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Stories from the Stage

Stories from the Stage – Linda Cho

Once upon a time, a young woman ventured forth on a long road trip to attend the dreaded entrance interview for the Yale School of Drama. 

That was me, in a carefully chosen brand new double-breasted suit, hopeful, like a lottery ticket holder. I nervously entered an unremarkable brick building on York Street in New Haven.

I lugged my giant black bag filled with everything remotely artistic I have ever done up the stairs and sat in the Design Office waiting to be called, smoothing down stray hairs and trying to get my heart to slow down.

My fate would be decided by legends of design; professors Ming Cho Lee, Jane Greenwood and Jess Goldstein. I walked in, unzipped my portfolio, took a deep breath and launched nervously into my spiel.

After a short while, I was interrupted by Ming who raised his hand and said, “That’s enough.” 

The group silently pawed through my pile of naive attempts at designing the set for King Lear, pencil sketches of my mother (my only willing model), photos of medieval armor I made out of carpet pads, earnest attempts at still life paintings, laughable costume designs for Twelfth Night and my diaries filled with memories and doodles.

Finally, Ming spoke. “Your watercolor is terrible!”

 “The proportions on your figures are all wrong!”

 “Your set and costume design is really terrible!”

And, finally, he said, “I think you don’t know many plays!” 

Ouch.  

Sad but true. 

“But… this…” He added, “this is something.” 

It was my hoard of scrappy, little diary/sketchbooks. The ones I’d take to concerts, museums, restaurants, on the subway, in which I’d sketch and write about the things I wanted to capture and commit to memory anytime I was still for more than a few minutes.

He flipped through them, nodding his head.

The others began nodding silently, too. 

To my amazement, I was accepted right there on the spot. 

What I realized then was that I didn’t need to show dazzling proficiency in theater design to be a promising designer; they were looking for a keen observer and a willing sponge.  

Designers draw from their wells of artistic inspiration. They fill this well with amazing and ordinary things they see and experience everyday and everywhere. 

I learned my first lesson before classes even began.



Linda Cho
 is a Tony Award winning costume designer with extensive experience designing for both theatre and opera in the US and internationally. In 2014 she won the Tony Award and the Henry Hewes Design Award for the Broadway musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.  In 2017 she was nominated for the Tony, Outer Critic’s Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Best Costume Design of a Musical for the Broadway production of Anastasia. In 2018 she was proud to be part of Broadway’s first all female creative team for Lifespan of a Fact.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Sheldon Harnick

My Career Begins

During World War II, I was drafted into the Army. I was in the Signal Corps attached to the Air Corps, part of a five man team trained to install and operate a new kind of blind landing system. While we were waiting to be sent overseas, no one knew what to do with us. Every morning after inspection, the sergeant in charge of us grinned and said “Get Lost!” I knew there was a Special Service unit on the base, so I introduced myself to the man in charge, Sol Lerner. 

Sol had been a theatrical agent in civilian life. There was an auditorium on the base, so every Monday evening Sol would produce a one hour entertainment featuring men from the base who played accordion or country western guitar (of whom there were more than I would have imagined). Sol put me to work auditions possible performers for his Monday evening shows. Everyone envied Sol because his fiancée, June Taylor, an attractive dancer, flew down from New York every few weeks to be with him. 

After I was discharged from the Army, I went to Northwestern University and began to write songs which were featured in the annual student revue. I enjoyed this so much that when I graduated, I decided to move to New York to see whether I could make a living writing for the musical theater. I looked up Sol Lerner, who was no longer a theatrical agent. Now he represented only his wife, whose June Taylor dancers were to be featured on the soon to begin Jackie Gleason television show. Sol got me the job of writing a short introductory song for the show. This was the beginning of my career as a professional songwriter. 


Sheldon Harnick, one of our foremost lyricists, is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Fiorello!, the Tony Award for Fiddler on the Roof, and his musical collaboration with Jerry Bock also resulted in Tenderloin, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, and The Rothschilds. Harnick received the 2016 Drama League Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theatre, as well as the 2016 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Estelle Parsons

My First (and Last) Artistic Directorship: 1986-8

I was in a sauna with my husband and 3 year old son on the Dingel peninsula when I received a phone call from Joe Papp asking me to start a multicultural Shakespeare company for him to play for the New York City school system.

Why me? He had seen a multicultural-multilingual production of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA that I had directed at the Womens’ Interart Theater on 52nd Street. I put together a company: 5 Blacks, 6 Hispanics, 3 Japanese, 2 Whites and 1 Turk.

We played in the Anspacher theater at 425 Lafayette Street for one year and then moved to the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street as SHAKESPEARE ON BROADWAY. It was Joe Papp’s dream.

We played daytimes during the school week for high school and junior high school students. On Friday and Saturdays they could bring their families from great grandparents to babes-in-arms. It was all free.

I TOOK FIVE MONTHS TO DEVELOP THE COMPANY

First an hour of relaxation and physical work led by a member of the company who was a dancer.

Then an hour of vocal work led by another member of the company. Then, five hours of free form work to find out who these actors were.

The reason for these five months?

Commercial actors of whatever culture or race learned to “act white” back in the 80s. I wanted to know who these people really were, their customs, their talk, their heritage, themselves. That stuff is the bedrock of compelling theater and fine acting.

One day Rene Moreno, an Hispanic, was showing us something of his heritage when Vince Williams, a big black guy from a family of musicians in New Orleans, sitting near me watching in the audience, piped up with “My heritage is some guys standing on a beach waiting to be brought here to be slaves”. Necessary talk this. Five months of it.

What do high school students like? Sports teams, oh, yes!

We put sweats on the actors and we had a sports team. (Ruth Morley of ANNIE HALL fame did the costumes). THE NEW YORK SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL PLAYERS

AFTER 5 MONTHS, HERE’S THE DRILL!

The actors came out to introduce themselves “Hello. I’m . . .”

But-hold it! Is that theater? What is your moniker, what is your “John Hancock”?

What is yourself? Show me your essence!

Not easy. Maybe impossible. Try.

One actor was really good at juggling. One could do backflips. One had been trained at New York City Ballet. Got it? Too big a challenge? Yes. Try!

By now the kids were into it.

Bess Myerson, a former Miss America, now part of the city government saw just this much of the performance and gave us a big donation.

BLACKOUT. LIGHTS UP. AS YOU LIKE IT.

Natsuko was Rosalind. Celia was Regina Taylor—with a live boa constrictor around her neck. 25 pounds. Had his own dressing room.

“I can’t rehearse all day with this thing around my neck.” Of course not—but it had been her idea.

One matinee, lights came up and a big girl in the front row shot to the back of the house – faster than any animal I had ever seen run.

The snake was still on Regina’s shoulders.

We alternated AS YOU LIKE IT and ROMEO AND JULIET.

We played the Anspacher, the Mobile Unit in the parks all summer, and then added the Scottish play when we became SHAKESPEARE ON BROADWAY. Ching Valez played Lady M.

Oh, but she could.

After the students had seen the productions, the actors, as themselves, visited the schools and “played Shakespeare” with them.

At the end of our second season, I went, as a wife, to Gracie Mansion for dinner with the Mayor. My husband worked in the city government.

Bobby Wagner, head of the school board, was there. He told a story.

“I was in a school elevator and asked a teacher how her year had been. She said ‘Estelle Parsons’ Shakespeare program was the only good thing that happened all year.”


Estelle Parsons received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, and was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Rachel, Rachel. She is well known for playing Beverly Harris, on the sitcom “Roseanne”, and its spinoff “The Conners”. She has been nominated five times for the Tony Award (four times for Lead Actress of a Play and once for Featured Actress) for her work in The Seven Descents of Myrtle, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Miss Margarida’s Way, Morning’s at Seven, and The Velocity of Autumn. 

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – David Morse

When someone discovers that I am an actor, at some point I am often asked, “How do you remember all those lines?” I sometimes wonder myself. Their question is often followed by, “I could never be an actor. I couldn’t memorize all those words.” I usually restrain myself from
replying, “There’s more to acting than memorizing lines. There are hours and layers of work that take place before the words come from an actor’s mouth. There are years of training and suffering and doing jobs that barely pay the rent or buy food, and it is a lifetime of ups and downs and humiliation and elation at getting a job at all to have lines to remember in the first place.”

Like I said – I usually restrain myself.

Sometimes though it all does come down to remembering lines.

In 1997 I was asked out of the blue to do a private reading of a play called How I Learned to Drive at the Vineyard Theater. The remarkably beautiful and unsettling play was written by Paula Vogel. The role I was asked to read was Uncle Peck. He is the uncle to Li’l Bit, the narrator of the story. The reading went well. Afterwards there was little discussion, so off I went home to Philadelphia grateful to be asked to take part in something that felt quite special. I had no expectations of being asked to do the play. In fact, I felt too young for the role. But indeed, the invitation to play the role of Uncle Peck in the Vineyard Theater’s production came not long after.

I joined a terrific company of artists directed by Mark Brokaw. The wonderful cast included Johanna Day, Michael Showalter, and Kerry O’Malley. At the center of everything as Li’l Bit, was Mary-Louise Parker. For those who know Mary-Louise’s work on stage I probably don’t need to say more. For those who do not know her, and it is hard to imagine there are many people who don’t, Mary-Louise is a rarefied artist. Her dedication to living fully, truthfully, and deeply in the moment is an inspiration. Sharing a stage with her was one of the great gifts in my life.

There are three performances out of a play’s run that I am always relieved when they are over: the first preview, opening night, and closing night. When doing a play, actors try to create an imaginative reality for themselves and each other. The rehearsal hall becomes its own cocooned reality until tech rehearsals on the stage arrive and that becomes the new awkward and surreal reality. Just when the actors start to incorporate the actual set, lights and theater into their imaginative reality, the first preview arrives and a horde of people looking to laugh, cry and be wowed show up and now they are part of the reality. Closing night is just one long battle with not getting overly sentimental on stage because every moment is the last time you
will be doing or saying, blah, blah, blah and for God’s sake can’t we just do our jobs without all of the mush.

Opening nights are the worst. Everyone you love is there, all of your representatives are there, all of everyone’s people they love are there, and if you thought the first preview was bad with all the expectations to laugh, cry and be wowed, opening night is over the top with
expectations. Just to add to the tension, there might be some straggler reviewers in the audience hired to observe and comment about this unnatural evening. And so, on opening night, everyone on stage is supposed to forget all of that and pretend like it is just another
performance. It is not just another performance. It is opening night.

On opening night for How I Learned to Drive everything went pretty well. It went so well, that in the scene where Uncle Peck is teaching Li’l Bit how to drive his Chevy I actually had the thought while delivering my lines to Mary-Louise, “This is going pretty well.”

As soon as I had the thought that everything was going pretty well, the line I was speaking to Mary-Louise completely and totally evaporated in my mouth. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I didn’t panic. I had forgotten lines before and it always worked out in some way. I had actually done a two-hour one person play not long before I was cast in How I Learned to Drive where I was completely on my own if I forgot my lines. That production had many of its own challenges and I had relatively successfully gotten through that. So, on opening night of How I Learned to Drive, confidant that if I just relaxed, took a breath, the lines would come to me. I relaxed, took a breath, and the lines didn’t come to me.

I looked at Mary-Louise hoping she would understand what was happening and come up with a line that could cue me and off we would go with the scene again. Mary-Louise stared at me in a
way that I interpreted as, “You got yourself into this, get yourself out.” I felt abandoned. Many years later she told me that she was terrified and didn’t know what to do to help me. She felt terrible. Anyway, I misunderstood her and knew that I was utterly on my own. Again, I thought to myself that everything would be okay. Just breathe and relax.

In my mind I went backward in the play to see if I could find a line to start again on. There were no lines. It was a vast wasteland back there. I went forward in the play to see if I could find some lines there. Nothing but a mocking vacuum. That’s when I felt the tiniest seed of panic deep inside me. There had been nothing but silence on the stage for an eternity. The audience shifted in their collective seats unsure of what was happening in the scene. My mind was completely useless. The seed of panic sprouted so fast I could feel it threatening to take me completely over. So, I finally punctured the world of our imaginative reality, turned to the audience and said, “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten my line.” Then I called out into the darkness beyond the stage lights, “Is there someone who can help me?”

From where Mary-Louise and I were seated on the stage we could see the lighting booth illuminated behind sound-proof glass beyond the audience. When I asked if someone could help me with my lines the stage manager in the booth, the lighting operator, the sound engineer, all began leaping around, papers flying, trying to figure out how to get the line to me on the stage. I turned to Mary-Louise and said, “I’m sorry Mary-Louise.” I turned back to the audience and again said, “I’m sorry, it’ll just be a minute.” We waited.

Then a voice over a loudspeaker like God intervening called out Uncle Peck’s line. I called back into the darkness beyond the lights, “Thank you.”

I turned back to Mary-Louise, took a relaxing breath, and said the line. I stared at her. She stared at me. I could not for the life of me remember what came next.

I turned back to the audience and called again over their heads to the sweaty people in the lighting booth, “I’m sorry, do you mind telling me what the next line is?” From the loudspeaker boomed the words I was meant to say. Then, like an old steam engine struggling to pull its
heavy load up a mountain, out chugged one line after another until the play was speeding along, and the rest of the evening was brilliant. When the worst had happened, or so it seemed what was there then to worry about?

In the reviews of the play there were no mentions of my blanking, so I assume there were no reviewers attending that night. My manager, agent and family were happily in attendance though. My manager during the endless silence and exchange with the lighting booth nearly
had to be resuscitated in her seat. In the end it all seemed to work out. Paula Vogel won the Pulitzer prize for her work and many other awards came our way. So, in spite of, or perhaps because of what had happened, the people who had been a part of the opening night of How I Learned to Drive felt they had shared in an experience particularly unique to the theater. And I can tell you without a doubt – they had.


David Morse first came to national attention as Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison in the medical drama series St. Elsewhere. He has appeared on Broadway as James “Sharky” Harkin in The Seafarer and Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh for which he earned a Tony nomination. He also received acclaim for his portrayal of Uncle Peck on the Off-Broadway play How I Learned to Drive, earning a Drama Desk Award and Obie Award. He was slated to return to this role in a Broadway revival in the spring of 2020 that was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

David will appear in Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue, which also co-stars Colman Domingo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Heather Simms, Laurie Metcalf, Carrie Coon, Kristine Nielsen, Tamberla Perry and Annie McNamara and will air tonight, December 10th, through Monday, December 13th on Broadway’s Best Shows. Tickets available at TodayTix.com.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Tamberla Perry

I’m a late bloomer.  It wasn’t until I finished high school, graduated undergraduate school and worked in corporate America for 3 years that I “decided” to become an actor.  By the time I started showing up in plays in Chicago, the growing question became “who is this NEW girl?”   I know, because years later people would tell me that was the conversation being had behind my back…and not in a bad way.  All that to say, I did not come from ANY type of training.  Well that’s not true.  My senior year at the University of Rochester, just prior to graduating with my degree in HEALTH and SOCIETY with biology requirements fulfilled and aspirations of becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I enrolled in a beginners acting class.  I thought it would be an easy A and IT WAS NOT!!!!  One “B’ later, I was annoyed I had not taken it more serious! But since it was not my life’s plan, I didn’t think too much about that class. Long story short, things changed.  

Fast forward years later, I arrive at my first general audition with MPAACT theatre in Chicago.  One of the cites oldest black theatre companies.  That day they were casting for 2 shows in their season.  I would leave one audition and head straight into the next.   The assistant came out of the theatre “Tamberla, are you ready?”  I walked into the space, head high, shoulders back and the confidence of someone who had just won the Tony.  The director and Artistic Director were sitting in the theatre looking at my headshot and said “Thank you for coming in, what monologue will you be doing for us today?”  “I will be performing a monologue from the play ‘THE WOMEN’. ” – Let’s pause here for a second.  Now, if you know anything about the play The WOMEN, you know it’s an all WHITE cast and takes place in 1936.  The monologue I chose was that of a 40 something year old Jewish woman from New York City with an extra thick accent.  At that time, I was 24 years old and Black…I’m still Black btw!  – We can unpause now. – I finished my monologue.  There was a long pause – silence.  I smiled proudly.  I waited as the director looks at me; picks up my headshot, flips it over, looks at my resume, puts it down, takes off her glasses and says, “Don’t ever do that monologue again!” – – – – – –  The dashes stand for silence, not a typo. – – – – – – – – – –   What felt like 5 minutes of me standing there holding back tears was probably only 5 seconds, “and here’s why,” she said. She asked me did I understand the purpose of a monologue request at a general audition.  I told her “not really.”   She then explained how important  it was for me to know my type and that this monologue did not give her any indication of who I was.  

In that moment I was mad.  I was sad. I was embarrassed, defeated and not at all interested in going to the second audition.  She put her glasses back on and said “I have your information.  I will email you some plays and monologues to think about. Thank you for coming in.”  I gathered my things, walked out and smiled that faux “I killed that audition” smile to the other girls in the waiting room.  

That moment helped shape my career in two ways.  The first being, I IMMEDIATELY found a new monologue that much better suited me.  The second was a lesson in paying it forward. That director did not have to sit me down and explain anything to me. It wasn’t her job and I doubt she had the time.  But she MADE the time…and after I got myself together and realized she only wanted to help, I headed into that second audition with a new attitude……………….No, no I didn’t.  I was still sad and actually bombed that one too. The point is, despite it feeling like the worst moment in the world, her candidness was one of the biggest blessings in my life, and to this day, when ever I get a chance to pay it forward…I do so, with pleasure.


Tamberla Perry is known for her extensive work in Chicago theatre with appearances in productions at Steppenwolf Theatre (Marie Antoinette, The North Plan, The Brothers Size / Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, In the Red and Brown Water), Goodman Theatre (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Race) and Lookingglass Theatre (Plantation!, Fedra: Queen of Haiti, Black Diamond) among others. Her television credits include APB, Dare Me, Suits, How To Get Away With Murder, The Good Fight and Bosch

Tamberla will be recreating the role of Barbara in Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue which she originated at the Public Theatre.  Barbecue also co-stars Colman Domingo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Heather Simms, Laurie Metcalf, Carrie Coon, David Morse, Kristine Nielsen and Annie McNamara and will air this coming Thursday, December 10 – through Monday, December 13th on Broadway’s Best Shows. Tickets available via TodayTix.com.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Stacy Keach

The Challenges of Zoom Theater

In April of this year, just as the Pandemic was in full swing, I was approached to play King Lear in a zoomed, 90-minute adaptation, celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday, and to raise money for the poor.

It was a daunting experience.  Even though I was familiar with the text, having played him in two previous productions, I felt the need to have the text close by, requiring me to scroll the words on the computer with my right hand while making sure to keep my eyes focused on the little green dot at the top of my screen, that being the camera.

Also, whenever the actor is not in a scene, it behooves he or she to “mute” and “stop video”.  The problem is remembering to “unmute” and “start video”.  Too often, an actor forgets, and this becomes one of zoom’s frequent mishaps.  In the live theater, to offer good luck, we say “break a leg”.  In the world of zoom, we say, “forget to mute”.

 Choosing the right virtual background is yet another challenge. A green screen becomes an essential component, along with a ring light.  Most of the time, zoom works best with each actor shares the same background.  However, there are exceptions to this. My wife, Malgosia Tomassi, created different backgrounds for each character in our recent zoomed production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, each color representing the essence of their particular character. For example, my Big Daddy had a purple backdrop.  What I have discovered about his new medium is the degree of concentration required to give a successful performance.  We, the actor, become our own camera and sound man. Depending on how close or far away we are from the screen, we establish the nature of the shot. Also, I have learned that 1) glasses are the enemy as they cause reflections that block the eyes; 2) the actor must be so familiar with the text that “wandering eyes” are avoided, and the actor can look straight into the camera.  In my recent zoomed version of Hughie, one of my favorite characters, having played him at LAMDA in 1965, the National Theater in London in 1980, and now on zoom, I discovered that the essence of zoom theater is a hybrid cross between live theater, film, and television.  Hopefully, zoom theater will become an anomaly of the present, and that we will be back in the live theater in the near future.


An Embarrassing Moment

The year was 1969.  It was my Broadway debut playing Buffalo Bill in Arthur Kopit’s Indians.  On opening night, I galloped onstage, enveloped in my imaginary horse, and due to my jitters, yanked back so hard on the horses’ reins that I snapped his paper mâché neck!  Profoundly embarrassed, I had to think fast!  What to do?  

Somehow, I managed to “get off” or “get out of” my horse, took his drooping head in my hands, came forward to the apron of the stage, and delivered my opening speech.  I was mortified!

However, some weeks later, I was greeted backstage by a fan who informed me that, “I was here opening night.  What happened to that wonderful moment when you snapped the horse’s neck?!!” 

Almost immediately, my embarrassment and shame were alleviated!


Stacy Keach, one of our most distinguished stage actors, made his New York debut in “Macbird” for which he won an Obie and a Drama Desk Award.  His Broadway debut was in “Indians”, for which he received a Tony nomination and a second Drama Desk Award, and his Broadway credits include “Deathtrap,” “The Kentucky Cycle,” “Solitary Confinement” and “Other Desert Cities”.  For the New York Shakespeare Festival he played the title roles in “Peer Gynt” and “Hamlet”, for which he won an Obie.  He was also the recipient of an Obie for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”.  His many notable films include “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “Fat City”, “The Long Riders”, “American History X” and “W” among many others.  Known as the definitive Mike Hammer from the successful television series, Keach won a Golden Globe Award for the television mini-series “Hemingway”.  He is an inductee in the Theatre Hall of Fame.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Kenneth Posner

My most memorable Broadway moment happened long before I became a Broadway lighting designer, when I was 17 years old.  It was the early 80’s and I was walking through Shubert Alley on my way to see a show.   I loved theatre and was fascinated by the magic of backstage. There was a man standing outside the stage door of the Shubert Theatre, where A Chorus Line was playing.  We struck up a conversation and he introduced himself as Bob, the show master electrician. I had seen A Chorus Line twice and was mesmerized by the way Theron Musser was able to tell a story with light. 

BEETLEJUICE, Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

It was about to be half hour, but he brought me inside and that was the first time I had ever walked through a stage door. He showed me backstage and when we ended up onstage, I turned around and looked out into the house and was captivated by the beauty of the Shubert Theatre. Bob invited me to watch the Sunday matinee of A Chorus Line from the control booth. It was the single kindest thing anyone has done for me in the business.  I came back the next day and watched Bob do his pre-show lighting check out. He introduced me to the stage managers and some actors and crew and then I watched the show with him from the booth.  Everyone has a person and an experience that changes the trajectory of their life and cements their decision to go into the theatre. That was my moment and Bob was my person.

PIPPIN, Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Fast forward to San Francisco 2007.  I was standing on the stage of The Golden Gate Theatre during load-in of Legally Blonde when a man came up to me and said, “you probably don’t remember me,“ I stopped him mid sentence.  I recognized his voice immediately and said, “I know exactly who you are!”  It was Bob.  I threw my arms around him and said, “I probably wouldn’t be standing on this stage if I hadn’t met you”.  It turns out that Bob left New York after A Chorus Line closed and ended up in San Francisco, where he was working as a stage hand on Legally Blonde.  It was wonderful to reconnect with Bob and he has since been on several other shows that I designed.  Bob shared his passion for theatre with me when I was young and inspired me to become the designer I am today.  Sharing our passion as theatre creators is my favorite part about making theatre.

THE COAST OF UTOPIA, Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik


Kenneth Posner is a ten-time Tony nominated lighting designer — winning for The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck. Among his nearly 50 notable theatre designs are BeetlejuiceWicked, Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can, If/Then, Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, and Glengarry Glen Ross.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Elizabeth Ashley

My Most Embarrassing, Humiliating & Humbling, Moment On The Broadway Stage

Having been on B’way for 62 years (I made my debut in 1958) I’ve had a plethora of embarrassments.

BUT one is spectacularly horrifying!

Way back in the olden days (1974) I was blessed to be in the kind of gig every actor prays for, almost never gets and if, by some miracle, does – they been kissed on the butt by God.

First – a little context:

I was having my 2nd  ‘15 minutes  of fame’. Having had my 1st  ’15 minutes 13 years earlier (i.e. you’re the ‘hottest, brand new shiny object of the moment’, on magazine covers, critic’s darling, prizes galore including a Tony, Neil Simon writes a play for you, etc.)

AND , OF COURSE I BLEW IT!

It went straight to my head. I was so stupid and immature I believed everything I read about myself –

ALWAYS A FATAL MISTAKE!

Being young, inexperienced, not realizing those 15 minutes are mostly marketing tools for producers and never last past your last show and mean nothing in the long run, I became an arrogant, ungrateful brat. I went to Hollywood, made some films, got burned out, married a movie star and quit acting.

Then came the inevitable divorce. All in the world I wanted was to get back on the stage. Needless to say no one was interested. If Broadway remembered me at all it was for my difficult reputation.

Then, out of the blue, I got a call from The American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT to play ‘Maggie the Cat’ in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. My hero, Tennessee Williams, wanted to do his original version of ‘Cat’.

In 1955 producers had huge reservations about the language and homosexuality. The play got cut and was a huge success, but Williams always longed to have his original version done and Stratford agreed.

I got to work with Tennessee Williams every day in rehearsal under the direction of the great Michael Kahn. The Stratford production was so successful it got national press, due to Tennessee’s involvement and got transferred to Broadway. (Unheard of back then)

All the above to explain how extremely high the stakes were for me. Not only did I have to ‘redeem’ my reputation as a ‘wild child’, foul mouthed, ‘out of control hippie’ – I had a debt to Tennessee and Kahn. They had taken a risk on an actress who Broadway considered ‘down, dead over with and finished’. I prepared every way I could think of.

I studied my 3 cat’s behavior by decreasing their food. I needed to know what they’d do when hungry. After all – Maggie is – above all – hungry! (Relax animal lovers – I didn’t starve ’em – just put ’em on a diet.) We opened on Broadway to raves and sold out houses and once again I was the ‘hottest’ actress in the hottest play on Broadway, but the establishment was still skeptical so I was watching my P’s and Q’s. A second chance is nothing short of a miracle! The set was an extremely raked deck (no longer allowed) that came to a point over the orchestra pit and met the front row.

There’s a moment in the 1st act where Maggie physically moves in on Brick and he rejects her by pushing her away. Thanks to the director and stunt supervisor I was given a spectacular physical move. Brick is far upstage left when she moves into him and when he pushes her away she falls backward, rolls head over heel very fast all the way downstage right edge of stage and like a cat, jumps immediately into a squat, from there slowly rises, faces him and smiles.

One night during that fast, tricky roll to the edge of the stage, I thought I heard something peculiar, but the audience always gasped and scream at that moment so I ignored it. But then I began to hear whimpering that got progressively louder. At first I thought someone had an infant in the audience. I assumed they would get up and leave. But the sounds kept getting louder, like animal squeals. By the time the audience was twisting in their seats and craning their necks trying to see where the sounds were coming from.

Some were shouting “quiet”. Others  were standing, people were hanging over the balcony rail trying to see. By that time the sounds were screams, howls, and yowls, obviously an animal in distress.

I finally, totally lost control and shouted “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT NOISE?” Realizing I had stopped the show but still steaming with rage, I stepped out of character, turned to the audience and said “Ladies and Gentleman – some Muthafuka has an animal in the house who doesn’t seem to be enjoying the show. I cannot continue until it’s removed.” Applause from the audience.

A man got up from a 4th  row seat & slowly made his way to the aisle. I saw he had a huge dog with him, then to my horror I realized the man was blind and the dog was his seeing eye dog!

I just stood on the edge of the stage while he and the dog slowly made their way up the aisle and out into the lobby.

Needless to say the audience got very quiet while I just stood there and blabbered on and “I’m so sorry – so very sorry – I really couldn’t go on – so very very sorry – blablabla…”

Then, from the balcony, in a loud, unmistakable New York accent, came “You’re paid to act – so act!” Humiliated, I tried to stumble through best I could. The tabloids went crazy with page 6 headlines:

“ASHLEY THROWS BLIND MAN OUT OF THEATER”

“ASHLEY STOPS SHOW DUE TO DELICATE EARS”

“ASHLEY WONT ACT FOR THE BLIND”

My reputation was not redeemed! UNTIL: A letter left back stage from the dog’s owner, saying he’d been bringing his dog to theater for years and dog always sat quietly under his seat, never making a sound. But the dog hated cats with a vengeance and that had to be the only explanation for the dog’s behavior.

NOTE TO ACTORS: Be careful when doing your animal research!


Elizabeth Ashley, a Tony Award winner for her performance in Take Her, She’s Mine, was nominated for Best Actress for her memorable Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and her delicious Corie Bratter in Barefoot in the Park. Her recent Broadway stage credits include August: Osage County, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, You Can’t Take It With You, and Enchanted April. Her many film and television credits include: Netflix’s Russian Doll, The Carpetbaggers, Coma, Ship of Fools and Ocean’s 8.  

Categories
Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Danya Taymor

Like many directors before me, acting was my gateway drug into the theater.  I caught the bug very early on, when my mom brought me to an audition at my local Children’s Theater. I remember feeling a thrill as I lied about my age on the audition sheet: you had to be 7 years old to try out and I was just shy at 6 years 10 months. I felt an even bigger thrill when the cast list was posted, and I saw my name on the list. After the first rehearsal, I was hooked. 

Later on, the possibility of directing came into my life through my incredible high school drama teacher, Kristen Lo. We all thought Kristen was impossibly cool: 28 years old, she was close enough in age to know what we were going through, but far enough that she could keep boundaries. We adored her, and she inspired us to consider all aspects of theater-making: light board operator, playwright, costume designer, stage manager.  We were able to see theater through her eyes: an incredible tool with which to break down social barriers, an artform that demands rigor and mutual respect among its practitioners. Kristen shared her boundless love of plays by dead writers like Ibsen and Shakespeare, but also a devotion to new work by a myriad of voices. Kristen rallied parents from the community to organize field trips to our nearest regional theaters: ACT, Berkeley Rep, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I didn’t yet recognize the names: Heather Raffo, Dael Orlandersmith, Edward Albee, Mary Zimmerman, August Wilson, Les Waters, Eve Ensler, Caryl Churchill, Nilo Cruz.  But I could feel the power of their voices and of the freshness of the work. As I look back now, I can see the profundity of this early exposure. But Kristen didn’t stop at just exposing us to these pieces, if we saw something we loved, she programmed it the next year and let us take a swing at our own interpretations. If we didn’t like the piece, she encouraged fiery and open debates and encouraged us to get specific. By placing our work alongside that of the pros, and validating our disparate points of view, she made us feel like we could do anything. She shared the anthologies of work from the Humana Festival, 10-minute plays that were hot off the press and encouraged us to direct them ourselves. I directed a one-act that year that had premiered only a few years before at the Humana Festival. 

Kristen wanted to inspire us further and show that we truly didn’t need anything but ourselves and our imaginations to create theater: She created a new work festival “Speed Limit 25”. All work produced in the festival had to be directed, written, and produced by people under the age of 25. In reality, it was all created by students 18 and under. This was revelatory. We witnessed each other be creative in ways we had not yet dreamed we could be and expanded our perceptions of each other. Whether we went on to pursue theater or not, we all were emboldened by the brilliant audacity of our teacher and her fierce belief in each of us. 

Kristen somehow managed to treat us as adults, while not denying our youth.  She taught us to respect one another by showing us how it’s done: never favoring the actor over the techie, stage manager over understudy. Kristen taught us that every theater marker is crucial, and it is only through a collective effort that the work can truly sing. When I think of the director who made me feel most inspired, free, collaborative and safe enough to take risks, I still picture Kristen Lo.


Danya Taymor is an Obie-award winning New York based director, writer and translator. Recent direction includes Will Arbery’s HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING (Playwrights Horizons) Korde Arrington Tuttle’s GRAVEYARD SHIFT (Goodman Theater), Jeremy O. Harris’ “DADDY” (Almeida London + New Group/Vineyard), Antoinette Nwandu’s PASS OVER (Lincoln Center + Steppenwolf, Lortel Outstanding Play), Danai Gurira’s FAMILIAR (Steppenwolf), Martyna Majok’s QUEENS (Lincoln Center Theater).

Please tune in beginning Thursday, November 19th at 8pm through Monday, November 23rd to see Neil LaBute’s World Premiere adaptation of Anton Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA directed by DANYA TAYMOR (Heroes of the Fourth Turning). Tony Award winner Alan Cumming takes on the titular role joined by Constance Wu, Emmy Award winner Samira Wiley, K. Todd Freeman, Anson Mount, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi and Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn. Gabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings. Tickets from $5 and are available only on TodayTix. Proceeds go to benefit The Actor’s Fund.

Categories
Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – K. Todd Freeman

Sitting at home in exile from doing the thing one loves the most as well as the thing that supports ones existence has been torture, as I’m sure it has been for many others. I had never imagined that I would live in a time that truly experienced a worldwide plague of medieval proportions. Living through the initial AIDS crisis was as awful as I thought it would get during my lifetime. Clearly I was wrong. I never imagined that something would threaten the existence of something so essential to the breath of humankind….. the mass gathering of humanity, theatre. The sharing of a communal experience. The universal religious communion of soulful connection that is theatre.

Being trapped at home has postponed my participation in many theatre projects that were slated to come to New York City. One being The Minutes by Tracy Letts, which will hopefully see the light of day on Broadway in the near future. The other is Bruce Norris’ DOWNSTATE which I have been blessed to be a part of since it’s premier at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in the fall of 2018. We then moved it to The National Theatre in London in 2019 and hopefully it will be coming to New York via Playwrights Horizons next year.

The play and the role have been an extraordinary highlight of my life.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Americans, as we have all hopefully figured out by now, are living through an extraordinary time in history. Daily, we are being challenged with tough questions that will affect our futures in profound and significant ways. Bruce’s play DOWNSTATE does that as well, which to me is the absolute best sort of dramatic literature. It provokes and challenges in a similar way that Angels in America did in the early 1990’s. DOWNSTATE, takes place in a group home for sex offenders in southern Illinois, and it is those offenders, of varying degrees and types, who are our protagonists. Those roles are some of the most, complex, nuanced, fascinating, difficult, and exhilarating parts written for the American stage. Obviously, in my opinion. I’m a bit biased, apparently.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

This theatre piece does exactly what I demand all great plays should do: challenge and provoke. It demands each audience member to look inside themselves and reexamine their prejudices, morality, and ethics at a base almost primal level. Playing the character I played in front of a live audience every night was a thrilling and intoxicating rush. I felt as though I were center court in a Wimbledon final every night playing alongside the likes of Nadal, the Williamses, McEnroe., and Sampras. The electricity that flowed between audience and actors was life affirming. An intangible, unquantifiable purity that I miss so excruciatingly much, during this particularly difficult time of blight.


K. Todd Freeman recently performed in Steppenwolf’s The Minutes on Broadway, as well as Steppenwolf’s Downstate (Jeff Award, Evening Standard nom.). Broadway: Airline Highway (Tony nom., DD Award), The Song of Jacob Zulu (Tony nom.). Off-Broadway: Fetch Clay, Make Man (Obie); Spunk. TV: “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “God Friended Me.” Film: Anethesia, Cider House Rules, Grosse Point Blank.

Please tune in beginning Thursday, November 19th at 8pm through Monday, November 23rd to see K. Todd Freeman in Neil LaBute’s World Premiere adaptation of Anton Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA. Tony Award winner Alan Cumming takes on the titular role joined by Constance Wu, Emmy Award winner Samira Wiley, K. Todd Freeman, Anson Mount, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi and Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn. Gabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings in an evening directed by Danya Taymor (Heroes of the Fourth Turning). Tickets from $5 and are available only on TodayTix. Proceeds go to benefit The Actor’s Fund.