New York – Round One.1

The day I arrived in New York I got food poisoning. Not an auspicious start. On the second day I called one of the actors that worked in my theatres in Florida. George (Buck) had moved to New York six months earlier and had been on about 75 auditions and had finally booked an off-Broadway play. He called me the next day and told me to come to his rehearsal that afternoon, one of the actors had dropped out of his show.

You know that saying, “It’s better to be lucky than good?” Well, my whole career has been tempered with a tremendous amount of good luck. I went to George’s rehearsal, met the director and without even auditioning I was hired. Seriously, the director and I chatted for a few minutes and he said, “You’ll be fine. Go talk to the wardrobe people.” And like that, three days after I arrived in New York, I was in my first off-Broadway show. I played R.W. in a piece titled The Escape.

We had a short run but as soon as that show closed, I was cast in another show. Neither one of them were hugely successful but I was working. About this time, I reached out to the J. Michael Bloom Agency. I had heard the name, thought having an agent would be a good idea so I wrote Mr. Bloom a letter – there was no email back then – and got an appointment…with J. Michael himself.

Up to this point I had been in one other agent’s office; a ten by ten-foot room with three

J. Michael Bloom

desks crammed together, an agent at each desk yammering on the phone. So, when I went to my appointment with J. Michael, I was totally unprepared. His offices were located at 400 Madison Avenue and as I rode up in the elevator I realized he not only owned the entire 19th floor but the 20th floor as well.

Dumbstruck, that’s a good way to describe how I felt. I was ushered into J. Michael’s office. He was very nice and tried to engage me in conversation by asking me long complex questions. Completely intimidated, I could barely muster up a simple “Yes,” or “No.” I knew I had blown this opportunity and near the end of our appointment I screwed up my courage and I asked if I could come back next week to read copy for him. I had seen some other actors in the reception room preparing to read copy for someone.

J. Michael said “Yes, that’s a good idea.” He asked his secretary to give me a piece of commercial copy and to come back next week and read for him. For various reasons our appointment kept getting cancelled and four weeks passed before I got to back in to see him. In the meantime, I had been cast in another play, a revival of the English play, The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan.

On my second trip to the Bloom Agency I was once again I was ushered into J. Michael’s office. We chatted for a few minutes and I told him I had been cast in The Winslow Boy. He congratulated me and said, “You’re going to read for me, right?”

And I started to read the copy he had given me only now, maybe because I was doing an English play, I did the commercial copy with an English accent. After a couple of sentences J. Michael stopped me and said, “John, if I want an Englishman, I’ll get an Englishman. Try it again.”

Unfortunately, and this will show you where I was as an actor at that time, I read the same piece of copy only this time I did it as a Brooklyn cab driver. I’m embarrassed to admit that but it’s true. Again, and with a great deal of patience, J. Michael stopped me and said, “John, If I want a Brooklyn cab driver I’ll get a Brooklyn cab driver. What I want (and these words shook me to my core), what I want is you.”

The reason I wanted to be an actor in the first place was to escape my life, to be someone else. I wanted to play a character and not have to take responsibility for being who I was. I knew something fundamental was lacking in my work; the whole reason I came to New York was to study, to find what was missing. But here I was repeating what I had done in Florida, playing at acting and not really delving into the craft. And J. Michael had hit it on the head.

As I left his office, I vowed to myself I would never step across his threshold again unless I was invited back. It had nothing to do with J. Michael. He was gracious to a fault. But I had failed myself and I wasn’t going to go back into that agency until I was ready. And invited. Two years later (to be continued)…

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Fairy Godmother – Part II…and Beyond

Wow, where does the time go?! Look away for a second and the next thing you know it’s seven weeks later. For those of you who have been waiting patiently (and thank you for the emails) here is the next installment of  How I Got From There To Here. In the last episode I was about to open a theatre in Pensacola, Florida. However, two days before opening the fire department threatened to shut us down. And then a fairy godmother showed up…

The fairy godmother in this case was Jim Reeves. A controversial figure in local politics, Jim would soon be the mayor of Pensacola. We met Jim shortly after arriving in town. He was in charge of the restoration of the Saenger Theatre, a posh (at one time) old movie theatre and he asked us to consult on certain aspects of the renovation.

After the fire department served us with a cease and desist order — because of our lights, made from #10 food cans, we called Jim. He told us not to worry and whereas before we thought we had donated our services to the restoration of the old movie house, suddenly we were getting paid. Jim asked us how much we needed to buy real lights, took out his check book and wrote us a check. The memo line read, “Consultation services for the Saenger.” We bought new lights, hung them and when the fire department came to re-inspect our theatre we passed with flying colors. (I think Jim had a hand in that too.)

Our first show, Luv did well and we got good reviews. We mounted another play, it was also well received, but it wasn’t until we produced Happy Birthday, Wanda June that things really took off. That play, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., showed us that audiences wanted something different, something more provocative than typical dinner theatre fare. Although dinner was served in our building, it wasn’t served in the same room. That meant we weren’t bound by the same constraints of “normal” dinner theatres and we were free to do other types of shows.

We took that freedom and ran with it, mounting plays like That Championship Season, The Glass Menagerie, The Innocents, The Sea Horse, Veronica’s Room. Yes, we still did some classic dinner theatre pieces like The Owl and The Pussycat, The Odd Couple, and I Do, I Do but it was the not-so-typical shows that garnished us the best notices and drew the largest audiences.

One of the reasons we were able to mount these productions was because of the vast pool of talent available to us. Edward Miller, my partner in this endeavor, was easily one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with (and in forty-five plus years in this business I’ve worked with a lot of directors).

We were also blessed with a group of extremely gifted actors, musicians and designers: George (Gabana) Buck, Shaw Robinson, Carolyn Mayhall-Hart, Bobbie Brentner, Ed Poole, Ray Schaub, Vicki Baroco, and Teresha Thames just to name a few.

We were also blessed with an wonderfully appreciative and supportive community. Pensacola embraced our efforts and rocked our world!

We were busy, mounting a new play a month, and while we weren’t getting rich we were doing something we loved. After a year one of the large hotels on the beach, the Casino Beach Resort, approached us and asked us to produce plays in its venue. We thought this was a great idea, with a larger house we could actually make some money. Big mistake! Our production costs skyrocketed and we found ourselves working twice as hard but not making any more money.

Two things happened around this time. The film Jaws 2 came to town and I got a small, non-credited part — if you look close you’ll see me in uniform, holding my nose guarding a dead whale on the beach. Or maybe I was picking my nose, I forget. Anyway, I got a taste of the film business and I also got my SAG card. The other thing that happened was I realized if I was going to improve my craft as an actor I needed to study. My tenure at the University of Denver had been brief. In Pensacola I worked a lot – that’s one of the benefits of being your own producer – but I didn’t feel as if I was growing my craft.

Those two things along with a growing sense of discontentment set the wheels in motion and I decided to leave Pensacola. I wish I could say my partner and I split on good terms. Alas, we did not. But once my decision was made, I packed my car and headed for New York (to be continued…)

 

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year!                             See you next year. Cheers, John

 

 

 

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Fairy God Mother – Part 1

You know the saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intensions?” Well, my intension to post on a regular basis is good but my execution — not so much. But we’re back on track now with the next installment of “How I got from there to here,” my personal story of triumph in this crazy business.

The moment I saw the white sands and the blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico I knew we had picked the right beach but I wasn’t sure about the city. Pensacola only had a population of 55,000. It was a tourist destination, the home of the Naval Air Training program, a retirement mecca for Yankees and Southerners alike, and because of those retires, Pensacola hosted a booming real estate business – but would those people support a professional theatre company?

Looking back I’m amazed at how ill prepared we were for the task at hand. We had no money, really no money. I was living on unemployment. Edward Miller, my partner in this crazy scheme, was unemployed; the only one who had a job was Edward’s wife, Teresha Thames.

It was the classic case of “My Mom’s got a trunk full of clothes, my dad’s got a barn” except there was no trunk full of clothes and there was no barn. All we had was a dream coupled with desire and                                                                determination.

We didn’t know anyone in town so I suggested we tryout for the Community Theater’s upcoming production of The Night of January 16th. We both got roles and met some wonderful people but when that show closed we weren’t any closer to fulfilling our dream so we decided to mount a production of our own.

By this time we both found jobs as substitute teachers at the private high school in town and the principal let us use their stage. We put on two one-act plays, I can only remember one of them, The Dumb Waiter. We didn’t set any box office records, we actually lost money, but the newspaper, the Pensacola News Journal, sent a reviewer and she gave us a glowing review.

Armed with that review we started knocking on doors. And while a lot of doors opened and a lot of people expressed interest nothing really happened until we met Jon Schiller. Jon owned a private arts club called Meatpackers and he invited us to mount a play in his club. To entice his members to attend he served them dinner in various rooms throughout the building and then the audience entered the “theatre” – really a large room – to see the play. He billed it as An After Dinner Theatre.

We picked Luv, a three-character comedy by Murray Schisgal. Edward and I cast ourselves in the two male roles, hired Roger Danforth (he was teaching at the University of West Florida and would later be the artistic director of the Cleveland Playhouse) to direct, and brought in Barbara Langford, a very talented local actress, to fill out the cast.

We rehearsed at night and built the sets during the day. When I say we had no money, I mean we had no money. How broke were we? Our first set of lights were #10 food cans (those big cafeteria size cans) that we got from the Florida State Penitentiary – but that’s a whole other story.

Two days before opening night the fire department showed up and issued a cease and desist order shutting us down…because of our lights. But…and there is always a “but” in show business stories (and if ever there was a “the-show-must go-on-story” story this was it). In show business stories the frog always turns into a prince, the evil step-mother always gets her comeuppance, the good guys always win over the bad guys and in this story, we were the good guys.

So, two days before we were supposed to open the fire department shut us down but…drum roll, please…at the last minute a fairy godmother showed up and (to be continued)…

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In and Out of Grad School…twice

For the readers who are wondering where I’ve been. I took the summer off finished a crime novel and threw an amazing surprise birthday party for my wife. How amazing? Check out my Facebook page – John Howard Swain — I think you’ll agree, she was really surprised.)

As mentioned in previous posts I was enrolled, ready to go to grad school UNC Greensboro, to study acting. But first I decided to drive my motorcycle across country. Along the way I met two guys from the University of Denver. Impressed by what they had to say about DU when I got to Denver I checked out the theatre department. The department head, Abe Grossman, invited me to closing night of their season. I was wowed!

The next day I stopped by to thank him and he laid a line on me every actor wants to hear, “John, in our next season, we have several roles you would be prefect for.”

The next day I called the VA — I still had some money on the GI Bill. They didn’t care where I went to college as long as I was in college so, I called UNCG, dis-enrolled and then enrolled at DU. If you remember, it was summer, the weather was perfect.

I didn’t have much money but my brother got me a job as a dishwasher in a downtown Denver hotel. It wasn’t nearly as prestigious as my previous position but it didn’t carry the same level of responsibility and I was happy to not have any responsibilities. I spent the summer hiking, camping, going to concerts, taking advantage of all the wonderful things Denver has to offer. And I mentioned it was summer, right?

The first day of classes it snowed. Six inches. I’m from the South and while I’d seen snow before I had never seen it snow like that. It didn’t seem to bother anybody else but I was freaked. I hadn’t factored snow into the equation when I enrolled at DU but I thought, “Okay, I’m here now, let’s make this work.” I found a place to store my motorcycle and started taking public transportation.

 

Things progressed. My classes went from mildly interesting to boring (I didn’t really care why Shakespeare wrote what he wrote I just wanted to do it.) But I met a lot of wonderful people. Auditions for the first play of the main season were held – I didn’t get a part but I was cast in several student directed small-black-box productions. I loved doing those and found it increasingly difficult to focus on my class assignments. The only time I was really enjoying myself was when I was acting.

After two months I stopped going to classes altogether and starting working in the other theatres around the city. And interestingly enough, I was also cast in a couple main stage productions at DU – they didn’t seem to care or notice I wasn’t attending my classes any longer. The year I was in Denver I was in twelve productions and while I wasn’t in a degreed program I was getting the education I wanted.

Months passed, I was extremely busy, performing in one production while rehearsing two, sometimes three others. Suddenly it was summer again. It didn’t take a lot of brain power for me to realize it would soon be cold (and snowy) again and I didn’t want to spend another winter in Denver.

A friend I met in the graduate program at DU was also from the South. He didn’t like winter weather any better than I did so we started figuring out a way we could start our own theatre…in the South. Our criteria was to find a city that didn’t already have a professional theatre, that had the financial wherewithal to support a professional theatre company, and perhaps most important, a city on or near the beach. I mean, if you’re going to dream, go big or go home.

 

We did a lot of talking and found the city we were looking for. Actually my friend’s wife, Teresha, found it (turns out she was from there) and in August I left Denver headed for…to be continued.

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ONE ACTOR’S JOURNEY…THE MOTORCYCLE YEARS – PART 2

It had been raining for hours. Biblical stuff. Coming down in sheets.  The rest stop on Interstate 70 was packed. The people in cars were dry but I had to scurry from one side of the overhang to the other each time the wind shifted.

My plan had been to camp under the stars every night but I ended up staying in motels more often than not because of the weather and it was putting a strain on my wallet. By the time I arrived at the rest stop on I-70 just outside of Topeka, Kansas I had two hundred dollars left. This was, if you can remember that far back, before ATMs and nobody was going to cash an-out-of-state-check for a guy who looked like a drowned rat driving a motorcycle loaded with enough gear to sustain the Joad family.

A pale blue Volvo with Connecticut plates pulled into the rest stop behind me. A decal in the rear window pledged fidelity to the University of Denver. Two guys stumbled out of the car and a cloud of marijuana smoke drifted out with them. They walked to the edge of the overhang and “Wowed” at the deluge. The wind shifted and they scampered back in my direction.

I was sitting on my bike drinking a Coca Cola and eating a pack of Nabs—a mainstay of every southern boy’s diet. (Did I mention I brought a cooler with me? I did.) After a little negotiation I traded two cokes and two packs of Nabs for a joint.

The monsoon continued and soon the three of us were “Oohing” and “Ahhing” at the storm. I told them about starting at UNC in September and they told me about DU. I told them about wanting to be an actor; they told me about the plays they had seen at DU; how unbelievably great they were. At the time I thought the weed was fueling their enthusiasm.

However, Denver was on my STOP list, my brother lived there, so I thought I’d check out DU while I was there and see what they were so jazzed about.

Eventually the rain stopped, the guys got back in their Volvo and headed east and I continued west. In Topeka I shipped half of my stuff to my brother in Denver. Unburdened, I made good time and soon I was in Colorado. (Factoid – most people think Kansas is flat. It is but going east to west it’s also uphill–all the way. I went from near zero elevation to over 6,000 feet by the time I got to Colorado Springs.)

I was enthralled the moment I crossed the state line into Colorado. It was June, the weather was ideal, the rain had stopped, and the mountains (although in the distance) were breathtaking. The one thing I didn’t pack was a camera (DUH) but several of the vistas I saw are forever etched into my memory.

I hooked up with my brother in Denver and a couple days later I made my way over to the DU campus. In the main theatre building I ran into Abe Grossman, the department chair. I gave him my spiel and he invited me to see a play the students were doing that night. I went, I was impressed (no, I was blown away) and the next day I drove back to campus to thank him.

We were in his office talking and after a few minutes he said, “John, I don’t know what UNC is doing next year but we’re mounting several main stage shows” (and then came the words every actor longs to hear) “with roles you’d be perfect for.” He said some other things but all I heard was: roles you’d be perfect for. Roles you’d be perfect for. Roles you’d be perfect for.

The next day I (to be continued)…

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One Actor’s Journey – the Motorcycle Years

Two things I always wanted to do – 1). be an actor and 2). drive a motorcycle across country. I wasn’t sure how one went about becoming an actor but I knew I couldn’t do it if I stayed where I was so I quit my job (see previous post). And I bought a motorcycle.

Everything I read about being an actor said you either had to go to New York or Los Angeles. However, both of those places seemed too intimidating so I thought I’ll go back to school and get some training. I had a year left on my GI Bill and I figured, “In a year I’ll know everything there is to know about acting (insert laugh track here). Then I’ll be ready to tackle New York or LA.” I applied and got accepted into the theatre program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Later I discovered this wasn’t the smartest move because UNC’s real acting program was on the Chapel Hill campus, nearly seventy miles away.

But at least I had a plan, not a great one as it turned out, but a plan nonetheless. And because I had five months before classes started I reasoned this was the perfect time to fulfill my second dream.

It turned out I hadn’t thought that through very well either. For starters I took way too much stuff: a backpack, a sleeping bag and what turned out to be a not-so-water-proof water proof tent. I also packed too many clothes including a suit (see what I’m saying about not thinking it through), a tennis racket–not quite sure where I thought I was going to play tennis on my Easy Rider adventure across America–and a fishing pole. The bike was so top heavy everyday was a gravity defying experience just to keep it upright.

But undaunted I started on my journey. I was living in the most eastern part of North Carolina and I partied my way across the state–look at a map and you’ll see it’s a long state–crashing with various fraternity brothers and their wives along the way. The brothers were happy to see me—their wives, not so much. After a couple of days of fraternity style drinking at each stop (hey, I didn’t have to go to work the next morning) the wives let me know it was time for me to hit the road.

After wearing out my last welcome I drove over the Blue Ridge Mountains, into and across Tennessee–I didn’t stop at Graceland, I guess I was afraid someone might steal my tennis racket–and into Arkansas. I pulled into a campground one night at dusk, and was setting my tent up when a camper pulled in next to me. I remember thinking, “That is so not camping.” Of course the next morning when I woke up soaking wet because my tent leaked and the people invited me into their dry, warm, cozy camper for bacon and eggs I was singing a different tune.

I wandered for several weeks sometimes riding alone, other times cruising with other bikers; stopping at times just to see what there was to see, other times stopping because the weather was bad. Riding a motorcycle in the rain, unlike driving a car, can be a harrowing experience. One slip and my shit would be spread over two or three counties. Late one afternoon I pulled into a rest stop in Kansas just ahead of a big rainstorm. I met a couple guys there who changed the course of my life. I don’t remember their names and I doubt they remember me but that chance encounter sent me, and what I would do for the next forty years, in an entirely different direction. (to be continued)

 

Coming up: The acclaimed director and writer, Tony Glazer, Junction, Block Island, Big Dogs, Cake, etc., will be the guest teacher in our scene study class at the end of June. Tony is known as being an actor’s director and we’re looking forward to his time with us.

Classes: Starting at the end of June we’ll be on hiatus. The next commercial class starts the 17th of Sept. and the next two-camera scene study class starts the 18th of Sept. Click here for more information on those classes.

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You Want To Make Your Living Being Someone Else

The actual quote was, “Let me see if I’ve got this right, you want to make your living by being someone else?”

This was my father’s reaction when I told him I was going to quit my job to become an actor. At the time I was the County Manager for Washington County, North Carolina. It was my job to oversee the various projects the County Commissioners wanted implemented. I supervised the construction of a new hospital, wrote grants (including the one for my job), made sure the farmers had enough fuel to get their crops in, etc. It was a job that carried a lot of responsibility and one with great potential–one of my colleagues ran for governor of North Carolina — and it was killing me.

I didn’t know that, not at the time. Not until I went to Raleigh to do a workshop and had to get a photograph taken for an ID card. I had on my best sports coat and was feeling pretty good when the photographer snapped my picture. The ID card arrived in the mail a few days later. I opened the envelope and instead of seeing this hip, feeling good guy I saw a poor, sad son-of-a-bitch staring back at me. And I knew it was me, my name was under the photograph. I was so shaken I had to sit down. I kept looking at the photograph asking, “Why is this guy so sad?”

I spent the rest of the day trying to remember the last time I had been happy, truly happy. I finally pinpointed it – it was four years earlier. I was in college and I was playing Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. While I was reminiscing about that production I felt an odd sensation in my face. I looked in the mirror. I was smiling. Really smiling. Not one of those, “Someone’s taking your picture” smiles but a real smile.

A couple of days later I gave my notice. The first thing the Chairman of the Board did was to offer me a raise but I told him I wasn’t staying. I didn’t tell him what my plans were because I didn’t know. I spent the next two weeks making a list of the things I had always wanted to do but for whatever reason hadn’t done yet. At the top of the list was “Be An Actor.” I had no idea how I was going to do that but that was the first thing on my list. Another thing on the list was “Ride a Motorcycle Across Country.” I could do something about that so I bought a motorcycle – a Suzuki 500.

Me and my Dad

I spent the weekend with my parents and told them what I was going to; or at least as much as I knew. My parents were depression era children and the thought of anyone, especially their son, not having a job was unconscionable. Neither one of them said anything the first day, then on Sunday my father said, “Let me see if I’ve got this right. You want to make your living by being someone else?” Which I thought was a pretty astute observation. I wasn’t happy being me so maybe if I could be someone else and make a living at it, that sounded pretty good.

They weren’t unsupportive, more like bewildered. I’m sure they had the discussion, “Where did we go wrong” many times over the next ten years until I was able to turn my dreams into a reality. But, and unfortunately my dad couldn’t tell me this—he wasn’t wired that way, it was my sister who told me how proud my dad was whenever one of their neighbors would say, “Saw John on Dallas last night.” Or, “John did a great job on Hill Street Blues,” or whatever TV show I was in.

Somewhere along the way I’ve come to understand that the happiness I’ve experienced over the past forty years wasn’t because I was “being someone else” – it was because I was following my dreams. I’m so glad I had my picture taken that day, it helped me become the person I am now.

Here’s to you following your dreams.

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