Stepping Into the Impossible // by David Greenspan
Actor David Greenspan unfolds the process that led to his six-hour, one-man interpretation of O’Neill.
My association with Transport Group began in 2008 when Artistic Director Jack Cummings invited me to join a reading of The Boys in the Band he was directing as a benefit for the company. I had played Harold in the 1996 New York revival–and Jack asked me to “reprise” my role for this occasion. The reading couldn’t have gone better. It was a terrific experience.
A couple of years later, Jack attended a performance of my solo play The Myopia and soon after proposed my performing a solo rendition of I Remember Mama. I read the play but didn’t feel I could perform it persuasively. I told him though I’d like to keep the conversation going if he was interested and look for another script. He said yes and we did.
I had seen a silent movie The Patsy, starring Marion Davies as a lovelorn girl standing in the shadow of her glamorous and domineering sister, pining for the boy her sister has been toying with. It’s a charming romantic comedy–a Cinderella story–wonderfully funny and quite tender. I was very moved by it. The film was adapted from a 1925 play of the same title that had enjoyed a Broadway success–though neither the play nor its author Barry Conners were well-remembered. I suggested I read the play aloud to Jack, the company’s literary manager Krista Williams, and set designer Dane Laffrey. I did and we liked it. The combination of lightheartedness, romance, and family drama! was very engaging. I was keen to play it and Jack was keen to direct it. It went on the performance calendar.
Several months later, we reassembled and I read the play aloud again–and at the conclusion we all sat there in abject silence wondering what the hell we had committed ourselves to. The play read at two and a half hours and on a second hearing seemed endless. We were ashen.
Everyone knows that Shakespeare’s romantic comedies–complex, psychologically probing, and imbued with metaphysical poetry–transcend their times. Even phrases and references that appear obscure on the page play quite well when acted convincingly. This does not hold true for The Patsy. The characters are specific and ring true, but they are not particularly complex. And many of the topical references that would have amused theatergoers in 1925 were fated to fall flat before contemporary audiences–all of whom would be well ahead of the “old-fashioned” plot. Nonetheless, the comedic situations and Cinderella aspect of the play would, we felt, continue to engage people emotionally. The basic armature of the play was very well constructed–and who among us has not felt at times to be the less-loved, the less-beautiful.
Jack, Krista, and I arranged a workshop and spent the first ten days studying the script–ultimately trimming it to a fleet hour twenty without, I’m proud to say, compromising the integrity of the play–both in terms of structure and spirit. All that would delight an audience remained. If anything, clearing away the underbrush sharpened the play’s madcap invention and inherent poignancy. We knew from the start that we would approach the play without comment–that we would not “send it up.” We were determined to afford the play the respect it deserved and that Jack, Krista, and I felt for it.
Instinctively, I had a clear sense of how to approach the play kinesthetically–how to create the illusion of several characters onstage at one time. With Jack’s encouragement, I began to use bodily shifts and alternating focus to create the equivalent of a film’s shifting POV. In the remaining ten days of the workshop, Jack and I arrived at a basic staging–with Krista near at hand. And then I spent close to five months on my own, in my apartment, moving aside the furniture and learning the lines and refining gestures in sync with the blocking. Jack, Krista, Dane, and I were joined by Mark Barton (our lighting designer) when we reassembled in June of 2011 to put the play up at The Duke on 42nd Street. It went like gangbusters. Everyone had such a good time, the audiences so enjoyed it and I loved performing it. It was an important artistic accomplishment for me–as it was, I think, for Jack, Krista, and Dane. Barry Conners’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren read The New York Times review and came in from the Midwest to attend the closing performance. They couldn’t have been happier with the production–and to see their grandfather’s greatest success onstage again in New York. It was the cherry on top of the cake.
Jack, Krista, and I then wanted to do another play. Somehow or other, I got the wild idea of doing a solo rendition of Eugene O’Neill’s six-hour, nine-act, seldom-produced, and under-appreciated Strange Interlude. The play is famous for its internal soliloquies and sexual frankness. I had seen the 1985 Broadway revival featuring Glenda Jackson. My partner Bill and I sat high up and way back in the balcony–but it didn’t matter, it was absolutely mesmerizing, absolutely thrilling. I have never forgotten it.
So, I proposed it to Jack and Krista. They thought I was nuts and promptly agreed that we should do it. And that unlike other productions (including the premiere), I would speak every word O’Neill had written. We applied for a Fox Fellowship–that would put money in my hand and designate funds to TG to develop the project. That summer we received a week-long residency at SPACE on Ryder Farm and dedicated hours each day to my reading from the play and our discussing it act by act. On the last day, Dane came up and I read the play straight thru, observing the two intermissions and the “dinner break.”
It felt awful. It was LONG and it felt LONG–and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and I was exhausted and my throat hurt. Jack, Krista, and I were crestfallen. No, there was no way we could or should go any further. It was ridiculous. The three of us agreed it wouldn’t work.
Dane said it would and that we had to do it–he said he could see that this was the right way to do it and he insisted that we do it.
We agreed to do it.
That was Sunday afternoon. Monday morning, I got a call from TCG (Theatre Communications Group) informing me that I had received one of the Fox Fellowships. We then embarked upon research, further readings, discussions, and an exploratory workshop. I memorized the first act and came up with some movement so we’d have something to work with. I was very excited about the discoveries I was making in the process of learning lines – tone, tempo, characterization.
Jack struggled to find an approach to physicalize the play. Jack, it seems to me, needs a physical orientation to align his thoughts and feelings–only then can he put a play on its feet. He might select material based on instinct or an emotional connection that stimulates a subliminal concept–but before he begins staging, he needs a visual structure to hold onto. Dane sat in on one of the full days of my reading the script aloud. That day’s reading went well–I was gaining a greater sense of the people, a sense of modulation, and the plays trajectory.
At one point I noticed Dane sketching on a paper napkin. It looked like little boxes. When we began discussing things afterwards, Dane showed us what he was thinking. There were several rectangles–each divided in two. Each half of each rectangle had a bank of seats and an arrangement of furniture–essentially two small black box theaters, the back row of each theater butted up against a shared wall. O’Neill’s nine acts play out over the course of 25 years in six locations. In place of the conventional curtain rising and falling on different settings, Dane proposed moving the audience back and forth from one theater to the other. While the audience was watching the play in one theater, the crew would change the set in the other theater. Ultimately, Dane designed each of the little theaters with a ceiling so the last two acts could be played on the roof of the box. In other words, a third theater.
I wish I had kept that napkin.
It was pretty brilliant–and Jack had the visual orientation he needed–one that was consistent with his growing understanding of the play.
For the next two and a half years, Jack and I (and Krista when she was available) would devote three weeks to staging an act. Again, I had an instinctive sense of how to move through the space, creating the illusion of multiple characters onstage simultaneously. I would then go home and (as I had done with The Patsy), arrange the furniture in my apartment to approximate the set, and spend at least six weeks learning the lines in sync with the blocking. The Patsy was an effort, among other things, in verisimilitude–the illusion of a conventional play played by eight actors–except there was only one. Strange Interlude called for a similar verisimilitude–but the internal monologues of its eight characters–with their peculiar, jagged poetry and swelling emotional undercurrents allowed for–one might say called for–a movement palate that incorporated realistic and expressionistic gesture. Like the language, the movement would be expressive of the characters’ inner lives.
In a conventional production (of this unconventional play), the actors speaking the soliloquies remain animated while the other actors hold still. As there was only one actor in our production, no one had to hold still. The attention was always focused on me the single actor. I was, from the outset of this project, guided by Gertrude Stein’s description of her compositional technique: the “continuous present.” Stein’s idea is akin to a filmstrip–but one that allows the viewer to see each individual frame even as the strip moves at a normal film speed. Again, with no one to watch on the stage but me, nothing to divide their focus, the audience was able to watch and listen to each individual external and internal moment of the play as it played before them in normal stage time.
Initially, I would review the acts I had learned while learning a new one, adding one to the others I had under my belt. But by the time I reached Act 5 I had to stop reviewing because it took up too much of my rehearsal day. So, after learning a new act, I had to “restore” the previous material. By the time I learned Act 9, it took me five weeks to restore the rest of the play.
I was fully memorized and blocked by the time we entered our “official” rehearsal. Jack was directing out-of-town for the first two weeks of that process. But Krista rehearsed with me while Jack’s assistant director Jaye Hunt watched the script to correct any lines that I had memorized incorrectly.
Then Jack came and we honed and finessed. And then the set wasn’t finished for the final rehearsals and Jen Schreiver our lighting designer was still hanging lights and I gave my first performance never having had a tech rehearsal and it went fine and I never did end up having a tech rehearsal after all.
For four years I had lived in absolute dread–from the first day at Ryder Farm to settling into the Irondale Theater in Brooklyn (where we performed the play). Time after time I thought, I’ll never be able to do this. I’d be walking my dog along the Hudson and the project had only to occur to me and I felt overwhelmed. When I had learned Act 4, all I could think of was, I have five more acts to go. How can I do this? But somehow in my apartment–and in my partner’s tiny painting studio where the blocking felt like the stage equivalent of three-dimensional chess–a few words at a time, a sentence, a line, a paragraph in a speech, a speech, a page, the entrance or exit of a character, an act and then the next act and the act after that and then it came to be. A play I deeply love, characters I will always love and feel for.
It was for me the accomplishment that will define my ambitions as an actor.
To read about what it was like to experience David Greenspan’s singular feat of STRANGE INTERLUDE as an audience member, visit Jen Silverman’s WHILE WE’RE HOME essay, “The Unapologetic Collision of Highbrow and Lowbrow.”
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