Tag Archives: Palm Beach Dramaworks

The Real Reason I Never Read Reviews

… Until the show is over.

Commonly, the reasons given are… because it makes you self-conscious, because it messes with your confidence, because you shouldn’t believe your own publicity, and so on along those lines.

I believe I have the reviewer story to end them all. And even though this happened more than three decades ago, the memory is still painful. Here is the story:

It was my third job as a professional. I was cast as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, adapted from Charles Dickens’s novel. We were to open at the Birmingham Rep in the UK, play for a month, and then transfer to The Old Vic in London for the Christmas season.

Herbert Pocket is one of Dickens’s more agreeable creations; gentle, sensitive, but also energetic and enthusiastic. In the mid-20th century black and white film a young Alec Guinness plays him to a young John Mills as Pip.

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Ian McCurrach as Pip and me as Herbert Pocket. Great Expectations at The Old Vic in London a long time ago.

I was young. A young actor full of that same energy and enthusiasm as Herbert Pocket, and thrilled to have scored this gig. It was directed by a complicated man who projected his inner darkness upon his actors in a way I have rarely seen since.

This man, the director, who had also adapted this version of Great Expectations, was a fine exponent of the 101 ways a director can destroy an actor in the rehearsal room. From me, he demanded an instant performance. This happens when the director has little or no regard for process and is consumed with insecurity about what the final result will be.

If there was a positive in the episode it was where I began to assemble the director-proof kit that every actor should have in their back pocket. You only need it sometimes, but when you do, you better know where it is.

Somehow I managed to give the performance that the director seemed to want by day three of rehearsals. Fine, you might think. Not so. Why not? Because, and this is crucial, because I did not know how I did it.

To begin with it all went well. Herbert Pocket and I seemed made for each other and our scenes were funny and audiences liked them. Then, during the pre-London run and for reasons known only to himself, the director began to fire the actors at random at the rate of one a week. This quickly transformed a large happy company into a large unhappy company riven with suspicion and paranoia.

Then there came a day, as can so easily happen in comedy, when for no visible reason my stuff wasn’t funny and the scenes played like a lead balloon.

Some laughs are mercurial. They come, they go. If a laugh checks out during the run of a show, the best thing to do is relax. Gently experiment with nuances of delivery and focus, make sure you are playing the scene, not the comedy, and carry on. Did I do that?

No. I tried to make the scenes funny again. The harder I tried the less funny they were.

Meanwhile I had been in correspondence on another project with one of the critics on the London Times.

When we opened in London, the critic came to see the show. By this time the show, which had begun with promise, had become a lumbering Dickensian juggernaut, too long, too slow, performed by a company that knew it was involved in a disaster.

So the critic from the Times saw the show, which he loathed (with good reason). The review was one of the more scathing ever written and he singled me out for special condemnation. When I read it the next morning, hoping against all the probability that it would be positive, it was like a sledgehammer to my confidence, and I nearly gave up acting on the spot. That was bad enough but …

But here’s the thing; the critic from the Times saw the show, phoned in his copy, went home, and died in his sleep that night.

I wished the man no ill, but it did cross my mind to think, “If he was gonna die, why couldn’t he have died three hours earlier?”

And that, is the real reason I never read reviews.

And does that apply when the reviews are good?

You bet. There’s no surer way to mess up a performance than if you believe it when people tell you how good you are. “When Colin McPhillamy shakes the tea-pot, opens the sardines, and dances a jig on a pogo-stick, there is a delicate sunrise of joy that casts a gossamer spell over the stage.” – Oh yeah? And the odds are a hundred to one against Colin McPhillamy ever getting the moment right again.

So right now, I’m in a hit. And there are some great reviews – how do I know that? Because people say things like, “Hey, what about those great reviews?” And I say, “Don’t tell me!”

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Laura Turnbull as Kate and Beth Dimon as Eileen, me as Johnnypateenmike. Palm Beach Dramaworks. Photo by Alicia Donelan.

I have not read them, and will not until after we close, but if you’re interested go here

And while I’m at it let me give a shout out to the amazing design team we had on this one; Franne Lee for costumes, Paul Black for lighting, Victor Becker for the set, and Steve Shapiro for sound. I should have mentioned them in previous posts about this play. Their work both singly and collectively was outstandingly exquisite. You can say I said so.

But what ever you do – don’t tell me!

 

 

 

 

… And Then You Open

In 3000 years of theatre no one has yet come up with a better way. There’s a fortune to be made when they do.

You rehearse. You rehearse some more, then you technically rehearse and you drink too much coffee. Then you have a production week complete with long days, previews, coffee, tweaks, adjustments, new ideas, things you should have thought of before, oh, and coffee.

And then in an unholy melange of caffeine, nerves, uncertainty, mid hysteria, anticipation and fatigue … you open.

We opened last night. Come and see us if you’re nearby!

 

The ‘Ould Country

We can’t all be Irish.

The next best thing is to go to Ireland and drink, in this order, some Guinness, some whiskey, some po’teen; preferably while attempting conversations on the greats of Irish literature – in no particular order; George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, C. S. Lewis, Miles Na Gopaleen (aka Flann O’ Brien), Sean O’ Faolain, Edna O’ Brien, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Hugh Leonard, Brendan Behan, J P Donleavey, and James Joyce – to name but a few, and we haven’t got all day, but you’ll find literary discussion widely available. There is something in the water, the Guinness, the Whiskey, the Po’teen.

You can also watch films like, The Guard, The Field, and if you really want to slow things down, The Man of Aran.

My own antecedents John and Mary McPhillamy of Irish extraction were transported from Scotland to Australia in 1816 for making whiskey without a license – surely a crime in name only. But I digress.

If you can’t get yourself to Ireland, the next best thing is to get yourself into an Irish play. I’m in one now. It’s called The Cripple of Inishmaan and it’s by Martin McDonagh. And we’re doing it in Florida. An Irish play written by one of London, England’s best dramatists of Irish descent, in West Palm Beach, FL, USA. It seems so obvious doesn’t it? Surely just a question of who gets there first.

Mind you, this from Palm Beach Dramaworks, the theatre with the stones to have lately staged Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, you know, the one, along with much of Stoppard’s work that requires audience members to be educated to doctorate level.

You don’t need a degree to enjoy this one; and if you don’t do booze, and can’t take on a pre-show po’teen, never mind, the play itself is sure to nudge open the doors of perception in the way that theatre can from time to time.

Oh, and the cast is brilliant.

My love affair with Florida continues.

 

We Open Tonight!

Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

Tix and info at http://www.palmbeachdramaworks.org

That’s me, as Hector, and the boys above.

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Also splendid in the cast are: Rob Donohoe, Cliff Burgess and Angie Radosh, playing respectively: the ambitious headmaster, the new teacher on the block, and the lady who’s seen it all. They are pictured here in their agreeable daytime personas, but trust me, these are fine actors capable of startling transformations as anyone who saw them as the profoundly disturbed and disturbing characters from Dramawork’s last season’s production of Buried Child can tell you.

I find generally that there is a welcome appreciation of British theatrical product in the USA. Enhanced these days by what could be called the Downton Abbey Effect. So perhaps it’s worth mentioning that the last time I was in a play by Alan Bennett was half a lifetime ago in 1993.

It was The Madness of George III, a National Theatre production out of London, UK and we toured for 13 weeks along East Coast USA, completing the tour at BAM in NYC. 

Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren as King George III and Queen Charlotte

Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren as King George III and Queen Charlotte

The film version was (at Nigel Hawthorne’s suggestion) renamed The Madness of King George lest anyone expect sequels. I played the small (but crucial) role of Sir Boothby Skrymshir, and my performance in the film survives in the director’s cut only, but that was the show that gave me a first real look at America.

The amazing Dame Helen has of course lately appeared on Broadway in The Audience giving a stunning performance as the current British monarch. One feature of that show was the impossibly fast costume changes she achieved. Our costume designer is the profoundly talented Erin Amico with whom I had the pleasure to work ten years ago. Though I say it myself, I think this is a terrific production in all its elements, and it’s no spoiler to tell you that although I’m not playing royalty, my costumes in The History Boys include seven bow ties in quick succession.

Our Town Is A Play Like No Other

Alicia Donnelan

Alicia Donnelan

 

Part slice-of-life, part tone-poem, shyly spiritual.

I play the Stage Manager in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production, a role like no other.

Well Paul Newman (whom I once had the privilege of playing for and meeting after the performance), and Spalding Grey, and Helen Hunt and numbers of distinguished others have played that Everyman, the Stage Manager. None of whom I am like. And yet we’re all actors.

And there is Dylan Thomas’s poetic masterpiece written in 1954, Under Milk Wood.

 

 

Do you know that poem by that good man of New England, Robert Frost, Trial by Existence?

Emiley Kiser and Joe Ferrarelli. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

Emiley Kiser and Joe Ferrarelli. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

And from a cliff-top is proclaimed

The gathering of the souls for birth,

The trial by existence named,

The obscuration upon earth.

 

 

 

But For sleight-of-the-eternal in the guise of the everyday, Our Town has it, I think.

 

Emiley Kiser, Joe Ferrarelli and the company. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

Emiley Kiser, Joe Ferrarelli and the company. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

What could be more quotidian than delivering milk or making breakfast or even getting married?

And what more metaphysical than:

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it, every, every moment?

– No, the saints and poets maybe. They do some.

 

Memory, Presence, the Ephemera that is theatre, the forward march of time …

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting …” — William Wordsworth

Or … “What’s that unforgettable line?” — Samuel Beckett

The company, opening tableau. Photo: Robin McGee

The company, opening tableau. Photo: Robin McGee

 

Kenneth Kay and Josh Stoughton. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

Kenneth Kay and Josh Stoughton. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

“Some say that the art of the theatre, born for and bound to the moment, must, like a soap bubble or nocturnal meteor, dazzle, then burst to leave no trace. Free yourself from this dark thought! The very fact that your art is a child of fragrance, of the spirit, of a mood, of personality and imagination, and not something of wood or stone, or even a thought fixed in black and white, but a sprite forever swinging free on beauty’s vine, the fact that it lacks tangible form, renders it immune to the gnawing of time’s worm. And that is what life truly means: to live in memory …. to rest in people’s minds free of the mildew and rust of age …. and this lot has been granted to you.” — Henrik Ibsen

 

Dan Leonard, Patti Gardner, Emiley Kiser. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

Dan Leonard, Patti Gardner, Emiley Kiser. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

 

“To live vividly in the memory of others seems to be a great thing. In terms of art, it always seems to me that there is something unique and electric about an artist connecting with an audience in live performance. The memory of these moments get parked in a different part of our mind. People speak of them with real reverence and clarity even many years after the applause has faded. To be remembered like that, in any aspect of life, is probably the nearest we have to time travel.”  Jonathan Pytell — pytell.com

 

 

“We all come here and we don’t know why. We all go in our turn and we don’t know where. And if you’re a bit better off, be thankful. And if you don’t get into trouble and make a fool of yourself, well be thankful for that, because you easily might.” — Henry Ormanroyd in When We Are Married by J B Priestly

The company at the funeral. Photo: Robin McGee

The company at the funeral. Photo: Robin McGee

Kudos to my fellow actors in our production like no other. Cast list here. It has been quite a ride. Company members have come and gone, rehearsals and performances have been fraught with incident. All borne with good humor and grace by that fine collection of human beings, the cast and crew of Our Town. Theatrical companies become families within three days. But in a company of this size we are a community.

The company. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

The company. Photo: Alicia Donnelan

“Backstage was chaos distilled into a very small space.” ― William Alexander, Goblin Secrets

Robin McGee

Robin McGee

Note to self: this is one where the less ACTING the better …

N.A.R. (No Acting Required)

— John Voight …

“The most exciting acting tends to happen in roles you never thought you could play.”

― John Lithgow …

“When you most succeed, you do so by seeming not to act at all.”

― Stella Adler, The Art of Acting

This Play Is Called Our Town. It Was Written By …

photo-27The play’s themes are Community, Death and The Weather – not necessarily in that order. And you don’t need to go to New Hampshire to get any of that. Although if you want to speak with the Down East dialect it would help.

Oh and by the way, who is the Stage Manager?

A man both of the town and beyond it, able to move in several directions in time and with the prescient knowledge of things to come and things past. His voice joins with the author’s in the play’s great invitation: to notice.

Last year 2013, was the 75th anniversary of the first production of the play in 1938, and the 38th of Thornton Wider’s death in 1975. Its content is distantly reminiscent of the American Transcendentalists of the 19th century and its form somehow gently references both the origins of theatre and the contemporaneous alienation techniques of Eastern European Drama. Last year there was an abundance of productions. This year, Palm Beach Dramaworks, in Florida, celebrates its 15th anniversary, and produces this play in celebration. It’s my fourth production here, and it is lovely to work with old friends and new ones on this exquisite, ordinary-extraordinary, beautiful play.

The play is set in New Hampshire in a small town for which the author gives map co-ordinates in the text. It’s a clever move because if you check the latitude and the longitude  you end up in the shallows of the Atlantic Ocean off the New England coast. Thus, no actual town can lay claim.

But the town in Our Town is as New Hampshire as it’s possible to be – I speak as one who knows the place. I have journeyed there in all seasons, seen the leaves turn in Fall, blazing the hills with their slow motion firework display; shoveled snow at Christmas; counted churches in the towns and along the country roads.

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The State motto is: Live Free Or Die. You see it stamped on vehicle number plates. Most plates are manufactured by convict labor. A real-life detail that I believe Wilder would have noted as an ironic counterpoint along the lines of the shadowy speech he gives the Stage Manager as the Minister after the wedding in Act Two.

“I’ve married over two hundred couples in my day. Do I believe in it? I don’t know … once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”

To me, accents are interesting. Nothing else quite points to both the unity and the divergence of human experience. After all, we all, all of us, all of us that ever lived or ever shall, have the same basic vocal equipment. But can you produce the clicks of the Xhosa language, the tonalities of Tibetan or Cantonese, the umlaut guttural nasalities of Scandinavia? No? Me neither … And what about the nuanced estuarine vowels now espoused by British politicians and younger Royals alike in their quest for the peoples’ favor?

To me the accent challenge on this one is as hefty as anything Ms. Streep has undertaken. In the play we are a New Hampshire community between 1901 and 1913. The accent is specific, a long way from Standard American, not so far from Boston, and with English notes in its origin.

For an Australian or a Briton to replicate an American accent authentically can be tricky. There is a long list of those who have:

Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Gary Oldman to name a few … and going the other way … Gwyneth Paltrow, Renee Zellweger, and let’s include Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth the first (although I believe I spotted two rogue Aussie vowels) … yes, but these consummate performers were on screen where a zillion takes in bite-sized nuggets, accent coaches on tap, and the magic of post, can fix it all.

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One thing I love about my job is the variety. Some roles are fun, some are fantasy, others by turns: a challenge, a task, an attempt, an exploration. Seldom routine. But to play one of the great roles that is all the above and more, in company with old friends and new ones, in an iconic play that among other things, is also about … Life, Art and Truth. Well that is …

A privilege.