I asked Jeffrey Johnson to take us on his journey of his show Edie Beale Live at Reno Sweeney, which is a remounting of Edie Beale’s infamous cabaret act from 1978. Jeffrey’s two DC area performances of the show concludes tonight at 8 PM at Black Fox Lounge– 1723 Connecticut Avenue. I hope you’ll join him tonight. Joel
“In the fall of 2004, it was recommended to me that I should see a documentary called Grey Gardens. I had never heard of the movie, but after a little web research I had read enough to heed the recommendation. I put the movie in my Netflix queue and within a day or two I had the DVD in my hands. That weekend is still a very clear memory for me thanks to the two very special ladies in the film. Over the course of a Friday night through Sunday night the DVD played constantly in my player whenever I was home. The first time watching it I was dumbstruck by what I was seeing. The raw, uninfluenced existence of two women – their dreams and desires, their fears and heartbreaks – playing out without affectation or direction. Two women who found it a natural thing to just “be” in front of a camera…never really looking into it but past it…almost unaware of it being in the room. Who they were was secondary. It was the psychological study at play that took a front row seat. It was the HOW.
Though some of their actions may be considered borderline crazy to the viewer – a question most people ask me is did I think they were crazy – I never perceived them as that. To me it was a study of how, when two people remove themselves from society, a unique form of communication develops. How the definition of “normal” action/reaction is redefined to fit their situation. How vocabulary can be altered and tweaked to create a form of speech unique to their limited environment. Yes they lived in squalor…but they two women who were raised with a different era with a different set of skills than that of being conditioned to housework. They didn’t know what or how to maintain their environment with out the employment of “hired help”. These ladies were trained in the finer things…the arts, elocution, and in their case, political understanding. Though their ability to express ideas was colorful and tended to weigh on the dramatic side, when boiled down, there was basic common sense behind the idea. It wasn’t the off-kilter, unfocused ramblings of a crazy person. They had educated knowledge behind their thought process. So it was because of this they became my guests that long weekend in the fall of 2004. Their conversations becoming more and more familiar to me with each run of the film. At times I sat and watched it…other times it was just background…but in a very odd way (an experience unique to this movie) they became very real and alive to me. I felt connected to them and in an odd way, an old friend.
THE BACK-BURNER CABARET:
Because of my growing fascination with Grey Gardens I began to do research on all involved: Big Edie, Little Edie, Jerry Torre (the Marble Faun), Albert and David Maysles (the directors), the history of the house and of the Jackie Kennedy Onassis/Beale family relationship. In doing this research I came across a little blurb (I think Wikipedia) about Little Edie doing a cabaret at a small club in New York City in the late part of the 1970’s. This stuck in my head. I thought to myself that THIS idea was wonderful material for a play. I had been writing plays for about 7 or 8 years at that point but I had just taken over the role of Artistic Director for what was then called Actors’ Theatre of Washington (later known as Ganymede Arts) and thus my time to write anything was limited to no time at all. So the idea just went on the back burner and kept company with so many others.
GERALD AND THE SCRIPT
Over the course of the next few years my focus was on the theatre company. I was lucky enough to have a benefactor in the late Noi Chudnoff – a cheerleader for non-profit GLBT and women’s rights, a major community supporter of the arts and GLBT issues and the owner of the Go Mama Go!. In me, Noi saw a few birds she could kill with one stone – an arts organization, a GLBT organization, a non-profit, and an individual artist she could promote. So a friendship was born. I began working with her at Go Mama Go! and she began as a major donor to Actors’ Theatre. As our time together went on our relationship grew into something very deep and bonding. Her commitment to the theatre company and me grew as well and she became President of our Board of Directors and remained so until her untimely death in Nov. of 2007.
I stayed on at the store, now in the role of manager, and at the same time continued my work keeping the theatre company going. Noi’s death, as well as the following collapse of the economy, proved to be a huge blow to us as a company. Our ability to produce anything became almost non-existent as the ever-worsening economy scared donors off. The Board insisted on playing it safe and thus wouldn’t allow us to produce anything unless the money was already there. So it became a Catch 22 of sorts. We couldn’t raise money because we weren’t producing anything and we couldn’t think about producing anything until we had money. Thus I found myself in a predicament. I had to produce something to keep our name out there to hopefully wait out the economic storm…but I had to do it on next to nothing, or for nothing at all. So I started doing a character of mine, Special Agent Galactica, at clubs and bars in town to keep the name out there. And the good thing about it – I could do it on my own, rehearse on my own in my apartment…and I could do it for free. It also was a beneficial move in the fact that I was reaching out to folks at clubs and bars that didn’t necessarily look to the theatre as a form of a night’s entertainment.
So that was the climate I had found myself in on a sunny, early summer afternoon in 2008. An acquaintance of mine, Gerald Duval, came into the store while I was working. I knew Gerald since 2003, when a mutual friend introduced us to each other. We had never really conversed much on our own save for a time or two. We stood at the counter for quite a while chatting about everything going on in our lives, the upcoming elections, the state of the world, art…et cetera, all the while I could tell there was something else going on. As our conversation began to wind down he pulled out a rolled up, clipped together stack of paper. He suddenly changed the topic. “I have this script I have been working on for many years and I wanted to see if you would read it for me and tell me your thoughts.” “Of course”, I said. He continued to hold onto the rolled up document. Not yet ready to hand it over. “It might be something that Ganymede could do. It wouldn’t cost much. You’ll see that when you read it.” “Great!” I said, “ I’m definitely open these days to options with the word ‘cheap’ in the description! What’s the play about?” “Well it’s not really a play. You’ll see. And I would defiantly need some help in getting it all together, but you’re great at that” Gerald knows when and how to compliment…it’s never insincere, but sometimes well calculated. I love that about him. “And you know,” he continued, “I never even considered of a man playing the role when I started writing this, but I have been thinking recently about it and I really think you could do it. I’ve seen what you have done over that past few years with Galactica and The Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons and I think you’d be wonderful.” “Thank you. You have me intrigued on many levels! So…are you going to give me the script?” As he handed me the rolled sheets of binder-clipped paper he said, “Have you ever seen GImmediately my mind went to Little Edie and her cabaret show sitting on a low simmer on that back burner. “Yes. I LOVE that movie!”
I unrolled the document and there was the title – After the Garden-Edie Beale LIVE at Reno Sweeney. If this wasn’t enough to get my heart beating a little quicker he continued by saying, “I knew Edie Beale. In fact, this is her cabaret show. I was hired by Reno Sweeney at the time to help her put a show together, to rehearse it with her and to see her through the performances. I wrote this from all the notes during the creation of her show, from memory, and also from the personal notes I made while working with her. You know there were no recordings made of her performance so this is the closest thing-” “Gerald…you’ve got to be shitting me…!”
A CABARET BY ANY OTHER NAME READING
I couldn’t wait to get someplace where I could read the script. You don’t know how many times I uttered to myself “God, I hope it’s good!”. If this WAS good…or even workable…this could truly be exactly what Ganymede needed. It would be low budget;, It would a new play we were presenting, and it would be about Grey Gardens, a subject that was having a very strong “renaissance” of sorts at the time. Gerald wanted me to do the part, another “plus” because I didn’t have to pay myself to do it…otherwise to get someone with the talent to do it I would have had to find an Equity actor most likely and God know I didn’t have the luxury to begin to think about affording one of those… Finally, it was gender bending, a perfect fit for the GLBT mission, and something that truly did (and still does) interest me.
So you understand how I could be nervous when I finally sat down at an outside table at Java House on 17th Street, ordered my coffee, and turned the title page over? I read the first few paragraphs. It read like a dream. I could tell that a lot of the lines were hers…the unique choice of words, the round about way of explanation, the quick tangent thrown in here and there that really only Little Edie herself could maneuver with such grace and ease. As I read I heard her voice as clear as day. So far so good! In a break of concentration, I found myself flipping through the script as a whole. It was long! And it was all her…talking. There was a brief section where the character of Gerald did come in and the two had some dialogue together (later Gerald explained this to me and how his appearances throughout the show actually did happen) but for the most part it was Edie alone and talking. There were points in the script where it said “insert song” but there were no song choices.
What I was looking at was basically a two-hour monologue. WAY too long! And that didn’t even include the time for each song. As it stood, After the Garden – Edie Beale LIVE at Reno Sweeney was set to rival Les Miserables in running time. With that in mind I decided not to consider anything else about the script until I read it completely through. I needed to see if it was workable. If cutting it down would be something that could be done. Basically…was it possible to move forward? It read beautifully. Each story full of that Edie passion, that wit, that pain. The Kennedy’s, the estranged brothers, mother’s divorce, Miss Porter’s school for girls – story after fascinating story.
As I finished I found myself blown away by the scope of this piece. I knew then and there, drinking my coffee on 17th St., that I wanted Ganymede to do it. I knew then and there that I personally wanted the challenge as an actor to bring this to life. I also knew then and there that I would have to take some time and work on cutting and shaping the piece. All the material was wonderful, but there was no way in hell I could memorize ALL THAT let alone find an audience who would sit for two and a half hours listening to it.
A LITTLE GARDENING
I couldn’t wait to talk with Gerald. However, not allowing myself to go all nipples to the wind with excitement into the conversation, I waited until the next day. It allowed me to focus a little more on what I needed to say professionally. This was a good move. When the conversation did happen it went fabulously. I could tell that Gerald was moved beyond belief as I don’t think he truly thought that I would come back so gung-ho and ready to hit the ground running. I explained to him that the piece needed trimming. A LOT of trimming. I explained that I didn’t believe that the piece should run more than an hour and ten/fifteen minutes tops…and that included the songs too.
We had both agreed that it shouldn’t be a two act piece but stay true to the way Edie did it in 1978 so we both agreed that this “one woman” show should have a running time of what I suggested. I also suggested to him that before we did a production of it I wanted to do a truncated workshop of the piece. A workshop would allow us to experiment with the roots of the script, make sure it was something interesting to the audience and worth doing as well as testing out how a man doing the role would be perceived. Would it deter from the subject matter or lend to it? Now what this workshop would consist of – at that point I didn’t know…but to this too, he agreed. As our discussion went on Gerald suggested that I should take first stab at cutting the piece down as I would ultimately be doing it in performance and I should have a great understanding of what material is there and why it was there. In addition he was too close to the work and to have a fresh eye dissecting it and thus having me do it would ultimately be best for the piece.
So I set to work. I knew that I had to find in the material some underlying theme. As it was a cabaret it didn’t have to be a “solid plot line” but for dramatic purposes there needed to be a point A and a point B and so on. The evening needed to have some base to it. The creation of this “underlying theme” ended up being the most fictional aspect to the finished piece. Gerald had explained how every night Little Edie’s performance was a little different. She didn’t speak about everything he wrote in one night, but ultimately over the course of the seven nights worth of tangents everything written was discussed. That was all fine and dandy…but when the real Little Edie performed, the story was her.
With someone portraying Little Edie the story had to be something else. I wanted a little guidance in doing this…a second pair of eyes so to speak…so I began looking for a director for the piece. As much as I needed to understand the material for performance purposes I felt it only made sense to find a director who was willing to see the process through in its entirety and thus include him/her in editing down of the script. I had run into Rick Hammerly at a local pub one night shortly after I began the dissection and we got into talking about the production and the process. We had worked together a few times before and our styles and working temperament always proved to be a match made in heaven. So as we talked I asked him if he would be interested in reading the script as it originally was written and discussing the option of coming on board as the director. He was open to it, he read it, he was in. It was decided that we would both direct the show with Rick’s focus being on my performance and I would focus on the technical aspects – working with the designers, the concept of the show, etc.
We knew we would be ultimately performing the run doing in a space that we crated from scratch in the back of a used furniture store, Miss Pixie’s. Since I had chosen the space I knew how to make the show work in there so naturally I should be the one guiding that process. I felt comfortable in Rick’s hands as an actor to let go and be directed in finer points of the character creation.
However I get ahead of myself… We decided that the best way to go about this was to take the editing in two steps. As we were first doing the workshop of the show we thought the best way to test everything was to decide on what this “through line” was going to be and cut away EVERYTHING that didn’t relate to telling that story. We wanted the workshop to be a half hour/forty minutes long, including a few songs. So in all reality we were taking a two-hour monologue and reducing it to around twenty/twenty five minutes consisting of what we found to be the recurring theme or “core” of the piece. We found that time and again there was reference to Edie being at the point of either finding the money to pay the taxes on Grey Gardens or having to sell the house. Edie and the house. The core theme. It was the reason Little Edie Beale sought an audition at Reno Sweeney in the first place. Her mother had died shortly after the film opened. Her brothers were going to sell the house out from under Little Edie unless she could come up with the $3000 in owed taxes. Her only option was to cash in on her fame from the movie while also fulfilling a life long dream. So I went through the script and began to create a separate document of passages and monologues that dealt directly with this topic. It took a day or two to whittle it all down, but once done I passed it on to Rick. Everything looked good.
Time to start rehearsals. We had pegged the annual Ganymede New Years Eve event to perform the workshop of the show. This would still give us three months to add in the additional material and shape the show before the actual run, which started in March. Rick, Gerald and I started rehearsals in my apartment…moving the furniture around to create a small stage. We knew there wasn’t going to be much movement away from the mic so most of our rehearsal process as far as staging was concerned was finding ways to make the time at the mic engaging and not visually dull. When she did move away from the mic there had to be a purpose…a reason…and those we had to find as well. We brought in Keith Tittermary as David, the accompanist and once a week we would rehearse with him, going over the numbers, finding the right keys and then looking at places where additional underscoring needed to happen. Things were moving along quite well. With the addition of John Bailey as Gerald the workshop production was well underway.
So now came the challenge of taking a real-life person that a lot of people knew, and those that knew her did so in a “cult status” sort of way, and bring her to life…so needless to say the need to be as accurate as possible was most important. The question became ‘how do I take someone who is over the top to begin with and bring that to life without becoming a caricature?” I knew it would be obvious that I was NOT her so what I did create needed to be true enough that the audience would give into the suspension of reality and go along with it to the point where they could be swept up into the show. I began doing this by breaking down the script that I had into simple, identifiable moments. For example – Edie is thrilled, Edie is upset, Edie is angry…etc. Once identified I looked at the extent she allowed each emotion to come out and tried to define each different emotion. Suppressed anger, exuding joy…you get the picture.
As you can see I had not begun to think true subtext yet…I was identifying the emotional journey only and not the issues that fueled them. Once these emotional pinpoints were identified I went back to the two movies (Grey Gardens and The Beales of Grey Gardens) and began to dissect those, identifying the moments of emotion displayed in the film just like I did with the script. In this scene of the film Edie is thrilled or Edie is Angry…etc. In doing so I was able to begin defining these emotions in both physical and vocal terms. When Edie was mad and letting someone have it her focus was VERY direct, her pitch hit one level (usually on the lower side of her range) and stayed there while her body became a fortress of defense. When she displayed joy her focus became very indirect and almost scattered. Her pitch would waver with a sing-song little girl carefree ease…and so on.
Once all this was mapped out I went back to the script and begin to apply these vocal and physical trends to the corresponding emotions. (Unlike the musical Grey Gardens where the second act is mostly lifted verbatim from the movie and all one actress has to do is watch the movie scenes a few times and she’s got it, putting this piece together this was something that had no point of reference to just watch and emulate.) then came the actual voice (the dialect/accent). Thank god I am a good mimic! I actually have found that when I wanted to learn how to talk like someone else I’d listen to other people who’ve also impersonated that person to find what things they have picked out to bring to life. It gives me a starting point. I scoured the web and found various folks who put a camera on a desk and pretended to be little Edie. Though none of them really were overwhelming, I was able to pint point a few things that I thought hit the impersonation on the head. (Such as placement of voice, etc…) Again, I didn’t want to sound like an impersonation. I was a man doing a female’s voice…so I would need to hone in on the accent and the variety of pitch and apply that into my vocal range. I didn’t want to speak in a falsetto…I knew it had to be delivered in my range. I’d have to find the thing that the audience would identify with in order to get their permission to take them on the journey. In addition I made audio recordings of the Edie scenes from the movies and listened to them on headphones constantly. It’s amazing the level of dissection one can achieve the more you get to know it and become numb to what’s being said. When you can channel that out you really can dive in freely to other aspects of the recording…placement of words, vowels and at times even hear the shape the mouth is making to create such a sound. That’s where I ended up with the Edie recordings.
I started rehearsals right off the bat with the voice and molded it over time. Thank God I had Gerald and Rick. If something didn’t sound right they’d tell me. It’s a hard accent. A mixture of upper crust Bostonian/Kennedy mixed with that of the aggressive New York/Long Island sound. When it came time to jump into the subtext of the script, most of it came easy to me. The challenge I found was making clean, clear jumps between tangents – these being tangents in subject matter or emotional tangents. Little Edie jumped frequently from one topic of conversation to another between the time of the period of the finishing sentence and the breath for the start of the next. Accompanying those swift changes of focus on her part also came a matching change in emotions. From Joy to Outrage in a time of a breath. And many times it was not just ONE jump. She would start a volley between subjects and emotions…Joy – Outrage – back to Joy – back to Outrage…and quite possibly throw in a third level into the mix as well. So pinpointing the time each of these “tangent moments” occurred became a huge focus as well as finding the honesty behind the “jumps” to make them believable. It’s funny, because of the emotional definition she gave to the subject matter it was easy to follow her on her many tangents. You could tell she was back on a previous subject she was discussing because her entire body, voice and demeanor would change. To me, it was most likely this fact that made me believe in her sanity. Since, if you listened, you could follow along, you could understand the clarity in which she saw things. That clarity was proof of her sanity to me.
THE DC PRODUCTIONS
So Rick, Gerald and I continued on the path of finding Edie and the show and made it to the New Years Eve Workshop. Other than having a different costume, which was more reminiscent of Maude than Eddie Beale, the night went very well. From the workshop we knew that we were on the right path in all directions: the show, the characterization, the length…etc. With Gerald’s suggestion that we go with a replica of what Edie actually wore instead of something different we were well on the way to opening night. John C Bailey, who played Gerald in the workshop production, was not able to do the actual run. After an audition or two we found Michael Winstead and the Gerald we would all come to know was born.
We returned to the script to find the additional material that we would add back into the piece. I sat down with the script and began to write a few lines here and there that would ease the transition between subjects or aid getting into and out of song. In addition we wanted a little more back and forth between the character of Gerald and Edie…just to break up the monologue a little. Again, I sat with the script and chose a few stories and began to dissect and write them into a more interactive way of telling them using the character of Gerald asking questions to spur this on (the question and answer sections of the show really did happen so I didn’t feel band expanding this devise). Thus the second question and answer section in the show was added which helped move the piece along in the third quarter of the script.
I was informed that the REAL Jennifer (a character that Edie talks to in the script but doesn’t have any lines) and Ron Lieberman (the gentleman who took the photos of Edie for the Reno Sweeney poster) were actually going to attend the opening weekend of the run. Both, obviously, were at the REAL shows in 1978. I found myself both a little nervous as well as excited for this opportunity. I was really proud of the work that Gerald, Rick and I had put into the piece as well as the way it was all working out. But also, at this point of the game, I was VERY close to the show on so many levels that I couldn’t look at it with a fresh, objective eye. As usual, I knew I created something I would have enjoyed to watch and I was letting it loose on the world, but would the world be glad that I did? And even if the world ended up thrilled that I did, would these folks who were actually there in 1978 find themselves transported back in time or would they see me as a pitiful scam? There are both thrills and chills to be found in the unknown.
The reception on the show for opening night was beyond anything I could have imagined. For the folks who were experiencing Little Edie’s act for the first time through me were lost in it. They were able to let go and really be there. People actually came up to me before I was able to get out of costume and talked to me as if I was Edie Beale. (Incidentally this was the case as well at Joe’s Pub. The audience came backstage and wanted pictures and autograph of Little Edie – not me – Little Edie. She was alive to them. It was something that I had to make a spur of the moment decision. For the audience – the show was continuing. So this became the Little Edie backstage part – that was fun because it was improvised every time it happened!)
Back to the DC opening night – for the folks who had been at the real 1978 show their comparison ours? “It was real creepy. IN A GREAT WAY!” That was good to hear! “It was like sitting in that tiny little club in 1978 all over again!” That was even better to hear. Over that weekend the response was the same and once their reviews came out (“Five Stars – BRILLIANT!” MetroWeekly, GRAND AND GRATIFYING – CityPaper, “MUST SEE!” – Washington Blade) I knew that we had something here that was unique, new and that there was a demand for. (Incidentally that opening weekend Ron Lieberman was so moved by the show that he scheduled time with me to do our version of the Edie Beale photo shoot! (Ron Lieberman has been the photographer for Lily Tomlin, Peter Alan, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and other various celebrities – especially when it came to their publicity poster shots for their NYC concerts and one-person Broadway shows. Lily Tomlin’s one woman Broadway shows posters – shot by Ron.)
THE “GO WEST, LITTLE EDIE TOUR”!
I knew that folks in NYC were hearing about the show. Word was getting back to me that it was coming up in conversation in various circles. Wow! Word not only travels fast…but it travels in odd ways! My friend, Justin Bond, was working a lot at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre and I contacted him for some suggestions on how to get the show to New York City. When we talked about Joe’s Pub I asked if he had a contact name of the person who books the Pub. He gave me that info and also said that I should tell her that he told me to contact her. Um…OK! At first I called her at the Pub but only got a phone message which specifically stated “We are not booking anything at this time. Please do not leave a message about booking.” S**t! But that wasn’t going to stop me. So I wrote her an email and mentioned Justin’s name and within a matter of a few hours was talking to her on the phone. She had heard about the show and trusted Justin’s taste and after she and I chatted we decided that Dec. 29th, 2010 would be Little Edie’s triumphant return to NYC.
The cool thing was that Little Edie would be opening for comedienne, Sandra Bernhard. I peed just a little as I have been a HUGE fan of Sandra’s since the early 1980’s when I saw her in King of Comedy. As the time for the New York premier came closer I had received emails and phone calls from Jerry Torre (the houseboy from Grey Gardens who Little Edie dubbed “The Marble Faun”), and from Al Maysles’ assistant (the surviving half of the Maysels brothers who were the directors of the original Grey Gardens). They were both coming to the show! To add to it, my friends, Charles Busch and Julie Halston, were also going to be in attendance as well as Lypsinka. My dear friend from South Carolina show was now an up and coming Broadway star – Jenn Colella, was also coming! I was very surprised that with such GLBT, Hollywood, Broadway and cult-film royalty in the house that I was not nervous. Actually, I couldn’t have been more excited! The night ended up being a SOLD OUT house. Not bad for a NYC premier at one of the most prestigious club in the city!
Joe’s Pub was thrilled because for years they had tried to get Al Maysles to come to the club and my show was the first time he showed up. And they didn’t even have to raise a finger. He made reservations! Mr. Maysles sat just off to my right and watched the entire show through his camera. YUP! He filmed the show! Later that night, at a private party held for me, our cast and Mr. Maysels, he told me that he was going to put the film of my performance into the Maysles Grey Gardens archives. To me, as far as this piece goes – was the equivalent of winning an Oscar! (I do have to say it was also cool looking out into the audience and seeing folks that I idolized sitting there watching me and being moved by the performance. That was something I wasn’t quite sure how to digest. And to top it all off at one point I looked over to the backstage/kitchen/entrance way and saw Sandra Bernhard standing there with her eyes glued. Justin did take me up to meet her after my show and before hers. She was beautiful. She was sweet and warm. I was a little floored, as this was NOT the Sandra Bernhard she shows her audiences. We love her for her horsey-faced, brassy, tongue-lashing humor. It became VERY apparent that THAT Sandra Bernhard was just a character.)
About a week before the Joe’s Pub appearance I had called the Italian restaurant that now occupied the space that Reno Sweeney occupied 30 years earlier. I knew that back room where the shows used to take place was still there – now used as a little banquet room. I explained to them what I was doing in NYC and how their restaurant was connected to it. I wanted to see if they would let us book the back room for a late night gathering. They couldn’t have been more excited and accommodating. So a week later…there I was with the cast, with a few Ganymede board members, with Charles Busch and Julie Halston, with Jerry Torre…with folk who came to the show, heard about the party and showed up (some dressed as Little Edie). I stayed for a while but then had to leave because of the private party that was set up by Mr. Maysles’ people. Both events were priceless moments filled with many congratulations and compliments as well as wonderful anecdotes from Jerry Torre and Al Maysles about living in the house, the filming of the movie, the two ladies themselves…etc. That’s another whole article in itself.
So…the response from the show? “Excellent and pure perfection, truly astonishing…….” Al Maysles (director of Grey Gardens) Jeffrey Johnson’s “Little Edie Beale” is flawless!”
Sandra Bernhard Jeffrey “has channeled Little Edie as if he knew her. This show is so close to being in the company of Little Edie. This one of a kind performance reunites me with my friend.”
Jerry Torre (the Marble Faun) “You forget you’re watching anyone but the real Edie Beale up there. I was transported with a room full of New Yorkers to an event in the past that only a few got to see. I left astounded”
Jenn Colella “Jeffrey’s performance and the show was nothing less than ‘a happening’.
I was moved to be a part of it!” Ron Leiberman.
“Jeffrey Johnson skillfully, unsentimentally and yet with compassionate insight, explores a lost chapter of the ever fascinating Edie Beale saga.”
Charles Busch “Out audiences came to the show in 2010 but left our venue with the feeling that they just traveled back to 1978 to witness a moment that is now New York City legend. The week Edie Beale came to town!” Joe’s Pub
Because of its success I was asked back again in May of 2011 to do the show. Playbill Magazine got wind of the return and did a feature article on me in the May issue (I never saw it but theatre friends who did told me all about it). The second Joe’s Pub show met again with Sold Out audiences and standing ovation. It was at this show that I began to realize that there was a difference between DC audiences and NYC audiences.
In DC the show was met (and watched) with a more active response. What I mean is, sometimes folks talked back to Edie or they moved in the chairs to hone in or sit back and relish…they laughed out loud to almost anything and everything they found amuzing. NYC audiences were much more reserved. They watched…they beamed smiles…at particular moments they laughed…it seemed where DC audiences ingested the show with more of a face value approach, NYC city audiences sucked it in cerebrally. Which, for someone who is used to the former, found it hard at first to get the pulse of the audience and ride it. But eventually it showed itself. At the end the reception again was great. (It’s like those matinee performances where the audience is dead silent and the actors are back staged pissed off that they’re playing for an unappreciative, unresponsive house – “Why didn’t they just stay home?”…then, at the end, they are met by a standing ovation or the most enthusiastic applause they got all run. This has happened so many times to me that I now realize that a quiet audience does not mean a bored audience. I’ve come to appreciate the silence sometimes. I appreciate that they are not texting or talking or squirming or fidgety. They are listening…)
So with the two New York City successes under my belt, I got this silly idea to just see what would happen if I tried booking the show in San Francisco. It couldn’t hurt! The problem…I had never been to San Francisco…I didn’t know any of the clubs in San Francisco…so where do I start? I had noticed that Sandra Bernhard was playing at a venue called the Rrazz Room in San Fran and as I had met her and got great response from her I would give it a shot. (After a short amount of web research the pictures of the space looked perfect for the show.) So I sent them pretty much the same email I had sent Joe’s Pub when trying to book there. I did mention the New York success and the response I had got from everyone (including Sandra – name drop!). I got a call the next day and after about a half hour Edie was booked in San Fran. Wow…that was easy. (It helped that he had heard about both NYC performances AND read the Playbill article. How did these people on the other side of the country hear about two one night shows in NYC?! It’s not like I had a multi-million dollar marketing machine. That still remains a mystery to me.) The Razz Room also suggested that I contact Show at Barre in Los Angeles. Both clubs worked together to help each other with booking east coast acts. They said it made it worth the artists’ while to come out to the west coast with a booking in two cities rather than one. Sure…why not? So I called Show at Barre and in a half hour Edie’s mini-California tour was booked! I remember after hanging up the phone I didn’t know what to do or what to think. I paced around the apartment numb. “We’re going to California!”
I kept saying to myself. “Our little show is playing San Fran and LA!” This was beyond anything I could have ever seen this show doing. I mean its rare that a show from a theatre the size of Arena goes to NYC. And most of the shows that theatre’s around town boast about sending to NYC are shows that are using the DC theatre as a stop on their own tour to NYC. The DC theatre only housed it but used it to their marketing advantage. So a show from a theatre our size (which at the time had about $150 in the bank – true!) was unheard of. About a month before the tour was going to happen I got us booked into the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City. I thought a change of venue would be good…hit a different audience. This show would happen on Halloween night, 2010. We would leave for the California leg five days later. This New York City show, along with two DC shows a few days before it would be a good warm up for San Fran and LA.
The national known GLBT magazine, The Advocate had heard about the show and about the California shows. They wanted to do an article about the “Go West, Little Edie Tour” as I was calling it. Again…um – OK! In a nut shell, the San Francisco shows were wonderful! I was told by one audience member that I “had more people at this show then Rita Moreno had at hers” when she was there. Go, Edie!
On the other hand, the Los Angeles shows sucked. The only time in the one an a half year run that I had EVER experienced a bad show. Don’t get me wrong, the show itself wasn’t any different, I feel I did the best I could with 7 people in the audience and all of them, save one, chatting on phones, texting and reading/writing email while glancing up at the stage. Funny moments were met by the crickets of LA – I got to know them very well that night, in fact. I felt like I should have turned and played to the crickets and not bothered the audience while they were working. It was one of the most odd experiences I have EVER had at a show. I felt like what a TV must have felt like. Now at the end they clapped and chatted with me all happy…and from the conversations I could tell they were paying attention (HOW?!). Later, in a conversation with an LA friend she explained to me that unless you are the big truck and bus shows that come to the big venues, theatre for the little folk SUCKS in LA. It’s a film town. People go to bed early because the industry gets them up early. (Unless it was a weekend – which it wasn’t.) They have to be on email and text at all waking hours because deals are made in a split second. If you miss the chance to respond to accept a job then there are 1000 others that are next on the contact list. So life is glued to technology and it runs lives out there. It makes sense…but NOT my cup of tea! GET ME THE HELL OUT OF THIS TOWN!
AFTER THE TOUR
So many missions were accomplished in just over a year and a half by a little theatre company with less than a handful of people cranking the gears. In the span of year the show went from a two-hour monologue that needed cutting, shaping and workshopping to being a sleeper, celebrity attended hit evening in NYC. And in the matter of 6 more moths added onto that I played two more times in NYC as well as two in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles. And in addition had articles in both national publications, Playbill Magazine and The Advocate.
I have to say I am extremely proud of my work and the work of everyone else involved in making this little gem of a show what it is. I am thrilled to call it “my own”. It is something that every now and then I can pull out and present to folks because even if the Edie Beale fascination dies down there are many aspects to this little piece that touch on the human experience. As over the top and out of this world as the character might be, the issues that she touches on will still remain funny, will still remain poignant, will still remain heartbreaking. They joy that the character gives off will still remain infectious. The elated emotions that audiences had when they left will still remain continue as it’s all part of the show’s charm. The issues are fundamentally human, and even though we may not have had Howard Hughes or Nelson Rockefeller propose to us, we all understand the basics of human relationships. So, I look forward to this weekend’s performances, as Edie has not appeared in DC in over a year. She’s ready to go. Or so she has told me. I hope this has been interesting and somewhat entertaining.
I’ve never written anything like this so I have tried to be informative, insightful and honest without being over done – I hope you forgive me if I haven’t been successful. And as I write this, Little Edie has whispered into my ear that she hopes to see you in the audience. (As do I.)”
Edie Beale Live at Reno Sweeney – a remounting of Edie Beale’s infamous cabaret act from 1978 – plays today, December 3, 2011 at 8PM At Black Fox Lounge – 1723 Connecticut Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC.Purchase your tickets here.
Watch Jeffrey Johnson perform “Tea For Two” in After The Garden – Edie Beale LIVE at Reno Sweeney.