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Complexity Is Our Business

Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Nathan Thomas

I think a lot about the father I met about 1997.

I worked at the time in the Undergraduate University Division of Michigan State University.  Freshmen and sophomore students who had been placed somewhere in the probation system were to speak with us or someone directly in their major (if they’d chosen one).  We were able to talk with the students about how they got on probation and what they could do.  Calculus I indicated to a number of would-be students in Engineering that maybe it might be acceptable to go into Psychology or Political Science or something that was less math intensive.

One morning a young man came in for a meeting with me.  His parents were in the lobby with him.  Due to American privacy laws, the parents would only be a part of the conversation if the student chose to invite them in.  And so they joined him in my office, and we sat down to chat.

Within just a minute or two, the young man’s father started to monopolize the conversation, and he started in to tell me that his son was stupid – not in so many words.  But that was the essence.  It took me a few minutes to stop the father from continuing in this vein.  As the father spoke, I observed the son visibly shrinking and withdrawing.

I think about that father because he’s unusual in my experience.  He went out of his way to degrade his son to a stranger (me).

I realize that not every kid has fantastic parents or guardians.  But in my experience, most parents brag about their kids in front of strangers.  Or, they at least go a little way in the pretense of giving the impression that their kid is worthy of attention. 

But not this guy.

Right now the first trailer of a movie about Fred Rogers starring Tom Hanks is going viral on social media.  After a popular, Oscar-nominated documentary about Mr. Rogers played successfully last year, people seem excited about seeing the upcoming film.

Mr. Rogers had a few basic messages that he communicated in every program.  One of those messages was that every person (his neighbors) were special and likable by just them being themselves.

Critics from the redoubtable friends of “Fox and Friends” to cynical folks of left and right have commented that Mr. Rogers was somehow personally responsible for the ruination of an entire generation with his talk of each person being special.  It has led, in these critics’ estimation, to the worst part of the “entitlement” generation.  Because each person is special, they feel “entitled” to something.

Now I can’t say for certain because you never really know what goes on in any other person’s family.  You have to be in the family to know all.  And I wouldn’t want to know all.

With that caveat in place, I still would be willing to wager that most of those critics have told their kids that they are special.  Those people have done everything they can to make sure their kids got ahead and had some path to a good life.  Given that folks who talk and write in the media are mostly not uneducated, working-class folks – one imagines that most of the complainers about the “entitled kids” have done quite a lot for their own children.

So their complaint is not about their children.  Their complaint is about other people’s children.  “Those people don’t know how to raise their children right.”  It’s those people.  It’s always those people.

Y’know if those people had been smarter in choosing their parents, they wouldn’t have the problems that they have.  And generally they wouldn’t have those problems if they had chosen really parents more like mine.  Then they wouldn’t be those people anymore.  If those people were more like me, I wouldn’t have to feel so anxious about those strange people and their strange ways.

This problem is very deep in our mammalian bones and a feature of our long history. 

We love our tribe and are suspicious of those not in the tribe.

Probably like many of you, I have been horrified by the conditions in which America has not welcomed the stranger in our midst.  Indeed, our nation seems to have been about the business of being cruel.  Some of the information that has come from the border, to me, is not that far different from what we learned about our fellow countrymen in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib.  The only difference appears to be that in the Abu Ghraib pictures, some of our countrymen were smiling as they did terrible things.  We haven’t seen any pictures from the southern border with agents standing over caged children and grinning huge smiles.  Yet.

Our president has said more than once that we don’t have the resources to deal with the people coming north for a better life. “We’re full,” he said.

Friends, America currently has something like a 19 trillion dollar economy.  With a smaller economy in the 1960s we fought a war in southeast Asia and sent a mission to the moon.  We have plenty.  Don’t worry about us.

Also this summer America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first trip to the moon.  Several of the celebratory documentaries have attended to the participation of Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun to America’s space program.  Von Braun, of course, was also part of the Nazi’s V-2 rocket program during WW II. 

We had no trouble letting ex-Nazis into the country to help us with building rockets and missiles, but we have a problem with welcoming little brown babies from Mexico or Guatemala?

Hmmmmmm. . . . .

Another strand in the rope of now are a couple of videos banging around the web.  One has Sir Ian McKellen speaking at Oxford Union and another has Bill Nighy talking to a camera.  Both men talk about acting and tend to take a “Just do it” approach, with Mr. Nighy being more forceful about it.  Sir Ian talks about his more recent production of King Lear.  In his remarks he talks about just saying the lines and how interesting the results have been.  Likewise Mr. Nighy claims that he has no time to “feel” while he’s acting.  He adds that acting teachers have to fill up three years or so, so they make up an awful lot of tosh. 

Interestingly, over the transom also comes an article from Lissa Tyler Renaud that focuses on a recent operation on the singer Adele’s vocal folds and then goes on to report about more vocal problems within the performing arts community.

Neither Sir Ian nor Mr. Nighy in their “Just get on with it” vein about acting seem to give credence to the fact that they’ve been acting rather a long number of years.  It’s “easier” now simply because they’ve become masters at what they do. 

I saw Eubie Blake play in his later years.  He simply sat at a piano and grand music came out.  The folks listening were the recipients of many decades of countless performances.  Sir Ian can say how nice it is to “Just say the lines” as Lear.  Well, yeah.  Not only has he played countless roles, not only has he had an eventful life that fills him with life experience, but he’s also played the role before in a run that lasted several months in more than one country.  At this point it’s not about knowing the lines or the excitement of doing the role.  It’s just playing.  Of course it’s easier for him.  Likewise for Mr. Nighy.  He’s got decades of experience.

Please understand I’m not challenging what they’re saying for themselves.  However, it can be disingenuous advice for younger people who have not had the careers that the masters have had.

It also depends on what kind of work you’re doing.  I think actors with a reasonable modicum of talent may play small to medium-sized parts of people much like themselves with some ease.

The lack of adequate training, particularly in vocal production, is a challenging problem to the health and safety of numerous performers.  The “Just get on with it” school of acting won’t help the actor play the great roles like most of the characters in Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Iceman Cometh or Death of a Salesman.

Later in life Stanislavsky spoke about the work of the Moscow Art Theatre in the early years and the work they did on the plays of Chekhov and Gorky and his direction in those plays.  As Stanislavsky pointed out, at that stage of the actors’ development, they were able to achieve some results only with the relatively straight-forward tasks presented in those plays.  Both the actors who came from Nemirovich-Danchenko’s group from the Philharmonia and Stanislavsky’s actors from the Society of Arts and Letters were relatively inexperienced.  It wasn’t until they’d had some time working together and further training and experimentation that they were able to carry out more challenging artistic tasks.

And so it is today as well.  Luckily we don’t ask neophytes to play Willy Loman or Biff, as a rule.  And as much as I admire the work and career of Sir Ralph Richardson, James Tyrone was tough for him.  It’s not his most successful work.

Somehow Eugene O’ Neill was able to imbue his fictional creation with all of the winding wits of his father – as well as his brother, mother, and himself.  In Long Day’s Journey, the audience is treated to all of the complexities of family.  As his real-life father and brother did, James and Jamie (James, Jr) blame Edmund for getting Mary Tyrone hooked on morphine.  But in the world of the play Edmund is also ill.  Consequently we see the striations of love and concern and fear and blame and everything else that makes family life.

Just try to act one of those roles without experience and training -- you’ll hurt yourself.  Certainly you can’t act one of those roles without appropriate vocal training.  It takes work to talk as much as an O’Neill character and hold the audience’s attention and not hurt the vocal folds.  Training is a necessity.

Through the magic of theatre, Eugene was able to make his father say things that allowed Eugene to exorcise some of the demons of his past. 

Even when we blame the kid for our wife’s morphine addiction, we don’t want ill for him.  We love our kids.  Sometimes we show it in funny ways.  And we know that there are abusive families and abusive parents.  But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Our technology allows us to communicate in ways that couldn’t be imagined even a decade ago.  But the more tools we have to communicate the worse we seem to be in communicating.

“I hate those people.”  “I abhor those people.”  “This is the latest fuckup from our asshole-in-chief.” 

And these are among the more polite offerings I see posted on the web.

You and I have read about how we’re getting more tribal – all over the world.  As we get more tribal, we get more violent in our rhetoric – and just plain more violent.

We need to remember we’re all one family.  There are no “them.”  It’s just “us.”

Yes, we need to call out injustice. And we certainly need to call out violence.

We also need to be less pure.

Talking is not capitulation.  Not hating someone is not the same as agreeing with them.  Every compromise with the “other” side is not evil.

Looking at the complex simplicity of families is our business.  It’s what we do as actors.  It’s our bread and butter.  Communicating that complexity in nearly every story that has been performed since we left the Chorus behind in ancient Athens is what we do.

We need to remember that all of “those” people – the assholes, the asshats, the fuckups, the whatever – have people who love them.  As we do.  And we need to remember that to “those” people, we are “those” people.

In America, we rag on Congress, but a majority of us would re-elect our representative.  So, we don’t want to rag on our member of Congress – it’s those other scoundrels who need to have term limits . . . . and vote them out!!  In the same way we want well for our kids, but it’s all of those other kids who make up the “entitled” generation.

As folks who understand the arts – particularly my theatre colleagues -- we need to model and show how to respect that truth – the truth that families can go through the mill even as the family loves each other. 

We can do this.  We have the training.  We have the experience.

We can do this.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia University. He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2019 Nathan Thomas
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

 

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