In a couple of days I board a flight for NY and will land in the past and the future at once. There are so many old friends and colleagues in New York whom I will see and spend time with and party with and watch working and who will watch my work. Of all of them though the one I am most anxious to see again after so many years is the great stage manager Buzz Cohen.
To me, and to many, many, many Theatre professionals around the country Buzz Cohen is the standard for measuring the quality of a stage manager. She is small of stature, always smiling, always positive and always, gently and unequivocally, in charge. Buzz runs a safe, classy show. She understands all aspects of theatre life and has a way of making each and every person in the company feel safe and cared for. How does she do that? She does it by really, truly caring about the show and everyone in it.
I’ve had the sincere pleasure of working Buzz on Broadway and downtown at the Public Theatre and ever since meeting her and working with her I have been a fan. Wherever I am, when the words “stage manager” are spoken within earshot, I think of Buzz.
Back in 1995 I was working a big show with Buzz. During that time I received word that my father had terminal cancer. I was devastated but circumstances were such that, at my father’s insistence, I stay with the show and visit him after we had opened. From that point forward I was on the payphone near the stage door nightly, talking with my Dad. Afterwards I was in my dressing room, regaining my composure. And every now and then, just at the right moment, Buzz would appear and offer a kind word, or a listening ear, or just a pat on the shoulder and a smile. It helped. I’ve never forgotten her simple and human kindness. And I am so looking forward to hearing her voice on the intercom calling half-hour to the company.
“Half hour, half hour, it is half hour ladies and gentlemen for the New York Shakespeare Festival Production of Troilus and Cressida. Once again it is half hour, half hour!”
Those that know me know that these last years have been a renaissance for me. I’ll save you the details because you already know them, there is nothing new or interesting about the reasons for this “rebirth”. What is worth thinking about and knowing and writing about is that it’s happening
Going back to NY to do Shakespeare in Central Park is another step in my journey back to my best destiny and beyond. I’m just a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage. That is really all I was meant to be and it’s what what I am happiest being.
A actor in the American Theatre knows that you only get so many opening nights, and of that limited number there are just a precious few in New York. The last time I helped tell a story on stage in New York was 1997. When I came to NY in 1980 to study acting and start a career I indulged in fantasies of fame and fortune. My teachers were demanding and pragmatic and just a little cynical. They promised us all that we could count on years and years of dues paying before our careers would get going and that those careers would be filled with high highs and low lows. They were right. What they did not tell us was that we must cherish every minute on stage. I was young and optimistic and more than cocky. I just knew that the jobs would come and I would pick and choose what I wanted. At first my career was moving just the way I wanted. Then finally reality set in and the truth of a life in art began to clash with the truth of Life. I struggled, and when I was forced to choose between Art and Commerce, between Theatre and supporting my family. I chose commerce. No regrets. It was the right choice.
Now I’m in a position to choose again. And now I know that there are so few moments on stage, so few chances to tell a story. I’m choosing Art this time. Yes it’s possible to manufacture those minutes, to produce oneself, to tell one’s own stories, and yes I will take that plunge, but for the moment, that seems like cheating somehow. To be invited to work with a top flight company, in a New York theater, working on world class material is an honor and a privilege. It’s a validation, a reminder, a confidence booster, and ego inflator. It carries with it feelings of professional pride and accomplishment, and it also feels good like it felt good to be first pick in a boyhood sandlot game of baseball, football, whatever. It feels good to be wanted, to be valued, to know that a producer will pay you for what you have to offer as a Theatre artist.
I’m hoping that I can rack up a few more opening nights before I cash out. And if some of those can be in New York, well that will be just fine.
I’ve been really digging deep into Troilus and Cressida. One thing that I can’t get around is how abruptly the play ends. The narrative might have gone on a little bit longer, just to wrap up the T&C love affair a little more nicely and maybe settle Ajax’s hash, and perhaps hear a few pithy remarks from Ulysses. But rather, we get Troilus railing and rage and grief and Pandarus feeling sorry for himself in a final speech that sounds like he is celebrating his pimping and procuring.
“Good traders in the flesh, set this in your painted cloths:
As many as be here of panders’ hall,
Your eyes, half out, weep out at Pandar’s fall;”
Then I went back to Troilus and one line of his in the final scene explains the quick closure of the story,
“Hector is dead. There is no more to say.”
Hector is really the only character in this play who is honorable and good and true and worthy. He was declared one of the “Nine Worthies” in the middle ages. Hector was a paragon in a cast of liars, bawds, procurers, manipulators, braggarts, social climbers, and murderers. With Hector gone, there’s little reason to continue the story. No one really cares a whit about any of the other characters, except maybe Patroclus, who loved truly, and he’s been killed as well.
I wonder how many directors have decided to end the story of Troilus and Cressida on that line. The ending is already sudden, you can’t really make it more so. Might as well make it sudden and telling.
I love being a student. I love knowing that I have so much more to learn. My education is a cup yet to be filled and my thirst for more knowledge is not soon to be quenched. As I read Troilus and Cressida I see that Shakespeare is using Homer’s cast of characters to tell a story of romance set in a world of intrigue, war, politics and eventually murder. What is really wonderful about this piece of theatre is that it as fresh and timely as a season of House of Cards. Ulysses is a master gamester. He knows the hearts of men and can play them like a violin. Hector, the great Trojan warrior is a wise, just and honorable man. No wonder he is respected and loved by both armies. Agamemnon is in trouble. His best warriors and overproud and insubordinate. Priam is in as much trouble, his youngest warriors and hot headed and apt to act rashly, but at least he has his ace in the hole, Hector.
I read the character of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, and know in my heart that the actor in Shakespeare’s company who played him also played Iago. They are both patient, devious, insightful and bold enough to stand tall and call their shot. Only Ulysses is trying to save an army, while Iago is out for himself and no other. As I’ve read the canon, slowly, I’ve started to see and hear certain voices cropping up in different plays, wearing different guises, but telling their part of the story in the same way. It reminds me that each play is part of a larger story, a meta play about a writer and a company of actors struggling to make a buck in Elizabethan England. They told the stories that people wanted to hear, full of sex, violence, intrigue, romance and more than a few dirty jokes. The developed a formula for storytelling and part of that was putting the right actor in the right role, over and over again. The audience knew what they were getting as soon as they saw the playbills posted and they lined up to get a place in the theatre to hear the play. To us Shakespeare is classical theatre, to William and his company, it was show business pure and simple.
My son Alex often reminds me that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be demanding royalties for all of the productions of his work that are being done all over the world.
“There’s no business without the show and no show without the business”
Every actor has a way of working and mine involves reading the play many times over in order to “purify” it in my mind. Working on a classic, especially a Shakespeare, requires that I do even more “purification”. So what does that mean? Well… an actor who works on classical plays will see, hear, hear about, study and just plain get to know the material over a career. I find it necessary to give some time to letting go of all the stuff I’ve learned about a particular play in order to come to the rehearsal hall with a naked and unbiased perspective. This makes it so much easier to say “yes” to new ideas and to see things in the text that I might have missed otherwise. With more popular plays it’s a bit tougher. I’ve been in several productions of Hamlet, and when I’m called upon again someday to help tell that story, I’ll be hard pressed to let go of the image of Mark Rylance, wandering about the stage in rumpled pajamas.
This is my first time doing Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare’s telling of the siege of Troy and the intrigues in the courts of Priam and Agamemnon doesn’t get produced as much as some other plays in the canon. All the same I am trying to clear my head of some old ideas and images. They date back to my apprentice summer with the Camden Shakespeare Company in Maine in 1982. That brave little company had just done T&C the summer before and people were still talking about it. The artistic leadership decided to set the story of Troilus and Cressida’s Trojan war affair in the modern day world of American Football. The Trojans and the Greeks were two established teams who were embroiled in another big and important game in their long, long, long rivalry. Troilus was a rookie who was having a great season. Pandarus a sports agent looking to make a deal, any deal. Hector was the veteran superstar and the Trojans franchise player. Achilles was the the Greeks petulant star who was staying in his tent due to a contract dispute. Agamemnon was the player/coach who suited up and played in every game wearing the number “00”. The idea sounds good at first and might actually work in the right circumstance. Apparently this attempt failed miserably.
I’m going to have to do a lot of study to get the image of this football T&C out of my head. I’ll be reading the script many times in the days leading up to the first rehearsal. The goal is to know the story on the page and forget all the ways it might have already been told. Wish me luck.
During my time in the corporate world I learned many important lessons. Among the most important was goal setting. Upon my return to acting full time I set the goal of returning to the New York Theatre scene. When the New York Shakespeare Festival announced their season in Central Park this summer I contacted my reps and we decided to try to get an audition. They swung into action and did their magic and some weeks later I was invited to submit a self tape for a couple of roles in Troilus and Cressida.
A few days later the offer came through and I start rehearsals on June 10.
This is a wonderful trip back for me. Back to NY. Back to the New York Shakespeare Festival. The last time I was on stage for that legendary company was in Henry VIII, with Jayne Atkinson and Ruben Santiago Hudson in the summer of 1997. That was the last production in the Shakespeare Marathon that Joe Papp started before he died. Mr. Papp set the goal for the company to produce every play in the Shakespeare canon (Goal setting, you see?) We completed that 36 play goal. I managed to work on 7 of those productions.
New York theatre was home to me and now I’m going back.
One good and genuine moment in every Oscars telecast is the “In Memoriam” montage. It’s a bittersweet reminder to us all that life is brief, glory is fleeting, that the memories we make with and for others and the work we leave behind are what endures.
When I was a boy I spent a lot of time with my cousin. He was so much cooler than me. My aunt and uncle took all my cousins to the movies all the time. One weekend my cousin told me about this amazing and scary western he had seen called High Plains Drifter with Clint Eastwood. He described the scary plot with the mysterious stranger, and the hellish frontier town, and spent a lot of time describing the villain “Stacey Bridges”, his look, his evil deeds, his death, his last words, “Who are you!?, who are you!?!”. I asked my cousin who the actor was who played the villain. He replied, “I don’t know his name, but you’ll recognize him when you see him.”
A couple of years later I saw High Plains Drifter, recognized the villain, remembered his eternally sad, somewhat grumpy countenance, his reedy voice and his utterly frightening blue eyes. He showed up in a lot of Clint Eastwood movies, and on television. His was a face that I never forgot and it seemed like he had been acting in movies forever. He was Geoffrey Lewis.
Years later I had the sincere pleasure of working with Mr. Lewis on a Hallmark film called A Painted House. We played farm workers picking cotton in the south. He was a pleasant, funny and interesting man. He had many stories, and many interests. I enjoyed the experience of meeting him and working with him. After that film wrapped I was always delighted to see him on screen on television. We met one more time in the waiting area somewhere for an audition for something, I don’t remember what, only him and his gentle way. We spoke a bit about the fun that was had on that Hallmark movie and, when we parted, wished each other well. Later on I heard he was ill, and was saddened to learn that he passed away in April of 2015.
On his IMDB page there are over 200 credits, 84 of them for films like , Heaven’s Gate, Bronco Billy, Tom Horn, The Great Waldo Pepper, The Way of Gun, and on and on. He spent most of his life working in our industry and made a huge contribution.
I was sorry that he wasn’t accorded a few seconds on the “In Memoriam” montage during the 2016 Academy Awards Presentation. Despite that omittance, Geoffrey Lewis is remembered, by me, by the thousands of other professionals he worked with over a long career, and millions of people who shivered when he was scary, laughed when he was funny, and wept when was piteous. He will be not soon forgotten.
Went out to see Hamlet at the Archway Studio Theatre the other night. It was pay-what-you-will night and my colleague Laura Zenoni was playing Ophelia, so I hopped the Metro and got out to North Hollywood. Archway is one of the hundreds of little theatres that sprinkled liberally about the LA basin and they have a nice little setup with small play space, some lights and entrances at each upstage corner. It was “two planks and a passion” and there was plenty of passion to go around on that little stage as a troupe of players young and old, veterans and rookies, stood up and told that wrathful, sexy, heartbreaking story of a murdered king and a son’s revenge.
When actors get up onto a blank stage to tell a great story my heart begins to pound. It’s all about the possibilities, the potentials. I’ve performed in three different productions of this play and I know it cold, so when the lights come up on the actors I’m less interested in “what happens next”, and more on “how will what’s next happen?” The company kept their nose to the grindstone and their emphasis on the text and just told the story cleanly and clearly and that made for a good evening in the Theatre. As artists we are often caught up in a fervor to do more, more, more. A painter friend of mine talks about knowing when to stop painting, actors need to keep in mind the line between telling the story and self indulgence. It’s quite invisible so we must go by feel, instinct, and the eye of a really good director. (and there are so, so few). One thing my friend Laura did that was different was, during Ophelia’s mad scene, as she was handing out flowers to her brother and the King and Queen, she began to eat the Rue Blossoms. It was a lovely gesture. She reverted to childlike behaviors and let them tell the story of her lost sanity.
As ever there is one scene, one moment that, over the years, I’ve waited for a production to address and make sense of. In Act VI, Scene vii, Gertrude returns to the chamber where Laertes and Claudius are conferring and announces that Ophelia has drowned. Laertes then asks a strange question “Where?”. Then Gertrude gives a long speech about how Ophelia was standing at the river bank, the ground beneath her gave way, she went into the water, blithely singing old songs kept afloat by her voluminous skirts. Then finally she drowns as her clothing became soaked with water and pulled her under. Gertrude’s speech is a problem for me because it suggests that Gertrude saw Ophelia go into the water and then just watched as the poor girl drowned, and did nothing. I have only seen one production where that issue was addressed, the recent production with Benedict Cumberbatch. In that telling, they suggested that Gertrude had made up the story of Ophelia’s drowning in order to spare Laertes the ugly truth of his sister’s death. A choice, a good choice, though I think there is a lot more there for a good actor mine. And the key may be in Laertes question “Drowned, O, where?” Perhaps if he is asking “Where could she have drowned? We’re in a castle!” That might open the door for Gertrude to play that moment as more than just a beautiful speech.
The company of Hamlet at the Archway stayed pretty much in the realm of clarity and story. Now and then there was some scenery chewing but hey, sometimes that is just what an audience wants and needs. I knew they were alright though during the final poisonous scene, that orgasm of revenge and retribution that the entire play has been building to, when Hamlet and Laertes are fighting , Claudius is fretting, the whole court of Denmark is in distress and Gertrude picks up the venomous chalice and starts to drink. Even before Claudius spotted what she was doing, two young women sitting near me started whispering to each other, “Oh my God, oh my God”, “Oh no”, “She’s gonna drink the poison”, “no, no, no”.
Mission accomplished Archway. You trusted Shakespeare and you all came through together.
In 1979, after getting out of the Marines I was doing Theatre in Orange County, attending college on the GI bill and working as a stage carpenter at Saddleback College. I knew I wanted to be an actor and rather than move to LA and study there, I instead went to New York and entered the 2 year conservatory program of the National Shakespeare Company. There I trained to be a classical actor.
Since that time I’ve attended ongoing classes from time to time in NY and LA and found the difference in approach and emphasis to be logical. New York is a Theatre town and much of the material used in class is drawn from Theatre. In LA classes, Film and Television material is favored. I’m not going to draw any comparisons because there are brilliant teachers on both coasts and great actors have come out of both places. Speaking for myself though, and myself alone, I am glad that I chose to train in the classics and do a lot of Shakespeare jobs at the beginning of my career.
Since that time I have never encountered a piece of dramatic literature, Theatre, Film or Television, that I could not understand, appreciate, analyze and eventually master. Studying and playing Shakespeare gave me a foundation in language, history, literature and good, old fashioned, rip snorter storytelling that has served me well across the entire spectrum of my work, from Army training films, to half-hour comedies, to big hollywood movies, to Broadway and to tiny black box theaters on the “fringe”. To my colleagues who have yet to dip into classical theatre, especially Shakespeare. Find a class. Try it out. It won’t kill you, and it will make you stronger.
At a dinner party once I listened intently as a musician, a violinist of some standing around town, was talking about the life of a working player, a professional artist. She eventually came round to the subject of practice and in response to the question “do you practice every day?” she explained something that really stuck with me, “I practice every day. I have to because, if you miss one day of practice, you know it. If you miss two days of practice, your teacher knows it, and if you miss three days of practice, the audience knows it!”
Practice is a big part of the life of a professional artist. A good friend of mine who is a painter, always has a sketch pad and crayons with her. She finds time to draw every day. She says that she must in order to “maintain”. As a young actor I was taught to practice daily. As soon as I left the conservatory and began my career I let the daily practice thing go. Heck, I was working a lot and felt I didn’t need to practice. Was I right? Was I wrong? Who knows? That’s how it went.
Now I’m decades down the road and seeing my profession in a new way, as an artist and as a small business man. I am my small business and in order to have success, my one and only product must be in the best shape possible. So now I practice daily. When a job is pending I’m looking at the script. When an audition is coming up I’m working on the sides. When nothing is going on I’m learning a new monologue, or going back over an old one. I take exercise daily, keeping the body and mind sharp. If I’m to practice my profession at a high level, I have to have high standards.
To any young colleagues who might read this, take note. We are all talented, and some of us work harder than others. Those that work harder also work more. Talent will never replace hard work.