I never thought of myself as “fringey” until I signed up for the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
I’m over 50, so I thought I left the fringe behind about the time I signed my second mortgage. Also, my career did not take me down that path. I started in theater in NYC and shortly thereafter I moved into TV. I’ve done TV series, TV movies and guested on dozens of shows.
But I’ve watched the market for my services get whittled away. It’s not news that the world of auditions and work in general has changed for actors. The move away from scripted TV toward reality programming and web entertainment is no longer a prospect — it’s a given. It’s up to today’s performer to keep up. And sitting around waiting for the phone to ring does not get the phone to ring. If an actor wants more work these days, she or he has to create it.
I count myself fortunate that I’m in a workshop started by Jeffrey Tambor. It’s an extension of his acting class. Jeffrey’s approach to class work is personal and above all artistic. The concerns of the commercial world of auditions, agents and careers sit on the periphery. Any results in that arena are an indirect result.
In class, the work tends to be about clearing the runway so the muse can land — letting inspiration rule your instincts and risking your current way of life. In the class are actors, writers, singers, comics, storytellers, and composers, all exploring their craft in an encouraging and challenging atmosphere. But Jeffrey pushes the work over the top, twists it, breaks it and finds the heart of its humanity. One of the concepts in the class is to “do it wrong”. It’s a very provocative and useful tool. Nothing could illustrate the nature of the class more than the following scene:
Two students were working on Hamlet’s confrontation scene with Gertrude in her bedroom. There, Hamlet chastises her for so quickly marrying his uncle on the heels of her husband’s death. Many instructors would have a prior notion of what this scene looks like and would proceed to coach the students into the proper state of mind to produce the proper effect. But it takes a Hamlet who’s willing to throw out convention and tradition and logic to enter that scene wearing Gertrude’s wedding dress. It’s wrong — until you see it done. At first you’re laughing at the preposterous image and feeling slightly embarrassed for the actor because he’s made such an outrageous choice, but soon you begin to see it fits perfectly and is designed to shock Gertrude into remembering her obligations. By the end you can’t imagine why all Hamlets aren’t done that way.
A while ago, the class added another facet — developing projects for, dare I say, the outside world. All members of the workshop are urged to write scenes and monologues to be performed and critiqued. Actors have become writers, writers and performers have become producers, musicians have become directors. The two-fold aspect of the workshop — personalized artistic exploration in combination with shoving people out of the nest — has produced pilots, webisodes, full-length plays, solo shows, short films and some projects that do not have a form yet.
One of the pieces that isn’t finished yet is a goofy and dangerous premise that two guys, we’ll call them Burke Byrnes and Herb Katz, are fooling around with. Right now all they are doing is getting up on stage, sitting in chairs and asking each other embarrassing questions. They are in their mid-70s, have lived rich and varied lives and happily don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks anymore. Is it a one-act, a vlog, an evening with music and dancing girls? Nobody knows quite yet. They just keep getting up and asking each other embarrassing questions.
One member, Bill Hoffman, came in as an actor but began bringing in scenes he’d written — first, a couple, then a few more, and now he has a full-length play, a starkly comic look at a man’s life emptied of meaning. Bill’s play is a perfect example of the idea of the workshop. His play cuts deeply and is filled with profoundly personal and detailed observations. Without the workshop, he never would have written this wonderful play.
Andrew Quintero, also a member, conceived the beginnings of a film from an exercise in class, wrote and workshopped scenes, cast six members of the class, used a seventh as a producer, directed it and finished it — his first ever — in the span of one year. He started up his own career.
John Walcutt, a successful actor and an alternate teacher in the workshop, says, “I’m just not good with down time — waiting for the phone to ring.” John has directed and produced three low-budget films. Right now, he’s in post on his fourth, Termite: The Walls Have Eyes, a teen suspense film. No flies on him.
My own project, Five Uneasy Pieces, came about as a direct result of Jeffrey’s teaching and the critical contributions of the workshop. It had an odd genesis. Jeffrey challenged me one day to bring in something “hilarious”. I started developing a variety of broadly comic character sketches with no particular goal in mind (other than being hilarious). They began as monologues improvised around a particular regional accent and were shaped in the workshop over the course of a few years. At a certain point last year when I felt I had enough pieces to create a show, I asked a friend, Don McManus, to direct. Then — I booked a space.
That’s the essence of the new facet of the workshop — getting it out there. And nothing focuses a project like booking a space and knowing that an audience is coming. Without that push, without the inevitability of an opening night or the screening date, the gallery showing, the public reading, without the time literally written down on a date in a calendar when the people are supposed to show up, all the best intentions can become sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought — to pick a phrase — and remain in the drawer.
Together, Don and I created a show that is disturbing and, I’ve been told, hilarious. Bassist Lyman Medeiros ties the evening together with jazz accompaniment. The result is a performance piece that invites the audience to forgive greater and greater transgressions as each character is faced with ever more difficult moral choices. The final piece rewards everyone with a shower of watermelon sorbet. Figuratively speaking. I’m not Gallagher.
These days, I don’t care if the phone rings; I’ve got a show to do. And a fringey one at that.
Five Uneasy Pieces, Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays, June 9, 16, 23 at 8 pm, and Saturdays, June 11, 18, 25 at 2 pm. www.hollywoodfringe.org.
Todd Waring is an American writer and actor with hundreds of television appearances including Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Guys, Nip/Tuck, Castle, Desperate Housewives, On the Lot, Boston Legal, Monk, Judging Amy, Cold Case, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, Jag, Family Law, Wings, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and numerous TV movies, including Splash II, Final Approach, The Return of the Shaggy Dog, and The Stiller and Meara Show. Waring has also starred on Broadway in Mike Nichols’ The Real Thing and Peccadillo, directed by Garson Kanin as well as many Off-Broadway shows. He is married to actress Eve Gordon and has two daughters. For more information, please visit: http://www.fiveuneasypieces.com.