Thursday, December 22, 2011

Up in the Air

Up in the Air

“…Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living...”

Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air

You can’t log ten million miles between New York and Boston, and even if People Express or New York Air or any of those now-defunct carriers put your name on the side of a plane, it would have been painted over by now.  The theory, though, was the same.  Keep moving.

Years earlier, I developed a love affair with Cape Cod, so much so that I not only went there for getaways whenever I could, but I also took theater jobs in Boston, a town I also got to like.  If you’re from the rest of New England, Boston is truly the “Hub,” a place you aspire to live and work.  If you’re from New York, Boston is provincial and, most of all, manageable. 

In those early days of no-frill airlines, flights between NY and Boston-Logan were cheap, $19-$39 cheap.  That made a transient lifestyle not only possible, but desirable.  Maybe it was being an only child that instilled something that teetered between independence and a refusal to grow up. 

I kept a room in a transient hotel on the Upper West Side when they still had transient hotels and they were cheap enough that you could hang there.  I had a nicer place in Boston, also transient, but in a city where your age is determined by whether people ask you what school you go to, or where do you teach, transience is the norm.  The New Yorker in me had to get used to a “T” that shut down at midnight, creating a Cinderella-like dash for the Green Line back to Brookline from Faneuil Hall.

Boston had a theater scene that allowed me to work regularly, while still coming home to NY between shows to be in the city I loved.

It was on one of those trips back to New York over the holidays that my life changed forever.
On this trip back to New York, I interviewed for a job as director for an absolutely crazy middle-aged British woman who ran Royal Court Repertory.  If you remember the rules of the blog, I don’t generally name people when the reference is negative.  In this case, I’m not naming the name only because I can’t remember it. 

This Royal Court had nothing to do with the real one in London, and I’m sure this woman never worked there.  She was nothing more than a bitter, failed actress running a two-bit theater, but, hey, it was directing work, and when she offered me a chance to direct a horrible whodunit called “Kidnap Kaper,” I took it.  Auditions wouldn’t begin until mid-January, so I would have one more trip up to Boston after the holidays to finish a gig there and then come back. 

I’m not good with dates and times and years at this point, but this date I do remember, if not the year.  If was December 30th, the day before New Years Eve, and I was hanging at a usual haunt of mine on the Upper West Side that was then called Tuba City Truck Stop.  I looked down the bar and saw a very animated group ordering drinks, including more than a few attractive young women.  I sent over drinks, and motioned for one of them to come over.  In one of those happy accidents in life, the “wrong” one came over, and we started talking.  She was a cheery, cute redhead named Maureen, and I learned that she lived someplace I previously had never heard of, Chatham, Ontario.  She and her friends were teachers on vacation.   

One thing led to another, and I don’t think I left her side for more than a few hours over the next few days, hanging with her and her friends, though never alone.  I was completely smitten, and when she said I should come up and visit her sometime, I’m sure she thought that I would agree but never make it.  She was wrong.
Chatham is about an hour or so past Windsor, Ontario, which, for those who don’t know, is right across a bridge or tunnel from Detroit.  In the world of cheap airfares, adding one leg to the NY-Boston run was pretty cheap, and I told her that I would see her the following week.  I think she was more than a little surprised when I called and said I had a ticket, and would she pick me up at the airport.

My subsequent time getting to know her and her family friends has made me averse to Canadian jokes, but my first trip to Canada was too ironic to overlook.  She picked me up at the airport, and as we crossed the border, the road got icier.  For those weak on geography, Windsor is actually south of Detroit, so it’s not like the temperature had dropped, but just that the snow and ice was getting worse.  It was in the midst of this discussion about American misunderstanding of Canada that we spun out, went across the other side of the highway and wound up in a slight ditch at the side of the highway.  Neither of us was hurt, but the car needed to be towed.  My first trip to her town was in the front of a tow truck.

Our time together?  Again, from Up in the Air:

Ryan Bingham: You know that moment when you look into somebody's eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet just for a second?
Natalie Keener: Yes.
Ryan Bingham: Right. Well, I don't.

Before that, I didn’t either.   Over the next few years, it would happen.  We would fly back and forth to see each other.

Meanwhile, back in New York, I am auditioning people for this horrible play.  Headshots are laid out by character, and the largest stack was for the young ingénue.  I was always an impulse buyer with little time for shopping around, and in those days, I auditioned in much the same way.  When I finally found the perfect ingénue, I told this wonderful young actress that she had the part, and proceeded to audition for the role of what can only be described as the Margaret Dumont character.  If you don’t know who Margaret Dumont was, think of the stuffy, matronly woman who always wound up with a pie in her face in the old Marx Brothers’ movies.   Ms. Dumont certainly deserves to be remembered for more than that, but if you need a quick reference, that should work.  You still don’t know?  Ok, you can go check who she is on IMDB – I’ll wait.

Back?  Good.

Now, I’m sitting through a handful of slightly-older actresses when this extraordinary woman in her early twenties walks in.  Her name is Annie.  I look down at the headshot, and then back up to her, then back to the headshot, which was so bad that I had added it into the pile with the character actresses.  Not only was she lovely and spirited, but she was an excellent actress.  I couldn’t have her audition for the character actress, but I had her read for the ingénue.  Yes, that ingénue, the one I had just cast, the role I had told an excited young actress was hers.  As I watched her audition, I knew she had to be the person for the role.  

Don’t ask how uncomfortable the phone call to the first actress was.

The diva who ran the theater hated her, in no small part because she was not only more talented than she had ever been as an actress, but she was lovelier as well, an absolutely stunning redhead.

Ok, I know where you think this is going, but you’re wrong.  Annie and I became close friends for years to come.  Ironically, she grew up in London, Ontario, not far from where Maureen lived.  The three of us became fast friends, a bond cemented after I pulled the cast from that horrible show after the diva who ran the place screamed at my cast one time too many and “accidently”  pricked Annie with a safety pin while helping with her costume.

Annie later studied with Sanford Meisner in Bequia and later Los Angeles, where she is still a working actress and highly-successful acting teacher.  She would also go on to appear in a movie I co-wrote and produced called Town Diary years later.  

We’re not there yet.  Be patient.

In the next couple of years, I did some stage managing, and directed a version of “Children of A Lesser God” for a college theater company in New Jersey, a production I am proud of to this day.  My proudest moment on that play may have been a night when a group of deaf students came to see the show.  The show had to be cast entirely from students, and there were no members of the company who were deaf.  This was a tricky situation, as the author, Mark Medoff, had made clear his preference that the role of Sarah, the deaf student, should be played by a deaf actress.  Our Sarah was not, but we did everything in our power to be authentic, and watching the deaf students give my cast a standing ovation was a moment that will be with me until the end of my life.

Meanwhile, Maureen and I found the commuting back and forth to be frustrating, and I still have an image of her at the top of an escalator at Detroit’s airport, waving goodbye to me as if was the last time.  We knew we either had to make a commitment, or break it off, and the latter was unthinkable.  We made plans for her to move to New York, a city she loved, but there was still one more hurdle.  She was not going to be able to work here, and that wasn’t going to work.  We looked into all sorts of options for her to get working papers here.

Remember that immigration attorney I met in Washington D.C.?  The one who met my Hair troop at the rally and turned out to be the brother of one of my radio station pals?  I contacted him, and the long and the short of it was that the easiest thing to do was to get married.  I was fine with the life commitment, but the rebel hippie in me hated the formality of the ceremony, piece of paper, etc.

So it was in the Spring on 1987 that I was working as associate designer on a great theater project, the 1987 Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon.  The Marathon is a very prestigious event in the New York theater world, and I got to work with some wonderful directors, including the casting directors Risa Bramen and Billy Hopkins . 

Once again, I got to be involved with the work of a great writer, Keith Reddin.  Keith wrote what was clearly a dark version of the “Cat in the Hat” series, but the Dr. Seuss people had a decidedly negative view of having their character be seriously more than mischievous.  Many changes were made to avoid legal problems.  Here is the review:

Yes, the young boy was Macaulay Culkin, who later went on to “Home Alone” and other film notoriety.  Given the bad press he and his parents later received, I should make the point that both he and his parents were fun and cooperative, not to mention he was incredibly talented. 

It was near the end of tech week for the opening, and I was flying to see Maureen that weekend.  We had decided that at the end of the school year, she would move in with me, but had not even discussed actually getting married.  I was in the set shop at EST when I called Maureen.

“Hey, Mo, can you find out what we would have to do to get married on a weekend?”

“This weekend?”

“Yes, this weekend.”

The next day, she told me the procedure.  It involved a Justice of the Peace.  He could fit us in on Saturday morning.  This was Wednesday.

Me: “So, do you want to get married?”

Maureen: “OK”.

That was it.   I flew up there that weekend, and her friends threw together a party on Friday night and a reception on Saturday after the ceremony, one where the Justice of the Peace kept informally asking me questions about how we met.

So began a relationship that would last a lifetime, even if the actual marriage significantly less time.  For those wondering why so much of the last two blog entries centered on relationships, it is because it’s impossible to understand the career changes that were to come without understanding where I was in my life.   Have no fear, though, as subsequent entries will not be filled with the intricacies of relationships, as I never figured those out.

The next few years would begin a partnership that would include a life-changing operation, and a rebirth as a person committed to the independent film world.       

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