Actor-writer-director Ethan Hawke has returned with a new novel, "A Bright Ray of Darkness" (Knopf), which details the efforts of an actor to try and save himself through art following the failure of his marriage.
Our director, J. C. Callahan, stood up in front of us. He was in his early sixties with a shaved, balding head, a bow tie, and a custom-made tweed suit. He was an elegant and powerful man with large, kind, teary blue eyes. His formidable confidence was a mystery. He stood before us, five feet, six inches tall, like an Irish Buddha. Underneath his feet and sprawling out beneath all our tables, chairs, and shoes were reams of tape, probably ten different colors laid out in odd geometric designs of the various floor plans of the set. Red for scene one; yellow for scene two; green marked the battle; et cetera. It looked like a map of our future. Times Square loomed silently, blinking its mad lights through the immaculately clean windows around us.
"All right, here we are," J.C. began, taking an extraordinarily long and uncomfortable pause before he continued. "I know what you all are expecting – the generic 'Let's get started' speech." He barely moved as he spoke. "But I don't have time to tell you all to take it easy. I don't have time to say, 'Let's get to know each other'; 'Let's get more comfortable.' I simply don't have time." He reminded me of a lion with its eyes fixed, body completely still, but its tail swishing back and forth behind him.
"I have six weeks to prepare this play. I don't want you to take it easy. I don't want you to relax. Today we are going to read through the play ... and I know what good directors say: 'Let's familiarize ourselves with the text'; 'If you stumble ... just take it back.' But I am not a 'good' director. I say, Do not stumble. I say you should already be 'familiar with the text.' Six weeks. That is nothing. I want us to begin today by grabbing this play by its very significant balls and squeezing them so tight that the world hears its cry. You understand me?" His cadence was unadorned and clear.
"There are only two kinds of Shakespeare productions: ones that change your life, and ones that suck shit. That's it. Because if it doesn't change the audience's life ... the production has failed." He paused for effect, surveying the room. He was not scared, not overconfident, just tremendously alert. I had met him only once before, over coffee to discuss my playing Hotspur. I told him I was a film actor. I couldn't "afford" to do the play. I lacked the training. I gave him a bunch of excuses. Then he spoke for a half an hour about the value of scaling the great roles, pitching ourselves against the past, measuring our mettle against the generations that came before, inspiring ourselves to be our best, meeting the wall of our talent. Until abruptly I said, "I'm in." I shook his hand right then and there.
"Shakespeare isn't beautiful," he continued. "It isn't poetic. Shakespeare is the greatest mind of the theater, ever. Shakespeare is nature, like the Niagara Falls, or the aurora borealis. The Grand Canyon. Shakespeare is life, and life – if it is to be a great life – is not meek. Life is full of blood, piss, sweat, c**, vaginal fluid, tears, and I want to see that all onstage." Some people kind of half-chuckled. "Don't laugh. We will do it. I want the audience to smell you. When your friend dies, I want to hear your tears smack the floor. When you fight, I want to feel adrenaline slip through my bloodstream. Violence electrifies a room. I want our fights to be so real that people think about leaving the theater and" – he stressed – "I want no one to get hurt. That is the razor's edge that we will walk. We can do it because we are serious craftsmen and artists and our life is dedicated to something larger than ourselves."
He smiled for the first time. The room was dead still.
"For a few short months we will be monks and nuns dedicated in totality to our calling. We will care only about beauty. Beauty defined as complete honesty. We will celebrate what is best in each other; bring it out and plant it onstage; let it grow and then we will die."
He glanced over at an older actor sitting directly to his right. In the look exchanged between them, it was clear they had known one another for many years. This actor was playing King Henry the Fourth. He'd won a few hundred thousand theater awards. If I looked at him too long I got nervous. He wasn't the biggest star in the company (as mentioned, that slot was reserved for the A-list movie star playing Falstaff), but he was our finest actor.
"Some of you may be thinking, Ahhh, he's talking to the folks with the big parts...Let me assure you, I am not. We are a company. Nothing makes me want to slap myself on the head with a concrete block more than a production of the Scottish play where everyone sits around and watches the Thane act. Laughing it up at jokes no one else gets. It makes me physically sick. Our goal is a company goal. To put life onstage. Shakespeare and his poetry will lead us – like an incantation – but we, each one of us, need to be present. If we do not believe that art and beauty are important, who will?"
We sat silent.
"The play is designed for the ear, not the eye. The eye can look ahead; it can look behind. It can be distracted. It can close. But the ear is always only in the present. It hears what is. The actor needs to make our author's intentions 'visible' to the listener. The way to do that is clarity of utterance, and to breathe – at the end – never in middle of each line. Are you listening?"
"We will become Shakespeare's voice. I have been doing this my whole life. I directed my first production of this play with my youth group in the basement of my Methodist church in Minneapolis when I was fourteen years old. I was born to do this, and I'm telling you: it takes a company. We need to inspire each other. This s*** is not for students. It is for grown-ups. That's why it's always done so badly. And we, with this group of people sitting in this room, have the chance to excel. Like a melting snowball flying through the fires of hell, we have a chance to be part of the solution. We are going to come down on this city like God's f****** fist and do the greatest American Shakespeare ever. That is our goal. And we will begin today. With Act One, scene one."
Nothing in the room moved.
Though my whole world was collapsing around me, there was one thing I still possessed. I don't think it's important; I don't think it will get me past St. Peter or through the pearly gates of heaven; most of the time I mock it – but I have always been a good actor. There was always someplace in the world where my body knew what to do. I was good at something and having that place to go had been enough. And now more than ever, I needed my profession. I needed to lean on it, to be held by it. It isn't much and I've often been embarrassed by it (as pretending to be someone else seemed a dubious thing to excel at), but somehow my life as a performer is at the absolute core of my sense of self-worth. And I have never misplaced a gratitude for this love in my life. I've done nothing to deserve it and little to nurture it. It was a gift that had been given to me and, with this in my pocket, I have always thought of myself as lucky. So, this little fighting Irish oddball director didn't need to say all that to rile me up – my pencil had broken in my hand two sentences into his speech. I couldn't wait to act. If I could do it well, I might reach back and drag my pride out of the dark, cavernous well into which it seemed to have fallen. This was going to be the one thing in my life I would not f*** up.
J.C. sat down, glanced around our sprawling rehearsal room, seemed to look each one of us in the eyes, closed his script, and, as if preparing to submerge himself in a dream, closed his eyes. Virgil Smith fiddled with his big white beard and the wrinkled pages of his manically underlined script. The King opened his notebook and found his place with an absolute minimum of movement. Ezekiel took a sip of coffee and checked out the young redheaded woman playing my wife as she dabbed her lips with gloss. Everyone was still quiet.
Directly across from me was the actor playing Prince Hal. We had met a thousand times at auditions and openings over the years. We were the same age and physical build. The path of his career had been humble and hardworking; Juilliard, London, Broadway. For casting calls, we were constantly up for the same roles. He had won an Obie and been nominated for two Tonys already, but was still as poor as Job's turkey. I was rich as a ragman and had made an absolute donkey's ass of myself on the global tabloid page.
I smiled at him. He smiled back. The stage manager began.
"King Henry the Fourth, Parts One and Two by William Shakespeare ..."
As the run-through began I discovered that by reciting these lines of this warrior, Hotspur, I could feel a breeze blowing through me ventilating the seething anger that was scalding my organs and literally hurting me. My stomach was twisted in pain all the time but there was a rhythm in the words that soothed. Long speeches fell out of my mouth without thought. The beat of the play sunk into my guts and surged like cool water splashing against my fury, easing the burning of my stomach. When a performance is going well there is no thought, you are not amused at how well you might be "acting" – there is no you – you don't remember how it went. You have no discerning mind. When my scenes finished, I would sit alert in my chair and listen to the text, watching the other actors – but still there was no thought, no opinion. Then like lucidly stepping into a hallucination I would be inside the play again. Sometimes another actor's nervousness, a glint in their eye, a self-conscious hand gesture, would almost break the spell. Or I would distract myself and remember the director staring at me with his hard, unflinching beam and I would fall out for a second noticing "the real" world, but quickly the beat of the words would carry me off again. The first two and a half hours of the play went by like a subway train that forgot to stop.
We arrived at my death scene and I was foaming at the mouth challenging "Prince Hal" to meet his doom. The heat and energy of Shakespeare's language was filling me with strength. I could feel hate and for the first time in my life understood how an all-encompassing rage could feel good. It was clear and unconflicted. In those moments, I was living deep inside the metaphor of the play, intuiting the text instinctively – for a moment there was no Mercury Hotel, no divorce, no children, no shame; there were only the ideas, the rhythm, the language, and my breath all happening spontaneously.
The outside world tends to celebrate the most trivial superficial aspects of an actor's life, lifting their personality to a plastic God-like status, but the actual joy of acting lies in the absence of personality. In taking on and inhabiting the accoutrements of another's being – where they are from, their accent, their clothes, their background – you realize that every element of your own personality is malleable. You can do it, you can wear the skin of another human being – and yet still you are you. This, in its own small way, feels profound because it illustrates that none of the things you point to as identity are intrinsic. You are something far more mysterious than a person who is funny, who is angry, who is hurt, who likes Marlboro cigarettes, who is Presbyterian, who is a playboy, who is Nigerian, who is a Real Madrid fan – all of that is dressing. Of course, acting felt good to me, inside the play it felt possible that I was not a person defined by his adultery, or his unloving parents, or his lies, his failure as a father. It is possible that I could be defined by something else.
When I was younger and first started performing professionally, all I wanted was to be "true" and "genuine," but now, having passed thirty, I wasn't sure what those words meant. I'd turned down a fantastic role once, because I felt I would be phony if I spoke with an English accent, as if the cadence of my "natural" voice was not an affectation. As if there was anything at all about me – the casual unbrushed hair, the old blue jeans, the T-shirt worn thin, all deftly presenting the impression of a person who was not concerned with his "appearance" – that was not affected. And it was real. Affectation is very real. My big break in the movies came with the role of a stuttering seventeen-year-old delinquent in a 1920s juvenile home. Everyone thought that was me. But the real (so to speak) me was obviously an actor who practiced a "stutter," stepped into the makeup trailer, and then walked back out again. The real me was kicked out of drama school because he missed too many voice and speech classes. Later, I did a film adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull." Fans of the film would come up to me and kiss my face – so grateful I did not actually shoot myself. I learned quickly of the power, the absolute nuclear power, of the deceit attached to any kind of storytelling.
Excerpted from "A Bright Ray of Darkness" by Ethan Hawke. Copyright © 2021 by Ethan Hawke. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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