Thursday, May 31, 2012

Tell Tale Hearts and Humor

This is a continuation of a series of blog entries about my working with Jonathan Frid.  If you are new to the blog or haven't been here in a while, you may want to scroll down for previous blog entries if this subject interests you.

I still have a lot of pride about "Fridiculousness."  It remains my favorite show; a lot of hours of work, re-work, editing, re-writing and debating went into that show.  The Fridean genealogy featured some of Jonathan's writing and that was also true of the other two original pieces: the answering machine story about his mother and the hospital emergency room phone line. The only criticism, if you can call it that, I have about working with Jonathan on the genealogy and hospital emergency room story is that he did not understand how to structure comedy pieces to maximize the humor/laughs.  For the genealogy piece, he added and added to the discovery of the variations of the Frid name to the point where the audiences didn't laugh much anymore in that section of the story.  He didn't understand why.  I explained my opinion that it was because he was making it too obvious and pounding the audience over the head with it.  He didn't agree and we continued to not get the big laughs where we used to get them.  Oh well.  That was frustrating and one of the times I had to remind myself that it was his name in the title of the show, not mine.  (I should note here that by this time due to my work at the Ensemble Studio Theater I had been asked by others developing their own plays or cabaret acts to come in and "fix" problems.  It frustrated me when I was not allowed to "fix" a problem in a show I was in any way involved with.)

In the hospital piece he kept moving the Press this and that bit around in the story.  The order I wrote this in was very specific.  The "Press 3 if you are unconscious" line always brought down the house.  When the order got changed, the impact was sometimes reduced.  The line itself got laughs because of how ridiculous it and the situation was.  I wrote the hospital piece (while sick, ironically enough) and in my ending the guy fell over dead. Jonathan rewrote the ending to the guy getting disconnected and sent back to square one.  His ending worked much better than mine.  That's what wound up in the show.

If I told other people, usually other fans of Jonathan's, about such dilemmas I'm the one that got chided for putting up a fuss to begin with.  "How can you disagree with him?"  Well, I am not a potted plant.  And I would not have lasted five minutes in this role if I agreed with everything Jonathan said and did.  He didn't want that in a person working with him on a show.  He appreciated it when fans thought he was terrific but in a real world, day to day situation, that line of thinking didn't work for him.  There were times we really went at it over a point (it was our nature to be short-tempered over things we really believed in.) and sometimes he conceded the point because he knew I was right or I conceded a point because it was, in the end, his show.  The audience was coming to see him, not me.  There were times Jonathan did a performance and said to me afterwards "You were right.  Let's change it."   For me, it wasn't about being right but putting on the best show with the best possible material.  That was also true for him; we just didn't always agree on what was best.  Likewise, sometimes I saw that he insisted on did, in fact, work better than what I was suggesting.

There were times I would be sitting in the audience of a show or even a rehearsal and watch Jonathan and say to myself "Here I am working on a show with the same man who inspired me to go into the theater.  How very cool is that?"

The more challenging aspects of working with Jonathan on shows was putting up with the insecurities and nerves that came before he went onstage.  He acted out, usually towards me.  The older he got, the worse it got.  I wish I could say I was always patient and calming.  I would put up with a lot in those instances, but I did have my limits.  He had the grace to apologize for particularly bad episodes.  That's the type of man he was.

If nothing else demonstrated our shared sensibilities, the inclusion of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" in "Fridiculousness" said it all.  Initially, Jonathan's manager didn't understand why this piece was in a show that was fairly humorous.  "I was never kinder to the old man than the week before I killed him" is a funny line if you are a gallows humor fancier.  Nobody but nobody can touch Jonathan Frid's interpretation of "The Tell Tale Heart."  I mean nobody.  It takes real craft to tell the story, especially from the start.  If you act all out crazy from the top of the story, you have no place left to go in the story.  Jonathan would start off the story with a wry kind of craziness.  That touch of wry worked well as then the character can tell the story initially from the standpoint of showing how clever he was in plotting out this murder, all brought on by this preposterous preoccupation with the old man's warped eye.  Insane people think they are sane.   The killer gets paranoid and then thinks the heart is out to undo him.  In this view, to us, the story is humorous and would fit perfectly into "Fridiculousness" as the last piece.

The stories got rearranged from time to time especially as Jonathan got older because some stories take more energy than others.  To this end, the more energetic stories were spaced out and new narrative written to weave them all together.

With the two main shows completed, Jonathan wanted to create a Shakespearean one-man show.  His manager wasn't crazy about it because a Shakespeare show is a hard sell in the United States.  But he wanted to pursue it and hired me to help him on what would be the third and final one-man show creation.


3 comments:

ivelisse diaz said...

Good Evening Nancy:
I thanked you before and I thank you again for sharing your precious memories.
I have been following the installments of your blog about Mr. Frid. I wish I could find the words to tell you how much your stories mean to all of us to who took him to our hearts, and kept him there for more than 40 years. Although it has been six weeks since his passing, we continue to mourn. Is it because he represented a big part of our childhood – a part we lost when he left us? Is it because we never thought he would ever leave us, or because he was never further away than a few taps on the keyboard to his website? When we wanted to be with him, or check up on him, he was never far away, ready to share the simplest of things with us like a family member would. Maybe he reminded us of our elderly relatives whom we know are losing the battle against ravages of aging. You were fortunate to have found each other – in sync.
I have never attended one before but I hope that my going to the DS festival in July will help allay the sense of loss. At least that will be a gathering to celebrate his life.
Please continue to post your memories indefinitely because we appreciate them, and more basically they provide us with comfort.
I look forward to many more.
Thank you.

Nancy Kersey said...

Yes, from what I understand the event in Tarrytown will be a remembrance of Jonathan by the fans. It's an area of the Hudson that Jonathan loved so the event will be well suited.

Anonymous said...

Nancy,

I have to say that the Frid geneology was funny throughout, I thought. To me it built very nicely and got funnier and weirder until he ended up with the three branches of freaks. I thought it was perfect! I was very, very impressed.

All the best,
Kristine