Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Characters, Armed and Serious

"This is going to be a great evening for you, but not so good for him," your old pal, Digby Wolfe told you one evening in the mid to late '80s, when you were in a now defunct night club, Slate Brothers, on the northern limits of La Cienega Boulevard.

You'd been taken to see an exercise in a kind of humor called insult humor, as performed by a stand-up comic, Don Rickles who, Wolfe informed you, could insult Frank Sinatra in front of an entire gang of Sinatra's acolytes, causing them to cringe and Sinatra to roar with laughter.  One such zinger was, "Hey, Frank, make yourself at home.  Go hit someone."

On this night, shortly after Rickles began his routine and began picking on various individuals in the audience, a drunk began his own routine on Rickles, stepping on his lines, calling him out on statements, and in the mounting rudeness of which such drunken improvisers are capable, stepping on his lines.

Rickles appeared to warm to the challenge, firing several sharp ripostes across the drunk's table.

The Slate Brothers had a traditional long bar, filled with customers turned toward the small main room, filled with tables big enough for groups of four or six.

The atmosphere became charged as Rickles continued working over the drunk with imaginative insults that seemed so well orchestrated, they caused you to ask Wolfe if they'd been written and planned.

"That's all ad lib.  All of it."

The audience began to applaud, thinking Rickles had put an end to the interruption and would now continue his routine, but something of equal ad lib fell into place.  The drunk was enjoying the attention, and the audience was beginning to enjoy the competition.

This was the point at which Wolfe made his remark to you about the great evening for you.  "Don's taken this a step too far," Wolfe explained.  "Watch.  The audience is beginning to side with the drunk."

Sure enough, a few in the audience, apparently liking this sport, began to join the drunk in shouted remarks, not the least of which were, "Let him talk, Don."  And, "Hey, bring him up there with you."

You could feel the group atmosphere of the fifty or sixty persons in the audience beginning to show open hostility to the man who'd once been their hero, the man who'd put away the likes of Sinatra, his Rat Pack, and other seeming social icons.

After trying to regain the upper hand, Rickles gave up, gave a few insults to the audience, then left the stage early to a mixed chorus of boos and jeers.

Later, when Wolfe took you back stage to meet Rickles, the comic shook his head, then apologized.  "Sorry guys, I lost it back there.  I let it get to me."

In the few minutes of the visit, you realized that Rickles, the Insult Comic, was in reality a shrewd, decent, even sensitive man, completely different from the stage persona and game face of rapid-fire insult.

From that moment on, you were aware of audiences and those who performed before them in a different light.  Any audience, however large or small, is a part of an equation, separated from the performer or performers by an equals sign.

One of the best performances of Lawrence Olivier, in your memory, was of the failing, third-rate comedian, Archie Rice, in John Osborne's play, The Entertainer.  You've watched the film a number of times, the final scene, showing Archie hitting the bottom, reminding you of that evening when Don Rickles wasn't acting; he'd lost the audience.

You've had enough contact with actors to know that the better ones among them are able to empty their own self from a role.  The actor then fills the void  with the essence of a character who might be as far away from their own personality as a full polar opposite.  This leaves the audience to see him or her as the interpretation of the character.

There are other actors who, whatever their role, are simply themselves,   with no traits recognizable other than a few repetitions.  

From time to time, you are concerned that all your characters think, talk, and act like you, which opens floodgates of introspection about your own dimensions.  At various times in your life, you've been told to stop fooling around and get serious.  But you have enough experience with those attempts to sense classroom audiences and speaking engagements having a sobering effect, both on you and those before you.  

You do not do serious well, and so you've learned to try braiding something else into the texture, a sense of something lost or about to be lost, a sense of fear of laziness or uncertainty.  But these, however sincere their motivation, seem to require more rehearsal to get at.

You can't think of too many times you've been told to get serious when you're enthused about something, thus that seems to be your default position, you embodying an enthusiasm for most of the nouns you care about, persons, places, or things that resonate to the point where all the seriousness is emptied and the thing itself comes rushing in to greet you like a long lost friend or student.

Sometimes, looking at your characters at work in a story, you feel as though you've been brought to a police line-up to identify the one in the group who seems to stand out as the serious culprit. 

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