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What inspires a person to become an artist?
There is no definitive answer. But for 24-year-old Athol Fugard, an actor and budding playwright in apartheid South Africa, it was the relationship with a legendary, but fading star that greatly influenced his love of the theater. And it’s that brief experience that Fugard explores nearly 50 years later in “Exits and Entrances” that opens April 24 at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre.
“It’s a fun theme,” said artistic director David Wolber, who is staging the play’s Michigan premiere. “Working with people who inspire you CAN engender creativity.”
That’s especially true of this production, which teams Wolber with Robert Grossman, a veteran actor and longtime audience favorite who was slated to star opposite Wolber in 2006 when the play was first scheduled. (It was replaced by the similarly-themed “A Life in the Theatre” by David Mamet.) So when the decision was made to postpone this year’s adaptation of “Lear,” Wolber and executive director Carla Milarch jumped at the chance to stage Fugard’s play. However, they didn’t want to do it without Grossman. “He was the first person we wanted to do the show with originally, so we called (him) to see if he was available,” Wolber said. “And lucky for us, he was.”
That left Wolber with an important decision to make. Since another director wasn’t readily available to take on the show, “I thought it would be easier to jump in and direct,” he said. So he brought in Kevin T. Young from “Lear” to complete his cast. “Now I just tell Kevin exactly what to do all the time, exactly the way I would do it,” the director joked.
Described by Fugard in a recent interview as a “memoir written as accurately as I could about an old man of the theater meeting a young aspirant playwright entering it,” “Exits and Entrances” opens in 1956 when Fugard (simply referred to as The Playwright in the script) is cast in a minor role in “Oedipus Rex” starring Andre Huguenet and serves as the elder actor’s dresser. The play then jumps ahead five years when Fugard is writing his first major work and Huguenet is approaching the end of his career.
It’s an homage to Fugard’s mentor, explained Young, a talented, up-an-coming young actor. “It’s clear that this person was not only a brilliant performer ON stage, but was a brilliant performer OFF stage – one of those guys you just can’t wait to be around because he’s always got a story to tell, and the stories are invariably going to be funny.”
Yet there was another, more serious side to Andre that factors into the story: that of the Dopper Moffie (Afrikaans for village queer). And in a country that didn’t tolerate homosexuals, even one known as the Olivier of South Africa had to be cautious. “It’s definitely a part of his identity and what he had to struggle with,” Wolber said.
When the production was first announced more than two years ago, theatergoers and thespians alike eagerly anticipated Grossman in the role of the elder actor. It was perfect for him, many said. It still is – and maybe even more so.
“If the shoe fits,” Grossman laughed. “It’s certainly a role that I have very personal resonances with. I can identify with where this guy is at, there’s no doubt about that. He’s an actor with a lot of mileage on him, as am I. He chose to follow a specific – I hate to use the word ‘dream’ – but myself and the character have an idea that it is the stage that is where we belong, as opposed to diving into a situation where notoriety and big money might be at stake.”
Grossman and Huguenet share many other similarities. “We’re both men who, for instance, have been our own worst enemy in certain aspects of the business,” Grossman said. “And I find a very personal parallel with the way Andre relates to South Africa and the way I relate to the Detroit theater community – the fact that I have learned so much by working here, not only about the craft itself, but about myself.”
But there are also significant differences been them, he noted. “He is a man who gets to a certain point beyond which he cannot go, and there Andre Huguenet and I part company, because I am not a person to go gently into the good night. I will find some obstacle to overcome however old I get. As long as I live, I want to find something to grapple with.”
What theatergoers were looking forward to in 2005 and are again now, Wolber believes, is watching Grossman not only play Andre, but also a handful of the theater’s most celebrated characters. “Seeing him jump in and inhabit those three or four great classic pieces is going to be a real treat,” Wolber said.
For Grossman, however, it will be a challenge – and not simply because the script requires him to play multiple parts. “It’s Andre as these characters in the styles that these shows would have been done at that time,” he explained. “Those were the parameters – the limitations – with which I approach doing the other characters. It has to be Andre doing them, not me.”
Since Andre is South African, Grossman must use that dialect when delivering his dialogue. “But when he slips into a classical or neo-classical role, the dialects all change. So you could say that’s a technical challenge, but it’s one that I’m more than happy to embrace. It’s like a great smorgasbord, and the trick to enjoying a smorgasbord is to really be hungry when you get there!”
Grossman first came to Detroit in the mid-1960s as a concert folk singer while under contract with Elektra Records, performing at such places as The Raven Gallery in Southfield. “I was on a regular coffeehouse tour,” he recalled. He returned in 1972 to attend the now-defunct Academy of Dramatic Art at Oakland University in Rochester, and made his professional stage debut in 1974 at Meadow Brook Theatre. He quickly became one of the area’s most noted actors, winning praises for his work at Detroit’s Attic Theatre, The Jewish Ensemble Theatre and the Detroit Repertory Theatre among others. In 2003 he was honored by the Detroit Free Press with the Lee Hills Award for distinguished career achievement and a Wilde Award for his performance in “Man of La Mancha” at Performance Network.
But he left the area soon afterward and found work off-Broadway, in San Diego and places in-between. “I feel like this is where I belong,” Grossman said of his life on stage. “I’m grateful that I can still get employment in the theater.
“But I don’t know how to wear the mantle of an icon.”
‘Exits and Entrances’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thu.-Sun., April 24-June 1. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 734-663-0681 or http://www.performancenetwork.org