Saturday, May 31, 2008

Theatre Droppings: New York, 1996

I've written in previous posts about my trips to New York specifically to see live theatre, in 1975, '76, '77, '78, and 1991. Those were all vacation trips from Los Angeles, where I lived during those years. Once I moved to the East Coast, I had neither the time nor the funds to spend a full week in Manhattan attending theatre. But that does not mean I gave up visiting Broadway altogether. I have attended more than a half dozen plays over the past decade, usually in conjunction with a trip to New York for an audition of my own.

I earned my MFA in the spring of 1996, after which I began a routine of traveling to New York to seek work. In each of my trips that year, I popped into a show or two.

I've already mentioned my admiration for Bill Irwin, a fascination which dates back to his stage performances in Fool Moon and The Regard of Flight, telecast on PBS. In 1996, Irwin was contracted by the Roundabout Theatre Company to create a new adaptation of the commedia dell'arte piece, Scapin. He played the title character, as well as directing and adapting the play. I have to admit that I was just a little disappointed in the show, for several reasons. Predominantly, I still had very vivid images of Jim Dale's adaptation of the play, Scapino, in my memory, and Irwin's version seemed more sedate than the over-the-top hilarity which Dale's production created. Irwin's performance as Scapin never seemed to catch fire, and I came away from the theatre thinking that he should confine himself to appearing in pieces he had created for himself from the ground up. (I have since changed my mind on that, having seen his exceptional performance as George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). My program tells me I saw an unknown Kristin Chenoweth in one of the ingenue roles.

I saw two more straight plays in '96, both with bona fide divas heading the cast. Terence McNally's second love letter to opera (his first was The Lisbon Traviata) provided one of the showiest roles for an actress in modern times. Master Class revolved around the master classes opera diva Maria Callas gave at Julliard at the end of her career. By the time I caught up with the show, the original Tony winners Zoe Caldwell and Audra MacDonald had moved on, but I was not in the least disappointed. Patti LuPone had assumed the role of Callas, and she was mesmerizing. It was purely a dramatic role (all the singing in the show was done by the young students), and LuPone proved to me that she is a hugely talented actress with heart, brains, comic timing, and guts. It remains one of the best stage performances I have ever seen.

Later in 1996, I saw another of my favorite stage performances, in the all-star revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. The cast included RSC vet (and future Spiderman star) Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard (who won the Tony for this role), and one of my favorite unsung stage actresses, Rosemary Murphy (you might remember her as FDR's mother in the TV film Eleanor and Franklin, for which she won the Emmy). But the main attraction for me was Elaine Stritch, playing a supporting role, but swiping the show from everybody in sight. I've previously mentioned my admiration for Stritch, which only increased after seeing this performance, in which she landed every laugh, even while torturing us with the terrible sadness of her alcoholic character (according to her one-woman show, she was sober while playing it).

The last show I saw in New York in 1996 was an Off-Broadway musical in the second year of its run, When Pigs Fly. Actually, the show was officially titled Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly, and therein the production has attained a true uniqueness. Who is Howard Crabtree, you may wonder? No, he was not the producer, nor the director, nor the composer, nor the lyricist, nor the book writer. He wasn't even in the thing (though the leading character was named Howard). In what has got to be a first and only, Howard Crabtree received over-the-title billing as the costume designer. As outlandish as this sounds, if you saw the show, you would agree that he deserved his star treatment. He is credited, along with Mark Waldrop, with "conceiving" the piece, which possibly meant, he dreamed up a bunch of truly outlandish costumes, and then a show was created around them. With a decidedly gay sensibility, When Pigs Fly concerned the journey a young man takes on his way to artistic fulfillment. This Off-Broadway show was a feast for the eyes, and included a centaur, a tribute to the hidden gayness of Bewitched, and an astonishing number in which furniture became hoop skirts (believe me, you had to be there). The evening was absolutely hilarious, though it included a poignant 11:00 ballad sung by cabaret artist Jay Rogers. In it, he reminded us that, amid the vast cruelty of the modern world, Laughing Matters. It was only after the show that I read the program and discovered the true poignancy of that message. The man behind the conception of this piece, the afore-mentioned Howard Crabtree, had died of AIDS at age 41, five days after finishing work for the show. He did not live long enough to see the big success his designs would create.

It's a fitting credo that I try, often without success, to remember every day.

Laughing matters.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Held Hostage

Remember when cellphones were supposed to be a convenience? Well, the ability to be accessible to everybody in the world every moment of the day has lost its allure. Nobody even complains about them anymore, or rather, their obnoxious users. But allow me. I can't count the number of times I have been held hostage to some idiot's phone call. At the supermarket, when one inevitably comes upon somebody yapping into their phone, oblivious to others around them, at least you can move away. But standing in line at the bank or the DMV or the post office, there is no escape. I am held hostage by the inconsiderate ramblings of strangers who feel no hesitation in forcing me to eavesdrop onto their private lives.

I often feel like a hostage on our metro (subway) system. Sometimes, it's the cellphone abuser described above. But just as often, I am held hostage by DC teen-agers who feel completely entitled to show off to each other by shouting, cursing, and otherwise demonstrating the total failure of the DC public school system. I suppose I should be more charitable in my reactions to their rude, obnoxious behavior; they are only acting the way they have observed their parents behaving. And when I am finally released from their presence, and am making my way up the escalator to the outside world, I sometimes wonder what that outside world has in store for these children. What will happen to these woefully uneducated youngsters who will have a high school diploma but will certainly not have a high school education? Where will they find jobs, when they cannot speak their native English language?

I'm being held hostage by this city, too. I've lived in DC almost 13 years, and have come to the realization that I don't really like it here. Much of the time, I actively hate it here. I hate the long, sweaty summer weather, I hate the mismanagement of the city's government, I hate the invasion of the tourists, which happens every year from March through October. I even hate my mail man. He yaps on his cellphone while sorting the mail for our 22 unit condo complex, and because of his inattention to the job I am paying him for, our mail is consistently misdirected.

I should move, of course, but, once again, I am being held hostage. I get just enough work in my chosen career to keep me here. At this point in my life, I don't feel up to the challenge of starting all over in a new city, so, as long as the occasional acting gig pops up, I'm stuck here in DC.

Held hostage by my own decisions.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Harvey Korman


Television's top Second Banana has split. He was a quadruple Emmy-winner for his contributions to The Carol Burnett Show. Rhett Butler Norma Desmond's Max Prince Phillip Will Shakespeare

...with another Emmy winning banana in the bunch

If St. Peter needs a sidekick, Korman's got a gig at the pearly gates.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sydney Pollack


For The Way We Were and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Out of Africa and Absence of Malice and Three Days of the Condor and The Firm and Michael Clayton and even Will and Grace, you will be remembered.

But don't don't don't don't don't panic.
You are going to a very special place in heaven,
for Tootsie.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dick Martin

The zany, zinger-full half of the comedy duo Rowan and Martin passed away yesterday. His career included stand-up comedy, sitcom appearances, and television direction, but Martin reached the zenith of his career as co-host of one of the most influential programs in television history, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.
In the early 1960s, Martin was a recurring regular on The Lucy Show, playing straight man to Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, while continuing his partnership with Dan Rowan on the nightclub circuit. The duo received their big break when pegged to host Dean Martin's summer replacement series, a 12 week gig which proved their ability to host an hour-long variety show. NBC set about creating a series for Rowan and Martin.

In the 1968 season, spy-thriller The Man from U.N.C.L.E. faltered in the ratings, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In was born.
The series broke with the traditional variety show format, replacing it with frenetic skits and one-liners delivered by a young cast of first-class clowns:

JoAnne (is that a chicken joke?) Worley

Arte (verrrrry interesting...but stupid) Johnson

Ruth (wanna buy a walnetto?) Buzzi

Henry (a Henry Gibson) Gibson

Judy (sock it to me) Carne

Gary (from beautiful downtown Burbank) Owens

The show launched the careers of two women who became bona fide stars:

Goldie (giggles) Hawn

and a comic genius who joined the show in its second season:

Lily (Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?) Tomlin

Laugh-In brought political and social humor to network television, and its various set pieces (The Cocktail Party, The Joke Wall, and most importantly, "Laugh-In Looks at the News") set the stage for later satirical series such as Saturday Night Live (Lorne Michaels worked on the show years before creating SNL) and The Daily Show. The program created half a dozen catch phrases which were gleefully welcomed by a general public in social turmoil: "Here come da' judge", "Look it up in your Funk and Waggonal's", and "You bet your bippy", among those cited above. The show also created a novelty star out of a freaky ukulele player with a hippy look and falsetto voice, Tiny Tim. Thanks to his appearances on Laugh-In, this oddball actually hit the top 40 chart with his rendition of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

Presiding over this chaos, Dan Rowan's exasperated set-ups and Dick Martin's cool obliviousness opened and closed the show. Laugh-In (it took its name from the sit-in protests which were happening on college campuses at the time) was an immediate smash, and topped the Neilson ratings its first two seasons. As many of the original loonies left the show, the program began a swift decline, but I was one of the viewers who hung with the show throughout its run, when later comics such as Alan Sues, Dave Madden, Fannie Flagg, and Patty Deutsch were unable to rescue the show.

In their post Laugh-In years, most of the original players continue to entertain. Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin have gone on to award-winning projects, JoAnne Worley returned to the stage, Ruth Buzzi contributes to humanitarian causes and appears regularly on children's programing, and Henry Gibson is a well-respected dramatic actor.

As for Dick Martin, he went on to become a sought-after television director, responsible for much of the success of both Bob Newhart's hit sitcoms. But I'll always remember him with the goofy grin, handing out the Fickle Finger of Fate Award to some politician embroiled in a scandal, or some celebrity who had overstayed her welcome.

Say good night, Dick.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On Film

My experience on film has been limited, considering I've been acting professionally for so long. I spent decades in LA, but while there, though I appeared in scores of theatrical productions, I worked only once on film.

The movie was called Red Nights, and I worked only one day on the thing, actually one night. All night. I had one scene with the leading man and leading lady, neither of whom you would ever have heard of, but the director was so charmed by my performance, he decided to add another scene to the movie. As we were on location in someone's Bel Air mansion, and we had to vacate by dawn, this additional scene was tacked onto the end of the work day. Thus, though my original scene was done by 9 PM or so, I was kept hanging around all night long. When the sun was beginning to lighten things up, they blacked out the windows of the upstairs hallway, and finally shot the new scene, which consisted only of my walking down the hall and passing the leading man.

Ever hear of Red Nights? Neither has anybody else. Shot in 1987, this independent film failed to find a distributor, and failed to pay their actors. Several years after this horror went straight to video (it's never been released on DVD), Screen Actors Guild got involved and finally, around 1990, I received payment of a whopping 500 dollars.

The leading man of the movie was a young guy named Christopher Parker (I can't claim to have remembered his name, I just checked the VHS cover), and the credits on the box include "Jack Carter as Uncle Solly." I did not work with Carter, an old-time borscht belt comic, and I wasn't even aware he was in this thing. The film was written and directed by Izhak Hanooka, and produced by the team of Gad and Amnon Lesham. Big names, eh? Red Nights was their only film, and my only LA film appearance.

While living in Los Angeles, I would never have considered working as an extra; conventional wisdom was, once you worked "background," you would never be considered for a speaking role in a film. But once I landed in DC, that "conventional wisdom" was non-existent. Most local actors here do extra work from time to time, if only to try to keep their SAG insurance. I've done my share over the years, including huge crowd scenes in flicks like Contact (starring Jodie Foster) and 1600 (that one had Wesley Snipes, way before his tax troubles). Though I have never seen the film (it flopped), I sat in a courtroom right behind Kirstie Alley and Tim Allen in For Richer or Poorer, so I have a hunch I can be seen in that one.

I KNOW I can be seen in one of the several episodes I filmed of the TV series Homicide. The series made its home in Baltimore for 6 or 7 years, so most of the locals turned up in various crowds over the years. In one particular episode, I was one of only two extras working as technicians in the morgue. We spent a full day hauling around carcasses while the principal actors did their shmacting for the camera. I never saw this episode, but I heard from a friend who called from South Carolina, moments after the show aired; he went on and on about how those scrubs I wore really accentuated my biceps (this was during my gym-bunny period, now loooong gone...that's another blog altogether).

Homicide was not the only TV series which gave DC locals employment. The West Wing visited the city several times a year to shoot their exterior scenes, and in one flashback episode, I was wandering around in the background of the campus of young Jeb's boarding school.

This background work sounds pretty lame, and the fact is, it's deadly dull to do. But the casting directors who supply these visiting productions with extras also cast most of the day player roles in these projects. A day player is exactly what it sounds like, a speaking role in a scene which will be shot in one or two days (or less). I've had a couple of those gigs come my way, including two episodes of The Wire, which shot its entire series in Baltimore. I played the small, inconsequential role of "the architect" in season three of the show. Even my friends looking for me missed my one-liner which took place in a restaurant during lunch. The scene took many hours to shoot, and the director was very concerned with authenticity (that was a trademark of The Wire), so I spent the day eating Maryland Crab Cakes, over and over and over and over again.

I was glad to have the work, but I haven't had a crab cake since.

The highest profile film work I have done to date is in the John Waters' film, Pecker. Actually, the official title of the movie is John Waters' Pecker. I have no doubt this was John's not-so-subtle birdie at the traditional Hollywood establishment, which never, until he hit Broadway with Hairspray, treated him with any respect. With his movie's title, he was able to poke the stuffiness of The Industry. All the movie's promotional materials trumpeted the arrival of "John Waters' Pecker." Bus and Billboard advertisements all declared "John Waters' Pecker is coming soon!!"

Film critics were forced into phrases such as "I enjoyed John Waters' Pecker last night." Siskel and Ebert? "Two thumbs up for John Waters' Pecker!"

I played a small part in this flick, appearing in one scene which took place in a thrift shop. I worked with famous photographer Greg Gorman, making his acting debut, as well as with the film's stars Edward Furlong (he had four lines, but couldn't remember them) and Mary Kay Place.

It was a long but fun day of filming, and the resulting scene was funny enough to be included in the theatrical trailer for the film. So, while the movie was only a moderate success, I was seen on many, many big screens across the country during the Coming Attractions, uttering the now famous line, "EVERYBODY wants to be in Vogue!"

I hope I have as much fun on my next film project. I've been offered a day-player role in an upcoming comedy to be shot in Maryland, My One and Only. Based, loosely, on a childhood adventure of George Hamilton's, the flick concerns a divorced mother in the 1950s, on the hunt for a rich husband. I was pleased to be invited to audition for the role of one of the leading lady's ex-boyfriends, a role for which I was, unfortunately, too old. (The leading lady is being played by Renee Zellweger). But a few weeks after my first audition, I was called back in to read for another role, that of a drama teacher. I apparently nailed that one, as the call came today to secure my services.

I can't hope to be in the final theatrical trailer for this one, even if my scene survives the editing room (my scene does not include the star, so is probably ejectable). But because of the presence of Oscar-winner Zellweger in the cast, the project may attract some major attention.

Who knows? It could turn out to be bigger than John Waters' Pecker...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Technology Bytes

My dear little laptop, which has kept me company for over four years, is, sadly, about to crash.

I picked up the little critter at Costco, where it attracted my attention simply because it was white. The manufacturer, Averatec, has rarely been heard of, but the machine has done all that I required for low these many years. My geek friends who have examined him are amazed at all the bells and whistles which came installed, but I never used most of them.

In fact, the laptop played second fiddle for the first two years I owned the thing, as I struggled with the lousy desktop model I purchased online. When that monster finally expired (without warning, so I lost everything on it), my Whitey became my only online source, and it met the challenge with ease. I carried the little thing (only about four pounds) with me to Shenandoah for two gigs, and on many trips to visit the siblings and the pater. I also brought it with me on my most recent visit to L.A. , where my buddy Scott declared he hated the thing.

Well, he had his reasons. Truth be told, the laptop has long been past its prime. It started to show its age about two years ago, when I was out at Wayside Theatre on a gig. The internal CD burner had, I suppose, burned out, so I was unable to create a CD. Luckily, one of our actors was a true Geek (thanks, Will!), and he downloaded a program to replace it.

Soon after, the computer's internal speakers got cranky, and would only work if the top of the machine was about three quarters closed. I have no explanation for this phenomenon, except that the poor creature was aging, but still trying to give me his all. (It was this quirk which prompted Scott to declare, "I hate this computer.") While I was in L.A., Scott noticed another quirk: for some spooky reason, the "n" on the keyboard had rubbed out. No other letter, just the "n". Certainly it was a result of the natural oils from my fingers, but why only that key?

Despite Scott's suspicions, I can state here and now that I did NOT visit Naughty Nuns Needing Nookie. Net with any regularity...

Well, last night, the screen on the old dude started to flicker, and this morning, I could only get the screen lit if the lid was closed 3/4ths, just like the speakers. The message is clear: this laptop is dying. But instead of simply ceasing all activity, this little Averatec athlete is still trying to do his duty.

I spent the day downloading files and programs onto CDs, in hopes of transferring them to a new computer before the old one finally expires.

I dislike technology, and have always been a decade behind. I refused to invest in a CD player back in the day, sure that the fad of digital music would pass. When I finally succumbed (forced into the new age of music when artists stopped making vinyl recordings all together), I promised myself two things: I would only purchase two CDs a month, and I would NEVER purchase a CD version of an album I already had.

I broke both those promises in the first month. Aren't you dying to know which CDs were the first of my collection (a collection which now houses over 600 items)? That first month, I had to have Dave Grusin's Greatest Hits, Andrea Marcovicci's What is Love?, and the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I seem to have drifted off-point here.

My technological stuntedness was nowhere more apparent than in 1993, when I entered graduate school. More than 15 years had passed between my college graduation and my grad school entrance, and in that time. computers had come out of the sci-fi world, and infiltrated our lives. Or at least, the lives of students. When I arrived at USC, I had no idea that my lack of computer knowledge would become such an issue. Hey, I had my portable electric typewriter with me, so I was good to go.

My dandy Smith-Corona was sadly inefficient in Theatre History class, when I spent more time typing my first term paper than writing it (The Ineffectuality of the Landed Gentry of Pre-Revolutionary Russia, as illustrated in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard...riveting stuff, I must brag). Luckily, I was saved by a fellow student, who took the time to instruct me on how to use a computer (well, on how to use the word processing functions, anyway), so my subsequent paper (Lead Into Gold: the Uses of Alchemy in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay) would not require the constant use of white-out.

I appealed to dear ol' Dad, and purchased a second-hand IBM. By the time I presented my third term paper in as many months ("When? Where? What?" The Unities of Time, Place, and Action as discussed in John Dryden's "An Essay of Dramatic Poesy" and applied to John Guare's Four Baboons Adoring the Sun), I was pretty good on Wordperfect, the standard program used at the time.

Since those grad school days, I have had more than a handful of computers, both desktops and laps, but none have functioned with the dexterity of my poor, ancient Averatec. I have never been one to assign human characteristics to inanimate objects (I would be the LAST person to name my car, for example), but still... it seems my little laptop, with the tilted screen, the eccentric sound, the missing "n" and the transplanted internal drive, just wants to age with dignity.
But not so fast. I have to yank out all its innards before its final crash and burn.

Then, of course, I have to figure out how to load all the files onto a new computer.

No wonder I never bought a microwave....

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Events, current

What's been happening in this actor's life?

Lots of stuff, but nothing to write home about. Or in this case, write to the ether about.

But as my last several posts have been all about other things, I'll try to bring this one a bit closer to home.

Well, the Madness of Shear continues, with about a month left on my contract. Last week, we were visited by the Big Boss, the Grand Pooh-Bah, the Chief Gee-Whiz, Bruce Jordan. He is the co-creator of the show, and was its first (and probably best) Tony, the role I continue to attempt.

We spent several hours in rehearsal with Bruce, who is an expert at comic acting, and he afforded us new and useful techniques. While advising our cast, Bruce was also training a new director, who will be putting together a production in Malaysia. I don't even know where Malaysia is, or what language they speak, or even if they have hair dressing salons like the one in Shear Madness. And where are they going to get all that shaving creme?

But other things have been going on, too. I've been appearing in a series of staged readings with my buddies at the Washington Stage Guild, while they await the completion of their new theatre. I've been pleased to be included in most of the readings they have been producing this season (in lieu of fully staged productions). It's been a great opportunity to try out different roles, with wacky accents and such, without pressure.

There is an Art to performing in a Staged Reading, and I think I am getting pretty good at it. A Staged Reading, for the uninitiated, is simply a reading of a play by a bunch of actors, with an audience in attendance. With script in hand, the actor attempts to create a semblance of a character, something which might be useful in a fully staged production.

The Stage Guild's season of readings has afforded me the opportunity to experiment with a variety of characters, including an all-knowing butler in The Return of the Prodigal (by St. John Hankin), a doltish copper in The Rising of the Sun, and a suspected Irish murderer in Spreading the News (both by Lady Gregory), a middle class British doctor trapped by his own hypocrisy in Widower's Houses (George Bernard Shaw's first play!), and a cuckolded husband in Dangerous Corner (by J.B. Priestly). My most recent reading for the Guild was a hoot and a half, as I played a myriad of characters, including an upper-class yachtsman, a Cockney zookeeper, a lifeguard right off the beach in Malibu, and a lizard. (In fact, not just a lizard, but the King of the Newts, "Commander Salamander.") The play, called War with the Newts, is an adaptation of a Czech science fiction novel written back in the 1930s, but is, freakishly, very relevant today.

These staged readings yield artistic satisfaction, but no monetary gain. So, I've submitted myself for several sessions of Lawyer Training. These are seminars set up by big law firms to train their young associates on the finer points of appearing in court. These law firms hire actors to portray various litigants, in order for their newbies to practice. I have no doubt I will be reporting more on these episodes as they develop.

And lest you think I have abandoned looking for traditional acting gigs, I'll reveal that I have auditioned twice for the new Renee Zellweger flick which will be filming in our area soon. I've also attended the general auditions for two local theatre companies, in hopes that they might fall madly in love with me.

[uncomfortable silence]

So far, there has been no happy dancing...