What happens when I wear my performer hat….
Acting began early for me. REALLY early. True, I’m third generation in the theatre. My paternal grandmother was Beatrice Savelle, one of the founders of Actor’s Equity in Chicago. My father grew up backstage, performed throughout his childhood, and later earned a Masters Degree from Yale Drama School, where I was born. My mother was a professional ballerina with the Chicago Metropolitan Opera Company, and had a promising career as a film actress before giving it up for marriage and motherhood.
So, is it nature, or nurture? Hard to say. Whatever the case, I can say for certain that as of age 3 I began performing. You see, I thought the hearth in front of the fire place was actually a stage, and I therefore thought one `as obliged to use it daily. Or rather nightly, because every night after dinner I would announce “Show Time” and my parents would dutifully file into the living room where I would perform the evening’s new 3-minute play. I thought everyone had a living-room stage, and that everyone did a play every night. It was my concept of life, and in fact, it’s never really changed much.
I grew up in Tokyo, and I went to a school with 40 nationalities in the student body. I was walking across the campus one day and got called into the Principal’s office. What have I done this time, I wondered! But actually, there was a talent scout from NHK TV and he was offering me a job. So – after a screen test – I got a series. I would be picked up after school by a limo, and my script would be in the back seat. I had to memorize my lines on the way to the studio, and I had to be letter-perfect because the students at home were following along. These were little dramas to teach English. It was a great experience.
For most jobs, however, one must audition. Almost every colleague in the acting biz agrees – the audition is tough, the job is fun. In the book I co-wrote with my pal Erin, here’s what I have to say about it: “Auditioning is like taking off in an airplane. A plane isn’t built to trundle down a piece of asphalt on wheels. It’s built to fly. But unless it can make it down the runway, it can never get up into the air. Actors aren’t built to audition, they’re built to act. But unless you can zoom down the audition runway with the right energy and attitude, you’ll never get the chance to fly as an actor.”
I’ve always adored working in the theatre. Like every actress, I love doing Shakespeare. Here’s one of my favorites — “The Merchant of Venice.” I’ve always wanted to do Portia — the tall brunette (as I see her) who saves her man by dressing as a young male lawyer and going to court to deliver her famous speech, “The quality of mercy is not strained….” In this production at the Globe Theatre in Los Angeles, I landed not the lead, but the most humble of all roles: a non-speaking whore in the city of Venice. (Whoever said acting wasn’t a good lesson in humility hasn’t tried it.) However, the size of the part notwithstanding, it was a great production, and I loved doing it.
My favorite moment while performing as “Bianca” was when my friend the late and truly great David Dukes came backstage. (I still can’t quite believe he’s no longer here in a tangible form.) By then he’d been on Broadway opposite Richard Gere in “Bent,” he’d starred in “War and Rememberance,” and the list of his credits is never-ending. He told me my performance was powerful because I listened. That has always meant a great deal to me, and I now include it in my book (co-written with Erin Gray) “Act Right” and in our “Act Right” seminars.
Half-way through the run of “Merchant,” the actress playing Portia’s sidekick got a part in a film, and her part was given to me. I was prepared — another great lesson in the theatre — and it was a good thing, because I had exactly one hour’s notice. I went from a non-speaking role to performing “Nerissa” — a role with hundreds of lines. As you can see from the photo, I also managed to alter my appearance dramatically during my one-hour prep time. One of my co-stars, Perry King, cheered me on in the dressing room, and guess what? A group of producers were in the audience that night, and I got hired for my next acting job!
Every once in a while every actor feels “this was written for me.” That’s what happened when I encountered “Sea Marks” by Gardner McKay. I had a truly wonderful manager at this point, the late Dennis Durney, who also managed Tom Selleck, Sam Elliot, and my co-star Christopher Law. We all loved Dennis, who believed in our talent and encouraged us endlessly when things were bad. One day Dennis called and said he had a client looking for a co-star to do a play call “Sea…” Before he could finish the sentence I said “I’ll do it!” “But, Mara, you don’t even know the theatre or the co-star, or….” “I’ll do it,” I repeated. Dennis didn’t know I’d tried to get a production mounted 6 months earlier, and had been sleeping with the script under my pillow.
We were later invited to do Sea Marks at the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I had the fantastic experience of being directed by my dad, Ray Purl. The play was again a great success, raising money for the Fine Arts Center.
One of my favorite roles was “Darla Cook” in the NBC daytime soap opera, “Days of Our Lives.” Most roles have a duration of a week (episodic), a month or two (feature film), or a few months (theatre.) In this case I had the luxury of performing the role for a year. The depth, the discovery, and perhaps most of the development of the role were therefore very fulfilling, as was the experience of working day after day with a superb cast and crew. Notice my incredibly glamorous costume. While the other actresses were wearing fabulous gowns and designer suits, I was in my white, or — even more flattering — in my green scrubs. That’s okay — I made up for gown deficiency later.
Ever hear of life imitating art? First of all, my step-grandmother, whom I adored, had a career as a nurse for decades, including serving in WWII, and becoming head of nursing at a large city hospital. And much later, in my real life I later married a real physician. (Yes, I got to say it: “I’m not a real nurse…but I play one on TV!”) It wasn’t long before the nurses at his hospital came up with a nickname for him: “Doctor Hollywood.”
One of the most outrageously fun projects in which I’ve been asked to perform in this new year, is the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s “Bard-A-Thon,” a round-the-clock public reading of all 37 Shakespeare plays. This is one I was literally asked to “phone in.” With the wonders of modern technology, this professional reading included actors from “Outside” – which is how Alaskans refer to the rest of us. I was asked to perform “Katherine” in “Henry V”, giving me the opportunity to play two of the most charming scenes in the language … or should I say, in two languages, since “Katherine” doesn’t speak but one or two words of English.
You probably remember the scene where Katherine asks her maid how to say “the hand, the nails, the neck” which become “le ‘and, le naylez, le neek.” When we next meet her, King Henry attempts to woe her with the help of the maid’s broken translations. Even through the phone I could hear the laughter of the audience enjoying our verbal antics, and it’s good to know the Barb lives on under whatever circumstances. My only other comment is that apparently no one in Alaska ever sleeps. I thought this only happened during the height of summer when it’s never dark. But even in the depths of winter, my performance time was 4am, Los Angeles time. The things we do for art!
These days I find I’m so busy as an author and producer that I don’t have much time to act. I miss it! And if the right part beckons, I’ll do my utmost to fit it into my schedule. Meanwhile, I do continue to do quite a bit of voice acting. You may hear me speaking Japanese and not realize it on various episodic programs, or perhaps you’ll hear me as the wicked witch in Robotek II, or performing in six accents in an audio book.
I did do an infomercial with Erin which many of you have mentioned to us. “Smooth & Natural” is still one of our favorite skin care products and we’re very proud to have done the informercial for Dr. Samuel Shatkin’s fine product.