Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Where Do The Good Boys Go To Hideaway?

I'm a bit obsessive about keeping notes regarding all my professional dealings, so I can say with absolute certainty that it was June 3, 2016, when Boys of a Certain Age entered my life.  
It was on that date that I ran across a casting notice on Backstage.com, a site I pay dearly for but rarely access.  
The show's description caught my eye, as did the description of one of the characters: "age 60, came out when he was 20; he is gay; playfully dramatic and vocally open about sex; a veteran of many movements, scenes, careers and love affairs; he is now mostly retired and has a cane."  Those last three words are in fact what encouraged me to submit for an audition: "...has a cane."  I was on occasion using a cane at the time, as back surgery was on the horizon, so performing the role WITH a cane would not be a problem.  I did wonder, though, why such a detail was included in a character description for a casting call.  Was anybody worried that an actor might be interested in playing a role UNTIL he discovered he would be carrying a cane, a detail which might cause him to up and quit?
I submitted myself, auditioned, and was cast in this brand new play. There were, at the time, to be only 3 performances, to be presented during one of NYC's thousands of summertime  creative arts festivals.  This particular festival celebrated gay theatre (and artwork and music and so on) and was rather preciously called the Fresh Fruit Festival.  Yes, we get it: for two weeks in July, it was all gay, all day.
Playwright Dan Fingerman created four
interesting and dynamic characters and
placed them in a fairly traditional setting,
a beach cabin during a weekend. Think
Love!Valour!Compassion! without the
pond, or Lips Together, Teeth Apart without
the straight people, or Boys in the Band
without the self-hatred. That was us.

Though we rehearsed for weeks, I have to confess that it was not until our first public performance that I learned that the play had something substantial to reveal, and moreover, that I had been given a very showy part.  (Full disclosure: I have NEVER been any good at reading plays, even established classics. I just do not have the skill to picture the action onstage while reading. The lack of this skill has always hindered my career). 

I learned, during those three performances at the Festival, that I had been very lucky to play Ira in Boys of a Certain Age.  Director Dan Dinero had cast me into my strengths, as the role carried a lot of the comedy of the piece, but it also displayed an emotional depth which I don't often get a chance to play. Ira's quick wit was on display throughout the play, but in the second half, it was sprinkled among his heartfelt (and sometimes harrowing) memories of the past. 
Ira's loss of so many during the early AIDS crisis thickened his skin but did not harden his heart, which remained compassionate and loving.  He was a very rich character to play.
Our brief run at the Fresh Fruit Festival was sold out, and was a hit with the audiences (largely gay men.  Our production won the Audience Choice Award, voted on by the public at large, and we were told our show was also the biggest box office draw of anything ever presented in the history of this festival).  The company held out hope that perhaps a full run of the show might follow; I know all four actors were eager to explore these characters in a fuller way.  Playwright Dan began the task of putting together an actual run of the show.
I don't even want to know how expensive it is to produce small theater in NYC, but our playwright did it. We had a fundraiser at a local watering hole to announce the run.
Fast forward to the fall of 2016. The Boys team booked a theatre in the Village, one usually occupied by Soho Rep, one of the more venerable of the smaller professional theaters in Manhattan.  
Brian Gligor played my nephew Christopher, a gay
Republican. He had the toughest job, I think, making a
Trump supporter likable.  Even back in Feb, it was hard to
accept anyone with a brain defending Trump.
Brian made it work. One of my favorite BOCA memories
is the night I enticed him to my place after rehearsal, where
I plied him with martinis and forced him to build my website.
RScottWilliams.com is proof that booze works.
We were to perform during one of the host theatre's dormant periods. We were all excited about this chance to revisit the material, and the dates dovetailed nicely for me, as I had committed to do A Christmas Carol for Titan Theatre for the holidays. 

The best laid plans, right? Soho Rep abruptly shut down all operations at their theatre, there were apparently certain building codes which they had been ignoring (and violating) for many years. Our contract to sublet was yanked.
Joe Menino played Larry, my first love who remained in the
closet for most of his life. His arrival triggered memories of
love and loss and regret and lots of recrimination. Joe was
the only hetero in the cast, and needed footnotes
to decode the script.

This disappointment became a blessing in disguise. Another space was found, and our remount was rescheduled for February, 2017.  This gave the playwright time to rewrite a sizable chunk of the script, a chunk which dealt specifically with the 2016 presidential election.  During our summer run, the campaign had been in full swing, and it seemed assured that Clinton would win.  
Every gay play needs a shirtless scene, Marc Sinoway
provided it, as snarky metro-sexual Brian. His was
a thoroughly unpleasant character; Marc deserves kudos
for grabbing this role by the balls and not letting go.
In the end, we like the guy, as did the critics,
one of which mentioned his thighs!

It was logical, and even necessary, to include current politics in the text of Boys of a Certain Age; four educated gay men could never spend an entire weekend together without ever mentioning the current state of affairs.  But with the play now taking place after the election, this dialogue had to be rewritten.

We went back into rehearsal; we were a lively bunch.  We embraced the theme of the play: the clashing perspectives gay men have with different generations of their own tribe:

We now knew we had something special to which audiences would respond, and we were eager to improve the piece. Both Dans (director and playwright) were open to collaboration, and the actors took full advantage of the fact. 
Here is the "black box theatre" in which we
performed. Notice anything? Yep, it's all white. Not
a problem, but the permanent pole in the center of
the playing space was <ahem>challenging. 

Moving into the theater was particularly challenging, as it always is in such situations. Because the space was being rented, the only rehearsals we had there were technical. Actors hate tech rehearsals, as we always feel we are in the home stretch before the audience shows up, and we want the time to polish.  But there is no time for such fine tuning, and in our case, our tech rehearsals were commandeered by a set which arrived more complex than anticipated. 
I loved our modular set, which strongly suggested the feel of a beach house, but it became the most controversial aspect of our production.  The railings were movable, so they were adjusted between scenes to reflect the living room, deck, beach, even a local bar.  Some folks loved the way the cast swept around the set rearranging things, while others wondered why all the fuss. These transitions had only been marginally rehearsed beforehand, so tech rehearsals were swallowed up by choreographing this Banister Ballet.
Further consternation was felt when, after several preview performances, edits to the script were delivered which were more substantial than expected. Tempers flared, and our opening weekend had lots and lots of <ahem> adrenaline.
We opened to lovely houses and nice notices from the critics (shows such as ours do not attract the attention of the larger main stream media in New York, there are simply too many of us). Neighborhood papers and online sites all delivered glowing critiques, and we had a great three week run.
Our audience included a few distinguished
folks, including this guy in the middle: Jack
Wetherall played a large role in Queer As
Folk
. We were also visited by Broadway
director Jeff Calhoun and actor John Benjamin
Hickey, an original player from Love!Valour!
Compassion!
, to which we had been compared
All good things end, so I sadly said goodbye to Boys of a Certain Age on closing night in February.

The show was to reenter my life a few months later, quite unexpectedly.  Our show had been submitted to the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, which celebrate Off-Off-Broadway productions.  There must be hundreds of such productions in NYC every year, so I was stunned when this happened: 


  
Playwright Dan Fingerman and I represented our show at the
NYIT awards. I did not win the award, but it's true what they
say: it's an honor to be nominated. Our show did not have the
support of a large producing organization, our 3 week run was
under the radar for most, but somehow, the judges concluded
that my performance as Ira was worthy of notice.
The NYIT awards cover a large swath of art, including solo shows, performance art pieces, as well as traditional plays and musicals, but there were only six of us nominated in the Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role category.  This nomination was a very nice cap to put on the experience of Boys of a Certain Age; by the time the awards were given, all of us had moved on to other things. But I will remember Ira very fondly;  his belief that there are things in the world worth fighting for was admirable.  

Ira's sass was infectious, his compassion was humbling, his humanity was undeniable.  I will always be grateful for the part he played in a year of my life.

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