My Pop Life #217 : Optimistic – Sounds of Blackness

LicheinsteinintheskywithDiamonds

Optimistic – Sounds of Blackness

*

as long as you keep your head to the sky

*

I owe everything to my wife in the end.  Almost everything positive in my life has come from her incredible energy, her spirit, her capacity for love above all else.   This is her song.

I write from my dressing room on Broadway.

IMG_1235

dressing room, Jacobs Theatre, 45th & 8th

Last August 2018 it was – I was in Malibu with my friend Stephen Kalinich (see My Pop Life #169 : The Magic Hand) when Jenny messaged me – could I make a meeting at 4pm the following afternoon in Los Angeles – with her Agency?  She’d spoken to the boss – Scott Manners – and he’d decided to relax his rule about not representing married couples.  They had an office in New York, and one in Los Angeles.  The next day I am seated at a desk as seven agents, (including Glenn Salners & Michael Chance), ask me questions.  They all love Jenny, but what is my raison d’irt track ?  They’d seen the showreel and liked it.  Good range.  Well, I say, I like to do accents, characters, but I don’t do theatre.  It was a line I’d been using for thirty years.  Ever since playing Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman in fact, (see My Pop Life #108) although I had done one more play since then at the RSC in 1989, and one at The Bush in 2009.  I do camera.  TV, film. I’m not sure how to do theatre acting.  It seems to require lying on a large scale, expanding the performance to reach the back row, projecting, pretending TOO MUCH.  My wife Jenny Jules is very good at it, in fact she is excellent.  Quite superb.  Better than me by quite a way.  She does the stage stuff, I do the camera stuff, largely.  It’s an amicable if archetypal arrangement.

But that is the story.  They nod, we chat, it feels good.

About a month later, I meet the New York office, including Scott.  He says he is worried by some things I said at the LA meeting.  Specifically the part about Not Doing Theatre.  Well, I said, following my own pre-recorded script, the story I’d been telling myself for the last 30 years : that “I don’t do theatre”.  I was a camera actor, a minimalist whose talent was for microscopic changes of mood and thought that needed a camera close-up into my boat-race. The Agency listened, nodded and Scott said “Ralph, that’s going to be a problem for us.  We use the theatre to build careers.”

OK then”  I said,  “I’ll do some theatre“.

It was time.

They signed me up.  Two months later, Scott sends me the script and one particular scene from The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth.  I’d seen it in London with Paulette Randall earlier that year.    My audition, just before Christmas, was with director Sam Mendes who’d asked me why I was going back onstage.  I told him that my wife had scored a great gig (couldn’t say what!) which meant that I really didn’t need to work in 2019, so the shackles were off and maybe I felt it was time to get scared again after only one stage performance in the last 30 years.  He reckoned they could provide that.  I’d practised a Derry accent over the weekend listening to Martin McGuinness on Youtube, and learned the lines.  It felt good.  I was offered the part the following lunchtime.

IMG_0966

My shadow falls across Broadway, January 2019

 

Jenny is the theatre actor, she plugs in on stage and burns incandescent like the sun.  Anyone who has seen her, in Ruined, Sweat, The Homecoming, Wine In The Wilderness, The Crucible, Julius Caesar, Her Portmanteau, Two Trains Running, Gem of the Ocean, Pecong,  The Colour of Justice, The Vagina Monologues, Fabulation, Born Bad, Big White Fog, Death & The King’s Horseman, A Raisin In The Sun, Moon On A Rainbow Shawl or Father Comes Home From The Wars knows what I mean.  She is luminescent.   She makes my eyes water, always does.  So proud and moved, so thrilled to see her every time.  I usually go six or seven times to a show she is doing.  I make the money, she does the art.  What’s the story again ? – I subsidised the theatre via TV shows & movies.  Yaawn.  I think we’d both been telling this story to be honest, we’d just got used to it.   The story was tired and had become bollocks.

On day one of rehearsal Tim Hoare introduced himself to me as the director.  Sam wasn’t going to be around.  I told Tim “my story” and how intrepid and scared I felt going back into the theatre.  He told me how Paddy Considine had never done a play when he started in The Ferryman in London.   Tim then nursed me through the rehearsal process with ease, fairness, compassion and great emotional literacy.  I was back in my twenties, in a rehearsal room with a new family, working on a piece of literature that we would stand on its feet together.  Back when I fell in love with the idea of being an actor.

IMG_1387

The Ferryman

There are twenty-one actors in the cast plus a baby & the animals, it is a monster three-hour banquet of a play set in South Armagh & Derry in the North of Ireland in 1981 during the Hunger Strike.   I play IRA Commander Jimmy Muldoon. Most of the cast were new, and most of them were American.  Charles Dale, Fionnula Flanagan, Glenn Speers and the children (Brooklyn Shuck, Willow McCarthy Michael McCarthy & Matilda Lawler) were staying on from the Broadway cast.  Charles is Welsh, Fionnula and Glenn are southern & northern Irish.  The kids are all Americans doing a Northern Irish accent (very well).  The new company included the lovely Brian D’Arcy James as Quinn, Holley Fain as Caitlin and Emily Bergl as Mary, Fred Applegate as Uncle Pat and Annie McDonough as Aunt Pat, Graham Winton as Magennis the IRA man with the Prod surname, and Shuler Hensley as Tom Kettle the Englishman in Crossmaglen.  Sean Maloney and Terence Keeney came over from the West End company and the Guinness started to flow, Collin Kelly-Sordelet (Jersey boy!), Ethan Dubin (Brooklyn boy!!), Julia Nightingale (starlet) and Jack diFalco (doing the accent all day and all night) joined us in the various Irish bars of Hell’s Kitchen.  The belly started to grow.  Stories, politics, Ireland, the Troubles. We drank.  We bonded.

Then we moved to the theatre on 45th St.  The show was still on in the evening, so we worked from 12-4pm on the stage.  Shared dressing rooms with the company and had to clear out every day.  The day approached.  For my Broadway debut.  At the age of 61 and a half.  What blessings are these.

IMG_6130

Broadway virgins no more : Julia, Sean, Terry, me, Ethan and Annie

IMG_1237

Me and Brian D’Arcy James on opening night

What is inescapably extraordinary is this simple fact : the play is set in South Armagh in August 1981.  If you look back at an early entry in my story (My Pop Life #13 : The Green Fields of France) it is the story of a younger version of me in South Armagh, August 1981.  Crossmaglen.  The Troops Out Movement, protected by the IRA through the countryside on a delegation to the British Army barracks there.  A quite extraordinary circle back through my own history, which I discussed in rehearsals.  How could I not ?  Being told by Jean in West Belfast not to go down the shop in Ballymurphy for cigarettes on my own because I’ll get popped once they hear my accent.  Seeing The Undertones in Finsbury Park and other gigs with Fergal Sharkey stripping down one song at a time from a parka to bare chest as he warbled through their pop-punk repertoire.  Seeing Bobby Sands murals on the Falls Road the size of a house.  Being in a war-zone.  The violence of those years in England – Brixton going up in flames, the Falklands War, the NF, the miner’s strike, IRA bombs in Brighton (see My Pop Life #185 : Between The Wars).

IMG_1184

The Ferryman cast & crew in rehearsal, Feb 2019

IMG_1127

The infamous IRA scene at the top of Act 3 in rehearsal : Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Sean Delaney, Terry Keeley, Michael McCarthy, Jack diFalco

But beyond all of that, my own blood rushing through my veins every day as I boarded the Q train over the bridge to Manhattan with all the straphangers at 9.00am, finally feeling like a New Yorker.  I revisited my own love affair with acting, where I started, in the theatre.  Throughout my 20s I had done plays, above pubs, at the Edinburgh Festival, at the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Tricycle, the RSC.  I’d even written a couple.  Then after a terrible experience at Liverpool Everyman, revealed in My Pop Life #108 : Sumer Is Icumen In, I quit the stage and concentrated on TV and film acting.  Luckily Withnail & I  happened around the same time, and although it would take a few years to permeate the cultural landscape, my future was, unbeknown to me, already assured.  Lucky doesn’t cover it.  I am simply born protected & blessed and always have been.  I am forever grateful.  There was a moment of course in the joy of rehearsal when I thought – wow!  I should’ve gone back to the theatre YEARS AGO, but hey.  At least I got there.  I absolutely feel at home again.  Born again happy.

IMG_1112

Ben, associate director, and Tim Hoare at work

And as Tim said to me on the day of the Dress Rehearsal – “you are a stage animal“.  Such a terrific endorsement at a critical time.  I had the Juice.  I didn’t know that at the start of rehearsal but now I could feel it.  I was using an old muscle and it still worked.  This in itself has been a huge thrill.

IMG_1296

The Ferryman – the prologue : Glenn, Charlie, me, Graham

And all the while, there was Jenny alongside me as ever, nurturing and supporting, loving and healing, and holding her own secret, and rehearsing her own mighty show, for she had been cast back in September 2018 and signed an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) to not release the information to anyone.  We lived in a state of heightened purse-lipped security for three months.  Not even the word “Broadway” was to be uttered to any friends or relations of rabbit. The best gig she’d ever scored and she couldn’t tell anyone.  Until the day my deal was done, just before Christmas, and then there was the Press Release.

IMG_1406

Jenny Jules as Hermione Granger

Jenny was going into another hit Broadway show :  Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, replacing our friend Noma Dumesweni as Hermione Granger.  For a year.  At least.  This was the secret we had held for three months.  Mmmmmmnnnnn.  Biting the soles of our feet.  Such a Great Part.  Such a great show.  I’d seen it with Cush Jumbo & Sean Griffin and Rose Leslie in 2018.  Noma was in the cast.  So thrilling, such a wonderful piece of theatre, full of real magic.  So suddenly we were both Broadway Babes, inheriting parts in shows which were already hits, had already been reviewed and were running on with new companies.  Both produced by Sonia Friedman.  We were local hire in the two West End hit transfers.  Perhaps not that surprising, thinking about it.  It had taken us five years.  We were on Cloud Nine.

IMG_1225

Cloud Nine – kind of

Jenny started rehearsing long before I did, and didn’t open until a month after we’d opened – a fifteen-week rehearsal period all in all.  The Cursed Child show is in two parts, two complete plays, and they perform each one four times a week, eight show a week in all, the same as The Ferryman.

https___blogs-images.forbes.com_risasarachan_files_2019_03_02.-HPCC_HarryHermioneRon_Photo-by-Matthew-Murphy-1200x800

Ron, Harry, Hermione – Broadway 2019

The Cursed Child is considerably more technical than our traditional play which obeys the unities of place and time, set inside a farmhouse in Armagh.  The Cursed Child has magic for a start.  To say more would be to spoil the surprises for those who haven’t seen it yet.  But they needed their fifteen weeks.  Jenny opened last night in Part One, and tonight in Part Two.  Her sister Mandy (Natasha, Reginelle, Bad) came over for the opening and is sitting there tonight.  She’ll come to see The Ferryman tomorrow night.  What a star.

IMG_0987

Max & his dad Sean

Yesterday dear friends Cush and Sean came to the Ferryman matinee.  They loved it.  They’d seen it twice before, and told me this was their favourite.  That was a secret of course.  This isn’t :  Jenny and I are Oddparents to their son Maximilian who is almost one beautiful year old.  After eating and walking up to the flower shop with them for Jenny’s first night bouquet, I split and bought a bottle of Yoichi Japanese whisky to take up to the lads’ dressing room after the evening show.  They hold an impromptu whiskey bar upstairs every night and it was time for me to contribute.  I deliberately use both spellings as we drink both whiskies.  We finished it in 40 minutes between the seven of us, then walked two blocks to Bar Centrale to meet Jenny, her sister Mandy, her room-mate Diane Davis (Ginny) and Charles Randolph-Wright our friend.  Sean and Terry came with me.  We had a few drinks and some toasty cheese and jumped in a taxi home.  Just a few mates from two shows.  It was a perfect end to a perfect day.  No need for Lou Reed after all.

IMG_1401

And it was Jenny who’d done it.  Who’d spoken to her agent and wondered if he would represent me.  Who’d sent the showreel. I’d been without an agent all year, since sacking Oriana Elia in January 2018.  Another tedious story.  I have a manager, Michael Lazo at Untitled in LA.  And I’d done a movie early in the year that he had organised as a straight offer – Gemini Man with Will Smith, directed by Ang Lee.  Nice gig.  But I hadn’t acted since.  I’d written a movie and co-written a 4-part TV show so I hadn’t exactly been idle.  But she’d moved some earth and sorted me out.  She didn’t want me idle when she opened on Broadway.  Something to worry about.  And now here we were both on Broadway, at the same time.  I will forever be grateful to her, for her optimism and faith and love.  For her fierce heart.  For her fire and her ice.  And for just being her beautiful self.  Did I mention I was lucky ?

proxy.duckduckgo-5

This tune literally lifts her heart.  From 1991, when we were courting, it is a gospel groove from Sounds of Blackness, a large soul/jazz/gospel ensemble out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Run by Gary Hines and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.  Jam/Lewis formed a band called Flyte Time with Alexander O’Neal in the 1980s who then supported Prince on tour (but now called The Time and with Morris Day on lead vocals).  They then went on to produce Just Be Good To Me for The SOS Band and Janet Jackson’s hit albums Control & Velvet Rope.

proxy.duckduckgo-6

In 1991 they nurtured their neighbours Sounds of Blackness, through their 2nd LP The Evolution of Gospel.  This – Optimistic – was the lead single.  It is pure UP music, and Very Jenny.  Very Infectious.  I swear she could heal the world on her own if she had time.  Their 3rd LP Africa to America : The Sound of the Drum is even better and I commend it also to thy ears.  Communal groove music.

Thank you my darling.  You are my world.

Never say die

 

 

Advertisements