“What are you after?”
Yesterday afternoon I pulled into Ann Arbor, MI, staying with a cool lady named Lynn. We went out for dinner and had a great conversation which we continued into the evening, touching on all sorts of topics, from the kind of work Lynn does, (Speech Pathology for youths, super interesting), different regions of the country we’ve traveled, her children, my tour, the subtle factions of Martin vs Seinfeld, the upcoming election… Fun lady to talk to.
One of the topics we touched on, and was really my first time really opening up about this, is that even though for the most part I never performed as frequently as I would have liked to, because I was never able to transform myself into this early to bed, early to rise, single-minded Shakespeare machine I envisioned, this project, for the most part has been way more successful than I ever dared to imagine.
When I first came up with the idea to even do one-man shakespeare, in the style I wanted to do it, a rigorous, physical, highly theatrical style, not in the confines or structure of a black box, but out in the open, on the street, I didn’t even know if it would be physically possible. I didn’t know if I would be fast enough, dexterous enough, or believable enough to make the scenes “go”, nevermind being deeply insecure about my ability to memorize lines (a fear I can now call dead and buried for the time being. If I can memorize 35min of Shakespeare straight, I can memorize anything). I thought any hopes of this hare-brained scheme working were long-shots at best, a lark my director Jolie Tong and I were just going to take a wild crack at.
Then I thought, One-Man Street Shakespeare, OK, but why just do it in New York? Why not do it all over the country? I mean I’d often lamented being shut out of getting the elusive Actors’ Equity Card I prized so highly back then because it was too difficult and political to get one in New York, and I hadn’t taken the regional route to a card most actors take, because I was eager just to get back to New York right after college. So I figured I could do that metaphorically, and perform all over the country before coming back to the city, one of the busking (street performing) meccas of the world. And how would I get around this gargantuan country of ours? I’d ride my bicycle, of course! I mean I enjoyed riding my bicycle around Savannah in college, I’ll just ride around the entire country! Even though I’d never so much as changed a flat before, ridden anywhere near even 25 miles in a day, never left the East coast, had no money, experience, or anyone to go with me. I mean this is the horse you bet on right?
Well, I, and Jolie, and my family, and my friends, dozens of other people did. And it worked, it’s working. I’ve ridden around at least half this country, most of the time alone, and done Shakespeare for every kind of American you can think of, in every kind of setting(with forgiving acoustics) imaginable. I’ve had fun, thrown myself into the drama of these scenes, committed as much as I could, and got people to enjoy good old crazy street storytelling/theater, even if only for a few minutes. And people who were often resistant at first to boot! Praise God!
I’ve performed for dozens, maybe even a few hundred. If someone googles “Speare Bearer” or even “Shakespeare bicycle” for the next few years, I’ve cornered the Google niche on that. I’ve performed for an actor I respect, Ethan Hawke, and got to meet another, Kevin Kline. I met and got to hang out with a more greatness in NBA Hall-of-Famer, Bill Walton. I‘ve had some correspondence, and received a donation from one of my performing idols, the immortal American Clown, Mr. Bill Irwin. I’ve been beyond fortunate, and had exceeding support and kindness showered on me.
The question is: Now what do I do?
Be careful what you wish for.
I NEVER expected to come this far. I was always waiting to see how far I would go until I quit. I was always thinking Jolie and I would launch this puppy, and we’ll just wait and see how spectacular the fireworks are when it finally self-destructs, because it was just too crazy of any idea to ever really believe it could work.
And now, it has.
I plan to continue my tour all around the boroughs of NYC for a month while it’s still warm enough as the true final leg of the tour, but following that I have no idea what my life is. Can I come off of 8 months of carting pretty much an entire repertory company, and my LIFE on my back, risking life and limb day in and day out, and go back to working in someone’s kitchen, or auditioning for a bit part in someone’s show I don’t care about? How can I ever go on to take orders from any employer if I don’t know they have, or could have, risked as much as I just did? Maybe that sounds awful, I don’t know if I’m out of line for thinking this way, but you imagine coming close to death for no pay for months on end, pulling into a town after town you’ve never been to after at least 5 hrs of riding, scouting your own locations, creating your own audiences out of skeptical passers by, risking humiliation, not to mention often the intervention of law enforcement, or worse, and then think about who you’d take orders from going forward. This is what I think about.
And I don’t know what my alternatives are. This is not exactly a one-man show I could cart around to all the fruu-fruu black boxes around the country, nor do I want to. Some folks have mentioned that maybe I want to teach. If that was even an option I DON’T want to teach. Not now, before I’ve had a real career performing. We don’t live in a vaudeville era anymore, so there isn’t exactly a prescribed plan-of-action to follow from here. I’m not sure what to do. But it damned sure isn’t going to be jumping back into that cattle-call/casting-call rat-race, waving around a cute, over-priced headshot in a room full of fame-hungry teenagers, 90% might never believe in any art enough to really risk anything for it. Some might, most won’t.
Last night, after Lynn and I said goodnight to go off to bed, I didn’t sleep. Not until around 5 AM. What did I do? What I normally do. I spent all night reading, and watching interviews with artists and athletes I admire about creativity and greatness. I watched the Ghostface and Raekwon of the Wu Tang Clan talk about working with the RZA, and the RZA talk about working with Kanye, I watched old Tupac, and Michael Jackson interviews with Arsenio, and watched Arsenio talk to Patti Labelle about working with Prince, marveled at the candor and poise of Arsenio interviewing icons Madonna and Liz Taylor, as well as Patty and MJ. I watched Michael Jackson and Russell Simmons words of wisdom on greatness, and watched documentary footage of Manny Paquiao and Muhammad Ali’s training regimens.
Greatness. I’ve been obsessed with it since a child, dreaming about working as a penciller for Marvel Comics. Nothing has changed, except now I’d rather be Henry V for the NY Shakespeare Festival. But I’m still just a kid impressed with a group of people telling epic, mythic stories at the highest level, and dreaming of being in league with them. Why? I don’t know. I just chalk it up to a compulsion. From about seven years old I would lock myself in my room for hours drawing, to emerge in a frenzy, desperate to show anyone what I’d done. Not really for any sort of approval, I’ve always felt secure that I was loved by God and my family, but just because it was for some reason so vital for me to share what big emotions I was feeling with my captive audience, that I’d zealously tried to translate into some narrative with the greatest purity and highest fidelity I could muster. As an adult performer now, I’m still just that kid. I’ve stopped trying to appraise the worth of an actor, or entertainer, or artist to society, or the common good. Now I just chalk it up to belief that God is gracious enough that if He put it in me to need to create so badly, then there must be SOMEONE out there who wants, or even needs what I created as badly as I needed to create it.
The thing is… I met a girl over this tour that I really like and that… adds another layer of confusion to all of this, because she reminds me that I am human, and have a personal life, I’m not just this art-machine I’ve long imagined myself to be…
There’s a funny quandary I’ve been mulling over. Imagine growing up loving the NBA, with all your heart, loving the beauty of these champions and titans, playing their hearts out night after night, the thrilling spectacle of exuberant gamesmanship, each season a monument to the fire of the human spirit. And knowing deep down you always had the guts and commitment to play in this league. So you practice, and you study, and you rise through the ranks, and just get to the precipice of the NBA. And you realize that it’s a cold, lonely place inside, that the endeavor is every bit as glorious and noble as you imagined, but the suffering, chaos, and baseness that plague that arena are much more pulverizing than you believed. But you still know you can compete, and you still want to as bad as ever. Do you just go play overseas, with close-to but not quite as competitive players? Or with the semi-pro league where you not only can compete, and be paid, but dominate? Or do you see your dream through, and enter the perilous gauntlet you’ve known your whole life you were fated to try, against the greatest competition alive, not knowing if you’ll be human, or whole, coming out the other side?
I’m in a weird spot in my life. I’m 27. I’ve been living on a bicycle for the last eight months performing Shakespeare on my own. I don’t actually have a home, or apartment, or room, or bed. I don’t have any money, or own anything. All I have is God, my wits, and my commitment… the substance of at least one of those things I think I have proven over this tour, if not all. And what do I want?
Eventually, I dream of being Artistic Director of my own vaudeville theater in Brooklyn, like a cross between Joe Papp, and what Kevin Spacey is doing at the Old Vic, where you are making artistic decisions about the direction of the theater, get to perform in two or three shows a year, and you get to work with people you admire to bring great projects to life, projects that first thrill and entertain your community, and thereby edify it. That would be great down the road.
There’s a program called Uncensored that I believe is sponsored by Moviefone, where stars promoting their latest feature films sit in a room and answer questions submitted by viewers online, and ask each other their own questions. Last night I watched in my Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey Jr. interviewing one another for Tropic Thunder. And I remember thinking these men are all at the height of their powers, doing what they were meant to do, at the highest level, loving on each other, appreciating the hell out their situations, and having the time of their lives. I want that. I want that so so bad.