My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Channeling my inner Willie

"...They are more than a team...They are two comic shining lights that beam as one...For Lewis without Clark is like laughter without joy..."

WILLIE: I'm gonna tell you something now I never told you in my entire life. I hate your guts.
AL: You told it to me on Monday.
WILLIE: Then I'm telling it to you again.
from The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon

Since 2003, I have been performing regularly at The Red Barn Theater just outside of Rice Lake. There's been a few summers I missed – 2004 and my sabbatical summer of 2010 – but for the most part every summer during the last eleven I have danced and capered about upon the stage constructed in this over a hundred-year-old barn. Pretty much all the characters I have played have been loveable and humorous ones – Harpo Marx (Minnie's Boys), Sydney Lipton (God's Favorite), Oscar Lindquist (Sweet Charity) to name three – supporting good guys the lot of them. Even the two crooks I've played – Fagin (Oliver!) and Rooster Hannigan (Annie) - are pretty likeable characters despite their penchant for shady business. But this season I have been cast as Willie Clark in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. It's my first real lead and Willie is unlike anyone I've ever played before.

Burns and Matthau
The Sunshine Boys is about two former vaudeville partners – Al Lewis and Willie Clark – who toured together for 43 years as “Lewis and Clark.” During the last year of their partnership, however, they didn't speak to one another at all except on stage. When Al decides to retire from show business, Willie's career effectively ends as well way before he's ready for it to be over. Eleven years later C.B.S. is trying to get the team together again for a proposed TV special about the history of comedy and sparks fly from there. Willie is an aging recluse who's angry at Al for walking out on him, angry at his nephew and agent, Ben, for his inability to find him work, and angry at being out of the limelight. Essentially, he's just ticked off at the world and hates everything about getting older. In other words, a guy very unlike me.

Koslofsky and Martin
But when I showed up at auditions back in January, Rachel, the director, had Bill Koslofsky, a seasoned veteran of community theater in Barron County, and I read from a couple of pages from the script. Simon's show went from Broadway to Hollywood in relative short-order. It's the 1975 movie-version that put George Burns back on the map, revitalized his career and got him an Oscar to boot. I don't recall ever seeing the movie when I was a kid but the moment I read for Willie and Bill read for Al we had the same idea: we would love to do this but only if we could play opposite one another. A couple of days later it was official. I got the script a week or so later and fully intended to start memorizing lines shortly thereafter but there it sat pretty much unread until the week before practices began in late June.

I even got a chair like Archie's
Before reading the script, what little I had seen on YouTube and at Wikipedia suggested to me that Willie was perhaps slightly irascible, maybe a bit curmudgeony but otherwise a likeable guy. But upon reading the script and watching the 1975 version starring Walter Mathau as “Willie” opposite George Burns' “Al” several times, I didn't appreciate how ill-natured a character Willie is. He's quick-tempered, self-absorbed, profane, prejudiced in an Archie Bunker kinda of way – in other words, a terrible person. Every night that I deliver his lines that were written in the days when political correctness hadn't even been thought of yet, I get reaction from the audience: some gasp and while I can't see anyone's faces because of the stage lights I'm pretty sure there's a lot of eyebrowing-raising going on as in, “for real?” Almost every night of the run so far when I deliver the line about Frito Lays - “Maybe in Mexico that's funny, not here” - on cue someone in the audience clicks their tongue in disdain. (Can I help it if Simon wrote it that way?) But the main thing that Willie does is yell – he yells at the unseen kid at the desk in the lobby of the hotel at which he lives, he yells at his nephew, he yells at Al and he yells at the nurse sent to care for him after his – spoiler alert – heart attack. He's a loud-mouth, cranky old man venting his spleen on anyone who comes within shouting distance. Again, someone very much not like me.

Every night for nearly two hours I yell and carry-on like a lunatic – and Willie is as screwy as they come. (My favorite line in the entire show is delivered by my co-star, Bill. After Willie gloats in what he feels is sweet vindication at receiving a long-awaited apology Al says to him: “What did you get? You got no apology from me which you didn't accept.” Exactly). On the drive home, I'm usually pretty bushed and my vocal chords need a bit of a rest. I'm not an angry person. Sure, like anyone else, I get ticked off from time to time at slow-moving traffic and the dumbness of people in general. But I never realized until playing Willie how exhausting it can be to be so angry – even if you're just pretending! What's more, Willie has got inside my head a bit so that lately I find myself more tense, more frustrated at people, more quick to make judgmental statements about them (in my car, on my lawnmower, even on my early morning runs). Linda thinks some of Willie even leaked into my message last Sunday morning – egad! Get thee behind me, Satan (and Willie, too!)

I talked with my daughter, Emma, about these things yesterday. She's a theater major after all. I asked her how she plays characters that are slightly (or majorly) insidious. Her reply is that you have to be careful. You have to protect yourself. Last fall she played the inner voice that preyed on the fears of a 12-year-old girl. In the week or two before the run of their show, that voice started to prey on her own fears. Through prayer and the Word she shielded her heart but admittedly it wasn't easy.

For all that, it's a lot of laughs...

Frankly, when I started to try Willie on for size I had fun with it. I relished the idea of playing a guy so very unlike me. After all, I get to swear – in public, no less – without any feeling of guilt (it's acting, after all). But night after night after night of it – he's got to me a bit. I'm still glad and honored at the opportunity to do so and I think I've done a good job of it (or so say a lot of people; one lady told me she had seen this at The Guthrie and – her words - “You were as good – if not, better – than that guy's performance”) Maybe part of it is I don't like the fact that there's a bit of Willie inside of me – perhaps a few layers down – who while not as prejudicial as he is is very opinionated about the way certain people choose to live their lives. Usually I prefer to keep those thoughts to myself as no real good can come of expressing them out loud – especially the way he does it. But dang it, sometimes Willie just doesn't know his place.