The UK Top 40 Pop Singles from the 1970s Era of Harold Pinter's BETRAYAL by Gregory Isaac

Early during the rehearsal process for our Lantern Theater production of Harold Pinter’s BETRAYAL, I spent one particular night falling into a fun click-hole of internet research. I like to include music in my preparation work whenever it is reasonably applicable, and as BETRAYAL is set during the 1970s and late 60s, it seemed like a good excuse to remind myself of all the great popular music of the era. Then I recalled that the Top 40 music charts of the time were not the same in Great Britain as they were in the United States, and since the play is about Londoners who spend most of their time in and around London. I felt some discovery exercises were in order. There would certainly be some overlap between the UK and US charts with plenty of familiar music, but there were bound to be new discoveries, and different titles topping off each year’s list. First I went searching for the rankings themselves, and then bounced back and forth from iTunes to YouTube seeking audio samples of the song titles I didn’t recognize.

David Bowie, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Side One, 1972 - Which is NOT one of the years I had to research for the play.

David Bowie, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Side One, 1972 - Which is NOT one of the years I had to research for the play.

Pinter’s play follows a unique structure, beginning at the “end” of the story in 1977, and then jumping successively backwards chronologically, a year or two at a time, with each new scene. There are nine scenes in all, and they occur in each of these years, listed as they appear in the show in reverse order: 1977, 1975, 1974, 1973, 1971, and 1968

It was a fun night of music exploration, and although I quickly nixed my original notion to purchase most of the top (or favorite) songs from each year (it was too expensive for too many songs), I did bookmark the website where I’d found the best, most accessible data about the UK singles charts.

Included below is a sampling of what I found, including top 5 lists and lots of YouTube links so you can hear (and see) the songs for yourself. Now, I am in no way a music expert - let alone an expert of 1970s music - so the lists and musings below are just a sample of my tangent-filled explorations, and frivolous impressions. (You’ve been warned.)

Anyway, here we go…..

1977:
Though I’m not offering these lists with any intentional connections to the themes or plot of BETRAYAL, Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” does seem apt at #1 for this year in connection with the events of the first two scenes of the play. U.S. Country & Western singers have a presence on this 1977 list (Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille” ranked highly at #14). Elvis Presley had a collection of singles in the top 100. David Soul had a huge hit album with singles up and down the UK’s top 100 that I’d never heard of before. There’s plenty of American MoTown. Plus, both The Sex Pistols AND The Muppets are in the top 100.

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The Top Five of 1977 were:
1. Abba - “Knowing Me, Knowing You”
2. David Soul - “Don’t Give Up on Us”
3. Elvis Presley - “Way Down”
4. Rod Stewart - “Don’t Want to Talk About It/First Cut Is The Deepest”
5. David Soul - “Silver Lady”
Also at #28 was Joe Tex with “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More”
and topping out at #60 was The Sex Pistols with the now iconic “God Save The Queen”

1975:
Country & Western again appears high up on the list, with Tammy Wynette at #5 with “Stand by Your Man” (And it totally fascinates me to see her song list directly below Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at #4) Telly Savalas (!!!) is on the year end chart at number 16 with a song called “If” (and you really MUST watch this video he also made to go along with that song). Savalas came in just below David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (#14), and beat out both John Lennon’s “Imagine” (#66), and KC and The Sunshine Band’s “That’s the way (I Like It)” (#57). (I consider “Imagine” to be one of the greatest songs ever written. I guess 1975 didn’t quite yet agree.) Both the Osmonds and the BeeGees have top singles lingering on this year’s list holding carryover appeal from previous year’s successes. But Holy Moley, that top five is an incredibly mixed bag of genres.

Queen Bohemian Rhapsody 1975.jpeg

The Top Five of 1975 were:
1. The Bay City Rollers - “Bye Bye Baby”
2. Rod Stewart - “Sailing”
3. Windsor Davies and Don Estelle - “Whispering Glass”
4. Queen - “Bohemian Rhapsody”
5. Tammy Wynette - “Stand By Your Man”
Also at #7 was David Essex with “Hold Me Close”
And at #13 was Roger Whittaker with “The Last Farewell”

1974:
’74 was a good year for the Osmond family, The Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter and - yes - a group called The Wombles, who wore weird sports mascot style, full body character costumes and had FOUR hit singles on the year-end top 100, at #21, #28, #85, and #99. David Bowie was only at #96 with “Rebel Rebel”, and they were higher than Paul McCartney and Wings’ song “Band on the Run” which was only at #46.

David Essex Gonna Make you a star record 1974.jpeg

The Top Five of 1974 were:
1. David Essex - “Gonna Make you a Star”
2. The Three Degrees - “When Will I See You Again”
3. Charles Aznavour - “She”
4. George McCrae - “Rock Your Baby”
5. Terry Jacks - “Seasons in the Sun”
Also at #18 The New Seekers with “You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me”
And there can never be enough Bowie, so here is his “Rebel Rebel” at #96

1973:
This was the year that David Bowie cemented his new identity as a superstar. His Ziggy Stardust album was released the year before, in 1972, and created such a fervor that a lot of material from his previous albums, was released and began to climb up the singles charts in 1973. He finished the year with 5 different songs on the top 100 chart even though he wouldn’t release another album of new material until the following year. HOWEVER, none of those songs reached the top 20 on the year-end list. Instead it’s Gary Glitter, who has 4 songs in the top 25 (all higher than Bowie’s best which was the rerelease of “Life On Mars” at #28). Gary Glitter is now best none for the omni-present sports stadium anthem, “Rock and Roll, Part 2” (sometimes known as the “Hey Song”). In case his stage name didn’t give it away, Gary Glitter was Glam Rock all the way, and as such, had little impact on the US charts, but I think there’s a lot of good fun tunes from him during this two year stretch, (BUT it’s probably worth pointing out that he’s spent most of the 21st century in various prisons for sex crimes against underage girls).
It’s also interesting to see that 3 of the top 5 songs of the year, are very safe, conservative, traditional hits, and it’s not hard to imagine that less liberal music buyers were feeling a need to push back against the newest wave of glam, and highly theatrical performers like Bowie, and The Sweet, and Gary Glitter, and Wizzard.

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The Top Five of 1973 were:
1. Dawn & Tony Orlando - “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”
2. Peters & Lee - “Welcome Home”
3. The Sweet - “Blockbuster”
4. Simon Park Orchestra - “Eye Level”
5. Wizzard - “See My Baby Jive”
Check out Gary Glitter at #6 with “I Love You Love Me”
and again at #15 with “Hello Hello I’m Back Again”
And because this will be my last chance to remind you that Bowie is king, this is his “The Jean Genie” at #40

1971:
Skimming the 1971 top 100 give me the impression of a pop music landscape that was still resetting itself after the official break-up of The Beatles and their final album release, “Let It Be'“ in 1970. On the ‘71 charts, John, Paul, George and Ringo all scored solo releases in the year-end top 100, with George’s being the highest ranked at #4. It seems as though a lot of familiar American music was there to fill the void that year, with plenty of Mo-Town on the chart (here’s Diana Ross with “I’m Still Waiting” at #8), along with James Taylor, Joan Baez, Carol King, Judy Collins, Elvis and Neil Diamond. Maybe the most notable UK tune at the top of the chart is Rod Stewart’s huge break-though as a solo artist. “Maggie May” off his Every Picture Tells a Story album, made him a star and a household name in the UK.

Rod Stewart maggie may record 1971.jpg

The Top Five of 1971 were:
1. Dawn - “Knock Three Times”
2. Rod Stewart - “Maggie May/Reason to Believe”
3. T Rex - “Hot Love”
4. George Harrison - “My Sweet Lord”
5. Clive Dunn - “Grandad”
And here’s a favorite of mine, The Mixtures at #7 with “The Pushbike Song”

1968:
I can’t say exactly why, but this is the one year on the six I’m reviewing for BETRAYAL where the UK chart feels almost exactly like the US chart that I’m more familiar with. Perhaps this is because the Beatles were at the absolute peak of their commercial powers - their movie, “Yellow Submarine” was released in June ‘68 (though the soundtrack would not be released for sale until early 1969), and in November, The White Album hit record stores across the globe (If I HAD to pick one favorite song from the white album, I suppose it might be Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). In wake of that, it seems the pathways between the US and UK music industries were wide open. The UK top 100 is filled with familiar songs. In addition to plenty of Beatles tunes, Satchmo himself is right at the top with his iconic rendition of “What a Wonderful World”, there’s some early Bee Gees (“I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” at #12), The Rolling Stones (“Jumping Jack Flash” at #20), The Beach Boys (“Do It Again” at #23), Joe Cocker (with his epic cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” at #30), Simon & Garfunkel (“Mrs. Robinson” at #63), The Monkees (“Daydream Believer” at #67), Jimi Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower” at #77), and even Mama Cass (at #94 with “Dream a Little Dream of Me).

The Beatles Hello Goodbye Record 1968.jpg

The Top Five of 1968 were:
1. Louis Armstrong - “What a Wonderful World/Cabaret”
2. Mary Hopkin - “Those Were the Days”
3. Des O’Connor - “I Pretend”
4. Hugo Montenegro - “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”
5. Union Gap - “Young Girl”
Also, here’s Bobby Goldsboro at #24 with “Honey”
And last (but certainly not least), here is the perfect title to close out this little backwards-to-forwards, BETRAYAL inspired deep dive into the Top UK singles of the late 60s and 70s, The Beatles with their #44 hit of 1968, “Hello Goodbye”

Thanks for playing along, kids.
BETRAYAL at the Lantern Theater continues only through February 17th. Come check us out.

(I drew all my data about the UK singles charts from this VERY useful site.)

BETRAYAL Reviews & Photos by Gregory Isaac

We’re just past the halfway point now of our six week run of Harold Pinter’s BETRAYAL at the Lantern Theater Company. Earlier this week we had our final scheduled post-show audience talkback. I’ve been really excited by the intelligent discourse initiated by our audiences, as inspired by the play.

The plot deals with a seven-year affair that Jerry (Jered McLenigan) has with Emma (Genevieve Perrier) despite the fact that her husband Robert (myself) is his best and oldest friend. (Ryan Hagan also has a delightful cameo as an Italian waiter in Act Two.) But Pinter doles out the plot of BETRAYAL in reverse chronological order, twisting Time and showing us the “end “ of the story at the beginning of the play and working backwards to show us the “beginning” in the final scene.

Gregory Isaac & Genevieve Perrier - Photo by Mark Garvin

Gregory Isaac & Genevieve Perrier - Photo by Mark Garvin

Our talk-back questions often began with this particular story-telling device, and an interesting observation emerged: Even though we learn how the story “ends” after the first two scenes of the play (the backwards time jumping first occurs before scene three), an audience can still only discover the full course of the story in real, forward time. As such, Pinter has ensured that in every scene, there is something new for the audience to learn about the narrative, sometimes by way of adding unexpected, new information, sometimes by finding surprising ways to subvert what the audience thinks they know already. I believe, at it’s heart, this is largely what BETRAYAL is about; exploring who knows what and when they know it, how they use that knowledge to hold power over others, and the lies they are willing to tell (or the truths they are willing to omit) to maintain that control. These revelations are spooled out gradually with each successive scene, and so the multi-layered discovery process - for the audience in real time, and for the characters in backward time - is very much part of the pleasure of watching the show.

The play is also populated by interesting characters who make a collection of very interesting choices - and not all of those characters are even seen onstage during the play. Judith is Jerry’s oft mentioned, but never seen wife. She is discussed directly or referred to in every scene of the play except the very last one. She is not only Jerry’s wife, but the mother of their two children, and has a full career as a medical doctor (in 1960s/70s England, no less!). She is clearly an impressive woman, and none of our talk-back audiences failed to bring her up. They openly wondered many things about her; her unseen exploits, wondering if and with whom she might be having affairs of her own, pondering if she really might have known all along about Jerry’s affair with Emma. I like to think that generating that much curiosity in a character we never even see is a strong endorsement for the show - or at least for the strength of Pinter’s writing.

(As a bit of side trivia: Pinter liked to send the first drafts of his plays to Samuel Beckett to get his thoughts and advice. After first responding to Pinter how much he liked the text, Beckett then followed up several weeks later to say, “I think of BETRAYAL. Strange poor present Judith throughout as if invisible watching it all.”)

The audiences’ curiosity was in no way limited to Judith. They frequently asks us why we thought our characters made the decisions they did, what we thought might have happened next, whether or not it was possible that some of the characters STILL hadn’t been entirely truthful about what they had done or when, and so on.

Genevieve Perrier & Jered McLenigan - Photo by Mark Garvin

Genevieve Perrier & Jered McLenigan - Photo by Mark Garvin

So each of those conversations proved to be extremely thoughtful and engaging, but honestly that dialog essentially exists during the performance every night. It’s a very satisfying play to perform, as Jered, Genevieve, Ryan and I navigate the revelations and omissions with each audience. Even Becca Smith, our stage manager, has said it’s the rare show that even she feels she must “perform” each night, feeling out the house’s responses and reactions and judging when to hold or execute certain cues from the booth (especially ends of scenes) in order to direct and give space for their discovery of the play each night.

A friend who saw the show recently asked afterwards what I thought was the message that Pinter wanted the audience to take away from the play. I honestly don’t know if I know the answer to that. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe there is. I think it’s entirely possible that Pinter’s impetus to write was simply a personal examination of his own experiences, as he himself had a seven year affair with Joan Blackwell until only a few years before he wrote this play. But I think there is more in the fabric of the play than just that: A study of memory, the passage of time, and why we love the people we love, and perhaps the ways in which we are willing to compete in order to attain or retain them.

Suffice it to say, though this has been my first opportunity to work on one of Pinter’s plays, I hope the next opportunity comes around soon.
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I’ve realized lately that reviews are less and less important to me, but I do still read them, and the reviews we’ve received for this production have been largely very positive:

-Toby Zinman, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, described our production as “A subtle, powerful rendition of Harold Pinter’s delicious, sinister love triangle.”

Genevieve Perrier, Gregory Isaac & Jered McLenigan - Photo by Mark Garvin

Genevieve Perrier, Gregory Isaac & Jered McLenigan - Photo by Mark Garvin

-Howard Shapiro, for WHYY, wrote that the show, “comes off with a quiet passion; directed with precision; and performed with enormous reserve.” He says he once thought he never wanted to see the play again, but, “Lantern’s satisfying production makes me glad I did.”

-Rebecca Rendell, writing for Talkin’ Broadway, offered me a special shout out, writing that, “Isaac’s passionate stoicism is a thing of beauty and reason enough to see this production before it closes,” adding that the production is, “Frequently funny, consistently engaging, and marvelously enigmatic.”

And yes, we also got one review from a once notable reviewer which was so full of venom and snark that I could barely take it seriously. I offer it to you here with no shame whatsoever.

Our BETRAYAL will continue through February 17th, for 8 performances a week at the Lantern Theater Company here in Center City, Philadelphia. I hope you’ll get a chance to see it for yourself.

Acknowledgements and Gratitudes: The 2018 BARRYMORE AWARDS by Gregory Isaac

Copy of 2018 Barrymore Facebook Cover 1000x500.jpg

Philadelphia Theatre’s annual Barrymore Awards were this past Monday night, and I was nominated in two categories, Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Play (for my performance as “Achilles” in IPHIGENIA AT AULIS with the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective), and for Outstanding Ensemble in a Play (along with my truly incredible cast mates in WAITING FOR GODOT at the Quintessence Theatre Group).

Although my (our) name(s) were not revealed in either of the “winners” envelopes, it still was a great honor to be included on the short list by the Barrymore committee.  It was the first time in my entire career that I have been individually nominated for an award of this type, and as such, it served as a clear reminder that, in our art form, there is rarely any such thing as an “individual” accomplishment. And since I didn’t have a chance to stand at the microphone and acknowledge that on Monday, I’m utilizing my tiny pulpit here instead…

Dan Hodge graciously invited me to be a part of the process for IPHIGENIA AT AULIS, and then fostered a lovely work environment for us to create and explore, granting us a great deal of trust and respect, and offered an open door for ideas at all times.

My scene partners, Adam Howard, and especially Becca Khalil and Tai Verley were rock stars, bringing depth and presence to their work every night.  I never had to manufacture any moment on stage with them, but just listen and respond with equal urgency to theirs.  The work felt easy and concise and real every time.  “Supporting” work should always be so well supported.

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Nathan Foley (who I was never even on stage with), Luke Moyer (whose time in the play ended every show before mine even began), and Peggy Smith and Stephanie Iozzia (our musical chorus) did the heavy lifting and set the tone, cutting through choppy waters and leaving a clean, smooth surface in their wake for myself, and the rest of us, to ski in.

Robin Shane dressed us in the sharpest maritime garb, and the USS Olympia was a perfect, real-life venue to play our scenes. Jenna Stelmok was our stern, benevolent shepherd of a stage manager, and PAC’s co-artistic director, Damon Bonetti offered gracious and attentive support from the very first contract offer in the spring of 2017, right up until this week at the Barrymore ceremony. To each of you, I am grateful and in your debt.

And I have no less gratitude for my WAITING FOR GODOT cast, either.  Quintessence Theatre Group has become my de-facto home base here in Philadelphia, and I was thrilled to be a little part of one of the many Barrymore nominations the company received this year. 

I said right from the very start of the process on GODOT that I was fully aware that I was very much the one in the room who was lucky to be there.  Johnnie Hobbs Jr. and Frank X, our “Didi” and “Gogo”, are two long-established titans of Philadelphia Theatre.  That’s true, as well, of our director Ken Marini, who has spent decades proving and re-proving his incredible talent.  And J. Hernandez, our “Lucky,” though only a couple of years newer to Philly than myself, is a formidable presence on any stage.  All four men received individual nominations for their superior work on WAITING FOR GODOT.

And then there was me, feeling a little out of place, but giddy just to be in the room and trying not to get in anyone’s way with my “Pozzo”. The best part for me was just watching all of those talented people being talented.  At least I can boast that I won nearly every game of checkers I played in the dressing room with our young, fifth ensemble member, Lyam David Kilker, who cameoed as the “Boy”, (and will soon be a Philadelphia star in his own right).

Finally, a personal shout out to Quintessence’s artistic director, Alexander Burns, without whom I probably wouldn’t be in Philadelphia in the first place, and I certainly would not be so gainfully employed.

I realized recently that next month it will be 25 years since I was expelled from the acting conservatory I was enrolled in out of high school.  The dean of that conservatory – in what I perceived as a clumsy attempt to make me cry at the occasion when I failed to show what he must have considered a more appropriate demonstration of devastation and loss – looked at me from across his desk and said, “Greg, it’s such a shame, too, because we really thought you were going to make it in this business.”

Well, I’m under no illusions that I have “made it”, and I freely admit that I have done things the hard way far, far more often than I can ever recommend to anyone else, but nevertheless: I’m still here.  And nights like Monday serve as an apt reminder of how lovely and humbling it is to be even a small part of a rich, deep, and very talented group of theatre artists.  I am grateful to all of you in IPHIGENIA, GODOT, Philadelphia, and beyond.  I hope there is much, much more to come.

HOPE & GRAVITY - Reviews and Photos by Gregory Isaac

Somehow, we're already entering our final weekend with HOPE & GRAVITY with 1812 Productions.  Time definitely flies when you're having fun!  It's been a really great process from start to finish and from on stage to back.

It's been a good while since I have worked on a piece with the playwright in the room with us, let alone one with the success and clout that Michael Hollinger has.  I can't say enough about the the amount of trust he gave us while he allowed us to work out his words in front of him every day.  He was gracious and lovely and supportive and patient.  No actor could ask for more.

I can also confirm, the rumors are true: Jennifer Childs is kind of a genius, kickass, director/human.  I learned a LOT from her in this process, and, as I told her on opening night, there is a great deal of her work in my work on this show.  I really don't know if I would have been able to find the right place for Hal and Peter without her help.

Plus, Suli, Jessica, Sean, David, Grace, Jess, Julia, Lindsay, and Tom BRING IT every night down there at the Plays & Players Theater on Delancey Street.  You've got 'til just this Sunday to come and see it before it's gone!

Here's a little bit of what they've been saying about us...

"Michael Hollinger’s title, Hope and Gravity, refers to elements in opposition: hope raises us up, gravity pulls us down. In his comedy, locally premiered by 1812 Productions, hope prevails — not only in the play’s themes but in Jennifer Childs’s entertaining production."
---Mark Cofta, Broad Street Review

"Producing artistic director and company cofounder Jennifer Childs directs a strong cast with broad strokes and high energy, nailing the laughs and most of the darker moments."
---Julia M. Klein, Philadelphia Inquirer

"There’s a thrill in chasing this plot — it’s always tantalizingly ahead of you — and finally nailing it. The thrill extends to witnessing five agile actors, some in dual roles, as they lay out this story that happens in the past, or sometimes in the future, yet also in the present."
---Howard Shapiro, WHYY

Gregory Isaac, David Ingram, Sean Close, and Jessica Johnson - Photo by Mark Garvin

Gregory Isaac, David Ingram, Sean Close, and Jessica Johnson - Photo by Mark Garvin

David Ingram, and Suli Holum - Photo by  Mark Garvin

David Ingram, and Suli Holum - Photo by Mark Garvin

Suli Holum and Gregory Isaac - Photo by  Mark Garvin

Suli Holum and Gregory Isaac - Photo by Mark Garvin

Modulating Absurdity: Attempting to Define the "Rules" of Samuel Beckett by Gregory Isaac

I’ll be honest: Beckett baffles me.

Not so much when I watch his plays. I can totally sit in a theatre and watch Beckett performed and glean meaning, pleasure, sadness, and depth. (Well, expect for ENDGAME. ENDGAME just straight-up baffles me.)  But on the whole, yeah, I can watch me some Beckett.

Playwright Samuel Beckett

Playwright Samuel Beckett

BUT:  As a person occasionally (partly) responsible for helping to create those experiences… there I’m afraid I’m at a loss.

Beckett, it is said, works best when you watch his plays without trying to dissect the elements of them; when you allow the sum of the pieces to wash over you as a whole. But when you’re an artist working on creating that whole, it’s your job to dissect the pieces - or at least YOUR piece - and therein awaits a certain abyss.

I’ve recently had the pleasure/dismay of gazing once again into that particular abyss while working on WAITING FOR GODOT at the Quintessence Theatre Group.  My piece to dissect: Pozzo, the narcissistic, slave-owning traveler, who interrupts and visits with the play’s two main characters, Didi and Gogo for a chunk of each act, accompanied by his “menial,” Lucky.

The “absurdist” genre that Beckett wrote in – though, yes, “defined” is possibly more accurate – is a space beyond the familiar rules of our daily existence.  He turns a rather fractured mirror back onto the world, such that if you stand close to the glass you would be able to recognize the gently broken image of yourself, but the larger room (or world) beyond you would be so distorted by the cracks and fissures, that its familiarity would be much harder to seize hold of.  All the pieces would still be there, but scattered and rearranged into something different.  And that distortion is, one assumes, the point.  Beckett  takes a familiar thing that we might take for granted, and sets that familiar thing in an unfamiliar place, which then makes it possible to evaluate all of it in a whole new way.

The principle is easy enough to grasp.  Putting it into practice, though, well…..

As "Pozzo" in WAITING FOR GODOT (photo by Shawn May)

As "Pozzo" in WAITING FOR GODOT (photo by Shawn May)

Pozzo, (being my current example), is presented in the text of GODOT with scant few details about his personal history or existence.  We first meet him at the “master” end of a long rope whose “servant” end is tied around Lucky’s neck.  Though Beckett provides great detail about the manner of their entrance - how they are tied, what they are wearing, what they are carrying - he provides no specifics about either man’s physical appearance, where they come from, or quite exactly where they are going.

Further, Pozzo then embarks upon a series of odd behaviors and assertions, which sometimes seem inspired by his exchanges with Didi and Gogo, and sometimes spool out almost randomly, in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion: His cruel treatment of Lucky, his claim that he owns the land Didi and Gogo are waiting upon, his inability to sit down without somehow being invited to do so by someone else, the fact that the objects in his pockets continue to disappear later in the scene, etc., etc., etc…

In short, Pozzo is not “normal”.  No matter how you choose to play it, he simply does odd things in odd ways, and I found it intimidating to consider how to make sense of it all; how to chart a set of choices for my performance.  Where exactly do you drop an anchor and pick a point to work outward from?

Frank X & Johnnie Hobbs Jr. in Quintessence Theatre Group's WAITING FOR GODOT

Frank X & Johnnie Hobbs Jr. in Quintessence Theatre Group's WAITING FOR GODOT

In the end, I made two decisions:
First, my job as the actor is to focus on the text I am given and to make as many decisions as possible based on the basic information contained therein.  I guess that seems a little obvious, but really, if the playwright is good, everything you really need should already be in the script.  I think that is very much the case with GODOT.

Second: Given the first supposition, I must then trust the director (in this case, Ken Marini) to make all of the larger thematic and aesthetic decisions for the production, including how exactly my character should fit into that.  I just don’t think it’s possible to see the whole effect of a Beckett play from within it.  I think that can only be done from the outside.  So that has to fall on the shoulders of a director, perhaps more so than with any other playwright I’ve worked on.

(Theatre is often described as an actor’s medium, meaning that the actors have a great deal of control over the audience’s experience with the storytelling every night.  It is the movies which are usually identified as the director’s medium where the director really has that control.  But I think that’s mostly true for plays that occur in a familiar setting, with conventional rules.  When it comes to absurdist play’s like Beckett’s – or even, say, a musical, when characters break out into song and dance – then a much larger responsibility for “world-building” and story-telling is returned to the director.)

So, I mined my text to establish certain touchstones to help me localize character choices for Pozzo. 
Standouts included:
1. “I say does that name mean nothing to you?”
2. “I am perhaps not particularly human, but who cares?”
3. “Is everybody ready?  Is everybody looking at me?”
4. “Forget all I said.  I don’t remember exactly what it was, but you may be sure there wasn’t a word of truth in it.”
5. “Bless you, gentlemen, bless you! I have such need of encouragement!”

Those little discoveries were then enhanced by several key observations and suggestions from our director, Ken:
1. Pozzo’s kinship in narcissism to certain modern-day political personalities.
2. The idea that Pozzo and Lucky, perhaps, used to be part of a big traveling circus, for which Pozzo was possibly the Master of Ceremonies/Owner.
3. And finally, (and maybe on something of a whim), Ken suggested that I try taking Pozzo’s semi-famous speech describing the end-of-day twilight and turning it into a song instead, which resulted in the vaudeville-ish, music-hall-style tune I offered during the show each night. 

The result was, I think, a unique and original Pozzo, yet one still very rooted in Beckett’s text.  I cannot and will not claim that I’ve got him “right”, or that we produced the correct result.  I must leave that to those who observed the show as a whole, being first our director, Ken, and then each night’s audience.  I can accept a full range of responses, both positive and negative, to my version of the character. Everyone will have their own sense of taste, and anyone is certainly allowed to disagree with mine (or Ken’s, depending on how you look at it).

I will only argue that we did not get it “wrong”, because for there to be a “wrong” way, there must also be a “right” way, and I think that for a play like GODOT, and a playwright like Beckett, who was notoriously reluctant to explain his characters or his plays any further than what he wrote in the texts themselves, then as long as you are honoring that text, then you are not doing it “wrong”.

Anyhow, as Higgins tells his mother at a key point in PYGMALION: There’s no sense bothering about that now, the thing is done!

A friend pointed out recently that it’s a rather unusual thing for an actor like myself, at a (yes, relatively) young age, to already have performed in two of Beckett’s plays.  It’s something I hadn’t considered, but he is probably right.  Maybe that means I’ll be a little further along towards grasping Beckett’s deeper designs when the next opportunity comes around, whenever that might be.  Maybe I’ll get to that spot where the light gleams for an instant before time really does stop, maybe not, but that’s just how it is on this Beckett of an earth.

A Glance in the Rear View Mirror... by Gregory Isaac

MY FAIR LADY rehearsal photo by Linda Johnson

MY FAIR LADY rehearsal photo by Linda Johnson

I'm still trying to get my head around both the closing of MY FAIR LADY and the end of 2017. I have been so fortunate, this past year, to do so much wonderful work with so many very talented people, both in familiar venues and new ones that welcomed me with open arms.

I got to work on two productions at different theatres that - literally - could not extend their runs long enough to match the demand for tickets. I worked on another that, though the venue was small, still sold out virtually its entire run.

I was fortunate to be cast as challenging, flawed characters with great depths to explore, and repeatedly shared the stage with actors who were far more interesting for me to watch and listen to, than to heave my own lines toward.

And, yes,  I had the great privilege of concluding the year playing Henry Higgins - a rich, layered, deeply flawed, anti-hero, and one of G.B. Shaw's greatest creations. Taking on that role and witnessing the wide range of very passionate responses that the MY FAIR LADY elicited from our audiences was an extraordinary thing to experience in this current cultural moment. I know there were people who hated the show. I know there were people who hated my character. There may have even been people who hated me for portraying him. (And if you don't believe me, then read this post from one of the hobby bloggers in the Philly area who came to see the show.)

Many audiences simply loved the production, of course.  I was stopped by patrons who told me they had already returned to see it two, three, four times, and more.  Some people carried fond memories of the 1964 movie version and were enchanted by our interpretation. (I still have yet to watch that movie, but I was told many times by patrons that, "Mr. Harrison would be proud," which I presume is a good thing.)  Others were completely unfamiliar with the show or the story, and were blown away by both the production and the extraordinary material written by Shaw and Lerner and Loewe.

It is lovely (loverly?) to be liked, of course, but what I am most proud of is that the production affected nearly everyone who saw it.  Whether the response was a positive or a negative one, it made a powerful impression.  There were stories of families that saw the show stopping in the lobby afterwards and breaking out into generational debates about the residual themes of the work.  I believe that's a testament to the material and to the extraordinary team of people who came together to interpret it.  Our ensemble was deep and talented, but I am especially grateful for Doug, Bradley, Marcia, Susan, and of course, Leigha - superb scene partners, all, and each a joy to go head to head with every night as Henry.

I was gently accused, once or twice, of defending Higgins' behavior.  I respectfully reiterate here that I never had any intention of defending him.  What I did fear, though, as an actor, was that the work we did to construct a living, breathing, nuanced, multi-faceted character would become overshadowed by his flaws.  We certainly did nothing to mask or lessen his shortcomings.  We also did nothing to enhance those unsavory parts of his behavior to take advantage of the current social climate.  We simply performed Shaw, Lerner, and Loewe's words as written.  The one moment when we actively worked against the established norms for presenting the work was on the final line of the show, and I believe the contrition we explored in that moment was crucial on a multitude of levels.  Only does material that good continue to evolve and unlock new meaning with the passage of time.  Whether we - whether I - managed to present our Higgins in a truthful, meaningful way, is ultimately up to each audience to determine, but I, within myself, am content.  And deeply, deeply grateful.

2018 already has plenty in store for me.  As I write this, I am enjoying several days of down time and rest, but tomorrow will be the first rehearsal for WAITING FOR GODOT (also at Quintessence Theatre Group).  I'll be playing Pozzo with another group of very accomplished artists, so I gotta be on my game.  I hope the coming year is good to all of us.  Best wishes to you and yours!

MY FAIR LADY - Reviews and Photos by Gregory Isaac

We've just about hit the mid-point of our run of MY FAIR LADY at Quintessence Theatre Group.  Attendance continues to swell, and I think there is actually a palpable buzz around the production here on the northwest side of Philadelphia.  An extension week (through December 23rd) has already been announced, and I have been approached by many patrons who have bragged eagerly about attending the show multiple times.

The materials we have to work with - both George Bernard Shaw's original text (from his play, PYGMALION, of course), and the score composed for the musical by Lerner & Loewe - are iconic and legendary for a reason, and it is a real joy to play it with such a talented and committed ensemble of performers. I cannot imagine a better group of people to be tackling this show with.

It is a testament to Shaw's genius that the plot he conceived, and the characters who move through it can still evoke such a strong response with our audiences.  Many of the issues it presents and wrestles with are even more vital today than ever.  I have, understandably, spent a great deal of time in the last few months, pondering Professor Higgins and his point of view.  First, I must say that I am incredibly grateful to Mr. Shaw for granting us (and me) a character packed full up with both brilliance and flaws, virtuosity and deplorability, who delights and disgusts in both extraordinary ways and equal measure.  He feels incredibly human to me, three-dimensional and so very, very real.  He is not a collection of randomly assigned character traits, but a HUMAN, whole and true, whose wit, and fears, and triumphs and failings are all tightly interconnected and constructed by a playwright who was not only better than most, but at the height of his powers. While I cannot fault anyone in this particular moment of our social and cultural history who chooses to write him off as a simple misogynist, I find I cannot fully agree with that distilled assessment.  Henry Higgins is every bit the titan of personality that his counterpart, Eliza Doolittle is (and I like to think that my performance is coming something close to doing him that justice).

But regarding Higgins and Eliza, there is no doubt in my mind that one entity is greatly diminished without the other, and I am incredibly grateful to be sharing that task with Leigha Kato.  She is a "tower of strength, a consort battleship," and brings to her Eliza not only a full-voiced glory, but a fire and intelligence that I greatly admire.  She is the best of all possible scene partners.  Marcia Saunders, Doug Hara, Bradley Mott, and Lee Cortopassi are each giving their own master classes on stage every night as well, and the game just keeps getting better every time we play it.  It hasn't been easy, this one, but I've found it incredibly rewarding, and I look forward every night to walking into the theatre with my co-workers to try the whole thing all over again.

But enough of me blathering on, and on.  Here's what a few of the professional opinionators had to say...

"MY FAIR LADY gets the Quintessence treatment: intimate, stripped down, concentrating on character, language, and action. It's a success.  An evening full of heady emotion, the spectacle of people changing before your eyes, and a profound closing truth, all the more profound right now."  - John Timpane, writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Quintessence Theatre's MY FAIR LADY is a jubilant mix of beautiful songs, dancing, magic, social politics... and elocution.  It's a splendid show, a holiday gift"   - Kathryn Osenlund, writing for phindie.com

"Kato's Doolittle has the perfect insufferable Henry Higgins to teach her how to be a lady with proper English: Gregory Isaac.  He plays the nasty know-it-all linguist with a smirk that seems to be born to the character."  - Howard Shapiro, writing for WHYY

And finally I want to share a thought that Amanda Morton, our incredibly talented 2nd piano player (though really it's more like Piano 1, and 1A), posted on Instagram about the show just before our opening night.  I found it very thoughtful and insightful:
"I grew up loving this show, then discovered problems with it as i got older, but have somehow fallen back in love with it thanks to [director] Alexander Burns' thoughtful, intelligent hand in revealing the complexity of a dynamic that, at first glance, can be repugnant.  However, it seems to me that Eliza and Henry are looking to be understood, and perhaps find a more evloved kind of love that acknowledges its flaws from the get and doesn't mind a lively verbal spar.  It is not our commecial vision of relationships, but it's deeply human and for that reason, touches me."

We now run until December 23rd.  PLEASE come to Mt. Airy and check us out.  You won't be sorry that you did.

Gregory Isaac as "Higgins" and Leigha Kato as "Eliza".  Photo by Shawn May.

Gregory Isaac as "Higgins" and Leigha Kato as "Eliza".  Photo by Shawn May.

Doug Hara as "Col. Pickering".  Photo by Shawn May.

Doug Hara as "Col. Pickering".  Photo by Shawn May.

The Ensemble in the Ascot Gavot.  Photo by Shawn May.

The Ensemble in the Ascot Gavot.  Photo by Shawn May.

Leigha Kato as "Eliza," and Gregory Isaac as "Higgins".  Photo by Shawn May.

Leigha Kato as "Eliza," and Gregory Isaac as "Higgins".  Photo by Shawn May.

Coming Up! - 'IPHIGENIA' and 'HOPE & GRAVITY' by Gregory Isaac

My summer months have been anything but quiet, and my 2017-'18 season continues to get clearer and clearer as it quickly approaches.  

I'm already in the thick of rehearsals for Philadelphia Artists' Collective's fall production of IPHIGENIA AT AULIS, the 2,500 year old Greek tragedy by Euripides. Dan Hodge, one of P.A.C.'s founders, is directing.  I've admired his work in various capacities around the city since I got here, and I'm really happy to finally be spending some time in the same room with him on IPHIGENIA.

The show is being produced in conjunction with FringeArts as apart of the annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and will be performed on board the U.S.S. Olympia at the Independence Seaport Museum, underneath the Ben Franklin Bridge.  It's my first Greek play, and I'll be trying my hand (and left foot?) as "Achilles".

--> IPHIGENIA AT AULIS will run from September 7th - 22nd, 2017

ALSO:
I've been cast in 1812 Productions' spring staging of HOPE & GRAVITY, a comedy by Michael Hollinger about the curious ways that nine people's lives intersect when an elevator crashes in an urban high-rise.  Jennifer Childs will direct the five person ensemble, and the show will run at 1812's home, the historic Plays & Players Theatre in Center City.

--> HOPE & GRAVITY will run April 26th - May 20th, 2018

And, yes, I'm still on target to appear at Professor Higgins in Quintessence Theatre Group's holiday production of MY FAIR LADY.  That show will, I'm sure, be right on top of me before I know it.  I am still thrilled and appropriately daunted at the prospect.  I'll soon be growing very re-accustomed to Leigha Kato's very talented face, as she prepares what I'm sure will be a star turn as Eliza Doolittle.

--> MY FAIR LADY will run from November 15th - December 17th, 2017 at the Sedgwick Theater in the Mount Airy Neighborhood of northwest Philly.  

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THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, CHARLES DICKENS, AND COUNT LEO TOLSTOY: DISCORD - Reviews & Photos by Gregory Isaac

UPDATE (6/20): We've been extended!  Reviews, word-of-mouth buzz, and ticket sales have been so strong that the Lantern has decided to add an unplanned extension week to our run! We will now play through July 9th! Tickets are expected to go quickly!

We are now right in the middle of our scheduled run of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... at The Lantern Theater, here Philly.  Everything about the process has been a pleasure, and a daunting task melted away in a rehearsal room filled with talented and generous people.  We're really having fun with it now.

The play is such a delightful blend of philosophy, religion, and comedic clash of ego.  It offers a healthy, historical dose of each topic from Jefferson's, Dickens', and Tolstoy's point of view.  You don't have to agree with any of them, but the debate is, nevertheless, a very interesting one, and leaves plenty to think about when the lights go down.

I think it's fair to say that even though we felt like we probably had a pretty good show going during rehearsals, we didn't really expect the audience's reactions to be SO enthusiastic.  Our previews were all nearly sold out, the word of mouth has been strong, and the reviews have been equally positive.

I'm not exaggerating.  Every performance has been at or near capacity.  So, if you're serious about coming to check out the show, please check your calendars and buy in advance.  We run - now - through July 9th.  I'd love to see you there!

Here's a little of what the press has had to say...

"[Director} James Ijames makes a theology debate - no the usual topic for a comedy - both entertaining and intriguing.  You'll laugh and you'll ponder.  In swift economical strokes, each actor establishes a personality and a nationality; comic caricature is always based on truth."
   --Toby Zinman for the Philadelphia Inquirer

"The often heady debate favorably compares to George Bernard Shaw, who likewise made intellectual discourse sincere and passionate. GOSPEL's fine cast bring these initially stiff figures to life and make them face themselves."
   --Mark Cofta for the Broad Street Review

"It would be hard to come up with better casting.  They ride with the give and take, each with a distinct and unmistakeable voice.  Gregory Isaac, whose work we've amired at Quintessence Theatre, is vital and compelling as a rational, cynical Jefferson."
   --Kathryn Osenlund for phindie.com

Photo by Mark Gavin   

Photo by Mark Gavin

 

Brian McCann as Dickens, Gregory Isaac as Jefferson, and Andrew Criss as Tolstoy Photo by Mark Garvin

Brian McCann as Dickens, Gregory Isaac as Jefferson, and Andrew Criss as Tolstoy
Photo by Mark Garvin

My "Fair" Holiday Plans... by Gregory Isaac

Quintessence Theatre Group, the company I've come to think of as "home" here in Philadelphia, revealed their eighth season this past week.  It's a big, bold line-up of classics, new and old.  

It also includes one big "first" for the company. Quintessence will stage it's first full-fledged musical, and I will be playing a crucial part.  I am pleased to announce that I'm set to appear as Professor Higgins in MY FAIR LADY, directed by Alexander Burns, and running from November 15 - December 17th, 2017.

I think the show fits in very nicely with QTG's usual fare, as the book draws almost exclusively from George Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION, and features some of Lerner and Loewe's most memorable song writing.

In addition to an expanded Family Series, the Quintessence season also includes Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT, and a spring repertory of Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR and Henrik Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK.

More details about the coming season, including a spate of guest directors, casting and ticket sales, will soon be available on the company website.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to stretching a few acting muscles I haven't tested in a few years.  And I'll have more to tell about where else you'll find me in the '17-'18 Philly theatre season very soon! 

My Wary Steps Into History by Gregory Isaac

I never considered how daunting it could be to play a historical figure.  But a year ago I was cast to play Thomas Jefferson in a three-hander at the Lantern Theater, and I assure you I have been mildly daunted ever since.  (THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, CHARLES DICKENS, & COUNT LEO TOLSTOY: DISCORD, performing throughout the month of June - and yes, that's the longest title in the history of titles.)

I think it is fair to say that I bear little physical resemblance to our famous founding father – he was taller than I, fairer of complexion, and far more red-headed than I, to name just the most obvious differences.  (I suppose, you could qualify it as non-traditional casting.)

This is compounded, in my mind, by the fact that I’ll be taking on this persona IN PHILADELPHIA.  In fact, when I arrive at the theater for rehearsal every day, I get off the train at Jefferson Station.  I walk past Jefferson Hospital.  The theatre is a stone’s throw from the apartment where Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence, and Independence Hall is only another brief jaunt down the street.  His likeness is, quite literally, all around me every day.  (On the first day of rehearsal, I stopped for a snack.  My change was exactly one nickel, and there was Jefferson, again, in the palm of my hand.)

My job, though – and I’ve had to remind myself of this a number of times over the past year - is not to focus on those deficiencies in resemblance (which are physical traits that I cannot entirely control), but to leverage the characteristics that I DO connect with.  He was a southern gentleman (who probably had a gentle southern drawl), a man of reason, of logic, and principle.  He was mild-tempered, and somewhat introverted.  He disliked personal conflict, etc, etc.  These traits are all things I know I can wear comfortably.  Our director, James Ijames certainly felt that to be true when he cast me in the role.

Most importantly, though, is to remind myself every day, that my job is not really to impersonate Thomas Jefferson, but to play this particular character, in this particular play, which is partly about a man who, or course, resembles our third president, but exists, more specifically, within his own world as created by playwright Scott Carter.  My real job is to honor THAT creation. 

And so it was a great relief to finally begin rehearsals last week, to get back to the work I understand.  Getting into the words and the relationships on the page and bringing them to life.  And it’s a gift to be sharing the room with two very talented cast mates, a very smart director and generous production team (with a special shout-out to our extraordinary dramaturg, Meghan Winch).  It’s good to remember that it’s still the same process it has always been: discover the point of view, establish the stakes, play the objectives, and, oh yeah, memorize the words.  And just like always, hopefully, if you do that well, and the design team helps you look good, then the audience suspends their disbelief, and we all go on a really great ride together every night. 

I’m no longer feeling daunted.  I’m enjoying the ride, and excited to see where we go.

The many faces of Thomas Jefferson

The many faces of Thomas Jefferson

Martha Lavey - A Very Brief Recollection by Gregory Isaac

I didn’t really meet Martha Lavey during the only contract I earned at Steppenwolf while I lived in Chicago, except for a professional handshake once or twice.  But Erica Daniels and I managed to stay in touch after I moved to NYC, and every now and then when Erica had something going on in New York for Steppenwolf and needed a little help, she’d message me.  On one of those occasions a few years ago, I wound up reading the stage directions in a private reading of a play in NYC that was being considered for production back at the theatre in Chicago. 

There were a number of very impressive and accomplished people in the room that afternoon – especially the women – and Martha, of course, was among them.  She was still AD at the theatre, but she had little to do at this particular event, and so she had assigned herself the jobs of hostess and craft services.  She had stopped for treats and snacks on her way to the reading and was busy making sure that everyone had their fill of them before the reading started. 

By any measure, I was the least important person in the room that afternoon, and I’ve never been good enough at feigning the gumption to strike up conversation with people as important as were present that day.  Martha, however, perhaps being in hostess mode, took pity on me and came over to introduce herself and find out how I knew Erica. 

While I lived in Chicago, I had been given an impression by others that Martha could be a bit eccentric and aloof.  I don’t know why.  That afternoon in New York, she engaged me with genuine curiosity, though I was the person in the room who was due the least attention.  We chatted for less than ten minutes before the reading began, but long enough to move past general courtesies and reach that level of gentle confession one can experience when chatting with a stranger.  I talked about how much bigger NYC felt than I’d expected, and some of the question marks I had for my career there.  She was easy to talk to, and her interest was real. 

At one point in the middle of our conversation, she paused and said, “well, just remember, you can always come back,” – meaning back to Chicago – and there was something so clear in her tone about the way she felt about NYC, and the way she felt about Chicago, and something equally clear about the way she spoke to me not simply as a fellow theatre artist, but as a fellow Chicagoan, that made me stop cold. And in the next moment I just laughed, because it was so thuddingly true, and because, somehow, her saying it made me feel retroactively embraced and welcomed by everything about Chicago Theatre.

She gave me a polite hug goodbye at the end of that reading.  She resigned her position at the theatre later that year, and I never met her again, but Martha will remain a crucial part of my experience as a Chicago Actor even though my encounter with her occurred only after I left.  Thank you for that, Martha.  May you rest in peace.

(Read Chris Jones' tribute to Martha for the Chicago Tribune)

Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf Theatre

Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf Theatre