by Martin Denton · February 4, 2016
How did you first get interested/involved in the theater? I know you went to the High School of Performing Arts in NYC – why did you decide to do that?
My interest in the theatre began as a child. We took a cross country trip in the mid 1950’s and I recall at dusk one evening, my late father pulled his big 1951 Olds 98 into an open lot in the deep South where a tent had been set up and the audience sat on bales of hay. It was a production of Porgy and Bess, lit only by torches. That music and those images of the actors in that tent seared an interest in me that has never waned. Later on, my late mother started one of the first children’s theatres on Staten Island, where my sister and I and younger brother grew up. It was called “The Toy Theatre and Workshop” and we put on a variety of shows including Emil and the Detectives. My mother, who was an excellent writer and lyricist, decided to turn it into a musical, which she did, and called it The Man in the Bowler Hat. We had to go to Wagner College to have the sets built by their scenic arts department... and I have a vivid memory of watching them making the flats for us - the old fashioned way using real horse glue! A few years later, also at Wagner, I saw John Carradine do A Man For All Seasons. Even though it was way over my head, I was awestruck at his voice and the costumes and his deep eyes flashing across the audience.
You say that you were invited to Julie Bovasso’s master class in playwriting. What made you decide to pursue writing in addition to acting? What were the most important things you learned in that master class?
I had studied acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, whose most famous alum is Angela Lansbury. On off-days, I would go to the Bijou and see French movies and smoke Gauloise. I was so drawn to the French cinema, that I decided to leave London and attend the NYU Film School where I studied directing with Martin Scorsese. However, I still had theatre in my blood, so in addition to studying at NYU, I applied to a class that one of my old High School of Performing Arts teachers, Julie Bovasso was giving. She held court upstairs at the old Cedar Tavern on University Place where regulars included Meryl Streep and John Cazales. Julie’s class was a master class in playwriting that included long sessions where we would traipse to her village loft where she had about 15 IBM Selectric Typewriters set up on long wooden tables and we would basically type her infamous play, Angelo’s Wedding while she hovered over us with a bottle of vodka and a pack of Parliaments. It is difficult to say how you get information from a genius, which Julie was – a brilliant actress, writer and director – too big for this world and gone too soon. But Julie had a razor sharp mind and would be able to guide you in two seconds back onto the real course of your writing. She was, as they say, the real deal and it was Julie who first recognized the depth of my Uncle Philip character, who I first began sketching out in her class. After that experience, my interest in acting and auditioning and going on that bright-light campaign for approval, diminished sharply. I wanted to write.
Over the years you’ve had the opportunity to work with many notable theater makers. Who do you think were most influential in shaping your career? What are some important lessons you can share with our readers from these experiences?
Writing is a disciplined exhaustion. It is an unfathomable no man’s land of uphill battles. I must admit, I love Winston Churchill’s quote that success is going from one failure to the next without losing one ounce of enthusiasm. Mostly what I’ve learned from my collaborators is an ability to focus. You could set off a cherry bomb near John Pielmeier’s head and if he is reworking a script, he won’t even flinch. Same thing with Galt MacDermot – he just turns the world off and he’s buried in the work. I usually find something of value in everyone I’ve ever worked with. There was an old Broadway producer, George W. George, who was the son the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, Rube Goldberg. John Pielmeier and I wrote a musical about the cartoonist, Young Rube which eventually had a big Main Stage production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. George once said to me something, regarding musicals that has always remained… “Matty, with a musical, once you’re in rehearsal, you’re in trouble. It’s a juggernaut. You can’t stop it. Right away, you're in trouble.” By that, of course, he meant that, once you have all the people there, all the elements, the sets, the lights, the orchestra, the choreographer, director, producers, you’ve lost control, everything is spinning too fast. How true, George, how true.
UNCLE PHILIP’S COAT has been performed many times over the years. Why did you decide to bring it to the United Solo Festival this past year? Was this the first time you performed it yourself? Why did you not perform it yourself the first time around?
This particular iteration of Uncle Philip’s Coat is a version of the play that is more personal and reflects my experience, not only as an actor, but as a writer. Originally, the play was put on its feet at the Herbert Berghof Theatre in the Village. The late journeyman actor, Larry Block, played the part. Larry was a force and there was no way that I wasn’t going to shape some of the play to fit his strengths. We got along well and Larry performed the piece at some strange yet wonderful venues, including the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, where the play was presented in front of a bank of windows that faced Ellis Island. With Larry’s passing, I yearned to get back on stage and perform this most personal of plays. Looking back, I recall seeing Larry on the street one day and immediately thinking to myself that he could do justice to the part of my Uncle Philip. But, as I mentioned, the characters in the play are all from my family and so, it was inevitable that one day I would want to do it myself. United Solo gave me the opportunity to be bold again. To have courage and risk failure.
UNCLE PHILIP’S COAT is obviously based on your own family experiences. What made you decide to write this play in the first place? What do you think is important about Uncle Philip’s life and experiences that resonates with people today in 2016?
My reasons for writing Uncle Philip’s Coat were myriad, but among the most profound, was a need to speak for a man, my Uncle Philip, who had a sad and very difficult time on this earth. As it’s depicted in the play, my uncle survived a pogrom as a child in Russia. This left him traumatized to the degree that he could never really fit in – in America. He was always on the fringe, always struggling. And yet, as a child, I didn’t’ see the pain and the struggle. All I saw was a man in an oversized coat and big hat coming to our house to eat and display some goods that he was selling in the middle of our living room. To others in the family, he was a near homeless person, a wanderer. To me, he was the King of Coney Island. What is important about the play and what I’d want people to take away from seeing it, is a sense of humanity. A sense that even the dreamers, those on the edge who seemingly have no means to survive—they too are part of the color palette of what makes life interesting and bearable. Their lives, too, have meaning.
What was the most surprising reaction you’ve had to the play from an audience member?
When I first wrote Uncle Philip’s Coat, I imagined that the audience for the work would simply be those who shared a similar New York Jewish background. I couldn’t have been more misguided. The piece has drawn a disparate audience. It seems, now, after performing the work numerous times, that many people have or had an Uncle Philip in their family. Many families have had to somehow accept their dreamers as one of their own. I recall one evening after a show at the Herbert Berghof Theatre, a very tiny, elderly woman, beautifully made-up with a gorgeous coat and feathered hat from another era, took my hand firmly in hers and with a gravely voice that was drenched in life, smiled at me and said, “I’m Greek… and that was my life up there."