31 October 2014

Jefferson Mays, Chameleonic Actor


[On 16 October, I posted a performance report on the Broadway production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, the winner of the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical.  The stand-out performance in the show was from Jefferson Mays, nominated for a Tony himself (he lost out to Neil Patrick Harris for Hedwig and the Angry Inch) for his portrayals of eight doomed members of the D’Ysquith family.  Needless to say, as soon as the play made it to the press’s attention with its world première in Hartford, Connecticut (the production was originated in a co-production of the Hartford Stage and San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre), Mays’s stage work garnered a lot of elaborate—and well-deserved, IMO—praise.  (In his review of the Broadway opening, Charles Isherwood, for instance, dubbed Mays’s “chameleonic performance” a “true tour de force.”)  I downloaded three articles reporting this remarkable achievement, and they’re posed below.  The first article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on 12 March 2013 (http://articles.latimes.com/print/2013/mar/12/entertainment/la-et-cm-jefferson-mays-20130313).] 

“JEFFERSON MAYS’ FRACTURED PERSONALITY”
by Margaret Gray

In ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,’ he portrays nine aristocrats bumped off by an ambitious relative. It requires a certain pallor and a lot of color.

SAN DIEGO — While Jefferson Mays was performing in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” in the fall of 2012 at Hartford Stage, he recalls, his wife kept overhearing variations on the same remark at intermission:

“Isn’t it wonderful how they got actors who all look the same to play the different members of the D’Ysquith family?”

“It made me very happy and really depressed, simultaneously,” says Mays, who was in fact the only actor cast to play all nine D’Ysquiths (DIE-squiths), aristocrats in line for a dukedom who get inventively bumped off one by one by an ambitious relative.

The darkly comic musical by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) is based on the 1907 Roy Horniman novel “Israel Rank” (the same book inspired the 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” featuring Alec Guinness as all of the doomed heirs). It opens Wednesday at San Diego’s Old Globe, which co-produced the show with Hartford Stage.

Along with the rest of the original cast, including Ken Barnett as charming, mass-murdering antihero Monty Navarro and Chilina Kennedy and Lisa O’Hare as his competing love interests, Mays is on board to reprise his critically acclaimed performances.

Mays, no stranger to playing multiple roles — he won a Tony Award in 2004 for playing 37 characters in Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning one-man show, “I Am My Own Wife” — describes the challenge of becoming nine D’Ysquiths of diverse ages and genders over the course of a single evening as “more athletic than artistic.”

“I try to inhabit each of the characters as fully as I can, however short-lived they are,” he says. “But most of my show happens offstage.

“I finish a scene, run hell-for-leather into the wings, in the dark, where I’m set upon by three husky wardrobe women who tear off my clothes, put me in the next costume and give me a squirt of water and dab my face and put on a mustache, or rip off a mustache, and literally shove me back onstage.”

“I don’t know what we did without Velcro in the American theater,” he adds. “It’s a miracle substance! People had long intermissions, probably.”

He describes his work in the musical as “deliriously fun, if exhausting. I’m not a young man. I’m 47 years old, and I do feel really wrung out at the end of the evening, unable to go out and lead the life of a dissolute and glamorous actor, the sort of behavior they’ve come to expect from us, so it’s pretty much home to a glass of a warm milk, some Dickens, and then bed.”

On a Saturday afternoon in Balboa Park, Mays, who stands out from the casually dressed pleasure seekers in a tweed suit under a dashing trench coat and fedora, could himself be an aristocrat transplanted from Edwardian England.

His wife, the Australian actress Susan Lyons, having accompanied him to his interview, kisses him goodbye and heads off to an organ concert nearby.

Neither seems particularly happy about parting, even for an hour.

“We’re quite fond of each other,” Mays acknowledges wistfully as the distance between them grows.

But the discovery of a pleasant balcony overlooking the Old Globe’s matinee crowd seems to restore him. He pulls a chair into a shady spot, joking, “I need to preserve my consumptive pallor for the play.”

He is in fact fair-skinned, but his cheeks are pink with health and his eyes as blue as agates. With a crisp, dryly witty conversational style and gentle, courtly manners, he is the very model of a not-so-modern English gentleman, the sort of character he has inhabited in plays such as “Pygmalion” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” for a significant portion of his professional career.

So it’s startling to learn that he’s American, raised in Clinton, Conn.

Was there anything in his childhood that could account for his predisposition to be so … well … English?

“My mother was a children’s librarian,” Mays ventures, “and I was raised on lots of English children’s literature. It gave me this weird idea that I was English. We didn’t have a television — our set fell off a table sometime during the Vietnam War — and so we would read Dickens around the dinner table. Also, I grew up in a neighborhood devoid of other children. There was a lot of playing by myself, wearing last year’s Halloween costume and wandering around the yard talking to myself — which may account for my fondness for doing different voices.”

When he went off to his local college — Yale University — he planned to become a classics professor, but his interest in Latin and Greek was quickly eclipsed by his extracurricular love of the theater.

“They had about 80 productions a year, in dining halls and on loading docks, and it was all student run,” he says. “It was us all being stupid together and figuring things out and challenging and inspiring each other, and that was a purely collaborative experience and, I think, the best training one could possibly have.”

He went on to the graduate program at UC San Diego and began to work at the La Jolla Playhouse while he was still a student, earning his Equity card with his first role. He has been acting steadily in regional theaters, on Broadway and in television and film ever since.

Although he is something of an expert on Edwardian customs and speech, before “A Gentleman’s Guide,” he had been in only one musical, “My Fair Lady,” as Henry Higgins, which he calls “a great role for somebody who’s dipping a toe into musical theater, because he can speak-sing.” But in this musical he has a diverse array of numbers.

“I don’t think anybody’s ever said, ‘Wow, you’ve got such a beautiful voice,’” he laughs, “but nobody’s complained. I can count that as a small victory.”

Darko Tresnjak, the director of “A Gentleman’s Guide” and the artistic director of the Old Globe from 2004 to 2009, was one of Mays’ earliest fans. “I cast him in a production of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at the Williamstown Theater Festival,” he said by telephone. “That production changed everything for me. The reviews came out, and in one weekend I booked the next three years of work.

“Years later, when this musical came my way, the authors asked me who I thought should play these parts, and I knew instantly that Jefferson would be the one,” Tresnjak said.

Barnett, who as Monty Navarro is obliged to do away with Mays eight times a night, said, also by telephone, that one of the functions of the rehearsal process has been to allow the actors “to laugh it out while we can, in the hope that we’ll be able to hold it together onstage.

“It’s such a delicate balance,” Barnett went on. “If the D’Ysquiths are too odious it’s not fun. Jefferson manages to make each individual character adorable and lovable and utterly despicable at the same time, which allows me to enjoy my time with them and also feel quite justified in murdering them all.”

*  *  *  *
[The second  article I downloaded was posted on the website Broadway Direct on 5 August 2013 (http://broadwaydirect.com/feature/jefferson-mays-broadway-chameleon).]

“JEFFERSON MAYS: BROADWAY CHAMELEON”
by Gerard Raymond

You will simply die with laughter every time Jefferson Mays croaks on stage.  And lucky for you, he does it eight times a night in his gasp-inducing performance, playing eight deliciously doomed characters in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.  

Robert Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s devilishly funny new Broadway musical—which begins performances at the Walter Kerr Theatre on October 22—tells the story of a charismatic young social climber named Monty (Bryce Pinkham) who stands to inherit a vast fortune if only he can rid himself of eight pesky relatives.  Enter Jefferson Mays in a whirlwind tour de force as all eight members of the noble D’Ysquith (pronounced “Die-squith”) family.

“I love the head-spinning nature of it,” says Mays, who won Tony, Drama Desk and Theater World awards in 2004 for taking on 37 different roles in the solo show I Am My Own Wife.  “I think, like most actors, I suffer from what I call ‘the Bottom syndrome,’” he confides, referring to the character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream who insists on playing all the parts in the play-within-the-play about Pyramus and Thisbe.  “So here my wish has come true, my pathology has been sustained!”  Unlike the one-man show however, where Mays suggested the various characters while retaining the simple black dress worn by the main character, in the current musical the  actors pulls off a complete character transformation each time around.  “Some of the costume changes happen on stage, and one of them is, I think, about three seconds. It’s a sensation that I have never experienced before: being set upon in the dark by sometimes four people, who tear your clothes off and put you into something new and then push you back on stage, after perhaps squirting some water into your mouth.  It’s like a funhouse ride for me in the dark. I get to breathe only when the audience laughs, because, then, time gets suspended and you can lean up against the show for a few precious moments.”

Born in Connecticut, Mays completed an undergraduate degree in classics and art history at Yale University, but got lured into acting after taking part in extra-curricular undergrad theater.  He went on to graduate from the University of California, San Diego, and began his career working primarily in regional theaters around the country.  “The only way for an actor starting out to play really good, interesting roles with any sort of surety was in the regions. You can sink your teeth into the monster roles almost immediately, and I think that’s the best training.” Over the past five years, since his Tony Award-winning Broadway debut in I Am Own Wife, he has returned to the Great White Way for acclaimed revivals of Journey’s EndPygmalion and The Best Man.

“Jefferson is a chameleon; he can make the most outrageous choice and with him it will be perfectly stylish,” says Gentleman’s Guide director Darko Tresnjak, who recommended Mays for this production. Mays says he “leapt at the chance, although it wasn’t without a certain amount of trepidation.” He explains that this production marks his first real foray into the world of musical theater.  Prior to this, in 2008, he had stepped in at the last minute to replace the actor playing Henry Higgins in the Maine Ogunquit Playhouse production of My Fair Lady.  “I had just finished doing Pygmalion and thought it would be wonderful to do the speaking and singing Higgins.  It was a gentle way to get into musicals.  Now I am beginning to sing and no one has complained yet, so I am happy!”

At the first workshop, when Mays had to come up with a clear way to differentiate his slate of D’Ysquiths, he says he honored his first responses when he fell in love with the script on a quick initial read.  “I am a bit of a hat fetishist, and I have a large collection of hats at home, so I picked out hats for all the characters; my wife, Susan, kindly lent me some of her hats as well.  So I brought all those in – a sort of Boer War silver topee helmet, a top hat, a bowler, a boater and several tweed cloth caps – and, I am happy to say, they all, or at least a semblance, are in the production.”

The D’Ysquith family, Mays offers, “certainly represents all that is wrong with the British Empire at that point, so they deserve their comeuppance in their own way, but you also have to make them interesting and even likeable.  I have tried to make them as real as they can be under the circumstances – it is a delightful handful of eccentrics. I like playing them all – this whole spread of DNA over the course of the evening.  Of course, they are all fundamentally me; I don’t have any personal favorites. It actually does upset me when people say they liked one better, then my feelings get hurt!” In Mays’ gallery of D’Ysquiths, you get to meet, among others, Asquith D’Ysquith Jr., (“a sexual predator and a bit of rake who wears a bowler hat at a jaunty angle”); Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, the family patriarch (“I pictured him as rather bloated, a fox-hunting man; he wears a top-hat”); Lady Salome (“a flamboyant actress with a mane of red tresses and a turban scarf wrapped around her head”); Lady Hyacinth (“progressive, missionary, probably a suffragette, and rather mannish”); and Rev. Lord Ezekiel D’Ysquith (“he goes hat-less but has mutton-chop whiskers and a protruding overbite, my only use of prosthetics”).

As Mays describes his character transformations with obvious glee, he admits also to occasionally having a twinge of regret when it turns out he has done his job too well.  After performances of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, during the acclaimed engagements of this production at Hartford Stage, CT and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, it appears that some audience members didn’t actually realize that all eight characters were played by the same actor. “This is a sore point with me, I confess to it,” Mays exclaims. “I was delighted and also I was extremely depressed and wanted to kill myself! As an actor you want to disappear completely into whatever role you are doing, but you also want to get the accolade for the stunning transformation.”

In truth though, Mays appears to be having an indecent amount of fun giving life to each D’Ysquith during their short time left on earth before getting conveniently snuffed out by the protagonist.  A good part of the fun, he explains, is being part of a musical.  “I am very new to musicals, as I said, and there is a peculiar thing that happens that you don’t get with plays. When you hear that overture striking up, and the curtain hasn’t gone up yet, it is just thrilling, as hokey as that sounds. And then you step aboard this magic carpet, the music that carries you through the course of the evening. And then the audience comes aboard as well, and there is no stopping it.  It is one of the most exhilarating feelings I have yet had in the theater, and I am addicted to it.”

*  *  *  *
[The last piece on Jefferson Mays’s amazing transformations in Gentleman’s Guide came from the New York Observer of 14 November 2013 (http://observer.com/2013/11/meet-the-mad-hatter-of-broadway).]

“MEET THE MAD HATTER OF BROADWAY: JEFFERSON MAYS TAKES ON A CREW OF DOOMED ARISTOCRATS IN A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER”
by Harry Haun 

Even if one didn’t already exist in his gallery of colorful eccentrics, Jefferson Mays would qualify as the Main Stem’s Mad Hatter. He’s easy to spot at any Broadway opening: He’s the one wearing a hat.

“You can say pathology, you can say fetish,” he offered in a recent interview. “I love hats. I’ve always loved hats.”

His prodigious hat collection has come in handy in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which opens next week at the Walter Kerr Theater. Mr. Mays plays D’Ysquith (pronounced DIE-swith) or, to be exact, eight D’Ysquiths in a neat little row leading to the title of Earl of Highhurst. As they idle impatiently with an advanced sense of entitlement, they dwindle: Monty Navarro, a greedy arriviste newly named ninth-in-the-line-of-succession, has started taking an ax to the family tree, dispatching the remaining D’Ysquiths in a hilariously horrific fashion, clearing his path to Highhurst Castle.

“When I did the first reading,” Mr. Mays said, “I thought, ‘How am I going to differentiate these characters?’ I had a couple of days before the presentation so I ransacked my hat collection and got a bowler, a boater, a Boar War silver topee helmet, a top hat, a fez, several tweed-cloth caps, even one of my wife’s hats—anything I could find and brought them all to the first read-through. Either they’re still in the show now—or a reasonable facsimile of them are. Some actors start with the right shoes. I start with the right hats.”

If this much of the plot has set off a distant ding-a-ling of recognition, you’re not hearing things. The creators of this smart and stylish dark-comedy musical—Robert F. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics)—are drawing from the same source material that provided the absolute capper of England’s early Ealing Studio comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets, which introduced us to a gifted comedian-chameleon named Alec Guinness, playing all eight of the dying aristocrats.

From the evidence on display here and in previous performances, it would be safe to surmise that Mr. Mays is seriously bucking to become the stateside Alec Guinness.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder gives him a strong leg-up on that score.All these people who lie between our ‘hero’ and his (as he sees it) rightful ascendance to the Earldom are a wonderful, horrible, eccentric bunch,” he said. “They personify, each individually, everything that’s wrong with the British Empire. Of course, all seven deadly sins are represented in the D’Ysquiths—with one to spare.”

The one sin-free D’Ysquith, to Mr. Mays’ mind, is Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr. “I think that he’s an honorable man, and, in this, it’s a pleasure to play someone who’s rather decent. He very kindly takes Monty under his wing and helps him along on his path.”

But the rest are a sorry lot. There’s Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, whose showstopping line is “I Don’t Understand the Poor”; Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr., a sexual predator on the underclasses; Lord Henry D’Ysquith, beekeeper and snooty twit; Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith, fitness freak and military man; Rev. Lord Ezekiel D’Ysquith, benignly bonkers cleric; Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey, bad actress; and Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, a missionary-suffragette zealot and society woman who tries to improve things by dragging Africans out of their huts and showing them the ways of the virtues of colonialism.

Some are on stage for only a few seconds before they’re killed off. “It’s quite a challenge to create an impression in the short amount of time I have,” Mr. Mays said. “Many of them have their own song, but I think if each had one it would make a very, very long evening.”

Director Darko Tresnjak, a big noise in regional theater now making his move on Broadway, tried the show out last fall on his current turf (Hartford Stage) and in the spring on his former turf (San Diego’s Old Globe) and, at both stops, was critically embraced. The Times Charles Isherwood hit the tom-toms in Hartford that it “ranks among the most inspired and entertaining new musical comedies I’ve seen in years.”

The “varied” and “melodious” score by Mr. Lutvak, a cabaret singer-turned-composer, and the “witty” and “spot-on” lyrics he concocted with Mr. Freedman were particularly cheered.  “The score is sublime—it really is,” seconded Mr. Mays. “It makes me sound like a Philistine saying this, but it’s music you can go out of the theater humming.”

Mr. Lutvak, he pointed out, is a scholar of both popular music and classical music. “So you have everything quoted in this, from Chopin to Sondheim to Gilbert and Sullivan to Noel Coward to Mozart to English music hall to waltzes. It goes all over the place—and to great effect. Nothing is ever jarring, either. It’s rather seamless, just transcendently beautiful music.”

Orchestrator extraordinaire Jonathan Tunick, who rarely strays from Sondheim’s side, prepared the music for an orchestra of 12. These days, that’s positively fat.

Good songs, Mr. Mays said, “do the acting for you—and it is like a magic ride of sorts. You step on and you step off, blissfully at the end of the evening. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve never experienced.”

The Broadway musical may be something Mr. Mays is new to, but multitasking has become an art form with him. He arrived on Broadway in I Am My Own Wife, fragmented into 37 different characters (almost three times Sally Field’s Sybil) so the eight D’Ysquiths confronting him are tantamount to a month in the country.

Although this specialty is pronounced, Mr. Mays refuses to trade off it. “I should be one of those actors who has a list. A lot of people do—‘I wanna do this and this and this’—but I don’t. I enjoy being surprised— indeed, often ambushed—by a role. Think of being called up and hearing, ‘Do you want to be a 65-year-old East German gay transvestite in this play?’ How many times in your life are you going to hear that?”

He heard it just once, and it was “Open Sesame” to the role of a lifetime, the Tony Award and an “overnight” Broadway career established with one lucky blow.

Doug Wright was on the other end of that phone, inviting him to come to Sundance to work on a play that was still in Mr. Wright’s head. The two had been friends since working together on Quills (Mr. Mays had played the hospital administrator lording over the Marquis de Sade)—and a friend was what was needed here to read back the play that was spilling out. “He felt guilty asking Sundance, at great expense, to fly in a cast of people he wasn’t sure he’d need. He said, ‘I don’t really have a play yet. I just have stuff you read back to me as I write it.’ Then, from there, it developed into what it was.” I Am My Own Wife, won Wright the Tony, too—and the Pulitzer Prize—and became the most-often produced play for several years after its Broadway run.

But Mr. Mays doesn’t envy the regional actors who now have to wrestle that bear of a play to the ground. “I think if I were to confront that finished play now as an actor, I would be shattered to the point of paralysis,” he said. What he did—now it can be told—was ease into the role(s) in increments. The process—one actor doing many roles—became the play: Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and the people in her life.

He went the multi-character route only one other time, in an adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which he was Charles Dodson (read: Lewis Carroll) telling Alice the story by acting out The Mock Turtle, The March Hare, assorted Queens, and, of course, The Mad Hatter. “It’s euphoria,” he said, “jumping wildly from persona to persona on the stage.”

When he’s in a single role, it tends to be an idiosyncratic one: St. John Quartermaine, the musical and nonmusical Henry Higgins, the milquetoast with a history-altering secret in The Best Man, the cook in Journey’s End, Alexander Throttlebottom, the Manchester MI6 spy in Blood and Gift and that mother of them all, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. “It’s an endless source of frustration for my agents, I’m sure, trying to figure out where to put me next, but I’ve been very fortunate—and I’ve been able to fall in, almost literally, to some very, very interesting projects.”

In all of the above, hats make the characters—which is why, on the rainy Tuesday afternoon on which The Observer spoke with him, it was a bit disconcerting when Mr. Mays arrived at Café Orlin disguised as a civilian—in Yankee baseball cap! “I know,” he said sheepishly. “I actually came out of the building wearing my Panama hat, but I thought, ‘Well, it’s going to be wet burlap by the time I get home,’ so I went back and put this on out of practicality.”

As for how he became enamored of hats in the first place, “As a child, I would wake up in the morning and put on a different hat. Just the other day I read that, in espionage, if you are being shadowed by someone, the best way to disappear is to change your hat. It will completely throw off the most astute tail—that’s the cheap, easy way. Maybe I’m always trying to hide. Maybe that’s what led to my interest in becoming an actor.”

[Born Lewis Jefferson Mays in Clinton, Connecticut, on 8 June 1965, Jefferson Mays got a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale College and then went on to the Graduate Drama Program of the University of California, San Diego, for an MFA in acting (1991).  Early in his career, he appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse, just outside of San Diego, and the Long Wharf Theatre, in New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University, as well as the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown Massachusetts, and New York City’s Playwrights Horizons, among other highly regarded repertory companies.  Mays has worked extensively with Des McAnuff, former artistic director of La Jolla, and Anne Bogart; for several years, he was a member of Bogart's SITI company of Saratoga Springs, New York, and New York City.  He now lives in New York’s East Village with his wife (since 2004), Australian actress and book editor Susan Lyons, and their rescue dog, Maud.

[Though his eight-character juggling act for Gentleman’s Guide didn’t win him a Tony in 2014, Mays did win the award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play in 2004 for playing some 40 roles in Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, I Am My Own Wife, his Broadway début.  He also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show, an Obie Award, and a Theatre World Award for his performance as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the transgender East German who survived both the Nazis and the German communists.  The versatile actor— Gentleman’s Guide is his first major musical performance—has also appeared in critically-acclaimed revivals, Shaw’s Pygmalion (as Henry Higgins) and R. C. Sherriff’s Journey's End (Private Mason), both in 2007.  In rep, he’s played Hamlet at the San Diego Rep, Tartuffe at La Jolla and Peter Pan at Baltimores Center Stage.  Mays has also appeared on television (The Good Wife, Mildred Pierce ) and in films (Cousin Bette, Alfie), and he records audio books (Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience).] 

 

26 October 2014

'Buffalo Gal' (2008)


[On 1 October, I posted a performance report on A. R. Gurney’s 1977 play, The Wayside Motor Inn, which I’d seen earlier at the Signature Theatre Company.  In that report, I noted that the last Gurney play I’d seen was Buffalo Gal in August 2008 at Primary Stages.  I’ve decided to post that pre-ROT report, dated 2 September 2008, as a point of comparison with my latest Gurney experience.  I think you’ll see some consistency between my response seven years ago and the one I reported this month.  (I even quoted myself from this report in my Wayside Motor Inn assessment.] 

Well, the 2008-09 season has opened!  Seemed early to me—Labor Day hadn’t even come and gone yet—but Primary Stages, one of our longer-running OB companies, started its program on 22 July with A. R. Gurney’s Buffalo Gal.  (It had its press opening on 5 August, but its scheduled closing on 30 August was still earlier than most other companies’ initial productions.  I’m also subscribing to MCC, whose first show doesn’t even open until 10 September; Primary Stages’ next production starts on 30 September.)  What’s next—Christmas starting before Thanksgiving?

Oh, wait.  It already does.  Never mind.

Okay, enough silliness.  My friend Diana and I went to 59E59, the Eastside space in which Primary Stages is working, to see Buffalo Gal on Thursday, 21 August, and it was an excellent theater evening.  It’s not a great play—probably won’t go down in the canon of theater literature as a significant play—but it works on stage and was very enjoyable.  It was also a relief.  As I said to Diana as we were leaving, it’s been a long time since I haven’t left a theater either disappointed or worse.  (I also let slip the hope that this bodes well for the season, but as soon as I said that, I remembered back to September 2004 when we saw what I thought was a wonderful production of two Ionesco one-acts, after which the season went precipitously downhill.  Now I’m afraid I’ve jinxed this season!)

I’ve never been the fan of Gurney (with the exception of 1995’s Sylvia) that I have been of Guare or Lanford Wilson, say, but he’s a solid playwright—and he’s been at it for so long that he can do it with his eyes closed, I’m sure, and still come out with a creditable script.  This may be a case of that to an extent—plus the fact that he’s dealing here with his own, and I assume beloved, field of endeavor: The Theater.  Of course, he’s also writing about his main subject, the one he’s devoted his career to: the American WASP—and for good measure, he’s thrown in Chekhov, possibly every theater person’s most favorite playwright next to Shakespeare, and the city of Buffalo, where Gurney, like his leading lady, was born.  In an interview, Gurney said, “I’ve always loved the city of Buffalo and I wanted to write about it.”  Now he has.

So, Theater, WASPs, Chekhov, and Buffalo.  How could he miss?  Well, it’s not as if there aren’t problems with the script—not, that is to specify, the production—and so, I’ll dispense with those cavils tout de suite so as to get past them.  It’s not that they aren’t significant—in another play, they’d have scuttled the whole megillah (and I ain’t talkin’ about the gorilla, neither)—but Gurney, the cast, and Mark Lamos, the director, pull it off smoothly.

I guess, since this is a pretty new play—it premièred at Williamstown in 2000 and had a regular run in . . . guess where!  Buffalo, in 2002—I should give you all a run-down of the plot and all.  Buffalo Gal (and, yes, the song of that title does play during the show) is a sort of backstage dramedy.  Actually, to be precise, it’s an on-stage-before-rehearsals-start dramedy, but as far as sub-genres go, that’s the same thing.  It’s about actors, directors, producers, stage managers, costumes, sets, props, acting . . . and the stage vs. Hollywood (in this case, TV).  In the interview, Gurney doesn’t suggest that he chose Chekhov for his model for this reason, but the Russian may be one of Western theater’s most “theatrical” playwrights.  Among all the modern dramatists, he’s one of the few who’ve had no success in films.  (1994’s Vanya on 42nd Street by Louis Malle and David Mamet comes closest.  I always wondered if Robert Altman’s 1978 film A Wedding was inspired by the Chekhov short story, but I’ve never found any confirmation of that suspicion.)  Ibsen hasn’t done so well (both writers, of course, have had videos of stage productions or, in the case of A Doll’s House, a wonderful live TV production back in the ’50s), but all of Shaw’s major plays were turned into movies—and Pygmalion, of course, got double treatment: stage play-movie-stage musical-movie musical.  But Chekhov, outside of Russia, has never transferred, yet his plays are considered challenges for actors and directors, loved by theater companies and, presumably, audiences.  I would guess that among actors—and maybe playwrights, too—the most beloved stage piece is The Seagull.  It’s all about us, after all.  But Cherry Orchard, the play at the heart of Buffalo Gal, is about coming home, and that’s what Gurney wrote about in his play.  Amanda, the main character, even tries to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald on the subject, saying, “Americans always want to be back somewhere.  Something like that, only he said it better.”  (I wondered why no one came back with Thomas Wolfe’s admonishment about home—that you can’t go there again.)  The parallels Gurney constructs, though, are almost too obvious—and that’s one of the complaints I have.

Amanda (Susan Sullivan, whose professional life somewhat parallels Amanda’s), is a successful and famous TV star who’s returning home to Buffalo, where she grew up and started out on the local stage, to play Madam Ranevskaya in the production of Cherry Orchard staged by a rising local rep company.  Her career, mostly because her age is approaching late-middle, has hit a slow point and she’s hoping a stage success will give her a boost.  The director, Jackie (Jennifer Regan), in turn, hopes that Amanda’s stardom will attract audiences, critics, and contributors to her still-new theater, and that, on the heels of this success (she’s even anticipating a transfer to New York), she can really bring quality theater to Buffalo again.  (It’s not in the script, but the Studio Arena Theatre, Buffalo’s long-time, high-rep regional company went dark earlier this year.  One of its better-known successes was sending Eccentricities of a Nightingale to Broadway in 1976.) The casting of Amanda as Ranevskaya is too perfect: on her way in from the airport, the actress—who’s arrived a day before the rest of the cast to get a feel for the theater—makes the driver from the theater take the long way to by-pass the freeway and to make a detour to her grandmother’s old house.  Amanda grew up there, playing on the veranda (“Amanda on the veranda,” grandma used to say), and now . . . can you all guess?—it’s for sale.  (There’s no cherry orchard at the old house, but there was an apple tree!)  

Of course, Hollywood keeps getting in the way.  Even before Amanda shows up, the director and her staff have been on the phone with Amanda’s agent to get the signed contract.  The agent is apparently delaying—he doesn’t even approve of the whole venture; he’s pushing a trashy sit-com on Fox in which Amanda would play a sort of trash-talking Estelle Getty grandmother (heavens!) role.  He’s raising all kinds of objections, including to the clause that guarantees Jackie a role in the potential transfer to New York if the show is successful.  Amanda herself is afraid she won’t be able to learn the lines for a stage performance again; in Hollywood, she reminds everyone, you only get pieces of the dialogue at a time, and even then you don’t have to say the words exactly as long as you get the sense right.  She’s had some failed marriages and a daughter with problems, and she needs money to care for her.  The Fox show is lucrative, but insulting and demeaning; however, the producers keep upping the ante and enhancing her role with each offer, relayed by the agent from the coast.  But before the company can begin to worry about Amanda bolting for TV again, they learn that the leading man, who was to play Leonid, Ranevskaya’s brother, had dropped out.  He and Amanda had worked together before—it’s one of the reasons she wants to do the play—but he’s immediately replaced with a local star, James Johnson (Dathan B. Williams), whom Amanda demands to meet.  “James” turns out to be “Jimmy” Johnson, Amanda realizes suddenly—formerly one of the boys in her acting classes in Buffalo; he’s also African-American—the theater practices “nontraditional casting”—and Amanda quips, “The 19th-century land-owning Russian lady just discovers she has a black brother.”  Finally, Amanda gets a phone message from a Dr. Dan Robbins, but she doesn’t recognize the name until a staffer calls the local dentist back and discovers he used to be Danny Ruben (Mark Blum)—her first love and the boy who got her into theater back in high school.  (They wrote and put on a musical—he sends along a CD of them singing the signature song, “Say When,” which is played over the theater’s sound system for all of the assembled characters to hear.  This is something else I’ll address in a moment.)

Among the other clichés are an ASM, Debbie (Carmen M. Herlihy), who’s a theater student conversant with every theater-history factoid you could imagine; and an assistant director, Roy (James Waterston), who admits he’s in theater because he just loves the words.  (His parents are both deaf; at home, communication is all signs.)

I won’t be a spoiler this time and tell you how things turn out—the play is too good as a theater piece, even if it’s not top-level dramatic lit—but I will say that the drama turns on whether Amanda will do the play or not, or whether she goes back to L.A. to do the sit-com (which, in another twist of coincidence, starts taping in the middle of the play’s run—that is, she can’t do both, wouldn’t ya know).  There’s also the question of whether she’ll throw it all over to stay in Buffalo with her lost love, Dan, whose wife may be leaving him because he’s never really stopped loving Amanda (or, as we might suppose, the image of Amanda, the now-famous Hollywood actress).

All of the characters say too much.  I don’t mean they talk too much, but they say too much.  Debbie, of course, is a chatterer, so I don’t mean her—that’s her character and cliché though it may be, it’s believable.  But everyone else is constantly revealing the most private, intimate things to people who are virtually total strangers.  This is especially true of Amanda—who tells everyone about her daughter’s emotional problems, her money troubles, her failed marriages.  She acknowledges she has a granddaughter by her unmarried daughter (though she specifies that that little fact—the grandmother part, not the unwed-mother part!—must not appear in her program bio) and finally, while her old boyfriend is trying to convince her to run away with him, she acknowledges that he had gotten her pregnant when they were teens and she had run away to have a secret abortion in Puerto Rico.  (The two are ostensibly alone on stage, but there’s no privacy with techies in the booth and others in the wings and off-stage offices.)  Why she doesn’t just go on Oprah and reveal all, I don’t know—or write a lucrative tell-all book.  That would solve her money problems, I’d imagine!  Much of the drama and some of the plot rests on these revelations, but, my God!, aren’t some things just private?  Except for Dan (James/Jimmy has left the theater by this time), the actress has never met any of these people.  Remember, Amanda isn’t out of the YouTube and Facebook generation—she hasn’t grown up with her life on the ’Net; she’s a “lady” of a “certain age.”  Yeah, I know, that’s an anachronism . . . but puh-leeeze . . . .  

I don’t think I’ve caught all the contrivances and coincidences Gurney weaves into his plot, but I think you get the idea—it’s a little too convenient to be believed.  The parallels with Cherry Orchard, the Hollywood-vs.-stage conflict, the going-home sentimentality—it’s all a little too hard to credit.  If it weren’t a master craftsman like Gurney, with a terrific cast and sure-handed director, it would have fallen apart in the first scene.

So, that gets me to the acting (and, less obviously, the directing—since Lamos’s work was too subtle in this case to be clearly discernable).  Make no mistake, this is a star vehicle—or the Off-Broadway equivalent of one.  Amanda is the main character and is on stage most of the play.  Nonetheless, the company worked as an ensemble, even though Susan Sullivan was also the best-known member of the cast by far.  (James Waterston is the son of Sam Waterston, but in his own right, he’s not very well known yet.)  The ensembleness of the cast was the clearest benefit of Lamos’s directing—that and the casting itself, certainly.  (Gurney apparently had a hand in casting Sullivan as Amanda—he promoted her for the role.)  Even despite the excesses of Gurney’s script, all the actors created believable characters and convincing circumstances.  It might be hard to believe me now, but while I was watching the play unfold, even as I asked myself from time to time if Amanda should really be telling everyone her private details so readily, I never actually doubted that that was what was going on in this set of lives.  (The jokes, by the way—it is a “dramedy,” as I said before—were not so predictable, though many were “theater jokes.”  I had no problem chuckling away, even guffawing occasionally.)  It had to be Sullivan, however, who took the prize for making this all work as well as it did.  (The Times gave the production a near-rave—and also ran a feature on Sullivan about a week later—though other New York papers were less enthusiastic.  I admit, because of so many previous differences with Ben Brantley’s criticism, I had trepidations about the show before I went; the review came out two weeks before I saw the play.)  I’m not sure how they all managed to pull this trick off, but if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say that all the actors simply behaved as if they believed every moment of Gurney’s script.  They never hesitated or flinched, and they didn’t try to run over the less credible bits.  Like con artists, I guess, if actors make as if they believe what they’re doing, the audience—ahem, “marks”—will, too.  I don’t know if there’s psychological justification for that assertion, but it seems true.  I also assume that Lamos had a hand in this, since every cast member was doing the same level of work— Sullivan’s efforts were obviously greater, but they were all doing the same quality, even if she was doing more quantity

(This all reminds me that I’ve just read a couple of articles, one of them a scientific essay, on magic and psychology.  The scientists, who study perception and awareness, assert that magicians like Penn and Teller, the Amazing Randi, and the Great Tomsoni, have all intuitively discovered how to use the gaps in human perception and cognition.  Scientists haven’t studied the phenomena yet, but stage magicians have all figured out how to manipulate our awareness.  I guess I’m saying that actors and directors, too, have an intuitive understanding of the way people believe what they see and hear, even if they don’t have a scientist’s command of the structures they’re manipulating.  I’m also sure that if certain people get a load of that truth—that theater people manipulate our perception—they’ll be all the more convinced that the theater is that much more blasphemous.  TS to them, then!)

[The Times review to which I referred was Ben Brantley, “Stranger in Newly Strange Lands: Home and Theater,” 6 Aug. 2008; the feature on Sullivan was Patricia Cohen, “Stage Role Close to Home for a Former TV Star,” 11 Aug. 2008.  Other New York City reviews were: Joe Dziemianowicz, “Susan Sullivan shines in ‘Buffalo Gal,’” Daily News 6 Aug. 2008; Frank Scheck, “Star’s Return Sheds Little Theatrical Light,” New York Post 11 Aug. 2008; Michael Feingold, “Hair’s Central Park Revival Still Shines With Youthful Energy; Buffalo Gal Skillfully Reworks Chekhov, “ Village Voice 12 Aug. 2008; and Marilyn Stasio, “Off Broadway: Buffalo Gal,” Variety 6 Aug. 2008.

[The articles on magic I mentioned were: George Johnson, “Sleights of Mind: Science meets magic, playing on what we think we know,” New York Times 21 Aug. 2007, sec F (“Science Times”): 1, 4; Stephen L. Macknik; Mac King; James Randi; Apollo Robbins; Teller; John Thompson; and Susana Martinez-Conde, “Perspective: Science and Society: Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience (advance online publication [doi:10.1038/nrn2473]) 30 July 2008, http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nrn2473.html, 13 Aug. 2008; and Benedict Carey, “While a Magician Works, The Mind Does the Tricks,” New York Times 12 Aug. 2008, Sec. F (“Science Times”): 1, 3.]

 

21 October 2014

Bertolt Brecht and the Mental Health Players

by Kirk Woodward

 

[Frequent guest-blogger Kirk Woodward keeps contributing the most fascinating articles on theater and several other topics.  This time around, he’s reporting on a group that uses theater “to depict realistic scenarios involving mental health issues,” according to its website (http://www.mhanj.org/mental-health-players/).  It’s an education outreach program intended to teach audiences about mental illness in a dynamic and direct way that bypasses the clinical jargon and academic atmosphere of lectures, texts, and even documentary films.  Kirk got to know the program’s director and got involved with the group and felt that it was an experience worth writing about and disseminating on ROT.  But leave it to Kirk to find a unique take on the experience: he sees it as profoundly Brechtian.  I’ll let him explain that, but I’ll add that it adds a dimension to what was in any case an unusual encounter.]

 

“I’m not asking you to sit back in your chairs and enjoy the show. I’m asking you to sit on the edge of your chairs and think about what you’re seeing.”

 

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), the German playwright and director, could easily have spoken those very words as a summary of his theories about plays and how he wanted audiences to experience them. However, the words were spoken instead in August 2014, in a recreational room at a New Jersey YMHA, by a man named John Rogers, then the Interim Director of the New Jersey Mental Health Players (MHP).

 

John Rogers is a retired high school guidance counselor and a fine actor. I have seen him in several plays at the Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey; I wrote about one of those plays, Paul Claudel’s The Tidings Brought to Mary, in this blog (see “Religious Drama,” 19 January 2014). I knew him slightly, and our sons know each other. 

 

When John sat next to me at a production in the same church of five Chekhov one-act plays, he mentioned that he was leading a group that performs short improvised plays on mental health subjects. He invited me to talk with him further about it, and I met with him a few days later. The upshot was that both my friend Martha Day and I signed up for the program, which began with two training sessions.

 

According to a history provided by the group, the Mental Health Players began in Elmira, New York, in 1978, and members of that group created eleven troupes in New Jersey. Predictably, as the structure and approach of mental health organizations changed, so did the Mental Health Players. Their numbers shrank in the late 1990s, as responsibilities of their parent organizations increased; eventually there was only one group left in New Jersey, in Somerset County.  

 

However, starting in 2002 the entire program was refunded and reconceived to “focus entirely on presenting real life accounts of individuals showing the signs and symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses and disorders.” Its aim became to have at least fifty trained players, giving at least five community educational performances per month. The presentations are given at no cost to the host organizations at such locations as universities, hospitals, assisted living residences, and community centers.

 

Here’s how the MHP works. When an organization signs up for a performance, it indicates what topics might interest its audience the most. The performance might be for “consumers” – persons who have, and/or may have been treated for, mental health issues – or for more general audiences. In either case, John Rogers creates two scenarios for the event, each for two actors, each intended to last about six to eight minutes, followed by a discussion period with the audience. The entire presentation, with both scenes and both discussion periods, takes about an hour.

 

John writes a new scenario for each event; he doesn’t recycle earlier ones, although he may modify scenes from past performances that have worked well. Each scenario dramatizes at least one mental health issue; often, because of the complexities of life, it actually will dramatize two or more. The two actors in each scene discuss the scene on the phone in advance, making sure they’re focused on the issues and in agreement on the logistics of the scene, like where it’s taking place and what objects it might require. There is no rehearsal except that the actors meet to run through the scenarios right before the event, and then they perform them for the audience. A scenario may have actual lines in it, but they are meant to be suggestions indicating points to be made, rather than things the actors must say.

 

The scenarios are structured, John says, like a three act play – except that he “interrupts” the actors after the “second act,” at a logical stopping point in the action, and in “Act Three” the performers, still in character, discuss with the audience what the audience members have seen, what they think about it, and what they recommend to the “characters” to do. Not until the end of the evening do the actors introduce their “real” selves.

 

Martha and I found John’s training sessions for the program challenging and interesting. The scenes, obviously, are improvised, but they have definite points to get across. In fact each actor is instructed to identify at least three symptoms appropriate for the character’s mental state, and to make sure these are clearly presented in the play. (For example, a character in a scene about depression might demonstrate frequent tiredness, loss of interest in activities, and too much or too little sleep.) The entire performance has two aims: to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, and to help people think about steps that they themselves could take toward recovery.

 

A few technical details: 


  • The troupe discourages yelling and screaming as a part of scenes; those may grab attention, but the scenes aim to demonstrate behavior, not to carry the audience away emotionally. 

 

  • During the question-and-answer period, the actors are not supposed to “continue the scene” with each other, although they stay in character; they are urged to direct their responses to the audience members, not to each other. (The temptation for actors to keep on acting with their partners is very strong.) It is the audience that needs to change, not the actors-as-characters. 

 

  • Actors are requested not to take part in scenes that represent mental health challenges they themselves are currently facing. A sufferer from severe depression should not do a scene about it.

 

  • Given the opportunity to have the lights in the auditorium turned off so the audience can focus on the actors, John says no. We’re not doing conventional theater, he says; we’re giving a presentation. (See below for more on this very Brechtian approach.)

 

If I may put it this way, the aim of the Mental Health Players is realism but not reality. Another way to say this is that what the MHP does is not the same as psychodrama. Eric Bentley, in his book Thinking  About the Playwright (1987) gives a fascinating account of the theatrical techniques that the late Dr. Jacob Levy Mareno used in group therapy, with actual patients conceiving of scenes and participating in them (sometimes assisted by professionals), in front of an audience. The primary aim of Dr. Mareno’s work was the healing of the patient, but of course the audience was invited to grow too. Bentley suggests that the central purpose of the experience was education. Although a performance by the MHP’s may not necessarily be immediately therapeutic, it does share with psychodrama the purpose of educating its audience, and thereby of changing it.

 

A few days after our first training session Martha and I went to see the performance of the MHP that I described at the beginning of this piece. There were a table and chairs for the actors in the front of the good-sized recreation room; those pieces made up the entire set. John Rogers began and ended the evening for the audience of perhaps thirty people by ringing a small bell and explaining that it symbolizes the Mental Health Bell, weighing 300 pounds and on display in Virginia, forged in 1953 from chains and shackles that mental patients had worn in “insane asylums” in the 1800s.  

 

Then John invited the audience to watch the play, as described above, and the actors began.

 

About three minutes into the first scene, an audience member began, too – she began to comment on and respond to just about every line the actors spoke, and she continued for the rest of the evening. Participatory theater! The actors incorporated what she said as best they could, but she was overwhelming, and she was equally active during the discussion periods that followed each of the two scenes. John Rogers did his best to give others a chance to talk, and of course then the lady talked to them. John told us afterwards, both amazed and amused, that in his thirty-five years in the program, that had never happened before.

 

John brought two people in to watch the scene Martha and I brought to our second and final training session. The theme of the scene was depression, and Martha managed to represent just about the most depressed person I’d ever seen – very effective. Afterwards John led the discussion in the direction of steps for recovery – how could Martha be helped in her situation? Alone with us again, he pointed out that I had left out anything that would help the audience realize the relationship in the scene – that we were supposed to be brother and sister, not, say, a married but separated couple. (John’s critiques were always generous but accurate.) I also realized that I had been vague in my own mind about which symptoms we wanted to demonstrate, and that I would have to spend more time becoming familiar with the facts about different kinds of mental illness.

 

Notes on my first three performances:

 

Martha and I both presented our first scene – not the “depression” scene - to the public, along with four other actors in two other scenes, at a center for developmental disabilities, where an audience of 35 to 40 patients ranged from high-functioning to the extremely disabled. Throw out that idea that this is not psychodrama – the plan was, this time only, for us to present the scenes, then for members of the audience to participate in “replays” of them. This worked about as well as one would expect – not very well – but John used every strategy in his arsenal to get the varied audience members to join the scenes, and to get value out of them.

 

A week later, Martha and I repeated the “depression” scene for a crowd of 200 at a conference on church and mental health in a large Baptist church. One of the speakers had written a book suggesting that church isn’t enough for dealing with mental illness – you wouldn’t expect a preacher to heal your broken leg! John wrote that thought into the scene, and Martha, who in real life is a preacher, walloped it with such force that it left me, at least, stunned. I imagine she gave the conference something to think about. 

 

And a week later found us at an assisted living community for an audience of fourteen. Since we presented three scenes this time, John plus the six actors meant that we were half the number of the audience. No matter – we got intelligent questions and suggestions, and that’s what we’re after.

 

What, now, do the Mental Health Players have to do with Bertolt Brecht? In the invaluable book Brecht on Theatre (1964), its editor John Willett includes a well-known chart that shows clearly how Brecht’s ideas of theater differed from conventional theatrical approaches. A few of the antonyms are that conventional theater “implicates the spectator in a stage situation” – it feels it has succeeded when the audience is “involved.” Conversely, Brecht’s theater, Brecht hoped, “turns the spectator into an observer,” which is the posture the MHP audience is invited to assume. Conventional theater “wears down [the audience member’s] capacity for action” – a really good play “puts us through the wringer.” Brecht, on the other hand, hoped his theater “arouses [its] capacity for action,” and the MHP troupe aims to bring its audience to take action, by changing attitudes toward mental health issues, by supporting treatment programs, or even by seeing a specialist.

 

Not all the comparisons on the chart apply to the Mental Health Players; one reason is that Brecht wasn’t thinking of short scenes but of full length plays. But is it possible for a full-length play to sustain Brecht’s approach? The jury is still out on that question, but the results are not promising. Mother Courage and Her Children, perhaps one of Brecht’s best-known play, is gripping, no matter how much it tries to keep us off balance in our responses. We participate in it emotionally. We follow Mother Courage, we get to know her family, we empathically share in her predicament. Brecht knew this; he himself noted that he had seldom seen his theories succeed in practice. 

 

But the MHP has achieved what he had difficulty achieving. “The spectator stands outside, studies . . . [is] made to face something, brought to the point of recognition… [the human being] is [seen by the audience as being] alterable and capable of being altered . . . .” This is not to say that audiences aren’t involved in the scenes the MHP present; they should be, and Brecht might not argue. He was perhaps really looking for an additional dimension in theater, and the MHP demonstrate that such a dimension is possible.

 

Would the technique that the Mental Health Players use work for other kinds of purposes – political, say, or religious? Probably so, in theory, but the difficulty is that there are numerous political and religious points of view, and therefore numerous potential kinds of audience, and, ordinarily, purpose-driven theater ends up being presented to an audience that’s already primed to agree with it. This is notoriously the limitation that political theater in particular faces. 

 

But the MHP has a subject that we all have in common and that we’re all interested in – ourselves. Most of us are concerned with our own mental health; most of us want to improve our own lives; some of us even want to help people who are close to us, who are struggling with mental health issues of their own. “The proper study of mankind is man,” Alexander Pope wrote, or, to put it another way, you can’t go wrong by talking to people about themselves. 

 

One final note: many of us now working in theater grew up in a generation that read Jerzy Grotowski’s book Towards a Poor Theatre (1968). The title, not to mention the book, serves as a reminder that no matter how complex other media become, theater is at its heart very simple: a couple of actors with a story worth telling, a space, and an audience do the job admirably – as I’ve seen in the MHP for myself.

 

[After I readBertolt Brecht and the Mental Health Players,” I remarked to Kirk that it was too bad MHP hadn’t been around when I appeared in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in grad school and directed a stage adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Ward 6 Off-Off-Broadway in New York.  I could have used someone, I told Kirk, with knowledge of both theater and mental illnesses.  (It would also have been helpful back in college when Kirk’s and my university theater put on Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and I played one of the asylum inmates.)  For Cuckoo’s Nest, in which I played the doctor, the cast made a visit to a state psychiatric facility and later had a question-and-answer session with a mental-health professional; for Ward 6, I brought in a psychiatrist to talk to the actors and he tried to diagnose the illnesses of each patient and describe some typical behaviors.  But these pros, as generous and interested as they were, weren’t theater people and couldn’t really help us with stage behavior.  (For Marat/Sade, we essentially improvised our own disorders and developed behaviors with the help of the director.)  MHP, of course, wasn’t established to be a resource for actors and directors who are working on plays about mental illness, but they are nonetheless people with one foot in both camps: mental health and performance.]