December 4, 2013 | Posted in:Uncategorized, Writing

Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart Do a Times Talk

Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart Do a Times Talk

November was a rough month for me. October was a great one all the way to the end, so I suppose November was the pendulum swinging back.

But let’s talk about October for now, and perhaps early November. I secured $30 tickets to see  Sir Patrick Stewart (Xavier, Picard) and Sir Ian McKellen (Magneto, Gandalf) talk at the New York Times, where I used to work. They were incredibly charismatic and charming, both with the crowd and each other. Sir Ian McKellen’s face is wonderfully expressive. People hate their age and their wrinkles, but in his case, it is a feature, not a bug; his face has a putty-like mobility, and the ability to, say, hide his eyes when he smiles has only widened his range of communication. He was playing the crowd all night, let me tell you.  He is a bit of a scoundrel and a ham at times, but he also reflected quite seriously on Shakespeare, Pinter, and the challenges of being gay prior to the 90s. I actually based a ABB character on him years ago – Dacre of the Aadya, the Steward of the Word – and after seeing him in person, it was an excellent decision.

Sir Patrick Stewart was more reserved, but he looked decades younger, and he was wearing zig-zag socks, so I think he has a wild streak in him somewhere. 😉 I was surprised to find the two of them are the same age – 73-74. I was front row as the two of them bantered back and forth, and I tried to sneak a picture of Sir Patrick Stewart at the end. He actually stopped and smiled for me (!), but the photo still came out blurry, alas.

The two of them were promoting their repertory set at the Cort Theatre. They were performing two prize-winning plays: No Man’s Land and Waiting For Godot. I decided to go full-immersion and get tickets.. for both.. in the same day.

Yes, I saw two Broadway shows in the same day. I might be crazy. I did it because they recommended it, and they are incredibly persuasive, but also because it was a rare opportunity. The rush ticketing system and its $35 seats certainly helped.

Waiting for Godot was a 2 PM matinee. We paid $100 each for second-row tickets, and it was well-worth it. The play is both hilarious and gut-wrenching, as it deals with the ambiguity of old age and memory. Really, it is an exceptional piece. (At one point, Sir Patrick Stewart popped out of the wings right in front of me, just as I was putting a piece of gum in my mouth. I looked up, my hand frozen in place, feeling as if I was caught not paying attention to Sir Patrick Stewart. Oops.)

I was a little worried that it’d be difficult to watch a second play with Stewart and McKellen in all new roles, but it was not.

No Man’s Land was 8 PM. We actually had front-row tickets this time for $30, due to rush tickets. I went into the city at 9:00 AM, got in line at 9:30 AM, and waited for the Cort Theatre box office to open at 10 AM. By the time I got to the front, Waiting For Godot had run out of orchestra seats and was selling the boxes on the sides. Luckily, I already had tickets for that. I crossed my fingers and asked for No Man’s Land instead.. and got front row! At 8 PM, I literally sat right in front of my 2 PM seats, and they only cost $30.

No Man’s Land also deals with old age and ambiguity, but it is a more difficult to play. There is less laughter and less goodness. In Waiting For Godot, Didi is someone you root for; he tries to be good, he encourages Gogo to be good, and he is forever optimistic. Gogo is earthier and more prone to bad behavior, but he pulls at your sympathies, too.

There is no one sympathetic in No Man’s Land. Everyone has an angle and a fault, and it is these flaws that essentially imprison them in No Man’s Land. There is no optimism in this play. There is feeble hope, but it is a  hope bound to dishonest things.

To continue the theme of Sir Patrick Stewart haunting me, I sat on the far right-hand side of the front row, and the set for No Man’s Land consists of Stewart sitting in an angled easy chair on the far left side of the stage. This meant his natural line of sight fell right on me. I became worried that I hadn’t put my phone into airline mode, and I was fussing with it but afraid to look into my bag too much. Why? I didn’t want to be caught not paying attention to Sir Patrick Stewart again.

Of course, from his point of view, he’s probably thinking ‘Haven’t I seen that girl before? Stop following me around.’ I did find this line-of-sight to be slightly uncomfortable, in the way I found it a little uncomfortable to look the Dalai Lama in the eye when I went to see him a few years ago.  I suppose this is an animal brain thing.  When someone with perceived power stares at you, you worry you’ll be eaten.

However, this is a writing blog, not a celebrity blog, so let’s get back to important matters. The villains in my first novel are Actors. This was a natural fit, as the very nature of acting and theatre is artifice and manipulation. It was easy for me to imagine the negative side of acting – the histrionics, the pretension, the addiction to attention. However, I’ve never acted and I wasn’t overly familiar with the positive side of this particular craft.

Intellectually, I understand many actors are quite reasonable people, and some of them simply disappear into roles with startling ease, but this immersion is precisely the difficulty of appreciating acting. When someone inhabits a wonderful character so well, you forget the person and see only the character. You only know when it’s been done incorrectly. I’ve seen a lot of plays over the years, but it was truly educational to hear McKellen and Stewart talk about their acting process, then go on to demonstrate it in two different roles, back to back. They were entirely effective. They were completely different people in both plays.

Stewart as Hirst

Stewart as Hirst

In Waiting For Godot, Stewart as Didi is loose, dancing, possessed of a paternally booming voice. Stewart as Hirst in No Man’s Land is stodgy, stiff in his chair, and silent. He wears a tie that is too wide for him, and the addition of silver hair completely transformed his usually open face. Both of McKellen’s characters, Gogo and Spooner, are down-on-their-luck and shabby, but Spooner’s sly enjoyment of Hirst’s expensive knick-knacks gives him a predatory air. Gogo, meanwhile, can barely keep his eyes open. All of this just hours apart.

And in these two actors, there is no a trace of manufactured celebrity, high-maintenance behavior, or pretension. The air they gave off in the Times Talk was completely genuine. McKellen admitted to needing an audience, but it wasn’t the pathological craving one associates with stereotypical actors. It was, basically, a reminder that somehow, somewhere, there is a Actor in my imaginary city of Drame who is quite decent and finds their fellow Propans a little dodgy. Or murderous.

More importantly, it reminded me of how small changes and ticks can express vastly different personalities. Our brains are wired to understand the human face. The tiniest twitch of the eyelid, the tightening of the lips; we understand someone’s displeasure instinctively. Actors ride a fine line of subtlety in mimicking this; they must do enough with their faces that the deep, unconscious part of our brains can notice it, but not enough that our conscious brains catch it and reject the lie. That’s just the most basic level of competency. Once they master that, they must convey the right meaning. An eyebrow raised too high is surprise. An eyebrow raised just a little might be sarcasm. Acting can be a very precise art, one that lives and dies in millimeters of skin. Seen in that way, it is really quite remarkable.


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