July 27, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Currently, I am engaged in Plymouth, Massachusetts for the third summer in a row directing college students (as well as recent graduates) in a big old Broadway musical. Well, not that old — it’s 2001’s The Producers. But old certainly describes the Priscilla Beach Theatre: a glorious barn transformed into a theatre in 1937, where it once featured the likes of Gloria Swanson on its stage (among many others). Recently, it has been lovingly brought back to life by Bob and Sandy Malone, Plymouth locals who shared a desire to bring back the tradition of summer stock to their community. They have worked tirelessly, making sure that nothing got lost in its updating. In fact, one good thing was gained: it is now air-conditioned. But otherwise, it remains as rustic as ever; a historic barn theatre, located on what was once a working farm built in 1875.
Not a day goes by when I walk around its campus that I am not visited by its ghosts. No, I’m not talking of Paul Newman and other distinguished artists who are amongst its alumni, but of my own personal ones. My teenage self spent three summers here that were not only memorable for the fun times, but provided me with an education that is all but lost now. We did sixteen productions over those three summers — two-week stock. One show would open on Monday night (Cabaret) and the next one would go into rehearsal Tuesday morning (Anything Goes). Thirteen nights later, Anything Goes would open and Guys and Dolls would go into rehearsal the next morning. It was insane and wonderful in equal measure.
I was also reminded of these past glory days when the actor Martin Landau passed away eleven days ago. Known mainly for his film and television work, he began his work in the theatre, as almost all the actors of his generation did. I never saw him in a play (his one and only Broadway appearance in 1957 was the year I was born), but I was inspired while listening to him speak of his summer stock days in an interview with the comedian Marc Maron conducted earlier this year on this “WTF Podcast.” Landau, eighty-eight years old at the time, spoke with such vivid recall, that I thought it would be informative to transcribe sections of it for this piece.
First, it’s important to note, that Landau had no training as an actor. Zero. He was a cartoonist, who at seventeen years old (and while still in high school), talked his way into a job with the New York Daily News. He became a staff artist and stayed there the whole time he attended college at Pratt, never telling his employers or co-workers his real age. Here’s the story (in Landau’s own words) of how he came to consider what chances he might have on taking a run at the acting profession:
Martin Landau: I worked at the paper alongside a guy named John Ward. He was very good looking and a terrific guy who was studying acting on the side with Sandy Meisner. He was always talking about acting a lot and when he told me he was going to be in a T.S. Elliot play called Family Reunion, I took him up on his invitation to see it opening night. And may I say that John Ward’s performance to this day … was the worst performance I have ever seen in my life! And I had some yardstick to measure it against, as I had seen Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie and Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman by then. And even though seeing those two performances made me think, “How the hell could I ever do that?,” I still knew that I could be a hundred times better than what John Ward was doing up on stage that night. And so, without any training, I decided then and there, “Holy God, I want to do that!”
So I quit my job at the Daily News immediately and went and auditioned for summer stock. And I got a gig at the Peaks Island Playhouse in Maine, that was America’s first summer stock theatre. It had a resident company of forty people all living in one big clapboard house. A lot of rampant hormones running around, let me tell you.
A lot of the actors had been doing this for years, but I was new. I was twenty-two and I was the absolute greenhorn. But I didn’t tell anybody.
Marc Maron: So how did that work? Did you do one show and then take a break, or …
ML: No, you did every show!
MM: So like three or four?
ML: No! Twelve or fifteen.
MM: Oh my God. You mean a new show every week?
ML: Exactly. I think we opened with Streetcar, then we did the Kern musical Roberta, then The Glass Menagerie, then The Marriage Proposal by Chekhov …
MM: And with no training?
ML: No training. Seat of my pants.
And now that sort of training is, for all intents and purposes, no longer available. The actors I am working with this summer are luxuriating in three to four week rehearsal periods of just two shows (West Side Story was staged prior to The Producers). And it saddens me, since the pressure and the time commitment of the old ways forced the invention of a different kind of actor. There’s no comparison between the work involved with the headset of performing one-week or two-week stock and what it brings to the creative process. Among the many skills you hone are a newfound respect (and hopefully a talent) for memorization that is constantly being tested, especially as you barely get any rest. I liken it to the way emergency room doctors are trained: make them be so good at it that they can perform nearly any function in their sleep.
A long rehearsal process is a gift, but so is a short one. Every actor should have the experiences of both. Cutting corners, thinking fast on your feet, regulating your energies … all of it is valuable training. Just ask anyone who’s done it — granted you’ll have to seek out someone over the age of sixty.
I’m available — Ron@ronfassler.org.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8–4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book