Back to the present. When I walked through the snow on the way to work this past Monday morning, the world felt palpably different. It was as if I could sense less creative energy in the universe, like I could tell that a shift had occurred. And I have to say that I was not fully prepared for the tidal wave of emotion I felt. Besides the tragedy of losing a human life (and to such tragic circumstances, at an incredibly young age), the news of his death stirred up so many emotions for me about performing, how I live each day, and how we see ourselves in this world. All this is to say that this post was really born out of the countless ripples that came from hearing that news on Sunday.
So many things to think about, to celebrate, to mourn. While I feel gratitude that he left us with so many wonderful performances on film that I can watch again and again, I can't stop thinking about how much I loved seeing him perform live in New York in both Long Day's Journey Into Night in 2003 and Death of a Salesman in 2012. I cannot relive those moments onstage like I can the ones captured on film, but it is those hours that I spent in a darkened theatre, watching him conjure up a flesh and blood human being onstage in front of me, that will stay with me the most vividly. You can insert several textbook arguments here about why a live experience is so memorable and leaves such an impact on the viewer, but I believe there is something more. I believe that when we make theatre, we can't help but give another living soul a little piece of ourselves, and in turn, walk away with a little piece of them as well. Forgive me if I sound a little too new age-y for some of you, but I think that this kind of creative alchemy is inevitable with theatre-we can't stop it from happening, and we can't necessarily explain it in scientific terms. But anyone who had created theatre knows that it's there.
Earlier this week over dinner, I was mourning the fact that those live performances I saw are lost to time, and I will never get to experience them again. This broadened into realizing that the work we all make in the theatre will eventually be lost to time, too. When the last word is spoken, the lights go down, and the set is struck, all that remains in an empty stage-someone coming in the morning after the performance would never know it had occurred. God, this suddenly made me so depressed. My husband, wise as he is, gently acknowledged that the performances I saw were indeed singular, and nothing would change that. He also reminded me that it's that same singularity that gives the theatre so much of its magic. He reminded me that it's that ephemeral quality I always say I love about it so much. It is singular, and this is what makes it special. This is what makes it magic.
It's not an easy road we theatre folk take, is it? I can't speak for anyone else, but sometimes, it seems like I'm drawn to this work because there are times when I have a buried desire to escape life, to escape myself, and to exist in an alternate universe where my pain can be harnessed to create something beautiful. So many times in life, I see conflict, hurt, and my own contradictions as reasons to rebel, to build walls against myself, against other people, to get so frustrated at how hard it is so change and make progress and to endure. But on stage and in film, that kind of suffering is transformed into art, our pain is allowed to grow into something beautiful. Like Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist says "As an organic gardener, you are not afraid of the garbage. It can always be transformed to make a beautiful flower.” Isn't this what we do when we create? We are suddenly able to turn all the garbage we carry into a garden. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, we can't have the garden without the garbage.
Isn't it true that it the greatest compliment someone can pay us after they watch us in a play or film is that our performance evoked a three dimensional, flesh and blood human being? I myself love when characters are complicated, possess flaws, and struggle to reach their objective through it all. Yet, how often is it a compliment to be told that our own selves are complicated and flawed? How often do we truly appreciate the contradictions in ourselves? Why is there such a differential? I wish I could see that the same rawness and roughness I try to cultivate in a character is just as magnificent as the rawness and roughness that exists in me as a human being. Is the inability to see this part of why we can be dissatisfied with ourselves? It's all a big puzzle I'm still working on.
If you get the chance, check out the two video clips below. The first is a wonderful compilation of Philip Seymour Hoffman's roles over the years--I will be going back and rewatching all these films. The second clip is a short piece of advice he gives to actors--so, so good.