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The Craft

Everything Matters

Everything Matters
A few months ago, I met with well-known stage and screen actor Olympia Dukakis and actor Marco Barricelli, artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz. They were starting early rehearsals for Canadian writer Morris Panych's "Vigil," a two-hander to open at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in March, with the author directing. Speaking with Back Stage, Dukakis and Barricelli touched on many subjects related to the craft of acting. They've worked together previously on several projects and have a wonderful rapport. I was mesmerized by how intently each listened to the other. Here is an edited account of the conversation.

Back Stage: What do you think about each other's working process?

Olympia Dukakis
: Marco's right there all the time.

Marco Barricelli: That's true for Olympia too. I feel like there's no fucking around, no obfuscation. She sort of puts you on your best game. She's watching and she's on you and she's looking with those incredibly expressive eyes.

Back Stage
: Olympia, in this play your character has hardly any lines…

Dukakis: Usually I get what I'm doing and who I am from my lines. I'm just going to have to listen to Marco! [Laughter] As he changes, I'm going to have to listen, pay attention.

Back Stage: Do you both tend to change night by night or stay the same, fixing the performance in some form?

Barricelli: I'm not really good at staying the same.

Dukakis: I like that.

Barricelli: My girlfriend is starting to act and asking me all these questions. I hear myself constantly saying, "You have the first moment. You know what you want. Then you just open the door. And then it's all up for grabs." It depends on how Olympia looks at me, what her tone of voice is, the distances between us, is she giving me or not giving me what I want and need? And that's why it'll change from night to night…. That's what it is in its ideal form…. That's what you strive for: to be surprised, to be caught off-guard. To make mistakes and see what comes out of them. That's an idealized version of acting, but that's what you want. That's what I want.

Back Stage: What do you look for in directors?

Dukakis: The last show that I did [Craig Lucas' "The Singing Forest" at New York's Public Theater], the director [Mark Wing-Davey] had us sit down at the table for three days, reading a line, deciding what we thought the action was, then saying it with the action right on top of it. We went through the whole text like that. And he gave us a book on actions in which the actions are listed. And here I am—I teach! I got that book copied and gave it to my class. I thought, Good, see the world of actions; see what it's all about…. And he decided one way to become an ensemble was to play competitive games with these little Nerfy balls. I liked that one!

Barricelli: I can't stand that.

Dukakis: I thought the same thing, Marco! My feeling was, I'm not going to trust you because you throw me a ball.

Barricelli: Well, deeper than that. I don't think ensembles are created; I think ensembles are. Because we hit it off, we have a certain kind of chemistry, or we have good work, a good show—that makes an ensemble. But to artificially create a close-knit group—that never works, in my opinion…. Give me the text; let's sit down and figure out where these words are going to take us. Because it's a process of working backward. Words are sort of the end result for a character.

Back Stage: You're both teachers. Olympia, I've heard you're a very tough teacher.

Dukakis: Really? Who told you that?... I had a tough teacher a long time ago: Peter Kass. There wasn't a moment he would let go by if you weren't invested. He encouraged you—not only by what he said but by who he was—to not be ashamed about any part of yourself, that every part of yourself belonged in your work. And you had to be ready to bring that forward. He was very good for me.

Back Stage
: What is the most important lesson you teach your students?

Dukakis: That they have the obligation and the pleasure of taking full responsibility for everything. You don't sit and look at other people to throw you into your work. You do it…you go for it…and your work will continue to open up and you will continue to evolve personally. Your work will be the way you've chosen to take hold of life and feel the quick of life. If you don't take it, other people will come in and use you.

I'm fond of saying, "If you don't decide who you are, somebody's going to come in and put their hand in your brain and squeeze and they'll tell you who you are." [Laughter] …The actor is so marginalized in the creative process, along with the playwright. You can't let them say you're just a tool in the hands of the director. You have to be knowledgeable, not just in acting but in everything around the theater. Nobody's going to collaborate with you until you're literate and have some understanding of the whole thing.

Barricelli: That's true in the big picture. In the specific, for actors going through training programs, I'd want them to know, first, to open up their minds and understand that [their graduating class is] just a small percentage of actors out there who have graduated the same year and are just as talented, pretty, and young. So they need to concentrate on the skills that are going to set them apart…. I think we're training actors in television careers, and they're good at it, but not for shows in [a big theater], classical roles….

All those techniques they're learning in the classroom have nothing to do with acting. Those techniques—that's what you take with you, that's your tool bag, in my opinion. So when you work on a scene and it works, that's great. Leave it alone. What I tended to do was take stuff I'd learned at Juilliard and start with that to do the work. What I've come to realize is that has nothing to do with acting. Only when it doesn't work and I can't figure it out do I go back and pull out this tool and that tool and tinker with it. But otherwise it's just about walking in the door….

: But is that something that came to you as you evolved?

: Yes.

Dukakis: Because I feel like there are different stages. I came in as you did. I wanted to be a good craftsperson.

Barricelli: Exactly.

: Then I wanted to win. I got to New York and I thought, How the hell am I going to get noticed here, reviewed? How am I going to win? Then I stopped playing with people. You can't play with people when you're trying to beat them. Then I realized I was judging them. They weren't doing what I thought was right….

The other thing was to stop manipulating the stage, stop manipulating the audience. "You want to laugh? You want to cry? You want to leave? Goodbye." When you stop doing all of that, you get freer…. When you were talking, Marco, I thought, It may not be wrong when they try to use their techniques, because what else do they have? But for them to know that it's going to evolve. The reason you start to be an actor is not necessarily the reason you stay an actor.

Barricelli: That's for sure…. It's a long journey.

: But that's true for anything worthwhile, isn't it?

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