Over the course of two decades in Manhattan, I met a lot of aspiring actors, musicians, singers, stand-ups, clothing designers, directors, etc., etc. Sad to say, none of them made it big. The high failure rate served as a sobering lesson to me. Why try? It fed my insecurities and predisposition for seeing failure as an unavoidable outcome.
I fell hard for actresses who would pack up and leave town because their spirits were crushed under the heavy weight of auditioning. Two or three times a week they were told they were too old, too young, too fat, too thin, too tall, had an accent, just not right for the part. A few years of that will wear your resolve down to a nub and send you into the loving embrace of the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Having said that, I just stumbled across this journal entry last night.
October 27, 1993
Do you remember that really smart guy from the writing workshop at the YMCA? David? That dude had more talent than the rest of us combined. I don’t remember if I mentioned this, but not long after the workshop ended I was making my annual holiday pilgrimage through Santaland at Macy’s. God, I love that place. If that doesn’t put you in the New York holiday spirit, then there’s a hole in the space where your heart should be.
Anyway, I was walking past Santa’s throne and felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was that guy from the workshop! He was dressed as an elf. We had a nice chat. I told him how much I enjoyed the stuff he read in class, told him he was the only one who actually made me laugh and then (stupidly) asked what he was doing there dressed as an elf. He was working.
That had a profound impact on me. Clearly, that guy has a rare gift. If he, with his divine talent, can’t make it as a writer, what hope do I have with my meager skills? During class one night, he told me he made a living cleaning apartments. He said it like it was no big deal. It didn’t bother him one bit! He’s way more evolved than I’ll ever be. I walked out of Macy’s and gave up every dream I had.
Well, guess what? This week The New York Press printed a front-page story he wrote about his experiences as an elf. It’s really funny. It looked like a horrible gig but, if nothing else, he got a good story and some exposure out of it. I wonder if he got paid? He told me his sister is in Second City. They must have a good gene pool.
My stripper story was rejected by Details. No surprise there. I’ll edit it and send it to The New York Press. I think they have lower standards. I’ll bet David could get published in Details. He’s that good. I remember the instructor giving him the number of her agent and saying his stuff is publishable. Maybe he’s one of those dudes who’s afraid of success or thinks his stuff isn’t good enough. Who knows?
[Note: That, ladies and gentlemen, if you haven’t guessed already, was David Sedaris. The only guy I knew who made it. And made it, he did.]
Last week, I climbed the mighty mountain of words known as Hamlet. Actors wrestle this bear to prove their mettle. A few years ago I saw Jude Law give a surprisingly effective performance. This time, Peter Sarsgaard is the melancholy Dane. 3:20 long and he was on stage for the majority of it. No small feat.
The director chose to present it with modern dress and staging. He didn’t mess with the dialogue, obviously. Typically, I prefer a traditional presentation. Modernizing tends to take me out of the story. Fortunately, the production was absorbing enough so that the modern clothing and staging blended in instead of distracted.
The Classic Stage Company is a tiny venue. Only 199 seats. The stage is on the ground floor and risers wrap around three sides so you’re uncomfortably close to the action. It’s an intrusive feeling. The actors walk up the aisles and stalk the audience. I was seated in the second row. In front of me were three boys about 14 years-old. Sarsgaard was giving an impassioned speech about his murderous uncle. He walked up to one of these kids, rested on one knee, looked him dead in the eye and delivered his lines. It was a performance for one person. It showed the power an actor can have over his audience. That kid will never forget it. That won’t happen to you on Broadway, no matter how much you pay for your ticket.
Fun fact: Hamlet is 400+ years old but it’s so steeped in our culture that you don’t need to have see it to know many of its lines. Here’s a sampling. Remember…these all come from one play.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
“Frailty, thy name is woman!”
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…”
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
“In my mind’s eye.”
“When sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in battalions.”
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest…”
Not bad, right?