(L to R) Linus Roache, Annie Parisse, Sam Waterston, Gina Gionfriddo. Image: Martha Steketee.
Vineyard Voices Fall 2010 Series:
Law & Order And The Stage
Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 6:30pm
Another panel and excuse to enter a new (to me) space in Manhattan. The occasion: the first of the fall “Vineyard Voices” series at the Vineyard Theatre on East 15th Street between Union Square and Irving Place. David Cote, theatre editor and chief drama critic for Time Out New York since 2003, moderated intelligent commentary on 20 years of the Law & Order “mothership” (as Gionfriddo referred to it) including the use of and bolstering of the theatre community, effects on individual careers and effects on an industry. Smart people on stage and fans in the audience. [Followed by drinks at the Knickerbocker nearby http://www.knickerbockerbarandgrill.com/, but that's another happy story.]
I take it as a sign of my dramaturgical and playwright monomania that I did not focus, while planning for and rushing to this event, on the actors who were scheduled (Sam Waterston, Annie Parisse, Linus Roache, marvels all and whose work on this show and in other productions I have admired for years) but on the moderator Cote and on the wonderful playwright Gina Gionfriddo who was to speak about her several years writing for the series. A mark of some kind of professional transition for me. Then I gave over to my fan self. While taking notes on the smart things people said.
Sam Waterston was on the show for 16 of its 20 years on the “law” side of the equation (as all of the actors on this panel). [I just had a moment of deeply missing Jerry Orbach, of music and theatre and the "order" side of the series' equation for many years. Deep breath. I'm better now.] He noted “I never thought beyond the next year.” Dick Wolf, the series creator, “never wanted anyone to stay when they wanted to go.” so that even two-year contracts, Waterston noted, could be one-year if someone wanted to leave for other projects. Parisse later noted that she left (remember that her characters was asphyxiated?) when she realized that she wanted to do more dramatically than the format allowed individual characters, and that she had a bank account to allow her to do all the theatre that she wanted. When asked what kept him involved in the series when he had a year-to-year personal commitment to it, Waterston noted: “It’s very rare to be paid well in this country to do something that doesn’t insult your intelligence”. He clarified that of course he meant in television and in the movies. He went on: actors are paid to care, and it’s wonderful when it’s easy to care about your project and your role. In addition, given the tight and effective framework and format for the show, it was a pleasure to work within that frame and that as an actor “you didn’t have to give away everything you know how to do.”
Theme: format and structure. Gionfriddo, the playwright, is accustomed to being able to play with multiple motives in her stories — for example, money and hatred and frustration all at once. The format of L & O worked best when a single motive was highlighted. Her challenge as one of the staff writers for two years on the mothership and another two on Law & Order: Criminal Intent was learning to commit to one motive and playing it through. She also noted that the show and its tight structure helped her to learn to not assume the audience automatically knows what you are not writing into the script. “If you want it on the stage, you have to put it there.”
Theme: theatre community and the franchise. Gionfriddo noted that it was great that she could get work for her theatre friends — the theatre community benefited from Dick Wolf’s eventual rule that folks appeared on the show had to take a break for a year between appearances. This opened up scores of opportunities for street characters, courtroom actors every episode. Roache let his fandom shine through in several anecdotes. (Don’t you love it when professionals in the theatre gush just like everyone when they talk about being awed by their personal heroes and heartthrobs?) He told of the pleasure of showing up one 7am on the set and being told that “Mercedes would be the judge” — Mercedes RUEHL, he queried — amazed, sharing his own fandom for that particular actress. But this happened every week, he noted. The actors got to work with everyone who was anyone, who all eventually took on roles on the show, big and small.
All of the actors talked about the frame of the courtroom as being incredibly theatrical — each summation, each speech in the courtroom was theatre and fed that part of their theatre-loving souls. [At this point I was almost saying "Hallelujah" as this through line from studying law to observing courtrooms for years and seeing courtrooms as theatre while doing research on the proceedings, is part of my own path from theatre to court research and back to theatre as a dramaturg.] Parisse quoted someone involved in the production end of the show who estimated that each year the series employed over 700 New York based actors. Waterston said quite seriously that he is on a mission to get Dick Wolf a Tony Award for his service to the New York theatre community.
What a pleasure. And note to self: go to see the current show up at the Vineyard featuring Linus Roache and others: Middletown.
[corrections 10/26: Roache is starring in the current Vineyard offering, and Parisse's Law & Order character's death was by asphyxiation rather than decapitation.]
© Martha Wade Steketee (October 25, 2010)