I’m in rehearsals for a production of Pride and Prejudice “down to the BY,” as my wife’s grandfather would have said. (Occasionally I’ve wondered why folks don’t call that university “The B.'” It’s probably because of the “Y” on the mountain. “Why just a Y’?” you ask, in unison and, because of the supra-global sweep of Meridian’s readership, in various colorful dialects.
Well, the story is that when somebody had the idea of emblazoning “BYU” on the mountainside, they prudently started with the Y, so the whole thing would be centered. But the Y was so hard to make that they abandoned the founder’s first initial ((“B”)) and the letter that might have let the public in on what all that stone and whitewash stands for ((a “U”)). This story may not be true, but it has the authentic aura that surrounds folk tales-thank goodness, because folk tales are, in most ways that really matter, more true than actual history. Certainly more worthy of believing in.)
I’m Mr Bennet (the British don’t punctuate “Mr”). I’m one of three grown-ups in the cast, the other two being Mrs Bennet (the British don’t punctuate “Mrs”) and the Lady Catherine de Bourgh (nobody would dare punctuate Lady Catherine de Bourgh). Typically the only two other grown-ups in the room are the director, Barta Heiner, and one of the two dramaturgs, Anne Flinders. (The playwright, Melissa Leilani Larson, may be considered by some to be just over the line into grown-upness. ((You must remember that all these designations are being assigned by a guy who considers Barack Obama too young to hold a driver’s license.)) ) For rehearsals involving only the Bennet family, I’ve typically been the only guy in the room-totally female family, female director, female production staff, and two female dramaturgs. As will be the audience, too, except for those few guys who are savvy enough to know that accompanying their dates to any Jane Austen show will score major, major points.
(A word about dramaturgs: Good luck defining what the heck one is, besides brainy and nice and one of them has a dog that acts ((in this very show!)). I think the definition of “dramaturg” is something you feel rather than try to articulate. And it takes a certain kind of person to feel it-Bill Gates, for example, will not even admit that “dramaturg” is a word.)
On the subject of dogs that act: I never learned to act. I mean, like in a classroom or from a teacher. Everybody else in this show did. Some still are, technically, being students and all, but mostly everybody has already learned. They’re terrific. Even the two grown-ups who aren’t me. Laura Wardle, who is Mrs Bennet, was the only woman in memory (her memory) who ever received a Master’s degree in Acting from BYU. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is in real life Hilary Straga, who’s a casting director for LDS Church films. It’s delightful to be considered on a sort of equal footing with Ms (the British don’t punctuate “Ms”) Straga in this project, because out in church filmland all our encounters are between the powerful Keeper of the Keys and the hungry actor. But she has always brought tremendous grace to being so powerful, and some of my best acting has been for just her, even when I didn’t get the part I was after.
(Anecdote that I may have shared before: For the big Joseph Smith movie, they were looking to cast the guards at Richmond Jail, whom the prophet called “Fiends Of The Infernal Pit.” When I was called in to audition I found deeps of evil in me that I brought to the surface with a fury that visibly frightened Hilary, and would have frightened even the intrepid Catherine de Bourgh. I was excited when I learned that I’d been cast as a fiend OTIP, and looked forward to a useful stretch as an actor, sort of like I got once upon a time being Sweeney Todd. But when I showed up, they yanked me out of the awful card-playing squad that bragged and blasphemed at the cell door and put me inside with the brethren, silently checking their chains and trying not to disturb them too much. Then when the prophet stood to rebuke The Fiends, the camera pushed in for a close-up on me actually being spiritually affected by his words. They made me “The Sympathetic Fiend”! My audition was wasted! Oh well, I got to tote a truly wicked rifle.)
Dogs that can act. Last Thursday evening, our director gave us an assignment: Carefully research and choose an animal that your character might be if your character were an animal. Don’t tell anybody what it is, but come early on Saturday morning prepared for an “acting exercise.” Everybody else probably had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Not me.
Here’s how it went down. We all lay on tumbling mats on the floor with the lights dimmed. The company, who seemed to know innately exactly what to do, had arrayed big black blocks of varying proportions in almost random patterns, some forming little walls, some tunnels, some leaning on others in diagonal ways. In the silence, with our eyes closed, we followed Barta’s instructions to breathe in energy and breathe out tension. We were allowed to endow these gasses with colors, if we thought it might help. This was not general, lung-centric breathing, but was dispensed to every part of our persons from toenails to the hair follicles upon our heads, where, on me at least, the gasses, both incoming and outgoing, got lost.
Once we had reached a meditative state that would have made the Beatles jealous, we were invited to contemplate our chosen animals. On the day before, I wasn’t able to think of as many as five animals to choose from, let alone an animal who embodied the essential characteristics of an English country gentleman living in a high estrogen zone. So I asked Mr Google “What kind of animal would my character be?” Instantly I had at my fingertips a few dozen quizzes I could take that would determine the answer scientifically, unanimously, incontrovertibly. So I just started answering the questions the way I knew Mr Bennet would. The first quiz concluded that Mr Bennet was a wolf. I took another. It affirmed that Mr Bennet was an unspecified bird. The third quiz made him a dolphin, the fourth a bear, and the fifth quiz (the first one wherein the questions were composed with conventional grammar) identified Bennet as a mole.
Actually, mole attracted me, because the site said that both Bob Dylan and John Lennon were moles. But I wasn’t confident I could pull it off, so I took a sixth quiz. It said “Cat” and something inside me went “ping” in an affirmative manner. Cats are something this actor can take or leave, but here are the parallels: Bennet is mostly about emotional hiding out. See the cat when something chaotic is happening, tiptoeing off to somewhere the heck else.
Also, cats have retractable claws, which are mostly retracted, but can, in crisis, like when their youngest daughters run off with rakish soldiers and disgrace their families, un-retract them. The claws, I mean, not the daughters or soldiers.
And fundamental to cats is this totally unearned sense of dignity. Carrying themselves erect, landing on their feet, moving among lesser creatures as though they, the cats, never doubted for a moment their absolute superiority-a superiority born, not out of accomplishment or even aspiration, but merely out of being cats. The hereditary aristocracy of early nineteenth-century England is just like this, except without whiskers (I will probably have to shave mine off).
I thought, “How could I possibly be more ready for the acting exercise?” Still on the mats, after some contemplation of our critters, we were invited to admit them into our bodies and take over. That’s when the fur hit the fan. Instantly I was surrounded by a frighteningly authentic menagerie. All my daughters and my wife were flying things, warbling and tweeting and quacking (Mom, a cedar waxwing, brought me in her beak many baby carrots, one at a time, and dropped them in front of me, completely missing, as Mrs Bennet would, that a cat might not have much truck with carrots). Only Elizabeth, my favorite, the one with whom I have an emotional and intellectual bond, was not a flying thing. She was, get this, a lioness. A cat just like dad, but bigger and better! Slam dunk! Remember we didn’t tell anybody what we were gonna be!
The other lioness was Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Imagine what happened when those two met up! Darcy and Bingley, as wolf and dog respectively, rough-housed so authentically that Bingley emerged with bleeding knees. Mr Collins’s meerkat (Bill Gates does not accept meerkats as real) was astounding, snaking about underground and then poking up, glassy-eyed, into the risky world like a, well, a meerkat. There wasn’t a trace of human in the whole guy. It was at once beautiful and deeply scary. Lady Catherine’s sickly daughter was a fawn, cowering next to a controlling mother who might at any moment devour her.
I was so astounded by the talent and abandon and commitment of these players that I could hardly remember to purr, and mostly forgot that cats walk on all fours. I felt like somebody had tossed me a paper helmet and shoved me out onto the grass in LaVell Edwards Stadium, with cougars bearing down on me from one direction and screaming Utes from another. More than once I reflected with relief that I’d chosen an animal who hides. Which I did a lot. Remember the blocks?
At the end, we all lay down again and Barta gently talked us back into humanity. She finally directed our attention to our departing animal, which turned back at a distance to give us a last look. And here was the big surprise. What I felt in that moment was gratitude to the cat, for visiting me and teaching me so well about the tender and tormented Mr Bennet. Didn’t anticipate that. Now I know what an acting exercise is. By the way, the dog that can act wasn’t there. Barta didn’t think he needed it.
Disclaimer: For the first half of the morning, Barta thought I was an orangutan. My second youngest daughter, Kitty, never did let go of the impression that I was a penguin. But I’m taking comfort in the fact that nobody thought I was a dramaturg.