Me and Phil
Since I built this website, I may be permitted the occassional personal plug. If you live in New York and like great theatre, go to the Union Square Theatre to see "Our Lady of 121st St.", starring a truly gifted ensemble directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And when you look in the Playbill, notice that there is a thank you to one 'Stevan Alburty.'
Some of the cast of "Our Lady of 121st St."
Before coming to Chiat/Day in the late 1970s, I had spent ten years doing community theatre in Spokane, Washington. I directed C/D alum Eve Luppert, who is also from Spokane, in several of her greatest roles. (Eve, would you please post a comment and tell everyone about the dead cat?)
Where was I? Oh, yes ...
I have always loved the theatre. Recently, when a friend of mine told me he was producing his first off-Broadway show, I talked another friend of mine into investing in it.
I suddenly realized that I now had leverage; that this was my big chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do: to see how a professional production in New York actually gets put together, from rehearsal through opening night. The fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Magnolia," "Boogie Nights") was directing only added to that desire.
I wasn't going to be content to just sit and watch a few rehearsals. I wanted to participate. I volunteered to be an unpaid 'go-fer.' But Phil (he prefers to be called Phil) was apparently a little reluctant to have a stranger attend rehearsal, which is a very intimate process between actors and the director. Nonetheless, one day I got the call that I had been approved to attend the first joint meeting of the cast and the entire crew, including the designers and producers.
When I arrived at the rehearsal hall at noon, I met the show’s stage manager, Monica, who said that my first job was to stand in the door and keep Phil from entering the rehearsal room. Why? Because the first rehearsal of any professional show always begins with a one-hour meeting between the actors and a representative from Actors' Equity. No one who is not a member of the cast is permitted to attend. No one. And Monica had forgotten to tell Phil not to show up until 1 pm with the rest of the production staff. So it fell on me to bar his entrance.
This was not exactly my idea of how I wanted to meet Philip Seymour Hoffman. But I stood in front of the closed door, only slightly terrified, and thought, "Hey, I worked for Jay Chiat. How hard can this be?" About five minutes later, up the stairs comes Phil. "How do you do, Mr. Hoffman. My name is Steve Alburty and I'm the production assistant. And my first job is to keep you from going through that door.”
I explained the Equity rules and he said, "But I’m a member of Actors' Equity."
"That is true," I said, "but right now, you're the director, which means you’re the enemy."
He looked a little confused, then said, "I'm sure it will be ok." And in he went. Two minutes later, out he came. I said, "They kicked your butt out, didn’t they?" He mumbled "yeah" rather sheepishly, sat down in the hallway and proceeded to read the paper.
An hour later, the rest of the producers showed up, the rehearsal door was opened, and we all had a "meet and greet,” after which Phil closed the rehearsal to everyone except him and the actors so they could read through the play in private. I was not quite sure when I would be permitted to attend a real rehearsal, but Monica promised to bring it up with Phil when she felt the time was right.
I discovered, through Monica, that Phil loves Starbucks. In particular, Phil likes iced coffee with milk. Three days later, Monica called to say that Phil had agreed to let me attend my first real rehearsal. I showed up with an iced coffee from Starbucks, walked over to the director’s table, and placed it in front of Phil.
"What’s this?” he asked.
"A bribe,” I said. "Every day you let me attend rehearsal, you get an iced coffee.” He laughed.
"Yeah, like that’ll last about two days.”
Well, actually, it lasted about four weeks. I soon ingratiated myself with Phil and the cast by bringing in free coffees, granola bars, and sodas. The only things actors love better than applause is free food.
It was a fantastic experience to see the respect the cast, the crew, and Phil had for each other. He couldn’t have been more gracious and patient and kind to everyone. He always looked at me a little warily, like "Who is this guy? Is he like the world’s oldest production assistant or what?” But he liked the iced coffees, so I was permitted to stay.
I helped shuttle scripts and props and costumes all over town. Once we actually began to rehearse in the theatre, I held book and prompted the actors.
And then one day, a routine skin test at my dermatologist revealed that I had cancer, which would require surgery and a four-week recovery period. I continued attending final tech rehearsals, which were now grueling for one and all, running from noon to midnight. I had to keep my eye on the script at all times in case an actor called for his or her line. This helped me more than it helped them, for I was able to focus and keep from obsessing about the fact that I’d just been diagnosed with cancer.
I finally had to leave the show about two days before the first preview in order to have my surgery. But as I left, the cast gave me a round of applause, a 'get well’ card and a $20 Starbucks gift certificate, which I will carry in my wallet forever.
I’m now completely healthy and the show has been a big hit. (I’m sure it was my coffee.) They are selling tickets through June 29, so if you have a chance to see it, please do.
Here's the show’s website.
P.S. Phil is currently appearing on Broadway in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," starring Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, and Robert Sean Leonard. It is, perhaps, the definitive production of one of America's greatest plays. Don't miss it. It's four hours long, though, so take coffee ... for you and for Phil.