Dustin Hoffman saved my soul (sorta . . . )
by Amy Simon
“I might have an opportunity for you. Can you come to The Broad Stage in Santa Monica tomorrow at 11AM? We’re opening in a few weeks,” said my friend Mitch on the phone. I read in the paper that Dustin Hoffman was the Artistic Chair of this new theater being built on the grounds of the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center.
I was a fifty-one-year-old divorced stay/work-at-home mother/actress/playwright. Other than producing small theater and a few acting jobs, I had been out of the paid work force for fourteen years, needed a job and had not been able to get one. So Monday morning, I show up, get hired on the spot as a temporary part-time “consultant.” Yay!
There is a lot to do preparing for American Voices: Spirit of Revolution, a play about the creation of our government starring Dustin Hoffman, accompanied by Kent Nagano, a famous conductor with a 17-piece orchestra playing Charles Ives music. Beyond cool.
The end of my second week, I am informed that Stephanie Solomon, the main writer of American Voices, needs an assistant to help her with the script and be a liaison between her, Dustin and the theater. “Come to the first table read on Monday at Dustin’s production office,” Stephanie tells me when I call her.
Everyone is gathered in the conference room when Dustin enters with a plate of cookies that he tries to pawn off on everyone. He is adorable and handsome, short, sweet and utterly charming. The atmosphere is immediately charged with electricity. He proceeds to put everyone at ease and tells a story. He tells lots and lots of stories. I immediately fall in love with him.
We go around the table introducing ourselves . . . it’s a mixture of lucky students, and professional actors. Ben is an actor and the assistant stage manager. I say, “I work at The Broad Stage, am a writer specializing in women’s history, and I am also an actor. Who isn’t?” I get a laugh.
I look at the script and the cast of characters, playing multiple genderless roles, which include James Cromwell playing James Madison, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; Richard Schiff as James Otis, John Adams and Thomas Paine; Rosario Dawson as Hoboi-Hili-Miko of the Creek Nation and Annette Bening as Thomas Paine and Abigail Adams. The rehearsal begins and Dustin creates and nurtures an atmosphere, which is artistic and creative and open. The play is wonderful, a sort of Our Town with Dustin as the narrator.
This was August 2008. Obama was the Democratic nominee, and we all are talking about the country and the play’s relevance. One of the actresses who plays a soldier has to leave. “Oh”, says Dustin, “Amy will take her place.” So I take a seat between James Cromwell and Rosario Dawson and when it’s my turn I read: “The dead and wounded lay scattered in every direction over the field . . . cold and lifeless; some were yet struggling in the agonies of death, faint with the loss of blood, almost famished for water, and begging for assistance.” We were in the middle of two wars.
Dustin calls rehearsals for every day, complains that he has no assistant or stage manager so I volunteer and I am stage managing all thirteen actors. For the next four days I am by his side . . . his buddy, his sidekick, his sounding board, his navigator because the theater is big and maze like and he literally cannot find the bathroom, even though they named one after him (really!).
He loves the theater, just like his character Michael Dorsey in Tootsie. Dustin tells another tale. “I remember when Anne Bancroft was working on that play, her first, what was that play”? And I say “oh the William Gibson play, Two For The Seesaw.” I have cred. Story after story; “when I was working with Olivier . . . ,” “when I was working with De Niro . . . ,” just so happy and humbled to share his lucky life with us.
Kent Nagano and the 17-piece orchestra arrive for our first rehearsal on the stage. Annette reminds Dustin that she can’t be there for it, so he says “Ok, Amy will go in for you”. And I do. I read Thomas Paine’s gorgeous words. I argue as Abigail Adams with Richard Schiff’s John Adams: “In the new code of laws I would desire you would Remember The Ladies and be more favorable and generous to them than your ancestors.” Afterwards, Dustin says “Amy, I didn’t know you could act so good,” and tells me I am the cast understudy.
Opening night approaches and we have all grown so close now as you do when you are working on a play. The show day itself is ambitiously planned with an invited audience to the 1:00PM dress rehearsal, a 4:00PM show for Santa Monica College, a 6:00PM cocktail reception and art unveiling, the big 7:30PM final show which KUSC radio is taping. Can it get any more complicated? Yes! Norman Lear’s private original copy of the Declaration of Independence, printed the night of July 4th 1776 (one of two hundred), is being flown in to be displayed in the lobby. And there’s a big party after with all sorts of celebrities and L.A. royalty coming.
Show day arrives. We get through the first two shows with one more to go, and Dustin is exhausted. I see it in his eyes. There are people everywhere and I take his hand and say “come, I know where you can take a nap.” In the brand new green room, there is the one and only couch. Up we go and there is Annette, asleep on the couch. I take Dustin downstairs to the quiet and empty stage, see the piano with its big cover, and like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, I sweep it off the piano, lay it on the floor and make him a bed. “Go to sleep” I tell him. He obediently lies down and I pull up the piano bench, sit and guard. He is out like a light.
The whole glorious day and night are a big success and the party is fabulous. When Warren Beatty looks at you, and he looked right at me, everything fades away, just like in the movies. I drive home delirious.
Here I am, a female stage character actress, in a youth obsessed TV and movie town, who writes, not screenplays or television pilots, but women’s history, and I end up on stage with Dustin Hoffman playing Abigail Adams.
Talk about the stars aligning . . . I’m not very religious but I will say if God were a woman, she’d be a Broad.Tags: American Voices: Spirit of Revolution, Amy Simon, Annette Bening, Dustin Hoffman, Hollywood, James Cromwell, Kent Nagano, Stephanie Solomon, The Broad Stage Theater, Theater, Warren Beatty