Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Little Lear

At age fifty-eight, in the year 2000, I lost my long-time job writing the CBS Evening News.  At first I was confident I could reverse my fortunes and turn failure into success.  But as one scheme after another came up short, I began to feel rejected and depressed.  Then came what seemed like a brilliant idea.  The following is an excerpt from my memoir, "A Beginner's Life," just published by Full Court Press

It was time for a radical re-think.  I racked my brains for something I’d be good at -- something that suited my talents, but I’d never had time to pursue.  Soon a gem of an answer appeared – Shakespearean acting!  I loved Shakespeare, had read or seen most of the plays, and could speak Elizabethan English fluently, if not accurately.  An actress friend of mine, Nicola Sheara, encouraged me.  She’d been around the New York theater scene for decades, had performed on Broadway, and said, “Sure, go ahead.  In two weeks, you’ll be in King Lear.” 

Two weeks later, I was in King Lear! 

Visions of glory danced in my head as I made my way downtown to begin rehearsals for the role of Gloucester, the king’s loyal friend, father of the hero Edgar and the arch-villain Edmund.  I landed the part at my first audition, which I attended with at least a hundred other hopefuls, at the American Theater of Actors on West 54th Street. 

Nicola wasn’t at all surprised when she heard of my success, which she had predicted.  Shakespeare plays are constantly being produced at every level in New York, and they need men of a certain age to play the roles of Kings, Dukes, Archbishops, doting fathers and ancient pistols.  Young actors are as plentiful as pigeons, but the 58-year-olds have mostly given up.  And a professional 58-year-old wouldn’t be caught dead at the American Theater of Actors.  
ATA didn’t pay, but that was standard for off-off-Broadway theaters.  This company didn’t even supply the actors with a script, telling them to bring their own, without specifying which edition.  This sometimes made for interesting rehearsals, with actors arguing about who says what.  They did have a large supply of old costumes, issued dirty and in need of repair.  Shoes and tights were supplied by the actors, which again made for some interesting contrasts.          

The stage for this midsummer night's production was a platform behind a theatrical office building, with two long benches for the public.  Rats lived under the platform, and sometimes made an entrance if they smelled food.  The place was owned by the director of ATA, James Jennings, who made money renting out three theaters in the building, and amused himself by putting on Shakespeare in the rear. 

As director, Jennings had nothing to say about the play or the characters, leaving it to each actor to interpret.  He did know how to keep a show moving, and get it in under three hours.  Once we had it down, he just served as lighting director.  He would turn on one big light to start the show, turn it off at intermission, then on again for the second half.   After the first few performances, he would just turn on the light, go upstairs to his office, come back for intermission, and repeat.

Actors also had to supply the audience.  Jennings did nothing to publicize his Shakespeare festival, except type up flyers with the names of the cast.  These we spread among family, friends, and neighbors.   On our best nights we had forty or fifty spectators, but more often the cast outnumbered the audience.  One evening five people showed up, including a family of four with a ten-year-old boy, who entertained himself by rolling back and forth the length of the bench on his skateboard.  The family left at intermission, so for the second half we strutted and fretted before an audience of one.  He was a friend of one of the actresses, and happened to be a famous economist, William Seidman, whom I recognized from his appearances on TV.  Seidman had come to several performances, and chatted with the actors after the show.  He was a class act himself, the hero of the evening.  After watching the second half all alone, he leaped up and gave us a full-length, standing ovation. 

ATA’s Lear could be a humbling experience for an actor, but I loved my role.  All I had to do to feel my way into it was to imagine the old CBS newsroom under Walter Cronkite.  That was “The King and his Court.”  Gloucester is one of the able vassals who owe their success to the King, and repay him with utter loyalty.  As his friend Kent says to the deluded Lear, who’s threatening to have him killed, “My life I never held but as a pawn to wage against thine enemies.”

I had problems playing that role at CBS, but could imagine myself in it on stage.  What is Gloucester but a little Lear, an old man ruined, trying to bear up under the worst, even when his eyes are gouged out by the vicious Cornwall?   I loved screaming in the eye-gouging scene, and diving off the platform when the blind Gloucester thinks he’s jumping off the Cliffs of Dover.  But my favorite scene of all was in Act Four, when Lear and I sit hopeless on the moor, as in “Waiting for Godot.”   The King is mad, I say, why am I still torturing myself with the truth? 

                      …. How stiff is my vile sense
                        That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling
                        Of my huge sorrows!   Better I were distract;   
                        So should my thoughts be severed from my griefs,
                        And woes by wrong imaginations lose
                        The knowledge of themselves.

Acting was a distraction for me, a way of severing my thoughts from my griefs.  I had sustained the devastating loss of my prominence in the world, and didn’t even want to think about it.  How much better to put on a costume and become someone else, whose trials could be played out for a brief hour on the stage.  My final favorite moment was the curtain call, when I’d run out waving the bloody bandage that had covered my eyes.  See, I’m not blind, not dead, just a player who can make you believe these things.  (I copied this flourish from an actor in the Greek National Theater, playing Oedipus the King.)

Being an actor itself was another layer of unreality.  I didn’t really believe I was bound for a brilliant career on the stage, but I could pretend to believe it, as long as I had a part.  Actors all entertain themselves by imagining this role, or the next, will be their breakthrough.  They’re happy as long as the illusion lasts.       

For me, it lasted about two years.  I performed in half-a-dozen Shakespeare plays with entry-level troupes.  But gradually it became clear I would never make a penny as an actor.  No examples came to mind of a sixty-year-old novice vaulting to prominence in the theater.  Instead I needed to face my own sorrows, and find a way to act out my own life...

Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips 
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