by Tim Cummings
“Hello, you don’t know me. I hope you get this message. Sometimes, when you try to send a message to someone you’re not ‘friends’ with on Facebook, it gets blocked, or you have to ‘approve’ it. I hope you’ll approve this message if it gets to you.
I saw The Normal Heart on Saturday night, and haven’t slept well since. My father died of AIDS in 1995. I was 15. Except he didn’t die of AIDS, he died of ‘cancer.’ Except we all knew it was AIDS because he was gay and had been sleeping around with men for years. We were a Catholic family, and so shame was tantamount to pretty much everything, especially my dad’s secret life. There were a lot of years after he died where Thanksgiving and Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries were lonely days, hollow days where not much was said and my sister and I would sit with our mom around the table and stare at our food.
Watching you on stage, the frustration and rage, it was so palpable it cracked me open, like an egg, and I feel like I can feel again. Except now I feel a lot of rage too. I feel like the rage is taking its revenge, saying, “You ignored me for 20 years and now I own you.” I feel like you brought it into my life. It was like you were breaking barriers up there. I could feel how uncomfortable the audience was at times. Like they were afraid of you. I was too, I guess, but also relieved. I don’t know what you are doing up there, or how you manage to live the role several times a week, but I want you to know that you have changed me forever. More than the play. More than the production. YOU.
I didn’t know who Larry Kramer was before the other night, but I’ve been reading up on him and watching videos on YouTube. He wanted to change things and wake people up and he could only do it by shattering everyone around him that wouldn’t listen. He’s lucky someone like you can interpret his intentions. I will probably see the show again before it closes. For now, I’m figuring out what to do with these feelings. Like, how do I forgive my dad? How do I talk to my mom, after all these years, about what really happened? How many more people out there are just like me, waiting for something to come along and break them open? Too many innocent men died. For nothing. I think I might take boxing lessons.”
In the summer of 2013, I was 40 (and a half) years old and really taking stock of my life, as one is wont to do at 40 (and a half). I had been in Los Angeles exactly a decade at that point, and reflecting on my career as an actor: roles won, roles lost, characters deeply inhabited, their skins later shed like a snake once a show ended, reviews, awards, pounds gained and dropped again, friends made and later lost, the worry over male pattern baldness. That summer, I contemplated the possibility that the ‘acting thing’ was more of a hobby than a profession. Things had changed drastically after I moved from New York to LA. In NY, I was working on Broadway, making a living acting. I was on a good trajectory there.
Where I grew up, and in my time, theater had always felt like a great act of rebellion, a middle-finger held up high to everything normal and expected and accepted. Thespians were teased and bullied, but I prided myself on being subversive, anathema to their pack mentality and bougie normality. Theater was punk af. In LA, however, acting suddenly felt like trying to be part of the popular kids again. Clique mentality. I wanted no part of it. How will I succeed if I have no interest in playing by the rules? I’ve always hated rules. I didn’t want to be hot or muscular or skinny or alpha or tan or…commercially viable in any way. I didn’t want to do things the way they were supposed to be done. I desired to shave my head, ring my eyes with racoon-black eyeliner, cover my body in tattoos, pierce every part of me, paint like Pollock, join a band. I contemplated whomever managed to pull off “LA success” with bitter disdain and a kind of squishy envy. That’s okay—I’m not above being human. Actors are not superheroes, despite the way the media depict them and fame & fortune define them.
I happened to be perusing the labyrinthian interwebs that summer when I discovered a breakdown for The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s seminal 1985 agit-prop manifesto about AIDS in the early-to-mid 1980s and how he and his friends banded together to create GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis). The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood was set to produce, overseen by one of the theatre’s founders and Co-Artistic Director, the outstanding Stephen Sachs. The play hadn’t been done in LA in about twenty years, and though it had been given a slick, starry revival on Broadway a few years prior, it felt, perhaps, like something that sunny, surfery Southern California had no right to consider. It’s my (arguably harsh) opinion that LA has always felt too granola (read: passive) for the righteous anger of stories birthed in New York City by New Yorkers.
Nonetheless, The Fountain had a reputation for mounting plays with a social justice bend, and Kramer’s behemoth was certainly no exception. I drafted a cordial email to the casting director asking to be seen. (I’m a firm believer that if you want something done, you do it yourself, and immediately. In other words, I wasn’t going to ask the manager to ask the agent if I had been submitted and then wait around, to neither receive a response nor an appointment time.) When casting responded to my inquiry I assumed the team would want to see me for the role of Bruce Niles, the strapping gay ex-marine. At 6’2” , broad-shouldered, and north of 200lbs, I figured it was the only role they’d consider me for. Instead, they asked me to prepare the role of Ned Weeks, the play’s antagonistic protagonist. Ned is molded out of the playwright himself, the pejorative Larry Kramer. It was the true story of him and his friends, after all, and he was going to tell it his way. It’s a colossal script, with a role as immense as Hamlet, and on nearly every page it elucidates Ned’s pushiness, outspokenness, and righteous anger.
How does an audience go on a journey, and root for, a disagreeable character?
I remember fastidious and conscientious preparation, pacing around my apartment as I familiarized myself with the lines, the excess of monologues and the dynamic emotional landscape. I have little memory of the audition and callback…there were many guys there, many I knew…perhaps I entered into a zone not unlike an Olympic athlete to stave off distractions, to keep myself in the game? After it was over, I felt exhilarated but deflated. I blew it, I thought. They want a name. It’s a coveted role. Forget it. Days later, I received a phone call from the director, Simon Levy, while eating brunch with a friend’s niece who was visiting LA. He offered me the role and I felt something inside my body shudder, shift. It felt like my bones had shed a skin, molted like a spider, and the fresh bones beneath were glowing white, vulnerable, fragile, snappable as a bird’s. I’d ordered pancakes, but couldn’t eat them. I stared down at the puddle of warm dark syrup on my plate, dragging a fork through it, marveling at its unfailing gumminess.
* * *
It was a hot summer and we rehearsed at this condominium village in the Valley, where there was a large community room used for events and performances. It reminded me of a economical replica of the set for the Lawrence Welk show. There was something otherworldly about it, like we were in a different time zone. And we were. Not Welk’s time, of course, but later: the play begins in 1981. Simon had a strong connection to the material and was deeply passionate about how he wanted this thing to go down. At the first table-read, he invoked enormous compassion by inviting us into a safe and sacred space, and then heartwarmingly warned us that we were all in for quite a ride. He was right. He would play us 80s pop songs and gay faves on his phone during rehearsal. Melissa Manchester’s “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” and Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust”, an apropos song I insisted be included in the production itself. And for many hours spread across many weeks, the cast of eight men and one woman wormholed their back to New York’s West Village in the early 80s, attempting to resurrect the deadliest and most harrowing chapter of gay history, a milestone on the timeline of American Civil Rights.
Unlike most 21st Century plays that clock in at 90 minutes, have 3 or 4 cast members and one location, The Normal Heart is a relic, a play from the past. It runs 2.5hrs, across a dozen locations, spanning three years, and includes costume and set changes, many props, and technical trickery galore. Especially in a space as cozy as The Fountain! This was to be an intimate production, an intimate glimpse into the cost of intimacy amongst homosexual and bi-sexual men and women emerging Icarus-like out of the sexually liberated 70s only to crash back down with singed and melted wings. Kramer had been best known at that time for a searing invective against his own kind, a novel called Faggots, an unflinching and unflattering dismemberment of the promiscuous, lascivious, party-boy culture of gay men in the 70s; bath houses rampant with endless anonymous sex and drug use.
But Kramer wanted more for the modern gay man. He wanted them to aspire to the acquisition of a great station in life, to be as powerful and respected as the heterosexual Caucasian men who held every lofty position in the world. He wanted gay men to be out and proud, and to fight back. He didn’t want glory holes and bath houses and clandestine lives. He wanted power and respectability and outward intelligence. He wanted to archaeologically plunder the history of homosexuality in the world, to understand its place in humanity. Not only from a sociological point of view, but from a purely physiognomic one as well. Because he was oft dismissed and rendered a pariah amongst his gay brethren of the time, when men began falling ill and dying of this mysterious ‘gay cancer’ in the early 80s, it was difficult for Kramer to get people to listen to him. So he became a banshee. The play is his irate commemoration of everything he and his friends went through—the illness, the decay, the endless death, the hopelessness—between July of 1981 and May of 1984.
In preparation for the role, I began to watch a documentary called How To Survive A Plague, directed by David France. Its deft documentation of the early years of the AIDS epidemic chronicles the efforts of burgeoning activist groups like GMHC and later, ACT UP. It is one of the most important documentaries ever unleashed onto the world. I implore you to bear witness. Put simply, that documentary was a muscular and mustachioed coach that trained me hard to play the game, to compete in the theater Olympics. I watched it every single week of the run to keep myself tethered—enflamed—to the world of the play. In my little corner of the crowded dressing room, I began pasting up relevant imagery. Not only pictures of Larry Kramer, but of countless skeletal souls who looked like Holocaust victims, dying, depressed, forgotten, alone.
I respond strongly to visuals. I have a sixth sense for looking at a picture and channeling its energy; the moment itself caught for eternity. The essence of that moment seems to rise like thin wisps of incense smoke from the picture, and I inhale it and it charges me. And yes, the guys in the cast made fun of me for my Wall of Pain, but I let them and I laughed too, because I loved the guys from the show so much (more on that later). I knew it was strange and overwhelming and maybe even sad to plaster my sacred space with harrowing imagery, but so too was the experience of these men—more so than I could’ve ever imagined. And that’s all I was trying to do: imagine truthfully. Just because something is ugly doesn’t mean you can ignore it.
At the behest of my business representatives, I began working with a Publicist in the weeks before opening. That was a mistake. Oh, it was a totally successful endeavor in terms of exposure and attention for the show, and a needed boost to my career, I suppose, but personally, on an emotional level, it was a disaster. Before I discovered theater at the age of 11, I was criminally shy. I had issues. I’d been bullied and beat up for years. Called a faggot, a freak, had food thrown at my head in the cafeteria, shoved around at the bus stop, my house egged and toilet-papered, a cup of piss aggressively dumped over my head and into my mouth one day in the boys’ bathroom. So when articles about me, and interviews, appearances at events, and images began flooding into the world prior to the show opening, I felt exposed and afraid and started having panic attacks. I puked in the bathroom at work, I broke out in hives, I couldn’t regulate my breathing, clumps of hair fell out in the shower. I was a mess. Was it cellular memory? Some kind of regression? A fear of not being liked and /or accepted? Piss PTSD? Probably. I ended up meditating for about 30 minutes before every rehearsal and subsequent performance. Usually in my car across the street from the theater. ASMR videos galore. It all helped. I kept this all hidden from the guys in the show, from my partner, friends. I was too ashamed to say anything, to share my struggles. I was playing a warrior, for fuck’s sake—what right had I to be a weakling?
Looking back on it now, from this safe distance, maybe it was just that I cared too much.
The play, after all, was/is intensely personal to me. I needed the catharsis that the story, and the role of Ned Weeks within that story, offered up. I needed to pass along that catharsis, to be of service, to the audience.
I’m one of those actors who cares too much. Oft construed as being a control freak, though nothing can be further from the truth; I love when shit is out of control.
* * *
We opened on September 21st of 2013, during the autumn equinox, no less. I’m a sucker for significant dates, so it was perfect: the crushing heat of summer giving way to a chill in the air, and something about that felt so very New York City to me. As exhausted as I have ever been, I was relieved that after five productive weeks of rehearsal, then a week of tech and dress rehearsals, followed by four previews, we were off and running. Opening weekend was hard as hell. I remember Stephen O’Mahoney, who played Bruce, came down with flu-like symptoms, and our hearts went out to the poor guy as we watched fever sweat pour down his face for the duration of the show. Backstage, we practically guzzled the ant-bacterial. Yet, it went down swirlingly: standing ovations, sold-out houses, responsive audiences.
I remember driving home from the theater after that first Sunday matinee; two months of prep behind us, and off to have a few days of rest before beginning the run in earnest…and all I did was cry. Paul and I went to see some movies, and I remember hyperventilating while we watched Gravity. I was so upset by this grieving astronaut mother lost in space. Similarly, the indie film Short Term 12, starring Brie Larsen, pre-Oscar. A bunch of ex-orphans running an orphanage. For days, I cried. Paul was worried: what kind of toll was this role taking? He supported my journey by seeing the show every single weekend. For four months.
The sold-out houses and nightly standing ovations filled me with confidence, so several weeks into the run, once the cast had all relaxed into the intensity of the play and our respective roles, I decided to take a peek at the reviews. Mistake #2. Of course there were reviews unlike any I had ever read or received up to that point in my acting journey, and I felt soothed and invigorated by the flattering words-in-the-world by some of the smartest critics in Los Angeles. But as humans, we are prone to focusing on the negative, and there I was, mired by feelings of hurt, fear, and inadequacy based on some of the reviews that were not kind. There were critics who took me to task, who swore I was too loud, annoying, brash, unattractive, ‘bearish’, that I ruined the whole production, was woefully miscast, that I over-acted, was in a different play than everyone else. One critic went so far as to say that he didn’t understand why a Black actor had been cast in a White actor’s role. “It’s all too much,” another reviewer whined. Sorry to inconvenience you, I thought. But, Ding-Dong, Who’s There, A Million Dead People, thank you very much asshole. The ‘head critic’ at the ‘head paper’, as it were, has seemingly only ever been interested in pedigree and primarily reviews the big stars in the big shows at the big theaters. So I suppose it was no surprise that he compared our production and my performance to the lauded Broadway revival of a few years prior; a production fueled by plentiful resources, populated by stars and Tony-winners, directed and produced by stalwarts and legends, seen by thousands. What was our show in comparison? Unworthy, evidently. While I understand their place in society, I find these kinds of comparisons irresponsible.
Los Angeles theater runs on shoe-string budgets and actors, staff, designers, and crew get paid next to nothing for their time and talents. Nowadays we barely even have the protection of our union. But there is an astonishing surplus of talent and dedication put into the productions, and the intimate theater scene of Southern California has increased in its velocity exponentially during the 21st Century, when actors who would once bank off guest-star roles and small parts in big films were turning to theater due to the lack of work and shifting dynamics of the industry. This was mostly brought on by the epoch of reality TV that altered the landscape of network television from scripted content that would normally require the presence of great actors, to a circus of insipid competitions wherein America started to absorb the notion that whatever talent you had to bring to the table was only worthy of being arbitrated by a panel of insouciant hairy-chested judges who think they know everything. That still holds true today, sadly.
And we now have this fresh new surplus: of streaming content; several dozen narrative dramas and comedies relentlessly flooding your screens and devices daily it seems, so much so that it feels like a garish hodge-podge of unfocused, poorly-produced, mind-numbing entertainment, primarily for entertainment’s sake.
I fell into a funk, a strop, grew reticent, dwelled in a dark mind-cave. These are the consequences of my actions, I believed—I’d made a bad decision and should not have looked at any of the critical content. This is why so many performers and artists simply turn the other cheek. But I needed to understand the impact that this particular production of this particular play was having. And then I received that letter via Facebook, the one that introduces this essay.
“I want you to know that you have changed me forever. More than the play. More than the production. YOU.”
I made a promise to myself not to give away my power. I realized that everything that was said that hurt me and made me feel like my presence undermined our production pretty much mirrored all the heat that Larry Kramer and his friends took for their relentless pursuit of justice battling the crisis. As Ned says toward the end of the play, “We’re all going to go crazy living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through, We are living through war.”
So many people hated Larry Kramer for simply being Larry Kramer, so perhaps my depiction of him was too real. But as I mentioned earlier, the play and the role were personal to me, and every drop of vigor and vitality that I brought onto the stage came from a genuine place. Besides, I had no interest in a representation of Ned Weeks that was slick, sexy, soft, and suave. That’s not the point of the play. The point of the play is activism. Activism is a hard shot of whiskey, not a sip of blushing rosé from a fucking crystal wine glass.
I’d worked with prolific director, Joe Mantello, in New York, who’d portrayed Ned in the aforementioned Broadway revival. I was a young actor at the time, and he’d seen me in a play downtown and then gave me a very uptown job. Sometimes it’s that easy. Not often enough, but it does happen. So I reached out to him during my process. He kindheartedly shared his own experience and offered advice and guidance, connecting over the understanding of inhabiting Larry Kramer. Truly helpful. Made me feel less adrift. The notion of having lived a role, to later share its intricacies, is somehow prophetic to me. It takes a village, after all. And that spirit is inherent in the writing itself, and in the play’s epigraph—we must love one another or die.
There is a scene late in the play, a very difficult one, where Ned comes home and finds Felix, then in the throes of the virus, cowering on the floor. In a moment of weakness and rage, Ned removes from a bag the groceries he purchases to keep Felix healthy and throws them violently at the wall above his head, the last of those items being a carton of milk that explodes and sprays all over. Some nights it went so far as to land on audience members—but they were so rapt they hardly flinched. After the eruption, Ned collapses, and Felix, weeping, crawls across the floor through the detritus and into his arms. The music swells; the lights dim. We’re both covered in milk, broccoli, lettuce, bread, meat. It’s gross. It smells. It’s sticky. It’s inexplicably uncomfortable as an actor to have to do it night after night. Plus, the mess has to stay on the stage for the final few scenes. But that’s the play. That’s the point. That’s the pain.
The colossal take-away from playing Ned Weeks, ultimately, was the friends I made. I felt fully supported, buoyed, encouraged, humored, and loved by the guys in the cast: Bill Brochtrup, Stephen O’Mahoney, Jeff Witzke, Fred Koehler, Dan Shaked, Verton Banks, Ray Paolantonio, Matt Gottlieb and our one leading lady, the brilliant Lisa Pelikan. After we closed the show, a group of us got together every few weeks to hang out and go on adventures together. We still do, five years later. Seems we’ll be friends for the rest of our lives, like a band of brothers who survived the trenches and lived to tell about it. Look, you don’t do a play like The Normal Heart for four months and walk away from it unbonded, unchanged. I love those guys so much.
Letting go of a show is always difficult, yes, but releasing the people with whom you shared your soul is the harder part. I’m relieved—ecstatic—we have not let go of one another…though have all had to move on to new identities in new creative endeavors. Bill Brochtrup, who played Felix to my Ned, was an especially challenging person to say, “Okay, see ya!” to after the run. I had to fall in love and lose him nearly every night for four months. Now, whenever we see one another, our hug is not just a hug. There’s an electricity that runs through us, a jolt of warmth, a demonstrable appreciation and remembrance. Whenever I hang around my Normal Heart family, or even drive by the Fountain Theater, I swear to you I can feel the spirits of thousands of luminous and intelligent men who unnecessarily perished from this plague, from this hell, shine on us like a beam through fog from a lighthouse on a cliff.
Tim Cummings can be seen in the upcoming west-coast premiere production of William Francis Hoffman’s Cal In Camo, produced by Red Dog Squadron, at the VS Theatre Company opening October 13th. He recently earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. He is the recipient of three LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, including Best Lead Actor for the Fountain theatre production of The Normal Heart, which also received the McCullough Award for Best Revival Production.