As part of surviving the single worst year of my entire life, I decided that getting on stage this Summer, might help remind me of what it is I do, and why I do it. Sure this sounds dramatic but when you have had your whole life’s trajectory altered, you lose your compass and the feeling of simply floating though days becomes the norm. To ground yourself you search for benchmarks that give you some clarity. I thought doing a play might help.
When I looked around at where I might go to get on stage this summer I happened on auditions for Bye Bye Birdie at our cavernous theatre here in Thousand Oaks and it was being done by the theatre stalwart Lewis Wilkenfeld.
He runs Cabrillo Music Theatre and he is the real deal. A true theater baby. He’s the guy that can recite all the roles in any of his shows, who played the role, exactly how much it will cost to rent that beaded headress (and from who), where the theatre company is on fundraising and remind you of your call time. He simply never says “I don’t remember” to any question asked about the show or season or year. And, while running the theatre, he also directed our show…It’s remarkable. So, in an effort to keep his theatre going, click here and donate. If they don’t reach their goal, his 20 year theatre company closes it doors …and that would be truly, truly, tragic. So send him anything you can. The company is worth it.
I auditioned and got a role. An ensemble singing and dancing but small speaking role of the Mayor. I was great with that. I don’t sing that well but in a group…? I’m genius!
The dancing was handled by the great John Charron and he handled me with the right level of discipline for my obvious stage dancing limitations. Lloyd Cooper was the music director and he could not have been more helpful and complimentary of his singers. Thirty years of rust had to come off, and it felt like this group would accomodate that.
The first thing that struck me was how damn talented every kid in the room was. Our first rehearsals were singing rehearsals and though there were 15 adults, the rest of the 64 member cast were kids, and I mean 8-22 year old kids. Lloyd would simply say “lets sing from number 22 and..” and he gesture and the piano would play…and everyone would sing the right notes, the right words and… man was I out of my league. I hummed a lot and listened a super lot…and eventually sang and hit mostly right notes. The bizarrely talented Anne Montavon gave me a compliment the other day when I was knocking my singing, saying; “everything I’ve heard you sing sounds good…what are you worried about?” and this girl can flat out sing. It made me feel like I belonged. Like maybe I was the only one worried about my singing ..hmmm…strangely reminiscent of the early days as an actor when I always felt like I didn’t belong just because I was new.
The acting part was easy but the choreography was also a whole new language for me. I watched in awe of how the dancers just took in the steps and did them, and every change, every subtle nuance asked for by the choreographer was welcomed. They just did it. I’m used to people arguing with changes, and it seems dancers get that change makes things better. The two things I learned is that when dancers get to dance, they really love their lives. Everyone arrived happy and stayed that way. I’m used to actors who arrive already brooding for the tortuous task of digging deeper meanings out of their brains in rehearsal. But dancers express by moving. Which bring me to the second thing…it seems dancers never really tire, they just keep dancing until the clock says stop. At the end of every routine they’d be panting, and I never once heard a groan when John said “let’s do it gain!”, not once. They’d just leap in again, as hard as they could. It blew my mind to see such excitement, every time. Then…on the breaks they’d mark all the moves by thinking through the moves over and over, flapping arms and jutting feet, locking the moves by muscle memory. Sure this is normal for you dancers, but it was so damned interesting for me to see such constant need to master the moves. Actors think a lot, dancers move a lot…the difference was fun to watch.
My lessons have been plenty. The company of people each needed to do their part to make the whole thing work. Yes there are leads but really they don’t carry the show, they carry the story, but the music and the dance (and of course the two very important scenes featuring the Mayor) carry the 3 hour show. Everyone has to do their job, and do it with a level of enthusiasm that makes the audience get on board and enjoy the ride. I’m so used to the Stars, subtly (and not so subtly), reminding everyone in the cast that the show wouldn’t be on the air,(or have a green light) if it weren’t for them. Here the company is a company.
We have 6 more shows. I will write more about Jim J Bullock and some of the others in the cast that have influenced me, but for now I want to say that I have come to adore this group of “kids” who by simply being the artists they are, and by accepting this rookie into their world, have helped me more than they know and more than I’ll ever tell them. My time with them has helped in righting the ship. I’m getting clarity about why we do this, the value of what we do and most of all how damn fun it is to be in a room with like minded people. I’ve spent too much time with people that didn’t have my best interest in mind, and boy it damaged me. So I thank you Cabrillo Music Theatre and cast mates, for restoring my faith in the process of creating and all the care and kindness shown to a guy who took 30 years off between shows.
An episode I did of Major Crimes airs tomorrow Dec 2nd at 9pm. Here’s why it was more than just another job.
For reasons I’m not going to expand on, this last summer was the single worst period of my life. In the middle of this I got an audition for Major Crimes, which in itself felt like a miracle because so much bad news was coming at me for so many months. The role was a really nice one and it was something I could really have fun doing, and as I reread it I decided that although it wasn’t necessarily scripted that way, it had room for me to use all the bad news of the last 6 months to my advantage and really, really live this part out. I decided that the Dad I was playing would be completely off his hinges when asking the police how they could fail at their jobs.
In the audition I sat down and there were easily 7 people in the room including Michael Robin the show runner and director of this episode. The scene they chose was of course the “big” scene for this role and I held nothing back, I did what we’ve all been taught, I used all the frustration and anger and rage about what life had dealt me and…it felt great. I did feel a bit guilty that these folks thought they were seeing a Dad who wasn’t going to go easy on the police for letting a bad person out of jail, when they were really seeing a Dad who was simply unloading 6 months of pent up feelings. The scene ended and I knew when I made this plan reactions to my choice could go either way, but I also knew that the safe choice wouldn’t challenge me as an actor. Michael Robin spoke, “That was F*#!& brilliant.” Now, usually when you hear big complements in auditions it’s your consolation prize, it means you won’t be getting the job and it’s a bittersweet moment. I sat there totally fulfilled that I executed my plan exactly the way I wanted and I knew my work was good, it was also therapeutic.
Now, had this been a sitcom audition, surely I wouldn’t have gone this way, but that’s also part of my message here; to get an audition that can use exactly what’s going on in me at a time when I needed the job, but moreover I really needed the confirmation that should still be trying to get work as an actor, to get an audition where I could really use what I had…it simply felt like the acting gods stepped in and sent me some much needed good news.
Michael Robin then asked me to make two adjustments and do it again…and all I could think was “It’s too good to be true…I get to unload all this crap I have in me again? Ha-le-lu-yah!” And I did. I was hoarse by the time it ended and it felt great. Michael Robin again complemented me and I left wearing the first real smile I’d had for many months.
It took a few days but word came that I got the role and I’d be going to work the next week. I was quite fragile but when you get a job, you put on your actor chops and go to work with the knowledge that you’re the guest and the set doesn’t work to make you fit in, you fit in to the set. I say this because I have been a guest star on many shows and it’s not always a nice experience, but at an impossibly difficult time in my life…I really, really needed the job to take care of me. It’s a lot to ask, but I did. So, the acting gods sent me Michael Robin, GW Bailey, Tony Denison and Clare Carey. GW and Tony are old friends and they immediately embraced me and made the days fun and warm and easy, but Michael and Clare were new to me. Michael Robin is just the best of the best that I have met doing this for as long as I have. His manner is easy and inclusive and appreciative and skilled and above all, he loves the work. I never felt like he was simply “making the day” as so many directors in TV do. He thanked me constantly for every little choice or change I made and asked if I wanted anything else in the scene and never blankly turned down an idea from anyone about anything. On the day when Clare and I had to do the explosive audition scene, we talked about how fun it is to get these jobs and then how hard it is to be that emotional for 8 hours. She too handled me with the care of a saint. Then, at about 6 pm I sat down between takes and Michael Robin came over to me and said “I bet your throat is sore, can I get you some ice cream?” The director/show runner was waiting on me. I said yes and he returned a few minutes later, handed me the ice cream and said, “I appreciate you going where you have to go for this role.” That…just doesn’t happen.
I used what I had and I got what I needed. It can happen. Perhaps it’s a sign of better things on the way, perhaps it’s just news that Michael Robin is the best boss of all time, either way I am so grateful for all of it. If you watch perhaps you’ll send along a review. I’m curious how it will turn out and how it will be perceived.
When I started at The Neighborhood Playhouse, Mr. Meisner told us we "were his radishes" and he "plants us all, and in 20 years we become actors." He said all this smiling but at the time I could only think "I don't have 20 years. I need to be an actor now."
It's like she's settled into the idea that actors grow and get better and gave up on the idea that actors do that one thing that got them famous until they're irrelevant. You know those actors don't you? The ones that you used to look forward to watching but now hope the supporting cast will ad a bit of interest to the movie because you know exactly what's coming from the above-title mega-star. It's not like Ms. Bullock has completely "reinvented" ( which is merely publicist speak for trying to appeal to a younger audience) herself. You absolutely see the same person, but it's as if she gave in to that thing called talent and direction and allowed the character to define her, not the other ( all too often) way around. In The Proposal and All About Steve she had real specifics at work along side her usual comedy chops. In The Blind Side she had great specifics as well as a subtlety and maternal instinct she's not shown us before.
It was a lovely thing to see. I don't know her, but I've certainly seen plenty of her work over the years and seeing this evolution into actress reminded me of that early recipe of Mr. Meisner. After 20 years, I feel like I'm the best I've ever been. I'd like to think I too have settled into a trust with my talent and a belief in the mystery of the process so that I can allow great things to come out of me. I'm always puzzled as to why, with access to the greatest scripts, directors and teachers in our world, do so many big stars just stagnate? You know what I'm talking about, don't you? It's not like talent goes away, ignoring your talent will make it hide, but surely with a bit of tempting your instincts again grab hold of that divine thing called the script and your artist starts playing with ideas until the director yells "That's the one! Take it in that direction and let's see where we go!"
When I lecture, I always tell the students that the only thing we can really hope to get out of a career in the arts is fulfillment. Yes, money and affection of fans is a by-product, but what all real artists want is to cure that thing in us that's always asking "did I get that right?" Every artist has the feeling in them that tells them if they really explored and put them selves in the role. I once asked a mega star if she liked her performance in her latest massive hit movie, she answered me with, "the audience absolutely freaked out at the screening."
After 20 years of doing this, you know it when it's right and you know when you copped out. If you're in it for the money then of course you will be fulfilled when you make some, but it seems that even if Ms. Bullock was in it for the money when she started out, things have given way to the fact that she has more to offer and seeds planted earlier have taken root and an actress is starting to ripen.