Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Theraputic Value of Humor

I think I can actually talk about it now. At the time I realized it was something important but could not see it in its true light until time has passed from the night my Dad died.
I wrote about how difficult it was to get through my show that night because of the many reference to my Father in the script. Each time I came to one of those references I found it hard to say without breaking down. They caught me by surprise every time.
I assume it is this way for every actor, but for me I have the script running in my head just a few sentences from actually saying the words The show is happening inside me and I am just repeating the lines with a mental time delay. It is like I am being directed in advance. I know that after the next line I will need to move over to a certain point of the stage and say the next phrase. The script is parsed out a line and a movement at a time and not as the entire performance. A good actor is trained not to play the ending of the scene before you get there. It is called "telegraphing" and it is especially true for comedy. You never want to play the set up for the laugh. The laugh has to be a turn and a surprise. If you tee it up like you are going to say something funny, the audience gets there before you do and it's not funny. So the show running in your head has to be only a sentence or two ahead or you play the punchline.
So it was the night of my Dad's death. I was especially trying not to get ahead of myself because I knew the ending of the show was going to be very difficult. The ending is all about the shock of finding out my mentor has died and it was much to real on this night.
Thirty minutes into the show I cross to a big trunk to sit and tell the story of Big Jon and Sparkie. Until this point the show is really the history of ventriloquism with very few personal references that matter. The Big Jon and Sparkie story begins what is basically the second act, my personal journey. The show in my mind stumbles as I sit there. I realize in the next few lines I will say, "On the trip home my Father says something that will change my life." The mental script stopped with the realization that my life with Dad had minutes ago been forever changed. I was off book now... the reality of saying those words derailed my continuing.
Internal show or not, on stage it was time for that very line. I had to look down at my lap to gain my composure to even utter it. I felt a burning in my eyes that signals tears. Then suddenly it was like a commercial interruption of a television show. Everything on stage stopped and I became aware of my pants. My eyes cleared as the burning stopped. I saw that my zipper was open. It had obviously been down for the entire show. It stopped not only my momentary grieving but the entire show. I looked up and said to the audience, "Are you kidding me?" and zipped up. There really is no subtle way to make that move on stage without calling complete attention to it. There was a nervous giggle from the audience. I said, "Has my zipper been down this entire time and no on said anything... Are you kidding me?" I yelled out at John in the booth, "Where is my stage manager when I need him? John?" John has a very infectious laugh and guffawed from the booth. It was enough to get a nice laugh from the audience. I think my ad-lib to a couple down front was, "No extra charge...." It was okay that the show stopped and we all recovered together. The laughter had taken the wind out of my emotions and I was able to say the difficult line and move on quickly.
There were other references that took me by surprise but that quick laugh let me get through the first one more easily. As tough as the others were the first one is always going to be the toughest simply because it is the first.
Part of my per-entrance ritual is to check my zipper before I go on stage. Some actors have a mantra or a superstition before walking on stage, mine is fundamental to wardrobe appropriateness. I guess the shock of Dad passing just moments before I went on stage distracted me from my process. In hindsight it was probably Dad way of helping me get through it. He would rather that performance be remembered not as the night he died but the night I did half the show with my zipper down.
I guess there really is nothing that laughter can't make a little easier. Since humans are the only species that can laugh it is a divine gift.
Here is to lots of laughs in your days to come... no matter what it is you have to face.
As you were,


Roomie said...

Mandy and I have discussed it and we are certain that your Dad was there with you...knew that it was going to be a difficult performance, and decided that you and he needed to share a "special" moment as well as one with the entire audience...he would have loved the way you handled a running part of the dialogue....all the time, being the professional that you are....thanks for sharing this....we feel better about where you are and what you are doing even if it is so far from home and family.....we love you....and I, too have always been one for "checking the zipper" as opposed to the voice at that last moment......
Carry on,

Anonymous said...

oh jay -- i hope you collected from the front row...
thanks for sharing - you are a lucky, lucky man to have a dad that sends you a sign, and a big laugh at the same time. thinking of you xxel

Jim said...

That is like my biggest fear in life ... I think I casually slide a finger to check that I am ... "zipped" 20 times a day. But this is just another example of how genuine you are, and how professional- moment acknowledged, like you were among family and then the show went on. You're the best Jay.
ps- it was great seeing you Sat. night with Daray and my mom, JIM