On Our Feet —
The intellectual work is over and now we are tackling the physical problem of the Delacorte stage. The Delacorte is a difficult theatre, and a wonderful, wonderful venue. It is enormous, with seating for 1800 people and a stage that can encompass the Trojan Wars.
It is an utterly theatrical space that demands a performer’s A-game when it comes to voice, gesture, physicality and all around stage chops. It’s a space for professional theatre actors. Amateurs and dilettantes will be either elevated or crushed by the sheer scope of the this world famous theatre.
Our director, Ruben Santiago Hudson is an actor’s director. He is the sort of director who will let his actors have the first crack at solving the physical puzzle of a scene. If the actor is successful he let’s them keep going. If they hit a snag, Ruben in right there with ideas, alternatives and support. We are blessed with a company comprised of many Delacorte veterans so we were able to knock out three scenes today. That is not to say that everything we did today won’t change, but we sure as heck have made a good start.
The challenge is to stage scenes in a way that they are visible and visually pleasing to everyone in the audience. That means the actors must be moving while speaking clearly and all of that movement must be motivated and the speech clear and clean. We get a lot of help on speech because we use wireless microphones. The sound system in impeccable and when all is good the microphones do their job well. However, the Delacorte is an outdoor theatre and wireless microphones are sensitive the the elements, especially moisture, and there is no shortage of muggy weather, rain, sweat and tears on stage at any given moment. On night during Troilus and Cressida I was doing a scene with the great Bill Heck. A line or two into the scene his mic cut out. Instead of losing our cool, Bill and I improvised a new blocking scheme for our scene that allowed him to say his lines into MY microphone. It worked like a charm and gave our audience that night a special moment that could not be repeated. That is about as pure a Theatre gets.
As far as movement goes, I’ve spent many weeks getting in physical shape to play the Delacorte this summer. I learned a big lesson when I joined the cast of Troilus and Cressida in 2016 and was physically exhausted all the time, not only because it was a very physical play, but because, until opening, we are rehearsing on that stage under the hot summer sun before grabbing dinner and returning to perform. Rehearsing under the sun on that stage is like rehearsing on a cast iron skillet.
Our stage management team is very diligent about providing water, gatorade, frozen towels, popsicles, sunblock and just about anything else we need, but if we aren’t in good physical condition, the Delacorte itself will wear us down.
Rehearsal schedule is 6 days a week, so good diet, exercise and plenty of sleep is on the survival menu for Delacorte actors.
Tomorrow closes our first week. We take a day off on Sunday and are back at it Monday morning. More to come.
Day three of our table work and we have closed the circle on the Hegelian “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”.
At the close of 18 hours of reading, discussing exploring and challenging the original cut we found ourselves with an edition of Othello that is different from the one we started examining on Monday, though not too different mind you, but different enough to keep the stage management team pretty busy updating and distributing pages.
When it was complete we then sat down and read that play together again. As a company we read with passion, commitment, and mastery of the story. We found ourselves making connections across hundreds of lines of text. I found two lines in Act V that inform my final speech in Act I. The story, as we are telling it now is unrelenting in pace and tone. Our Director and Dramaturg and every member of the company has created a way of telling this story that is completely true to Shakespeare but unlike any Othello that’s been produced in English in the last few decades. I found the process thrilling and I hope our audience will find the experience even more exciting, thrilling and engaging. (I suspect they will)
Table work is done and tomorrow we begin to stage the play. There will be a new set of challenges, and a host of fresh discoveries.
After all was said and done we were all smiling and congratulating each other. The first hurdle was behind us. Then I got on a Citibike and pedaled up to the Richard Rodgers theatre to see Hamilton!! Oh Man!! I wept like a baby.
Working in Theatre in New York is, for me, perfect. My mind, my spirit and my need to create are all challenged and sated when working with a company of enormously talented actors, designers, directors and stage managers. It makes me a better actor and reminds me that I am, now and forever, a student.
The Challenge —
Day 2 of table work and things are getting juicy. I mentioned yesterday that the cut of the Othello text was lean and forward leaning. Well, such an editing job does not come without costs and trade-offs.
Another very important aspect of table work on a Shakespeare play is that it is the actors first opportunity to challenge the cut, request restoration of certain lines and even negotiate for restoration, offering to cut other lines in a one to one exchange. In that way it is an introduction, an exploration, AND a rehearsal.
Just a word to all you civilians out there that may be reading this. Modern productions of Shakespeare in America all involve cutting the text for speed, sense and in recognition of the ever diminishing attention span of the US audience. It makes for a better experience believe me. Shakespeare’s audience was from a culture that was fascinated with language, they loved to hear the wordplay, the puns and double entendres, the new words and the linguistic acrobatics that Shakespeare and his contemporaries delivered in the form of plays that took an entire afternoon to play.
The modern American audience is more concerned with story, images and gestures that with language and they like those stories told in 2 hours or less. Fortunately Shakespeare told great stories and with so much language that a good portion of the words can be jettisoned without harming the narrative. That is what we call “cutting Shakespeare” and it’s a challenge to do it well. That is what table sessions are all about. (**NOTE – with the advent of long form television and the binge watching that comes with it, we may see more long form Theatre to appease audiences who hunger for more depth and detail in the stories they follow)
In the best of all worlds, the table sessions are an opportunity to validate the cut and put on the final polish. In this production of Othello we are seeing a full-on devotion to the idea of everyone having a voice as we grapple with this amazing text.
Most of this afternoon was spent in debate over a particularly risky and attention getting edit to the text that our Director wanted from the outset. There is no doubt in my mind that this edit will be written about in the national press, discussed, second guessed, hailed and vilified from the moment we begin previews. I likes it and believe in it from the outset and now even more so because the actors most affected by it challenged our director and our Shakespeare scholar on the merits of the edit and one player even went as far as to present a suggested rewrite that would smooth out some of the disruption that this very gutsy edit would cause.
It’s a credit to Ruben Santiago Hudson, our director and James Shapiro, our Shakespeare Scholar that they welcomed the suggestion and even took some time for a reading of the potential new pages. We then discussed the player’s suggestion and we all really weighed in on the pros and cons of this kind of amendation. It is such a thrill to be a part of a process that is truly inclusive and collaborative. I won’t discuss the nature of the edits I’ve mentioned. If you want to know for sure, come to the Delacorte this summer and find out for yourself.
Tomorrow is our last day at the table. When it is over our company will have a deep understanding of the story we are telling and some deep emotional and intellectual buy-in on the text we are using to tell this timeless story of love, war and race.
More to come.
The Text —
Today was our first day around the table diving into the text of Othello. Oh and there is no bottom to this story. Othello is as deep and rich as the Mediterranean sea. We spent the entire day, as a company, reading the play and breaking it down word by word. Guiding us was the New York Shakespeare Festival Shakespeare Scholar in Residence James Shapiro, who is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Shakespeare is his speciality and boy does he know how to take folks to the furthest reaches of a text by our good friend William. We spent 2 hours on Act I Scene i going word by word, line by line, discussing meanings, context, and the differences between the Quarto and the Folio versions of the text. We discussed historical context, and the intrinsic impact that a particular word has on the arc of the story. Did you know that the word “love” appears in Othello 80 times?
It was an intellectual feast and even as we were sitting at the table in academic mode the knowledge we were gaining was informing our performances. My colleague Peter Jay Fernandez knocked be back on my heels with a particular line reading that came completely out of our discussions, and those same discussions made available to me a response, that was equally powerful. Our scene in Act I is taking shape to be exceptional not because of unexpected choices or actor trickery, but as the result of a close examination of the text.
I got big-winged butterflies that I had not felt since my early days as a young player. I was so happy to be a student again and so glad that the young people in the company got to see two old pros reveling in the tough, painstaking bookwork that serious acting demands. To all my young colleagues I can only say that talent is not substitute for hard work. Talent will get you noticed for a while, but hard work will earn you a career.
For a long time I was always the youngest person in the room. I was one of those young players who had good fortune early on and was chosen to work in wonderful and difficult productions with experienced veterans. I kept my mouth shut and watched and listened and tried to copy the behaviours of my betters. Now that I’m so much further along on the journey I can see that part of my duty as a journeyman player in the classical theatre community is to set a good example for the generation to come. I’m doing my best and trying to remember the great players of my youth. I think of Charlie Durning, who I met at the Public Theatre and who I was lucky enough to do a film with. He was a large man with a florid face stamped with the map of Ireland. He showed us what ease, and clarity looked like. Louis Zorich, showed every young player at the Public Theatre how to have fun while never losing focus. Margaret Whitton taught me the value of constantly questioning and studying and working on a performance. Nothing was “set” for her. She always wanted more. Jean Stapleton showed me that focus, intensity and devotion can go hand in hand with kindness, generosity, and love. Yes I have been a lucky player. If I can teach anything to the younger generation coming after me it would be that one must never “know” anything. “Knowing” things leads to a cessation of learning. The other thing to remember is to always check your fly before going on stage.
By 5PM we were all exhausted, and broke for the day, tired, happy and better players than when we arrived. We are back at it tomorrow and I can hardly wait.
So it begins….
Getting to sleep last night involved a hefty dose of melatonin, mindful breathing, a very relaxed Savasana, sound cancelling headphones, the RainRain IOS app, and counting sheep. It was worth it though, as I felt rested and refreshed when my alarm went off. I eased out of bed, broke fast on boiled eggs and greek yoghurt, dressed, packed my lunch and when I was ready I was an hour ahead of schedule.
The Citibike ride to the rehearsal hall was pretty smooth. 9th avenue traffic was heavy but the bike lane was open. I was a good citizen and obeyed traffic rules throughout the trip. Cycling on New York City streets is exciting and convenient and quite invigorating. It’s faster than walking and a lot more fun than the subway, and you still get the benefits of all the sights, sounds and smells that being on the street affords. But you still have to keep your wits about you. Disaster can come from any direction.
I arrived at the rehearsal hall and boarded a rickety elevator that has been used by Dancers and other Broadway nomads for decades. I stepped off the elevator entered the rehearsal hall and basked in the smiles and embraces of my colleagues. Company Manager, the amazing Liza Witmer, hugged me hard and welcomed me back to the Public Theatre. More hugs, smiles and words of welcome came from Production Stage Manager James Latus, his lieutenant Rachel Zucker, Director, Playwright and Tony Winner Ruben Santiago Hudson and fellow actors Peter Jay Fernandez, Thomas Schall, and the amazing Corey Stoll.
Liza took me aside and told me that she had been catching up on old episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, and literally screamed when she saw me on her TV screen. “I could not believe I was seeing the ’90’s Miguel.” We could not stop giggling about my role. I guested on that show for a few of episodes playing a bad guy who was really a good guy in disguise and who intimidated the heck out of Dylan, played by Luke Perry.
It was like coming home. After plenty of laughter, hugging and chatting we did our day one paperwork, received presentations from the production team, set designer (the amazing Rachel Hauck), costume design team, dramaturg and Public Theatre leadership. After that Ruben stood up and let us know that this telling of the Othello story will focus on Love. This is going to be a great show.
We took a short break, and then did our first read through. The cut of this play is lean and forward leaning. It’s a nimble and streamlined cut that does not stint a bit on story. It reminds me of what Franco Zeffirelli said about opera, “…it is like a river, always moving forward.”
After the reading there was more chat and I had my first bona fide senior moment. I was talking with Ruben and James Latus, reminiscing about prior adventures. Then I turned to James and proudly pointed out to him that, “I was Ruben’s understudy when he did Henry VIII in the park back in the day”. James smiled and replied, “I know Miguel, I was production stage manager on that show. We all laughed and Ruben patted me on the shoulder and said, “No worries, we’re all having senior moments these days”.
Well this senior felt like a young, fresh player today as we began this adventure. More to come.
Tomorrow is the first rehearsal day for Othello. I’m totally stoked and somewhat nostalgic. This is not my first Othello. In 1982 I was hired to play Lodovico in a production of Othello mounted by the Camden Shakespeare company in Camden, Maine. I was hired as an apprentice actor and that meant I got a place to sleep and $25.00 a week. Not only did I act in two shows, but I also built sets, sewed costumes and did some stage management duties. I had no complaints about the money, the work, the multiple hats. I was happy. I was working. I was doing Shakespeare in a beautiful outdoor amphitheater in a scenic New England town, living with a company of actors in a big house that had once been a boarding school, jogging around a beautiful lake, rehearsing on a big lawn in the shade of an ancient oak tree.
Tomorrow I begin rehearsing the role of Brabantio, the father of Desdemona. A meatier part than Lodovico, also it’s a role for a grown up man, a man of a certain age, a certain worldliness. In brief, Lodovico is a role for a good-looking young fellow, which I was. Brabantio is a part for an old guy, which I have become. I’m good with that. I’m content. A player in Shakespeare, if they stick around long enough, will play roles that match their age as they mature. Take a look at the canon. The seven ages of man are covered in almost every play.
I’m excited. I probably won’t sleep tonight. I’ll be seeing some folks tomorrow that I haven’t seen in many years. I had the pleasure of working with our director, the great Ruben Santiago Hudson, on a production of Henry VIII in the Park in 1997. I had a small role and the big job of Understudy to Ruben. Also in that production was Peter Jay Fernandez, who will play the Duke of Venice in Othello this summer. These men are great players and great talents. I feel so proud to be in a show with them.
It all begins tomorrow. I’ll let you know how things are going.
Diet and Exercise
What very few people know about me is that I have recently become a devotee of Yoga. A few blocks from my place in DTLA is a small and very intense yoga studio called Evoke Yoga. I practice there 6 days a week, sometimes 7 when I’m feeling feisty. Yoga practice has made my old body stronger and more flexible and has very likely extended my career by keeping me able to meet the physical demands of live theatre, the long hours of film and television and the grind of auditioning, travel, and hustling for work.
So, on the morning of my first full day in NYC I hustled down to the nearest Yoga studio (there are lots of them on the Upper West Side) and signed up. In no time flat I was doing a downward facing dog with about 35 other Yogi’s at YogaWorks Westside.
I did my practice, had some coffee, ate a light breakfast of Greek yoghurt and a boiled egg and then headed out to rediscover Manhattan. What began as a sightseeing tour became a food adventure. It began when I stumbled upon a farmers market at Tucker Square. One of the vendors was offering apples from upstate. I bought a couple of Braeburn’s and when I bit into that crisp, juicy goodness my eyes rolled back in my head. A fresh, post yoga, apple on the streets of NYC is an experience that everyone must enjoy.
The Apple got me feeling feisty and I decided to get a Citi Bike and get around town a bit. It turned out that 4/21/18 is the day that Citi Bikes are free to use if you get the Citi Bike app and set up an account. There’s a Citi Bike stand right outside the place I’m staying and it took about 5 minutes to get set up and on the road.
I decided to pedal down to the location of the Othello rehearsal hall but was stopped cold by a food festival that was happening on 6th Ave in the 20’s. I docked my bike and started wandering. Still feeling smug about morning yoga and a sensible breakfast I bypassed the funnel cake and sausage sandwiches and opted instead for roasted corn on the cob…. YUM!!
Further down the street I came to a stand featuring all kinds of pickles. I got a garlic full sour and a thing called the “Rediculously Spicy Pickle”. (their spelling). The vendor, an energetic young woman with a ready smile, advised me to avoid getting juice from the spicy pickle on my skin. I laughed and went on my way. Well the Rediculously Spicy Pickle was very, very, very spicy. It was a struggle to eat it while sweating, sneezing and gasping. I finally had to take bites of the garlic full sour pickle to cool my palate before taking another spicy bite. I was in pickle heaven and very careful about the spicy juice.
At the end of the 6th Avenue fair I was only a couple of blocks from the rehearsal hall. I noted the nearest City Bike stand and reckoned that a round trip would involve 60 minutes of pedaling. On top of Yoga that kind of biking would serve to keep me very fit for Othello. I checked out another bike and started chugging across town. My trip was interrupted when I passed by the Chelsea Market on 15th street between 9th and 10th Aves. Right out front was a Citi Bike stand and I immediately parked my bike and walked into a food market that very nearly rivals the Boqueria in Barcelona, or the Naschmarkt in Vienna.
I stepped into the Chelsea Market and made a beeline for a raw bar where oysters were being shucked and sucked down at a furious pace. I ordered a dozen FlapJack Point oysters and a glass of Verdicchio and sipped and savored and smiled in a way that had the shuckers giggling.
Back on a Citi Bike, I traveled uptown on a route called the Hudson River Greenway until I finally got back to 65th and West End feeling well exercised, well fed and filled with wonder at how much better Manhattan is now than it was when I first came here.
Diet and exercise! Why did it take me so long to see the value?
37 Years Later
Got to town today 37 years after my first arrival in New York City. Today I arrived on a flight paid for by my employer, and was met by a very polite, liveried, driver who grabbed my bag and carried it to a shiny black SUV that he used to ferry me to my destination on the Upper West Side, not far from Lincoln Center.
In 1981, I arrived on a flight paid for by my parents, toting all my worldly belongings in two suitcases. I hopped a shuttle bus that took me to the Port Authority Bus Terminal where, upon arrival, I had to fight to hang on to my bags that were being grabbed at by more than a few hungry eyed street types. From there I walked to my friend’s apartment in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. It was a shotgun flat that he shared with a large rat. On the floor above was a madman who screamed all night every night about how he wanted to “cut their heads off”! I slept on a couch he had rescued from a trash pile on a lucky Tuesday night (garbage night).
I might as well have been resting my bones at the Plaza Hotel. I was thrilled, energized. I was overjoyed. I was spending my first nights in New York City. For a mexican boy from south San Jose, that was like spending the night on Mars. My friend told me I had exactly two weeks to find a job and another place to live. Why? His girlfriend, a ballet student at Julliard, who had appeared in the movie FAME, would only be amorous with him in his place ALONE. I was very much a spanner in their sexual works that could only be tolerated for a fortnight. She was very beautiful and very athletic and they were both young and full of life. I promised to clear out with all haste.
Two days later I had a job at an east side ice cream parlor, I lied through my teeth about my vast waitering experience. A week after that I was living in a room at the Belleclaire Hotel on 77th and Broadway. I shared a bathroom with 5 other rooms, one occupied by another young and amorous couple who had a thing for long, candlelit baths.
Today was much easier, much more polished. I’m a grown man, established, mature, seasoned. Accommodations were arranged and paid for with ease, sans limits or ultimatums. And yet, the excitement I felt as the hired car approached the city, the skyline growing closer, was every bit as butterfly inducing as back in 1981.
I’m going to make a point of telling you all about the adventures of today and yesterday as I rehearse and perform my part in Othello at the Delacorte Theatre.
A colleague pointed out to me that the company producing this show has not been called the New York Shakespeare Festival for a long time. He should know as he is, himself, a producer of classical theatre in NYC. However, when I finished my employment in the 2016 run of Troilus and Cressida at the Delacorte in Central Park, I received a letter from my employer for the purpose of applying for unemployment. In the letter the official name of my employer was… The New York Shakespeare Festival.
Othello rehearsal begins at 9:00 AM, 04/23/2018. I’m eager to meet my co-workers.
Another Turn on the Delacorte Stage
1:30 AM. I’m a couple of hours away from heading to the airport, and catching a New York bound flight. As usual I can’t sleep before a travel day so I’m writing. The New York Shakespeare Festival asked me to join the cast of their production of Othello this summer. I’m psyched, jazzed, thrilled. Someone told me a long time ago that “you only get so many opening nights”. A bittersweet truth, and fewer still are opening nights on a major stage in New York City. I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m happy to be working in New York. I’m surprised that I’m already a little homesick for LA. Did I just write that? Yes….yes I did.
As an actor who trained and turned pro in NY I’ve felt obliged to consider my time in LA to be a “temporary stint out of town”. Well I’ve been “out of town” since the last decade of the last century and now my brief stints are “in town”. The great radio star Fred Allen once said that “…the minute you leave New York, you’re outta town”. In a way it’s still true, but so much less so than in my youth when New York was just beginning to come back from a terrible descent into insolvency, crime and decay. Things were happening, a renaissance was gearing up.
The profession of acting was being taught by the students of great teachers like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, who were both still teaching as well. The generation of actors who came up during those years in NY were smart and talented and maybe just a tad idealistic. We wanted to be artists, to do Theatre, to play Shakespeare. And if you wanted to do the Bard you wanted to work for Joseph Papp, the impresario who founded the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Joe Papp was a star maker, a heart breaker, a big, brawling force of nature packed into 5 foot something frame. He used to call me “Mickey”. I always called him “Mr. Papp”. He’s gone now, he’s waaaayyyy outta town. What he left behind is a legacy of excellence, beauty, vision and sheer talent summed up in two institutions, the New York Shakespeare Festival, and The Public Theatre. Oscar Eustis is the man in charge now and he is doing an amazing job. His production of Julius Caesar last summer was a sensation.
This year I’m honored to play Brabantio in Othello, under the direction of the great Ruben Santiago Hudson. I’ll be there, in the rehearsal hall on Monday morning, script in hand, mind engaged, listening intently and absolutely 100 percent IN town.
You CAN teach an old dog new stunts!
Actors of a certain age are excused from doing fights and action sequences and all that other dangerous stuff. At least that is what I thought until I arrived on set for my guest star assignment on Shooter yesterday. My scene partner, Ryan Phillippe, who also serves as Star and Producer on the show pointed out that, when our scene is interrupted by an assassin who tries dispatch our hero Bob Lee Bragger (played by Ryan Phillippe) there is no reason for me to stay around and that it made no sense for my character to linger while the fight is going on. The best solution would be for me to get involved in the fight, get incapacitated, and thereby be present when it comes time for Bob Lee to get the Truth. The Director took on a look concern and asked me if I was “up for it”! I smiled and said Hell Yes!!
In my youth I was involved with stage combat, staged fights, and rudimentary stunt work. I got to meet and work with some great fight arrangers; B. H. Barry, Steven White, David Leong and the amazing Rick Sordelet. It was so much fun and always exciting and challenging.
Now, although I’ve reached that “certain age” I’ve kept in shape, watch my weight, do yoga and other exercises and try to keep my body strong. Yesterday it all payed off as the Stunt coordinator padded me up and put me through my paces. My bit was small but important to the story. At the start of the fight the assassin pulls a gun and it is slapped away. Hero and assassin start to fight and I go for the gun. Our hero sees me reaching for the loose firearm and lands a back kick to my exposed ribs that knocks me down and renders me immobile. Then he puts some finishing moves on the assassin.
Once the other baddie is tied up, Bob Lee Swagger interrogates me and gets the truth about why he was being set up.
I had a great time. We did the whole sequence in two takes and nobody got hurt. Kudos to Ryan and Tierre (Stunt Coordinator) and Eric (Stunt Man/Assassin). They were amazing.
It was a great day on set. One to remember for sure.