A Conversation with Boyd Gaines
November 8, 2000
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the November 8, 2000 Platform with Boyd Gaines:
THOMAS COTT: Good evening. I'm Thomas Cott, Director of Special Projects at Lincoln Center Theater. Welcome to the first of three Platform events we're doing this November. For those of you who have not been here before, we do these early evening programs to allow our audience to get to know the artists involved in our productions. If you've missed our earlier Platforms, we do have transcripts of these events which are available on our website - WWW.LCT.ORG - or in printed form available by mail or at our lobby shop during performance hours. The The Platform series is made possible by thanks to generous grants from The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and The Rose M. Badgeley Residuary Charitable Trust, and we're grateful for their support.
And now onto tonight's guest. You can count on one hand the number of performers who have won three Tony awards, and tonight we are lucky to have with us one actor from that elite circle. He was born in Georgia and trained at the Juilliard School across the street. He has been a regular fixture on Broadway for the last two decades, including his award-winning roles in She Loves Me and The Heidi Chronicles, as well as revivals of Company and Cabaret. He's worked extensively off-Broadway, in regional theater, he's appeared in many films-one of my personal favorites is the movie Fame-and many TV shows, including three seasons on the series "One Day at a Time".
But for us, of course, he will always be remembered for his heartbreaking and hilarious performance as Michael Wiley in Contact, for which he won the Lucille Lortel Award and his third Tony award. Please welcome Boyd Gaines! [audience applause]
First off, let's talk about Contact and how you became involved in it. For those of you who don't know-I assume you've all seen or heard about this show-the show itself began as a workshop production. And you got a call…
BOYD GAINES: I got a call from my agent, Elin Flack, saying that there was a workshop being done at Lincoln Center Theater, written by Susan Stroman and John Weidman. And I said, "oh, so it's a musical?" And she said, "uh, yes…no... yes... no..." [audience laughter] "Well, what is it?" and she said, "there's no singing in it". And I said, "well, I might be interested then!" [audience laughter] She said it was going to be a dance piece. I said, "why in God's name are they interested in me?" She said, "We have an outline that the workshop is going to be based on. Why don't you take a look at it?" So she sent it to me and I read it. I said, "Gosh, this is a character that-not only am I right for-but I'd really like to work on and play." But at the end of it was this long, involved sequence where it looked like this character really had to dance…not to mention, had to try to dance-that part I thought, "okay, I can fail at dancing...I can do that." [audience laughter] But to actually dance… the script seemed to imply the casting would necessitate a dancer. Or an actor who's a really good dancer.
So I called my agent back. And she called Daniel Swee, who's the casting director - he's someone I've known for a long time, he cast me in The Heidi Chronicles. Daniel told us John Weidman and Susan Stroman were both out of town at the time; Susan was in London filming the production of Oklahoma! that she'd won the Olivier Award for. She was pretty much incommunicado because she was working 20-hour days in the studio. I couldn't really talk to her for a couple of days.
I stewed and stewed. I thought, "I don't know if this is right for me." My wife asked to read it, and she said "well, it's a really nice part for you... this guy kind of is you!" I said that I was interested, but I was really worried about the dancing. Anyway, to make a short story long, I finally did hook up with Susan Stroman in London, and we had a long conversation. She allayed my fears, saying that they really were looking for an actor, not a dancer. I kept saying… "hmm, okay…as long as you know what you're getting yourself into." In the long run, it was a workshop, so what's the worst that could happen? If it were to go on, they just wouldn't use me. So that's how I got into it. That was either late November or early December, two years ago, in 1998.
I had actually turned down a lot of work that year because I had my first child…well, my wife actually had the child. [audience laughter] I took as much time off as I was able, to be with her. This was going to be the first thing-other than a few odd days here and there-that I went back into anything like a play. And so it was a very interesting time. I'm sure many of you are parents and you know, even though it's very tiring having an infant, you don't really get a lot of exercise per se. You sweat a lot, but you don't really… I'd been very sedentary. I was really out of shape. I was very worried about what was to follow. And I was right about all that. [audience laughter]
TC: From when the workshop began, the character Michael Wiley was someone who was leaping into territory unfamiliar to him. So it was appropriate, in a way, for you to take this character on.
BG: There were certainly many elements of the character I identified with. And it remains so today. If you're not a dancer, to be put in the middle of not only a group of dancers but an extraordinary group of dancers is-while exhilarating-terrifying.
TC: So, you're in the rehearsal room and suddenly you have to just jump right into it?
BG: Oh, yeah!
TC: They're just dancing away and they all know the shorthand language that dancers know, and you're saying, "what am I doing here?"
BG: The first week of workshop, we basically learned swing steps. The workshop was only of the second act that I am in, which is actually called "Contact". That was the first piece to be workshopped. We spent five weeks, and then we performed it three times, which was in the middle of February. We started that whole first week doing nothing but learning one swing combination after another. We must have learned fifty combinations. I don't dance at all, so it was all I could do to learn just the individual combinations. At the end of the day, we would be paired up with someone. Usually, I would dance with one of the dance captains, my dance teachers, who was often Tara Young.
Then Susan Stroman would say, "now just improvise!" She'd put on some music, and I could do one step. Everybody else was doing all these swing moves. I equated it with learning Russian. All these other people spoke Russian; they were just learning some new vocabulary. But for me, it was like I could say "bus" and I could say "library", but it was really hard to say "how do you take the bus to the library?"
It was really difficult. Actually, conversing is really what partnered dancing is like. I'm sure some of you swing dance, but in partnered dancing there's a leader. Usually it's the man. The man is giving signals that say, "this is the next step we're going to do." It's usually a change of weight, or a hand, an arm. There's a signal that cues you: "okay, now we're going to do this step and now we're going to do this step." I couldn't remember any of the cues, let alone the steps. So it was very, very confusing and I took a lot of ribbing. Jason Antoon, the other non-dancer in the show-he plays the husband in "Did You Move?" and the bartender in "Contact"-we often reflect back to those times when we were deer in the headlights. [laughter]
TC: Did you work immediately with Deborah Yates, who plays the Girl in the Yellow Dress?
BG: No. We really didn't start working together until the second week. I remember the first time they paired us up together to do this improvisation at the end of the day. It was horrible. I could not... I mean, here was this spectacularly beautiful woman who was a great dancer. And I could just not... We did what's called a single step swing, which is just the most basic swing, you know, 1-2-rockback, 1-2-rockback... That's all we did for half an hour, going around the room.
Soon after that, I thought they were very frustrated with me, because of my inability to put these things together, but once they started giving me actual choreography, giving me a routine that I could then work on, then it was really like an acting part…then it's a matter of learning a task and trying to master it. Which is what you often have to do in acting roles. Then I felt much more at ease. I felt, I know how to act. If you can give me the steps I can act the steps, eventually. But I can't make them up.
TC: So was that the most important thing, to learn how to be that dancer and then make him into a character?
BG: Well, I've been in some musicals, and so I've been in numbers before. It wasn't totally unfamiliar to me. Even when I did Company, I had a little dance solo in the midst of a big number. But mostly, it was moving in unison with other people, which is a much, much different thing than partnered dancing. There's a very different requirement. Once it was down to a routine, that's really like text. And that's what I'm familiar with. "Here's a piece of text, try to bring this to life." It's like, I may not be able to do this move beautifully, but I can make sense of it going from this to this to this.
TC: At the end of those five weeks, you did three performances for an invited audience. Karen Ziemba-when she was here last spring talking at the Platform series-said that when she did her workshop, she was not really sure how the piece would be received. Did you have the same apprehension about the show? Because it's not a traditional musical.
BG: Oh, I thought we'd never, ever perform this publicly. [audience laughter] Not because it wasn't good, but because it was esoteric and so unusual. I went to Juilliard across the street, and we had classes with the great choreographer Anna Sokolow, who just recently passed away.
With each class, she would do these dramatic dance pieces. They were often about the Holocaust, a very important subject to her. The structure of them was not dissimilar to Contact, except that there was often no text, maybe a line of poetry here and there. It wasn't a linear story. But the way she used actors was not dissimilar. So I had that as a reference.
TC: At the end of those five weeks of the workshops, were you convinced that the show was going to be produced?
BG: Before the last week or so, the rehearsal process was somewhat disjointed, in as much as there were all of these numbers within many scenes. While it was exhilarating, seeing all of this extraordinary dancing, no one had any idea of whether it was going to add up to a story, add up to a cohesive unit. The last week, we started to put more and more of it together and as that happened, everyone started going, "you know, this is pretty good".
By the time we got to the actual runthroughs and the first showings, these performances for invited guests, people went crazy. They loved it. The response was so strong that there started to be this buzz that it would actually be done. In the meantime, I had gone into Cabaret and I was deathly afraid that it would be done without me.
TC: I don't think that would have happened since you were the first and only choice for the part.
BG: Well, all that said, it's a great part for anyone. It wouldn't be the first time.
TC: And then you came back from Cabaret to play the Newhouse. Was it like starting all over again?
BG: No, even though we had a nice period of time to rehearse, which was a regular four week rehearsal and then a long 'tech' [technical rehearsal period], an arduous tech...
TC: All of those transitions...
BG: Yes! It was also a lot of show for a very small space.
TC: Was the audience response immediately there?
BG: It was. I think we were all shocked. Originally, the first run downstairs was until the middle or end of November and then it couldn't have been longer than maybe a week or ten days after the first preview when they called us in and said "we want to extend". Now this was long before the reviews were out. But the response from the audience had been so strong and when the next play-The Time of the Cuckoo with Debra Monk-was delayed, the theater was free for another five weeks. This was maybe three weeks before we opened.
TC: Then all hell broke loose.
BG: What happened was... I remember I came in, we had only been in previews maybe four or five days. The first preview was on a Thursday night and so we did that weekend, and we didn't even do a Saturday matinee. So it was just Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday matinee.
On Tuesday, the first show back, we had a rehearsal in the afternoon and I came back and [LCT's press agent] Philip Rinaldi met me at the stage door saying, "are you available to do a photo shoot this afternoon?" And I said, "I don't know, am I? I mean, there's rehearsal." So they said, "yes, we've cleared it." Well, New York Magazine had seen the show, the art director had seen the show the first weekend and immediately wanted to get a shot for their next issue, which was going to press in two days.
So they put Deborah and me in a car, took us down to Chelsea Piers and we spent the rest of the afternoon doing this photo shoot, which turned into a double-page spread. That was the first indicator that there was a big buzz about it. Suddenly, it was a really hot ticket. People were calling constantly, trying to get in before it even opened.
TC: Of course, everyone knows that the show subsequently moved to our larger theater, the Beaumont, in March this year. What was the transition like, going from a relatively small stage to a much bigger space?
BG: Well, the spaces are very similar in shape. The Beaumont stage, obviously, is larger. But not much larger. Maybe it's a foot-and-a-half more on either side. There's a little more room, but the difference, as any of the dancers will tell you, is that downstairs [in the Mitzi E. Newhouse], the first row and the stage are on the same level. So the audience's feet were sitting on the level of the stage floor. In fact, they had to build a guard rail, to contain people's feet, to keep them from getting onto the dance floor.
It was so crowded down there, we often used the guard rail to kick off of. You danced right to the edge of it. But it was a great thing, because you could actually feel it. You could back into it. You could kick it with your foot. I used to do it a number of times, just to bounce off of. But here [in the Vivian Beaumont], there's a good four foot drop down to the first row, so we don't like to get too close to that. [audience laughter] It's a little dangerous out there. So even though there is more space, some of it you can't use. Because it's dangerous.
TC: Speaking of dangerous, you literally take your life into your own hands every night. Twice actually.
BG: I've got a few bruises here and there.
TC: Not even that. I'm talking about the noose. Obviously, it was a very complicated thing to work out technically, to make sure that that was comfortable.
BG: People ask me that all the time. Oddly enough, the comfort part was never a problem. The hard part was just making the illusion work. That's really what we still struggle with. In order to be safe and in order to tell the story, there's little room for error. Sometimes it's quite frustrating, just because the rope, when it's tossed, has to land in a certain way in order to tell the story. If I can hang myself, the audience is going like, "well, what's his problem? Why isnt he doing that?"
The journey of any character through a story is one of overcoming obstacles. This piece is chock full of it. Unfortunately, when an obstacle isn't an obstacle, and you have to pretend that it is one, the audience immediately smells a rat.
TC: [to the audience:] Do you all have any questions for Boyd? Ma'am?
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: I've seen the show twice already and I've arranged tickets for a friend of mine to see a Wednesday matinee in December and I hope you're going to be in it... I'm worried, because...
BG: Well, I can't promise you, but I certainly intend to be here. [laughter]
AM#1: Well, I know somebody who was here at a matinee and you weren't in the show...
TC: There have been performances where, because of physical injuries or illness, some people have been out..
BG: Well, it's a big dance show... but I... where's some wood? [looks for something on which to 'knock wood' for luck]. I did take a week's vacation. But I haven't missed other than that and I'm not planning on it.
TC: Which is really miraculous, when you think about it. There have been a lot of big dance shows in the last couple seasons with a lot of missing performers, and this company has been remarkable about dancing through...
BG: And we've had some fairly serious injuries.
TC: You've had some concerns about your knee...
BG: I've had a couple of knee surgeries since I've been doing this. But other than that…[audience laughter] it's been just a smooth road!
AM #2: You had those two workshops to develop the various parts of Contact. When did you put the three stories together?
BG: We didn't put them together until the show was in rehearsals for the Newhouse. The first two pieces in the evening were workshopped in June. I was already in Cabaret, but I got to see them. But they had always been intended them to go with the third story.
When I talked to Susan in that first phone call, she told me that if Contact was ever done, it would be three pieces and mine would be the longest and the last. She described the first two pieces. The first piece-"Swinging"-is as she described it. But the second piece, "Did You Move?", was actually going to be a monologue. At least that was what I was told. The idea was that the first piece was going to be pure dance, the second piece was going to be pure acting and the last piece was going to be a combination of the two. And then it obviously evolved into something else.
AM #3: Do you still have a dance coach now?
BG: I do, actually. We all do. The associate choreographer-a guy named Chris Petersen, who is an amazing dancer-he and Susan Stroman would demonstrate the steps as they were working them out. Not since Fred or Ginger in my book. It would just be absolutely breathtaking and done with such ease and style. Just once, I'd like to be able to experience what it's like to dance that well.
TC: Deborah Yates said to me that you've actually gotten so good, you actually have to act less good while you're dancing.
BG: Well, I…..[laughter] I don't have any trouble not dancing well.
AM #4: How do you keep a dance performance fresh?
BG: We have two dance captains and the associate choreographer who are with us most of the time. They really work on keeping the show exact. So in a certain way, there's not a problem with keeping things fresh. But it's really like with any other text. The dancing is like any other play. You have a little less latitude than you would say, if you were doing a soliloquy and you said, "you know, I just feel like crossing down there." You can't really do that. But within that, and that's the great thing about this particular choreography; it's not just dancing.
There's always something emotional going on. The dancing is part of a scene and progresses the scene forward. Like I said, I think it's more like having a text, than it is just steps. So that's great, because you can invest in it different ways each time, and that makes the steps come out slightly different.
If you're not a dancer, it's so damn hard to do it well. There's never going to be a moment for me in the show where I'm ever going to go, "That's it! I did that perfectly." I just don't dance well enough to do that. Everytime I fix a little something here, then I think, "great, but I really should think about doing this now..."
TC: What's the longest run you've ever done?
BG: 13 months, 14 months. I'm right there now.
TC: You have the additional challenge that this show uses recorded music, so you have to work at the same pace every performance.
BG: I'm sure Karen noted this, too. In a musical with an orchestra, everybody's always complaining about the tempo. Everybody complains that either it's going like a bat our of hell or it's like molasses. Especially if you have singing where you've got long, sustained notes, and it's sloooow... you worry about running out of breath! [laughter]
We have those same sensations with recorded music. Now we know it's exactly the same speed each time, but depending upon how tired you are, it can seem slower or faster. Particularly when we get to the song "Sing! Sing! Sing!" at the end... sometimes, you think, "all right, I know that is faster than it was last night." [audience laughter] Or worse, faster than it was this afternoon. Sometimes you come back after having a little rest, and suddenly you start pushing, you want to push the beat a little because you're actually rested and it seems slow.
AM #5: I was intrigued by this piece originally because I was not familiar with the concept of a "dance play" [the original designation for Contact]. Are there other examples of it? Did Susan Stroman get the idea from any place else?
BG: I don't think so, but I don't know.
TC: I can tell you that, prior to creating Contact, she had been working with the New York City Ballet and the Martha Graham dance company. So in some respect, this show is an extension of that work. But Susan Stroman has always been a great storyteller of dance. She often talks about choreography as storytelling.
As far as I know, there's only one other example from the 1940s of a show that was called a dance play, but it had a very limited season in New York and was really pure dance, not theater.
AM #6: We had the enormous pleasure of being there two days before Contact opened at the Newhouse and we were absolutely stunned with the entertainment of it, but it was an added pleasure because it was unlike anything I had seen before in the musical theater. And after all, this is the country that invented the musical, so all of a sudden to have a new form...
TC: Contact is certainly unusual in the way it tells its stories.
AM #6: Well, we take credit for the show moving to the Beaumont, because after we saw it at the Newhouse, we told everybody we know to go see it... [audience laughter]
TC: Thank you very much. Your check's in the mail.
AM #7: I want to ask about the use of a workshop as compared to a rehearsal... Don't tell me it's because you don't get paid.
BG: Hmm, well you do get paid, but you get paid very little.
AM #7: [laughs] You mean you pay them for the workshop?
BG: It seems that way. [laughter] What the workshop has replaced-in terms of the musical theater particularly-is the out-of-town tryout. It's so expensive to produce musicals. And there's such a wealth of talent who isn't working, quite honestly...I mean, there are not that many musicals done, and you have an enormous amount of really talented actors, dancers and singers.
But it's too expensive to go on long out-of-town tryouts these days. What's cheaper and much more cost effective-and because you have institutional theaters like this which have space-is a system which has arrived in the last fifteen years or so of doing workshops. They come together with an idea and they work it out. It's really more of a combination of rehearsal and creation. Often a lot of writing is done during the workshop.
The advantage of it is that, if something doesn't come to fruition, a lot less money and effort has been wasted. And if it does come to fruition, then in fact, you really get a much longer rehearsal period. For Contact, we had five weeks just to do the second act. We worked basically six or eight hours a day for five weeks. Then they did the first half for another three weeks. Then we actually had another three weeks of rehearsal to work on both parts together, and then two more weeks of technical rehearsal on the stage.
So that gave us a much longer gestation period than we would have had if we'd just gone into a traditional rehearsal period, which would have just been a month of rehearsal.
AM #7: And during the workshop, did you feel you were contributing to the show's progress, to its solutions?
BG: Oh, sure. That probably had more to do with Susan Stroman than just the way workshops go. We improvised so much of the scenes. The choreography was obviously all completely rehearsed. But how one thing evolved was... we were given an enormous amount of leeway to experiment, and she would pick and choose.
So we would really just be horsing around with stuff in scenes, and she'd say, "oh, where's that thing you were doing earlier today?" And you'd go, "oh you mean this? I was just fooling around." And she'd go, "Oh, no." [laughter] She's remarkably observant and creative that way. Not only does everyone have great pride in the piece but, all of the dancers feel like they had a great hand in creating it.
AM #8: Who gets to see the performances of these workshops and where are they done?
BG: We did it in the theater's Large Rehearsal Room downstairs for invited guests...
TC: There are about three seats in that room, so it was an audience made up of friends of the company, people who work here, etc.
AM #8: Were you looking for backers?
BG: It wasn't that. We were looking for feedback. It was really just friends, professionals who you could ask "what do you think?" And part of the reason that I think it came about was because those people responded so enthusiastically.
TC: You have to remember that, now it's a big success, it won a Tony Award for Best Musical, but a year and a half ago, when these workshops were happening, people were not clear about what this was going to be like... "would people accept it?" and such.
BG: I think if you'd asked any of the dancers, they would've said, "oh, this will never be done".
AM #9: How is this show different from a revue?
TC: I think the difference between this show and most revues is that, although Contact consists of 3 separate pieces, they are thematically linked and have a dramatic cohesion. Revues are typically lighter fare, with no interest in telling an overall story.
AM #10: Are the same people who were in the workshop in the show?
BG: Almost. There were three dancers from the workshop who, for one reason or another, did not move from the workshop. But they were asked. They just weren't able. One girl had already taken the tour of Fosse, another dancer had decided to stop dancing and teach, and another one of the ladies took Marie Christine instead. And subsequently, one dancer left the show after she became pregnant.
AM #11: I just want to say that I think you dance as if you had danced professionally all your life.
BG: God bless you! [audience laughter]
AM #11: Did you study dance at all in school?
BG: At Juilliard, we had to take dance all the time. I remember at the end of my first year at Juilliard-John Houseman was the head of the school my first year, and then he left at the end of that year-but you had this yearly report where you had to go sit in his office and he would read to you the reports of all the teachers. And basically, mine was like, "doing well in all areas but movement."
TC: Well, you've showed them!
BG: They were constantly saying things like, "You need to spend a summer taking gymnastics class." That's what I've always, always, always gotten. It's been most of my criticism.
AM #12: Do you get nervous before a show?
BG: I get very nervous before a show.
TC: Do you really?
BG: You know, it's... [becoming choked up] he's a character about to commit suicide. And that's…you know….it's a hard journey to make.
TC: I'll tell you what a classy guy this man is: every week on Saturday morning, for however many months it's been now, Boyd Gaines brings five or six dozen Krispy Kreme donuts. [audience laughter]
BG: It's actually twelve dozen, but...[audience laughter]
TC: I'm sorry, I was misinformed...twelve dozen! And he doesn't just bring them for Contact, he brings them for the entire building, whoever is here working on the weekend. And on the week that he went on vacation, he even arranged for somebody else to bring in the donuts.
BG: Well, I was trying to prevent a revolt. What started out as a gesture is now turned into something of a...
TC: You're a very classy guy for bringing your donuts and for bringing yourself here tonight. Thank you so much.
BG: You're very welcome!