Wednesday, January 30, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: From Trav SD

Trav SD in Guardian Angel
"Downtown Impressario" Trav SD (as the reviews for seemed to always call him) tell his memories from the Havel Festival and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

When I was in school, in response to a fellow student’s remark to my acting teacher (“Ya know, he [ -- meaning me --] writes too, he writes really good plays”), the professor’s reply was short and apparently intended to be definitive , if not downright possessive: “He ( -- meaning me -- ) should act”. Dan Van Bargen (Basic Instinct, O Brother Where Art Thou, etc etc) liked my performance in Sam Shepard’s Action so much he came over specifically to tell me so on two separate occasions. As Treplev in The Sea Gull, I produced the requisite weeping from the audience, and as Crow in Tooth of Crime, the intended heebie-jeebies.

It had always been my intention when I moved to New York to sort of pursue all my interests simultaneously. I would produce my own plays, and act in them, too, etc. And while I’ve begun to get traction in certain areas of this multi-headed (one might say monstrous) career, I’ve begun to realize that acting, as a career aspiration for me, has somewhat begun to languish. It’s not hard to diagnose the reason. I think of myself as a sort of plate-spinner, career-wise. While I’m busy twirling the sticks to keep these five plates going, unavoidably the sixth one over there starts to wobble. And, as a practical matter, acting has indeed wound up being about sixth on my list.

And then there are stumbling blocks. I won’t audition, and I don’t seek roles out. I either act in my own plays (almost two years since the last one, and who really kicks their own ass, I mean all the way? Not me, baby!), and when I’m not acting in my own shows, I’ll sometimes get cast in shows by colleagues, where the challenges tend to be less emotional and more mechanical (less ‘acting” in other words, than negotiating an obstacle course, at least that’s how it can seem.). The fact that I spend a good deal of my time on stage performing light entertainment in variety shows also probably reinforces the perception that that is what I “do”, or prefer to do, which isn’t the case at all.

But, for the record, I also act, can act, would like to act. I’d like to do more of it than I have been doing, at any rate.

A lengthy preface, but I include it to shed light on how happy I was on the two occasions I got to play roles in UTC61 productions. Although, for those who worked with me, “happy” may not be the word that first springs to mind. Because I’m not a full-time actor day-in, day-out all the year round, I took both assignments with an absurd amount of seriousness. The first occasion was in 2006’s Havel Festival, in a radio play called Guardian Angel, directed by Jeff Lewonczyck. I wrote about that experience on the festival’s blog at the time, so I won’t rehash it here, except to reiterate that it was a highly rewarding challenge…and somehow we actually managed to rehearse it (almost) enough to where I was comfortable in performance. The piece consisted of pages and pages of what were essentially monologues (with short interjections by my scene partner Richard Harrington). I like a lot of rehearsal under the best of circumstances, and we actually had more than the usual amount. It’s just that I had a phone book’s worth of lines. Anyway, whatever anxiety I had, I “used it” (as the acting gurus say), and I certainly hope I came across as psychotic as I actually felt.

Now, the more recent occasion, 2010’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a bit of stunt casting. I’ve actually conducted hundreds of interviews on podcast and public access tv, which actually in some ways prepared me for the role. Edward Einhorn cast me as Buster Friendly, the smarmy, slightly Orwellian talk show host in an odd future when no one is certain who might be human, or what humanity even is. (The book gives a strong impression that Buster may be an android himself). At any rate, in this play I had a handful of lines for a combined total of about five minutes of stage-time (although I was onstage, not speaking, for a good bit of the play, as well).

You would have thought that this would be a “falling off a log” type assignment for me. But, NO! Whew, boy, I worried the hell out of that part. Initially, I had a grand idea to do Buster as David Frost, but with only a week or two of preparation, I chickened out on the English accent. You might think that that would be like throwing some ballast overboard, right? Smooth sailing after that? But, NO! I lived in constant terror that I would go up on my handful of lines. The script was never out of my sweaty hands for a minute during the run (except when I was onstage of course). I just stood alone backstage, running them, running them, running them. Then, in performance, I kept worrying about acting “truth”, which was probably the last thing in the world to fret about for this particular character, who was written as an insensitive phony. Only Edward can answer if he was expecting (hoping for) more slapstick and foolishness from me, but all I could think about was “Serious Play! Ideas! Opera! Important people in the audience!” In retrospect, I think I should have been more of a freight train, for, truth be known, that can be a vital aspect of acting too, though they do tend to beat that out of you in theatre school. Trying to harness that energy and keep it under control simultaneously can feel like busting like a bronco, sometimes.

Does that sound harrowing? It was! And you might think, “Well, what’s someone like you want to act for?” And all I can respond is, “Well, shit, it ain’t only me.” In 1995, I got to see F. Murray Abraham, Helen Mirren and Ron Rifkin do Turgenev’s A Month in the Country at the Roundabout Theater. By happenstance, I actually got to talk to Abraham in the lobby after the show. I spoke from the heart, “You were so great!” But he, a bundle of nerves and self-recrimination, was like, “Yeah? Really? No! No, man, I wish…I wish I could nail it, but I can never fuckin’ nail it, ya know? I just wish I could fuckin’ nail it.”

All that anxiety and pain comes from actually caring about what you’re doing. And I am immensely grateful to UTC61 for trusting me with some work that I cared that deeply about getting right.

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