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From The West Wing To George Street

By Gary Wien


A conversation with Emmy Award winning actor, Richard Schiff, who will be returning to the stage in George Street Playhouse's production of "Underneath The Lintel". Schiff is best known for his work as Toby Ziegler on NBC's acclaimed drama "The West Wing". We caught up with Schiff as he was rehearsing shortly before the Christmas holiday.

This is a return to the stage for you after doing television and movies for a while. What was it about Underneath The Lintel that caught your eye?
Well, I've been offered a few plays recently including a replacement thing on Broadway and couldn't do it for whatever reason. So, I'm asking myself "What the hell am I doing 3,000 miles away from my family about to embark on a solo thing that's daunting and ridiculously scary?"

So, it's a fair question that I keep asking myself, but there's something about this material that's beautiful. And, if you're going to jump off a cliff and you're going to get into a danger zone there better be something worth exploring there for you. I think this play has its moments of beauty and there's obviously something in there you don't always know what. You can't necessarily express it all the time, but there's something that compels you to make a certain choice, which is kind of what the play is about.

Have you ever done a one-man play before?
No. I've read once years ago when I first started dealing with this acting thing that an actor alone on stage giving a monologue is the stress level of a test pilot during takeoff and landing. Then I ran into a fighter pilot who happens to be an actor now who was working with us on The West Wing in D.C. one day. He was an Air Force guy and we started talking about acting and I told him about that study and he said, "Oh my God, I believe it! I've been in dog fights and I've never been more terrified than the moment I was in front of the camera." So I don't know how true that is, but there's something like jumping out of an airplane about it that is interesting. You ask yourself how would you feel if you walked away from that challenge.

Is the show broken up or does it run straight through?
No, I might be going over to your program to see where I am next! (LAUGHS) It's not broken up. In many ways, I think it might be harder than if it was a one-man show that someone wrote for themselves because obviously they know the point and the material a lot better. I'm still learning it. I'll still be learning it three weeks into the run. I'll still be learning about this play and the story and the purpose of it.

It's got to be difficult setting up a play around the holidays. How much time do you have to prepare for this?
Oh... none! Literally, we had two days of rehearsal in L.A. and I think I had two weeks here in New York, but I got strep throat so I missed three days of that. Catching up an extra day or two so I'm not going back to L.A. for my own Christmas party. People are coming to my house tomorrow and I'm not going to be there!

It's not a lot and we're realizing how insane it is. Now there's a break and I'm going on a family vacation to Hawaii where I have no one to even run lines with. Then I come back and tech. So, it's pretty insane. It should be a fun rollercoaster. If you're going to do this kind of thing you really want to rehearse it for two or three months because there's a lot to explore. But that's the nature of the game - just trying to make the best of it.

You're one of the rare people who went from the directing side to the acting side...
I was always too afraid of acting to really pursue it so I got into the CCNY program, but I didn't act a whole lot. I probably acted in a couple of plays in college and was probably pretty bad or pretty stiff in them, but it was interesting to me. And then I went on one audition after college and got the part. For some reason, they made me the lead after about a day of rehearsal even though they had another guy. It was "Blues for Mister Charlie" by James Baldwin. A paying job! So, the first job was a paying job in Brooklyn and after that I got many offers to join people's companies and to do other plays. I think I achieved a lot and was probably pretty good in that role and I worked hard,. But I had to get to the theatre in Brooklyn at noon in order to begin warming up for my 8 o'clock curtain because it took me that long to get myself to a place of relaxation. I was just so terrified of it! I thought, "I hate this! I hate this! It's too terrifying."

I had directed a play in college and so I started pursuing different things. I began to assistant direct and stage managed. Just from people I'd meet driving a cab or at various places I'd run into actors and other artists and start talking. Next thing you know you're putting together a play and it's like "I'll direct it." So you start doing it because that door opens for you. And then we'd hire a theatre company and a repertory gang of actors that I'd like to work with and who liked working with me. We'd do the best we could under the circumstances of $800 budgets and whatever we could manage to get the rights to or new plays we could find. That was our way. Instead of graduate school we spent four, five years exploring theatre together.

What gave you the confidence to ultimately get back on stage?
Some of the actors I had started to work with all had the same teacher in common and his name was William Esper who ended up running Rutgers (Mason Gross) in New Brunswick years later. So, I went to talk to him about it and he goes, "well, you're an interesting fellow. Why don't you take my class." So I did, and ever now and then he would go, "you know Richard, you could do this."

I was there as a director, but he'd say "Schiff work!" so I had to get up and work. Twice a week, I sat there in terror and every week I got through it and through it again. By the end of the second year, I finally committed because he'd go, "Schiff you can do this if you want to." Meaning, if you wanted to have a career in this you can.

I'd go to auditions for agents because my scene partner would ask me to do the scene we were working on for agents and inevitably they'd ask me to sign. I'd go, "No, I have no interest." I kept turning away agents without realizing that they were actually hard to come by. Of course, when I decided to give it a shot I couldn't get an agent for a year or two!

Anyway, at the end of the two years we all got together and found some plays in my apartment that were sent to me because I had a theatre company. And in this one play there happened to be a good part for me. It was a big hit in Off-Broadway and that's how it started.

But I'm no less terrified than I was out at Brooklyn those years ago...

Do you think most actors are terrified each night?
I remember Anthony Perkins talking about throwing up each night before Equis. I've never forgotten thinking "that's not worth it." I can't stand throwing up! But I think so. I think some people handle it a little better. Just as there are fighter pilots who actually want to get into battle there are ones that want to just get out alive and ones who go "alright, I don't want to do this, but I'm gonna fucking do it!"

I've got to say that fans of Toby Ziegler and The West Wing probably won't be surprised to find you in a play about a character on a life-changing quest. It seems like something he might have done himself. Are you going to miss that show or do you think it was just time for you to move on?
It's been time for me to move on for quite a while actually. You know, the money was very good and that's what kind of drew me back because I felt like after five years of 70-hour weeks that I kind of deserved to get a little bit of a payoff. And the money got very good in the last two years. I wanted to leave and then we kind of made a compromise that I would come back and give them a story that they could use to lead me going out. They came up with firing him... That wasn't my idea!

Did you like the way they resolved Toby's character?
Between you and me - and you can print this - Toby wouldn't have done that in ten million years! But, you know, it's not my show.

I think the entire cast of The West Wing has been exceptional from the first season on.
And now it's even greatly sad because of John Spencer's passing. I certainly, honestly, don't want to go back for another season without Johnny there. I couldn't imagine The West Wing without Toby Ziegler and I couldn't imagine it without Leo McGarrity as well. It's just not possible. So, it might move on and become another show and that's fine.

It's important for people to know that I really, really loved this Toby character. And I really loved the people on The West Wing. Allison Janney is my soulmate on the set and John Spencer was just one of the most fascinating, wonderful human beings I've ever met. And Martin Sheen is singularly the best human being I've ever met. Tommy Schlamme who used to run the show and Aaron Sorkin and his writing and some of the writers who tried to fill his footsteps are truly wonderfully gifted and they're family and I love them to death. I just feel like it's time to get out of the kitchen once in a while. It's time to move on.

You've done films, plays and now a long running television series, where do you see your career going next?
Honestly it kind of depends on how this goes. If I hate this I may not come back to the stage yet again. I've done two movies in the last four months in Vancouver. It all depends on what opens up. I don't think I'll say, "I want to be a stage actor, I want to do Broadway." I have people in London looking for plays for me there and I might decide to go to the West End. Or I might try to become a good golfer. It all depends...



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"Kinky Boots" Comes To Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City
(ATLANTIC CITY, NJ) -- Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City in conjunction with TROIKA Entertainment is will present KINKY BOOTS, the smash-hit musical that brings together four-time Tony® Award-winner Harvey Fierstein (Book) and Grammy® Award-winning rock icon Cyndi Lauper (Tony Award-winner for Best Score for KINKY BOOTS), at Sound Waves in Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City from April 30 until May 5 with two performances on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets starting at $35.00.
The Panto Company Presents "Beauty and the Beast" at The Newton Theatre
(NEWTON, NJ) -- When you think of a dying rose and a clock, candlestick andteapot who talk... you are thinking Beauty and the Beast. One of this season's spellbinding family shows from The Panto Company USA stars Dame Dotty Potty, Loopy Louie, Gaston, Belle and of course The Beast!  The company brings their show to The Newton Theatre on Sunday, March 3 at 3:00pm.
La Strada Ensemble Theater Presents "La Bella Familia" by Edwin Sanchez
(OCEAN GROVE, NJ) -- La Strada Ensemble Theater presents La Bella Familia by Edwin Sanchez from January 18-20.  The play deals with a Puerto Rican hit woman and the gentlest man in the world move next door to the neighbors from hell and everyone learns, the hard way, that family comes first.
Art House Productions Presents "The Passion Project" by Reid Farrington
(JERSEY CITY, NJ) -- Art House Productions presents the unique theatrical experience that is Reid Farrington’s The Passion Project performed by Laura K. Nicoll.  Eight performances will take place from February 21st to March 3rd. The Passion Project is a 30 minute vibration between performance, film, and installation. Carl Th.Dreyer’s 1928 immortal masterpiece, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is the main narrative along with the history behind the making of the film, a discussion with a Danish archivist, the story of making this project, as well as Joan’s own story –– her trial, torture, and execution. The Passion Project explodes the film into the three dimensions; placing the audience inside the film, sitting next to Joan, subjecting them to the relentless rhythm of 35 mm film projection.
4th Wall Theatre Presents "Intimate Apparel" by Lynn Nottage
(MAPLEWOOD, NJ) -- 4TH WALL THEATRE continues its 22nd season with a one weekend run of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel.  The show will be presented as part of the Black History Month celebrations on February 22, 23, and 24 at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts in Maplewood, NJ.  The show is directed by 4th Wall Executive Director Gwen Ricks-Spencer.


It's "Apple Season" at NJ Rep
Every family has stories. Some are funny. Some are sweet. Some are sad. And some are never shared. Those are often the most powerful.
Rise of the Goatman
Theater For The New City presents Beltsville/Rockville, Part 1: Rise of the Goatman, an original play by Englewood resident Matt Okin (Artistic Director of Black Box Studios), from December 27 through January 13. In this pseudo-Southern Gothic dark comedy, a vibrant group of teens from two very different suburban neighborhoods clash over class differences, drugs, and sex - and the existence of the legendary ‘Goatman’ in 1986. Cut to 2013, and the adolescent kids of those very same teens are struggling to make sense of their family histories - and the same “mythological” creature - that could be holding them back in life.
PHOTOS from "The Winter's Tale" at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
(MADISON, NJ) -- The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s concludes its 56th season with its sixth and final Main Stage production, The Winter's Tale. Last seen at The Shakespeare Theatre in 2008, Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte directs this production of Shakespeare’s tragicomedic romance. Veteran company members Jacqueline Antaramian, Jon Barker, Erin Partin, John Keabler, Raphael Nash Thompson,Seamus Mulcahy, Patrick Toon, and Ames Adamson are among a cast of 20 actors. Performances run now through December 30. 
REVIEW: "It's A Wonderful Life" At Mile Square Theatre
Nestled in a corner of Hoboken, on the second floor, lies the studios of radio station WMST.  It’s a wonderful art deco studio, replete with fine wooden walls, embedded with colorful lights an applause sign.  On stage, we’ve got a few chairs, several microphones and a whole corner wedged with all the necessary props – piano, men’s shoes, sheet metal – to create the audio effects for the production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Betsy Aidem Puts A Woman's Touch On George Street Playhouse's "A Doll's House, Part 2"
Betsy Aidem is a veteran actress you might have seen on Broadway. Or maybe on an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” Or maybe on the big screen last year in “The Greatest Showman.” But over the next few weeks in New Brunswick, Aidem is adding a brand-new section to her résumé — by helming a sequel (of sorts) to a classic play that’s more than 100 years old.






Event calendar
Friday, Jan 18, 2019


MUSIC

John Forster at the Minstrel @ Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, Morristown - 7:30pm

David Massengill - Folk Concert @ Christ Congregation Church, Princeton - 8:00pm

SAL "THE VOICE" VALENTINETTI @ Mainstage @ Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC), Rahway - 8:00pm

The Elvis Birthday Bash @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 7:30pm


THEATRE

"Apple Season" by E.M. Lewis @ New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch - 8:00pm

Annie Jr. @ The Oakes Center, Summit - 7:30pm

Some Girl(s) @ Studio Playhouse Upper Montclair, Upper Montclair - 8:00pm







COMEDY

Big Apple Comedy Club @ The Newton Theatre, Newton - 8:00pm


MISC

The Jason Bishop Show to Benefit CASA @ Pfleeger Concert Hall, Rowan University, Glassboro - 7:00pm

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