing Lear or Gertrude anywhere, and in between live out of suitcases across the country for an entire career of vulnerable auditions, drafty rehearsals, opening-night jitters and tearful, closing-night goodbyes.

Actors who have worked their way through the eternity of summer stock and the brief runs of winter, who have weathered both the stinging truths and the wildly unfair misjudgments of critics, who have approached the classics with the care and focus of surgeons preparing for a difficult operation, and who--a few weeks later, on the other side of the continent, wrapped in sweaters and living on coffee and cigarettes--have bravely thrown themselves into the rehearsals of some young playwright's improbable, but dramatically exciting experiment.

Actors who always weep--partly out of sentiment, partly out of sheer professional admiration--when they watch Alistair Sims [sic] in A Christmas Carol, or hear Send in the Clowns, or listen to that battered old trouper Judy Garland belt out Over the Rainbow. Actors who, trying to find their marks in the pre-curtain darkness, have got their spears stuck in a styrofoam Roman column, or who have taken a particularly wide step while climbing the plywood ramparts at Elsinore and have heard the loud, unmistakable sound of Danish breeches ripping from codpiece to hindmost. Or who, in the very middle of a Lady Bracknell to end all Lady Bracknells, have stood, frozen, stage right, as Algernon inexplicably shifts gears into a speech from Charley's Aunt. Oh, the stories actors can tell, and do, and usually rather well.

These are people who have bowed to packed audiences in big cities and small towns, and who have soldiered on through the dead air of an almost-empty house and the polite, isolated clapping of a looming failure. They learn more about triumph and disaster in a single season than most of us do in a lifetime. They do commercials to pay the bills. They fall in and out of love on an endless tour of a recycled Broadway hit that is as lucrative as it is tedious. And while they're away from their home apartments, their phones are disconnected and all their plants die.

They hope for the role of Falstaff, but also find that there are entire worlds to explore in playing Bardolph or Pistol or--if it comes to that, and if it means a season at Stratford and something resembling a steady income--in being a retainer, or an attendant, or a beadle, or a groom.

The work, the work, the work. Who among us throw themselves into work with more whole-hearted passion, more commitment, more disregard for practical concerns and more undiminished, ever-optimistic hope than an actor? Not many.

Or so I thought the other night, as my wife, our 13-year-old daughter and I sat snuffling back our tears during the heart-rending third act of Deborah Pollitt's performance as Emily Webb, in Soulpepper's production of Our Town at the Royal Alex. An ovation--loud, long and standing--seems so easy a way to say "thank you" for such magic.

[The essay above was excerpted as “In Praise of Actors” in the U.S. Actors’ Equity newsletter, Equity News, for July/August 1999.]

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