Subtle Change



I was watching Rushmore with my family the other night.  It’s one of our favorites, from Wes Anderson’s direction to the wonderful performances by a stellar cast.  But one moment in particular struck me and prompted this post.

Towards the end of the film, the character played by Bill Murray (Herman) meets the father of the character played by Jason Schwartzman (Max). It’s a simple moment, really, but it is truly one of the most beautiful moments of acting I have seen.  And it exemplifies performing subtle change.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, Max is a 15-year old oddball/wunderkind who is more interested in extra curricular than curricular matters at the posh private school he attends on scholarship.  Throughout the movie, he makes various claims that may or may not be true, one of which is that his father is a neurosurgeon. We learn soon that this is not true, but Herman does not until this crucial moment.  He and Max are rivals of a sort for the character played by Olivia Wilde (in a marvelous understated performance), and play an increasingly absurd game of tit-for-tat that destroys Herman’s marriage and gets Max expelled.  At the turning point in the movie, Max decides to make amends and invites Herman to his father’s place of work–a barbershop.

The scene is beautifully constructed.  Herman waits for Max outside the shop in the rain, not knowing why he is there and what Max wants.  Max arrives, apologizes for his behavior and invites him in to “meet someone.”  The moment occurs in a tight three-shot, Murray on the left, Schwartzman in the middle, and the fantastic Seymour Cassel (as Max’s father, Bert) on the right.  Herman clearly doesn’t know why he’s being introduced to a barber, until Max says, “Herman, this my dad, Bert.”  Murray registers this in a remarkable way, all in about three seconds.  First is confusion, followed by realization, followed by understanding, followed by sadness, followed by acceptance, and forgiveness.  The first moment is, “wait, I thought Max’s dad was a neurosurgeon.”  The next thought is, “oh, this is Max’s dad.”  The next, “Max’s dad is a barber–he lied to me.”  Then, “Max thought he had to lie about his dad being a barber.”  The penultimate thought is, “oh, that dear boy–not so unlike me–someone who doesn’t belong at the party for rich people.”  And finally, “all is forgiven.”  This happens, as I said, in just a few seconds, and culminates in a simple, unadorned, but fully realized, “nice to meet you.”

From a technical point of view, this is superb, economical acting.  Murray allows in the information–the words as well as the felt content of the moment coming from all the actors.  The information travels through him, registering primarily in tiny little behaviors that play across his face.  Then he turns that energy outward, redirecting it to vocalization and physicalization, as well as containing a well of feeling just so, so that we, the audience, feel it more than he shows.  Perfection.

From an artistic point of view, it strikes me that a tremendous amount of compassion is required to play that moment so effectively.  A lesser actor, perhaps a less compassionate person, might easily over-play that moment, adding a take, or mugging a bit–to signal to the audience what we’re supposed to understand, rather than trusting that we will.

I wonder if Murray recalls that moment and whether or not he was aware of all that was going on.  His performance throughout this film suggests to me that he was well aware and, in fact, used this movie to re-define himself as a performer.

I wonder how many takes it took to get that one, and what other shot set-ups Anderson tried.

Murray’s lessons for actors, as I see them:  1. Trust yourself and the audience.  2.  Allow energy in, through, and out.  3. Nurture compassion.

These strike me as subtle, but important lessons to which we as actors and teachers of acting must return again and again.


The Players’ Journal will soon be hosted at a new home–Northern Illinois University.  Deep appreciation and thanks to SUNY New Paltz, which server has hosted TPJ since it’s online inception.  The change will be subtle–unnoticeable, in fact.  But it will allow TPJ to continue and, hopefully and with your help, flourish.

Extinguishing the Fire in the Head–New Article!

We are pleased to publish Jennifer Popple’s essay about creating and maintaining a productive and ethical rehearsal environment.  Professor Popple describes the tools she employed in rehearsing a production of How I Learned to Drive (Paula Vogel), and how she helped learning actors maintain emotional equilibrium in the face of challenging material.

Many of us have likely experienced trying times in rehearsal–either due to the nature of the material, the rehearsal process, or our own “triggers.”  Although hopefully less common today (certainly on the college campus), there are still people who–either through insensitivity and ignorance, or because they think it “works”–make rehearsing unpleasant or even damaging.  Professor Popple’s essay reminds us that it doesn’t have to be that way, and offers some sound suggestions about how to drive through the rehearsal process safely, productively, and ethically.

As always, we welcome your feedback!

Paul Kassel

SAG Awards–Spotlight and Room


The SAG Awards are upon us and like many of you I have been viewing the nominated films, mostly through the convenient digital streaming service SAG/AFTRA has set up for members.  There is a LOT of great acting going on!  If you haven’t yet seen some of these films and television shows, I encourage you (SAG/AFTRA members) to do so and register your votes.

I want to mention the acting in two films:  Spotlight and Room.  Beyond sharing one word titles, these films, and the actors in them, stand apart from the typical fare–not a car chase or shootout between them.  That said, both offer us harrowing and disturbing worlds in which, whether fictional or fact-based, rely on terrific acting to remain credible and compelling.


Spotlight features a first-rate ensemble– Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James (whom I have written about recently, see TPJ Observation–Something Rotten!).  What struck me was the juxtaposition between the explosive nature of the material (sexual abusive priests and the subsequent years-long cover-up) and the understated performances of the cast.  Nearly every scene involves subtle (and not-so-subtle) interactions of power.  Except for one climactic outburst, all these scenes play out in a very naturalistic way. But that’s not to say nothing is happening and the actors are wooden.  Far from it.  Rather, the actors skillfully embody the changes in status that occurs in the scene.  One example is a scene between Keaton’s character and a lay member of the Boston Diocese.  Set in an upscale bar (a bar that Keaton’s character would not typically patronize), the unctuous man from the Diocese enters puffed up and assured of his success.  Keaton curls around the bar, head down, focusing on his drink.  Yet, when Keaton does not buckle under as expected, the small slight shift in alignment (in both men) tells you everything you need to know about what has occurred.  It is one of many many examples of this kind of subtle and superb playing.


In Room, Brie Larson plays a woman captive for seven years in a shed, which she shares with her five year-old son–the off-spring of the abusive man who has imprisoned them both. In contrast to Spotlight, however, Larson and her son (played by the amazing and precocious Jacob Tremblay) play large and vividly within the tiny confines of the space.  Near the beginning, we see that the two survive the day (Godot-like) by making up stories and playing games.  Larson pulls off the double feat of simultaneously enacting the games with joy, but never letting us lose the sense of the soul-crushing effects of her captivity.  While metaphorically rich, the acting of the scenes in the room demonstrate how, with skillful direction and acting, large choices can be just as effective as small ones.  The rest of the cast is also universally fine, with only one or two false notes (one by the usually reliable William H. Macy–but I contend the problem is the impossible choice foisted upon him by the script and not his performance.  He does the best he can given what he is required to play).

In both movies, the actions cohere–that is, they make sense with the mise en scene.  The direction is excellent and more praise-worthy by the fact that both directors let the actors do their jobs.  It almost feels as if the camera just happens upon these people and, in some cases, literally captures them at their most vulnerable and true.

I’ll have more to say about other performances as the award show approaches.  Until then, get streaming!

Paul Kassel

Stop Surviving! An Actor’s Manifesto

val headshot

The first new article of the year!  Click above and read Valeri Lantz-Gefroh’s piece on the direction actor training must take.

TPJ Observations

New to TPJ will be Observations.  This category will be similar to reviews in that a particular production will be examined–but the focus will be on the acting choices and what conclusions may be drawn from them.  Too often, reviews are the only things that get attention, while more thoughtful essays about a performance arrive late in printed media.  So, we will be soliciting observations from professional actors, academic actors and teachers of acting, and students.  These Observations will cover the wide range of acting out there–from B’way to Hollywood, from Fringe to mainstream.

Stay tuned!  Next up, Hand to God–how an actor animates the inanimate.

Something Rotten! A TPJ Observation


I had the great pleasure of seeing the deliriously silly and subversively sly Something Rotten at the St. James Theatre in NYC with theatre majors from SUNY New Paltz on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. It was a perfect group with whom to attend, and proved that they were paying attention in Western Drama and Theatre History. This show is a theatre-goer’s guilty pleasure, with a dizzying number of ridiculous references (both musical and literary) to dozens of musicals and nearly the entire Shakespeare canon, not to mention nods to the great writers of the Elizabethan era from Kyd to Spencer—I kid you not. I think the creative team may have left out Two Noble Kinsmen and Panama Hattie—but it’s not for want of trying! The most apt phrase I can think of to describe this show is an old saw I first heard years ago from a fellow cast member (Beatta Baker) of another silly show (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom)—“talent borrows, genius steals.” If this be the truth about art, and especially theatre, then Something Rotten borders on near-genius. And I hope it plays on and on!FullSizeRender

First, the cast is uniformly excellent, displaying a serious adeptness at comedic performing, musical expression, and (believe it or not), in one very particular case, simple truthful moment-to-moment playing of much heart and depth. Like everything else in the show, the plot is an utter contrivance (albeit quite a clever one), and the references/ allusion/ homages come fast and furiously. Testing audience members’ theatre knowledge by naming the play or musical from which a bit of music, dance or book comes would make a great intermission game, like the Opera Quiz at the Met.

Michael James Scott (Minstrel) ushers us into the world of the play with “Welcome to the Renaissance”—which calls to mind pretty much every narrative introduction ever, from “Tradition” (Fiddler on the Roof) to “Good Morning, Baltimore” (Hairspray) to “Welcome to Greece” (Olympus on My Mind—full disclosure–another show I was in, and I’m guessing the authors probably don’t know this show—there are few of us who do!) In a typical, borderline offensive bit of stereotyping, Mr. Scott, who is African American, channels Leading Player (Pippin) and adds all the musical riffs and flourishes that musicals have been stealing in their colonial way from authentic ethnic musical expression for, well, ever. But, and here’s the point, James’ performance and the material itself, transcends the stereotyping by first cheerfully acknowledging it, and then by the supreme joy with which it is performed, and how effectively the material is rendered by the authors. There is nothing new under the sun, as we all know—vanity of vanity, all is vanity. Except when it isn’t vanity–it’s love.

We continue in this vein, introduced to the pro and ant-agonists of the play, which more or less concerns the search by the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel (Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani, respectively), to come up with a hit show for their struggling company of actors. I won’t trouble you with the plot beyond reporting that it involves

  • A sooth-sayer (reference to Forum, and played deliciously by Brad Oscar—himself a reference to another, but different kind of musical spoof, The Producers—which the creative team unapologetically exploit, to the great delight of theatre insiders).
  • A Puritan (repressing his homosexual urges, in another borderline offensive but pretty hilarious portrayal by the extremely gifted, precise, and utterly economical Peter Bartlett)
  • The Puritan’s daughter and Nigel’s love interest, played and sung with panache by Kate Reinders (reminding me most of the role of Ruby in another spoof—Dames at Sea)
  • Shakespeare—a star turn by Christian Borle, who is a combination of Conrad Birdie, Cornie Collins, Mack the Knife, Ché, a dash of Franklin Shepherd and Georges (second act of Sunday in the Park) and (apparently) a post-rehab Brittany Spears.

The central figures are the Bottom brothers, beautifully embodied by Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani, with crucial supporting work provided by Nicke’s wife, Bea, played by the terrifically talented and hilarious Heidi Blickenstaff. Nigel is the younger brother and main writer, and functions as both the timorous young inamorata and the pure (if naïve) artistic soul. Cariani is cute, cuddly and very amusing, as he recalls Romeo, Valentine (2Gents), Claudius (Much Ado), Berowne (LLL); Tony (WSS), Hugo (Birdie), Hero (Forum), Hunter ([Title of Show]), etc. His performance also nods to all those Neil Simon characters with weird conditions and possibly a spoof (also borderline offensive) of the lead character in The Curious Incident… now on Broadway. Anyway, that’s what I got. The near-genius of these characters and characterizations is that they are cyphers—you see in them what you bring to them. All the musical, literary, and mythic flotsam and jetsam in my mind is activated by the meta-theatrical referencing that continues non-stop during the performance. Blickenstaff’s “Bea” references all the hardy helpmeets common in musical theatre, from Rosemary (H2$) to Dot (Sunday), as well as Portia (not to be confused with the character “Portia” in the show played by Kate Reinders), Rosalind, and Imogen (Cymbeline—“I see a man’s life is a tedious one”). I wish this character was a bit more than helpful, however. I would have liked to see some Lady Macbeth and Janet Van De Graffe thrown in, not to mention Carole Burnett. “Bea” is a pants role—in that she not only wears them actually, but also within her relationship to Nick. In terms of character antecedents, she really is along the lines of Alice to Nick’s Ralph Cramden—but this is not quite fully worked out (see more below).

In fact, more than anything, the subtextual references in the production are to the golden age of television and 70s sitcom. The entire show is like a long sketch from the Carole Burnett show and recalls (to my mind anyway) the fabulous Gone with the Wind spoof. Even the orchestrations, masterfully rendered by Larry Hochman and arranged by Glen Kelly, harken to a kind of 70s vibe from the Tonight Show to Bob Newhart—a kind of brassy, vaguely disco funk horn sound (along with the dozens of references to musicals, not to mention some outright thievery). However, this is not to suggest that at its heart it IS a sketch or a sitcom—far from it. Think more like Robin Williams’ voicing of “Genie” in Aladdin and you’ll be closer to the mark.

At the heart of the show, carrying it in more ways than one, however, is Brian d’Arcy James’ performance as Nick Bottom. As I mentioned above, Nick is a kind of Ralph Cramden, but without the spousal abuse. He also is a kind of Walter Mitty, dreaming of success in fantasy sequences, first in the truly inspire “A Musical” musical number, and then the act one finale, “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top.” But at bottom, Nick is most especially like the original Bottom from AMSND. At first, I wanted more of the pomposity for which the character is known, but thinking about 70s sitcom, James’ Bottom brings more to mind Barney Miller or Bob Newhart—the one (relatively) sane man among the real nuts (in this case, actors and writers—go figure). Like Cramden, Nick has big dreams and schemes, but really, it’s all in service to his friends and family. He hasn’t got much—not much wit, not much talent, no money–but he’s got DESIRE, born a bit out of envy (of Shakespeare), but more out of something more important and really more central to what story the play is telling—how we recover from abandonment. James delivers a performance that is so transparent and plaintive, so open and generous, it’s easy to miss how truly remarkable, skillful and deep it really is.

There are a few things that do not fully succeed. The role of Shakespeare is cute, Borle is very skilled and funny (and also very ripped—that boy’s been working out!) and I enjoyed the idea that he stole all he wrote. This is an old and amusing academic argument that could have been much more richly explored. But, the character is not really necessary. Shakespeare isn’t the antagonist—not truly. It’s the world (see Susanne Langer’s brilliant analysis of comedy in Feeling and Form). I couldn’t help but think that once they cast Borle, it obligated the authors to write him some good numbers—and why the hell not?! He delivers them expertly. But the show don’t need ‘em. While the choreography is also cheerfully zany and fairly inventive, the staging of the book scenes is the total opposite. They’re just not that funny. Everything else in the play references other plays and musicals. The book scenes are written that way, but they are not staged that way. This is a pretty big missed opportunity, in my view. Too many character upstage themselves—and this can only be the director’s choice. Too many scenes are far too static. I get that there needs to be some break from the breakneck pace of the rest of the show, but that doesn’t mean the show should grind to an unimaginative halt. Sorry, but it’s true. Second, the writing goes awry in the second act when they abandon Nick’s arc. Near the crises, when Nick’s relentless, but really under-motivated, clinging to the prophecy (to create Omelet, the Musical—don’t even. All I’ll say is that Gregg Barnes literally cooks up some hilarious costumes), results in a breach between the brothers (“To Thine Own Self”). But instead of a scene between Nick and Bea, in which Bea should call upon Nick’s true self, there is a misguided scene between Bea and Nigel, which results in extending the crises (and in my view, unnecessarily). The real motivation here seems to be to allow for a really really silly number from the musical within the musical. It’s zany, inspired (costumes, as mentioned), but it violates the journey of the play, moves the center from Nick, and requires a kind of deus ex machina in reverse to reveal Nick’s betrayal of his ideals in front of Bea, Nigel and the troupe of actors. Doesn’t work well, and could have been resolved in a much different way. But we end up in court (like The Producers) and miss an opportunity to get a good speech for Bea (playing Portia, disguised as a lawyer, not a judge—but never mind) about the quality of mercy. Perhaps if the show had gone to Seattle instead of straight to New York, this might have been fixed. But, it isn’t a deal breaker and since so much that has gone before was so good, it’s easy to forgive and forget.

Some of you may have read the review in the Times. Here’s what Brantley misses. The show isn’t really trying to BE The Producers or Book of Mormon, or Hairspray—it is merely ruthlessly exploiting that material for a different end. Comparisons to those shows miss the point. Far more apt is a comparison to [Title of Show], but it’s ambition is larger than that (as Nick states he desires for his own show), larger than, “I want to put on a show about my struggle to put on a show.” Abandoned as a child, with only his brother for family, he never knows who he truly is—so he has spent his life (and life savings) assuming roles to find the right fit and writing plays to find the right hit. This, I argue, is the central pre-occupation of American theater over the last hundred or so years. This is a country of displaced people, whether natives forced off the land, immigrant seeking haven, slaves transported here against their will, or even the rich seeking greener pastures. From O’Neil to Williams to Miller, from Hurston to Hansberry, from Hammerstein to Hart to Sondheim, from Comden & Greene to Tessori—arguable more than anything else American theater has been about how we try to recover from abandonment. In Something Rotten, even Shakespeare is an American, riddled with anxiety and recovering from a mother (embodied by a writing quill) who ridiculed his talent and abandoned him emotionally. Like all artists, Nick (and everyone else in the show) is searching for authenticity, for his true voice. But that is mission impossible. There IS nothing new under the sun, everything has already been written or said or sung or danced. All you actually have is your own story—and even that isn’t very original. In what is a very sly little dig our own country, the gang of central characters end up in America—the home of the bravely derivative. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then America and Americans are the sine qua non, the non pareil of the sincere. This is exactly why Brian d’Arcy James is EXACTLY right for the role of Nick. Brian EXUDES sincerity—you just believe everything he says. Nick’s not even a good liar. Although he is named for the notorious Bottom of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream—he’s not the bombastic Pyramus-playing blowhard that many have portrayed him as. He is the ass transformed by love, trying to sincerely offer, within his very limited abilities, the only gift he can give—his true self, for better for worse. And we all know that it is not the gift of gold, frankincense or myhrr that is most valuable, but rather the modest, but utterly sincere and fully given gift of self that is the true treasure. Brian, through Nick, gives us his heart. And we are all transformed by this gift.

Go see it.   Just for fun. But you might be surprised by how much more you will get.