At the beginning of the year I told myself I would write 1,000 actorblog words a month just for the hell of it. So this is a missed deadline. Why? Well I closed a show and I made a film, and I did a rough cut and talked with an editor, and I wondered how and why people ever become and stay writers anyway, and I re-read Stephen King’s best book, the one called On Writing. All this within the past few weeks. Feeble excuses I know, and not even close to the real reason why my July copy is being posted in August.
I’ve worked at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival twice before and each time done the reverse commute to and from New York City for the entire run. This time I stayed out there, living in a house with actors, stage managers, designers, and the odd director. It was a regressive and very fun experience.
In my earlier acting days – like twenty years ago – any time I was on tour, I would find myself undertaking heroic feats of alcoholic consumption. There is something about touring that encourages this. It’s a known fact. Example: at the Europa Hotel in Athens when a group of post show actors gathered to party, Nick Sampson emptied and distributed the contents of the mini bar with the words, “Oh darlings, it’s going to cost a fortune – but somehow I don’t care!” Even these days when I’m on the road, and even though the liver can’t handle what it once could, the alcoholometer registers higher numbers than when I’m home.
But the theatre house at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival summer 2010 was a special case.
For the months of June and July, the house had two core casts living there. Some dozen to eighteen people, sometimes fewer, sometimes more, though it always felt like more. Finishing work at 11pm, it’s almost impossible to go straight to bed and sleep. A drink, a snack or a meal, a little time…
Most of the time it was hot, too damned hot, so we’d collect our beers or wines, and sit out on the front porch and talk about life, art, and truth. Sometimes we’d go down to Poor Herbie’s where the barman made basil Mohitos – sounds weird, right? – and then, after a few of those we’d sit on the porch… I find there’s a sweet spot in the post show wind down, somewhere around 90 minutes after curtain, when I can say goodbye to the world. It’s easy to miss this window. In five weeks of residence I don’t think I got to bed before 2 or 3 in the morning more than three times.
And I wake early these days. The very early morning is my favorite time anyway, and the sun came into my room when it rose. When I got my keys, the then company manager asked me if the room was okay. “Fine.” I said, “I wonder if I could have some curtains?”
‘What?!” she said.
The astonished tone of her reply was as much to say, “these ceaseless demands have got to stop.”
I explained that there were transparent net curtains in my room. But the idea that a grown man might quite like to have curtains that block the view from the outside world and give him darkness to sleep in until the hour of his choosing was, I’m guessing, a challenging hypothesis. Curtains never materialized. I rigged a table cloth and some fabric loaned by a fellow actor. Even so, I seldom slept passed 7.30 or 8, and sometimes not so long.
If you’re a stage actor at the beginning of the 21st century working regional theatre, they pay you in fun. Not something that any seasoned professional in a sensible job would think of as ‘pay’. But the fun goes a long way. One time at a dinner years ago I went to pour an actor a glass of wine. He stopped me with the words, “No, no. I used to drink for England… And I won a gold… so they retired me.”
The theatre house nestles a Methodist church, a Montessori school and a regular home. Sometimes we would shush each other after midnight when there was a loud song or story on the porch. But if the neighbors didn’t know at night that theatrical folk were living close by, they knew in the morning by the giant plastic tub out the back, full of bottles to be re-cycled.
Staying on campus (the theatre lives inside the Drew University grounds), one was part of the hotbed of theatrical activity that is the NJ Shakes in the summer when Interns and Apprentices come from all over to act, direct, and (new this year) take photographs. In our last week it went like this: Wednesday: cabaret. Thursday: poker night. Friday: directed scenes. Saturday: wrap party & midseason party at the bowling lanes. Sunday: closing night party.
Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) lived a turbulent life, and may have also been a party animal, but she wrote some exquisite short stories. One of them, a piece called ‘Psychology’ tells of the early stages of a repressed and fumbling courtship between two intellectuals. I’ve wanted to make a short film of it for years. I discussed the idea with a friend also active in the shallows of zero budget indie film and his brilliant suggestion was to set it backstage, thus avoiding the (expensive) necessity for period authenticity.
I wrote a behind the scenes scenario which initially I thought could frame the adaptation, and generously, the Artistic Director allowed me to use the Festival Theatre as a location. The story was set in and around The Dialogue Theatre waaay downtown in New York City. As more actors became involved with the shoot, the party activity transferred from the porch after midnight to the backstage story which became sillier and took over. Fine with me.
Edit deadline: December 31st.