When I was 10 years old, my mother announced that she was taking me to the movies. She had a wild look in her eye, and her entire body was pulsating with excitement. This was not very strange, my mother being the excitable type. Her Puerto Rican genes gave her the pedigree of a spitfire, and her upbringing in New York’s Spanish Harlem had given her an enduring love for all things dramatic. But there was something different in her voice this time around. “We’re going to see someone very special,” she said, “someone…” And her eyes welled up as her voice drifted off.
That night she took me to see West Side Story. I remember the movie vividly. Everything about it seemed wildly alive. The crazy clever songs, the frenetic dancing, the dangerous feel of a city about to explode with racial tension…But more than anything else that night, I remember the look on my mother’s face when Rita Moreno was on the screen. She was completely entranced. Gone. Total immersion. It was as if Rita was channeling my mother’s inner life. And in fact, she was. The ferocity of Rita’s talent, the enormity of her desire, her indomitable life force, with every fiber in her Puerto Rican body, Rita Moreno was proclaiming that she was an American, that she “belonged.”
Some months later, my mother nervously gathered our family around the television set to watch the Academy Awards. When Rita’s name was announced as the winner for Best Supporting Actress, my mother jumped out of her chair and screamed with joy. “She did it! She did it!” she shouted over and over. And what she was saying was “We did it. We did it!” Because Rita had won not just for herself, but for her family, her people, her country. By finding her own voice she gave hope to millions of others that they could find theirs. That they too belonged. She’d broken down a barrier, and moved into history.
So when Rita took up residence in Berkeley eight years ago and became a colleague and a friend, it was only a matter of time before I asked her if she’d be interested in doing a play about her life. “I don’t think I’d have anything interesting to talk about,” she said with complete sincerity, and I predictably fell off my chair. I repeatedly tried to convince her that the astonishing journey of her life was dramatically compelling, but as the years went by I began to think that the project wouldn’t happen. At long last, the stars aligned and Rita gave her consent. And, of course, once she started to talk, I really couldn’t get her to stop. By the time I ordered her to cease and desist, we had enough material for a play, a movie and a voluminous memoir.
So I wrote and wrote, and we edited and edited, and edited some more. The result is Life Without Makeup, a distillation of Rita’s experience seen through a theatrical looking glass. An evening focused on the singular experience of a person who found a way to survive the constraints of poverty and racism to become an important artist. It’s been my privilege to work with Rita on the text, and to welcome director David Galligan and his creative team to Berkeley Rep. As you might imagine, my mother has never been happier about what I’m doing.
Reinvention is one of those activities unique, I believe, to humans. The ability to consciously remake yourself, with full knowledge and intention, requires an act of will and imagination that strikes me as distinctive to our species. Choosing to be something or someone other than whom you’ve been is a bold and frightening proposition. Many people run from the opportunity with all their might. A lucky few rush toward it with gusto.
When I first came to the Bay Area I was constantly struck by the sense that people had arrived here before me with the committed intention of making themselves anew according to their own rules. Having the right to do so was one of the many appealing aspects of the Bay Area. Someone who had been a small-town Midwesterner could be transformed overnight into an urban sophisticate. An unconventional outsider could become a social, political or corporate trendsetter. The same impulse that made California a destination for the ambitious, disaffected, restless, impatient and bored 150 years ago still makes the Bay Area a great place to get a new start. We are very welcoming to the daunting, dizzying and always high-risk act of reinvention.
So it is with enormous respect that I’ve watched both Rita Moreno and Tony Taccone rethink who they are and who they want to be as artists during the development of Life Without Makeup. Sitting on the sidelines I’ve been awed by the fearless abandon they’ve exhibited as they’ve stretched themselves in their own acts of reinvention. Both of them are at points in their lives where they could simply enjoy the pleasure of their many past successes. Neither has chosen to do that.
At 79, with every major award possible already sitting on a shelf in her living room, Rita could have continued to give lectures and occasionally perform her cabaret show into her dotage. Instead, she is stepping into a wildly creative period in her life, reestablishing her television credentials with a new series, increasing her touring schedule and, maybe most important, looking deeply into places in her life (and her heart) that she’d been unwilling to visit in the past. The result, created with Tony, is an unnervingly honest, funny and fresh look at an actress whom we all thought we knew.
And talk about remaking yourself. Tony has spent years honing his craft, first as a director and then as an artistic leader of ambition and distinction. It has been inspiring to watch him exercise new artistic muscles. First he wrote essays and tentatively shared them with select friends. Then he began refocusing his creative energy from his role as an interpretive artist to a generative one. Now he emerges with two plays on the docket this season as a mature and accomplished playwright.
How lucky we are to have these two adventurers here in Berkeley, and how grateful we are to David Galligan for his guiding hand in bringing Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup to fruition.
Tony Taccone has been a director and a producer for a long time. He recently decided to try his hand at playwriting, and being no stranger to gusto, has tackled not one, but two projects on his inaugural voyage to test the waters: Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, a show for Rita Moreno about her life, and Ghost Light, a play based on Jonathan Moscone’s experience of his father’s assassination. Berkeley Rep’s dramaturg and literary manager, Madeleine Oldham, sat down with him to talk about his newest venture.
You’re a relatively new playwright…
I think “relatively” is really putting it mildly and generously, and if you didn’t work for me, you’d be saying, “You’re a baldly naive new playwright. What gave you the arrogance, the wherewithal and the stupidity to do this?”
Well, I would phrase that differently, but…what’s amazing to me is how versatile you are as a writer, because these are two incredibly, crazily different things, and you not only wrote them both, but got them both to a place where they were ready to be programmed in the mainstage season.
I have a lot of flaws, but one of the things I seem to be able to really embrace is responding to a lot of different situations. I kind of thrive on swimming in a lot of different waters.
How did you finally come to take the writing plunge?
I was a poet in college and I’ve always had a flirtation with writing. But, I put it aside when I got into theatre and became a director; I threw myself into that and tried to do as many different kinds of plays as I could. I’m not known as an auteur as a director; I’m known as somebody who can competently address different kinds of work and try to make that work live on a stage.
But I think I was so sick of having this unrequited romance with writing in my head that I decided about five years ago to see if I could actually write. I set out to write a book of short stories, and I did it without telling anybody, because I’ve had the experience of talking about things beforehand and then having them drift away. It was like the act of talking about it violated it and made it less serious. It was trafficking in the fantasy of it as opposed to the actual work of doing it. So, I did it.
That kind of got my muscles going. Then a number of just totally wild accidents happened. I’d been talking to Rita about her one-person show. We were having trouble finding somebody to work with her on it. Everybody was interested, but too busy.
Then the obvious happened. My mother’s Puerto Rican. I knew Rita’s world without knowing Rita’s particular story, because I was familiar with my mother’s story in a deep way. And I knew, without saying anything, I knew that I was probably the right person to do it. I wasn’t calling myself a writer at the time, because it felt too pretentious to me. And too scary. But as it turns out, it wasn’t going to happen unless somebody stepped up right away and said, “I’ll do it.” So I just said, “Okay, I’ll take over the note-taking process for this and see what happens.”
And how did Ghost Light come about?
Virtually at the same time, Jon Moscone approached me about “trusting me with his story,” whatever that meant. The two things happened simultaneously, and I thought, “Well, here we are.” And I just started writing.
You know a thing or two about solo shows. Was writing one for another person hard?
In any one-person show, the focus is on the performer, and the audience identification and critical identification is on the voice of that individual. In terms of writing it, the trick is to make it completely appear like everything that is coming out of her mouth is something that she thought of and that feels completely natural, and that she owns in a way that feels deep, connected, truthful and honest. And that’s how it should be. Because if you don’t do that, it feels really weird.
So that’s a really different process from Ghost Light, right?
Ghost Light is almost oppositional. I spent a lot of time with Jon but I didn’t spend any time with other members of his family except for one lunch with his mom. And I interviewed Corey Busch [the late mayor’s former press secretary] once. But I really tried to liberate myself from the facts of history. The only facts I really stuck to were George Moscone’s bio in terms of what he had accomplished as a politician, and the feeling of some of Jon’s experience, most particularly as a young boy. But, having said that, Jon told me one line that became five scenes.
So basically that was you taking that all in, but then going away and writing it yourself out of your imagination.
Yeah, I just wrote it. I came up with the structure, I came up with the storylines—like that’s a play.
Though they’re very different processes, they share one thing: they’re both trying to create an illusion of truth about a person. In Jon’s case, it was kind of like, well, there’s a legacy here, a political legacy. So I had to keep asking myself, what feels like it’s earned? What feels like it’s didactic sermonizing, which obviously nobody wants to do?
With this solo show, you’re in the act of trying to invent a persona that’s Rita Moreno that feels a lot to Rita Moreno like Rita Moreno might feel. It’s a trick. Every solo artist has to face issues of how honest and transparent they’re going to be, and it kind of gets down to whether you are willing to hurt people or yourself. And also how to avoid being indulgent—there are these very tricky lines.
Was it hard to write the story of Rita’s life for Rita to perform? I mean, she kind of knows her life better than you do…
I think Rita read the first draft and was so terrified that she hated it. She wouldn’t call me back. And I was like, “Well, that went well.” So, of course I figured, “Well, this is dead.” Then she started calling other people who said they thought it was pretty good. And so she had to take a breath and reassess.
Reading the first draft had put the mirror up, and suddenly the mirror wasn’t gilded and framed with chaser lights. Questions appeared like, “Am I going to say this in public? Am I going to do this?” I think she had to face that reality. And then something happened, I’m not sure what, and she made a turn. She read it again, and she seemed to read it with different antennae. She was able to say, “You know what? There’s a lot of good stuff in here.”
I also think she was really afraid because she and I had never gotten into a real process. She might have thought that I was going to be attached to every word. And I mean, I’m a theatre person—I’m a director. I’m used to changing, cutting and shaping. But I don’t think she had any experience of me in that way, and so when we actually worked through it, she was ecstatic. She was like, “Oh my god, we’re in a dialogue about this. It’s a dialogue!”
Two things have guided Rita’s entire approach to the script. One: what she was comfortable talking about, which increased exponentially as we went through the process of writing it, as she got empowered. She started to understand that she had to go deeper. And the other one was as a performer—as a storyteller she understands setup and payoff better than most people. So she was able to help a lot with giving me notes, mostly about what was missing. (My favorite parts of the show right now are the things she thinks came out of her mouth. Which is great. Because it’s like, “Okay, you think you said that? Great!”)
And the other thing was that I was able to use my mom. I talked with my mom a lot about her background. Rita knew that—I was up front with her about my mom being a great resource. My mom’s cousin was Tito Puente and she grew up in Spanish Harlem. It was like a Puerto Rican block party as far as I can tell for like 15 years. And a lot of her cousins were musicians. She wanted to be a dancer. She wanted to be Rita in some ways.
Can you talk a little bit about how you know Rita? What has your relationship been?
I only met Rita when she moved to Berkeley, which must be like eight years ago now. We could just tell genetically there was kind of a match there. She’s a huge personality, she’s a spitfire. She loves to laugh and loves to regale people with insane stories of her life, and she’s interested in the world.
She wanted to do something onstage but it took three years to find something. I did not just want to slam her up onstage. We’d worked with only a few well-known people in the past and had some negative experiences. We had put them onstage just to put them onstage, without the right project, and it just felt really bad to me. Regardless of whether or not it was successful at the box office, it didn’t work internally. So we spent a long time trying to find the right thing. And then finally Master Class felt like a thing that everybody could get excited about.
I think Rita shocked everybody by being the hardest worker in the room. I mean, she was there before everybody else and she left after everybody else, and she wouldn’t stop. Right there that was my first window into like, “Oh, there’s a reason why this person is who she is.” I mean she just was a demon in terms of working. It can be exhausting going over the same page like 85 times. But she feels like it doesn’t matter. If it takes 86 times, we’ll do it. I have to say it’s been really helpful to me. Because she goes the extra mile. For good reason. She’s not doing things on a whim, because she wants to make work up. She’s like, “We can do better than this.”
But she also let me write. She had no pretentions about writing. That felt good because I was trying to create something that was also not simply colloquial—I wanted it to be stage speech as much as it could be, which is also a little elevated, a bit more conscious, a bit more driven by language. The language for me is all. It’s a great gift of the theatre. Words.
What’s it like for you to be in the rehearsal room as a writer instead of a director?
It’s different. I have to shut up a lot more.
Is that hard for you?
Oh my god.
Does writing ever feel like a struggle?
Both plays are similar in that they both confronted me with the limitations I have. Both plays challenged me to go to a deeper place emotionally because I think I’ve tended to live in my head. I suspect that’s a trait that many people share. In Rita’s case, she just doesn’t live there. She’s not in her head. So we had some long dialogues about that. She loves my ideas and loves the way I write things, but they have to have emotional pay. And she consistently challenged me on that. Then when I finally went there, ironically, I ended up pushing her. And that was about Lenny [her late husband]. And about grief. And I understood that the play was actually about recognizing what she had lost.
That’s very interesting. When you first said you were going to write Rita’s show, that was surprising. Because it doesn’t make sense on the surface—you being in your head, and Rita being the opposite; yet it makes perfect sense underneath the surface. And you guys actually found this sort of melding place that really works.
Yeah. Rita was a huge bellwether for that for me. She really helped me find the moments I could go deeper. At one point I was writing a really, really long story about her on acid, which was funny, I mean, that was gold. But we realized that we already had a lot of comic gilding, and we needed the dose of reality that talked about falling apart, about being saved, and about losing herself and how that is folded into her sense of identity as a woman, a person of color and as a person who was born into poverty and lack of education. And with all of that, she was trying to become a recognizable important artist with something to say—and if you don’t go towards understanding that stuff on a deep emotional level, you aren’t going anywhere. Then it becomes a treatise. Go see a shrink. We spent a long time finding a theatrical language for identifying the words and the stories and the movement of those stories that earned the right to go there.
The whole joy of writing Jon’s play for me was about connecting to my inner boy and to my relationship with my father. I feel really proud of the emotional content of that story. People are definitely moved by it. I think for me that’s a big accomplishment.
What I’m hearing you talk about as a thread through all of this is exposing your own vulnerability. I think that’s hard enough to do as a young person when you’re expected to be taking chances in life, but coming to it older…
I am really, really immature. I’m the most immature 60 year old you are ever going to meet. And at 60, that feels like youthful spirit as opposed to immaturity. So I think that’s the key. My mom is a completely youthful sprite. She has more energy than the Energizer bunny. And she’s 84 and my dad’s 87. They’re both alive, very alive. My father’s an active artist at 87 years old and doing great work. My father told me at a very young age that the secret to life was curiosity.
Oh that’s so good.
And that was it: to stay curious, like really curious about the world. He is totally right. Then every day is like, well, what can I learn today? The thing about writing that is really deeply appealing is that it’s about learning. You can’t write without trying to learn something.
I’ve heard you say a number of times now that you have way more compassion for the experience of the playwright. What does that mean?
It’s a little terrifying. ‘Cause, you know, the vulnerability factor is pretty high. It’s impossible not to take things personally as a writer. It’s way more personal than being a director, I’ll tell you that. I find myself having to protect myself a little bit more.
A woman from the LA Times came to interview me about Ghost Light—really good, smart person. She was really well versed, as opposed to some other people. She read the play carefully, she admired it, she had lots of interesting questions, and she saw it at the second preview. She came up to me afterwards and said, “That was really, really charming.” And I thought, “Charming is not a word I want to hear.” And she was complimentary, but then I realized I’m just not in a position to hear anything. Unless you say, “That was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” which very few people actually say about anything, you’re really not in a position to even understand what people are saying, because your need is too high.
There’s this great Christopher Shinn article about how to tell a playwright you don’t like their play. It’s like the top five ways to drop the bomb. But what’s also hard is that you’ve spent at least year doing this if not more. And the other people spend much less time and then it’s over. I don’t know why anyone wants to be a playwright. Terrible.
David Galligan has done it all: he’s been a journalist and critic, has worked for a star-studded publicity office and has directed everything from S.T.A.G.E., the world’s longest-running AIDS benefit, to the opening of Ford Field in Detroit. He has directed huge shows with casts of hundreds, but he is probably best known for directing one-person cabarets for such notable artists as Anita Findlay, Tyne Daly and Valerie Pettiford. He is the recipient of the Los Angeles Stage Alliance’s Ovation Career Achievement Award. Rachel Steinberg, Berkeley Rep’s 2010/11 Peter F. Sloss Literary & Dramaturgy fellow, reached David at his home in Los Angeles.
So, thanks again for agreeing to do this.
My pleasure. You know, I used to do this for a living. I used to interview everybody from Ethel Merman to Hal Prince to Patti Lupone to James Latham to Vanessa Redgrave to…on and on!
And the Barrymores…
No! No! I’m not that old! No Barrymores. You know, all the great acting teachers, Lee Strasberg, Bobby Lewis, Jose Quintero, Uta Hagen, all of those people. In a way it was a wonderful way to start directing because I met them all. Harold Clurman, too…it was a dinner party that started at eight and lasted until five the next morning. Clurman just talked and it was a spectacular evening because I just had him, I just kept asking questions and he kept talking.
What launched you into directing from journalism?
Actually, because you don’t make any money in journalism, I had another job, which was publicity for a man by the name of John Springer at John Springer Associates. I worked there for 10 to 15 years, and some of his clients were Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Mike Nichols, Marlene Dietrich…so on and so forth. So I was always around celebrities, a lot, in those years, also interviewing them—I had a column and I was also a critic.
Jack Viertel [Broadway producer and theatre owner] said to me, “I’d like you to direct the Drama Critics’ Circle Awards this year,” and I said, “Get out of here, no. Why would you ask me to do that?” And he said, “Because I think you’d be a good director.” And I said, “Well, the answer’s no, I’m not interested in directing.” And he said, “Well, think about it overnight,” and I said, “Well, I just gave you the answer.”
So I came home and talked with my partner and he said, “Well, I think you should do it.” I said, “Let me think about it.” So the next day I called [Jack] and I said, “I’ll do it under these conditions” and I had, like, lots of conditions. It had to be in a theatre, and it had to have lights, sound and things of that sort. They said okay, and I started putting it together. The publicity office I worked at handled Robert Preston [The Music Man], and we asked if he would be the honoree of that evening. So he said yes, of course. Then, fearless, I called up Julie Andrews’ people and she said yes, and I knew Jean Simmons (the actress, not the Kiss person), and she said yes…so the show went on and it was spectacular! I’ll never know why—beginner’s luck!
So then somebody came to me and said there was this disease that was attacking gay men and they were going to do a benefit for it. And they didn’t have a name for the disease, of course it turned out to be AIDS. So I did that. And I’m still directing them—this next year will be the 28th year. Not really a reason to celebrate, you know, because nobody’s found a cure for it, but we’re still trying to find money and help for them.
That was the beginning.
Now you do a lot of work with artists at the end of very long careers. What appeals to you about working with people at that particular stage in their lives?
Yeah, because their frame of reference is so good, rather than somebody who’s discussing love and they’re 18 years old and have no life experience at that point. If you’re both on the same page, they know and you know who they’re talking about and what they’re talking about, if they have life experience. I don’t think I would be interested in doing a one-person show with a youngster. And I don’t think they’d be particularly interested in me, either!
You once said the one-person cabaret is “the most personal of all the art forms.” What did you mean by that?
Basically if something goes wrong with a performer in a show onstage, then they can say, “Well, it’s the script. Or it’s the costumes. Or it’s the direction or…” There are a number of excuses. In cabaret, if they don’t like you, it’s you they don’t like. You’re really like an open wound up there, wanting to be liked or wanting somebody to empathize with your feelings. I think it’s the most exposed of all the art forms. You’re standing right there at a mike facing 60, 70, maybe 100 people, exposing who you are and what you feel and how you sound and how you look.
A lot of the ladies you’ve worked with might be described as “divas.” What does that word mean to you?
That’s such a strange word because immediately when you hear “diva” you think “temperamental,” so diva comes in a lot of, sort of, sizes and…name somebody and it’s easy for me to talk about them…
Even using Rita as an example…
Well, the director-star relationship is very…she’ll let me have it on occasion, and I’ll let her have it. It isn’t all sunshine and flowers but it’s always within the privacy of the rehearsal hall, and if there’s a disagreement we both listen to each other. And I try to solve her problems and she tries to solve mine. I just worked with Carol Channing and that was very disagreeable. It was very difficult working with her and she made it difficult. I’ve worked with her a couple of times and I’ve found them all to be disagreeable, for a number of reasons. Number one is she changes blocking, which is ridiculous if you change blocking at half-hour and you’ve got 10 dancers. And you do it, because she’s Carol Channing, but it doesn’t make it agreeable. So that’s what I’d call a disagreeable diva.
When did you get on board with Life Without Makeup and how did you get involved?
Rita and I had met doing a Jerry Herman show, she was in that, magnificently. She had asked me about five years ago if I was interested in directing her cabaret act, and I said, “Of course.” And she tried to get me for one of the incarnations, and I was in Maui doing a show—and I love saying that—and I couldn’t do it. I was heartsick over that, but I couldn’t. Then, when it came time to do this, we were doing a benefit in San Francisco, and I said, “Oh my god, yes, I would be very interested to do a one-person show with you.” At the time, Tony Taccone was set to direct and write it. He called me to talk about my connection with music, and he thought it would be good for me to work with the company as far as seeking out music for the show. And I said, “That’s not what I do, I direct, and I know you do, too, and I thought there was interest in me directing this.” And he said, “Well, I’m interested in a way…can I come over and meet you?” I said, “Sure.” We went for coffee and talked for like an hour and a half, and he said, “You’re who I want to direct it.”
What’s been the biggest challenge for you in this project?
I’m not sure that I look at it as challenging. Yeah, there are day-to-day challenges. “Challenge” always seems like something to surmount and I’m not sure that I look at the show as something to surmount.
Everybody’s after the same goal, which is the exciting part of theatre—that it isn’t singular, it’s plural. Everybody works as one unit, you know, from stage management, which everybody forgets is so important to this process, to choreographers and dancers and sets and lights and…I just sound like I’m going to start singing any minute, but it’s an amazing place to be, the rehearsal hall. It’s the most vulnerable place in the world, but it’s also a place of discovery. Maybe that’s where the challenge is, it’s making the discoveries. I’m not sure if the word “challenge” fits anything I’m saying.
If someone made a cabaret of your life, what song would you insist was included?
Would it have to do with my life or just what I would like?
Just what you connect to; it’s up to you, you’re the director.
But you’re in control here! And it’s a collaboration, remember that.
(At this point David pauses for a while and browses a list of songs before settling on…)
I guess “Move On” by Sondheim.
Why that song?
It deals with complacency of being and it tells you to get up and get on with your life and get on with your art and get on with everything and just don’t sit back, don’t relax, don’t…
[David offers to find the lyrics. After a while, he returns and reads the song over the phone. While we can’t quote them all here, here’s a highlight.]
I chose and my world was shaking, so what? / The choice may have been mistaken / the choosing was not / you have to move on…
Look at what you want / not at where you are / not at what you’ll be
Look at all the things you’ve done for me…
I want to explore the light / I want to know how to get through / through to something of my own, move on, move on…
Just keep moving on / anything you do / let it come from you / then it will be new / give us more to see…
That’s basically how I feel.
Rita is one of only 10 artists to have won all four major awards: a Grammy, a Tony, an Oscar and an Emmy. (The other nine winners, organized in chronological order, are Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Marvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols and Whoopi Goldberg.) Rita’s other awards include the Library of Congress Living Legends Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts. The Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors renamed their Award of Excellence after her (The HOLA Rita Moreno Award for Excellence), she’s a California Hall of Fame inductee and she has a Hollywood Walk of Fame star at 7083 Hollywood Boulevard.
Below are some of Rita’s most notable credits, divided by category.