Am I a Hammer, or Just a Tool? // by Donna Lynne Champlin
One brave woman faces an actor’s greatest nightmare: the student matinee.
“Art is not a mirror held up to society but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Powerful stuff, right? As a young struggling actor, knowing deep down I could be a righteous hammer just waiting for the opportunity to bash the absolute shit out of society into something better kept me from quitting the business for decades. I even used this quote to successfully convince my college boyfriend not to quit the Carnegie Mellon University Drama Program when he was under the delusion that acting was purely a selfish profession. He is now in advertising.
It’s a lot of pressure though, this quote. It implies that we artists somehow know more than “civilians” do. That our talents and our weird, unique, sometimes psychotic-views of the world endow us with a Thor-like authority to mold the unenlightened masses. You know. With our art and stuff. I imagine it goes something like this:
“Congratulations! You are the correct shape now that I’ve sung my second-act patter song that almost got cut from the show this morning for not forwarding the plot enough. You’re welcome, Society.”
The truth is actors seldom feel like hammers. I’ve always felt more like vegetables at a Shoney’s buffet, if I’m honest. Producers want yummy icing. They want delicious fat. They want you for the love of GOD to get in your LIGHT and just SAY the goddam LINE ALREADY or they will find someone else who WILL! They certainly don’t want a healthy plate of broccoli no matter how much cheese sauce you’ve poured all over yourself. And of course, we actors happily take those empty calorie jobs because ya’ know, rent. And health insurance. And the humiliating way our accountant takes off their glasses, rubs the bridge of their nose and says, “I’m so sorry” every year at tax time. Because everyone knows real hammers aren’t in it for the money. That’s why we get paid with a wet napkin and a bag of marshmallows while murmuring “this is the way.”
But if you don’t quit, one day your most talented director/playwright friend from childhood might just rebuild the Bat Signal, ask you to join the Justice League of Hammers and holy shit, society get ready to be reshaped AF because it’s Transport Group’s 2008 production of Irwin Shaw’s Bury The Dead directed by Joe Calarco!
In all seriousness though, Bury the Dead kicked ass. It was an amazing one-act exploration of the politics, business, and casualties of war where six extraordinarily talented actors played fallen soldiers who begged not to be buried, and one actress (me) played everyone else. While the seven of us were a true ensemble, Joe’s decision to make my track the spine of the play meant that I never left the stage. Morphing from character to character from beginning to end was thrilling and impossible and terrifying and magical and exhausting and unlike anything I had ever done in my entire career and I loved every second of it.
Every show began with a half-hour monologue Joe had written for my character. While a “curtain raiser” is not uncommon, making me break the fourth wall at the top of the show was a super ballsy move as audiences rarely respond positively to fully-lit, direct-eye-contact for two minutes, let alone thirty. Easily the hardest part of my show, I got used to people avoiding my eyes and shifting uncomfortably through most of it. Some nights it took me the whole monologue to lasso them in, but I never took it personally. Honestly, the whole night was like trying to do brain surgery on a trapeze over a volcano, but as long as our audiences kept playing ball, it was worth it.
And then halfway through the run we were told we were going to have a student matinee.
And I lost my mind.
“No way. Absolutely not.” I huffed to our artistic director Jack Cummings III. “Kids are the honey-badgers of audiences. They. Do. Not. Give. A. Shit. The focus issues, the “ooooooooooh”-ing when characters kiss, the junior heckler who always gets bigger laughs than I do. The show is too hard. The subject matter is too mature. It’ll be a constant battle. They’ll get bored. They’re not worthy of our hammers with their cell phones and their teen lingo and aaaaaaaarrrgghhhh HULK SMASH!!!
Narrator: He refused to cancel.
Cut to me at the student matinee, rolling my eyes in the wings as the ushers collected a handful of cell phones (my one caveat). Clearly there were more phones out there and not in silent mode. I scanned the house, trying to guess who our unofficial Shecky Greene of the evening would be. As the lights went down and a frazzled teacher begged for “good behavior,” I prepared for war.
I stepped out, looked up and— — —my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember my first line because every single kid in that audience was looking straight into my eyeballs. Those bastards hit me with a wall of focus so strong, it nearly knocked me down. Five seconds in and these kids sent me to the white room. Ohhhhhhhh, I don’t think so.
I snapped out of it and began my monologue, fully convinced that in five minutes I’d be herding cats, as per usual. But ten, fifteen, twenty minutes later, they were still with me. Laughing in all the right places. Eyes still locked on mine. Leaning forward. Eager to see what came next. What the actual fuck was happening? It should not be this easy. It’s never this easy. They’re probably just enjoying the attention and when the house lights go down, we’ll lose them.
As the stage lit up and the audience went dark, their energy just got stronger. It literally hummed. I began to enjoy watching every actor’s shocked face as they got walloped by a tank of electrical energy on their first entrances. As the story moved deeper into a darker place, the ley lines over the footlights tightened so much you could have bounced a friggin’ cannonball off them. It was nuts.
Two-thirds of the way through I stopped thinking so damned much and just allowed myself to surf the emotional waves going back and forth. I must have made 30 new epiphanies about the play once I stopped fighting it. Ten minutes to the end where I usually had to reach down into my reserves just to muscle through to the end, I felt…different. Safer. Lighter. Freer. Better. Almost like I’d been recharged—no, reshaped into a HOLY CHRIST THESE KIDS JUST HAMMERED ME WITHOUT MY KNOWING AND I AM INDEBTED TO THEM FOREVER!
Because it was in that moment that I learned one of the most important lessons of my life.
I wasn’t a righteous hammer.
I wasn’t even a nail.
I was an asshole.
I had allowed myself to dismiss an entire generation as unworthy of my art because for years I had lived by a Brecht quote I had willingly misunderstood by replacing the word “art” with “artist.” My entire code of conduct was a lie and I was an insecure, arrogant asshole.
By the end of the show I was completely humbled. By their applause. By Irwin Shaw. By my cast mates and my director. By my own idiocy. And I was 100% okay with that. And if I ever start to get all Hammer Time on a gig, I remind myself of that moment. And good news for me, the pressure’s off, right? Ball’s in your court. It always has been. Because artists don’t reshape anything. Neither does art. The true hammers are those who witness art in its many shapes and forms and reshape society by choosing first, to reshape themselves within it. Whether they’re looking at that art from the inside, or the outside.
As for me? I’ve learned that quotes are cool and all, but at the end of the day it’s just best to not be a snobby dick. Especially about art. And as God is my witness, I will never presume to judge who is allowed to experience any art in any form, ever again.
You’re welcome, Society.