Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Play's words make perfect sense to Arkin

The Home News Tribune recently published a great feature article on Matthew Arkin, about The Scene. It's a great read and worth sharing for those of you who missed it.


If Matthew Arkin gets an early call, he's ready.

He got used to it when he was spending time watching his dad make movies.

Since then, Arkin, 47 — a soft-spoken and thoughtful man, and son of the noted actor Alan Arkin — has built an extensive career. His latest stop is the George Street Playhouse, where he will star in Theresa Rebeck's play "The Scene" — a co-production by George Street and
Hartford Stage, to be directed by the Connecticut company's associate artistic director, Jeremy B. Cohen.

And although he gathered a substantial background for acting by watching his father, the performance he will give in this play will be his own. In fact, the performance is so not programmed, so unique to this particular work and production, that even he didn't know, as rehearsals proceeded, where he would be in his character the first time the lights went up.
His character is Charlie, one of four people who are trying to find their way in the New York entertainment world. The others are Stella, Charlie's wife, somewhat frazzled by the need to support him; Lewis, his close friend, and Clea, an ambitious blonde who never lets a scruple stand in her way.

Charlie has had a flash of success as a television writer, but the play finds him in the midst of a dry spell as he and Lewis first encounter Clea at one of an interminable series of parties.
The script gives a spare inkling of how these men and women came to this point in their lives, and Arkin doesn't care to speculate further about that.

"I had a discussion with an actress once," he said. "We were working on . . . "Lost in Yonkers,' and this actress came to me and said, "We talk about this incident in the past, and my character says this happened and your character says that happened. . . . I want to sit down with you and talk about what actually happened.'

"And I said, "I don't want to discuss that. Forget you and me. Our characters will not agree on what actually happened. And what informs our action in the present is not what actually happened, but our perception of what happened.' "

Kind of like real life, the actor observed, where "we also rewrite our pasts to make better stories or to justify what we've decided we want to do and be."
By whatever route Charlie came to the place where the play first finds him, it is quickly apparent that he is deeply conflicted — out of work, insecure, resentful of the industry that isn't knocking at his door, but unwilling to make any compromises.

"Charlie has this flaw," Arkin said, "this thing that he cannot let go of even if it's going to destroy him. He's got one piece that maybe you could call his artistic soul that he insists on keeping pure; and in order to keep that pure he's willing to pollute everything else in his life."
But that observation, it turns out, may be just a step in how Arkin's understanding of Charlie evolves during rehearsals.

"That's how I feel now and today," Arkin said, after the analysis of Charlie. "In a week I'll feel differently. At this point in rehearsal and discovery of who this guy is and what this play's about, that seems to be . . . "

His voice trails off, as though to emphasize that he knows he and Charlie are not through with each other. All the characters in this play, and Charlie most of all, take a caustic view of the same individuals and business they circle like moths. Again, Arkin finds this true to life.
"I think we all live in that place, being somehow with and somehow opposed to whatever society we're in," he said. "That great line in "Life of Brian' when he screams out the window, "You're all individuals,' and they scream back, "We're all individuals.'

"We are all individuals, and yet we all live in a larger society and we try and find our place in that. And every joining of the larger society is a threat to our autonomy and our individuality, and what I think is interesting about this play is the different resolutions to that conflict that each of the characters finds."

These resolutions unfold largely through salty dialogue that demonstrates Rebeck's ear for natural speech, and Arkin says that's an advantage to the actor.

"Some dialogue is next to impossible to learn," he said, "because the words don't come out of your mouth the way we speak, and Theresa's do. Once you figure out what the internal thought process is, the words you're saying make perfect sense."

If Arkin — like his brothers Adam and Anthony — wasn't destined to be an actor, he might as well have been, spending so much time, as he did, watching his father at work.
"One of the things that was formative for me," he said, "was just growing up on sound stages and on locations with my dad and in theaters when he was directing. . . .

"And I was a watcher. If his call was 5 o'clock in the morning to be picked up to go to location, I would be up at 5 o'clock in the morning to be out there with him. I'd spend some of the time running around playing like a kid, and I'd spend an awful lot of time just sitting and watching — often sitting next to the script supervisor to get a good view of what was going on and just watching it and soaking it up."

But, said Arkin — who works on stage, film and television — the knowledge he gained from all those hours of watching and listening later turned out to be, at least temporarily, a stumbling block.

"I started getting work, and my work was pretty good, I think, and I was able to get by, but I think I was getting by because I was imitating what I knew to be really good work, which is different from doing really good work as kind of an organic process where you've built a character or built a scene from the ground up.

But he got over that with the help of the legendary teacher of acting, Uta Hagen.
"She would watch my scene work in class and say, "That was terrific, you know; every moment made sense. The scene had a cohesiveness to it, but I knew what was coming every moment of the way.'

"What she was trying to say was that I was representing real life very well, but what she wanted to see was somebody living real life. And that was a real struggle for me, to sort of crack that nut."

And, Arkin said, that didn't mean that he had learned how to act once and for all, but rather that he learned what lay ahead with each new opportunity.

"It happens in every rehearsal process," he explained, "that you'll say, "What's wrong with this scene, why isn't this scene flying?' And you suddenly realize it's because you've made too many decisions about how the scene goes and where it's going to end up, instead of making decisions about where your character comes from and what is the reality that launched you into this scene. You have to know all of that, have a clear picture of all of that, all of your past, all of your experiences, all of the history, all of the world that this character lives in.

"But once the scene starts, you can't know what's going to happen. You have to allow yourself to live in this odd place in which obviously there's an actor who knows his lines and knows where this scene's going to end up. But as you're listening to the other character, you have to allow yourself to live in a place of uncertainty."

posted by Scott Goldman, Executive Assistant, photo of Christy McIntosh and Matthew Arking
by T. Charles Erickson

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