Monday, April 28, 2008

By Myself

The party's over, the game is ended,

The dreams i dreamed went up in smoke.

They didn't pan out as i had intended;

I should know how to take a joke.

Those are the lyrics of the little-known intro to a song famously sung by Fred Astaire. Recognize it? I didn't either, but they are the words leading up to Fred's jaunty take on being alone: "By Myself." He sang the ditty in The Bandwagon (and on many other occasions, I suspect), as he sauntered through town on his own, feeling relieved that no one in the world had a claim on him. (Of course, he was about to meet Cyd Charisse and fall madly in love, so the song has an ironic tinge.)

That song has been running through my head lately, as I have been reminded how very single I am.

"We travel single-oh, " Fanny Brice tells Nick Arnstein in "Funny Girl,"

"Maybe we're lucky. But I don't know..."

I don't know either. I've always "Traveled Single-Oh", though I don't ever remember making a conscious decision to do so. I am a self-centered man, and I admit that without judgement attached. I mean that, because my life has always been lived alone, I have naturally put myself at the center of it. Any occasion which comes up, any emotion which reveals itself, any event which occurs, I am likely to experience it as it pertains to me.

My dear friends Scott and Drew, about whom I have written as members of my chosen family, are about to celebrate a quarter of a century together, and the success of their relationship lies in the fact that they put each other at the center of each other's lives. Who am I to argue with that? They have proof: relationships flourish when the participants are self-less, rather than self-ish.

I believe that hypothesis put forward by Scott and Drew is correct. I'm sure I never made a conscious decision to put myself at the center of my life, but that is surely how I have lived it. And because I have done so, has my life not really been open to being shared with another? I may very well have brushed up against someone who would have turned out to be my soul-mate, particularly in my younger years, but I didn't give him much leeway to prove it. I was busy taking care of myself; making my own choices, pursuing my own goals, living my own life.

No one has a claim on my life. I still revel in being alone, I have to admit. To quote Scott, I get to have beer and toast for breakfast if I wish.

But I also have to admit that, as I've entered middle age, I feel more loneliness than I used to. I am not sure that means I regret anything I did as a younger man. But I do wonder if things might have been different, had I not put myself at the center of my life.

I'll face the unknown,
i'll build a world of my own;
No one knows better than i, myself,
i'm by myself alone.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Theatre Droppings: Miss Daisy drives by

I popped out to Front Royal, VA, to catch my buddies Elliot, Faith, and Jim, in a charming little play called Driving Miss Daisy. Ever hear of it? As opposed to the Oscar-winning film adaptation, this stage version is very much a chamber piece, played quite well by a trio of actors, with all of whom I have a bit of history.

I have not worked with Faith Potts, but have seen her work several times, and all of us who have worked on the Madness of Shear share a special kinship (she has often played the society matron Mrs. Shubert). I particularly enjoyed Faith quite a while ago in an Irish play called The York Realist at Studio Theatre. One of her costars in that production was a gal I went to grad school with, which is how I ended up in that audience.
Faith's rendition of the indefatigable Miss Daisy lent a robustness to the show which I did not expect.

Jim Fleming was playing Daisy's son, Boolie. I worked with Jim a few seasons back at Wayside, in an Agatha Christie thriller called Black Coffee. Jim dominated that production (rightly so) as the quirky Dutch detective Hercule Poirot, and I found him to be a most generous actor onstage. I was a last-minute replacement in the production, and unfortunately, was not cast into my strengths, so I came away from the experience hoping Wayside would one day ask me back to correct the rather mediocre impression I had left with them. In Driving Miss Daisy, Jim once again proved himself to be a sensitive (but savvy) character actor. He delivered every laugh, and every poignant moment, which the playwright could have wished.

Of the three cast members in the show, I have the most history with Elliot Dash, playing the chauffeur Hoke. Ell and I were in graduate school together, and as always happens with any MFA in Acting, we practically lived together for three years. On campus, we shared the stage in The Cherry Orchard, Measure for Measure, and Othello, and we performed in five productions at the Shakespeare Theatre Company during our internship. This was quite a while ago, and Elliot has matured into an actor of dignity and gravitas, as illustrated in his performance in Miss Daisy.

I'm so glad I was able to get out to see the show, which closed last night. There must have been even more poignancy to last night's final performance. It was Wayside Theatre's last performance in the Front Royal space, a theatre they created out of almost nothing a year ago, and have inhabited ever since. I've mentioned several times that Wayside was in temporary digs while their permanent home underwent renovation, but there was always the hope that this temporary theatre could turn into a permanent, second space for Wayside. That possibility has sadly disappeared, so Wayside will return to their single space in July.

I chatted a bit with Wayside's artistic director, Warner Crocker, and could detect some real disappointment that they were not able to continue to use the Front Royal theatre. Apparently, funding was in place, then was withdrawn. Probably a common occurrence in the life of a theatre like Wayside, but no less disappointing.

I intend to write a bit later about theatres such as Wayside, regional theatres which have been around for decades, have strong national reputations, but are often stymied by financial matters. These theatres operate on a lower tier than the regionals I referenced in my earlier entry. They struggle mightily to find the funds necessary for survival, and even more mightily for growth. When these theatres are located in areas more rural than cosmopolitan, that struggle is even harder.

I know Wayside's final performance in Front Royal must have had all the bittersweet qualities of the show they were presenting.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Requiem For the Regionals, part one

My friend and former director Warner Crocker, who runs Wayside Theatre out in Virginia, also runs a fun and interesting blog. He brought this topic to his readers attention, though I've been aware of the issue ever since becoming an actor back during the Roosevelt administration. There is a one-man show running in New York called How Theater Failed America, which deals, at least in part, with the collapse of the regional theatre movement in this country.

Well, "regional theaters" have certainly not collapsed, but they seem to have failed their regional actors. As pointed out in the referenced article, regionals around the country have abandoned the original concept of maintaining a permanent company of actors to perform their repertory. Instead, huge amounts of money are spent on luxurious new theatres (or massive upgrades of existing theatres, which Arena Stage is doing right now), while salaries and benefits for the artists who occasionally inhabit these swanky digs have remained penurious.

Again referencing the New York Times article, most major theaters confronted with this reversal cite diminished funding as their reason for discontinuing the practice of the resident company. Yet, as Mike Daisey, the star and creator of How Theater Failed America, points out, these theatres have huge marketing and development departments, peopled with employees well-paid and well-insured. Actors' salaries, (on the rare occasions actors have work) remain at union-mandated minimums.

The response to this show from the artistic directors who have examined it is predictable enough. In a nutshell, the actor has no idea what it takes to run a regional theatre, and has no business lecturing administrators on how to run their organizations.

Nicholas Martin, a high-profile director who has lately been running the Huntington Theater in Boston, sniffed, "Go run a theater and get back to me."

At the end of my current gig, I will be back on unemployment, at about 200 bucks a week. I have a request for Mr. Martin:

"Come be a regional theatre actor and get back to me."

Actor/Beggars: is there a difference?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Travelin' Man

I've just returned from a relaxing few days in the mountains of North Carolina.

I really love to travel.

Except for the traveling part. I have never been a good traveler, dating back to my early days when the folks dragged the family all along the Eastern seaboard for "vacation."

As an adult, I have grown to abhor the act of traveling. I love being in new places, I just hate getting there. I'm proud to have visited 44 of these United States. And one day, I hope to visit Alaska and Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, and even Idaho and Montana.

But I know I'll hate every moment of getting there.

I have, for example, an irrational disgust for the strangers with whom I am traveling. Without fail, my seat mate on the plane or train or bus or subway is an obnoxious slug.

This most recent trip confirmed my opinions, though this time, my scorn must be heaped on the airline which ferried me hither and yon. I won't mention the name of the airline.

OK, here are its initials:

I have traveled this airline many times in the past, as for some reason known only by the gods who wish to torture me, US Air seems to be the most convenient airline for my needs.

I won't bore you with the gory details of my travails. Everybody who has flown in the last five years has a similar story, no matter which airline they used.

But here's the kicker. Even as service on the airlines becomes more and more absent, those same airlines are charging us more and more fees. It now costs an additional 25 bucks to check a second bag on most airlines. It now costs 2-3 dollars per bag to utilize the curbside check-in service. It now costs passengers in coach 7-10 smackers to purchase a meal on a trans-continental flight.

Those of us on shorter jumps are not even offered food, but rather a tiny packet labelled "Fiesta Snack Mix."

"Fiesta," my sombrero. Two miniature pretzels and five peanuts covered in BBQ powder do not a fiesta make.

And here's more. USAir has just announced that it will now begin charging their coach customers (victims, more like) an additional charge if they choose to sit on the aisle or the window near the front of the plane.

This is explained as yet another necessity to help pay for the rising cost of fuel. This claim would not be so ludicrous if I had not just witnessed the following. On my flight leaving DC National Airport, the pilot suddenly discovered that the plane was over weight. His solution: to burn fuel. So, the passengers sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes while the jet's engines roared at full throttle, filling the fuselage with noxious fumes and polluting the environment for absolutely no reason.

It's not wonder oil prices are skyrocketing. Pilots at USAir are burning off fuel to lessen their plane's weight.

Hasn't anybody heard of a hose and a syphon?

I have a better idea for those geniuses at USAir. Next time an airplane is over weight, rectify the situation by throwing my seat mate out the emergency exit. I guarantee that will take care of the problem.

She's always a fat slob.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Shear Madniversaries

It sometimes seems that Shear Madness has taken over my life, and in truth, it probably has, at least for a while. It is virtually impossible to forget about the show completely during the off hours.

But I shall do my best for the next week or so. Our company is laid off until the 21st, as the American College Theatre Festival (which includes the "Irene Ryan Awards") is moving into our space.

I was feeling pretty privileged to be performing the Madness on Monday night. Why, you may query? Monday night's show happened to be Performance # 9,000 of Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center. Quite a feat. I was actually honored that the show's management asked me to make a little curtain speech after the show, letting the audience know why they had attended a very special performance.

Later in the week, we celebrated another anniversary, and a few farewells. Two of our actors are moving on to other projects, so Thursday's show had a bit of poignancy to it.

In addition, Thursday marked the 1,000th performance in the show of Marcus Kyd. Marcus has played most of those shows as the younger detective, Mikey, though he's done a fair number of performances as the sleazy antiques dealer. Because of understudy requirements, he has performed the role of Tony (my role) several times as well. But his best fit is Mikey, where he supports the rest of the cast with naturalistic enthusiasm. One of the pleasures of appearing with this cast this year is the chance to get to know this young go-getter, who balances his commitment to Shear with fatherhood, while heading one of the city's newest and most avant-guarde theatre groups, the Taffety Punk (he'll be absent from one of our future performances in order to accept a Helen Hayes Award for his new company). Marcus's enthusiasm is infectious, and I enjoy every moment I share with him onstage. Even those moments in which, as Marcus puts it, his "interior monologue" becomes an exterior one. Several vets of the Madness have this habit, acquired after years of performances, of keeping up an almost constant stream of muttering under their breath. I have not acquired that habit (actors playing "Tony" tend not to, as we talk too much at full volume), but over the years, I've become accustomed to this odd quirk of other oldsters.

So, it's been an event-filled week at Shear Madness. I admit I look forward to our ten days off, during which I will spend a long weekend in North Carolina visiting the pater. I'll return to KenCen with one third of our cast having changed, which means, though it may not be a whole new ballgame, the change in roster will mean a different rhythm to the music.

And of course, a return to frequent note sessions post-show, and additional daytime rehearsals. Like I said, when I am in Shear Madness, it takes over my life...

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston


I have mixed feelings about Heston, who was not the greatest actor of his generation, or may not have been even one of the greats. He created a film persona, as did so many of the stars of his time, and he continued to play a variation of that persona throughout his career. I confess that the only film of his which I thoroughly enjoyed was the Sci-Fi thriller Planet of the Apes, and I'm sure I enjoyed that film more for the performances of Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowell, and Maurice Evens than that of Heston.

In his later years, Heston became politically active on a number of issues, upon most of which I disagreed. He famously held up a rifle, as president of the National Rifle Association, claiming it would not be removed until his hand was cold and dead, or something to that effect. Remarks like that do nothing to aid rational discussion of the Gun Laws and Liberties, and are simply incendiary (he made them during a horrible period of gun violence in schools and other public places).

Heston, a former president of SAG, clashed with later, more liberal presidents such as Ed Asner, and he famously resigned from Actors Equity over the Miss Saigon controversy. Broadway producers wished to import their London star of the show, Jonathan Pryce, to play a role described as a "Eurasion," causing the American Asian acting community to voice objections. Heston misconstrued the whole affair and claimed that refusing to allow a white man to play an Asian was in fact racist. I disagreed with Heston on this point and others, but it can't be denied that he had a compassion for other people (here he is helping out at a food bank with his wife and grandson).

I met Heston once, backstage after a performance of The Hostage in which I appeared in Hollywood. His manservant, if that's what you call a valet or butler these days, was an aspiring actor and was appearing in the show as a Russian sailor (the gent was actually Czech, I think). Anyway, Heston generously attended one of our performances and dropped backstage to shake all our hands. This was many years before he became so politically active, and before he started to exhibit signs of Alzheimer's.

I could never get through any of his Biblical epics, and had trouble sitting through his later performance as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, a production he bankrolled himself. I suppose I will always remember him in connection with that final scene of Planet of the Apes, which, back in the day, was a real stunner.

Rest in peace, Bright Eyes.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Theatre Droppings: Shaw, Seuss, and "History"

I've had the chance to catch a few local droppings in my off-hours. My new buddy Gillian Shelly (whom I now call "My Barbara," as she shares the Shear Madness salon with me) is pulling double duty. In addition to her four shows a week at KenCen, she is one of the stars of Seussical the Musical, Jr. at Toby's Dinner Theatre. I drove out to Columbia, MD, to see her belting the hell out of the role of Gertrude McFuzz, for a full house of elementary (and younger!) school kids. I have been curious about the show since it first appeared on Broadway, and judging from the cast album, the role of the Cat in the Hat seems a good fit for me, so I welcomed the opportunity to see the show, even in an hour-long, truncated format. Gillian and her cohorts are having a ball playing the piece, and it zips along with almost no libretto. This junior version resembles an opera more than a traditional musical, though nothing seems lost with the elimination of large chunks of the original Broadway book. (Between you and me and the lamppost, the role of the Cat, which I covet, was the one real loser in this reduction. I have a hunch the character is much more central to the action in the full-length show...).

I was so glad I got a chance to catch the final matinee of Major Barbara at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, as it felt a bit like old home week. Though the show was presented in the new Harmon Center, the cast was filled with the regulars who put The Shakes on the map. Helen Carey and Ted van Griethuysen played the battling Undershafts, and in their hands, the show's focus shifted from the younger generation to the elder. I worked with Helen and Ted during the year I interned at The Shakes, and came away from the experience certain that I had been working with truly gifted actors. I was disappointed that I missed another of my favorite local actors, Floyd King, who had been excused from the show I saw in order to prep his next adventure at Studio Theater (see below). Catie Flye, my previous director and fellow actor, was playing one of the homeless misfits in the mission, and Vivienne Benesche, with whom I worked in Henry V, played the title character. The whole project was guided by director Ethan McSweeney, who was greatly involved with the intern company at The Shakes during my time there. He directed a bang-up version of Major Barbara, full of wit. I loved everyone casually sitting around on bombs during the final scene. I had a bit of trouble with the over-the-top stylings of Tom Story as Stephen Undershaft, and was more comfortable with the performances of Karl Kenzler as Cusins and Kevin O'Donnell as Lomax, both of whom lent realism to their portrayals. Ethan made a swell decision to include some of Shaw's stage directions on the show curtain each time the setting shifted. I wondered, though, why The Shakespeare Theatre hadn't released seats to this performance to the half-priced TicketPlace. I sat in the balcony, which was almost empty, and could see many empty seats in the orchestra as well... This cast deserved a fuller house.

I have been curious about Alan Bennett's The History Boys since it made such a splash in London and New York a while back, so I caught Studio Theatre's new production. I did my very best to enjoy it, but I made the unfortunate choice to attend a student matinee, where a group of inner-city teen-agers were bored, restless, and downright disruptive. I suppose some genius thought that, because the show dealt with teen-aged boys, this group of rude students would be interested. Not so. I finally moved away from the distracting group at intermission, and enjoyed Act Two from the back of the house. Floyd King did his usual bang-up job as the odd-ball teacher whom his students alternately loved and tolerated, and Simon Kendall was terrific as the new young teacher with a secret of his own. But the real fun was in the interaction with the boys of the title, with Owen Scott as the lovelorn "Posner" and Jay Sullivan as the cocky "Dakin" real standouts. The Washington Post made some noise about Scott's singing, but the fact that he occasionally wobbled off-key struck me as endearing rather than distracting. I may try to catch another performance of the show a little later in the run, with an adult audience whom I know will better appreciate this stylish debate on Education vs. Examination.