Starting October 15th, writer/director Dan Spurgeon brings his award-winning hit play THE BABY to Toronto audiences and leading the cast on stage is NY Drama Desk Award nominee FRANK BLOCKER (pictured above) The multi-talented New York-based actor is making his Toronto theatre debut reprising his celebrated tour-de-force portrayal of Mama Wadsworth, the family matriarch of the play who keeps many secrets. Frank’s off-Broadway appearances include the Drama Desk-nominated Southern Gothic Novel, The Deep Throat Sex Scandal, Fall of the House of Usher, and Obie-winning West/East Village Fragments. Frank is also a playwright (Southern Gothic Novel; Stabilized Not Controlled; Eula Mae’s Beauty, Bait & Tackle; Patient Number; Suite Atlanta; The Wisconsinners; Good Jew; The Call of Cthulhu).
I recently spoke with Frank who shared his thoughts on reprising his now-famous role of Mama for Toronto audiences, as well as his career on stage and screen.
Frank, you played Mama Wadsworth in the award-winning L.A. production of The Baby – are you eager to present Mama to Toronto audiences?
Excited and yet cautious. She’s terribly misunderstood. To be honest, I do not want my first role in any town to be “drag” – and it’s really not…so there’s that. You get labeled for such roles. Fortunately, I am so unrecognizable in the poster, when my sister saw it on Facebook, she asked if I was involved in the show in some way. You’re also a playwright yourself, so how collaborative was the process for creating this larger-than-life character – how closely did you work with writer/director Dan Spurgeon?
Well, there wasn’t a lot of time – we were in a bit of a rush and there’s 11 people on stage – doing a LOT. But his direction was pretty clear: that we had to fit into the style and world he wanted. We’re a B-movie on stage. You want “bad acting” so to speak, but you don’t want it to BE bad. To put on the proper veneer for the role – I decided I wasn’t playing the role. Someone else was. I play an actress who is playing a part: a b-movie, has-been, aging actress had found herself cast in a tiny theatrical role amidst actors with varying experience levels. My “actress” would try to put a positive spin on it – if she didn’t have a positive attitude she wouldn’t have survived in this biz… She had a great role in this “Mama Wadsworth”, one of Shakespearean magnitude. A tragedy!! This story (to the “actress) is all about Mama…willing to do anything to save her family and yet, like an Elizabethan play, must die trying. Suddenly, I had the veneer, but the performance was still real and passionate. And yes, I use every Shakespearean ‘thing’ I ever learned—more so in this than actual Shakespeare. Enunciation, projection, dissecting each sentence for pace …it sure wasn’t just throwing on 10 outfits for laughs. Although that’s pretty dang funny.As an actor, there was the same collaboration as normal but as a playwright, well, there wasn’t much to do, say or help Dan with…When Dan asked me to read it, it worked well, in my opinion. I had seen the movie many years earlier, and I have worked with lots and lots of playwrights, but in this case all I could offer Dan was, “Don’t change anything—maybe punch up a line here or there but you’ll know when you need that.” It was a smart and fun adaptation in its first draft. You don’t mess with someone if you think they found gold…I have seen WAY too many people jump into that type of situation, want so bad to be an affecting part of the art, and they ruin the stew. The best thing I could do for Dan as a fellow playwright was encourage, then shut up.
You’ve enjoyed much success in comedic roles, in particular edgy outrageous characters – do you prefer more serious dramatic roles or do you relish the more outlandish characters?
When I was working in NYC, I found that my “street cred” friends—the ones I literally did street theatre with—thought it disturbing that my off-Broadway playwriting debut was for something like Eula Mae’s Beauty, Bait & Tackle…in their eyes, it lessened me. And of course, the street performers and the comedy folk had a hard time understanding that I was classically trained and even like to do that sort of stuff (sometimes). Then, when I would go to work and do all that smarty-pants-computer-stuff, they would express shock that I got up on stage at all. What I prefer is a deep, rich character that I think I can bring something to—particularly the “evil” ones. Again, horribly misunderstood. In the evil one’s mind, he/she is desperately trying to make what they think is important change—they are a hero. Outlandish can be fun—chewing scenery is fun—but it always has to be real in the end or you don’t get a single laugh, a single tear, nor a single care from the audience. I love this role because unlike many comedic parts, it can become rote and/or just plain easy. This one requires the utmost attention because with 11 people on stage, things just happen. Truly, I relish the most impossible roles—or whatever someone thinks cannot be done. Dan and I talked about this role before he put up the audition notice the first time—we were pretty sure it would work this way, but I know we both had some concerns.Absolute favorite roles of all time – Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher (absolutely nothing funny in that one) and it was incredibly presentational and artsy; Don Quixote going insane in the Don Quixote Project; and all the characters in Southern Gothic Novel…which is funny, outlandish, and very very physically exhausting. But yes, Mama is probably up there with them…when will I ever get to say, “You’ve got your fucking tit in his mouth and you call that nothing?” again?
You have also appeared in films and on episodic TV (please feel free to share which ones) – how do approach on-camera roles as opposed to live stage performances?
Not much on-camera, unless you count all those darned short films. I was in a Law & Order: SVU episode, I’m at the 3:00 mark in a movie called Thanks for Sharing—at a sex addiction meeting, and I show up in the middle of Tales of Halloween (opens in a few weeks) looking devilish and creepy…as if Satan showed up to watch a nasty fight. I approached that role like most—had the director tell me what he wanted me to do and did what I could to fit the vision. Worked well in that case—after editing, the role came out differently on film than what the day’s goal was when we filmed it. But because I trusted the director, he knew what to do in the editing room and actually made my part shine more than it would have originally. Also, make your director happy in film or you will end up on the cutting room floor.
But on-camera being different? Only in that you are being photographed instead of watched by live persons, daily. In film, show up knowing those lines like the back of your hand because EVERYTHING will distract you. Plus, when it comes time to actually speak them, it takes all of 2 seconds and a crew of a gazillion people are waiting for you…to do it right and with as little extra takes as possible…because they spent all day and night setting up all that shit! AND you have to be able to do it again, exactly, several times over in case multi-shots are needed, or Murphy’s Law is proving itself with the technical aspects. You do not want to be the actor who F-ed up the consistency or caused the crew to go home even later to their families. Efficiency and preparedness makes them all much happier.As you played Mama before, how does this run differ from the LA production – do you plan on bringing anything new, special, crazier to your characterization?
I’m not bringing it…Dan is … He wants me to do a song…
That’s the only change. Of course, the rehearsal process is needed so I can rebuild familial relationships with each of my “children”—they are all very different and it’s very important for the final product…but changing things or ratcheting up the performance would be selfish and would be a disservice to the show. I get plenty of focus wearing those outfits and saying what I (get to) say—trying to get more would be criminal—and boring as heck to the audience. We’re a team on this show and have to be one—and every part is truly a lead, down to the single-line party guest asking a simple question.
The only newness I would like to bring is that of already having done it … the “new” thing would be my previous experience with it and that I can back up Dan should anyone wonder, “does this or that work.” Cuz trust me, it’s sometimes hard to believe we’re doing this show…it is WHACKED. Is this your first time in Toronto? And if so, any touristy sites or extra-curricular activities you plan to experience?
I plan to take a ferry to Toronto Island tomorrow. I want to see Lake Ontario in person instead of from the plane (though that was nice). Dan & Drew aren’t much the nature types and I love that stuff…and without a car, that seems like something I can easily get to and transport myself on foot, bus, train, streetcar and/or boat—a simple yet pleasant adventure. No, I’ve never been to Canada at all. Have great friends FROM Canada. And boy, am I still freakin’ PISSED about Sale and Pelltier and it’s been … what?…. 13 years. There should have been one gold medal team and it sure wasn’t the Russians! DAMMIT. Sorry but that one just gets to me….
Any other comments/funny stories or anecdotes you’d like to share?
I’m 50 and I’ve been doing theatre since I was in high school, so yes, plenty of stories: star run-ins, crazy audience members, totally insane theatre producers, certifiably insane artists…BUT specific to this show: a full year after we closed it, we were at a party thrown by the Ann character. One of her friends started talking about THE BABY and asked me if I’d seen it. I said, “You know, actually, I never did get a chance to see it.” And they went on and on about it—praising Jana Wimer’s (Ann) performance and ‘that guy’ who played the mother. They quoted a few lines, and then I said one of the lines. Took ‘em a few minutes, but finally one went, “Wait. OMIGOD IT’S YOU! (pokes his friend) it’s him…Her…I mean, Mama. It’s him…her…shit! … YOU played Mama, didn’t you?”
After the first few rehearsals here for me the sense of joy and passion from the Toronto cast is very exciting. That makes this show soar. And these guys are taking to it like ducks to water.
About the Show:
A love letter to the sleazy grindhouse cinema of the ’70s, THE BABY follows social worker Ann Gentry as she finds herself with a very unusual case – the Wadsworth family, whose youngest member, Baby, is an adult man who sleeps in a crib and acts like an infant. Is Ann on the case to help the disabled Baby escape his abusive mother and sisters, or is her interest in him more… special? Part bizarre love story, part twisted fairy tale, part mystery thriller and all outrageous and offensive, the ’70s cult film comes to the stage with a story so strange and shocking, you won’t believe it’s happening right in front of you!
What the LA Critics said about The Baby:
“Gleefully perverse with a delicious campiness!” Paul Birchall, LA Weekly
“The most fun I’ve had at a play in a long time!” Andrew Moore, Mad Theatrics
and our favourite….. “That was fuckin’ funny!” Ron Jeremy, adult film legend
THE BABY http://thebabyliveonstage.com/
Show runs: Oct. 15 to Nov. 1, 2015
The Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor Street West, Toronto
Showtimes: Tues. thru Sat. @ 8pm & Sun. @ 2pm
Tickets: $20-$25 available from http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2253620