Monday, June 15, 2009

The Play's the Thing

Agreeing that the worst economy this country has experienced in decades made theatre more important than ever, actors Geoffrey Rush, Marcia Gay Harden and others headlined a Drama Desk panel entitled The Play’s The Thing at Sardi’s on Friday. The lunchtime symposium, which explored the impressive number of plays presented during the 2008-2009 season, was moderated by Elysa Gardner, theater critic for USA Today and a Drama Desk member.

“Theatre is a way to talk about things that can’t be spoken about in any other way,” said Bill Irwin, currently appearing as Vladimir in the Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot. “It’s the way the culture speaks to itself. Theatre is useful and necessary when it teaches. Is this true or is this just a painted pony line?”

For those on the panel, and probably most of us theatre critics in the audience, it is true. Rush, who just won the best actor in a play Tony for his performance as King Berenger in the revival of Exit the King, said when his show, which is about failure of leadership, was being considered two years ago, George W. Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair were still presiding over their failed administrations. He was afraid “people would be too happy” when the show opened now in the exciting new Obama administration, but he found audiences “responded this season because they don’t want to be lied to. They want to work out what’s happening and what went wrong.”

The past season’s plays gave audiences ample opportunity to do that. Condola Rashad, who is appearing as Sophie Off-Broadway in this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined, said her show is “inviting you as audience members to want to know more, to feel invited to be part of the story.” Ruined focuses on the impact the war in the Congo was having on women. “The stories of these people could very well be your story.”

Irwin said he is touched every night by his character’s pondering if he’s been sleeping while others suffered. “There are moments when a great play comes along and will be noticed,” he said.

Along with the challenging subjects last season, some characters displayed quite a bit of darkness, leading to a discussion between the panelists about whether they have to like their characters. “I do,” said playwright Annie Baker whose play Body Awareness ran Off-Broadway.

“I think extremes are funny,” said Harden (in photo) who won the best actress in a play Tony for her role as Veronica in God of Carnage, a role that has her angrily sparring with the parents of her son’s classmate.

“The key is to not judge them,” Rush said about the characters he plays, adding that an actor has to believe in his character “when you’re in them, invested in their body.”

Rashad said she tries to find a reason why a character is the way she is.

The actors also talked about various challenges in their profession. Rush drew a big laugh when he talked about the need to guard against ego, quipping that every time he sees an exit sign he thinks it’s about him. (The title of his show, remember, is Exit the King.) He told a story about Sir Laurence Olivier storming around backstage after a brilliant performance. Stagehands, wondering why he upset, told him he was wonderful, to which Olivier replied: “I know, and I don’t know how I did it.”

They also discussed the joys of doing theatre as opposed to film, especially having the time to develop a character, and shared their feelings about the uncertainty of a performing life. Harden said many people are experiencing what actors go through now that there’s so much unemployment. “Now everybody knows what it feels like to be an actor,” she said, adding that even though she’s an Oscar winner (for "Pollock" in 2001) she still thinks after each job that she won’t work again. “It always feels shaky to be an artist,” she said, but now because of “corporate fat slobby behavior” many people feel shaky about their jobs and the future.

To help make a better future, Rashad said more young people need to go to the theatre and regrets that only one high school group has come to Ruined. “They’re the audience that needs to see it because they’re going to shape what comes next.”

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