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

stage door 3

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.

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Marilyn Monroe’s Amanda Wingfield

marilyn monroe carlyle blackwell 5Yesterday, I was discussing the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie that I was lucky enough to see last week.  The person I was speaking with, an actress of a certain age, asked me what I thought of the production.  I told her that when you see a play like that, you have a hope that you are going to witness the definitive portrayal of these iconic characters.  I had hoped to see the definitive Amanda, the matriarch of the Wingfield family or the definitive Tom, the narrator and central, autobiographical character of the play.  In my humble opinion, that is not what I witnessed.  Both Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto gave heartfelt, formidable performances, but I left wanting a little more.

My friend, I’ll call her Jane, said that an actor needs to understand the poetry of Williams to play his characters.  I agreed and admitted to a struggle with the poetry when I worked on another Williams character in an acting class.  “You know who would have made a wonderful Amanda?” Jane asked me.  “Who?”

“Marilyn Monroe.”  

I confess to you that I actually gasped a little when she said that.  “You mean Laura?”  I asked.  “No, Amanda.”  Jane went on to tell me that many years ago, she had been in the same acting class as Marilyn.  She told me her Amanda would have been something to see.  In some ways, I’ll admit, I couldn’t see it.  

And yet, in the two days since she put this idea in my head, it’s all I can think about.  One would not have a hard time believing that Marilyn’s Amanda would have had a trail of gentlemen callers.  One would not have a hard time believing that Marilyn’s Amanda would have chosen the most unpromising of those gentlemen callers.   Marilyn’s Amanda would have understood that Williams is funny.  And Marilyn’s Amanda, entering the living room with the ridiculous old cotillion dress from her youth, would have been, as Jane put it, something to see.  So many possibilities.

If you are a drama nerd like me, and you’re still reading this, no doubt, you’ve had your own opinions pop into your head about the possibility of Marilyn Monroe’s Amanda Wingfield.  Maybe you like the idea, maybe you hate the idea.  Whether over a cup of coffee or a Makers Mark neat, these are the conversations I love.

Because this is the way my little brain works, I think of what might have happened if Marilyn had played Amanda.  What might Amanda have unlocked for Marilyn.  There is something exciting about living with a character that helps us understand the world we live in and understand ourselves better.  Maybe Amanda could have saved Marilyn, maybe she wouldn’t have left this world so young.  And maybe Amanda would have turned Marilyn into a great actress, not just a compelling movie star.

And there is something else about yesterday’s conversation that I’ve carried with me.  It goes back to those possibilities.  I told Jane that Marilyn as Amanda sounded so wrong and Jane said, “It might be!  And it might be so wrong that it’s right!”  Maybe this conversation will unlock in me the practice to see the possibilities for myself, that Tom Wingfield isn’t the only one with tricks in his pocket, things up his sleeve.

What’s on Your Napkin?

Gotham City Improv gang @ Dwyers pubOver twenty years ago, I was cast in small role in a play in New York.  One of the leads was a woman I’ll call Amy, since that is her name.  She was one of the most magical performers I’ve ever seen.  I remember watching her in rehearsal, marvelling at how funny she was, and also so quick, too.  We seldom talked to each other, I was fairly shy and she was the star.  I remember one rehearsal when the entire cast went out to eat together and Amy sat there knitting while everyone else chattered excitedly. She was so mysterious, she made me think of the greats, like Geraldine Page or Maureen Stapleton or Sandy Dennis.  In fact, she sort of looked like a young Sandy Dennis.

A few months later, I took a class at a place called Gotham City Improv.  By fate, Amy was my teacher.  It was the second level of their program, I had taken the first level earlier in the year.  Although I passed, my first level experience was unremarkable.  Well, that’s not true, probably.  I didn’t connect with any of the other students, I did not feel like any of the other students thought I was funny or interesting.  I also did not feel like I was funny or interesting.  Level 2 was different.  I made three new friends in that class, 3 people who have been my friends for twenty years now.  I’ll call them Maryanne, Jerry and Rebecca, because those are their names.  Jerry loved every old movie, just like me.  Maryanne knew every detail of every 70’s sitcom, just like me.  And Rebecca, floated in and out of every scene like the Tennessee Williams meets Beth Henley character that she is, just like, well, just like I see myself in my dreams.  I thought that they were all three magical and funny and interesting and they treated me that way, too.  We laughed.  We wrote.  We sang.  We collaborated.  We actually took every subsequent level together.  We passed every class and looking back, I wonder if I would have succeeded in the same way, if not for them.  I wrote for them.  I would improvise for them, thinking, what will make Jerry and Rebecca and Maryanne laugh?

A few months after I moved to LA, Rebecca moved here, too.  Also, around the same time, I was walking out of my apartment building and I saw Amy walking in.  “What are you doing here?” I asked.  “I’m moving in here.  Do you live here?”  Of all the apartments in LA, by fate or by chance, Amy moved into my building.  And over movies we rented from the corner Blockbuster and budget batches of sangria, we became the best of friends.  

And then Jerry moved to LA and the four of us, Amy, Rebecca, Jerry and I spent a great deal of time together.  We’d see each others plays.  We’d take turns hosting little dinner parties.    And then Jerry moved away.  

Amy met a guy named Jonathan.  He added seamlessly into the mix.  It’s always nice when your friend dates someone you like.  And it’s even better, but actually a little rare, when you like them so much that they become your friend, too.  And of course, that’s what happened with Jonathan.  

I remember one night, several years ago, when Rebecca, Amy, Jonathan and I were at happy hour and Rebecca shared her napkin theory, how we all have a napkin with what we have available listed on it.  It can be objects, like a camera or a computer or a recording studio or a car, but it can also be your skill set, like accents or writing or improv or organization.  Also, on your napkin, you should list the friends that you have, that you can collaborate with.  At the time, we teased Rebecca about her napkin theory.  We still do.  But she couldn’t be more perceptive.  We all have a napkin.  And we owe it to ourselves to ask, “What’s on my napkin?”

I was thinking about my napkin last Monday night after my Spark show.  Rebecca, Amy and Jonathan and I went for drinks together.  There was a spirit of celebration, the show had gone well.  And those three have been friends with me long enough and seen enough shows that did not go well, that we revelled in the glory.

My napkin is very full.  I don’t say that to brag, because I don’t have a movie camera or a great talent for accents.  But what I do have is an embarrassment of riches in the talented friend department.  I feel so lucky to have collaborated with so many people, friends from Gotham City and Popover and Groundlings and Party and Barney Greengrass and Uncabaret.   You know who you are.  

Another thought occurred to me last Monday, which is, you never know, when you meet them, who is going to be an under 5 and who is going to be a co-star in your story.  As I sat with Rebecca, Amy and Jonathan, I marvelled at the prominence we’ve had in each others’ lives.  And how lucky I am that they are on my napkin.  

These Are the People

tenneseeI’m reading Costly Performances right now, an account of the last few years of playwright Tennessee Williams’ life, written by his friend, Bruce Smith.  It is a funny, sad, informative, salacious read.  Last night, I read a passage about the opening of his last Broadway premiere, Clothes for Summer Hotel.  It did not look likely that the reviews or following box office would be good, but after the show, as they stepped into the alley, Tennessee and Bruce were met by a group of fans.  One man, in particular, held out a stack of books and said, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Williams, would you be kind enough to autograph these for me?”  Bruce Smith, who was there, thought that the fan was imposing too much by asking Williams to stand there in the rain and sign 12 books.  Williams graciously signed each one and then moved on to every person standing in this line, people who probably not had even been inside the show for financial or booking reasons.

When Smith asked him about his graciousness in what was a trying time.  (His play did open to poor reviews and the show only lasted a few days on Broadway.  Furthermore, the opening date had been decided to coincide with his 69th birthday, so they were en route to a less than festive birthday party/opening night party.)  Tennessee only said, “These are my people, I know these are my readers, people whom I’ve communicated in some quite human and genuine manner.  That man who wanted me to sign all those books, I know he’ll have to sell them, probabbly to pay his rent.  These are the people I relate to and for.  They’re all so far removed from the group inside the theatre.  And to think that some one critic in there is going to decide against their being able to see one last big play of mine.  I could feel it as we sat there during the performance of the play.  They’re warming for the kill, baby, they’re warming for the kill.”

I can’t stop thinking about the image of Tennessee standing in the rain, signing autographs and making connections to people like, well, people like me.  Around that time, I was a 12 year old boy who spent every Saturday at my local library.  About 12 was when I discovered, and discovered would be the word, the play section in the upstairs aisles at the Independence Public Library.  I would sit for hours and read plays and leaf through the pictures in “The Best Plays” series.  It was my window into a world that I dreamed I’d be a part of.  It was the beginning of a life-long love affair.  So, when I read this, it affirms what I always believed when I read Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, or saw Jessica Lange do A Streetcar Named Desire or watched Night of the Iguana and Summer and Smoke and Suddenly, Last Summer on TCM.  I know what Tom was trying to leave behind when he told Laura to blow out her candles because all of these characters and stories had been written for me and about me and to me, like a love letter.

Summer Camp Friend

photo-26My friend Eboni left LA last week, moving back to New York with a promise to return to LA as soon as possible. I am one of many Angelenos who hope that she will be back sooner, rather than later. She moved here in February, in part, to take an acting class, that’s where we met. With a little help from me, she got a job where I work and as it turned out, she moved into my neighborhood. We became fast friends. And there was something about the intensity and brevity of our time together that made me think of several Summer Camp friends that I only saw in the summers, and to this day, they are among my favorite people.

Thanks to Facebook, a few of these people are still in my life. My friend Melinda, who was the second girl I ever kissed, btw, is now a missionary in Africa. Her sister Michelle is a published writer who wrote a book about her years working for a carnival in Tales from the MIdway. There’s also Dawn, who reminded me of Michelle Perry, the prettiest girl in the class of ’83 in my high school. At camp, I would follow Dawn around camp like a puppy dog and do anything to make her laugh. All it takes for me to trip down memory lane is to hear the word haven and instantly, I’m a 16 year old at Hidden Haven Christian Camp. It was the awakening of so much who I am or was to become. In my hometown, I was made fun of a lot, I held back from doing things because I didn’t want to be ridiculed, but at camp, I sang solos and wrote skits and “testified.” It’s where I learned that I liked being in front of people. I developed crushes on my fellow campers, boys and girls, and it was more than a little confusing at the time. In the boys dorms, I’d have a friend that we would talk into the night, so proud of ourselves that we could chat about so many things until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. In my world at home, I did not feel interesting, but at camp, when I spoke, people listened to me. It’s the first place I heard an Amy Grant song. And every Friday, after we said our goodbyes, my Mom would take me home and I’d take a long, hot shower, then tumble into bed for an afternoon nap. As I drifted in and out of lucid dreams my heart would still be electrified by the events and people of the week.

Anyway, seeing Eboni leave last week, it brought back those memories of camp. We had such a fun time getting to know each other, working together, sharing a class together, taking walks in the neighborhood. If it sounds like I’m boasting when I say I introduced her to some of LA’s best Happy Hours like this and this and this, well, then I have to own my braggadocio! Every day at work before she left, I’d sing Michael W. Smith’s Friends to her. I have a hope that Eboni will move back to LA and our friendship will resume and even grow, but we never know what life holds. She and I may never live in the same city again. Still, I’m grateful and electrified by the time we spent together talking mai-tai’s and Tennessee Williams and baked goods and Alfre Woodard. And regardless of geography, just like Michael W. Smith says, there are some friendships that are forever.