A Prince Among Men

They will dim the lights on Broadway in honor of the passing of Hal Prince. Mr. Prince’s many achievements and his collection of honors will be well documented in many publications, and there will be tributes of all kinds in all media, to which I add my own small and oblique one here.

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I never met Mr. Prince, but I knew him to be an extraordinary man of theatre, outstanding in his courtesy. I’ll tell you why.

Because he wrote back to me.

No fewer than three times.

Each time by return of post.

When I arrived in New York in 1999, I put up a one-man show in an off-off-Broadway space in the upper 50s on 8th Avenue.

Naturally I sent mailing pieces to as many industry professionals as I could find addresses for, while developing a monologue with which I hustled the discount seekers in Times Square in the manner of one of the too-many performers at the Edinburgh Festival. An excerpt would be:

“Nicole Kidman naked live onstage! – Not in this show, but it’s a matter of global importance that you see it tonight!”

Among the many postage stamps in which I invested, one was fixed to a postcard addressed to Mr. Prince whom I knew by reputation of course. He knew me not at all, not enough to distinguish me from a bar of soap.

Hal Prince wrote a personal card back. By return of post. Let me say that again.

By return of post.

He regretted not being able to see the show and he wished me well with it. This exercise was repeated three times. Each time, I confidently expected that he would file my postcards in the bin and ignore them. But no, each time a personal hand-written message came back with a polite regret and an explanation of his other commitments.

It’s difficult to convey how extraordinary this is. And what an outstanding example of good manners way beyond usual practice in theatre circles. For example:

When I graduated from the Central School in Britain some time back in the last millennium I wrote to each of the 120 repertory theatres in the country (of which about 30 remain). I filed their word-processed rote-replies under F.O.A.D.

I wrote to the head of casting at the RSC once a week for two years, eventually I was granted a general interview (not an audition, that never came), where the opening gambit was, “Now, have you written to me?”

How to describe this astonishing attention to detail from a man well known to be a workaholic and one of the giants of the business? And which, by the way was hugely encouraging to a struggling actor trying to come to notice.

I think the phrase I want is: noblesse oblige

When the Ink is dry…

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Ink on Broadway, closes today.

Ink by James Graham, directed by Rupert Goold, has been an extraordinary experience. Not only because of the quality of the show itself, but also because of the unusually harmonious conditions backstage. I take the view that theatre people are good to live amongst and work with. We are mostly adaptable, flexible, responsive. The hunter-gatherer mode which any freelancer must come to terms with tends to dispose us that way.

When the Maharishi turned the Beatles on to transcendental meditation in 1967 (two years before Ink is set), he told the world that if 2% of the population practiced meditation, the crime rate would decline.

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Our micro-society backstage at the Friedman Theatre, including the actors and technicians, comprises about 30 people. Of whom at least 6 are practitioners. The company also includes a couple of astrologers, a human-design aficionado, several martial artists, a few who espouse clean diet to a high degree, and, being New York, one can safely assume that many people have ventured into the nether world of psychotherapy.

In the micro-society that is the immediate performing company front of house, on, and backstage, we number approximately a 20% quota of woo-woo adjacent practitioners — in the wider context, including the creative team from London, and the hosting Manhattan Theatre Club, that percentage is perhaps somewhere between 4% and 8%.

My question then is; is this significant percentage of growth-path and metaphysical-awareness activity, in some way connected to the atmospheres in which we’ve been working? And my answer would be a tentative “Yes, I think so…”

I say tentative, because in these times when scientism demands empirical proof over common sense, a rush to certainty in what can be loosely termed questions of the woo-woo, is a mistake.

But say then… speculate with me… let us suppose that inner practice of the kind that has demonstrated outer benefits, has in this case at least helped to create conditions that facilitate agreeably civilized behavior and high quality creative work… all very well, but there is another necessary ingredient in the mix without which even the finest influences can dissipate.

That quality is leadership.

And here I begin a fan letter. Barclay Siff, our stage manager, has helmed the running of the show with an extra-dry-late-nite-radio-show confidence that puts his calls over the p.a. system into a deliciously unique category; his assistants, Kelly Levy and Kyle Birdsall, have been consistently cheerfully supportive and beautifully competent. One has felt at all times in expert hands.

And what can I say of my mates in dressing room X? We are 6 in number, between us we run the range of, at one end, coming young star-to-be, to seasoned old theatre-salt. there has been lively debate among us, and we have, I frankly admit, flirted with the behaviors  and dialogues of a mens’-only smoking room, or do I mean tree-hugging drum-circle? We are fortunate in that we energetically intersect like the bricks of a Jenga stack, to the extent that I believe if castaway on a dessert island, most of us, perhaps all, (certainly so if we could replicate the ephemeral liquor cabinet to which we all contributed), would survive. Gentlemen, it’s been an honor to serve with you.

I could name each person in each department but then this post would become a book. To summarize: From the originating creatives of the project, Rupert Goold the director, and James Graham the writer, I’ve no idea if these guys are neo-Buddhists or some such, but they led in the most relaxed fashion while achieving detailed results; to the good cheer in the wig room, the detailed expertise of the dressers, the humor in the props hand-off, the friendly muscle of the crew and the welcome at the stage door. All this and more…

And special praise to our two co-stars, Bertie Carvel, and Jonny Lee Miller.

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These boys have exemplified co-operation and camaraderie in a way that has unified the company – it’s no small thing to say that. When ego, red-in-tooth-and-claw takes centre stage, as can sometimes happen in theatrical companies (what a surprise?!?), then it’s every man or woman for themselves and good luck if you happen to well downstage searching for light. But when a couple of mature and disciplined performers can negotiate the demands of the job it sure makes a difference.

In summary: when there’s an emotional texture of possibility, then each person’s individuality can flourish. As I perceive it, each of us in this company in whatever job, has had the opportunity to occupy their particular niche in very agreeable conditions.

Which is a long way of saying: as we witness the moves to tyranny out there and all over the place. I suggest that regular practice of meditation, kung-fu, contemplative baking, introspective water-coloring, or any genuine right-brain method; is as valuable a political act as voting.

Oh, and the other thing that happened was that we had a singular visitor backstage one night:

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Who’s that geezer with the glasses standing next to me?

This Just In…

Reading reviews of plays that you are in is a right dodgy thing to do.

It’s well known that a review that disses a performance is uninformed, uneducated, uncultured, while reviews that praise your work are enlightened, elevated, exquisite.

Either type are equally hazardous to read and (in my opinion) to be avoided until after the show has closed. Why so? Because a comment in print too-easily morphs into a voice on your shoulder during performance, and it doesn’t help. You don’t need it.

Therefore I publish here the following redacted document which may or may not be a summary of reviews of INK (my lips are sealed, I admit nothing):

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What I will say is that I, and the entire company, are completely exonerated.

Meanwhile to satisfy the curious here is my own non-disclosing-non-spoiler review: INK is a damn fine play. It is a work of cunning device, appearing on first look deceptively simple. The form of the production mirrors the tabloid format of the paper in question and the hero’s quest encapsulated in the will-they-won’t they task set out in the early scenes, messes with the audience’s head in that it makes you root for one of the global media-meisters of pop journalism.

Among the many amusing ingredients in the show, is the character of Diana (brilliantly played by Erin Neufer) the astrologer, and the use of the Sun-sign column to influence the boss.

Astrology isn’t everyone’s cup of lemon-juice, but if you’re interested, take a look here for my two-astro-cents on Rupert Murdoch and the planets in the case.

STOP PRESS!

April 1st 2019 — mcphillamy actorblog still ABSOLUTELY FREE!!!

INK will tour to MARS

Solar system debut now confirmed!

 “Terrestrial culture important on inner planets,” says congressperson in funding debate.

Aliens give hour-long standing ovation! Win a one-way ticket to Jupiter! Your postcard from Mercury — no-risk delivery ABSOLUTELY FREE!!! 

Plus: Special feature how to date a Venusian (and live)!

Catch INK while still local!!!

1st Preview tomorrow 04/02/19 Friedman Theatre West 47th St, NYC, USA, EARTH.

 And Much Much More! All in INK! 1St preview tomorrow!!!

Breaking Cover

The Manhattan Theatre Club production of INK by James Graham directed by Rupert Goold starts previews on April 2nd and opens on Broadway at the Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street on April 24th 2019. It is a brilliant play which tells a story of the young Rupert Murdoch. I am contracted to be in it.

By which I mean actually going onstage on a nightly basis and saying words aloud while at the same time moving to and fro and generally replicating human behavior, a practice known in some circles as acting.

Michael Caine covered Peter O Toole

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It will be a contrast to my last five months occupation where I was employed to catch up on my correspondence, work on my Sanskrit calligraphy, and paint my toenails. None of which I actually managed to accomplish. And all this while maintaining total readiness in full crouch position to leap in at any moment for one of three principal actors.

I understudied on The Ferryman on Broadway for 20 weeks. And I did actually go on as Father Horrigan. It was long odds to be honest, The actors I was covering were all robust character men. And here I observe that among actors of a certain generation the work-ethic tends to the formidable. These are men and women who scorn to be defeated by flu, fleas or food poisoning. My three runners; the friendly and ebullient Mark Lambert, the gigantic, sensitive Justin Edwards, and the splendid and splendidly robust Charles Dale, all with a long history of never or very seldom being off, were coming in at odds of about 100-to-8-against in a strong field. Picture my surprise then when Charlie was suddenly indisposed. But then, absence was more than usually rife over this New York winter season, see below.

The original Broadway cast disbanded on the 17th of February, most of them returning home across the Atlantic. A few are staying on, and a new company began performances on the 19th. I watched the final performance given by the first company. Mostly during the course of a run, performances hit a par, in this case an excellently high one, but last nights sometimes create an extra intensity. As was the case on that final Sunday matinee. It was an outstanding rendition of an already outstanding performance.

Sir John Gielgud stood by for Noel Coward

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A word about this understudying business …

Understudying, also known by the more delicate term of “covering” — which sounds like something out of stud farming — or the even more delicate term of “standing by” – which sounds like something to do with an airline on a bad day, is one of the more demanding yet least understood jobs in all theatre. To be done well it requires a very specific skill set. A deep personal reserve of flexibility, patience and nervous energy. It does also help if you can act.

Times are changing: in my earlier youth back in London, taking an understudy job was seen as the last resort of the desperate actor, and such was the anonymity of the position that many times there was no listing or credit in the playbill. Nowadays, the enormous over-supply of acting talent, the fierce competition for a job, any job — this, coupled with the trickle-down casting of recent years — and plus the fact that Broadway, even in its minimum salaries and almost uniquely among stage-acting markets, pays something approaching a living wage — all this combined, means that the status of any Broadway involvement is high.

Even so, few actors undertake such a gig as a first choice, but in 40 years of acting (nearly), (nearly) all the actors so engaged that I have known, have been exemplary in their diligence and professionalism. Here I salute my colleagues of the 5th floor at The Bernard Jacobs Theatre, (full billing here in alphabetical order: Glynis Bell, Peter Bradbury, Trevor Harrison Braun, Gina Costigan, Holly Gould, Griffin Osborne, and the kids, Will Coombs, Carly Gold and Bella May Mordus, also mentioning the two principals who also covered a role: Dean Ashton and Glenn Speers), each of us having multiple opportunities to prove our dollar worth (and also saluted for it in a generous post on social media by Mr. Judd Apatow, who happened to attend when no fewer than 5 people were on).

It is an irony worth noting that one of the least visible occupations in theatre should also be one of the most valuable. In the initial 20 week Broadway run of The Ferryman there were 47 performances when one of the principals was off. Due to everyone doing their job, loss of revenue to the tune of more than $4million in ticket sales was prevented.

It doesn’t always happen that way, sometimes no one is off in the course of a run. But in this case the insurance which a management is obliged to purchase in the form of actors learning lines and moves which they may never perform, yielded a near-tenfold return on investment. And where else can you get that sort of dosh these days?

This season of Broadway theatre fields at least two outstanding transfers from the West End, originating at The Royal Court and the Almeida theatres in London. I am lucky enough to have been involved with both of them, in the first as cover for three roles, in the next actually playing three roles — is the juice fasting having the desired effect, I ask myself? (See recent previous posts).

As it stands I am contracted to return briefly to The Ferryman to stand-by for the role of Tom Kettle for just one week — Tom is the gentle giant in the play, given prose to speak of heart-breaking sensitivity. This involvement with the new company of The Ferryman is an overlap while rehearsing INK, and after protracted and formidably expensive negotiations (not really, they asked and I said… “Yes”), the managements of both plays have agreed to allow me to be on call in both productions for the week in question.

Albert Finney was a substitute for Sir Laurence Olivier

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In an uncertain profession the prime feature of cover jobs is the uncertainty. Sometimes there is notice of when one will be called upon, as when a principal actor has a vacation booked, or has negotiated a release so as to go and make a film; and sometimes there is zero notice, or less. By which I mean an understudy can be called to take over a role in the middle of a performance – Jeremy Northam famously taking over from Daniel Day Lewis in Act Two of Hamlet at the National Theatre in London, for example.

Perhaps this is why one should never count the geese, the rabbits, or the apples, until the INK upon the deal is dry. See here

O.L.M. Phase 2

Readers of this column will remember that as the year 2018 faded, this old actor embarked on a project known as Operation Leading Man – O.L.M. I say ‘old actor’ because if ever a man needed solid evidence that he is not 25 years of age any more, I am here to tell you there could be no finer method than to join a gym and enlist the services of a personal trainer.

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The personal trainer in question is an African American gentleman of compact physique who just so happens to be an ex-marine and someone with about 3 decades of martial arts training behind him. He scorns free weights, tossing them carelessly from hand to hand; he laughs at resistance training equipment and effortlessly extends cables or hand grips; he performs stretches with a poise reminiscent of Nureyev in his prime.

Then I have a go.

A short while later I am breathing like a steam engine from the early days of the industrial revolution. “Five more!” says Shawn, “C’mon, give it to me!”

“I like the way you talk,” I say in my best Downton Abbey accent, a pathetic effort to engage in some trans-Atlantic cross-cultural banter and thereby distract the man. “I like the way you talk,” he says, “but talk ain’t gonna cut it, baby. C’mon five more!”

In between exercises, we discuss anatomy, metabolism, and nutrition. The man knows his stuff, but I do slightly wonder if he’s underestimated my age by a couple of decades. A swift glance at the mirror confirms that this cannot be the case.

For a long time I lived in the manner of my internal age. I mean that I always felt myself to be about 18 years old. Until I reached the age of about 42, that is. Then I became internally 28. That lasted until I turned 60 and at that point I seem to have become the age I actually am. Well, technically I mean the age my body is. If the ancient teachings of many traditions, and the poet Wordsworth, are correct, then we are all immortal beings having the out-of-death experience known as “being alive”, and we are grappling with “… that portion of the barren earth that serves as paste and cover to our bones.” (Richard II). … If you go in for that sort of thinking, that is.

The alternative, namely that we are merely our bodies, is just too dismal to accept, so, call me an optimistic ostrich (or whatever you like), but I take succor from the metaphysical view. Meanwhile, the illusion of physical truths are persuasive and if I weren’t a life-long woo-woo, I would be tempted to believe the illusion of the aging knees, hips and teeth. However…

… I did shed somewhere between 25 and 30 lbs, due to a juice fast. And for those of you listening in black and white; in old money, that is just over 2 stones. I say between, because I have plateaued at that stage where my weighing scales are behaving in the manner of a Florida voting machine – however much the needle initially says one thing, it then creeps up to last week’s score, and says something else entirely.

I continue with all manner of delicious fruit and vegetable juices, and am currently doing an adaptation of the 2/5 diet. I.E. 2 days juice, 5 days eating normally but sensibly. When you’re working out, you need protein and carbs. Progress has slowed but the physique is on the move. At least I hope it is. It would be tragic to grunt and sweat wearily quite this much, were it not so.

I dunno, maybe I’m wrong, after all: “All the soil of the achievement goes with me into the earth.” Henry IV pt 2.

Yours, knackered of Pleasantville, N.Y., USA (late of England), grappling with mortality.