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  • Wayne Watkins

Actors and Me. Musings on Fraternity.

Now when I use the word "actor," I mean something very specific. I mean those men and women who are trained in the imaginative world of creating and inhabiting characters based on the written words of playwrights. I do NOT mean people who are merely celebrities. I do NOT mean people who call themselves actors but have never been on a stage or in front of a camera in a character. I do NOT mean people who, while perhaps are entertainers of some kind, have never lost themselves in the words of Shakespeare or Mamet or Miller. I do not mean talk show hosts or comics or models or media personalities or people with an Instagram account with millions of followers.

I am referring to people who know how to use their voice and can rely on their bodies. People who can speak properly and be heard in a theatre. Women who can project while wearing a corset and men who know how to walk on a raked stage. People who have been in a dark rehearsal room with other actors pouring over lines and movement and gestures. Folks who can hit a mark without looking down and know how to modulate their performance when a camera is inches aways from their nose. People who refer to a cigarette and a Diet Coke as "dinner." You know - Actors.

In my relationships with and between actors, even after all this time, I am still taken aback by the passion that actors have about what they do. There have been two instances that have made me at once proud and so full of hope for the future of my tribe, my band of brothers and sisters, who have chosen these impossible careers.

The first is what I'll refer to as the "experiment." In 2018, I invited a group of, primarily, actors to join my wife and me in a theatre experiment. Half of them we had known and had worked with on many occasions. They were friends and I knew their talent and abilities. The other half were highly recommended to me by others or actors I just wanted to work with because I got a good vibe from them. Yes, I know, what was I thinking? I asked them to join our "company." A resident theatre company in the mold of Steppenwolf and the Mercury Players with a nod to the studio system of old Hollywood.

We would meet once a week and work on scenes, try out new material if anyone had it, generally enjoy each other's talent, and do things that we would not necessarily get cast in during the course of the real world. We would work and look and analyze with a mind to create a full season of theatre at our adopted venue in Burbank. For about 18 months we met every Saturday to work. With very few exceptions, everyone came to every session. With fewer exceptions, everyone came prepared and anxious to get on stage. It was not always easy. Yes, there were clashes of personality. No, not everyone got to work every meeting. Sometimes the heating didn't work and coffee was never allowed in the main theatre. (Actors without coffee is not a peasant thing.) As it turned out there were several couples, which was sometimes advantageous and other times not so much. However, the talent of every actor in the group was, truly, so impressive that it kept me motivated every single week. We had gotten lucky. We had put together a group of actors that could do anything.

From the theatre work over the course of a year, we then started to work on filming some projects. Every Saturday we would shoot or meet and plan the next week's shoot. Eventually, a toll was taken. A couple of people left under strained circumstances, we stopped and started as I tried to chart a course for a feature film, then as we were ready to announce an inaugural theatre season and schedule film production -- the pandemic stopped everything in its tracks. In the face of COVID, we have been planning our return when it is safe to do so. It is different now. We didn't lose our mojo, but we lost our momentum. In the wake of the virus and not being able to perform, it has been a challenge for everyone and the industry at large. Theatres across the country are shuttered. Many won't survive. Film and TV production is still slowly finding its footing back. We are planning a theatre season of some form in 2021. We have added some new faces. But the experiment continues and the core group is hanging in there, hopefully, for the time we can all gather together and get back to work. The new people, though they have yet to meet the founding members in person, are energized and talented. Resilience and courage have always been the hallmark of our trade. This group bears that out.

The second instance occurred earlier, 1000 miles away in Portland, Oregon. Several times a year, I am asked by a few theatre companies and a couple of universities around the country to come and hang out with their actors. Sometimes a few days, sometimes a few hours. We call them "master classes" or "workshops," but I like to think of them as collaborative skull sessions where a company just gets a different perspective (mine) on their work or process of work.

Usually, when someone like me comes into work with a group like this there is some initial resistance. I mean, let's face it, I'm not a household name in the theatre world (nor do I want to be), I don't have a book to sell, and I do not posture or pretend to be some kind of guru. I'm not. I'm just a theatre guy that has some experience and knowledge that some actors might find helpful. Hopefully, I can communicate it in a meaningful way to the actors around the table.

This particular group of actors seemed different, though. Experienced though they all were, they appeared open and available. (Each one of them also happened to be very talented, but that's a whole other subject.) I'm sure they had their questions about me. I had worked extensively with one of the actors (he's is the reason I was there in the first place), but the rest didn't know me from Adam. Yet, here they were for two days listening, questioning, applying, investigating new techniques. Challenging themselves and each other to get better, to learn, to experiment. Remarkable. And beautiful.

Two groups of actors separated by size and distance and philosophy. Each proclaiming to the world and themselves that what they do has merit, is important, and should be constantly nurtured and improved upon even in the face of impossible odds.

Who does that? Actors do. And I love them for it.

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