Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Lee Shore

A stormy day several years ago, I was walking along the shore with my father. On this point of land where we walked, vast slabs of granite lining the ocean are interrupted by the brevity of a small beach. The sea perpetually beats the vast hard granite shelves and outcroppings. In storms gigantic waves, roaring like a continent of giant lions, dash against the huge hunks of granite, shooting plumes of spray hundreds of feet in the air.

As we walked along, my mind drifted, I thought about being a shipwrecked sailor floating in the tempestuous ocean. Desperate to get to shore, only to come to the horrible realization that this was the shore I was heading to. This shore in a storm would mean certain death.

I visualized trying to come to shore in safety, but every scenario came to a gruesome end. These giant waves move huge boulders. I imagined being tossed in a wave and then crushed under one of these boulders being tossed with me.

I thought of being smacked against the granite shore line with the force of a two ton wave only to be dragged out by the under tow and whacked again, pulverizing bones, the flesh around them turning to mere jelly.

I turned to my father and said, “Jeez Dad, could you imagine what it would be like to be shipwrecked out there and the shore which has been your solitary hope suddenly becomes a certain and gruesome death.”

He said, “Sounds like ‘The Lee Shore’ from Moby Dick.” My father loves Moby Dick. His favorite novel, of all time. He has many different copies and often refers to it. Personally, I have never been able to get through it. Even in Mrs. Zafris’ class junior year of high school, in the end, I think I resorted to cliff notes.

I’ve tried to read it several times in my adult life. First it was the chapter on Cetology that broke my stride. The next attempt, I thought to jump that chapter and move to the next, somehow my stride was still broken, and my interest wandered.

However, this day I went and read the mercifully short chapter called:


Some chapters back, one Bulkington was spoken of, a tall, new-landed mariner, encountered in New Bedford at the inn.

When on that shivering winter's night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves, who should I see
standing at her helm but Bulkington! I looked with sympathetic awe and fearfulness upon the man, who in mid-winter just landed from a four years' dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off again for still another tempestuous term. The land seemed scorching to his feet. Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that's kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship's direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights 'gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea's landlessness again; for refuge's sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God -- so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing -- straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

The words and ideas of The Lee Shore hover in my mind. They twist and turn in my consciousness, wrapping around different ideas and memories. Raising questions and connecting to new and old ideas, raising new consciousness.

These words wriggled into my thoughts of “inquiry” that was so much a part of my grad school learning. It pulled at the experience of reading Peter Elbow and employing his games of doubting and believing. It cuddled up to a quote of artist Robert Irwin, about the immorality of ambitions for the minds of others.

And then it went through my library of memories of the wisdom of acting teachers.

I thought of Michael Langham. In my first class with him, he talked of character. He said something to the effect of, “One must get to know their character first, walk around him, notice the detail and then step in side.”

I thought of my own struggles as an actor. As an actor, I was often insecure. The nagging doubt that consistently plagued me was one of fraud. “This is the show where they find out I can’t do it. This is where they are going to realize I am untalented.”

Ron Van Lieu used to say quite often, “Don’t be afraid of being a bad actor. You have to give yourself room to be terrible.” At the time I thought he was a touch mad. I trusted him and his genius, but this was such a foreign idea. I needed to be the best always and recognized as such. “Always” is a lot of pressure to put on yourself and creativity. But here was this seed planted that grew over the years. The seed grew into this idea making many choices, and taking risks. Not just clinging desperately to the first choice that seem to work.

Finally a couple of things that Earle Gister used to say about acting began to weave through my tossing thoughts on The Lee Shore. Earle used to say something like, “Never set your choices in stone. But make a score line to follow through a scene.” He also said something like, “Don’t do what is real. Do what is unbelievable and make it look real.”

Through the lens of Melville’s Lee Shore, Ron Van Lieu, Michael Langham and Earle Gister all seem to be saying the same thing. Keep the question open. Allow yourself the freedom of discovery before diving in. OR at least dive in with your eyes open and awareness on.

Recently I’ve been working with several actors on Lewis the Dauphin from King John in private coaching. They both approached it the same way at first, a sarcastic and rhetorical rant against Pandulph the cardinal, the Popes legate. On first glance, it does lend itself towards a rant. However, it is a good thirty lines long at least. IF you play rant as these two gentlemen did it lacks luster as it goes on. The same single note begins to fizzle and lose my interest.

I wondered what the struggle was, why Lewis continues talking. What if Lewis doesn’t “hate” the cardinal? What if Lewis admires and cares for the cardinal as a mentor? Lewis says, “You taught me to know the face of right.” What if, instead of the rant he has to wrap his head around the betrayal of his friend and think his way to the conclusion he wants? Both tried it. Subtlety, nuance and humanity rose out of the monologue. The questions became necessary rather than sarcastic and rhetorical, a fascinating and complex relationship emerged. The fresh thought of newly coined ideas replaced a studied lecture. The monologue became a rich tapestry layered with ideas and thoughts and emotions and intentions. It breathes with life as a boy struggles with ideas and becomes a man in the process.

One actor, preferred his first choice. He kept resetting to the original rant. Finally, he said, “My choice works. It is the way it is written.” “Come on,” he said, “ ‘Am I Rome’s slave?’ what else could that be? He is mad at the cardinal.”

I thought of many things “Am I Rome’s slave?” could mean in this context. I think he is mad at the cardinal, among myriad other emotions. But it’s not about the emotions. They are the effects. It is about what he is trying to do, what makes him talk, why he needs these words to accomplish his task. The emotions are secondary effects. They come as a result of that pursuit.

This second actor, became really attached to his first choice and held on tightly to it. In the process he denied himself and his audience access to a richer inner life. He had put a to of work into that first choice and married his readings to it. It was set in his mind.

There is comfort in the certainty of making choices quickly. Definite choices can be validating in an uncomfortable sea of cold insecurity and uncertainty in rehearsal.

Early choices can beckon like the safety and hearth of Port. The desire for the safety, security and warmth of concrete choices can be overwhelming early in the process. The comfort that cementing early choices provides, that certainty it offers, can be the death of the creativity yet to come.

Committing too early to choices in the maelstrom of creativity recalls, “But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship's direst jeopardy.” Experience and observing others processes has shown me cementing choices too soon, can cut off other more interesting and engaging choices. Choices made too early get stale and old when gripped and held tightly in quiet desperation.

Inquiry, keeping in the sea of the question, becomes the “tumultuous and open truth of the soul.” This kind of actor’s “landlessness becomes the highest truth.” It is not easy to stay at sea. It can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. It ay not be the time when your work shines its brightest. You may look like the bad actor for whom Ron Van Lieu insists you make room.

It can also be the most rewarding. It leaves you room to dig, investigate, research, and grow within your choices. It gives them room to morph and be discarded in favor of more engaging ones. The choices that the body makes instinctively rather than the ideas of shape, size and effect on which the brain insists.

So though the insecurity, and need for validation, blow towards the port of certainty. The soul of the actor craves “the open independence of the sea” of continued inquiry into character, intention, desire, desperate needs.

I’m reminded of Irving Stone’s literary portrait of Michelangelo Buonarotti. Stone’s Michelangelo knew this in his way. He yearned for more and more knowledge. His satisfaction was ever elusive. In The Agony and The Ecstasy, Irving Stone attributes these words to him:

How can I establish a figure, event the crudest outline, if I don’t know what I am doing? How can I achieve anything but surface skin sculpture, exterior curves, outlines of bones, a few muscles brought into play? Effects. What do I know of the causes? The vital structure of a man that lies beneath the surface and that my eye can’t see? How can I know what creates from within, the shapes I see from without?

Here Michelangelo lives in a sea of inquiry much like an actor must to step within a new world. He eschews the “effects” in favor of the “causes.”

Michelangelo sought the physical factors of the body within. He was desperate to know what happens beneath the skin, that make the outsides of a man look the way they do.

Michelangelo risked his life, livelihood and reputation to secretly dissect cadavers.

As actor’s we must do the same. It is not enough to mimic an effect. Mimic anger, love, etc. We must dissect a written piece to find the life within. We must connect with the desperate needs, inner longings, hopes, joys and attachments of a person that create the written effects that we see. When we know the intentions, and follow them, chase them, hound them, the emotional effects fall into place effortlessly. The effort comes in working to achieve what you want; What your soul is driving you to get.

Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable. This quote from The Lee Shore brings me to another understanding. There is a story of Lawrence Olivier. He was playing Othello. He gave his best performance ever. The producer’s went back to congratulate him only to find him furious and despondent. The legend says they asked him, “Larry why are you so upset? That was your best performance yet.” Olivier’s response? “I know but I don’t know how I did it.” Sometimes the ephemera we work with as actors slips from our grip if we try to make it too literal. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

But this feels like another entry.

The Lee Shore continues to raise questions, create images and provoke new ideas for me. Right now in terms of acting, it reminds me not to make my choices too quickly; to stay out at sea in exploration before lashing myself to a choice.