About the author:
Reed Birney’s career proves that it’s possible to become the hottest stage actor in town on the far side of 50. Consider his resume in the past four years alone: Since his blistering performance as a sexual abuser in Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Birney has starred in new plays at Roundabout (Tigers Be Still, The Dream of the Burning Boy), Playwrights Horizons (The Savannah Disputation, Circle Mirror Transformation, A Small Fire), Atlantic (Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling) and Soho Rep (the title role in Uncle Vanya). Birney works so often, in fact, it’s a jolt to realize that the current revival of Picnic is his first Broadway show since 1977. Nearing the end of his run as shopkeeper Howard Bevans, the object of a schoolteacher’s affection, Birney wrote about his slow but steady career journey.
I always wanted to be an actor. I always wanted to be a movie star.
Like lots of us, I did any play in school I could, and I started doing community theater when I was in high school. I moved to New York in the summer of 1974, just before I turned 20. I had dropped out of Boston University after sophomore year, anxious to get started on My Fabulous Career. Within three months I had gotten my Equity card through an ad in Backstage for a children’s theater tour.
It was a disaster and a soul killing experience. There were seven of us in an un-air-conditioned station wagon traveling from Maine to Florida to New Orleans and stopping at every cattle-crossing in between to put on two dreadful soft-rock musicals. When the tour ended after nine months, I had my first impulse to quit show business.
I was very lucky, although I didn’t know it at the time, to have gotten into an acting workshop sponsored by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. NATAS. They put on the Emmys. A friend had asked me to audition with him; I got into the class, and he didn’t. It was free, and full of interesting, talented actors. Sigourney Weaver, pre-Alien, had just moved to New York after Yale. Mercedes Ruehl was already a member. The workshop nursed my Children’s Theater Wounds. Saved my life. We were first taught by a brilliant Polish man, Tad Danielewski (look him up), and later by the equally brilliant Gene Lasko, who had worked at The Actors Studio. I credit these two amazing men with everything I know as an actor.
Our workshop put on a showcase, and Sigourney and I had big parts. Two of her Yale classmates came to the show and asked me afterwards if I would play Sigourney’s younger brother in a showcase they were putting on right after our play. They were writer Albert Innaurato and director Peter Mark Shifter, and the play was called Gemini.
We were supposed to run only six performances at Playwrights Horizons, where I believe we were the second play in the space after it had been a porno theater. But after a developmental stop on Long Island, Gemini returned to town at Circle Rep and became a huge success, really a phenomenon. From there, the play moved to Broadway (before many shows had done that), and ran for five years. I was in it for two.
On Gemini’s Broadway opening night, May 21, 1977, I got to the theater early, and remember sitting on the edge of the stage of what is now the Helen Hayes Theatre and thinking, here I am, 22 years old, and this big dream was coming true. I was a Broadway actor. I thought I needed to really take this all in, because who knew when I would be on Broadway again?
Well, it turned out to be only 35 years until Picnic.
So much for that lifelong dream. I have not been anything like a Broadway actor or a movie star. But I have had a rich, amazing life working everywhere else, and doing exactly the work I came to New York to do, especially in the last five years. I have been enormously fortunate to work on beautiful new plays, with truly astonishing young directors—Sam Gold, Evan Cabnet, Trip Cullman, to name three. Brilliant. And I’ve gotten to work with such gorgeous acting colleagues.
Sometimes the lifelong dream doesn’t come true. Sometimes the one that does come true is even better.