November 1, 2002

 

An interview with
Allen Fitzpatrick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To find out more about this co-production of M. Butterfly, please visit charlotterep.org and syracusestage.org.

 

 

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Allen and Jack
Allen and his dog, Jack

Yesterday, we talked with Allen Fitzpatrick, who plays the lead role of Gallimard in Charlotte Repís co-production (along with Syracuse Stage) of M. Butterfly. It was the first sunny day in a week, so we went to a park in the Elizabeth neighborhood, and sat outside in the late afternoon sun.

Do you still have Jack the dog?

Yes, I do. Heíll be turning ten in January.

We found a picture of Jack on the internet.

Thatís remarkable. Yes, thatís Jack. Heís greyer now, as am I. That picture was taken on Staten Island. There are dog beaches on Staten Island that very few people know about. This picture is from six or seven years ago. Jack wishes he were here now. He likes open spaces. He was on tour with me for Sunset Boulevard, for the last six months of the year and a half I was in that show (as Max von Meyerling in the national tour, opposite Petula Clark).

Why isnít he with you now?

Weíre only here for three and a half weeks. Itís a little disruptive, as he gets older.

How are the Charlotte audiences?

Last nightís audience was excellent. They were superb. And Iím pleased to say that, like the Syracuse audiences, they all jumped to their feet at the end of the show. Weíd been told that we might find Charlotte audiences a little more reserved, but that hasnít been the case. There are some surprises in the show, sort of a big twist, and it seems to me that Charlotte audiences are a little more surprised by the twist than they were up north. Itís great. We love for the show to be a surprise to people, and thatís working really, really well.

Do you know anyone here?

I know a couple who have a company called Compact Broadway. They live in Charlotte and are in New York City a lot. Iíve met them on a number of occasions, through various shows that I do. I believe what they do is produce interview shows that are aired on public radio. They interview the actors in Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, and they include snippets from sound tracks of the shows. Iíve done a couple of shows for them. And I know the chair of the theatre department at Winthrop University. Sheís been to the show. Iím going to go down to Winthrop and talk to some classes there next week.

Are the classes coming to the show?

I donít know if arrangements have been made for Winthrop students or not. Iím talking to acting students, and some other aspect of theatre... possibly playwriting.

Are you a playwright?

No. I have dabbled very lightly in writing over the years, and itís something Iím always intending to come back to. I havenít written anything thatís been produced. Iíve helped other people on their projects. A lot of people seem to be writing their own projects, as an opportunity to break out and get seen, without having to wait for the right project to come their way.

They write something as a vehicle for themselves?

Right. From John Leguizamo, whoís probably the most famous actor in that regard, to Whoopi Goldberg and Eric Bogosian. They do it and they seem to get themselves on the map.

Sexaholic was a great show.

I didnít see it. I try to see most things in New York, but sometimes I miss a show because, luckily, Iím working. Sometimes when youíre in a show, they invite you to see a final dress, or what they call a "gypsy run," thatís just done for other actors. I see some things that way.

Did you know Michael Bush or Matt Olin before you did this show?

I didnít know Matt, though he worked for Dodger Theatricals. (Dodger Theatricals produced the revival of 42nd Street, in which Allen played Mac.) Michael has told me that he knew my work. I never had a chance to work at MTC, but we met at my audition in New York, an audition that was co-sponsored by Michael Bush and Bob Moss. Michael certainly had input into the casting process, and he and Bob were both for my being cast in it. That was very exciting for me.

I really wanted to do this play. The last project I did was Sweet Smell of Success on Broadway, and we closed abruptly, and rather unfairly, I thought, on June 15. I had started auditioning for other parts, and got the offer to do M. Butterfly, and then offers for four other projects came in that same week. It was sort of miraculous, and I had a chance to pick and choose among a lot of projects for the next thing. M. Butterfly was just very, very sweet. There were three projects in New York that werenít nearly as interesting for what Iíd be doing in them, and there was another regional production of a show. But this play... a Tony Award-winning play, and a great role where you virtually never leave the stage. I thought, "This is perfect."

So, it was an eleven-week commitment. I have no regrets about my choice. Itís been great. The show continues to grow. I look back and I see how much the show has evolved since those first performances in Syracuse, and itís really come a long way. Charlotte audiences are the great beneficiaries of the fact that this was a co-production. Iím not saying that when we did the show in Syracuse it was loose. It was very good then. Still, itís only through doing it in front of many audiences that it gets better and better, and the rhythms get better, and you understand how the audience perceives it, and what you should speed up and what you should slow down, and all sorts of things. Not that the Syracuse audiences were slighted, but Charlotte is getting the peak of our performances.

You think thatís generally true, that the play improves as the cast gets more comfortable, and more accustomed to what works with an audience?

Absolutely.

And do the audiences vary a lot from performance to performance?

The audiences vary extraordinarily. I donít know whether itís the particular nature of our play, which has political issues, and gender issues, and power issues. The audience always appreciates it, and they always jump to their feet at the end. But during the show, the vocal responses and the energy responses are incredibly varied. There are audiences that are extremely reserved, who sit there, very quietly and respectfully. Theyíre almost afraid to laugh; they donít want to interrupt us. We canít really have a rapport with them. Then we have other audiences, like last nightís, which are extremely vocal and responsive. The show is filled with humor, and we want to get a quick repartee going between the audience and us, so we can have an exchange of energy. I donít think most audiences, and I mean audiences everywhere, realize how vital it is that the actors hear them from the first; that they hear them laughing, or snorting, or making whatever noises they make; that itís critical to get the energy flow going. The audience will cause themselves to see a mediocre performance if they donít participate one hundred per cent. Iíve seen it so many times, and been in audiences where it happened. Itís not like they just pay their thirty bucks or whatever. They have to play their part.

Itís almost like you want someone with a good laugh, or someone who claps first, to sit in the middle.

Yes. You often see it. There are a couple of people in the audience who are loose with their response, and that will get things going. Things will start to crackle and itís infectious, and itíll go. Thank god those people are there. Itís a two-way street. Not to be too far-falutin, but the energy is a flow, a circle. It goes out and comes back. You need those folks to be vibrant in their response. A passive audience is the most disappointing thing you can have. Things are going very well here.

We read somewhere that you got your Actors Equity card on your twenty-first birthday.

Right around then, I think... shortly thereafter. I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1975, and then went up to northern Virginia and did some non-Equity dinner theatre for about six months. Right after my birthday, an Equity theatre there was doing My Fair Lady, and I auditioned. They offered it to me, and I ended up getting my Equity card out of it. I wanted to join the union, because I wanted to make a concentrated effort to go forward and have a career. I stayed around the Washington DC area for another six months or so, and realized that there werenít enough opportunities to stay in one place. I headed up to New York.

What do you consider your first big break? What made you feel validated in your decision to become a professional actor?

It took a long time. I was content just to be working, but then in 1990 I got into my first Off-Broadway show, The Rothschilds, a revival at Circle in the Square. That got a lot of attention, and here I am in a hit Off-Broadway show. I felt very immersed in it. A few months later I got my first Broadway show, Les Misťrables, where I made my Broadway debut, which was a terrifying and exciting thing. That show is closing soon. I guess I did it early on; itíd only been open 4 years when I did it.

Whatís your favorite play, of all the plays youíve done? Is that an unfair question?

No, not at all. Itís hard because the experience of doing theatre is caught up with so many things: not only the part, but the piece itself and how the audience responds, where you did it, the actors you were doing it with, the director who directed you, and possibly what community you ended up performing it in. Iíll say that one of my greatest triumphs was playing Sweeney in the musical Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheimm at the Goodspeed Opera House about five years ago. It felt like a great triumph. Itís a tremendous show; itís one of the best musicals ever written. It was a perfect fit for my talents and personality, and it was sort of famously regarded.

And then, of course, doing Sweet Smell of Success, I was standby for John Lithgow. I went on for John several times when he was in Los Angeles. Going on in that leading role, on Broadway in a brand new show, and having a bit of a triumph, that was great, too. Most of those audiences that I played for knew beforehand that they werenít going to see John, so it was nice that there were 800 people a night there who were willing to see me play the lead.

Youíve gotten a lot of good reviews for your singing, and it seems youíve done more musicals than non-musicals; the current play aside, would you say that you generally prefer doing musicals?

Thereís a different kind of energy to musicals. Thereís an excitement about it; itís sort of a different creature. Sometimes you get tired of doing too many musicals, and musical theatre actors are very wary of doing only musicals. Thereís a certain amount of pigeon-holing in how actors are seen and cast. Iím in a phase now where Iíd like to do less musicals and more plays. Iíve never regretted entering musical theatre, and if youíre living in New York, and you can sing, there are so many more opportunities to work as a singing actor than as an actor who doesnít sing. In an ideal world, I would alternate. I would do a couple of plays, then a musical, then a couple of plays, then another musical. The other thing is, when you do a musical, youíve got to take care of yourself a little better. You have to watch your voice. Itís more demanding of your vocal chords. You canít stay out quite as late, and you have to be more protective of yourself. You get a little sniffle and worry that youíll be able to sing the show.

For musical auditions, itís common that a piece of music from the show, or in the style of the show, is selected and you learn that.

Yes, that seems to be the new process.

If you pick your own song, what do you choose?

It depends. Iíve worked up a portfolio. Iíve never actually been very good at choosing. I used to sing old songs from old-fashioned shows, and then all of a sudden Broadway started changing, and everybody wanted pop rock. I still donít have any pop rock. I donít have a good repertoire of stuff for the kinds of musicals that are being written today. For instance, when I auditioned for Bat Boy, I didnít have any songs right for it, and I didnít get the part. I still sing Rogers and Hammerstein, and Sondheim.

Do you read your own reviews?

No.

Do you ever read them eventually?

It depends. If Iím in New York, Iíll read the major reviews because the consequences of those reviews will determine the length of employment. Outside of that, I have no real reason to read the reviews. Theyíre not going to affect my performance. If theyíre bad, theyíre just going to make me feel bad, and Iíll have to dismiss them, and if theyíre good, itís just ego gratification. I know what Iím doing in the show, and think Iím a better judge of whatís going on onstage than someone who comes in and sees it for the first time.

Letís talk about M. Butterfly. You came to the first rehearsals perhaps more prepared than you would be for most things. What did you do to prepare yourself?

Because the show is so complex, and I wanted it to be a great success, I wanted to know everything about the play, everything thatís mentioned in it, and everything that happened to the character. I did a lot of research. I read about the real life characters that itís based on to get a sense of what they were like and their dynamic. I studied the Chinese Cultural Revolution, so I could understand what was happening politically in the period. The background of where and when it takes place... it happens at a critical point in history and that backdrop is like another character in the show. It plays a huge role in how the events unfold. I also learned about Chinese opera, and a great deal about Pucciniís Madama Butterfly, the opera itself, because itís the characterís favorite opera.

I spent hours each day on the lines. It took three to four weeks just to learn the lines. I spent a couple of hours each day doing research about other aspects of the show. I watched the film version with Jeremy Irons, to see how they approached it. I donít mind seeing other peopleís interpretations. I also listened to the audio recording of John Lithgow and B.D. Wong. I was probably better prepared than Iíve ever been for anything. I knew we were coming in for just two weeks of rehearsal, so I had to be completely off book. I knew we were going to spend everything on blocking and working on the actor relationships, so I had to know it cold the minute I got off the plane in Syracuse.

The character Gallimard is interesting. Heís pathetic and compelling at the same time. How do you bring that to life?

Thatís the hard one. I try to figure out everything he does and why he does it. Once I understand those things, it kind of floods out. Iím an intuitive actor. I read the script and get under the thing and try to figure out what the intentions are, and what may have happened in the past that gives him those motivations. You look for things in your own life and personality that are resonant with the characterís feelings. Iíve done enough parts and lived long enough that there are very few experiences that I encounter on the page that I canít relate to some emotional experience in my own life. You just let it play, and then you contour it during rehearsals as to levels at which itís played, and then you change it more in front of audiences. Our performances change subtly from night to night.

Do you miss a character when you finish a play?

Oh yes. You live with it for so long that itís part of you. Sometimes you take on characteristics of a character. If Iím playing someone who has great authority, Iíll feel that authority more in my real life when Iím walking the street. Or if youíre playing someone whoís dark and has some mild psychosis, youíll feel those feeling a little more. You tend to carry a character with you, so at the end of a playís run thereís certainly a process of withdrawal. This one will be hard because itís a great character to play. But weíll have done eleven weeks, and thatís a good chunk: just enough that weíve squeezed everything out of the play that we could. But not so long that weíve gotten tired of doing it, which often happens to a show after five or six months.

Whatís your next project?

I donít know. I donít think any of us have anything lined up. Itís hard to go away for this long and not have auditioned for anything else, but weíre going back at a good time. So itíll be calling up the agent, and seeing whatís going on. I have some friends that are developing projects as producers, and there may be something for me in one of their shows at the beginning of the year. I get to go back to New York, and itíll be the holiday season. I have friends who are in A Christmas Carol every year. They do ten to twelve shows a week, so their holidays are all about work. Iíll get to relax and enjoy the season.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

~ Lydia Arnold
November 1, 2002

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