As some of you know, a month ago, and much to my surprise, I had open heart surgery—a routine triple bypass. I'm well on the road to full recovery, but for the moment I have a little time on my hands, and I thought to spend some of it in reflection, not so much about myself as about my longest running love, theatre. And I thought I'd begin with an account of my latest theatrical adventure, followed by an encounter with actors that made me understand what "actors' energy" means in a whole new way.
Open heart surgery is highly theatrical, just not in a way I'm familiar with, since the patient is neither actor nor director, but the subject of the drama, someone who is acted on. It's true you become a very involved spectator of your own drama, but even as audience your experience is particular. I was all there when the play opened, watching the ceiling move overhead as I was shunted to the operating anteroom. There was time for chatting with the family, with nurses, doctors and technicians and their plastic hats which made them look like a collection of French bakers. The actress playing Gertrude in our Hamlet made a surprise entrance, having her acted her way past the barriers by persuading them she was a close family member. Then, just as I was told in the horrible video we had watched the night before, "it's time to say goodbye." So I'm wheeled off into "theater" with smiles from loved ones and the Queen of Denmark vanishing behind me. I have to say if the next short scene had been in my hands, it would have been arranged differently. The lighting would not be nearly so harsh, the sound design something more and less than the casual chatter of the technicians (I was the third bypass of the morning), and just before the lights went out I would be looking at a blue Tiepolo ceiling, not an alien cubist forest of glass and steel. That was about it for act one.
The peculiar thing about this drama, as with most serious surgery, is that you miss act two, the climactic action, the scene a faire of your well-made play. If you're lucky, you can recall only the resolution, the third act. I remember my eyes opening in darkness and someone talking how about how healthy the last two patients had been, something they said was not usual in open heart surgery. I dimly realized one of those patients had been me. Minutes later I was swept into the recovery room, full of bright light, consciousness and a whole new world of pure pain. It lasted for about 24 hours, not long really, but an eternity if it hits you every time you have to take a breath. I won't dwell on this, but will say that it insures a recognition that something has really happened, something you were there for yet missed altogether.
Larry McMurtry has written memorably about his own open heart surgery, and about how it entailed a temporary though protracted loss of self. So far, I'm glad to say, this has not happened to me. But surgery of this kind has two unavoidable consequences: it renders you very vulnerable, both in body and soul. and it makes you a spectator of your own life, a traveler, like Hamlet's ghost, returning from "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns." Everything, not least your own body, seems strange and new and once removed.
Slowing down is the best advice you can take and give yourself, and considering who I am, I've been pretty good so far. I was in a hurry for only one thing: I wanted to see my cast. My cardiac event occurred right in the middle of our summer theatre season, a season in which I had decided to direct two plays at the same time, one of which just happened to be Hamlet. One of the best ideas I ever had, and one of the dumbest. I don't think my 14 hour rehearsal days landed me in the hospital, as the critic for the Denver Post claimed; I'd obviously been working on closing my arteries for quite some time. But no doubt this summer's activity was pushing my limits. Even so, I came home eager to see my actors again, with a new idea about the play's ending. Two weeks after surgery I arranged to meet with the cast an hour and a half before the evening's peformance. I had returned to teaching that afternoon, and found I could sit quietly and talk to my class for two hours without incident or excessive fatigue, and I was looking forward to meeting my gang again.
This is what happened. I walked into our theatre lobby at 6:00 p.m., the calm before the storm. But even though very little was happening I could feel something I hadn't when I had taught class early that afternoon. The feeling came on more stongly when I enteed the theatre itself, a sense of walking through a thick force field. and when I came to the cast gathered on stage it was overwhelming. We were in mid-run and the show was going extremely well, and the assembled cast was relaxed, smiling, and we were glad to see each other. Being actors, they insisted right away on seeing my scar, which I revealed to great admiration and acclaim. Then we got down to business. I wanted, absurdly, to restage the very ending of the play. My idea was that during the last speech of Fortinbras, the dead of Elsinore would rise slowly, as if in a dream. Then all the other cast members (most of them dead too) would come on stage, like ghosts. When Fortinbras spoke of four captains bearing Hamlet to the stage, the cast would lift the dead prince in their arms and then above their heads in a final tableau before going to black. My idea was that everyone had a piece of Hamlet, that we are all Hamlet, and I thought this final picture just before the dark would be beautiful.
I wish I could say I came to my senses and realized how very unfair it was to ask this of a cast already well settled into an ending that was working just fine as played and written. Our producing director and stage manager had warned me that such a revision could not be blocked in 20 minutes and of course they were right. It would have been a massive clusterfuck. But these were not the reasons I ceased and desisted.
I abandoned everything simply because the energy of the actors, competely blew me away. The actors,as I have said, were not anything but themselves; they were not in performance. They weren't "doing" anything. Even so their collective energy went right through me. pouring off the stage like an invisible tsunami. I staggered. I sat down. I confessed they were all too much for me. I think I spoke a little, and even may have wept a little, and then I got up and went home.
My surgery has left me more physically sensitive. The slightest change in temperature can have been sweating or shivering. I seem to have much less insulation. But this also means I meet life in a more feeling way. And in this moment it was as if I felt "actor energy" fully for the first time, and it was, as I say, overwhelming. I realized: of course actors have this energy, that's why they're actors: they transmit powerfully over great distances. And I realized I had never appreciated this because this energy had been also naturally mine, not actor energy but theatre energy. It's not something you regularly find at in the supermarket. I mentioned this to Kari Martin, our wonderful stage manager, and she said of course actors were like that; "that's why I love the theatre."
Directors enjoining actors to find their energy is one of the most often heard last minute instructions in the theatre. I remember once seeing a sign over the dressing room door telling actors in crude cartoon electric letters "Don't forget your ENERGY!" This is an understandable but entirely unnecessary appeal. If the show is strong and the actors confident, there will be no problem with actors losing their energy. They bring it with them when they come. The energy of actors is as natural, as strong, as predictable, as exciting and even alarming as lighting is in a Colorado summer storm. The air is thick, the charge is always there.
Two weeks later, I'm much stronger. I take long walks. I have long talks. I blather away. People tell me I look great. But I'm glad I'm not directing again until January. I'm not yet ready for the rehearsal room. I can only take theatre energy from a distance and in small doses. But I understand something more about what makes a life in the theatre so heightened, and so wonderful, and I want it back.