A method to my madness

While getting settled here in Syracuse has been something of a challenge regarding getting full-time work, I have gotten cast in a show here that will let me restart my acting again. As I mentioned in one of my early posts, I have been acting on and off since 1984, when I did my first play in college on a dare from a friend. I felt very fortunate in Rochester, as the theatre community is so extensive for a smaller city, and it provided me with so many opportunities not only just to act, but to learn the craft from people who are far better than I am. I know I did improve over time, and it was in no small way due to the many former and current professional actors that I had the pleasure of working with while living there.

I have been cast in a production of “The Laramie Project,” a play I acted in once before, in Rochester back in 2001 when it was still a very new play. I’ll put a link to the production at the end of this post. I started ruminating about how the hell I got the guts to actually step on stage in the first place. It’s not a question I ever really pondered before. It finally hit me that I truly owe it all to my career in EMS.

Why, you ask? In a word; confidence. I never had a lot of it as a kid, and less of it as a teenager, until that moment came when I took the first-aid course at my local volunteer ambulance corps when I was 17, joined the youth squad of the corps, then began riding as crew member at 18. It took time, but it was that experience, and the ones that would follow in the years to come which provided me with the personal confidence (or insanity) to throw caution to the wind, and audition for that first play I was ever in, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” while in college in 1984.

That first stage experience taught me that I could do anything wanted to if I set my mind to it, even if it terrified me. It also gave me the kind of thrill I had only experienced while riding on the ambulance, and it also had the advantage of providing a getaway from EMS when I needed it. EMS has provided me with a great deal of things over the years, even as I have been removed from it for so long now. Close friendships from that time are still there, and while there has been an inordinate amount of death within our ranks since 9/11, we’ve always been there for each other, through both good times and bad. Those of us that played the game in NYC and beyond understand certain things that the general public never can, and have seen things most people should never see. I carry those things into all the productions I’ve ever been associated with, as they provide a wealth of experiences and emotions to be explored as I explore the characters I am playing at any given time.

With that in mind, should you find yourselves in the Syracuse are this coming September come check out the show. Info is here:

http://cnyplayhouse.com/laramie.htm

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The measure of a man

By now the news of the death of actor and Rochester native Philip Seymour Hoffman is worldwide news. The press is of course feasting on the apparent cause of his death: A heroin overdose, with the morbid detail of the needle being found in his arm when he was discovered unconscious. Yes, Phil Hoffman was an addict, even by his own admission. He said as much back in 2006 during a pre-Oscar interview with 60 Minutes. That he struggled with drug addiction off and on throughout a large portion of his life is a part of who he was as a person.

It was however, only one part of who he was, so why does it seem that people dismiss the rest of his life as meaning nothing because of his addiction and the way he died? I don’t make this statement lightly. After reading the comments on the news sites from people who seem to have made their minds up that the only thing that mattered about him was that he was, according to them, a junkie – rich, spoiled, and unappreciative of the opportunities he’d been given.

Given. Not earned. Given.

As if he never worked a day in his life to earn the good fortune that was bestowed upon him through his commitment to his craft as an actor. Ignorance may be bliss, but it also adds fuel to stupidity as well. Look, let’s make no mistake here: There is no one else to blame for the way Hoffman died except for Hoffman. His being an addict however, was only one part of who he was as a person, just like the rest of us. To dismiss everything else that made him a human being – a father, partner, brother, son, actor and director – is to dismiss the same aspects in everyone.

I’m not going to go into all his accomplishments as an actor, director, et. al. If you really need to know these things, do an IMDB search. It’s all there anyway. However, I lived in Rochester for fourteen years, and had the pleasure of acting on stage with several people who knew Hoffman and his family in a very personal way, and the one thing that always was said about him was that he really hadn’t changed on the whole from who he was when he set off for NYU in the mid-80’s. His ego was always kept in check, not only by himself, but by those he grew up with. By all accounts, he remained grounded to what was important in life, and to the people that he cared about. He came back to his old high school, Fairport High in Fairport, NY, on numerous occasions to conduct master acting classes for the theatre students. In addition to his mother, Marilyn O’Connor, it was his foray on to the stage in high school – nurtured by now retired Fairport acting teacher Midge Marshall – that fueled his passion to pursue acting as a career.

Older brother Gordy, also a Fairport alum, became a screenwriter. He wrote the movie Love,  Liza, which starred Phil in the title role. I had the opportunity to work with Gordy on a project related to his Blue Cat Screenplay competition; A live reading of the winning screenplay and the runner-up screenplay at Blackfriars Theatre, back in the mid-2000’s.

I met Phil on two occasions, both related to films he was in that were being screened at the Little Theater on East Ave in Rochester. They were brief, “Hi, really enjoy your work” kind of things. I did have the chance to tell him about how I took an acting class with his dad back in 2000. He chuckled, and said “Yeah, I forgot he told me about that.”

All this however will mean nothing to those who did not have a connection to him in one way or another. They will continue to see him through the narrow lens of what constitutes their view of Hollywood, celebrity, and yes, political affiliations. I’ve read comments that have said, with a vitriol that seeps through the screen, that he’s “just another dead liberal junkie.”

How many of us would like our lives dissected in this manner? To take the single most negative aspect of a life, and let it overshadow everything else? I’m not talking about people who commit heinous acts upon others. I’m talking about the average person, who like all people, have their own demons to conquer. Personal failings are just that: Personal. They need to be addressed by the individual, but that person needs to acknowledge and work at keeping them in check and no one else but themselves. Doing that allows them to do the best for others as well.

I dealt with acute depression for several years. I sought help, and worked hard to try to overcome it, but I know it always lurks in the background, waiting for the opportune moment to strike again. Will you judge me as weak? As unable to deal with reality? As simply lazy, and that I should just pull myself up and get on with life? Depression, like addiction, is a chronic, ongoing struggle against that which would drag me down. Yes, I am in a good place right now, but I have come close to falling down the rabbit hole again.

Hoffman fell down the hole, and was unable to get out this time. It did not make him an evil, uncaring person, as some might see him. He was human, just like the rest of us, and while his death is a tragic example of how addiction overpowers some, it is also a reminder that no one is immune to their own failings. Chasing the dragon was on his shoulders. It should still not be used as a means to dismiss the rest of who he was to so many others.

“He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.” Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii

(I would be remiss if I didn’t post my favorite Phil Hoffman scene, From Charlie Wilson’s War: