Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rehearsing [title of show]

ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Rehearsing [title of show]

By Seth Rudetsky

Hello from lovely New Jersey Transit. "Lovely" means crowded and hot, right? I'm on the train to get to [title of show] rehearsal. It's a lovely hour ride each way (see previous definition of "lovely"). The other fun part is there are young pretty college girls sitting in front of me passing around juice laced with alcohol. It's completely appropriate because it's 10:30 in the morning. Regardless, I'm loving rehearsal. We spent the first three days learning the music, and I appreciate the score even more than I did before. It's so lean, and all of the lyrics are so specific to the characters and the "journey" (not to sound too actor-y) they're on. Thankfully, my co-star Tyler Maynard has the high notes of a young Patti LuPone, so I've manipulated him into taking the top part in every harmony section. At one point, I finally offered to switch a section with him, but he saw through my generous offer and mentioned that the "high note" I was willing to take was an F. As Samantha Stevens would say… "Well?"

On the first day of rehearsal, there was the signature fun "meet and greet" that is done at most shows, AKA everyone introduces themselves and the producers usually splurge for bagels and some sassy side dishes. Well, George Street went all out, and the food spread was a lot more than just bagels. There were cakes and cheeses and general deliciousness. The other pertinent information is that David Saint, the artistic director of George Street, listens to my Sirius/XM show. Unfortunately, this created a perfect storm because he happened to hear me talk on the radio about going on a diet for [title of show] and, during the meet and greet, as the all the scrumptious food was unveiled, I was unceremoniously handed a bucket that had printed on the outside: "Seth TOS Diet." It was filled to the brim with veggies and fruit. How helpful…and devastating.

We were all talking about the number "Monkeys and Playbills," where my character has a stack of Playbills from crazily obscure flop musicals. The stage management team has been frantically searching eBay for the Playbills, but when David Saint heard the names of the shows he was like, "Where's the obscure part? I have them all at home." Turns out, he grew up in Boston, and he saw every single show that passed through there before Broadway. And there were some doozies he got to see! Dude, Got Tu Go Disco, Prettybelle. He told me that he has the original program for Follies that describes the place and time of the show simply as "A party on the stage of this theater." It was then promptly changed. Why? Well, it didn't literally say, "The show itself is a party on the stage of this theater" it just said there was a party on the stage of the theater. Therefore, half the audience stayed after the show expecting a party!

Certain mornings, Tyler and I have been able to get a ride in the spacious car driven by Lauren Kennedy. I cannot wait til we get into tech rehearsals and have to entertain ourselves while they set lights for hours on end because I'm sure that Lauren has some juicy stories to tell. Let me simply say that she was in The Ten Commandments with Val Kilmer, Lone Star Love with Randy Quaid and Sunset Boulevard…with Faye Dunaway! She has enough material to last through a Coast of Utopia tech. Speaking of Faye Dunaway, when Tyler was in high school, the tour of Master Class starring Faye came through his hometown of Dayton. Tyler told me that he and his theatre friends heard that Faye was on a Dayton rampage; first she tried to get the hotel staff fired because they wouldn't re-do her room, and then she tried to get the backstage crew of the theatre fired. The Victoria Theater in Dayton has one night a year where the best theatre students from Ohio high schools put on a big musical. Of course, Tyler was cast every year in the shows, so he knew all the backstage crew (who had been working there most of their adult lives), and he and his friends were so angry that she would try to have their jobs taken away. They wanted to protest the way she was treating people, so a teenaged Tyler got a group of his friends together to wait at the stage door and when she exited, they all brandished hangers and chanted, "No wire hangers!" over and over again. Tyler tried to describe the way she looked but couldn't because he said he has never seen that much rage on a face before. Suffice it to say, no one got fired from the theatre or the hotel. And Faye has not toured through Ohio since. But, hopefully, she is coming to [title of show] opening night.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sandy Duncan on Teachers, Mom, and Wheat Thins

Reprinted from the October 6, 2010, issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper

Sitting around one of the tables at the then-empty cafe at George Street Playhouse, my conversation with actress Sandy Duncan very soon seemed like catching up with a friend of long standing. For me, it was long standing, as I remember seeing her delightful romp as Maisie in the Broadway revival of the musical of “The Boy Friend” back in 1970 and flying over my head as “Peter Pan,” again on Broadway nine years later. But, of course, she didn’t see me; she just has that warm and ingratiating persona that makes for instant relationships.

New Brunswick audiences, disappointed that she didn’t appear as planned in last May’s production of “Creating Claire,” can heave a sigh of relief as producer David Saint has invited her back to appear in “Circle Mirror Transformation,” which is now in previews and opens on Friday, October 8, to kick off George Street Playhouse’s 37th season. Last May Duncan had an unfortunate collision with a mismarked bottle of vitamin D, which prompted a nearly fatal overdose. She is grateful to local doctors for identifying the problem and taking swift action. Fortunately, she is now back, good as new.

“Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker was a major hit in New York’s last theater season. Produced Off Broadway by Playwrights Horizons, its run was extended a number of times, was nominated for Best Play by several critic groups, and won the OBIE Award for Best New American Play and an Emerging Talent Special Citation from the Drama Desk. This was Baker’s second play to make a big splash in New York City, garnering strong reviews and award nominations, all the more amazing considering how young she is; she was born in 1981.

The play is set in a small town in Vermont, in an exercise room in the town’s community center. The life of the play takes place over a span of six weeks of an acting class for adults. Duncan plays the teacher who leads a disparate group of locals in exercises that probably won’t produce actors and actresses, but certainly opens doors of understanding into their own psyches. As Duncan says, “It’s not really about an acting class. It’s a play about self discovery that happens through this acting class.” According to a press statement, these characters reveal secrets they never intended and are transformed in ways they never expected.

Though Duncan has never taught an acting class, “I don’t have the patience, not even for dance classes,” which were her first introduction to the world of theater, but two very special teachers in Texas and two more in her early New York City days had a deep impact on her life. “Some of the most valuable people in our society are teachers,” she says.

When Duncan was performing as Roxie Hart in the musical “Chicago” (1996) as a replacement cast member in that long-running Broadway show, she had an opportunity to make a public tribute. As she tells me about this, Duncan’s voice breaks. “I’m starting to cry.” One of her teachers, Uta Graham — “we called her Miss Utah” (pronounced with a Southern drawl) — attended a performance, for the first time seeing her former student in a big New York City theater. (She had seen Duncan in touring shows when they went to Dallas.)

At the curtain call, Duncan stepped forward, asking Miss Uta to stand, introducing her teacher to the rest of the audience, saying, “Every step I know is because of this woman.” Duncan remembers those classes with Miss Uta. “We did our exercises holding onto pool tables at the VFW hall.” Not too unlike the Vermont community center in “Circle Mirror Transformation.” This was a glorious moment. How often we don’t get around to thanking special people. Miss Uta died a year later.

Another teacher Duncan remembers with gratefulness is Zula Pearson, who taught at a community junior college in Jacksonville, Texas, which Duncan attended for one year. “She was an amazing teacher and taught a lot of people who ended up working in this business, including Tommy Tune. She absolutely got rid of my Texas accent before I came to New York. She just insisted.”

Duncan’s college career was cut short when she went to New York and got work in the theater right away. Her first New York shows were at City Center, and all were revivals: “Carousel,” “The Music Man,” Life with Father,” and “Finnian’s Rainbow.” At age 22 she replaced the leading lady in the popular Off Broadway rock musical, “Your Own Thing,” an updated version of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” In New York City she studied with the legendary acting teacher Wynn Handman and voice teacher Jack Lee, both of whom she credits for a large part of her professional training.

Duncan was born in Henderson, Texas, and began performing professionally at age 12, as one of the princesses in a production of “The King and I.” She appeared in 24 shows in Dallas before she came to New York. It was the custom then for professional touring shows to bring in the stars and use local performers to fill in the supporting roles. This proved in actuality to be a very useful “acting class.”

Her dad ran a gas station and her mother was a stay-at-home mom with the dreams of an artist. “Mom should have had my life,” Duncan says. Her mother would spend hours making a beaded gown for her. “I think I was the only girl in Texas who had a hand-beaded gown.” She was also an artist and the then-governor of Texas bought one of her paintings. “She was very creative, but she got stuck in a time and place where she couldn’t get out,” Duncan says. “So, she sort of vicariously lived through me.” That’s a heavy burden.

“I know my mother’s life story more than my own because I’m carrying that with me, too. I became aware at one point that I wasn’t living the life she would have chosen; she would have done it differently.” Her mother’s story certainly helps her understand the needs of the characters in “Circle, Mirror.” “People are so emotionally tight. That’s where something creative can make a big difference. People can start to open up.”

She says she finds the style of Baker’s writing to be a challenge as it has concise directions to the actor, down to the length of a pause. “It has to be performed with the precision of choreography.” Certainly, Duncan has the dance background to master this material. And in life, she admits to being a neatness freak. As we talk, she spills the sugar packet when she sweetens her iced tea. Everything has to stop while she cleans this up. So “concise” should be no problem for her.

Duncan is probably best known for her television work in a number of television variety shows and series, including a musical adaptation of “Pinocchio” with Danny Kaye and Flip Wilson and “The Hogan Family.” She received Emmy nominations for “Funny Face” and a dramatic role in “Roots.” And no one could have missed her as the smiling spokeswoman for Wheat Thin crackers.

More recently she has done more straight dramas, including playing Amanda in a production of “Glass Menagerie” at the Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown, Pennsylvania, and the Miss of the title in “Driving Miss Daisy” at Casa Manana Theater in her home state. Her teacher, Miss Zula, should note that a southern accent can come in handy sometimes. Other dramas and comedies have followed. In 2002 she starred in the A.R. Gurney play, “The Fourth Wall” at Primary Stages in New York City under the direction of George Street’s David Saint. That was a providential meeting.

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