Live Active Cultures

PlayFest 2010, aka Orlando Shakespeare Theater's annual Harriet Lake Festival of New Plays, came to a climax Saturday night (April 10) with the keynote presentation, "An Evening with Philip Seymour Hoffman." The standing-room-only audience stuffing the Shakes' Margeson Theater (some of whom donated $1,000 per couple for their seats) gave the Oscar-winning actor standing ovations before his 90-minute conversation with OSF artistic director Jim Helsinger, who also happens to be Mr. Hoffman's in-law. Thanks to PlayFest's director of New Play Development, Patrick Flick, I was able to snag a back-row squat (alongside an equally ticketless writer from the Sentinel) with a sightline to the star.

Hoffman is best known for his chameleon-like roles in Boogie Nights, Almost Famous, Capote, Doubt and countless other challenging films, but his passion is still firmly for the stage. Most recently, he directed the Chicago premiere of Brett C. Leonard's The Long Red Road to some rave reviews, which Helsinger read aloud. "Some other `critics` said different things," deadpanned Hoffman, admitting the play "split the audience."

That led into a lengthy discussion of the process of developing a new play or, as Helsinger put it, how to care for your "baby" and know "when does it need milk." For Hoffman, reading is key to the writing process. "You have to find brave people willing to pick up the page … and pour their heart out." Hoffman's New York—based LAByrinth Theater Company uses a "summer intensive" process to put new scripts on their feet in two-day reading workshops. Instead of standing still at music stands, he likes to improvise a loose staging and "let it go crazy. … You can't see a play clearly unless you see people move in the space." A free public reading and then a brief workshop run with $10 tickets follow that first private reading.

Hoffman joined LAB in 1995, three years after John Ortiz and Gary Perezfounded the Latino Actors Base to protest casting Anglos in Hispanic roles on Broadway. Writer Stephen Adly Guirgis' 1998 play In Arabia We'd All Be Kings brought LAByrinth and director Hoffman their first breakout off-Broadway hit in a series that includes Jesus Hopped the A-Train and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, both produced locally by Empty Spaces Theatre Co. (with which I am affiliated.) Hoffman praised Guirgis' "strongly street and strongly poetic" style as "like no other writer" and joked that the playwright is "drawn to me `as a director` because I'm obsessive `and` controlling."

As Hoffman recounted, LAB's success quickly brought "crazy chaos," and the leaders decided that they might need a board or a staff. By the time Jesus Hopped the A-Train made it to London's West End, Hoffman was officially the "artistic director." He stepped down from that role last year but still serves on LAB's board. That still requires "passion," as he related in an anecdote about a recent argument about "commitment" with financial backers in a "Times Square lawyer's office."

Despite its New York address, LAB faces the same financial pressures as any gypsy theater; it has a permanent rehearsal space, but performances have moved from the Public Theater to the Cherry Pit on Manhattan's West Side. Picking a season "feels like running a country," Hoffman said. "What can we afford? What kind of `material` is available?" Most importantly, actors "must have hope … and opportunity" to "keep `them` coming back."

In addition to nurturing Guirgis' work, LAB produced an early reading of the award-winning Doubt by company member John Patrick Shanley. The play was ultimately produced on Broadway by Manhattan Theater Club, but it's always "an exciting moment for the company when you get to see things for the first time." His primary rule for this formative stage? "Don't invite critics. No offense." With infant works, it's "only important to have compassion and empathy" for the artists because it takes "balls to write something … and have someone read it `in public`. … You don't want to cut off `the` journey towards something special."

A sense of self-effacement runs through Hoffman's reflections on the process. "Who really knows how something becomes what it is? The moment you think you know is the moment you realize you don't know anything." That extends to his performances, claiming that "being in front of people" is one of his greatest fears: "The minute you think you're good … you're awful." Hoffman equated the difficulty of the actor's craft with that of a sculptor or painter, but with one big difference: "`The actor` has to do it in front of you."

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