John Rainey, An Artist in Control
By Solveig Christensen
The first snow makes the world white and hush outside the Odyssey Theatre.
Inside, the spotlights warm the actors as they wait for the director to
arrive. They stretch. They vocalize. They make small talk. One goes for
a hammer and secures some boards that make up the sparse set. One voice
raises and announces, "It is too much, it isn't amusing anymore, it
was supposed to be fun, wasn't it?" "But we are having fun,"
tries another voice, as the first goes on, "and if he wants to sit
there and talk late for hours, I am not going to do it."
The director, John Rainey, arrives and the actors instantly start running
lines and going over their blocking. John calls the rehearsal to order and
the actors focus on John. Suddenly, the scattered energy in the room takes
a specific form. He pauses, and then he tells them what he wants to accomplish
in this rehearsal. After a few minutes, he stops them to give advice. They
move into the scene again. Soon, John stops them again with more suggestions.
And so it goes on for awhile. One scene wasn't coming together. Suddenly
he sits deeply involved in his thoughts, the actors patiently waiting in
their scene postures, the times passes. Then John says, "I want you
to do it recitative. Sing it, like in a opera."
John jumps on to the stage, demonstrating how to do it."Sing it?"
says the actor, who earlier had been complaining and who has been a little
reluctant up till now. Then he grabs the idea with a smile, and he grows
more animated, changed, free of any limitations which might have been holding
him back. The actress in the scene with him has a hard time time keeping
herself from laughing out loud. They do the scene boldly a couple of times.
Then John says, "Good! Now do it without the singing but with the same
intention, the same energy." The actor succeeds in acting freely now,
without the limitations. They continue the work for hours, John interrupting
frequently with kindly, supportive suggestions, the actors getting more
accomplished all the time.
After finishing for tonight, John takes time to talk about his work. "I
knew I had to work with this actor, to make him loosen up, to make him secure,
to support him. I knew that he likes to sing. I have this whole picture
of the play in my head, and I have to communicate that picture to the actors,
in a way that stimulates their creativity so that they become an integral
part of its manifestation. Compromises must be made as a result, but often
for the better. I drive them to understand the specific impulses, intentions
and conditioned responses in their characters--how they lie to themselves
and others--so the audience can identify, relate and respond with amusement
and/or catharsis. Our whole job is to entertain the audience--keep their
attention. That is done through specificity and focus."
A month later in Odyssey Stage, the play has been on for the last time after
a successful run of performances, and the director has been present each
time to support the actors. People are greeting him, telling him they liked
it."But the applause is really the icing on the cake for me,"
John says.John Rainey, director, actor, screenwriter, musician, composer,
an artist with many tools.
It all started years back in California, when John as a young student wanted
to take a short cut on campus. He passed an open door to the student theater,
stopped to look at the audition going on, and was talked into trying out
himself. He got on the stage, got a script put in his hand and was told
to the role of Jason.
Much to John's surprise he got the leading role as Jason in Medea,
and hurried to get some acting classes. He kept on getting the leading roles
at the student theater, and worked later on in Shakespeare repertory companies
and summer stock companies in California and New York.
John liked being an actor, liked to work with the characters, as a way of
learning about life, about himself. But sometimes he would be frustrated,
following directions he felt didn't work and wasn't able to do anything
about it. One day sitting in a restaurant, a friend pointed out a famous
directing teacher from Cornell sitting at the next table. John introduced
himself, created a spontaneous interview and was asked to audition for the
Master of Fine Arts program as a director candidate . John was out of money,
but a rather well known TV-actor gave him airfare. John auditioned at Cornell
and out of 1,100 competitors, received the one available full fellowship
to participate in its Master of Fine Arts program as a director.
John attended Cornell 1981-84, and has been directing ever since. He likes
it because, "being a director I have more control of the whole project,
and I do ultimately like to have control of the whole project. Then I can
more easily get these ideas and pictures out of my head and share them."
Maybe that is why he likes to write screenplays too. He started in 1989,
when he decided to write one over the Thanksgiving weekend. He gave himself
the goal of writing 30 pages a day. In four days he had written an entire
screenplay. This first one has just sold, changing John's career course.
He now has several screenplays on the market and plans to continue writing
for a living. This will give him time to play the piano, which is what he
likes most of all.
John came to Fairfield August 1994, wishing to live in a community of spiritual
people. He created a workshop for screenwriters, stressing the unfolding
of a story through strong character development--that a screenplay is really
about the emotional journey one character takes and is pictured outwardly
through a succession of events. The workshop has temporarily been put on
a hold, while John goes to L. A. to do some rewriting on his first screenplay,
Heart Like a Lion.
John likes teaching. "I learn so much! he says. Whenever I want to
learn something I set myself up as a teacher of it. I'm forced to break
the subject down into specific bits the students can easily absorb, then
I learn much more as a result." It says it's inspiring and it brings
out his creativity to facilitate the creative unfoldment of others.
He became the director of "Luv" by request of the president of
the Odyssey Theatre, and he also created the set and composed the music.When
you meet him, sitting there in yoga position on the sofa in his new apartment,
not yet finished moving in, slim, self confident and intense, talking about
his career, his 150 different jobs and homes, his nine different universities,
you wouldn't in sixth grade he went on stage for the first time to sing
a song without music. But he did it, the whole damned song-all 99 verses.
Something inside him forced him up there, he says, pointing to his heart.
John grew up with a frightening father, and a mother who provided for his
survival needs but was emotionally unavailable. Nor was there any closeness
between his younger brother and two sisters.
It was his father John seemed to be closest to, even though he was frightened
of him. He never knew how he would react. He could be brilliant and instructive
when he was sober, but unpredictable when he was drinking. John talks a
lot about his father, about his father's relationship with nature. "He
got along with Mother Nature a good deal better than with people."
And he talks about how his father taught him poetry from the time he was
Once his father was showing eight-year old John (who would have preferred
to play baseball with his friends, but was to frightened to say it) around
in the garden. A big bumblebee buzzed very close to John and frightened
him. His father said, "Don't be scared, that bumblebee isn't going
to hurt you," and then he showed John, how he with very, very slow
movements of his hand, could close it over the bumblebee. He brought his
closed hand down to John's face, and gently opened it. The bee stood there
in his hand, then started walking around. After a few minutes, the bee took
off just as nice as you please. As John says, his father had his moments.
Today, John says he still feels fear sometimes, but he walks right into
the fire of it and faces it. "My father taught me that." John
organizes his feelings, his surroundings, his work. "I have this kaleidoscope
of life pictures that I want to show in stories of people growing, evolving,
becoming. They want desperately to come out as if they are suffocating in
there. I am in touch enough with my feelings and thoughts to arrange them
in a specific way that gives them specific form and value. If anything drives
me, it is these pictures." Could that be what drives any artist?