is the grass any bluer...

is the grass any bluer...
on the other side?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gild the Lily...NOT!

"Scalding commentary peppered with profanity."  That seems to be the most often used description of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, the award winning play that opens next in the new performance space of Actors Guild of Lexington.  

Those attending will be treated to performances by seasoned veterans perfectly capable of delivering all the right cuss words in a believable fashion, as well as relatively new faces on the local theatrical scene.  Director Bob Singleton has once again brought together a cast that will put people in the seats not only to see the likes of Timothy Hull, Pete Sears, Tom Phillips and Robert Parks Johnson, but will also showcase the talents of actors without the years of experience that those familiar fellows 
bring to the stage.

Timothy Hull, Nick Vannoy and Evan Bergman in
SEE Theatre's LONELY PLANET, which Bergman directed.
Bergman and Hull both have roles in AGL's
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, which opens Feb. 24

Now, I don't really profess to know anything about theatre, so I'm not going to be pretentious and even attempt to define this work, but I will tell you that as a not-so-young lady trying to make it in an extremely competitive world, I can relate to the struggle that ensues within this piece as the characters, real estate monster mongers, fight to keep and maintain their livelihood.  However, I also find it somewhat ironic that although the play is about selfish ambition, the actors who currently share the AGL stage are proving themselves to be quite generous as they pool their collective talents to bring Mamet's work to life. 

So it is that with AGL's second show in the new space, I had lots of questions, and in doing so, found that indeed, there IS such a thing as a stupid question...but being a fool, I asked anyway, and accordingly, received a testosterone-laden dose of reality with the responses.

Bob Singleton in AGL's

First up, I asked Bob Singleton to first "talk to me about AGL, do you think the new space is providing a fresh start for the guild?"  Being the articulate gentleman he is, Singleton pointed out that the new space is not necessarily to be considered a "fresh start."  Rather, he states, "Well, I think it definitely provides all the benefits that come from having your own space with which you have complete control over scheduling.  In that sense, it harks back to the days on Short Street. You just can’t overstate the importance of rehearsing in the space you’re going to perform in. There is also room for construction to take place during the rehearsal process. And having the staff offices in the same building is another plus.  I hesitate to call it a fresh start because Eric (Seale, AGL Artistic Director) is making a concerted effort to recognize those who have worked for/with AGL in the past, and acknowledging the full history of AGL. So I don’t want to say fresh start, but I do think it’s a great space for the next phase of AGL."

About the play, when was the cast selected? Did you immediately begin rehearsals after Dead Man's Cell Phone's run ended?  "
We had season auditions in early December, and then I had a second round of auditions specifically for Glengarry toward the end of December. So many talented people came out, it was truly the most challenging casting decision I’ve ever had to make (which of course resulted in the thing I hate the most…telling talented people who are good enough to be in the show that I wasn’t going to cast them. This one, as most shows do, came down to final decisions based on factors other than talent). Could have gone a lot of directions with this one. I finally made my decisions in January, and we had a handful of rehearsals in between the first and second weekends of DMCP. Once that show closed, I took Monday off, then dove headlong into Glengarry."
Eric Johnson and Robert Parks Johnson

Had you ever worked with Robert Parks Johnson, or any of the others before? "
I’ve never worked with Bob before, or Pete Sears.  I’ve performed with all the other cast members, and have directed a few of them before."

I also asked if Singleton had encouraged Johnson, who has been through a struggle of his own the past year in his battle with cancer, to audition, or was it his idea?   "
Well, I certainly wanted to be sure he was aware of the show and the auditions. And generally, if actors are aware of an audition for a Mamet show, that’s all the carrot you need. That’s a nice thing about a Mamet show. To paraphrase, 'If you Mamet, they will come.'  When he came to the first audition, I have to say I was thrilled to see him walk through the doors. For a number of reasons, obviously."

"Bob is the consummate professional. Well prepared, extensive experience, exceptional talent. He bring so much to every rehearsal, and it’s the kind of stuff that gives me lots to think about and explore, in addition to what I’ve already prepared. That being said, he’s also wide open to any suggestions I might have for tweaking a line, working out some blocking, breaking down a beat. He also understands the give and take of the rehearsal process among the actors…giving stuff to another actor to work with, and taking what is thrown at him and running with it.  We’ve discovered so much during the rehearsal process because Bob and the rest of the cast are so good with the give and take, act and react, that is crucial to both building on what we know we want to do, and for discovering new things we can try, explore, discuss. It’s been one of the best rehearsal processes in which I’ve been involved."

Stage Manager Natalie Cummins,
who oversees the all-male production.
Johnson describes Cummins as having a
"civilizing influence on us.
She plays Wendy to our Lost Boys."

Can you talk about the on stage chemistry, why it works?  "T
his is one of the reasons the process has been so good. First of all, it’s Mamet, and an all-male cast, so the testosterone is flowing. The on-stage chemistry is great, as is the off-stage. Everyone is supporting one another, and understanding that although many of the characters are of the alpha-male (or alpha-male wannabe) type, this is truly an ensemble piece and everyone has to take their moments when it’s there, and allow for others to have their moments as well. We can’t all be marking our territory at the same time. We’re obviously having all kinds of fun with the language…all the language. The musicality and rhythm of Mamet’s writing, the word play, and the take-no-prisoners approach of Glengarry, is a big attraction for actors. Everyone on stage is scheming, conniving, and completely ready to sell their mother down the road. As I put it at one of our rehearsals, the basic mantra is 'fuck morality, I gotta eat.' But for it to truly work out, for us to really see that these are people doing what they have to do in a system that is inherently unfair, we have to have a level of trust and understanding, of mutual respect (which doesn’t exist in the play) for each other, to truly delve into each character and see them as something more than a loud mouth poser. And we have that…damn, do we have that."

Singleton states that folks will want to come out to see Glengarry Glen Ross because "
 it’s going to be fucking awesome. Because it’s Bob Johnson’s first full-scale production since his battle with cancer.  Because we have a powerhouse cast, crew, designers, and Artistic Director.  Because this story, set in 1983 Chicago, still resonates today. Because it’s the kind of show you can take so much from. It’s funny, it’s hilarious, it’s devastating, it’s ruthless. And it’s real. It’s the kind of show where you can sit back and enjoy the ride, or dig in your heels, reflect on the characters and situations, and think about how this play reflects the way we are...the image we have of ourselves compared to that which we project, compared to that which others take away. What it means to get ahead, and what you have to be willing to sacrifice. How far would we go to achieve ‘success’ as defined by Mamet. All that for a few bucks? Hell of a deal, if you ask me."
Kimmy, Zach Dearing and Bob Singleton

"And one thing I should point out, for those who may not know…the play does involve a fair amount of adult language. Which is fucking awesome, if you ask me."

Wiping away the rubble from the dropping of the F-bomb so freely upon me, I decided that if I was in for a penny, I was in for an effing-pound, so I asked Bob Johnson to give me his views on the show, and also to discuss how he fought to survive the devastation of cancer as well as surgery and the ravages of chemotherapy and other cancer treatment measures.  I don't think I could possibly add to or take away from his words, and it wouldn't be proper for me to even attempt to do so, so here are his thoughts, in his own words:

Bob Johnson and his beloved wife, Martha
Before we talk about the show, can you talk about your illness, when it was diagnosed, and a bit of your journey of faith and hope that has brought you to where you are today? "I was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma on April 16, 2010. The Surgeon removed my right tonsil, a fist sized mass on the right side of my neck, a six centimeter tumor from behind the tonsil, and six lymph nodes that were all positive for cancer.  My disease had reached Stage IV and they could not find the margins. They got as much as they could see and feel, but there was still cancer in my body.  I had more surgeries to remove all my teeth, and to implant a feeding tube so I could get nutrition after the radiation started to burn the inside of my throat.  I had seven weeks of radiation every day, and one and a half doses of chemotherapy.  I was supposed to have three rounds, but the sisplatin they gave me damaged my bone marrow and my white blood cell count crashed. Near the end of my treatment, I had a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the arteries that supply the lungs and heart. This is a pretty common side effect of cancer and cancer treatment.  After a stay in the hospital, I was on oxygen for a month, and had yet another surgery to place an IVC filter to catch any other blood clotsthat might try to get up into my chest. The doctors put me on blood thinners to prevent more clots from forming."

"What helped to bring me through? First of all, the loving faithfulness of my wife, Martha, and my Mom. They went with me to the doctor, fed me through a tube four times a day, held me when I cried, sat with me during chemo, and picked me up from the bathroom floor when I passed out in the middle of the night. Their tears and prayers kept me alive as surely as the Surgeon’s knife or the Oncologist’s drugs. And the prayers, so many prayers. Folks from church. Folks from home. Facebook friends. Most especially, people of the theatre. Two actresses, Alicia Henning and Laurie Genet Preston got together with Joe Gatton and started the Robert Parks Johnson Medical Fund to raise money for the treatment and medicine my insurance would not pay for. Deb Shoss and Julieanne Pogue were frequent visitors in our home. Rich Copley wrote an article about our situation in the Herald-Leader and many people contributed as a result. Then each of the local theatre companies staged benefit performances for us. I was so deeply moved by the love and support of the artists in our city. I had worked with many of them, but never met many others. It was so uplifting to know that so many people were caring, praying, and working for my healing and recovery. It made me want to live so I could pay their love forward. I know I will never be able to pay it back."

"My will to fight cancer, and to live, came from my desire for two things: I want to grow old with my wife, and I want to act. I haven’t spent nearly enough Sunday afternoons laughing with Martha, and I haven’t played nearly as many roles as I want to play. I thank God every day for giving me the chance to rededicate myself to my two great loves, my bride and the theatre."

Johnson with SummerFest's
Merchant of Venice director Ave Lawyer
"Recovery has been a long road. I got rid of the oxygen tank. I finally got rid of the feeding tube and eventually got false teeth. All my scans have been clean, and my blood levels have stabilized. My ability to taste and swallow food came back. So did my beard. I don’t faint any more, though I do still get dizzy spells when I stand up too fast. I’ve lost, at last count, 106 pounds and 12 inches in my waist. I call that cancer’s silver lining. I’m still officially disabled, so I can’t go back to work yet, but I get to the gym a couple of times a week. My stamina is still weak and my muscles are pretty puny, but I’m making progress. I’m training toward a 5K in March to raise money for the Reading Camps of the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington. And I’m spending time building my marriage and making theatre."

Is this the first show you've done since your cancer went into remission?  "
Julieanne Pogue learned about my situation and appointed herself my theatrical guardian angel. She brought me a script for a musical called No Way to Treat a Lady and told me she was determined to stage a reading with me playing the lead. The project, and her bottomless enthusiasm helped to focus my mind and energy during the long summer of sleep, puking, and driving back and forth to the Markey Cancer Center. She assembled a wonderful cast of actors who made me feel at home and much better than I actually was. It took a long time for me to find my voice again. The surgery and the dentures had really changed the way my voice felt and sounded inside my head. I had a lot of breathless rehearsals and moments when I wasn’t sure I’d have enough fuel to get through a whole performance, but they never lost faith in me. We performed for two invited audiences in January. It was a perfect way for me to dip my toe back into the water. I will never forget the way they helped me to come back to life."

What was the last show you did before you were diagnosed?  "M
y last project was in 2009 with the Verge Theatre.  Ave Lawyer directed a production of The Little Foxes in the Bodley-Bullock house in Gratz Park. It was a very intimate, sight-specific performance that allowed us to play in a very subtle way, much more than a traditional proscenium stage permits. After that, my health started taking a turn for the worse, and I was not able to perform again until this winter."
Laurie Genet Preston, Kimmy and Jennifer Bellando
after Preston's much adored return to the stage in
Laurie, along with Joe Gatton and Alicia Henning
helped organize the
Robert Parks Johnson Medical Fund

In what way is being back on stage any different now than it was before you took a break to recuperate -- or is it just the same? "Interesting question. At one point, I said to a friend, “I hope cancer makes me a better person. I’d hate to think I’ll survive and come out the same asshole I was when I went in.” I don’t know if I’m a better person, but I certainly have a new sense of gratitude for the chance I have to do the work that I love. I spend a lot less time judging and evaluating my fellow actors, and a lot more time enjoying them. The world of the stage, the rhythm of rehearsals, the sound of the audience assembling, the delicious taste of their applause and laughter; these things are still the same. The theatre is as wonderful a place as it’s ever been. Guess I’m just hoping to be a better citizen when I’m blessed enough to be there."

Johnson also told me what is like working with Tom, Pete, Eric and Bob, et al. "
I know a lot of these guys already. I’ve played with Tom, Pete, Evan, and Tim. I never played onstage with Graeme, but we’ve done some pretty silly voice-overs for commercials together.  I knew Eric from previous contact with Actors Guild. I had never met Kody or Bob before. It’s the most confident group of artists I’ve ever worked with anywhere. There just isn’t any ego or self-indulgence at all. I love playing with these guys. Natalie Cummins, our stage manager is sort of the civilizing influence on us. She plays Wendy to our Lost Boys."

"Bob is a fine director, quite unlike anyone I’ve ever worked with. He is very positive in his notes. He almost never talks about what he hates or what he feels like the actors got wrong. Instead, he tells us what he likes about what we’re doing, and encourages us to keep trying new things. It’s a very strange way of working for me, and I was a little dubious at first, but I see how his approach is working. I don’t think I could ever direct that way – I’m a little too domineering for that – but I really admire his ability to get the most out of his actors without being a jerk about it."
AGL Artistic Director Eric Seale

Also, what character do you play, and how is this character a challenge, especially versus the role you most recently played? "F
unny you should ask how the role is a challenge. My character, Shelly Levene is a once great salesman in his late middle age who is depressed and frustrated by his inability to close deals like he used to. He grasps at the faintest hint of hope to keep him going. He’s always looking for someone to help him; to save him. His professional frustrations eventually drive him to the brink of death. Let’s just say that Shelly is a challenge to me because we have so much in common. So much so that my therapist was a little concerned when he learned that I was working on the part. On the other hand, it’s guaranteed income for him, and I get to act: it’s kind of a win-win thing as far as I can see."

"I never compare roles. I just don’t think in those terms. Each one is like one of my children. It’s a little like asking how skin diving is different from sky diving."

Tom Phillips has hit the ground running
since his return from California,
with roles in TOMMY: THE CONCERT,
and in this photo,

I also asked him, why should folks want to come out to see Glengarry Glen Ross? "O
K, I better get this one right, or Eric will kill me. Glengarry Glen Ross is a beautiful play about a very ugly world. The language is ugly, the characters are ugly, their business is ugly, and the consequences  of the things they do are ugly. In spite of all that, there is a dignity about these men. Each has a code of honor, flawed though it might be. They find reasons to laugh when things are bad, and they find ways to fight back against a system that is stacked against them. There is a lot of courage in this play, and a lot of comedy as well.  People who are uncomfortable with profanity will be very uncomfortable with this play.  People who love great writing and fine acting will find a lot to love about it."

As for a secret talent, I thought if I asked Robert the question again I might get a different answer than when I asked him last year, but again, he denied having one.  "You’ve asked me this before, and the answer is still the same. I am way too much of a show-off to have any secret talents. If I have a talent, I make sure people know about it."

Bob Johnson does have a gift, though, that very few others I know are able to boast.  He is an introspective, talented man of faith, one who instills in others a sense of confidence and calm, and he has garnered the respect of everyone in the theatrical community.  His illness and recovery are a story of determination and love for his craft and for his wife and is one worth telling over and over until we understand that heroes are found every day in the face of our friends and family.  However, why listen to me?  Listen to his peers instead. Here's what Pete Sears has to say about Bob Johnson (aka RPJ):

Pete Sears
"I first had the great good fortune to work with RPJ playing six roles in his Shakesfest production of Richard the 3rd and I've always been struck by the keenness of his scholarship and his sense of humor. 

(Me) "So do you want me to play this fairly broadly?"
(RPJ) "I would never give YOU that direction Pete."

I'm finding it's just as fun to work with him as a fellow actor. He's the sort of consummate professional that one hopes to emulate."


Everyone in the Lexington theatre scene was excited to learn that Tom Phillips was moving back to the area after spending a few years out on the west coast.  His reappearance on area stages has done nothing but improve each and every production with which he has been associated.  Since his return, he played the Hawker for AGL's TOMMY: THE CONCERT, singing and dancing his way into our hearts before capturing and swooning the audiences at SummerFest's production of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, where he played the lead role of the dashing Mr. Darcy.  After a successful run as the title character in DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE, he jumped right into his role in AGL's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, and from all accounts is about to wow crowds again with his artful work.  

I asked Tom for his thoughts on working with RPJ in the Mamet play.  He typically delivered his words as only Tom Phillips can, with his unique perspective, saying, "I've worked with Robert more as my director than as a fellow actor, and I love him as a director. But to work onstage with him, and to watch him work, that is a magical thing."

"We all have so many influences as artists, and most of mine have been people I've worked with. I used to say that 90% of what I know as an actor, I learned from Robert's direction. Over the years, that number has gone down due to other influences and experiences, but if there's one person at the top of the list, it's still him."

Ellie Clark and Tom Phillips in rehearsal for

"He's one of the most intelligent, sensitive, insightful actors I've even seen or worked with, a treat to watch, especially over time as you see him mold a work of art from textual clay."

"The fact that he's been through what he's been through, and has emerged victorious makes working with him all the more precious, and I think his performance in Glengarry Glen Ross is going to be one for the ages. It's his victory lap, well-deserved and worth the wait."

Tom says, "I always talk about how Lexington has such an incredible wealth of talent, much of which goes unnoticed in a town that isn't exactly horny for live theatre. Bob's very much a part of that, and I hope the audience comes away from the show understanding what a gift we have in Bob."

Well said, my dear friend, well said.  

Actors Guild of Lexington Presents

This scalding commentary on business in America took Broadway and London by storm and won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. Here is David Mamet at his very best, writing about small-time, cutthroat real estate salesmen trying to grind out a living by pushing plots of land on reluctant buyers in a never-ending scramble for their share of the American dream.  Directed by Bob Singleton.

The Cast 
Williamson - Tim Hull
Levene - Robert Parks Johnson
Moss - Tom Phillips
Aaronow - Pete Sears
Roma - Evan Bergman
Lingk - Graeme Hart
Baylen - Kody Kiser
February 24 - March 6
Thursday, Friday, & Saturday shows begin at 8pm (doors open at 7pm)
Sunday matinees begin at 2pm (doors open at 1pm)

Adults - $20
Seniors & Students - $15

Click here to purchase tickets!

Contact the AGL Box Office to make your reservations.

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS contains strong language and is not suitable for those under the age of 18
Actors Guild of Lexington has received a challenge pledge for matching funds up to $10,000 in the Organization's efforts to raise money for renovations and improvements at the new performance space in South Elkhorn Village.

Current plans for the space include new chairs for patrons, the construction of a technical booth and improvements to the current risers.

Artistic Director Eric Seale is planning to have some of these improvements in place before the opening of Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet this month.

This challenge pledge marks an amazing opportunity for AGL so please consider making a tax-deductible contribution. Any amount, no matter how small, helps towards their goal.
Click here to help them out!

Questions?  Contact the
for more information.

Actors Guild of Lexington

4383 Old Harrodsburg Road
Lexington, KY 40513


I met Robert Parks Johnson only once, years ago at a midnight Christmas Eve mass I attended with someone formerly affiliated with Actors Guild.  My companion was somewhat in a professional and personal valley at the time, and the last thing he wanted was to interact with someone who knew his story, i.e., someone in the theatrical world.  However, when Robert saw us, he immediately made his way through the crowd to embrace him, and was so gracious, so faith-filled and non-judgmental, it left a lasting impression upon both of us, but especially me since it was the first time I'd met him.  I saw Hope in action that night, just as I see Hope in action in Robert today.  That act of kindness was truly a profound gift that speaks to the character and courage of Robert Parks Johnson, and I consider it an honor to have witnessed such compassion.

Having said that, let me say this.  I want to thank everyone who contributed to this and every blog I post, and everyone in the theatre community for indulging me in answering questions and putting up with my lack of knowledge.  It is my humble hope you somehow accept my abject adoration of your craft and effort, though.  I also want to thank you, my dear lambchops, for reading what I have to say...(or not say :)
peace and love,

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