Finding Your Best Angle (Give this to an actor) by Mary Rose Betten. McKinleyville, CA: Fithian Press, 2009. $12.00.
Reviewed by Moira Richards
I’m a great fan of live theatre and have, for many years, been active in local amateur productions—not on stage (I got cured of that after one tiny bit part), but behind the scenes, helping create magick with light and sound effects. That way I got to see and appreciate the actors’ performances night after night and admire their craft. Mary Rose Betten is a retired stage, TV and film actress and Finding Your Best Angle, her third book of poetry, tells what it’s like, what it really takes from a person, to be one of the ones in the spotlight.
The poetry is presented in five titled sections, each focussing on a different aspect of this very demanding career. The first poems, in the section, And, Action! conjure glimpses of this experience—from the endless, hopeful, heartbreaking, rounds of open casting calls…
After sending their beef cattle to market my
Midwest parents had money for a surprise visit
to their struggling Manhattan actress.
saw beyond pretended indifference,
and prayed I wouldn’t be slaughtered.
… to getting one’s mind right for “Becoming the Character”…
As salt dissolves in boiling water,
I slip into her aged skin.
I assure myself
I have her! Instinctively
knowing I am wrong.
I must wrinkle my soul
to fit her loss.
The second section, entitled, Five Minutes, Please! portrays various aspects of the craft of acting. Mary Rose makes it very clear to me that this is not something I could easily do, no matter how bright the lime light:
You don’t know lonely
till you sit at your makeup mirror
facing your invisible cast
You will speak for all these people
waiting in your face.
“The One-Person Show”
In another poem, she conveys the strange anonymity a successful actor can nevertheless attain. Here, the whole of “Character Actors”:
are born in a trunk between changes.
When they are young, they look old.
in their purses,
eyebrows in pockets,
lifts in each palm.
We know their faces but not their names.
The story’s glue, they appear as:
Man with red wheelbarrow
Salesclerk wrapping bomb
Neighbor with three-bean salad
Homeless man on park bench
Woman chasing red wheelbarrow
At retirement they qualify without disguise.
Minus a character, they look too young.
Perusing their obituary, we wonder
where we’ve seen them before.
But, as in all of life, there is some fun, too, and the poetry in Dramatic Monologues is full of this fun. There is a deliciously wicked parody of Brown’s old Duchess poem in which the narrator hints at the fate of “My Last Gardener” who,
forgot I enjoy sitting in silence on my balcony,
caressing the stuffed swan’s head atop my cane,
safe from the flocked wallpaper
of the sitting room below.
A crow built a nest once, right where I crave
silence. Now, on my marble table, he only
listens; head cocked, wings taut
directly beneath the photo of my last gardener.
Another poem reads like an entire drawing room farce as the reader gets some inkling of practice involved in the production of even the easiest and most relaxed-looking parts of a show. Look what happens as the long-suffering director attempts to corral “Cast and Star Rehearse Curtain Call”:
Ladies and gentlemen, places. Backstage places!
Left and right people get backstage.
Everybody back there?
Cue Emile. Are you hearing me? Aware of Emile.
Settle people. Aware of our star. Save space in the middle for
In places backstage left and right?
First couple running centre from left.
A little faster. Smiling. Happy time.
Next couple running centre from right.
Look alive people. Happy people running.
And grab hands, and bow. Next.
This is show business! Keep coming. Energy.
Smile please, look pleased. And… bow!
And now our star. Anticipation please. anticipate our star.
Look attentive people.
Somebody cue Emile.
Well where is he?
There’s our Darling. No, center, Emile, run center. See that
empty space center stage?
Wide space waiting for Emile.
Take their hands Emile.
No TAKE Emile, take the hands of the people on your left
All eyes on Emile
And up. Smiling at Emile.
Everyone up. And Emile comes back up.
And down again. Emile, down. Not that far.
Somebody pick up Emile.
Exit Darling, go!
Turn upstage Emile; make way for him people. let him see
there is a path.
Emile darling would coffee help?
Get Emile some coffee.
Make it black.
Sit down Emile.
Somebody get Emile a chair.
cancel that, he wants the floor.
The last poems in Finding Your Best Angle cover aspects of retirement and reflections on life on the boards or in front of the cameras—often also, with wry humour as in “Dear Aged Actress”…
Repeat after me
“I’m retired. Okay? Retired!”
Stop making entrances
at the supermarket
or Harry’s Shoe Repair
don’t pause gloved hand on knob
and toss back graying hair.
… or with a tinge of regret as in this piece written to the late Lynn Redgrave, “Watching Lynn Redgrave Perform Her One-Woman Show, Shakespeare For My Father”:
Your knighted Hamlet didn’t live
to see your mature performance, nor my father mine,
but if they had, we both know
they wouldn’t have understood us any better.