Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Does Wade McCollum really wish that we were a meaner audience?

By Barry Johnson

My old colleague Marty Hughley, The Oregonian's theater critic, sat down to do a Q&A with actor Wade McCollum, who spent the past month or so starring in two separate productions at two separate theaters in Portland -- "The Santaland Diaries" at Portland Center Stage and "Dying City" at Portland Playhouse. In other words he oscillated between playing the elfin David Sedaris and a soldier heading for a tour of duty in Iraq, with other roles thrown in, just to keep things as impossible as possible.

Although he says he has never officially lived in Portland, McCollum has appeared in a many productions here over the past few years, and he appears to be one of the few actors in town who has a "following" -- fans who will go to see him regardless of what play he's in or in what theater he's playing. 

This all started, if memory serves, with his 2002 performance as Hedwig in Triangle Production's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," grew larger with "Bat Boy: The Musical," and then reached its current state with his roles as the Emcee in "Cabaret," Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in "I Am My Own Wife" and Sedaris at Portland Center Stage. He's also had a couple of plum parts at Artists Repertory Theatre. In short, he's had a series of sharp, edgy characters to play, and he's given them all the intensity they deserve, while improving technically all along the way. No wonder he has a following here.

Still, McCollum, who was born in Ashland, Oregon, doesn't consider himself a Portlander, and he's spent considerable time and won some prestigious theater awards in Los Angeles during this time, too. Lately, he's found himself fighting for roles in New York, and that's where I want to pick up his  interview.
Marty Hughley: You’ve worked more in New York and other points East in recent years. What have you learned from that?

Wade McCollum:
It’s like a different world. It’s uber-populated, it’s a different energy. I’ve done ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Santaland’ on both coasts, and the chance to the clock the energetic differences between the audiences has been really interesting. West Coast audiences are a little more laid-back, easygoing, ready to have a good time, quick to laugh. On the East Coast, there’s not so much ‘That’s awesome, I love it!’, more ‘Why am I supposed to love this?’

I like that energy. It’s caused me to get better, forced me to ask, ‘What am I doing and why should they be watching this?’ They’ve seen the best of the best every night, and there’s 125 other things they could go see. So it better be worth their time. But (the bigger difference) is that the level of talent is so incredible. It’s very intimidating -- which is great.

Wade McCollum/photo Owen Carey
Now, by this time, the whole West Coast-East Coast audience distinction has become a cliche,  hasn't it? Those busy New Yorkers (or Bostonians) come to the theater prepared to tar and feather the actor who doesn't measure up, while in LA or Portland, we're just happy to be there and astonished that they could remember all those lines.  I'm willing to concede the point, I suppose, though I'd say that West Coast audiences are more receptive and East Coast ones are just more distracted when they enter the theater, though I'm very skeptical of my own generalization. Just because, how do I really know?

Still, McCollum's formulation isn't very kind to us West Coasters, with our uncritical acceptance of mediocrity and all.  But again, let's put that aside for the moment, mostly because I don't think McCollum really means it.

What I found more interesting is his contention that it's better for the development of an actor (or at least for him) to face these angry audiences, these close-minded formalists, these people who've paid their $75 (or more) with the idea that the actor has to prove to them that he (or she) is worth full value. Hey, she's no $75 a ticket actor! Get her off of there!

Obviously, what motivates an actor is going to change over the course of his life, and what motivates him isn't going to motivate her. But I'm sticking to face value here. And I find myself in disagreement:  I think the (mythical) angry, prove-yourself audience is more likely to generate either conservative, finicky, by-the-book performances (to minimize risk) or crazy over-the-top ones (to maximize attention), not the nuanced, creative performances that maximize the text and lead to collaboration with the other players on ever-deeper levels.

Basically, we are talking about the best conditions for creating art, and I'm arguing that the best condition for an actor/writer/composer/dancer/artist involves an honest, open-minded exchange with an audience. That doesn't preclude challenges of aspects of the work, but it also insists that the effort itself deserves some respect: As Harper Lee (among others) has said, it's just as hard to write a bad novel as a good one. (In that same interview, she argues that writers should write only for themselves -- we could spend a lot of time mulling over that one.)

I've been in lots of Portland audiences in my day, and my sense is that this basic respect is offered as a general rule, and maybe that's one of the reasons we have so much more and better art (of all sorts) than we actually support financially. (Which is another story.) I think we might have more and better exchanges about the art we encounter and present, and that these would help artists and audiences sort through the experience in a better way. But fortunately, the basic condition for those imaginary exchange, mutual respect, already exists.

I want to go back to that menacing Manhattan audience, those sharks masquerading as humans. As you can tell, I'm skeptical about this. Where did they come from, anyway? Well, Missouri, I presume. It's the 'show-me' state! But other dim places, too, even Oregon, because we all know that everyone in New York came from somewhere else, right?  Even if just New Jersey? And they arrive and turn into, horrors!, theater critics? On whom only the most rarefied, perfect performances will work?

I've been having some fun at McCollum's expense, which is unfair, because he's a gentle, creative spirit by all accounts. If anything, he may be too ethereal for his own good, in fact -- he's from Ashland! You can listen to him in the second episode of the new OPB radio program, The Speakeasy, as he speeds from the conclusion of "The Santaland Diaries" to the opening curtain of "Dying City" -- and he's not the well-armored, success-fixated, survival-of-the-fittest Darwinian that his interview in the paper implies he might be. Not at all. If he were, he wouldn't be as good an actor as he is.

Which leads me to my final point, which expands on something I learned from listening to sax iconoclast Ornette Coleman talk about his work at the Portland Jazz Festival a few years ago: The artist's first responsibility is to the music (or canvas or performance); and the words that issue forth from the artist's mouth are often more about meeting that obligation than describing reality accurately. Ornette says what Ornette says to further his creative process, one way or another, more than to make things clearer for us. In fact, what he says may (and does!) make things clear. This is not an accusation, merely an observation.

And if I were an actor trying to make it in New York, I might come up with the same explanation that McCollum has, because it would help me survive in a difficult environment, where it IS hard to stand out and where the numbers and natural gifts of the acting class are vast. I might say exactly the same thing: This experience will make me better.  Which might be right. And then maybe: I have to be great because that audience is so much more discerning. Which might be wrong, but still useful to me as an actor.

So many of our own explanations and descriptions are like that, though, aren't they? Which is why I'm not considering what McCollum said about us as an insult. On the other hand, I don't think it's useful to us, the great unwashed West Coast theater audience, to conclude that his description is necessarily correct and attempt to change our relationship with our actors for the worse.

No comments: