Wow. I am here, almost at the end of the agony and the ecstasy of this run of Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar.
When talking to friends I would compare doing the play to climbing a mountain. Alone. Sometimes I had to play little mental games with myself during rehearsals to not dissolve in tears or retreat in terror or frustration or memory-failure. Every time I started the play I had to think of it as just a little stroll I was going on, that then happened to turn into a lengthy mountain trek. I tried to smile and enjoy the early rehearsal runs where my brain was barely clinging onto whole swaths of text, and I kept reminding myself as I would stop and call for the next line, through gritted teeth, that this was supposed to be FUN. I felt a loneliness and a fear of disappointing my collaborators and of humiliating myself that is so much larger when you're up there on your own and your brain seems totally blank. I had dread-filled sleepless nights and mornings with coffee and my script where I felt doomed. I would never ever know all the words in this 100-minute solo play.
Friends would be like, "Pah! You do Martha all the time, she talks for longer than that in one segue! Don't worry!" and that was vaguely comforting. But even though Martha brings a different challenge, that of me improvising, somehow that feels less demanding to me than Buyer & Cellar. Maybe because the character of Martha is big enough for me to hide behind. Maybe because she can respond in the moment, she could actually say something like: "I'm worried this is getting boring" or "I've been talking far too long" or "hey there, who are you young man?" but this script, though it addresses the audience directly, is not that flexible. The play is a structure and a pathway that demands precision and a discipline, that instead of making the material mold around you as you find yourself that day, you must rise and meet IT, where IT demands for you to be. The challenge of acting, really.
So I was staring into a pit of despair. Can I even do it? Will I be interesting for that long? Can I make these characters with just my body and voice and rhythm? How are we supposed to stage all of these dialogues between two characters (there are about 22 "scenes" of dialogue within this one-man show, in a variety of locales) with clarity, using just my body and a rolling cart and a chair? Can my voice even handle talking for that long (my voice teacher Rosemary, when I told her that speaking for that long seemed harder than singing for that long, assured me that in fact speaking IS harder, and that I would need to find some yogic calm and flow asap if I was going to make it through the show)?
But then. Then, slowly and steadily, I learned it, with the help and patience of many friends who ran lines with me, with the expert guidance of my hilarious and whip-smart comrade-director Dan O'Neil, with the support of the coolest of stage managers Tom Shotkin and our awesome ASM Julia Levis, with the incisive eye and kind reassurance of 1812 comedy guru/grand poo-bah Jen Childs. And from an instrument designed to torture and humiliate me while holding me in its merciless jaws, the play transformed into something incredibly rewarding. Now it's actually fun for me. Very fun.
What's to say now, besides that the oft-asked and slightly annoying question "how did you learn all those lines?" is, in this case, a very good question.
Which I can't really answer. Blocking the scenes helped. I guess I would just drill them in the classic manner, looking at the page then looking away, and every day I would try to get farther along. And every day I would try to replace my "close-enough!" synonyms with the actual words Tolins wrote, so I wouldn't be fudging and approximating what the script was, but actually saying it. It makes a difference!
I guess what I love about this play is that it's very tightly written. The comedy is punchy, the characters are very vivid, and from this bizarre opening premise of this weird detail of Barbra's mall/basement, we get to plunge into a world where all the characters are sympathetic and flawed and complicated.
I love Barry maybe the most. The boyfriend of our narrator, he is tenacious in his desire to win his boyfriend back from Barbra. At first Barry is more excited than Alex is about this new job in Barbra's home, but then he finds himself in the strangest of competitions with Ms Streisand, as Alex dives more and more obsessively into a friendship (?) with his employer, Barbra. Barry also is probably the most outspoken, funny, expressive, and intelligent character in the play. At first I had trouble figuring out his physicality, but then Dan and I zeroed in on a model for him, the amazing Seth Rudetsky (check out his "guided tours" of Broadway songs on youtube) and that led me to a spiky, tense, sputtery quality, like an overeager dog.
Contrast is gold, especially when you want to paint different personalities with just your body. So this Barry we found--hyper, staccato, choppy, excitable—would form a nice counterpoint to the swanlike, smooth, assured rhythm of Barbra and her long smooth pink fingernails.
Ah Babs! How I came to love this character too. If you ever get to read the book My Passion for Design, the book that spurred this lovely play into being, you will see how, as Alex says in the play, "your (Barbra's) writing sounds just like you (her) talking." And the Babs you meet in that book is a real bundle of contradictions. As we all are, I guess. The down-to-earth way the book is written has an amazing, no BS, almost blunt quality to it, but it's a book full of strange artifice and of obsession for perfection in interior design that seems stifling and the opposite of the no-BS quality of the writing. Maybe that is also what makes the Babs such a fascinating figure for me. She is oddly both totally artificial/fake/manicured and a straight shooter who is deeply interested in being "real". She seems like a tough cookie and also a vulnerable person with a difficult past. A public figure and a recluse. I guess all those dichotomies makes her an interesting character for a play.
And of course our culture loves to obsess about celebrities. One thing Alex discovers by the end is that his over-fascination with the famed Babs, his losing of himself in the pursuit of her approval, is a deeply destructive impulse and it nearly ruins the rest of his life. Putting people up on pedestals is bad for us and bad for them. We owe it to ourselves, and to those stars touched by fame, to take up our own space in the universe. To respect ourselves. To demand respect.
At the end of this process I now know more strange factoids about Barbra Streisand than I ever thought I would. For example: did you know that Barbra has suffered throughout her career from terrible stage fright?
I guess that makes two of us.
Thanks for coming on the trek with me.