Saturday, September 20, 2014

What's the Difference?

Jeffrey Carter's blog from a few days ago put me to thinking about how different not just the rehearsal experience but the whole experience of the show is for each of us.  There is a saying that no two children grow up in the same family and there's some truth to that. Try as they may to treat their children equitably, each child has his or her own talents, challenges and personality which drive parents' interaction with them to be as unique as they are.

So too, does our show-life vary based on a thousand factors -- our role, our attachment to the story-line and the characters we play -- even where we are in our acting careers and how we came to be in the cast.  So as I think of Jeffrey's rather lonely journey, hidden behind his keyboard and music, I wondered, what makes my experience in this show different?  What unique perspective do I bring to "Bonnie and Clyde"?

This first (and perhaps most obvious) is that  I'm easily the oldest cast member.  That has its challenges (falling dead on a hard stage floor from invisible bullets makes me question the "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" lyrics!).  But it also brings a less obvious advantage -- this historical drama is based on events that must seem so distant to my young peers in the cast.  But for me, it's really not so far removed.

My father (pictured below on the left with mom probably in the 1940's) was only 5 years younger than Clyde Barrow.  Both grew up in depression-era families barely scraping by sharecropping in the South.  Neither had much in the way of formal education -- my father's ending in the 2nd grade. Like Clyde, my father took an interest in cars and eventually made his living as a mechanic. Remarkably, just like Clyde Barrow, for a period of time during the Great Depression, my father lived with his family in a tent.

Paul and Verla Coffel

I'm sure I could find more parallels in the two lives but my point is clear: both grew up in and were shaped by hard times.  So were the women they loved and their entire generation.  Obviously the outcomes were very different.  My father survived the Depression working in WPA projects and eventually supported himself as a mechanic. He went on to serve in the Philippines in World War II -- another experience he likely would have shared with Barrow had the latter not died young in a lawmen's ambush in rural Louisiana.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow
So what was the difference?  Why did their lives, shaped by so many common obstacles early on, take such different trajectories? To be certain, living through the Depression tended to harden people. My father was not squeamish about slaughtering a pig that had been almost a family pet and he put down more than one cherished dog who had grown blind or lame with age, using his own handgun.  Life was tough; they became tough to deal with it.

My father's experience -- struggle, subsistence, survival, (modest) success, was not unique -- in fact, it was the experience of the majority of his peers; indeed, it was the experience of the whole country.  This "brother-can-you-spare-a-dime" generation went on to fight and win World War II and return home to build perhaps the most equitable economic boom in our nation's history.  Tom Brokaw famously called them "The Greatest Generation".  And beyond the post-war prosperity, when they came of age in the 1950's and 1960's, they gave us the Great Society programs and the Civil Rights Movement (grudgingly, yes, but still without them it might not have happened).  

The austerity of their youth made them more generous, more fair-minded, more open to learning and advancement, more accepting of others who looked or spoke differently but who had faced the same hardships.

So the question -- the question which we may never fully answer -- is not why my father and his cohorts succeeded not just in spite of but large part because of their struggles.  The great question is why Clyde Barrow and a small handful of other outlaws saw their hardship as an excuse to ignore law and civility.  And why do these radical miscreants somehow inspire otherwise ordinary people to join them in their death spirals?

As for me, part of the difference I bring to "Bonnie & Clyde" is knowing that I'm not that far removed from these characters and that my life is immensely better because the sharecropper in my story chose a different path.  There are no Wikipedia articles or documentaries on his simple life, but such is the lot of ordinary heroes.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bonnie & Clyde: Through Read-Through

Some theater companies and directors I've met have decided that the traditional read-through is a waste of time and have replaced it with more rehearsal. I have to say, I always miss it when it is skipped. Sure, I have the whole script and can read it at my leisure, but the truth is that I (like most actors, I suspect) tend to focus more on the parts of the script where I'm actually on-stage – you know, the good parts! Maybe I now and then I might gloss over the places when my character is off. So unless you are the lead and in every scene, read-through is the time when an actor gets a really good feel for the flow of the show, how scenes transition, the little gems of writing that will ultimately come out of someone else's mouth.

But more than just familiarity with the script, read-through is when we get a sense of how these scenes are going to sound coming from the actors who will actually be delivering the lines. Certainly things aren't yet polished – characters need fleshing out, readings and pacing will be tuned – all business for rehearsals yet to come. But at read-through we get to hear the raw materials which will become the finished product.

It's also the time when we get at least some idea of how good this show might be. After this first time through, we form a first-blush opinion about whether this show will be a bomb ("How did I manage to get myself cast in this show?") or “da bomb” ("How did I manage get myself cast in this show?"). That's important so we know whether we should raising or lowering expectations with our family and friends.

And finally, read-through is when we get an idea of who these other people really are – especially for New Line rookies like me. We get an idea how how accepting and supportive our fellow cast members will be, their quirks and their (sometimes amazing) talents.

So what did I learn from my first read-through last night? Here are some highlights:

  • Lots of really good voices and strong actors... 
  • The atmosphere is relaxed and (so far) nobody is screaming -- unless it's in the script 
  • Don't sit next to Blanche – she screams (but it's in the script)
  • Under some circumstances a box of Ho-Hos can be considered a cake 
  • Kimie says the most hilarious things – especially when she's not trying (what's a projection?) 
  • Some great chemistry developing between the main characters 
  • OK, “Made in America” needs some work...I better hit the music again. 
  • I hadn't realized how really sweet the ballads are 
  • The script is a lot funnier than I caught just reading it cold
  • We're all anxious to find out how Mara's hair turns out  

Overall, this has the makings of a strong show and I'm looking forward to watching it unfold!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Over The Line

Strange how the mind makes connections between apparently unrelated things. This week my thoughts have been occupied by two very different events: the beginning of rehearsals for New Line Theater's “Bonnie and Clyde” and civil unrest and police response following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Documentaries I've seen suggest that to a significant degree, the success of the Barrow gang stemmed as much from the lack of sophistication and coordination of law enforcement as from the criminals' daring and unorthodox behavior. The prohibition era of the 1920s when Clyde Barrow came of age was a time when automobiles were still replacing horse-drawn transportation. The American population was much more rural than now and travel was much less common. Most country folks stayed pretty close to home and that meant that police work was largely local authorities investigating local residents committing crimes against their neighbors. When the Barrow gang burst into public view, local sheriffs and deputies were faced with an entirely new animal – criminals that were extremely mobile, heavily armed and seemingly fearless. When cornered, they could (and did) shoot their way out. But most often, they could avoid arrest simply by driving across jurisdictional boundaries – state or even county lines, switching license plates as they went. By the time authorities in the next state could be contacted, Clyde and his robbing hoods could be hundreds of miles away.

The short but spectacular career of Bonnie and Clyde and other headline criminals of the day highlighted just how dreadfully unprepared law enforcement was for this new kind of outlaw. Federal authorities began to take notice and provide assistance in apprehending dangerous and far-ranging felons. Information provided by the Justice department bureau (which would soon become the FBI) along with Texas Ranger Frank Hamer's disregard for jurisdictions and the arrival of better arms for the lawmen eventually brought the Barrow gang's days to a bloody close.

Fast forward 80 years to Ferguson and the aftermath of the shooting of teenager Michael Brown. Local residents, angered at what appeared to be an unjustified killing of an unarmed young black man by Ferguson police took to the streets to protest. Within a few days, demonstrators found themselves standing before a large force of heavily armed police in riot gear. Streets were patrolled by an armored car with roof-mounted machine gun – a far cry from the backwoods sheriff and deputies which responded to crimes in the days of Bonnie and Clyde.

How did our police force become so militarized? In response to perceived threats to public safety, most noticeably the “drug wars” of the 1990s and terrorist attacks in the decade following, military surplus was transferred into the hands of local police departments. Last year, the Defense Department gave $450 million to local policing authorities. A Homeland Security Department grant paid for the $360,000 armored car rumbling around Ferguson city streets.

In the era of Bonnie and Clyde, an increase in sophistication and range of law enforcement was necessary to protect US citizens against the gangsters of the 1920s. Innocent people who found themselves staring down the barrel of machine guns wielded by the most brazen of criminals wanted more effective policing. But now, two generations removed, innocent citizens find themselves facing even more frightening firepower in the hands of faceless police officers in riot-gear masks. Has the pendulum swung so far from the days of Bonnie and Clyde as to be nearly off its hinges?

There is always a difficult balance between liberty and security. When we feel threatened as a nation, we find ourselves willing to trade a bit of liberty for safety – witness the Patriot Act, the use of torture in interrogation and the establishment of perpetual detainment in Guantanamo Bay along among other compromises. We must always be debating when we have sacrificed too much liberty for our security, or else we find ourselves feeling neither free nor secure, as Ferguson residents experienced this week.

On the positive side, the deployment of militarized police equipment made international news because (in part) it is rare and not the norm in our nation. Americans are talking about these issues and many are taking to the streets in protest – a very American undertaking. And, as frightening as the police presence has been at times, they still take orders from civil authorities, including Governor Nixon's direction to step down and bring a more measured response.

It's hard to imagine how Bonnie and Clyde might have viewed this week's headlines from Ferguson. It's a very different world. Still, they might take some satisfaction knowing that they are still remembered and that the changes in law enforcement set in motion by their crime sprees are still affecting everyday Americans even in 2014.