It was a crisp autumn morning, not unlike the fine, coffee-scented autumn morning unfolding before me right now, when I realized I didn't know how to talk to actors.
I was living with D1 and her crew up in Los Trancos Woods, an über-wealthy, unincorporated redwood-infested community a little less than halfway up the San Francisco Peninsula, just west of Palo Alto, in a neighborhood noted among locals for its eccentric Community Marching Band. It was a fifteen-minute trip from the 280 exit up the windey bendy road to the house, and my thoughts on that ride always centered on the current stock level of various quotidian food supplies and sundries; there was nothing worse than shopping for risotto ingredients down in town only to get home and find you're out of fucking butter.
It was there at that stilted house on the hill one early autumnal Saturday morning that I was shooting a 35mm teaser for my screenplay, "Up A Tree." The money was mine, and it was a tidy sum. When it's your money, it's a master class in film finance. You hear every dollar grinding through the camera's gears like an overheated piston in an unlubricated cylinder, you count every bagel on the craft table. I'd prepped for months, hired a tight crew out of the city, and left nothing to chance—or so I thought.
The scene was staged up a tree, as per the script's title, in a tree house my friend Keith and I had built, and called for standup comedian improv actor Eric Riley Moore to go a little funny in the head, strip out of his clothes, and throw his underwear down onto his wife's head to end the scene. During rehearsals, Eric was 100% gung ho for the pénis révéler denouement, but when game day arrived he suddenly developed an understandable recalcitrance about getting naked in front of the mostly young, mostly female crew, while cameras were rolling to capture the moment. For it was a crisp autumn morning, not unlike the fine, coffee-scented one unfolding before me right now, the kind of morning that can trigger a turtle-headed shrink-and-retreat of one's manhood deep into your pelvic region shell.
Eric pulled me aside while we were waiting for the crew to finish the setup, and tried to talk his way out of the fullness of the upcoming monty. Could he wear some flesh colored pantyhose perhaps? Was there a way to strategically place the camera to make it appear as if he were naked? I donned a country pastor's calm vocal intonation and comforted him like one would a prisoner being led to the gas chamber. No, I said, softly, firmly. There is no way out. But don't worry, everything is going to be fine and peaceful once it's all over.
Several naked takes later, it was clear the scene wasn't happening for Eric. I thought maybe the crew's muffled giggling was distracting him, but when I climbed back up the tree for a director-to-actor chat, Eric nervously told me that he felt like he wasn't "bridging the scene" properly. The blank look that came across my face must have shattered any confidence he had in me as his father-figure surrogate, and the epiphany about my lack of directorial skills when it came to actors hit me smack dab in the face like a fresh wet trout. But, the camera was grinding, the bagels were almost all gone, and the light was gleaming oh so perfectly luminous through the trees in the dawn of that crisp autumn morning. We had to keep moving. Just take your pants off when I give the signal, I said, and returned back down to my position behind the camera.
Eric pulled off the scene, as I knew he would, for he was the most brilliant and supple and naturally funny of all who had auditioned for the role, and we moved on to the next setup. But that nagging thought lingered with me the rest of the day—again, like a trout, but now like a soggy, stanky trout that I'd been carrying around in my back pocket all day: I don't know how to talk to actors. And I need to fix that.
Three Great Teachers
I guess I thought I could fake the actors part of directing. I later discovered that this is a fairly common attitude among new directors in the indie film world. I probably had already read Hitchcock's famous quote about treating actors like cattle, and felt like that part of my job was no big deal. One of the first short films I ever made, "The Banana Boat Lift," was comprised entirely of a cast of bananas, and I never heard any complaints from anyone, not even the mini banana extras. But I was now smart enough to realize that, if I wanted to move on to working with other fruits, or even vegetables, I needed to study acting with a teacher or two.
I decided to audit a Method acting class taught by Rob Reece in San Francisco. I was about halfway through the first class when I realized that more than a few people in the class actually weren't actors or students, but were homeless and other marginalized people that Rob had pulled off the street and into his class, to work with and give them access to what he described as the "personal value" of their lives.
It was extremely touching to watch these people bare their souls in such a naked and honest way, and the resultant emotional breakthroughs that they experienced in just one session brings a tear to my eye even now. I was tempted to dedicate the rest of my life to acting right there on the spot, but I was already too invested in the whole writer-director thing by that point.
I don't think I could have had a more perfect first experience in learning how to work with actors then to see how expertly and compassionately Rob guided people through a scene to help them find a genuine, rewarding, and honest life experience. This quickly trickled down into my writing process, and I started writing scenes and sequences that could facilitate deeper experiences for actors, a process that I called Method Writing.
Advancing beyond traditional method approaches, I have created a unique training system synthesized from the most advanced contemporary methods and several lost esoteric ancient methodologies. I provide the actor with a process that expands his talent, imagination, vulnerability, courage, passion and personal value. This experience dissolves obstacles that separate the actor from his essential self, which is where his talent resides. To quote Goethe: ‘An actor’s art develops in private and his career develops in public.’– Rob Reece
After this experience, I got a little more esoteric about the idea of acting, and fell in love with psychodrama, Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, and Playback Theatre and improv. I quickly discovered that improv was my thing, my true acting talent. Finally, an outlet for all this maniacal Robin Williams faux-cocaine energy that makes it hard for others to be around me for extended periods of time. I had a great personal improv teacher who was certifiably insane, and who shall remain unnamed, as per the terms of the restraining order I eventually had to file on his crazy ass. The last time I saw him he was standing naked on the beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea, raging about Osama bin Laden and how he was going to attack the United States. This was a full year before 9/11. He was, however, an improv master.
The third teacher I had the great fortune of studying with was Ralph Peduto. Ralph was an actor's actor, and was best-known in the Bay Area as television's Midas Muffler Man, the beer delivery guy on "Cheers," and for "Butt-Naked in Tinseltown," his one-man play about his life as peripheral Hollywood actor. The play was a real hoot, and he staged it often in his adopted hometown of Santa Cruz and throughout California, before he died of leukemia in 2014 at age 72.
I soared in Ralph's television acting classes for one simple reason: he provided a friendly space for students to explore, without judgment. By this time in my training, especially after discovering the joy of improv, I had lost most of the initial nervousness that comes with doing scene work. Ralph and I did a couple of scenes together and we had a blast. It had nothing to do with my acting talent, which, as we shall soon see, was practically non-existent. Any good that came from the scene work was all because he was a truly great teacher.
All throughout the class, Ralph never let you off the hook. He always wanted you to find the truth in the scene, to be honest. "Don't bullshit me, Moleski."
Ralph Peduto was a Santa Cruz treasure. There oughta be a statue.
It then became time for me to take what I had learned in these classes out into the real world, and audition for real live theatre plays, to authenticate my acting credentials so I could talk shop with actors when directing. I think I saw an ad or something in The Carmel Pine Cone for bit players and stagehands at The Hoffman Playhouse in Monterey Bay—a labor of love run by the excessively extraordinary Carmel actor and director Carey Crockett—so one day I just showed up.
After a brief interview (which consisted mainly of helping Carey move a bunch of stage flats and other heavy things while he monlogued about the history of acting in Monterey Bay), I was immediately cast in the role of Owl in his perennial children's theatre production of "Winnie-the-Pooh and Friends," which starred the inimitable six-foot-four Rob Foster in the lead role of Pooh Bear.
Children's theatre. Pfffftt. I mean, how hard could that be, right?
Now, it has never really bothered me to show off the depth of my ignorance or lack of talent in front of my friends. Everyone has something they really suck at or that they know absolutely nothing about. Some of us possess more of these things than others, and we're usually clumsy as well, banging our heads on chandeliers, slipping and falling in the simplest of situations, stuff like that.
But to suck at acting in front of children, well, let me tell you something, that brings up a unique kind of deep emotional pain. It arouses every single bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, fingernail-biting, pimply-faced insecurity I've ever had, all the way from childhood to whatever the hell you want to call the last relationship I was in.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's fast forward back to 15 January 2000, for the opening show Saturday matinée of "Winnie-the-Pooh and Friends"... !
I was standing backstage a few moments before the show, nervously espying through a stage flat knothole as those cookie-encrusted, milk-breathed judgmental midget bastards noisily filed into the theatre. I suddenly turned to notice Christopher Robin, the six-year-old boy in the Pooh œuvre who was being played, against all casting intuition or acumen, by a sixty-year-old salmon fisherwoman and boat deck hand from Alaska. She was cast in the role exactly two days before the play, in some strange, double-reverse blackmail plot with the producer which I could never figure out (only that it involved several tons of calamari). During rehearsals she continually proclaimed that she couldn't remember lines and suffered from severe stage fright.
She was mumbling her lines over and over, as the poorest of actors do before going onstage, as if that was going to help, as if that would stem the tide of emotional diarrhea that races heroic doses of stressor poisons through your nervous, endocrine, and lymphatic systems—better known by the common name of stage fright. And Christopher Robin Fisherwoman was right in the thick of it, sitting with her arms entwined around her knees, rocking back and forth, staring straight ahead in full PTSD shock, mumbling her lines while intermittently chanting, "I can't do this I can't do this I can't do this I can't do this I can't do this."
All the other actors saw her, and gave her the same broad physical distance one would give to someone with leprosy. This being my first theatre show ever, I was completely freaked out. She was the sum total personification and projection of all the fear I was suppressing and holding down deep beneath my psyche like a balloon held underwater. I hurriedly headed toward another part of backstage and got down to the business of mumbling my lines, trying to push the image of her nervous breakdown out of my head.
A few moments later, the lights dimmed and the show started. Christopher Robin Fisherwoman was the first person scripted to enter the stage, which she did a full page ahead of her cue. And so she just stood there, all alone, basking in her naked nervousness and pain, until the narrator finally got around to her introduction. When the time for her first line came around—"Hello everyone!"— she could not remember it, and then she quickly exeunted.
I watched the whole scene in sheer horror. Despite my complete lack of any live theatre experience, I instinctively knew this was a bad sign, an ill omen. A really really bad omen.
I looked over at the actor who was supposed to go onstage next, Piglet. Hooray for Piglet! Everyone loves Piglet. Now, here's the thing about this particular Piglet: the actor playing Piglet had just had major gum surgery earlier in the week, and had been on a super strict diet of pain killers, Valium, and liquid food for four days running. One half hour before the show, I watched as Piglet, standing directly in front of a cinder block wall, smiled to someone who was not there, popped a big handful of pills, and laughed manically under her breath. I looked away before she could catch my gaze, the same way you look away when you see someone pooping on a busy downtown city street corner before they can see that you saw them.
When Piglet came onstage with Pooh Bear and said her first line, it actually was the line she was supposed to say. I breathed a sigh of relief; maybe this was not going to be so bad after all. However, instead of waiting for Pooh's response, Piglet promptly interrupted him mid-gesture and switched gears to deliver an incoherent diatribe about international banking and the Bush family before stumbling offstage to throw up into Roo's prop bucket. "And honey!" Pooh said, with great vigor, trying to save the scene with one of his many awesome Pooh Bear catchphrases, hoping to mask the sound of backstage porcineal heaving, but instead succeeding only in moving the narrative forward into deeper, more Surreal non sequitur territory.
"And honey!" That was my cue. I was up! Ready to join the noble tradition of Acting—the hailed legion of Thalia and Melpomene, servants of the delicate art of contrived performance—in grand, Surreal, non sequitur fashion! The fellow actors I thought I could count on to hide my own acting terribleness were going up in dental records identification flames, and now it was my turn to dive head first into the deep end of the empty pool, smack dab into the heart of the dramatic abortivum that was unfolding before my terrified eyes.
I tooted a small fart for good luck, and mentally prepared myself to step out into the limelight and get torn to shreds.
Enter... I, Owl!
I guess I should probably mention that I, Owl, had spent the previous afternoon and evening in stagecraft—painting, lifting, moving props, boards, and plugs, including one particularly heavy cast iron steam heater. While bending over to pick up a screw the morning of the play's opening, my owl brain sent a message to the lower part of my owl back to let me know that I, Owl had actually severely sprained it lifting that goddamned steam heater. So I, Owl rummaged through the other actor's makeup tackle boxes, gathering up as many Vicodins as I could find, then gulped them down in Piglet fashion and hoped for the best.
It probably goes without saying that I, Owl also had a wonderfully poorly-executed entrance, circling the perimeter of the stage like a majestic owl in flight, a full eight lines ahead of my cue. Majestic was the basic idea anyway. It was less a demonstration of the beauty of winged flight than the expert mimicry of a crippled old man perpetually falling down a flight of stairs while still attached to his walker. A few of the parents in the front row braced themselves as I passed, and I saw the fear in their eyes that I might land in their laps. By now, the Vicodin overdose was racing through my circulatory system like gangbusters, and I was flapping my left wing so hard, like an injured owl would do, that it actually detached itself from my costume and hung exposed at my side for the rest of the show, much to the horror of all the children in the audience. When my cue finally came around, I, Owl encircled the stage again, to highlight my previous error, just in case anyone had forgotten the turd I had laid just thirty seconds prior.
In the dialog with Pooh that followed, I, Owl jumped directly to my third line, questioning Pooh's ability to read. Pooh, ever the consummate professional, stuck to the script, and asked if I, Owl intended to ask him if he knew how to read. I, Owl then suggested that they exeunt the stage, twelve lines earlier than we were supposed to exeunt the stage, because it sounded like the exact right thing to say in the moment, and so I, Owl and Pooh exeunted to the offstage wings. "We'll work on it, Owl," Pooh whispered to I, Owl. "We'll work on it."
The entire opening matinée performance, including intermission, lasted a time-space relative duration of approximately seven thousand, two hundred, and fifty-six hours. There were twenty-two shows like this left to go.
One thing that surprised me through the Pooh run was the lack of shenanigans between cast members. I thought this was normal in theatre, especially in something like children's theatre. Regardless, I certainly played my fair share of pranks on my fellow actors, and braced myself for an inevitable, out of the blue major embarrassment at the hands of someone I had messed with. But it never came. Despite the fake vomit and fake dog poop and rubber tarantulas and plastic nipples that I glued to the bottom of Pooh's honey jar before each performance, which I always delivered to him with a knowing glance in one of the scenes we shared, Rob or no one else ever tried to get me back.
(In addition to the honey jar gags, Rob was the beneficiary of several pranks by yours truly while he was onstage, most notably "The Scrubbing of The Pooh Bear Butt With A Large Bristly Toilet Brush," and "The Convincing of Rabbit to Flash Her 38DDs During a Pooh Bear Monologue"—although, I must admit, that one was more for me than for Rob. Silly Old Bear.)
It Got Worse
I played in another show at The Hoffman, simultaneously if memory serves right, a 1948 romantic comedy written by Christopher Fry called, "The Lady's Not For Burning." I played the role of Tappercoom, and I was horrible. I went down in flames every performance. I never improved, not one line, not one gesture, nothing, during the whole run.
(If you've never heard of this play before, it's because it's profoundly dated and boring. The jokes are stale and the whole thing is as funny as most romantic comedies are from 1948, which is to say, not very funny at all. It couldn't get a laugh in a Turkish orgy tickling chamber.)
In our last show, in my last scene, as I headed to exeunt, I improvised my line and got a gigantic laugh, my only one for the run, and the biggest one the show had had. Clearly, I knew comedy better than some highly-regarded British playwright. I strutted offstage beaming, the howls of the audience rippling in my ears, and walked straight into the savage, stern gaze of hatred and severity from the play's director (who I thought wasn't there for the performance). It was a precise re-enactment of the bow I had taken after getting my first base hit in my last game of Little League: O! the wondrous glory! followed in the very next moment with O! the naked reality of its fleeting impermanence.
I was smart enough to use the nom de plume I was using at the time, thank Zeus, so none of my friends knew I was publicly flagellating myself every Friday and Saturday night for six consecutive weeks. When the reviews came out in the local paper, I received the kindest review I could have received for such a foul, foul performance: every actor was mentioned except for me. The lighting and costumes were even commented upon. What a relief! A lesser actor might have been infuriated; but there are few lesser actors than I.
I can honestly say in retrospect that I learned very little about the craft of acting because of this role, only perhaps how it takes a great deal of courage to get out there and do it. But there was one very important thing about the whole experience that has stuck with me all these years, to wit: I should never, ever, under any circumstances, ever try to act on a stage, any kind of stage whatsoever, anytime or anywhere, ever again.
Love That Rob
Throughout the Pooh run, Rob was a great mentor, and we quickly became good friends. His comments helped me get a little bit better, if only marginally so, during the course of the show's endless run. He was always helpful, and he always tried to save me from drowning too bad in our scenes. You can never repay the kindness of someone who saves you from drowning.
I like to beat you over the head with funny, but Rob's one of those naturally funny guys. He has that pitch perfect vaudeville kind of funny about him, and he's a master of old school bits and gags which never fail to get more laughs than any high-minded "Comedy Writing." (And boy did that knowledge come in handy when I staged my first play, "The Girls in The Van," a few years later at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.)
Rob wrote, directed, produced, and starred in some amazing shows in his time at The Hoffman, the best ones always together with his good friend and fellow actor, the overly-talented Jody "Tigger" Gilmore, including notable plays about Lenny Bruce and Ambrose Bierce. I always hear Rob's voice when I'm sucking at something (wait, let me finish), like my novel in progress. It gets me through the hard part, gives me just that little bit of inspiration I need when I'm doing something I haven't yet gotten down:
We'll work on it, Owl. We'll work on it.
PS: Rob has a few ongoing health issues these days, so if you can throw a couple of GoFundMe dollars his way, please do. It's Winnie-the-Pooh, for crissakes, lend a hand you cheap heartless bastard. (I also suck at Marketing, thankfully.)