Jeff Phillips: The Blood Doping Thespian [repost]

Something sneaks to my mind every Olympics: blood doping. I remember watching the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics with my brother, cross country skiing was on, and a Spanish skier named Johann Muhlegg dominated the competition. I was a competitive cross country skier at the time, on my high school team, and his domination of the event was inspiring. I thought this guy might be my new hero. I couldn’t wait for my next ski meet, so that I might get to emulate.

Then it was revealed that he tested positive for blood doping. His Gold Medal was revoked and he wasn’t my hero anymore.

Blood doping is the act of injecting additional red blood cells into your bloodstream for a short time to increase your body’s ability to carry more oxygen to its cells; it ups your energy, endurance, making for a great performance. Blood doping emerged in the 1970s as a practice among athletes and it wasn’t banned in the Olympics until 1986. That gave Olympians a good decade and a half of being, as a British commentator might say, “bloody unstoppable.”

One summer, while visiting my old hometown in Maine, a former cross country ski teammate mentioned to me that one of our other teammate’s second cousins was a nutritionist for a famous band’s bass player and that she helped him blood dope. I had once felt a natural sort of blood doping, when returning to sea level after a visit to Colorado, where the higher altitude causes your body to create more red blood cells. Sitting delayed on a tarmac, strapped into the middle seat, I felt the rage of 1,000 hormonal teenagers after chewing 1,000 espresso beans. So I could picture blood doping transforming a stage presence into something wild. If Jon Voight had circulated the blood of Howard Cosell in Ali, new meaning would be given to “embodying the character.”

I was fond of the Al Pacino quote, “the actor becomes an emotional athlete…” I heard legends about Sir Laurence Olivier, that he once threw a tantrum and trashed his dressing room after the opening night of Othello. He was assured his performance was brilliant and he replied with something along the lines of “I know, and I’ll never be able to top that.” Subsequently he supposedly vomited before every stage performance. Such tales heightened the awe I already had of Shakespearean acting, which seemed the pinnacle of a theatre that required chops; emotional, vocal, and physical. The thespian wasn’t that much different than the contender. The stage was really just another arena for a strange sport. An Olivier, psyched out before a show and untamable after, reminds me of the antics of a John McEnroe. And it’s somehow endearing, they have such a commitment to their craft, they care so much, outbursts are inevitable.

When I was interested in exploring myself as a method acting, I wrote in a journal that if I were to ever play a famous figure that was still alive, a hardcore commitment to taking on this character would be to inject their blood into my veins and dive into the scene while it was still in circulation. This was a vampiric idea, and certainly can highlight the notion that acting is in a way based on sucking the personality of others. I’m not certain I ever seriously planned on doing this, but my imagination explored the concept. The idea I jotted on my thespian bucket list was a creepy one, but, I would like to see that performance, if say Johnny Depp, while hanging around with Hunter S. Thompson during the shoot of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, had also been taking Hunter’s blood for a spin in his body. I’d especially like to see this done by stage actors. I’d like to listen to the percussive pops of Mamet’s dialogue, like accelerating tennis balls volleyed back and forth by players in peak condition. I’d like to sense a palpable grave gamesmanship stew a few feet away from me while a Jacobean revenge tragedy is performed in a small black box theatre.

The infusion of foreign blood doesn’t cause a physiological change in personality, but the psychosomatic is a powerful thing. A talisman melted by charisma, and flushed around to dose each cell, the act would be a methodical and ritualistic trigger. The actor’s art requires him to shape his presence. Presence being possibly one of the most ethereal and elusive of any medium. If you look at athletics, the art and the achievement is determined by form, by measurable objectives and comparison. How far the disc is thrown. How many goals are you up by the other team. Did you knock your opponent out. The actor has the script, the given circumstances. They too have rules by which to play and channel their energy, but it tends to be some of the smaller choices not established by the page that allow a particular performer to own the role. Al Pacino’s darting eyes moments before he guns down a drug lord and crooked cop. The rapid fire stammer of the word “shut” in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s silencing an attempt by Adam Sandler to be bold. The subtle moments in between invigorate and allow a production’s vitality to circulate.

For the budding method actor I once was, the idea of blood doping to juice up stage work seemed like it could lead to unforgettable moments, through a new and edgy approach. Just as Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg changed acting by coaching a generation of esteemed artists to think of the craft differently, I could introduce something groundbreaking too. But just as blood doping constitutes cheating in sports, would the blood doping thespian also be considered a cheater? The focus on a venous upkeep might electrify some crowds, but ultimately mask an artist’s neglected development of mind and soul, and audiences may leave without experiencing the nuanced moments of someone fluent in the complexity of human behavior.

When I went off to college and stopped playing sports, I felt a freedom that I didn’t have to work out everyday and could smoke and drink! Maybe because I naively equated a life as a theatre artist as a license to indulge in vices, that at first thought blood doping seemed like it could be acceptable. But the stage isn’t a great place for drinking and drugging if you really want to keep the moments sharp. When performing comedy, a few beers help, and in some shows and films I’ve done, a drunken rehearsal would lead to interesting discoveries in a scene. Martin Sheen has me rapt when he punches the mirror during the opening credits of Apocalypse Now. His knuckles were sliced open, but he wanted to keep rolling. He was hammered, but it’s okay, they shot that part on his birthday. Nevertheless, there are bad seeds in any profession, the wrong actor fueled by substance abuse is a danger to work with, and it makes me wonder about the perils of blood doping, an incredibly strange sort of dope, if put into practice.

On June 8th, 2016, the Chicago Reader published an expose of local theatre actor Darrell W. Cox, known for his gritty and raw, award-winning performances at Profiles Theatre, and his long standing abusive nature, both emotional and physical, toward other actors, and in particular, female co-stars. He also had a tendency of ignoring choreographed fight scenes, injuring scenes partners. It would be brought to his attention that he was actually choking and bruising them, but Darrell would be dismissive. He was more interested in making the violence feel real for the audience. For him this meant committing actual violence, riding the heat of the moment, and he often cited his motto, “whatever the truth requires.”

The heat of the moment is not an excuse to abandon technique. If the pole vaulter suddenly feels like gyrating, dancing midair, he may bang his gut into the bar and disqualify himself. If a construction crew decides to add curves to the foundation because they are in a particular curvy mood, the architect’s lifelong study of gravity and geometric support is now fodder for a hazard. If Darrell W. Cox had taken to blood doping, his empowered instincts may well have led to manslaughter.

Jared Leto garnered new notoriety for sending his Suicide Squad castmates used condoms as he tried to become the Joker. If he had boosted blood, would it have been a human fetus he flopped down on the read through table instead of the dead pig he reportedly brought to rehearsal? It’s as if Ty Cobb, a baseball player in the early part of the 20th century known for sliding with his cleats aimed at a baseman’s ankles, had been reincarnated and chose to be a movie star in this life. A number of Leto’s co-stars have expressed their distaste for his approach and desire to never work with him again. For actors with a propensity toward antagonism, blood doping would just be a tool to further alienate, instead of deepening a connection with the cast and audience. Are there any actors that could handle blood doping and not be a total son of a bitch? Perhaps an actor whose mode of operation is not self-absorption, but focused attention on what their scene partner is doing. I am reminded of what the late Alan Rickman once said, “All I want to see from an actor is the intensity and accuracy of their listening.” These are the actors you can trust to follow their impulses and take imaginative risks. If only Philip Seymour Hoffman had been injecting himself with his own hemoglobin that fateful day, instead of a toxic opiate, we may have seen more work from someone fit to pioneer the craft of a blood doping thespian.

blood doping shakespeare_copy

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