Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Singing Lesson

Not long ago, I got a call about appearing in a charity show. I could hear the anxiety in the producer’s voice when she asked “Do you sing?” I used my stock reply. “Yes, I can sing, but I’m not a singer” -- Meaning I can carry a tune, but I’m not planning to record a CD anytime soon.

Once, when I was a young actor floundering around in New York, I decided to take a couple of singing lessons. A friend of mine had met a voice teacher while waiting on line at an open call (not a good sign) and had passed the teacher’s card along to me. My friend had made it plain that this woman, “Christine Watford-Schenk” was a bit of an oddball, but seemed harmless and might be a good teacher for a beginner like me.

When I called, I was instructed by Mrs. Watford-Schenk to meet her at her studio at the Lincoln Towers apartment building. On arrival, I was greeted by a striking, 40ish woman wearing what could best be described as grand Kabuki make-up, crowned by an upswept hairstyle with dangly ringlets falling here and there. Dressed in a gold brocade sleeveless top with matching pedal pushers, her outfit would have been cutting edge if this had been 1967, but it was 1982 at the time.

“Chrissy” (as I was told to address her) ushered me into her apartment. I had never seen anything like it. The place looked like Liberace's moving van had crashed into the set of "Phantom of the Opera." Jammed with French antiques, bejeweled lamps and of course, a huge grand piano, there was barely an aisle through each room. Every surface was crowded with ornate candelabras, Chinese vases and objects d’art. That, however, was nothing compared to the walls. Perhaps 30 paintings, all in heavy gilt frames, were hung literally from floor to ceiling, filling every available inch of space. Even I, hayseed that I was, recognized the names of a few of the artists like Alexander Calder.

"Chrissy" perched herself on the edge of her wrap-around sofa and began to quiz me about my goals as a singer. Since I didn’t have any, we proceeded to the piano where she tested out my range and general musical ability. I was deemed a worthy student and was then informed that her rate was $50 an hour. I offered her $20 and she took it.

Every Thursday, Chrissy would poke and prod me, push my shoulders back and make me spit out my consonants and round my vowels. It was sort of fun until she began occasionally asking me odd questions like what did I do for fun or who I was dating. Although I enjoyed her grand manners and her “Holly Golightly” wardrobe, her interest in my personal life creeped me out. Plus, she didn’t seem to be such a great singer herself. Deciding I wasn’t so interested in singing lessons after all, I told her I could no longer afford the twenty bucks. Undaunted, she informed me that since I was one of her favorite students, I could continue to study for free.

In those days, guilt was a powerfully motivating force in my life. It had become increasingly clear that Chrissy’s other voice students (to whom she frequently referred) were entirely fictitious. I’d also noticed that one-by-one, her art collection was gradually disappearing from the walls. Soon, a ritual developed where Chrissy would offer me a glass of wine before our lesson. During these little chats, her life story began to unfold. If Tennessee Williams had written “Gone With the Wind,” it couldn’t have come out better.

Apparently, Chrissy had arrived in New York, a young, wealthy debutante eager to pursue her dream of becoming a ballet dancer. After falling down a flight of stairs and injuring her back, she opted to abandon ballet for the world of opera and had studied for a time with some big deal voice teacher. Somewhere along the line, she met and married a Jewish man who was roughly old enough to be her grandfather and soon they had set up house in a swank Park Avenue penthouse. Good Southern girl that she was, she had handed over her entire inheritance to her new husband, who within a few short years, managed to lose it all. Her husband then died of a heart attack (in her arms) and a week later, she discovered she was pregnant. Tragically, she miscarried and was briefly institutionalized. When she got out, she was evicted from her Park Avenue digs and had been forced to cram the contents into this one-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Towers. She now existed on a small stipend that her late husband’s brother had arranged for her and of course, her “teaching income.”

I wanted to help her out, but the problem was that Chrissy wasn’t really a voice teacher. She was just a bizarre, lonely lady whose life had derailed. I no longer had any desire to study with her, but felt like she depended on our weekly visits. Often, I would arrive for my lesson to discover that she had already knocked back half a bottle of wine. Then one day she made a big sloppy pass at me. It was so lame it didn’t even offend me. Instead, I sat her down on the sofa and told her that she needed to get out of this apartment and at least try to meet some straight men.

The next time I saw her she was beaming. “I took your advice!” she exclaimed. Swaddled in her ratty mink, Chrissy had gone on a scouting expedition, scoping out the local restaurants and bars until she found one she rather liked. “I then asked to speak to the manager," she said. "I introduced myself and told him I was a single lady who lived in the neighborhood and that I intended to be frequenting his establishment.” She then told him that she was interested in meeting single men, but not just some trash off the street. “I said I wanted to meet older men, but not too old, you know. Mature men with jobs; divorcees and widowers; that type of individual; stable and no dope addicts.” She had then asked the manager if he thought that those sort of men came into his bar. Apparently, they did. “Next, I told him that I enjoy a cocktail as much as the next person, but if at any time it became clear that I had had one too many, I expected him or a trustworthy member of his staff to make sure I was escorted around the corner and back to my apartment building in a safe and dignified manner.” Trying not to show how dumbfounded I was, I asked “Did he agree to that?” “You know, he did seem a bit surprised,” Chrissy recounted, “But yes, he agreed.”

So, soon Chrissy became a “regular” and within a couple of months, managed to land herself a boyfriend. “Jimmy” was a bald, portly, divorced graphic designer who seemed to enjoy Chrissy’s company. They invited me out to dinner with them a couple of times and it was clear from Chrissy’s giggly, girlish demeanor that she and Jimmy were having a great time in the sack. I was thrilled. Chrissy’s sense of style seemed to be relaxing too. Instead of looking like Maria Callas in the 60’s, she was starting to look like Jacqueline Onassis in the 70’s. It was a start. Soon, she joined an amateur opera troop that staged little performances in church basements and then went out and got drunk afterwards.

After they had been going out for a few months, Jimmy hired me to come in and help him clean out and organize his messy design studio. A decent, friendly guy, he had recently seen Chrissy perform with her pals and asked me about her prospects as a singer. “Yeah, I dunno..." he said. "Does it matter…I mean, do you think it’s a big deal… She doesn’t always hit the right notes.” Not wanting to rock the boat, I assured him that the whole “singing-on-pitch” thing was generally overrated.

By this time, I had begged off my singing lessons, telling Chrissy I had gotten too busy with my acting classes. It was time to cut her loose. Jimmy was a Godsend and if she didn’t see it, she was beyond help. Although Chrissy continued to call from time to time to check up on me, I let my answering machine finish the job. Frequently she would end her always cheerful messages by saying, "Now don't you forget me!" As if that would ever be possible.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ego Stew

Ego is always a force to be reckoned with here in Hollywood. Although we didn't invent it, you could say we perfected it. One of my favorite quotes on the subject comes from that undisputed queen of self-expression, Madonna who once said, "Hey, everybody's entitled to my opinion."

Like most people, I was appalled when Kanye West stormed the stage at the MTV awards, took the microphone from 19 year-old Taylor Swift (who had just won for “Best Female Video”) and declared that Beyonce’s video was better. It was a jaw-dropping act of hubris, even from a guy who’s somewhat known for shooting his mouth off. It’s hard to fathom what could have been going through his mind at that moment. "Best Video" isn't exactly the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s not as if some great injustice had been perpetrated. Nor is it like Beyonce (who seems to be doing pretty well) is badly in need of another award. I wondered if the whole incident might have just been fueled by too much cognac backstage. Whatever the reason, it was rude as hell.

I’ve spent the week trying to drum up some kind of sympathy for Kanye. He’s a young guy who’s been visited by some astronomical success. That doesn’t excuse stupidity, but it can sometimes explain it. When mega-celebrity lands on people, it arrives about as gracefully as an avalanche. Your once ordinary life is all but erased by your new "handlers." Inconvenience is a thing of the past. Day-to-day chores like waiting in line at the Starbucks or picking up your dry cleaning are swept away. Suddenly (you are told) your time is far too valuable to be wasted on crap like that. Wherever you go, the velvet rope is unhooked and you are swept past envious onlookers like visiting royalty.

All anybody wants from you now is more; more of whatever you did that made you a star to begin with. If your ego was just a flicker, your team will soon do all in their power to fan it into a raging fire. From these flames will come bigger hits and a persona that can be marketed worldwide. Strangers holding microphones will want to know not only what you’re going to do next, but what you think about things like politics and global warming; things you know almost nothing about. But that doesn't matter. Fans will blog, text and tweet about how smart, funny, gorgeous and insightful you are. Why, you can barely open your mouth before the applause begins. It gets hard not to start thinking of oneself as an innovator, a savior, a freakin’ genius. You can do no wrong. That is, until you do.

It’s not much of a surprise when megastars land in some kind of trouble. Whatever their moral compass may have been, it no longer works in the upper stratosphere. "Other people" don’t show up so well on the new radar. The pressures of being "you" may lead to the false impression you can smack somebody around or drive drunk down the PCH at a 100 miles an hour. As much as your fans and handlers may forgive your antics, law enforcement is not so understanding. Bad behavior is entertaining to a point, but when you stumble across a line that you shouldn’t have (as Kanye did with Taylor) it’s a big surprise to discover that instead of being perceived as a ballsy truth-teller, you come off as a stupid, ungrateful jerk.

When Kanye appeared later in the week on Jay Leno's show to offer a public apology, he got served a healthy bowl of what I like to call "Ego Stew." We all have to eat it once in a while. It's a steaming combination of what we "did" and what we "should have done," all boiled together (and in Kanye's case, served with a side order of his dead mother's opinion). Ego stew is not so tasty, but sometimes it's good for us. It can wake us up and get our feet back on the ground. So, welcome back, Kanye. I hope you'll use all that insight (and all that talent you've got) to look at the world with new eyes.

Oddly, I couldn’t help thinking about the whole Kanye flap as I watched Susan Boyle make her American television debut on this week's finale of “America’s Got Talent.” Say what you will about Ms. Boyle, she always makes an impression. God knows her singing isn’t flawless and no matter how many stylists take a crack at her, she always looks a bit like a small-town librarian who’s been run a little too quickly through the Tressamay Hair and Make-up salon. But there is something about her earnest delivery that always gets me. Despite being catapulted overnight from utter obscurity to international stardom, she remains a sincere presence and never fails to give it her all.

As expected, her quietly moving rendition of “Wild Horses” brought the delirious crowd to their feet. And there stood sweet Susan, the most unlikely star on the planet, modestly nodding her head and carefully acknowledging the musicians who had accompanied her as if somehow the crowd were cheering for them and not for her. It was beyond adorable. It was a gesture of gratitude; offered by one of "us;" a regular Joe who got unbelievably lucky... And knows it. Nicely done, Susan. Rock on.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened...

When I was a kid, my mom used to complain that there was nothing on TV half as funny as Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” used to be. One Saturday night, when I was a kid, I turned on our old Zenith and happened onto a movie called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” I’d never laughed so hard in my 11 year-old life. When I was about 14, I remember loving the weekly smart-ass banter of doctors Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicut on M*A*S*H. In my early 20’s, I saw a Broadway musical called “City of Angles” that I thought was tremendously clever and innovative. And like everybody else in the country, I found the movie “Tootsie” completely hilarious. In the early 90’s, when I was trying to get started as a writer, I caught a movie on HBO called “Barbarians at the Gate” and for the first time ever, took the time to notice who the screenwriter was. I remember thinking “Wow. This guy is good.” Soon after, I discovered that “this guy” had written (or co-written) all the aforementioned projects. He had literally been making me laugh my entire life. His name was Larry Gelbart.

When Larry passed away on Friday at the age of 81, he left behind an impressive and influential body of work. Although most of his obituaries have focused on the seminal effect that M*A*S*H had on television humor, his influence on the whole art and craft of television and film writing would be hard to measure. The guy was a legend. I can’t think of anyone I know who didn’t want to write like Larry Gelbart. He could infuse intelligence, pathos, morality and political comment into a script and still make you laugh. He was a keen observer of his times and a master satirist. Born to working class immigrant parents, he had started his career in radio before moving on to huge successes in television, films and on Broadway. In his later years, he even became a “take-no-prisoners” blogger on The Huffington Post. Plus, he pulled off the single most incredible feat any writer can aspire to: He was still working (and when I say “working” I mean getting paid to write) at age eighty!

When his memoir, “Laughing Matters” came out in 1998, I grabbed it off the shelf at Borders and rushed home to read it. Sadly, I was disappointed to discover that it read like the work of a guy who was a little too busy to write a book. The chapters were disjointed and came off more like essays that had been written years apart. It felt like he had cleaned out his file cabinet, handed the pile to the editor and said “Here, make a book out of this.” Given what a remarkable writer he was (and what an incredible journey he had taken in his career) it seemed like a missed opportunity. But then maybe Larry wasn’t the type to look back. I guess he had scripts he needed to write.

Truth be told, I wasn’t just a fan of Larry Gelbart; I wanted to be him. He seemed to have done all the things that I wanted to do (including live in London for nine years). He was fiercely respected and had no problem speaking the truth about any situation, no matter who was involved. After experiencing “creative differences” with Dustin Hoffman on “Tootsie,” he said of the star, “Never work with an Oscar winner who is shorter than the statue.” After his Broadway musical, “Conquering Hero” closed after a tortuous try-out in Philadelphia, he gave us one of the most quoted lines in writing history: “If Hitler’s alive, I hope he’s out-of-town with a musical.”

Back in June, I attended a staged reading of a pilot that Larry had written called “Pinnacle.” I had always wanted to meet him and hoped that this would be my chance. The script was vintage Gelbart: clever, tightly-plotted; full of dicey moral situations and plenty of unsentimental observations about the less attractive sides of human nature. During the Q & A, Larry told us that although the script had been turned down by HBO, he hoped to interest the BBC in doing it. He was, at the time, also busy finishing up the screen adaptation of his musical “City of Angels” which Barry Levinson attached to direct. Listening to him filled me with hope. Obviously, Larry wasn’t a young guy, but he certainly didn’t seem “old” either. He was working, engaged, interested and even after 60 years in the business; he was still (like all good writers) a closet optimist.

I hovered for a bit after the Q & A, hoping that the perfect opportunity would arise for me to slip in and shake his hand, but it never did. He was mobbed by his fans, both old and new, who were peppering him with questions about his career, his craft and even soliciting his opinions on the current political climate. Finally, I slipped out, saying to myself, “Maybe, next time.” Unfortunately, there was no next time. Larry was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly thereafter.

If I am lucky enough to live a long life, I hope I’m able to do it as gracefully as Larry did – with humor and honesty and interest. Last December, when a rumor flew around town via the Internet that he had died of a massive stroke, Larry reportedly sent out an email to his friends that simply read: “Does this mean I can stop exercising?” He seemed like a modest guy, but to me (and a lot of others) he was a giant.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Beautiful Weapons of Happiness

Last week, I got cast in an actual, honest-to-God, Equity stage production here in Los Angeles. Professional theatre work in L.A. is (as my mother used to say) about as “rare as hen’s teeth.” When the show opens in October, it will mark the first time I’ve been on stage in 15 years. Needless to say, I’m both excited and a little nervous about it. The whole process of getting cast reminded me how much I have missed the gentle and courteous way in which casting is handled in the theatre.

First, you are usually given a generous number of pages to read (as opposed to the five or six lines you usually have to prove yourself in television). Then there’s the whole “audition-callback” arrangement that gives you that all-important second chance to nail your character. And then there is the kind and respectful manner in which the craft of acting is treated by your potential employers. Between you and me, it will be sort of thrilling to blow the dust off my “Actors Equity” card. It was the first union I ever joined and I can still remember how excited I was to become a member of what I, at the time, believed to be a very exclusive club.

A Manhattan skyscraper now stands on the corner of West 54th and 8th Avenue where the old “Showcase Studios” once stood. I was nervous when I entered the creaky old rehearsal hall for my first real “Equity” audition. The casting director had seen me in a showcase and introduced me to an agent, who in turn, had submitted me back to the casting director for this play, so he had little choice but to see me. It was a regional theatre production of a perfectly horrible British play called “The Weapons of Happiness.” I was asked to read a monologue in a cockney accent and when I finished the director, who was British, yelled “Brilliant.” Being twenty-two at the time, I thought that meant he'd found my acting "brilliant." I didn’t know that was just something British people said when they wanted to move things along. I came back a week later, read a second time and the job was mine.

Three weeks later, I was in freezing Buffalo, New York, rooming with another young actor in the cast, Evan Handler (who would later go on to play Charlotte’s husband on “Sex in the City” and can now be seen on “Californication”). Evan (who was extremely nice) had already been in a couple of movies, so I was incredibly intimidated by him. Not wanting him to know I had just been brought up from the minor leagues, I didn’t mention that this was my first professional gig.

The play was an extremely ambitious project for a regional theatre. In addition to its lefty, pro-Communist leanings, it required a huge cast, plus expensive scenic elements like fog machines, hydraulic lifts and rotating turntables. The director had opted to cast a number of American actors who had studied in London. Outside the rehearsal hall, this crew seemed perfectly normal, but once they came into the presence of the director, they suddenly morphed into Sir Ralph Richardson and Dame May Whitty. The play was hard to “act” since all any of us ever did was spout angry political diatribes. It also had two interweaving (and equally confusing) plots. The first was about a strike in potato chip factory led by a bunch of young, working-class hotheads. The second involved the lead character (an older Czech man) having hallucinatory memories (part flash-back, part fantasy) about his experiences in the Stalinist purges of the early 1950s.

Frequently, the older character would deliver long, rambling monologues to the audience which none of us (including him) understood a word of. One of these speeches ended with the question “And what are the beautiful weapons of happiness?” Several of us were, at that point, standing in the wings, waiting to make our next entrance. On hearing this question, I remember Evan and I would always turn to each other and shrug our shoulders. Who the fuck knew?

The reviews were scathing, but they didn’t hold a candle to the frosty reception the audiences gave us. The play (written in 1977) may have had some relevance to British theatergoers, but in 1983 Buffalo, it went over like a lead balloon. Bethlehem Steel had just closed its doors, and those who could still afford a night out, didn’t much care to be preached to by a bunch of pinko Commie sympathizers. Plus, it didn’t help that the playwright had made a point of having something hugely offensive happen in almost every scene (torture, a hanging, a teenage girl giving the lead character a blow-job). Audience members walked out in droves; sometimes not even waiting for intermission to do so. Soon, the cast created a pool backstage. At the start of each performance, everyone put in two bucks and guessed the number of walkouts for the night. Whoever got the closest to the actual number (verified by the house manager) won the pot for the night. I hit the lucky number twice.

The whole enterprise seemed cursed. The massive machinery required to move the scenery, frequently broke down. One night, the fog machine went berserk and the entire company disappeared in a cloud of mist. There was also lots of backstage drama. Our leading man, a middle-aged, recovering alcoholic, fell off the wagon and started showing up drunk for performances. This proved especially challenging for me since I had to do a little “stage combat” with him. One night, he was so loaded, I literally had to grab his fist and ram it into my own stomach; then collapse to the stage as if he’d actually hit me. Unfortunately, the guy was so trashed, he lost his balance and fell on top of me.

I knew the show was sort of disaster, but I didn’t care. I was delighted beyond words just to be “a professional.” Every night, I was stretching my artistic wings, while learning a few life lessons along the way. When the playwright came from London to see the show, Evan and I threw a party in his honor and invited all the “party-hardy” Buffalo locals who played the “angry mob” in the show. Being twenty-two year-olds, it never occurred to either of us to provide any food, so everybody got utterly hammered in pretty short order. When the gentlemanly playwright arrived bearing an expensive bottle of Glenfiddich, I slammed it down on the card table / bar next to the cheap shit the rest of us were drinking. Never having tasted Scotch in my life, I knocked back three or four shots on top of the five beers I’d already had. When the room started to spin, I excused myself and vomited out my second-story bedroom window before rejoining the party. Despite a massive hangover, I managed to get through the matinee the next day. Barely.

Although playwrights, directors and designers bring invaluable contributions to the theatre, it is, in the end, an actor’s medium. Eight times a week, you are the channel through which the whole play is transmitted to the minds and hearts of the audience. There is no stopping. There are no second takes. It’s live. And it’s scary. But when you manage to connect with that room full of strangers out there in the dark, it’s totally thrilling. So, if you find yourself in the L.A. area anytime from October 21st to November 22th, I hope you’ll come see me and my fellow cast members appearing in a much better play than “The Weapons of Happiness.” It’s been a while since I worked without a net, but maybe I’ll pull it off; actually, telling a story to a group of real people. In real time. In a real theatre. I can’t wait.

"BETTER ANGELS" at the Colony Theatre Company in Burbank, CA. October 21 to November 22, 2009. Tickets: (818) 558-7000 or visit http://www.colonytheatre.org

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/