Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Into a thousand parts divide one man …” Shakespeare

I belong to a small but non-exclusive fraternity. 

Anyone can join, although there is only one way to qualify. You have to perform a solo version of Shakespeare’s play Henry V.

Scan 5

That’s all. Once you’ve done that you automatically have life-long membership.

Way back in the last millennium I did such a show at the smallest (but well-known) theatre in Great Britain, aptly named The Little Theatre.

Scan 4

It was on the remote (but popular in the summer) Inner Hebridean Island called Mull. It was my first job as a professional actor, the story is available here.

The place was eleven miles from a bus stop and there was fixed seating for 37 patrons, but a lot of the time we played to more than that. Over 100% capacity.

A lot of Mull’s landscape is wild and sparse. It’s not the first place you’d think of for theatre.

Scan 12

I thought back then that such a gig was unusual for content as well as location, possibly unique. However, over the years at regular intervals I encountered three, count them, three (!) other one-man productions of Henry V.

No surprise then that my dear friend and sometime fellow-student, colleague in decorating, drinking buddy, fine actor and writer, Mark Carey, has gained membership in this fellowship of Henrys with his delightful piece, ‘Into The Breach’.

Mark’s show is set in second world wartime Devon in England’s south-west, and as well as the up to 40,000 or so parts that anyone undertaking Henry V plays by implication (the French and English armies), Mark has added an entire village as seen through the eyes of his leading man George Crocker. I think it’s no spoiler to let you know that Widow Twanky plays a vital role. The show is a complete delight, and I for one, am thrilled that someone has at last shown the rest of us Henry-soloists how it should be done.

There is a website: http://intothebreach.info If you happen to be in London on Sunday December 29th 2013, go to The White Bear Theatre at 6pm, 138 Kennington Park Road: box office 0207 793 9193

The show is fab, and at 8 quid a time (5 concessions) it’s a seasonal winner!

Highly recommended, five stars, 

If you see one show this year … etc!

‘Course if you’re in New York, you could spend approximately $400 for top price tix to Twelfth Night … hmn … I know which one I’d choose.

Issues of then and now, the nature of eternity, and whether time flows only forward, have been current with me lately. Because last week I went to London to the 30th year re-union of Stage 83 my graduating class from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. It was a truly lovely occasion. Great to see so many old friends.

Apart from the physical ravages of the years in passing time, none of us are really any different at all.

1472095_10151739560041712_1243287964_n

As you see there’s quite a lot of white hair, and some places where there’s no hair at all. The school itself has undergone a series of developments including several new buildings, in fact our re-union matinee took place in a room that did not exist when we were students. There we all are standing on the set of a student production in the refurbished Embassy Theatre. To have achieved such transformations as well as a greatly expanded academic reach, speaks of serious money.

George Hall ran the acting course in my day, and I thought he was a genius. In one crit session he said to one of our classmates, “Darling it’s as if you know all about the XYZ of acting, but nothing about the ABC.” We responded variously to his comment. Then he said, as he usually did when offering some insight, “Does that make sense?”

Speaking as one who feels that he understands less and less about the craft as time passes, my answer 30 years later is, “It didn’t then, but it sure does now.”

It may not look like much on the page, but for me it is a pithy expression delivered compassionately and with humor from a man who had gained the sort of theatrical wisdom that not a stack of new buildings could match. I feel lucky to have been there.

Meanwhile I have to wonder, are these men related?

Scan 9335876_2990323237725_430627688_o

I think we should be told.

Purple is the new blue!

Unknown-2

From Miami to Jupiter is about eighty miles by road. The distance defines the south and north ends of the coastal megalopolis on South Florida’s Atlantic side and the drive is not for those without extensive hi-speed video game experience. The mode of driving on I95 or the alternative Turnpike, is of ducking and weaving across lanes, tailgating at 30% beyond the speed limit, and giving signals is seen as a sign of weakness.

Unknown-1

‘Dial M For Murder’ at The Maltz Theatre, Jupiter, was a spirited and stylish production. All praise to our designers who achieved a unity of style. Michael D’Amico displaying his usual virtuosity with the set, Robin McGee coming up with a truly stunning dress for Claire Brownell who played Margot with an understated grace, also achieving in her performance a rare period authenticity threaded with genuine inner life (possibly the most difficult role in the play). Costume designer Robin, also chose her suits for my character so well then when offered a deal I immediately purchased them both. And special kudos to Paul Miller who did the lighting.

Do you recognize the silhouette?
DSC_6381-2

It’s a moment of homage to the late great Alfred Hitchcock whose name is more associated with this 1952 thriller than that of its author, Frederick Knott. And in a quasi-accidental moment during tech I passed in front of a lamp and the director yelled “hold it!” The resulting shadow was incorporated into the final tense moments of the play, giving an unexpected humorous twist, and a unique reference. Audiences loved it.

The Maltz as helmed by Andrew Kato is an impressive operation. They’ve taken special care to make their visiting artists feel valued, included and at home. Little touches like the bottle of water and the orange which greet you off the plane! It is also flourishing after an extensive renovation with plans for more development to come. It’s great to see a theatre sufficiently valued by its community to be able to expand, and not as is widely the case presently, to be scaling down operations.

Florida has been good to me, and I love going there to be in plays. The mighty United States has a few actual theatrical companies. Nothing like what you could guess at or hope for, given the might and wealth of The Republic. But South Florida has a core of talented actors who work up and down the strip from Miami to the Maltz weathering the closing of Equity theatres (ones that can pay something meaningful) and the springing up of non-Equity ones (that cannot). The effect, and I don’t think it was anybody’s plan, is close to a company of actors. A mobile, a fluid one that spans half a dozen venues. It’s always good to work with actors who know each other. There’s a shorthand. Todd, Greg, Jim, and Dan… do you know what I mean?

Whilst in Jupiter, I got a call from David Arisco, artistic director of the Actor’s Playhouse in Coral Gables, south of downtown Miami. Would I be interested in reading for a part in the show about Judy Garland that played to great acclaim in London and New York?

David offered me a role in 2003 and I wasn’t available, and I’d always wanted to work at his theatre. Besides, I knew there wasn’t really enough excitement in my life, so I hired a car, got a free upgrade to a sleek late-model Cadillac and cruised down to Miami getting the complete hazard experience on the road. I stayed one night in Miami Beach. Nowhere in Florida does pastels better. The limes, the magentas, the ochres …

I packed in a hurry and forgot to take a fresh shirt. In the morning the one shirt I had with me had lost its appeal and there may have been a coffee spill on it too. “I’ll buy a new shirt.” I told myself.

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” So said Henry David Thoreau,19th century transcendentalist. Perhaps if he’d seen the South Beach pastels he’d have made an exception.

I entered a gentleman’s clothing store and explained that I was looking for a shirt to wear to an interview. I was slightly pressed for time.

“Oh!” said the assistant.

I explained that it was to audition to play a Scottish homosexual who accompanied Judy Garland.

“That sounds exciting!” he said and pulled a dress shirt in bright purple with a price tag beyond what I normally would have spent.

“I’m not sure about the color.” I said.

“Purple is the new blue!” He exclaimed. “I will iron it for you.”

It was all worth it. The dangerous drive, and the retail time pressure that made me an easy sell, because I will return to Miami at the end of the year to play Anthony in ‘End of the Rainbow’.

Purple is the new blue. Gay is the new straight. But if Antarctica melts, Florida and all its pastels will be the new Atlantis.

DSC_1028

Acting Off The Grid

Sometimes I go as a storyteller.

Last week I went through southern Virginia and east to west in North Carolina, driving a distance equal in miles to the length of England. Visits with old friends and a book reading with stories in Winston-Salem, and another on the North/South Carolina border. I call this acting-off-the-grid. Why? Because this stuff takes you outside the infrastructure of the business. No agents, directors, casting directors. As an actor-for-hire you’re always waiting to be invited to a party. But when you go rogue you take the party with you.

Here’s what it looks like at its best. This is a picture of my friend Jenny Harmon setting the tone!

ImageTrish (AKA Patricia Conolly, Broadway veteran and a storyteller with vintage material herself) joined me in on one gig and together we did an hour of “Tales from the Backstage” at an amazing community south of Asheville which also runs a healing center called Free Rein. http://freereincenter.com

Troubled people come and learn to ride, lose their fear of horses, get better…

One of several highlights of this delightful trip in The South was brunch with Joe Bly Snr. Joe Bly is a man of such positive voltage that he lights a place up when he walks in. He is a man who’s been telling stories since he learned to speak. Now in his ninth decade of life he’s still telling them. He gave me some good technical advice too …

Me: When you tell stories to a group, you hear great stories too …

Joe: And you LISTEN! Because that’s where you get your best material!

Or to put it another way, there is no shortage of product out there, but meaning is sometimes in short supply. Story is one way to find it.

So with respect to a master of the craft, here’s a brief tale about him …

Image

Joe came to visit us in New York City a few years back and he and I went one time to the drugstore on the corner of Thirteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, to buy—I can’t remember what.

Inside it was one of those retail situations that sometimes develop in corporate retail situations. A long line of people all standing in tense silence, two people behind the counter moving at one speed, DRS—dead resentful slow, the air thick with passive hostility, impatience, anxiety, and other related negatives.

All lit with over-bright fluorescent lighting, short on vitamin D.  And none of it any one’s fault, just a turn in the psychological weather from sunny to cloudy. Standing in line were New Yorkers of all colors and sizes, a mixed, egalitarian demographic. But so drab was the atmosphere, that no one could see the point of anything any more. Amongst the diverse customers in waiting was a young mother, carrying a baby in a wrap-around pouch.

Joe Bly loped into the place maintaining a stream of optimistic commentary. He took in the atmosphere at a tissue level, took a stance apart from the waiting line, and pointing to the mother and then to the baby, announced in a voice that instantly gathered focus:

“Every time you don’t believe in heaven any more, you get to see one of these!”

‘Course, on the paaaiiige, there’s no way I can riiiightly conveeaay, the swooping vowels in Joe’s North Carolinian accent, nor the hopeful tone always present in his voice, nor the emphatic cadence in the final word: theeese!!! Delivered in such a manner that we all recognized the revelation in what he said. It was at once a quotidian commonplace and a universal truth.

It was magical.

Even the lighting seemed to respond, losing some of its harsh edge. The people behind the counter smiled, and the smile rippled through the line. The childless woman standing next to the young mother turned and asked in shy praise, “How old is she?”

The mother bloomed like a flower opening, her cheeks pinked, and she admitted with blessed, gentle delight, “She’s four months.”

Four months! Four months of miraculous new life next to us all in the line at the drugstore! The information rippled and splashed around the place which was no longer a drugstore simply, but rather a crucible of joy, bright in a dull world. Revealed now because an angel spoke through an old man who’s lived a positive life. Spoke aloud against the denial of the light.

Magic. What would we pay for this?

We cannot pay. This is worth beyond gold.

It’s always seemed that way to me anyway.

Meanwhile, a journeyman storyteller, I am available for weddings, christenings, bar-mitzvahs …

The Wages of Acting is Fun

Image

Tovarich was literally the hottest show in New Jersey this summer. I mean it. Spectacular reviews, rapturous audiences and an air conditioning system that collapsed due to the invasion of a chipmunk. 

The run was extended by one week, but even with all the enthusiasm, business did not justify the full eight shows that is the normal weekly quota so we were slated to play just five including a Saturday matinee. On Thursday evening the company reconvened after three days off (unusual in live theatre), and we got the bad news about the A.C. It would have seemed graceless to resist doing the show (that thing that must go on), given that the extended run and the slimmed down workload meant a week’s extra pay and another one of those crucial medical insurance qualifying weeks (USA only).

So we went on. 

My role in this production amounted to a small vignette in act one, and another telling cameo appearance in act three (of four). How bad could it be? I asked myself. Act one was set in a Paris attic in November. Cold. Accordingly my character, a prosperous banker, arrived in a full three piece suit as pictured above, but also with a heavy overcoat, hat and gloves. As soon as I went through the pass door into the backstage, I knew the answer to my question: pretty bad.

Stages get hot anyway with all those lights. My costume suddenly felt like mediaeval armor and I perspired so much that I couldn’t see my fellow actors. It was like driving at night in a thunderstorm without windshield wipers. But the irony came into its own when in my second appearance clad merely in full dinner dress, my line of greeting was, “It’s turning rather cold.”

It was tough enough for me, but exactly how those playing featured roles, to say nothing of the two leads who were on stage the entire time, got through it, was puzzling. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was as hot as a Bikram yoga class. Bananas, water and salted potato chips were supplied at first by one of our more sensible cast members, and then by the company.

The Saturday matinee was cancelled, which was an essential move. So we ended up doing just four shows in these sauna conditions. By the end the wilted company’s goodwill was wearing thin, and if this disaster had happened in the middle of the run, there would have been protest and maybe mutiny.

Bonnie our director, and as the artistic director of the company the one upon whose shoulders sits the six figure problem that is a new air conditioning system, came through in big style. After the final show she took the entire company to a sit down four course dinner with an open bar. It was a meal that could have happened in pre-revolution Ukraine.

Leaving aside the swelter-skelter of our final week, Tovarich as produced by The New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre 2013 has shown that this semi-lost play can be revived and once more taken to the world.

Meanwhile, in another part of the entertainment forest, I spent a single sweltering night somewhere beneath the 495 freeway on an indie film set. My character was a disheveled newsman come to investigate a crime scene.

Image

It’s hoped that the piece will go to Sundance. There was some surreal-absurdist dialogue. 

In my time as an actor I’ve done three night shoots in the semi-surreal world of astonishingly well-resourced commercial television—Alleyn Mysteries, Zero Hour, & Pan-Am—for any archivists reading. This set staffed by passionate shoot-on-a-shoestring inventiveness was no different in terms of the timing. By which I mean that as dawn rose and bounced off the distant Manhattan skyline, the director was composing his final shot having left exhaustion behind some hours previously. The grainy eyed cast mustered their energy one more time and tried once more to give their best work in the early morning light.

The giant steel supports holding up the 495 were a translucent lime under the night time film lights, as dawn came up they lost their glamor though, and a stream of big semi-trailers rolled past our location sending ripples of traffic thunder into our dialogue. The last of the coffee was burnt and bitter, and the remains of the midnight luncheon of veggie wraps and lemon chicken lurked unheeded in an improvised mess as dawn broke over Brooklyn.

A theatrical company becomes a family within three days, geography has a lot to do with it, working as you often are a long way from home. Intimate strangers do plays all over the world. Not so in film. A film shoot seldom gathers the entire cast, as only those actors in the scenes to be shot are needed at any one time. Strangers in the night exchanging glances sums it up.

As I’ve said in these pages before, being an actor takes you through many landscapes. Some are bucolic like the parkland in which NJ Shakes has its home, some are post-industrial bleak and stark, like the indie film set. Each is fun in some variation. 

Put it another way, if there’s one thing that beats acting for not a lot of money on stage, it’s acting for no money at all on film.

 

Image

 

Honestly, I go away for a couple of years …

Image

I’m delighted to be back at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (formerly The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival) rehearsing Tovarich the little known French play about post-revolution Russians in Paris. The picture above is the incomparable, well-known film actor, Ms. C. Colbert in the 1937 film of the play.

Tovarich was a massive hit in Paris, London, and New York in 1932 and for a few years afterwards but fell from fashion and is today largely forgotten. It’s a lasagne of a piece with some style comedy, some class-reversal, and an examination of life’s dark underbelly. One strand among the themes is the perfidy of the banking system and the unholy alliances of big business and government interest … so, nothing too disturbingly topical.

But …

Over and above continuing to produce year-round quality theatre (sort of miraculous in the current economic climate), “NJ Shakes” as we call it in the trade, has acquired a spectacular new facility. 50,000 square feet, a building that was once a valve factory. The building now houses all aspects of the company’s behind the scenes action. The costume, set, and prop shops, the stores, the offices, a large green room—complete with ping-pong table, a climate-controlled rehearsal room, and all the offices.

It is a completely spectacular achievement on the part of the Artistic Director, Bonnie J. Monte to have brokered the deal that made this possible. I heard from other actors what an amazing difference this new facility had made to the company, but until I saw it, I didn’t quite get it.

I last worked at this theatre back in 2010 and all this happened since then. As I said at the top, I go away for a few years … Amazing.

Not entirely paid for, mind you. If you are feeling philanthropic and would like to support the work of live theatre in this part of the world, a tax deductible couple of million would take the company out of the red.

If that sort of money is a little steep for your wallet, donations starting at a single dollar are also immensely welcome here.

Go on: click the link.

It will take you to a kickstarter page detailing an upcoming independent short film. Indie film begins and ends with money. This is the people’s studio.

I mention it here, because that little-known film actor Colin McPhillamy will be playing the Newsman in this one-week end-of-August shoot.

Image

A thumbnail sketch

Do you ever think that it’s odd how one thing can be important in the progress of another unrelated thing?

On the block where I live in New York there are four nail salons. Which is useful for an out of work actor, because as Hamlet says: “…the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.” At this writing my life experience includes just one manicure.

I’m pleased to report that in two weeks I start another play, Tovarich, at The New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre, then later, I’ll go back to Florida for Dial M For Murder, and in between these gigs I will give readings from my book. Get your copy here, if you haven’t done so already.  But in one of those unavoidable gaps between the end of one play and the start of another, the actor’s mind turns to alternative careers—well mine does.

Doctor? No. Endless years of medical school, and I find the side-effects advertised on television so confounding, that weirdly, I’m not entirely sure about the conventional approach to medicine. Lawyer? Equally, no—and think of the paperwork! Astronaut? Astronomer? Appraiser?

Years ago I took a practical, hands on, course on how to build a house. Not because I wanted to be a Builder, but because I wanted a place to live. I thought maybe I would build such a place myself. There was a company in England called Constructive Individuals. The course I joined was twenty five strong, ranging from a retired lady ballet teacher in her seventies to an eighteen year old bricklayer with film star good looks. I was then in my thirties.

And we did build a house. In three weeks.

A three story, timber framed house. Most of the wood was in eight foot lengths of 2” x 4”. For the rafters and the joists we used 6” x 2”s. And the studs were placed on 14” centres. In America 16” centers (note different spelling) is the standard. The foundation was a slab, which had already been poured and cured when we got there, so half way through the course we poured the slab for the next house.

It was hard work and early on I missed a 4” ‘brightwire’ nail and hit my thumb at full force with a hammer. It felt like this:

photo-2

The thumbnail survived, but only just, hanging by a slender thread. I bandaged it and was more careful for the remaining two and a half weeks. Which was just as well because a little later I was cast as the solo actor in a commercial for a breakfast cereal, and my fingers were required to be in close up.

I had a manicure. The manicurist fitted a false nail over the battered thumbnail and filed and prettified the others. I duly did the commercial in which I played two contrasting characters. The false nail was a masterpiece. It looked 100% real. So much so that it fooled the lens.

The commercial was a big hit. They played it all over Britain as though it was a matter of national importance. As a result I experienced a taste of celebrity—when strangers recognize you without quite knowing where they’ve seen you before. And I got excellently well-paid. The money was charming. Pay for acting in TV commercials bears no relation of any kind to pay for acting in live theatre. When you act in live theatre it is almost always the case that you are personally subsidizing the production in particular and the cause of theatre-at-all in general. But back in the days of that hit-wonder commercial I got paid. To the extent that I was able to move my growing family from a small starter home facing on to a busy, noisy road, to a garden flat with mature trees at the back.

Inspired and educated by Constructive Individuals, I built a studio in the garden. But it was the manicure that saved me. I’ve never had one since.

Maybe I should.

 

Exit West Palm Beach

 
"Exit the King" at Palm Beach DramaworksShakespeare again,  

“The King’s a beggar now the play is done,

All is well ended…”

Every now and then there is a cherry on the cup-cake of an actor’s life. Exit the King was one of mine.

I love last performances in a run. The knowledge that each line is uttered for the last time and at the second it’s spoken passes into the theatrical oubliette. It was here, but now it’s gone. There’s a raw beauty in that. Or is it a savage poignancy?

And this one was poignant.

Mostly because of the lovely company. My fellow actors in the show who gave such excellent work, but beyond that, who can encounter the enthusiastic House Manager Theda Reale and remain uncheered? And the positive energy of the ladies of the Box Office helmed by Sophie Crowell. Or production management guided by Josh Aune and his crew—incidentally a man whose brother Jake cooks steak the way that might have been mentioned in the book of Genesis—But the whole venture is working—and let’s face it how many theatres can say that these days?

I played Berenger. A once in a lifetime role. 

Modesty forbids me linking another review. Oh, alright then, since you insist:

http://www.palmbeachdramaworks.org/reviews,63,2

I usually over-estimate the amount of energy and free time I’ll have during the run of a show. It’s an odd rhythm. You work three weeks days (rehearsal), then you work two weeks days and nights (tech, production & preview), then you work three weeks nights (the run, with three days thrown in).

And I under-estimate the absorbing quotient involved in doing a show. Even if you’re playing a small part, there comes a time when you live and breathe the play and there’s hardly room for shopping, washing and banking on the day off.

Which means I also over-estimate the amount of useful shipping. The Equity allowance is a generous 400 lbs, and I take full advantage of it, bringing a printer for example, with me.

This was a special case. As I’ve mentioned before in these pages. “Exit” took a lot of puff. There was a section in the middle of the show equivalent to playing one of the great Shakespearean leads and I found myself seriously worried about whether I had the stamina to get through eight shows a week. I built some strength over time, and I believe if we ran for another couple of months the day would have come when I did the show without breaking a sweat, but that day was not during our run, by no means. And I always napped deeply between the shows on matinee days.

But I was not idle and even though I didn’t get to catch up on my youtube editing and various activities, I did record my book (watch this space for availability), and an excerpt for the local NPR station, now also active as a podcast, run by Caroline Breder-Watts and her husband John Watts. Link here: http://www.artsradionetwork.com/

I played a little poker at The Kennel Club, and came out a modest three figure sum the right side of the ledger. I swam in the ocean, and kicked myself for not doing more of it. I did not take any Bikram Yoga—but I’m planning to.

The show was there and now it’s gone. Another in the series of constant testimony to the ephemeral nature of theatre. A metaphor for the brief business of life. Exit the King riffs on decline, decay and death. It would be hard to work on this play and not spend a little time thinking about mortality and the questions of the great hereafter.

Palm Beach Dramaworks is a theatre on the beach, and like theaters everywhere its existence is a triumph of the improbable over the impossible. Doubly courageous then to produce a challenging absurdist drama that confronts its audience with what must shortly happen to us all.