From an Actor’s Notebook....
Being Morrie Schwartz
In my thirty-one years in theater, much of it as an actor in many diverse roles, I’ve only been “possessed” by a character twice.
The first possession was by a character who deserves a full essay of his own—Strider the Horse, central figure in a musical play adapted from a Tolstoy tale. It was a unique experience. On the first day of rehearsal I felt the arrival in my consciousness of a spirit horse who lived in me until the morning after the show closed, when I literally saw him leave in a vision. That horse, a temporary guest in my psyche, used my body-mind to express a deep and powerful cry of anguish at the suffering human ignorance has inflicted upon the world.
The second possession has been by the character I’m currently playing, Morrie Schwartz, in Tuesdays with Morrie, which completes its four-weekend run on June 13 at the Generic Theater here in Norfolk, VA.
It’s the Morrie collaboration I want to write about now, though admittedly from the perspective of still being under its spell.
One day late last March it came to my attention that there was a major role open for a man of my approximate age in the upcoming Generic Theater production, Tuesdays with Morrie. I’d never heard of the play nor of the book it’s based on, despite its widespread fame as an Oprah Book Club pick. (Like Morrie, “I’ve only seen Oprah once.”) Nor had I heard of Professor Morrie Schwartz, now deceased, or his favorite student, Mitch Albom, who wrote the book and the play (with Jeffrey Hatcher) after Morrie’s death.
But I felt up for doing a show this spring and wanted to try something different from the solo performing I’ve been doing the past few years. The availability of a major role in my age bracket seemed an auspicious coincidence.
So I auditioned and got the role, which pleased but didn’t surprise me. I had a feeling from the start that I was going to do this show.
What I didn’t know was that Morrie and Mitch are real people, that this story actually happened. Morrie’s appearances on ABC’s Nightline, an important part of the play’s plot, are posted on YouTube. The play is practically a documentary, though considerably cut and spliced.
This truth dawned on me slowly in the early days of rehearsal, as discussions of the play’s characters evolved. But I’d begun learning my lines on my own before that, to get an early start. There were a daunting amount of lines in this two-character, hour-and-forty-minute play without an intermission.
Almost at once in this preliminary script work, as I spoke the lines aloud, I fell into a vocal pitch I normally don’t use, in a Brooklyn accent I hadn’t practiced for years, and I realized, in a way unlike anything since Strider, that a character had arrived in my psyche pretty much instantaneously and full-blown. There was an emotional affinity between me and this character which created an instinctive bond of understanding.
By the time of the first rehearsal the vocal rhythms and patterns of this voice were quite well established in my line readings. I felt as if I knew Morrie Schwartz almost as well as if I’d lived with him as a father or a brother. What if the director (Jeremiah Albers) didn’t agree? At the first rehearsal, when we read through the play, I spoke the lines as I’d already begun practicing them. Then, somewhat timidly, I asked Jeremiah if the accent worked for him.
Actually, he said, the real Morrie did speak with that accent, as I would later hear for myself when I looked him up on YouTube. With some amazement I began to realize—and appreciate—that I had a psychic partner working with me on this show.
I’m not saying this is some sort of mediumship, channeling the spirit of the real Morrie Schwartz. But I’m not saying it’s not that, either. I don’t really know. All I know—then or now—is that a character who is not recognizably me, at least in present time, has been expressing himself in collaboration with me whenever we perform the show, with a waxing and waning influence extending for a couple of hours before and after.
So Ted Koppel’s question—”Who is Morrie Schwartz?”—takes on a whiff of infinity when I think about the character who steps forth each time I play him—a person who is quite familiar, a kind of relative, yet who I cannot recognize as a part of myself, even though logic tells me he must be.
In short, I have to admit it. In an almost spooky way, I am Morrie Schwartz.
In fact, if I had been a teacher—a career path I tried but didn’t like—I would have wanted to be a teacher like Morrie, champion of the classical liberal education, awakening students to their cultural past and its ethical roots in age-old philosophical and spiritual questions and principles.
But I didn’t become a teacher. So is Morrie Schwartz the teacher I might have become? That’s hard to say. For one thing, any similarities between Morrie and me are not related to common backgrounds—he an urban Jew, I a small-town Pennsylvania-Dutch Unitarian. But we do share a similar world view. Like Morrie, I still believe in the supremacy of love, even as I know (increasingly, as I age) that physical death is the unalterable reality of the human condition. Such subjects, among the deepest the human mind can contemplate, have always fascinated me. It therefore gives me great pleasure to speak of them from the stage as one who knows—even if I, personally, am not so sure.
Still, that enjoyment is like a fringe benefit of the role for me. My main task is to give an authentic portrayal of a man dying of ALS who has a fundamental need to teach others what he’s learning as he goes out. The challenge is that as the play progresses Morrie, who has a lot to say, increasingly loses his ability to move his body, to breathe, to articulate his words clearly.
As a result, starting almost immediately at the top of the play and moving on rapidly thereafter, I enter an emotional and physical space which is alien to my accustomed sense of self. It’s not just that I’m portraying a man with no hope of recovering from one of the cruelest of all diseases—a circumstance with which I have but limited personal experience. It’s that I become absorbed in that man’s reality, signified especially in his increasing immobility, breathlessness, and impeded speech, so that when the performance is over I feel an initial disorientation, like waking up from a dream or returning from an out-of-body experience.
In order to keep such a performance fresh and authentic rather than just a technical exercise, I’ve found it necessary to practice continuously, not just running lines, which is important enough, but retracing the emotional journey through the play on a daily basis as well. It’s like maintaining a delicate, high-performance engine. Parts can slip, sharpness erode, softness calcify without constant attention to attunement.
This investment of time and energy has resulted in a sacrifice of my other interests and activities, including any social life I might have otherwise enjoyed over the past two months. But though the task has been rigorous and consuming, it has been far from thankless. Aside from the gratifying relationships I have formed with my cast mate Kent Collins and members of the show’s directorial staff and crew, audiences have, by all accounts and for the most part, been deeply moved by the show we’ve given them. An actor can hardly ask for more than that, though a living wage on top of it—a rare perk—would sweeten the deal.
In the course of it all, I’ve asked myself why I do this—act, write, direct, produce plays. My answer, I’ve decided, is simple. “It’s what I do.” It’s been my primary calling, as I mentioned at the outset, for over thirty years. Many of my fondest memories are theater moments. To recall them is my private entertainment and comfort. They trump childhood memories—which are so-so, not particularly unhappy—and they nourish my philosophy, providing appropriate analogies and aphorisms for practically any life occasion, whether tragedy or farce. Live theater for me is where it’s at.
Yet it doesn’t provide personal security or stability for any but a very few. There are far more great artists slaving away anonymously in theater than there are places for them on the employment rolls. That’s just the way it is. Doing theater is always a material sacrifice, not unlike a religious calling, though religion commonly denies its out-of-wedlock love child, preferring to stage bad theater in its sanctuary pulpits than risk a little sex or salty language spilling out so close to the baptismal fount. For me, there is much more true spiritual feeling to be found in a theater than in a church.
But I digress.
In my collaboration with the spirit who possesses me in Tuesdays with Morrie—some version of Morrie Schwartz, I’m sure, as filtered through my own consciousness—I’ve learned a couple of valuable lessons, personally and artistically.
Artistically, I’ve learned to funnel all physical expression—all my “acting”—into my voice, which must seem weak and halting even as it’s projected so an audience can hear what I’m saying. This takes more physical energy than you might think! But it also expends emotional energy. At the end of each show I am not only physically stiff from sitting still for over an hour, not only is my voice strained from projecting in an unaccustomed register, but I am emotionally drained from the effort of pushing intense feeling into so narrow a channel as my vocal apparatus alone.
On the personal level, as I approach my seventieth birthday this summer, having experienced surgery from a failed heart valve two years ago, I take from Tuesdays with Morrie a deepened reminder of the reality of death. Morrie says more than once in the play that, knowing what he now knows, he wishes he’d been aware of death every day of his life. At the same time, it seems, his belief system is tending away from the agnosticism typical of humanistic professors toward a Buddhist perspective—an appreciation of physical life’s essential impermanence even while something of the spirit lives on forever.
In the necessity of considering such thoughts, as I’ve had to do in preparing and playing this role, I realize that at no point in my life have I been still, a quintessential version, a completed work. I have been ceaselessly changing, and, furthermore, that change has always been toward death. We are all dying from the moment we’re conceived in our mothers’ wombs! There is no place to freeze the frame, no moment when we are fully defined. Life is not a movie, a finite record fixed and done at a certain point in time. Life is live theater—never predictable, never the same, never finalized, even though the show must one day close.
I’d like to say—maybe feel I should say—that this heightened awareness of the reality of death, which my exposure to Morrie Schwartz has stimulated, has made each present moment of life seem more real and precious. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Impermanence has never been a comforting philosophy for me. How can I relax, how enjoy the present moment, when death forever lurks within it, threatening to jump me--or, worse, a loved one--without notice?
What works better for me is accepting death, as Morrie does, as an essential life process. In order to live, we must die, and we are dying daily. What are our physical changes throughout life but the body’s process toward its inevitable absorption back into the elements from which it is made? Death, then—in a sense—is the miracle of life at work. Using my imagination to follow Morrie Schwartz through his dying process has deepened my apprehension of this profound paradox.
Tuesdays with Morrie has been a bit of a rigorous exercise for an actor slightly out-of-practice. But I wanted to get back in practice, so I went to work. Theoretically, I might have chosen an easier role to go for, but this was the one that appeared. When opportunity knocks, it’s best to answer the door.