Cheating by posting an email I wrotePosted October 14th, 2005 by Sean Williams
I had a rare and wonderful thing happen to me tonight. I saw a really good play in the middle of a ten minute play festival. It was one of those theater experiences that, when the lights go out and you hear a young man’s voice mutter behind you the single word “amazing” you feel like it’s gone from being something you felt was a great personal experience to something you were glad you got to share with someone.
I already had a pretty good resume by the time I got to Chapel Hill. In fact, I had already done Caryl Churchill’s Ice Cream when I was cast in it at the Lab, but I had no idea how far I was from having done any real work as an actor. I had done a lot of real work, I had done some monumental heavy lifting, but I had never been asked to go to a place that I didn’t know, the place my mom describes as “that spot on the map where it says there be dragons”.
Dan was the director, and I was acting opposite Claire and Ann Cone for most of the show, with one amazing scene of Steve Alexander thrown in for good measure. It was difficult for me to get past being an actor. In retrospect I might never have actually done it since I was completely unfamiliar with who I was when I wasn’t acting, but I got really close to being an active and different person who delivered the lines Churchill wrote, and I got there because of the people I was acting with and because of my director. I remember there was a point when Dan said, “what are you trying to say to her?” and I said, “I’m asking her if she’s mad at me,” and Dan said, “then do it.” I turned to Claire and, after a moment’s hesitation, I said, “So, are you mad at me?” and Dan said “no, no, no, sorry, no, use the *line* to ask her that…” and there was such pity in both his eyes and in Claire’s that I didn’t bother to get all huffy, I just apologized and tried.
There was a moment at the end where my character loses his shit and screams at the character played by Ann. I couldn’t do it, at all, and for some reason I knew that if I even tried to do it it would be even more humiliating than if I faked it. This is gonna blow y’all’s minds, but Dan was totally cool with that. I got to the end of the lines I could do, and then I would drop character, drop out of the scene and just mutter the rest of the words one at a time. I said something like “I just can’t do this,” and Dan just said, “Yeah, you can’t. But you will, and until you know that, don’t worry about it.” He was right, he was totally right.
When I look back on the insignificant list of plays I call my career, I am proudest of my work in Ice Cream, it is the biggest leap I’ve ever taken as an actor or an artist, and one of the largest leaps forward I’ve ever taken as a person. It’s because I would look into Claire’s eyes and deliver a line, and the way I would deliver it would change her. Then I would listen to see how she was gonna say the next thing, and depending on how she said it, it would change me. And this happened under Dan’s eye.
This isn’t a revolution anymore, ever since I moved back to New York it’s been this way. We weren’t taught anything at Carolina, but for some reason Julie Finefrock and Matthew Kinney know how to be in a Mac Rogers play better than the outlanders. But, after weeks of rehearsal, suddenly the two non-heels are falling into line, and they’re starting to act like the rest of us. They learned more from Jordana, Mac and the rest than their degrees from Syracuse and NYU could give them.
I should tell you that the play I saw tonight was a Mac Rogers play and it was directed by Jordana Davis, and it isn’t Hail Satan. “You Look Really Hot” is going up at manhattantheatersource this week, and the elegance of the writing and directing is the perfect partner to the brutality of both the writing and the directing. It’s a remarkable night of theater, even if for only fifteen minutes.
And in rehearsals now, suddenly, I’m taking another step, It’s been forever since a piece challenged me like this, it’s been forever, since Ice Cream, that I thought I couldn’t get a scene, that I just couldn’t. And, the miracle is, that Jordana said “I know you can’t, but you will, and until you do just take each bit you can do and build on them and don’t worry about it.” There is no reason for me to blow smoke up anyone’s ass, it’s as easy for me to be silent or, y’know, fat and obscene and obnoxious, but it is a revelation to work with Mac and Jordana.
“Hail Satan” doesn’t have the same possibilities built in for commercial success as “Fleet Week:, it will simply be too unpleasant for most people. And not bad people or lazy people, it is an investigation into horror and at our age and our venue, horror is an exploration of bad decisions and terrible consequences. This play does not have a knee jerk political argument and it isn’t free of sexual predation. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what the play is about. But I also didn’t know what Ice Cream was about, and there is no way that I could understand either while I’m working inside them. Especially when liberty isn’t an allowance but is insisted upon by the director and the actors. Being in this play makes me feel like a child. I wish there was a more complete way of saying that, but that’s what it is. I’m a child for the time we’re in rehearsal, and my brothers and sisters are the best in the world.
All this to say, I feel real lucky. And when I die, I’ll be a tar heel dead.