At the heart of August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean’ is a magnificent ritual that takes place in ‘the City of Bones’ which is located many fathoms deep down in the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic is said to be the largest graveyard for the millions of Africans intended for slavery in America but who died en route during the Middle Passage. I’ve done the role of Aunt Ester, the 300 year old woman in the play, many times and somehow, during this ritual, the separation between audience and actors vanishes and together we make the journey into facing who we really are. The surge of Spirit rushing through the space touches everyone open to the experience. It is profoundly moving.
There are many places that people choose to gather in large numbers. However, to me, the transcendent power of theater penetrates in ways that can unexpectedly shift our consciousness. I am deeply grateful that I can participate in this miracle.
Lizan Mitchell has appeared on Broadway in Electra, Having Our Say, and So Long on Lonely Street. Her Off-Broadway credits include: The First Noel, Brownsville Song, Cell, Rosmersholm, For Colored Girls (25th Anniversary), Gum, Ma Rose, and Salt. Her film and television credits include “Detroit”, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Deadbeat,” “We’ll Never Have Paris”, “Golden Boy,” “John Adams,” “The Good Wife,” “The Human Stain”, “The Preacher’s Wife”, “Sesame Street,” and “The Wire.” She can be seen in the Spotlight on Plays production of Ohio State Murders streaming this Thursday through Sunday.
In high school, when the Drama department was putting on a new show, the school would block out an entire day’s worth of English class periods to be spent in the auditorium watching the ‘preview’ of that show. Essentially, a couple of scenes and/or a couple of numbers from the show. Of course, I always looked forward to these days because…duh! No class! An hour’s worth of entertainment! Singing! Dancing! Loud Talking! Sword Fighting! Not to mention the fact that these student actors and crew got to spend their entire school day doing this! It was awesome. My sophomore year, I’m sitting in the audience for the preview of Romeo and Juliet and my mind was blown. In this production, the Montagues were dressed completely goth with eye liner, chains, fishnets, and hair dye and the Capulets wore mostly khaki preppy style clothes. When the lights dimmed for the moment Romeo and Juliet meet at the ball and ‘Colorblind’ by Counting Crows pumped through the speakers, I fell head over heels in love. With all of it. And after a rafter-shaking performance of the ‘Queen Mab’ speech, my fate was signed, sealed, and delivered. I had to be a part of this. I felt it all. The passion, the love, the humor, the rage. All on like a Wednesday at 2:15 in our school’s auditorium in the Northwest suburbs of Houston, Texas! Until then, I’d honestly felt quite lost and passionless. But, in that hour, I fell in love, gained confidence and birthed a dream. ‘I want to do THAT’.
Later that year, I auditioned for Anything Goes with my friend from history class who had been a part of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat the year before. I knew nothing about anything. I didn’t have tap shoes, so I took a bunch of metal thumb tacks from my mom’s sewing kit and stuck them into the soles of my dress shoes. Man, was I intimidated. I was auditioning alongside the actors I had seen in Romeo and Juliet. They were celebrities to me. I even got to read scenes with them! A few days later, after the cast list went up on the bulletin board and my name wasn’t on it, my friend from history class told me that the drama teacher wanted to speak to me after school. I went to his classroom, and he told me I would have gotten the lead role of Billy Crocker had it not been for my subpar grades. I had something special and should be a part of the Drama department. I (kinda) got my grades up, enrolled in Drama class the next year and landed my first role as Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I went on to play many other great roles at Klein High School, but most importantly, I found my tribe. All of us weirdos and outcasts had a safe place to feel free to be us. We loved each other. We laughed heartily. We dreamed big dreams. We took care of each other. The showmances. The nerves. The celebration. The heartbreak. The gaff tape. The musty smell of that old auditorium. The Chinese drive-thru down the street we went to during tech rehearsal dinner breaks.
And to this day, no matter where I have the privilege of performing…Broadway, Off-Broadway, a reading over Zoom of Ohio State Murders alongside such illustrious talents as Audra McDonald and Kenny Leon…I feel as though I’m back in the Drama department again and everything feels safe and makes sense. The theatre community in New York is full of people with stories just like mine. Who found home in this tribe.
Ben Rappaport played Perchick in the recent revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” directed by Bartlett Sher and was seen in the Roundabout Revival of “Picnic” directed by Sam Gold. He’s also known for his appearances in television’s “For The People”, “Mr. Robot”, “Younger” and “Ozark”. Rappaport’s additional television credits include Fox’s “Zoobiquity”, two seasons of CBS’ “The Good Wife”, TBS’ “Do It Yourself”, USA Network’s “Love is Dead”, CBS’ “Elementary” and NBC’s “Outsourced”. His film credits include “Better Off Single”, “Hope Springs”, “The Brass Teapot”, “Ask for Jane” and “Landing Up”. He can be seen in the Spotlight on Plays production of Ohio State Murders streaming this Thursday through Sunday.
Today is my daughter Stella’s 21s birthday. She studies statistics and Italian, vaguely likes theatre, and is utterly straightforward, charmingly so. Naturally I am spending time assessing whether I’ve been a hindrance or help as she walks into a sea of adults never to be a child again.
We started our mother daughter dance in a kind of protective bubble but within a few short months, I was doing a play and carting her to rehearsals so as not to disrupt her supposed sense of comfort. The play on hand was called Lobster Alice and we performed it at Playwrights Horizons back when Playwrights Horizons was a rickety mid-town haunt and the term Hell’s Kitchen had slightly more meaning. The wonderful director Maria Mileaf was at the helm and she was a new mother as well.
Stella and I felt very taken care of. The rehearsals were complete with breaks to breastfeed and the seasoned nanny, I’d met through a friend, seemed only slightly weirded out by the looks of our 46th street rehearsal space. We rolled into previews and I thought perhaps having Stella in my dressing room, or even backstage for that matter, might provide maximum coddling for her 6 month old self.
One evening, I sang to her in the dressing room as I donned the gorgeous period costume Ann Hould-Ward had dreamed up. It was circa 1940 in our play, I was secretary to an animator that Reg Rogers brilliantly portrayed. I was in love with said animator. During this particular evening, the love scene we were to enact had been slightly rewritten. I was to raise my voice in frustration and then our mutual attraction was to be realized and some of this romance would ensue. I focused on those new lines and the raise in my voice belted over the monitor. The sound woke Stella from her comfy sleep and she began to cry.
Stella cried powerfully and relentlessly and due to the way in which the stage was situated over the basement dressing rooms, Reg and I could hear the crying but those in the house remained oblivious. My body could not take it. My breasts began to express milk in such a forceful way that two round puddles formed on the front of my swanky suit jacket and I myself began to silently sob.
My attempt to “mother” while on stage, was the first of many miscalculations as a parent. As much as I’d like to think I’m a swell multitasker-there was simply no damn way to do both tasks at hand.. I could not maintain even a slight veneer of the character. I really should have been a magnet for Reg in that moment, but no, my sense was that he was frightened…or perhaps repelled?
I raced off stage at the end of the show to Stella now howling and Ann Hould-Ward, the kind nanny and several stage hands, trying in vain to soothe her. Maria arrived minutes later with her usual notepad and said : “I have only a few things from the beginning of the play. I want to shift to the final scene and just ask….”What was WRONG with you. Were you sobbing??? It’s a love scene…..”
And in retrospect it was. Between me and my daughter. If I had it to do over, forgive me, I perhaps would have done it all the same.
Jessica Hecht made her Broadway debut in The Last Night of Ballyhoo and has appeared on Broadway After the Fall, Julius Caesar, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broadway Bound, A View From the Bridge (which garnered her a Tony nomination) and Harvey. She is known as Victoria in the indie hit Sideways and as Susan Bunch on TV’s Friends. Her recent Broadway credits include The Price, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Assembled Parties.
Most people think I’m from New York, especially after years of singing all of those sophisticated show tunes, in Nightclubs and on Broadway and always in a well cut suit. But truth to tell, I’m from Columbus, Ohio and I learned all the classic show tunes from afar, never dreaming I’d have a personal association with the Great White Way and experience the genuine endorphin rush of playing multiple times on Broadway.
But I did have a connection to Broadway. My maternal Grandmother’s brother was a Broadway Property Master for over 70 years who became a beloved legend whom I adored every time he visited Columbus. HIs name was Hymie Gates and you would have loved him too. He regaled me with stories that spanned the entire 20th Century history of theatre, having started in Yiddish theatre on the lower East side working with Paul Muni and other enduring icons of the stage.
Hymie was known as the Mayor of 45th street, having been the Property Master of the Morosco for over 30 years. He gave Joseph Papp his first job in the theatre and eventually became the oldest member of the Stagehand’s Union. They had to create a special 75 year pin for him at his retirement dinner. Hymie knew everybody: George Gerswhin, Al Jolson (for whom he would read the reviews from the Yiddish papers), Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Cab Calloway (“the bum owes me twenty dollars”), Julie Harris (his favorites) and Mandy Patinkin.
In 1977 I came to visit Uncle Hy and Aunt Blanche and happened to be there when a very young Mandy first appeared in “The Shadow Box” at the Morosco. He and Uncle Hy deeply bonded and Mandy was so captivated with him that he wanted to do a show about Uncle Hymie’s life. It didn’t bother him that Uncle Hymie always called him Mandy Potemkin, and he spent hours recording Unclue Hy’s delightful stories and documenting his history, but unfortunately the show never happened.
However, if you ever saw the film “The Princess Bride” you’ll know what Uncle Hymie sounded like. Mandy literally copied Uncle Hy’s Russian/Jewish accent and it turned it into the voice for his Latin character. Every time I hear it I crack up.
So even though my dear Hymie is no longer here, he will live on in the love he instilled in me for the Theatre, and his voice will endure whenever someone hears Mandy Patinkin say: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Michael Feinstein has built a dazzling career over the last three decades bringing the music of the Great American songbook to the world. From recordings that have earned him five Grammy Award nominations to his Emmy nominated PBS-TV specials, his acclaimed NPR series and concerts spanning the globe – in addition to his appearances at iconic venues such as The White House, Buckingham Palace, Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House – his work as an educator and archivist define Feinstein as one of the most important musical forces of our time.
Before this reading I hadn’t sunk my teeth into a play in 5 years.
I had forgotten how much of a leap it is to truly dive into a character for the first time, and what a thrilling rush it can be…especially when the writing enables you with infinite possibilities. I don’t believe there’s anything better than that. I was so rusty the first time we read this. I’d completely forgotten how much more challenging theater is as opposed to television. Oh but how awesome it was to be reading the words of one of my favorite playwrights with such incredibly talented people! By the second or third rehearsal I had found my stride and remembered how much fun it is to dig in and play. Especially when working with a director like Anna D. Shapiro who is my personal hero. We did a reading of ‘The Heidi Chronicles’ back in 2013. She’s the woman who taught me to stop apologizing for asking questions in a rehearsal room. I’ll never forget the moment:
We were doing table work and discussing a scene, I raised my hand to inquire about a moment I didn’t understand and when Anna caught my eye I said, “I’m sorry, but, I have a ques—“. She stopped me with this gem of a lesson, “Why are you apologizing to me?? Stop it. Are you sorry for having a question? Do you ever notice how women are the only people who apologize for asking something? It’s ridiculous. Men don’t apologize when they have something to say. TAKE THE SPACE, Tracee. STOP APOLOGIZING. Now what’s your question?”
I never forgot that. It’s stuck with me all these years. When I heard Anna was directing this reading of ‘Sisters Rosensweig’ I said yes without skipping a beat. She’s an inspiration.
Hands down the best play I’ve had the pleasure of performing is Joshua Harmon’s ‘Bad Jews’. If you know his work, you are aware of what an enormous influence Wendy Wasserstein’s writing has been to him. Because I connect so well with Josh’s plays, it makes total sense that I’d be head over heels in love with Ms. Wasserstein’s characters as well, and the world that she creates in each of her plays.
I am beyond grateful to have been a part of this. Wendy continues to enrich my soul with her magnificent storytelling.
Tracee Chimo Pallero appeared on Broadway in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles opposite Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs. Her other major credits include Harvey opposite Jim Parsons and Irena’s Vow opposite Tovah Feldshuh. She starred in the revival of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together Teeth Apart at The Second Stage and originated the role of “Daphna” in Bad Jews at Roundabout Theatre Company, for which she earned the 2014 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actress as well as nominations for an Outer Critic’s Circle Award and Drama League Award. Her television credits include The Undoing, Madam Secretary, Orange Is the New Black and Difficult People. Tracee can be seen in The Sisters Rosensweig as a part of the Spotlight on Plays series benefitting The Actors Fund streaming now through Sunday.
The first time I was on stage, it was to walk a sign from stage left to right. Literally. Me, a sign, one side of the stage to the other. I was in absolute heaven. I was four. There are pictures. I loved it so much it was a problem. When I was nine, I played a willow tree in the Met’s production of Hansel and Gretel. We walked on stage as a group, in relevé, in green face paint with matching hooded onesies, waving our tree branch arms. There are pictures. It was my job to tip toe around the stage to get to my place on the other side, but one night I accidentally tripped on the witch’s cane. HEAVEN. 3,000 eyes, watching me get up. Yes, I thought. Yes. Years later, after being in every show ever made in a 20-mile radius of my hometown, I did a summer stock production of Cabaret. It’s my favorite play, my favorite movie, there are hookers and Nazis and queer people and pervy dancing. I was so thrilled to be on that stage, in that play, that on the very first dance where we dragged the chairs to their cabaret performance places – I smiled so much the director yelled at me. I was way too happy a hooker. But I couldn’t contain my glee! A corset, stockings, a chair, high heels, and messed up make-up??? Absolute heaven for my teenage self. I got it together, though, I started to learn to use all that energy in the performance and not just bounce around with it. But it’s still a wild ride. It’s unpredictable, sometimes even unreliable, but it’s in that unknowing that makes theater a place where the most interesting and wonderful things can happen. And it’s radical. People are affected differently when you put yourself out there in front of them. And when you do that because you actually have something to say, which for me was when I did my show, Positive Me, at La Mama during the height of the AIDS crisis, you feel like you are moving the world. Maybe you only moved it a micro-inch, but you did something, you pushed, and you felt other people change, at least for that moment.
Following her co-starring role for 7 seasons on the world-wide hit Fox medical drama “House,” Lisa Edelstein starred for five seasons in Bravo’s first scripted series “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.” That show also gave her the opportunity to write, produce and direct and she has since written and directed two short films (“Unzipping”, “Lulu”), written a pilot and is adapting a book for her feature directorial debut. She recently appeared opposite Rob Lowe in the hit Ryan Murphy series “9-1-1: Lone Star” and reprises her recurring role in season 3 of the award-winning Netflix comedy series “The Kominsky Method” (May 28th Season Premiere). Lisa is reunited with Jason Alexander in The Sisters Rosensweig as part of the Spotlight on Plays series benefitting The Actors Fund. They last worked together in 1993 in the notable ‘Risotto’ episode of “Seinfeld”.
I have long heard that the theater is a healing place, a restorative place. I think the person who first proffered that meant that watching live theater can be a healing salve. But those of us who work on the boards have seen the incredible medical miracle that is working on the stage. Yes, it drains and exhausts and demands but it also energizes and often transforms the actor.
Years ago, I was in the original cast of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound. It was where I met the great actor and extraordinary man, John Randolph. John had been a working actor most of his life despite having been blacklisted during the McCarthy years. He had a distinguished and varied career and now he was a 74 year old man enjoying what was probably the best role he ever had on the stage. He would win a Tony award for his work that season. John was simply a treasure in the role and he loved performing it but at his advanced age, the rigors of eight shows a week were a heavy challenge. So many times, especially on a two show day, I would see John in his dressing room or in the wings before the evening show and he looked utterly beaten. His eyes were baggy and heavy, his head and shoulders stooped, his legs thin and weak. Often I would think, “how can this man get through this performance”? I would actually worry that he might not make it.
But every time, he would walk out onto that stage and transform. As the lights came up, so did his life force. His legs would steady, his posture straighten, his face light up, his voice deepen and strengthen. He would radiate with a vibrancy and passion that had been totally absent a moment before. People would marvel at his performance and his stamina. Then, he would take his bow, walk to the wings and the magic spell would end. As he stooped forward again he would smile and whisper, “Man, I am tired”. I would simply marvel. I once asked him what happened that enabled his transformation. John smiled and simply said, “kiddo,that Doctor Footlights”.
Over the years, I have performed with gout, a kidney stone, a paralyzed vocal cord, bronchitis and a migraine. Traveling down to the theater, getting ready backstage it would all seem impossible. No way would I be able to make it through the pain or the challenges and give a performance. But, I was willing to try. And each time,I would step onto that stage to serve that piece, to serve that audience, to tell that story — to do my job — and each time, the pain would fade or the symptoms subside just enough to squeak one out. Doctor Footlights, there’s nobody better. So, a shout out and big thanks to my grandpa, John Randolph, for making the introduction.
Though best known for his award-winning, nine-year stint as the now iconic George Costanza of television’s Seinfeld, Jason Alexander has achieved international recognition for a career noted for its extraordinary diversity from lauded performances on stage, screen and television to his extensive works as a writer, composer, director, producer and acting teacher. His Broadway credits include Merrily We Roll Along, The Rink, Broadway Bound, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (for which he won a Tony Award), Accomplice and Fish in the Dark. Jason can be seen in The Sisters Rosensweig as a part of the Spotlight on Plays series benefitting The Actors Fund streaming this Thursday through Sunday.
One of my favorite things about working in the theater is how fiercely present it forces us all to be. How much courage is required. And what discoveries spring from that. I was playing Catherine in Tennessee Williams’ SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER at the Laura Pels Theater (alongside Blythe Danner, Becky Ann Baker, and a wonderful cast) and one night in the middle of a long speech I went ABSOLUTELY blank. I had zero idea of what I was supposed to say next. Terror struck. I looked around the stage and my cast members were looking at me with expectant eyes. Time extended. In that moment, I decided “Don’t mentally run away, witness this through Catherine’s eyes and see what happens next.” And suddenly (pun intended), my line came to me: “Where was I?” That was the actual line I had forgotten. I realized in that moment how much terror Catherine felt at losing her place (akin to losing her sanity which she was fiercely fighting to protect. Her life depended on it.)
It changed the trajectory of that speech for every performance thereafter. I now understood her on a deeper level than I ever would have had that not happened. It was such a gift.
Carla Gugino made her Broadway debut in After the Fall. Other Broadway credits include The Road to Mecca and Desire Under the Elms. Gugino is best known for her portrayal of Amanda Daniels in TV’s Entourage and Sally Jupiter in the 2009 film Watchmen. She recently appeared in the supernatural horror series The Haunting of Hill House, the crime drama series Jett, and The Haunting of Bly Manor. She can be seen in Spotlight on Play’s Watch on the Rhine streaming this Thursday.
It wasn’t until I got backstage that I officially fell in love with the theater, and that was when I was 11 years old. I was born in the city but our family moved to Denver, Colorado when I was very young… We took yearly trips back to NYC and got to see Broadway shows but it felt like a different world and I had never really thought about the making of them. I never considered all of the work and all of the people involved in creating that magical few hours for my family and me. When I was in 4th grade I began to sing in a choir, and the following year the director of the choir recommended me to the Denver Center Theater when they asked him for a child who could sing and perform on stage in their upcoming production of George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. I went in and auditioned at the Denver Center and got the part. Little did I know what I was about to be a part of. From the first rehearsal I knew I had found a world where I wanted to spend a lot of time. Incredibly bright, funny, supportive, creative and irreverent professionals. The set designer showed us incredible models of what the set would look like, the costume designer showed us pictures and materials and drawings of what the costumes would look like. There was a wig maker, there were stage managers keeping track of everything. There was a musical director. Eventually there were dressers, and ushers and light and sound board operators. Everyone working to put our show on! I got to be on stage with Mercedes Ruehl and the other incredible actors who were part of the company (back then many regional theaters had companies who played many different roles for years)… Yes, I loved being on stage and feeling the stillness and focus and magic of a theater full of people all willing a story into being. But what I remember even more, and what gave me the itch to make my life in the theater, was the backstage. The greenroom where all of the actors hung out before the show in their various costumes and makeup, smoking (!) and joking and telling incredible stories, and treating me like a fellow collaborator and colleague. I was 11 and I’m sure many stories went over my head with the smoke, but what I gleaned was happy artists, working hard on their craft, making the show better and better. It was a giant family back there, and though the characters and settings and plays have changed, that feeling has never gone away.
This 15 months has been hard for our community, for our theater family. I include audiences as part of that family, because live theater is not live theater without them. We all miss being in a space together making a story come to life. Until that happens, we are so lucky to have opportunities to create and watch shows however they happen and I feel so pleased to have been included in Watch on the Rhine. I got a little taste of that backstage fellowship and the audience will get a taste of a great story told. Until we are lucky enough to be together let’s revel in the chance to soak up any “theater” we can! I know I’m happy to be “backstage” again if even in a Zoom box!
Watch Jeremy zoom into your living room, den, kitchen, wherever this weekend when Spotlight on Plays presents Lillian Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine”.
Jeremy Shamos has been seen off-Broadway in Corpus Christi, Engaged, Miss Witherspoon, Race, Gutenberg! The Musical!, 100 Saints You Should Know, Hunting and Gathering,The New York Idea and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). His Broadway credits include Reckless, The Rivals, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Elling, and he earned a Tony nomination for playing two roles in Pulitzer Prize-winner Clybourne Park. He can be seen in Spotlight on Play’s Watch on the Rhine streaming this Thursday.
It was a wonderful opportunity to explore Lillian Hellman’s classic play with such a dream cast as part of this series of online performances. The themes of liberal America and its imperative to combat fascism in all its manifestations feels all too pertinent to the needs of our present times. When Watch On The Rhine premiered in 1941 it served to bring to the theatre-going public a sense of the turmoil that was brewing in mainland Europe and its potential impact on the global stage.
I was first exposed to the epic dimensions of the American drama when I made my professional theatrical debut in a revival of Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill. Written in the shadow of the Great War, this Pulitzer Prize winning drama features the theatrical convention of characters speaking their innermost thoughts as asides. In deploying this classical device in a contemporary setting, O’Neil shows that despite the privileges of modern education, human beings still struggle to communicate directly and truthfully with one another. However, my lasting impression of this masterpiece is not as profound as I would wish. I was thirteen years old at the time and my hair had been bleached a platinum blonde to evoke the archetypal Golden Child. The abiding memory I have is of the cast, which included Glenda Jackson and my father Brian Cox, gently but firmly urging me to go easy on the gold hairspray that I had applied to my side parting when the dark roots began to show. Luckily, I don’t think my besmirching of the beautifully tailored 1920’s costumes could be glimpsed past the front row.
Thirty seven years later and one of the benefits of being involved in the remote capture of an online performance of a classic play is that this actor can transform himself without having to make a trip to the hairdresser.
Alan Cox recently played Uncle Vanya at the Hampstead Theatre in London and Claudius in Hamlet for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. He played David Frost in the national tour of Frost/Nixon, for which he received a Helen Hayes Award nomination. He made his Broadway debut in Translations. He made his motion picture debut as Watson in Young Sherlock Holmes. His film work includes Contagion, The Dictator, Mrs. Dalloway, and An Awfully Big Adventure. Alan’s television credits include The Good Wife, John Adams, and The Odyssey. He can be seen in Spotlight on Play’s Watch on the Rhine streaming this Thursday.