I had never really known Joaquin Pedro Valdes personally until I had him read for the part of Ken in John Logan’s “Red.” He was the last in a line of would-be Kens, each of whom was lacking in some way. Sure, I had seen him as a child actor in Trumpets’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” but I had never really said anything to him before beyond a postperformance “Congrats!”
In near despair, I asked my fellow directors for names of young men who could read for the part, and more than one of them dropped his name. I cast him on the spot after he read because his reading was, well, impeccable.
My only reservation about him was that he positively dwarfed me physically. My memories of him up to then had been that of a precocious, button-eyed preadolescent. Looking at him after that reading, I remember thinking to myself, “When did this guy get so … big?!”
I was worried that the whole theme of generational chasms between the characters would get lost in the disparity of our physical statures. Then again, it’s not hard to dwarf me, anyway. I have a number of nephews who’ve shot up past me, and succeeding generations, more often than not, take a step up the evolutionary ladder in all ways, including physiologically.
So, since his reading was perfect—intelligent, measured, instinctive—Joaquin was hired as Ken.
In the course of our rehearsals, Joaquin and I explored the relationship between our characters, which, as it turned out, perfectly mirrored our own relationship as artists.
As is always the case, the director tends to start the process as mentor to his cast, as surrogate parent even. This relationship is perfectly echoed in “Red,” where I play Rothko, a titan of an artist who reluctantly takes on the role of mentor to his newly hired assistant Ken, himself an aspiring artist.
The dynamic between the two characters begins to take on paternal undertones as the play progresses, with Rothko behaving like an archetypal strict, unbending father, of the late 1950s in which the play is set, and Ken his initially reticent, later rebellious, offspring.
In the early part of our process, Joaquin would take direction from me unquestioningly, trusting that my grasp of the material was unassailable. I would correct him breezily and solicit his opinions almost patronizingly.
Like a smug parent, I even saw something of my young self in him. The enthusiasm! The passion! The opinionatedness! The unflinching focus! I thought I saw me, even if I had to reluctantly admit to myself that he was probably a great improvement over what I ever was as an artist.
But the rehearsal process is one in which the hidden truths behind the written words manifest themselves to all who studiously apply themselves, and pretty soon, the playing field is evened out. Teachers become students, parents, offspring, and all who embrace the rigor of the process become equal owners of the material. As in life, where children grow up and outgrow their forebears, actors, too, assert their independence and their artistic expression when they have gained the confidence to do so.
At one rehearsal, after I had spent a sleepless night memorizing my lines, I practically crawled through scene 1, pretty pleased with myself, nevertheless, for having made it through to the end. Joaquin looked at me and told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was not a good scene.
I stammered my way through a series of lame defenses, chief of which was “I’ve not had sleep, at least give me credit for knowing my lines,” followed by, “I was trying something new…”
But he was undeniably right.
If your scene partner can’t forgive you and you’re paying him (I was, after all, producer, too), what about the audience that’s paying you? There’s just no space in the souvenir program for excuses. Suddenly, the dynamic of our relationship was profoundly altered, and I looked at him with newfound respect. I saw him as nothing less than an equal.
It takes something humbling like that to remind you that your ego is no match for the task at hand, the clarification of truths on a stage cluttered with scenery and props.
And so, here was a shining example of art reflecting life. From then on, as a team of equals, we collaborated to crystallize onstage the real star of the show, John Logan’s excellent script.
Although I still felt like a father to Joaquin (who’ll probably laugh this off), I realized I had turned into the kind who, accustomed to dispensing business advice to his son in the past, now seeks his son’s guidance in a new world crowded with unfamiliar business models.
“Red” will go onstage from Aug. 23 to 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Teatrino, Greenhills for the benefit of the UP School of Economics Alumni Association and the UPSE Class of ’88. For tickets, contact tel. 8919999 or 0917-8170463; or through facebook.com/TheNecessaryTheatre. Follow us on Twitter @AAITNT.