Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Lives of the Circus Animals by Christopher Bram

Starting this book was very confusing to me, and it took me a while to figure out why. One of the main characters, a playwright, is famous for having written a celebrated stage adaptation of a short story, Venus in Furs. Of course, Venus in Fur has been the hot play of the last few years, written by David Ives. In fact, I think one of my sisters was the stage manager for the Canadian premiere of the show. (I couldn't be thinking of another play, but I think I have the right one.)

So why, I wondered, would this author use a fictional playwright, but include a real play? Eventually, I looked at dates, and realized that the book came out years before the David Ives play, and so, it was just a weird sense of timing, not a choice made to stretch the boundaries of the fourth wall.

It was a confusion caused by happenstance, but once I got it sorted out, I was much happier. It was nagging at me.

This is a story about the theatre scene in New York circa the turn of the century (as in, the start of the 21st century), it is largely, although not exclusively, about gay men, and the narcissism of the artist. It also claims that no one hangs around the stage doors on Broadway for autographs anymore, and maybe that's true, but my Facebook page from last week, when a friend was in New York going to all the shows, would tell another tale.

At any rate, we have people who are dissatisfied with the theatre and all the politics that it entails, those who want to be in the theatre but have no discernible talent to get them there, those who have been doing it for so long that they can phone it in, those who are just starting out who are talented but raw, and those who have found that the muse has deserted them.

One thing that nagged at me was this insistence that being intelligent is antithetical to being a good actor. Jessie, the sister of the playwright, sometimes dating the guy who is disillusioned by the theatrical world despite being a good director, can't be an actor because she's too smart. I hate this trope. With a fiery passion.

Look, when you are actually acting, there is a certain amount of truth that you have to turn off the inner censors, and just trust that all the homework you've done (and that homework is greatly aided by being smart, in my experience) is there, and let the performance happen. Learning to turn off that part of your brain that would impede a good performance is not easy, but it is a teachable skill. And it is not antithetical to being smart.

I don't act very much anymore, unless it's at the gaming table, but let me tell you, I'm not terrible. I'm also pretty smart. It has been an asset, not a liability. So I kind of hate it when people spout that being smart is the same as not being able to be mindful onstage. I call bullshit.

Okay, digression over. Other than that, these people weave in and out of each other's lives, hurting each other with sex, and with emotion, keeping people at a distance and letting them in. And then the critic in their midst finds an unexpected adversary.

This isn't a plot heavy book, but the characters are interesting, and I'm almost always willing to read something about the theatre. Even if they rely on lazy stereotypes about actors needing to be not that smart.

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