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Playwright Terrence McNally: He Loves and He Loves

by Geo Hartley | September 30, 2010
Tyne Daly at Terrence and Tom's Wedding

Tyne Daly at Terrence McNally and Tom Kirdahy's Wedding

“Any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate.”                                                     –W. H. Auden

Playwright Terrence McNally is an expert on gay marriage. And, perhaps, our society’s dramaturge of gay culture.

McNally, for his part, says “even liberals can be homophobic in ways they don’t realize. I didn’t think marriage was important and now I think it’s the ultimate civil right. I didn’t realize it until Tom and I stood on the banks of the Potomac this year and took our vows.”

So, in addition to four Tonys, four Drama Desks, two Obies and an Emmy, McNally has also been awarded a 2002 Domestic Partnership in New York, a 2004 Civil Union in Vermont and a 2010 Marriage in Washington, D.C. All with that same partner, lawyer/producer Tom Kirdahy.

“It’s not until I was up there in front of everyone and said the words ‘in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part’ that I felt fully committed as a married man. It cleansed me of the last vestige of feeling that we are second class citizens.”

To be romantic for a moment…picture their spring wedding in the nation’s capital complete with cherry blossoms, Tyne Daly and a beautiful rendition by Master Class‘s young diva Alexandra Silver of a classic Gershwin tune,  re-titled that day as “He Loves and He Loves.”

FRED ASTAIRE - He Loves And She Loves (Funny Face 1957)

In case you want to get into the mood of the McNally/Kirdahy nuptials set to song, check out this video for the Fred Astaire version in 1957′s Funny Face. Not sure either groom danced quite like Astaire but bet each was as wistful and new as Audrey Hepburn. How gay is that? How beautiful is that?

“It all comes in increments,” McNally says.  “When I was young, I wouldn’t have had a boyfriend, and if I did, I wouldn’t have taken him to the prom. But, by the time I had my first play on Broadway at age 23, I had a partner–Edward Albee.

“The critics knew that and their reviews talked about me as Albee’s ‘protégé’ or ‘companion’ or ‘roommate.’ In other words, ‘a big homo.’ So, for me, there was no need to struggle about being gay or being a gay playwright. I didn’t need to waste time on that.

“I had very good teachers in high school and at Columbia who encouraged me to be authentic, ‘to be who you are.’ I get frustrated with myself when I teach playwriting. Just because you write successful plays doesn’t make you a good teacher.

“I’m too impatient with students. I’m too much ‘do it my way.’ That’s not good.  I wrote Master Class out of my experience with great teachers. You always want to work with people who are smarter, brighter.

“I watch young actors in rehearsal. Some watch everything. Some gossip or are on cell phones. They should be watching Nathan Lane and Zoe Caldwell work. Be a sponge.”

Learning is constant for McNally at any age. “When I was a young man, I was all theatre. Now, I write four hours a day and spend more time walking around New York, enjoying museums, nature, travel and politics.

<p>Terrence McNally</p>

Terrence McNally

“But, there is no real difference, old or young. You learn, not just by classes but by writing the play. The same is true for actors. Scene work isn’t enough; there’s no substitute for the real thing.

“It’s harder to do theatre now. The new Albee play took three years to get here. And, it’s playing in a small theatre-Playwrights Horizons. Thank God for small theatres. Without 99-seat houses, actors, directors and writers would not learn their craft. Without them, some very well-known artists would not be where they are today.

“I go back and forth, writing for Broadway and small theatre. I wrote the musical Catch Me If You Can for a 99-seat group. I don’t lower my standards. I give it my all. It’s all the same. What isn’t the same is the effect of reviews. It used to be that the success of a play depended on the papers. And, many of us remember our bad reviews more than the good. Especially from the New York Times.

“But, the Times has said ‘the writing is on the wall. In the years to come, there will be no need to publish. It will all be on the internet. ‘There used to be eight papers, now there are two or three. It’s all changing. It’s all in flux. The effect of the internet on theatre is still not fully known.”

So too the future of gay marriage and its effect on society. According to McNally, “Gay marriage is the final fight. My relationship with Tom is as good as my mother and father’s and I’m no longer willing to accept that it is anything less. Gays just need to be out. Be strident. That is how social change happens.”

For McNally, all theatre is political. “If a play isn’t worth dying for,” he says, “it isn’t worth writing. There are no more gay plays. Before, gay plays were cute guys with their shirts off. Now, it’s Angels in America, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Take Me Out.” Each has won a Tony for Best Play.

Terence McNally and Tom Kirdahy

Terence McNally and Tom Kirdahy

“I’m proud to be a part of that,” he says. “Some of my plays have affected straight people, especially parents, so they respect us for who we are. Gays want to love and be loved, and have a seat at the table.”

In 2007, McNally continued to populate the table with the opening of his play Some Men at the Second Stage Theater in New York, starring among many great actors-Los Angeles favorite Don Amendolia.

Like many of McNally’s plays, Some Men‘s serious themes are made all the more accessible by his clever writing, easily identifiable characters, sweet sentiment and even zippy one-liners. It’s a McNally comedy…droll, satirical and sharply observed.

“It’s not a linear play, not chronological,” he says. Its plot and pacing have the feel of a jaunty nightclub revue. While two men exchange wedding vows, guests at this future Waldorf-Astoria ceremony chart their own lives, and the degrees of liberation they have achieved–or not–over the years.

The parade of characters, settings and events that shaped the last century is at once a celebration and a counterpoint for gay marriage. Is it the end of loneliness in favor of real commitment? Or, is it the end of gay life as practiced for millions of years?

You be the judge once the curtain goes up on some of these men…a transvestite singing “Over the Rainbow” on the day of Judy Garland’s death, a well-groomed banker frolicking on a Southampton beach with his rough chauffeur, and the inhabitants of a 1970s bathhouse, a Greenwich Village bar on the day of the Stonewall uprising and a waiting room of an AIDS ward in 1989.

They’re all on stage at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on Oct. 4-that’s right, just one night-a reading to benefit ‘Testimony,’ a project of the Courage Campaign Institute. It’s helmed by Brothers and Sisters director Michael Morris and stars Alan Cumming, John Glover, Matt Gould, David Alan Grier, Justin Kirk, Luke MacFarlane, Jason Ritter,  and Jeffrey Tambor.

And, to promote Some Men are some very special women. The ringleader is longtime Los Angeles and Broadway producer Susan Dietz. “I’ve known her such a long time since her Canon Theatre days,” says McNally. “She’s not just a producer, she cares with her heart. How do you not love her?”

Assisting Dietz is an all-star host committee including Edie Falco, Sally Field, Calista Flockhart, Allison Janney, Cherry Jones, Lisa Kudrow, Angela Lansbury, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jane Lynch, Mary McCormack, Rosie Perez, Christina Ricci, Doris Roberts, Kyra Sedgwick, Alicia Silverstone, Marisa Tomei and Vanessa Williams, among many others.

Oh, and Terrence McNally will be there too.

Some Men, produced by Dan Bucatinsky, Susan Dietz and Tom Kirdahy as a benefit reading for The Courage Campaign. Mon., Oct. 4 at 8 pm. Tickets: $25-$250. Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; tinyurl.com/2b3743w or couragecampaign.org.

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LA Stage Times

Actor Harry Hamlin: A Full Frontal Adventure

by Geo Hartley | June 16, 2010

The Jesus Hickey, produced by Gary Grossman for Katselas Theatre Company, plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through July 11. Tickets: $15-$25. Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; 310.358.9936 or katselastheatre.org.

“Fame is only good for one thing — they will cash your check in a small town.”
–Truman Capote

Los Angeles notable director/playwright Luke Yankee has written again…and again a provocative title: The Jesus Hickey.

The force was with Luke when he had a reading of Jesus. The Katselas Theatre Company stepped up to produce, and rehearsals soon followed. But, the path of a Jedi is seldom smooth and Luke lost his leading man.

<br />Harry Hamlin

Harry Hamlin

In the Katselas theatre family are master classes for working actors, among them one Harry Hamlin-Broadway veteran, original Titan, LA Law star and, yes, People Magazine‘s Sexiest Man Alive 1987.

Fellow classmate Greg Safel was in the Jesus cast and suggested Hamlin who then read the script, met with Yankee and the rest is testament. And, that’s how Hamlin opened in his first LA small theatre production on June 12.

His theatre roots are here. He’s been treading the boards since he was a kid at the Pasadena Playhouse children’s program. He remembers being terrified in high school when he had to take over “for some guy who got mono” as Mortimer in The Fantasticks.

College found him first at UC Berkeley, and then at Yale where he graduated in 1978 with a degree in theatre. Bill Ball of San Francisco’s famed Actors Conservatory Theatre offered Hamlin the position of his assistant in the directing of Cyrano de Bergerac being filmed for PBS at UC Berkeley.

With Hamlin’s knowledge of the Zellerbach Theatre there, he proved invaluable to Ball who offered him a full scholarship at ACT. Dealing with parents on this career move wasn’t as much fun.

“They flipped out,” Hamlin remembers. “They told me I’d be on the dole the rest of my life. I defied them and went out to my car to find they had removed the distributor cap. So, I took a cab to the airport…20 bucks. It was the only time in my life I intentionally bounced a check. But, I got on PSA Airlines and flew to San Francisco. I had no money and had to live on a stipend. It’s all in my upcoming book Full Frontal Nudity.”

The title comes from Hamlin’s first paying theatre job, playing naked-in-the-barn Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer’s Equus opposite Peter Donat at ACT. Hamlin was a student member of the professional company. He earned his Equity card and was working there toward his MFA degree.

Like most theatres, ACT had a green room. Walking through it one day, he discovered a fellow student filling out Fulbright Scholarship forms. ACT’s sister theatre was Russia’s Moscow Art Theatre where Hamlin wanted to study so he filled out the forms too.

“To my surprise,” he says, “I got it. I enrolled in Russian classes and learned to say, ‘Hello, how are you? I don’t know how to speak Russian very well. But, would you have sex with me?’ Then, Carter and Brezhnev had a blow-up and my visa was revoked.”

The alternate Fulbright plan was to study in England. “ACT was as good as LAMDA so I didn’t know what to do but I arranged for an apartment in London. While I waited, a friend called to tell me a casting director who had read my Equus reviews wanted to meet with me. She’ll take you to lunch.”

Obviously, that was a selling point to a starving actor. “She wanted me to read for a six- hour miniseries. Lunch was coming so I had to stay. I got the few lines and waited, sitting next to a blond guy shaking like a leaf. We read and by end of lunch, the casting director said, ‘You’ve been cast in the miniseries.’

“‘What? Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m going to England on a Fulbright.’ When you turn something down in this town, you’re hot. Oh, and the shaky blond guy was Corbin Bernsen” — Hamlin’s future co-star on LA Law.

Now hot, Hamlin was called by movie director Stanley Donen to read off-camera with Tovah Feldshuh and Ann Reinking for an upcoming movie. It paid $250 so Hamlin went. “It would pay for the 35mm camera I wanted to take to London.” Donen later wanted Hamlin to read again but on-camera in makeup and wardrobe. Hamlin declined.

“I’m a theatre actor, I don’t care about movies. Donen said I’d need film on myself when I got back from London and he paid another $250. So I did it. And, he offered me the lead in Movie, Movie.”

What to do. Hamlin was still living at home in Pasadena. His father was the bright engineer who worked with Wernher von Braun but it was his mother who gave him the critical advice. “They had seen me in Equus and she said, ‘You’ll learn a lot more making movies than sitting around London on a Fulbright. There’s a point when you have to stop adding to your resume.’

“I took a long walk to think about it, and did it.” The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history–the stuff that makes fantasy believable onscreen and off. Here then are some of the highlights of previous attractions…

In Movie, Movie, Hamlin played a John Garfield-like boxer spoofing the classic film Golden Boy. George C. Scott played his promoter and Eli Wallach the gangster who tempted him. Good company for an actor in his mid-20s who was later nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Motion Picture Acting Debut for the role.

Hamlin stayed hot and continued to keep good company in the original Clash of the Titans where Greek mythology got the Star Wars treatment. He starred opposite Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom and his 43-year old lady love Ursula Andress with whom he had son Dimitri.

“I did it,” Hamlin remembers, “because Laurence Olivier did. Maggie Smith asked him to because her husband Beverley Cross wrote it. Later, Olivier wrote me a letter apologizing for being in the movie, saying, ‘I had so many mouths to feed.’ I still have the letter framed next to a call sheet showing Harry Hamlin as #1 on it and Laurence Olivier as #2.”

<p></p>Barbara, Hamlin and Aviva

Barbara Tarbuck, Harry Hamlin and Aviva

Hamlin’s third and last studio film ever was Making Love where he played an openly homosexual novelist. “I loved the part,” he says. “It was directed by Arthur Hiller, and was Sherry Lansing’s moment to do something cutting edge at 20th Century Fox.

“It was the first time for a feature with a gay leading character who wasn’t a criminal or a deviant. People said ‘Don’t do it!’ I said ‘f*** it. I’m an actor. I do different parts.’ I was wrong. People then thought if you play gay, you are.

“I think the same stigma exists today-it’s harder but then it was impossible. Even a hint you were gay, and No!” Oil wildcatter Marvin Davis later told me that just after he had purchased 20th; they asked him to view an answer print of Making Love.

“I’m noshing on Michael Ontkean’s face and Davis was mortified. He turned to his wife Barbara and said, ‘I want my money back…this is a gay movie!’

“I was making studio film after studio film and, all of a sudden, the door shut and I couldn’t even get a meeting for a studio movie. So I became a TV actor and did theatre.” He started his Broadway career in 1984 in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! To critical praise, he limped across the stage playing Moe Axelrod, a greasy Depression Era thug with a wooden leg.

“In 1985, my agent sent over a script for a TV series. I didn’t want TV and didn’t read the script. A friend was over for dinner and saw it on the table. ‘You have the LA Law script by the guy who did Hill Street Blues?’ My friend read it and said it was amazing. He was right. To this day, the pilot for LA Law was the best two-hour read ever.

“I didn’t know how I fit in. The role of Michael Kuzak was for a 45-year old myopic ex-linebacker lawyer with arthritis. I was 35 years old with perfect vision and no arthritis.  Steven Bochco still offered me the role.

I’d been doing stage and not earning much money for a while. My wife convinced me to do it. I was not happy about doing TV, but figured it would come and go in a year. We were shooting 15-hour days. I was completely spent and didn’t want to do any press.

“Steven Bochco said, ‘I’m on my knees. I’m begging you. Two or three outlets want to do features on you. It won’t take that long.’ So I did it.” One of the interviews was with People. The feature was turned into the cover story where Hamlin was named “Sexiest Man Alive.”

“I had no idea and was driving down the street in Sydney. I looked up and saw a billboard that said ‘Sexiest Man Down Under’…meaning I was in Australia. I never wanted to do press again.”

Once more, theatre was a haven for him. He played in Henry V at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. A year later he was on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke opposite Mary McDonnell.

These days, life is different for Hamlin. “I’m close to 60,” he says. “I can’t wait to play Lear but I’m not there yet.” He has two daughters, 12 year-old Delilah and 10-year old Amelia with his actress wife Lisa Rinna.

“I went to Lisa and said, ‘I’m not leaving town while the kids are growing up.’ For Dimitri, I had been a ‘career dad.’ He’s 30 years old now. The only legacy you have in life is your kids. The thing that makes a difference is your family. I’m staying here.”

Staying here has led to his father roles such as the recurring Aaron Echolls on UPN’s Veronica Mars and Uncle Marty on CBS’ Harper’s Island which he calls his “old geezer” part. He has also followed Rinna’s footsteps on Dancing with the Stars, welcoming “the challenge to get in shape and walk out in front of 20 million people and not puke.” This year, he’s recurring on Lifetime’s series Army Wives and appearing in his latest stage attraction Luke Yankee’s The Jesus Hickey now playing at the Skylight Theatre.

Hamlin had a little concern about a playwright directing his own work, especially in its first production. This is a common apprehension which Yankee understands. But, he says, “I’ve been burned before so this time I’m a little more protective. And, as Douglas Wright says, ‘If Martha Stewart can write the recipe, she sure in hell can bake the cake!’” Since Wright won a Tony and a Pulitzer for his I Am My Own Wife and, among other things, wrote Grey Gardens and The Little Mermaid, who’s to argue?

Hamlin didn’t. After talking with Yankee, he said “I can start today.” He did and, according to his writer/director, “has raised the bar for the whole company, not just because he’s a celebrity. He’s a brilliant stage actor.”

Yankee should know. He regularly holds the seminars Conversations on Craft at the Stella Adler Theatre, is an award-winning playwright-you may remember his A Place at Forest Lawn, and a sought-after director both here, regionally and in New York. He had his Equity card by age 15, then Juilliard, then assistant to theatre icon Hal Prince.

Like Hamlin, Yankee had a mother who gave him good career advice…only Yankee’s mom was not from Pasadena. One might say she was from heaven or, depending on the role, hell…Oscar-winning actress Eileen Heckart.

<br />Luke Yankee directing.

Luke Yankee directing.

“She treated me like a peer,” he remembers. “The best lessons were in the living room.  She watched every monologue or scene I did for class, and every dress rehearsal in high school. She was my toughest critic. Sometimes I just wanted a pat on the head like from other mothers.” It was a loving and complex relationship which is explored in Yankee’s book Just Outside the Spotlight with a forward by Mary Tyler Moore.

Yankee’s The Jesus Hickey is the 50-year old’s first writing that has no connection to his famous mother. It is also the winner of the TRU Voices Award as well as the Joel and Phyllis Ehrlich Award given for “a socially relevant, commercially viable new work of theatre.”

In it, Hamlin plays a down-and-out Irish laborer capitalizing on the sudden celebrity of his daughter who, through a forbidden tryst, receives a hickey in the shape of Jesus.  Yankee is “fascinated by fanaticism and what people choose to see, as they desperately search for something to believe in.

“They see the face of Jesus in tree knots, pancakes and condensation stains on underpasses.” Or here, in the hickey of a teenage girl who, like Susan Boyle, finds that all the attention isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

There are two screen adaptations in the works-one that takes place in Ireland, and one in America. May the best producer win. Yankee is also hoping for regional theatre productions. “It’s a six character/one set play so is easy to produce,” he says.

As for the rest of us…maybe we should just head over to the Skylight and see if we too can be kissed by a deity. Or, at least, by one of its stars.

Feature image Aviva, Harry Hamlin and Barbara Tarbuck and production photos by Ed Krieger

Article by Geo Hartley

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LA Stage Times

Actors Orson Bean, Alley Mills and Laurie O’Brien: Coward’s BitterSuite Goodbye

by Geo Hartley | February 23, 2010

A Song at Twilight, presented by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, continues Wed.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through March 7. Tickets: $15-$30. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles; 310.477.2055 or odysseytheatre.com.

“Comedies of manners swiftly become obsolete when there are no longer any manners.”

–Noel Coward

God love Ron Sossi and those Odyssey Theatre Ensemble folks for having the manners to keep Noel Coward from becoming obsolete to Los Angeles audiences.

Sir Noel Pierce Coward was one of the greatest wits of the twentieth century and according to well-established reports made the English, well, English. He found fame as an actor, director, cabaret star, songwriter, filmmaker, novelist and playwright. His work in theatre forever altered the perceptions of dialog. His natural, more conversational style made hits of his plays and found an audience eager for their film adaptations.

Even though he preferred drinking a cup of cocoa to being in Hollywood, he won a 1943 Academy Honorary Award for his World War II film In Which They Serve. In addition, he was involved in one capacity or another in almost 100 film and television productions around the world.

Oops…back to theatre. We do like to claim him, especially when there’s a Coward production in town.  Is it Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit?  No…it’s A Song at Twilight, his last full-length play.

He wanted to write a play in which he could “act once more before I fold my bedraggled wings.” His lead character is writer Hugo Latymer who deals with a loving wife, a cagey ex-mistress and the secret of his longstanding male lover.

“I've sometimes thought of marrying - and then I've thought again.

Was Latymer purely fiction, based on Somerset Maugham or auto-biographical? The fun is in the whispering…and in the playing for Orson Bean, Alley Mills and Laurie O’Brien–the same way it was for Sir Noel below and Lilli Palmer with whom he premiered the play in 1966.

Many believe Coward wanted to skewer some of his famous colleagues for their pretense of heterosexuality–hiding, closeting or attacking their true natures. He said little directly but wrote much and wore a sly smile somewhere on his sleeve.

Orson Bean and Laurie O'Brien

Orson Bean and Laurie O'Brien

A Song at Twilight had a relatively triumphant opening in London. The critic for The Daily Mail may have given you the best taste of what to expect at the Odyssey these days, when he said “as the curtain fell last night I felt oddly elated as if I had recaptured the flavour of an exclusive drink which one tasted when young but has never been mixed quite right since. I know the name of it now: not mannerism, not bravura, not histrionics, but style.”

Twilight was part of a trio of plays collectively entitled Suite in Three Keys, all of which are set in the same suite in a luxury hotel in Switzerland. In reflecting on the success of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite two years later, Coward mused, “Such a good idea having different plays all played in a hotel suite! I wonder where he got it from?” Coward was seldom without a pithy observation especially about theatre…and its players.

“I’m an enormously talented man, and there’s no use pretending that I’m not.”

It’s hard to remember a time when you didn’t know of Noel Coward or remember something fun about him. The same is probably true of LA’s own Orson Bean. Apart from being a second cousin to Calvin Coolidge–seriously, did you know Orson chose his name after that Citizen Kane show-off? How about that Bean was blacklisted in the ’50s for his then liberal political views? Or that he guest-hosted The Tonight Show over a 100 times, not only in the Johnny days but back in Jack Paar’s as well.

Orson Bean

Orson Bean

You may also remember seeing him for seven seasons on To Tell the Truth but did you know he enjoyed much success on Broadway, including a Tony nod for Subways Are for Sleeping? So when asked if he had any fears about playing Coward, he responds resolutely, “No. I always thought I’d be just right for him and I am. I don’t know what it is with me. I think I can play anything. I think I can play Juliet!”

“Never mind, dear, we’re all made the same though some more than others.”

In real life, Bean’s Juliet is iconic TV mom from The Wonder Years and current star of The Bold and the Beautiful, Alley Mills. In Twilight, she is Bean’s again, playing the wife Hilde Latymer. “Orson is a consummate actor,” she says. “It’s called a play because we’re supposed to play. It’s fun!” he says.

“I’m different. I like to work on it. I could rehearse for a year. I love character study. Orson says, ‘Oh, shut up and do it!’ We’re different. So, working with him made me nervous at first. But, it ended up, we all had a blast. I go around the globe one way and he goes right through it.

“Having done Shakespeare and Shaw, it helps. Shaw helps a lot. You have to play tennis. If you drop the ball with Coward, you’re dead. Whack, whack, whack and somebody wins the point.”

Being the worrier in the family, she feared there wouldn’t be enough time to do Coward justice. “I was doing the soap and rehearsing, and wondered if I’d have to cut corners. But, we all learned our lines before rehearsal started. And, I got my shoes first too. I need to get my feet so I went online and got my pumps first thing. 1966 shoes. Somebody in London sent them to me. $24. Crocodile. Can’t beat it!” Hmmm…like Dorothy in Oz, watch for those slippers on stage.

“You ask my advice about acting? Speak clearly, don’t bump into the furniture and if you must have motivation, think of your pay packet on Friday.”

Laurie O'Brian

Laurie O'Brien

The third member of this acting extravaganza, playing the ex-mistress Carlotta Gray, is multi-award winner Laurie O’Brien. She has long been an acting legend in Los Angeles since her wild days as the lead in the Odyssey’s production of Mary Barnes. She won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for that show. She won the same award again later for her equally challenging role of Denise Savage in John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo at the Cast Theatre.

She continued her winning ways recently, playing Meta in Padua Playwrights production of Times Like These. For that, she won the 2003 Ovation Award for Lead Actress, and after the play’s two-year run in Los Angeles, played the role again in San Francisco and New York. “The characters I played were so meaty,” she says. “Every night was a new night with brilliant writing for all of them. How else can you go to those dark places?

“One of the reasons I can play dark people is because I’m not one of them. I can trust the words will bring me out of them. I had the advantage of working all those years before Los Angeles in mental hospitals and I got to know those people. I promised the universe I’d tell their story and I got to fulfill that promise.

“People think I’m so serious because of it so I get cast that way. That’s why I like playing somebody in control, lighter, pretty like Carlotta. I don’t have to be blood and spit. But, when Orson first called me to play it, I said no. I was used to LORT contracts for so long, I felt I didn’t want to go back to work for so little. But, he was insistent and once I read the script…I’m an actor, and actors act.

“And, industry people lose track of you too. Spin, spin, spin. They have you up on a shelf, especially when you’re getting older, up even on a higher shelf and getting dusty. So if you get a character to play like Carlotta and they can say, ‘She looks pretty good and she can be funny.’ That can’t be bad.”

“Someday I suspect, when Jesus has definitely got me for a sunbeam, my works may be adequately assessed.”

As you can see from the quotes scattered throughout the article, Noel Coward had a way, a very famous way, with words. It’s one of the reasons audiences and theatre professionals have remained loyal fans.  “Nothing about this surprised me,” says Bean, “except the incredible quality of the construction of the play.

“I didn’t realize it until the audiences came and were rapt. No coughs. And, the laughs came. It gets better every night. When you’re doing really good writing, our work gets deeper and deeper and deeper. It’s always the writing. The writer never gets enough credit.”

Alley Mills

Alley Mills

Unlike husband Bean, Mills has had a past with Coward. She played in Present Laughter in Hartford, Connecticut regional theatre and also in Tonight at 8:30 at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice. As for Twilight, she says, “This isn’t typical Coward, it’s late Coward. It’s not to be done like Private Lives. It’s not presentational in that Coward kind of way. This play has to have a belly to it. We get a lot of laughs because it has a belly.

O’Brien played Elvira in Blithe Spirit in junior high school. “It was my first full-length play,” she remembers. “I cut my teeth on Coward. He’s a master. The class, the comedy, the subtlety, the challenge of the accent…you want to come up to what it is, and what it can be. And, that’s humility as an artist. One’s a better artist if you keep your humility.”

“Wit is like caviar – it should be served in small portions and not spread about like marmalade.”

“I don’t do anything,” Bean reveals. “I let the story tell itself. In one scene, I’m left alone on stage with an adorable sexy waiter, and flirt. It stops when my wife comes back. She knows…and, that’s a total surprise for him because he thought he pulled it off beautifully.

“He deals with it in language. Hugo loves language because Noel Coward loves language. The male ego, thinking he’s in charge. It’s fun to get hit with a pie and have the audience laugh at you. Funny, but quite dark.”

“The challenge of the language is a great joy,” O’Brien echoes. “Coward makes it easy. There are rhythms and certain alliterations you have to do word-for-word because then the comedy will be there. It’s a partnership with the playwright and the actor.

“It actually makes it easy to remember the lines…like ‘It seems a pity that posterity should be deprived…’ or, ‘Hugo, you are positively stampeding toward the quiet grave, aren’t you?’”

For Mills, the play is elusive and full of secrets. “None of the characters know each other knows,” she relishes. “The fun is finding out. I know Hugo is not a happy camper and I don’t want him to die that way. So I hope the shit’s going to hit the fan.

“My character deeply loved once and it was horrific because of the Holocaust. She didn’t think she’d make it. Those survivors don’t always make it. Hugo took her in at that point. It’s so profound. One of my favorite lines is when I’m confronted by Carlotta, demanding to know how I can put up with my husband’s affairs. ‘Because he’s all I have.’ So all is forgiven. That’s the other side of Coward.”

“I never care who scored the goal or which side won the silver cup- I never learned to bat or bowl- but I heard the curtain going up.”

Bean was the first to hear it going up on Twilight. “I went back east in June,” he says, “in Arthur Miller’s The Price. The director James Glossman knew of A Song at Twilight and said Alley and I should do it. We had seen Alan Rickman in Coward on Broadway, and I thought if I can be half as good as that…

“So we started and brought it to Marilyn Fox at Pacific Resident Theatre where I had just done The Browning Version by Terrence Rattigan. It’s a big success and I had great fun playing the villain. The audience loves a villain. Iago steals it from Othello. Donald Duck from Mickey Mouse. “But, we couldn’t work it out. PRT already had an English play scheduled. So we went to Ron Sossi and he grabbed it.

Mills also appreciated director Glossman’s choice for them. “I didn’t know James and I really loved working with this guy. It’s amazing at my age that I can still get to a new level as an actor, moment-to-moment. I’m growing as a human being and on stage.

“Jim noticed I’m completely at home with myself. I’m more present. Klugman told him the same thing last year. That he’s happier than he’s ever been. In theatre, you never know what’s going to happen, and you need to stay open to that.  Even opening night was easier. Usually that matters to me but not this time. I didn’t feel the pressure.”

O’Brien feels that “openings are not real. There’s so much anxiety around it, about whether you can do it. People don’t experience the play the same way. Too many things are so stacked onto it.

“Now the fun begins and the communication with the audience. My whole reason for acting is reaching people; opening night gets in the way. Good reviews are important though so people will come.”

“Work is much more fun than fun.”

And, the people do come. They get to see a play by a world-renowned playwright, performed by well-known actors who live, love and work in Los Angeles. Bean has his show-must-go-on regional theatre gigs and a recurring role as Roy Bender opposite two-time Emmy winner and Ovation Award winner Kathryn Joosten as Mrs. McClusky in Desperate Housewives. As in Twilight, they prove that romance can be a valentine sent or received at any age by any gender.

Mills continues as Pamela Douglas, a regular on The Bold and the Beautiful. “I started in a heavy part for 10 episodes but now I’m bi-polar…and have no boobs, so I’m the comic sister. There are some insanely good actors there. I love going to work,” she says. “I didn’t know that world and it’s fun. As long as you know you have the freedom to go back to theatre.”

O’Brien, who is also the voice of Baby Piggy on The Muppet Babies, enhances her LA actor’s life as an owner and gardener-in-chief of the greatly reviewed Firefly Bistro in Pasadena. It serves American cuisine with a sassy twist, all under a big tent. It’s a family affair with her step-daughter, chef son-in-law and leading man husband of 21 years, actor Carl Weintraub. “We met in Savage in Limbo,” she says. He’s a wonderful, open man.  People come to see him there.”

Guess you’ll have to go to West LA to see O’Brien there, together with those magic Beans-Orson and Alley. Then, you too can say, “I’ve been to a marvelous party.”

“Trust your instincts. If you have no instincts, trust your impulses.”

Feature image of Laurie O’Brien, Alley Mills and Orson Bean by Ron Sossi

Article by Geo Hartley

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Actors Denise Crosby, Gale Harold & Claudia Mason: Tennessee Ascending

by Geo Hartley | January 15, 2010

Orpheus Descending, presented by Frantic Redhead Productions, opens Jan. 15; plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through Feb. 21. Tickets: $25. Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; 800.838.3006 or brownpapertickets.com/event/92508.

Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you.
–Tennessee Williams

Who can forget the admonition to dear Hansel & Gretel to “Not look back!” as they fled from danger to a safer place?  The same again with Lot and his wife in the Bible.  And, so too, with Orpheus who descended into Hades to charm the gods with his sad songs so he could save his lady Eurydice and ascend back to life.

Orpheus loses Eurydice while leaving the Underworld

Orpheus loses Eurydice while leaving the Underworld

Poor Orpheus did look back, with resulting consequences for him and his lady.  Even the great mythmakers couldn’t agree if he was a hero (Virgil) or a coward (Plato). Getting him right has always been a complex journey.  Perfect pickins’ for our own Tennessee Williams who set this legend of repressed desires in the American South.

For Williams, his recounting of the myth centered on the power of passion, art and imagination to redeem life and return it to vitality. In 1940, Williams’ version became his first Broadway-bound play, aptly titled Battle of Angels. The critics, like so many infernal gods, sent him straight to Hades.

“I have always been pushed by the negative. The apparent failure of a play sends me back to my typewriter that very night.”  –TW

For 17 years and through five major rewrites, Williams finally got his play a better ascension on Broadway in 1957 under the present title Orpheus Descending. Two years later, he turned it into the film The Fugitive Kind starring Marlon Brando as Valentine ‘Snakeskin’ Xavier, Anna Magnani as Lady Torrance and Joanne Woodward as Carol Cutrere.

According to Williams, the play was the “emotional bridge between my early years and my present state of existence as a playwright.”  First loves are hard to forget, their songs and images play on in our heads.

So that we don’t forget…Denise Crosby, Gale Harold and Claudia Mason, under the direction of filmmaker Lou Pepe, are firing up a six-week run of Orpheus Descending for Los Angeles audiences, opening this Friday, January 15 at Theatre/Theater.

Who are these intrepid actors, where did they come from and why did they choose to ride Williams’ Southern Gothic roller coaster of a melodrama?  Let’s see…

“Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life.”  –TW

Gale Harold

Gale Harold

We start with Gale Harold as Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier. It would be more polite or conventional to start with one of the ladies, but Snakeskin and perhaps Harold himself are anything but conventional. Williams describes this Orpheus as “having a wild beauty about him,” a drifter who “can burn a woman down.” Wow!

As you know Harold from his television and film work, he certainly has the wild beauty and burn ‘em down business pretty well handled. Among his many roles, he’s been the lead Brian Kinney on Showtime’s hit series Queer as Folk, Susan Meyers’ lover on Desperate Housewives and Wyatt Earp on HBO’s Deadwood.  But, did you know he began as an intern at A Noise Within?

Onto Denise Crosby as his Eurydice, Lady Torrance. You probably know she’s a part of the Bing Crosby family dynasty. She created the starring role of Lt. Tasha Yar in Star Trek, the Next Generation. But, did you know she was nominated for a Best Actress Ovation Award for her performance as Lil in Last Summer at Bluefish Cove which opened at Theatre Geo in 1994?

And, this Claudia Mason, playing the lonely and vulnerable exhibitionist Carol Cutrere. You may know her as one of the world’s top models and in the biz since she was discovered at age 13. She was also a Woody Allen favorite in the film Celebrity. But did you know she has her roots in off-Broadway theatre and is the daughter of Clifford Mason, playwright, novelist and critic for the New York Times?

“In memory, everything seems to happen to music.”  –TW

Denise Crosby

Denise Crosby

For these actors, there certainly has been a sweet soundtrack to their lives…especially in their memories of theatre and what keeps them attracted to working on the LA boards.

Crosby remembers the “most profound event that shifted everything was Tamara. We thought it would last three months and it lasted for years.” (Note: Tamara became Los Angeles’ longest running play.) “I started as understudies for Tamara and the Ballerina.  They generally didn’t take the understudy up into the main role because the understudy was too valuable, covering several roles.

“But, for me, it was the opposite of All About Eve. Our lead, Margot Bionne, knew she was leaving and purposely missed the night the producers were in the audience. ‘That way they can see you can do it,’ she said. She was right and I ran with it for months and months. So many industry people would come. It was then I got my audition for Star Trek.”

Mason calls herself the “classic Manhattan mix-black father, white mother.” She enjoyed her New York theatre days especially her success as the lead in the off-Broadway production of Boxing Day Parade. But, she’s happily settled in Los Angeles for five years now and was named Outstanding Female Actor in a Lead Role by Reviewplays.com for her work in the world premiere of Two Ships Passing at the Pan Andreas Theatre.

You can be young without money but you can’t be old without it.”  –TW

Harold’s memories may be even more recognizable to theatre actors. “We were doing Cymbeline at LATC, he recounts, “and I was getting to that stage in my career where I was thinking New York or Chicago. I wasn’t a good auditioner in LA. I hadn’t mastered the Shurtleff style. But, my manager wanted me to audition for Queer as Folk. It was presented more like a movie for cable so I went to read.

“I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care how I looked. I had $5 to my name and ran out of gas on the way to the audition. I had to hunt around in my car to find enough change to get there.

“I had seen the original British version of the show and I knew how an American would play the role-unapologetically OUT, take it or leave it. So I opened up my guns and let them blaze.  When I was done, I let them know ‘if you want me back, I can’t read Monday…I have to strike Cymbeline.’”

Enthusiasm is the most important thing in life.  –TW

Why choose Orpheus Descending to perform?

Harold is big on his coach Kim Gillingham. “I am fascinated,” he says, “by how she guided me to make choices amidst all the chaos and to find the feelings that allow me to hold onto those choices. At the end of last year, I called and asked her if she knew of something more rigorous that I could work on every day. She called back and recommended this play. Val. It was a very terrifying thought, and exciting.

“First and foremost, there are the words. He built this man’s way of speaking-’a peculiar talker.’ I’m from Atlanta and spent my formative years in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.  There’s French, Spanish, Italian and black culture. It’s phraseology.

“It’s like a symphonic arrangement and, when we’re all talking to each other, the strings play together on stage. They talk to each other with echoes of a mandolin or violin. As our director Lou Pepe says ‘it’s an incantation.’”

For Crosby, “It has to be challenging for me to want to do it. I’ve not done Tennessee Williams, and that is thrilling, a personal favorite. Imagine this Italian, this character who came to rural Mississippi with a mother who was ‘very fair.’

“It will be an eye-opener because people like to make assumptions about Italians, pigeon-hole everyone. Why not make Juliet black and Romeo blue?” And, in this case, Lady Torrance blonde. You go, girl…er, Lady!

Claudia Mason

Claudia Mason

Mason “almost had a vision of this staircase even before reading Orpheus Descending. I think Carol Cutrere is the soul of the play. Even when all the cattle are going in one direction, her spirit is not. All artists can relate to that.

“Carol stands for the blacks in the play. She took a stand and went the other way in this repressed racist town. All that, mixed with her sexual liberation. It costs her. But, she keeps running with the call of the wild.

“I think Carol and Blanche in Streetcar are Tennessee’s two greatest women.”

“Most of the confidence which I appear to feel, especially when influenced by noon wine, is only a pretense.”  –TW

With the excitement mounting for the opening of this production, the great enthusiasm the actors have is also mixed with the challenge of doing justice to Williams.

Crosby, Mason and Harold

Crosby, Mason and Harold

Crosby finds it a “very demanding emotional piece. He doesn’t write light frothy comedies. The challenge for me is to connect all those emotional through lines to what is the truth of the moment.

“So I had to do a lot of research on the history of the time…looking at photos and listening to a lot of music. Music is important here. Then, I could find what in my life to connect this to. It’s a big three-act play, with dialect. She’s very passionate, very full of life and experiencing a sexual reawakening with this younger man.”

Harold, that “younger man,” says “I have a 1001 fears. We can sit around on a blanket with some wine and grapes and get to them all. But mostly, when there’s such a great playwright, you don’t want to sully his adaptation of a myth that makes rocks cry.

“There’s also the fear of the next trap – don’t play the metaphor. Val is a singer and a hustler…a man on the run, not a man with a lute serenading a nymph. I do perform ‘Heavenly Grass’ though, the most terrifying thing of all.” Terrifying perhaps because Williams wrote it himself. An ethereal ode to his audience.

Like her haunting character, commenting on all the action, Mason muses that “when we’re ignited by something so great, by one of the greatest writers, there’s a whoosh – and, the fear mongers we all have, are there.”

“I have found it easier to identify with the characters who were frightened, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.”  –TW

Sounds like a good bet for theatergoers to enjoy these actors in a play about living bravely and honestly in a fallen world. Tennessee Williams began these themes here with his Orpheus and Eurydice and evolved them through the many works of his career.

Here’s hoping your feet take a walk in his heavenly grass.

Article by Geo Hartley

Production photos by Robert E. Beckwith

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Jane Carr Rejoins ‘Mary Poppins’ at the Ahmanson

by Geo Hartley | December 23, 2009

Mary Poppins, presented by Center Theatre Group and producers Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatrical Productions and Cameron Mackintosh, continues Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 & 8 pm; Sun., 1 & 6:30 pm; through Feb. 7. Tickets: $25-$92. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 213.972.4400 or centertheatregroup.org

“Curiosity is one of the forms of feminine bravery.”

- Victor Hugo

There used to be a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard called The Copper Penny. You could go there at 3 am (or pm) and hear some of the best stories in town…ever. Movie quality.

It was Hollywood campfire. You’d smell the marshmallows roasting. Well, now it’s a Mel’s Drive-In with Janet the iconic waitress. I eat there regularly when I’m in town, hoping to run into some storytellers. But, Sunset’s not exactly the same anymore. The marshmallows are roasting down the street at the Saddle Ranch Chop House. There’s a mechanical bull inside and they’re making S’mores on the patio.

For stories, it’s better to hang out at the stage door. Any stage door. Especially one labeled Mary Poppins at the Ahmanson Theatre. I know, I know, that’s Disney land this holiday season.

But, the story of Miss Poppins was originally authored by P. L. Travers. Between 1934 and 1988, she brought us eight Poppins books to rival the likes of J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter.

Mary never met Harry but they have much in common: both British with a mysterious side, some whimsy, learning–lots of learning and their stories are chock-a-block full of magical characters.

Jane Carr

Jane Carr

Consider Mary’s Mrs. Brill, the harried housekeeper of the Banks family. Consider Jane Carr, a woman with a past, playing Brill on Broadway, now in LA. And our story begins…

For the few who are blessed, or cursed, to know at a young age exactly what they want to do with their lives…a world stage is a nice thing to have. Since she was “wee,” British/American actress Jane Carr knew she was meant for the boards.

“It was madness, of course,” she remembers. “My parents had nothing to do with it. We were very poor working class. Mom at the post office and dad was a steel constructor. I insisted on dance classes locally and got a scholarship to a posh performing arts school. Even so, it was still so expensive.

“Eventually, I had to go to Corona Stage Academy, a cheaper school.  But it was better-rounded with stage combat, lots of drama and putting on shows. There was an agent attached to the school. He helped me get my first audition, at age 14, for a tour of England in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web and I got it!

“I went off illegally and nobody noticed. In retrospect, I imagine my parents were very afraid. I roomed with one of the girls who was the stage manager and all of 22. She was the designated babysitter. It was England. If anything disastrous happened, I could be home in a couple of hours on the train from anywhere. And, I telephoned home once a week. No cell phones then.

“We stayed in ghastly places; one still had gas lighting in the mid-60s. But, I was making 15 pounds a week which seemed like riches at the time. It was an adventure and set you up in good stead, learning a lot from the older members of the company. I got a different education. I was always curious and read a lot. If you’re curious, you can do most anything.”

<br />

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

And, she did most everything.  Spider’s Web held her in good stead for her next gig, the West End’s production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie starring Vanessa Redgrave. “She was doing Blow Up at the time,” says Carr, “and was incredible.

“She was elegant and great to you. We thought the sun shone out of every one of her orifices. Joely and Natasha were tiny wees then and us big Brodie girls would take them for walks to Trafalgar Square to give Vanessa a break.

“She was very different from Maggie [Smith] who did the movie. They never told us why the change. It’s what you find…the same part can be interpreted so differently and brilliantly.

“Maggie was great friends with Bobby Fryer, the film’s producer. I think he wanted Maggie early on. He was a lovely man. I went to his 80th birthday party in LA and later sang at his memorial. Rod McKuen was there, the writer of the Brodie music.”

Carr in Something for Everyone

Carr in Something for Everyone

Movies were next for Carr. She was cast from the stage production of Brodie to the film version. Then, Hal Prince cast her in Something for Everyone with Angela Lansbury and Michael York.

“You can imagine all us girls in swinging London in the ’70s,” says Carr. “It was the movies, fabulous, going to premieres! It made my career. It seems like minutes ago and it’s been 30 years.”

In between Carr enjoyed a busy film and television career, everything from Upstairs, Downstairs to Curb Your Enthusiasm. But, it was in the filming of the BBC television series It’s Awfully Bad For Your Eyes, Darling that Carr met her best friend in England, Joanna Lumley. In it, the two starred as posh London flatmates bemoaning the lack of suitable men, shortage of money, parental meddling and other pressing matters.

Life imitated art. “I was 21 years old and looking for a flat myself,” says Carr. Jo said ‘I have a spare room. Why not stay with me?’ I stayed sharing the flat for eight years. Joanna went on to be Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. It’s almost royal in England. These days she has a beautiful house in London naturally, and I stay with her whenever I go.

“Recently, she did something fantastic and very brave for the Gurkhas. They fought in all the wars but were never allowed to have their families and citizenship in England. And, she did that for them with Parliament. The Gurkhas named a mountain after her and everything.”

Carr never lost touch with theater. She worked often at the Chichester Festival Theatre started by Sir Laurence Olivier. Again, she was a favorite to work with seasoned actors…more than once with Maggie Smith. Now in her 30s, Carr’s backstage education in theater and friendships with its royalty grew.

“We did The Way of the World with Joan Plowright. Chichester is in Sussex near where Maggie and Joan each lived. They loved working there because it was home. Maggie was always ready early and would come into my dressing room and sit and chat before the show.

“When we did Merchant of Venice with Sir Alec Guinness as Shylock, he was trepidatious. He hadn’t been on stage in 13 years. There was ‘no Sir Alec, just Alec,’ he told me. ‘Since I’ve been knighted, nobody knocks on my dressing room door.’ And, I said, I will. And, so I did. He was writing his first book at the time, and he’d tell me stories about meeting James Dean and others in Hollywood for the first time.”

Carr Nicholas Nicolby

Carr in Nicholas Nickleby

Carr had also been a part of the Royal Shakespeare Company for years. “When Nicholas Nickleby came along,” she remembers, “I was in the London end of the company and it was being done in Stratford. Later, when I knew they were doing it again and setting up a US tour, I jumped at it.

“I went up to Trevor [Nunn] and said, ‘Can I be in it, please? And, he said, ‘Yes, you can be in it.’ I think directness is best. People can only say no. And, people often have! But, sometimes they say yes.

“I jumped across the Pond and played Fanny Squeers and all the accompanying roles.  Everybody played the odd baby and prostitute. I changed my costume 30 times during the evening. It was a looong night. People wonder if you get tired. You do! But, it wasn’t the acting; it was that I had to change my clothes so often. It’s hard work.”

It was worth it. Nicholas Nickleby was the theatrical event of the year. “A lot of fuss was made,” says Carr. “And, I stayed a bit longer in LA. And, I met Mark. And, a little longer…”

Mark is Mark Arnott, her actor husband and father of son Dashiel. “We got married quite quickly,” she says. “The winds blow some and there you are. I just loved it here in LA. This is comfortable. I liked it and I found somebody I wanted to marry.

“It’s a tough place for a character actress. I often wonder what my career would have been if I’d stayed in London. My great friend from there, Harriet Walter [RSC alum & Tony nominee for Mary Stuart] says, ‘I wish I did more telly and film.’ But, she fell in love with New York and lives there. We’re just gypsies,” says Carr. “Just love to be somewhere for a bit.”

Her “bit” in LA has lasted for 20 years. “When you’re a mother, that stops your traveling. You want a stable life for your kid.” This is true even though she and Arnott divorced after nine years. “We’re better as friends,” she says. “I flew home from New York for his second wedding. I offered to give him away!”

Home is important to Carr. “It’s funny. When I’m away, I get homesick for LA, not London, LA.” It’s because it’s the place you have your kids, and they’re in school, and you’re together with other parents. You have to have some friends outside of the profession. It’s a richer life and makes it easier to portray ‘real’ people.”

Her son Dashiel was named for Hammett, a favorite writer of Carr’s. “But we dropped an ‘l’ on his first name. The numerology book we read said he’d have a more charming life that way.” And, it sounds as if the book may have been right.

In 1988, Carr was cast as Louise Mercer, the head of a support group for divorced and separated people in the NBC series Dear John starring Judd Hirsch and Harry Groener, among others. “I almost immediately got pregnant. They hid me behind desks until they could figure out what to do with me. Woody Harrelson was supposed to be the father of the child in the story.

“The series ran four seasons. It was perfect for me. Paramount had a daycare center for Dash. So when I wasn’t acting, I could go play with him. I don’t think that would have happened in England. Judd and Harry and the others pitched in and bought Dash a proper English pram. I would wheel him all over the lot.

Star Trek was going on there. And, when the pram came by, different ones would look in and say, ‘Hi, Dash, hello.’ He was never afraid of scary monsters after that. He thought they were very nice people.

“I couldn’t imagine a better work experience at the time. It was lovely money. And, if you’re in the theater your whole life, it was a treat to go to work and do something brand new each week.

“But, when it was over, I went back to the same old acting life…going out and auditioning. A lot of writers came through the show and went on to other shows so I got a lot of guest stars.”

Theater too was never far away.  Carr has worked often at the Ahmanson, Mark Taper, Pasadena Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, David Galligan’s S.T.A.G.E. benefits, and even in San Francisco and San Diego when she could coordinate timing with Dashiel’s school vacation schedule.

In Dashiel’s senior year at Waverly School in Pasadena things got trickier. Carr auditioned in LA for Mary Poppins‘ musical director and RSC alum David Caddick. She then flew to New York to audition again. They cast her immediately.

“It was quite a decision to make with Dash still in his last year and headed to NYU. I’m glad I did it. You don’t see them very much at that age. But, they do need feeding. And, his dad could take care of him. It was lovely to save money for this expensive schooling.

“I didn’t go to college and regretted it often so I was going to be sure my son did. Times have changed. In those days, you could be an actor and not go to university. Today, you’d be lost. I seem to be able to hold my own. As I get older, I’m not ashamed to say, ‘I don’t know. Tell me all about it.’ Then you know, and it all evens out.”

Initially, Carr only contracted for a year with Mary Poppins. “But being a terribly doting mother,” she says, “I felt I could stay through his first year at NYU. It was more comfort for me than him. He lived in a dorm and I hardly saw him. But, someone was there just in case.

“By his second year, he was desperate to get away from parents, as it should be. He’s a semester in London and one in Paris, as a film major at Gallatin, a branch of NYU with only 200 ‘self-motivated’ students. He makes his own schedule of classes and is having the time of his life.” Mom too.

She was in a top-grossing show on Broadway that the NY Daily News called “a roof-raising, toe-tapping, high-flying extravaganza.” Carr saw pals from LA and London often. She bumped into Judd Hirsch having a drink with Harry Groener. “Harry was doing Spamalot and Judd lives there–a New Yorker born and bred. He flies to LA to do Numb3rs and swooshes back by plane to New York. ‘One more sitcom,’ we commiserated. ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely?’

“I was searching for an apartment and Judd said ‘Don’t buy furniture. I have a lot in my barn in the Catskills. So I furnished my apartment with his furniture.” Among her other friends and visitors there were Angela Lansbury and Michael York from her old movie days in England.

But, perhaps her most memorable encounter was with famed fight and stunt director B. H. Barry, her stage combat and drama teacher from the Corona Stage Academy when she was just 12.  He’s close to 70 now.

“He gave me things I still do today especially ‘how to approach a part.’ You get two columns. On one side, you list all the things you have in common with the character. On the other, all the things you don’t. The similar things you can leave alone. They’re already in your body. Focus and work on the things that are different.

“I still do it. Very simple idea. It works for me. Maybe not for everybody. We talked about it over dinner and he got tearful. It’s lovely to know people that long. All those shortcuts can happen.”

With Dashiel happily abroad, and Judd Hirsch’s furniture returned to the Catskills barn, Carr was ready to return home with Mary Poppins. “I’m ending in LA,” she says, “so my pals can see me here…singing, dancing and being silly. But, three years is enough. Don’t want to stay too long at the fair, you know.

“It’s been the blessing of all time, in a recession, to be in a big sparkling musical. It brings such joy to people, and I get to meet the kids who love this good old story. It’s going everywhere-Australia and Tempe, I’m not even sure where that is. When somebody’s sick in Timbuktu, they’ll call me and say, ‘Jane, do you want to play Mrs. Brill?’

“Tom Schumacher and the Disney Theatrical people have been wonderful to me as employers. It’s different to step in here, and they have me working with the stage manager and associate director on every change from the New York version.

“The touring set is very storybook. The New York set is 20 tons. You can’t tour that. Also, people are in a mirror image sometimes, on the opposite side of you. The door’s over here, not there. Your arms go up now not down. It’s great. It keeps me all ‘gee’d up,’ refreshed.

“It’s a bit like having the dream that actors have. You’re in the play, and you know the play, but everything is slightly different, and the people are different. But fortunately, in the dream, I have my clothes on. Usually in these dreams, you don’t.”

These days, the clothes she wears aren’t important for what she loves to do “more than anything.” Voiceovers. “It’s the most fun you can have without throwing up,” she says. “Even when you’re in New York, they can ‘patch’ you in.

“I persevered at it. Eventually, I started getting them. It’s an actor’s dream because you’re not on screen. You can be an old lady, a child, fat, thin…it just has to be through the voice. Kind of magical.

“You can also get panicked and not know what to do. Sometimes I do Mary Jo Catlett. We were in Lettice & Lovage together at the Pasadena Playhouse. I think in the audition ‘they really need her for this.’ Then they cast her anyway.”

But, Carr is very often cast herself…from Finding Nemo, to Family Guy to Phineas and Ferb, among so many others. “I’ve been frogs, birds, fish and even an angry squirrel. You all do it together and some old hand will say this is how an angry squirrel sounds.

“That’s what you’ll be doing in your dotage. They’ll push you up in your wheelchair to the microphone and there you are. An angry squirrel.”

Yet another actor dream.

Feature image of Jane Carr in Mary Poppins by Joan Marcus

Article by Geo Hartley

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Joe Spano and Harry Groener Equivocate at the Geffen

by Geo Hartley | November 18, 2009

Equivocation opens Nov. 18; plays Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 3 & 8 pm; Sun., 2 & 7 pm; through Dec. 20. Tickets: $35-$75. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; 310.208.5454 or geffenplayhouse.com

Joe Spano:  Holding Up His Half of the Sky

“I was always a character actor. I just looked like Little Red Riding Hood.”
– Paul Newman

Joe Spano

Joe Spano

Most of us have had, still have, dreams of being famous. A star. Why not? It’s part of our ego structure. Some days it happens. Most days it’s still part of the fantasy. But always, it’s a guilty pleasure. So hey, let’s indulge…

Say you’re an actor, an actor in Hollywood. You’re zooming down Pacific Coast Highway on your way to work, rehearsal. The ocean sparkles around you. You’re on a hands-free telephone being interviewed about your latest role. Good so far?

You’re Sean Connery. You’re Brad Pitt. No wait, you’re Joe Spano. Yeah, Joe Spano…every character actor’s dream realized.

The story in your head doesn’t start at the Emmy podium. There’s always a whole back story to enjoy. So let’s start at…Berkeley, circa 1967.

Spano’s a drama major, debuts in Romeo and Juliet, he’s not Romeo. Through theatre there, he meets colorful grad student Michael Leibert who goes on his entrepreneurial way to found Berkeley Repertory Theatre down the street on College Avenue.

“I was never good at networking,” Spano says. “My philosophy was I’d do the work I loved, and do as much work as I could, and if I was good and fun to work with, then people would want to work with me again.”

And, they did. “Somebody said, see Michael. He’s starting a theatre. Remind him who you are.” Leibert remembered and offered Spano the opportunity to be a founding member of Berkeley Rep. A 10-year love/hate relationship began as did the great success of most all concerned.

Leibert also opened the restaurant Trespassers W down the alley from the theatre which had a Dutch door in the back so actors could travel to a waiting glass of wine, or two, at various points of performance. Good times.

But, maybe not that profitable for the actors. “It was non-union at Berkeley Rep,” Spano remembers, “and they weren’t going to make you union because it would cost more money. It was a continual irony. I wanted to get my Equity card. I had to get more. So I stole away to San Francisco to do Oh! Calcutta! in North Beach. I got my card. I was born in North Beach so it was like going home. Naked.” Say it isn’t so, Joe.

In 1978, Spano traveled with Berkeley Rep’s Dracula: A Musical Nightmare to Lee Sankowich’s Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles. “It was a great success. I’d been in rep theatre in Northern California for 10 years and had an ambition to try something more visible, take a step forward. I had to stay in LA or go to New York. LA was closer, warmer and cheaper. So it won the contest. I told myself, in LA I’d make a grubstake to get to New York.”

From the show, Spano got an agent and ironically his grubstake with Hill Street Blues, a new series shot in LA about police life in New York. Plans changed.

It was a strange start. Playing Sgt. Lt. Henry Goldblume, Spano did the pilot and right after he got a call from Steven Spielberg, casting him in a film…Poltergeist. “Steven Bochco wouldn’t let me go from Hill Street,” Spano says. “As it turned out, I could have done the series and the movie. I resented it then. But, as I got older, I realized it’s not such a big thing in the long run. You come to terms with life as it is.”

Even as the hit series continued, Spano wanted out. “It’s different when you’re young. I wanted to get out after three years. I wanted to do something different, be a movie star, do more. We’re always dissatisfied with where we are. We are not happy here.

“But, Steven Bochco had the feeling at the time if you’re part of the show, you’re part of the show and my leaving the show would not have a good impact. Actually, I’m glad they didn’t cut me loose.” Seven years on a hit series and two Emmy nominations…it’s understandable.

The Emmy actually came to Spano for a different series, Midnight Caller. “It was the result of good writing and a big part,” says Spano. “It was a very atmospheric show and shot well. It was about the death penalty and people responded to the subject matter. I was a convicted murderer during my last night on death row. It was a lot about how to decide to end a person’s life.”

Television continues to offer Spano long-term employment. After Midnight Caller, he had recurring roles on NYPD Blue, Murder One and, most recently, NCIS which is often the No.1 show on television.

In NCIS, he plays FBI Special Agent Tobias Fornell who acts as a stern-humored foil to lead Mark Harmon. Spano attributes a lot of the credit for his success on the show to Harmon. “He’s an extraordinarily generous and wise actor. He knows that success is a fleeting and lucky thing and that everybody contributes. And, everybody knows he knows that. It comes from his being a great quarterback. He knows how to run a team.”

When asked why he is cast so often as a detective on TV, Spano muses, “When you’ve made an impression on them in a certain type of role, and they look at their needs, it’s like going to the grocery store. When you’re looking for cereal, you get cereal.”

In the film world, Spano is anything but cereal. With 20 made-for-television movies and 30 feature films to his credit, he’s been working in diverse character roles from American Graffiti in his early career through last year’s Best Picture nominee Frost/Nixon.

One of his favorite film memories brings him back to his theatre roots. “When I went up for Apollo 13, I was told to go see Tom in the Vomit Comet.” Tom was Tom Hanks and the Vomit Comet was where the stars worked out getting ready for the weightlessness required for their roles. “Tom had gone to college in Oakland and often went to Berkeley Rep. He saw me there playing the Bartender in The Iceman Cometh and said it was one of the reasons he wanted to become an actor. Goes to show, you never know who’s going to be affected by what you do in theatre.”

What Spano does in theatre is never far from him. “I came back to theatre when I formed a relationship with the Rubicon in Ventura, now my home theatre. They offer very challenging shows that an actor wants to do.” There, he’s played in Shaw, Gurney,  Beckett, Albee and last year won  LA Stage Alliance’s 2008 Ovation Award for Lead Actor in D. W. Jacob’s one-man show R. Buckminster Fuller: the History [and Mystery] of the Universe.

“It was the most terrifying role I’ve ever done,” he recalls. “It’s so lonely out there alone. Very difficult but very gratifying. It taught me things I didn’t know about internalizing emotions. Audiences loved it. People stood up in the end, I think, because I finally finished talking. I wouldn’t do it as a steady diet. I like more of a cooperative venture.”

His favorite stage role to date? “It’s usually the last one,” he says. “George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” He played the role earlier this year opposite Rubicon’s Karyl Lynn Burns as Martha and received another Ovation nomination. “It’s the perfect play,” he thinks.

<p>Spano in Equivocation</p>

Spano in Equivocation

The play’s the thing apparently which is a hint about Spano’s latest role. Remember he was tooling down PCH to rehearsal? It was to play Shakespeare or “Shag” as he is affectionately called by playwright Bill Cain in his new play Equivocation, having its LA premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, directed by David Esbjornson. Besides Harry Groener (see next interview), the cast includes Patrick J. Adams, Troian Bellisario, Brian Henderson and Connor Trinneer.

Equivocation was the recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award for its world premiere production at the 2009 Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It had its development roots in California, however, at the Ojai Playwrights Conference and later was part of the New Works Festival at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto.

“It’s an extraordinary play,” Spano says, “about Shakespeare and his troupe as he reluctantly tries to write a propaganda play to please King James about the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot.”

Akin to our 4th of July, the Gunpowder Plot gave rise to Britain’s 5th of November when Guy Fawkes allegedly tried to tunnel under Parliament to blow it up it along with the King. The story of the King’s capture of the Catholic conspirators has been told for 400 years and now has become a British national myth.

But, back to Shakespeare and his troupe, they had to dramatize the King’s account without losing their integrity-or their heads. “It’s a moral dilemma for Shakespeare,” says Spano, “since he works in a theatre company. The humor comes from that. Anybody’s who’s been in a theatre company knows our psyches run rampant like desperate housewives.”

It sounds as if this trip back in history is less homework and more hilarity. It’s another challenging role to keep Spano engaged. But, the most challenging role he plays is offstage-as a parent. Rounding out the picture of this actor is the work he does on behalf of adopted children.

Spano and Joan Zerrien, whom he met when she was a box office manager at Berkeley Rep, are the parents of 14-year old Liana and 10-year old Meili whom they adopted in China.

“We were in a place in our lives, well off, living in a great house and we said to ourselves what is this for? We should have kids and take advantage of our great school district. We investigated domestic adoption and other ways. It was all rather mechanized-the bureaucratic and legal process. Then, we saw a television program that outlined the plight of Chinese little girls so we investigated it. We decided it wasn’t about passing them off as our own. We wanted more the opportunity to parent.”

In addition, Spano went the extra mile and became the director of the Southern California chapter of Families with Children from China.  He is also a founding board member of Half the Sky Foundation which brings early childhood development training and infant nurturing programs to China.

According to Mao Tse-Tung “Women hold up half the sky.” It’s not hard to figure out who’s helping with the other half.

Joe Spano. What a character.

Harry Groener:  Still Swimming in the Big Pool

“The human voice is the organ of the soul.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Harry Groener

Harry Groener

The late great Los Angeles theatre critic Polly Warfield was very generous to actors in her reviews. Well, usually. If she couldn’t hear actors, if they didn’t have the “Voice,” they were labeled “television” and the little lady gave them something akin to a Bronx cheer. In writing.

I came home the other day to a “Voice” on my answering machine. A voice Ms. Warfield would have written volumes about, and probably did. All I could do was save it on my machine…”Hello, Geo. Geo, this is Harry Groener–in Los Angeles.”

Lucky Los Angeles. Broadway has lent its three-time Tony Award nominee to the Geffen Playhouse where he is starring with Joe Spano in Bill Cain’s Equivocation. “It’s ironic,” admits Groener, “that in New York-a theatre town-I do glitzy things, musicals. And, in LA-a glitzy town-I do plays.”

It’s difficult to figure which he’s been doing longer. On the musical theatre side, there were his parents with their German song and dance talents rooted in the old country. His mom studied opera and later, at her singing teacher’s studio, met dad and joined his troupe “Harry Fox and his Singing Stars.”

According to Groener, “My dad was all over Europe before World War II. A real hustler when it came to work. He would dance in tails like Fred Astaire, then “Rubber Man” dance in floppy pants. He was also a quick-change artist, a concert pianist and a composer in the 1930s.”

Harry Fox wrote an operetta that was to be produced but was closed down by the Catholic Church and never again saw its way to the boards. The war began. The Nazis were even more restrictive, even to the point of requiring Harry Fox to change his stage name back to Groener.

When little Harry was two years old, the Groeners immigrated to the United States. His father hoped for more opportunities in his music here instead of dealing with the aftermath of war in Europe. They moved in with Groener’s grandmother, aunts and uncles in a tiny apartment. Eventually, they all moved to a larger Victorian in the San Francisco area, the top floor of which was the home where Groener grew up.

Survival was key, musical theatre became secondary. His mom worked in an underwriter’s office and other jobs to get money. His dad worked at Hartford Insurance Company, running a huge industrial mimeograph machine for 25 years. Groener remembers his father’s thinking…”If I stay here, we’ll have insurance. Dad started a little Bavarian dance band on the side. Mom played leads in operettas at the German-American Club in San Francisco and did cabaret.”

Little Harry, now getting older, played drums for the oom-pah music of his father’s band. “My parents were supportive of my ambitions in show business. Being of German background, they insisted I work hard and be serious about it. Then, they would help me.

“They were very happy to criticize me, very instructive…’I can’t hear you, don’t move so much, stand up straight, you’re talking too fast, don’t make so many faces.’ They didn’t coddle me and say everything was wonderful. For that I’ll always be grateful.”

Groener tells the amazing story of his learning to dance at home. “My mother used to help me with tap in the kitchen. We had a linoleum floor of yellow and green squares, each 1×1 foot. She taught me a time step and told me to do it within one square and make all the sounds. What a great lesson. I didn’t have metal taps. You had to make all the beats with your feet. I wish we’d go back to practicing like that. If you were barefoot and able to make the beats, the muscles in your feet would be developed.

West Side Story really did it for me, especially all the jazz stuff. But, my mom said if I really wanted to be good I had to go to the Conservatory of Ballet in San Francisco. So, I did. I was the only guy in class. Very dorky. But, I got to play the Prince in The Nutcracker. I didn’t have to dance much, just walk around looking princely.”

That led to bus and truck tours of the show and other ballets. “We’d get up early in the morning, wash our tights and dance belts, and hang them in the bus as we traveled. “We’d play national parks and the staff there would cook for us in the Redwoods. I loved ballet…and then I didn’t.”

In the last year of junior high, he got into acting and dancing took a back seat. He started high school playing Peter in The Diary of Anne Frank. “I acted and acted, and danced once in a while. My dancing suffered because of that. There’s a time limit on dancing. There isn’t one on acting.”

After high school, Groener couldn’t afford the Actors Conservatory Theater in San Francisco so he continued his education at University of Washington and Santa Maria’s Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) where he did everything and choreographed a lot.

Groener remembers, “PCPA was like summer stock, only not just in the summer. We did five musicals and three straight plays in rotating repertory. We’d have a few days of auditions, then the ‘Casting Blues’ dinner where we got to be sad about what parts we didn’t get, then we started. We rehearsed three shows a day. Five shows opened within a month and then we played in repertory. The same shows we did indoors in Santa Maria, we did outdoors in Solvang.”

It was in Solvang that legendary agent Susan Smith spotted Groener. “She loved my performance and asked me what I wanted to do. Los Angeles? No. New York? No. I didn’t want to go into the big pool yet. I wanted to practice what I had been taught. Okay, she said. But, let me know where you are.”

Where he was brought him to Chicago for the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) auditions. He was the only one from his college class selected to go From there, he went to the Actors Theatre of Louisville where he got his Equity card and a “match” from playing in The Matchmaker. There he met his bride-to-be, actress Dawn Didawick.

After Louisville, they went to the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven where Groener performed in Hobson’s Choice and Journey’s End. It was there Smith spotted him again. She was opening her office in New York. This time, he said yes and has been with her for the 33 years since.

Broadway was now in reach. Groener started his ascent in the musical version of Playboy of the Western World called Back Country. But, it closed in tryouts in Boston. “I got that information,” Groener says, “on September 19th, the day Dawn and I got married. Everybody was sad but I said ‘Honeymoon!’ We packed up a car lent to us by a friend, found a place in Cape Cod – was it the Trade Winds in Hyannisport? Then, we went back to New York and started our lives.”

Groener made his Broadway debut as Will Parker in Oklahoma! For that, he was nominated for his first Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award and he won the Theatre World Award. Not bad for a first swim in the big pool.

The other big diving board, Southern California, came next with work at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. “I was in Billy Bishop Goes to War at the Old Globe when the call for Cats came,” Groener said. “Portraying the title character in Billy Bishop was theatre at its purest.

“You have a man on stage just telling a story. He’s in a costume and he has another guy playing a piano. Some music. Very few props. It’s basically just one guy, telling this story about his life in World War I. That’s what we are. We’re storytellers.

“I didn’t want to leave there but it was pretty well-known that Cats was going to be a hit, even before it came over from London. And I wanted to work with Trevor Nunn.” That collaboration led to Groener’s second Tony nomination for his role of Munkustrap, the leader and protector of the cat pack.

Life after Cats would bring Groener to the West Coast at least once a year, adding the Ahmanson Theatre, South Coast Repertory, the Falcon Theatre in Burbank and now the Geffen Playhouse to his credits. He has also become an Associate Artist at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

According to Groener, “It means you’re considered part of the family. A very loose company of actors. There’s no real power behind it. Just a ‘let us know if there’s a part you want to play’ kind of thing. I love that theatre.”

He also loves Broadway. His many shows there include Is There Life After High School?, Sunday in the Park with George and Monty Python’s Spamalot. He is probably best known for his creation of the role of Bobby Child in Crazy for You for which he received his third Tony nomination as well as ones for a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award.

In 1987, Groener and Dawn moved to Southern California where he quickly won the supporting role of dim-witted, sweet-natured Ralph on the TV series Dear John. That is contrasted by his well-known work as Sunnydale’s evil Mayor Richard Wilkins III in the hit cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

And, okay, Trekkie Alert! He’s possibly the only actor to be nicely featured on three Star Trek series as three different characters. Can you name them? Huh? I didn’t think so. But, good for him.

“I don’t necessarily prefer television over theatre,” Groener says. “But it’s a reality. You just go where the work is. So my wife and I went. The Dear John money bought the house in LA and in 2002 we gave up the apartment in New York. The lease was up. We’re in LA permanently now.”

Groener in Equivocation

Groener in Equivocation

Following the work has brought Groener to his latest role, that of Richard Burbage in Equivocation. “It’s a fascinating play,” says Groener. Burbage is in Shakespeare’s company of actors but we play multiple roles.

“We’re in modern dress with costume pieces to suggest the period. There are no ‘period’ accents.  We speak the way we speak now. And, you won’t be puzzled by it. As our writer Bill Cain says, ‘The truth is, people then sounded more like we do in America now than the British do today’.”

It all gets back to sound, doesn’t it? And, just so you don’t think Harry Groener is only about ballet, jazz, television and a move to Hollywood, you can still find the “Voice,” as Polly Warfield would say, on the Varese Sarabande label. He’s a regular vocalist doing among other things Shakespeare on Broadway.

He’s also doing Shakespeare at the Geffen…check out the fun he brings to Equivocation.

Feature image of Groener and Spano and production photos by Michael Lamont

Article by Geo Hartley

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Writer/Director John Caird: Crossing the Rubicon with Long Legs

by Geo Hartley | October 17, 2009

Daddy Long Legs opens Oct. 17; plays Wed., 2 & 7 pm; Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sat. & Sun., 2 pm; through Nov. 8. Tickets: $39-$59. Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura; 805.667.2900 or rubicontheatre.org

“The great artist goes beyond what has been done or known and makes something of his own.”

– Ernest Hemingway

One of the best parts of going to theatre is getting your ticket torn at the door. When that happens, you’re given a blank check in exchange. Very soon, you’ll have filled it in but whose signature will be at the bottom? Who made the show something you could take to the bank? Your memory bank.

<p>John </p>

John Caird

Over at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, a world premiere musical called Daddy Long Legs is being launched and it has John Caird’s name written all over it. And, write he does. And, direct as well. Very well.

You may remember him from his Tony and Olivier-Award winning directorial triumphs with Trevor Nunn for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables. But, why did it take two directors for those shows?

Having a director at all is a modern convenience, gaining widespread popularity only by the 20th century. From ancient Greek times through the 19th century, the head of the chorus or an actor-manager or the playwright staged the productions. A director type was needed only if the material was unwieldy and one had to deal with a large cast.

So, on a guess, it seemed like an appropriate marriage of ancient and modern thinking to have expanded vision for the iconic eight-hour stage version of Nickleby and the epic musical saga of Les Miz.

“It’s been 24 years,” Caird says, “since Trevor and I directed together.” He writes about it in his upcoming book Theatre Craft (due out by Faber Macmillan in spring 2010).” You should only co-direct when it’s a huge adaptation and you’re working on structure as well. It’s a bit daunting and you feel you need a friend.”

But, even friends can get in the way or in your face or in your line of vision. “Oh yes, it would be mad to co-direct in many productions, especially if you need a relationship with a solo actor, as in Hamlet or Hedda Gabler.

“But, in adapting a 1500-page novel, it works. Both parties have to suspend their artistic idiosyncrasies, breathe deep and allow room for the other person. They have to really see eye-to-eye on the collaboration. You lose track of who does what. It opens it up. And, it’s important to have disagreements publicly.

“Trevor and I have co-directed five times, including a new adaptation of Peter Pan from the novel Peter and Wendy. James Barrie wrote it late in his life to set the record straight that it was meant to be a love story between Peter and Wendy. “It was a difficult job because we needed to start fresh from the novel and undo all the misconceptions created by past productions.

“It seems utterly perverse and misguided when played by mature women especially when it’s about a little boy who can’t grow up. This adaptation is available through Dramatists Play Service and is done quite often here in the States.”

The States are not his only playground. A Canadian by passport, Caird directs all over the world. He is the Honorary Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Principal Guest Director at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, and works extensively in Japan and at the National Theatre in London where he staged his own adaptation of Bernstein’s Candide.

Like setting Peter Pan straight, Caird had similar excitement about his work on Candide. “I loved doing it and chose it because it’s an amazing story that needed to be cleaned up. The old way had a mad performance style. So I went back to the Voltaire. Then, it became more moving and involving. Bernstein’s score was great and I used it. But, Richard Wilbur, the original librettist, and Sondheim rewrote some of the original lyrics to make better sense of it.”

In his continual theatre travels, Caird has also lent his talents to the seemingly related world of opera. Hold that thought. “It’s a wonderful medium,” he says, “but a very different form from theatre. Opera is based on the music rather than the story. It’s exciting for me to get that different perspective.”

In May of this year, he got that perspective right with Andre Previn’s Brief Encounter at the Houston Grand Opera. It is based on the play Still Life and the movie of the play Brief Encounter, both written by Noel Coward. As librettist and director of the new work, Caird explains that Coward “has written a story of what it is like to fall in love in a completely unexpected way, out of the blue, not expecting it to happen and that makes the source very suitable for operatic adaptation.”

As for the new opera’s future, he is amused a bit. “It’s not like theatre; it takes a long time to get into the blood stream. Much more than any other art form. It can take years just to track down the right stars and their schedules. It’s all so ludicrously non-commercial, throwing money away on a grand scale. For five performances!”

Circling back to theatre, Caird’s writing and directing resume is staggering. Some recent highlights include his direction on Broadway of Pam Gens’ Stanley, the story of the British painter and his passionate attachment to his wives. It won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. Caird was also the librettist and director of the West End’s Children of Eden, an original musical by composer Steven Schwartz based on the first nine chapters of the Book of Genesis.

But, it was Caird’s work as librettist and director for Broadway’s Jane Eyre that brought him his Tony-nominated collaboration with composer Paul Gordon. Caird adapted Eyre from the Charlotte Bronte novel about the sharp-tongued Victorian governess who falls in love with the master of the house. The production was nominated for five Tonys including Best Musical and two for Caird for Best Book and Best Score together with composer Gordon.

It was through that collaboration that Daddy Long Legs started its long journey to the Rubicon. With Gordon anchored in Los Angeles and Caird (with eight children, ages 7-23) in London, New York, Stockholm, Houston and Tokyo, it took a while to finish and they’re still working on it for its world premiere.

It was Caird’s wife who first interested him in the classic 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs by American writer Jean Webster, “with a view to dramatizing it,” says Caird. The story follows young Jerusha “Judy” Abbott as she writes letters to her benefactor, a rich man whom she has never seen. “It’s not a children’s story,” he explains, “more of an Anne of Green Gables, girl coming of age in difficult social circumstances, sort of love story.”

Composer Paul Gordon had a connection in Michael Jackowitz, Director of New Works at the Rubicon who placed Daddy in the summer 2008 “Plays in Progress” series. In the workshop, the musical was read once with an audience, notes taken and adjustments made. A week later, there was a second reading for an audience and it was booked to the rafters,” according to Rubicon’s Lisa Jackson. “People came back eager to see the changes.” Megan McGinnis plays Jerusha (she was the original Beth in Little Women on Broadway) and Robert Adelman Hancock continues as “Daddy” Jervis Pendleton which he also played last summer.

After the Rubicon run, Daddy moves on to Palo Alto’s TheatreWorks, then to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The three theatres are co-producing the show and sharing its costs. The Rubicon is lead producer, thanks in large part to its husband and wife team of Karyl Lynn Burns (Producing Artistic Director) and Jim O’Neill (Artistic Director), together with Jackowitz who continues with Executive Producer duties.

Daddy is a two-hander, two in cast, but here six in the orchestra. The musicians are eminent in the pop and classical worlds and have toured with most everyone from Miley Cyrus to Madonna to Dwight Yoakam. “In this recession,” Caird muses, “the size of the cast and band should be very attractive to companies all over the world. It would be nice if it goes to Broadway but I’m not holding my breath about that.

“Musicals can get endlessly stalled waiting to get to Broadway. It would be better for all concerned to be less greedy. I’d rather have a hundred successful regional productions than one successful one on Broadway. I want lots of people to see it.”

The economics of theatre matter to Caird. He observes the excellence of the “ensemble” theatre companies of continental Europe, especially in Sweden. “The Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm is a real ensemble. They are permanently employed and produce 15-20 plays a year in five theatres.”

He started his association with them through a good relationship with leading actors; for example, Mats Bergman (Ingmar’s son). “It builds its repertoire around the strength of its actors. These types of theatres are well-funded with some state subsidy, corporate sponsorship and more and more from ticket sales.”

He’s also hoping Daddy Long Legs will be a “hot ticket” in Ventura. Remember this Renaissance man when yours is torn at the door.

Feature image of Robert Adelman Hancock and Megan McGinnis in Daddy Long Legs at Rubicon Theatre by Carol Rosegg

Article by Geo Hartley

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Michael Learned & Cathy Rigby:
La Mirada’s Women of Steel

by Geo Hartley | October 1, 2009

Steel Magnolias presented by La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts & McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Opens Oct. 3; plays Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 pm; Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 & 8 pm; Sun., 2 & 7 pm; through Oct. 18. Tickets: $35-$50. La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. 562.944.9801 or lamiradatheatre.com

A NEW TRAMPOLINE FOR RIGBY

“And Peter Pan chose this particular house because there were people here who believed in him.”      –Narrator, Peter Pan

So I’m standing in my kitchen talking to my 79 year old sister Marge and the phone rings. It’s Cathy Rigby. I head upstairs for privacy and Marge stops me all quiet and sweet. That’s a surprise. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything…can you tell her, I’m a fan?” Bigger surprise. I start back up the stairs and it dawns on me. I turn and ask, “Who of, the gymnast or Peter Pan?” “The gymnast!” she yells. “That girl put us on the map. I remember.”

Hilarious, I thought as I went to my call. My crusty New England sister is a fan of this La Mirada icon. I guess Southern Californians just take her for granted.

Brothers and sisters have such an effect on each other. Who knows? Cathy Rigby may never have been two-time Olympian Cathy Rigby without her brother. She was all about ballet at seven when Steve came home from the youth center and said, “They have a trampoline down there. You wanna go jump on it?” She did.

“I went into the youth center,” Rigby says, “and felt like I found my place in the world. I wanted to be there. I was a very active little kid, and started gymnastics.” She had the coach dueling with the father who built her first balance beam in the backyard.

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Cathy Rigby

“When the ’68 Olympics came up, I hadn’t paid any attention to it at 15. I tried out and placed fifth out of the top six and went to the Olympics. Then came the ’70 World Championships, and I won a medal.” It was the first for an American in gymnastics–male or female-ever.

She was the pioneer and worked tirelessly in and out of competition.  But, after numerous international medals, eight of them gold, “America’s Sweetheart of Gymnastics” had done enough and retired at 19. “I was burned out about anything that I could be judged for. I just wanted to get married and have kids.”

Not a bad desire for a woman later to play uber mom M’Lynn Eatenton in Steel Magnolias. Rigby did soon marry after gymnastics to football star Tommy Mason. They had two boys, Buck and Ryan, and Rigby started her theatre career in an arena version of Peter Pan. “It was almost like a Disney on Parade,” she says. The singing was lip-synched to someone else’s voice but the acting and acrobatics were all her.

She started singing lessons and “found the voice is like any other muscle in your body. If you work it out, it gets better, stronger.” Also, after retirement, she started her association with ABC Sports where she was a featured commentator for 18 years.

In 1981 her first marriage dissolved. Rigby returned to the stage as Dorothy in the Sacramento Music Circus’ The Wizard of Oz and a year later she married Tom McCoy, her Tin Man in that show.

“It was love at first sight,” she recalls. “He got me out of my shell. He was unafraid of anything….the kid in high school who asked the shy girl on the bench to dance. He became my best friend, love of my life, and an amazing father to my sons from my first marriage.” He was also responsible for helping her end a 12-year struggle with bulimia.

All important credentials for the man who, together with his wife, would form a family which included two more children–their daughters Theresa and Kaitlin-and McCoy Rigby Entertainment. When asked about the billing, she had a simple answer: “I love him.” When pressed: “Well, he does the budgets, contracts and producing. Anybody who does that should go first. I got the easy part.”

1981 was a good year for Rigby. After meeting McCoy, she starred in Paint Your Wagon with Gordon MacRae. “In that show I found the spark of theatre. It’s a real team effort, not just me up there. In gymnastics, I was more rigid emotionally and would have to shut down, or I’d be terrified.

“Theatre is very different. It’s about other people and what they’re feeling, and rediscovering who you are. It saved my life. It allowed me to become me, not just this little machine who could do tricks on the balance beam. It was the same as when I was a little kid, discovering what I loved. I found that child again.”

Speaking of finding children, remember these two?

“Peter: Oh, the cleverness of me.

Wendy: Of course, I did nothing…

Peter: You did a little.”

Ironic that in our case Peter is the girl, Wendy is the boy. They did grow up and marry. And, Peter got his kiss.

In the late 1980s, on the heels of Tom McCoy producing the Pope at the LA Coliseum, McCoy Rigby launched their first national tour of Peter Pan. It was set to be a three-month gig. “Odd, because that schedule wouldn’t have paid the show’s money back,” Rigby admits. They arrived at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. In anticipation, one leading critic sniffed, “It’ll be like Mark Spitz doing Man of La Mancha.”

The show opened. The producer stood up on a chair at the opening night party and read the Sniffer’s review. It was so great they got a two-year tour out of it. Rigby called Addison DeWitt to thank him, starting with, “People probably don’t call you to… ” “NOBODY calls me!” was the response.

The rest is history. Rigby ended up following in Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan’s footsteps playing Peter Pan on Broadway. In 1991, she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Peter returned there again in 1999 and was nominated for Best Revival of a Musical.

Her stage accomplishments are not limited to the boy with no shadow. With seven years of voice/acting training and 12 in ballet, she is a favorite for just about any musical, including her turns in Annie Get Your Gun, Meet Me in St. Louis, South Pacific, They’re Playing Our Song, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and, again on Broadway, in Seussical the Musical.

As reported in Backstage, her Cat-in-the-Hat from that show “charms the children in the audience with her clever, impish ways and wows everyone with her captivating playfulness and soaring song stylings that literally take flight as she twists, tumbles and whirls her way through Seussical skies.”

In 2004, the League of American Theatres and Producers voted her the National Broadway Theatre Distinguished Lifetime Service Award. “I’ve been in theatre since 1981,” says Rigby, “and have toured with so many of these producers.” In this case, familiarity bred respect.

McCoy Rigby Entertainment has also thrived. In 1994, after presenting their case to the City Council and being approved, McCoy and Rigby assumed the responsibilities as executive producers at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. This allowed them to produce first-class theatrical productions there as possible springboards for national and other mini tours.

According to Rigby, “This way we can mount a show on a cost contract, like a tryout. Then, if we want to tour, we can put the actors on a production contract.  This drew people from LA and allowed us to build very nice sets and costumes, and eventually take the shows out to other theatres like the Laguna Playhouse, Welk Resorts Theatre or even the new theatre they’re building in Riverside. That helps share the costs.

“I’m lucky I have this platform. There’s a following here and I know many of our patrons. But in 18 years, I’ve only been in eight shows because many times I’m on tour and just can’t do it. The older I get though, the harder it is to tour. I say to myself, ‘Oh, God, do I really want to tote my bags around again?’”

Cathy Rigby, Amy Sloan and Michael Learned in Steel Magnolias

Cathy Rigby, Amy Sloan and Michael Learned in Steel Magnolias

She won’t have to tote far for Robert Harling’s 1987 play Steel Magnolias.  It already has a contract beyond La Mirada at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido which serves the San Diego area. (It opens Jan.7, 2010 for a three week run.) Wait a minute, back up. Steel Magnolias and Cathy Rigby? No flying boy, no girl with a gun, no feisty feline? Just a mom? “It’s the first time people will see me do this type of role onstage,” she says. “But, it’s more like my real life. With four kids and three grandkids, the chapters just flow together now.”

All four of her children are somewhere in the biz, three of them in her biz. Buck, 33, is a general manager for McCoy Rigby Entertainment; Theresa, 26, does the contracts and finance work; Kaitlin, 24, works in lighting design, crew and also performs. Ryan, 29, dances with a professional company in Germany.

Like her character M’Lynn in Magnolias, Rigby’s also a new grandmother. Like M’Lynn, she understands firsthand from her own struggle (with bulimia) “the consequences of not paying attention to the disease.” She says, “As a parent, you have to allow people to live their lives as best you can and not be controlling. You’re supposed to anyway but with (stage daughter) Shelby…she needs to hear what I’m saying. It’s very scary when she doesn’t.”

So, is Steel Magnolias, the comedy worth crying over, a new direction for Rigby’s career? In answer, she quotes Brian Kite, her director and the Artistic Director of La Mirada Theatre, “There are choices you make and choices life makes for you. You think you make a plan but sometimes your life partner is the person standing next to you in the grocery line.”

Maybe the new direction is also the McCoy Rigby Conservatory for the Arts in Yorba Linda where she and others teach over 600 children about stage. “I look at these kids and remember. You see the light bulb go off. They don’t have to have the best voice but they work their heads off, and you see the passion. It’s great. Is it selfish to love that?”

As my sister Marge said, “Tell her I’m a fan.”

COMEDY IS LEARNED’S FAVORITE FORTE

“Don’t play style, play the truth. It’s funnier.” –Francis Ford Coppola

It is funny how we think of Michael Learned all serious in a bonnet or a nurse’s cap or some judge’s robe when actually, it was from comedy she was discovered big time… onstage.

Her origins are theatre and she’s never left. Born in Washington, D.C., she soon moved to a farm in Connecticut, later to a small Austrian town, then to an English boarding/ballet school where she learned to love theatre and dance.

Michael Learned

Michael Learned

Dad traveled. Dad was a diplomat or Dad was a baker, or… Actually, Dad was CIA. “For a long time, I couldn’t tell people that but now I can,” Learned says. “You have a scoop! I deeply respect my father and how patriotic he was.”

But still, she got stuck milking goats and carrying slop on a farm and being desperately homesick in a one-horse, two-car town in Austria. “I was a very depressed and hormonal 11 or 12 year old there so I was sent to England to ballet school and later to study at London Day School.”

Her grandmother sent for her one summer and got her into the Stratford Festival in Connecticut at the under-age of 16 going on 30. There she met and worked with the likes of Raymond Massey, Christopher Plummer and, among other luminaries, Peter Donat. She and Peter married when she was 17 and started their family of three sons: Caleb, Christopher and Lucas.

They eventually settled in Donat’s native Canada where his career took hold. They acted together in a lot of classics on the CBC but, she says, “I was basically Peter Donat’s wife. It’s the man who had the career. I always put Housewife on my passport.”

Then, American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco called. “Bill Ball wanted Peter and to sweeten the pot he took me.” The family left for the States. “This time, I put Actress on my passport. The early years at ACT were incredible. We’re all still bonded.”

It was there she and Donat performed in the comedy Private Lives by Noel Coward. The director “was a genius,” she says. “But, he was also working on a movie. He was coming down off a commercially disappointing film and going away from time to time to edit his new one. So while he was away, Paul and I changed blocking and everything back to the way we wanted it. Such arrogance!

“He’d come back, driving his beat-up VW, and say ‘This is shit, put it back.’ And, he was always right. He understood the process. Sometimes in rehearsal, he’d stop it saying ‘Nothing’s going on here. Let’s go get sushi.’ Then, he’d tell us, ‘Don’t play style, play the truth. It’s funnier’.”

They did and it was a hit. The director was Francis Ford Coppola and the movie he was editing was The Godfather. “Who knew then?” exclaims Learned.

Private Lives drew the attention of Hollywood casting director Ethel Winant who went regularly to ACT. She was head of casting for CBS. She wanted Learned for a new TV show based on The Homecoming-A Christmas Story starring Andrew Duggan and Patricia Neal which was based on the film Spencer’s Mountain with Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. Scary.

Learned thought so. She was going through a divorce with Donat and “driving to LA to learn the freeways. I was staying in a motel for $12 a night, weeping over my divorce. My agent David Graham pushed me. I told him, ‘I’m not right, I’m too young.’

“They wanted me to ‘test.’ To do that, I’d have to sign a contract. Bill Ball wouldn’t let me out of Private Lives unless Francis could find a replacement. God bless Marsha Mason who said she’d done the part before (she hadn’t) and they let me out.

“I went into CBS…never auditioned really. I was 32 years old with short blonde hair. They wanted a woman in her 40s with red hair. They put a bowl hat on my head and shoved me in front of a camera. I grabbed hold of Richard (Thomas) and Ralph (Waite), and I got it.

“I guess if it has your name on it, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. There’s so much luck in this profession.” Luck possibly in the form of Winant who “went to bat because Fred Silverman didn’t want me. Ethel convinced him they better have me.”

As for Patricia Neal who originally starred in The Homecoming, which was the pilot for The Waltons, “she’s still very much a part of the Walton family. Nobody can compare to her performance. They told me it was too taxing for her to do after her strokes. She later told me they never offered it to her. She’s a real broad. A great woman. We’re friends.  She has so much energy, still cruises all over the world.”

Olivia Walton proved to be in the excellent hands of this theatre actress and newcomer to television. Learned was nominated for six Emmys and won three for the role she played for eight years. She did not renew her contract for seasons nine and ten so her character was sent away with developing tuberculosis.

“There was no place for them to go with Olivia. And, I was tired,” says Learned. Soon though, CBS called again wanting her to play the lead character Mary Benjamin opposite Robert Reed in the hospital drama Nurse. The series ran two seasons. She was nominated twice and took home the Emmy for Lead Dramatic Actress in the last season of the show.

Other series followed like Hothouse and the comedy Living Dolls. On the mention of Hothouse, Learned exclaims with excitement, “Such a good show! Loved going to work every day. All I did was go to bed with Art Malik, that gorgeous Indian man.” He is actually Pakistani but who cares, she was having fun.

Some fun continued on Living Dolls, a short-lived comedy where Learned played Trish Carlin, owner of a modeling agency for teenage girls. The young Halle Berry was among them. “All the girls were lovely. Halle was a sweetheart and still is…very comfortable in her skin, that wonderful skin.”

Learned is seldom away from the television spotlight. Recently, she ran the gamut from Judge Helen Turner daytimes on All My Children to recurring nighttimes as Mrs. Wilk on Scrubs. She works well with the next generation. The Scrubs work was “a joy. Those producers are kind, young and hip, and a lot of fun.”

Among her favorites and most notable TV experiences though was a return to theatre. It was All My Sons by Arthur Miller on PBS, directed by ACT’s Jack O’Brien. “He was able to bring a lot of the alums together.” Starring with her were Joan Allen, Aidan Quinn and James Whitmore.

In 1993, she headed to Broadway. Director Dan Sullivan called her to play Sara Goode opposite Linda Lavin in The Sisters Rosensweig by Wendy Wasserstein who suggested Learned for the role. “Dan called and said, ‘Can you sing?’ ‘In the shower,’ I said. ‘C’mon, sing Happy Birthday.’ I did and got it.”

Again not much of an audition. “I hate auditioning!” she says. “It’s the hardest thing for me. It makes me more nervous than opening night. And, I’m pretty nervous opening night. As Liz (Elizabeth) Ashley put it, ‘I’d rather have my knees drained.’”

In 2000, Learned returned to Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man with Ashley, Christine Ebersole, Chris Noth, Charles Durning and Spalding Gray. She played his wife and expresses great affection for the late actor. “It was very much an ensemble and a smart move to put it on during the Clinton election time. It was Jeffrey Richards’ first play on Broadway. He’s the new David Merrick, only nicer.”

But, it’s Southern California theatre that occupies most of Learned’s stage time.  Theatregoers here may be surprised to remember how many comedies and dramas they’ve seen her in over the years: Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor at the Pasadena Playhouse, Picnic and Mary Stuart at the Ahmanson, Love Letters at the Canon, The Merchant of Venice and Dancing at Lughnasa at the Old Globe, Looking for Normal at the Geffen, and A Month in the Country, Richard III and Three Tall Women at the Taper.

Edward Albee’s Women at the Taper “was a wonderful experience,” she says. “I’m telling you, every night I was riveted. In the first act especially. I had to act by listening. It was easier, of course, because I was listening to Marian Seldes but what a great exercise.”

With her extensive body of stage work still growing, you have to wonder what drives this actress of a certain age to keep trodding the boards and touring in shows. “I’ve done it all my life,” she says. “I’ve done theatre and I’ve done kids. It’s about all I know how to do. I retire when I’m not working. And when I’m working, I’m not retired!”

This, after she’s just returned from almost back-to-back tours of On Golden Pond with Tom Bosley and Driving Miss Daisy with Willis Burks II. She’s philosophical about it. “Well, I have to admit nowadays it’s harder. Y’know after you play eight performances a week and travel on the off-day, they don’t feed you on the plane. And, when you get to the hotel, the restaurant is closed.

“But, I love the family it creates through the show. Besides, I think John likes it better when I’m working, and not focusing on what he’s doing wrong.” John is John Doherty, a lawyer and her husband of 18 years.

It was Doherty who pushed Learned toward the character of Ouizer, the comic relief in Steel Magnolias. “We were driving home to LA from our cabin in Wisconsin and I was reading the play. I was taken aback by how good it was. I hadn’t seen it before.

“They asked me to play Clairee but the more I read, the more I was in love with this Ouizer. She’s blunt and outrageous. It’s her defense. She has two kids she doesn’t hear from at Christmas. You have to find things you understand about the character, love about the character.

“I didn’t want to say anything but John said, ‘Call them up and ask.’ I did and Brian Kite the director said, ‘Sure, either character is good for you.’ He had directed me in Daisy at La Mirada and I trust him. Totally.

“It’s very comfortable for me there. Cathy and Tom are theatre people and I’m a theatre rat. None of this diva stuff. It’s just like it used to be. You come, you do your work, you come home and take care of the kids.”

Her kids are grown now. And, she’s a grandmother five times over. “Kids were the best part of life for me,” she says. “Grandkids are the joy.”

And, I’m guessing, Ouizer is the fun.

Feature image of Cathy Rigby, Michael Learned, Rosina Reynolds, Emma Fasler, Christa Jackson and (sitting) Amy Sloan by Michael Lamont

Article by Geo Hartley

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Charlotte d’Amboise: Royalty on Parade

by Geo Hartley | September 24, 2009

Parade, the Donmar Warehouse production presented by Center Theatre Group, opens Oct. 4; plays Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2:30 & 8 pm; Sun., 1 & 6:30 pm; through Nov. 15. Tickets: $20-$80. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 213.628.2772 or centertheatregrop.org

“She had to carry everything–dancing, singing, drama. There’s one scene near the end where she went through three mind-boggling emotional transitions…I realized my daughter is a fabulous actress!”

– Jacques d’Amboise, legendary dancer of the New York City Ballet and Founder of the National Dance Institute, commenting on daughter Charlotte’s performance in Sweet Charity

Americans have such fun with royalty…don’t we? They’re everywhere in our world–the Windsors, the Kennedys, the Redgraves and in musical theatre…the family d’Amboise.

Charlotte D'Amboise

Charlotte D'Amboise

Enter Ms. Charlotte d’Amboise, a crown princess of New York theatre. She is soon to open in the Tony Award winning musical Parade at the Mark Taper Forum.

You know her from so many things, but why not start at the beginning. Charlotte, a twin, was born along with sister Cate between the proverbial matinee and evening performance to famed New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise and ballerina Carolyn George.

Sister Cate was first, Charlotte was a surprise to the world. “In those days, you often didn’t know of the twin,” she says, “heartbeat behind the heartbeat kind of thing.” She didn’t stay in the background for long.

Dad and mom knew much of their work would bring them to Lincoln Center so they set about to find a nearby home for their family of twin girls and older brothers George and Christopher. Fortunately, they found a brownstone for about $60,000 just blocks away on West 71st St. A wow house and great deal even in the mid-1960s.

For Charlotte, being born and raised in New York City was just about idyllic. “I will never leave it and want my kids to live there. I feel blessed, growing up surrounded by that culture…right when the New York City Ballet was growing.

“My parents never encouraged show business for the four of us; if anything, discouraged it.” But, as life would have it, all four started taking ballet in addition to growing up in that New York sort of way. “I got to live in a great house, ring doorbells for my friends to come out and play, ride bikes, have picnics in Central Park…and, every year at Christmas, we carried our ballet slippers down the street to dance The Nutcracker.”

The performer was born, and never stopped. She debuted on Broadway at age 19 in Cats. Met the playful Rum Tum Tugger of that show, married him in 1996, and he turned out to be a Beast. As in Beauty and the… As in two-time Tony nominee and father of her children, Terrence Mann.

He’s not the only two-time nominee in the family. Charlotte has her own two Tony nominations. She received the first in 1989 for her work in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and the other in 2007 for her standout performance as Cassie in the revival of A Chorus Line.

She is also heavily featured in the film Every Little Step which documents the grueling audition process that led to her selection for Cassie. “It was the role everybody in New York wanted,” she recalls still with the nervous intensity of an auditioner. “The film could have turned out to be anything. It turned out to be very honest, very real and tells what we go through.  I’m very happy with it.”

She has done other film and television work, even recurred on the soap One Life to Life. She’s glad of the money it brings in but, “for me, theatre is the passion. I admire film actors. They find it even though it’s broken up. That’s foreign to me. I like doing a beginning, middle and end, and finding it each night. That’s theatre. And, I’m lucky enough in New York.”

Luck surrounds most working actors anywhere. But, so does a good sense of the business. She’s come a long way from the little girl who carried her ballet slippers down 71st St. to the New York City Ballet. She knows where she fits. “I will never go in for Les Miz,” she says matter-of-fact. “There are people who are major singers and classically trained. I wouldn’t cast me.”

But, they do cast her often and in many different roles in memorable shows like Company, Contact, Can-Can, Damn Yankees and Song and Dance where she performed with brother Chris who received a Tony nomination for his work. You may remember his The Studio which he wrote, choreographed and directed at South Coast Repertory in 2006, featuring none other than her husband Terry Mann.

It was the Fosse influence, however, that gave d’Amboise her two favorite roles: Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity and Roxie Hart in Chicago which brought her raves from around the country and on Broadway, with some reviews there calling her “the best Roxie ever.” When she did the national tour of the show in LA, she won both the Ovation Award and the LA Drama Critics Circle Award as Best Actress in a Musical.

Throughout her career, Broadway producers weren’t the only ones noticing Charlotte. Early-on, she became a favorite of the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. In 1989, she performed “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan in a tribute to honoree Mary Martin just months before her death.

In 1995, Jacques d’Amboise was honored there for his dancing and founding of the National Dance Institute where he taught school children to dance. Charlotte and her brother Chris danced a special number for him, peppered with some of their dad’s signature steps from ballets like Apollo and Who Cares. Balanchine had designed them for Jacques and they thought “maybe only he would get it.” And, he did. It was one of her favorite moments on stage, especially since they filmed her father watching his children give him such a gift.

Later, in 2002, she performed “Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story for honoree Chita Rivera. This brought Charlotte’s Presidential total to two Bushes and a Clinton. “The backstage nerves are always catching when you’re performing live for a President,” she says. Her favorite Chief Executive moment? “When President Clinton left his box to come down onstage and shake the hands of each child that performed.”

It’s natural that there is a special appeal for her in the nurturing of children. Whether it’s President Clinton, her father or herself.  Of all her credits, she believes the greatest ones are her daughters Jo-Jo (Josephine) and Shelby.

As d’Amboise was, so are her daughters-children of parents on stage. Scheduling is always key. “It’s easier when we can all be together. But, we’re lucky now that Terry can be with them while I’m rehearsing here and he’s rehearsing The Addams Family (with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth) in New York.”

Jo-Jo is starting first grade and Shelby second grade. Is home schooling an option? She laughs. “Oh God, no, too expensive and I’m not that good at homework time…’what do you mean you don’t understand why 2 plus 2 equals 4?!’”

Besides she loves their Harlem neighborhood and what it offers her children growing up. “There are African-American, Latino and white neighbors. No air-conditioning in the summer so everyone’s on the stoop. It’s like 71st St. used to be for me.

In rehearsal for Parade

In rehearsal for Parade

“It’s hard to be away from all that. But, when I was offered Parade, I thought ‘Wow, this is different for me, this is something I’d like to do.’ For Broadway shows, they think of me as a dancer who sings and acts. In Parade, there is more acting than dancing and singing for me.

“I’m playing multiple roles…Sally Salton, the rich governor’s wife, and Mrs. Phagan, mother of the murdered girl. She’s lower class. An older woman, not attractive, not sexy, not dancing. The costumer would see me coming and say ‘Oh, here’s the crying lady.’

“Playing a mother who loses a child is painful. I have a lot to use. There’s nothing worse in life. How do you survive after losing a child? I don’t know. I’ve asked people who have and they don’t let it in. They couldn’t and survive 20 years.”

So, I guess, in attending this Parade, you’ll be enjoying a blue-ish balloon instead of a pink one. And, your treats won’t be from a cookie cutter. But, that “establishes Parade as an admirably ambitious, musically daring piece that deserves praise for attempting to intertwine the political and the personal…,” as observed in The Independent about the recent London production.

Hush. Back to the magic of theatre in Los Angeles. Charlotte is having a good time here. Why not? She’s enjoyed coming to LA professionally since the 1980s when she appeared in To Sir with Love for writer/director Ken Page, a fellow Cat and favorite in New York and Los Angeles.

Her cast mates in Parade are also great. She finds its star T. R. Knight to be “the nicest guy on this earth. Incredible actor. Real ensemble player. Really generous.” When asked about his switch from television to stage, she replied, almost surprised…”Any actor who cares about acting wants to be on stage. He’s there to grow and expand. We make $1100 a week, each of us. Everybody’s making the same. You have to be in it for the passion and growth.”

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While in LA for the show, d’Amboise lives in the same complex as co-star Lara Pulver who was nominated last year for an Olivier for her role in Parade in London. She says, “After a fantastic career in musical theatre there, Lara will stay on here in Hollywood.”

So Parade sounds like a winner. It has been before with two Tony Awards for Best Score by Jason Robert Brown and Best Book by Alfred Uhry, on the heels of six Drama Desk Awards and last year’s seven Olivier nominations in London. Los Angeles is being treated to the revised script so popular in London, and directed/choreographed by Tony and Emmy award winner Rob Ashford.

Hush. The rehearsals will end this week and previews begin. Don’t let this Parade pass you by and when you’re sitting there, blue-ish balloon in hand, keep watch for our triple threat. Whether she’s acting, singing or dancing, as Sally Salton, Mrs. Phagan, Roxie or Charity…it’s all just sweet Charlotte d’Amboise.

Feature image and story image by Craig Schwartz

Article by Geo Hartley

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Playwright Brian Christopher Williams: Family Man

by Geo Hartley | August 22, 2009

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”– Leonardo Da Vinci

This sentiment is a favorite of playwright Brian Christopher Williams. He has a new play that premiered at the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota and he hasn’t abandoned it since.

It’s called Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins.  Catchy title for a comedy, you think?  The West Coast Ensemble thought so and “Anita” has her West Coast coming out party at the El Centro Theatre this Friday, August 21.

Picture Anita Bryant. Do you see a beauty queen, a singer, an orange juice pitchwoman or an anti-gay activist? Well, this is theatre and a playwright with something on his mind so, on a guess, it’s probably not about orange juice.

What Williams has on his mind is “Family” and, in particular, how gays fit in a family whether it’s the one they were born into, the one they create or the one that surrounds them politically.

Brian Christopher Williams

Brian Christopher Williams

“I have no desire to write strictly for a gay audience but being gay is often an accelerant in my writing,” says Williams. “If you’re going to spend so much time alone in a world you are creating, you need to have enough emotional drive to last not only through the writing but the rewriting.”

For him, that accelerant is “disenfranchised people, people pushed to the outside” which is where he found himself right after the 2000 Presidential election. “We were coming out of the Clinton era, and the political discussion went from the economy, foreign relations and other front burner items to morality and homosexuality.”

“I felt caught in the crossfire, being told I was not a patriot, or an American or part of the larger collective.” That made him sad. Then angry, and fueled as a playwright. “Anita” was born. And, so was 15 year old Horace Poore, its main character, struggling to come out to his upstate New York family in 1977.

It was another period of pushing people to the outside. Scary times for the gay teachers, and others, who were targeted by Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” crusade. Scary times too for Horace who needed to share his secret against this larger national backdrop.  Poor kid.  Poor family.

Through their fears and destructive behavior, the Poores circle around their problems but eventually find solutions through inclusion and opening their hearts. “The family has to overcome obstacles to remain family,” says Williams, “fighting for its identity as it evolves and changes.  It is a microcosm of society.”

Much of the fun in the play comes from that fight for identity. “It’s definitely a comedy that plays best with dramatic undertones,” says Williams. “The humor arises from this rather sophisticated child born into an unsophisticated working class family and the family’s reactions to his struggle to fit in.”

The playwright feels that in many ways today bears a remarkable reflection of the life and times of Horace Poore. But, conversely, he offers that “we have come a long way since 1977 and Horace would find many things unfathomable.” For Williams though, we still have a long way to go in understanding that “your rights only extend to the nose on my face.”

The Poore boys

Like many playwrights, he uses himself as a springboard. The play is “emotionally autobiographical, like being frightened and insecure. But a lot of what happens didn’t happen to me. What I needed to do was explore why I felt I was an American, so I searched my roots to find where I got my morality.”

In life, his roots brought him from upstate New York, through a stint in New York City to Los Angeles for 20 years. Like many others, he was an actor at first but felt conflicted since he was “more in my head than my heart.” Writing proved much more rewarding. “Though the rewards of playwriting are rarely financial,” he says.

“I’m probably pushier than most playwrights.” He markets himself and submits his works all over the country. “I’m very organized and good at mass mailings-something I learned from my actor days, sending out all those pictures and resumes.” He made a cold submission of a play synopsis to the Graham Agency in New York and landed himself Earl Graham as an agent. “That helps.”

These days, he’s also splitting his time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas where he’s teaching and studying for his MFA in Screenwriting. And, he’s having a busy time working on Anita for its West Coast premiere. Williams revels in the rehearsal process of a play, welcoming opinions and suggested revisions to the story.

“I’m having a great time at West Coast Ensemble. The director Richard Israel gave me excellent notes, and one on timeline. To incorporate it, I had to bring back characters I had cut in Florida. Sometimes you have to throw your children out. But, sometimes you want them back.” Israel is a major reason Anita is coming to town. Williams admires his direction a lot and sent him the script.

About 27 years ago, the playwright met one of his other favorite directors-Glenn Casale. They have been partners for 22 years. Casale has directed stage readings of Williams’ work and two of his plays at the Whitefire Theatre. He has also directed all over the world, including the Tony-nominated Peter Pan on Broadway. Nice family.

So…Los Angeles has been good to this playwright. Among the many other productions of his works, Daniel Henning premiered Williams’ first full-length In Stitches at the Blank Theatre. Again, it was a play about people refusing to be left behind-survivors who formed a sewing bee to fashion an AIDS epidemic quilt. It went on to win a Back Stage West Garland Award. An auspicious start for the then young playwright.

On a final note, Theatre Geo produced his Ain’t Missin’ You almost a dozen years ago. Since then, not a month goes by that I haven’t remembered some character or scene from the play, and smiled big inside. Now that’s a playwright worth watching…and supporting.

Okay Anita, your turn to sing.

Feature image by Ty Donaldson. Story image of Wyatt Fenner as Horace Poore and Nick Niven as Chaz Poore by Ty Donaldson