Behind every stage production, big or small, there are countless foot soldiers diligently carrying out assignments and tasks; some tedious and mundane, others precise and time essential. Theatre companies survive through the blood, sweat and tears of members willing to do what is asked so that their fellow actors onstage can tell the story and take the bows.
The Open Fist Theatre Company is presently staging Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class to rave reviews, and deep in the cavity of the enormous space is a company member who carries a resume in his hip pocket that would make you gasp.
Kim Mowrey joined the Open Fist Theatre Company just under a year ago. In that short time he has devoted his “talents” to stage managing and back stage crewing. The kind of work that doesn’t get to take a bow.
I somehow wrangled Kim last week to sit and discuss his career, in between his task of hemming up a pair of trousers and working frantically to shore up a livestock holding pen being used for Curse of the Starving Class.
Lars Beckerman: Hello, Kim. Really appreciate you taking a breather and chatting.
Kim Mowrey: My pleasure. Can I go now?
Lars Beckerman: Not just yet.
We settle in, but the bustle of the pre-show activity obviously tugs at his attention. When he engages, however, he is right there with me.
LB: Let’s go to the beginning. When did you first discover your passion for all of this?
KM: Well, I started dancing when I was six – my mom threw me into dance class because I had very round shoulders. It was a ballet class…to improve my posture. After the first class I was hooked. My mother is Swiss and my dad’s American, so I was raised half here and half in Europe. Any shows that had roles for kids, my mother would drive me to the audition. I got my Equity card in the early 60s. I did Sound of Music, Oliver, Carousel – all those shows with kids. When I got to high school I wanted formal training – I wanted to train in Europe close to my family who was living in Switzerland. So I went to drama school in London.
LB: At the Royal Academy?
KM: For my graduate year. My first two years were at a school called the Arts Educational Trust, which is in a section of London near St. Peters, which is where the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is. Our school was sort of the recruiting ground for the RSC. So I worked with a lot of people who became famous.
LB: Thoughts on studying in London?
KM: The thing about British training that is so different from American training is the technique. American training seems to be about the interior work, British training gets to the interior work but not until you’ve done the exterior work.
KM: For example, if you got to class one minute late the door was locked. It was all about the discipline and the technique. What you had to do that made you a good actor so that when you got on the stage you could do all the fun stuff. Being on time, being prepared, being considerate of the other actors. So they work from the outside in and in the states you seem to work from the inside out.
LB: And you’re teaching acting now at UCLA – any observations on your students?
KM: Well, I can tell you this: I give them an immediate ‘F’ for texting.
We share a laugh. But it’s clear he is not joking.
KM: The frustrating things is…they’re not thinking about how to be good actors, they’re thinking about how to become stars. Their mindset is “How is this class going to get me a series and make me a star?” What they don’t understand is that most people who become stars, most, also have technique.
LB: And you’ve worked with some pretty amazing “stars.” Tell me about playing ‘Romeo’ in school – opposite Daniel Day-Lewis’ ‘Mercutio.’
Kim was somewhat reluctant to discuss the reclusive star but I still had to ask.
KM: Yes. Traditionally in the British theatre, the two actors who played ‘Romeo’ and ‘Mercutio’ would switch off. It started with John Gielgud and Lawrence Olivier. Not that we were in that class…but we loved what we were doing so much we never did alternate. We started to rehearse each others’ roles, but found that we were both imitating each other. So…
LB: Wow. That’s pretty flattering, isn’t it?
KM: Well, we were both just students.
LB: What do you remember most about him?
KM: He had that wonderful voice. That wonderful articulation. He came on stage and you couldn’t look anywhere else. But he also had the technique. An absolute joy to work with. Very disciplined. Incredibly disciplined.
At this point in our conversation, Kim is called away to help repair a “urine” bag that is used in the production. I pass the time looking over a wonderful collection of black and white stills from his early stage work. With a sly grin and roll of the eyes, he returns.
KM: It’s so funny. The smallest things can wreak havoc on an actor’s performance. I remember a show I did years ago – and the costumer changed laundry detergent in the middle of the run and I could just tell. My shirt smelled different. And I went up on my lines. I was totally lost.
LB: Did you do mostly musicals?
KM: Mostly musical theatre, yes. But I made a conscious decision to get out of the chorus by the age of 25. I told myself if I wasn’t speaking lines or doing solos by 25 then I was going to quit dancing. And I accomplished it. And it didn’t matter if I just came on and said “Dinner’s in the garden.” It didn’t matter. I had to speak. I did Chorus Line for a long, long time. Chorus Line changed everything. People realized we could speak, that we had thoughts. I was 24 when I first did Chorus Line. And I said: “From now on, I talk.” I was very lucky because I had classical training. I could switch from doing Chorus Line to doing Romeo. The British training made you very versatile.
LB: You make the transition sound easy.
KM: It was just a matter of being clear about what I wanted. When I got out of drama school, I ended up being in the chorus because I could sing and dance. But the people I was so fortunate to work with inspired me enormously – people that nobody knows anymore. I worked on two shows with Eve Arden (Oscar nominated Mildred Pierce, 1945). Nicest, most gracious woman I’ve ever worked with. And talk about technique. Discipline. Line perfect. Lyric perfect. Always on time, always ready. Then I’ve worked with other stars more recently. Forty minutes late. Don’t know their lines. Need cue cards. It’s a different, different world.
LB: Is it the lack of theatre training?
KM: That – and I think they just make too much money. Americans are very spoiled. When I first started out – in Applause with Eve Arden – I made $87.50 a week. It was 1974 in Sydney, Australia. When the show opened, they doubled it. But that’s eight shows a week. And I still managed to save money!
LB: Now that’s discipline.
KM: My rent was only $18 a week, so…
LB: My guess is you’re paying more now. (He laughs) When was your first exposure to Bob Fosse?
KM: That was Pippin. In the mid 70s. We rehearsed for six weeks with some of the dancers from one of his productions, then he came over for two weeks and cleaned the show up and directed what was missing. Those were two of the most intense weeks of my life.
LB: What was it like collaborating with Fosse?
KM: You didn’t collaborate with Bob Fosse – you did what you were told. I mean, you were in the presence of greatness. He choreographed you down to your fingers. But, he gave you the reason that your finger had to be where he was putting it. And then he let you do it. It was wonderful. He also screamed a lot. Called people names. He threw things. But…I loved it. I just loved it. There are friends of mine who owe their entire careers to Fosse.
LB: You must feel so blessed to have been exposed to that caliber of work. To learn from the very best.
KM: It was amazing. There were three great choreographers in those days: Fosse (8 Tony Awards, Pippin, Sweet Charity; Oscar win for his direction of Cabaret); Gower Champion (8 Tony Awards, Bye, Bye Birdie, Hello, Dolly!); and Jerome Robbins (5 Tony Awards, The King and I, West Side Story). And they were all three nasty people, but they were all three geniuses – so dancers would kill to work with them.
LB: “Genius” is a word that gets thrown around too much, but when you’re in the presence of it…
KM: You just know. I’ll tell you an example. It was towards the end of Olivier’s career – I was still in drama school – and he was playing the father in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and I got a ticket from a friend who worked in the box office – I was in the third row. The minute the curtain went up, and he started the first scene of that play, you knew – YOU KNEW – that you were seeing something that would never ever be duplicated. It was genius. And it was four hours of genius. You left the theatre with your hair standing up knowing that you had seen something historical. And that’s rare. Very rare. I don’t think it happens much anymore.
LB: Well, as the Open Fist heads into the final weekend of Curse of the Starving Class, any thoughts on Sam Shepard?
KM: Not a genius, but highly competent. That’s what I would say about Sam Shepard. How’s that?
LB: And Curse?
KM: The play is terrific. Especially now that it’s been revised. It’s much more accessible to audiences. What I find fascinating about the play is that there is not one moment of affection between any of the characters. Everyone is isolated in his or her own world. Not one moment of intimacy – so there’s not much to hang your emotions on. And that’s obviously what he (Shepard) wanted.
LB: What would you like to see the Open Fist produce, any shows you’re aching to do?
KM: I think we should do some of the classics. I’d love to do another Shakespeare. I think we should do some Noel Coward. A restoration comedy. Some Moliere. Early American stuff – some Arthur Miller. We just did Stage Door and it was fantastic. A real crowd pleaser. I’m all for The Man Who Came to Dinner, You Can’t Take It with You – all that stuff.
LB: And what would you personally want to appear in?
KM: I’d love to do an Oscar Wilde. The Beaux Stratagem, School for Scandal – those shows are funny…and they sell. I’d love to do Romeo & Juliet. I’d love to play ‘Friar Lawrence.’ That would make money.
We both crack up, knowing all too well that in the L.A. non-Equity (99 seat or less) theatre world, “make money” is merely a euphemism for “break even.”
LB: Are your dancing days behind you?
KM: Oh no! Although, I can’t really lift the girls anymore. But you bring up a good point – I’d love to do some musicals. Musicals sell and audiences love them. This is the perfect space for Cabaret. Or West Side Story.
LB: And you know I have to ask, Kim.
KM: Go on.
KM: Like a child. I’m sending her off to her life after graduation!!!! When we first announced we were doing Curse, I said to my friend “Why the f*#@ are we doing a show with a live animal???” And now, you know, I just couldn’t live without her. She’s been really fun.
LB: Seems to be the consensus. Everyone loves Juju.
KM: Everyone loves Juju.
LB: Well, Kim. This has been a real treat for me. Thanks so much for sharing your stories and continued success with the Open Fist. I hope I get to see you up on that stage real soon – dancing your heart out.
KM: Thank you, Lars. You’re sweet.