Sunday, July 01, 2007

TREADING THE BOARDS: TAKE ME OUTThe Evening Class Interview With Jeffrey Cohlman

With Pride Month wrapping up, the TCM Screened Out series complete, and Frameline behind us, The New Conservatory Theatre Center ("NCTC") enters Pride's final inning with all bases loaded. With favorable reviews from Beyond Chron and The San Francisco Sentinel, Director Ed Decker has coached his ensemble into an extended run through July 15 with a special Benefit Performance on Tuesday, July 10th, 8:00 pm to benefit Theatre Bay Area's Lemonade Fund, NCTC's YouthAware Tolerance Education and NCTC's Youth Conservatory Scholarship Programs.

While Glenn Burke was out to teammates and team owners in the 1970's and Billy Bean came out in 1999 after retiring from eight seasons of playing in Major League Baseball, at the time of the writing of this play no major-league baseball player had ever come out to the public during his career. Winner of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Play, Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg is the dramatic exploration of what such an event might be like.

Darren Lemming, the star center fielder of the world champion New York Empires is young, rich, famous, talented, handsome, and so convinced of his popularity that when he casually announces that he is gay, he assumes that the news will be readily accepted by everybody. It isn't. Thus the drama begins.

The world premiere of Take Me Out was presented in a co-production by The Donmar Warehouse, London and The Public/New York Shakespeare Festival. The New York City premiere was at the off-Broadway Anspacher Theatre in the Joseph Papp Public Theater. It later transferred to the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway where it ran 355 performances and garnered the Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Performance By A Featured Actor In A Play, and Best Direction. It also won two Drama Desk Awards (out of eight nominations), four Lucille Lortel Awards, an Obie Award, and a GLAAD Media Award.

The NCTC production is solid, sexy and thought-provoking. My favorite performance was by Jeffrey Cohlman as Shane Mungitt. I appreciated his taking the time to talk to me about his participation in the production, inaugurating what will be a featured sidebar here on The Evening ClassTreading the Boards—a look at the Bay Area's theatre scene.

After experiencing Jeffrey Cohlman as racist redneck Shane Mungitt, it's almost startling to discover that Jeffrey is one of the sweetest guys in the world. He almost comes off shy and you want to hug him to bolster his confidence. Formerly a bartender at NCTC, last year he tried out and secured the quirky lead role in The Fabulous Adventures of Captain Queer. While overseas in Europe, Ed Decker offered him the role of Shane Mungitt in Take Me Out and Jeffrey returned to San Francisco specifically to accept the role.

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Michael Guillén: If Patrick Michael Dukeman's role as Mason Marzac is the heart of Take Me Out; your role as Shane Mungitt is the conscience. By contrast to the other performances, I felt yours was the most difficult assignment. Briefly synopsize your character and how you and Ed went about developing him.

Jeffrey Cohlman: Shane Mungitt is from the South. He's your typical foster child, never had a home, never really learned the rights from the wrongs. He's probably a good person to the right people but … he's not in his element. Not only has he been brought to New York City—the whirlpool of all races, which is probably disconcerting to him—but he is also a lover of baseball. He'll go wherever it takes him; wherever he needs to go.

I just told Ed in the very beginning, "I'll bring a lot of stuff to the table; but, I'm very much the kind of actor [who likes to be directed]. Do what you will with me. If you don't like how I walk or how I sit, let me know; I'll change it for you. Whatever you like."

Like Shane, I grew up very wayward. I've been all over the place. Even now I don't really have a place to stay. I go and I do my job and I set up a space with a friend. I'm very wayward. As a result of feeling unlucky in my life, it causes a lot of negative feelings that—fortunately, with this part—I've been able to expel in a proper format.

Guillén: Enacting villainry can be quite complex. Shane isn't really a bad guy, is he? He's just caught in bad circumstances that he doesn't quite know how to handle and, consequently, he makes some bad decisions. How did you and Ed work out the extent to which Shane would be a bad guy?

Cohlman: We honestly didn't work on that. Ed quotes a play I used to stage manage here that said every story is a love story. Regardless of how tormented, insane or incapable or dumb or threatening somebody is, there's some sort of love. I've heard other people refer to other [portrayals of] Shane Mungitt as "unloveable." Just mean and villainous and nothing to love about him; but, there are so many aspects to somebody like this that you can love. Shane—or at least the way I'm portraying Shane—he's probably a pretty cool dude where he comes from. He'd probably show up with his truck and help you move. He seems to have stopped growing. When we first started [rehearsing], Ed said, "There's something really cool that's going on with your character; I pity him, I feel sorry for him. I don't hate him. I hate what he's saying and I hate that he doesn't know better and I pity him and in a small way I kind of love him." So it seemed to be accidental.

Guillén: Perhaps. But give yourself due. You have textured your portrayal with complexity and credibility. That's a difficult assignment, as I said, and you pegged it.

Cohlman: Thank you. This is the first time I've been a mean guy, an angry guy, and it's never felt so right. Though I certainly don't have that much hate and pent-up anger and aggression. I know you're interviewing me but I'm curious from your take why you think Shane is the conscience?

Guillén: Because a person of his circumstances can be so easily misunderstood and readily villainized. Within the audience I was glad to see your character wasn't a silhouette cut from dark broadcloth, that you revealed the bruise he was carrying. Shane's ignorance wasn't really his fault; his ignorance was circumstantial and an audience is required to examine their conscience about judging him. Tell me about your filmmaking.

Cohlman: I haven't really done anything that's huge but I'm part of a special group that puts on the 48-Hour Film Project every year. It's an independent short film festival where you get a 7-8 minute film and on Friday night [you're assigned] a genre, a line of dialog, a character and a prop that has to be in your movie. You create from 7:00PM on Friday to 7:00PM on Sunday. You create, edit, do the sound design, turn it in and they have the festival and show all the films the following Monday. It's really cool. [Here's Cohlman's MySpace page.]

I also make and create my own short films with a few friends of mine, low-key. I've also been involved with the Expression Center for New Media, an art school in Emeryville.

Guillén: Theater and film are truly brethren. I was pleased to discover that—along with your stagework—you were making films.

Cohlman: Oh yeah, I really love it. I love acting in a theater; but what really compels me and excites me is the twirrrr of the camera, watching people set up, all the lighting, understanding how complex and difficult it is to set up movie lighting and then to have the intimacy of someone capturing your picture and your [voice]. You don't have to [projecting] blah blah blah like in the theater. And then cutting it and editing it. I have groups of friends where we got together and made the music for movies, which is even cooler. That whole process really excites me. Not to say that theater doesn't.

Guillén: You were saying the role of Shane Mungitt allowed you to exorcise some demons?

Cohlman: Oh sure.

Guillén: What would you say has been the true value and reward of playing this character?

Cohlman: Doing this character, there have been so many rewards. I got to work with Ed Decker, who was just a great person, great director. I get to be in the Big Theater. It's so cool, y'know? Being on the stage, the opportunity to branch out, to not be the funny guy—even though there are parts of Shane's character that are very funny—he's not trying to be. Just all these parts that have come along. Two years ago I was so brokenhearted. Really down on myself and the world. Then I landed the role of Captain Queer and he was a gay high school student who moonlights as a Gay Super Action Hero. He was an amazing, fabulous guy and that was at a time in my life when I was really down so that role forced me to enjoy myself and to be funny and be fun.

This role has been a blessing because it's perfect timing. I'm just feeling a certain way that is connecting so well with this character and how he feels and it's been this through line of some great thing that you can express yourself. This is my [therapy].

Guillén: Here's a slightly sensitive question. Clearly, you work with children? And yet your acting range allows you to act naked on stage. Are there any conflicts with that in terms of working with the kids? Do they even know you're working nude on stage? Does it matter?

Cohlman: It would matter if I said anything about it. But these are separate [activities]. I've worked with young people for 15 years. Summer camp. Theater programs. If there is something that's appropriate, I'll tell them I'm in a show. They know I'm an actor. This is a role where I wouldn't even invite my brother. He's always very kind. I've been doing theater for a long time and he said, "Hey, do I have to come to this show?" I said, "Naw."

Guillén: Is it difficult for you to be nude on stage?

Cohlman: It's not, surprisingly. I'm a very comfortable kid and I liked to be naked, until I started getting insecure at about age 12 like I think everybody does.

Guillén: Well, you're naked in a group so that helps out somewhat.

Cohlman: But I do have the uncomfortable scene in the shower. But it's such a cool group of people, nobody cares. It was always the challenge. Who's going to get naked first? We all kind of did it on one night. No one was supposed to but a couple of us thought, "Let's do it." But we're all like 12-year-old kids backstage, which is nice. I've reverted. I haven't been like this in a long time. I remember my 11th birthday running around naked in front of all my friends just for kicks and it was no big deal.

Guillén: So where from here?

Cohlman: I had no intention of coming back to San Francisco. I took a three-month trip away with a friend of mine to Paris. But I started getting emails about this show, and about my availability, and could I come back and audition. I came home for Christmas break and I told them I didn't have time to come in, I didn't have a monologue prepared, but they wrote me and said they really wanted me to be a part of the production.

Guillén: I'm glad that they persevered, Jeffrey, because you've done a great job. You lend an important edge to this production. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

Cohlman: No problem. But I don't know where I'm going to go after this honestly. If I had some scratch money, I'd love to make a little film, a real one, y'know? That'd be cool.

Guillén: I wish you luck with that.