Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Coward's Umbrella Business (Fall: 1987)

Even though I was only a mile from the house I went to high school in, college life was a monstrous revelation. I was placed in Heathman Hall, a dorm that sat on the very Northern edge of the campus, just across the street from the woods that stretched away from the civilized academic institution into New England wild. To my naive teenage brain, Heathman seemed wilder than anything those woods would ever contain.

My first weekend sharing a suite ended in an infamous party. A blond blockhead drank too many beers at a poker game and wound up defecating all over his own unpacked bags in the back of the communal closet. He was in a new dorm by the first Monday morning, pleading with us to forgive him and give him another chance. We wondered why he wouldn't want to get some easy anonymity someplace else and were glad to be rid of him.

Girls walked up and down the hallways in towels. Accents from New Jersey predominated but there was the occasional Midwest twang and Southern drawl thrown in for good measure. I could walk home in fifteen minutes and my mind was blown so I can only imagine what it was like for those who'd been deposited by plane with a whole semester staring them in the face.

I was signed up for an introductory acting class with Kimber Wheelock, who had directed my sister in "Picnic". He was a lanky tall cranky bald man who had studied with Strasburg and taught the Method. I wound up being directed by him many times during my college career but the first play of the semester was being directed by the Chair of the Theater Department, Judith Swift.

The two of them, for me, served as an awesome teaching tool. Judith didn't give a shit if you meant it, believed it or really felt it. If the AUDIENCE believed it that was all that mattered. The cross-weaving of these two viewpoints would inform my work during those formative years and continue to reverberate today.

Audition notices were posted. The first production of the year would be "Hay Fever" by Noel Coward. I may have done a Noel Coward scene in high school and I was dimly aware of him. English accents were required for the audition. I don't remember how it worked, if you chose what part you wanted to audition for or not, but I wound up auditioning for Richard Greatham, a diplomatist on holiday.

I distinctly remember the moment when the cast was announced. I guess I expected to get in because I wasn't surprised when I saw my name. I do remember that a senior actor, a small bitter tank of a kid that I'd already harbored an intense dislike for from a party I'd attended while still in high school, stood at the cork bulletin board and expressed disbelief that he hadn't gotten in. I knew he'd auditioned for the part I'd gotten and for the first time I tasted the competitive fire that has driven me all the way to this desk job in Santa Monica!

Rehearsals began with a table read in a conference room type classroom tucked in between the administrative offices and the costume shop. The cast was a strange mix of upper- and lower-classmen and women.

"Hay Fever" tells the story of a theatrical family who are vacationing at their country estate. Mother is a grande dame of the theater and her young spoiled children are following her into the arts. Mitchell Fain, who played Simon in this production, says Simon was an aspiring cartoonist and Sorel plays the piano. Father is a novelist.

The conceit of the play is that each member of the family has invited a possible romantic partner down for the weekend. Judith (the mother) has invited Sandy, a strapping young boxer. David (the father) has invited the sultry Myra Arundel. Simon's possible flame is a flapper named Jackie who is a few pints short of a quart, and Sorel invited me, Richard Greatham, upstanding young diplomatist.

Roaming around angrily is Judith's former dresser, now maid, Clara. She is, to say the least, not suited to her new job.

Each is in turn outraged that anyone else would dare invite a guest when they have already invited one. It is never explained WHY they do what they do, but what they do is hilarious. Judith sets out to seduce her daughter's guest away from her. Sorel retaliates by coming onto the boxer. David rejects Myra in favor of the stupid dancer his son invited and Simon gloms onto Myra. Just as these romantic entanglements start to truly consummate, the family coalesces once again and mistreat the guests so thoroughly that they each storm off to return to London.

That is the whole plot of the play. The plot is not the point. The point is the extreme quirk of this family, the deliberate theatricality, the heartfelt false realities that they embrace for fun. They use their guests to amuse themselves without scruple, without restraint, with no fear of reciprocity.

For me, the rehearsal process was mind-blowing. Because the world of the play was so specific, so rooted in a certain era, we spent a full week of 4 hour rehearsals sitting around that conference table dissecting every moment Coward had carved out. We read it out loud. We hashed it out. We read it out loud again. We read sections separately. We disassembled it like an engine and then we meticulously put it back together again.

When we finally got on our feet we were primed. Our accents had been honed with tapes and coaching. I had begun to grow a beard so that I could wind up with a mustache. I had never had a beard before and this new found symbol of adulthood gave me a new sense of potency.

Judith is a choreographic director. This play without intense blocking would be interminably talky, and Judith knew EXACTLY what she wanted in each scene. She had FLOW CHARTS of movement. To give an example, in the second act the entire party is gathered in a common room for a kind of post-dinner party. Because my character was a narrow-minded, linear, practical man absolutely threatened by these bohemian surroundings, Judith had limited my movements to short straight lines that barely strayed from my chair near the piano. Simon however covered almost every inch of the stage in no discernible pattern whatsoever. Judith, a grande dame of the theater, made sweeping arced crosses and Jackie the stupid flapper made short bursts of movement that she immediately reversed or shied away from.

Like I said. SPECIFIC.

As we watched the set take shape on the floor of Will Theater we began to get very excited.

The Design Department at URI matched the genius and invention of the directing side. A two story English country house began to appear. A three leveled drawing room with a grand piano, an L-shaped stairway that ended in a landing with an ornate railing and two doors, a set of glassed French doors that led out onto a patio overhanging with actual plants that would be found in an English garden.

This set was a behemoth. Standing behind it there were two staircases that led up to platforms behind the upstairs entrances. A water system was set up so that rain could spatter the glass of the French doors.

The costumes were equally spectacular. I was in a natty suit with wingtips, the women wore fantastic dinner dresses and appropriate traveling clothes, crazy hats, veils, you-name-it. The patriarch wore florid ascots and the boxer knickers and a bowtie. If you stumbled into this rehearsal you would think you were in the 1920's in England, so perfect was the illusion.

Now, this play is not an easy one to get across. But in a 550 seat theater we DESTROYED audiences on a nightly basis. The world was so perfect, so hermetically sealed, realized so completely, it was as if we sent them back in time, back to the London of Coward's day where the erudite elite would have eaten this up with a spoon.

To this day it is one of the finest productions I have ever been a part of and rivals any of the best I've ever seen.

In a quick side note, I had my first inkling of the technical aspect of acting. My sister Sheila was working the lights on the show. She watched every night. There was a moment when Judith basically corners my character and bares her neck so that I can give it a chaste peck. She then reacts as if it were a Casanova seduction. She says "Oh, Richard" in a lusty growl. I counter, "I'm afraid I couldn't help it" as if I'd been overwhelmed by passion.

The laugh had been dwindling throughout the run. Sheila took me aside and said, "The reason you aren't nailing that laugh is because you turn towards her as you say it. When the show opened you were saying it OUT to the audience."

I made the adjustment and it worked like a charm, in fact the laugh was bigger than ever because the placement of my head was DELIBERATE. Take that, Method Acting, it had NOTHING to do with what was going on inside of me.

I also had my first lesson in the hypocrisy and hubris of critics. The show was entered in the annual NETC Competition. Any show that wished to be up for consideration was attended by a panel of judges. They watched the show in question and then stayed afterward for an appraisal and notes session. To preface this, I have to explain the blocking we used at the end of the show...

It is the morning after the disastrous dinner party. The guests straggle down to breakfast. The family has not woken up yet, the epitome of rudeness. Each guest desperately wants to leave but their etiquette forbids them such a drastic action. But they work themselves into such a frenzy that they ultimately decide to make a break for it.

Just then the family comes downstairs. They are in their pajamas. Coward only notes that as the family breakfasts, the guests sneak out the door.

We then embarked on a slapstick routine in which we threw suitcases down two flights of stairs and hid behind open umbrellas every time the family turned to look in our direction. The effect of course was that the family KNEW we were trying to sneak out and were messing with our collective heads by ALMOST noticing us over and over again. It was a ballet of repressed anger and panic. It brought the house down.

We took off our costumes and makeup and slowly gathered in the now empty theater to receive our critique. The crowd had been raucously involved; it had been our best show.

The judges then proceeded to say that they weren't sure of the relationships between the family and guests, they couldn't discern WHY the characters did what they did, etc. etc.

They neglected to tell us that they'd MISSED the first act entirely in which these things were laid out like clockwork.

But that is not the ultimate hypocrisy we witnessed that day. In attempting to give the director a compliment, they revealed themselves to be total frauds and posers.

They complimented Judith on how she handled "Coward's umbrella business".

When we heard that phrase uttered we all began to giggle on the inside. We knew there was NO mention of "umbrellas" in "Hay Fever". Judith had invented that on her own. But they tried to make themselves seem like experts, as if they had seen 27 productions of "Hay Fever" and our take on "Coward's umbrella business" was the most original.

It was this production that opened my eyes to how deep you could go in the pursuit of the truth of a play. How it is a never-ending process. How you can, if you are willing, unfold infinities in every project you attempt.

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