Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hit The Road, JB

“What I really want to do is direct.”
-Popular NYU Film School T-Shirt

The popularity of the T-shirt derived from the fact that if you walk up to any PA on a film, they will tell probably tell you that this is only a brief stop for them – pretty soon, they will be directing. Most of them never will.

I wasn’t even thinking about directing when I found myself as a Set PA on “The Fan”, a movie where Lauren Bacall played a movie star who is stalked by an overly-zealous fan. If the DeNiro-Snipes film comes to mind when you hear this title, don’t be alarmed – that film was remake of this one.

“The Fan” would be the only film I would ever PA on. I was never particularly good at taking orders, and as PA, everyone is your boss. Also, at 25, I felt I was a little “old” to be low man on the totem pole. As a result, I usually took better positions on lower-paying jobs than lower positions on higher paying ones.

Yes, I got to see Lauren Bacall. From what I understand, friends call her Betty. P.A.s don’t call her Betty. P.A.s don’t call her at all. Not that she was a snob. She would sometimes spend time talking to the Grips or Electrics. As a matter of fact, both those groups, which are usually filled by bigger, burlier young guys, seemed to get quite a bit of Betty’s attention. Old enough to be their mother, she still was every bit the flirt.

I once asked one of the grips if he had ever acted on her flirtations. “Are you kidding,” he said. “She slept with Bogart. How are you gonna top that?” Indeed. I think I would always expect her to ask, “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” Wasn’t a problem for me, as I was not the object of her attention.

I got the gig on “The Fan” from a recommendation of someone on “Q”, and that was pretty much how most film jobs came along. As a freelancer, looking for work became part of the job. Wednesday’s were Showbiz Magazine. Thursday was BackStage. Both listed theater and film jobs. Once I started working in film, Thursday also became Hollywood Reporter day. Picking up these magazines was like clockwork. I even knew which newsstands had BackStage on Wednesday nights.

I got work on a play stage-managing “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone” for a company called The Actors Collective. This was a really talented group of actors, most of who were currently working on soap operas and wanted an outlet to do real work. Soap operas were how they made their money. These plays were their lifeblood.

I have two memorable experiences from that company, who I stage-managed for two other plays after that first one. The first one was load in for the set. The set designer had a concept of 8 interlocking platforms. To build these, he ordered eight 3/4 inch sheets of plywood. The theater we were working in was on the 6th floor, and when these sheets – and the accompanying lumber, arrived, the only people there were the lead actor, Don, and me. Don was all of about 5’ 9”. We soon discovered that the 4x8s wouldn’t fit in the elevator. Smarter people would have sawed them in half, or waited for help. Don and I carried them up 6 flights. I still hate that set designer.

The other memory was the summer vacation we took after the first play. As I said, these actors made good money from the soap operas, and one had a summerhouse in Cape Cod. We all spent a week out there, and I loved it. It would become my favorite summer spot, and, in weird way, lead to me getting married.

There would be time before that would happen.

I was living with a choreographer/dancer named Patricia. Typical Irish girl – long red hair, freckles, the whole nine yards Typical dancer as well – woke to coffee and cigarettes. She was tiny and slim, yet always worried about her weight. She would buy a plain muffin, then cut it in half; half for breakfast, half for lunch.

Our meeting was typical as well – typical New York artist, that is. I met her at an audition. We went out on a date, and she told me she had to move out of her place – her female roommate was a jerk. We wound up at my place, had sex, and she moved in. That was fine by me.

Roommates are a way of life in Manhattan, rents being what they are. Roommates came, and roommates left. Sometimes, you were the roommate to leave. Changing jobs. Changing apartments. Changing lovers. It was all pretty much the same.

One of those Thursday mornings, we were sharing a muffin and a copy of BackStage when I saw a notice for a production manager for a production of “The Hobbit” in Pennsylvania. After I replied to the notice, I found out it was in the Lehigh Valley. A resume sent and a brief phone conversation later, and I was offered the job.

There was never any real thought of saying no because of my relationship with Pat. As a dancer, she would take a road show with a dance company if it came along, and we both understood that. In an odd way, I had a feeling that if I left, our relationship was over. It was one of those relationships that was comfortable, but with no real sparks. We were already more like friends who slept together than lovers. As it turned out, she returned to Massachusetts and took up full time choreography soon after I left, and she sublet our place for me and arranged to put what I hadn’t taken with me in storage. While I saw Pat a few times after that, I never saw that apartment again.

So, I picked up and arrived in Bethlahem, Pennsylvania. I had never been there, and waited a diner for the producers to pick me up. They were a few hours late.

The producers were a hippy couple who had been doing a puppet show of the Ring Trilogy for years. Now, they wanted to do a live, musical version of it with actors. They were the nicest people in the world, and they took me into their home – a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Fresh air, quiet, and not a subway in sight. Talk about culture shock.

While it was different, I was liking it. We mounted the show, with kids playing the hobbit roles. I still remember our Frodo, a handsome African-American kid who was all of about 14 years old. One matinee, he had a horrible show, and the kids in the audience booed him. I thought he would be devastated, and I went backstage to cheer him up. I asked if he wanted to go out between shows and get some dinner. He was still taking off his make-up, and his back was to me as he looked in the mirror. He turned around calmly and said, “Thanks, but I cant. I have a date.” I found out later that he was doing most every little girl in the play. I didn’t worry about him much after that.

During the course of that play, I met Louise. She was a RN, who lived in Bethlehem and worked weekends at a hospital in Philadelphia, She would work two double shifts so she could spend the rest of the week with her young daughter, who would spend weekends with her folks or her dad. Louise’s ex-husband. Louise was the first, and only, woman I dated that was older than me. She was in her early thirties.

Louise loved theater, but basically thought actors and theater people were too ‘flighty’. She should have trusted her instincts before we hooked up. Pretty soon, I had moved out from the farmhouse and was living with Louise. New roommate. New room.

Louise introduced me to Charlie Richter, the theater director at Muhlenberg College. Charlie was a local legend, and he deserved to be. He was nothing short of a genius. He could easily have made a name for himself as a director in New York. He was happy at Muhlenberg, where he pretty much had free reign to do what he wanted. That was a lesson that wasn’t lost on me.

Charlie and I talked a lot about avant-garde theater, a subject we could bore people with for hours, and we frequently did. He mounted a play based on the stories of the students who played themselves, much like “Chorus Line” was conceived, except it depicted where they saw themselves years forward. One actor, who was very raw, stood out. His name was John S., and he was this big jock, but with a presence that you can’t teach.

I soon learned that the woman who ran the local theater company was looking to step down. I made no attempt to hide my desire to take over, and presented a plan for the next year. It would be entitled, “The Rock and Roll Theater of Sam Shepard and Patti Smith” and feature three one-acts: Killers Head (by Shepard), Cowboy Mouth (Shepard and Smith) and a staged adaptation of Patti’s song “Horses”. Much to my delight – and the surprise of some – they bought it. Charlie’s encouragement had a lot to do with it,

I had never directed a play, and now I was going to direct three, albeit they were one-acts, with only a handful of actors who had any training, and they were students. The project certainly had some level of pretentiousness, looking back on it, but that’s the excitement of youthful projects. They have that gutsy, we-cant-fail attitude. You see it in a lot of first feature films: rough around the edges, but exciting enough to make up for it.

Having been a stage manager for a long time really came in handy. I had sat next to some really good directors through some bad rehearsals, so I knew not to be discouraged when things got tough.

One thing about a small town theater company – they have their favorites. I was told who were the best actors and actresses were, and I pretty much ignored it. I had their “best” actor, Steve, do the one-man opening play, “Killers Head” a 10 minute or so play with a guy blindfolded in an electric chair, opening with “Yeah, today’s the day I buy the horses. I’ve decided.”

For the main play, “Cowboy Mouth”, which Shepard and Smith wrote together when they lived together at the Chelsea Hotel (and they also performed together before Patti’s singing career got off the ground), I cast John S., who I saw in that play at Muhlenberg, and a butch woman who worked for Bethlahem Steel during the day. She was great. He was, well, rough, He never had to carry a play. He was a jock, and I got into the habit of starting rehearsals by running lines while he, the actress, myself and my stage manager jogged. Not being an athlete, it almost killed me, but he got to understand pace and cadence.

The plays were certainly different for the audience accustomed to “Annie Get Your Gun.” Cowboy Mouth opens with Cavale (Smith character) repeatedly cursing our Slim, and ends with a Giant Lobster and suicide. Together with “Killers Head” and “Horses” (in which a guys girlfriend waxes poetic about him being stabbed), we had our share of walkouts. Still, we got two reviews, and one of them was very favorable. The other taught me a little lesson.

In “Killers Head”, I insisted to Steve that he should let the irony of the situation play: a guy sitting in an electric chair talking about a new pickup truck and horses and the future. The one thing I told him to do was not to play nervous – don’t play the obvious.

On opening night, possibly because of nerves, possibly because he didn’t trust me, he played the whole thing shaking – just what I didn’t want. The one reviewer that hated the evening said the following “ “The only shining moment was when director (JB) had actor Steve infuse just the right level of tension as he sat awaiting his fate.”

OF course, I had visions of staying on for a while and doing many more shows. I figured if Charlie could make a go of it there, I could build a real company there, like Mamet (and later Gary Sinese) had done in Chicago, outside the glare of New York.

Alas, it was not to be. Neither was domestic bliss.

I kind of took to being “surrogate dad” to Louise’s little girl. I would pick her up at school on Monday’s before her mom got home from Philly. Mind you, I had never had a drivers license, and still didn’t. Also, I had don’t very little driving in my life – mostly taking those lessons for a license, and practicing with my dad years earlier. I failed two road tests. When I picked up her daughter and a friend one day, her daughter said, “Great. John’s driving. Its more exciting with him.”

I failed the domestic test as well. One of the girls I cast in the other one act (“Horses”) was a busty, leggy dancer. Ah, dancers (insert sigh). I couldn’t resist.

Louise was neither amused, nor understanding. Pretty soon, bags packed, it was back to New York.

“Woah Woman, oh woman, don't treat me so mean,
You're the meanest old woman that I've ever seen.
I guess if you said so
I'd have to pack my things and go.”

- The Genius of Ray Charles

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