December 2007

This year I’ve worked in Florida, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Texas. In three weeks I go to the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia to do a play called Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons.

My goal at the moment is to become a writer/actor instead of the other way around. To which end I am writing a novel, an entirely speculative project. I applaud Somerset Maugham, who wrote eight novels before he had a success, but went on to earn $42 million from his writing. Likewise Robert Ludlum who was in his 40s before he turned to writing, having been an actor below 14th Street in New York until then.

One recurring feature of the actor’s life is the constant re-balancing of the to-do list. I’ll start the exercise regime, once we open/when we close/at the beginning of rehearsal – it’s custom made for a procrastinator. But actor’s procrastination is as nothing to writer’s absorption. I’ll write the letter when the book is finished/published/when the sequel is commissioned etc.

Creating a new story, and shaping it for public consumption, are two completely different activities, and require different mind-sets and skills. Writer’s block happens because one applies the skills of the second activity to the procedure of the first. If the the Inner Editor – that perky daemon that sits on your left shoulder and offers perceptive feedback on all your shortcomings – is allowed to speak too early, nothing will ever be written. The correct response to the Inner Editor should it butt in, is to hit it over the head with a wooden mallet.

Going back to the acting for a moment; I believe I have now worked with the finest stage director in the world. His name is Taswell Thompson, and is Artistic Director at the Westport Country Playhouse, in Connecticut. I was engaged to play the Chancellor of the University of Nebraska in a play called ‘Sedition’ set in 1917. A real man, in the real story of the playwright’s grandfather, who spoke publicly against America’s involvement in WW1. For which exercise of free speech he lost his reputation, his livelihood, and his home; this was in the context of the recently passed Espionage Act which created it an act of sedition to criticize the government.

That aside, let me briefly describe Taswell’s working method:

1) The actors play a scene.
2) Taswell watches with close attention.
3) The scene ends, Taswell takes a moment to consider.
4) He then says (something like): “That was wonderful!”

But wait, it gets better: he doesn’t bother with those annoying details like: ‘It’s better if you enter upstage of the table’, or ‘pick up the tea-cup before you say the line THEN you’ll get the laugh. He trusts his actors and knows that they will sort all that out for themselves. Twice or three times in our rehearsal process Tasewell spoke at length about the themes of the play, and the needs of the production in general. On our last day in the rehearsal room before we moved to the theatre, he said, just as we were about to start our run-through, “what would happen if we took all the air out of it?”

“What would happen?” we wondered.

We took all the air out of it and at the interval Taswell said, “It is thrilling when you do it like that. Thrilling!”

In getting on for 30 years as an actor, this is the man I have waited to meet. Abundant praise – works for me as an actor… and from here on, when writing, I shall encourage my Inner Taswell.

Here are some predictions for 2008:

The Australian dollar will rise.
The ice will keep melting.
I will finish my book.

Happy New Year.


November 2007

A few years ago I had a few websites, and used to put out a quarterly newsletter. I had to close them down to do a bit of re-thinking, re-structuring, re-everything. Now that I am within sight (I hope) of finishing my first novel, I’ll be needing a website soon, so this blog is a kind of pre-launch.

Living in New York, I find Thanksgiving an easier festival on the nerves than most of the others up to and including birthdays. It’s because, as we agreed at dinner last night, it’s really all about a feast, and hasn’t been quite hi-jacked by commerce in the manner of Christmas, and (in the US) Halloween. Talking of feasting, and now that I am verging on 50, action must be taken. I am fighting a losing battle with my waistline which seems to have it’s own mind and is determined to achieve an inch per year. Watch this space.

I am one those actors that has been trying to do something else for a living since the day I started. It’s not that I don’t enjoy acting, I do. It’s not that I don’t work, I do (although few of us work enough), It’s not that I’m not good at it, I am – alright, modest explanation here: the world is oversupplied with good actors, there are a lot of us about. And as for me, well I am good at what I do within my limits – don’t ask me to sing onstage, for example.

Most actors these days have to be actor hybrids. The glamorous end of the business is full of actor/directors, actor/producers and the actor slash devolves all the way to the most traditional actor/waiter. The reasons for this are several. First though, always has been and I guess always will be, the extraordinary difficulty of earning a living wage even if fully employed. Being an actor is a fun gig, but Dionysus levies a price on his servants.

Within the profession, the popular wisdom is that you shouldn’t try to explain what its like to civilians, and maybe that’s smart, but it’s such a cliched complaint from the actors that it’s so hard to make ends meet – and the irony is that the small percentage of us who are known to the public make as much money as any professional, and that tiny elite that are really well known, make a bunch more than the President – that I want to say something about it, and dammit it’s my blog, so I will.

Actors are forgettable. Think about it. You might remember the lead (but even then it’s often; “who was the guy who played…?”), but try and remember the best friend. How about the neighbour with one scene, the visiting uncle with three lines? And that is majority of us. See what I mean? And of course I’m talking about actors who get onto TV or into films. What about the stage actors? And that’s most of us.

The only way you might remember a stage actor is if you see them regularly playing a range of parts, and the only way that might happen is if you live in a town where there is a resident company of actors and you go to the theatre now and then.

All of which is a long preamble to talking about my last job. I just did a play called Arsenic And Old Lace at The Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. It was fascinating from several points of view. First off, the Alley is one of the very few, in fact at this writing, the only theatre of comparable size and stature in the USA which fields a permanent company of resident actors.

One of the advantages to having a company of actors is the high quality of the work. Assuming reasonable working conditions, at the very least there will superior ensemble skills than can be achieved in three weeks rehearsing with semi strangers. At the Alley, every member of the company is an accomplished performer, and there is a culture of mutual respect for the craft that holds the company together. The theatre has thrived through flood, and dwindling aging audiences world-wide, to achieve a high level of artistic excellence and financial stability. And they pay okay too. Only the Guthrie amongst major regional American theatres pays better.

Much of the Alley’s success is directly attributable to its Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, a man of unusually high I.Q. and as gifted a master of stagecraft as any I’ve known in thirty years. I had a delightful time in Houston, and the production was a laugh riot from start to finish. The two ladies were played by the delightful Mia Dillon, and the amazing Dixie Carter, brilliantly supported by the Alley company at its characterful best. I gave a pair of contrasting cameos in Act One and Act Three, and in Act Two when I should have been writing chapters of the novel, I played backgammon with that splendid actor Todd Waite. Houston, an oil and space exploration town (there are so many) built on a swamp, is now the fourth largest city in North America, and it sports world-class opera, ballet, and theatre all within a few city blocks.

Now I’m back in New York, and as with all theatre gigs, when it’s over it’s as if it never happened. As of this writing not engaged to do any acting, although there are a few irons in fires. Poised for a final edit on the novel. Have not looked at the manuscript for all this week, and will not for another week yet.

Touching on the novel, I have a new respect for people who crank them out year after year, and frankly admit writing this one has been a huge learning experience. I’ve enjoyed it though, and look forward to learning more, and maybe even one day officially becoming an actor/writer.