Monday, December 18, 2006

Learning new things

Last week, we went to a memorial service for the great Barnard Hughes, one of the finest stage actors of our time. They had invitations for most, and then a line outside for others who could get in if you didn't have an invite. So Jim, wanting badly to go to this, folded an envelope in half and showed it to them, pretending it was an invitation and got us right in.

During the service, which was moving and beautiful, one of the participants mentioned that Barney Hughes believed it was his responsibility to stick with a hit show through to the end out of duty to the produces and the fans, and even to tour with it once it closed in New York. So, one of the actors asked him, "How can you do thousands of performances of the same play and not lose your freshness?"

His response was, "Because there's always a chance to make it better."

I kind of felt that way this past weekend. During the Saturday show, I felt a tiny pinprick of pain in my throat during the show. So, I knew Sunday was going to be difficult. I had to be very careful about singing too hard.

The thing is that our sound system is really good. David Gotwald, our sound designer, is also doing "The Producers" on Broadway. He really knows his stuff. But on stage, I don't have a vocal monitor. So, my voice is not being projected back to me. And because we are using a very subtle sound in the room, I also don't hear my voice coming back to me in the room. So, the only sound I actually hear is what is coming directly from my mouth. It's deceptive because it gives me the illusion that I'm not in the house system at all.

Now, because of that, I've been pushing my voice more and more, trying to "project" it to the back wall. It's an absolutely normal psychological tendency. When one is performing, you want to get that feeling of "power." Of overwhelming the room.

So, on Sunday, I told Johnny A., our stage manager who is controlling the sound, "Look, I'm just going to sing normally, as if I'm in my studio up close to the mic with headphones on. Though I can hear my pitch, I have no idea if I'm in the room or not and I'm going to trust you that it's getting out there."

This was not just for singing, but also for the acting part. I just totally relaxed and spoke in a normal, and even sub-normal, tone of voice. It was REALLY weird. It felt like I was talking to myself, barely making it to the front row. But I knew I had to protect my voice. It felt like I was out on a tight wire alone.

Well, maybe we just had good audiences, or maybe just being that quiet did something to my performance, but the crowd reaction on Sunday was so utterly explosive, so astonishingly over the top, it was almost startling. The laughs were landing like nuclear explosions. The applause was extended. And during the more emotional moments of the show, maybe because I was so relaxed, everything felt more connected.

And I thought of Barney Hughes. We've done this show hundreds and hundreds of times. But on Sunday, it felt completely brand new, as if I'd never done them before. I felt like a totally different actor, and because I was forced to just be QUIET, it was as if I had discovered a completely new performance in me, a lesson learned that I can now take and work on and play with. I can't wait to get back on the stage with a good voice but keep that same tone and level of honesty.

Man, this is really fun.
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