After my exit from full-time custodial care of my three bumpkins, I made up for lost time going back to school and getting into 'serious' singing; doing recital work, oratorio, small ensemble—anything that tapped to the glory of musical composition. In 1995, on a bizarre impulse, I auditioned for DEATHTRAP, a straight play.
As I recall, I didn't have a lot of competition; I think there were three of us: one older lady who was in over her head right away; a younger black actress who gamely tried playing Helga with a Jamaican accent which was doomed; and me—already amped up by getting lost finding the theater & being 45 minutes late. I had my wild hair on, with a bandana or something gypsyish, and a sense of 'I'm already toast from being disrespectfully late, so what do I have to lose?' and Helga does this scene with the policeman at the end where she threatens him with karate moves and chases him around the couch with a machete. That'll loosen any audition up.
Michael Haven was the director. She cast her show that same night, dismissed the rest with thanks, and I stayed to play Helga ten Dorp.
We've almost past the 15 year mark and I'm still in touch with some of the members of that show, including Michael, who just directed a production of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY and is rehearsing the wife in COPENHAGEN.)
Claudine. A bit of your theatre history/background?
Michael. Ok, 30 some years acting and directing. First acting job was 1978, Guys and Dolls at Masquers for Jo Camp, the Founding Lady. Acting school in NYC at Royal Shakespeare Academy; returned to CA to work in local theatre and that's what I love.
C. Did you have a light-bulb go on 'I wanna ACT!'?
M. Actually it was my mom who saw a poster in a window of a hardware store, saying "can you sing? can you dance? come audition for Guys and Dolls" so I went and it turned out I was the best singer and dancer there... which was not saying much at 25!
C. Back to NYC: what kind of work was the most attractive in school?
M. Shakespeare. Had a great teacher. Learning how to make sense of the words and then find all the passion that allowed us to get to that level. It's big and real!
C. How did you structure your personal work? "Method", Meisner?
M. Worked with Philip Meisner in NYC so we got pretty touchy feely, sort of "method" but with more focus on truth of communication and the reaction that comes with being in the moment
C. That's a big leap from NY to CA. How come you didn't stay in NY?
M. I learned that pretty much anyone can "make it" if you have the drive. One teacher said that the only reason you should make theatre a career was if you wanted it passionately enough to give up everything else to the pursuit. I didn't want it that much. I don't like doing a show because of who will see me, or how much money it will make me. I do theatre for the love of it and the joys of working with other thespians. So Community Theatre suits me just fine. Also, I can do a lot wider variety of shows, acting and directing, than I would otherwise.
C. First part sounds kind of like Glenn Close—very ambitious actor. Well, that also brings up the issues of non- equity vs. equity, which has been compared to working vs. not working
M. I find working in community theatre, that I'm working with very talented people, very experienced people, and we all have the same love of theatre. Makes for great friendships. Then when someone does pay me a bit it's a delightful surprise!
C. How'd you get into directing?
M. Came a time I felt like it was a good direction to go. So I went to a Masquers' quarterly meeting when they announced their next season, and I went around to all the directors and said: "Hi, I'm your Assistant Director!" I worked with about 10 directors before I got my own show. This gave me the opportunity to learn all different kinds of styles, methods and ways of dealing with designers and actors. I also made sure I worked in every aspect: lighting, costumes, props, sound, Stage Manager... I wanted to be sure I would know what it takes to create a show so my creative requests would be doable.
C. First time I met you was for the Deathtrap auditions.
M. That was a fun show. I loved levitating the audience every night... when the young man blasted back into the room. Good times.
C. For me the most fun (besides creating Helga's "look") was staying after my scenes were done and watching you work with the two guys. The long scene on the couch got reworked endlessly, it seemed.
M. Yeah, and I took a bit of dialogue from the movie and incorporated it.
C. You've definitely got a directorial style: calm & funny. When has that not worked for you and how did you get out of the predicament?
M. I think the hardest show was Three Musketeers for Role Players in Danville. HUGE show. I learned I should have used two of everything... two assistant directors to work scenes while I worked others. Two light and sound designers to be able to work out all the cues. I drove everyone nuts on tech Sunday because there were so many cues... it didn't go well, and I usually have very organized and fun tech Sundays. Live and learn.
When a situation/relationship gets hard during a show, I just go bottom-line honest... we need to get this done, how can we work it out together? Usually gets a good response and people all pull together to get the show up.
C. The joys of live theater! Can you say a bit about your casting process. How do you cast at the end of the day? Instinct, resumes, familiarity with actor?
M. Yes. I am very thorough at my research and pre-casting work of the show. I come in knowing what my vision is and a good sense of the "feel" I want for each role. I look for actors who fill that sense. I am also open to being surprised. When I directed Moon Over Buffalo I was pleasantly surprised by Ben Ortega for the lead. He is a much different type than I had envisioned, but he is such a consummate comedian and he had good chemistry with Sondra Putnam... they made a great team.
C. I felt sort of taken care of by you as a director...not sure Matt felt the same, but overall, you were the captain of the ship. Have you experienced having a strong personality teach you something about the show that went counter to your vision?
M. Not that I recall. But I have had designers and actors bring different ideas, different takes on design or acting which has worked better than what I first had in mind. That's why I get the best I can get. If we all create, within the guidelines of my vision, the whole is better than if they just do what I say.
C. Yeah, that's the thing: when you have 4 people onstage, one wants to do trigger method, one couldn't cross DL without approval and the other two change nightly. You have to corral them into a unit. How??
M. I don't know. It's a mystery. I work with everyone in their style... that's one benefit of having worked as assistant to many different directors. I learned to deal with many different acting methods. I find what works for each person, talk in the language that works for them, and the bonding that happens in rehearsal gets everyone working together for the good of the show.
C. Helps having a script that everybody loves. What's your top role, personally—the one that gave you the goosebumps.
M. Actually, it was a little one-act that I did in college. It was a 4 person show, 3 guys and me. My character was not real... or was she? The director had more interaction and communication between us working with our shadows on the wall than actual person-to-person. I hit the stage one night and the magic happened. We Were those people/dream people and all our interaction was real, in the moment, honest emotional reactions to each other... magic.
C. Okay, 64K question: directing or acting?
M. Directing. It is an incredible feeling... getting all my work done on a show I am passionate about, finding the right cast and designers, working all those long hours to create together even bigger/better than I hoped and then seeing the show go up and the audience applaud. Now that gives me shivers.
C. Ha! how funny! when I was in the sound booth doing Cinderella Waltz, I had busted my balls putting the design together with you & the actors; when I was in the audience on opening, I've never had such a thrill. LOVED it.
M. I could NOT sit down Opening Night of Comedy of Errors. Masquers very first Shakespeare, full house, great expectations... the hardest part of directing for me is opening night... I've done all I can do... now all I can do is watch and hope it goes well! I can't even help if something goes wrong! Like watching children run off onto the playground and hoping they don't fall off the jungle gym!
C. Okay, I'm pooped. Thank you thank you! I would love to pick your brain again sometime for Interview Part Deux. Howzat?
M. yes, we can do it again. I'd really rather do with a chat of some kind. We'll work it out. Have a great weekend!
(We, that is to say I, took the cheap way out and did our interview on Facebook—the transcribing would be avoided, but you have to forgive the stiffness of the written style: Michael is the polar opposite of rigid. Insert wide smile & lunatic laugh here.)