My big Broadway break

By Jennifer Brookins

tharon ann

I’m in New York trying hard to find work in the theatre, and coming up against a brick wall wherever I go because my Hollywood credits mean zilch in this town. So what’s the first job I get? I finally get a chance to perform comedy on a DuPont Show of the Month starring Art Carney, Walter Matthau, Frank Gorshin, Jonathan Winters, and yours truly playing the female lead. But the most difficult job is to survive working with some of the best funnymen in the business, each attempting to upstage the other – especially during breaks. We rehearse in old lofts, anywhere the studio can find that’s cheap. Laughter is what keeps me going. he most unpredictable comic to work with is Art Carney – scary too, because he forgets his lines, yet he’s so right for this part the producers cast him anyway. The director can easily cover for him by
writing his dialog on cue cards, or anything with a surface including the ceiling, on the underside of an actor’s hand including my own, on a chair cushion, on a butt, not mine, anywhere and everywhere. How great was he in The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason.
I’m crazy about Walter Matthau. During our weeklong rehearsal period, each day I look forward to having lunch together, just taking a break from it all. We eat at a diner around the corner from where we rehearse on the Lower East Side. He describes in detail the struggles he’s faced in his life; gambling in particular, almost destroyed him. As I listen to Walter, my thoughts go to all the people in my professional and personal life who’ve suffered through drinking, gambling and drugs. Addiction is no respecter of persons. People only see the glitter of show business; so far, I’ve never met a genuinely happy person. As for me, happy and sad aren’t issues. I don’t analyze my life. I’m in the flow of it trying my best to hang on. To be cast in quality shows, and tutored by some of the best comedy actors in the business is happiness enough for now – that, and paying the rent. Finally after so long a time, I’m beginning to luck out. But you never know, up one day, down the next, here today, gone tomorrow – that’s show biz. People are clueless when they say actors who perform dramatic parts have a more difficult task than those who perform comedy; the truth is quite the opposite. Great comics usually make great dramatic actors if they get a halfway decent director to reign them in. The personal lives of most comics are riddled with sadness.
OK. So I am just an understudy to the understudies but so what? Come on. This is my big break. It’s 1963 and I’m actually sitting in a real dressing room in a real Broadway theatre, in a real Broadway show. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest stars Kirk Douglas as Randall Patrick Murphy and Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbitt at the Cord Theatre. Being called at the last minute to replace an actor who was just run over by a bus is my worst nightmare, but this job pays the rent with enough left over for acting and dance classes. May these understudies live forever. We share a dressing room many flights up. Am I in heaven or what. Whoo! Whoo! If an actor is lucky enough to perform at the Cherry Lane Theatre, it’s as close to Broadway as it gets. Many great playwrights and directors came out of this small theatre in Greenwich Village, along with industry people who cover new plays and scout for talent. I’ve just been cast in a new off Broadway play, The Dutchman to open soon at the Cherry Lane.The producers are quite savvy in their bold decision to showcase new actors, directors and playwrights like Harold Pinter. I love to sit in the wings and watch other plays in rehearsal. Down the road I’d like to direct, but for now this is where I’ve always wanted to be. It’s not the money because off Broadway only pays scale, at least for me. It’s belonging to something grand, something bigger than life. I’m judged by what I produce, not where I was born or what I look like, and surely not for the size of my boobs. I lack self-confidence, except in performance when I’m no longer me. My one and only psychological epiphany, the result of visiting a psychiatrist for two years, is that I don’t need one. I always feel more comfortable being someone else, someone outside myself. Truth is, I have enough ego to make up for my low self esteem, words coined by my psychiatrist to keep me the
The Dutchman is a two character play written by Le Roi Jones a.k.a. Amiri Baraka, a central figure in the Black Arts movement, and stars Robert Hooks and me. The fact that we improvise some of the dialogue he wrote may account for his uptightness most of the time. It’s not unusual for actors and directors to improvise in rehearsal as the text doesn’t always translate into the performance of it. We improvise the script to make the dialogue flow in a more realistic way. Many professional writers and directors encourage this method as a means of character development. Bobby and I work well together. His easygoing nature, coupled with a good sense of humor makes him fun to work with. I’m probably the only actress in New York he hasn’t hit on. Our relationship is strictly professional. “Bobby the Babe Magnet” describes him to a T. I’ll miss him when the play completes its run.
Tonight’s opening of The Dutchman is electric with anticipation from the producers on down. We get rave reviews. I’ve hit the gravy train for sure, as it is the first play of its genre to be presented on stage. A psychotic white girl uses black, racist street language and provocative body moves, to seduce a middle class black student on the subway. He, on the other hand, tries to contain himself and avoid being killed by her.
This is an incendiary two character play and the reviews reflect it. The Village Voice has awarded The Dutchman an Obie for being the best new play in 1964. I receive the World Theatre award for best actress in this same play. Well go damn figure me winning that. My career in New York has finally given birth. The role of Lulu is the most challenging part I’ve ever tackled.
Not long after opening night, the famous director Elia Kazan drops by the Cherry Lane to check out my performance. He is one of the most sought after directors in both theatre and film, having to his redit such films as On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata and Splendor in the Grass along with founding the Actor’s Studio with Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis in 1947. Oddly enough, I learned the technique of method acting when I was five years old. Early in life, I discovered how to dive within and create imaginary characters to camouflaged myself – a ploy to keep from stuttering. At the same age I began to read body language. Had I known Kazan was in the house, my usual panic attacks would have accelerated to the point of informing the producers I had a brain tumor and couldn’t go on. My new understudy would have dropped dead, because much of what Bobby and I do is improvise off each other. Two weeks later after much back and forth between the Cherry Lane management, my agent and Elia Kazan, the two of us begin work. We rehearse eight hours a day in a loft on the Lower East Side, before the first dress and light rehearsal with the original cast members at the Lincoln Center. After the Fall, a play written by Arthur Miller, and directed by Kazan, is based upon the life of his deceased ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe. I’m being rehearsed to replace Barbara Loden in the lead role of Maggie, four performances a week, while still performing The Dutchman at the Cherry Lane.
Do I have what it takes? That is the question. I reassure myself Kazan would never have chosen me had he not seen a spark of something. Still, there are so many talented actresses in this town including Barbara’s understudy, Faye Dunaway. Why me and not her? What does he see in me? I find this rehearsal period unsettling, and plagued with doubts I won’t do justice to Kazan, or to the memory of Marilyn. I’ve done so much research on her life, on her temperament – still, I’m unable to find her center, that defining motivation in her life that colored her. On top of all this, I’m wiped out from rehearsing eight hours each day for After the Fall, then performing The Dutchman at night plus matinees on Saturday and Sunday. I’m insecure about everything. One day when I’m beating up on myself as usual, I realize these are the very feelings Marilyn Monroe lived with her entire life. There was the movie star Marilyn, a persona she contrived in order to achieve the maximum desired results her fame demanded. In addition was the neurotic Marilyn whose insecurity never allowed her to triumph over her childhood, her marriages, her career, anything of importance. When Marilyn didn’t get her way, she forced those around her to prove themselves by their acceptance of her unprofessional habits, specifically her chronic lateness on the set that so often held up costly productions for long periods of time. She fell in love with men she considered better and smarter than her. All this, and so much more was Marilyn Monroe.
Diving within the character is always the first step in preparation for a role. This type development equates to understanding what drives that individual. Every human being wants something. To this day, the abuse I experienced in early childhood colors everything I do. I’ve protected my personal demons for so long a time, that to peel off layers at this juncture is akin to being skinned alive. Still, this is the process I follow with Kazan in the development of Maggie. Each day at the end of rehearsal, I feel depressed. The greater my depression, the happier Kazan is with my performance because he’s getting results. In rehearsal today, Kazan gives me an uncharacteristic pat on the back. In the same breath he urges me to join the Actor’s Studio without delay. He thinks I have a great future on the Broadway stage as well as film, and makes a point of saying he has plans for me in the future whatever that means. I’ve learned to take what people say in show business with a grain of salt. Another thing I’ve discovered about Kazan, is that whatever he says is always measured for the affect it will have on my performance, otherwise known as “the means justifies the end” result. He urges me to utilize my own life experience to breathe life into Maggie. He surprised me the other day when he confided one of the reasons he cast me in this role, was that I have the same vulnerability and sense of loss Marilyn had. Doesn’t sound like much of a compliment but at least now, finally, I’ve something to work with. I have my own sense of unworthiness, of going through life feeling unwanted. Now that my personal fears have come forward, I’m as miserable as Kazan is thrilled over my discovery. There is a coldness about him that only looks to the end result. It is to that end he can be ruthless. I’ve blocked out so much of my life. Working with Kazan forces me to remember things long forgotten. I’m not sure it’s worth it. After rehearsal each day, I go to a neighborhood bar for a couple of martinis, then walk the rest of the way home wondering where the joy is. At the end of a day, the only words that come to mind are, “Maybe tomorrow will be better.”

~an excerpt from Tharon Ann

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