Twenty pounds and four kids ago I wrote plays at a small, but potent theater company in L.A. It was a wellspring of raw and reckless talent. We were obsessed with ourselves and our art. We dug deep to unearth the spine of a character, examined each line for the emotional truth and pushed ourselves to the limits to live moment to moment on stage. Many of the actors I studied with are technically unknown, but have worked steadily ever since. Others, talented others, rarely booked a gig in spite of hundreds if not thousands of auditions. Some took matters into their own hands and became writers, directors or producers, while others survived on the residuals of canceled shows. Several were Second Generation Hollywood striving to be as good as if not better than their famous parents, but without a care for rent, gas money, health insurance or any other civilian duties that kept the rest of us waiting tables. Precious few broke the barriers and achieved commercial success. The two or three I’m thinking of were of such high-caliber, it was impossible for them to do anything but completely immerse themselves in the work. They were, and I’m certain still are, fanatics about achieving their personal best. With time and experience they learned to work through the highly technical nuances of film while simultaneously honing their razor-sharp instincts.
Although I worked with a phenomenal bunch of actors, small theater in L.A. is notoriously bad. And for good reason. Before Youtube and Funny or Die it was the means by which to many fledgling actors broke into the Industry. It wasn’t uncommon for an actor to bail on a play mid-run for a coveted TV job (especially during pilot season). Occasionally, young writers and directors who were legitimately trying to make their artistic mark would find themselves performing on stage where they didn’t belong. And too many times actors who were not writers would write and star in plays merely to showcase their talent (or lack thereof). Productions like these were viral. Being a working actor was better than being unemployed, so if a blight of a play came along, I usually took it. During the Clinton sex scandal I played Monica Lewinsky’s replacement, a white house intern hired to keep the president free of sexual tension. The guy who wrote, produced and directed this calamity was a scuzzy, stubble-faced, dirty-haired, baseball cap wearing, slouch of man (Hmm… I’ve just described Frank on 30 Rock, but this cat wasn’t nearly as endearing). The interior doors on stage were actually exteriors that lead to the alley behind the theater, which was our green room. We quick-changed amid trash cans, stray cats and electrical wires dressed with dangling sneakers. Fully naked in an alley. Even though I was embarrassed to have people come see it, the show wasn’t a total bust. I got to practice my stage kissing, I did some stage combat, and I learned how to use a whip. Why people came to see it remains a mystery.
One of the funniest showcases I’ve ever seen was by a pack of twenty-somethings in a torrent of random, shocking and totally senseless scenes. One such scene took place in a subway where a hot actressy-thing changed the diaper of a full-grown man-baby using a giant diaper, wipes, powder, and all. His kopfegashlagen flapped around like a dead fish and, being a small theatre, was too close for comfort. If the two “actors” weren’t snorting throughout (the kind of laugh that makes chocolate milk come out of your nose in the cafeteria) it very well may have been an exercise in fetish. What made it worthwhile were the two French tourists who’d wandered in off the street. We were few steps from Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame and the production was banking on walk-ins. The tourists paid full price and sat diagonally in front of me. There were maybe twenty-five of us in the audience. The couple became exceedingly dumbfounded. Their mouths hung open. They stole confused, disoriented glances from each other. I contracted an immediate and severe case of the giggles, which probably served to motivate the cast. As I writhed and crowed, the husband turned to his wife and said in his native tongue what I believed was, “Ah… I get it now… it’s nonsense… it’s theater absurd… it’s absurd! Just for fun!” She fixed her eyes on him and said nothing. What could anyone say? Four male actors were pretending to take a piss on the audience. I almost peed myself for real.
My second favorite atrocity took place at the Beverly Hills Playhouse where yet another desperate actor decided to write, direct and star in… I don’t know what to call it, really. The set was bare except for a floor to ceiling background curtain. The actors mimed to distraction almost everything including reading a news paper. Then came a scene about a phone. Apparently, this was the singular prop used. How unfortunate that the prop master forgot to replace it. The writer, director and star searched in vain for the ever-ringing phone, panicking as time ticked on. It was an excruciating two minutes for the audience. I worked with aerial-stuntmen of drama who had no trouble riding mishaps (mishaps were in fact our specialty), but the poor lad on stage was at a loss. Someone actually yelled, “Just go with it, Dude.” But it was beyond him. Finally… a frantic ripple of the curtain… footsteps… slowly, strangely, an old-school telephone peeped out from behind the curtain… and in the most peculiar staccato fashion… shove… shove… shove… shove… it cleared the fabric and thus sat hapless on the floor. It took on the ominous quality of the typewriter in Naked Lunch. The actor was near tears. “My God!” he cried as he rushed to the phone and just as he picked it up it rang. He hung it up. Silence. He picked up. It rang. Up down, up down, ring silence, ring silence. A bona-fide actor’s nightmare.
If this kind of thing happens in Portland, I’ve yet to see it. I’m approaching a place where I’m almost able to write again, so for the last two years I’ve gone to lots of shows around town. Just last week a commercial director from L.A. said, “Where will you do a reading? The theatre in Portland isn’t very good, is it?” The assumption is that Portland is too small to count. It reminded me of a run-in I had with a NY agent last summer. When I asked why he represents playwrights (who are notoriously poor and can’t possibly make much money for him) he jumped down my throat. But he never actually answered my question. All of the agents and managers I used to know practically died laughing when I told them I wanted to write plays. They berated me for not trying to write for television. I was hoping this NY agent would tell me that playwrights deserve representation in spite of their meager earnings, that theatre was his passion, that it wasn’t about money. I questioned him about the scores of playwrights who ultimately pursue more lucrative writing jobs. He more or less explained that he was speaking in terms of Portland. In NY he speaks NY. In L.A. he speaks L.A. I get what he meant, but it was clear that Portland didn’t rate a professional answer because we’re not really in the game. The truth is, Portland thrives with some of the most talented and motivated artists I’ve ever known. Of the four productions of Hamlet I’ve seen (Boston, New Haven, Los Angeles, and Ashland) the Portland production with its five-member cast is by far the best. (It’s in its last weeks – please see it if you can!) Perhaps it’s that the actors, writers and directors here are actually in it for the art. Their reward is not a shot at a better agent, a pilot or a general at a big studio, it’s the work itself. In a way it reminds me of the underground theatre scene in New York minus the pace, abruptness, and all the scarves. While it is true that Portland is a little pond, it’s also true that there’s an abundance of big fish here. And these big fish tell me that rather than heading to the big cities as it is Written, they’re staying put. Ah, yet another reason to bask in the coolness of Portland. Thespians from NY, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, etc., choose to be here. Something special is stirring in this little pond. Don’t take my word for it. Check out a few shows and see for yourself.