About the author:
The acclaimed solo performer and Broadway vet Martin Moran is currently in previews in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere of John Guare’s 3 Kinds of Exile. Moran kicks the evening off with a fascinating monologue about a young refugee who leaves Eastern Europe for England in 1939, followed by a section in which Guare himself takes the stage with Omar Sangare to share the story of emigree Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska. Broadway.com asked Moran to write about the experience of performing a solo piece written by someone else, but he gave us something even better: a lovely portrait of Guare’s professional acting debut and how it has inspired Moran to appreciate anew the joys of his profession. Read on for Moran's explanation of “Beginner’s Mind,” then get tickets to see him, Guare, David Pittu and more in Neil Pepe’s production of 3 Kinds of Exile, which opens on June 11.
I had one actual line. I screamed it out with all my Just-Joined-Actors-Equity-Soul: “Let’s get Fagin!!!”
I was 24 years old but felt like a kid of seven who’d been given a key to paradise. I relished every aspect of that first professional job: Going to my first fitting at Parson Meares, scribbling my initials on the sign-in sheet, the half-hour call over the speaker at the Mark Hellinger (still a theater then), sitting in the dressing room with colleagues swapping Cockney accents. You probably guessed. The show was Oliver! This was the 1984 revival, and I didn’t even mind that it bombed. I was just so amazed and thrilled to be present, present for every single moment of the experience.
Cut to 30 years later, many jobs down the road, and I find myself at the Atlantic Theater in a triptych of provocative plays called 3 Kinds of Exile, written by John Guare and directed by Neil Pepe. It’s a moving portrait of three different artists, now gone, who lived their adult years in exile. Why, three decades later, my hair going gray, do I find myself thinking so much about my first professional job?
For surprising reasons, something about Three Kinds of Exile has awakened for me the remembrance of seeing everything as if for the first time. Of taking on life with what the Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind.” And that something has a lot to do with John Guare, with witnessing this seventy-something prolific American playwright making his acting debut.
When we stepped backstage a couple of weeks ago and settled into our spots in Atlantic’s single big dressing room, we found ourselves alongside the tall man with a shock of white hair, our venerable playwright, looking at times like a seven-year-old kid, eyes beaming at the newness of it all. “This is utterly amazing,” he said as he pulled on his T-shirt and trousers to begin tech rehearsal. “Amazing to be here. Be here with all of you!” His evident delight has been bonding, and sweetly infectious.
During rehearsals, John was ever present as writer. Along with Neil, he would elucidate and examine aspects of the script, much of which springs from his life and friendships. I had just finished a run of my solo show All the Rage. Suddenly here I was, being asked to inhabit the monologue that makes up the first story of the evening. This marks my first time doing a “solo show” written by someone else. I felt very nervous (like a beginner!) trying to fit my temperament and rhythm to John’s beautiful and mysterious language.
In my own writing, I tend to speak as if off the cuff, making swift digressions and asides. John’s voice has a kind of unhurried musicality and beauty that I am still working to uncover. In rehearsal, he often jumped in with suggestions and passionate stories (one about being in Army basic training in the south on the day President Kennedy was shot and the shock of seeing people celebrate) to help me unlock aspects of his script. Always prodding, digging and, I noticed, always in quiet moments scribbling, ever scribbling, into a little red and black notebook.
Now, here we are, all nine of us sitting, combing our hair, pulling on our underclothes (our three lovely ladies behind a floor-to-ceiling curtain). I sit next to Peter Maloney, who has done 20 shows at the Atlantic alone! He and John swap stories, like two schoolboys. (Peter has his own ever-youthful twinkle) I can’t count how many times John has said in recent days, “Oh my god, this is just wonderful, being back here with all of you!”
Neil had said, “You know John, you’re an actor now. You have to come every night.” “I know. I know!” John said. “Happily.” I overheard Alison, our stage manager, describe to him how a cue light works, signaling his entrance, and company member Kate Rigg leading him through warm-ups. After our first preview he asked, “What do you do about cotton mouth?” I told him to get a small lozenge and put it up in his gums. Next day he had them, though now his growing confidence has, I believe, eradicated the cottonmouth.
“I don’t know if I ever understood what you guys have to do!” John declared the other day. “I will never yell at another actor again!” He is always the first one to go down and sit quietly near stage before each performance, wishing each of us “Good show” as he strides from the dressing room.
In this oft crazy and frustrating profession, I find myself grateful to be reminded of “Beginner’s Mind,” of how a life in the arts is always a reimagining, a renewal, a first time adventure. John keeps responding when asked, “Yes, this is my first and last time being an actor!” Who knows if it’s truly his last, but wow, it’s fun to be together and to experience this time, this moment, as a first and last. It won’t repeat. And not just the show, but this act of living. I do hope if I am blessed to reach Peter’s age, John’s age, that I will still move through this life as a kid given a key to paradise.