Earnestness or Artifice? III

I’d like to revisit a topic touched on here and here: artistic intention and production. Below is the first half of a two-parter within this series. Two items tie these posts together:
– how each artist claims to feel about his craft.
– neither seem sincere.

This post, and a portion of the next, deal with practicing and rehearsing. As for rehearsing, I’ve been in groups at both edges of the spectrum: some ensembles rehearse meticulously and incessantly (though the two aren’t mutually exclusive), and others almost never rehearse for various legitimate reasons, instead relying on spontaneity and the excitement of the being in the moment while buoyed by foundation of shared history and skill. Sometimes, though, stating that one wants to forgo rehearsing in order to be “in the moment” isn’t entirely honest. Perhaps one just prefers not losing a Tuesday evening to a rehearsal. The same can be said of solitary practice. We musicians have all been there at one point or another. And I’ve definitely played in groups with people who’ve just said something to the effect of, “Eh, we’ll be good. I’d rather us sound too new than too rehearsed.” Of course, that can be performer-speak for, “I want to go home.” For an example of being disingenuous in this arena, let’s turn to Kelsey Grammer.

Television’s Dr. Frasier Crane, M.D. & Ph.D.? Yes, that one; but specifically the Kelsey Grammer of Frasier‘s tenure, not that of CheersBoss, etc. (And I’m only discussing him as a performer. He’s another in a long line of artists whose work must be assessed separately from their personal lives.) While he’s not a musical figure – at least not as much as Dr. Crane – he’s a performer and offers a particularly illuminating example that translates well to musical rehearsal and attitudes.

Frasier is one of my all-time favorite shows. (If you’re curious, it’s behind Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Ally McBeal, and alongside John From Cincinnati and Fringe.) I’ve long been a fan, having watched the original run after Cheers. This isn’t a post to champion the show, but suffice it to say that it’s funny and features a strong cast. And, for the classical music-inclined, particularly in opera, the various references and allusions are quite entertaining. The characters portrayed by Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, and the relationship between to the two, are one of the program’s crown jewels.

As I’m wont to do when interested in a show or movie, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in the past reading about the actors behind the characters, especially concerning their other credits, training (if applicable), and performance methods/quirks. I’ve long been fascinated with Grammer’s seemingly unique – in the truest sense of the word – acting method: “requisite disrespect.” He’s discussed it in some interviews (here and here), notably during Frasier‘s run, and in an autobiography. In his own words, “If you know what your lines are and you’re over-rehearsed, you’re not thinking anymore; you’re an automaton…So, I do myself a favor. I raise the stakes by making it real borderline that I know that I’m going to say. So, there’s a slightly wildeyed kind of energy when we tape [an episode].”

My initial reaction when I first read that was “Wow.” For me, it put a number of my favorite scenes and deliveries in an entirely new perspective. And for the most part I was quite impressed. However, moving on to a more objective assessment, I then realized the extent that which that really freed up his schedule. (This is rightly mentioned in the LA Times article.) While the rest of the cast and crew slogs through each week of finalizing, blocking, and rehearsing a new episode, Grammer need only appear on the night of the taping, “learning” each scene’s lines right before filming. On the one hand, it must’ve sucked to have been a guest star or co-star. On the other, more power to him. He acted well and managed to earn an eight-figure salary without rehearsing. While his co-stars somewhat endorse his methodology by talking about the on-set excitement and amazement, it’s worth noting that many of the co-stars seem to have close off-screen relationships with one another that often don’t include Grammer.

So why am I going on and on about this? Well, for starters, it’s my blog and I love Frasier. More importantly, though, the fact that Grammer burns calories actively describing his “method” of requisite disrespect is rather impressive in a sense. Instead of avoiding the topic, fibbing about rehearsing more, or just saying that he’s the star and doesn’t need to rehearse, he instead opts to label and therefore legitimize his tactics. And yet, if you’re to find another star that subscribes to the same approach using the same jargon, good luck. He’s the only one, so far as I can tell. What’s more, his methodology’s glory days coincided perfectly with his starring in his own television show, dominating prime time television for years. He doesn’t seem to reference using it when playing the same character on Cheers. And I don’t think he did it for Boss (another convincing portrayal, if I may say so). In fact, in a 2009 interview on the Adam Carolla Podcast, Dave Koechner glowingly described Grammer’s professionalism and preparedness when shooting a TV pilot (one that would’ve ostensibly put Grammer back on the map after Frasier‘s end). Curious, eh? Look, I’m a fan and I’ll watch anything he’s in, but a little less hot air is welcome.

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