Black Coffee, produced by Theatre 40, opens July 7; plays Wed.-Sat., 7:30 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through Aug. 1. Tickets: $23-$25. Reuben Cardova Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills; 310.364.0535 or theatre40.org. Covered free parking.
Bruce Gray is abuzz. As director of Theatre 40’s opener of its 45th season, Agatha Christie’s first play, Black Coffee, he’s juggling the spheres and chapeaus of another opening, another show with a chipper enthusiasm born of 35 years experience in solving dramaturgical difficulties.
He relates, “We had quite a big day yesterday with two run-throughs between three and seven. Tonight we add in all the lighting cues. Our sound design is completed. But I’ve lost an actor. He suffered sciatic nerve damage so badly he can’t get out of bed so I’ve had to replace him by doubling one of the other actors in his role. Usually when you double this way, you try to camouflage it with a bushy moustache or a frowsy wig or something. Instead I have another character by way of introduction to his second appearance say, ‘You know, you look remarkably like the butler.'”
His infectious laugh at his creative lack of subterfuge scurries us past the problem and onto the promise of another worthy theatrical payoff as he rolls with the punches of our unpredictable profession, a strategy he learned from life itself.
It began for him when he was born to Canadian parents in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Of his upbringing he recalls, “As a kid I was surrounded by beaches and palm trees. I didn’t think about it one way or the other because kids don’t. You just think about your dog and cub scouts and going to school. In those days you could hire a Puerto Rican maid for two dollars a week. We had two, a laundry room maid and one for the rest of the house. They spoke Spanish as did all the kids I knew so I too spoke it more than English. I think it dawned on my parents when someone visited from Canada or the States.
“I knew enough social skills when they’d say ‘What’s your name?’ I could answer ‘Bruce.’ But when they’d follow up with ‘How old are you?’ and I answered ‘Grade three’ my parents thought we’ve got to get this kid out of here before he loses all his original language.”
At age 10 he moved with his family to Saginaw, Michigan where “I began to lose my cleaning lady Spanish and pick up American idioms including swear words. Kids need to know swear words.”
Why? He punctuates his reply with another laugh. “Because it’s important to know what’s making somebody so mad. When a kid yelled ‘Go to hell’ I could tell he was mad but I didn’t know why because I didn’t understand what he was saying.”
As his grasp of English along with its scatology improved, the family moved back to Canada when Gray was 13. He involved himself in student council activities and joined the swim team. “I was not good at group sports. I was too shy and scaredy cat and afraid of getting bumped or knocked down. With swimming I could compete within a comfort zone more to my liking.”
There at Humberside Collegiate Institute, the official name of his high school, he first trod the boards in a play through the felicitous cliché of accompanying a friend to an audition. He maintains, “I tried to talk my way out of the audition, saying ‘I’m just here with him’ but they wouldn’t let me off so the short of it is I ended up playing Tony in You Can’t Take It With You.”
This memory triggers another. He harks back to “I had absolutely forgotten this until my sister reminded me of it recently. She used to be a year and a half younger than me but now I think she’s about four years younger. She reminded me how I was always gathering our cousins in the garage to put on little plays. They were only two minutes or so in length.”
So an unspecified genetic component must have provided some guidance along this course. If so, it took its time to develop as Gray graduated, earned his BA and Masters Degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and journeyed to London in 1960. He remembers, “My father insisted I study political science and economics. I hated both of them. When I went to England, I worked in market research and hated that. I had never considered acting as a profession because only people like Elizabeth Taylor or Marlon Brando could make a living at something like that.”
He was soon to learn differently as he gravitated toward the 200-year-old Theatre Royal in Bath where he began a career as juvenile lead. He remembers those days with much more laughter and a rather breathless recitation of how, “We put on 14 plays in 14 weeks. We had five days of rehearsals, then performed two nights, then started all over again.”
Returning to Toronto, he joined three other actors to open a theatre company called Aries Productions. “The four of us assumed the roles of producers with each of us specializing in a different area. Mine was set design. We did Suddenly Last Summer and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore and ended up running our theatre for four years.”
He started booking local commercials and Canadian TV guest spots during this period but failed to win the approval or even recognition of his parents. “Oh no,” he says, “I was an embarrassment to them. Because I was seen on television selling products, they told people I was in advertising. You see, my father was a minister’s son who worked all his life for the same company. He was an office manager in life insurance. He only went to Puerto Rico because an opening came up in the local office there.
“Years later I played Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and it was a huge hit. I invited them to see it. When I asked afterwards how they liked it, they said, ‘Well you looked very nice in that tweed jacket.’ So I asked again how they liked the play. My father-looking at my mother the whole time and never at me-said, ‘We didn’t think there was any need for you to talk to your wife that way’. I thought surely they don’t believe I’m making all this up tonight as I go along.”
A few years after Aries Productions wound down, Gray found himself in New York studying acting when another happenchance led him along still a new avenue. “Some friends rented a small off-off Broadway theatre to put up a production of Moonchildren and asked me to direct it. I found I had a feel for it. I had a gift I didn’t know I had. I had done so many plays by then I’d absorbed what my directors and acting teachers had said. They all left their mark on me. A practical thing like this character needs to cross here to clear the space for the entrance of this new character. I’m an old-fashioned director in that my techniques are based on principles from the ’60s. Today’s directors are more improvisational or spontaneous somehow.”
When he journeyed to the west coast, Gray joined the Actors Institute. One of its aims was to partner their members to help them kick-start their careers. “I was paired with a girl named Joanna Bongiovanni. She produced. I directed. Together we put up shows at the old Gene Dynarski Theatre, the old Richmnerond Shepherd Studios which is now the Complex and other places around town. We eventually went our separate ways, not out of any bad things between us. We just moved on in different directions.”
They moved on but didn’t sever ties. In 1987 Bongiovanni invited Gray to see a rehearsal of My Life in Art she was producing at the Tiffany on Sunset. He leveled with her, “‘It’s a big, splashy show but it seems like a jumble to me.’ She asked me if I wanted to redirect it so I did. In the middle of our run one of our actors, Jonathan Frakes, booked the role of Commander Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation. That same day another of our actors, Ron Perlman, booked Vincent on Beauty and the Beast. Isn’t that interesting?”
Interesting too are the sci-fi chops Gray scored for himself as an actor, namely roles on three Star Trek series: Deep Space Nine, The Next Generation and Enterprise along with others on Babylon 5, Earth: Final Conflict, Stargate SG-1 and a short-lived series called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future which brings a fresh round of laughs as he recalls, “Captain Power was an interactive show. Kids could buy this gun and shoot at the aliens on screen. Every time they killed one, they’d get a score on the handle of their gun. Mothers soon put an end to that when they saw their kids shooting at the television set.”
He’s not yet finished with TV sci-fi as he’s just been tapped for a new fall alien invasion type series for Steven Spielberg to start shooting soon in Canada. He says (again with a hearty laugh at his own expense), “I’m playing an 82-year-old mechanic. When I met with the make-up department, I said, ‘You’re probably gonna have to do some prosthetics or a great deal of layering’. They said, ‘No, you look fine just the way you are.'”
Science fiction doesn’t represent Gray’s only successful fields by any means. He played Kim Hunter’s love interest on The Edge of Night, John Corbett’s father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, won Canada’s Gemini Award for best performance in Traders as an investment banker and currently reoccurs as Jake Weber’s dad on Medium among almost 150 film and TV credits. He declares, “You never know what’s coming next in this business. I’ve played so many Republicans dressed in a suit I was delighted recently to play an old drag queen in a movie called Is It Just Me? It’s a low budget film we shot in just two weeks. I’m a little cog in this picture but I’m excited it’ll be premiering at Outfest in July.”
His artistic and financial success enables him to enact meaningful requital in two venues. First he established an acting scholarship at his alma mater, Humberside. “I’ve remained a very good friend with my mentor, teacher and director from there, Duncan Green. They already had a scholarship for the student actor with the highest academic marks so I set up a separate one for the best actor. They’re not always the same person. I’ve known some really good dumb actors, and I’ve known some very bright, intelligent people who were not good actors. I told Duncan I wanted to recognize instinctive, natural talent in addition to classroom achievement.”
Second he volunteers for the GATE Program at Toluca Lake Elementary School which he explains “is the Gifted and Talented Education outreach. Slower students always get a lot of extra tutoring and special classes. The students for this program are chosen because they’re smart. I put them in a Broadway musical. In January the principal gives me the subject. I then take these fourth grade students and we talk about what makes a story good or what makes a story bad, and then write our story around our theme. We take current songs and alter the lyrics. Then we tour it to grade ones, grade twos, grade threes, the library and finally at night for the parents. It runs about a half hour. I’ve been doing this now for eight years.”
He began his relationship with Theatre 40 in 1982 when that company ran into trouble with their production of Blithe Spirit. Gray happened to be available and quickly adapted a plan to remount the show in two acts instead of three. He’s remained with them as both actor and director ever since (full disclosure: he directed this writer in 2008’s Halo at Theatre 40).
He earns the highest of accolades from Theatre 40 Artistic and Managing Director David Hunt Stafford who says, “Bruce is a wonderful asset to our theatre in every way. I consider him a wise adviser, a trusted consultant and most of all a good friend. He’s demanding as a director but always in the most pleasant of ways as he strives for excellence in his production values. He’s sensitive, never bullying. I try to bring in one new director every season and it’s always a roll of the dice. Most of the time they work out; occasionally, one doesn’t. With Bruce I never have to worry about what goes up on our stage. His pursuit of and dedication to excellence frees me to worry about other matters elsewhere because I know his shows will deliver the goods.”
One fancies Gray’s education plays a significant role in his directorial successes. He vows otherwise. “I’d like to tell you my degrees in psychology were invaluable to me as a director but the opposite is true. Psychology is different from psychiatry. Psychology is about a lot of testing or experiments with animals like rats, never people except in statistics dealing with large populations. It’s very left brain.Â Acting, directing and writing are more right brain where you can become emotional and develop trust among individuals.”
He explains his concept of the old acting class stay-in-the-moment trope thusly: “You have to prevent anticipation of the next moment. If you’re in a play and you go to the door and open it and a vampire sinks his fangs into your neck, you can’t act fearful walking to the door or you kill the bit. At the same time technically you know night after night that vampire is lurking on the other side of the door. Think of real life. You’re always in the moment. If you’re so bored with your present circumstances that you’re either thinking back on a pleasant memory or thinking ahead to an exciting possibility, you’re still in the moment. One is called reflection; the other daydreaming. But it’s still in one moment alone. You can’t not be in the moment in life. You have to duplicate that reality on stage.”
He has definite opinions on how rehearsals should proceed. He says, “I find appallingly there are a lot of lazy actors. I can’t trust they’ve all read the script before the first rehearsal. That initial read-through is so important because it verifies for me they have read it, it helps answer technical questions and it acquaints the cast with the realization there’s more to the play than just them. I don’t necessarily want actors talking to each other outside rehearsal. In fact there are two in Black Coffee I’ve forbidden to talk with each other because they’re in danger of setting it rather than allowing it to flow freely toward the joys of discovery.”
Sounds rather like some psychology at work there. With yet another laugh Gray concedes, “Okay, psychology does play its part. Some actors you push. Some you leave alone. Sometimes I’ll give the same note four times before I’ll see it implemented. Others get it right away. The main thing is to get all my piggies to market at the same time. By opening night every actor on that stage has to be in the same play.”
One suspects even without a cube of sugar or a dollop of cream the Black Coffee served up at Theatre 40 by director Bruce Gray will invigorate its audience.
Feature image of Lary Ohlson, LizAnne Keigley, Katharine McEwan, David Hunt Stafford, Corey Rieger, Shelby Kocee and Randy Vasquez; and production photos by Ed Krieger.
Article by Gary Ballard.