Guest Blogger, Michael Patrick Gaffney: “Oh Shut the Stage Door and When Thou Has Done So Come Weep with Me!”

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A few days ago, my friend Michael relayed to me something that had recently happened to him. After he told me the story, I told him that he should write a guest blog about it, the event had riled him so. And he did. I hope it was a cathartic experience for him. I will say I have been waiting at many of his stage doors, one of the pack of friends, excited to see him after a performance and wish him well. If there is a more beloved Bay Area actor, I can’t imagine who that might be. Although I can’t claim objectivity on this matter. He is writing about actors, but just as much, he is writing about friends, the scenes we play with each other and the consequences of our actions.

“Oh Shut the Stage Door and When Thou Has Done So Come Weep with Me!”

I want to preface this by saying I am aware that I am an extremely sensitive person and to be an actor you need to have a thick skin, or at least so I’m told. I just looked up the expression, thick skin: Having a thick skin or rind. Not easily offended. Largely unaffected by the needs and feelings of other people; insensitive. Nope, not me. Not by a long shot. My skin is as thin as a 90 year old albino Irish woman’s. It was closing night of a production of Romeo & Juliet I was doing with an extremely talented bunch of actor friends who basically got together and said, “Hey, let’s put on a show!” No money, we provided our own costumes and did it in the round with no set. We didn’t actually have lights until an hour before we opened! It was theatre on a wing and a prayer and we were acting by the seat of our pants and it was exciting and fun and my first attempt at Shakespeare. And the great thing was people came to see it! We were playing to full houses and the audiences were young and diverse and seemed to really appreciate the show. I should mention now that we were performing in an old dance hall and not a theatre so there was no back stage and even worse, no stage door! I’m the type of actor who plots his escape from the moment the curtain goes down. I either rip off my costume and run for the stage door before the audience has time to leave the theatre, or I sit in my dressing room and wait it out until the coast is clear. I think a lot of actors feel this way and can relate. It’s just a very vulnerable time and the last thing you want to do is talk to people about the show or even worse your performance. I can be naked on stage or perform with a 103 degree temperature but having to face people after a performance terrifies me! There we lots of fellow actors in the audience on closing night and I love my theatre community here in the Bay Area, so I had to suck it up and thank people for coming out. It was going fine as I have mastered the art of deflection in a conversation! “What show are you working on?” “Did you lose weight?” “So how’s your father?” It was all going fine when suddenly I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turn around and it was an actress I had worked with a few years back, I’ll call her Pilar. Here is basically how the exchange went:

Pilar: Hi!!! (Big hug)
Me: Hi! Thank you so much for coming! I love your coat! That’s a beautiful color on you.
Pilar: Thanks! (Long awkward pause)
Me: So pretty…(Long awkward pause)
Pilar: Did you have fun tonight? (Big smile)
Me: Yes, I did! (Big smile. I can feel the blood rushing to my face.) Pilar: Good! (Big smile…awkward pause)
Me: Okay.
Pilar: Okay.
Me: Bye.
Pilar Bye-bye.

The rest of that evening involved me badmouthing Pilar to other actors and finally breaking down and crying, asking a group of supportive friends why some people have to be so cruel? Talk about a performance?! Pilar obviously left too soon and missed my best scene!!! Why did I care so much what Pilar thought and why did I react so strongly to what she said, or more importantly what she didn’t say? I guess I just don’t understand why, if she did not care for my performance, she felt the need to come up to me? Why didn’t she just leave or better yet just say, congratulations on the show. Did she feel she would be compromising her artistic integrity? Why did she feel the need to let me know she didn’t care for the show or even worse me personally. As Blanche Debois says in A Streetcar Named Desire, “Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable, and the one thing of which I have never, ever been guilty of.” Going to the theatre is one of my great pleasures in life. I find it especially exciting if I know one of the actors in the show. I am filled with pride and want them to have a great show. Some shows are obviously better than others and occasionally I will disagree with a directorial choice or think someone may be a little miscast. I also know what hard work it is to put on a show and how much time and energy has been spent to entertain me for two hours. So if I stay after to see someone I know, I always greet them with a congratulations, or good show or good work because they desire that! They just gave everything they had and left it all on the stage for me, the audience. A good friend suggested that the next time I see Pilar in a show I should come up to her and ask, “Did you have fun tonight?” But I just couldn’t do that to her because she is a fellow actor, a member of my tribe and a good performer who deserves my support and respect. Part of me hopes Pilar doesn’t read this. But part of me hopes she does and perhaps she will be a little less honorable to her artistic integrity and a little kinder to her fellow thespian the next time she attends the theatre. As for this thin-skinned Shakespearean, I start rehearsal on Monday for my next show and I hope all of you will come! If you don’t see me afterwards chances are this next theater has a stage door.

Happiness

draft_lens9869081module88838141photo_1268076723Charlie_Brown_SnoopyIt’s a movie star interview staple. He or she is asked by the interviewer when they knew they wanted to be an actor. He or she mines his or her personal history and shares a memory of being in a school play or talent show, how they made the whole school laugh or cry or both and from that moment on, “I KNEW that’s what I wanted to do with my life!”. 

 Of course, it is not only the successful actors that have that memory. This town is full of lost souls trying to chase that high, relive that moment, at 8 or 9 or 10, when they stood on a stage and felt the entire world loved them. 

 The irony that my first great success at anything was my title role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is not lost on me. Playing a hapless failure came naturally for me. Still does. It was 5th grade and I’m sure not more than 500 people saw my star turn, but even today, that high that came at the end, where the entire cast closed the show with Happiness, well, is probably the happiest I have ever been in my entire life.  

I’ve written about my many failed auditions in the last two years or so. It’s been nearly three years since the last time I booked a job. I’ve been lucky enough to have an agent sending me out more regularly than I deserve and yet, nothing.  In every audition, I second guess every choice I make because it feels like every choice I’ve made in the last three years is the wrong one. 

Last week, my friend Michael, because he cares, asked me what I was doing creatively. I told him that I had all but stopped writing and storytelling. It’s been years since I’ve been cast in a play. He asked me how I might be able to think outside the box a little, create my own platform.

I cut him off. “I don’t really want to discuss this. I can’t. I am stuck and I wish I knew what to do to unstick myself, but I don’t. That’s what I’d hoped to do with the blog. But the blog has just ended up being a failure just like everything else I have attempted.”

“We can change the subject,” Michael offered. And we did. We talked about what we were going to have for dinner and then the play we looked forward to attending. 

A couple of days ago, I deactivated my Facebook account. Maybe you are more evolved or just more successful than me, but of late, Facebook has become nothing more than another reminder of all my failures, too. I’d post a picture or a blog post and only get a couple likes. Does one exist if no one clicks like on their FB status update? It should be noted that the only person who noticed my disappearance was my Mother.

I’ve tried acting and sketch comedy and improv and standup and storytelling and writing and blog writing and most depressing of all, social media, to get the world to notice me, validate me. And for the most part, none of it has worked.  

So, the good news is, this is the last time I will bemoan my life on this aptly named platform I created almost two years ago. I am hanging up my keyboard, so to speak.

I came and I tried and I failed. 

I’m going to step away from the social media. Read some books, catch up on Empire. I’m going to feel sorry for myself for awhile and then we’ll see. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m done with this blog, but I’m not done. After all, I am Charlie Brown and the eternally comforting thing about Charlie Brown is that no matter how many times he’s down, he is never truly out. 

Thank you to all who read my story!

The Pink Tea Cup

052809PinkTeaCup17MS.jpgWhen I lived in New York, on my days off from work, I would sometimes go to the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village, check out a few books, then wander somewhere around there for lunch. One of my favorite places to have lunch alone, just me and a book, was a soul food restaurant, a neighborhood staple, called The Pink Tea Cup. I ordered the same thing every time, a burger special that came with fresh cut fries, a slice of sweet potato pie, and a cup of coffee. I was usually one of only a few customers during the hour or so I’d sit and read my book and eat my meal. It was a cozy joint and I especially liked going in the winter. I remember one year that I did not think I would be able to fly home for Christmas, whether it was because of money or getting shifts covered or both, but at some point, the heavens parted and I was able to get a plane ticket and make arrangements. I celebrated by taking myself to a late lunch at The Pink Tea Cup. I could not help but be conscious of the color of my skin while I dined there, but there was something Southern and familiar and comfortable about the place. I sat and ate the home cooked meal and looked forward to the home cooked meals my Mother would have waiting for me when I made it to Kansas for the holidays.

I just finished reading Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin. There was a section of the book where the protagonist, a successful African American actor named Leo Proudhammer, recalls working as a waiter in a Greenwich Village restaurant called The Island that sounded, if only to me, a bit like The Pink Tea Cup. Leo remembers serving Hopping John and chicken and ribs and I closed my eyes and saw all the action taking place at my old haunt, a place that still looked like 1968 even in 1993.

I am mostly drawn to James Baldwin for three reasons. He wrote often about New York, a city I love. He wrote about the Church, it’s complicated burdens and emancipations. And probably mostly, because he wrote about homosexuals, because he was one himself. I identify with James Baldwin.

This identification resonated even more in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone because he wrote about acting, specifically his character’s technique and process and it gave me an idea what it must have been like to be an actor in the ’50s and ’60s New York, a time and place that produced some pretty exciting actors, not to mention writers.

There is a point in the novel where Leo’s estranged brother, a man who was falsely imprisoned in his youth but has become a minister, comes to visit him at The Island. He stays until the restaurant closes and the two brothers sit to share a meal, Leo drinking a tumbler of Chianti, Caleb, the elder, drinking coffee. Their conversation is tense in moments and tender in others. At one point, Caleb asks Leo, “What does an artist really do?” I’m editing for space. More than anything I just want you to pick up the book and read it yourself, but Leo tells Caleb that an artist creates things-paintings, books, poems, plays, music. Caleb then wants to know exactly what these arts do. Leo tells him, “They make you-feel more alive.” And then Leo thinks to himself that he doesn’t trust that answer. They talk more, Leo then says, “I think it-art-can make you less lonely.” But he doesn’t trust that answer either. And then finally he tells his brother, “Sometimes you read something- or you listen to music- I don’t know- and you find this man, who may have been a very unhappy man- and- a man you’ve never seen- well, he tells you something about your life. And it doesn’t seem as awful as it did before.”

Everytime I write about Baldwin, I feel a little foolish. What could a very white boy from Kansas have to offer when talking about one of the greatest African American writers in history? His experience was not my experience. It’s kind of ludicrous for me to say, “Oh I LOVE James Baldwin because he wrote about New York!” It sounds like I’m talking about Cindy Adams. But there is something about the way he wrote about New York and Evangelicalism and sexuality that drew me into his world, that captivated me. And once he had me, has me, for James Baldwin’s work is ongoing, by seeing how much we are alike, he also reminds me of how different we are. I learn from his experience; it’s my hope that reading about his specific African American experience makes me a more sympathetic, empathetic, knowledgeable person. I think there is, in his writing, an attempt to shame me for the wrongs my ancestors did, just as I think he tries to hurt his father, even though he loves him, for being cruel and abusive and embittered and drunk when Baldwin was a boy. Baldwin offers a knife in the side and then a blanket for comfort.

It’s no surprise, really, that I feel a pang of regret for saying that something in Baldwin’s writing intends to punish or wound me. While I am gay and have always felt like an outsider, the color of my skin, reminds me, how much of an outsider could I possibly be? I’m much more Barbara, the secondary character of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, a white aspiring actress who fled Kentucky in hopes of making her way in New York City, who forges a life long intimate relationship with Leo Proudhammer. Leo’s love for her is visible and tenable, but in the 20 years of their friendship the novel spans, there are the knife and the blanket and neither are ever very far from each other.

I really don’t know where I am going with all of this. Baldwin raises more questions than he answers for me. But God, I love him. I love the way his stories burrow into me and I laugh and I weep and I think to myself, “This is MY STORY. He is telling my story.” And the ridiculousness of that statement doesn’t even occur to me until I am pages ahead.

The Way I Remembered It

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A few months ago, I had the good fortune to participate in a storytelling show called Spark Off Rose. It was a great night, I wrote about it here and then here. Six months later, I remembered my story as me at my very best. Funny, sweet, humble, seeking, tender. In the past six months, I’ve thought about that night, and I kid you not, EVERY TIME, I thought, dang, Ray, you were pure magic.

Well, guess what? My friend and producer Janet sent me the link to the audio recording from the night, that night that seemed perfect in the misty watercolor corners of my mind. I listened and well, it wasn’t quite the Carnegie Hall debut I remembered. If I could go back and relive the evening, there are things I would change, tweak. But of course, that night has come and passed. This audio is a record of what transpired, proof. But, even hearing the flaws that I had not previously pondered, I still appreciate this particular offering as something honest, confessional, distinctively me and yes, a little bit funny too.

So, here it is. The theme was You Don’t Know Me. Obviously, if you’ve been reading this blog, you do know me, at least a bit. I’d love for you to have a listen and in doing so, get to know me, just a little more.

http://www.sparkoffrose.com/audio_performers_18.php#ray-barnhart

“Where Did You Get That Dress? It’s Awful! And Those Shoes and That Coat! Jeez!”

stephen-stuckerairplaneA few months back, I participated in an intimate reading of a friend’s play.  He had written the play years ago, before the group of us became friends.  When we gathered, he told us there was a great part for each of us.  My character’s name was Russell.  He was passionate, silly, camp, funny, ridiculous and wise, the kind of part any actor dreams of playing.  And if I say so myself, I was pretty darn good.  I know it was just a little reading at a dining room table with a group of people who loved me even before we ever got to the first page, but still, it was a fun night.

And driving home, I thought about my characterization, how it just kind of spewed out of me, I didn’t have to second guess how I would say a line or do an impression, I knew what to do instinctually.  And let me confess, for me, anyway, that’s not always the case. I thought about Stephen Stucker, because I realized, that a lot of what I was doing came from him.  I’d like to think it wasn’t a complete copy, that I took what I’d gleaned from a master and gave it my own take.  At least that’s what I’d like to think.

Now, okay, maybe you didn’t know immediately who Stephen Stucker is.  To be honest, I didn’t know his name until I went to IMDB a few years ago.  Most simply, he is known as the gay guy from Airplane.  I’ve posted a YouTube video of some of his character’s best moments.  They are all priceless and when I watched it, it reminded me of all the times I watched that movie on HBO when I was a kid.   I remember doing the bit “Oh, I can make a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl…”  on a regular basis for anyone that would listen.    I loved that guy.  I certainly did not understand at 12 or 13 why he resonated with me, I just thought he was funny.  And I wanted to be funny, too.  

When I did a little google sleuthing about Stephen Stucker, I found that he was born on July 2, which is my birthday, too.  Like me, he  hailed from the midwest (born in Iowa, raised in Ohio) and he eventually made his way to Hollywood.  His IMDB page only has 11 credits, but most are significant like Airplane, Airplane II, Trading Places, The Kentucky Fried Movie and Mork and Mindy.  He died of AIDS related complications in 1986. He was 38 years old. Besides work as an actor and musician, he is important in GLBT history because he was one of the first actors to publicly disclose his HIV status.  I’ve also posted an appearance he made on the Donahue, not long before his death.  His comments are polarizing, his histrionics at times, disturbing.  But he’s still, in the midst of his illness, clearly, full of life.

I wish I knew more about Stephen Stucker. I found an archived interview with him online where he spoke about how supportive and loving his entire family was as he battled AIDS. It moved me because I know that when you’re going through life’s challenges, it’s nice to have family holding you up. Maybe one of these days, a sibling or niece or nephew or close friend will come across this blog and share a story or two. I’d love that. To me, he is so much more than that gay guy from Airplane, but when you think about it, that’s really not such a bad thing to be known as either.

“You are Not Handsome.”

sc0036b468Okay, let me preface this by saying that I clearly haven’t been making a habit of it, but tonight, this post is entirely sponsored by Maker’s Mark and also a couple of glasses of sauvignon blanc.  There will be typos.  I’ll say things I’ll probably regret in the morning, but that’s okay, my mom is out of town and won’t see this until Monday or Tuesday.

Let me start by saying, I am a little fascinated by the attention my last blog has received on Twitter.  Apparently, Jimmy Fallon has a lot of angry twentysomething female fans.  I’ve received several private messages about Let it Go?, some in support and others saying she was too sensitive.  All I can say is, while I do like anything that encourages dialogue, I don’t think it’s cool to hurt a person’s feelings.  If you hurt someone’s feelings, even if you think they are overreacting, just apologize.  You have nothing to lose and who knows how much it might mean to them.  Okay, end of sermon.

When I was swimming this morning, I thought about this young woman I worked with back at the Popover Cafe in NYC in the early ’90s.  Her name was Conan Morrissey.  If I was sober, I might have made up a pseudonym, but I’m not, so that is her real name!  We worked together.  She was an actress with dirty blond hair that bore a striking resemblance to a young Glenn Close.  She had a pedigree, I think she did her graduate program somewhere fancy (Louisville, maybe?)  Anyway, one night at work, we were talking about something and I casually mentioned I thought I was handsome.  I certainly don’t remember a time when I talked about my good looks, but at 25, in 1993, when I ran at least 5 miles a day through the streets of Manhattan, I probably was as good as I’ve ever looked.  Anyway, I said something along the lines of “I am handsome.”  My co-worker, a female who was quite literally the definition of a “handsome woman” told me pointedly, “You are not handsome.”  I was crestfallen, easily.  “Well, cute, maybe?” I offered.  “No, you are not handsome or cute.  You’re just NOT, I’m sorry.”  

And we went about our business and the rest of the time I worked with her, I kept trying to act handsome-ish in the hopes that she might come to me and say, “Ray, I’m sorry, I was wrong.  You are handsome.”  It never happened.  She moved away to Vermont or something to run a theatre company with her boyfriend, who seemed a little gay, if you ask me, not that you did.

Now, my last blog post, about my friend Carreen, who can hold a grudge for a very long time, made me think about myself and the grudges I hold.  I’m not saying I think about Conan every day, but when I do think of her, I do get kind of pissed.  She really knew me at my peak and if I wasn’t handsome THEN, then when?  

I just think it’s a good rule of thumb to tell your friends (or co-workers) that they are handsome or cute or look great in that outfit or that that sweater makes their eyes pop or whatever makes them feel good about themselves.  I think we all have enough negative voices inside our heads that we don’t need the people who are supposed to be our support system to tell us how average we are.  But, hey, that’s me.  

Conan Morrissey, wherever you are, I’m fine, don’t worry about me.  I have people who tell me on a daily basis how cute my plaid shirt is, even if they don’t always mean it.  But if you do happen to stumble across this someday, I hope that by now you’ve learned to be just a little bit nicer.  You could scar a person for life with the things that you say.

And for the rest of you, I’ve added at picture of me with my parents at twenty five. Maybe I wasn’t handsome, maybe I wasn’t even cute. But I’m very protective of that guy and I think he was very special. A little squirrely, maybe, but not without his charms.

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A few years ago, outside the stage door of a Broadway theater, I found myself herded into a cattle holding pen along with about 200 other people.  My friends Michael and Kim and I were waiting for Broadway legend Kristin Chenoweth to come out and greet us after a performance of the show she was starring in at the time, Promises, Promises.  And yes, this is the same Michael who often thoughtfully, eloquently, guest blogs here.

Michael and Kristin Chenoweth grew up in the same town and attended the same high school.  They walked the same halls, performed on the same stages, learned from the same teachers.  In fact, one such teacher, whom Michael is still close to, was the reason we were ushered into the front of the holding pen. There had been the possibility that we would get to go backstage, but it didn’t pan out.

It’s a humbling experience to be packed with hundreds of other people like that. There were security people yelling at us about where to stand, what to do. “No flash photography!”
To her credit, Kristin was gracious when she came out. Michael teased her by calling her Kristie Dawn, the name she went by when she was just a young Oklahoma girl with a big voice and a dream. She good-naturedly dead-panned, “Don’t call me that.” She and Michael talked Broken Arrow for a few moments, then she signed our programs, said hi to a few others and then climbed into a waiting SUV and was whisked away.

And I was both exhilarated and depressed by the experience. It made me us feel both special and insignificant. But while she and Michael stood talking, I felt an odd resentment boiling beneath the surface. I thought, Kristie Dawn, you really don’t know who you are talking to. Talk about a legend.

I met Michael several years ago when we did Party together. He was, even then, an available, funny, skilled actor. And through the years, I’ve been lucky to see him in many roles and he continues to expand himself. The last thing I saw him in was a production of Greater Tuna where he expertly and seemingly effortlessly became 20 different characters, 20 inhabited lives. And if Michael were only an actor, that would be enough to make him the kind of star around which the world orbits. (Full confession, I’m no Isaac Asimov.) But, I think the thing that makes Michael truly a legend is that he’s the best friend anyone could ever have. I know a lot of people, but I don’t think I know anyone as beloved as Michael Patrick Gaffney. And if you’re reading this and you know him, you know what I’m talking about. He remembers the details of your life, he reminds you of memories that you’ve shared, he does not pontificate, but always makes you feel he’s rooting for you. And I can never see Lucille Ball or peanut butter or a lady bug without thinking of him.

I don’t know if MPG will ever be as famous or as rich as the little one (his name for her, not mine.) If we lived in a world that made sense, he’d have Tonys and Emmys and 912,398 Twitter followers, too. But I actually think, in many ways, Michael’s life is richer than, well, richer than most. He is loved and he knows how much he is loved. And we’re just lucky to have him in our lives. Because I knew him, because I know him, I have been changed for good.