The opening at Arena went wonderfully. There was a lovely after show party in the Arena lobby with family, friends and supporters. Molly Smith was very gracious, warm and supportive of our effort when she spoke to the assembled crowd. Roche Shulfer, Executive Director of the Goodman was there as well. It was terrific to see him as ambassador from Chicago at the opening. He spoke too, reminding all of us of the important place the Arena Stage has been historically to the regional theater movement and it’s significant contribution it continues to make to the American theater. It was a very special occasion. The reviews have been terrific.
Now, the run is well underway at Arena Stage, and it has been, and I expect will continue to be, enormously gratifying. The intimacy that we discovered in Kreeger space has become the hallmark of this leg of the run. It is a different feel than The Albert at The Goodman, but that’s not a bad thing at all. The intimacy of the Kreeger gives the production a distinct flavor that we couldn’t have achieved in Chicago. Audiences are equally responsive as they were in Chicago, but here we feel them inside the studio. The acoustic dynamics of the room gives us a greater vocal dynamic range, allowing for a bit more subtlety in the playing and encourages us to keep it real, keep it connected, push less, live more. Interestingly, there are a few new laughs that, to me, feel particularly Washingtonian. There is a moment at the end of the play when Rothko is describing the clientele at the Four Seasons restaurant sizing him up as he enters, their heads turning as likes. “Should I acquire you?” they seem think in their looks, and the audience reacts in a knowing half laugh/groan. A response of recognition of themselves, perhaps, or of the type of power-monger that seems more East Coast than Mid West. Maybe it’s just me. But that is a new laugh.
There has been a terrific series of panels after each Sundays matinee, including one with The National Gallery of Art curator, Harry Cooper, and Special Projects Curator of the NGA and author of the catalog raisonne for Rothko’s work on paper, Ruth Fine. That was a lively and informative chat about the history and story of the artist. So was another panel with a large group assembled from The International Psychotherapy Institute, The New York Freudian Society, Baltimore Society for Psychoanalytic Studies and others. The discussion was led by Jill Sharff, psychoanalyst, and the conversation was a fascinating exploration of the character of the biographical man and how that informed the character of Logan’s creation for the stage. There will be more panels throughout the run.
What remains the same from the Chicago run is the way audiences respond to John’s text, Robert Falls’ production, and our performances. They are moved, provoked, astonished, loving the language, the ideas, the relationship that lives onstage, the power of the art and the power of the theater. Someone said it is a perfect storm of an incredibly intelligent text served well by a beautifully fierce and sensitive production. For me personally, it is gratifying beyond words to share this experience with some many patrons that I have known for years, with students, friends and colleagues, fellow actors and directors. That is a deep joy for me. Having worked in DC for almost 30 years now, I have come to know through work and teaching so many and am so proud to perform it here, and so pleased at their response to the work.
One of the most consistent questions I hear after the show is, “You must be exhausted doing this. How can you do this every night?” Actually I am exhilarated after the playing, but, both in Chicago and DC I have established a routine leading up to each performance. My days are organized around that. I usually get to the theater no later that three hours before show time. Even though I live fairly close to the theater, I like to be in “the temple” when it’s quiet and empty. That has always been my habit of mine, but in this case, much earlier than normal. I love being in the theater just to sit and be there. It’s reflective and focusing for me. But for RED, I usually take a nap before the evening performance and definitely between shows on the two show days on the weekend. I listen to music. For every character I choose a piece that is feels appropriate to me for the inner character. For Rothko, I chose the Chopin Nocturnes, delicate solo piano pieces that are solitary, thoughtful, reflective and yearning. Occasionally, I listen to the Bach unaccompanied cello pieces. Solitary and plaintive. I also listen to Franco Battiato’s “Shadow, Light,” an Italian contemporary pop composer. The album’s title track is a hymn, spiritual and minimalist, like the paintings. The album also has a Mass. All the works calm me, focus me and keep me in touch with an inner world that connects me to the deepest of what I think Rothko is attempting to communicate. I turn on the music, hunker down and drift off into rest.
90 minutes before show time includes a hot shower, shaving the head and dressing all before the required half hour call. Patrick gets in around half hour. We chat, catch up on the day’s events before he gets ready. He also listens to music. Usually it’s the “Chet Baker Sings” album. Perfect for the character of Ken. Actually, of late I have been listening to some jazz myself: Coltrane and Miles and Oscar Peterson. The 50’s was an explosion of art. The jazz world was progressing into be-bop and cool, moving away from the big band sound of the 40’s. A kind of parallel to what the Abstract Expressionist were up to. It was a rich fertile time for all the arts.
Before half hour, I got into the habit in Chicago of going out on stage and checking all the numerous props. I like to touch them, shift them a bit, making sure everything is in the right place. It all began as a simple check of the cables for the industrial lights onstage, to make sure they wouldn’t tangle as I move them in the first scene. I would also check the cigarette pack and zippo lighter on the adirondack chair, making sure the are placed to resemble the famous photo of Rothko sitting in the chair, and to be certain they are arranged so that in the opening black out when I move into the chair, I can easily get the lighter into my hand silently, and in the right orientation for the opening clicks of the lighter heard in the black out. It is dark out there, after all.
I arrive for my first entrance backstage at five minutes before curtain and pace a bit, sit a bit, think a lot. I focus on the quality of the chatter and energy in the audience. Are they lively, quiet? What kind of house will they be? Where will they take us tonight. Then, at the final moment in stand-by, as I wait for the curtain announcement to finish and listen for the opening sound cue, I have developed a habit of stretching and releasing my fingers; opening and closing them quickly. It began as a way to warm up my nervous cold hands at first, but I suppose, like many athletes who dress exactly the same before every game, or jump over the first base line taking the field, this has developed into a bit of a superstition. Actually, it’s a ritual, a routine, that comforts and energizes, like a horse in the gate waiting until the cue light turns green for GO, and I burst through the ‘gate’ into the Rothko Studio of RED.
After each show, I hit the shower to get the red paint off the skin, but not completely out of the nail beds, and join Patrick for a nightcap in the lobby bar. There I meet friends who have come to see the show and chat about there reactions. I also get to introduce Patrick to them. These folks represent a cross section the audiences and artists and teachers of the Washington Theater community. I get to show them off to him and he to them. It’s one of the happiest rewards of the Arena run.
Now, we are about halfway through the run, and we are both feeling the clubhouse turn into the final stretch approaching. We are enjoying the ride, buy we can’t help but feel that the end of this incredible experience is in sight. What is wonderful, though, is that we are still making the play fresh and alive each performance, chewing every grain, finding new things and enjoying the exchange of energy and words and activity and throughout, relishing each moment together. It’s a blessing.
Next: Closing and Post-Mortum