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Charles Knott

I once knew a woman who suffered from low blood pressure. She complained of chronic weariness. In an effort to console her, I reminded her that her condition might cause her to have a very long life. She replied, "I?d rather have a short life and live more while I?m at it."

I used to pursue intensity in an addictive way?I was an endorphin junkie--but eventually, I started feeling foolish. I got into so much trouble and so much danger that it negatively affected my self-respect. However, dullness was not the answer.

A friend of mine illustrated this dilemma by telling a story on himself. He said, "The other day I was riding on dirt roads in my new pickup truck sipping beer. After drinking several beers, I stomped the gas and went roaring down the road whooping and hollering. When I almost had a wreck, I stopped the truck and asked myself how a grown man could be so immature and stupid. Hell, Charles, I?m 47 years old!"

I could have told him I knew other men who were even older, even more immature, and even more stupid, but I was afraid he would ask me to name names, so I said nothing.

Some time ago, I set about to answer the question, How can a person socialize his craving for excitement? Eventually, for me, the answer was theater. And I don?t mean sitting in the audience; I mean taking center stage.

I have heard it said that stagefright is as real as any fear a person is capable of feeling. I don?t know about that because I?ve never tried skydiving, riding a rocket into space, or waving a red cape in the face of bull. On the other hand, I remember a certain opening night when I got about as scared as I can get.

We had been working for six weeks on a production of Shaw?s Heartbreak House. I was playing the role of Captain Shotover, an eccentric retired sea captain in his 80s. Many things had gone wrong during rehearsals, but the most devastating problem was the antagonistic relationship between the actors and the director, not least because the director continued to change our blocking right up to opening night.

One of the actors most affected was the director?s wife, a tall, talented, pretty woman, who heard the other actors gossiping about her husband week after week. As we approached opening night, she became more and more out of sorts and angry with all of us. Her voice became shrill and her body movements rigid. She began to look and sound like some harridan, domestic Medusa.

I was having my problems with my role and with the director. Being an intuitive actor, I had an instinctive feeling for the comic Captain Shotover, but every time I did something that "worked" for the character, the director asked me how I knew to do that, and then he insisted that I remember what I had done and that I keep it in the part. Then, after having made me angry and self-conscious, he would change the blocking. The next time we rehearsed that section of the play, he would scold me for not having played the part exactly as I had played it before. He even said, "You don?t know what it is you?re actually doing! That?s why you can?t play the part the same way twice." Then he would change the blocking and insist I remember what I had done last night in rehearsal and do it again now. I felt I was being bullied into imitating myself, and I rebelled.

He was himself a mediocre professional actor who knew a few tricks that worked for him onstage and in front of the TV camera, tricks which he repeated endlessly. He was not accustomed to directing. With the exception perhaps of his wife, everyone in the cast hated working with him.

As rehearsal after rehearsal went by without much progress, and with opening night drawing ominously nearer, a degree of hysteria set in. All of the actors were having problems, and this created a kind of "negative synergy": instead of drawing good energy from each other, we pulled ourselves into a downward spiral.

One problem for me occurred in the very first moments of the opening scene of the play: I could not get my first line right. No matter how many times I rehearsed that line, it would not come out in a sensible way. To make matters worse, I had to say that first line to the director?s wife, who was in the role of Captain Shotover?s daughter. Thursday night dress rehearsal was a disaster, and then it was Friday, the night we would open.

I spent Friday as usual working in the Montessori school where I had my day job. One of the things I did was teach the children to recognize animals by looking at safari cards. I remember showing them a picture of the five-foot-tall whooping crane, the cries of which could be heard a mile away. My mind fixated on that image in an effort to block out the realization that the curtain would be going up in a few hours.

I went to the theater that night and got into costume and makeup, feeling all the while that I did not know either my lines or my blocking and that I was, in fact, totally blank.

The curtain went up, the play began, and a moment later the stage manager nudged me onto the stage. As I crossed to deliver my line to my "daughter," I lost contact with physical reality. I could not feel my feet on the stage floor; I perceived a thick glass wall between myself and the audience. The audience seemed made up of tiny people who were hundreds of yards away from me, and I barely knew where I was, or who I was, or what I was trying to do.

My stage daughter seemed to flinch as she looked at me coming toward her. She said her line (my cue) to another actor, and her voice was so shrill it hurt my ears. She then took on the voice and appearance of a whooping crane. I was so stressed I was hallucinating! Then I said my troublesome line to her and, sure enough, it came out total nonsense. That?s it, I said to myself. I?m going home!

On my way off the stage (I was headed toward the parking lot), my soul left my body and went to the top left-hand corner of the building, allowing me to look down on the stage and watch myself, a tiny actor deserting my audience. Then a very strange thing happened.

So far, I was following my blocking without realizing it. There was a sofa to my left that paralleled my path toward the stage door. When I reached the edge of the sofa, my left foot turned just as I had last rehearsed it, and, exactly as I was supposed to, I "saw" a character sitting on the sofa, "recognized" her as the daughter of a long-lost fellow mariner, and my line jumped autonomously out of my mouth: "Why that?s Ellie Dunn!" With that, I was into the play, and I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the evening. Contrary to the expectations of the company, the performance was excellent.

Theater is a wonderful place, but it is not a safe place. In theater, a lot of living can happen in a very short period of time. It is true that stagefright may loose your soul from your body and cause you to fear for your life. On the other hand, it is guaranteed to cure your boredom.

Film Review by Jonathan Knott: Walk the Line

Jonathan KnottHow well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between Heaven and Hell. There is a deep, wide gulf, a chasm, and in that chasm is no place for any man.

---Johnny Cash

2005's Walk the Line, a film by James Mangold (Copland, Girl Interrupted), is the story of the young Johnny Cash, one that few of us know despite the man's long and brilliant career. Most of us are familiar with the strong, booming, roguish yet pious "Man in Black," yet few of us are familiar with where he came from or much of his early life and career. The movie, years in conception and making, was a labor of love for Mangold, and it shows. He even spent seven years working on the script with Johnny and June Carter Cash before they both passed in 2003, their work together obviously lending to the film's veracity. The film focuses on Cash's growth and transformation from a wistful boy picking cotton in Depression-era Arkansas to a musical icon, a man who transcended country, gospel and rock-and-roll to become a performer who was (and stands) unique among his peers. When you consider that his early peers included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison (all of whom toured with him, yet Cash retained top billing during those tours), that's quite an accomplishment. Of course, the story couldn't be told without another member of the tour (June Carter), the one whose strength and sensibility ultimately kept John together through the tough times, no mean feat considering that his continuous internal struggles ALWAYS during that time kept him on the edge of self-destruction.

He spent his boyhood living in the shadow of an older brother he idolized, the "good" son who was highly focused and who had a talent for memorizing Bible passages and who was grooming himself to be a preacher. Young J. R. (as John was first known) always had his head in the clouds. He had a talent for memorizing his mother's book of gospel hymns. He stayed up past his bedtime listening to music on the radio (which sent his chronically cold and unforgiving father into a rage), most notably to the Carter sisters (stars from childhood). Young June Carter's voice was not as accomplished as her other sisters', but she made up for it on the radio with her quirkiness and sense of humor. J. R. preferred her personality to the voices of her sisters, a choice that would play a defining role in his later life.

His brother died in a freak milling accident while J. R. was off fishing, and his father never stopped openly blaming the younger brother, hammering it home until J. R. believed that "the Devil took the wrong son." When J. R. was old enough, he left home with his mother's gospel book under his arm and enlisted in the Air Force for a brief stint in Germany, where he wrote a couple of his own songs, most notably "Folsom Prison Blues," inspired by a film he saw on base chronicling the hardships the prisoners went through. He returned home and married his first sweetheart, moved to Memphis and began a family while trying unsuccessfully to make ends meet as a door-to-door salesman, practicing gospel music in his free time, with two local mechanics playing guitar and bass. Just as his efforts were dissolving around him, he made his first breakthrough under the tutelage of Sam Phillips at Sun Recording Studios which was at that time giving birth to rock and roll. The band became Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, and his career was launched.

The constant touring with the aforementioned acts in those heady first days (where he first met and became smitten with June) took its toll on both John and his marriage, and he eventually became addicted to amphetamines. He then went through a truly dark time: imploding on stage (causing the tour to be cancelled), being arrested for smuggling drugs across the Mexican border back into America (which made huge headlines), followed by his wife and children leaving him. He continued the drug and alcohol abuse, staying for a time in an apartment with the young and struggling Waylon Jennings (played by his son, Shooter Jennings, a nice touch). He made one more of many proposal attempts to June at her family house while still strung-out and was refused. He bought a big new house, moved in, continued the self abuse, and appeared to give up on life. When both his family and June's came over for Thanksgiving, there was another implosion; his family left, and June's family made the difficult decision to stay and force John to quit drugs, to nurse him through withdrawal and get him back on his feet. Their dedication finally pushed him through his uncertainty and self-loathing, and he decided to make his comeback by cutting a live album at Folsom Prison after looking through stacks of fan letters from inmates around the country who identified with his music and used it for inspiration to keep going.

The album became wildly successful, staying on the charts for over a year (even outselling the Beatles) and brought him back into the spotlight. During the tour, he proposed to June on stage (impromptu), and she finally accepted in front of 10,000 people, a fitting conclusion for two people who, because of extenuating circumstances (both were married to other people, had children, and she was unwilling to put up with his self-abuse) had been for 10 years allowed to be intimate with each other only on stage. A unique ending (for the movie) and beginning (in real life) of a unique love story, well told.

The direction, editing, cinematography, and soundtrack are excellent. The attention to detail in all aspects could only be paid by people who took this venture much more seriously than just trying to put out a hit film. The stage scenes were highly realistic (especially the climactic performance at Folsom, where the viewer could practically feel the theater floor rumble with the raucous stomping of the prisoners' feet), due in part to the use of period equipment, instruments, amplification and even period camera equipment to shoot the close-ups (all on location, when possible). The costume designer didn't design the costumes; she combed the country's auctions and thrift stores for actual period clothing and picked the costumes out. The attention to casting was just as detailed.

With the exception of Elvis (rising musician Tyler Hilton, the one weak link, though not a big enough part to ruin anything), the entire cast was superb. Also a rising musician, Shooter Jennings does a good (but also brief) job of playing his own daddy. Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne, Waylon Jennings' real-life godson who grew up around Cash) is excellent and more than cancels out the questionable Elvis.

The always-dependable Robert Patrick comes through again as the hard-ass father of Johnny Cash. Established country and blues singer Shelby Lynne, when singing hymns in the cotton field, lends an extra bit of realism to the long-suffering and decent mother. Ginnifer Goodwin is the perfect wet-blanket first wife, sending shivers up the spine of anyone who's ever been in a bad relationship. Dallas Roberts plays a brief but profoundly important role as Sam Phillips, and does it well. Even the minor characters and extras are good. Of course, the story ultimately revolves around two people.

Mangold had his stars sing and perform their own music in front of real crowds, which took months of training (neither had prior experience; they had to learn to play their instruments for the first time). He also had them lay down vocal tracks over and over in a real recording studio, both to get a better feel for the process and as a tool for working on their voices (he stressed from the beginning that he didn't care so much about accuracy as capturing the feeling). Reese Witherspoon turned in an absolutely flawless performance as June Carter (Cash), and walked away with the best actress Oscar. Her natural sassy, quirky, yet strongwilled and sensible affect was the perfect fit for this role; it didn't hurt that she also has two children (like Carter did at that time) which brought out a natural sense of empathy. Indeed, she almost seems to be playing herself.

The same cannot be said for Joaquin Phoenix, because although he has a similar dark and dangerous, yet charismatic and trustworthy appearance to that of young Cash, there was only one Johnny Cash. Biting off a role that big might have hurt his chances at best actor, but only because many people aren't likely (at least without multiple viewings) to grasp the complexity of his performance (much like Willem Dafoe playing Jesus or ... see, I can't even find other examples). Many are not likely to notice he's not attempting a Rich Little impersonation of Cash; he actually seems to be channeling the man, which is ultimately much more complex, impressive and satisfying. It is exactly what the director had in mind when casting him, and it should be noted that when the real Cash heard Phoenix was going to be playing him, he gave his immediate approval, citing that he had found the young actor compelling from having seen him in Gladiator.

The culmination of this talent, hard work, attention to detail, and shared passion by all involved has brought forth the recounting of a truly great story into a world that sorely needs it: the story of a man so original and powerful he couldn't hold himself together alone; when he looked into the chasm and his vision broke him, it took the one woman in his world strong enough to pick up the pieces for him to assume the importance of what he had become: The Man in Black, a sort of modern-day Christ for the common man, taking upon himself the sins of others as well as his own to bring them all to light in the power of song.

Copyright ?2006 Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved
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