Sunday, July 5, 2009

No Time To Get Confused

“Do I get confused when I have a lot of things to rehearse? Nah. When I get confused it when I have nothing to rehearse.”

- Sparger, speaking to imaginary boy (Kennedy’s Children, by Robert Patrick)

Once I got my first taste of working in theater, I threw myself into it head-long.

As stage manager, I would have one play in rehearsals during the day, and be in performance with another one at night. In my free time, I’d do a shift at the radio station, and go on a voice-over audition (something I picked up from my co-workers at the radio station).

Generally, I could put together enough small checks to support my way of life, which wasn’t elaborate, but did include living in Manhattan, which was never cheap.

Late in 1979, I began studying with Judith Malina and the Living Theater. Some of you may recognize Judith as an actress – she played the little dark-haired woman who dances with Robin Williams in “Awakenings,” she is in Household Saints, was the original Grandma in the first “Addams Family” movie, and, more recently, played the nun who was Paulie’s real mother in the Sopranos (“I was a bad girl.”) Judith and her deceased husband Julian Beck started the Living Theater Company, who was real pioneers in avant-garde theater. By the time I studied with her, Julian was dead and she was married to theater partner Hannon Resnikov.

Working with Judith and Hannon just cemented the idea that I wanted to do non-traditional theater, and I wound up running in circles where I got a lot of that sort of work, both as a stage manager and, at times, as assistant director.

It was my relationship with Judith and with Nancy J. (the stage manager) that led me to two shows that really influenced my path.

In 1980, President Carter reinstated the draft. Judith was (and I imagine still is) an anarchist, and she was invited to be part of the protests that would be taking place in Washington. The idea of doing a revival of Hair came up, and Judith introduced me to Jim Rado and Gerry Rangi, the creators of Hair who also played its original leads (Berger and Claude).

The original “Hud” in the play was choreographing, and a crazy guy named Richard was directing. I was offered the job of production managing, which meant I oversaw the stage management but also did things like arranged for our travel to DC, our performances in NY, kept the books, cut the checks, etc. This would be a foundation for the work I would later do producing theater, and, eventually, doing similar jobs in film.

Hair was a blast. Rado and Ragni clearly didn’t just write Berger and Claude, they WERE Berger and Claude. Rado (Claude) was a nice, middle-class blonde kid who was quiet and all love-and-peace. Ragni (Berger) was an inspired madman. The guy who played Hud was a flaming queen. It made for interesting rehearsals, with lots of arguing, then reconciliation, and not a small amount of smoking, Both Rado and Ragni hated the recently released film, and were determined to get the play back to its “roots.”

We had a lot of young actors, and, to be honest, the production wasn’t very good. The highlight of the NY part of the production was when we lost out Berger near the end of rehearsals. We held auditions, and saw hundreds of people. If you remember Berger, he;s supposed to be like an Abbie Hoffman on overdrive.

In walks this guy, who, if you need a mental image, think Radar O”Reilly: short, wire-rimmed glasses, SHORT hair, suit and tie. No one thought we would cast him, but since everyone had waited so long, we were determined to let everyone audition.

“What role are you reading for.” I asked. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t at the wrong audition.

“Berger,” he said. People on my side of the desk chuckling under their breath.

“And what would you like to sing for us,” I asked.

“Aquarius”. Dear God, no. This was the answer we hated. It was the most popular tune from the show, it showed the least since it was a tribe (chorus) song, and everyone who wasn’t well prepared sang it.

I nodded to the piano player, who played the intro. “Radar” (as I will call him – I really don’t remember his name) begins the song swaying gently back and forth in his corporate attire, much as Pat Boone might.

“When the moon is in the Seventh House,
and Jupiter aligns with Mars…..”

He does the whole first verse like this, and then, at the end of the verse

“…this is the dawning of…”

At this point, he lets fly with a really powerful belt (voice), jumps up on the table, and proceeds to do the rest of the song barefoot and stripping down to his boxers.

He knew he was wrong for the role, and decided he was going to put us on and audition for the company anyway. It took a while before we all stopped laughing, and before he left, we welcomed him into the tribe (but not, of course, as Berger).

The highlight of the production, though, was DC. We are all on chartered buses – the whole company was on one bus. We were scheduled to perform during the protest at some point: there was a make-shift stage, and thousands and thousands of people. I was 23 years old at the time, and most of the cast was younger. The cast was a little awe-struck, and very hyped. There I was with a clipboard and my notes and my bag with all my preparations, trying to make sure everything went smoothly.

Two of our producers were a brother and sister who were radical wanna-bes They were annoying as hell, and they kept pumping the cast up more, much to my chagrin. They were thinking Woodstock – I was thinking Kent State.

Seriously. Its not like I thought anyone was going to be shot, but Kent State was very clear in my mind, and I didn’t want any of these kids intimidating anyone.

One of the organizers jumped on the bus. When he said his last name, I asked him if he had a brother in NY (it was not a common last name). Indeed, his brother was a good friend of mine from the radio station (and is still a good friend to this day). This guy would later become an immigration lawyer who had an influence on my life (more on that in a later chapter).

So, we get onstage, the amplification is terrible, we do our two or three songs, a few of the people in the crowd listen, and its almost time for us to get off the stage. The two idiot producers (they were not the main producers) jump up, grab the microphone, and start with stupid “fuck the man” style stuff. Now, our kids are more pumped up, and as one of the girls in the troop in coming off stage, she gets in the face of a DC cop who is basically just trying to direct them.

I see this and immediately put myself between them so she doesn’t do anything stupid. As is instinctive in potential “fight” situations, I put my arms up in both directions to keep them apart. The arm that kept her away was cool. The arm that wound up in the chest of the DC cop was not. That arm was shortly joined with the other one by way of handcuffs, as I was led off.

Thankfully, Jeff’s brother (the organizer) had been in the area, saw what happened, and would up getting me out of lock-up. I convinced both the cop and his superiors that I had no intention of hitting them, and, thankfully, charges weren’t filed, but it was not fun being in lock-up during a demonstration with people who were actually looking to get locked up.

The other play that influenced me during this period was a play called Chucky’s Hunch. Once again, Nancy was the stage manager, and she wanted me to ASM. At this point, I was already moving up, but she convinced me that this was a good opportunity, and the pay was actually better than some of the SM gigs I was being offered – and chances of getting arrested were minimal.

Chucky’s Hunch was a one-man show that was originally performed at Theater for New Audiences in New York, and then at the Harold Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row. (where I took over as stage manager after Nancy left). A good –and accurate – review can be found at this link:

The play was a one-man show, and the last paragraph of the review tells you why this was such a great experience for me:

Of course, ''Chucky's Hunch'' is most of all an actor's vehicle, and Mr. O'Connor rides it for all that it is worth. This performance - presumably created in collaboration with the director, Elinor Renfield - is the best work I've seen this actor do. Speaking in a gin-sodden, sandpaper voice that occasionally erupts into mirthless, private laughter, Mr. O'Connor keeps Chucky's past and present in perfect focus. As the character drifts off into sad defeat and mad bouts of panic, his dancing eyes always allow us to see the pugnacious, swaggering and obnoxious hipster that Chucky once was. Most important, he manages to avoid any slobbering self-pity - even when, at the very end, Miss(Rochelle) Owens's script declines into conventional mawkishness. ''Chucky's Hunch'' may be a small play about a small life, but attention must be paid.

Kevin was, to steal Aykroyd’s eulogy of Belushi, “a good man but a bad boy”. He won multiple Obie Awards, and if you mentioned him to any NY actor or stage director at the time, they would tell you what a good actor he was. He lived in the Chelsea Hotel, which was perfect for him.

The good man would often act in the student films of his acting students for free as a favor, would coach them up for an audition for nothing, would do anything for a friend. The good man was easily one of the best actors and stage directors and acting teachers I have ever known. The good man would give you 50 cents if he were down to his last dollar.

The bad boy slept with some of his female acting students, hit on everything that moved, was often “kept” by older women who loved his company and would pay bills, and drank like a fish. I worked with Kevin for years after this, and he never showed up to performance or rehearsal drunk – never. But his well-earned reputation for drinking other times had developed a life of its own, to the point where people thought he worked drunk.

Let me share one Kevin story before allowing this period of my theater life to come full circle.

Years later, Kevin was directing a play that I was producing. We were auditioning, and this guy came in and did Frankie from Leonard Melfi’s “Birdbath” as his audition piece. “Birdbath” is the play “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune” got its source material from, and Kevin had won awards for creating Frankie.

So, this guy starts, and he is awful. Unlike the “Hair” audition, this guy wasn’t faking – he was bad. It was an open audition, which meant we had lots of people and were always behind. I had turned over the actor’s picture and was ready to say “next” when Kevin started giving him notes. Kevin spent ten minutes working on the audition piece with this guy. Hey, maybe Kevin saw something I missed.

When he left, I asked if we were casting him. “Are you kidding” Kevin said, with his gruffest voice. “He was awful.”

“Then why did we just waste ten minutes with him?” I asked. Kevin looked at me a little puzzled. “We did it to make him better.” It seemed obvious to Kevin – we helped because we could. The sense of mentorship would stay with me to this day, and that theme comes up later in my life with a producer and production manager in film.

Full circle? Oh, yeah.

We did “Chucky’s Hunch” with two other one-act plays at the Harold Clurman. One of those plays was “Birdbath,” with Kevin and his original co-star, Barbara Eda Young. The director was Tom O’Horgan, who was also the original director of “Hair”. I got to work with Tom again after that play, but it was fun to exchange stories from my experience with “Hair’ with Tom’s experience with originally bringing it to the stage.

The best moment of that production also influenced me in how I dealt with the artistic process, always being willing to bring up problems even when people didn’t want to hear it. Sometimes, it cost me work. Other times, however, I formed very strong bonds with people who respected that I had their best interests at heart.

Kevin was a second cousin of Tennessee Williams, and Williams came to one performance with his “assistant” (who, not so coincidentally, was a very pretty young man in his early 20s). The producer took everyone out to lunch, and I was invited. I should point out that after ordering my lunch, I didn’t open my mouth again except to eat.

Williams ordered a bottle of Jack, which he finished most of during the meal.

At the time, he had “Clothes from a Summer Hotel” on Broadway. It had just been seriously panned. The director was a long-time collaborator of his, as were a few of the actors. People at the lunch avoided discussion of the play, but it came up eventually.

It was at that point that Williams reflected on how he didn’t like being treated like an icon, and would have appreciated feedback.

“If it was so bad,” he said, “why didn’t anybody tell me.”

This phrase would stick with me into film, and went a long way as to why I never felt awkward telling a director bad news. I learned that it was the responsibility of the people around the artist to be honest, especially when it is difficult.

No comments: