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Psyched: Cheryl Hines on Acting, Reacting, and the Kennedy Blessing

by David Lefkowitz

(This article was first published in Sept. 2017)

So you’re a talented, attractive young girl growing up in Florida with ambitions to move to California and be a professional actress. We can guess how that scenario plays out 98 percent of the time: part-time jobs, near misses, small parts, and giving up when it’s time to start a family or settle on a fallback career. Then there’s the one percent who make a decent living thanks to union benefits, commercials and voice overs, and the occasional widely seen role. That leaves a last one percent for the few who hit the big time of red carpets, fortune, and fame.

Sliver off a fraction of that last percent, and you have Cheryl Hines, who didn’t start racking up IMDB credits until her late twenties yet now is famous, not only for playing Cheryl David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but for marrying into American royalty. In 2014, the tanned and toned 52-year-old, who knew she wanted to be a professional actress even before she spent her high school years submerged in theater, married Robert F. Kennedy, son of the late Senator Bobby Kennedy and nephew of America’s 35th president, JFK.

Not bad for a woman whose first credit was Swamp Thing (not the movie, the TV series), and whose big break emerged from watching faux husband Larry David create impossible situations and then shovel himself in deeper. When we spoke by phone in early summer, Hines had recently wrapped the ninth season of Curb, as well as the movie sequel, A Bad Moms Christmas (due out Nov. 3). Not surprising for someone who is now ensconced in a political family, Hines answered most questions in a slow, measured cadence as if weighing every phrase. And yet, her laughter punctuated the responses, and the overall impression was of a woman who appreciates her good fortune while understanding that staying lucky takes just as much effort as struggling.

LI WOMAN: Did performing in high school theater bring you to the next level in terms of your acting ambitions?

CHERYL HINES: When I played a student in The Children’s Hour, I learned so much from that experience. Even though I was still in high school, I was working with some of the Florida State University students, and they were so good. Everybody was very professional, and the director was great. He made us show up in character—so I don’t even think he knew my name! But he taught us that you have to show up and know your lines, and come in character, and know how your character looks and walks and talks and reacts to different things, and think about your character when you’re not onstage. It was a great experience for me.

 

And yet, almost conversely to all that preparation, you ended up as a member of the Groundlings improvisation and sketch troupe.

Sure, but the fundamental idea of improv is listening to your scene partner. Because there’s no script, all you can do is listen and respond. That idea carries through in any type of acting because it’s really about you, as a character, comprehending what the other person just said and reacting to it. I think a lot of acting classes stress the text and writing of a scene, which is understandable and important. As an actor, you really have to multi-task: your lines, your blocking, where you’re gonna stand or sit, how you’re gonna use props. But you shouldn’t lose the spontaneity of a moment that could be created. If you’re thinking too much about your next line, are you really listening to what that other person is saying?

 

That approach must have been helpful when you auditioned for Curb. I assume you didn’t get “sides.”

CH: Right, there was no script; it was all improvisation. I had never met Larry or Jeff Garlin or any of the gang before that moment. So that was an experience, and I was auditioning for an HBO project, which was exciting. But at the time, it was only a one-hour special, so I didn’t think it would change my life. I thought it would be great to get that job, but it didn’t feel like testing for a network TV show. So I felt relaxed about it. I just started improvising with Larry, and we really clicked.

 

Did he give you any cues about your character?

I was told that Cheryl has heard it all from him and that she doesn’t take any of his shit! That was all I got. It was just one audition, and my agent called me later that day and told me I got the job. Which never happens in this business!

 

Speaking of jobs, your pre-success labors included waitressing and being a phone operator, but also an enviable personal-assistant gig.

Yes, for Rob Reiner and his wife, Michele. And I had a really good time doing that. It was still stressful, don’t get me wrong (laughs). But they were very supportive of my career. At the time, I was still going through the Groundlings school, and [the Reiners] would come to all of my shows. So I had a really great relationship with them. Even though I was doing seemingly mindless errands—like picking up dry cleaning—they understood that I was working to become an actress. And that meant a lot to me.

 

Rob Reiner has produced and directed his share of movies and TV shows. How did you stop yourself from saying, “Um, can you throw me a bone, please?”

(laughs) The temptation is great. But I also knew when I took the job that that was not going to be part of the dynamic. Everyone in Los Angeles is an actor or writer, so in order to have a job where you’re working with somebody who is already established in the business, you must understand the boundaries, or you’ll always be frustrated. With any job, if you do it with integrity, the people around you will see who you are and what your character is made of.

These days, I’m friends with Rob and Michele, and we go out to dinner. We’ve become more like peers.

 

And if you hadn’t made it as an actress, you might have been . . .?

A psychologist. I really am interested in people and how they think and adjust to the complications of life.

 

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that a psychology course you took in high school really affected you—especially in terms of ruminating on human mortality.

Part of the course was a death-and-dying seminar. It struck me then that death is so much a normal part of our existence and our journey, but for some reason, our society doesn’t seem to be open about it. I thought that was very interesting. It sounds dramatic to say but, of course, we are all gonna die. Yet it always seems shocking when someone we know passes. I thought, at the time, maybe there’s a better way for us to approach all this—but it was never in a goth kind of way or “life is so hard and I’m a tortured soul.” It’s more that this is part of life and everyone’s journey, so why don’t we explore it?

 

Did that attitude help your grieving process when your father died a few years ago?

I think it did. I tried to focus on the gift that I got to experience with my father in his life and the idea that I was fortunate to have him for fifty years. This was instead of focusing on him not being here anymore. Now, it’s certainly easier to say that than to make yourself feel that way—but I do try to think of life and death that way. We are lucky to have each other, and we don’t know how long we’re gonna have them in our life, so be grateful that they were here and sad because you lose them.

 

Well, after that loss and the divorce from your ex, producer Paul Young, you certainly gained a family—including a husband and six stepchildren to go with your own daughter. What does it mean to be a Kennedy?

Ummm . . . being a Kennedy is . . . (laughs) It’s normal and it’s extraordinary at the same time. It’s normal in that I married a great guy who has an amazing family and, at the same time, everybody has their struggles. (long pause)

 

I guess you have to weigh your words carefully.

I do, I really do! When it comes to the Kennedys, sometimes it’s all larger than life. A lot of people know who they are.

 

Aren’t you used to recognition yourself?

It was probably easier for me to adjust to being in the spotlight than someone who had never been recognized out in public before. Still, in a normal week, I’m playing Trivial Pursuit with my family, and the answer is: my husband’s uncle. So that gets weird! Every week there is something surreal.

 

So despite the obvious, what made Robert F. Kennedy Jr. the man you wanted to marry?

Bobby is one of the smartest, most intelligent people I’ve ever met. He’s funny—although I don’t think his public persona shows that because he talks about serious subjects a lot. I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about why you fall in love with someone. I have a good time with him, and he inspires me to be a better person. I always joke that my biggest fear is that we’ll be traveling in a Third World country, my appendix will burst, and he will remove it—because he’s very good at survival-type skills.

 

So did you learn anything about real marriage from your David marriage?

That’s a good question! I think the big idea of marriage is to pick and choose your battles. So, yes, I probably have learned to be more tolerant in my real marriage from being married to Larry David on screen. (giggles)

 

Do you foresee any of the kids going into politics?

I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s difficult to know now how they’re all going to shape into adults and what their aspirations may be. But they’re all very intelligent, and, certainly, politics is a part of their lifestyle. Almost all of our kids have volunteered in humanitarian ways, and they’re aware of civil justice and the fight for it. I think most kids aren’t really exposed to that sort of thing when they’re 13, 15, 18, so that gives ours a different awareness of the inner workings of policies maybe. Probably. But will they be passionate about it as adults? I don’t know.

 

Do you see your celebrity and family status as a platform to espouse your own political views? That’s a pretty formidable soapbox.

I’m definitely more aware of how my political views might be interpreted because I, personally, am in the public eye. Most of the time, though, I really don’t want to mix my political feelings with my acting career. They’re separate for me.

 

Okay, but say something you believed in was being threatened under the current administration. For example, Planned Parenthood?

I am pro-Planned Parenthood. And I would feel inspired to fight just as a citizen, as a mom, as a person who gets to vote in the United States. Yes, it’s an advantage if more people pay attention because I have a different platform. But at the same time, I understand that everyone has the choice to listen to the person they want to listen to and make their own decision.

 

Speaking of politics, this morning, President Trump inflamed women—and everyone, really—with his mockery of MSNBC personality Mika Brzezinski for having a facelift. For actresses, plastic surgery can be an especially fraught topic. As someone who works out three times a week and is also active in yoga and outdoor activities, where do you stand on nipping and tucking?

I’m not here to judge what someone does to make herself feel or look better. I know people who say, “Don’t do it! I would never do it!” And those people are 25! Meanwhile, the Kardashians have changed the world of plastic surgery to where they’ve made it almost chic. That’s strange, and I don’t know how much I like that trend. But I don’t care. I’m not gonna worry about it. People should do whatever they want.

 

No question, Curb is your best-known credit, alongside the sweet movie Waitress, and three seasons of the network sitcom Suburgatory. Is there a project you’re proud of that hasn’t gotten similar attention but you wish viewers would seek out?

There’s a quirky film called Bart Got a Room. William H. Macy plays my ex-husband in it, and it’s such an interesting, funny movie. We look ridiculous in it but we’re playing versions of real people.

 

Speaking of interesting and funny, you also got to work with the late Robin Williams on the 2006 comedy, RV. Any memories?

Robin was a very intelligent, creative, magnetic soul. And he really appreciated people. When he’d walk down the street and somebody would come up to him, he would act like that was the first time anybody had asked him for his autograph. He was kind to them because he knew that it was important to them at that moment. That’s who Robin was. He appreciated people and was just a very generous soul.

*

HINES IN A FEW LINES

Recent books you’ve read?

This circles back to death and dying again, but Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey (Marie Mutsuki Mockett). Also, I just started re-reading Nick Hornby’s How to be Good. It’s one of my favorite books.

What’s on your iPod?

I listen to a lot of hip-hop—just to work out to, and my daughter likes it. I like Beyoncé—who doesn’t? Also, Chance the Rapper because it’s my daughter’s type of music, and we do a lot together.

Favorite vacation spot?

I really liked the Turks and Caicos when I went there. The water was so beautiful, warm, and clear. I’d like to go back there.

Favorite actor?

Mary Tyler Moore really influenced me. She was always so funny and authentic. That really inspired me to want to be like her.

TV shows you watch for fun?
Ray Donovan, Veep, and, well, I don’t like to talk about it openly, but I really love Dancing with the Stars. My daughter laughs at me because I cry at every episode because they’re trying so hard.

Would you ever be on it?

That’s a good question. It certainly sounds fun to me. But my acting career might get in the way.

Favorite Meal?

On the perfect night, I would have a California roll and a spicy edamame. Not exciting, but it’s the truth. I’m on the verge of being a vegetarian, but I still like bacon. So if I’m having a salad, I like bacon bits. I don’t know what that says about me, my dedication, or my personality, but I’m sure it’s not good!

*

BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. To read bunches of his plays, articles, and songs, visit https://davelefkowitzwriting.wordpress.com/

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A Band, A Butterfly, and a Bob: Broadway Greets the Autumn

by david lefkowitz

(This article is scheduled for publication in Long Island Pulse, Sept. 2017)

 

Last spring, as Tony voters for best musical pitted Come from Away vs. Dear Evan Hansen, most voters for off-Broadway awards had a simpler time of it: they chose The Band’s Visit. A small-scale tuner that debuted for two months at the Atlantic Theater Company, The Band’s Visit racked up best musical plaudits from the Outer Critics Circle, OBIEs, Lortels, and New York Drama Critics Circle.

Based on a gentle 2007 film about a group of Egyptian musicians accidentally stranded amongst wary Israelis in the Negev desert, Visit would seem to be an odd choice for musical adaptation—especially by the composer of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty. But David Yazbek and playwright Itamar Moses apparently found the perfect tone for a tuner that Hollywood Reporter theater critic Frank Scheck called a “delicately wistful and poignant chamber piece” that “could easily find receptive audiences in a smaller Broadway house.” Producers listened—The Band’s Visit, directed by David Cromer, will open Nov. 9 at the not-so-small Barrymore Theater. With stars Katrina Lenk and “Monk” maestro Tony Shalhoub expected to reprise their roles, Visit is the most strongly anticipated show of a relatively quiet fall Broadway season, but that doesn’t mean it’s alone.

Playgoers have to be curious about the upcoming revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning M. Butterfly (opening Oct. 7) because it’ll be staged by Julie Taymor in her first rialto assignment since Spider-Man—and third since a little show called The Lion King. No doubt the design will be captivating, as it promises to be in Farinelli and the King, an English drama that will bring Oscar and Tony-winner Mark Rylance back to Broadway in December. Like 2014’s celebrated Richard III and Twelfth Night, this new play—by Rylance’s wife, Claire van Kampen—will feature mostly natural lighting and music played on period instruments. The plot? Rylance plays an insomniac king who can fall asleep only when sung to by his favorite castrato. I think we can all relate to that.

Speaking of singing, one of the lovelier musicals of the 1990s was Ahrens and Flaherty’s Once on this Island, a bittersweet Caribbean fairytale that gets its first Broadway revival Dec. 3 at Circle in the Square. Michael Arden, who staged Deaf West Theater’s stunning Spring Awakening two years ago, will helm this tuner by the composers of Ragtime and Anastasia.

Shows coming in more under the radar include an English import, The Children, about nuclear engineers; Junk, about nasty capitalists; and J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, about an American family on the downslide. So while next spring promises such mega-events as Harry Potter and Frozen, autumn won’t be entirely without wow factors. After all, Dec. 4 marks the Broadway debut of a certain porous ocean dweller who lives in a pineapple under the sea. Let’s see Bette Midler do that.

*

BYLINE:
David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio, co-publishes Performing Arts Insider, and founded TotalTheater.com. His comedy, Blind Date, recently played in Chennai, India.

 

– 30 –

 

 

THEATER REVIEW INDEX

THEATER REVIEWS

FISH IN THE DARK (Broadway, July 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cv

THE GIN GAME (Broadway, Dec. 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-c3

HAND TO GOD (Broadway, July 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cv

IF YOU EVER LEAVE ME, I’M GOING WITH YOU (Broadway, Sept. 2001)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cI

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG (Broadway, July 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-9X

THAT PHYSICS SHOW (off-Broadway, July 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bJ

 REVIEWED: The Play that Goes Wrong, Lyceum Theater, Broadway, 2017.

Wrong Turn

Imagine popping a dvd into your player on movie night, skipping the film entirely, and going straight to the blooper reel. Now imagine that the collection of groaners and gaffes runs longer than the actual movie they’re from. Finally, imagine that the gag reel’s vignettes repeat variations on the same mistake a dozen times over. The result would be about 15 minutes of fun, half an hour of mild amusement, and then a dvd swap for something with an actual story, interesting characters, and more to it than self-congratulatory zaniness.

Such is the fate of The Play that Goes Wrong, a farcical English import now cavorting at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. Winner of London’s 2015 Olivier Award for best new comedy, the show has been compared to the redoubtable Noises Off in that both works follow the travails of desperate actors muddling through a performance despite every possible mishap befalling them. In the latter, more complex play, we watch calamities occurring both onstage and behind the scenes and from dress rehearsal through near-closing night. In The Play that Goes Wrong, we follow a single performance, by the “Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society,” in which missed cues and mispronounced words are the least of the poor thespians’ problems.

Cute laughs occur even before the start of the play proper, as an audience member is drafted to hold up a continually dropping piece of the set. Then out come lead actor Chris (Henry Shields, who is blessed with a vocal similarity to John Cleese) to introduce the “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” Some of the night’s best laughs occur during his monologue, as he admits that the theater company’s poverty has forced the group to scale down its productions of “Cat” and “The Lion and the Wardrobe.”

So far so good, and it is initially fun to see these youthful Brits scampering about playing amateurs trying to cope with mislaid props, a distracted sound designer (Rob Falconer), and virtually everything and everyone being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To be sure, cleverness is abundant here, but long before the end of its two hours’ traffic, Play’s pleasures diminish, even though the best sightgag—an upstairs floor tilting inexorably towards collapse (with kudos to set designer Nigel Hook)—is saved for the second act.

I may well be in the minority in dismissing the piece; many audience members have a howling good time, and critics both in New York and across the pond have found much to love in Mischief Theatre Company’s mischief. Nevertheless, I tired of the repetitiveness, the pointless intrigues, the screeching. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many real plays go wrong, but after awhile, I just wanted to be the Dave that Goes Home.

*************************

NOTES & BACKSTORY:

This review was published in the July-August 2017 issue of Long Island Pulse magazine: http://lipulse.com/2017/07/06/the-play-that-goes-wrong-review/

SOMETIMES A GRAIN OF SAND: Olivia Newton-John Reflects on Glory and Grief

by David Lefkowitz

(Note: this article was first published in July 2017)

“I’m waking up this morning
Grateful for the gift of one more day
The light of hope is dawning
It fills my heart and lifts my fears away.
Live on, live on.”
– “Live On” (Olivia Newton John)

When songstress Olivia Newton-John comes to mind, we tend not to think of words like grief or pain or endurance. After all, the English-born, Aussie-raised, American-minted beauty came on the music scene nearly fifty years ago with the looks of a Cover Girl model, the persona of the ultimate girl next door, and a voice any girl group would covet. From 1971, when her take on Bob Dylan’s “If not for You” zoomed up the pop and adult contemporary charts, through the early 1980s, when music critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Any heterosexual man who can deny `Physical,’ with its detonating blonde bombshell… needs his monkey-gland shot,” Newton-John led the kind of stars-aligned life of which mere mortals can only dream.

But the actress-singer is 68 now, and a lot can happen when you live long past your thirties. She married actor Matt Lattanzi, but they divorced after only nine years. Their daughter, Chloe, now 31, struggled with anorexia, drug-and-alcohol abuse, and a seeming addiction to plastic surgery. And though Newton-John has been happily married to businessman John Easterling since 2008, her previous partner, John McDermott, disappeared after a fishing trip and has been presumed dead—though reports that he faked his own demise and has been living in Mexico continue to surface. Oh, and let’s not forget The Big C. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, Newton-John underwent chemotherapy and a partial mastectomy. After a decade and a half of being cancer-free, John learned in May that the disease had reappeared. She canceled a planned tour and instead will undergo radiation and “natural wellness therapies.” The news is especially sad because four years ago, her sister Rona succumbed to an aggressive brain tumor.

That last tragedy hit the singer especially hard. “I will miss her forever,” Newton-John then wrote on her Facebook page, “my beautiful, smart, talented, funny, brave sister.” At the time, Olivia was working on a Christmas album, which helped lift her spirits, but she eventually felt the need to reach deeper. The result is her latest musical project, “Liv On” (sic), a collaboration between her, veteran country tunesmith Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Canadian songwriter Amy Sky. All three turned to music as a way of understanding and coping with loss.

In a phone conversation with Newton-John (that occurred before her recent diagnosis), the new album often came to the fore, but she was also willing to share her thoughts about the many events of her life—good and bad—that brought her to this point. We began, of course, with music.

Olivia Newton-John: I’ve always found that music has been my way of healing. So I was writing a song for Rona and about her. I called Amy Sky to ask if she’d help me finish it. We talked about her just losing her mother the year before, and we realized that there really wasn’t music specifically for people going through loss and grief. So I said, “How would you feel about doing an album of these songs?” We talked about it and decided to invite Beth Nielsen Chapman, too. She’s a longtime friend of mine and fellow cancer “thriver.” Also, she was doing quite a lot of music at that time for people who were grieving. (I didn’t even know that; it just happened to be wonderful timing.) She wanted to join us on the record because she had lost her husband, 14 years before, to cancer, and wrote a beautiful, beautiful song called, “Sand and Water” that’s become kind of a classic. Elton John has sung it many times.

“All alone, I heal this heart of sorrow
All alone, I raise this child
Flesh and bone, he’s just
Bursting towards tomorrow
And his laughter fills my world, and wears your smile.”
– “Sand and Water” (Beth Nielsen Chapman)

So we all got together on three occasions and wrote new songs in my kitchen. And we talked about the different stages of grief. Grief is not something discussed in our society very much, but everybody goes through it at some point. We lose a relative or a friend or a pet (which has always been devastating to me). Or we move or we lose a friend or our circumstances change. There’s lots of areas of grief in life. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to write some songs that address those things?” So that’s how the album was born, and we’ve been touring it.

Was it cathartic to sing these songs in public and then hear audience members offer their personal experiences with loss?
Yes, of course. That was our intention making it: to bring some people relief and let them know they’re not alone. That song, “Live On,” for instance. I wrote it for my sister and as an inspirational song for my cancer-wellness and research center in Melbourne, Australia. When we did the tour, no one had heard these songs, so it was incredible to hear the wonderful reactions. We also did a Q&A. We didn’t know how that would go, but people raised their hands and wanted to tell us about what they’d gone through. They wanted to share. That’s really healing: when people can share their feelings and know they’re not alone.

Your sister’s death was tragic but a fairly common life experience. Was the grieving process different when you didn’t actually know what happened to John McDermott?
I don’t really like to discuss that because it’s very personal to me. But grief never goes away. We wrote a song on our album called “Stone in My Pocket.” It says that with grief—sometimes you carry it around like a boulder, sometimes it feels like a rock, sometimes it feels like a pebble, and sometimes a grain of sand. But grief is always there, and you learn to deal with it and live with it. All the different stages, and all the different people that you’ve lost are always part of that. Not to be too specific, but I’ve had a lot of grief in my life—as most people have.

Well, on the positive side, between new music, touring, and your philanthropic endeavors, you seem incredibly busy and healthy for someone nearing 70. Do you see that pace continuing for another 10, 20 years?

(laughs heartily) I like your optimism! But I’m very grateful to be here, and I think age is how you feel and not the number you put on it. And music is eternal, so as long as I feel like I wanna sing, and people still show up, I’ll do it. I have a wonderful marriage with a lovely home and animals and things, so I’d like to spend more time at home. But I really enjoy singing, and I get pleasure out of it and give pleasure to the audiences. So I’ll do it as long as it feels right, and when it doesn’t, I won’t.

And having beaten cancer 25 years ago, you must be pretty proactive about your health and diet?
My husband is an expert on homeopathics, so I take a lot of Amazonian herbs. John also has a dear friend who runs a clinic where I do DNA tests twice a year, just checking out my body. I also do a blood test about once a year—things like that. I try to keep my immune system strong, so that even with all the hard work that I do, I stay very healthy.

Does that include avoiding red meat and other “bad” foods?
I’m not totally vegetarian; I go in and out of that. My daughter is a vegan, but my body sometimes craves meat. I’ll go through phases where I don’t eat any, and then my body tells me I need it, so I will eat some. I eat very healthily, but I also enjoy myself. I believe that you have to have fun, and have a cookie or dark chocolate (which is healthy anyway!). Luckily, my indulgences are usually things that are fairly healthy. My mother was German, and she would feed us potatoes with the skins on and steamed vegetables. When I was a young girl, I’d say, “Oh, mom. This is so boring!” But now I’m very grateful to her for teaching me to eat well.

What about exercise?
I do what I can, though I’m often traveling. Plus my show is actually quite “physical”—not to be punny there. I do like to take walks, hike, play with my animals. I have a gym at home, so I’ll do that when I can. I have my own little workout that I put together, and I keep pretty fit. Still, I’d like to get into a yoga class, and I even used to do the hot yoga years ago, but I’m never home long enough to get into a routine. So I do yoga stretches that are very important for the spine as you get older.

It sounds like your health consciousness has been a long-term thing, even though you achieved success in the 1970s-80s, an era of excesses that were the opposite of healthy.
I stayed totally away from that. I went to Studio 54 a few times, and I used to go to clubs, but drugs? I never saw them. I think you find things only if you’re interested in them, and I wasn’t interested. I really wasn’t aware of it.

So maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one suggestion you might give an up-and-comer entering the music business. What are some others?
Finding your own style and not copying anybody else. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful producer and songwriter, John Farrar, who did most of my production. Also, finding great songs is so important. I was very lucky in my career to have John and Steve Kipner and Peter Allen. All Australians writing the majority of my hit songs!

“You never chase your dreams, they find you
Love, I know you; if you need love, it finds you, too
Don’t stop believin’, you’ll get by
Bad days, bad days will hurry by.”
– “Don’t Stop Believin’” (John Farrar)

It’s not as if you faced no setbacks early on. Just before you hit it big, you were part of a Monkees-like group that made one weird movie, Toomorrow, and then disbanded. Since you were only 22 then, was it a devastating blow, or did you simply move onward and upward without much regret?
Well, the group was me and three boys—an Englishman and two Americans—all of us put together by Don Kirshner, who put the Monkees together, and Harry Saltzman, who did the James Bond movies. It sounded great, and we made a movie, and of course it’s disappointing when you have things that don’t work, but that’s the only way you grow. But I was never gonna give up. Of course not! I was still singing and performing. All failures are disappointing for everybody, but you just keep going. One of the songs I do in my show is, “Not Gonna Give in to It.” You learn from a mistake, and you realize later that it was a big lesson.

Do you have any thoughts on the current pop music scene? Any artists who impress you?
I love Adele, Rihanna, Pink. I love a lot of people! (laughs) I was watching the [Grammy salute to the] Bee Gees special the other night, and everybody up there was so gifted. There have always been wonderful artists every era that I’ve witnessed. And now it gets more and more interesting and diverse as different kinds of music integrate together.

You’ve released nearly a dozen albums since 1990, though casual fans might still know only your work from the two prior decades. Are there more recent songs you wish were as widely known as the early hits?
Gosh. I’ve recorded so many songs, but I probably would say songs from the “Liv On” record because it’s the most current thing I’m doing. And the songs “Live On” and “Stone in My Pocket” would be the ones I’d want people to hear now because they’re where I’m at in my music at the moment.

“In every heart of those we touch
In every dream that means so much
Yes, I believe that all of us live on.”
– “Live On” (Olivia Newton-John)

SIDEBAR

OLIVIA ON THE CLASSICS

Let Me Be There
We did that record in England, I think. It was producer Bruce Welch’s idea to put that bass voice on there, which made it very original and clever. It’s a great song, and it started my career in country music—when I wasn’t even aware it was a separate category!

I Honestly Love You
A magnificent, beautiful love song that I’m lucky to still be singing.

Summer Nights
I just think of fun. Fun days filming with the girls. It was great.

Physical
That’s a song I put out and then got panicked because I thought I’d gone too far. But then it was too late—it went to number one so quickly! I tried to counteract it because I thought maybe it was a little too raunchy for me. I said to my manager then, “We need to do a video and try and make it more about exercise!” And that took it to even greater heights, so it kind of makes me laugh now.

Have You Never Been Mellow
That’s a John Farrar song. Classic, beautiful lyric, beautiful melody. I love singing that and still do it in my show.

Live On
A positive reinforcement of life.

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BYLINE:
David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. His short comedy, Blind Date, recently played at the Alliance Francaise in Chennai, India.

PLAY: Uphill

UPHILL

(c)2017 David Lefkowitz

totalpost_at_totaltheater.com

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UPHILL

TIME & PLACE feel modern but have no fixed year or location. In fact, UPHILL may be played 2on an empty stage.

NOTES: One actor plays Sisyphus throughout, whereas two or three different actors may play the reporter.

 

CHARACTERS

Sisyphus – An exceptional athlete

Reporter – An unexceptional journalist

 

SCENE I

Lights go up on SISYPHUS, a virile athlete in his thirties, wearing sports gear, stretching, and doing conditioning exercises. After a few moments, the REPORTER, an eager newbie in his 20s, enters. notebook and pen in hand.  He watches for a bit and starts making notes.

Sisyphus finishes one round of exercises and takes some breaths.

SISYPHUS
You press?

REPORTER
Yes, sir. The Courier.

SISYPHUS
Courier, huh? What happened to Katsaros?

REPORTER
Oh, he retired last year.

SISYPHUS
Did he? Good. They should have put him out to pasture long ago.

REPORTER
He was pretty hard on you.

SISYPHUS
It was my first year. First time out of the box. This was three years ago. And what does he write?

REPORTER
I think it was —

SISYPHUS
This no-talent hack writes, “In fine, fit fettle though he be. . .”

REPORTER
I know. He was kind of addicted to alliteration.

SISYPHUS
“In fine, fit fettle though he be, Sisyphus, a newcomer to the grand Greek tradition of Boulder Escalation, strikes me as having the muscles but not the mettle to get the job done.” The muscles but not the mettle.

REPORTER
I read that. For background.

SISYPHUS
Where did he get the nerve? The hubris to pronounce me unfit at my very first meet.

REPORTER
He could be harsh. But hey, that year, you made it about halfway.

SISYPHUS
I know I did. I know exactly what I did. I was trying to push a boulder up and up and up the hill, and the whole time, in my mind, It’s Katsaros says this, Katsaros says that. I’m a blowhard, I’m a braggart, I’m inadequate because i have the muscles but not the mettle.

REPORTER
Right, but you came back the next year and still didn’t quite —

SISYPHUS
I made it up much higher. But I had blister on my hand, and I just couldn’t endure —

REPORTER
I know. I read all the stories. Last year, too. You got within twenty meters.

SISYPHUS
Achh, I don’t know what that was. Some jinx. Some trick of the wind.

REPORTER
May I quote you on that?

SISYPHUS
You can quote me saying that this year, I am better, stronger, mentally ready. Anyone betting against me this year will be crying for mercy at Mount Olympus.

REPORTER
Have you changed your strategy?

SISYPHUS
I have. Instead of pushing from the center of my chest, I’m going to use my right shoulder. It’ll give me much more torque and a way to get under the last third of boulder.

REPORTER
(reading from his notebook) Would you say that the gods are in your favor today?

SISYPHUS
I never second guess the gods. The temperature’s cool, my body’s strong, and I have the will.

(sound of a bell ringing, off. Sisyphus readies to exit)

Time for me to prove Katsaros wrong. Good to meet you. Hey, am I your first story?

REPORTER
I’ve written a couple of calendar things, but you’re my first big scoop.

SISYPHUS
Congrats! Watch me make you famous.

REPORTER
Ha! I’ll settle for turning in my copy and getting paid. I’ll leave you the glory.

SISYPHUS
Suit yourself. Anyway… (motions with his thumb that he’s going)

REPORTER
Good luck to you.

SISYPHUS
Won’t need it. It’s going to happen.

(Sisyphus exits to begin the competition.
We now hear the sound of a stadium crowd cheering in anticipation.
The Reporter moves to the edge of the stage and cranes his neck to watch.
The crowd cheers and cheers and then…
awwww…disappointment.

The reporter clucks, then starts writing in his journal as he exits.)


SCENE II

(Lights signal a time shift.
After a moment, enter Sisyphus. He wears a different athletic outfit but hasn’t aged.
He begins his exercises.
Soon the reporter returns. He is now noticeably older, perhaps with a short beard.)

SISYPHUS
(after a beat) You again, huh?

REPORTER
Me always.

SISYPHUS
How long have you been on this beat now?

REPORTER
Twenty-one years.

SISYPHUS
And they punish you with me?

REPORTER
Ha! Well, At least I don’t have to cover discus or javelin. Plus, they figure I’ve known you so long, there’s a human interest angle even in that.

SISYPHUS
I remember your first story about me. It was the year my shoulder went out.

REPORTER
I know.  Bad break.

SISYPHUS
I eased up just a little to take a breath, and the rock slammed straight into my upper arm.

REPORTER
Amazing that you made it back next year.

SISYPHUS
I don’t quit. Sisyphus Never Quits.

REPORTER
Ha, that was one of my headlines.

SISYPHUS
I know. I cut it out and posted it in my weight room over the barbells.

REPORTER
Wow. Thanks. Not used to athletes using ME for inspiration.

SISYPHUS
Well, you’re not like that jerk, Katsaros.

REPORTER
Katsaros, I remember him: the guy I took over for. Gods, was it really two decades ago? I feel so old.

SISYPHUS
You should get some exercise Keeps you in fine, fit fettle.

REPORTER & SISYPHUS
(laughing) Katsaros!

REPORTER
You haven’t aged a day, though.

SISYPHUS
(points to his body) Not out here. (then his head) In here, though. I’ve aged plenty.

REPORTER
People can be cruel.

SISYPHUS
Sometimes I don’t blame them. Twenty-three years you try and and try and try.

REPORTER
And you get so close. Sometimes.

SISYPHUS
Last year. A hair’s breadth from the top. (enraged) Gaah!

REPORTER
It was a freak accident. A bird startled you.

SISYPHUS
This black wing swept across my eyes.

REPORTER
And down you went.

SISYPHUS
People mocked and called me “birdbrain.” “Failures of a feather fall together.”

REPORTER
That wasn’t my headline.

SISYPHUS
I know. You’ve always given me a fair shake. (laughs) You may be my only fan.

REPORTER
Ehh.. I can’t say I’m a fan. Objectivity and all that. Let’s just say, if you win —

SISYPHUS
WHEN I win.

REPORTER
When you make it happen, I won’t begrudge you the happiest celebration this side of Olympus. I’ll even raise the first toast.

SISYPHUS
Well, then get the wine ready, because it’s today. I feel it.

REPORTER
(back to note-taking mode) What’s special about today? New technique? Some interesting wrinkle?

SISYPHUS
Shh. It’s a secret. Every year I tell you my strategy. This year, I keep mum. Just for me.

(A bell rings, off)

Destiny calls.

REPORTER
Do your best. Hey, I never got to ask: when you win, what then? What will you do?

SISYPHUS
No idea. (laughs) Take up discus.

REPORTER
Or javelin.

SISYPHUS
Or write about sports for a newspaper.

REPORTER
Ha, tell me you won’t sink that low!

SISYPHUS
Fair enough. Maybe I’ll just keep pushing a rock up a hill.

REPORTER
And I’ll keep pushing a thousand words onto a piece of paper. Not so different.

SISYPHUS
At least you finish your column.

(beat)

REPORTER
Good luck.

(They shake hands. Sisyphus exits.
The reporter stands at the edge of the stage to watch. There is crowd noise, though not as loud and boisterous as in the first scene.
The Reporter gazes hopefully towards the event. Then, as ever, disappointment.
The reporter sighs and takes a moment before starting to write his column. He exits writing.)

 
SCENE III

(Lights signal another time shift. Sisyphus returns once more, again in a different
outfit but still looking youthful. He exercises.
Enter the Reporter, slowly and with a cane. He has a white beard now. He watches and starts to remove a pen and notebook from his pocket, but he’s shaky.
Sisyphus stops his exercises to steady the Reporter and help him.)

REPORTER
Thanks.

SISYPHUS
It’s good to see you, Theo.

REPORTER
You, too, champ.

SISYPHUS
How long has it been now?

REPORTER
Since I started? Forty years.

SISYPHUS
Has it really?

REPORTER
And I’ve never missed a meet.

SISYPHUS
Ha, there are a few times I wished you’d missed. Almost every time.

REPORTER
The last couple, you came so close. Like two years ago, I thought you had it, I really did.

SISYPHUS
It grazed the top. Actually touched the apex, but then the gravel slipped under it. I almost cried. Don’t write that.

REPORTER
What can I write?

SISYPHUS
Write that Sisyphus, after forty years of attempts and thrilling near misses, finally achieved perfection. He pushed the rock to the top of the mountain. He did not waver. He did not doubt. He did not fail.

REPORTER
You believe this is your time?

SISYPHUS
I know it. I have been righteous and careful and —

REPORTER
Do you think the gods owe you? After all this time, will they work for you instead of against you?

SISYPHUS
You know I can’t — won’t — answer that.

REPORTER
Well, do you have a specific technique this year that —

SISYPHUS
Yes. Instead of putting the weight front and center, I’ll be angling towards my left
shoulder. That’ll give me more mobility.

REPORTER
But back when you used your right shoulder —

SISYPHUS
That was years ago. I was a kid. I mean, are you writing the same things now that you were decades ago?

REPORTER
Kind of.

SISYPHUS
Well, that’s a shame. Switch it up a little, why dont’cha?

REPORTER
As a matter of fact —

SISYPHUS
Life’s too short to be doing the same things over and over again the same way.

REPORTER
(chuckles) I guess it is. Still, I’m gonna miss this.

SISYPHUS
(stretching) Who wouldn’t miss this? The fresh air, the crowd, the sport. Admit it, you love it as much as i do. And that moment when I get that rock way up on that —

REPORTER
This is my last year.

SISYPHUS
— hill and stand there… What?

REPORTER
I’m retiring.

SISYPHUS
Are you okay, buddy? You’re not —

REPORTER
No, I’m fine. It’s just time.

SISYPHUS
(shaken but shaking it off) Well, then you picked the best time to do it because this is it.

(bell rings, off)

You will have the best day and the biggest story and the finest memory of your life.
Something to tell your grandkids: “I followed this athlete year after year. And each time he came this close to godlike. Until one day, that last day. The world shook. And your grandpa Theo was there.”

REPORTER
(after a pause, holds out his hand) It’s been a pleasure. And an honor.

SISYPHUS
(shaking the Reporter’s hand) Thank you. Really, thank you. And now…onward.

(Sisyphus exits.
The Reporter hobbles to the edge of the stage.
We hear some crowd noise, faint and disinterested.
The Reporter cranes his neck to see)

REPORTER
Come on. You can do this. Get your shoulder in. That’s it!  That’s it! Just a bit more! You’ve got it! YOU’VE GOT IT! COME ON —

(An “aww” and mocking laughter from the small crowd.
The Reporter starts to write but stops…to begin sobbing.
Slowly he recovers, then writes, then reads aloud:)

“Once again, victory was in the mighty grasp of Sisyphus, and once again, the sublime was snatched from him in the final seconds. Was it fate? A miscalculation? A cruel joke on a good man? Or was it the gods giving us one more reprieve because they know that as thrilling as victory might have seemed today, after all these tries, it will be even more stunning next year. This reporter has a good feeling about that. Just wait and see. Next year.

(The Reporter lowers his notebook and gazes off towards the hill. Lights slowly down.)

END OF PLAY

In Bloom: Christopher Hackert Gets his Theatrical Wish

by david lefkowitz

(This article was published by Long Island Pulse in May 2017: http://lipulse.com/2017/05/24/christopher-hackert-moonlighting/)

 

Someone who gives floral arrangements names like, “Out of the Woods,” “Bursting with Glee!”, and “High Drama Roses” has an obvious theatrical streak, but for Christopher Hackert, true creativity begins after the doors to East Meadow Florist are locked for the night.  That’s when he ceases to be Patch magazine’s “Best Florist in East Meadow” and morphs into a dramatist with a growing list of local credits.

He’s a longstanding Playwright in Residence for the South Shore Theater Experience, and this month, and his latest comedy, The Texas Palace Taco Incident, arrives there in June. “It’s very out there,” laughed artistic director Deborah Cascio Plezia, who will stage the show. “It’s a sci-fi farce that starts at home and literally ends up at the taco palace.”

Hackert’s last comedy, Walter’s Wish, played at SSTE as well as at Northport’s Bare Bones Theater Company. That piece told of a husband and father who wants nothing more, on his 39th birthday, than to make his family disappear.  Then a genie appears.

For Hackert, Walter’s Wish was a departure because much of it is told in monologues.  When writing it, the scribe was unsure if it was even funny, but after seeing audience reaction to the world premiere staged at South Shore, Hackert took heart: “apparently, it’s pretty hilarious.”  In fact, the only revision he’s done to the play was one suggested by its SSTE director: moving the first scene of the second act to the end of the first. “It was something I’d thought about when I wrote it,” Hackert said. “So when I saw it, I said, `Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.’”

“The play happened very serendipitously,” he continued, “as do most of my plays. I start by writing the name of a character and a line of dialogue.  I answer with another name and another line.  Then I keep writing to see if it goes anywhere.  This one went somewhere very unexpected.  Not that it’s a `serious’ or `meaningful’ play because I’m the least serious, most shallow person you might meet!”

He’s also one of the most committed. As SSTE’s playwright in residence, he writes one full-length show plus a one-act each year. Somehow, all this activity doesn’t conflict with Hackert’s sensible day job, which he has held for 35 years. “My older brother worked for the original family of East Meadow Florist. Then I got a job here and eventually bought it from the son when he was ready to give it up.” Hackert has owned the business for two decades and often spends seven days a week at the shop. Nevertheless, over the past two years, for South Shore, he played the lead in 2015’s Anybody for Murder and penned the original comedies Ready or Not and `Til My Dying Day; while for Bare Bones, he starred in The Pavilion and Scapino, and wrote the one-act Don’t Forget to Write.

Asked how he finds the time for theater when he dwells amongst the thorns, Hackert, who has enjoyed writing since he was a child and readily admits his shows can be “a little silly or sitcom-y,” replied, “Even though I have to be here physically to answer the phones and take care of customers—since I own the place, when there’s downtime, I do whatever I want. Still, I tend to write better when I write under pressure and last-minute. So when I have false starts, I can pick them up and see if they mean anything or I’m always willing to throw them away and start anew.”

Walter’s Wish ran March 2-12, 2017 at Bare Bones Theater, 57 Main Street, Northport. (800) 838-3006, barebonestheater.com.

BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio, co-publishes Performing Arts Insider, and founded TotalTheater.com. His award-winning solo comedy, The Miracle of Long Johns (miracleoflongjohns.com), has played engagements in Colorado and New York City.

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NOTES & BACKSTORY:

This piece was written for Long Island Pulse early in 2017 and scheduled to run that March, when Walter’s Wish was opening. The magazine delayed the story’s publication, however, so by the time it ran, it had to be significantly revised to put Walter in the past and Texas Tacos on the front burner. The version posted here is expanded from what was actually published in Pulse’s May 2017 issue.