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Stage Notes: how to act like a painter

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Painter Donna Stoneman and actor Larry Novikoff stand facing a canvas in Donna's apartment. Larry stands poised, brush in hand, as if he's about to start painting; Donna stands beside him, moving her hands as she talks. "Paint, stop, think, go in and paint quickly," she says, explaining that acrylic paint dries fast and if he takes too long, the colors won't blend. "Color is tricky," she tells him. "It takes years to learn about color; it can do anything and everything." She teaches him about the different paints artists use and how they are chosen for vibrancy of colors, longevity, and texture. Then she shows him how to use different arm movements to achieve different strokes, telling him he should even throw the paint from time to time. "Like this?" asks Larry, splattering the canvas. Donna nods. "Good, good."

During this particular session, Larry uses water on his brush and mimics the strokes of a completed painting that Donna has done. But for his role as a painter in the play A Checkered Carrot, he'll use real paint -- on stage -- to complete one of Donna's half-finished paintings.

Having an actor actually complete an artist's painting on stage was playwright Kathleen Lombardo's idea all along. A Checkered Carrot is about an idealistic young painter who is trying to find a gallery to show his work. He meets one dealer who promises a show at some future date if the painter will do a performance piece promoting the gallery. Although the painter despises performance art, he sees it as a way to get recognition and so agrees.

Lombardo's interest in painting goes back to childhood, she says; she's always known painters. Her favorite painter anecdote is that Chagall once wrote her a letter, responding to a poem she had written about him and sent to him. She has represented painter friends to art galleries on and off for about 15 years. (She's been writing plays for 10 years.) About two months ago, she opened her own art gallery, the Wellington Art Market, in what used to be her living room. Coincidentally, it opened the same week A Checkered Carrot was accepted for production by the Gallery Theatre Company.

Donna Stoneman, a graduate student in Columbia College's interdisciplinary arts education program, will have three paintings in the show: two finished, and a third for Novikoff to complete during the run. All three will be auctioned off to audience members, probably the night of the last show. Novikoff will also be painting on stage a piece he'll design himself, as sort of a test of what he's learned. Another Chicago artist, Beth Turk, is making sculptures that will appear in the onstage art gallery.

When Stoneman started the project, she realized she'd have to paint in a style that was more the character's than hers . Lombardo had conceived of her painter as a neo-expressionist. Stoneman had been doing what she considered neo-expressionist painting at Columbia, but Lombardo thought the colors too delicate, and Stoneman thought the shapes too lifeless. "I tried to get more energy, more immediacy into the paintings," she says. "You don't want a painting like this to look at all planned, because it has to come strictly from the gut." She turned to brighter colors and less contrived-looking brush strokes. It took her only one day to complete the first two paintings.

Stoneman also had to keep in mind that these were stage paintings, not gallery paintings. Because they are meant to be seen from a distance, she used stronger lines than she was accustomed to, and to get vibrant colors she had to use paints with less longevity. (She predicts people will buy the paintings for the gut reactions they have to them and to the play, not as serious investments.)

By the time the play opens, she and Novikoff will have had only a few sessions together at the canvas. That's fine, Stoneman says, because she's not teaching him to paint: "I'm teaching him to act like a painter." Novikoff agrees; he claim that as a painter, he's barely at the level of a beginner. "It's harder than I ever thought it was," he says. "I have a great deal of respect now for painters." In addition to the sessions with Stoneman, he has read some books on painting that she's recommended, and he's been painting for about an hour every night. At a rehearsal one afternoon, he painted while reciting lines, painted while discussing the scene, and painted during breaks.

Novikoff says this kind of role preparation is unusual for him, but not unheard of. "This is a part where a character actually has a physical thing he has to do," he says. "That isn't called for much." But when it is, learning special skills is a normal part of his preparation. He compares it to learning to juggle or do gymnastics: "It's important to look authentic, not just like some actor going through the motions." He thinks painting on stage actually will help, not hurt, his concentration. It's such a specific, personal act, he says, that it will help him focus on his character.

Working together on A Checkered Carrot has revealed to Stoneman, Lombardo, and Novikoff some of the characteristics their different art forms share. "Theater is a collaborative art," says Stoneman, "but all arts are related."

For instance, both Novikoff and Stoneman say it is important -- and difficult -- for any artist to stay spontaneous and fresh with his craft. "Ultimately, it gets down to instinct," says Novikoff. Lombardo adds that it is the work of art that makes demands of the artist, not the artist who controls the piece. "Painters and writers find that after a certain point, the piece takes on a certain character of its own," she says. An actor must react to cues as they are spoken, which may be different each night, rather than blindly reciting lines. Similarly, a painter has to put that dab of red paint exactly where the painting demands, not just wherever she wants.

Novikoff finds another parallel in the roles of art dealers and theatrical agents. They are middlemen, he says, who determine which artists get recognition. Both actors and painters are frustrated by having to rely on these middlemen, Novikoff says, and that's exactly the point Lombardo is trying to make in the play. "The controls are in the hands of just a few people," she says. "The public doesn't have that much to say about what ends up on gallery walls." Instead, gallerygoers must rely on artists' reputations, which are determined by art dealers.

Lombardo hopes her play will teach theatergoers what painters go through to get their work shown. "We're all just dealing with images and attitudes," she says. Usually even the painter gets caught up in the sell, and sometimes merchandising wins out over merit. "It doesn't matter what the substance is," she says. "The rep is everything in our society."

Previews of A Checkered Carrot start tonight, Friday, at the Amethyst Tavern, 6230 N. Broadway. A reception will follow the opening night performance on Tuesday, May 19. Tickets run $5-$9; reservations and information are available at 338-4187. For a detailed performance schedule, see the Reader's Guide to Theater in section two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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