Thursday, September 15, 2011

Interview with John Billingsley and George Lewis

We had a chance to talk with two of Freehold's founders, John Billingsley and George Lewis. Additional Freehold founders include Robin Lynn Smith, Mark Jenkins, Ben Rankin and Tony Pasqualini, all of whom will be in attendance at Freehold's 20th Anniversary Homecoming Party on Saturday, September 24 at 7:30 pm at Washington Hall. All are welcome! RSVP's appreciated at Brown Paper Tickets.

How did all the founders (Robin Lynn Smith, Tony Pasqualini, Mark Jenkins, Ben Rankin, George Lewis, John Billingsley) come together in the first place to create Freehold and what was your hope for the organization?

We were all teaching at the old Pasqualini Smith Studio, John and I were part of Tony and Robin's faculty and the Mark Jenkins Actor Studio was holding classes there. Ben was a friend/colleague of Mark's. The lease on the space was coming up and was not likely to be renewed because all the noise we made was driving the landlord - whose computer business was under us - crazy. She said the images on the screens were literally jumping around with our jumping. Facing eviction we began talking about a larger studio that would permit us to work together. I remember a discussion about a place where people could learn to do the kind of theatre we believed theatre was capable of so that we could go to the theatre more. And that we wanted to work together making theatre.

John: I have nothing to add to what George wrote, save that he omits the info about how the two of us were only teaching at Robin and Tony's studio in the first place because Robin and Tony so graciously supported the WA State Correctional Authority's stellar 'anti-recidivist' work-release program. George and I spent a lot of years 'paying back', as t'were, by teaching people how to repeat (me) and how to climb an imaginary rope (George). Freehold, as I recall, was Robin's idea (surprise, surprise) and she had many eloquent, moving and inspirational reasons for suggesting we band together, but it's also sorta like that ol' gag "What a dog hears", cuz what I really remember most of all was the phrase "there'll be a pay raise . . . ". Why were we named Freehold in the first place, that's the question that needs to be asked, cuz we spent a looooong time picking a name (we all had to agree, you see).

Where did Freehold get its name?

George: In the initial seemingly- months of meetings in which the Founders were deciding what this new organisation (We were calling it an organism then), at least half of our time was spent discussing names. Somewhere exists a list of those rejected, including Robin's infamous "Pot Garden" (POT being the acronym for "Practice of Theatre"). Finally in one meeting we said let's stop approaching it from a mental place, and so we did sound and movement exercises for an hour, and when we sat down at the table, after a minute of silence, someone said "Free- something (I don't remember what) and then Billingsley said "Freehold". And that was that.

What were the early days of Freehold like for you as founders and as faculty members?

George: Lots of meetings ... So much so that Mark mentioned in one that the "mark of a good organization was the absence of meetings". God we talked a lot. In part because an early decision was that all decisions be made by unanimity. Changing a roll of toilet paper became a subject for debate.

I remember a meeting where we were discussing ad nauseum something that needed to be done, and who was going to do it, and how it needed to be done etc etc etc. I forget what the task was, but at one point Tony slipped out of the room for a little while, and when he returned, we were still debating it. Someone asked him where he had gone, and he said, "I just went out and did it".

The classes were great- there was so much excitement about everything. Robin and I were teaching a crazy improbable class called Impulse and Transformation, based on our extrapolation of the work Joe Chaikin was doing in the 60's. We had a full raft of Acting classes on all levels, and voice, movement, Combat, Improv, Original Performance ... Somewhere in there Tony decided to direct The Time of Our Lives, and it was a stellar cast, with Mark, John and I, Jane Jones, Myra Platt, Geof Alm, Gordon Carpenter, Jose Gonzales - just all these actors working around the city and in LA now. And we were subletting to Book-It, so there was that whole crowd, and all this cross-pollination between the two groups.

John: Yes, meetings and more meetings. George didn't have to go to Book-It meetings, at least. I would sometimes go from a Freehold meeting to a Book-It meeting, back to another Freehold meeting, back to another Book-It meeting, shoehorning in, of course, a quick lunch break, which I'd usually spend at my therapist's office . . .

There were hundreds of creative people running around, of course, sometimes at loggerheads, sometimes experiencing 'breakthroughs' of different sorts, which means that somebody was usually locked in the toilet, crying, (not infrequently Ben, who had to do the books, after all), so I learned to pee in a grape Nehi bottle (which still sits on my desk) ... I vaguely recall that bottle of pee being used in an exercise as somebody's independent activity, but I've repressed the details. Now here's a true story: a student of mine, a particularly large male child psychologist (it wouldn't be hyperbolic to say that he looked like an All-Pro inside linebacker) picked me up by the scruff of my neck and put my head through a wall when I suggested that he wasn't really allowing himself access to the full range of emotion available to him during an early stage of the Meisner repetition work. I suggested to him that this outburst was proof of my thesis ("see, if you put all that angst into repeating 'red sweater', I wouldn't have to patch this wall up now . . "). George was the Facilities Manager at the time and as I recall he hung a reproduction of Van Gogh's sunflowers over the hole. We counted pennies then. Lots of terrific memories, of course, of working with some of my favorite people in the world: Robin's magnificent direction of The Seagull; George's magnificent direction of The Jewbird (a short story by Bernard Malamud). Getting to chew the biggest wad of bubble gum imaginable and then hand it to Mark Jenkins to hold for me while I made a phone call in The Time of Your Life, and getting to listen - as a pre-show warm up - to Jose Gonzales play "In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning" on an out of tune piano, while watching George perform a pas de deux with a kitchen chair. (You had to be there). We didn't have a dressing room, so whenever we did a show in RHINO, we would all get dressed in WALT, the 'attic space' that sat above RHINO. One could go on and on and on. Ah, why did I ever leave? Can I come back? I promise I won't piss off any more child psychologists. (Really, though, I can remember thinking, YOU WORK WITH CHILDREN, BUDDY???)

Any funny Freehold stories or memorable Freehold moments?

George: Yes- most of them unrepeatable because of the people involved. A colleague who began bouncing on a mini-trampoline in the middle of a meeting because 'The meetings were too serious". Selling tickets for people to throw a pie in the face of faculty members at the first fundraiser (Robin earned the most money). Billingsley and a childrens' swimming pool full of chocolate pudding. A reading of all the obscene quotes from the acting teachers at the end of one of the ETI programs (Amy Thone won, hands down). Tony's two word response to a let-us-say demanding professional colleague asking us to fax more info to him ("Fax THIS", with an appropriate mono-digital indication). An actor in a production without shoes saying "I don't do barefoot". A student who had taken a million classes complaining about having to give one too many backrubs. A pair of Meisner students overheard repeating in the hallway, "You're being , like, all, kah" "I'm being, like, all 'kah"?
And a million more, though none involving me.

John: Well, if you cock your head and squint your eye, it was all freak'n hilarious, really. But then, I live in LA now, and make my living playing child molesters, so I can afford to be flip.

Photo: The Time of Your Life, 1992, George Lewis, Jane Jones, and Geof Alm

What was some of your favorite work that you performed and/or saw at Freehold?

George: The Time of Our Life, Mark's writing and direction of All Powers Necessary or Convenient, Tony and I doing Shakespeare's The Tempest, all these great Book-It pieces, Robin's forays into Chekhov and then Shakespeare. All this great original performance work. The annual Studio Series was becoming a place for theatre artists to cut their teeth, and some great work - and great artists - came out of that.

Photo from The Seagull

John: Well, I know George must think that it was the "chocolate pudding work" (as I like to call it) but that was one of those great ideas that kinda backfired. I vaguely remember that the jumping off point for our group's initial 'pudding improv' had something to do with addiction: pudding was a stand in for rye whiskey, perhaps, or PCP, who can recall. What really sticks in my memory is that I smelled like chocolate pudding for months (you see, having performed the initial improvisation in a swimming pool full of chocolate pudding, we were encouraged, by Robin and George, to 'elaborate' on the conceit for our end of term performance, which involved somebody in a wedding dress, an even greater amount of pudding, and an exorbitant amount of clean up after every goddamned rehearsal.) Plus, pudding was surprisingly pricey.

Photo from The Birthday Party, Marjorie Nelson and John Billingsley pictured

I look back on those years and I marvel at how many times Tony Pasqualini and I worked together. He and I seemed to be in everything together. He was always directing something, acting in something, kinda makes me wonder whether things weren't happy at home, back then, in retrospect. The Jewbird, The Seagull, Time of Your Life, The Birthday Party, Sand Mountain, The Lonesome's Ain't No Spring Picnic, and - pre-FH, actually, but still one of my favorite memories - a great Frank O'Connor story called My Oedipus Complex, in which I got to play Tony's bratty five year old Irish boy. Tony took me over his knee and paddled me, during one rehearsal, per the script's demands, and Tony's little boy, Joel, who was in the room at the time, burst into tears and couldn't be quieted down. (He's crying still, in fact, and he's now 24 years old.)

What has it meant to you to be a part of Freehold?

George: The realization of the dream that I had when I first started doing theatre of what theatre could be-a great sprawling mass of people working as an ensemble to experiment in their teaching and creation/performance, to make theatre that was exciting and which had some kind of relevance to the world.

John: Okay. Fine. Be that way.
For all of the fact that we had a lot of laughs, it was an incredible experience for me to work with a very passionate bunch of folks, who sacrificed a hell of a lot to fulfill a very beautiful mutually held dream: the dream of home. Theatre artists tend to be itinerants, and while there's something to be said for the peripatetic life, what inspired me to join Freehold, and what inspires me still, and makes me proud, is the idea that there's value in community and that being part of an artistic community is integral to the development of an artist's craft and conscience.

They say that there are no atheists in foxholes, and while I wouldn't be able to attest to that (I wish there were a few more in politics, though, damn it) I can certainly attest to this: there was one time in my life when I felt like I had true 'trench-mates' in the arts (block that metaphor, as the New Yorker says) and that was during my Freehold and Book-It Years.
On the other hand, now I get residual checks.

Reflections on Freehold turning 20 this month?

George: God I'm old.
God, I'm fortunate.
John: God, George is old. (Did I mention that I was the youngest of the Founders?)

Cast from The Time of Your Life, 1992

John Billingsley has worked extensively in theatre, television and film. John graduated Bennington College, in Bennington, VT, where he studied theatre with Nicholas Martin and literature with Bernard Malamud. John’s theatre credits include Mauritius, Candide, David Mamet’s Bobby Gould in Hell, The Seagull, The Birthday Party, Great Expectations, 12th Night and Bitter Bierce, a one man show he produced about the life and times of Ambrose Bierce. In l990, John founded a Seattle based theatre company called Book-It Repertory Theatre, which was devoted to adapting fiction for the stage and which still flourishes in the Pacific Northwest. John was involved in some Seattle-based film and TV in the ‘80’s and moved to move Los Angeles in 1995 to pursue those mediums. Credits include Nip/Tuck, Cold Case, The Closer, The Ghost Whisperer, CSI, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, The X-Files, Judging Amy, and NYPD Blue. In l999, Stephen Spielberg cast him as Prof. Miles Ballard in The Others. In 2000, Billingsley was cast as Dr. Phlox in Star Trek: Enterprise. His most recent TV credits include NCIS, The Mentalist, Outlaw, Scrubs, Leverage, Eli Stone, and Alan Ball’s True Blood, and 24. Films along the way include Out of Time opposite Denzell Washington, American Summer, High Crimes, The Glass House, White Oleander, Born to be Wild, I Love You To Death, A Cinderella Story, 12 Dogs of Christmas, The Least of These, Sironia, Losing Control, and 2012. Billingsley has just completed filming a lead role in the film Trade of Innocents opposite Dermot Mulroney and Mira Sorvino, and he has just started shooting an independent film, RedLine.

George Lewis has been working in the field of movement-based theatre for almost 40 years as an actor/performer, director, creator of original work, teacher, and producer. He has performed and toured with Omnibus in Montreal, Theatre-Mime Mirage in Boston, and the Sykes Group and threeCompany in Seattle. As a director, he has created movement driven productions of, amongst others, Shakespeare, Moliere, Thornton Wilder, Irene Fornes, and James Thurber. His favorite acting roles include Trigorin in Chekhov’s The Seagull, Joseph in Romulus Linney’s When the Lord Came to Sand Mountain, and the talentless dancer/would-be comedian in Saroyan’s The Time of your Life. He has been teaching acting and physical theatre skills, at acting studios, colleges, and universities across the U.S. and Canada. His own background includes three years of study in Corporeal Mime in Paris with Etienne Decroux, circus skills and physical comedy at the French National Circus School, and Meyerhold’s Biomechanics with Russian Master Teacher Gennadi Bogdanov, and Clown with Sue Morrison in Toronto. He divides his time between Seattle and Buenos Aires, where he teaches and has created/directed three original full-length clown performances.

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