Gary Socol's new play, "The Shadow of Greatness," which will have its world premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival later this month, is about a famous playwright who, burdened by the weight of celebrity, invites three of his most obsessive fans to his brownstone for the eveningto teach them a lesson.
Actor Richard Chamberlain, who will be starring as playwright Alan Perry, knows the downside of being a celebrity, but, he told a gathering of newspeople at a press conference at the Red Lion Inn yesterday morning, "I am incredibly grateful my fans are still there. They are very sweet." "In fact, I have a certain disbelief that anyone is paying attention to me at all.
Chamberlain vaulted into the public eye with the 1961 television series "Dr.Kildare," in which he starred for all five seasons. Not long after "Kildare," he became known as "king of the television miniseries" for his starring appearances in some of that medium's most successful miniseries, chief among them "Shogun," "The Thorn Birds," "Centennial," "The Bourne Identity" and "Wallenburg: A Hero's Story."
His film credits include "Petula," "The Three Musketeers," "The Music Lovers," "The Last Wave" and "The Slipper and the Rose." Among his stage appearances are starring roles in "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Hamlet," "The Night of the Iguana," "Blithe Spirit," "The Lady's Not for Burning," "Richard II," and, more recently, "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music."
The downside of celebrity, Chamberlain said, has been a loss of anonymity. "I've forgotten what that's like," he said. "I cannot do that much on my own without being recognized."
Celebrity also challenges one's illusions about one's self, he said. "I come to a news conference and I'm treated as someone special," Chamberlain said, "but I'm really just like everyone else. I have the same wants, the same fears, the same needs."The real problem with fans is that they don't see you. They don't hear what you say. They talk to you, they ask a question, but they're not interested in what you have to say. They're only interested in what they have to say." Chamberlain admitted he knows what it's like to be on the other side -to be a fan.
"I met Aretha Franklin in a hotel elevator recently and I went nuts," Chamberlain said as the audience of journalists and BTF staffers, the other members of the "Shadow of Greatness" cast and Socol roared with laughter "I was unshaven. I was going for a swim. I stepped into the elevator and she was there in a corner and I just went nuts, telling her what a fan I am and how great I think she is."
Socol, who is an executive producer for the cable network, E! Entertainment Television, said he had Chamberlain, who is a good friend, in mind when he wrote "The Shadow of Greatness," although the character of Alan Perry is not modeled after Chamberlain.
"As an executive producer for television," Socol said at the news conference. "I've seen how the power of celebrity has become fan worship how it sometimes goes too far. I thought it would make a good play."
Chamberlain said he was drawn to "The Shadow of Greatness" because "it is a very good play, because it's a new play and I've done only one other new play ('Fathers and Sons' at the Public Theatre in New York), because there are four wonderful characters in the play and what happens among them is wonderful, and because Gary is a friend. "This may be the most real character I've played. I just don't know him well enough yet."
"Richard said something to me a few months ago," Socol said. "He said he was very glad I'm alive because he's used to doing plays by dead playwrights." "The Shadow of Greatness" came to BTF producing director Kate Maguire through several sources, among them producer Earl Graham and a BTF trustee. "This play was knocking on my door," Maguire told the gathering. "I had read the play and spoken with Gary and then with Earl. It was through my conversation with Earl that it became clear Richard was interested. Everything just all fit together."
Chamberlain said he thinks he has grown as an actor since celebrity struck him nearly 40 years ago. "One grows, one gets better," he said. "I think simply because of experience, I'm better now than I was in those early years. "What happens is that expectations are higher, your own and others'. You don't want to use the same old tricks. You feel your experience makes your acting richer. "I also have become much more demanding when I go to the theater."
Acting hard work
Chamberlain said it was difficult to pin down his process, how he puts a character together. Acting, he said, is hard work. He admits to having stage fright, particularly during rehearsal, he said, recounting how he blocked and grew apprehensive during rehearsals for "My Fair Lady." "Whoever called it a play ought to be shot," Jan Maxwell, one of Chamberlain's co-stars in "The Shadow of Greatness," said lightly. "It's not that much play. It's hard work."
Maxwell appeared with Chamberlain in the recent Broadway revival of "The Sound of Music." She was leaving the cast just as Chamberlain was coming in. "I thought it would change the dynamics of the show with (a star of his magnitude). I just wanted to do my work. It turned out, so did he."
Chamberlain said he has no preference between stage or film. "I prefer whatever I'm doing," he said. "Doing a play from beginning to end is no different than doing a movie backwards to forwards, upside down or in pieces. "You just start at zero each time. I'm starting at zero and I'm feeling a bit nervous."
Socol, who will be on hand for the rehearsals, which began yesterday, said most of his work on the play is done. He, Chamberlain and the play's director, Martin Rabbett, have been shaping the play over the past few months. "I'm going to be very quiet here," Socol said.
Broadway a dream
"The Shadow of Greatness" begins performances July 25. Press opening is July 26. The drama is scheduled to run through Aug. 12. What happens after Stockbridge "will depend," Socol said, "on how audiences react here." "Of course, Broadway is still the dream, the pinnacle. I feel very fortunate that we have a Broadway star in the cast, so there is the hope. "But, it is so difficult to get something new on Broadway. The costs are so high. Producers are unwilling to take a risk on something new," he said. "I'm just happy the play will be seen (where it will be seen). No matter where it's produced, it's a thrill. I would just like the play to have a life for as long as it can."
© 2000 Jeffrey Borak