1) What was the first play you ever did? What role/job?
Well, the first role that said to my family "Dang, this boy has moxie" was my riveting portrayal of the all-singing, all-dancing 'Cheshire Cat' in the Westminster Center School's Spring musical production of Alice in Wonderland, performed onstage in the grand and spacious 300-seat auditorium of the Bellows Falls Union High School (in Bellows Falls, Vermont) in May of 1982. I had arrived. The production was most notable for the fact that it starred Claudia Williams, daughter of Red Sox Hall-of-Fame Hitting Legend Ted Williams, in the title role of Alice. Most of the community came out to see her and try to get a glimpse of her prodigious pop. Soldiering on in relative anonymity, I sang a rag-time version of 'Twas Brillig' complete with straw hat and bamboo cane, and the audience gave me the kind of ovation reserved for a three-run shot into Williamsburg. It was a really fantastic feeling. My Grandparents came up from Massachusetts to see the show, and I remember my Grandmother hugging me so tightly all weekend that I thought my eyes were going to pop out... There was a rumor that Teddy Ballgame himself actually came and sat in the back of the theatre, but we didn't actually meet him until the spring of 1983, when he showed up at our track meet against our rivals from Chester, VT, (which, BTW, his daughter won handily) and signed autographs for twenty-five minutes.
...So, that's when we all knew I had some theatrical Moxie. Coincidentally, Ted Williams used to advertise 'Moxie' the soft drink that is still popular in Maine-- the favorite beverage of Theatre IV's Andy Boothby, a fellow New Englander.
I'm telling you, it always comes back to New England.
The other, perhaps more significant stepping-stone was when I was cast as Nick in Scranton Public Theatre's 1987 revival of 'A Thousand Clowns' directed by Pulitzer-Prize Winning Writer-Director-Actor Jason Miller. Folks may recognize the late Mr. Miller as the embattled father Damien Karras in 1973's The Exorcist.
My father's job had moved us from Vermont to Scranton, PA, and my Mother, emboldened by my exploits in Wonderland, enrolled me in the Lucan Center's 'Acting Classes For children' under the direction of the late, great teacher Rita Julius. Rita suggested that SPT give me an audition for the role of Nick, and at the first audition (along with 40 other hopefuls for the role) I met Jason and read really well. The next day, duing callbacks, there was only one other kid in the lobby. I gave it my best shot and then, as kids are so amazingly able to do, I forgot about it all. About a week later, playing basketball with my Friend Danny Walker, I got the call from SPT that they wanted to use me. That one phone call changed everything, and set me on the path to making acting my life. From then on, it became important to me to do the best job possible for whatever audience I would find myself in front of. I owe a great deal to the Scranton Public Theatre, and to Mr Miller, whom I always wanted to work with again, but never got the opportunity. Jason Miller died in May of 2001.
2) What was your most recent show? What job/role?
I just finished an incredible run as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at Theatre IV in Richmond. The cast was like a big family, and every night was something new and fun. I particluarly enjoyed the dressing room debates on politics and religion with Woody Robinson, who played Uncle Henry. I met a whole host of great people, and I go to watch the talents of Alia Bisharat as Dorothy, Christopher Stewart as Scarecrow, and Richrd Koch as the Tin Man from the best seat in the house. That cast was like one big happy family.
I'm currently gearing up for tomorrow's premiere of Barksdale's revival of The Odd Couple at the gorgeously renovated Hanover Tavern space. I'm honored to finally be able to work opposite David Bridgewater, who has been a standout performer in the DC/VA theatre scene for years and years. I'm also very grateful to be able to work with my wife, Jennifer Meharg, who brings vivacity to the role of Cecily Pigeon (she looks great in the costume too-- trust me, it's worth the price of admission...)
3) What was your most fun show/role?
That is a very tough question to answer. I always have fun, but each show is 'fun' in different ways. I really enjoy screwball comedies like Scapino!, Rounding Third, Tartuffe, and Where's Charley?... Generally, whatever show I'm working on is the most fun for me. I find that fun people are everywhere in the theatre world-- I count myself lucky to be in constant contact with them.
4) What was your most challenging show/role?
Probably the demands of I AM MY OWN WIFE-- 36 characters all done by one person-- the show was essentially put up in two weeks, and I did much of the 'Homework' of learnign the lines when I was in Gloucester, Massachusetts, working on the new Israel Horovitz play The Secret of Madame Bonnard's Bath. 'Bath' went up with two and a half weeks of rehearsal, followed by a three-week run. Then I jetted back to Richmond and put on a black dress to play a 65-year old german transvestite and her associates. It was one of the most difficult and challenging periods of my artistic life, but I find that it is often that urgency which creates compelling art.
5) What is the most bizarre show or role you've ever done?
I did Ionesco's Bald Soprano for a High School Showcase in my senior year. I really enjoyed the breakdown of language in it. I heard recently that U of Richmond took that play to Moscow with acting standout Sean Hudock opposite Walter Schoen and Dorothy Holland. Boy, I'd love to see that.
6) Has anyone ever written a show for you? Yes. I can't say much more than that. I don't want to jinx anything.
7) Have you ever gotten romantically involved with a co-star? Yes-- we celebrate four years of marriage on July 12th!!
8) Have you ever quit a show to accept a better one? Yes, I have. It really had nothing to do with being a 'better' show-- the facts of life often necessitate taking
jobs with longer runs, taking into account accruals of Equity health insurance weeks, and a whole host of other real-world considerations. Luckily, I haven't burned any bridges, and those times have proven to be learning experiences for me.
9) Have you ever completely blown character on stage? Yes. During a performance of Olympus on my Mind, we all cracked up at something, and it was contagious laughter that made the audience cackle. Luckily, it was the play-within-the-play format, so the audience was laughing at what they thought were the characters' inability to control themselves. Our Stage Manager laid down the law, and that was that.
10) What show are you just dying to do?
I'd really enjoy the opportunity to do Jason Miller's play That Championship Season and play the alcoholic Tom Daley. That's one of my favorite plays. Others I've got in my sights include John Adams in 1776, Ko-Ko in The Mikado (Did it in college, but I could do it much better now) Roche in Ron Hutchinson's Rat in the Skull (a play about IRA terrorism) Mr. Nickles in MacLeish's J.B; I'd also like to do JP Shanley's DOUBT... But the one I'm really chomping at the bit to do is Richard III.
11) Have you ever done one of your "dream" shows?
Yes, Man of La Mancha in High School opposite Elizabeth Banks (The nymphomaniac in 'The Forty-Year Old Vigin') Me and My Girl in college and Bat Boy: The Musical! At Firehouse Theatre Project.
12) Who was your favorite director? Oh, gosh-- well, I love working with Rick St. Peter, Steve Perigard and Ralph Hammann. They have a great balance between too tight/too loose-- they all know what they want, but they create enough space to experiment & play, and they all have a real sense of where a production is as it grows. Communication is always key with them. So is a sense of play & humor. I also loved working with Drew Scott Harris, Bill Patton, Morrie Piersol, Rusty Wilson, Ford Flannagan, David Salter, Susan Sanford, Anthony Luciano, Grant Mudge, Dawn Westbrook, Jan Guarino, Foster Solomon, Bruce Miller, K Strong and many others. The list is loooong. Joe Pabst has done a great job hitting all the comedic beats and telling the story of the 'Odd Couple.' See for yourself.
13) Who was your least favorite director? There are some things we just don't do, and one of them is to directly answer questions like that. Generally, I find that an inability to communicate clearly is detrimental to working well in the theatre. If we can get clear on what we want to do and need to do, and determine the best way to acheive a goal, we will be successful. Some of the worst times I have had have come when a director has simply not been clear with me what he or she needs to see-- and has not really cared to help me get there. I must say, causing an actor to flail about in self-doubt and negativity generated by unclear expectations and nebulously-defined objectives is counter-productive to say it politely. Worst of all, if you remove the creative safety-net for an actor, you stifle his or her creative spontaneity. That's not good. I don't like to be there with that kind of energy. That's all I have to say about that.
14) What is the most surprising role you have ever been offered?
Chicken in Kingdom of Earth. I thought, "this is a Stanley Kowalski type role and I'm built like Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley..." But I thought it worked really well. I loved working with Bill Patton, and his son Will was very encouraging when he came ot see it.
15) Have you ever injured yourself onstage?
Yes, I bruised my ribs in a fall during a saturday matinee of Scapino! I was standing atop one of the huge iron posts during the 'sack scene' (with Jack Parrish muttering 'The sack is too small, dammit,' from inside the burlap bag) and I slipped and the wind got knocked right out of me as the post drove itself into my side. My face went white and somehow I made it through the rest of the scene on sheer adrenaline. They only had to cancel two shows, thankfully, but the real pain came when my buddy Dave Clark called me the next day and made me laugh over the phone. Excrutiatingly painful.
16) Have you ever worked on an original play?
Yes, a few, as a matter of fact. Brimstone, the Irish musical premiered at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in June 1994. I've also done staged readings of the new musicals Silver Dollar, No Way to Treat a Lady, and Calamity. And, of course, 'Bonnard.'
17) What show(s) have you done multiple times?
The SantaLand Diaries, You Can't Take it with You, The Wizard of Oz, Scapino and The Lost Colony outdoor drama.
18) Have you ever done different adaptations of the same show?
No, I never have.
19) What roles do you usually get?
Quirky, comedic clown roles in Musicals & comedies, but I think I'm also really good at taking things the other way. I am very fortunate to get the roles I've been offered, and I really feel that in many ways, I'm entering a new phase of my life. My work should reflect that-- I'd like to do shows that adress things which I would like to talk about.
20) Have you ever had an onstage kiss?
Yes, several. The weirdest ones were when I was doing Bat Boy and The Diary of Anne Frank, respectively-- both of my co-stars were sixteen or seventeen years old. Emma Orelove was still in High school. Paging Chris Hanson from Dateline NBC!!!
21) What was your scariest moment in a show?
When I hurt myself in the Scapino matinee-- at first I thought "Ohh, boy, I did some really serious damage." I couldn't breathe, and for a second, I thought I might die like Moliere, spitting up blood onstage. Funny, Scapino is a re-working of Moliere's Les Fouberies De Scapin or 'The tricks of Scapin'. And luckily , I didn't die!! Yay!!
22) What is your best show memory?
Singing 'Happiness' with the cast of 'You're a good man, Charlie Brown.'
Having Danny Hoch come & see 'Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop.'
Every night of 'The Laramie Project.'
Seeing my family in the fist three rows during 'Oz.' (The musical, not the HBO prison drama.)
Hearing Eleanor Dare's Lullaby & then starting Final March in 'The Lost Colony.'
Having my dad in the crowd to see 'Scapino!'-- the first show he'd seen me in in ten years or so.
Switching roles nightly in 'Rounding Third.'
'If we Shadows...' Hearing Andrew Hamm's music at the end of 'Midsummer' nightly.
23) What is your worst show memory?
Having to quit the 2001 North Carolina run of 'Ella & Her Fella, Frank' because the producer was a sly, conniving fella whose checks were made of rubber. I honestly ended that run with less money than I started with. Luckily I went union later that year-- That period was unquestionably the nadir of my professional life.
24) Have you ever pulled a prank on someone in a show?
During the run of 'Wizard of Oz', I must confess to some light-hearted scampery. Every evening when Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch, Michael Hawke would exclaim: "Hail!! Hail Dorothy!! You are now our Queen!!" And since I was facing upstage, I would point to myself as if to say "Me? I'm the Queen?" Either that or I would pretend to be sick because a woman just melted right in front of me, or I woukd pretend to be afraid of Dorothy for her capacity to take a life, or perplexed by the mob menatlity of the Winkies who celebrated cold-blooded murder; things like that. At times when the Tin man would say "Listen!! It Ticks!! My heart!! It TICKS!!" I would back away from it veeeery slowly, ever so slightly. In many cases, I was giving as good as I got-- Richard Koch kept me in stitches with the stuff he used to mutter to me out of the corner of his tin mouth... "Let's take a caller!!"
25)Have you ever been the recipient of a prank during a show?
Yes, John Dehasse used to mess with me big-time when I worked at Busch Gardens Williamsburg doing the Enchanted Laboratory show. I used to have to go offstage for like a brief moment or two-- John would hide backstage and grab me so I couldn't make my entrance ontime.
26) Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I usually say 'Scottish play' in the theatre. i just do, I don't know why. Probably because of the lore that it has-- it's really a tradition thing, I suppose.
27) Ever had a show open or close too early in its run?
Yes-- the aforemntioned revival of Elaa & her fella, Frank in 2001. I just couldn't do it, and my bowing out essentially pulled the plug on the whole venture. sorry, Herman. No pay, no play. I gotta get that cheddar, Bitch.
Friday, June 22, 2007
WILTON, Conn. - She could not look at her principal. The words coming out of his mouth infuriated her.
There would be no play about the war in Iraq, he told the drama class at Wilton High School: The topic was too controversial, too complicated.0622 04
Sitting in the front row of the campus theater on a March morning, Erin Clancy squeezed another drama student’s hand and tried to hold back tears. They had been preparing for the production of “Voices in Conflict” for two months. One student sitting onstage began to yell and curse. The performing arts department head ordered her to address the principal with respect.
Erin didn’t want to offend him either. In her four years at Wilton High, she had grown to like the principal. But this play meant more to her than others she had acted in, like “West Side Story” and “Grease.” She had to say something.
Her voice trembled. She was 18 - old enough to fight in the war, Erin told him, and old enough to vote for leaders who send people to war. So why couldn’t she perform in a play about it?
It was not open for debate. Principal Timothy Canty told the students his mind was made up.
He left, and the students swarmed their drama teacher. It had been Bonnie Dickinson’s idea for them to research the war and come up with monologues based on the words of U.S. soldiers culled from documentaries, books and articles. Dickinson had stayed quiet during the principal’s talk. The students asked her: What do we do now?
Dickinson told them she didn’t think there was anything they could do: He was the principal, and he made the rules.
The students talked of writing letters to the local newspaper or protesting the principal’s decision. There had to be something they could do to change his mind.
It didn’t seem fair, Erin recalled telling her father in their family room later that evening. There was a war going on, and she wanted her classmates to care about it.
IT started as an end-of-the-year project.
Dickinson, 53, a drama teacher at Wilton High School for 13 years, wanted her students to perform something with substance. She thought of a former Wilton High student, Nicholas Madaras, who had joined the Army after graduating in 2005. He was killed in September by a roadside bomb. Dickinson had not followed news about the war closely but figured she could learn about it, along with her students, by creating a play.
She began collecting sources in which soldiers had talked about their experiences. The goal, she told the class, was to present different viewpoints. They would piece together a series of vignettes from real-life characters.
One of several documentaries students watched for their research was called “The Ground Truth,” in which veterans condemned the war and their treatment by the military after returning home from Iraq. Many supporters of the war consider it a biased film. To balance the students’ references, Dickinson found books and articles in which soldiers talked proudly of their job, and the importance of fighting for freedom.
The veterans in “The Ground Truth” touched some of her students. James Presson, 16, could not get Navy veteran Charlie Anderson out of his mind. In the film, Petty Officer 2nd Class Anderson, 30, talked about suffering from post-traumatic stress, and how his life fell apart after fighting in Iraq.
James was named after his uncle, who died fighting in the Vietnam War. He watched the news daily, and couldn’t understand why his teachers did not discuss the war in his social studies classes. He often noticed yellow ribbons, American flags, and “Support Our Troops” banners in Wilton, an affluent community of 18,000 about 50 miles northeast of New York City. But he seldom heard anyone talk about why the troops were fighting and dying.
Watching the film, James wondered how Anderson must have felt to come home to a daughter who didn’t remember him and a marriage that fell apart. He thought about what it would be like to go from being a proud U.S. soldier to a lonely veteran who could not find a job.
James wanted to act Anderson’s story.
Erin, who loves wearing high heels and anything pink, was surprised she identified with soldiers who had shot people and lost limbs. She empathized with the young woman who joined the military to pay for college and ended up agonizing over starving children in Iraq.
Something Anderson said in the documentary stuck with Erin too. He talked about coming home from the war and trying to relate to his friends:
“It’s just that our priorities were different,” he said. “It was hard finding friends. People were boring to me, not that I was that interesting of a person. I just always thought they talked about stupid stuff.”
Before working on this play, Erin used to listen to reports about Paris Hilton. Now she pays attention to news about soldiers killed in Iraq. Her friends outside of drama class didn’t understand her preoccupation.
After her research, Erin concluded that she supported the war. She believed the government should finish what it started. She wanted other students to learn enough to form their own opinions too.
The class had not finished putting together a script when the principal called the drama teacher into his office. Canty told Dickinson that parents were concerned about the play’s content, she later recalled. A student, whose brother was serving in Iraq, had expressed interest in performing in the play. But once the student got involved, she disagreed with its direction because she felt it was antiwar. Her mother complained to the school.
Dickinson offered to revise the script, but Canty was not satisfied. When he visited the class, students asked whether they could perform the play for their parents. Canty said no. They could not perform the play at Wilton High, or anywhere else.
A few days later, someone tipped off the media.
The drama students suspected it was a parent, angry that the play was canceled. Local and national television programs and newspapers did stories. Strangers from across the world encouraged the students, and soldiers stationed in Iraq sent words of support, including Anderson from “The Ground Truth.”
Then came the backlash. Someone had started a Facebook Web page criticizing the drama class. One posting said the students should be “hanged for treason.” Others called them “worthless” and “unpatriotic” kids with “liberal pig parents.”
At first, the drama students were scared and nervous to return to school. In hallways, kids tried to pick fights with them. Others talked behind their backs or shouted: “You take that play somewhere else!”
The girl with a brother in Iraq had been friends with many on the cast, but she stopped speaking to them.
“Our student body has very much rejected our play,” Erin said, “and everything we stand for.”
James learned to shrug off the name-calling and glares. He tried instead to explain to people why he felt so strongly about the play.
“Getting away from the body counts and images is OK,” he said. “You need to escape and watch ‘American Idol’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ But there are times when the real facts must be faced. We’ve got something huge going on.”
Supt. Gary Richards issued a statement calling the script’s language “graphic and violent,” and said allowing students to act as soldiers “turns powerful material into a dramatic format that borders on being sensational and inappropriate.”
Outraged by the censorship, professional theater directors contacted Dickinson. A Connecticut playhouse invited the students to perform there, and two New York venues asked to feature “Voices in Conflict” off-Broadway in June.
A 1st Amendment attorney who had heard about the play contacted Dickinson. He offered to represent her pro bono. With the lawyer’s backing, the class made a decision that the school administration did not fight.
The students were headed to New York.
GRADUATION and the play were a month away. Erin stayed busy preparing for the ceremony, taking final exams and practicing her lines at night. The days grew more hectic. For most of the students, their biggest audiences had been made up of friends and family. Now it would be theater-lovers and reporters. In June, they had three hourlong performances scheduled in Connecticut and three in New York.
Dickinson coached the actors late into the night. They rewrote the script at the last minute, incorporating letters from soldiers and the students’ experiences after the principal banned the play.
The teacher smiled and teased the students during rehearsal, but she had her own worries - the school had placed her under administrative review. Her attorney, Martin Garbus, said Dickinson had been accused of trying to present a biased play that violated copyrights, mobilizing the students to follow her political agenda and lying about what was in the script.
It would be weeks before the administration concluded Dickinson’s job was safe. Until then, she tried not to let it discourage her.
“This is high school with kids who could, at any minute, enlist,” she said. “We have recruiters in the cafeteria all the time. They wanted to learn about the war. Can’t they learn about it for God’s sake?”
IN 20 minutes, the final show in New York would begin. Inside the Public Theater, the cast gathered in a basement dressing room, littered with their McDonald’s bags and Starbucks cups. It was the same building where “Hair,” a play about hippies opposed to the Vietnam War, had premiered in 1967. Forty years later, the drama students from Wilton High were about to have their most important night in the spotlight.
“I’m kind of freaking out a little bit,” said James, pacing in a corner.
In less than two hours he would meet Anderson, the war veteran whose character he was playing. The students and their families had paid to fly Anderson from his home in Virginia to see the show.
Erin applied foundation around her eyes in front of a mirror. She would graduate tomorrow, but she was more anxious about tonight. Erin could not believe she was going to act in front of such an imposing audience - most notably Anderson, and another character in the play, National Guard Lt. Paul Rieckhoff.
Dickinson whisked through the dressing room: “Kids, listen up, put on your strongest voices!”
“I’m nervous!” a student yelled.
“Bonnie, do we have a full house?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “There’s many people out there lined up. It’s totally booked.”
As the lights dimmed, more than 225 people waited for the show to begin.
The 16 teenagers stood onstage, forming two parallel lines. They wore jeans, cargo pants, T-shirts, canvas sneakers, black flats. One wore a camouflage bandana. Together they said: “We choose to hear the voices of those who serve.”
A harmonica played. Erin stepped to the front of the stage as the rest of the cast sat in chairs behind her. She recited a monologue from Army Reserve Sgt. Lisa Haynes: “So I go to Iraq. And on the road we saw a lot of Iraqi kids, poor kids, hungry, pretty kids. Malnourished with big stomachs. We were told not to give them anything. They would come up to your vehicles hungry and we weren’t allowed to give them anything.”
Then it was James’ turn. He rubbed his hands together and brushed his fingers through his hair: “The doctors say I have post-traumatic stress disorder…. My symptoms didn’t show up right away. Then everything just caught up to me and hit me all at once.”
“I have nightmares,” he continued. “Everybody says I didn’t do anything I should be ashamed of. So why can’t I sleep?”
As the play went on, the characters talked of killing insurgents and killing innocent people, missing their families and missing Iraq, loving their country and feeling anger toward it. One spoke of praying for the opportunity to fight. After serving, he talked of witnessing life get better for the Iraqi people. Some of the words came from soldiers who had been killed in the war. The actors recited their names, ages and dates of death.
“Voices in Conflict” ended with a standing ovation. Some audience members wiped tears from their eyes.
Anderson walked up to James and gave him a hug.
In a discussion afterward, Anderson rose from the audience: “The Navy’s core values are honor, courage and commitment,” he told the class, “and I can say beyond any doubt that you all exemplified all of them.”
Anderson asked the students how this experience had changed them.
Erin answered on behalf of her classmates: “We just have come away with the utmost respect for everything that you have done for our country,” she said. “Thank you.”
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times |
Saturday, June 02, 2007
This scene always gives me chills. Tha Aaron Sorkin can write, I'll tellya.
Would that more politicians could follow the dictates of their conscience and do what's right for the country because it makes sense, not just to pay lip service to their constituents and ride the surf of public opinion polls....
Would that more politicians could follow the dictates of their conscience and do what's right for the country because it makes sense, not just to pay lip service to their constituents and ride the surf of public opinion polls....