Friday, May 29, 2009

20 Questions with Jerry Sciarrio

Jerry Sciarrio is currently starring as Pseudolus in the Spokane Civic Theater production of *A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,* which runs through June 14, 2009.

For this version of "20 Questions," Bobo e-mailed some queries, Jerry e-mailed back, and then we shared lunch at Sante (next to Auntie's) so I could pester him some more. We did so much laughing, one of us spit up some of his spinach salad. (Hint: The one who did it is bald. Wait, we're both bald. OK, it was me.)

1. First, a quick bio. Where'd you grow up? Go to high school? college? First acting role? (Where? What play?) You were on tour 1978-99 with whom? Eight thousand performances of what kinds of shows? In which seven countries? You've lived here since '99? How did you and Jamie meet? How old is Paul now? How's his diabetes? How did he react to seeing Dad in a toga? What have been your various day jobs here in Spokane?
Born: Medford, Mass. Moved to Woburn, Mass., at age 5. ** Woburn High School grad (top 100 out of 700 plus). Took some college prep classes, but that's all. ** First acting role - 6th grade in a Christmas play (Christmas Around the World) I had the male lead - brother who is waiting for Santa to come. Did some stand up and sketch comedy in junior high. First musical - OLIVER! my sophomore year in high school -- Fagin. ** Covenant Players, international drama ministry ( Travelled for 21 years through the United States, England, Scotland, Germany, Australia, China and South Korea. [During the Cold War, in '84, Jerry was doing shows for the military, for the 7th Corps in Germany, invited there by chaplains, and "where backstage was the other side of the tank." He saw the German/Czech border there. And later, "the vibe was much more intense" in South Korea, where he could peer right into the DMZ and think about all the North Korean troops massed just on the other side."]
We performed in churches primarily, but also in schools, nursing homes and military bases. Using a repertoire of more than 2,000 plays, ranging in time from a few minutes to 45-minute one-acts, we custom-designed programs for the user groups on a thematic basis. They gave us a theme, told us about the audience we'd be performing for, and we designed the program to fit. In an hour-long program, we would usually do three to seven different plays; with a company of four people, we could be performing a range of characters from 7-year-old kids to 80-year-old truck drivers! ** Jamie and I met in L. A. with the Covenant Players. We were assigned to the same team; I was the Team Leader/Director. We were married two years later. ** Paul is 6 1/2 (Oct. 29th birthday) He has Type 1 diabetes, was diagnosed two years ago Christmas, and it's a constant challenge to keep his blood glucose levels balanced. ** He loved FORUM - wants to see it again, goes around the house singing "Comedy Tonight". (The toga didn't faze him - he saw me in SOUTH PACIFIC!) ** "Regular" jobs in Sopkane -- H & R Block - office manager; Sears Northtown - home electronics sales dept; 101.9 Spirit FM - KTSL -- Production Director as well as every on-air shift over six years; currently with Books in Motion, audio book publishers - recording engineer and reader (I've been a reader for them since 2000).

2. What's your earliest theater memory?
The Christmas play in sixth grade. "Santa" comes to a home in disguise and tells two kids about Christmas around the world. At the climax, he reveals his true identity. I did a double-take and it got a great audience reaction -- my first taste of audience laughter!

3. Describe the first time when you realized that not everyone is crazy about theater.
Our high school went to a state drama competition at Emerson College, and we took first place (with a scene from DEATH OF A SALESMAN). This was the first time our school took first place, and we took it away from the school that ALWAYS won it. Unfortunately, that same weekend, our football team advanced to the first playoff round of some tournament or other. Yes, the FIRST of about FIVE playoff levels they had to go through. But they got front-page coverage in the local Woburn Times, and we got a photo and caption on page 7.

4. What’s a part you’ve always wanted to play and haven’t (or probably never will)? What’s a part you once played and would give anything to play again?
Wanted to and haven't: Sheridan Whiteside in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. -- Probably never will: Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN, John Adams in 1776, The Pirate King in THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. ** Once played and would again: Felix Unger, hopefully for more than four performances!

5. What was the best onstage “cover” you’ve ever witnessed (with one actor covering for another’s mistake)?
LI'L ABNER (junior Year of high school) - Abner and Marryin' Sam (me) return to Dogpatch from D. C. to cheers, and a speech from the Mayor. Mayor Dogmeat was not on stage, however. So when the cheering stopped, there was a moment of silence that felt three days long, and then one of the crowed stepped forward and said, "Glad to have you back, Sam." I replied, "It's good to be back." "How was Washington, Sam?" "It was big." "Tell us about it." ('Thanks,' I thought.) "Well, it's so big, that if you take the smallest building in Washington - in fact, you take an outhouse in Washington, and it's bigger than our city hall!" "Really?" "Yep." "How many holes has it got?" Thankfully, Pappy Yokum chose that moment to come in with his line from halfway through the scene, and we picked it up from there.

6. Most actors downplay whatever praise they receive in written reviews — but they brood over and get fixated on printed criticisms of their performances (to the point that they can quote them back verbatim to the critic years later). Why is that?
Acting is a field where everything depends on the response of the audience. It's like getting an employee performance review every time you step onstage. You prepare for the show by honing your performance to the best level you can, so when someone else thinks it was inferior, it can hit deep. Then there are those actors who don't give a hoot about a bad review....

7. In terms of programming, auditioning, rehearsing, budgeting and marketing, how is the mission of a community theater distinct from that of a semi-professional or professional theater? (During the female version of Odd Couple at the Civic, you told me that you think criticizing play selection by a professional theater is legit, but not so for a community theater. Why?)
Actually, they are similar, almost identical. My comment was more in the area of the review -- in community theater, Joe Public is more interested in the fact that their mailman or neighbor is in a play than they are in the socio-philosophical ramifications of the playwright's message. Otherwise, both organizations are concerned with getting butts in the seats, and choosing plays that will attract an audience. A professional theater might give more thought to material that is new, challenges the audience and like that, but a community theater is more concerned with ticket sales. Civic has the advantage of the main stage and the studio -- one for "classic" material, the other for "thought-provoking".

8. Who helps the cause of theater more –- the kind of director/actor/techie who will work on any kind of play (just for the joy of doing theater and being part of the theater world) OR the kind of director/actor/techie who picks and chooses productions (and only does shows that suit his or her taste)?
My opinion is the latter -- good performers know their strengths and weaknesses and will choose accordingly. This will aid in the success of a show. The same with a director. With techies, it's not as clear-cut a distinction.

9. What’s a play that reads better than it plays? plays better than it reads?
No specific titles come to mind; however, I think a dialogue-heavy play could read better than it plays (Ionesco or Wilder) and a physical comedy plays better than it reads (NOISES OFF).

10. The cliché is that comedy is harder to get right than drama. Why?
Timing. Timing. Timing. Timing. The sense of comedic timing is hard to produce -- it usually is built-in. This is why a good comedic perofrmer can do drama well, but a good dramatic actor can't always do comedy well. I have tried to direct others in comedy who had no sense of the timing, and it was a chore. I had to tell the actor, "Say this part of the line, count 3, THEN say the rest." Jamie likes to call it the Comedy Gene -- some are born with it, some are not.

11. You're at a dinner party with a choreographer, a set designer, a costume designer and a lighting designer. You've never met any of them before. What questions do you ask?
What shows they've worked on, backstage stories, mutual friends, and then on to current events. I have not done lighting design, though I've hung lights. I have designed some sets. And for the long-gone, much lamented Cornerstone Theater [Christian theater at First Assembly Church], I designed two of the sets for their four all-time productions. As for choreography, I've done a little.
The sequences when Pseudolus dances with the three Proteans as Roman soldiers are hilarious. What's that borrowed from?
The Marx Brothers, *Duck Soup* -- you know, the mirror dance. That's the delightful thing about Pseudolus: Even when his life is on the line, he still loves to get the one-up on people.
[ Jerry freely admits that he has stolen bits from Zero Mostel in the movie, "which I first saw when I was about 12," and from Nathan Lane. "In fact," he says, "the hardest thing about this part is NOT doing Nathan Lane. His personality is just so well suited to this role." And then he rattles off all the YouTube availability of Lane's performance: on Letterman, and some spectator's cell-phone footage of "Comedy Tonight" and "Lovely." Also: "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" has Jason Alexander doing "Comedy Tonight" with what is presumably the original blocking.]

[ 20 Questions Timeout: Jerry and I got to talking about line-memorizing. Tom Heppler told Bobo last week that he writes out all his lines in one big block of text, without any paragraphing or punctuation at all, so as to memorize them without any inflection. (Look for yet another 20 Questions article with Tom right here on this very blog, soon. Jerry hadn't heard about that particular memorization method, but he shared about "clustering" (circling prepositional phrases, for example, to group hard-to-memorize words.) Jerry also shared the "lead-stated-response" method, in which the actor goes through the script and marks each line as making an assertion, stating a fact that needs no further development, or responding to someone else's line. That's great for character development -- if you have mostly response lines, you're probably a sidekick -- though Jerry and I laughed about how when it comes to slapstick comedy, there ain't a lot of character development goin' on, you know?)
And so what about the get an MFA vs. practical work in the theater dilemma? Well, look at Jerry's career as described in No. 1, above. He graduated from high school, and within a year or two, he had launched what became 21 years with the Covenant Players: "I heartily scoff at the MFA option," he says. "Which will probably get me in trouble with a lot of people, including my director [Diana Trotter, theater professor at Whitworth]. Personally, I'm a doer. I learn by doing."
Also: "I was on the road doing theater for 21 years. I've lived my dream." ]

12. What's the scene in a play or movie that always makes you cry?
The end of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE , every time I see it. I usually don't get moved deeply in the theater because I'm watching the play with a critical eye.

13. You have a chance to spend two hours in a room full of paintings by any painter. Which painter do you choose and why?
Norman Rockwell -- cliche, I know, but he's one of my faves. I do cartooning and love his use of line and color.

14. What’s a bad habit you're trying to break?
Filling out question forms.

15. Who used to be your hero but isn't anymore? Do you have any heroes now?
Don't know as I've ever had a hero per se. There are some in the acting field that I look up to and wish I could have 1/10th their talent. Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Kline, to name two.

16. To what extent are the following stereotypes about theater people valid? ... that they're flighty and impractical; that they all smoke; all they do is complain about not getting cast; and they're always "on," always auditioning for their next part.
I don't think I fit any of those. As with any field, there are always stereotypes. They may have some basis in reality -- that's how most stereotypes get started, after all -- but they are usually not valid in everyday life. I mean, don't all newspaper people wear fedoras, smoke, talk REALLY fast, go to any length to get the story?
[ "There is a smoking contingent, yes. And for some reason, they seem to be the ones who are always complaining about how their singing voices are going. Well, duh ..." [ look of disbelief]

17. You're granted a wish to witness once again, in the exact same circumstances, the most thrilling theatrical performance you've ever seen. What was the production? What were the circumstances?
Hmmm ... a production of THE TEMPEST I saw in Boston at age 16 or so. My father took me, and it was the first "real" play I saw. It impressed me as to the power of theater. In a different category, two performances tie for the slot: Marcel Marceau -- our drama class in high school went to see him at the Schubert Theatre in Boston (probably 1975), and Victor Borge -- I believe it was 1995 in Pasadena. He was 80-something and full of vim and vinegar.

18. What book is so good that you have bought copies for other people?
Seriously, the only book I've done this with is the Bible. I've recommended authors to people, but never actually purchased copies.

19. What does contemporary American theater need less of? more of?
Less profanity for the sake of profanity. Sometimes a powerful word fits the need of the scene, but to throw it in every other word just because the playwright wanted to is unnecessary (with the exception of Mamet's NOVEMBER -- that was VERY funny because of the overuse of the word.) More support for original and new material.

20. There are lots of profane and godless people in theater. (And I understand that some of them are even gay.) How has being in theater affected your faith?
It has strengthened it in many ways. Being a Christian in a Christian environment is easy, but being "in the world but not OF the world" is more difficult. I have had more impact on friends and fellow performers by simply living my faith under all circumstances than if I hit them over the head with a Bible.
[ "I remember doing GUYS AND DOLLS with you, and there was one gay guy in the entire cast. And I thought, "What is this? How can this be musical theater?'" [laughs] ]

21. Funniest anecdote from rehearsing and performing at the Civic?
Hmm ... possibly running the dice game during GUYS AND DOLLS, remember? We had the crap game at the opening of Act Two, and I started a game among the cast using the actual numbers rolled in that scene. It cost a buck to get in, and the winner took the pot -- minus 10 percent for my expenses, of course!

{ "I've built a career being the third guy from the end at curtain calls," Jerry says. But at the end of *Forum," he is -- quite deservedly -- the star, the last guy to get the applause. Having seen his Nathan Detroit up close and now his Pseudolus, I can honestly say: Jerry Sciarrio deserves a round of applause from us all. }

[ photos: from newgenerationfilms ("Oh Vey, My Son Is Gay!"): Jerry's headshot; Jerry in drag from "Death and Murder on the Nile"; and, at Spokane Civic Theater in 2003, *Guys and Dolls,* directed by Marilyn Langbehn and with, from left, Buddy Todd, Bobo as Lt. Brannigan, Robert Wamsley as Big Julie, and Jerry Sciarrio as Nathan Detroit ]

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At June 01, 2009 11:52 AM , Anonymous Reed McColm said...

As a performer, Jerry Sciarrio is a gem, a gift to our community. He is terrific in "Forum." But the bonus is, as a person, he's also one of the finest, friendliest and funniest men you could hope to know. Thanks, Bobo, for your 20 Questions with Jerry. Entertaining and informative at once. Viva Sciarrio!


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