Starving Artist

As I meandered down one of the side streets perpendicular to the main street where I live (appropriately or inappropriately translated as “Devil Man’s Street”) with an exhausting air of petulance as duly noted in my furrowed brow, hunched shoulders and an inability to hold my head up straight, I pondered that indelible thought of why it is I came to Berlin and what it was I wanted to accomplish. For days I had been again living in that common destitution that is rampant amongst the city’s denizens, one of those poor but sexy accolades that many of us endure – though in Layman’s  terms we bear the moniker: Artist.

My ambition will always be my tragic flaw, a veritable modern day Julius Caesar sans all the political warfare and bloodshed; my success comes in the form of aesthetic achievement. I was thinking of my undying lust for ambitious undertakings that challenge my skills as an artist and the sacrifices I have made to get to this strange, wondrous place of Berlin, surrounded by so many misfits just like myself who would rather starve than to meet the death of an artless or art-less life.

It was one of those journeys where I was swimming in relief that I had escaped that life and in it found something humbling and chaotic. The absence of security augmenting my modesty. Walking past cafés and seeing transients ordering fancy beverages and pretty food – a life so close but out of reach. Seeing the shops full of trophies of materialism, that world of consumerism that used to envelope me.

I was walking aimlessly, full of fear, hope, exhaustion and pride – towards my new job at The English Theater Berlin where I was rehearsing to play the part of Cody in Neil LaBute’s This is How it Goes. My bike had a flat tire (again) and I could not afford to buy a ticket for the Ubahn, or if I did, I would have no spare change for that unavoidable Life Force of the artist called “wine and cigarettes”. So I hoofed it.

It was one of those days that I was begging for a miracle. My love of Berlin is like one of those wretched on-again-off-again romances where one minute you are completely enthralled and the next you are feeling like the place is anathema. And then –

Out the corner of my eye I noticed a sparkling silver band on a few pieces of colorful paper. I didn’t believe it, it couldn’t have been true. I looked around, and walked a few steps backwards, and there it was. A wad of money, sitting on the ground. It was the deus ex machina of my story, in my life-like life that art seems to imitate. I reached down and gave an obligatory look around, to see if anyone may have lost it, but since I was so lost, I took it as a sign – perhaps to lead me in the right direction.

The money was well-spent. On the aforemetioned necessities of the artist’s Life Force and for transportation and a little bit of “food”. The guilt wore off after a while and I remembered that the party Gods giveth and taketh, and all that is lost and gained balances out the universe (I still wonder who is the lucky bastard who found my slate gray American Apparel cardigan).

I carried on, and soon I was back in the real-ish world, and my worry could be more focused on that persistent protagonist that is myself and my desire to overachieve.

When I auditioned for the role I knew I was replacing an actor who was otherwise indisposed and I was nervous about the cold read and being unfamiliar with the work. After I left the audition I thought that maybe my charm would have won them over but the acting skills I presented were subpar at best, so I wasn’t really expecting to be called back. I was.

I was already familiar with the space, as I had submitted one of my plays to previous curator of the new playwright’s lab series. We met at the theater and I knew as soon as we met he would not be interested in my work. When he quoted Artistotle to me, I knew it was a bust, but I placated him by sending my work anyway which received a lengthily scathing review that I still have not had the intrepidity to finish reading, though I can quote quite clearly him mentioning, “There’s a lot of talk of cupcakes and shaving one’s balls…”. We weren’t a match.

When I returned to that place I was not prepared for the adventure that was about to take place. I did some research and was reminded that I was in fact familiar with the playwright’s work. Two of my favorite films are based on his plays: In The Company of Men and The Shape of Things.

One of the most difficult parts about being an artist in Berlin (for me) is that I have had a drastic role reversal whereas I am no longer producing my own work but rather working under the direction of others in attempt to network, get a feeling for the market here and also to have a paying job. Also, I love it.

The play is an ensemble piece with only four actors including myself, and a crew of about five. I was coming into the production about a week in and it was a struggle trying to gage the level of comfort everyone had with the piece as it is a pretty misanthropic satire with a lot of sociopolitical issues indicative of American culture. The director and I were the only Americans involved with the production.

I was already swamped with my teaching responsibilities and due to my swift need to change the schedule, I caused some issues at one of the schools where I teach. I had little time to memorize my lines and as an actor, I try not to memorize anything until I get clear intentions from the director and it is blocked on stage, so I was kind of a mess for the first week trying to put it all together.

Naturally, it was hard for me to put away my bossy antics, as a director and producer, I have developed many habits the likes of control issues, but then once we started running through the play I knew that I had a bigger problem to face.

I have strayed from performing (especially on stage) because I have always had the most abominable  stage fright. This comes only from acting and public speaking. If I don’t have to open my mouth, I am a complete ham on stage – but my fear of my voice (which most times I hate the sound of) and presenting myself in a low voice (a complaint of every director I ever had) and my general self-consciousness, causes me to dread going on stage, especially with the role of Cody in this wonderfully awful play.

Cut to me having a nervous breakdown.

It was a combination of many things: the lack of rehearsal, my inability to successfully memorize the abundance of maddening semantics issues in the text, me being uncomfortable with the subject matter, and my disconnection with the cast and crew. I was psyching myself out, striving for this unattainable perfection…and I completely lost it. I had several anxiety attacks and I wondered if I would even be able to go on stage and play such a horrible character – one that exploits many of the evils that are found in the depths of American societal standards. Ironically enough, this is a prevalent theme in my own work.

I became a nightmare to work with, throwing a fit at nothing that was wrong, and when we had our tech and dress rehearsals, I spent much of my time backstage crying and hyperventilating, completely consumed by my own disappointment. Kind of like that guy did in West Side Story and that other guy during Company: A Musical Comedy.

All the roles in this piece are full of many layers, and luckily I am working with extremely talented actors who have the skills to make these characters come to life. In a way I have been competing with myself – while having the chore of disconnecting myself completely from the role. It has been more of a challenge than it needs to be.

When the show went up I was completely exhausted and I was still struggling with the climax of the play: a scene where I am supposed to have a complete meltdown and make a physical exclamation of this. This was the biggest challenge for me, to find this raw, guttural form of anger, something I have still not acclimated myself to, and at the second night of the performance, I found it.

Now a week has passed and I am still completely uncomfortable with the work, but I am happy about how I am presenting it. After we had a Q&A with some very insightful audience members and I received some very constructive criticism from colleagues and friends, I was able to settle in to a better point of view about the work and take it for face  value.

All the fun was sucked out of the experience when I confronted the issues that were addressed in LaBute’s play. I have played villains before, but there has been nothing so psychologically draining as having to portray a character that represents much of the reason I crossed an ocean to get away from such nonsense. The physicality of the role matched with that misanthropic point of view of the playwright’s has changed me in a way I won’t soon forget – but I know that now that I have had the time to really understand the intent of the piece, my motivation is a bit different. What is disheartening most though is that the fears that are exemplified in this piece that I thought were solely indicative of American culture are much more profound here in Berlin, where there is this falsehood of freedom and open-mindedness. Much of these progressions that I considered my own Manifest Destiny here have proven to be a veneer.  But, hey, I gotta eat!

August 15 to 28 daily except Sundays / 8pm

with Louis DeVaughn Nelson, Chloe Lewer, David Cassel, Sarah-Jane St. Clair

Directed by Brian Bell – set and costumes: Tomas Fitzpatrick – Lights: Pat Audette – Photos: Christian Jungeblodt

Tickets 18€ – 10€ students / On Mondays all tickets 9€