Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Waiver Games, Part III: Nick's Pacific Street Saloon

(third in a series regarding my history with Waiver Theatre in Los Angeles. Go here for part I and here for part II...)
I had a good time appearing in my third Waiver Theater Production, but I may have been the only one.  At this time I was still working full time at Lockheed, and was hating every minute of it.  I was always in need of something creative to do outside those lousy office hours.  Once Poof! closed, my best friend Judy Welden came to the rescue, with her first foray into the Waiver Wars.

I wrote about Judy several years ago, and I am pleased to say that she remains my dearest friend to this day. 
Judy's environmental production of
this classic caused a sensation at CSUN.
Actors climbed the walls and
 swung through the air on ropes.
The audience loved it.
The faculty hated it.

She directed me many times during our tenure at Cal State Northridge, both on- and off-campus;  she remains, by far, the director with whom I have worked the most.  We forged a bond which was based on personal and creative intimacy, a bond which continues to deepen today, decades after we first met.
Judy first directed me as the Emcee in Cabaret.
Judy always fearlessly wanted to stretch her creative muscles, so after we graduated from CSUN, she began looking for opportunities to direct in the Real World. 
Our Armenian-centric production of Bye Bye Birdie
featured future soap star Robert Newman (in my lap).

She was raised in the Armenian Church (though I don't think they actually call it that), and one of their branches was located in Hollywood.  High above the sanctuary, for some reason which escapes me now, the church had turned a third floor room into an actual theater.  They had purchased comfy chairs from a movie house, and installed them in a big room, effectively turning the place into a proscenium theater.  Judy, as one of their own, got a great deal on the rental of this theater, and set about preparing her Waiver Theater debut.

She chose to direct William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, a sprawling bit of modern theater which fit right into her creative aesthetic. Judy was (and is) a great believer in placing her productions in environmental settings.  
I appeared in Judy's first MFA thesis
project at the University of Utah:
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.

She had little interest in staging shows on the traditional proscenium stage, which she felt had a tendency to create a separation between the audience and performer.  She preferred her audience to become part of the environment of the play, so she turned the Upstairs Theatre (as it was called) into the saloon in which The Time Of Your Life takes place.  She hung curtains to block off the stationary seating already installed in the theater, turning the space into a true Black Box.  Our playing space was transformed into a slightly seedy bar, with lots of tables and chairs scattered about, where the audience members were to sit.  Judy's audience, back then, didn't just watch the action from a distance, they were seated right in the middle of things.  This was a dangerous but exciting approach to the play. 
James Cagney appeared in the film version of The Time of Your Life. No, that is not Madeline Kahn opposite him, though it surely looks like her.
Judy is a great proponent (and teacher) of the American style of acting, with the Moment-To-Moment interaction between her actors being highly important. 
Our program appeared on every
table like a restaurant's menu.

The cast of The Time of Your Life was huge, prohibitive by today's standards, but since the Waiver Code did not require payment to the actor, such considerations became unimportant.  Instead, Judy concentrated on casting her show with the best actors she could find.  Naturally, she raided the alumni list of the CSUN Theatre Department; many of the roles were filled with our college chums. 
Jenny's performance as Kitty was a highlight.

The leading lady, in fact, was our best gal pal Jenny (I wrote about her a long while ago), who gave a critically lauded performance as the psychologically wounded hooker Kitty.  One of the most dependable actors to come out of our generation at CSUN, Art Riddle, played the pivotal role of Joe. 
Art Riddle co-directed me in my first college
show. Years later, we spent time at Nick's Saloon.

Many more supporting roles were filled with our theatrical buddies, but several prominent roles were to be filled by other members of the L.A. Theatrical Community.  I have put those words in caps to emphasize the inherent dichotomy of those words.  The Theatrical Community of Actors in L.A. consisted almost exclusively of people who were interested in film and television work.  They may have had stage chops, but the focus of their career was to be noticed by Hollywood. 
Jessica Peterson played a socialite who
wandered into the bar, and was horrified.

Judy held open auditions for the available roles in The Time of Your Life, and received an onslaught of actors eager to appear on stage, in order to be seen by casters in the film industry.  Hey, there's nothing wrong with that, I'm just pointing out that Judy and several of her cast members had different goals in mind in presenting The Time of Your Life.  Judy's goal was to produce a memorable piece of theatrical artistry.  Their goal was to snag a TV or film contract.

Those of us who had known and worked with Judy previously had a lovely time with the show, but several Actors At Large did not gel with her way of working. 
Jimmy Williams

Particularly, the gent playing the bartender, who was wonderfully engaging on stage, was a major pain in the ass.  He dismissed Judy's concept of the play;  they were often at odds during rehearsal.  This guy's name was Jimmy Williams, so I'll call him that. 
Our college buddy Jann played
a barfly.

Jimmy's dissatisfaction with Judy's direction came to a head when he learned that the show would not have a curtain call.  Judy has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the moment when her actors come back onstage to receive applause.  In later years she came to terms with the fact that audiences want to applaud the work the actors have done, but back in those early days, she was likely to forgo the moment. 
Ed Blackoff, one of the Hollywood Gang,
played Kit Carson. He's had a lively career in
slasher films.

As for The Time of Your Life, she felt the play's conclusion lost much of its impact if the actors came back onstage to take bows.  She was not prepared for the adverse reaction of that decision by Jimmy and his other Hollywood Actors.  They, of course, wanted to come back out onstage to receive joyous applause from their friends, who were likely to be the only people to attend this show. 
Our setup was not very different from this one.
To understand what happened next, it's necessary to envision the theater's setup.  There was only one way to enter and exit the space, through a large set of double doors.  The audience filed in through these doors, and the actors made all their entrances and exits from these doors as well.  They served as the entrance to Nick's Pacific Street Saloon.  I liked this arrangement, as it meant the audience entered the same front door as the characters who were frequenting this bar.  But once the final lights came down on the play, the actors all left the stage through this entrance.  In Judy's concept, the lights came back up, and the audience was left with itself, alone, in the environment.

Jimmy lead an ad-hoc revolt among his Hollywood Peeps, and as soon as the lights came back up, after the final blackout of the play, he charged back into the theatre.  He was followed, one by one, by his professional cronies.  The audience took this as a curtain call, though our director had decided against one.  Jimmy claimed he was just going out to greet his friends, though why he felt he must do so while they were still clapping, who knows?  So, our audiences were often confused as to why some of the actors came out for a curtain call, while others (like myself) did not.

The trouble with Jimmy's Gang notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Time of Your Life.  I played Harry, the young man who comes into the bar looking for a job as a comedian. 
Gene Kelly played my role in the original.

He has several big moments, including his "audition monologue," which proves he should stick to his bigger talent, the soft shoe.  This role was played, in the original Broadway production, by a very young Gene Kelly, before he became a film star, and I had the pleasure of improvising little dance routines which were scattered throughout the show.  Harry, once he entered the bar, continued to hang around, so I spent the majority of the show onstage. Much of that time, I did not have the audience's focus, so I spent a lot of time sitting at the various empty chairs in the saloon, often at tables occupied by actual audience members.  This was a case of "self-blocking."  It led to one of my favorite director's notes I have ever received.  After our final dress rehearsal, I received one hand-written note from director Judy: 

"I hope you know you won't be able to sit in some of the places you've been sitting in."

That's  good advice for life in general, isn't it?
Judy directed me (twice!) in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
It would be only a couple of years after The Time of Your Life that I again appeared in a Waiver production.  Judy was involved in this one also, though as a stage manager rather than director.  Come back for Part IV of my Waiver Games, in which I gain an acceptable Irish accent but embarrass my mother.