Tim’s Blog: #12 – Farewells

February 15, 2010


The last show is Josh Radnor. A lovely show to end on. Josh is calm and clear-sighted and up for it. Technically and emotionally connected. He’s an old friend of producer Dan. They went to Kenyon College together. The theatre is full and includes three past second actors in the audience – Floyd Van Buskirk, who is seeing it for the third time, Lisa Wolpe and Jennifer Leigh Warren. Afterwards, a five minute get out and a small leaving do in the February sunshine. We all bundle into cars and head downtown to the RedCat Theatre where we watch an inexplicable North Atlantic by the Wooster Group. In that show are two past second actors, Maura Tierny and Frances McDormand.

The LA Oak Tree company feels like a family this evening. We talk about the experience of North Atlantic in relation to the experience of the last six weeks. An Oak Tree isn’t perfect. It’s not a big show, but it knows why it exists. We feel pretty good. We head to the roof bar of the Standard Hotel. This is my last night in LA – sitting amongst the gleaming towers of downtown LA, helicopters flying overhead, glamorous couples celebrating Valentines day. It’s time to go home.

This is it, then. Goodbye LA. Goodbye Odyssey Theatre. Goodbye palm trees. Goodbye Oakwood Apartments at Marina Del Rey. Goodbye Ralphs and the San Francisco Saloon and EZ Lube and the Magic Castle. Goodbye Jerry and Beth and Ron. Goodbye David and Brian and Jean and Jesse and Clancy. Goodbye Venice Beach and Spongebob and snow-capped mountains.

Goodbye 34 beautiful actors with whom I had the immeasurable honour to work. Goodbye lovely audiences who fell asleep and stood up and gasped and questioned.

And, most importantly, goodbye my most wonderful team of producers. Dan, Michele and Will – and honorary producer, the mighty Dave Bushnell. They saw An Oak Tree when it opened in Edinburgh in 2005 and my presence in LA was the realization of a dream they hatched then to bring it here. What can I tell you about these people? They have done so much for me. Dan Fishbach was my first point of contact. We met in a pub in Chelsea, London, on August 21st 2008. Then again in Seattle. Then in New York. He is a beautiful specimen – with a diet Coke in his hand; a slightly disheveled tee-totaller with a Lexus. He is dry and tender and clever and funny and a bit jaded and has been by my side all the time. Dan, I believe, has seen every performance of An Oak Tree in LA. He arrives at the theatre with his Bluetooth headset in his ear, he flicks me the bird and makes everything all right. He is genius.

If Dan is the soul of the production, Will Adashek is the brain. What he doesn’t know about sound and light, about spreadsheets and bank transfers ain’t worth knowing. He is like a wise gnomic presence floating above the emotional chatter of the rest of us. Dan and Will have known each other for years – and Page One Productions is their baby. Will is unflappable – methodical in his problem solving, a vital support to the team. He and his girlfriend, Marie, are never far away from the show.

The third partner in the Page One venture is Michele Spears. Michele is the heart. She has a smile that cracks her face in half. She is a ball of positive energy. She loves An Oak Tree and isn’t afraid to show it. She believes in it for herself, but also for the future of theatre! She is principled and passionate. She wears her heart on her sleeve. There are some performances when I have no idea how it went – and on those days I trust Michele’s judgement. She sees everything and feels everything. Her enthusiasm is rejuvenating. She is also an exceptional improviser and human being. Everyone needs a Michele Spears in their life. Which is lucky for Dave Bushnell because he lives with her. Dave is mighty. He is modest and sharp and very funny. He deserves his own show. He, like Michele and Dan, has seen almost every show and his engagement has never waivered. He and Michele go to bed discussing the play. Dave is a fine man – in the organ analogy, he is the bollocks.

Finally, some thanks. To you, for reading this. To the Odyssey Theatre for hosting my stay. To Marc Platt, whom I have never met, but whose generous backing made this whole thing possible. Thank you Marc.  Thank you to the infallible Rachel Manheimer, my Stage Manager.  Huge thanks to Stephanie Klapper and Ginny Lee at Stephanie Klapper Casting for finding some outstanding actors for the run.  And – to Flora Stamadiades, the National Director, Organizing and Special Projects at Actors’ Equity. It is not a Waiver, it is a 99 Seat Plan.

Tim’s Blog: #11

February 14, 2010

So very nearly there.

Six more actors and then that’s it. The week begins with a bike ride to Santa Monica with my dear friend Brian Parsons and then supper with Brian and my other old, old friend David Bridel. Three Brits in LA. I don’t want to say goodbye to them, but I’m looking forward to going home.

Wednesday night is Rich Sommer. I am terrible television watcher – and I haven’t seen Mad Men. I will seek it out from now on because it has lovely people in it. Friends in the UK have been super excited that I have two actors from the series playing consecutive nights of An Oak Tree. Rich is the first. He’s lucky because he’ll be able to watch the second. He confesses to having arranged it this way. We have a great time. He is clear and honest in the play – his ego dips under and the story emerges. His openness allows the play to fill the stage. I am very happy. In the bar afterwards he describes the experience as being a little like when he lost his virginity – an understanding (and a contiguous sadness) that he will never do that again!

Thursday night is the second Mad Man – Michael Gladis. Rich had phoned Michael after the show the night before. They had established some cryptic code – neither would talk about the show, other than a simple call on who would buy whom a drink after the second performance. Rich had simply told Michael that Michael would be buying the drinks… Michael is another treat in the play. Immediately after, he confesses that he felt that he was playing ‘a little behind the curve’. It was a beautiful confession. I replied that it is not possible to be on the curve in this play. It will not let you settle in – it constantly pushes you in to the moment, a moment that cannot be approached with any leisurely consideration. The story moves fast and our job is to always be a little behind the story. Michael is like a sponge to the story. I see it visibly enter him and soak deeply in. At times he is lost, at times we both just stand there as the play is poured into us by the audience. It is a most absorbent performance! He takes his time, he finds his way. I find it very moving. Rich comes back stage immediately after. He says that he felt jealous watching his friend do the show. He wanted to have the instructions again! Michael said it felt like grief – knowing that the experience could not be repeated. We decamp to the San Francisco Saloon on Pico – Rich, Michael, Michael’s cousin, a woman who sells ladybugs – and others. We’re there till midnight, making bonds with each other. It is a fine night.

Friday night is Megan Gallagher and new things happen. Theatre operates in our conscious and unconscious minds. An Oak Tree accesses both areas – giving instructions to the conscious (or rational), whilst allowing the subconscious to submerge into the story. Some of the instructions I give are in opposition to the story. I ask Megan (and the audience) not to volunteer for the Hypnotist’s show and then, in character, the Hypnotist asks for volunteers. Usually it is the audience who are wrong-footed and get up to join me. Tonight, Megan’s subconscious overrides the rational and up she gets – despite unequivocal instructions not to. It’s lovely. The play has to stop, the fiction is ‘parked’ whilst we work out the rational framework that under-pins the production. Than back we go again into the subconscious. It happens with Megan a number of times – with stoppages each time – until she finally works it out. And then off she goes! We have a talk back after this performance in which an audience members says he was convinced the stoppages were intentional. Unless you see the show more than once, you will never know. Clancy Brown, who was the second actor in my first week in LA said that only after having been in it and seen it twice did he feel that he had finally ‘seen’ the play.

Saturday matinee is Alex Kingston – coming to the show through my co-director, Karl James, whose old friend, Winks, is married to Alex’ sister. Alex arrives late. Just over half an hour before the show is due to start. For a moment before she arrives Dan and I talk about alternatives – Tracey Burns from the Impro Theatre is coming to see the show. She could do it if Alex fails to show. Or I could just walk on stage and ask for a volunteer. I always get excited at this latter prospect, but it’s never happened. And it doesn’t happen this time. Alex arrives and she is magnificent. She is a listening creature – taking in my edited pre-show chat, sharp, alert, dazzling. Before the show she asks if she can perform in bare feet – she says she always does this in rehearsal, it keeps her grounded. I can’t refuse – and grounded she becomes. New things. So many new things. She volunteers for the Hypnotist’s show waving her arm in the air and bouncing up out of her seat. She just goes for it. In the monologue I feed to her she starts with a ring-master’s ‘ladies and gentlemen’ and then proceeds to pick up all the chairs that are on their sides. She sits on one close up to the audience and batters them gently with ‘nod your head if you understand’. I look in her eyes and it is as though time stands still. She takes her authority! She trusts her instinct. She is so free, the play just pours out of her. At the end of the show Michele comes to thank her with tears in her eyes. Friends of Alex’ have had to leave the theatre without seeing her because they are too upset. We go to the San Francisco Saloon and talk about this and that. The play has passed through her and I am floating on air.

Saturday night is Wendie Malick. She seems like a Hollywood essence – impossibly slim and glamorous, a long career with many awards and nominations, a house in the hills, a view to the ocean, horses, good causes. I feel impertinent, asking this essence to get down and dirty in the 99 seat space of the Odyssey theatre. But Wendie is up for it. She is connected – her voice strong, her presence clear. She runs with the offers, crouching in the corner of the stage, holding moments, burrowing her way into the story. Her ninety year old father is in the audience, visiting from Buffalo, New York. He thanks me for giving his eyes and ears a stretch… Wendie heads off with her family and I head off to the bar – where lovely Michael Gladis joins us. Michael’s character in Mad men smokes a pipe. I like to smoke an imaginary pipe sometimes. Last night, Michael has a present for me of a corn-cob pipe, a small amount of English mix tobacco, a box of matches and a pipe cleaner. He packs it for me – the child, mother, father method. We stand outside the bar and puff away. I do not inhale. This is my last night at the San Francisco Saloon. I will miss Kim the waitress. I will miss the Sam Adams and the whole wheat BLT.

One more show to go.

Tim’s Blog: #10 (Penultimate Blog)

February 8, 2010

This is a long one.  Make yourselves a cup of coffee.

Courtesy of Jason Alexander, who performed magic both during and after his performance in An Oak Tree, we get a guest invitation to the Magic Castle. http://www.magiccastle.com/ For Jason, the Magic Castle has been a dream place since he was a teenager and it’s not hard to see why.  A creaking Gothic interior that looks like it hasn’t changed for fifty years – walls crammed with old posters, caricatures of magicians, portraits whose eyes follow you as you walk past.  Like a Hogwarts sitting on Franklin Avenue in modern day LA – an anachronism.  We meet up at 6.30pm – me and Producer Dan, the mighty Dave Bushnell, my friend Quincy, Jesse who did the show with me in January, my stage manager Rachel and my friend Brian’s girlfriend, Dana.  Dan brings me a tie to wear.  You’re not allowed in without a jacket and tie.  We all look so smart.  We dine like grown-ups and spend the evening in various states of disbelief in what we see – from cheesy illusionists to a magic piano who plays anything you ask it to – even a rendition of Radiohead’s Karma Police. The highlight is sitting at a low table with a regular member of the Magic Castle, Howard, who slowly and effortlessly blows our minds with impossible close-up card tricks. We leave at midnight, reeling into the night air.  Thanks, Jason.

Also this week a visit to The Museum of Jurassic Technology http://www.mjt.org/
What amazes me is how few of my LA friends have ever been there. I go at the insistence of the mighty Dave Bushnell, producer Michele’s partner.  I go with Dave and with two previous second actors from the play, Stacie Chaiken and the previous night’s Kathleen Early.  The museum has a unprepossessing front – like a terrace house on a bustling Venice Boulevard.  Made all the more unprepossessing by the teeming rain. Entry is $5 and $5 takes you into a surrealist’s dream world you will never forget.  I could spend the whole blog describing it.  The whole place is an art work, although every exhibit is genuine.  It takes you into a world of counter-knowledge and understanding, but does so with an aesthetic rigour and beauty that is hard to describe. Here are some of the names of the collections:
Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition
Lives of Perfect Creatures: Dogs of the Soviet Space Program
Rotten Luck: The Decaying Dice of Ricky Jay
Athanasius Kircher:  The World is Bound With Secret Knots
If you live in LA and haven’t been to this place yet, SHAME ON YOU.  Thanks Dave Bushnell.

Before Christmas I get an email enquiry from my producers – how would I feel about a transgender actress performing in An Oak Tree with me. Sure, I say.  This play is about people.  As long as the second actor is a person – and an actor – then I don’t need to know anything else about them.  The play feels cleanest when I don’t know who’s doing the show with me until ten minutes before I meet them.  This Wednesday, then, enter Alexandra Billings! http://www.alexandrabillings.com/
Alex is a phenomenon.  I don’t know the history of her gender and I don’t need to know.  Here is a beautiful woman – a shock of strong hair, flashing smile, clear eyes.  A force of nature and will.  She is like a giddy girl – over-excited at the prospect of doing the play with me.  We talk beforehand and her face lights up.  This, she says, is what she’s been dreaming of.  She is a Viewpoints Associate at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and teaches Viewpoints in LA.  (I have never heard of Viewpoints before – and my stage manager has lent me a book by Ann Bogart and Tina Landau which I am working through.) In An Oak Tree, Alex is a man again, a grieving father with a bloodshot eye.  She passes through the play in flashes – releasing and holding, releasing and holding.  A powerful energy able to be many things, bringing with her her own story of transformation that locks into the heart of the play.  When we exit the stage she bounces round the green room like Tigger.  We both bounce.

If this performance were an exhibit in the Museum of Jurassic technology, perhaps it would be titled:  Anthropolymorphic Alex: Resisting logio-deduction in Gender Ascriptions.

Thursday is the ineffable Kathleen Early from Dallas Fort Worth. Kathleen was slated to do An Oak Tree in New York back in 2006/07, but she got bumped.  She’s been waiting for three years!  So here she is at last, and she was worth the wait.  Slight, beautiful, with a steady gaze and a strong actor’s instinct.  This is not a showy performance.  She is held, internal, sensitive to text and moment.  At one point a tear falls onto the black Odyssey Stage and takes the rest of the play to evaporate.  In my mind this wet mark becomes like a tumulus, a sacred site; I move around it, it becomes a marker for the play.  In the San Francisco Saloon I meet Kathleen’s agent, Hannah. Hannah has been responsible for bringing a number of actors into the play.  There’s a lovely sense of closure to this evening.  Kathleen can now read the script!

In the Museum of Jurassic Technology this performance could have been titled: Sacred Scenographic Sites: The Topography of Tears.

(After Kathleen’s show there’s a note left for me.  An actor called Jay O Sanders (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0761587/) has come to the see the Noel Coward play in the other theatre at the Odyssey.  He’s visiting from New York – to promote the Mel Gibson movie Edge of Darkness. Jay did An Oak Tree in 2006 and he was magnificent.  His wife, Maryann Plunkett, also did the show and had an equally good time. They are a wonderful couple and they looked after me a bit in New York.  Jay knows the director of the Noel Coward at the Odyssey but he had no idea that An Oak Tree was playing there as well.  He leaves me a note with his cell phone number.  I leave him a voicemail and he arrives at the San Francisco Saloon once the Noel Coward is down.  It is a joy to see him again.  I feel a little guilty towards Kathleen as Jay dives in to the evening with an unstoppable force!  He and I talk at length about Macbeth – a role we have both played, a play that we both love.  Jay has a production in his head that sounds definitive – I hope he gets to direct it one day. Jay and I renew our affection for each other and vow to keep in touch.)

Friday night is Carolyn Seymour.  Carolyn left the UK for LA thirty years ago.  It’s so lovely to hear an English accent again and delightful to hear the way it’s been modified by those 30 years.  This woman has lived!  Her IMDB entry has 100 credits stretching back to 1970. I’d rather just sit and chat with her, but we have a play to do.  She is effortless in performance – strong, fearless, fine-tuned.  At times, she finds a new voice for the character she’s been given – a rooted English voice in balance with mine – and at times she just plays it straight.  It’s lovely to see her navigate the stage.  She’s a natural.  Work is sometimes hard to come by for a woman of a certain age – and Carolyn should be working all the time.  Her ex-husband and good friend, the film director Peter Medak, is in the audience, as are her two children.  I think they have a good time.

Saturday matinee is Floyd van Buskirk.  Floyd is a member of the Shakespeare Unscripted group I am so in awe of.  In the audience is the cream of LA improvisers, including Dan O’Connor who did An Oak Tree on January 14th and Mike McShane, who I know from the UK’s Who’s Line is it Anyway?  Floyd is perfect – he has that improviser’s inner presence.  His mind is trained to be absolutely here and now – whilst at the same time processing beyond the moment.  He is dignified and light and felt in performance.  The play sings.  Afterwards, we decamp to Louise’s Italian restaurant on Pico Boulevard. My producer, Michele, is overjoyed.  She is a stalwart of Impro Theater.  Her ‘family’ were in this afternoon, and her family loved it.

Saturday night is Kyle Secor.  Kyle arrives early with his wife.  He is relaxed and charming and tall!  6’ 4”.  In the play I take his character’s height down to 5’ 9” – to remove any literal element to his performance…  It is as though the play has been written for Kyle.  He has the most open presence, like a Swami.  But a Swami with all the technical understanding of a hugely experienced actor!  I feel like this tall, open man is looking after me! His instinct places him into the centre of the story, his eyes reddening, his voice struggling.  After the show he and his wife set off to relieve their baby-sitter and me and my producers Dan and Michele, sit in the San Francisco bar and toast to a very good day in the life of the show.

Sunday matinee is Alan Cumming.  At the time he’s due at the theatre, we get a phone call saying he’s at La Cienaga Boulevard and 19th – 20 minutes away.  He scrolled down on his Blackberry and missed a key turning on his instructions…  He arrives like a breath of fresh air.  Loose, relaxed, engaged and with painted black fingernails from the film he is currently shooting.  He and I have known each other since I took my first play, My Arm, to New York in 2003.  He saw my play ENGLAND at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007.  What I’d like to do is just sit and catch-up, but there is some work to do.  We go through into the theatre and I talk about the play – about a request for openness, an invitation to join with me in the telling of a story.  Alan gets it immediately and continues to get it throughout. It’s lovely to hear his Scottish voice engage with the language of the play.  It becomes a poetry.  He does something that no other actor has ever done in the show – when I go to get him a drink of water and leave him alone, he re-engages with the tree at the centre of the story.  When I come back onto the stage I feel like I’ve interrupted a very private and important moment.  He has taken the offer of the play and made it his own.  Afterwards, the lobby is crowded.  We head for the San Francisco Saloon and, amid the chaos that is Super Bowl, we unpick the experience and catch up on each other’s lives.  And that’s it. The end of week five.  One week left.  Book your tickets.

Tim’s Blog: Week 4

February 1, 2010

The first week on my own. Julia and Joe have gone. The Oakwood apartment in Marina del Rey is all mine. If I want to eat sardines in the nude and leave things on the floor and watch programmes about weaponry and cars and leave the toilet seat up then I can. Instead, I light the artificial fire in the fireplace and settle down to some long overdue writing. This coincides with the rain going away and the sun coming out. Bollocks. I draw the blinds.

In my evenings off I try new things! I visit the Impro Theater workshop where the Shakespeare Unscripted company do their Monday evening session. I join in. From the outside I think, I can do this. From the inside, however, I am complete poo. These people are geniuses. I think I’m all articulate and spontaneous – what do I know? It’s a grounding, humbling experience for me. In An Oak Tree the words are all written, thank god.

On Tuesday, another first. I try Poker. Michele’s partner, Dave, is a master. We gather at Will’s house on Beverly Glen place and Dave brings an attaché case full of chips. Everyone brings snacks. I eat maybe 20 shrimps as we play 5 card whatsit, seven card something and Texas Hold Them. I lose $4 over the entire evening. It’s great. Will’s girlfriend, Marie, wins the most. I can’t wait to get back to Vegas now.

But at the Odyssey Theatre it’s been one hell of a week. A week that characterizes the stretch of the show.

Wednesday night is Christopher Michael Moore. The audience is full of people connected to Harvard Westlake school where Chris is a teacher and director. All my producing team have connections to this high school – Will went there as a student; Dan and Michele both teach and direct there. It sounds like a pretty cool place. Chris is beautiful in the show – solid, deep and calm. He actually calms me down, looks after me! I see emotions rise and watch as Chris keeps them in check. It is a restrained and true performance from a hugely experienced actor. In the audience are two previous second actors – Clancy Brown and Peter Van Norden. We also do our first talkback in the Odyssey run. Lots of good questions about control and manipulation. I’m surprised by how many people in the audience have seen either this play before or other plays of mine. It’s very flattering.

Thursday is Michelle Monaghan. A small town girl from Iowa. She arrives in a limo. She arrives early and we have a peppermint tea. (Peppermint tea was the only thing I stipulated on my rider – that and a different puppy for me to pet each evening.) I’m sorry to say this, but Michelle is almost impossibly and effortlessly beautiful. Everyone who has done this show is impossibly and effortlessly beautiful, but Michelle is maybe just a teensy weensy bit more impossibly and effortlessly beautiful than certainly any of the men who have done the show. Not only is she impsbly and eftlsly b, but she is also down to earth, funny, smart, relaxed and, cool. The show is a joy. Emotion passes across her face like the shadows of clouds racing across a hillside. She is open, only ever open. No fakery, no side. Her tears spot the stage floor and her smile lights up the place. At the end, we hug, congratulate each other, and off she goes in the limo. I am left a bit breathless by the human being I have just spent a couple of hours with.

Friday is Anne De Salvo – who is also impossibly beautiful. She arrives in a rather stylish hat which I think rather suits her. Twenty minutes before the show she retires to her dressing room, removes the hat, undoes the rollers and, after some minutes primping, emerges with the most glamorous head of hair I have ever seen. Immaculate and tended, like an LA lawn. I am so taken by the hair that at one point I accidentally refer to the character Anne plays in An Oak Tree as a ‘she’.

Saturday – a masterclass at the Odyssey Theatre with maybe 25 participants. Great to stretch my brain a bit and connect with the ideas the play contains. A very generous and engaged group, including Tracy Burns from the Shakespeare Impro group and Jesse Burch who was my second actor on January 13th. Towards the end of the session I do an exercise that I’ve done many times before and this group goes ‘all Californian on my ass’ (if that’s the right expression – stretching the rules, resisting conformity, doing their own thing and making new discoveries for me in the process. It’s great. I leave energized.

Saturday evening is the inimitable Miguel Sandoval. He is a great ally of my producers. His daughter went to Harvard Westlake. He is a class act of the highest order. From the photos of him on IMDB he looks very serious and straight-laced. But he has the biggest twinkle in his eye! It’s a great contradiction which he plays with relish – he is a deadpan clown. We hit it off immediately. He fell into acting almost by mistake – falling for his Decroux teacher in New Mexico – and ending up marrying her. His experience and playfulness shines through. The show is lovely. In the audience are maybe half the cast and crew of the successful TV show he’s been doing for six years – Medium. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0412175/ After the show we head to the Westside Tavern where he’s booked a private room. I am placed at the head of the table and talk with his daughter, Olivia, who is studying theatre at CalArts and who has recently played Miguel’s daughter in Medium. Olivia has been fired up by An Oak Tree. Always nice to meet a fellow Brechtian in a bar in LA.

Sunday has two shows for the first time ever – we are adding more to meet demand. 2pm is Lauryn Cantu, an undergraduate actor from USC. She remarks how surprised she is to be so relaxed – and she is! She is a chilled Californian student from Texas. Her dad is in the front row and hands her a bouquet at the end of the show. Despite her calm she turns in a remarkably assured performance. In addition to being herself, her role in An Oak Tree is that of a 46 year old grieving father – and at times I wonder if it’s possible for the audience to precipitate such a transformation on someone who is so far away from the experience of the play. But the principle still holds good. She is light and present. Once again this week the stage is spotted with a tear. She listens and absorbs. And the story is told. Afterwards, when we tell her who’s doing the 7pm show that night, she almost faints with excitement. We offer her free tickets to come back in a few hours time and she says this is the happiest day of her life!

Between the matinee and the evening show I move the sofa cushion from the green room into my dressing room, set my alarm and have a nap. Every evening show has always started at 8pm. But not this one. It’s starting an hour earlier and I forget. As I’m sleeping, there’s a knock on my door and Rachel, my stage manager, says that my second actor is here. I am woozy with sleep. I haven’t re-set for the show, I haven’t ironed my shirt. And there she is, with agent and managers and boyfriend and a dazzling smile.

Alanis Morissette.

From what I saw of Alanis that night I know that she is looking for adventure. She is open and unafraid and free – hungry for new experience. I can only imagine the process that got her to the Odyssey Theatre – she is surrounded by people – friends and ‘People’. Somehow the idea of the play must have got to her and she said Yes. And she continues to say ‘Yes’ all evening – yes to the offer the play makes, yes to an invitation to trust her instinct and go where it takes her, yes to Tequila shots in the bar afterwards. In the pre-show chat she is funny and self-deprecating – we joke about her personal lip-balmer, Philiippe (who does not actually exist). We joke about the Brown Note (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_note). We joke throughout the show too. The audience are a strange mix tonight. Many have come because they know Alanis is going to be there. They sit with their cameras. They don’t quite know what to make of the play. A couple get up to volunteer for the Hypnotist’s act, even though I’ve asked them not to. I have to stop the show to explain the gag. Everyone’s a bit over-excited. A couple walk out two thirds of the way through – they’d seen enough of Alanis and too much of genre-stretching British theatre. At one point Alanis picked up the piano stool to cover her embarrassment. She is there all the way through and it is a joy. Afterwards, the green room is swamped by her entourage – a fantastic collection of writers and musicians and composers and film makers and dreamers. We disembark to the San Francisco Saloon where tequilas are drunk and genius is toasted.

As with all the actors who come to do An Oak Tree, I feel privileged to get a brief connection to their lives, to meet on an immediate and deep level, to make work together. And then we part. The constellation of Alanis Morissette passed overhead last night and probably won’t come round again for me. But it was a great constellation – the ‘biggest’ so far in the life of An Oak Tree in terms of its scale. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a life like that. But I sense that if you’re going to be an international star, she’s doing it pretty well.

Today, as I’ve been writing, I’ve stayed in the tee-shirt I slept in. I’ve made pasta and watched Spinal Tap. I’ve had a beer and done my laundry. Now I’m going to have an early night. I hope Alanis gets to have days like this too.

Tim’s Blog: Rain and Shine

January 25, 2010

My third week in LA begins in Las Vegas. A five hour drive from LA in the teeming rain. En route we pass animated tumbleweed playing dare with the traffic, burnt out cars, deserted water parks, ghost towns, snow flurries, Mad Greeks. Vegas is just more of the same, only more expensive. Our first experience of the city is an In and Out Burger, and it all goes downhill from there. Because Joe is ten, we can’t loiter near the gambling. So we walk and walk and we watch and we watch. The fountains at the Bellagio, the Volcano at The Mirage, the Grand Canal at the Venetian, Cirque du Soleil at the Aria. Money falls away from us like ballast from a balloon, but I don’t feel any lighter. On the morning of our return we wonder what else we would have done if we’d had another day – and the answer was ‘nothing’. Two days was enough.

This is the last week with my wife, Julia, and our youngest son, Joe. The week is full of the tension of their impending departure. It also chooses to rain and rain and rain. All this, coupled with the cranking up of work from the UK that can’t be deferred. My evenings at the Odyssey develop a lovely rhythm – setting up, pinning the Polaroid of the previous night’s actor onto the cork board in the lobby, ironing my shirt, a peppermint tea, a chat with my wonderful producers, the meeting with my actor, the play, the debrief, a glass of Sam Adams and a BLT at the San Francisco Saloon on Pico Boulevard, the drive back to my apartment and a sleeping wife and child.

Wednesday night, Peter Van Norden. Such an experienced actor. The kind this play was written for – an opportunity to release and trust and work moment by moment. Peter accomplishes it all with wit and consummate skill. He presents living action and reaction – taking each moment of the play at it is fed to him and trusting his response. I feel balanced and relaxed with him. He seems to have a good time. I have a good time! We talk theatre in the bar afterwards. At moments like these I feel immensely privileged and hugely protective of stage actors. They put themselves out there, they embody the transformations. It shocks me sometimes that theatre actors are treated so badly – particularly, it would seem, in LA. They are often the last to know and the least to be considered. An Oak Tree feels like a love song to stage actors this night.

Thursday, Stu Levin. All the romantic thoughts on theatre triggered by Peter Van Norden are intensified with Stu. He is immaculate, soaked in the history and tradition of theatre. He’s worked with some of the world’s greatest. He knows his craft and loves his craft. At times, I feel almost embarrassed about the more reflexive and self-knowing moments of my play – they feel almost unnecessary with Stu. I feel a little like a young whipper-snapper, teaching a master something they already know. The play moves quickly, sometimes too quickly, but Stu is with it and on it. I feel that there is something precious in the middle of this performance and that it needs looking after. Thank you Stu.

Friday, Jason Alexander. Here’s the man my co-director Karl James has been most excited about. Karl is a huge Seinfeld man and he wishes he could be there. I, however, don’t watch much TV. And anyway, I find it impossible to make the bridge between a face I see on a screen and a person I meet in the flesh. Jason and I sit and chat, as I have done with over 260 actors before him. He is just lovely – down to earth, engaged, interested, a contributor. He’s thought a lot about acting and he clearly understands that there is nothing to lose, that the more you put in, the more you get out. In one sequence of the play he approaches a young woman on the front row and invites her on stage. It’s a joy. Jason has a twinkle in his eye yet still manages to mine the play for its emotion. In the theatre lobby afterwards I meet his wife and two sons. The eldest son hugs his dad. In the bar later Jason performs close-up magic tricks and we talk about families and work and acting and Vegas. He poses for photos with strangers. He even poses for a second Polaroid for me, on which he inscribes the words, “Karl – it’s very well directed.”

Saturday is Peter Macon. Peter is an embodiment of the kind of actor I am a little in awe of! He is living it! He arrives in biker boots and leather pants. His bike is in store in San Francisco and he’s on route to a season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Much of his belongings are in his car. He currently has no permanent home but moves with the work. He is, to quote Lear, ‘unaccommodated man’, and feels all the more authentic for it. He’s played many of the Shakespearean greats – Macbeth, Othello, Oberon, Caliban. He seems to be made for the stage – his presence is huge, his voice comes from the earth, his eyes are those of a poet’s. He’s thoughtful and considerate and connected in the play. I feel like a lightweight beside him. At one point, he shouts and I shout back! He takes an instruction at the end of the play and delivers something that no one has ever done before – moving us both into a new configuration. I am thrilled when this happens – genuinely responding, throwing away the rules, finding new patterns.

Sunday, Stacie Chaiken. Stacie is luminescent! She’s responded to the horrors of castings and auditions by taking her destiny into her own hands and making her own work. We have a lot in common in this respect. She has thought and thought – working here and in Israel, teaching, performing, writing. And yet, when she walks on stage as an actor in An Oak Tree, she is in her element. Her husband, Marty, says afterwards that watching her in the play was like watching a cat with catnip. She devours it! I make the same offers to every actor in the play and every actor responds differently to those offers. Stacie eats my offers for breakfast! At one point I find myself trying to dislodge her from between the back wall of the theatre and the speaker stand. She convulses and collapses. At one point I wonder if we should stop the show for a few minutes just to check if she’s okay! But, of course, she is fine! Her commitment throws the graphic equalization of the characters into a new relief. The Hypnotist becomes a monster in front of this ball of emotion. There is no civility left. It’s almost gladiatorial. Extraordinary. Afterwards, in the dressing room, we hug. It feels like we’ve both been somewhere special. We repair to the San Francisco Saloon for a much deserved beer – and we chew the cud of what happened. Questions, inquiries, sharing. With us are her husband and friends, and also the playwright Phyllis Nagy, whom I have admired for many years and who now, through facebook, I am finally meeting! Good old facebook. Good old LA! The sun is now shining.

Tim’s Blog: #7

January 18, 2010

Before I came to LA I was reliably informed that it wasn’t a theatre town. LA was film and television. Theatre, I was told, was the poor relation. Plays were produced as showcases for the ‘industry’. Playwrights wrote plays that would expose their talent for writing putative screenplays. It feels that the last week of An Oak Tree at the Odyssey Theatre has enabled me to retire that theory. LA is a theatre town.

Sitting inside a bright blue, rather disheveled shack on Sepulveda Boulevard is an idea – an idea that seems to have ignited an impulse that connects with something more fundamental than castings and agents and pilots. Before film and TV there was live theatre – a story being received by an audience in the live moment of its telling. A transaction unmediated by technology or focus groups or million dollar budgets. In An Oak Tree a story is told and a transformation is achieved with little more than a word. The simplicity of this alchemy is what seems to be doing the trick. A performance is created without headshots or resumes, without casting or audition, without consideration for career move or financial gain. Without even rehearsal. Someone arrives at the theatre an hour before the show begins. Someone with curiosity, with fear and a sense of adventure. Someone prepared to step into the unknown in front of 99 strangers. This is the impulse that got us in to acting in the first place – or at least it should be. And this impulse is alive and well in LA – attracting both actors and audiences.

I’m here because I’m here to do this work. This is what I want to do – and I’ve had the most amazing week.

Wednesday January 13th – Jesse Burch. This is wonderful. Jesse is the friend of Clancy Brown whom Clancy banned from seeing the show the previous week – with the insistence that he must do it. Jesse is the man we met in the bar after Clancy’s performance; whose presence at the bar prevented Clancy and I from talking about the show. Now it is Jesse’s turn – and Clancy is in the audience again! Jesse is, as you Americans say, ‘psyched’. He becomes almost a punch bag for the show. The story swings at him and he goes down again and again – sometimes literally, a heaving, sobbing mass on the floor. Then he’s up and asking for more! Afterwards, the show is everything he wanted and more. He thanks Clancy for his action in allowing him to experience it. So many promises upheld!

Thursday – Dan O’Connor. I had the honour of seeing Dan play the part of Price in an entirely improvised Shakespeare play at the Theatre Asylum last Sunday night. Shakespeare Unscripted is a group of blisteringly good improvisers who make up long form plays in the style of Shakespeare. I am in awe of their abilities. One of them is one of my producers, Michele Spears. She played Millicent the night I was there, the gypsy maid, sister of Price who ended up marrying the Duke of York (don’t ask….). Michele is thrilled at the prospect of Dan in An Oak Tree. He is a hugely experienced improviser – working all over the world. I tell Dan that my play is improvised, but that it’s not improvised with words. So this is a new discipline for Dan – and he rises to the challenge. He is simple in the play – a quality that is so under-rated and so hard to achieve. He moves through it without guile. I watch his improviser’s instinct grapple with the constraints of a set text. And, rather than responding with an empty flourish, he responds with honesty and innocence and presence. Michelle is overjoyed. The audience is full of fellow improvisers, many of whom come to the bar afterwards. With a beer inside me, I half offer to come play at one of their sessions. I ask my second actors to step out of their comfort zone; it would be disingenuous of me not to do the same….

Friday – Jennifer Leigh Warren. What is it that makes an actor agree to do this show? It’s not the money. Each actor gets $50. It’s not the showcase potential. It contacts something – almost a dare. Jennifer is stunning – immaculate smile, immaculate hair, immaculate clothes. She’s a singer – with Broadway credits and a photograph of her and Stevie Wonder on her web site. Her agent told her about An Oak Tree and she said ‘yes’! Than you, Jennifer, for you bravery! She’s nervous when we meet and I work hard to calm her. She walks on stage at the beginning and the enormity of what she’s agreed to do starts to gently hit her. It is a wonderful process. At times her voice fades out and then in again. She looks like she’s in the middle of a tornado. At the end she searches for words to describe the experience. We head to the bar and start to unpick her experience. She is keen to come back and see what it is she’s just done!

Saturday – Beth Grant. Beth and I talk about children and family and marriage and whether she’s wearing the right pants (in English, trousers) and acting and love and theatre and film and schools and careers. At one point in the bar after the show she, her wonderful husband and her beautiful daughter all have their iPhones out and are showing me photos of each other. I have rarely seen a family so integrated and in love. This foundation becomes the bedrock for Beth’s performance in An Oak Tree. She is fearless – she understands loss and love. She flings her hands out, she holds on, she attacks and parries. She is a true line throughout and she pushes me. I follow her.

Sunday – Joe Orrach. I’ve met Joe earlier in the week when I go into USC and talk about my work to the MFAs. My old friends David Bridel (who did An Oak Tree with me in New York in 2006) and Brian Parsons both work at USC and my presence in LA is a chance for us to meet and share and catch up. Joe Orrach is in the first year of the MFA acting programme. He looks about 38, but he’s a fair bit older than that. And he has lived. He started out life tap dancing and brawling on the streets of the Bronx. He went on to tap dance with Gregory Hines as well as becoming the air force welterweight boxing champion. He has now started to probe deeply into his life and work – pulling together his experiences, starting to work out what he has and where he’s going. David Bridel selected him for An Oak Tree and it was a good choice. Joe is built like a poetic muscle. Shaven headed, powerful, light on his feet and heavy in his soul. He could sit in my play, not do a thing, and it would be devastating. Before we start he tells me that he’s not going to ‘act’. After we stop he says he acted ‘too much’! He’s still a little suspicious of ‘acting’ and, looking around at what’s on offer, I’m not surprised. But Joe doesn’t need to doubt what he’s doing because it is extraordinary. At one point, caught in the emotion of the moment, he pushes me with the flat of his hand and I feel his energy. Good luck Joe. And thank you.

Tim’s Blog: In the Swing

January 12, 2010

Friday night was Lisa Wolpe. Oh my. A strong strong woman with an incredible body of work with the Women’s Shakespeare Company – Iago, Shylock, Leontes, Richard III, Hamlet, etc. A determined and self-determined artist who has probably played more Shakespearean male leading roles than any woman in history. And here she is, playing a 46 year old grieving father – hardly Shakespearean, but a lovely connection for me. In theatre we can be whatever we say we are. Lisa is phenomenal in the play. I will not forget the sight of her eyes welling and flooding. She rips it up and leads me on a journey that takes me to entirely new places. In the central speech in the play – fed to her through her headphones – she slightly mishears the first line and transposes it in to the present tense. As a result, I continue that transposition and the speech acquires an immediacy and urgency that I have never felt before. This is alive for me – re-writing as we go, a call and response between the playwright and the actor. It is thrilling. Afterwards, Lisa invites us (my producers Dan and Michelle and Michelle’s partner Dave) to a soiree at her place – actors, writers, directors, wine, beer, food. In the spirit of cross-dressing I show them a YouTube film made by my 10 year old son. It seems to befit the mood. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4dkUoMxNBI

Saturday was John Rubinstein. John is delayed by phone calls and real life! We eventually sit down together 40 minutes before the show begins. Throughout the course of the evening I watch him slowly come into the experience. It is a very moving thing to watch. What starts as a stumbling vulnerability gradually grows to a beautiful sure-footedness. He finds his stride and the story starts to ring out as clear as a bell. I have the pleasure of meeting his four children after the show. I often wonder what it must be like to see someone you love go through this play. When Geoffrey Rush performed it with me in Melbourne in 2008, his wife said that she had seen things in him on stage during An Oak Tree that she had never seen before. I am always humbled that people place themselves into the unknown with such generosity and artistry. Thank you Mr Rubinstein.

Sunday matinee was Kurtwood Smith. Later, I get an email from an American friend who is sad that I never told him Kurtwood was going to be working with me as he is a huge fan of That ‘70s Show. But I’ve never watched That ‘70s Show, and I didn’t know Kurtwood was doing my show until a few minutes before we meet. Kurtwood is bang on time and we sit and chat. He has the most marvelous steady gaze. His daughter’s husband is his manager – and also Clancy Brown’s manager. The son-in-law watched Clancy perform on Thursday and then was sworn to secrecy not to say a word to Kurtwood. Today it’s Kurtwood’s daughter’s turn to watch the play. And I hope she is proud of her dad. He is luminescent. Most wonderfully, he is not afraid to get close to me – his eyes search me out, his nearness is overwhelmingly moving. At one moment we hug. There’s no hug in script; there’s never been a hug in the production. But Kurtwood and I hug as I whisper the next instructions. I envy the audience for this one – form and content marrying seamlessly, emotion and order.

The Sunday matinee is delayed a little as we’re waiting for a member of the press. All I know is that his particular reviewer travels on a bike, and the Odyssey Theatre’s press officer, Jerry, is scanning Sepulveda Boulevard for a cyclist. Eventually one arrives – flustered and sweaty. He apologies and I reassure him that we won’t start without him. It’s a good thing that we wait for this reviewer. His name is Steven Leigh Morris. He writes for LA Weekly. And he has a good time.  http://www.laweekly.com/events/an-oak-tree-805063/

Tim’s Blog: Up and Running

January 8, 2010

Three performances in. My first actor, Meagan English, had the hardest job and deserves the most praise. She performed the play with me on Tuesday evening in front of three people – my producers Dan, Michele and Will. Our dress rehearsal. An Oak Tree needs an audience to complete it, and three people, no matter how lovely they are, ain’t enough. Particularly when one of those three is taking photographs and the other two are thinking about sight lines and ticket sales. Meagan was beautiful – slight, physically connected, vulnerable. I felt lumbering in my performance compared to her. She is now the face of the Oak Tree press coverage. My old press photographs show me and my co-director Andy Smith – from a photo shoot taken in Germany in 2005. From Andy to Meagan has been quite a ride.

And the ride continues with Peter Gallagher on press night. Odyssey 2 is full this night. Peter and I meet an hour before. I sit in the empty theatre before he arrives and this is always the only nervous time for me. As soon as he enters the space I know what work is to be done. The unknown becomes known. My job is to establish trust and to instill confidence – to prepare the second actor as best I can without giving the game away. The hour is different every time, just like the show – it’s a dialogue and as such needs to be open and responsive.

Peter is generous and intelligent and emotional in the performance. An Oak Tree pushes hard in places. I know there will be a narrative pay-off to these harder sequences, but there’s no way I can communicate this knowledge to my actor – they have to go there blind. And sometimes I think I’m almost asking too much. No actor has ever backed out, and Peter is there throughout it all. The intensity pays dividends in terms of the story-telling – and our first priority in the whole experience is to tell the story. Peter tells it beautifully. My friend Brian is in the audience this night. He’s seen the show maybe four times in its history. Afterwards he says that this was the best he’s ever seen. After the show, as so often happens, the desire to de-brief with my actor is swamped by the occasion. We are herded to a reception in the lobby where audience members are eager to engage. In my fantasy, the theatre would have an oak lined room with two arm chairs and a bottle of Laphroaig – to where me and the second actor could retire for an hour after the show and just gently work out what the hell went on. Instead Peter and I shake hands and he goes off into the night.

Last night, the turn of the incomparable Clancy Brown. Before the show Clancy does the most extraordinary thing. He phones a friend who’s coming to see the show that night and tells him not to. From the feeling he’s got from the pre-show chat with me he is convinced that this friend must DO the show, not watch it. And so it will be – at some time in the future of the run. Clancy is a towering presence in the play – bruised and wounded and feeling. At times I look at him and he looks almost startled – genuinely lost in it all. It’s a quality that corresponds so well with the emotional state of the character he’s playing. At the end he’s a bit speechless. We head to a bar where we meet up with the friend he banned from seeing the show. Because his friend is there we can’t talk about what happened. So we talk about soccer and music and children. He drinks a whisky from the glass that every second actor receives for their services – a simple tumbler with the words ‘an oak tree’ engraved on it.

Tim’s Blog: Work

January 5, 2010

January 3rd

A frustrating phone interview with LA Theatre Blog. My phone has a poor reception at the apartments we’re staying at. I can’t quite hear what I’m being asked. I lean out on our balcony railings to try and improve reception and watch a man let his dog shit on the grass and then walk on. I want to shout at him to clean it up, but I’m doing an interview with LA Theatre Blog. I find myself saying nothing original and talking too much. I feel the need to find a new script when I’m talking about An Oak Tree. I need to think more and speak less. I witter on. I don’t Twitter. I’m old-fashioned. I witter.

January 4th

I drive up Washington place, turn left at Sepulveda Boulevard and bowl along until I get to number 2055 – the Odyssey Theatre. You can tell it’s a classy joint because it spells theatre the European way. From the outside, however, little else suggests class by European standards – a virulent blue corrugated single story building standing next to the EZ-Lube. Across the road from a veterinary surgery. But inside this unprepossessing building are three theatres. An Oak Tree is in Theatre 2. Waiting for me are Sally the literary manager, Jerry the publicist, Barbara the production manager and my team – producers Dan, Michele and Will and my stage manager Rachel. We have all already met at Will’s place in Beverly Glen in Saturday night. And now we are here to work. I slept until a decent time this morning and I am ready to go.

What I notice about the Odyssey is a poster for Caryl Churchill’s Far Away on the wall, and a picture of Bertolt Brecht in the office. What’s not to love? Theatre 2 is also the name of a Samuel Beckett play I was in at university. It just gets better. The space is L shaped and Will has already focused the lights. I have brought two small wheelie suitcases from the UK. These contain the show. Within an hour the onstage sound equipment is fixed and working. The rest of the day is spent setting levels and painting chairs. It’s a good day. I like my producers. They have brought me all the way here; they are passionate about the show; they make me laugh; they bought me a Quiznos. What’s not to love?

Tim’s Blog: Happy New Year!

January 5, 2010

January 1st 2010

Our first morning here and Owen (17), Joe (10) and I go for an early morning stroll around Marina del Rey.  I seem to capture the LA sartorial meme by wearing flip-flops and a knitted cap.  Jetlag means we’ve been up since four this morning.  But the dawn has broken and a warm, windless post New Year’s Eve torpor hangs in the air.  The day before in the UK was wet and cold and gray.  Here now, the sun is rising, the boats’ halyards are clinking lazily in the marina, and dogs are being exercised.  It’s like we’ve been plonked on to a film set.  In Britain on New Year’s morning the streets are littered with vomit and broken glass from the previous night’s chaos. Here in the Marina everything is clean and calm.  The Harleys are parked next to the Mustangs are parked next to the Porsches are parked next to the yachts and the motor launches.  Nothing is broken.  The sun’s heat can already be felt.

Later that day we go to Venice Beach and my flip flops rub a sore patch between my toes.  They need to be broken in gently – not this sudden culture drop.  We paddle in the Pacific and watch a solitary woman freak out on the sand – dancing to her iPod, oblivious to anyone watching.  We marvel at a 10 year old on a skate board on the skate park, we give two dollars to the roller-blading, electric guitar playing, turban wearing icon.  We’re being guided on our route by our dear friend Brian Parsons.  We have missed Brian since he moved to LA and Brian has missed us.  He’s looking good.  He takes us along Abbot Kinney boulevard and we look at the buildings.

We’re in LA early, to allow me to acclimatize to the time difference in preparation for opening night on Wednesday.  It also enables my eldest children, Nel (20) and Owen, to spend some time here before they return to their studies next Saturday.  Nel goes back to Bristol University and Owen gets his head down for his A Levels.  With me is my wife of 20 years, Julia.  She designed the Oak Tree image.  She’s responsible for the lime green and pink. She’s waiting to hear back from an agent in London about her first novel – quite an apposite Los Angelean state to be in, I imagine.  It feels like everyone I’ve met so far is in a similar state of creative anticipation.

Next Page »