Sunday, April 29, 2012

Waiver Games, Part V: Shakespeare-Adjacent

...the fifth installment in a series of blogs recounting my experiences working in various Waiver theatres in Los Angeles.  Go here to read earlier entries...
My  penultimate appearance in a Waiver Theatre production signalled a move away from the comfort zone of working with friends, which was probably a good thing. 
Other than my first foray into Waiver theatre, at least a decade earlier, this was the first time I landed a Waiver gig on the strength of an audition.  And it may have been my most prestigious appearance during my Waiver career.  The show was the American premiere of a 400-year old chestnut with questionable pedigree.  But lots of moxie.

The household help of The Puritan Widow. I'm on the left.
Annie Potts appeared at the Globe,
years before becoming a
Designing Woman.
The Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood, CA, (not to be confused with the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, CA) was a scaled-down replica of Shakespeare's own Globe Theatre.  A gent named R. Thad Taylor built the place, and spent several decades producing every single play by the Bard, in order.  His was the first professional theatre company to do so. 
Waiver Impresario R. Thad Taylor, with the mock-up of his Globe Playhouse, which produced important classical works during Waiver's heyday.
Shakespeare's contemporaries like Jonson and Marlowe were also produced at The Globe, as well as all the plays in the Shakespearean Apocrypha. 
John Ritter stretched his classical muscles
at The Globe
before joining the land of sitcom.

These are plays which are UNcertainly connected to Shakespeare, that is, texts in which the Bard may have had a hand, but did not create entirely on his own.  Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen are the best known of these apocryphal plays (and are now routinely included in Shakespeare's Complete Works), but there are many more plays in which Shakespeare's involvement is still being debated.

This title page caused the play
to be associated with Shakespeare.
The jury has come in, fairly conclusively, on The Puritan (sometimes called The Puritan Widowe), and scholars are now pretty certain that the play was written by Thomas Middleton.  The title page of the first printed script cites "W.S" as the playwright, which is why The Puritan shows up in the Shakespearean Apocrypha in the first place.  Middleton is now believed to have aided our Will on the script for All's Well That Ends Well, so perhaps the Bard returned the favor.  Regardless of who wrote it, The Puritan's first professional production on this side of the Atlantic happened at the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood, CA, over 400 years after its first performance in London, and I was in it.
The actors' view of the audience at the Globe Playhouse.
I was personally pleased that I had won a role with a cold audition. Most of my other Waiver appearances were the result of my having been recommended, so no audition was required.
One of several comedic fights in
The Puritan.

My audition skills, then and now, are pretty damn poor, and I auditioned for dozens of Waiver shows without getting so much as a callback. So snagging a role at The Globe was a proud moment in my young career. The role was a small one, but it had a bit of importance in the theme of the piece, which illustrated the hypocrisy of the puritan movement during the Jacobean period. My role, provocatively named Simon St. Mary Ovaries, was a servant to the title character, and I showed up occasionally to spout puritan nonsense while everyone else did the opposite.
I don't remember why I disapproved of the marriage of The Puritan's daughter. I never went anywhere without my prayer book.
The show sounds pretty dry, but the director did a great job jazzing things up, and his casting of the play couldn't be beat.  As with most other Waiver shows, our cast was full of actors looking for that big break on screen, but luckily, they had substantial stage chops as well. 
This cast partied well. I enjoyed their company,
but can't remember a single name.

I was pleased to make the acquaintance of these folks, who really knew how to party, and it was an unusual change for me to be performing with a group of strangers.  I knew only one other actor going into the production, the lovely and talented Kurt Hansen;  Kurt and I were both alumni of Cal State University, Northridge, though we had attended the school several years apart. 
Kurt Hansen was the only actor I knew before beginning the project. He played a suitor to one of The Puritan's daughters (I think). I was later to play Prince John opposite Kurt's Robin Hood in dinner theatre.  He was a talented actor and singer, and looked great in tights.
I was to get to know Kurt much better in a few years, when we appeared together in an original musical at the Granada Theatre, but that was not a Waiver production, so that story is not part of this series. 

The lobby of the Globe Playhouse
As for The Puritan, well, it was by far the smallest role I had in any Waiver production, but the fact that it was an American premiere of a text which was so old, and which had ties to Shakespeare, means it remains on my classical resume.  I don't regret doing the show for a minute.
The Globe Playhouse has changed names several times since its success as a classical house.  Currently, it's home to a lesbian theatre group and film festival.
During the run of The Puritan, a casting call went out for the show which would turn out to be my final appearance under the Waiver code, and my most disastrous. 
Our program claimed the production
was a World Premiere. It wasn't,
but it was surely the American one.

Several of my castmates from The Puritan attended that audition, we all felt very confident that the producers would be thrilled to cast us all, since we were all working at such a prestigious theatre as The Globe Playhouse. 
The Globe's The Tempest.

But as it turned out, I was the only one of us to snag a role;  my Puritan cohorts dodged a bullet when they were not cast in Mandragola, while that bullet hit me squarely between the eyes.  Stay tuned for the sixth and final entry of My Waiver Games.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Her Name Is Barbra

In the early 1960s, my parents took their first trip to New York City.  My father was working his way up the corporate ladder at Lockheed, and he was beginning to travel for his job.  This was a rare occasion where he was invited to bring his wife along.  My folks were put up in a swanky hotel, and decided they must see a Broadway show.  This is not because my parents were great theatre buffs;  neither of them attended plays regularly, until I dragged them into the theatrical landscape years later.  But back then, if you were a tourist in New York, you went to see a Broadway show.  They had no clue which show to see, so they asked the doorman.

"You'll never get into Dolly," the concierge said, "but go down the street and see if you can get into that one."  My folks did as they were told, and walked down the street to the Winter Garden Theatre to see a play they had never heard of, about a performer they couldn't remember, starring a woman whose name they could not pronounce.
"Hello, Gorgeous"
It was 6 or 7 years later that my father first told me this story, of the night my parents lucked into seeing Barbra Streisand, on stage, playing Fanny Brice in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl. (I wrote of this story and others several years ago, when Streisand first graced the Dance Party.) 
In rehearsal for Broadway's
Funny Girl.

The show brought the star national attention, but even back then, her face and voice were not recognizable to the majority of the country.  She lost both her Tony bids, to Phyllis Newman and Carol Channing, and her national exposure was limited to occasional appearances on talk shows.

Based on her star turn in Funny Girl, CBS approached the young Streisand to star in her own TV special.  My Name Is Barbra was broadcast on April 28, 1965, and was such a success that the network signed her up for 4 more specials.
Barbra's TV specials were Emmy bait.

Streisand produced one special a year for the next three years, programs which were critical and popular smashes.  She won Emmy awards, and produced Grammy-award winning albums based on those specials.
A Happening In Central Park,
her first concert special, showcased a legend in the making.
Despite the stage fright which kept her off the concert stage for many years, Streisand is always at her best in front of an audience.
In 1968, Funny Girl the film turned Barbra into a superstar, and she lost interest in television. 
Produced solely to fulfill her CBS contract, her
1973 special was her least satisfying.

It was to be 6 years before she reluctantly produced the final TV special required by her CBS contract.  Her subsequent specials have tended to be "Making Of..." documentaries, or later, filmed versions of her concerts.  She will be remembered primarily for her film work, and for her phenomenal success in the recording studio, but it should be recognized that her first widespread, national fame was a result of these television specials.

This week's Dance Party comes from My Name Is Barbra, which introduced her to the country.  She is young and green, but her performance is focused, and she is showcased beautifully.  I am not a slavish devotee of Streisand, but I will submit that her voice, in its prime (such as in the clip below), is one of the preeminent musical instruments of the 20th century.
Hilarious moments, full-throated production
numbers, and a healthy mix of melodrama:
Funny Girl was the perfect vehicle to launch
a superstar.

The clip below contains a medley of several songs from the stage version of Funny Girl, as well as an early rendition of Fanny Brice's "My Man," which is not included in the stage show but became a highlight of the film.  As she has aged, Barbra's voice has deepened, and she no longer has the range she once had, but no one can fault her for that.  Streisand turned 70 years old this week, and in her honor, enjoy this clip from her glory days:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hayzie Thoughts

Last year was my third and final year as a judge for the Helen Hayes Awards, given for excellence in stage artistry in the Washington, DC, region. 
Miss Baltimore Crabs helped
Hairspray win big at the Hayzies.

I had to excuse myself from many of my judging responsibilities in 2011, due to scheduling conflicts, so the winners announced last night at the Warner Theatre were mostly for shows I had not seen.  A few thoughts on the awards ceremony itself:
Twyford and Curry sparkled.

I'll say upfront that the co-hosts Felicia Curry and Holly Twyford were absolutely terrific.  I usually hate the stage banter which award shows insist upon including, but the dialogue between our two hosts, written by Renee Calarco, was refreshingly bright and intelligent. 

The concept of mixing theatrical talent with DC politicos and media personalities as presenters was not a success.  The civilians involved seemed to be trying to pass themselves off as great supporters of DC theatre.  But none of these so-called arts supporters gave any indication that they ever actually attend live theatre. 
Holmes-Norton shmoozed Kevin Spacey.
She should have read about DC theatre instead.

The most egregious example was that of DC Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton.  She presented several awards for which Synetic Theatre was nominated.  Each and every time she announced their name, she called them "Synthetic Theatre."  This is a company which, arguably, has gained the most notable national reputation of any homegrown theatre in the past 10 years.  And Holmes-Norton clearly had never heard of them.

Kevin Spacey was hilarious
and sincere.

The show itself was very entertaining, and seemed to move along pretty well, particularly in the hands of Felicia, Holly, and guest honoree Kevin Spacey.  There is a shaky video of Spacey's acceptance speech here, it's worth a look, especially for his final advice.  I've got some advice, too, what are the odds?

A few days ago, critic Nelson Pressley wrote this well-considered article regarding ways to make the awards more representative of the full spectrum of DC theatre.  I agree with him on all points.  In a nutshell, he suggests splitting the awards into two realms, separating the Big Boys with the Big Budgets from the smaller kids with the smaller budgets.  How to make room for a doubling of the awards given?  I have a suggestion I have heard from no one else:  it's time to retire the awards given to "Non-Resident Productions."

I understand the reasoning behind these award categories being created in the first place.  According to the TheatreWashington's website, there were fewer than 10 producing theaters in the DC area 28 years ago, when the Hayzies were created. 
I saw Derek Jacobi's Cyrano in L.A.
A year later, he won the first Hayes
award for Lead Actor
in a Touring Production.

Including "touring productions," as they were called back then, was a smart move.  These touring productions which swept through the area via the Kennedy Center, or the National or Warner Theaters, or occasionally Fords, often had stars with name recognition;  awarding these performers probably garnered attention in the national trade publications which the fledgling Helen Hayes Awards would have been hard pressed to grab on their own. 
Estelle Getty won a Touring
Hayzie for Torch Song Trilogy

A glance at the first awards given in 1985 backs up that suspicion:  the "touring production" awards that first year went to Derek Jacobi in Cyrano de Bergerac, Estelle Getty in Torch Song Trilogy, and the gal who sang "Memory" in Cats.  The Outstanding Touring Production that year was the aforementioned Cyrano, presented by the Kennedy Center but produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

And that's my point.  These non-resident productions are not cast nor directed nor rehearsed nor produced locally, they are merely presented here.  I'm sure we're glad to have them, but do we need to consider these productions for awards which were created to celebrate our local theatre artists?

In the early Hayzie days, non-DC productions were all touring shows, and nowadays, that's not always true. Arena, Studio, The Shakes, and Woolly Mammoth are likely to import outside productions to fill out their seasons, and there is nothing wrong with that. But these productions are presented in our area, rather than produced here, and such shows are no longer vital to the national profile of our region. 
Mike Daisy was up for an award for his Steve Jobs

We are only talking about four awards here, but in my opinion, they are no longer pertinent.  None of the three performers who won in the non-resident categories last night were in attendance to claim their awards, and why should we expect them to be?  There may be a bit of starry excitement when Cate Blanchett wins one of our awards, but that flame flares out almost immediately when she, predictably, doesn't show up. 
Cate Blanchett was not expected to travel halfway around the planet to pick up her Helen Hayes Award for Uncle Vanya.
Don't get me wrong, I don't expect any non-resident actor to pay his own way to our ceremony to (possibly) accept an award, such things are just not important enough to the out-of-town actor. 

But why are we honoring out-of-town actors anyway?  Why are we awarding productions which were grown elsewhere, just because they occupy one of our theaters for a month or two?  We certainly don't need the promotional publicity, as our nominees and winners are now routinely published in all the national trades and in the New York Times, too.  Let's retire the four non-resident Helen Hayes Awards, and fully celebrate our local theatrical artistry. And get to the after-party quicker!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Easy To Dance To

Dick Clark
Dick Clark is being called a TV pioneer this week, and I'm not sure I'll go that far.  But I will agree he was a savvy business man with a sharp instinct about what will appeal to Middle America.  When he took his Philadelphia based Bandstand national, he exposed much of the country to their first daily dose of rock and roll (Elvis was Dick's first interview on the national program). 

The show ran every weekday afternoon for years, and then on Saturdays for many more;  from 1956-1989, Clark was its host. 
During this period, his production company assumed ownership of the franchise.  dick clark productions (note the lower case letters) became a prolific factory of programs which would today be classified as part of the reality genre.  Various blooper shows ran for years, as they were dirt cheap to produce, while  Clark created the American Music Awards, and his company produced the Golden Globes and the Daytime Emmys.

I was not a big devotee of American Bandstand, and Dick Clark always seemed a, though nobody seemed to question his hosting skills. 
I was pleased when he revived the old quiz show, The $10,000 Pyramid, upping the ante to 25 and then 100 grand.  It was an interesting show which moved faster than Password and was easier than Jeopardy.  And the final round was always exciting:

I would suggest that one of Dick Clark's biggest accomplishments is New Year's Rockin' Eve, a foolish title for a good idea. 
Clark was  the first to suspect that there might be an audience watching television at midnight on New Year's Eve who were not enchanted by that crypt keeper Guy Lombardo and his Oompah Orchestra.  At the time, Lombardo's show was the only one hosting the big ball drop in Times Square.  In the early 1970s, Dick produced a series of musical specials which became the annual alternative to Lombardo.  These days, all the networks and many of the cable channels offer their own version of Clark's idea.
Everybody knows Dick Clark died this week, and that he has been suffering the effects of a stroke for some years.  His resume boasts four Emmy Awards plus a Lifetime Achievement, as well as a Peabody, and he can also be blamed for the following Dance Party. 
In 1977, Barry Manilow penned updated lyrics to the existing theme song for American Bandstand, and has been using it in his act ever since.  This clip is apparently from a concert he gave in England during his heyday.

Dark Shadows Off The Wall

Dark Shadows has reentered the public consciousness for a couple of reasons.  Johnny Depp and Tim Burton are attempting a reboot of the camp classic with their upcoming film, re-imagining the Gothic horror tale as a comic fish-out-of-water (with fangs) story. 
I must admit to being a DS geek, but I am not one who reveres the series without reservation;  as such, I look forward to seeing how Depp, who confesses to being obsessed with Barnabas Collins as a child, and Burton, who never made a visually dull movie, update the story for a modern audience.

Dark Shadows is in the news for a second, less celebratory reason this week as well:

Jonathan Frid
DS hit paydirt with the romance
of Barnabas and Josette.
With justification, Jonathan Frid is credited with saving the struggling Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows from cancellation, and even for putting the show into the popular culture.  He had studied as an actor at RADA, and earned the MFA in Directing at Yale, so he can legitimately be called classically trained. 
In Arsenic and Old Lace,
Frid played Jonathan Brewster,a role
written for Boris Karloff.
His first love was always the stage, appearing in the early seasons at The Williamstown Theatre Festival, and after his stint on DS, he starred in the Broadway revival of Arsenic and Old Lace.  It's likely he felt much more confident in the theatre, with its substantial rehearsal period, as he never really conquered the fast pace of the daytime soap opera.  But Frid's insecurities notwithstanding, his performance as the vampire Barnabas Collins was seminal.  His was the first portrayal of a vampire as a reluctant predator, as tortured as his victims.  Anne Rice's vampires, television's Angel, and the Twilight twink must all point to Barnabas Collins as their antecedent.

Dark Shadows was struggling from the date of its first broadcast in 1966.
The cast played rep, portraying characters in the present and the past.
Creator Dan Curtis reports that the idea behind the world's first Gothic soap opera came in a dream, in which a lonely young woman takes a train to a remote, mysterious location. 
Moltke left acting when she became
Claus von Bulow's mistress, as he
was being tried for his wife's murder.
From that dream, Curtis concocted the tale of an orphaned woman travelling to a remote village in Maine, in search of her roots.  Neophyte actress Alexandra Moltke played the young heroine of the show, and for the first several months of the series, her voice intoned in an introductory voice-over, "My name is Victoria Winters."

Nobody cared.  With its brooding music, dark lighting, and hulking sets, the show looked nothing like As The World Turns, or any other traditional soap opera of the day. 

Episode #1 introduced noir fatale Joan Bennett
as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard.
Within the first year, Dan Curtis introduced a supernatural plotline concerning a ghost, and another revolving around a woman with powers over fire.  Nothing clicked, and rumors were rampant that the show was on the way out.  Curtis made a bold choice and steered the show solidly into the realm of the supernatural, and created the character which would save the show, the vampire.

Subtlety was not the show's strong point.
Jonathan Frid was on his way to California to begin a teaching career when he learned he had snagged the part of Barnabas Collins, which he expected to be a short-term gig.  Curtis himself expected the role to last only 6-10 weeks, but the audience reaction to the character skyrocketed, and Frid became the most recognizable daytime star of the period.  He became the central character of the series, a position with which he was never comfortable. 

Dark Shadows is now available on DVD, and I've been watching all 1225 episodes, in order.  (It's taking years, as one can only watch one or two episodes at a time, the pace of the show is glacial.) 
Nancy Barrett as music hall
singer Pansy Faye. She was one
the more versatile of the DS cast.
As much as I loved the show as a kid, and enjoy it as a piece of nostalgia now, I cannot overlook the inconsistent quality of the series.  The show was presented "live-to-tape," which meant that, though the episodes were not shot live per se, the logistics of the show required that the full 30 minute episode be taped without stopping.  There is a frantic, under-rehearsed quality to many of the episodes, and Jonathan Frid's performance is a prime offender.  He was clearly not a quick study, and his insecurity with his lines pops up in almost every episode.  He can be forgiven, as, once his popularity soared, he appeared in almost every episode.
Bennett and Frid struggled for lines.
Her role as Judith Collins was her
best of the time-hopping series.
The rest of the Dark Shadows core cast was inconsistent as well.  The supposed star of the series was Joan Bennett, who had a fairly big career in Hollywood during its Golden Age, with her biggest successes in film noir efforts.  I was always fascinated by Bennett, but on subsequent viewings, I can see that I was attracted by her natural elegance and style (and her authentic New England accent).  But Joan did not possess the sparkle of her more famous sister, Constance Bennett, and on DS, she suffered from the same insecurity with her lines as did Jonathan Frid. 
Hall snagged an Oscar nod for Night of the Iguana,
opposite Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner.
Others in the Dark Shadows company ran the gamut from excellent to mediocre to downright lousy.  Character actress Grayson Hall, who had an Oscar nomination on her resume, gave a memorable performance as Dr. Julia Hoffman (a role originally written for a man), at least in her early months on the show, when she was an antagonist to our vampire hero. 
Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman
Her performance weakened in subsequent years, and Hall was not versatile enough to convincingly play a woman in love.  She ultimately became another major player on the soap, but her work often crossed over into melodrama. 
Every Dracula needs his Renfield. John Karlen's Willie Loomis was a standout. His later career included Tyne Daly's husband on Cagney and Lacey.

David Selby's Quentin was a ghost,
a werewolf, a zombie,
and Dorian Grey.
As with other soaps, Dark Shadows proved a training ground for many younger actors.  David Selby spent more than a year on the show, playing the only other character which could be classified as "break out," the brooding Quentin Collins.  Kate Jackson's first professional job out of college was during the final year of Dark Shadows.  
Kate Jackson's first gig played out during the final months of the series.

McKecknie played Quentin's love during the day,
while hoofing on Broadway at night.
As I've been rewatching the series, I love spotting actors whom I knew were conducting concurrent careers, such as a young Donna McKecknie, who spent many months on the show, during the same period that she was dancing in Promises, Promises and Company on Broadway. 
Virginia Vestoff
as Samantha Collins.
A few years later, Virginia Vestoff played Samantha Collins during the day while starring as Abigail Adams in the smash 1776 at night.    Conrad Janis showed up in a few early episodes, before he moved to L.A. to become a sitcom star, and Jerry Lacy's appearances as the hypocritical Rev. Trask were overshadowed by his more famous persona as an impersonator of Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen projects.  
Jerry Lacy appeared as Bogie in Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam, on stage and film.
Child actress Denise Nickerson followed up her time as a DS regular with major roles in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Neon Ceiling.
During the five year run of Dark Shadows, the writers plundered all the classic horror stories.  The very first plotline, that of the young governess arriving at the mysterious mansion, is a blatant ripoff of Rebecca and Turn of the Screw, but the DS writers shamelessly stole from everybody. 
The Tower Room at Collinwood held lots of  secrets and several family psychos.
With the arrival of the vampire, the show began to be peopled with all the supernatural types.  Witches, warlocks, ghosts, werewolves, even zombies made an appearance. 
Forget Elsa Lanchester. Marie Wallace's
Eve, as the show's bride
 of Frankenstein, was one hot mess.
Frankenstein provided a major plotline, as did Jekyll & Hyde and the Picture of Dorian Grey, even the Old Testament provided source material for the show's stories.  The show used science fiction too, as there were several instances of time travel and the theory of a parallel universe. 
Thayer David as Count Petofi. He was
probably the best actor on the series.
Severed body parts were occasional catalysts for stories:  a severed hand (an idea pilfered from Edgar Allen Poe) was at the center of one of the most successful of the show's plotlines, which provided one of the consistently fine players on the show, Thayer David, two significant roles:  the cowardly gypsy Sandor, and the asthmatic Count Petofi.  A disembodied head (Ichabod Crane, anyone?) was one of the final horror icons used before the show folded. 

The 1991 failure of the prime time series allowed
Joe to sign onto 3rd Rock.
The show passed into relative obscurity after its cancellation in 1971, but not before spawning not one but two feature films.  Like the undead creatures who inhabited its canvas, Dark Shadows continues to rise from its grave.  The series was rerun on cable channels for a while, and an attempt  in 1991 to reboot the series as a slickly produced prime time soap failed.  In 2004, a pilot for a new series was shot for the WB, but never aired.  And now we have the comic take on the tale with Tim Burton's film.
At the center of all this mayhem, Jonathan Frid must be remembered for his performance as the reluctant vampire who became the inadvertent hero.  He died at the age of 87 on Friday the 13th of this month.