Hugo Armstrong Waits for God, Godot…and Sam

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Hugo Armstrong

Hugo Armstrong is genuinely surprised that he is receiving kudos for his acceptance speech at the Ovation Awards ceremony last month. He won for best featured actor in a play for Waiting For Godot.

“I don’t remember my acceptance speech at the Ovations,” he admits. “I pieced it together like one would piece together a sighting of Big Foot or a train collision. Apparently, I mentioned wrestlers and other stuff. I am just hoping I was coherent.”  When told that the Hollywood Reporter quoted him saying “It’s a fantastic, well-orchestrated excuse to be together and acknowledge each other,” he nods. “I’ll stand by that.  I only hope the word “˜excuse’ doesn’t diminish what a tremendous and sacred service a gathering like that provides for everybody. The fact that it is done through the Ovations makes it all the more wonderful.”

Hugo Armstrong accepts his Ovation for Featured Actor in a Play for his role as Lucky in "Waiting for Godot" during the 2012 LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards ceremony. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Armstrong recalls that he originally was surprised to have been cast as Lucky in the Mark Taper Forum staging of Godot, and he was also taken aback to be cast in the LA Theatre Works recorded-in-front-of-a-live-audience-for-future-broadcast staging of Terrence McNally’s 1991 play Lips Together, Teeth Apart, helmed by Bart DeLorenzo, opening Thursday at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater.

“I know LATW usually goes for celebs in order to attract a radio audience. I guess Nathan Lane wasn’t available. This is not a role I would be cast for in normal circumstances, ever in my life.  It is clear in the script that my character Sam is this short bulldog of a guy. I am six-five.”

In talking about his journey as an actor, Armstrong exudes a cheerful gratitude for all the steps he has taken along the way. “I’m actually from Northern California.  I was born in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County.  I didn’t realize it was so beautiful until I left. It was a great place to grow up. There were a lot of hippies and a lot of culture and strange stuff to experience. I still have wonderful friends and family back there.

“My mom introduced me to the theater when I was a kid.  We saw great movies and wonderful plays.  It was a great educational experience for me. We used to put on plays in the living room. When I was six years old, I did a marionette show called The God Play.  Apparently, it was interminably long.  Finally, after about 20 minutes, one of my parents’ friends shouted out, “˜When is God going to show up?’

Hugo Armstrong and James Cromwell in the 2011 Center Theater Group production of "Waiting for Godot" at the Mark Taper. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

“I was very fortunate growing up. I always had good teachers. In junior high I learned about Stanislavski and German expressionists, learning about man’s relationship to authority and self, some really profound stuff. It’s funny now to remember this, but in high school we had to read Waiting For Godot, which is a terrible thing to do to high school students.  High school is all about waiting.  You’re waiting for the class to be over and waiting for the day to end. You’re waiting for high school to be over so you can start your life. So, to give Waiting For Godot to a bunch of kids in that state of mind is just cruel.”

When Armstrong graduated from high school, he knew he wanted to act but wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. A summer stint at CSSSA (California State Summer School for the Arts) eventually led him to enroll at CalArts in Valencia. “When I completed the program, I didn’t look to pursue an acting career. Directly after CalArts, I decided I wanted to take a break.  I went traveling for about a year and a half.  I went to a theater camp in Cork, Ireland, studying there with Athol Fugard.

“Then I just traveled around.  I met a lovely young lady who took me all over Europe, and then she came here and I showed her all around the U.S. That was all wonderful.  It was exactly the right thing to do at the time. Eventually, I found myself in the Grand Canyon and I came to the realization that I wanted to be doing stuff. All my friends were living in Los Angeles and it seemed like an easy fit for me. So, after I took a trip to Africa, I settled down in LA.”

Armstrong made his LA acting debut in 2001, playing Agamemnon in Clyt at Home at Theatre of NOTE, a collaboration with Ghost Road Company, helmed by Katharine Noon. Jacqueline Wright won an LA Weekly award for her performance in it. “It was the story of Clytemnestra from her point of view, waiting for Agamemnon to come home. Jacqueline was my first touchstone of what an LA theater performer was all about. She is extraordinary, fearless and completely immersed in whomever she is playing.”

Hugo Armstrong in the 2009 Sacred Fools Theater production of "Land of the Tigers." Photo by Chelsea Cota.

Armstrong has subsequently been quite active in LA theater, performing at such venues as Geffen Playhouse, Sacred Fools and Lost Studio, where he was accorded his first Ovation nod and a LA Drama Critics Circle Award for his 2009 performance in Land of the Tigers, scripted by the four-member Burglars of Hamm. He was delighted to get to audition for the March 2012 Mark Taper Forum all-star production of Waiting For Godot, but it didn’t go the way he expected.

“My agent had set me up to audition for the role of Pozzo, and I am not sure how the communication got mixed up.  It wasn’t until the night before my audition that I was told that it wasn’t Pozzo but Lucky I was auditioning for.  That completely threw a live grenade at me.  I looked at Lucky’s monologue and there was no way I could prepare for it.  It was very late at night and I decided to just try to figure out the words I didn’t know or the words I didn’t understand and just see if I could get some sort of a feeling out of it. I did that until I fell asleep.

“I woke up with the script lying next to me. I went into the audition and it was intense.  That monologue is totally insurmountable. It is crafted to annihilate the performer. There is no intellectual way into it. You can’t say this means this and this means that.  You can try to do that up until a certain point, but it is very much how mathematical calculations break down when they enter a black hole.  Calculations are destroyed and all numbers go completely out the window.  That’s what that monologue was like.  Doing it was not part of any academic or intellectual process. So, when I stepped into the audition I just did it from another place. And that seemed to work out for them.”

Working onstage with such notables as Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern and James Cromwell was Armstrong’s second journey of discovery with Godot. “The first production of Waiting For Godot that I saw was in Pittsburgh. I left understanding this really profound and beautiful thing, without being able to isolate intellectually what it was.  It was as if its simple truths had annihilated my ability to express what they were.  It wasn’t until the second or third day of rehearsal on our production at the Forum that I realized Barry McGovern was in the Pittsburgh production, playing the same role.

Barry McGovern, Alan Mandell, Hugo Armstrong and James Cromwell in "Waiting for Godot." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

“I really got into the play’s culture when Mandell hipped me to a DVD of the wonderful story of how the production of Godot came to pass at San Quentin Prison in 1957 with Mandell in the cast, followed by Mandell’s founding of the San Quentin Drama Workshop in ’58. It is really interesting and amazing stuff.”

Armstrong laughs out loud when asked to compare the process of preparing to play Lucky with his current task in Lips Together, Teeth Apart, a four-hander comedy set in a Fire Island beach house, which also features Kristen Johnston, Steven Weber and Missy Yager. “I guess you would say the process is different. In the case of Lucky, I relied very intensely on a physical conduit for things.  I still must use physicality in Lips Together since we are performing in front of a live audience, but ultimately the character must be channeled into a single source for the radio. Sam is utterly different from me.  The only time I would be cast for this is in a reading. It is going to be a real challenge.  I’ve never quite done anything like it. Actually, I am looking forward to this.”

Lips Together, Teeth Apart, presented by LA Theatre Works at James Bridges Theater,”¨ UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television,”¨ 235 Charles E. Young Drive, Los Angeles 90095.  Opens Thursday. Thu-Fri 8 pm; Sat 3 and 8 pm.  Closes Sunday 4 pm. Tickets: $15-$49. www.latw.org. 310-827-0889.

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.