Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Waiver Games, Part IV: There's No Place On Earth Like The World

That odd lyric ("there's no place on earth like the world") was included in one of the songs which were peppered throughout Brendan Behan's sprawling vaudevillian treatment of the Irish/English conflict, The Hostage.  The show was to be my fourth foray into the world of waiver theatre in L.A.  I did not go willingly into that good night's entertainment;  I had to be convinced and cajoled into participating in the piece, and became a member of the cast solely due to the entreaties of the director, Bobbi Holtzman.
I spent a dozen years, off and on, studying with Bobbi. She was a great influence on my life.
I wrote a bit about my long relationship with Bobbi here, soon after she died about four years ago.  I cannot overstate the influence Bobbi had on my life, both artistic and personal, and I find myself thinking of her often.  I first met Bobbi when she taught my Acting Three class at Cal State Northridge, and we formed an immediate bond. 

After the semester ended, I joined her adult acting workshop, which met twice a week for intense scene study.  It was during these sessions that I believe I became an actor, and the tools which she gave to me are still being used today.
At CSUN, Bobbi directed a stunning production of the Lorca classic, The House of Bernarda Alba. It was seductive and suffocating at the same time. My oldest friend Claudia had a major success, as did Diane Rostant, who would go on to star in The Hostage.
It must have been around 1980 when Bobbi was invited to direct a full-length play under the auspices of her own non-profit theatre company, NTG. 
That's Bobbi's husband Alan
in the background, where he usually stayed.

She directed only once every 3-4 years back then, as her technique required buttloads of rehearsal time, and was exhausting for everyone concerned, including her ultra-supportive husband, Alan.  Bobbi's choice of The Hostage was both understandable and dangerous.  It is an unwieldy piece, taking place in a Dublin whorehouse, in the late 1950s.  Author Brendan Behan had used the piece as a forum to ridicule both sides of the Irish/British conflict, and the show was an unlikely mix of comedy, heavy drama, audience interaction, and Music Hall. 
An unusual four-disc album was released, of the full original Off-Broadway production of The Hostage. Julie Harris had some success as the ingenue, Teresa.
On first look, this was not at all Bobbi's cup of tea, as she was attracted to down-to-earth dramas with realistic characters.  The Hostage was peopled with flamboyant characters who often stopped the action on stage in order to sing a song or tell a joke to the audience. 
This was not our production, but it could have been: an eclectic group of misfits living together in a boarding house / brothel during the Irish Troubles.
Bobbi's directorial style was fluid and without sharp edges.  She would never have any success directing a farce, with the specific timing required for such things. 
Bobbi's workshops were serious and satisfying.
Her students were intensely devoted to the work and to her.
Then someone would have a party.

Her forte was the personal interaction among actors, and her shows usually looked very spontaneous and even improvised.  The Hostage, on the surface, looked like such a play, but in reality, it was to require a strong sense of timing and reliable specificity.  A particular type of actor would be necessary to pull off this show, and Bobbi was only partially successful in finding such actors.

But, back to me.  Once Bobbi decided to direct The Hostage, she asked me to play the featured role of Rio Rita, a transvestite prostitute who was one of the many oddballs who lived in the boarding house where the action took place.  At the time, I was struggling a lot with facing my sexuality, and I was deeply concerned about playing such a role which might embarrass my parents.  Though Bobbi did some strong convincing, I declined the offer to play the part.  Bobbi cast the role with my good friend Cris, another of her longtime students and friends, and began a rehearsal process which would last many months.
Cris was also part of Bobbi's gang, as well as being a good
friend of mine. He has continued in the business, and is now
an Emmy-winning TV personality and producer.

Meanwhile, I performed in one of my favorite shows, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, produced at a local women's club/dinner theatre. (You can read my thoughts on that production here.) 
After Bobbi caught this performance in
Forum, she renewed her efforts to get me
into The Hostage.

My best buddy Judy directed that piece, and as we were both close to Bobbi, she was invited to attend.  Bobbi loved the production, and in particular, my performance, and she once again began pushing for me to join her cast.  Our buddy Cris had at that point discovered that he would prefer to help Bobbi produce the show, rather than appear in it, so she was once again looking for someone to play Rio Rita. I finally relented (Bobbi was a force of nature which could not be denied for long).  The part was certainly a flamboyant one, but to call him a drag queen would be a misnomer.  I never appeared in what we would now call drag;  instead, I wore a provocatively placed scarf or a silk robe, over everyday, male attire.
Again, not our production, but this is a fair indication of Rio Rita's looks (he's the white guy with his hand to his chest): not at all a modern drag queen, he was ready to drop his flamboyance and blend into the real world of the 1950s.
We had two runs of The Hostage, the first in Encino, CA, and the second at the Pilot Theatre, which was one of a number of Waiver houses in Hollywood.  Our cast included several of Bobbi's workshop participants, though she did some casting At Large as well.  This being a waiver show, no one was paid, and Bobbi had the luxury of using a large cast.  Our ensemble of whores and drifters was particularly dynamic, and included an actor from Czechoslovakia, who spoke stilted English and played a Russian sailor.
Not our production, but the guy in the striped shirt is the Russian Sailor looking for love. In our production, he was a Czech sailor looking for his props.
In his particular sequence, this character wanders into the house, and the hookers begin to fight over him. Meanwhile, he reaches into his sock and pulls out a wad of cash. One night, this poor actor forgot his prop money, and spent several tense moments searching his pockets, his shirt, his socks, even his hat, looking for his cash. The entire action of the stage stopped, waiting for him to produce the money. Bless him, he remained in character, and babbled in Czech, which sounded like Russian to our ears, while frantically searching his pockets.  At just the moment when the audience began to feel some alarm that something was actually going wrong onstage, I pointed at the front door of the set and shouted (in my Irish brogue), "Throw him out!"  The stage exploded with exclamations, and the audience erupted with relieved applause. 
Heston was not packing heat when he
came backstage to meet the cast.

(This actor's day job was as valet to Charlton Heston, I kid you not. Heston came to see The Hostage during its initial run, and was very gracious backstage to everyone.  He was much less public about his politics back then, and I was pretty pleased to shake his hand, not realizing that I would later be invited to take his gun out of those hands when they were cold and dead).
Joe Colligan has gone on to
a substantial on-camera and
voice-over career.

Bobbi's greatest achievement in casting The Hostage was with the two actors playing the romantic leads.  Joe Colligan had played the title role during his undergraduate career, and he was ripe to attack the role again.  I thought he was outstanding as the British soldier captured by the IRA and stashed in the whorehouse until he could be executed.  I loved watching Joe's work, as he had a charisma which was undeniable. Plus he introduced me to Fosters Beer. 
Diane Rostant was one of the strongest
actresses to come out of CSUN. Here she's
causing trouble in The Crucible.

Playing opposite Joe, as his love interest, was one of my CSUN cohorts, and one of Bobbi's favorite actresses, Diane Rostant.  Diane's work was always seamless and grounded and utterly, utterly real;  she may have been the best dramatic actress to come out of my generation of CSUN students.

In the role of Meg, the landlady and ersatz madam of the house, Bobbi cast an off-beat character actress  who was also her friend, Bunny Burnhart. 
Bunny Burnhart (seated) played Meg with
vivacious humanity. Bobbi directed her
many times; this is Hot L Baltimore.

Bunny was one of the most memorable people I have ever interacted with, and she gave an outstanding performance.  Unfortunately, the majority of Bunny's stage time was shared with the man who ultimately sank our production.  Barry Cahill was an older gent who had been knocking around Hollywood for decades, playing one-scene roles in television and film, and becoming more and more bitter about his lack of fame. 
Barry Cahill died this year, at the age of 90, never
coming close to the success of his wife. He was
a misery to work with.

His bitterness was compounded by the fact that his wife was substantially more successful than himself.  She was an original player on General Hospital, and worked steadily on the soap for over 40 years. I knew exactly who Rachel Ames was, and had a lot of respect for her talent, as did everybody else. 
I was thrilled when Rachel Ames
dropped by rehearsals, after a
full day of taping
 General Hospital. She had class
and charisma, sorely lacking in
her husband.

But she was clearly the breadwinner in her marriage, and her husband was not the kind of man who could easily accept that fact. By the time Barry was cast in the central role of Pat in The Hostage, he had become an embittered and obnoxious drunk. 

I had a success in The Hostage (the gay press gave me raves, duh), and my father and sister attended the show.  My mother declined to see the production.  I was upfront with her about the flamboyant, somewhat queenie characterization I was giving, and she asked to be excused from watching.  I had no problem giving her a pass;  she was never comfortable with my feminine tendencies, and as Rio Rita, director Bobbi was encouraging them. 
Our flyer gives the impression my role was bigger than it was (I'm standing in the "O"). Though draped in scarf and silk robe, I had street clothes of the period underneath.  Rio Rita was always ready to "pop down to the docks to see if I can pick us up a sailor."
The Hostage taught me a lot about how to conduct myself in a professional setting (it gave me a pretty good Irish accent, too).  I saw the animosity which Barry Cahill created toward himself with his obnoxious behavior, and I also saw the respect which our younger leads Joe Colligan and Diane Rostant engendered.  Though I had been studying with Bobbi in her private workshop for years, I was glad that I took the plunge and finally worked with her as a director. 
Bobbi's workshop presented me with
a cake on the occasion of my last class,
as I headed off the grad school in 1993.

Bobbi was well-respected on the Waiver circuit as a director and as an actress, and when she died in 2008, after a long decline, there was quite an outpouring of admiration for her.

It would be 3 or 4 years after The Hostage before I worked again under the Waiver Code.  That next venture would be the first American production of a text which was over 400 years old, and had shady Shakespearean ties.  To get the scoop on that chestnut, come back for Part V of My Waiver Games. Meanwhile, you can read the full series, so far, here.