Sunday, November 22, 2009
Geraldine Sue Page, born in Missouri in 1924, discovered her talent for acting in a Sunday school play, knew she was good, moved to the big city of Chicago, and then to New York, where she became, arguably, the greatest actress of her generation. She was my teacher, before, during, and after I studied with her, and Chris Wells asked me to say a few words about her at the Secret City because today is her birthday. I almost called this “10 things about Geraldine Page”—but Geraldine impressed upon her students the power of the more interesting, the unexpected, we hope, choice. She was and is an enigma. So I’m calling this “11 Things I KNOW FOR SURE about Geraldine Page”.
5. She was born November 22nd, 11/22. I don’t know much about numerology, but I’m told that 11 and 22 are major numbers—mystically powerful. Geraldine, her husband, Rip Torn, and their three children, lived on 22nd Street in Chelsea, with a mailbox that said “Torn Page”. She died 22 years ago. Today would be her 85th birthday.
2. Her hands were exquisite—long and expressive. They fluttered to hide her smile in SUMMER AND SMOKE, death-gripped the telephone receiver in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, pointed and shook with fury, when words weren’t enough, in AGNES OF GOD. Her hands were so beautiful it was almost unfair. Lee Strasberg made her sit on them.
3. Speaking of Strasberg, she said—and it was such sacrilege she made us promise not to repeat it—that Method Acting meant “the Method that Works for You”. Shhhhhhh.
10. She charged 10 dollars a class. Cash. She threatened to charge you more if you didn’t do a scene, but she never enforced it.
1. She spoke between the lines, onstage and off. Other people might think she was talking about the weather when she was telling You and You Alone some secret of the universe. It was terrifying.
6. She said the greatest single performance she ever saw was by Shelley Berman. I forget the name of the play, but I said, “Shelley Berman, the comedian?” and she shot me a withering stare. “The Actor!" I got my 10 bucks worth that day.
7. She studied acting with Uta Hagen. For eleven (11) years, even after she became an acclaimed actress. After seeing Miss Hagen in MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION, she said, “I wish Uta would practice what she preaches.” Geraldine did not preach.
8. She was nominated for an Academy Award eight times, finally winning for TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, by Horton Foote. She is unforgettable in so many films, but especially in POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, in which she was onscreen for only eight minutes. (She counted.) And she told us that it’s not the time that matters, it’s what you do with it. Next time you see that film, look at her beautiful hands. She holds a cigarette in one, and a glass of scotch and a ROSARY in the other. The unexpected choice.
9. She told us to look for inspiration, for our strongest, deepest choices and substitutions, in the love, the crushes, the passions we felt in junior high school. When the subject of Rip Torn came up—and it did, often--she looked all of fourteen.
14. The music at her memorial service was Ravel’s Pavan for a Dead Princess, and there was reserved seating for her students up front, near the family. She often said she had been fortunate to have had good teachers, and felt it her responsibility to teach. I can’t tell you how glad I am about that.
Happy birthday, Geraldine. It’s fruitcake weather!
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
When I first moved to New York in the early 80's, I was pretty miserable. I was subletting a dreary mustard-colored studio on 89th and Second, just around the corner from Elaine's, the restaurant made famous by Woody Allen-- but I was worlds away from the quirky-urban, romance-and-art-filled Manhattan of his films.
One summer night, coming home from my job as an answering service operator--(yes, children, this was before cellphones--even before voicemail)--I saw Mia Farrow and her bespectacled Swain huddled in front of the fabled Elaine's. (See, I still rhyme when I think of how romantic it could have been. Was, for some people.) Woody and Mia looked like little lost waifs who wouldn't have had a clue how to get home if their car hadn't pulled up to the curb. I can't tell you how much I wanted to be them.
That same sticky, un-airconditioned night, sleeping in the "loft" bed (so close to the ceiling it felt like a coffin) became unbearable. I moved to the mustard-colored corduroy daybed instead, tossing and turning and listening to the city through my open window, tortured with guilt.
Why had I ruined a too-early marriage to someone I adored, why had I moved to New York to pursue my Career (WHAT career!?) and my girlish romantic notions: lunch with broodingly handsome playwrights at the Russian Tea Room; champagne cocktails at the Blue Bar bought by lovesick lawyers; the unwanted attentions of Jerzy Kozinski or some other foreigner over martinis at One Fifth Avenue; breaking the hearts of promising stand-up after stand-up at the Improv--you get the picture. Most of those things didn't actually happen, but when they did, they were not at ALL the way I had imagined. I still wasn't Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow. I wasn't even Louise Lasser. I was sweat-soaked me, alone in the heat, stuck to the ugly yellow corduroy daybed, just around the corner from Elaine's. Why didn't I go back to the Midwest? I flipped my pillow to the cooler, dryer side.
From out of the stifling nowhere came the first few notes--slow, sultry, and so lonely they made me laugh out loud--a trumpet, moaning-- "Strangers in the Night"!? I jumped off the daybed, naked. Where was he? Finally! The man of my dreams, a man who could read my mind, behind one of hundreds of open windows, maybe in his own little sublet hell, crazier than I was, blowing his lonely trumpet at 3 am-- I would have married him on the spot. If we ever had met.
We never met.
Of course things are different now. Elaine's is gone, and so are One Fifth and the real Russian Tea Room; Woody Allen gives me the creeps, and Louise Lasser has all but disappeared. Diane Keaton still looks great and still plays quirky, but she seems to have gone off romance completely.
And Mia Farrow? I wonder why it never occurred to me, Little Miss Movie Trivia Freak, that sweltering August:"Strangers in the Night" was released the same year she married Frank Sinatra.
Maybe the most romantic memories we have are our regrets. I bet Mia Farrow thinks that, too.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
In the third grade, I spent my whole allowance on a card game called Authors. It was like Go Fish, if I recall correctly, except that the "books" of cards bore pictures of famous writers. Some names I recognized: Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allen Poe--but some were real puzzlers: Joel Chandler Harris (have mercy, of "Uncle Remus" fame); Nathaniel Hawthorne (I was 8, ok?); Robert Louis Stevenson (my uncle was named after him--but I'd never read him); and Cornelia Meigs(who apparently wrote a bio of Alcott). There must have been others--13 of them, right? Was Shakespeare's face on a card? Shaw? The Brontes did not make the cut, of that I am certain. I would have remembered them.
I've never liked playing cards, honestly. But I loved my Authors.
Since cardplaying was frowned upon in my family, I took the pious view that the game of Authors was educational, not at all like the secret pinochle my parents played when my grandmothers weren't around, or the waxy naked-lady cards my uncles hid. Authors served a higher purpose. The scary, stern pictures of the old people on them were proof--they may as well have been Abraham and Sarah.
My purchase of Authors happened to coincide with my discovery of the Biography. I had already fallen in love with libraries (a complicated story involving my father's Air Force career, family literacy, and much more)--but long story blogged, when I was eight years old, I fell for biographies, HARD. They came in little blue or orange-covered books with drawings inside, and there were lots to choose from.
People's real lives made stories! Some of them were cautionary, some were inspiring, some bored the crap out of me but I finished them anyway: Amelia Earhart, Girl Flyer; Dolly Madison, First Lady; and the best of all---Mark Twain.
He was from Missouri; he had RED HAIR; he collected cats; he loved theatre; he played with words; he scandalized people by telling the truth; he was funny, he had a happy marriage, and he loved his daughters until he died, even though he wrote about boys, mostly.
I was so in love with him I read his life story 13 times. I was a real good reader. I was such a good reader I imagined I might be a Real Good Writer, too.
Mark Twain became my imaginary boyfriend, my imaginary father, and very quickly, he became Me. Or the me I wanted to be. I wanted to be the Girl Mark Twain. (I can't type that phrase without imagining my third grade school picture face superimposed with Mark Twain's hair and moustache--maybe a cigar and a little white suit.) That year I read TOM SAWYER, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and most of his collected short stories.
Did I understand them? Probably not. But just holding the books! The library trusted ME with Mark Twain! Reading his words, knowing he was a real person who was born in the same state as my mother, had her red hair, whose language was the idiom much of my family still spoke, whose values, intelligence, and humor I recognized and wanted for myself--
I gave up the card game. I cheated at it, anyway. I'd only collect the authors I liked, and you can't win the game if that's how you play.
I started writing. In grade school I tried to write novels about orphaned girls in English boarding schools. (Never mind that I'd never been to boarding school, much less England.) I wrote a three-page Christmas play with my friend Connie Markel, "Sovereigns of the Sky". During a particularly religious phase, I kept a daily diary of my sins but unfortunately destroyed it--Real Writers didn't embarrass themselves and probably weren't Baptist, anyway. In junior high I wrote a whimsical book, summer reading, really, about my adventures with the Beatles. Then I convinced myself that Real Writers were Poets. I filled spirals with painful verses of unrequited high school love, mostly in lower case, read by all my closest friends, some of whom declared me the next Emily Dickinson. I even became editor of the high school literary magazine. But I still wasn't a real writer, an Author. It was clear that my face would never be on a playing card.
The Girl Mark Twain went underground for years. Unemployed and bored in Los Angeles, she joined a writing group, started a reading group, and took classes. She followed Somerset Maugham's advice and copied Real Writers' work in her own handwriting until she felt entitled to write--and sometimes she took his other advice and simply wrote her name over and over again: The Girl Mark Twain, The Girl Mark Twain, The Girl Mark Twain--until something almost Real took shape.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
For the past few years, I have had a Google alert on three things--my own name; whatever project I'm currently obsessed with; and Buddy Galon. So whenever any of the above pop up in cyberspace, Google magically sends me an email to let me know that somebody, somewhere, cares about these things, too--at least in the moment.
Buddy Galon was Lady May Lawford's "as-told-to" and published her autobiography, BITCH!, upon which I based my little play.
Imagine my surprise when Google alerted me on August 21, 2009, with the following (from a Craigslist posting):
"Desperately Seeking Buddy Galon - w4m (Palm Beach, Florida)
Trying to locate Buddy Galon. . . An unscrupulous woman in New York is making a play about his book and giving no credit to him as author. . ."
Of course I answered immediately to say that I am the "unscrupulous woman"(actually, that part of the post kind of thrilled me),that I legally hold the stage rights, that I do fully credit him, and that if this Craigslister finds Mr. Galon, to please get in touch with me, because I really want to talk to him. No response.
Yesterday, Google and Craigslist presented me with:
"Has anyone seen Buddy Galon, the author, who once lived in Palm Beach? He has disappeared without a trace. . ."
" . . .we are also seeking author Buddy Galon. . . He has left many friends, colleagues, acquaintances and admirers with no forwarding address or contact information. . .We miss him."
What makes this run on Buddy?!
I personally know someone else who is looking for him, found an old phone number, and called it. The result was--well, ask me in person and I'll tell you, because it's an interesting story, not for this forum. Buddy didn't answer the phone, but the person who did is also looking for him, and apparently has been for some time.
The mystery of Lady Lawford, and now the mystery of Buddy Galon?! The conspiracy theorist in me is wild with imaginings, and the part of me that so often wants to disappear into thin air is wild with envy.
If you know where Buddy Galon is--I think his given name is Beauregard--please let me know. He grows more interesting every day.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
"Never give up - and even with no talent you'll still make it, because so many people DO give up." --Ruth Gordon, yet again!
Out of the blue another Ruth Gordon fan sent me the above quote, just when I was convincing myself that I shouldn't write any more plays. "Bitch!" was a b*tch.
My father recently reminded me of a dinner table conversation, from years ago. (We'll call it a conversation; mostly we argued, circa 1965-1984). He had been trying to convince me to go to law school, join Civil Service, ANYTHING to fall back on, in case Plan A (to be a working actor and the Girl Mark Twain) didn't work out. Finally, frustrated, he asked me what I'd do if I never "made it"--and I don't remember saying this, but apparently I growled,"I'll outlive everyone until I'm the only actress left. Then they'll have to hire me!"
Ruth Gordon's father, the sea captain, wanted her to be a phys ed teacher. She wrote a play about it.
I'm off to Houston on Monday to play Mrs. Webb in OUR TOWN, the American masterpiece written by (yes, it always comes back to her) Ruth Gordon's dearest friend, Thornton Wilder. I played Mrs. Soames at Hartford Stage about two years ago, with Hal Holbrook (the Boy Mark Twain) as the Stage Manager--a wonderful production,a lesson in Zen, directed by Gregory Boyd. Greg's directing it in Houston, too, and I'm getting a promotion this time because my friend, the estimable Annalee Jeffreys, is rehearsing Horton Foote's Orphans Home cycle, bound for Hartford and NYC. That's how it works.
As a kid, I found OUR TOWN corny--I guess I didn't understand irony then. And my loving, hard-working young mother was still vital and healthy. I hated Emily Webb because I WAS Emily--easy to ridicule, idealistic, bright, and clueless. Now I'll be playing her mother.
When I turned the Big 4-0, to stave off despair, I started collecting autographed photos of women who kept creating beyond the unimaginable age of forty. My first was Ruth Gordon, a framed lobby card of her in DOLL'S HOUSE. Then Shirley Booth, Geraldine Page (of course), Rosemary Clooney, Hedy Lamarr, Doris Day, Uta Hagen, Marian Seldes, Maureen Stapleton, Angela Lansbury, and lots more--my alma maters--doesn't that mean soul mothers? I have to remember to find Shelley Winters! When I studied with her I was too shy--well,afraid of her-- to ask. And I was too young to realize that the opportunity might pass. Now to ask my Aunt Frances and my Great Aunts Mary and Ruth for their autographs, too. They're not actresses, but they're survivors, and they'd look good hanging next to those other ladies.
Another of my heroes, Vanessa Redgrave, once said that her lifetime goal was to be not the world's greatest, but the world's oldest working actress. Now, that's what I call "making it"!
I've got a lot of re-writing to do in Houston.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
"Don't be helpless, don't kill yourself, don't look for trouble. Stuff gets in your way, kick it under the rug. Stay well, stay with it, make it come out. Never, never, never give up."--Ruth Gordon
I'm thinking about Teddy Kennedy and my extreme guilt over having to say the lines I have to say on Friday the 28th--my last Fringe show as Lady Lawford, bashing (gulp)America's favorite First Family. But to dwell on that would be wasting time; Friday will come and I will say Lady L's awful words in spite of my discomfort--and since I'm working hard on becoming more like RG, I'll cut to the chase.
That Friday is the anniversary of Ruth Gordon's death. I still can't believe I never met her.
I used to write letters to her in my head, in the 70's, when I first read her books--she wrote three, in which she encouraged mailing your thoughts and letters of admiration to people you don't know. It had worked for her as a young girl. Her heroes wrote back to her. Would Ruth Gordon actually read my notes and respond? The thought terrified me. What if she thought I was an idiot? Or what if she was so unimpressed she just tossed them? They remained safe in my head. Safety was NOT Ruth Gordon's message to the world.
When she died, in 1985, I started mailing my gushy fan letters, my dumb questions, my admiration, to people I truly admire. Of course I didn't hear back from some of them--but a very famous playwright became my pen pal, I finally got to meet him, and he even let me sit in on rehearsals. It was awkward and embarrassing, until it wasn't.
And when another playwright--Garson Kanin, Ruth Gordon's widower--was casting a revival of his most famous play, BORN YESTERDAY (a play I grew up quoting because of the Judy Holliday movie), I actually met him and got cast. He even wrote ME a few notes--as witty and charming and brilliant as I had hoped he'd be.
Since then, Garson's widow, the amazing Marian Seldes, someone else whose work I admire beyond admiration, has been supportive and kind to me. She is such a trouper she performed once at Cause Celeb!, the comedy show I used to do. I admit I write fan notes to her occasionally because it's great to spread that respect and affection outward to our inspirations--otherwise they may never know their influence. It can't hurt.
And the Estate of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Martha Wilson, is one of my dearest friends now. She knew them both well, of course, but doesn't gossip about them, which is sometimes frustrating to a girl like I. They stay firmly on my pedestal, and I'm grateful for that.
What does any of this have to do with the journey of my little play, "Bitch!"?
Back to the '70's: I was very young, a newlywed in St. Louis, very depressed, phobic, not doing anything I wanted to be doing, for any number of boring reasons, when I first read MY SIDE, by Ruth Gordon. I turned to my adorable young husband and said,"Do you think I'll be like her when I'm her age?" And he replied,"No. Because you're not like that now."
Unlearning Helplessness 101. I've come a long way from St. Louis. But baby, I've still got a long way to go.
Come see the final show if you can. I'm hoping there'll be a ghost in the audience.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Twelve or so years ago I did a production of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" at a lovely, now-defunct theatre in oh-so-bucolic New Hampshire. I played Dotty Otley, the character Dorothy Loudon created on Broadway, and the role Carol Burnett played in the film--a bitch of a part. For theatre people, "Noises Off" is one of the funniest plays ever written: it's about a performance where everything goes wrong.
This past Monday night, at "Bitch!", not EVERYTHING went wrong. There were a couple of dozen friends in the audience, and that was--well, very encouragin', as Ruth Gordon would say. They laughed a lot, mostly appropriately. And Joe Kinosian, pictured above, is not only a devil on the piano, he's an angel of a scene partner. He saved my ample ass more times than I care to admit. When my subconscious told me to cut and skip and omit and forget, he brought me back to the surreality that is the Fringe.
Just as the show started, there was a loud crash! somewhere in the vicinity of the booth. Knowing that our intrepid stage manager Sarah Magno and Melinda Buckley, director, were up there, I didn't worry--until we had no sound cues. None. No music, no doorknocks--except for the frantic by-hand knockings emanating from the booth, followed by some desperate offstage pounding--which made it seem like there were angry ghosts all over the Connelly theatre (a truly ghost-y place, even without the knocks). That's when I knew we had a problem. The crash! had been the board operator knocking everything over, somehow pushing the MUTE button on the sound machine, unable to figure out the problem.
For a fleeting moment, I thought of stopping the show and starting again. Almost never a good idea, but at the Fringe, each show has just 15 minutes to set up ENTIRELY, and 15 minutes to strike, after every performance. Our roller coaster was already well on its way, and since it was the first time we had ever done a full run in the space with costumes, audience, or full tech (well, everything but sound), Joe and I soldiered on, and eventually we not only had knocks, we had telephone rings, we had rhythm, and we were back on track.
Until the scene where Lady Lawford wakes to find she has been burglarized, in her foggy mind, by the Kennedys. That's when the sofa's entire arm came off in my hand. Fortunately Lady Lawford blamed her step-dancing mackerel-snapping in-laws, I hope in character. The audience loved it. Well, except a critic who happened to be there, but really, who cares?
And of course my dress got caught in the wheelchair and I forgot to take the bandage off my head when I should have, and I skipped more pages and my gorgeous 50's ribbon dress was soaked through even though a Lady never sweats--you know, the usual.
My teacher, Geraldine Page (don't you love all this name-dropping?) used to say she lived to be onstage when things went "wrong". And to take care of them. Be in control, make yourself feel that you do have some power, at least for the time you're onstage, and make the audience feel that they have had a purely unique experience that will never happen again.
The sound will never again be so screwed up. (That particular board operator isn't with us anymore.) The sofa arm won't come off--we have a new sofa from New Jersey now. I will take off the bandage next time, beware of the wheelchair, refresh my lines, sweat through another costume, and encounter other ghosts.
We get to do it four more times: August 20, 22, 23, and 28th. Something is bound to go wrong at each performance. Absolute heaven.