The gentle tapping of a finger on a desk seems to echo in the small windowless office in the basement of the Fox Fine Arts Building. From the finger, up the arm, a path an be traced to the forehead of Actor/Director Carlos Saldana, whose eyebrows are raised and arched, paired with his pursed lips in a contemplative fashion.
The tapping stops.
I genuinely have no idea what a director does.
It is not flippant. It is not ironic, self-deprecating, or even remotely whimsical. It is a candid paraphrasing of the legendary Constantin Stanislavsky. It is a canny admission of a truth that is residing in Saldana’s heart at this moment.
Theater stands as the ultimate in paradoxical pursuits. It is spontaneous, yet rehearsed. It is real, yet simulated. It is designed to be repeatable and still utterly unique to the given moment. The actors are themselves, but in circumstances that define them as characters. It is these paradoxes. These simultaneous truths that combine to create the ultimate truth in theater, and all art in general: The deeply personal is truly universal.
I have to admit that instinctually I was not pulled towards this script. It was about the 5th read that I found something in it that I could attach myself to. I felt drawn to the fact that the play is about a push towards change and the static existence [that humans are perpetually living] out of fear of change. I find it difficult to deal with on a large scale, especially globally, but it is certainly something that I recognized in myself.
It is nearly impossible to remove the play from the context of the playwright’s own history and Saldana himself made such a connection when describing the timeless quality that keeps Menagerie so compelling.
Rose [Tennessee’s schizophrenic older sister who was subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy in 1943 is the inspiration for the character of Laura in Williams’ 1941 short story Portrait of a Girl in Glass as well as 1944’s The Glass Menagerie] collected glass animals. These animals came to represent these fragile ties we break when trying to fulfill ourselves.
These fragile bonds are explored in depth by the author. In his notes to the play, the playwright said that Laura ''is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.'' Saldana was able to delve these truths when asked to explain what the play means to him.
Two words: Abandonment and forgiveness. Within my own personal experience I have been on both ends of abandonment. I have abandoned and been abandoned. The same is true in regards to forgiveness. I have had to be forgiven and I've had to forgive. I like the idea of a dual pronged metaphor or theme but I guess ultimately the play comes down to being about forgiveness because abandonment is an inevitable part of life. It happens all the time. We inflict it on each other, not always with cruel intentions but it is out of this abandonment that we learn to forgive and move on. This is how we survive as humans.
Abandonment may be an ever-present component, but leaning forward onto his desk and painting a picture with his hands Saldana explains the cause of this human malady.
I think it all boils down to self-benefit. There is always something to be gained even by our most altruistic of actions. Even when people do have altruistic moments like donating money or helping people out, ultimately they feel better about themselves as a result. It is this innate drive for self-benefit that causes abandonment. Regardless of the subtlety of our actions, like a break up for example, trauma occurs requiring forgiveness in order to survive.
Mr. Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams, March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983), would most certainly agree. In his Memoirs, he said: ''You couldn't ask for a sweeter or more benign monarch than Rose, or, in my opinion, one that's more of a lady. After all, high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.''
With his mind seemingly ordered and his tension somewhat eased he is now able to explain why he has ended up directing this particular play.
Audience response cannot be predicted. I have come to believe this as part of my constant learning process. You cannot target an audience regardless of race, et cetera. I pick scripts that touch me, because if I personally know it, then, hopefully, it can be communicated universally. I don’t care about the content in terms of religion, politics, philosophy, or sociology. I am affected by things at an emotional level. It’s similar to the ancient Greeks attending the City Dionysia. I am in search for a catharsis. The whole thing is a process of discovery. A play requires an exploration of self. It is through this exploration that we can move beyond preaching and find a common thread. That’s what I want in a play.
Theory set aside; the topic of the practical process of mounting a production becomes the director’s focus.
The director is not a teacher. You have to work with what’s in front of you. Especially because actors are different people with different ways of working so I’ll communicate with physical gesture, academic explanations or maybe an action to play. I want to nurture creativity, find and highlight their strengths as performers while staying true to the arc of the scene and the play as a whole. In the 10th or 15th read is where I get my “A-has!” These give me my critical moments. [Critical moments in a play are] like music. You can mishit a note here or there but there are necessary notes. If I screw up these three notes, the entire piece falls apart. Actors should only concern themselves with their given moment. The director’s job is to lead them to these moments. These moments define my boundaries and my boundaries start at the climax and grow out. It is my job to make sure we hit those moments within these boundaries and my definitive boundary is finding conflict. Style, technique, et cetera doesn’t matter without conflict.
In order to bring this vision to the forefront Saldana has cast his show with the local talent he feels capable of making it work. His voice lowers and he leans in as if speaking about his children.
All I’m looking for in an audition is potential. I am looking for a moment as opposed to an overall reading. Enthusiasm and work ethic are also vitally important. Most actors are, unfortunately, lazy. The Russians have a word for becoming “sick with the role.” The part becomes all consuming. That’s a powerful thing…I don’t mind working with inexperience because I only want them to bring themselves. For example: In the Gentleman Caller scene Avery (Segapelli) and Joe (Paladino) provide both a challenge and a blessing. They both took to the work quickly. Without a common background I have had to adapt my language and metaphors to them individually. They take the note and apply it. They are growing, adapting, and it’s very encouraging. As a result of their rawness we’ve done some acting exercises that have benefited us because looking for the truth in the present opens the doors for creativity and possibility. As beginners it is my challenge to help them find their objective and to help them search for conflict. These are the universalities of theater that must be applied by me [to their rehearsal process.] The ensemble dynamic is vital. It’s the very air in the room. The ensemble must have an understanding, a collective homogenization that lives within them. If you don’t have that then the best you can hope for is a collection of moments instead of a show. I want truth. I admire people who quest for truth. That’s why I do theater. The whole thing is about growth. It is for me at least. Intellectually, mentally, spiritually…Deepak Chopra says: “Embrace uncertainty.” I think that says it all. Trust yourself. Quest for truth. Keep yourself open to possibilities. Embrace uncertainty.”
Carlos Saldana is an Associate Professor in the University of Texas-El Paso’s Department of Theatre and Dance. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting from California State University-Fullerton. Carlos currently teaches Voice and Movement for the Actor and Acting, and serves as a faculty advisor for El Teatro Desnudo and the University Players Association, and is also one of the program’s main recruitment personnel.
The UTEP Department of Theatre & Dance presents Tennessee Williams' classic play The Glass Menagerie that takes audiences on an emotional journey where colorful characters struggle to survive by desperately drowning themselves in worlds of memory, fantasy, and illusion.
UTEP Fox Fine Arts Wise Family Theatre (2nd floor)
Oct. 9-10, 15-17 at 8 p.m.
Oct. 11 & 18 at 2:30 p.m.
Admission: $12 adults; $10 UTEP faculty/staff, seniors, military, groups 10+, non-UTEP students; $9 UTEP students, children age 4-12