Speeches 

Steve Ross

 

The Little Church Around the Corner, NY
November 18, 2012

Dear Friends,

Some time ago I was asked to give an address at the annual memorial Evensong at The Little Church Around the Corner here in Manhattan. It was to commemorate all of the players who had made their exits within the period of the year before. I was apprehensive at the thought of writing my first speech ever (I’m more used to penning linking material for cabaret shows and lectures as well of course as the odd epigrammatic e-mail) but I charged ahead and I’m happy to report that it went very well. It was interesting to have to marshall and express my feelings for the theatre and the world of music I’ve been fortunate enough to inhabit lo these many decades.

Steve Ross

- - -

“Why must the show go on? The rule is surely not immutable. It might be wiser and more suitable just to close - if you are in the throes of personal grief and private woes. Why stifle a sob when doing a job when if you used your head – you’d go out and grab a comfortable cab and go straight home to bed. Because you’re not giving us much fun – that “laugh clown laugh” routine’s been over-done. Hats off to show folk for smiling when they’re blue – but more ‘comme-il-faut’ folk are sick of smiling through. So if you lose hope, take dope and lock yourself in the john – why must the show go on?”

Those immortal lines were written by the gentleman who raised captiousness to an art form, Sir Noel Coward. But then he ALSO wrote this most loving paean to theatrical-ness and to the magic of make-believe that has drawn humanity to the stage lights even when they were camp-fires:

“I can remember, I can remember,
The months of November and December
Were filled for me with peculiar joys
So different from those of other boys.
For other boys would be counting the days
Until end of term and holiday times
But I was acting in Christmas plays.
While they were taken to pantomimes.
I didn’t envy their Eton suits,
Their childrens’ dances and Christmas trees
My life had wonderful substitutes
For such conventional treats as these.
I didn’t envy their country larks,
Their organized games in paneled halls;
While they made snow-men in stately parks
I was counting the curtain calls.”

Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about since I was asked to speak to you this afternoon.

I was personally acquainted with only a few of the actors who have left the stage this past year but I’ll bet that most, if not all of them, might have felt that there really wasn’t a choice when it came to their profession. At the risk of speaking too simplistically, one might say that acting picked them – at least that’s the way I feel about my own life in the arts. I’m a musician. “Profession”– Mr. Webster defines it thus: a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation. For me, although the knowledge was specialized to be sure and I did take a lot of piano lessons, the only real school I ever attended to learn what I had to learn was L’Ecole de Saloon. It was the line of least resistance – it was soon clear to my parents that I was not going to amount to too much away from the keyboard so they encouraged me unstintingly. Oh I acted in plays too - who could forget my Kreton in “Visit to a Small Planet” at the Ft. Lewis Little Theatre in Seattle Washington in 1962? And then there was also the legendary 1963 Tacoma Little Theatre production of “Carousel” in which I gave the least menacing Jigger Cragun (you remember him – the ne’er-do-well that side-tracked Billy Bigelow) ever to grace the American Stage. That was the show wherein I was one of the two keyboardists as well – discerning members of the audience might have noticed a certain thin-ness in the musical accompaniment when I was on stage making nasty with the hero but we survived.

Of course that’s it isn’t it – survival – survival with style, grace under pressure, keeping calm and carrying on. Which is what keeps all of us strolling players and troubadours going from town to town and from audition to audition – in the hope that someone will give us the chance to do what we all love so passionately – perform. We love it because it defines us. We live in caravans at the edge of town – we put on the caps and bells and go in to find an audience and then when we sing and play and act we, and the audience, become more, if you can say it, alive. Emily Dickenson wrote:

“Take all away from me, but leave me ecstasy.
And I am richer than all my fellow men.
Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily,
When at my very door are those possessing more.”

Seeking the ecstatic experience – going outside outselves – is as basic to all of us as the need to tell our stories – when the two come together in a great play, an hilarious comedy, a beautiful song, a dazzling dance, a profound chorale, everyone, on both sides of the footlights has his or her life enhanced in some way. In other words most of us like to have our minds blown – to get a glimpse of that parallel life that art provides.

A friend of mine once said about love-making (often referred to as sex in more profane circles) that the worst he ever had was wonderful. In a way I feel that way about music – I view any opportunity to make it, notwithstanding millions of wrong and flat notes over the many decades I’ve been doing this, as a true gift: a gift that lets me in turn give it, without the slightest diminution, to everyone who chooses to listen. (Which isn’t to say I haven’t paid my dues. I remember once the following interchange between me and a club owner: “I thought you said you were going to get the piano fixed?” “I did get it fixed – I painted it.”) Sir John Gielgud was said to have observed, as he left the stage door (and I paraphrase): “In there I know everything – out here I know nothing.”

We know he was referring in large part to the craft of the theatre which all of the people whom we are remembering tonight practiced – when they could get a job, that is! We are all aware of the difficulties of that pursuit - I’m reminded of the character of Lance in S. J. Perelman’s brilliant play, THE BEAUTY PART. He approaches the painter Goddard Quagmeyer (that’s m-e-y-e-r) wanting to work as his apprentice and the painter says, “Listen sonny, let me give you a piece of advice: Lay off the muses, it’s a very tough dollar.”

This from the pen of E.M. Forster: “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted.”

Both the writers and the players – much less the producers – can view this as their privilege as well, when it’s applicable, as their mandate.

I’ve always been fascinated by the ability to pretend you’re someone else and yet convey yourself. Maybe the first time I was aware of this was early in school – I must have been 9 or 10. One of my classmates used to take off the teachers hilariously – I saw acting in its pure and helpful form; It relieved the “pressure” the way satire always does and certainly made a little hero of the boy in this classmate’s eyes.

And then when I experienced the profound and beautiful sadness in the recordings of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday at a time when I was going through some emotional crisis or other (who can remember - they came thick and fast in those days!) I felt a little better – why? Because, according to the songs, I wasn’t the only one. That’s something we singers and actors can do – lighten the burdens of our fellow travelers by letting them know they’re not alone – that we’re in this thing together. And what a privilege it is to do that. The great Mabel Mercer, who is considered the doyenne of all of us who aspire to truthful singing communication, would say, when asked about her “process” (a word she never would have used) that “the audience is not interested in me they just want to hear the song.” And yet she is considered one of our great singing ACTRESSES. Is she pretending to be someone else when she sings? No – but her life and her heart are evident in every line - whether she’s bringing you to laughter or to tears.

I consider myself successful if, when I’m singing a love song, I see hands finding each other at tables. The songs seem to give permission to people to express the feelings they might not have been able to express – the music creates a forgiving and encouraging climate – eyes close, loving emotions are recalled or experienced anew.

A friend of mine was describing a sea-change in his behavior – he’d had a pretty lively earlier life and enjoyed every minute of it. But that was before, as he put it, he’d received his “instructions.” He had moved into a different phase of his life – more thoughtful, more seeking. These ‘instructions” came, in his life, from religious teachings, in his case through the Catholic Church. But if there’s any place you want to learn stuff – try Shakespeare, try Moliere, try Tennessee Williams.

We are players in a hundred daily dramas – every interaction we have could be – I say “could be” - IS part of an ongoing play in which we have many roles to perform. I was trying to observe the different “me’s” in, say, a morning’s phone calls – it was a dazzling array of voices and attitudes on my part I must say – and that was just to my manager, a few friends and several agreeable Indian and Filipino ladies and gentlemen who attempted to guide me through the minefields of technology.

To experience humorous aspects of a familiar situation on stage, as in a Neil Simon comedy, is comfortable and rewarding. But less comfortable and equally rewarding can be witnessing, and experiencing, a production from another culture – like a Kibuki performance from Japan or a Samam dance from Indonesia. What is the commonality here? We see mirrored our own complex, caring, confused, egoistic, egotistic, outrageous, fearful and loving lives in some way visually and/or aurally on stage. ‘La vie humaine’ – the human condition – made beautiful, made terrible, made sense of.

To paraphrase our favorite Episcopalian composer Cole Porter: What is this thing called life? Why have I been given so much of it when so many have had so little of it? And have I used it in the best way I knew how? I’m not the first one to ask that question of myself; I have no doubt that the ladies and gentlemen whom we’re honoring tonight posed themselves the same question. We all do. The theatre can guide us not to finding the answers necessarily but, something more realistic, displaying the questions. We experience the terrible and beautiful drama of nature as we gaze in awe at the ocean or fly over a mountain range, but, just as profoundly, we can be exposed to that “other country” – the heart of a fellow human being.

There’s a wonderful theatre in Tucson at which I’ve had the pleasure of working. It’s called The Invisible Theatre – it was founded many years ago by a remarkable lady named Susan Claassen. She named her company that to point out the “invisible” link between the actors and the audience. Not of course something you can hold but certainly something you can see in the laughter, rueful smiles of recognition and the silence that accompanies the sharing of deeper feelings of sadness and love.

One of the performers who left the stage this past year was a marvelous lady I was privileged to call a friend – Celeste Holm. Her character in ALL ABOUT EVE has these lines: “Nothing is forever in the theatre. Whatever it is, it’s here, it flares up, burns hot and then it’s gone.”

That’s truly a description of the bittersweet magic of live performance – fortunately for us, in our epoch (did you know you living through an epoch?) we can see the magic captured on film – in the grand picture, a fairly recent phenomenon, of course but one which can dispel our anxiety and distract us (and distraction can be very calming – think Fred and Ginger in the middle of the Depression – think YouTubes of apparently every known performance of anything in the last hundred years!)

In closing, let me salute all of those scriveners, daubers, gypsies and minstrels who have gone back to their caravans for the last time. I’m humbled and happy to be in this very special confraternity of magicians and story-tellers. The Guild has been of inestimable aid to so many of them and so many of us but stretching out hands to help – for this we are ineffably grateful.

Back to Noel Coward for one last song:

“Come the wild, wild weather, come the wind come the rain
Come the little white flakes of snow, come the joy, come the pain
We shall still be together when our life story ends
For wherever we chance to go we shall always be friends…
We may find as we’re travelling through the years
Moments of love and joy and happiness
Reason for grief, reason for tears.
Come the wild, wild weather if we’ve lost or we’ve won
We’ll remember these words we say till our story is over and done.”

Till our story is over and done...
Thank you.

   – Steve Ross