Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Pearl Anniversary

In the first weeks of this blog, I wrote a letter to my mother
In the intervening six years of my blithering on and on in these pages, I have occasionally written more about her.  But she deserves another entry today.  My memory is a bit spotty about my mother's 10 year battle with the breast cancer which ultimately took her life, but I have strong memories of March 28, 1983, 30 years ago today, the day she died.
Earliest known shot of my mother and me.
We brought my mother home from her final visit to the hospital several months earlier.  We were told her battle was coming to an end;  she was indeed terminal.  The doctors, in their wisdom, predicted she might last another month to 6 weeks.  She lived longer than that.  She was on oxygen, and a large tank, resembling an oil drum, was set up next to the king sized bed in the master bedroom.  She had a portable tank, too, which she occasionally used when she left the bedroom, but that became infrequent after a while.  She was just too weak to walk. 

My mother's 4th child was this dog:
Ashley Wilkes Williams. He was manic
about playing ball, and was not allowed
beyond the kitchen. But if he detected
Mom was in distress, he broke the rules
 and charged up the stairs.

We did not hire home care, which would have been the last thing my mother wanted: to have a stranger bustling around her at this intimately private moment.  We set about doing Home Care on our own.  My older sister Laura, who lived in Atlanta, flew out to Los Angeles.  She was a homemaker, in an age when that species was pretty much extinct, so she was the one usually making the meals and running that aspect of the house.  My younger sister Joan, who was studying at UCLA at the time, and living on campus, stopped going to class and moved home.  She slept on the floor next to my mother's bed, and spent a lot of time in the room with her. 
My sisters shared the workload of caring for my mother in her last weeks.  Here, they shared a pizza.
My father still had to go to work during this period;  he slept in the guest room so as not to disturb my mother. 
The oxygen tank which sat next to Mom's
bed looked a lot like this, but with valves and
gauges. It was impossible to pretend all was
well with this thing whirring away.

I didn't do much during this period, other than keep tabs on the oxygen levels, and arrange for the tanks to be exchanged when needed.  My sisters handled most of the daily tasks associated with caring for my mother.   I took my turn, you see, the previous ten years.

1974, my senior year of high school, coincided with the first year of my mother's cancer diagnosis.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after we moved to L.A. in 1973.  I lost track of the various surgeries, chemotherapies and radiation treatments she endured for the following decade.  Some years were better than others, as she seemed to be in remission, and life went on as normally as possible.  But those periodic visits to the oncologist, to "check the numbers" or to scan for disease activity, were fraught with anxiety, though my mother rarely showed it. 

I can't imagine how my father coped.
During Mom's final weeks, he was forced into making
"final arrangements": funeral, cremation, interment,
all while watching his life partner
drift away.

I lived at home all through that decade, while little sis Joan eventually moved on campus and big sis Laura maintained her own family across the country.  Most of those years, our family lived a relatively normal, uneventful life.  After college (during which, as I said, I lived at home), I was working two part-time jobs, as a waiter and as a customer service clerk at Sears, while doing shows at night.  So I can't claim to have spent a huge amount of time with my mother during those years, except that I slept there.  And ate there.  And sat many times with her, casually chatting away, not realizing how those moments would become special to me in memory.

We did have a routine for a while.  I would come home from whichever job I had attended, often around 5 or 6.  My father was a workaholic at Lockheed and was never expected home until much later in the evening.  I would dash upstairs to check the messages on my phone machine (remember those?) and to change out of whichever uniform I had worn to whichever job that day:  tie and slacks for Sears, dreary brown vest and sensible shoes for the restaurant. 
Halloween with "my Sears Ladies," as I called the middle-aged women with whom I worked in the Sears Complaint Dept.  At my mother's insistence, we kept her disease private, so these ladies did not know how much they helped me during the long fight. These women tended to treat me as a surrogate son, and I allowed them to mother me.
After leaving me alone a little while, my mom, puttering around in the kitchen, would holler up the stairs to me, "Want a cocktail?"  This was a running joke with us;  our "cocktail hour" consisted of sharing a can of light beer while we chatted about our day (it was my mother, incidentally, who clued me in to the fact that you could get more head on your beer if you salted it.  It's a trick I still use).  

This must have been during my teen years.  I don't see any beer.

Those early evening chats were always about normal, mundane things;  we rarely if ever spoke about her cancer.  She was determined that her individual fight would not interfere with our family life, as long as she could help it.  So, when she was undergoing chemo, she always took her treatments on Monday, so that the accompanying nausea would happen mid-week, and she would feel relatively fine by Friday.  The weekends, then, felt normal to her and to us.
My mother is known as "Jo" to her grandkids.

In another entry one day, I'll probably relate the story of the day my mother's cancer returned for the final time, about a year before she died, but I'll wait on that one.  I have so many memories flying around my head this time of year.  My mother was taken, as I mentioned, on March 28, which, in 1983, landed on the Monday between Palm Sunday and Easter; Christians call this Holy Week.  This is a fairly unusual occurrence, as Easter is usually later in April.  This year, 30 years later, March 28 once again falls during Holy Week.  I'm not particularly religious, but I like to think that coincidence has some sort of cosmic significance.
Jo was a hometown beauty,  the first
Apple Blossom Queen of Hendersonville, NC.
She resembled Rita Hayward during this time;
I wrote about that here.

The atmosphere around the house was not as grim as you might imagine, during those final weeks 30 years ago.  Joan did a great job of keeping my mother's spirits up as she became more and more bedridden.  I remember one afternoon bounding up the stairs after my day shift at Sears, to the tune of dance music pounding from the master suite. 

As a married woman, Jo was often
told she resembled Juliet Prowse;
I wrote about that here.

Michael Jackson's Thriller was the album of the day, and one of its many hits was playing on the radio.  Mom was sitting up in bed, contentedly knitting or reading or something.  Her feet under the covers were bopping around to the beat.
Even bedridden, you had to dance to this album.
I'm not sure when exactly my mother realized that she was terminal.  At least in those days, such patients were not informed of the bad news unless they specifically demanded the truth. 
I was in rehearsal as Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace
during my mother's last weeks
(I wrote about that experience here).
If I hadn't had this goofy show
to return to after her death, I wouldn't have made it.

The oncologist in charge, one Dr. Chernoff by name, was an expert, I suppose, in losing patients, and his advice was to allow my mother to come to the realization on her own.  So when we brought her home from the hospital in January of '83, she was under the impression that more treatment would be proscribed.  Chernoff, to his credit (and believe me, I don't give him much) liked my mother enough to actually perform house calls, unheard of in modern times.  During one such visit, I overheard Mom ask what the next step for her would be.  He replied simply that she would be given some steroids to strengthen her and to make her more comfortable.  A silence lingered after his answer, and I have a hunch it was at that moment that my mother began to realize she was not going to recover.

At one point, she surprised us by asking to see a minister.  My parents were members of a local Presbyterian church, but did not by any means attend regularly.  The minister there was happy to come out to see my mom.  I brought him up to her room, and as I closed the door to give them privacy, I heard her demand, "So, do you really believe there is a heaven?"

Clearly, in a very private way, my mother was struggling with her truth.  As I mentioned, she lived longer than the doctors predicted.  As the days lengthened into weeks, Laura had to return home to tend to her own family.  A few days more went by, and my mother stopped speaking much, and stopped eating at all. 
I used this cheap ice crusher many times daily to
refill Mom's bedside glass. She sucked on crushed ice
to ease the painful sores which developed in her mouth.
The sound of this machine is unmistakable. After her
death, I threw it out. 30 years later, I still can't stand
the sound of ice crushing in a machine; I have to
leave the room.

I'm told this is quite common for terminal patients when they realize they are not going to survive.  After several days went by, during which she refused all food, Laura returned to L.A., and we resumed The Wait.  Ultimately, Mom began eating again; she must have come to some kind of peace in her own mind.  I was sitting with her one afternoon, giving my sisters a break.  She slept a lot during those last days, and the bed was so huge (and she was at that point very, very small) that I was lying on top of the covers on my father's side of the bed, reading.  She turned over, from one side to the other, and murmured to no one in particular, "I'm so tired of this."

The evening of the 28th, she began to have substantial trouble breathing.  She didn't seem to be getting enough oxygen, and I called our technician, asking for a better mask for her;  she had been using one of those which put tubes up the nostrils.  He hurried over with one of those over the mouth-and-nose things, but he arrived too late.  I don't think it would have done much good.  It was time.

But we were all there;  my memory is crystal clear on the scene.  My father was kneeling at the side of the bed, holding my mother's hand. Her eyes were transfixed on his.  My sisters were sitting motionless, waiting for the inevitable.  And me, I was standing up, but very still.  I have to admit that we were not a particularly close family, the kids were raised to go our individual ways, but during this terrible period, we banded together.  And at that moment, 30 years ago today, I'm sure we helped her.  At the moment she died, we were all there.  In a way, we were my mother's angels.  And that gives me comfort.
Joan "Jo" Williams
10/18/28 - 3/28/83

Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday Dance Party: The Culture Of Rape

I wish I had a clip of the production of Man of La Mancha in which I appeared.  Nancy O'Bryan as Aldonza broke your heart.
Not a very nice phrase, is it, "the culture of rape"?  The term has been tossed around a lot recently, most notably this week, as the notorious Steubenville case concluded.  Those animals were lucky to be tried in juvenile court, and deserve to be labeled sex offenders for the rest of their lives, because that is what they are.
The little hamlet where these punks perpetrated their crimes has been called a real Football Town, where the high school players are treated as kings and they are protected from the consequences of their actions.  When the verdict was announced this week, one of them broke down into tears and moaned to his lawyer, "now no one will want me."  Was he worried that no woman would ever wish to spend her life with a sex offender?  No, he was worried that no FOOTBALL TEAM would want him.
Not a very pleasant subject for the Dance Party, is it?  I've been wondering this week how often violence against women has been featured as entertainment, and how rarely there are meaningful consequences for the perpetrators. 
The Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut Carousel has an abusive relationship at its center.  Billy Bigelow had a nasty habit of slapping around his gal, and even physically threatened his own daughter from the afterlife.
I seem to remember the film The Color Purple had a very violent streak, so I assume the musical version does, too.  Violence against women has always been dramatically titillating, I suppose, and the culture in which it seems acceptable has been around for a long, long, time.
Even if you've never watched a daytime soap in your life, you've heard of Luke and Laura.  This romantic duo from General Hospital are still on the show's canvas more than 30 years later.  Their wedding remains the highest rated episode in the history of daytime drama.  They landed on the covers of People and Newsweek and inspired the term "supercouple."  Know how their romance began?  He dragged her onto the floor of a disco and raped her.  But the chemistry between the actors was so strong, Luke was transformed into an offbeat hero.  Unbelievably, this is not the only instance in soap history when a rapist became so popular that he was reinvented as a leading man. General Hospital has TWO such anti-heroes.
That most famous of chamber musicals, The Fantasticks, features a "Rape Ballet," a comic sequence in which a kidnapping of the ingenue is staged.  Preceding that insensitively named segment, the score features a song which, for decades, was commonly called "the Rape Song." 

As Mortimer in The Fantasticks, I participated in the comically rendered "Rape Ballet." Even as a teenager in the 70s, I was uneasy with the way the writers bandied around that word. Didn't "rape" always mean sexual violence? Apparently the writers did not think so.
The lyrics repeated "rape" over and over, comedically, as a conman convinces the ingenue's father that the "rape" (his word) of his daughter will be a good thing.  "Rape is the proper term," El Gallo assured the dad.  "It's short and businesslike."

Or at least it was.  The creators of The Fantasticks, many many years too late, were convinced to change their offensive language;  all mention of rape has now been removed from the classic show.
In The Fantasticks, Schmidt and Jones did not intend a sexual meaning when they composed their Rape Ballet.  The fact that the sequence remained in the show, under that name, for decades, speaks volumes. (I wrote about The Fantasticks a while back and mentioned this issue.)
This week's Dance Party features a searing number from an old warhorse, Man of La Mancha.  This musical from the mid-60s did not shy away from violence;  this song is sung by the leading lady, a prostitute, immediately after she has been gang raped (mercifully, offstage). 
The classic Forsyte Saga had the unhappy marriage of Soames and Irene at its center. In an early catalytic episode
of the 1967  miniseries, Soames "asserted his marital rights," and raped his wife. By the end of the 26 hour series,
he had been transformed into a charming curmudgeon.
The Scarlett/Rhett relationship in Gone With the Wind is
more than tempestuous: it's violent. Here Rhett subdues his
wife and carries her upstairs against her will. But the next
scene alleviates the viewers' fears: Scarlett is humming in bed
while she enjoys the sunshine and breakfast on a tray. What
was the message being sent to women here? And to MEN?

There are many renditions of Aldonza available in video clips, it appears to be very attractive to female singers who really want to show some grit.  This clip comes from the disappointing film version of the show (when Peter O'Toole retired last year, another clip from the movie received the Dance Party treatment). 
I appeared in Man of La Mancha at Wayside Theatre several years ago.  Our Aldonza delivered an earthy performance; I wrote about it here. Her rendition of Aldonza was far superior to Sophia Loren's overplayed version below.
As far as I can tell, Sophia Loren was singing for herself (O'Toole was dubbed in his big numbers), as she fumbles several of the notes of this song.  I've got some problems with her overall performance anyway, but for this week, when violence against women is in the national consciousness, Aldonza is an appropriately timely clip.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Atmospheric Artistry

A few weeks ago, I did something I swore never to do again.  I've made that promise to myself before, but every few years, I renege on it.  I spent two very long days displaying my atmospheric artistry. 
This Ricky Gervais series was an absolute scream, but did not really address the abject boredom which accompanies the life of an extra.  Who could be bored with Ricky Gervais in the room?
I worked as an extra.  We don't really call it that anymore, it is commonly known these days as "background work,"  though filmmakers sometimes simply call it "atmosphere." 
My first extras gig was as "deep background"
on this flick. I turned down an audition in
order to do it, a mistake I would never repeat.

In the old days, extras were considered the lowest rung on the ladder of show business talent.  It may still be considered that way in Los Angeles.  Certainly when I lived in L.A., no self-respecting actor would ever work as an extra;  it was commonly believed that those who had been extras would never be considered for speaking roles. 
I love this story about Hollywood extras.  In 1974's The Towering Inferno, dozens of party-goers are trapped on a top floor of a skyscraper on fire.  There was to be weeks and weeks of work for these background players.  In the early days of shooting, the director needed a handful of extras to walk into the elevator.  Hoping for some dynamic close-ups, several amateurs volunteered.  Yes, they were shot going into the elevator, after which the shaft exploded and they were burned beyond recognition.  The less-eager but smarter background actors who had held back remained on the set for the duration of the shoot, and probably bought boats with their overtime.
Back then, extras even had their own union.  Eventually, the Screen Extras Guild (SEG) was absorbed by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and much later, they were joined by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), becoming the messy monolith to which union film actors now belong.  But I digress.
Contact, starring Jodie Foster and directed by Robert Zemeckis, spent many weeks in DC in 1996.  Big budget movies love to film in front of the national monuments of the capital.  The biggest background shoot I have ever worked was on this picture, which took place on a wintry day, outside.  Literally hundreds of extras shivered all day in sub-freezing temps while Jodie and Matt McConaughey walked up and down the steps of the Capitol building.  Once again, I swore never to work background again.
When I landed in DC, I discovered that there was no stigma attached to working "background."  Many professional actors did it to help augment the income.  I did my fair share of it (I wrote all about my film career, such as it was at the time, here), and hated every minute of it. 
Wayne Knight, so effective in Seinfeld and 3rd Rock From the Sun, disappointed me greatly when I worked background on For Richer or Poorer.  I sat in the climactic courtroom as he was dragged in to wrap up the plot.  The monologue he was supposed to deliver was clearly hilarious, but he had not learned it.  Take after take, he continued to cut the text until only a few lines remained.  It was my first indication that the screenplay of a film is nothing like the script of a play;  the dialogue in a screenplay is treated as merely a suggestion.
Waiting around wears me out more than doing anything active, and background actors do a hell of a lot of waiting around.  In recent years, every single time I work background, I swear I'll never do it again.

Two weeks ago, I received an offer for two days' work on the HBO sitcom Veep.
I have not seen this HBO series, but was impressed with the recurring cast, most of whom were on set during the two day shoot.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her costars were encouraged to improvise around the scripted dialogue, and they were all pretty good at it. Louis-Dreyfus won the Emmy as Best Comedy Actress for Veep's first season.
The show films in Baltimore and the surrounding area, and the casting director, though local, has a national reputation and has won several Emmy awards for her work. 
Tony Hale plays the VP's assistant, and provided much of the
physical comedy on set. He is an alum of another respected
cult favorite, Arrested Development.

I do not get called by Pat very often, so I do not like to refuse her.  I was assured that the shoot would be a small one, including less than 10 or so extras.  The smaller the number of extras, you see, the less likely it is that you will be treated like cattle.

I need the money, and I need Pat to be pleased with me, so I agreed to the gig.  The shoot was scheduled on a Monday and Tuesday, which fit into my performance schedule of Barefoot in the Park, so I really had no reason to refuse. (You didn't know I was doing Barefoot in the Park?  Where have you been?? Go here for that report.) I dutifully set my alarm for 5 friggin' o'clock in the morning, and left the house at 6 AM for the one hour drive to the location.  Much of Veep is shot on a sound stage in Columbia, MD, but these two days were to be shot on location in a mansion on the wrong side of Baltimore.

I arrived at Base Camp, the area where all the wardrobe trailers, and those with the actors' dressing rooms, were set up. 
The West Wing visited DC several times a year,
including this famous 2-parter which traced Bartlett's
relationship with Mrs Landingham. I was in the
background during the Young Jeb flashbacks.

Often, as in this case, Base Camp is several miles away from the actual shooting location.  There was much consternation in the wardrobe trailer about my clothes, which were not found acceptable.  Background actors, you see, are almost always asked to supply their own wardrobe, and I had done my best to dress as the character I was to portray, a hair/makeup person.  I was stripped of my own clothes, and given others which were so similar to the ones I had brought that it was comical.  Oh, well.

Vans transported the 10 or so of us to the set at around 8 AM.  Background actors are the cheapest of a film's labor force, so they are always the first required on the set, and the last to be released. 
I played a lab tech in Michelle Forbes's morgue on
Homicide. She struggled with the word
"toxicology."  She insisted it was "taxicology."
When proved wrong, she demanded to know what
"taxicology" was. I piped up "it's the study of cabs."
I was not hired again on Homicide.

It makes for a very long day, but a profitable one.  The initial 8 hours of an extra's workday is dirt cheap, even for union actors, hovering around $125 total.  But once overtime kicks in (which it usually does), the money starts to ka-ching

There were two of us slated to play "hair/makeup" artisans for these two days.  It turned out that this entire episode of  Veep was to take place in the supposed home/office of the Vice President, and would concern an important press interview (thus the need for "hair/makeup" people).  Other extras were to portray cameramen, sound guys, grips, and others who perform tasks during TV interviews.  Gotta love our profession, which requires that actors portray professionals who are already in the room.  Actual cameramen were shooting fake cameramen who were shooting the interview;  actual hair and makeup people were touching up fake hair and makeup people who were touching up other actors.
As the lights and such were being set, my co-star, Allison Janney, fiddled with index cards which contained her lines.  She would use them as props in the scene as well.  While we waited for things to get going, a crusty old grip approached her.  "We worked together before!" he announced.  "I worked on Chicago Hope!"  Allison dryly replied, "That was Christine Lahti."
I admit to having some fun with the scene in which I adjusted Allison Janney's hair.  She was playing the high-powered journalist conducting the interview, and our big scene included her producer;  the scene revealed all the sneaky questions they were going to spring on our heroine, the veep. 
Janney's background is the stage; she
did her best to keep up with the improvisational
aspect of Veep.  She spent years reciting text
written by Aaron Sorkin, whose dialogue did
NOT need improvised improvement.

I was quickly briefed, by REAL hair and makeup, how to futz around with Allison's hair without really messing it up, which must be avoided at all costs.  The sequence went well, I think, but who am I to judge, I'm not even sure I was in the camera shot.  But the director, a short Brit with a lively sense of humor, encouraged Janney and the actor playing her producer to stray from the script if they liked.

This was to be the most fun, and the most engaged, I was to be for two days.  I appeared in one or two more background shots, but spent most of Monday in the holding cell, which really felt like one, as I was trapped with the other extras.  Though there were only 10 of us, I was to discover that most of them were righteous bores.

I've had some lousy background experiences, but this one was the worst.  The film was Species 2, and I was booked for two days.  The above scene was shot the first day; we spent many hours in this banquet hall. You'll never find me in this shot, but I am there.  This scene remains in my memory solely because the guy at the podium, giving a lengthy speech, is James Cromwell.  He delivered this monologue, letter perfect, over and over again.  His stage credentials were showing.  The date was July 2, my birthday.  We were called back the next night for an outdoor scene.  In July.  In DC.  In tuxedos.  Hour after hour we stood in the summer air, with temps in the 80s and humidity at 90%.  I've never been that wet except on purpose.  The film employed dozens of non-union extras, and had advertised for them.  So we had many civilians who thought being in a movie would be fun, but who got very bored and unruly after a few hours.  Our overtime extended into the 4th of July holiday, so the paycheck was substantial.  I needed it to be.  During the shoot, my backpack was stolen.  Wallet, phone, eye glasses, radio, keys, all gone.  Yet again, I swore never to work background.
We wrapped the first day of Veep at 9:30 PM, having been on the clock since 7 AM.  Ka-ching.  I dashed home to hit the hay for the next long day.  I was to learn that Veep usually budgets 5-6 days to shoot a complete episode, but in this case, the entire episode was being shot on these two days.  Janney had to return to LA Wednesday for another gig.  So, concerns about overtime were non-existent;  they were determined to get the job done, no matter how long it took.  Tuesday was more torturous for me than Monday.  We arrived at 9 AM, and I took my seat on the hard, straight-backed chair in the holding area, and waited.  I was not called to the set until 11 PM.  You read that right:  I sat, unused, for 14 hours.  We were not released from the set until 1 AM.
I actually had a very small recurring role (2 episodes is enough to "recur," right?) on The Wire, so I never worked background on it, though it spent 5 or so years filming in Baltimore.  Homicide was also filmed in Baltimore; they both employed a dozen or so background actors as regulars in the squad room.  See all those people in the background?  They worked several days a week all through production.  They are probably the only SAG actors in the DC area to earn enough to qualify for union health care.
I was exhausted and frustrated and determined (yet again) NEVER to work background again.  My only consolation was the knowledge that severe overtime and other penalties would result in a substantial paycheck for my two days' work.  I did indeed receive nice paychecks in the mail the following week.  I also received greetings from both the Maryland and District of Columbia Departments of Transportation.  As I was heading out to the gig on Tuesday morning, a traffic camera snapped a lovely picture of my car going over the speed limit. 

About 16 hours later, as I returned south from Baltimore to DC at 1:30 in the morning, another camera snapped my car again.  In addition to some nice overtime payments for doing Veep, I was awarded $140 worth of speeding tickets.

I swear I'm never working background again.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Birdman of 48th Street

It's been an active week for me, with a round trip to New York, an ineffective audition, and a staged reading of one of the oldest plays in existence.  But while I spent time on the New Jersey Turnpike, and while I confused a director with my monologue from Ionesco, and even while I deconstructed the archaic language of an ancient morality play, I was reeling a bit from the Post-Show Depression. For the past nine weeks, the centerpiece of my life has been this guy:

Victor Velasco
It was rather a fluke that I ended up in this production of Barefoot in the Park. I had success auditioning for the Compass Rose Theatre last year, but certain union matters prevented me from accepting the gig.  This time, it appeared the group had lost an actor, as they announced auditions for the role of Velasco only a few weeks before rehearsals began. I spent all of 2012 working in Showcase productions in New York, which are artistically satisfying but financially embarrassing. It was time for a real job.
Our table read revealed a nice chemistry among the actors.  I was asked to remove the gray from my hair, as one of Victor's quirks was his attempt to look younger than he really is.  I can't relate to that at all.
I was pleased to land the role of the eccentric neighbor to the central couple, young newlyweds moving into their first apartment.

The lovely and talented Brandon McCoy and Brianna LeTourneau played the central couple with humor and passion.

The play is very much of its time; written in the early 60s, the attitudes toward women, motherhood, marriage, and the like seem a bit jarring to today's audience. 
Written in 1963, the show's heroine has no interest in a career, and is concerned only with setting up her new household.
But the central relationship seems to be one to which everyone can relate, and our leading actors played the hell out of it. Perhaps it helped that they are planning to be married in real life, but I think they are both talented enough to bring sizzle onstage regardless of their personal life.
Brandon and Brianna had an undeniable chemistry together  as Paul and Corie.  It formed the backbone of the show.
The Compass Rose is a brand new company, Barefoot in the Park was only their 4th full production. As usually happens with such young organizations, budgets were small, so our design element was, well, elemental. But the performances overcame the minimalist designs, and people come to the theatre to see the acting anyway (at least, that's what I tell myself). 
Our director also handled the set and sound design.
We were confronted with our first challenge with the role of "the delivery man," a 15-second walk-on part with no lines but a great sight gag. Our producer, the lovely and talented Cindy Merry-Browne, was having trouble getting an actor to commit to such a minor role. I suggested that, instead of trying to find an actor who would take such a cameo, we auction off the chance to play the part to audience members (I had personal experience with just such an occurrence, when I played Dr. Einstein in a dinner theatre production of Arsenic and Old Lace decades ago; I wrote about that experience here). My suggestion was not met with much enthusiasm, and ultimately, we just cut the role out of the show. Don't tell Doc Simon.
Velasco's behavior would not be tolerated today.  He barges into strangers' apartments, climbs through their windows, and takes over their lives.  His clumsy attempts at seduction would be considered harassment today.  I hope I made him lovable enough that modern viewers would forgive his unforgivable behavior.
I loved working with our young director, the lovely and talented James Phillips, who attended college in DC but has since relocated to New York. He had a real feel for the comedy of the piece, yet was also keen on keeping the honest emotional thread.
After our first weekend, we lost Mother.
The weekend after we opened, we were dealt a serious blow when Cindy, who was playing the role of the mother as well as acting as producer of the show, slipped on the ice and broke her ankle. Three performances were canceled as we scrambled to replace her with the lovely and talented Sue Struve, who jumped in with both feet. It did not seem that the show suffered. 
I grew to admire and even envy Victor Velasco.  His spontaneous spirit was a counterpoint to my own cautious nature. It's always fun to play someone who's the polar opposite from yourself.  If you're attentive, you'll learn something.
We had a healthy run of five weeks, but did not as a rule have healthy audiences. The theatre is rather makeshift (in fact, it was a former McDonalds, located in a strip mall in a suburb of Annapolis), and holds only 50 seats. For reasons to which I am not privy, we rarely filled those seats, and I would guess our house size averaged around 20 or so. This was a shame, as the show was in great shape, and I am proud that we never gave a half-hearted performance, no matter who was (or was not) in the audience.
This bounder's accent was, well, indeterminate.  It was eastern European for sure, but geographically non-specific, which gave me the leeway to make terrible mistakes with it.  The comically Slavic accent would have no place in Sophie's Choice, but fit right into Neil Simon's world.
Well, there were a few of our houses which should not have been there.  Compass Rose labels itself as a "teaching theatre," with their educational component being very important.  Previous shows such as To Kill A Mockingbird and Oliver were well-suited for younger audiences.  Our show was sold to schools as well, and we had three matinees devoted only to middle schoolers. 
After an uproarious night on the town, our heroes discover they are mismatched, and real emotions and fears bubble to the surface.  It is a funny and somewhat painful climactic scene which was incomprehensible to a middle schooler.
There is nothing particularly inappropriate in Barefoot in the Park; there is no cursing and nothing overtly sexual (though our leading players did a lot to heat up the stage on their own), but I still wonder who in the world thought a 12-year old would find anything with which to relate in the story of young newlyweds setting up their first apartment.  As a result, the audience reaction during those matinees was pretty dismal.  Still, I was proud that our company delivered topnotch performances on those days, even in the face of silence from the crowd.
Despite critical kudos and strong word-of-mouth, our houses were disappointing.  Those who attended loved the show, but there seemed to be bewilderment at the theatre regarding the small attendance.  Our producer was sidelined by illness throughout our run, and there did not seem to be anyone else ready to publicize the show.  Compass Rose is in the midst of creating a new space for themselves, and in the scramble to get the new theatre ready for the next production, it sometimes seemed their current show had been left to fend for itself.
By the time we closed, we had earned a Helen Hayes Recommendation, awarded by the HH judges who attended, which was a first for this young company. And I loved performing the show, though I could have done without the substantial commute from DC (about 50 minutes each way). I started the project with a secretly snobbish attitude toward Neil Simon, especially early Neil Simon (this is his second play). Surprisingly, considering he is so popularly performed and I am so often cast in comic roles, Barefoot in the Park was my first experience in a Neil Simon play. 
Following a first act which dealt largely with character, our second act was full of incident.  It played like a dream.
Rehearsing this show up close and personal revealed to me that Doc is a strong structuralist. Surely he does not pass up the opportunity for a set-up/joke routine, but he is also writing characters of some depth. There are reasons he is so successful, and I think I discovered some of those reasons with my latest experience.
As I wrote last week when the show closed, it was a pleasure to play this enthusiastic hedonist with the geographically suspicious accent. Victor Velasco and I are not alike. ... While I bundle up, he enthusiastically walks barefoot in the park in February. He eats life. I nibble. He charges into the unknown. I hang back. He walks on the roof. I'm afraid of heights. He revels in spontaneity. I make a plan. He always says YES. I hesitantly shrug Maybe. I learned some unexpected things from you, Victor. Many thanks.