Friday, May 7, 2010

Theater By The Sea (Summer: 1992)

So after nine months of drinking, smoking, baguettes and butter, I stumble onto a plane in Paris which is almost completely empty and fall asleep on a middle aisle. I am going back to America.

I have no plan. I have no money. I have not thought past the next cup of coffee. I've been having so much fun drowning my sorrows that I'm not really sure what my sorrows are anymore. I've made such great friends in France that I am already crushed with grief at the thought that our bizarre expatriate gang will no longer convene on a daily basis.

I'd had some dim fantasy of going to France and doing a play with the University of Orleans theater company. But as it turned out, the University doesn't even offer theater CLASSES. At URI if you wanted to do theater you could. Here? If you wanted to do theater you had to declare that to be your profession of choice and go to a school specifically designed for that purpose, a private school. Them Socialists don't want to pay for Arts programs any more than us Capitalists do.

My host family found some strange theater company for teenagers that met weekly in Orleans proper. I went to a "rehearsal" which consisted of improv/theater games. After watching a pimply nerd terrorize a girl with a blindfold who was "blind" I realized how lucky I'd been with the training I'd received. It was the first moment that I realized I might already be a pro.

The long and short of it? The nine months I spent in France is the longest I've ever gone in my life since before high school without being involved in some sort of theatrical endeavor. And you know what? I NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT ACTING WHILE I WAS THERE.

In any case, when I returned I was truly lost. I'd needed nine credits to graduate, the equivalent of three classes. I normally took five per semester, or thirty credits a year. The classes I took in France added up to thirty credits total. All I needed was nine and I'd be done. I got eight.

Eight out of thirty. I'd not done much studying. In spite of this I think I learned a lot more French than most of the foreign exchange students who spent all of their time with each other speaking English. I was with French people the majority of the time and became very fluent.

This meant that I'd have to take one more English class to graduate. Which meant that my college career would stretch through the fifth year and into the sixth. I'd not even thought of moving to New York, moving to Los Angeles. It was as if my vision of being an actor began and ended in Will Theater.

But then Judith Swift probably saved my life.

She was directing "South Pacific" at Theater-By-The-Sea in Matunuck, RI. Now, Theater-By-The-Sea is a kind of magical place for me. I grew up going to see musicals there with my family and feeling so grown up and special when I ate a hamburger and had a Shirley Temple in the restaurant before the show. Theater-By-The-Sea is one of those perfect summer stock theaters that become a part of the landscape of a town.

Judith cast me as "The Professor", a kind of sidekick to Luther, a GI who is trying to make a buck off the war.

So. Instead of driving a van for Belmont Fruit again, instead of going back to work at the group homes, instead of waiting tables at the Seahorse Grill (the restaurant next to the Theater) I was REHEARSING. With professional actors from NYC.

Now, let's get straight. I wasn't Equity so they didn't have to pay me much. But I didn't care. I'd have done it for free. Hell, I'm still doing it for free almost twenty years later.

I began dating the Phillipino girl who was playing Liat, the island goddess. She was a RISD art student who'd never acted before in her life. Which was fine since all she had to do was walk onstage in a bikini and sarong and look gorgeous. The producer of the play had not found anyone who could play the part until one night he was eating out in Providence with his boyfriend. Marissa was their waitress and he asked her if she wanted to be in a play.

Marissa was a tough smart cookie from Baltimore. She thought this whole theater thing was kind of dumb but she needed the money and it was better than waiting tables. Our relationship during the summer was contained in the cast so it was a kind of perfection. At the end of the run when our de-facto family dispersed, the truth started to become more apparent.

The show itself was a blast. A fine group of actors, a couple of whom I've remained friends with to this day. Dante and Chris. I remember a couple of hilarious moments from that show, one where Dante had some piece of cotton stuck to his face during a scene and Chris and I just couldn't get over it. We were laughing so hard we could barely do the scenes. Also once while sitting on stage during one of Judith's patented freezes, I had to sit in silence while a giant spider crawled up my arm.

The cast party took over the whole compound. The cabaret after the show was always a raucous affair with people singing standards and bawdy comic songs on a small stage with an accompanist. Marissa and I were sort of overcome with an emotional response to the closing of the show and we were both crying like crazy. The seasoned NY actors were sweet about it but you could tell they were sort of like, "Another opening, another show."

For us it was like the cocoon was bursting.

I was offered a role in the touring production of "The Music Man" that the company was organizing. Instead I took over for my friend Mitchell in the children's theater company based in Providence called "Looking Glass Theater".

This decision was ostensibly because I'd get to live in Providence and continue to date Marissa. This was the end of July. Within two weeks of the closing of the play we were fighting like cats and dogs. We continued to fight all the way through til Christmas when we would finally break up when she went to London.

By then I'd have done two more plays, one at URI and one at Perishable Theater. At Perishable I would meet Maria and my life would change forever.

But first, "On The Verge". My last ever college acting gig.

The biggest thing that I take away from all of this? I have been so consistently lucky throughout my acting life. When I think back to being a little kid in the seats of that old barn, when I fast forward to the moment I stepped on that same stage as an actor, right there I know that it was all worth it. I'd already come full circle even before I'd even gotten started.

Oh, and did I mention that Marlon Brando acted there? Yeah. I walked the same stage as the greatest of all time. And I even spent a night in his room with a beautiful girl. By then it was a falling down shack, but still...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Rivals (Spring: 1991)

I just had to look up "The Rivals" on Wikipedia to remember what part I played. That should give you an indication as to how deeply this production affected me.

Another guest director had arrived on the scene. His name was Harland Meltzer and he ran The Colonial Theater in Westerly, RI. I think the theater is still going. I have a vivid memory of seeing The Glass Menagerie there while in high school. I remember loving live theater but wondering why the Gentleman Caller was wearing tube socks with dress shoes.

Harland had a brace on his leg that seemed like a bear trap in need of a good oiling. He stomped around Will Theater squeaking and wheezing and barking orders left and right. The play requires a huge cast and goes on and on and on. I'm not sure why this play has lasted as long as it has, why the generous folds of time haven't been good enough to disappear it forever, but it is still around and we were the latest fools to take a crack at it.

Like I said, I had to look up a synopsis to find out that I played Bob Acres. All I can remember is that I played a coward and no amount of groveling or sniveling was sufficient for Mr. Meltzer. The man I was supposed to have a duel with was a giant slow-moving slow-talking ACTOR who saw each word he uttered as a way to exercise the muscles in his face. Performing this play was EXCRUCIATING.

The set was as hazy in the moment as my memory of the entire process is now. I remember cavernous space spiked by columns and strange wispy tree branches, the playing space peppered with a bench here and a flat there. Every time you walked on stage you felt as if you might just never find your way off again.

At the time I was furious. This was going to be my last play at URI??? (Little did I know that I would be back for one final show after spending a year in France.)

My personal life was a sort of twisted mirror of the production. The relationship I'd been in since the beginning of the year was knotting new nooses daily. I'd broken up with her for an old friend, changed my mind, she'd gone back to someone else, changed her mind, I'd bounced back and forth like a pinball in an angry machine.

The whole atmosphere of the theater department seemed soured and I was a big part of it. I was actively bitter, acerbic by choice. The jaded core of me expanded exponentially as the semester drew to a close. This is when the infamous Plum On My Heel incident occurred.

I have had some pretty dark times since. But I honestly feel as if that period is the lowest I've ever been. The daily pain was so intense, so relentless that I couldn't even look forward to a nine month trip to Europe.

I've recently made great strides in dealing with my darker side, finally wrestling demons instead of joining with them. "The Rivals" came about at a time when I really needed a ray of light, something sweet to cut the acid. Instead the litmus grew redder with each added moment, the mercury in the barometer dove deeper and deeper, trying to calculate the depth of the storm.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


William Butler Yeats famously wrote that "the center cannot hold". In looking back on my time at URI I realize now that the ooze had begun even if I wasn't perceiving it at the moment.

When I arrived at URI the talent level was astronomical. Many of the actors there continued acting professionally. They continued dedicating their lives and talent to the pursuit of creativity.

By the time 1990 rolled around this was not the case. Oh, the actors would have SAID that they would never stop acting but within a few years most of them would have given up the ghost for good. So you had people there for the wrong reasons, or for reasons that were unclear even to them.

My sister had moved on. Jackie had moved on. Brooke had moved on. Julia had moved on. Nancy had moved on. Anthony had moved on. Bill L. had moved on.

Talented people had arrived as well but from my perspective it was as if a Golden Era had just turned. It was the day before the stock market crashed. It was the first day of the season AFTER you won the championship. There was no center. Everything was fringe and slipping further out daily.

"Camelot" was to be the winter musical. I assumed that I would play King Arthur. Cocky bastard that I was I didn't work hard on my singing audition. The part is mostly talk singing to begin with and I just figured I would breeze in there and get the part.

I was outraged for about five minutes when I found out that I'd been cast as King Pellinore, the senile knight errant in pursuit of the Questing Beast. The character was supposed to be OLD, what could Judith have been thinking??? Also they cast an older non-student as Arthur for pete's sake...

I talked of a bitter senior complaining at the casting notices of my first show "Hay Fever" and here I was three and a half years later bitching and moaning myself. But deep in my heart I knew I hadn't given them reason enough to cast me as Arthur. I was mad, sure, but mostly mad at myself for half-assing my audition for a part that I might have gotten if I'd put my whole self into it.

Because of this laziness and ego I never got to SING a song as a character while at URI. I sang in the chorus but never as a character who gets a song of their own. Boo hoo!!!

Judith's rationale behind casting me as a wrinkled old knight was sound...the play takes place in a world where magic is commonplace. Why wouldn't this character age backwards like Merlin does?

Speaking of Merlin, Judith cast Mitchell as the Wizard, and this worked like a charm. Mitchell is a dancer, Mitchell is one of the most physically gifted actors I've ever seen. When you hear "Merlin" you immediately think of Ian McKellan as Gandalf or Peter O'Toole or some such. Making Merlin young and spry and full of motion only furthered the notion that he was closer to the END of his backwards time journey than he was to the beginning.

One of our fondest shared memories occurred in this play...there was a slow-motion battle sequence which was MURDER to choreograph. At one point I was spotlighted stage right swinging a broad sword in an endless crawl and screaming, "MEEERRRRLLLLIIINNNNNN!!!!!!" Try yelling slow and see how it feels. We laugh about this moment to this day, Mitchell somewhere else on stage moving in molasses but also highly urgently hearing me yell to him as slow as can be.

For the first time ever I was to share the stage with an animal. Pellinore is hunting the Questing Beast with his trusty dog. A trained Cocker Spaniel was hired to play this part. I barge into Camelot during a May Day Feast with the dog on a leash. Everyone on stage had at least one dog biscuit hidden in their clothing so that the dog would be surrounded by temptation. He would want to sniff every single person out there.

He strained at the leash, pulling me along. I had let my hair grow and also sported a full beard. To highlight my having been on a quest in the woods they wove flowers in my hair which gave me a vague hippie vibe. I stumble on stage to find lords and ladies draped over one another in almost-coital embraces. I beg for their help in finding the Questing Beast.

Most of the monologue is about my dog. One matinee the dog owner never showed up. So I had to improvise an entire monologue about MISSING my dog, having LOST my dog while on my quest. My entrance came about forty minutes into the play so no one on stage knew the dog was a no-show.

So they are all lounging over one another and out I come holding just a leash and a dog biscuit. Crying. Crying because I'd been in hot pursuit of the Questing Beast and my dog had run off after him and I couldn't find either of them. I remember the whole cast looking at me like I was insane which only added to the hilarity.

At the end of the show came the appearance of the second animal in the cast. The final battle has been fought and a horse rides on stage bearing the flag of Camelot. It was awesome! The horse waited outside the theater until it was time for his cue. Then an actor with horse experience dressed in chain-mail hopped on, grabbed the staff and flag and clip-clopped out and across the battle scarred scene.

Now, was this show up there with "Drood" or "Anne" or "Hay Fever" or "Biloxi Blues"? No, certainly not. But that perception is mostly due to the connection I had built up with the PEOPLE in those shows, not to the shows themselves. I'm sure if some audience member had seen all of them they might have liked "Camelot" best.

In my own life the "center" wasn't holding either. I was deep into a classic college relationship founded on little more than convenience and lust. I was preparing to leave the country for at least a year.

I was staring adulthood in the face, desperately trying to stretch each blink into denial.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Crimes Of The Heart (Fall: 1990)

So far in these URI Theater recollections, the one constant is the fantastic work of the design department in constructing gorgeous functional sets that worked perfectly in the very large Will Theater.

Also consistently excellent were the productions themselves, vastly different from one another but always challenging, always well executed.

We were all about to collectively lay an egg.

Beth Henley's "Crimes Of The Heart" is an intimate little drama/comedy that takes place entirely in the kitchen of a Southern farmhouse. It is really a wonderful little play, perhaps a tad overrated once you really explore it, but very well written and full of funny idiosyncratic characters.

I'll get to the failure of the Design Department later because it was the straw that broke the camel's back, but the camel (meaning the cast and the thrust of the direction)was already suffering from a pretty bad freakin' back before that last straw landed.

Kimber tended to cast by feel more than anything else and even if it didn't work out you could totally see why he'd done what he'd done. The sisters were to be played by a relatively new trio of actresses, new to the department anyway. One girl had never done a full length play before and she was to play the critical part of the sister who has murdered her abusive husband.

Her vibe was perfect. She had a lushness to her, a beauty that men would naturally project all kinds of desires onto but that she didn't inherently trust. She was a tomboy who had just become a hot young thing. But in this case, the personal journey of the actress kept her from embodying that sense of ease, that knowledge of what men could be manipulated into which some beautiful women possess without thinking about it at all.

Her oldest uptight sister was fantastic but the glamor girl back from a disastrous stint in California was similarly stumped by the complexity of the part. My good friend Alec played the laconic limping sexy cowboy and I played the hapless lawyer hired to represent the girl charged with murder.

Again, I hesitate to pat myself on the back or criticize other actors at all but the fact was that by this point both Alec and I had CARRIED mainstage productions. He didn't go on to pursue a career but he most certainly could have with his talent and flexibility. We were more experienced in general and more comfortable with Kimber in his sometimes difficult process.

Halfway through the rehearsal process I realized we were in trouble. Kimber would routinely cut rehearsal short out of frustration. He saw no point in beating his head against a wall. I respect that to a certain degree but I still feel like a few choice words might have righted the ship.

And then, just when we were struggling mightily to get a handle on the play, the kitchen set was unveiled to us for the first time.

I knew right away we were doomed.

The set itself was gorgeous. The interior of a Southern farmhouse in great detail. The floor of the stage had been transformed into a faded sparkling yellow linoleum, cabinets lined the walls with intricate woodwork, detail upon detail piled up.

But it was GIGANTIC. And wide. The farmhouse from the outside must have been almost a mansion. Not only was this a bit out of scale according to the modest history of the family involved but it meant that we would be playing intimate two person scenes across a kitchen table that from the audience seemed about as big as a piece of dollhouse furniture.

I vividly remember sitting across from the lovely young struggling actress during the show. There were hints of a good performance going on but I was the only one who would ever possibly see them. In order to compensate I had to thrust the entirety of my performance out to the crowd so that they would at least get 50% of the plot.

It was brutal. A similar thing was occurring in the scenes with Alec and the sister he was tentatively romancing. The compensation required of him tipped the balance of the scenes in such a way that it became the story of an injured cowboy trying to woo a woman instead of what it is supposed to be: the story of a heartbroken woman who isn't sure if she can open up one more time to the possibility of love.

Now, if you looked at the diagram of the set, if you looked at the sketches, you'd say to yourself, "That is perfect. Gorgeous. Real. Evocative." It is only when you put an actor on it, it is only when you see it to scale with human behavior directly on it, that you know it is totally wrong.

Most of the crowd that I came in with had moved on by now. A whole new crop of actors were arriving. I made good friends with that crew but something special had already gone out the door. Up to that point I'd been involved in magical experience after magical experience: "Hay Fever", "Drood", "The Molieres", "Biloxi Blues", "The Comedy Of Errors".

Up to that point I'd assumed it would always be like that. I see now how lucky that run was, how lucky we'd been to have such a talented group of actors, how perfectly the shows chosen had made use of their talent. I'd already made plans to spend a fifth year abroad so I knew my time in the department was coming to a close (little did I know that I would do one more show upon my return from Europe...).

The trajectory was like that of a rocket returning to liftoff. The spectacular explosion had not come at the end of the journey but rather the beginning. The matter reassembled slowly but surely, anti-climax being built into the process. I remember railing against this feeling, craving the excellence that had seemed so effortless my first three years on campus.

There would be no more magic shows. "Camelot" was announced as the winter musical...

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Comedy Of Errors (Spring: 1990)

The decade had turned. I was so ensconced in the URI Theater Department that it might as well have been a cult. I was about to dive deeper into that commitment, discovering a love of Shakespeare that continues to this day.

John Neville-Andrews is a British actor who is also something of a Shakespeare scholar. He headed The Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC which was affiliated with The Folger Library, the leading American Shakespeare collection. At one point he was married to Helen Mirren. He was a dashing natty dresser, a raconteur and a sort of Vaudevillian, a library of bits and stage play.

He charmed everyone immediately.

I'd never done any Shakespeare. I'd had to read something in high school and I think I'd seen a traveling educational production or two but I really came to this production with a blank slate.

'The Comedy Of Errors' filled that slate up pretty quick.

The double set of twin brothers at the core will show you how low Shakespeare would stoop in order to get laughs. Really, Bill? Two sets of identical twins, servant and master, separated at birth, reunited only after mistaken identity wreaks all sorts of havoc? If you tried to pitch this as a movie idea today you would get laughed out of the room.

But you rehearse those lines and put them up in front of an audience and magic inevitably occurs.

Two wonderful actors played the Dromio servants, Mitchell Fain and James Simon. Also two of the funniest smartest most awesome friends you could ever have. I was paired with Anthony Cinelli, another fantastic actor, as the two Antipholus'. He was much taller than I was and had an aquiline nose. They created a false nose for me which was amazingly lifelike and I wore lifts in my shoes so I would appear to be taller.

Neville-Andrews decided to set the play just before WWI in some Middle Eastern desert exotic desert locale. So our costumes, much like "Hay Fever" two years prior, were impossibly elegant suits and gorgeous cocktail dresses. I matched my fictional long lost twin in a dashing white linen suit and felt like Fred Astaire as I went up and down the wide (seemingly) pink marble staircase of the luxury hotel where all of the mix-ups took place.

There was a working fountain downstage left with a statue in it. Again, the design team outdid themselves as we were enveloped in an architectural dream of a hotel.

For the first time in my tenure at URI, however, I was stuck onstage with a dud of an actress. I don't remember her name and I wouldn't use it if I did because I am very protective of even the worst member of my tribe.

But this was extreme. She really had no business being onstage. But this goes to show you how great Shakespeare is. Sure it would have been great if some wonderful actress had taken that role and run with it. But not even a rank amateur could ruin the perfect structure of this lightweight early work from Billy Boy from Avon.

I can still see Mitchell and James in their matching outfits, more like chauffeurs than anything else. There were pratfalls, slamming doors, fistfights, you name it. I remember the process being rather effortless because the four of us carried much of the play and we all knew our shit very early on.

Neville-Andrews had a light touch and stayed out of our way for the most part. Or at least that's how I remember it. Mitchell and James might see things a little differently. Having been directed only by Kimber and Judith over my first two years I was excited to garner some new input. And while he was very good it only cemented how lucky I was to have such talented directors to work with.

Somehow the communal partying of "How To Succeed" had mellowed a bit. Perhaps the group realized they were out of control and collectively pulled it back a little bit. Perhaps the presence of an outsider at the helm kept everyone on their best behavior.

Or perhaps the cast couldn't quite gel because we had to ignore the central female performance. Chemistry is a tricky thing especially when you throw in the language wild card in a Shakespeare play. We had to expend so much energy to keep the momentum of the play going around her scenes we might have just been a little too worn out to party.