About

The Questioner: You often tell a story about your time in summer stock some years back ...

ME: (Interrupting, laughing) Oh, many years back. Many, many years. All the stories I tell now happened "Once upon a time."

TQ: Be that as it may, you claim the director of that program told some of your co-actors you would never amount to anything because you weren't enough of a bastard to succeed.

ME: Well, there are some who would disagree with him today, but, yes, that's what he said back then.

TQ: What did he mean by that?

ME: He meant I wasn't ruthless, didn't have murder in my heart toward other actors I shared the stage with. In fact, I believe I was quite competitive - oh, I know I was, I  still am. But I'm competitive in the way a player is competitive within the company of his own team mates. You try to do better than you think you can because you believe it will draw out a better performance from your cohorts. He didn't see that. He was French. From France. With a self-proclaimed pedigree I never quite believed.

TQ: Yet you played lead roles in your summer stock years.

ME: But I was a replacement each time. I wasn't originally cast in some of those roles. I was hired as a utility player, a supporting actor. In fact, I was hired out of the blue, sight unseen. The director was looking to fill out his roster and came across an application I had made to a graduate school - I guess he knew people - and he telephoned me at my home and made me an offer I chose not to refuse. Anyway, that's all I was supposed to be; and, in fact, in the first production we did that first year, My Three Angels, he cast me as the naval officer who appears at the end of the play, has a couple of lines, then falls asleep. Curtain. The audience loved the character (his ultimate appearance is set up early in the play), and I loved that the audience loved me in the role. I could have played that part for years.

TQ: But that wasn't in the cards.

ME: No, of course not. We were doing repertory. There were other plays to get ready.

TQ: And you went out there a chorus boy and came back a star ...

ME: That only happens in the movies, the old movies, except for maybe Shirley MacLaine and Sutton Foster. Anyway, the director had scheduled a production of Cyrano de Bergerac. After a few rehearsals, he decided he didn't like the actor he had cast as Christian. I don't know why. I seem to remember thinking at the time that the guy looked too mature for the part, too worldly-wise. Next thing I know, I'm learning the role.

TQ: And then there was The Threepenny Opera.

ME: You say that like it was something special. There again, I was a last-minute replacement, very last-minute. It turns out the actor the director had originally cast in the role of MacHeath couldn't sing the part. He didn't have the range. So the music director gathered all the males together and had us sing. He was the one who went to the director and told him I was the one suitable for the part. The trouble was we were supposed to open in a few days. They sent me away to a private hotel room with nothing but a toothbrush and the script. I managed to learn the lines, and we finished the season. I don't remember the next year much at all. That was when I found out what he had said about me, and I figured, the hell with him, he can't even cast. Let's get this over with and go back home.

TQ: But you didn't go back home, did you? You took your earnings and went to New York.

ME: I was never frugal.

TQ: And what did you find there?

ME: Theatre, museums, dance, all of it world class. Times Square before it got cleaned up. This was 1971, '72. I remember one night, a guy came up to me right there on the street and offered to sell me a television set, real cheap. He was carrying this television set - and this was back in the days when television sets had heft and breadth - and he was going to part with it real cheap. I apologized and explained I had no place to put it. I got hustled by hookers. That made me feel oddly cosmopolitan and attractive.

TQ: But what about the theatre you found there?

ME: You don't call that theatre? Okay, let me try to remember. I was there for two weeks, and I went to the theatre nearly every afternoon or evening. I saw performances by Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg (I even met her; she was wonderful), Alec McCowen, Julie Harris and Rex Harrison, Anthony Hopkins in Equus. I can't remember everything I saw. I saw The Wiz! Our summer-stock director used to sit us down and proselytize to us. I remember him once telling us, "Kids, you must never put the color green on the stage. Green is the one color you must never allow on the stage. It is evil. It will kill whatever production it is used in." But there I was in New York, watching the original cast performing in The Wiz. And everything up there was g-r-e-e-n. I've loved the color green ever since.

TQ: But you didn't stay.

ME: No. I wonder why. It was all too big for me back then. It still is; that hasn't changed. As young as I was, I 'd already begun to lose the overriding selfishness that is such an important part of youth, that willingness to abandon friends and family - even conscience - to achieve a goal. That should have clued me in to the fact that I wasn't destined to remain an actor. (Don't quote me on that; it'll get my eyes scratched out.) I knew I had to find a way to make it all fit together without throwing away what I already had. And another thing. I could see, even then, that the theatre in New York was already first and foremost a business, a machine without a soul (don't quote me on that either; it's pretentious). There was no place in it for "the moment," for that old barnstorming "flash of lightning," for epiphanies. It was like watching a movie, only with real bodies up there instead of pictures being projected onto a screen. Nothing was left to chance. There was no room in it for whatever might have happened that day or that night on the way to the theatre, or for anyone's momentary mood or crisis to insinuate itself into the proceedings and color it in any way. It wasn't for me. I didn't know what was for me, but I knew that wasn't it.

TQ: So you went back home ...

ME: That's right.

TQ: And "home" is ... ?

ME: Crowley, a rice-farming town in Southwest Louisiana, near Lafayette. If I don't say "Lafayette," no one has any idea where it might be.

TQ: Did Crowley have a theatre scene?

ME: [Laughing] A "rice-farming town in Southwest Louisiana?" No. Not then. Not ever in my consciousness - although I do seem to remember hearing something sometime about a Little Theatre group existing there when I was a small child, but that wouldn't have meant anything to me then. I was too young. I didn't have a concept of theatre. All I did back then was play. That was all I wanted to do. I was a kid.

TQ: So what happened?

ME: Television. I must have been about five or six when my dad came home with our first television set. This would have been in the early 1950's when television and television sets were still new and uncommon; when they were pieces of furniture; substantial pieces of furniture; pieces of furniture that required a room to themselves with all the other furniture in the room arranged in such a way as to face them head-on. Proscenium family rooms. And out of that box came Howdy Doody, Mighty Mouse, I Love Lucy, and Playhouse 90. If my poor folks had only realized the power that box would have over me, they'd have burned it in the backyard; but I was the third of three sons, and by the time I came along, my parents figured the best way to raise a kid, a boy, was to let him go and figure it all out for himself. I might break a bone or two, but that was to be expected.

TQ: Television was your "Rosebud."

ME: "Rosebud." I like that. Yeah, television played a big part in my development, but so did Sunday Masses at St Michael's down on Avenue F and East 5th Street. While television may have grounded me in formalized traditions of performance and presentation ... Look at it this way. Consider the programs I just mentioned: What did they have to offer? Mighty Mouse introduced little children all across America to musical theatre as it was when it began to morph from operetta into the "musical play." I Love Lucy gave you farce and vaudeville. Playhouse 90 was an introduction to "kitchen-sink" drama. Howdy Doody could be positively Brechtian. They were secret passageways that led me into astonishing lands I'd never heard of.

TQ: And those Sunday Masses?

ME: Shakespeare and the Greeks. I'm beginning to sound punchy, and this is all getting silly. What I'm trying to say is, those things opened my eyes to something unusual and out of my "ordinary." I was in the right place at the right time and in the right frame of mind to be seduced. I was starting school. I was learning to read. I was learning to look up things I didn't understand. My turning point was when I stumbled onto an old movie called Svengali. This was an early John Barrymore talkie, a florid melodrama (I don't know if I could even watch it today) that swept me out of myself and left me hanging in the air. I decided I needed to know something - more, anything - about this Barrymore man, so on my next trip to the public library, I looked him up. Surprisingly, my little library had books about him, and I started to read them. They led me to other books about his brother Lionel and his sister Ethel. These books led to others in turn that caused the road to widen. By the time I was nine, I could have told you who Sarah Bernhardt was; by ten, Eleonora Duse; eleven, Irving and Terry and the Booths. I don't know why, but the history enchanted me. It led me deeper and deeper into the woods. And I've never found my way out since. I was an odd child in Crowley.

TQ: It seems to me then that it would be even odder to decide to be a priest.

ME: Not at all. I'd become an altar boy when the time was right, so I was on a stage by then, the only stage in Crowley that I knew of, the sanctuary at St. Michael's. Why shouldn't I audition for the lead when I figured I was ready for it? And it would be no ordinary black cassock for me. I would become a Franciscan. (How that ever got into my head is another story altogether. One, in fact, that involved another movie that was even more piss-poor than Svengali was. I must have been highly susceptible to trash.) I loved the Franciscan ideal; but I really dug the Franciscan habit, brown and wasted by a rope cincture tied with the three knots signifying poverty, chastity, and obedience. And the cowl. I'm still partial to hoodies. God bless Irving Berlin and his "costumes ... scenery ... makeup ... props." I entered the seminary for all the wrong reasons, certainly, that can't be denied; but it was there I came to comprehend my theatre dreams, what they meant, and what they'd need from me. I'd misunderstood the language of my vocation. It wasn't at the altar that I wanted to stand and kneel, it was rather at center stage, declaiming different texts than the words of the Mass. I left the seminary in my third year of high school, went back home (I'm always going home), and decided to major in theatre in college.

TQ: Where did you attend college?

ME: I went to the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Now it's called the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I may have wanted to go to a professional theatre school or some other college with a reputation, there was no money or means to get my hands on either of those, so I woke up early each morning and caught a little yellow school bus that carried us locals down the road (Highway 90) from Crowley through Rayne, then Scott and, finally, to the campus where we all dispersed until late afternoon, when we would all reassemble for the trek back to our little towns. Except, of course, for me when I was in a play and had to rehearse at night. Then I would catch a Greyhound bus back to Crowley where my my dad would meet me at the station and sometimes come up onto the bus to wake me up and carry me home.

TQ: Those were the good old days ...

ME: They were miserable. I never got enough sleep. I did manage to get my studying in on the buss though. I was always able to do that, shut out the outside noise and concentrate. Not anymore. I get distracted now.

TQ: What was the theatre program like?

ME: I didn't like it at the time. I wanted to fill my head with art and theory and process. I wanted an esoteric high. Instead, we were constantly being taught how to enter and exit, how to project our voices, how to walk and stand and sit in a chair. None of which you do onstage the same way you would do it in your own bedroom. Thank God for the campus library. I continued to read a lot and got my highs in the stacks.

TQ: Sounds like a smothering experience. How did you cope?

ME: Looking back on it now, I think it was the best kind of education I could have gotten. The kind of education that seems to be missing nowadays. (I sound like an old fart. Have I become an old fart?) Remember I could still run to the library and get high whenever I felt like I was suffocating. The fact is, everybody needs discipline. Everyone needs a grounding in technique. You've got to know how to properly do something. You can't paint unless you know how to hold a brush and pass it over a canvas. Try it. It's not as easy as it sounds. You can't dance Giselle if you haven't spent the better part of your life in ballet class. I go to plays today, and what I see onstage is formless. What I should be hearing is inaudible - or incomprehensible because the actors have never made friends with their consonants. Believing you can empathize with a role does not make you able to communicate it to an audience. I don't know what it is that's kept me from yelling, "Sing out, Louise," in the middle of a performance. That's typically the kind of thing I would do.

TQ: You'd find yourself canned.

ME: I'd probably get a round of applause. You'd be surprised how often people will remark after a performance, "I couldn't make out half of what they were saying;" or how rarely they will say, "I could hear every word." They say it with a sense of wonder, like it's something odd. Well, it shouldn't be. Anyway, my college experience was drudgery. Which was what I needed. Art takes time, and that's something the young don't have.

TQ: That's very perceptive.

ME: Really?

TQ: Yes. Yes, it is. What were some of the plays you did in college?

ME: The first play I got into was Mother Courage and Her Children. I played Eilif. Brecht. Can you imagine? Our first blocking rehearsal, our director, who would become the head of the department a year later, told me to enter from stage right and cross to Courage. I asked him something really stupid like, "What's my motivation?" And he started screaming at me that my motivation was to do whatever the hell he told me to do, goddammit! I never opened my mouth in rehearsal again. I learned to figure those things out for myself (a good lesson for a future director: know motivations and be willing to listen to your actors). I was lucky, though, because most of the cast were upperclassmen who'd already asked their stupid questions before I'd asked mine and had gotten the same kind of response. So they took me under their wings and looked out for me after that. But I never auditioned for any other play directed by this guy.

TQ: Sad ...

ME: No, funny. I mean, how more stereotypical and stupid could I have been? But it happened, and it passed. The next play I remember doing was Royal Gambit, a play of ideas using Henry VIII and his wives as metaphors - or something like that. The main reason I remember it was because there was a senior theatre major at USL who was fat and had grown a beard to make him look like he was Henry. Everyone assumed the part was his, but I auditioned for it and got it. I reveled in winning it. I was a blockhead of insensitivity. I think these were the only two plays I did as a Freshman. I became choosy. I didn't live to be in every play. I saw classmates jump at every chance to get up onstage, but I was different. I thought that was kind of unnatural. Between classes and rehearsals, there was little time for anything else, like living a life. I remember thinking how some of the people who jumped from show to show didn't seem to be developing depth but were, rather, developing shtick. You see this all the time. Ready-made performances. It's easier than starting at the beginning.

TQ: What do you mean by "starting at the beginning?"

ME: I mean starting blank. Putting aside things you've done in past performances and starting over from scratch. Each role becomes a new life that develops the way we do as we grow. You start off being conscious of sitting in a playpen, let's say. You look out at all the strange things around you. What can those things be for and what do they mean? The urge for adventure becomes an irresistible force, and you start to crawl, then walk. Falling doesn't stop you. Knocks on the head - that hurt - don't stop you. You start a role from a passive place. Maybe it's like observing nature. You don't impose yourself on it, you let it happen while you observe it, you make assessments, and you learn from that. That enough metaphor for you? I didn't do a lot of plays in college, but I did the good ones. That was where I realized I had a capacity for learning and the ability to absorb what I had learned and make it a part of who and what I was. Two different things, the first one useful, the second one an uncommon gift.

TQ: So you wound up in New Orleans. Why?

ME: If you have to ask that question, you would never understand the answer. The allure of New Orleans for me was the allure of theatre - that's true; but I never realized how theatrically saturated it would turn out to be - and in ways I never imagined. I would say that, while New Orleans is a theatrical city, it is not a theatre town.

TQ: How so?

ME: Well, look around you. Nearly everyone in the city considers himself or herself to be a "character," an "icon." It seems whenever a person walks out of his house and onto the street, he is presenting himself as a "character" to be reckoned with, the central player in his own improvisation. You and everyone else are supporting players in his performance piece. But - and this is the big "but" - you and everyone else are also the central characters in your own scenarios. It's unbelievably complex. Now, what happens if your "character" is one who makes theatre? How do you appeal to these people, how do you get them to plop their butts in a seat and endure the duration of your construct while putting their own on a back burner? That's hard. (In fact, I recently attended a performance where certain "characters" in the audience actually threatened to usurp the performance they were ostensibly there to see, stepping out to buy drinks or pee then returning during the action, or adlibbing responses to the dialogue.) I've had a little - just a little - success with literary types and people who are into the visual arts; but practically none with theatre people. They've pretty much ignored what I do.

TQ: That's unfortunate.

ME: Do you think so? I'm  not so sure. Remember, we're all "characters" doing our own thing. I have ideas, they have theirs. Mine are just better. That's a joke. Don't print it.

TQ: If you say so. You used the phrase, "makes theatre." Obviously, now, you're assuming the role of director rather than actor. When did that shift occur?

ME: Well, I guess I always wanted to direct. [Laughing] No, that's not how it was. I just began to not enjoy acting as much as I had in the past. It bean to bore me. Then, of course, my job started to take over my life. It was demanding more of my attention and my time. The acting just fell to the side.

TQ: What job was this?

ME: My job at the Unemployment Office. That job was always meant to be temporary, you know, something to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly until I got my break and became a "real" actor. Imagine my surprise when I realized I loved my job. I loved it. You would think it would be a depressing place to work, the Unemployment Office, but it never was. It was joyous. Everything I ever learned, I learned at the Unemployment Office. Or, everything I ever learned was either reinforced or jettisoned while working there.

TQ: What kind of things did you learn there?

ME: I'll mention two. The first thing I learned was to listen. Everyone has his own secret language, a language that underlies any cultural or class difference. If you listen long enough and patiently enough, you begin to learn that language, and you can begin to comprehend that person's real need and point him in the right direction to fix his situation. The trouble most of us encountered was that we learned the basics of the law over the years, and we tried to fit each person into one hole or another which seemed to fit his situation. The problem with that way of thinking is that no person is a peg, and there is only one "hole" that is particular to him in that one particular circumstance. You learn that by listening. The second thing I learned was when I began to advance and started supervising and managing; and that was that the workers under you are actually capable of performing their jobs. They won't necessarily - or even usually - do it the way you would do it. They will develop their own ways of doing a task. That can be off putting at first because you believe you can see flaws in their process. But their way is just as valid as the way you once found to do the same task for yourself. I'll tell you a little story. When I first had been promoted to the Manager's job at the West Jefferson Job Center, I took myself up to the reception desk early one morning to observe how the staff handled the first rush of the day. It was chaos. I started issuing directives to do this and not that. The usual stuff. Then I happened to catch the look in my assistant manager's face as she stood next to me. The look was full of pity, and it stopped me in mid-breath. What that look was saying to me was, "We know our jobs, and we can get this done. Learn our language now." I shut up and walked away. I began to manage that office from a supportive, rather than a directorial, position. That was my graduation. That was the day I was handed my diploma in Direction.

TQ: I'm not sure I follow you ...

ME: Then you haven't been listening.