Friday, May 14, 2010

'Tis Pity She's A Whore (Spring: 1997)

I left Rhode Island for New York in the winter of 1994. Over the next two years I would hustle auditions for student films (a few of which I booked and shot), I obsessively sent out head shots each week to every possible Back Stage notice (only one or two of which ever panned out into an actual call), and I worked a variety of day jobs to keep the stalled dream alive.

Compared to the constant stream of acting I'd done in the past six years in Rhode Island, things slowed to a veritable trickle.

Maria and I got married in August of 1996. We came back to the city and immediately began working together on the Urban Legends project. By this time I had a commercial agent and was freelancing with a theatrical one. I had booked an episode of "Law and Order" and shared a set with Benjamin Bratt and the late great Jerry Orbach. The day I found out I'd booked that job I booked a video for the band Live which you can watch here...

But I hadn't done a play since "True West" in the winter of '93. Almost four years earlier.

And then Frank Pisco asked me to do "Tis Pity She's A Whore" at Expanded Arts. Frank passed away too young a couple of years ago. We had a bit of a falling out which I will get to later but I always thought Frank was a great guy and quite a director. He had a brilliant idea for "Whore"...

He set the play in a bomb shelter in 1950's America. Nuclear paranoia and cultural repression force a kind of myopia on the denizens of the play.

The plot is as follows: Giovanni develops a growing sexual obsession with his sister Annabella. Upon hearing this confession, his priest implores him to turn his thoughts to God. But he cannot. Annabella is promised to be married to a powerful Senator. This impending cataclysm forces Giovanni's hand and he seduces his sister, almost but not quite against her will. She becomes pregnant which the Senator discovers on the eve of the wedding. Giovanni cannot bear to see his sister married and kills her, cutting her heart out. He is then pounced upon by the wedding party and killed himself.

The production was held in a storefront theater in lower Manhattan. The theater seated about twenty five people who sat in chairs lined up against either wall. The length of the space was about thirty feet and the width about twelve. The audience sat on either side of the rectangle and the action took place almost in their laps.

Frank also wanted the strange romantic music of the 40's to play a big part. On several occasions throughout the show actors sang along to standards of that era. I sang "Let's Fall In Love", not the one you think you know but a different song entirely, as Giovanni seduced Annabella, playing a romantic song and serenading her.

This love scene is still one of the more shocking things I've ever done as an actor. The scene was very sexy, the most explicit sexual scene I've ever done on any stage, but it took place literally inches from the audience. I stripped her down to a negligee while singing softly. Then I stood over her and stripped down myself, to a period appropriate pair of boxer shorts. Ford's scene ends with a declaration of love between the siblings but Frank rightfully took the sexual repression of the setting and exploded it by having the scene continue. We began kissing on the blanket I'd laid out for her and then crawled under the blanket to consummate the act.

The wonderful Siobhan Mahoney played my sister and we are friends to this day partially because of this strange theatrical gauntlet we had to traverse each night.

You could feel a dual response happen simultaneously. The scene was deliberately titillating. Sensuous. If you didn't know the context it would have been a steamy sex scene. But layered over that was this patina of disgust, a rejection of what was obviously happening. People DID NOT WANT US TO KISS. But they were turned on by it too. A great great moment.

The climax of the play involved me coming on stage carrying her bloody heart in my fist. We bought a pig heart and drenched it in fake blood. This was difficult for me. I don't know if you've ever held a real pig heart in your hand but I have and let me tell you, it isn't pleasant.

For the second time in the evening the audience was seriously challenged. It was obvious that this was not a prop. You didn't have to wonder whether that was tissue or man-made. It was clear. A collective retch rippled through the seats as they took in the fact that I'd killed her but also that I held the remnants of her life engine in my hand.

And Frank Pisco had envisioned all of this before we got started.

And now I'll explain the rift that occurred between Frank and myself, indeed between many members of the cast and myself as well.

I booked a Wendy's commercial. A national commercial. Which nowadays doesn't mean much but back then it could mean a lot of money. Later that year I booked a K-Mart commercial and made almost $20,000 on it in under a month. So this was not something I could turn down. It shot in Miami. I would have to miss a Sunday show in order to fly out to be in Miami on time.

Frank was livid. We didn't have an understudy. The show would have to be canceled for that night. I had my first taste of the balancing act that goes along with any kind of success. Frank kept accusing me of being unprofessional. I reminded him that I was making no money doing this show and that I'd already donated upwards of one hundred hours of rehearsal and performance. Maria and I were expecting a child by November of that year and there was simply no way I could refuse this job.

The cast was similarly angry. We had two shows to do before I headed out of town and the atmosphere was very grim. They were furious with me. On one level I understood but I also saw how this separated me from them. If any of them had booked a paying gig somewhere I'd have had no problem with them taking it. It is show BUSINESS. That is just how it goes. Free theater or paying job? I will take the paying job almost 99 times out of 100. That is why theaters have understudies.

But it took several years for the stain to wash away, for Frank to truly let his anger at me go. We were friends before that and not really friends afterward. In fact, on one night when Mike was in town later that year, Frank actually left a gathering at a bar because I arrived. So the feeling cut him deep.

I had no patience with this. As far as I was concerned I'd made the right choice for myself and my family.

The bitterness ebbed however and I saw him on several occasions before I moved from New York. We made peace with one another. Or, I should say he made peace with me. I never had a gripe with him.

We risked a lot on that production, all for a play written in 1633, and what I'll remember most is how we made the audience squirm in their seats, wishing we would stop doing what we were doing because it was BOTHERING THEM SO MUCH.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Looking Glass Shows (Fall, Winter, Spring: 1992-1993)

I ended my last post, as I am wont to do, with a dramatic exit line.

"I would never perform on stage in Rhode Island again."

And, as with most exit lines, it might be effective but that doesn't make it altogether true.

"True West" closed in January, if I recall correctly. And while I would never again rehearse and put up a play at night for grownups in Little Rhody, I was still doing two shows a day with Looking Glass Theater.

So before I make the fateful journey down I-95 and begin recounting my New York theater exploits I have to give a short precis of each of the magical shows we did in elementary schools all over New England.

But first, my audition two years earlier.

My friend Mitchell had been the third member of the troupe for a year but was moving to Chicago. He suggested that I take over for him. I thought this made it a done deal so I went to the audition much like I went to the "Camelot" one, full of what would turn out to be false confidence.

Diane Postoian put me through one of the more exhausting audition processes I've ever been through. And when I look back at what the job actually entailed, she was absolutely right to do so.

The offices of Looking Glass Theater were housed above a church in a leafy corner of the West Side of Providence. The space was filled with props from former shows, toys from the church day care and shelves and shelves of books. It feels like where the kids in the Peter Pan family might live.

We ran through a few scenes from some material they'd used in the past. We ran through a few scenes from a few of the shows they were currently running.

And then Diane said the words that can still shrink my testicles in any audition.

"Let's do some improv!"

Now, I know there are actors out there who just can't wait to be given permission to go off script. I am not one of them, especially in an audition situation. Part of this is a block that I've tried to approach over the years by facing it head on. I actually joined an improv company in Providence to get over my issue.

Part of the trouble is that when I go OFF, when I really go OFF, I tend to cross lines. My friends and family know this about me, which is why many of them are surprised when I say I don't really like improv. But I have, in the name of humor, ruffled so many feathers in my life that I can't really trust myself to play by the rules. I have made good friends cry. I've also said things which I thought were hilarious which offended just about everyone in earshot. I once had to leave a game of "Scruples" in college.

So part of my trepidation comes from a real sense of truth about my sense of humor and how utterly inappropriate it can get.

But part of it comes from a real love of STRUCTURE. To my way of thinking, the best art comes from forethought, from injecting spontaneity into craft. Do I think Sacha Baron Cohen is talented? Yes. Do I like the Borat movie? Not one bit. I think he was a thousand times more interesting in Talladega Nights. That's just me.

In any case, when Diane told me that the next phase of the process would be improv based I felt a giant lock close, shutting the door to my access. I started to sweat. And the cool job that I didn't know I really wanted started to slip away.

I don't even remember what she asked me to do, but she really needed to know whether I could think on my feet this way. The job entailed constant interactions with large groups of schoolkids, none of which would be scripted. Which I had no problem envisioning myself doing, but Diane didn't KNOW me, how could she KNOW that I'd be fine?

Anyway, the audition dragged on for what seemed like hours. I think that Diane was confused...why was the spark that she saw in my readings not present anymore? Why was this confident funny actor sweating bullets and stuttering?

Finally she asked me to ACT out a story from my childhood.

And I did, telling the infamous Case Of The Governor's Limo story.

By the end I was crouched on a tricycle pedaling madly, completely transported back to that day.

Diane later told me that this was the moment that sealed the deal for her. I wandered off into the Providence day EXHAUSTED.

I went into a whirlwind rehearsal process, learning the slate of shows that Looking Glass offered. There was a literacy show for younger kids that didn't really have a plot, it was more an interactive slide-show designed to get kids interested in books.

What I was most excited about was the production of "From The Mixed Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" in which I played Jamie, the resourceful younger brother of the heroine of the book. This book was a huge part of my childhood. I used to fantasize about doing just what the characters in the book do, run away and live in a museum!

There was a short lived production of "Strega Nona" that was shot down by Tommy Di Paola's lawyers. There was a disastrous adaptation of "The Search For Delicious" that was not directed by Diane and that we cast members eventually demanded be removed from the lineup. The schools were usually furious with us after that show, so bad was it. They were used to GREAT shows from Looking Glass and the response was akin to a patron who comes to their favorite restaurant every day and gets their usual only to find that it is DISGUSTING. The outrage is tripled because your expectations are so high.

In any case, my proudest memory from Looking Glass Theater is the show we created for Delta Dental on a State Grant. Taxpayer money put to good use! And I mean that.

Delta Dental had been given a big chunk of change to create a show that promoted taking good care of your teeth. We got the contract. They didn't know what they wanted. We came up with a show that ran for three or four years, long after I left.

And here is where the improv gene started to kick in in a different way. We had to create the show from scratch. The two actresses, Wendy and Christa, Diane and myself holed up above the church and started brainstorming and playing around. A few intense weeks later we had a show.

In it, Sweet Tooth is on trial for causing tooth decay. Wendy played Sweet Tooth as a Southern Belle in a Kentucky Derby hat. I played the lawyer prosecuting her for her terrible crime. But Christa played the kid who had to ultimately take responsibility for the health of her teeth, it wasn't Sweet Tooth's fault!

At least, that's how I remember it. I am probably getting some details wrong. The play was an absolute blast. The kids got to play teeth, they got to play germs, they got to play plaque, they got to be toothbrushes. The interactive aspect of the show was key.

I had a great line that I still remember to this day which ended with me browbeating Sweet Tooth about her "heinous sugar habit" which my Southern accent twisted into "HIGH-anus sugra habit". I loved that line.

But what I remember most about Looking Glass Theater is driving around Rhode Island in our van, carrying our show with us like we were on a cart pulled by a horse from town to town in the Middle Ages. We drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, talked about our lives and then turned right around and did shows at the drop of a hat.

I was going through a very difficult time and those relationships got me through it. So thanks, Diane, thanks for insisting that what I was offering wasn't quite enough, for sensing that I had more to give. And thanks to Wendy and Christa for putting up with my bullshit and pulling me through my own darkness.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

True West (Winter: 1993)

My relationship with Maria was unraveling. My bass player had moved to Alaska, effectively folding the band. New York beckoned like a siren to a sailor who knew the legend. Sure I could listen to the voices but the rocks were littered with the carcasses of those foolish enough to risk the attraction. I was petrified, not in terms of fear, but fixed, fossilized prematurely.

Along came Sam Shepherd. A production of "True West" organized by the woman who'd done the choreography for "Kind Ness". She must have sensed my hair trigger mentality because she cast me as Lee, the desert drifter with a permanent chip on his shoulder as opposed to the repressed frustrated writer, Austin. Opposite me in that role she cast an excellent local actor named Chris Perrotti. A very interesting bit of opposite casting as Chris was much bigger than me. This made the intimidation factor at the center of the play very complex.

We began rehearsing. The actors playing our mother and Austin's agent respectively were weak but the play doesn't need all four to work. If you have the brothers down the thrust of the story happens no matter what.

Chris and I had a great working relationship. We enjoyed each other's company which is also crucial to the depth of the play. If there is only animosity the play is nothing but a cock fight.

The winter of 1993 was cold and wet. We put the play on out at Rhode Island College where I'd run the final race of my high school cross country career. I'd not been back on that campus since. The theater was a characterless auditorium, more like a high school events hall than a theater. But the set was excellent, designed and built by Bill Denise, and we managed to evoke the heat and desolation of a desert community in the middle of a New England winter.

I also recorded a couple of my songs to be used as sound cues. I clearly was over-identifying with the sunburnt brain-scape of Lee and I think it hastened my departure from my relationship and from my home state.

I would rub dirt all over myself to prepare. I didn't wash my costume between shows. I poured beer over my head (non-alcoholic, of course) and didn't shave.

It was a good show. The fight between the brothers that precedes the stand-off ending was brutal, and since the director was a choreographer she was great with the movement aspect of such a confrontation. I wound up with a phone cord wrapped around my neck bucking underneath my brother like a wolf caught in a trap.

The post show beer was always very sweet with this one as Chris and I continually needed to reconnect to keep the conflict at the center of the play from bleeding into our off stage interaction. We would give each other the tough guy side-hug and toast the other performance.

Lee is constantly haunted by the lure of the desert, by the purity of self-sufficiency and loneliness. No hassles, no people, no society, no nothing.

The parts of me that connected with that made for a very visceral play. But those parts also kept me on a path of self-destruction that I am just now coming to terms with. Unlike Lee I always tried to counteract those tendencies by embracing connection, by moving towards tenderness. But I thought I could have my cake and eat it too.

Don't kid yourself. That cake eats you, friends.

Within a few months after the close of this play, Maria and I broke up for the first time and I moved back home to save up money to move to New York. I would never perform onstage in Rhode Island again.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Kind Ness (Winter: 1992)

Having made the decision to proceed chronologically, I am still not quite prepared for today.

I finished up "On The Verge" at URI, ending my college theater career once and for all. I moved into an apartment in Providence with a good friend from high school and a college friend of his. We shared a giant three bedroom apartment for $450 a month. Yes, we each had to cough up the giant sum of $150 a month.

I was taking in a paycheck doing children's theater. I can't really quantify how much I was learning in that arena but suffice it to say that room after room full of eight year old audiences will hone your energy real quick if you have any talent to begin with. Those kids don't know about TACT so they will just start talking to each other or themselves if they are bored. So you better be interesting. It should be like military service in France. Obligatory if you want to be an actor.

To augment that salary I was still working several shifts a week at the group homes. This combination of income made making my rent a piece of cake.

I sought out other opportunity in the strange little theater world of Providence. There was a notice put up for auditions at Perishable Theater for a play called "Kind Ness" by Ping Chong. I signed up.

I got the part and my life was changed forever.

I was still dating Marissa when rehearsals started but before we opened we'd broken up for good. I remember one rehearsal in particular I showed up at Perishable in tears because I'd finally broken it off with her. I wasn't sad that the relationship was over, no, that was definitely the right thing. But it served to show me how lost I was, how far from a true connection, how alone.

"Kind Ness" was like being thrust inside one of Joseph Cornell's boxes. Everything was beautiful and strange. Everything had multiple meanings. Stories existed on a basic plot level but also spread out to stranger places, twisting in and out of reality like a skein of mineral woven through coal.

Kate Lohman directed, being the first person ever to cast me who wasn't in some way connected to the University of Rhode Island. This was a big boost for me, to know that my work translated to strangers and wasn't only a function of familiarity. She was great to work with. The play is very conceptual and she'd clearly thought all of that through but the main thrust of her direction dealt with the relationships.

Chong's play tells the story of a group of children. We follow their lives from elementary school to young adulthood. They get their hearts broken, they go off to the Vietnam War, they sell out, they have nervous breakdowns. In other words, they are like everyone else.

But one of them is different. Buzz. Everyone remembers when Buzz came to the school for the first time. Buzz is a gorilla.

A kind of love triangle ensues between my character, Buzz and Lulu, the pin-up free spirit whose lack of inhibition sends her down a frightening path of her own.

We watch the innocent games that they play as youngsters shift and morph until they are hardened young adults still gunning for that kind of abandon without any of the freedom they didn't know they'd taken for granted.

It is a devastating work, one that I continue to think about all these years later.

A woman named Maria McManus was cast as Lulu. I knew no one in the cast which was also something new for me. I remember being very nervous on the first day of rehearsal, a table read of the play in a brick conference room at Perishable headquarters. I was literally in my first adult phase even though I was twenty three years old.

I was about to grow up fast.

I was still reeling from my breakup with Marissa. I was struggling to adjust to living on my own. I was in shock at my college life having ended. I threw myself into this play as if it was the last thing on earth.

Weeks went by before I started relating to the cast as actual people, so deep was I into the world of the play. Everyone gathered at a local bar one night. Maria and I wound up sitting next to each other and flew into a monster of a conversation. I don't remember the details, Maria might. But I walked away stunned at the connection I was feeling.

And worried. Maria had just gotten married a couple of months earlier.

I tried to divert the feelings. I wondered what to do. I was coming off a relationship that had in retrospect been nothing but a physical attraction wrapped up in a false connection promoted by the unity of a cast. I sure as hell didn't want to go down that road again, especially with a married woman.

I was also coming to terms with how negative my outlook on the world had become. Aside from my wonderful theater experiences, my personal life had been turbulent to an almost absurd level in college. It soured me, made me mistrust everyone, discount everything.

Somehow the connection I discovered with Maria changed all that. Coming so fast on the heels of such a disastrous explosive relationship, it made me realize that yes, I was a moral person, I did have standards, I didn't want some empty fling, I wanted a real relationship.

Unfortunately the person I discovered this through was already in a real relationship.

We tried to ignore it for a time but then it became impossible to get around it. We had a lunch near where she worked, to talk.

It is hard to go back to these moments now. So much has happened. Almost twenty years has passed. She ultimately left her husband to be with me. We broke up once in Providence, got back together once I moved to New York, got married, had the amazing Cashel, got divorced ourselves.

But that lunch was the start of it all, really. I could tell that she was confused and half-heartedly hoping that I would be up for some illicit connection. But I simply couldn't bring myself to open that particular can of worms. I had to protect myself.

And throughout it all we were performing this amazing play, this strange fever dream of a vision. At the end of the play my character Alvin has lost everything. The girl he has loved since he was eight has chosen a gorilla over him. The gorilla, Buzz, was his best friend. He went to Vietnam and came back in a wheelchair. His existence has eroded, like a majestic rock at the confluence of a river and the sea, ultimately worn down to a minute pebble.

This situation would drag on for months after the play closed. I wrote songs at a feverish rate and the pain forced new levels of artistry out of me.

I was so young.

It seems impossible that I could have been so young. I felt so old at the time, so burdened. I left the cast party closing night feeling as if I was driving over the edge of a horizon, but not the horizon I grew up with, the real horizon as I knew it to exist.

No, the horizon I sped towards was as it seemed to explorers of yesteryear, a mythic drop which lead to God knows where, who knows why. I screamed as I drove, thinking that I would never ever recover, just hoping that I wouldn't fall forever.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Geography Of Yearning: (Fall, 1992)

I wish I could take credit for the amazing title of today's post, but alas, I cannot. Eric Overmyer, who would go on to be one of the main writers for "Law And Order", coined the phrase, which is a secondary title to his genius play "On The Verge".

I started working as an actor for Looking Glass Theater in the fall of 1992. I'd done "South Pacific" at Theater-By-The-Sea that summer and was now going to be working full time as an actor. My ambition lay buried deep inside like a virus.

The producer of Theater-By-The-Sea was a Renaissance man named Richard Ericson. He had been producing plays for the better part of a decade in New York and had gotten a group of investors together and totally revamped Theater-By-The-Sea. He also was a dialect coach who'd worked with high-profile movie stars when they needed specific accent work. Richard hired Judith Swift to direct "South Pacific" and then she asked him to direct a play at URI that fall.

I was technically still a student at URI. I was taking the final English class that I needed to complete my English Literature degree. I had never heard of "On The Verge, or The Geography of Yearning" although I was certainly intimately familiar with the concept.

The play takes three modern women on a journey through time where they come face to face with eight different male characters, all ostensibly to be played by the same actor. Since it was a college production they split the eight parts up between four different actors. This still fulfilled the need of the play to place the male/female relationship in some sort of theoretical loop whereby certain roles are expected to be played.

The play begins in Victorian England with three women on an expedition. You slowly begin to realize that they are actually traveling forward through time. The two characters I played were Alphonse and Gus.

Alphonse is actually a nameless cannibal who has EATEN a man named Alphonse and taken on his soul. Alphonse had been a dirigible pilot who crashed his balloon in an unfortunate locale and was eaten. This led to some confusion in the character as he could talk openly about the balloon but didn't really know what it was.

Later in the play the women have traveled all the way to 1955. Gus is the epitome of the 1950's American teenager who is pumping gas and chewing gum.

It was strange to be back on the Will Theater stage. I was acting during the day in elementary schools all over the state and living at home. My life was an odd mix of adulthood and prolonged adolescence.

I'd started a band. I was making money. But I was still in college and living with my parents. Marissa and I were quickly disintegrating. She was a full-time RISD student and had an entire existence happening that had nothing to do with me. The happy little world of the summer stock romance had almost completely dissipated, like a brake pad worn away until metal screeched against metal.

I was very busy. I did two shows a day, rehearsed "On The Verge" at night, and had one or two band rehearsals a week as well.

The set for "On The Verge" was magical. It looked like an old-fashioned pocket-watch, the kind hung from a fob, open on the stage. It was highly raked, which is a theater term meaning it was tilted towards the audience. When you stood on it it was like standing on a steep hill. You could stand under the set and have your feet on the stage floor.

This led to my favorite entrance that I've ever made in any theatrical production.

The women have fought their way forward into the future, marveling at the changes that they've witnessed while also struggling to make sense out of the MAN they keep encountering who seems hellbent on making their journey intolerable. As they hit the 1950's they have had it up to here with the MAN.

For my entrance I headed down into the tunnels beneath the stage. Quietly. There, on an elaborate pulley system, sat a gas pump right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I wore jeans and a t-shirt with a baseball hat. A team of backstage workers sat silently in little cubby-corners waiting for my cue.

When it came, they pulled on their levers and I flew fifteen feet up into the air through an opening in the stage. From the audience's perspective, a hole opened up in the stage and I shot up through it, snapping my gum and polishing the gas pump with a handkerchief. It was a great stage effect.

Of course the women have no idea what a car is, what Chiclets are, let alone any frame of reference to deal with an American teenager. But Gus is, for the first time, an innocent in his dealings with the women. He doesn't actively try to throw them off, he simply is too young to know anything.

I had a hard time with this role. He was so fresh, so without guile, so positive. It was very difficult for me to get in touch with those qualities. It was as if I'd lost the ability to perceive them in me. I remember Richard trying to get us to improv the scene to achieve some sort of a breakthrough. I was very rigid and resistant. I didn't like improv as a rehearsal tool. I still don't but I would be so much more capable of giving over to the experience now. Then? I couldn't let go.

Strange that I'd spent almost a full year in a foreign country and yet was still almost entirely incapable of having an open mind. I was busy in artistic pursuit pretty much twenty-four-seven but there was no release. No sense of achievement. I was Jetson on a treadmill.

You'd think I might have cottoned on the the thrust of Overmyer's play, but when you don't allow yourself to yearn, you have no geography to map.