An Interview with
Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James
By Rose Desena
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum closes their 40th season with a hard-core drama “Tone Clusters,” written by Joyce Carol Oates. A family falls into deep crisis after finding out their son has been accused of brutally murdering the girl next door. I can’t think of anything more horrific for parents to deal with then something so tragic; it not only puts you through emotional hell for years to come it bores a scare deep into your soul that ensures your life will never be the same, and for the most part, you will never be at peace.
Frank and Emily Gulick (Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James) are what we might consider “Salt of the Earth” people. He worked for the post office, and Emily took care of the house that was in a good middle-class neighborhood. They eat meals like meatloaf with ketchup and work in the garden on the weekends. Is their blindness to the fact that their son was showing signs of needing help parallel to their inability to accept the truth that is presented, in black and white, in front of them?
How does something like this happen? We are a good family! Oates plays with our emotional state in this stark look at denial, parental love and the inherent need for parents to believe in their children.
Alan Blumenfeld is a long-time member of Theatricum. He is a true chameleon, with more characters under his belt then I can count; I am sure he will be outstanding as the shell-shocked Frank Gulick who now must take a hard look at his own morals and political views from the bench as he is forced to accept the fate of his son.
Will Emily’s inability to accept what is happening hold her through the grim years to come? Will she ever really understand? Does a mother ever get over the loss of a child? These are all burning questions that will keep you captive in your seats.
Katherine James (Emily) is a seasoned theater and TV actress herself. She has a strong background from ACT and has done extensive work in Shakespeare, making her an equal partner for Blumenfeld. Alan and Katherine not only share a life on the stage but they are husband and wife. I think that is really cool; it will ensure a familiar chemistry.
I am pleased that this production is being done here in L.A. The Theatricum is such a lovely place to experience theater. Sitting among the trees under the moonlight will make any story seem that much more intriguing.
I love Joyce Carol Oates so I wanted to take the opportunity to do a little Q and A about this incredible piece of work.
Please let me share our conversation.
Rose: You and Katherine play the roles of Frank and Emily, husband/father and wife/mother to a son accused of rape and murdering a neighborhood girl. How difficult is this type of character for you? How do you approach playing parental loyalty and doubt?
Alan: Hi Rose, Katherine James and I are both responding to all these…Thanks for taking the time to do this.
Alan: As a parent there was a lot of empathy and identification so approaching to role had both challenges and some aspects that were easy. Parental Loyalty and doubt is endemic to being a parent but in this instance the horrific nature of the accusation and the possible mental illness and criminal behavior of our child meant that I approached the role, as I do with most roles, as an “as if….”. Given what I know as a parent, how might I respond IF I were in this situation. Also, Frank is a very different man from who I am. A postal worker, a man with a lot of anger about people of color, a man not easily given to expressing love, compassion and touching. So, it was a wonderful challenge. The writing is so spectacular and specific that it gave us a road map of how to get there. Follow the writer, always.
Katherine: First – how difficult is this type of character for me? This character falls into one of my “wheelhouses” – off balance. Since I was a kid (I’ve been acting since I was five and I am now sixty-one) I have been called on from time to time to play characters who either have always been a bit “off” or who have been set off kilter by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Emily Gulick is definitely one of the latter! The approach to playing parental loyalty and doubt starts at the core of who I am as a real life mother. I have encountered circumstances in raising my children in which I was loyal when I should have been doubtful and doubtful when I have been loyal. However, because of the circumstances, I have to take Emily to a mathematical extreme. It is loyalty and that is EXPONENTIALLY greater than anything I have ever experienced. And so I start from the core of my real life and then leap into the world that JCO has created with Stella Adler’s magnificent “What If?” The four corners of my own experience are really limited (Thank God!) and rather than diminish Emily to fit “me” I rise to fit “her”.
Rose: Do you think that your real-life marriage affects your performances, and if yes, how so?
Alan: Katherine and I met in acting school, we’ve been together for 40 years and acting and working together is the most natural thing in the world for us. I trust and respect her as a woman, an actor and as an acting partner she is generous, smart and creative. So, we have a short hand and a mutual admiration and that made the process easier than if I were working with someone I didn’t know as well. Theatricum, because so many of us have know each other and worked together so often (I’ve been there for 30 years) provides that kind of opportunity.
Katherine: When Ellen Geer approached us to play Frank and Emily she said, “Oh – no one could play this better than the two of you! They act SO like a married couple – I need that connection!” Philip Brandeis, when he saw our production of TALLEY’S FOLLY talked about our “chemistry”. We do have chemistry onstage and off. BUT in TONE CLUSTERS we are not dealing with the romantic loving part of our 40 year relationship. We are dealing with the “for better or for worse” part of our relationship. The blame, shame, anger, regret part that also has the “but I couldn’t survive this chapter of my life without you” part of our relationship.
Rose: There’s a co-dependent relationship between Frank and Emily. How did you explore that in rehearsal?
Alan: Well, it is both co-dependent and eventually combative. Again, follow the language. A brilliant writer, like Oates, gives you all you need. Learning when to overlap and where the pauses are was most important and difficult. It is almost like a piece of music. In fact, Oates talks about being inspired by the Tone Cluster music.
Katherine: Emily and I do share that in common. Codependence. In my real life I work hard NOT to be a boundary free zone. Giving myself permission to explore Emily’s co-dependence in rehearsal and not allow that part of myself to come into my “real” life from my “creative” one is a BIG boundary for me as an actress.
Rose: Do you think that Frank and Emily turned a blind eye to their son’s violent tendencies, or do you think they are truly was unaware of what their son is capable of?
Alan: As the saying goes, Denial is not just a river in Egypt. As the script says, most of us just live our lives. Caught up in the day to day and often don’t notice when things are going badly. Again, the script says, when you’re the parents and you see them every day, you don’t form judgments.
So, yes, I think Frank doesn’t realize, doesn’t want to realize how damaged, how in need his son is. A failure often common in parenting, I’m afraid.
Katherine: I was explaining to one of our real life sons the other day that I am approaching this aspect of the character like pentimento (thank you, Lillian Hellman). This is where a painter takes an old canvas that he or she doesn’t like and paints a new painting over the old one…but then…a bit of the new painting falls off, exposing the old painting underneath. As Emily I see a piece of the new, false, painting fall away and see the ugly truthful painting underneath, freak out, and move my eyes to another spot in the painting where the new false painting is still shining. Of course, various pieces of the painting fall away during the course of the play – but never all of them.
Rose: An otherwise normal family grapples with the idea they raised a murderer in their home. Given the seemingly random violence in last year’s shooting in CT, the movie theater shooting in CO and the recent shooting at Santa Monica College, this is a very timely play. What is the central message or takeaway the audience should leave with?
Alan: Oates herself says the play is about the “not knowing”. It is sadly a very timely play. Prescient really in terms of both the violence and the “Reality TV” nature of the 2/7 news cycle and how that effects every event.
Katherine: At any moment any of us can be the ones “tsking” at the small screens in our homes at “someone else’s problem” or we can be the ones upon whom the blinding light of “news media as entertainment” whom someone else is watching from their home and at whom that “other” is “tsking”. Violence and The Media are our problem to fix, not our problem to ignore.
Rose: There’s a very satirical edge to these characters—an abnormal normality. How do you find the humor in Frank and Emily and portray it realistically? How do you portray the pain without losing the humor?
Alan: I don’t mean to sound redundant, but it’s all in the language. I don’t need to “play” the humor nor the pain. Simply imagine IF I were in the situation and say the words. Sounds simple, and I believe that’s what acting is. And finding the ACTIVE way through the language in the situation. What is Frank DOING as he’s speaking ? How is he trying to EFFECT the voice and Emily.
Thank God, and JCO, for the humor otherwise the play would be unrelenting. It is a dark and funny piece.
Katherine: The humor comes not because they are aware that they are funny, but because they are unaware that they are funny. As the audience laughs, Frank and Emily are not laughing with them. JCO is a brilliantly humorous and dark writer – just amazing!
Rose: “Tone Clusters” is a musical term used to describe a musical chord comprised of at least three adjacent notes in a scale. How does this relate to the play?
Alan: As I said, JCO was studying piano at the time she wrote this play so there are many blank spaces in the text. “Tone Clusters” is also a piece of music on the piano where the sustained pedal is not used. So the transitions exist individually, not connected. And in the play that is very true. Many of the transitions come seemingly out of nowhere. The dialogue is not linear often. And, the characters are on medication so that adds to the disjointed nature of the piece. All of that is very much a reflection of the kind of music “Tone Clusters” represents.
Katherine: In addition to what Alan says I would add that the rhythm of the language and speeches and interaction between the words spoken not only by Emily and Frank but by The Voice (played by the brilliant Jeff Weisen) acts almost like a ride. It feels often like a roller coaster or like a beat poet’s underlying pulse or quite simply, human expression. When people speak in real life, it is more like spoken poetry than any other art form and JCO has captured this.
Rose: I think this will be a fantastic theater experience.
Good luck to you both and thank you Alan.
I think this will be a fantastic theater experience and worth checking out. Get there early bring some good wine and a chunk of cheese and enjoy the beautiful setting. Although I will be out of town for the opening I will be sure to get a review up as soon as I return. Please be sure to check out all my reviews on Thelosangelespost.org and as always comments welcome.
Opens September 5
WILL GEER’S Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. Topanga Ca 90290
Photo credit: Chris Sibley