NATHAN THOMAS talks with
For many years this simple question has pounded through my thoughts and research into theatre. I've bugged numerous friends and colleagues by asking them versions of that question to the point that some have probably concluded I'm a kook. Nevertheless, there are certain conclusions I've reached about thinking about the future of theatre.
The first is that the future simply can not be guessed. Neither a passerby nor a theatre scholar nor a theatre professional if asked in 1895 about the future of the theatre could have possibly guessed what would happen in a few short years. No one could guess that in Paris a little play called Ubu Roi would be performed. Nor would that fictional 1895 personage have guessed that a teacher/playwright and an amateur actor/director would start a theatre in Moscow and do an uncertain play by a short story writer and set in motion another shift in how the future of theatre would progress. (That play, by the way, was Chekhov's Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre.)
The second conclusion is that regardless of what learned people may say about the future of theatre, film or combinations of these story-telling arts – in the end, it will be actors who will make the difference. A theoretician may make pronouncements and issue manifesto after manifesto. But it's only in the work of the actor working to communicate a character and/or a script to an audience that theatre stands still or moves forward. And in the USA, the actor works to keep working as well as keep learning and keep moving her personal art moving forward.
Therefore, it seemed that one way to look at the future of theatre was to talk to someone engaged in that effort. The following interview is a snapshot of an actor in mid-career. Is this snapshot representative? It's impossible to say. But in the discussion of past projects, connections with audiences, playwrights, directors, and actors; ideas about the future of theatre might be glimpsed.
On December 14, 2003, I spoke with William Salyers, a Los Angeles-based actor, about his work, approach to acting, and the future of theatre. Salyers played Elegant Devil in the feature film Bedazzled and played lead roles in independent films Crocodile Tears and Damaged Goods. He has a recurring role on the CBS series Judging Amy and has appeared on Arliss and the Emmy-winning Northern Exposure. The latter series included an appearance as William Shakespeare. He has performed in countless plays in roles ranging from Edmund in King Lear to Pantalone in Servant of Two Masters. He was George in a national tour of Neil Simon's Chapter Two. In Los Angeles he has appeared in Texarkana Waltz and the title role in Louis Slotin Sonata, work for which he received the Garland Award in LA. He reprised the role in a production of the play Off-Broadway in NYC. The New York Times called his performance "irresistibly gripping." Despite being in a city considered to be mild about theatre, Salyers is sanguine about the future of theatre.
I thought we'd start back in some old times. One of your first shows was as one of the boys in Fiddler on the Roof. What do you remember of that production?
The sense of community. That's where (and why) I fell in love with theatre. That stands out foremost, coupled with my amazement at how it could unite disparate cultures.
I notice that one of the things about your most current work (the Smaller Project Theatre) purposefully looks to a community theatre model. Is that something that has stayed with you over the years?
Yes. In terms of "The Project", I mean [the community theatre model] as directly opposed to a "professional" or "regional" model, which most small theatres here seem to adopt.
How important is community, or the idea of community, to the making of theatre?
I think it is implicit. Whether you refer to the community of the audience or the larger community you hope to address in the work, you can address it or ignore it, but like the air in the performance space, it's always there.
Do you intend for the work you're doing with "The Project" to help build community within the LA area? Or is it something that a theatre person can take for granted?
I think that you inherently build community by addressing its concerns. You can't take it for granted, but if you are talking about something that's relevant to the community, you are helping to build that community's sense of itself. There are concerns that are specific to LA, my city, Silverlake, my neighborhood, and even my friends, which is a smaller subset. The same is true of Reading and Alvernia, etc.
I want to turn to training for a moment. I was talking to someone not long ago about my college years. As a teacher, I'm cognizant that much of what I say to my students will be forgotten. I mean there are classes I know I took because I can see them on the transcript. But I don't remember much from any particular class -- some of them. What do you remember of your training? Are there any lessons that still remain with you when you work now?
The first time Lee Hicks said to me "Good. That was good. Now try something different". It was the first time I'd heard the idea. I know that sounds ridiculous, but as a 17 year old boy from Pawhuska, Oklahoma, I didn't know there were unique and varied approaches to identical material. I thought that a Hamlet was a Hamlet was a Hamlet. Learning the difference was the first in a series of steps that led to creating my own approach to the work, which, I like to think, features engaging and not always expected choices. That was huge. Another was when Phil Chapman, my acting teacher at College of Santa Fe, took me to task for not being serious in a rehearsal. "You're taking a crap on my stage!" he yelled at me. And he was right. I don't get on the stage these days if I'm not feeling particularly respectful. I don't think it's a coincidence that those two lessons that I remember so vividly came on a stage, rather than in a classroom.
I like the quote from Phil Chapman, incidentally. As a director, I shocked a cast a few years ago when I simply stopped a rehearsal because they were just going through the motions. What's the point?
Exactly. It's worse than useless. It makes a mockery of a history of great work.
I do want pursue this just a minute more, though. Is there anything from the classroom that you recall as being useful? Or should we teachers simply get used to the fact that some of the classroom work is less useful?
No. Absolutely not. I think it is difficult, though, to point out one moment in a classroom, because the training is a gestalt. I think my point is that the classroom extends onto the stage. Training as an actor is, I believe, like training to be a pilot. The classroom work is vital, because that's where you learn the principles, of flight OR performance, but that only becomes concrete when you get into a cockpit, taxi down a runway and take off. THAT'S getting on a stage, but one arena would not exist without the other. The less dramatic moment of my learning to approach a scene "differently" was the day in Hick's class that we worked on "blank" scenes, you know, short open-ended dialogues. It's not as sexy as the stage work, but without it, students would never make it to the stage.
Now, you've already mentioned College of Santa Fe in New Mexico. We should mention you earned a BFA in Theatre with an emphasis in Acting there. You've lived in Seattle and LA for several years. Both markets are awash in studios. Have you pursued further training? Do you think such training would be helpful?
Yes, it would be helpful, and no, I haven't as much as I should have. I studied under Mark Jenkins in Seattle. That was great. Here in LA, it's a real crapshoot. I know some of the people who teach here, and I wouldn't particularly care to share stage with some of them, much less try to learn from them. I mean, people occasionally ask me if I've considered teaching to make money here, and I personally would never do that. There are gifted actors and there are gifted teachers, and there are VERY rare people who are both. I'm not one of them, and I think there are a lot of teachers down here who aren't, either. That said, I really would like to study with an exceptional camera acting teacher. Just haven't met him or her yet.
Let's turn to Louis Slotin Sonata. How did this project come your way?
About ten years ago, in Seattle, I met a playwright named Paul Mullin whose work really spoke to me. His stuff tended to be bold and theatrical and most people either loved or hated it. We struck up a friendship and it turned out that he appreciated some of the type of work I was doing at the time, so I got into the habit of working on his new plays. He often wrote characters, particularly his leads, who had to turn on a dime, move through time and space very quickly with total commitment, and I was experienced at that kind of work. Right before I left for LA, he finished a fabulous piece, "Louis Slotin Sonata", that centered on the true story of a Jewish Canadian physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and, in 1946, gave himself a fatal does of radiation during a lab test. It took him nine days to die. Paul's play imagines this brilliant, deeply flawed man using those nine days to try to come to terms with the accident of his death, and by extension, the accident of his existence. He asked me to read the title role in a workshop at ACT in Seattle. After moving to LA, I brought it to Circle X Theatre here and was lucky enough to be cast in the full production. It's one of my favorite theatrical experiences, for many, many reasons.
How did the project get to New York?
After an LA run that garnered Best New Play accolades for Paul and a performance award for me, he submitted the play to Ensemble Studio Theatre for their program affiliated with the Sloan Science Foundation. They chose it and I was lucky enough to be asked to reprise the role. I was the only actor in the cast who hadn't been on Broadway.
If I were James Lipton, now I would point out that you garnered superior reviews all around for your work in the title role, and what was the name of the award?
The Garland Award.
You also had the opportunity to play the part in a reading at Los Alamos. What was that experience like?
Phenomenal. You're never so aware that you are portraying history as when you find yourself in the company of those who lived it. I think many of those men saw the play as an anti-nuclear diatribe, and they were a little surprised to find out how many of us thought of them as heroes.
Had some of the audience known Slotin?
Intimately. The Manhattan Project lent itself, due to the secrecy, to a lot of enforced togetherness. There were men there who had worked closely with him.
As an actor, how much had you concerned yourself with constructing a portrayal that conformed to the personal history of the actual Slotin?
I'm a little ashamed to say I was a bit obsessed. I felt I had a tremendous responsibility. I saw this man's autopsy photos, the list of his personal possessions picked up by his brother after his death. Paul had obtained a lot of documentation through the Freedom of Information Act. He had also interviewed Phillip Morrison, Slotin's best friend at the time. When Paul asked him what Louis would want to be remembered for, his answer was "anything but this." That imparted a sense of responsibility. I even felt that, as much as possible, I should understand the physics. It was a pretty intense process for me.
So, when you performed the part for people who actually had known him, what was their reaction?
It was an odd mixture of moved and offended. Theses men created the most destructive device known to man (at least at that time), and they are very sensitive to any suggestion that any of them had any qualms about it at all. We know they did - you need look no further than Oppenheimer's stand against the development of the hydrogen bomb - but there is a sense from them that they will not brook blame or judgment. There comments after the reading generally began with some variation of "with all due respects to the fine performance we just saw," etc.
One of the devices of the play is a series of . . . . well, would you call them fantasy sequences? . . . . while he's dealing with radiation sickness. One of the figures he imagines is Joseph Mengele. And one night an Auschwitz survivor saw the show . . . .
That's right. I was told that someone was waiting for me afterwards. I couldn't imagine who; I didn't have anyone in the audience that night. It turned out to be a very small, very old woman whom I did not recognize. She cut right to the chase: "Are you Jewish?" she asked. "No," I answered sheepishly. "But you are European, yes?" Again, I told her otherwise. She seemed baffled. "Your parents are from Europe...?" I had to disappoint her there, too. She looked puzzled. "But where," she asked, "did Mengele come from?" In the play, Louis has nightmare fantasies in which he imagines himself as the Nazi death doctor, and we had gone as realistic as possible with that. I told her that I thought it was the playwright's way of pointing out the irony in a Jew helping to develop a weapon of mass destruction. But I had misunderstood her. She told me that she had BEEN in Auschwitz, and she had KNOWN Mengele. What she meant was, how had I gotten so close, having had no experience. I can think of no more profound testament to the power of theatre.
Right. It's a mark, I think, of great acting and great theatre that both have resonances beyond the immediate knowledge of the artist.
I once told someone that I act because they haven't invented a time machine yet. That doesn't exactly express what I mean, but I think it gives you a sense.
Now I want to move on to a very different play and a different role. Let's talk for a minute about Texarkana Waltz. In Louis Slotin Sonata, you played a Jewish Canadian physicist. In Texarkana Waltz you play the Oklahoma father of a murderer. Very different men. Or were they? Do you approach these parts differently?
Well, certainly, in terms of my personal experience, they were almost complete opposites. I had virtually nothing in common with Louis, whereas the two characters I played in "Texarkana Waltz" spoke words and used references I'd grown up hearing. I was essentially playing the people I came from. When characters in the play referred to the Admiral Twin Drive-in or Cain's Ballroom (both vestiges of a bygone Tulsa era), I knew those places and how people felt about them. The play's dryly lyric language and sly humor - it was like a homecoming for me.
Would you say, as a general rule, you approach acting in a comedy differently from how you would act in a drama or tragedy?
Only in that technique is doubly important in comedy. I take comedy deadly seriously - it's the only way it's funny. Those people took their problems seriously. That's why they were so funny. I did a play here a few years ago by George F. Walker, a wonderful Canadian playwright. It was called "Problem Child" and in it I played Philly Phillips, a barely functional drunk who is so sensitive to the injustices of the world he could hardly get up in the morning. The character was ridiculous, but I loved him because he cared so DEEPLY about what went on around him. In drama, if you're a little sloppy one night (and you SHOULDN'T BE), the audience might not notice, but in a comedy, a split-second change in timing can kill a laugh so fast it's not funny - literally.
True. And there's nothing worse than an unfunny moment of comedy. . . .
Let's talk for a moment about film. How did you become a part of Crocodile Tears?
I was approached by Jillian Armanente, a brilliant comedienne who is currently a series regular in the role of "Donna" on "Judging Amy". She had been asked to direct an independent feature film about a gay man dying of AIDS who sells his soul to the devil to be rid of the virus. It's basically a post-modern Faust. She wanted me to read for the role of the devil, a man who first appears as a junior high school principal (wouldn't you know it?). The script was written by Ted Sod, who was at that time a Seattle actor-director and writer. (He's since moved on to bigger things). It was an important project for Ted, because he had AIDS and thought he was dying. I read, thought it went well - and never heard another word. Many months later, Ted called me and asked if I would play the role. In the intervening time, he'd had a parting of the ways with Jillian and hired another director. I found out later that Ted had wanted another, older actor for the role, and whether he wasn't available or just didn't work out, I don't know, but that film was my first real introduction to working on camera. It was the first time I'd played a lead character in a film, one with an arch of development (well, as much as you can have when you're SATAN), and it was very challenging and I learned a lot.
Who did you play in Damaged Goods?
Tracy Gilmore was his name.
Was Tracy the rapist?
Yeah. Bad man. Tries to rape a lady in a parking garage late one night, then said lady gets the better of him, beats him senseless, throws him in the trunk, takes him home and chains him in the cellar. A fluffy romp...
In acting for the camera, sometimes a shot can be captured by surprise?
I was about to do a scene where I wake up tied to a chair, and the woman I've tried to rape has my gun, and she's waving it in my face. I think it's not loaded, because I didn't have any bullets for it, but what I don't know is that, while I was unconscious, she's gone out and BOUGHT bullets for it. So she threatens me and I mock her: "It's an empty gun, bitch! What're you gonna do? I'm not scared! 'Oh, please don't hurt me, psycho bitch', is that what you want to hear!?" Then she shoots me in the foot, and as I scream my head off she replies, "No, THAT's what I wanted to hear." WELL, we were using a .38 caliber revolver which would eventually be loaded with blanks and fired, but that would be a close-up shot of the gun that I wouldn't even be in. In the meantime, it was an empty revolver, and our armorer, a grizzled old teamster, was very good about showing me the empty cylinder of the thing before each shot. As we stood there waiting for camera-ready, I asked him what a shot like that would do in those circumstances. "Well," he said, "It's close range, and there's the concrete under your foot. It would go through you, ricochet off that concrete and bounce right back up. It would be pretty ugly." So they called "picture's up" and tied me to the chair. I kept thinking about what the teamster had said and how much it would hurt. I was totally focused on that. We got to the point where she pulls the trigger, she said her line, the gun went "click" - and I flew two feet into the air and landed on my back. WHAT A MORON! There was a brief moment of silence, then all hell broke loose as people rushed to my aid. I assured the director that I could go again, but he wouldn't let me. To this day, if you buy or rent the DVD, the reaction shot you see when the gun goes off is that shot.
And that's the moral of that story, kids. They use the shot. <smile>
In looking at some of the major roles you've played in recent years and projects you've done, what attracts you to working on the projects you choose to work on?
I like to work on people who have problems. They're always the most interesting. I'm sure it's very rewarding to be a pretty leading man or lady, but it's the character people who have the most fun, because they get to play the real people, the ones with rough edges. I like those roles where I get to take off my mask and be my messy, ugly, complicated self and the audience sits back and says "look at him- he's done such a nice job of crafting that mask." Heh, heh, heh.
OK. You've had the opportunity to work with many, many directors of varying skill and experience. As an actor, what do you want from a director?
Well, you can tell me, "You're in Los Angeles. I need you to be in Sacramento by this time tomorrow. How you get there is up to you." Or you can say, "You're in Los Angeles. I need you in Sacramento. So take the 101 to the 110, then the 110 to the ..." I prefer the former. Does that make sense?
So you look to the director to help with the broad outlines of something that fits with the director's scheme of the story?
Precisely. If you're going to tell me how to hold my hands and where to put the emphasis in the line, you probably don't need an actor. I like to be given the chance to make my work interesting. Don't get me wrong - I like leadership - but if you're going to dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s for me, why not just play the role yourself? We'll both be happier.
Are there moments when you disagree with a director? And how do you deal with that? Is the director "the Boss?"
Well, yes, in my opinion. A few years ago in Seattle, a friend and I were doing Servant Of Two Masters at the Bathhouse Theatre. He was playing the lead role. He called me up one night and said "Bill, Arne (Zaslove, the director) is driving me crazy. I don't know what to do! He wants comedy, but I KNOW comedy and the stuff he's having me do is just not funny. I can't stand it! You've worked with Arne before; he likes you. What would you do?" Without hesitating I said, "Darren, I'd take the man's money and do the man's bits." And that's how I feel. For better or worse, I live and die by direction. I'm very old fashioned that way. An old friend of mine once said that she believed it was her job to make the director earn his every direction. I couldn't disagree more.
Over the course of our conversation, the topic of community has come up several times. I know you've acted in theatres that stretch from coast to coast and border to border, and you've toured. Is there anything you've observed about the community of theatre goers across the country and the community of show people across the country?
There are genuine geographical differences. The audience in West Palm Beach is not the audience in West Virginia. They are not necessarily more or less sophisticated, but they care about different things. I was surprised by the New York actors. I really expected to be taken to school by them. I think I had a bit of an inferiority complex, coming from LA. Being able to compare the same show with different casts (except for myself) on two different coasts was really enlightening. The New York cast had an ease and appropriateness for their roles that we here in LA had not had; oddly enough, though, there was more dedication in the LA bunch; more of a heartfelt desire to 'get it right'. I sometimes felt the New York actors, in spite of, or maybe BECAUSE of their accomplishments, were 'saving it for Broadway'.
Where do you see the future of theatre? Do you think the theatre is in a place of growth or stagnation? What about the reports of the death of theatre? Particularly since you live in a camera town?
Theatre won't die as long as there are people on the planet. As long as someone wants to tell a story, and someone else wants to hear it, there will be theatre. Now, "Is theatre really relevant?"- THAT'S a completely different question. Here in LA, theatre means virtually nothing. Casting directors won't even go out to see it. My agent tells me people are getting cast in series now because they get seen on commercials - GOD, that's a bleak world - but seeing something happen in front of you will always have a level of excitement that seeing the REPRESENTATION of something happening in front of you can't match. That's why there will always be theatre. I don't think it's particularly popular right now, and of course I'm in LA because I want to make a living. But theatre as a form of art and human communication will outlive cameras, the Internet and even holography. You can take that to the bank (or not).
My James Lipton end of interview question. Who was a better captain -- Kirk or Picard?
Kirk, hands-down! (Sorry, Jean-Luc; I'm a traditionalist) PLEASE don't take that as indicative of what I admire in an actor!
Not at all, not at all. <lol>
William Salyers can be contacted through John Lyons at The Austin Agency – (323) 957-4444.
©2004 Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas is a multi-talented theatre
artist and a contributing writer to Scene4.
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