Wednesday marked the beginning of an important journey for four yeoman actors. In My Nagg, I shared with you the past journey of both my husband in his role as Nagg in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and our journey together as man and wife from our marriage 32 years ago beginning with our imprompt work/honeymoon to Israel where he performed Nagg with Alvin Epstein, Peter Evans and Alice Drummond.
But now, it’s time to look forward, to the start of rehearsals for the upcoming production at The Kirk Douglas Theatre, directed by and starring Alan Mandell. It is an important production; not only are three of the actors (Alan, Charlotte Rae and Barry McGovern) one degree of separation from the playwright Samuel Beckett, but three of the performers are also over the age of 88.
The combined 266 years of these three thespians has not been squandered. All three have had vital careers in theatre, film and television. I will let you peruse the interweb for the details of their artistic endeavors. They have crossed paths in their dramatic peregrinations. But what interests me most is not looking back at their illustrious careers, but looking forward at the challenge before them; I realize that if we are lucky, and it comes unencumbered with serious illness or dementia, age does not diminish the passion one feels for creative work. Many of you know this already. Forgive me if it is already obvious.
Old age is a shipwreck.
Jimmie frequently invokes DeGaulle’s immortal words, usually in the morning when he stumbles out to the kitchen, one eye closed, pirate-like, with a request for me to turn on the coffee pot, or in the evening when removing his knee brace, or climbing into bed. But what I see is that the work is rejuvenating; the act of studying and memorizing lines peels away the years like no other activity.
Alan called me on Monday. That’s the other refreshing thing about our elders. With a few exceptions, they prefer to communicate by speaking human to human through a telephone. I frequently bemoan that this generation of stage managers misses that human connection when emailing rehearsal schedules to their actors rather than calling them on the phone to leave the first day’s details with them. I relish the first conversation with a new colleague, because it’s when you learn some detail about his/her connection with the director, or the piece, or in the case of Alan Mandell, the playwright, Beckett, about whom you only have ever had text book familiarity. In this case, for me, it is like touching noses with the gods.
Alan wanted to set up a coffee meeting with Charlotte, Jimmie and himself in advance of the first rehearsal. Two phone calls arranged a meeting first at Alan’s home and then a trip to Charlotte’s…
In my limited perspective, I imagine the purpose of the meeting to be multi-fold:
- Introduce (or reintroduce Charlotte and Jimmie – they did an episode of Diagnosis Murder in 2000)
- Discuss what a working rehearsal schedule might look like – determining the best point of the day for most productive work.
- Have a few laughs, and build some connections prior to the first rehearsal March 29th.
None of these things are ancillary to the process. When you get to be over 60, let alone over 80, if you’ve stayed in the entertainment business as a successful professional, you know a hell of a lot of people. The details of the connections may have frayed over time, but usually are re-kindled quickly upon sight. Those “100 people who work in the theatre” are very familiar when you meet them again and again over the years.
As far as what a working schedule looks like for older actors, I think anything more than 4-5 hours a day isn’t really practical. Given the short rehearsal period, and the fact that the Nagg/Nell scenes are fairly limited, I would think they could accomplish what they needed to do within 3-4 days a week of 4-5 hours. More than that and the actors might begin to get too tired to perform at their best.
Theatre, after all, isn’t like film or television, where actors can retreat to the comfort of their Honey wagon after shooting a brief scene. Endgame for Nagg and Nell, at least, involves getting in and out of the under-stage area to access the ash cans. In a rehearsal room, this is getting up and walking from your chair to the can and sitting down. Once in the theatre, this will be more physically challenging. Yes, even walking from your chair to the stage can be challenging in your late 80s.
That’s the thing about being young – there is no way to frame the experience of an older person, until your body begins to squeal when you ask it to perform like you could when you were 20. I fantasize about having the cast of Endgame come to USC to talk with the students about what 60-70 year lifespans in the dramatic arts look like, to demonstrate that their commitment to their artistry is undimmed by time. As a sidebar excercise, maybe they can demonstrate for the students what walking looks like when you are 80+; perhaps the students could stand and try to imagine what favoring weakened knees or painful lower backs looks like. I assure you, it looks nothing like what some of the expressions of old age performed by college students look like.
But what I looked forward to about our coffee was to be a fly on the wall to listen to stories about Beckett and his previous productions. I was not disappointed. We arrived at Alan’s house, a beautiful, modern home filled with an eclectic collection of art, sculptures in ceramic, metal – beautiful, varied in style and whimsical in the way that Alan and his work has always seemed to me to be. On the table in his living room, where we paused for just a few moments was a green bound book, well worn, which he referred to. It was Beckett’s Notebook on Endgame. He immediately shared with us two stunning facts (forgive the lack of precision in my quote)-
Endgame was Beckett’s favorite play.
Do you know why the characters are named the way they are?
Clov is similar to clou, the French word for nail. Nagg is like nagel, which is the German word for nail. (I’ve since looked it up and it is actually referring to the human nail or elephant nail) and Nell is also close to nail. Hamm is short for Hammer. The play is about a hammer and three nails. The use of sound and percussion in the play, the rapping of his fingers on the can to summon Nagg and Nell is integral. Beckett referred to the play as a chamber piece.
Fascinating! We soon moved to the car and drove a short distance to Charlotte’s apartment.
When we arrived at Charlotte’s apartment, with a stunning 180 degree view of the city, Jimmie parked his walker next to Charlotte’s in the foyer, wryly remarking,
Is this the parking area?
In the next hour, we didn’t discuss the minutia of hours of rehearsal but talked instead about the way in which Beckett had described and directed Nagg’s and Nell’s appearance in the ashcans, Alan demonstrating the slow lifting of the lid, the emergence of hands fingers tightly curled, gripping the front edge of the can, and finally the head pushing up to appear.
Later, we moved to sit in Charlotte’s kitchen, at a beautiful spread of grapes and nuts, coffee and alligator pastries, and they reminisced about the intersections of their lives and looked with happy anticipation to the work ahead on Beckett’s favorite play.
No discussion of age beyond an initial survey with pride of their lofty numbers. Charlotte laughed, briefly dipping her pinky to her lips, to say, god willing, she would be able to do the play. There was no pondering about age or the impediment to the work that might happen because, we humans don’t think of ourselves as old. The tiny increments of aging that we experience each day don’t substantively change our lives except when sudden health issues arise. We are much more likely to see it in another’s behavior toward us. I see it all the time at school with my students if I bend down to pick up something at a strike, and a student thoughtfully says,
Can I get that for you, Els (or often, Ma’am)?
Oh! I’m not 26 any more. And I must seem quite old to this 18-year-old student.
But in my mind, I am still the 23-year-old stage manager who rolled her sleeves up and got to work. Aging is real; don’t get me wrong. The changes we make on our physical activities as we age are based on what our bodies tell us. But Alan, at 85, started taking tap dancing. It’s unlikely that we can all be like Alan Mandell, in that respect. As I sat in Charlotte’s kitchen on Wednesday, I realized that just because you are over 80, your interest and passion about the work hasn’t faded in the least bit. I watched as Charlotte and Jimmie leaned in to listen to Alan’s descriptions of his experiences with Beckett as avidly as I was. As Jimmie described how he’d had to crouch in the can in Jerusalem for 90 minutes, I realized that he had been 57 or 58 at the time; I thought about whether I could do that even at 56. No way.
Aging has a terrible way of making us invisible for who we are, what we care about, and our abilities as cogent, feeling, passionate artists. So I am excited to shed those preconceptions about what these three can do in the face of a rehearsal period, and look forward more to seeing what the work does to rejuvenate them- to get them tapping again. Cheers to opportunities and three people who embody the Life in the Theatre!