By Bill Hirschman
Working actors: Estelle Parsons, Angelica Page, Tim Altmeyer.
Each unique to themselves, each from a different generation. But each share that category of “working actor.”
It’s not a term referring to employment. It’s a term of understated pride, applied to aesthetic artists who have accumulated an experienced craftsman’s toolbox and adhere to a blue-collar work ethic.
The trio are in South Florida to populate Palm Beach Dramaworks’ My Old Lady, a darkish comedy by frequent Florida visitor Israel Horovitz opening next week.
The actors recently spoke of random insights into the life of a working actor. Parsons has worked with the other two separately; all of them along with Horovitz are members of the legendary Actors Studio that has served as an educational program and experimental laboratory for professional actors, directors and playwrights since 1947.
Memorable for an elfin face and a corrugated voice, Parsons is the best known if not a mega-star. She has been an acclaimed character actress and director for nearly 60 years who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and received five Tony nominations for Seven Descents of Myrtle, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Miss Margarida’s Way, Morning’s at Seven and just this past spring The Velocity of Autumn. She’s been a non-stop presence in television and film since the 1950s, served as artistic director for the Actors Studio, but she’s better known to some generations as the title character’s mother on Roseanne.
It was not an intentional path for someone initially interested in being a politician and who started as a singer and hoofer with dance bands, and then got drafted into a Broadway musical with Ethel Merman, Happy Hunting.
“I didn’t want to have a career as an actress. I just like to work. I get interested in characters rather than plays… so I worked in plays that weren’t very good, but the characters were. But I never thought of a career or thought of myself as an actress until I look back. I start getting, you know, lifetime achievement awards and I thought, ‘Jeez… what I’ve been doing all my life is acting.”
She has fought stereotyping much of her career. “People think I can’t do Shakespeare; Joe (Papp, guru of the Public Theater) was always trying to get directors to hire me for Shakespeare and they never would. Because they think I’m just this funny contemporary hysteric; that’s what they write on the cast breakdown sheet (at casting calls). It’s just disgusting, but that’s show business.”
Instead, she said, “I’ve spent my life playing housewives. All my life I’ve put an apron on. I’ve plucked a chicken…. I’ve fried a chicken. I’ve cut up a chicken on stages. I’ve served chicken. So it’s really wonderful when I have a chance to play intelligent women.”
As a result she jumped last spring at the chance to do The Velocity of Autumn in which she portrayed an elderly woman who threatens to blow up her apartment if her children try to move her out.
“It was very hard work. Very hard work. Most of the things about old age that playwrights have focus on – this is changing so it’s not a criticism – have been dementia, falling apart and what they think old age is about. I’m 87 tomorrow and I’m slowing down. Everything changes all the time, but it’s more than just more than people falling apart and having dementia or acting like they were three years old or whatever…. The play didn’t run that long, but it was a beautiful play and a beautiful character.”
A working actor is always on to the next job. Now she’s playing Horovitz’s quirky Parisian occupying an apartment even when the heir of its owner wants to sell the place. “I thought the part was challenging. I had not played, from an actor point of view, someone from another culture.”
Her primary job perk is cast approval. “What’s very important at my age is who I’m on stage with,” she said. Dramaworks’ Artistic Director William Hayes happily agreed, but he was the one who, after auditions, selected Page and Altmeyer who only coincidentally turned out to be people whom Parsons had worked with,
A key element of working actors, as Altmeyer tells his students at the University of Florida when he is not performing elsewhere, is that “the learning never ends.” This is underscored as he, Page and Hayes enjoy a master class watching Parsons’ incisive mind analyze scripts, characters, plot and motivations in the rehearsal hall.
Page has known Parson for decades and played her daughter in a national tour in August: Osage County.
“I was actually a little tentative about going back in with Estelle actually,” Page said with obvious affection. “It’s tough working with her. It’s scary. She’s very hard on her actors. She’s incredibly demanding. She’ll ask (in rehearsal) ‘What are you doing?’ and I’ll say, ‘I don’t know. Give me a minute.’ She’s so hyper-intelligent and her senses are so keen that she sees things way before we see them, before mortals see them. It’s exhausting sometimes and scary.”
But in interviews, Parsons seems absent ego. Despite a resume crammed with triumphs, she clearly enjoys relating disasters with a self-deprecating laugh at herself and the vagaries of the business of a working actor.
“I did the worst play written by Israel or anybody else in Stamford, Connecticut, called The Reason We Eat. I don’t think it’s even on his resume because it never made it out of Stamford. It was people in a fat farm. I was this 400-pound person in a… fat suit. Being Israel, everybody came, Joe Papp came.… It nearly ruined my career because it was right after I had won the Academy Award (for Bonnie and Clyde) and I could feel my fan base drifting away.… So that was not the world’s best experience.”
She doesn’t spare telling on herself about the errors in career judgment, either. Producer “Dick Barr was going to send out a tour of Sweeney Todd. And I had known him since I was in summer stock and he was always hiring me because he really loved me… I got all the music and script and I thought, God, Sweeney Todd has got all the good music; (Mrs. Lovett’s) got just a lot of rinky-tink stuff, I don’t want to go out and do that rinky-tink stuff. That was mistake.”
Again, that laugh erupts the slightly-built well-tanned woman with a brownish-blond bowl haircut and blazing eyes.
When all three actors tell stories, they mention iconic colleagues by their first names, not in the showy name-dropping mode to impress, but in the unthinking reference to co-workers and friends. Like “Al” as in Pacino, “Horton” as in Foote, “Marty” as in Landau.
Parsons says in passing, “I’ve known Israel a long time. When I ran the Studio, Al put together a production of Israel’s Rat.”
It’s a community. For all the tens of thousands of aspiring would-be actors in New York and across the country, the ranks of steadily employed professionals are surprisingly numerable among those who have forged a career as stars, supporting performer, character actors and journeymen. Over time, many have worked together, worked with someone who worked with someone, socialized or know them by reputation.
Page, who is playing Parson’s daughter in My Old Lady, has known most of theater royalty since she was child, growing up as the daughter of Geraldine Page and Rip Torn.
As far as Parsons, “she inducted me (in the Actors Studio)…. She wanted me to do a play called Machinal by Sophie Treadwell that she was producing and she wanted me to play the lead and the board told her she couldn’t use me because I wasn’t a studio member. So we have a very long history.” Referring to August: Osage County “at least in this play I get to be bossy about her, instead of a browbeaten daughter, right?”
Page, is familiar with Florida from several trips. Billed as Angelica Torn (which she changed a few years ago to honor her mother), she scored playing Sylvia Plath in the acclaimed Edge at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 2005, a Carbonell-winning turn as Honey in a Grove Playhouse production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1996, and as Marie Curie in the world premiere of Shirley Lauro’s The Radiant at New Theatre in 2011.
Her approach to being a working actress on stage, film and television is not to wait for roles to come to her. She always seems to be actively developing projects with playwrights, directors and producers, many of them indie-style enterprises.
Currently, she is prepping a remounted Edge in repertory with Turning Page, a bio-play about her mother. She spent 11 years trying to write a book about the legendary actress Geraldine Page, but the play script exploded over five days’ work.
“The play came out of my frustration at not being able to write the book. So I wrote a play about not being able to write this book that was haunting me…. But it’s 85 minutes…. She shows up and I turn into her as I tell the story. She tells the story from her point of view and she corrects me, and it’s very interesting because she really does show up.”
Page, who has a luminous sensual face, glows when talking about the project. “It’s really a beautiful experience. Not just for people who know me but for people who knew her. When Marty Landau saw it, he came up to me afterward with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Thank you for bringing her back to me.’ You get to experience her as a person, the person I knew.”
But you don’t always get to pick where you work. She is slated to take the play to New Zealand in June (she’s played there before), but she is hoping to find an American berth before that for the world premiere of this finalized script.
Part of the trick in do-it-yourself finding work is networking, she said.
“I think the most important thing is to find a community, a group of other like-minded actors, and find any way you can to put up a good network… even if you have to rent a studio for $25 an hour. Invite people to come see your work. You can’t rely on (an agent)…. and most of these kids don’t have an agent…. You really have to do your own work. Creating a theater company, I think, is a really good way to get started and get noticed…. It’s creating a support system with like-minded artists.”
The Studio has worked like that for her up to a point, but she is a little chary right now.
“There is a community there. But it’s a little bit closed. It’s a private club. If a person can become a member, it’s a great place. You have a place to work in, you have rehearsal studios, and a playground to exercise. But the way I am with my life right now is a bit more open,” Page said. “I’m hoping for it to find a fresh new thing…. I’m not sure I have a plan of action.”
For the moment, she’s in West Palm Beach with Parsons and Altmeyer, a job she took in part because of Parsons but also to work with Horovitz. The acclaimed playwright is visiting intermittently to tweak a script that he still feels he hasn’t finalized even after directing a film version this year with Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline.
Page said, “I’ve known his work for many, many years and we’ve discussed working together. I saw Park Your Car In Harvard Yard on Broadway over 20 years ago, and it blew my mind. Judith Ivey’s performance, I suppose. As a young actress, I thought I want to do that! I like this play! This is a great part! I just felt that my heart was being pulled out of my mouth or something. I love it when that happens. And it was Jason Robards (in the other main part). But it was one of those truly great historic experience in the theater for me.”
Although the interview occurred after only a few days of work, she was ecstatic. “So far it has been the most incredible rehearsal process in my life in the theater. I’m really looking forward to see what happens, how the production blossoms.”
Altmeyer, has played professionally all over the country including on stage with Parsons, the late Marian Seldes and Lynn Redgrave in works that include New York premieres of works by Edward Albee and Horton Foote. Local audiences may recall him in Looped with Valerie Harper when it played this same theater (then the Cuillo) and at the Parker Playhouse opposite Kathleen Turner in High, both of which went to Broadway with him.
But like many working actors, he feathers the gigs between a steady job as an educator. In his case, he’s an assistant professor of acting at the University of Florida’s School of Theater and Dance.
To him, much of success comes from networking and having enough time to “build strong personal friendships” like those with Parsons who he has known for 15 years.
Also key, is a sense of professionalism and the reliable ability to deliver a good performance.
His last piece of advice to would-be career actor? “You need to be lucky.”
My Old Lady runs Dec. 5 –Jan. 4 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday; 7 p.m. Sunday. Talkbacks after Wednesday matinee and Sunday evening performances. No performance Dec. 24 or 25. Some shows already sold out. Tickets are $10 (students) to $62. (Previews $55 and opening night $77) Call (561) 514-4042, ext. 2, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.