My conversation with Raye Birk and Peter Michael Goetz begins with a back-and-forth compliment session. Even though I came to interview and butter them up (hoping to get a few insider details on their upcoming show, Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys), they give it right back—two experts in flattery.
Birk and Goetz are Guthrie vets, both beginning their careers here in 1966 and ’67 (respectively) as McKnight Fellows. Now, after taking their talents to the East and West Coasts, spinning careers in television and film as well as theater, they’re back on the Wurtele Thrust stage together, playing Al Lewis and Willie Clark, a pair of crabby, retired vaudeville comedians persuaded to reunite after 11 years apart—even though they can’t stand each other. According to Birk and Goetz, it’s not such a long shot—minus the “can’t-stand-each-other” part: these two are as close as friends can be.
You’ve both earned the status as Guthrie-fan favorites. How does it feel to finally be established like that?
PMG: Oh, I don’t know that we are. Every job is your last.
RB: (Nods head in agreement)
Well, they keep asking you back, and you keep filling seats. There must be a certain point in one’s career that you stop worrying about that.
PMG: No, no, never. Especially now that we have the double whammy: not only may they not like us, but it may be we’re too old! This play is about two old guys at the end of their career—you’re looking at them: 70 and 69.
RB: When you’re young or middle-aged, you can always play the old role. But when you’re old—even if you’re a character guy—they don’t ask you to play the middle-aged guy.
PMG: We’re not going backwards, that’s for sure.
Let’s go back to the start of your careers. Where are you two from?
RB: I’m from Flint, Michigan.
PMG: And I’m from Buffalo, New York—we both really want to go back to our hometowns! (laughs)
Did you both leave right after graduation?
PMG: Yes, I left to go to the University of Miami in Florida. I wanted to be a commercial airline pilot. Then I got mononucleosis and ended up transferring to a little school near Buffalo, and got into theater accidentally there.
How do you get into theater accidentally?
PMG: I didn’t know anybody, and there was a little club that wanted to put on a play. Somebody talked me into doing it, and suddenly I was a theater major as a graduate student at Southern Illinois University. They set me up with an audition at the Guthrie to become a McKnight Fellow in 1966. I came here in ’67, stayed on for 12 years, then moved to New York for 10 years and Los Angeles for 20. It’s just in the last 10 years that I’ve come back to work here.
What about you, Raye? How did you get into theater?
RB: I was going to be a physical-education teacher, and my freshman year of college, in Springfield College in Massachusetts, I realized I was going to be stuck in a gym with a basketball most of the time. I had larger ambitions as a teacher than that, so I thought maybe I’d become an English teacher. The guy who taught my freshman English class was, for lack of a better word, a failed actor, but he ran a summer professional theater company and was always trying to get the jocks in his class to try out for the plays. I got a small role in his production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and fell in love with it. I went back home that summer, and did two plays, one of which I had a leading role in. I was hugely successful without having any idea of what I was doing.
PMG: And he’s never been as successful since.
RB: True! After that, I transferred to Northwestern, and was a McKnight Fellow here from 1965-67. From there, my wife and I taught at Southern Methodist University for three years, then Oregon Shakespeare Festival for three years, then Milwaukee Rep for two years, and then American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco, a theater the size that rivaled the Guthrie. We were there through the ’70s, in 1982 moved to L.A. for 20 years, and now I’m here.
How did go about making your passion for acting into a career?
PMG: After I had been at the Guthrie 11 straight seasons, and I thought to myself, “What do I do now?” Since I hadn’t much film experience besides local commercials, I decided to go to New York. I did a lot of Broadway, and while I was there, I auditioned for some films. But when I’d get roles, I’d be sent away from my family out to L.A., so eventually we moved out there. There was a period of 15 years then where I didn’t do any live theater at all. Then I got a call from Gary Gisselman asking me if I wanted to play Scrooge, after all these years. I said yes, and in the last 10 years I’ve come back to do one or two shows a season as they ask me. Raye and I have known each other on and off during all of that—almost 50 years.
RB: Longer than the guys in the play.
PMG: And we feel that when we’re working. In the show we say things like, “Well I’ve been working with you 43 years…” and we have! We ran into each other in auditions in L.A., we also did a film together—we really do know each other.
RB: But we didn’t get a chance to really work together until he was doing Scrooge his second year, and I was Marley. That’s the first time we got to really work together.
PMG: Yeah, in the movie we’d always be in different scenes. The film, by the way, was called Best Defense by Dudley Moore and also starred Eddie Murphy—it went under like a rock.
RB: It’s best forgotten.
PMG: I think I have a $5 residual check out there…
RB: Oh, then I bet I’ll have a 75-cent one coming my way! My story is that after I came of age at the ACT, I decided I needed a change from regional theater. New York was so far away, whereas Los Angeles was only 400 miles away. It seemed the safest place to jump. And you can’t make a living doing theater in L.A.—there’s a lot of theater, but you can’t make it. So I did TV and film.
PMG: My experience with theater in L.A. was anytime I did it, all the actors on the stage weren’t looking at me; they’d be playing to the producers who were going to give them movie roles. There’s no sense of ensemble there; it’s a different temperament. This place, this is an incredible theater. It’s one of the premiere places in the world, the Guthrie.
What do you think it is about the Guthrie that makes it so special?
RB: They get really good actors—there’s a plethora of amazing local actors. The productions are first-rate; there’s no place in the world that does better with costumes and sets.
PMG: And the audiences are very sophisticated here.
RB: They love good theater. They don’t come with an attitude of “show me,” like in New York. And in L.A., they have a totally different nature, those theater audiences. It’s more of a kind of disinterest. There’s not as sophisticated a general audience in L.A. for theater.
When’s the last time you collaborated together here this closely?
RB: There was Much Ado, but we were always in different scenes.
PMG: Wasn’t it The Government Inspector?
RB: And, of course, Scrooge and Marley.
Was it always that order, Peter as Scrooge and Raye as Marley?
RB: Well, I’ve played Scrooge here, but he didn’t want to come back to perform with me. He didn’t want to be my Marley.
PMG: They didn’t ask me!
What are some of the most memorable moments pegged to the Guthrie you’ve had here?
RB: For me, I was here that 1967 season essentially as an apprentice, which was a great experience because you got to watch all those rehearsals and watch really first-rate professional actors go about creating theater. I’d never seen that. It was a revelation for me, and made me dream of one day playing a leading role here. So when I came back here in 2003 to play Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, I remember taking the curtain call after the first preview, and stepping onto that stage where you have the audience on all sides, and the applause was like a waterfall. And I was totally surprised and taken aback and so moved that I had gotten to achieve something that I had dreamed of years ago; that the cycle had been completed.
PMG: I remember when I was flown here to audition in 1966, I was sitting out in the house and I saw three actors cross the back of the stage whom I recognized as Guthrie actors, and I remember being so excited. And I’ve never forgotten that feeling—I remember it so that I don’t take for granted what I’m doing here. This is the Guthrie Theater: we want to be hosts and welcome the audience into our house and entertain them and, if they want, have a drink with them after. We have this tremendous commitment to our audience—we want them to have a good time.
What have you been doing in rehearsals to prepare for these roles?
PMG: We’re working so hard on not doing any shtick, any funny faces. You think of Neil Simon you think of one-liners: he’s a brilliant writer. You’ve got these two old men coming to the end of their careers, and we’re trying to play it so real to each other—not thinking about what the lines are or what’s funny—and just hoping to hell that it comes through. We’re trusting the words and the relationships and being real with each other as much as we can.
RB: Gary (Gisselman) will tell us when we’re pushing it. He calls us out when he knows we’re aware of where the laughs are supposed to be.
Can you feel when you’re forcing it?
RB: Well, yes, you can. That’s what rehearsals are for. You can feel when it clicks.
PMG: But it’s difficult in an empty room, and when it’s the same three of four stage managers with you every day—something that’s funny the first couple of days is not anymore.
RB: They’ve long since stopped laughing.
PMG: But I’m encouraged because I’m enjoying so much the real thing that we’re doing together, that I’m not getting pre-show jitters about whether or not the audience laughs. Of course we want them to, but if they don’t? Too bad.
RB: If they don’t get it, it’s their fault. We’re trusting the playwright, because he’s written it in a way where the laughs will be there.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in theater between when you started here in 1967 and now?
RB: That’s a huge question.
PMG: It’s very good.
RB: We could write a little book about it.
PMG: How much time do you have?
RB: Well, plays are shorter. It was not unusual to have plays over three hours when I was starting. Audiences have a shorter attention span. In the theater, not here necessarily, but in New York, actors who have only worked in TV or film suddenly are given a chance to work on Broadway and aren’t equipped technically to fill a big theater. Not all of them, but some of them.
PMG: A lot of them.
RB: Amplification is another thing—adding microphones to the stage.
PMG: That mortifies us.
RB: I don’t think there are any musicals today that aren’t miked, and now they’re looking at doing it for straight plays as well! It’s Old Fartism on my part, but it’s like, really? What happened? Because the energy it takes to support vocal performance in a big role energizes the whole body. And it makes for a more vibrant performance from the audience’s point of view. If you don’t have someone who has that, I think the performance isn’t as dynamic. They’re not as exciting to watch. And I think it diminished the theater.
PMG: Especially in a big theater like this where you have to have energy a little bit bigger than normal because of its size.
What are some of the challenges you still face even after 50 years of acting?
RB: I’ve never really done a Neil Simon play before this one, and it’s a very specific style of its own. It’s beautifully crafted in terms of dialogue and story and there’s a way these lines have to be said—he wrote the dialect in a way where you can’t see it, but you have to say it in that way.
PMG: You can’t swap an “an” with a “the.” The word structure is written in a very particular way. I have a line that goes, “I can show you witnesses who saw me never talking to him.” Look at the line structure of that. It’s not necessarily funny, but it’s so well constructed.
The play was written in 1972: do all the jokes translate?
PMG: Well, tell me this: do you know what a Schick injector is?
PMG: That’s what I thought. It’s a razor. So I have a line that says, “Hand me that Schick injector.” I think I should change it to, “Hand me that Schick injector razor.”
RB: No, no, that’s so clunky. What about, “Hand me the razor; the Schick injector.”
PMG: That works. (Repeats it). It’s a lot better than when I was stumbling and accidentally saying, “Hand me the chick injector.” Then the show is no longer PG!
The Sunshine Boys opens Friday, July 13 on the Wurtle Thrust stage at Guthrie Theater.