Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Come In Out Of the Rain

“I don't like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, "Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried." I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, "Hey, man, I saw your play... what happened?"

“I don’t want my plays done at the Uris Theater. I want my plays done at some little place in the Village where the only people who see it are people who come in out of the rain.”

Jeff Slater (Bill Murray) – Tootsie

My career in theater would have made Jeff proud.

There is so much of Tootsie that resonates with my theatrical career, starting with the birthday party for Michael.

Living in Manhattan is expensive, and most of us struggling artists always had roommates, who were usually other struggling artists.

As fate would have it, I lived in a triplex (3 bedrooms on three floors, connected by a spiral staircase). My roommates were a gay woman and a gay guy – both actors. The sexual preference thing worked out perfectly, since there was absolutely no sexual tension in the apartment – none of us were interested in the other. One of our favorite times were our parties – we would invite all our friends, and then watch the wrong people try to hook up with the wrong people (i.e. – My straight male friends trying to hit on her lesbian friends; his gay male friends trying to hit on my straight male friends; her lesbian friends trying to hit on my straight female friends) .

Joe had an audition coming up where he had to present a scene, meaning he needed a partner. He asked me. I had no acting training, and no interest in acting.

“I need someone to do this with me, and my regular partner cant make it. Besides, you work in radio, that’s like performing.” He was clutching at straws. Desperate isn’t pretty, but I couldn’t really say no.

We go to the audition, and it goes well enough. A day or two later, I come home and Joe says : “We got it.” I offer my congratulations, not paying attention to the word “we.” We? Yes, they wanted me as well. Not wanting to be an actor was one thing. Ego was something else. I was in.

The play was done at a downstairs theater in the Village called the Colonnades, directly across the street from the Joe Papp’s Public Theater. I don’t know about coming in out of the rain, but a good deal of our audience were people who couldn’t get tickets to the cutting edge shows at the Public Theater.

Across the street, there were plays by David Henry Wang and Eric Bogosian and Sam Shepard and Eric Overmeyer and Richard Foreman and all the emerging great dramatists. Across the street they could see a young Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Raul Julia, Diane Lane, and Mary Beth Hurt.

At the Colonnades, they got me, Joe, and a play about Michael Servetus.

My theatrical debut was a play about the conflict between Michael Servetus and John Calvin. Servetus was a Spanish theologian who originally joined Calvin as part of the Protestant Reformation, but then broke with Calvin when he felt Calvin’s heart was “darkened by hate.”

I forget the name of the play, but it was translated and adapted from its original Eastern European by a husband/wife team who were incredibly bright. She was a fine director, and the two leads were great. The original play was almost five hours. They “trimmed” it down to a svelte three hours and forty-five minutes, much of which were theological debates between Servetus and Calvin based on their letters. On the “intellectually too deep” scale, the play made “A Man for All Seasons” look like “Rambo”. The comparison continues, as Mr. Servetus meets the same fate as Thomas More.

The Variety reviewer said he felt 'like he had sat through the Protestant reformation.'

It was an ensemble cast of almost 30 (know you know why I got cast – they needed bodies!). I played three roles with multiple costume changes, my favorite of which was a singing bartender who got up on the bar and led a bunch of radical Protestants in a song of protest.

It was also mid-summer, the air conditioning was bad, and I had to under-dress (keep one costume underneath another) to make a costume change, which meant I was dressed for Siberia in a 95 degree theater for about 45 minutes of the play.

For someone more stable, this might have been a traumatic experience that drove them from the theater. However, two things happened that actually cemented my love of theater during the brutal run.

First, in my long span between scenes, I picked up another actor’s book: The Empty Space, by Peter Brook. The book opened my eyes to everything theater could be. It was more than Broadway and fancy sets and elaborate costumes. It could be something raw and honest and powerful. This set as tone me, and the type of theater I subsequently trained and worked in.

The other event was I met a great stage manager, Nancy Juliber. Nancy was a pint-sized bundle of energy, who had become a stage manager when she was out of work and her roommate (a dancer) told her that her dance company needed a stage manager – and they were paying. Nancy lied about her resume and had stage-managed many plays since.

This played right into a dichotomy in my life. I’m a Capricorn, and between that and my Catholic High School training, there was a lot of organizer in me. On the other hand, there was a lot of flakey artist in me as well. Stage manager was a perfect blend.

Nancy and I became friends, and she taught me how to stage manager. I loved it. Even the minutia of creating a production book and marking the stage and timing scenes was great. Better yet, I got to spend all the time with the director, and learn what they were thinking and how they were preparing.

When the play was over, I worked as ASM for Nancy’s next play. I showed up the first day, and she asked me time a scene. I told her I had forgotten my watch at home. She sent me home and told me to come back tomorrow properly prepared. It’s a story too many of my P.A.s have heard over the years, but it set the tone for the level of perfection and professionalism that you were to bring to any project, regardless of how big or how small.

The years from 1979 (when I did the first play) though the mid-80s would wind back and forth between radio, film and theater, but mostly theater.

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