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Here's my best name-drop story. It could never be repeated. Sometimes I wonder if it even happened. It feels like a dream. Naturally I need to provide a personal preamble. Those of you who get annoyed at personal preambles
1. What is your problem? Life's too short.
2. Mute away.
Years ago, I moved to Chicago. To say I fled Los Angeles in the dead of night with only a suitcase of clothes is just a slight exaggeration. It wasn't a move. It was a getaway. I arrived in the teeth of a blizzard, crashed on my friend's couch, and promptly got pneumonia.
I moved there for the theatre scene - so - pneumonia or no - zero clothes or no - I decided to get cracking on auditioning. An actor friend gave me a heads up that a theatre company was holding auditions for a production of Golden Boy. Lightning bolt of excitement: ODETS.
This was one of the many established theatre companies in Chicago - part of the draw of Chicago - it's a smaller pool but more people are doing more interesting work. So anyhoo, I dragged my pneumonia-ridden ass up to Oak Park to meet the director.
I was a wreck. I should not have gone. I could barely breathe. I had no winter clothes. I had fled Los Angeles remember - it was not a well-considered move. It was a "GET ME OUT OF HERE NOW" dash. So I sat there, sneezing, trying to put on my "actress audition" face.
This was a very tight-knit company with a group of actors who were all members. They usually didn't hire outside of their group. But they needed someone for the role of Anna, Joe Bonaparte's sister. Married to the cab driver. Very happily. In fact she never gets out of bed.
One of the few happy couples Odets ever wrote. At any rate, even though I was sneezing and wearing summer clothes in the middle of a blizzard - and I didn't even have a headshot - I got the role. He gave it to me right then. First audition in Chicago. Not too shabby.
Rehearsals began. I realized that the theatre company was basically a cult. Everyone was brilliant. They put on shows everyone in Chicago talked about. I had even heard of them before I lived in Chicago. They modeled themselves on The Group. All good. This was my milieu.
For example: Ruth Nelson, one of the original Group members - an amazing actress (she played fellow Group alum John Garfield's mother in Humoresque) - came to our opening night. The director flew her in. She was elderly and frail and she glowed. (This is not the name-drop part.)
Meeting Ruth Nelson was one of the great thrills of my life. A connection w/the past - the continuum of work which had inspired me in high school - Odets and Phoebe Brand and Morris Carnovsky and Garfield and Ruth Nelson - and there she was, having champagne at the party. Swoon.
She gave a little speech beforehand, about the Group Theatre, about the importance of finding people who feel the same way about art as you do, to do good work, to not worry about the results. Someone asked her, "What's the key to good acting?" I'll never forget her answer:
"Love and relaxation." And that is why she was the legendary Ruth Nelson. Okay, so onward. I never really "fit" with the group, basically because I didn't want to join a cult. But I had a blast. I loved my role. She was so much fun.
Rehearsals were rigorous though. Lots of acting TRAINING along with the rehearsing. The director had studied with Kim Stanley and Lee Strasberg. It got a bit ... ponderous. However: not complaining. I had arrived in Chicago literally 2 weeks before and I was in a show already.
Phoebe Brand had played Anna in the original Broadway production and the director had a recording - !! - audio only - of that original cast. I was shocked to hear the rat-a-tat of the dialogue - how ALIVE it was - how New YORK it was - no pauses. I used it as my model.
One of the company members was a guy named Michael. He played the gangster Eddie Fuselli who sucks Joe Bonaparte into the boxing underworld. Michael was a tough customer. Gorrrrrgeous. Like James Franco. Brilliant actor.
But irritable. Did not suffer fools. People kept their distance from him. He had a dirty dirty mind and said incredibly inappropriate things and had a different girl on his arm every night. Naturally, we got along great.
His performance was amazing. He chose to take the subtext of Fuselli and make it text - played him as a man in love with Joe - and yet in love with him in a controlling way. The text supports it. It was this whole other aspect to the character. Incredible. Critics hated it.
It was like they were offended that he brought "the gay" into Odets. Like, oh noes, everything isn't gay, why are they forcing me to watch "the gay" ... Listen. Take it up with Odets. It was a bold performance.
So. Opening night and Ruth Nelson aside: the show opened and nobody liked it. The critics praised the acting but didn't like the show. It was a long run, too. So we started to play to dwindling audiences which was extremely depressing.
Since I was not in the cult of the company, I didn't take the failure personally. I was having a great time, I loved my character, I got good reviews, it was my first show in Chicago. Everyone was extremely gloomy, grim, ponderous. Things got very very tense.
People were fighting. The backstage area seethed with rage. People were doing Strasberg-ian relaxation exercises with a VENGEANCE. Sobbing. I, meanwhile, lay on the floor in my slip, listening to the B-52s on my walkman. It was a surreal experience.
What made it more cult-like was that even though the show was up and running, the director continued to give COPIOUS notes after each performance. Maybe just pull us aside one by one to give a little tweak of a note as opposed to have us all sit there for an hour every night?
There were nights we had to cancel b/c only 5 people showed up. There were nights when no one showed up. Don't get me wrong. It was a bummer. Everyone was very gloomy ... but Michael and I would go out and do shots of jager and make fun of everything and flirt with randos.
I continue to believe that I was the only one who really "got" Michael. We were doppelgangers, maybe that's why. He also was somehow not in the cult, even though he was one of the founders of the company. His process was very very fluid and instinctive.
One night after the show, during the endless notes-giving session, bummed because we had played to like 8 people - the director gave Michael a note on his entrance. "I want you to do this and this and this and make sure to make such and such clear."
Michael was lying back in his seat in the theatre, long legs draped over the seat in front of him, and he said lazily, "Sure, sure, I'll do that. Tonight, though, I walked out onstage and just froze with those 8 eyes on me."
I freakin dissolved in laughter. Nobody else laughed, it was a TERRIBLE vibe, but I could not get it together. I was weeping. I mean, what else are you gonna do. 4 people showed up to this show we all loved doing. Jokes HELP.
Okay finally at LAST we get to the name drop.
Michael had read an interview with William Hurt. In the interview, Hurt mentioned how much he missed doing theatre - it was his true passion - and he was looking for a theatre company to invest in. He didn't care what, where. He was looking to revitalize himself.
So Michael - because he was GREAT, and not a cynical asshole like everyone thought, wrote William Hurt a letter and told him about the theatre company - its successes (b/c it had had HUGE successes) - and also about Golden Boy and their devotion to doing all the works of Odets.
He said something like "I am sure theatre companies are bombarding you with invitations but we would love to have you come see our work and get to know us."
Turns out ... Michael's was the only letter William Hurt received. Theatre companies: take note! Listen! Make that invite!
So William Hurt wrote back. This is all snail mail, you understand. Golden Boy, as I said, had a long run, we still had weeks to go, so he and Michael corresponded a bit, had a phone conversation, and Hurt made plans to come see the show.
We all knew when he was coming. Our main fear - and it was a collective fear - fear isn't even the right word - it was more like terror and anticipatory shame - was that on the night he would show up, nobody else would show up.
There were nights when no one showed up. Those were the Michael-Sheila-jager-rando-flirt nights, but still: to be sitting there in costume waiting for an audience who never comes was epic in symbolic awful-ness.
So. The night comes. William Hurt is coming to our show. This is like Waiting for Guffman. lol. And ... nobody else showed up. There had been reservations - only about 10 or 20 ... but nobody showed. The only person who showed was William Hurt.
We had a desperate meeting backstage. "We can't ask him to come back on another night. Oh my God nobody is fucking out there. It's a howling abyss of a theatre. This is the worst. This is a nightmare. Oh my God!"
But what are ya gonna do. We did the entire three-hour long show for one person. And that was William Hurt. He sat about 10 rows back (it was a big theatre too, y'all - not a black box. 150 seats maybe).
We did the show as we had always done the show. We were professionals. We did our work. But still ... you have to admit it was a unique situation. If it had been someone other than Hurt, we would have refunded them, or given them tix for another night.
Golden Boy is not, how you say, a comedy, so at LEAST we didn't depend on an audience for laughs because that would have been even more buh-LEAK.
We gave each other looks backstage like: "This is embarrassing." I whispered to Michael, "My veins are coursing with white-hot shame." Michael, in his Fuselli fedora, said, w/his typical charm: "Fuck that shit. Do your work." Good advice. "Love and relaxation" remember?
We came out for our bows. This will sound cheesy, but this is how it happened - as we bowed (no individual bows: part of the cult of the company) we couldn't avoid it - we all looked over at him. Who else were we gonna look at? It was a howling abyss out there!
He was clapping, but he was also in tears. As in, tears were streaming down his face. He was completely a wreck. I don't think because we were so brilliant (or maybe) but b/c if ever there was an example of doing this work only because you love it - we were it that night.
Afterwards, we all sat on the floor in the lobby and talked. Just him and us. He was still a wreck. I hope he won't mind me saying this. He was a beautiful wreck. He said, "That was one of the most profound theatrical experiences I've ever had. I can't put it into words."
But then it all got a little bit more casual, and we were talking about our work, and he was talking about his, and he was asking about why the hell people weren't coming to this show, and he told some funny stories about working w/ Christopher Walken. The boundaries dissolved.
It was just a bunch of actors shooting the shit. We talked until 3 o'clock in the morning. There were no refreshments. We didn't even have booze. We just crouched on the floor talking about theatre and acting and training and making a meaningful career amidst the chaos.
Finally, people were literally falling asleep on the floor. Hurt was staying in a hotel somewhere and Michael - who drove a pickup truck - because of course he did - was going to drive Hurt back to the hotel.
Because it was so late, and nobody wanted to haul ass to the L and take a train home to wherever at 4 a.m., Michael was like, "I'll take as many people as I can fit." So we all clambered into the back of his pickup truck, including Hurt.
He didn't want to sit up front. He wanted to sit in the back with us. So Michael drove through the completely silent Chicago streets with a pickup truck full of actors and one celebrity. A couple people slept the whole way, but I didn't and neither did Hurt.
It was a cold night, and Michael dropped people off, one by one - making his way towards the Loop and Hurt's hotel. As he sat there, quietly, Hurt looked - literally - like an ecstatic medieval saint. It may sound dramatic but you'd have to be an actor maybe to get it?
It was like he was remembering. Remembering why he wanted to do this in the first place. That's what I saw on his face. For the whole long ride - half hour maybe? - nobody spoke. Just the wind and the cold and utter freakin exhaustion.
Love and relaxation.
The company closed after Golden Boy. They had lost too much $$. But I'll never forget doing the whole show for him - sitting there in an otherwise empty theatre - in tears, filled w/his own private griefs/wants/love. And open to just BE-ing with us. It was why he had come.
And that's my name-drop.
oops I meant Rogers Park. Carry on.
Well. This has exploded. Not only do I not have a Soundcloud, but I don't even know what a Soundcloud is. My site: sheilaomalley.com I write reviews for @ebertvoices and also write for @FilmComment and other outlets. W/ as much love and relaxation as I can possibly muster.
@ebertvoices @FilmComment Light from the caves: Michael is doing well and he is happy. That's all I'll say about his deets but just wanted to pass on the word to all you lovely people who asked where he was and how he was.
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