November 20, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
I — along with 153 other lucky folks — got to attend a Q & A with the legendary actor-writer-director-author Alan Alda yesterday afternoon. It took place in the intimate Robin Williams Center on West 54th Street courtesy of the AFTRA-SAG Foundation. Alda held the audience in the palm of his hand with an overabundance of charm and wit that were dazzling (there’s no other word for it). His secret, I suppose, is that he is a genuinely authentic person who has lived an exemplary life. His effortless ability to communicate honestly and directly is a tonic, especially at a time in our national psyche where such a person is a rarity. In all seriousness, it felt as if we were celebrating all that is good in a human being while sharing space with him.
I took voluminous notes as he had so much to say on so many different subjects. Although the interviewer (Brian Rose) took us down the long path of a still-thriving sixty-year career, Alda is such a renaissance man that his varied interests know no bounds (his fourteen years hosting American Scientific Frontiers on PBS is testament to that). He helped to create the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University on Long Island and is a committed feminist, who was instrumental in the 1970s in trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. And though that effort failed, he seemed optimistic that he may live to see it passed in his lifetime.
At eighty-three, Alda has seen show business go through many iterations. His start began when he was carried on stage in 1937 as a six-month-old back in the days of burlesque. His father, Robert Alda, was a straight man to such comics as Phil Silvers as well as a fine singer (he portrayed George Gershwin in the 1945 biopic Rhapsody in Blue and created the role of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls). During yesterday’s talk, Alda mentioned how he watched that brilliant musical over and over again when he was a mere thirteen-years-old: “I would watch from the wings and Sam Levene [the original Nathan Detroit] would stand in the same place and say his lines, but he would do them so differently every night that the laughs would come in different places. I was astonished to watch him. I learned more about acting from watching him in the wings than any other way.”
Alda never went to any sort of acting school, though he did do some work with Paul Sills, who was a master in the art of theatre games. In fact, Alda believes that improv is the most important tool an actor can have. “You learn something at the very beginning of theatre games. It’s the most effective kind of improvisation that I’ve ever encountered because it’s very strict; very disciplined. You learn something very basic at the very beginning. Whereby being funny is not the objective and you’re discouraged from joke making. But the basic thing you learn is to connect with the other player. And that’s why I think it’s the best training for acting, because if you don’t have that connection with the other person, it’s a fraudulent encounter. You are pretending to encounter the other person. I don’t think it’s true that it’s like children pretending. It’s not pretending; it’s an act of imagination that’s mutual and you enter into it together and you agree on the circumstances.”
One of the most crowd-pleasing stories Alda told went back to the days when he hung around the burlesque theaters with his father. “The chorus girls were very sweet to me and would take me up to the dressing room and I was sort of their mascot. They would comb my hair and pat my cheek and then they would say, ‘Okay Allie. We’re going to change our clothes now so turn your back.’ And I would turn around and face the wall and bury myself in their costumes. And I could smell their perfume and their sweat on the costumes. And I could hear them putting on their silk costumes… and they thought it didn’t mean anything.”
And it was then that Alda did a “take” for the audience that brought the house down. What can I say? You had to be there.
I should mention that Alda is presently fully engaged with a podcast he hosts called “Clear and Vivid.” He has now had over 70 conversations with people from all walks of life; everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Madeline Albright. His passion when he talked about it yesterday was palpable: “My conversations are not about what you want them to get from you, but what they’re able to get from you. Who are they? Where are they going? What can I say that speaks to that? Otherwise I’m just spraying stuff all over you and it’s not getting in.”
Perhaps I’ll continue with more “Alda-isms” in another column, as the whole afternoon was so rich with stories and experiences that it made being in his presence such a never-ending delight. You should have seen the faces of everyone as they exited the theatre. We were all like kids coming out of a candy store having stuffed our faces. Only what we were stuffed with was passion and ideas and the grace and beauty of this wondrous person. As I wrote in another column earlier in January, he is my hero.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.