Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Joe Vito: An Appreciation

Joseph Vitaterna was the name given to him by his parents, but among at least three generations of Chicago musicians he was known simply as Joe. He was like Prince or Madonna in that regard; no last name required.

One doesn’t acquire that kind of recognition easily, especially among working musicians – we’re a tough crowd. Joe Vito was a truly larger than life character, evoking a smile or a chuckle whenever his name was mentioned in conversation. He was much more than an excellent pianist, accompanist, accordionist and arranger. He had a long and very successful career in a business that can eat you alive. Joe accomplished so many things with grace, effortlessness and one of the most wicked wits I’ve ever encountered.

There are a thousand stories. There’s the long collaboration between Joe and violinist Johnny Frigo, his legendary capacity for liquor and long monologues, the many cornball jokes, the high profile gigs with Luciano Pavarotti, the Chicago Symphony, countless theatrical and corporate shows, recordings etc etc.

But I’ll mostly remember the man who treated me with the utmost kindness and professional respect - way more than I ever deserved. Joe hired me to play the memorial concert at Symphony Center for his beloved pal Mr. Frigo – that was a high honor. I played his “return to action” gig after some fairly serious surgery a few years ago. The two of us carpooled up and back to a very goofy duo gig at the Kohler compound in Wisconsin (yes, I did have to drive home). Joe was the most frequent visitor at the Chicago Hilton and Towers when I was working there in the late 80’s with my dear friend Peter Polzak and John’s son Rick Frigo.

Many of us who knew him have favorite Joe lines. Mine was more of an admonition: “Never try to bullshit a bullshitter.” And, of course, the infamous “You don’t know…” followed by a long story.

Joe Vito left us on July 28, 2010. He had long suffered the pain and indignities of cancer. One of his final projects was a recording he’d been working on for a long time with his wife Carole March Vito, an amazing musician and woman in her own right. I’m sure it’ll be outstanding, just the way everything else Joe ever touched was.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Memory of Victor D'Altorio

“Wow, great boobs!” I exclaimed.

“Wow, great boobs,” she deadpanned, looking aghast and taking a small step backwards.

“Wow, gr-r-r-reat! boobs!” I growled, eliciting nervous giggles from the room.

“Wow, great boobs,” she countered, crossing her arms over her chest.

Thus began one of my earliest experiences with The Repetition Exercise in class with Victor D’Altorio, an instructor at The Actors’ Center in Chicago. It was the Spring of 1996, and my life was about to be forever catapulted forward by this man, although, of course, I had no idea at the time.

Victor died in November 2009, after an excruciating bout with cancer and some unrelated issues with his back. I didn’t know he was ill nor that he had left this earth until now. I’m stricken with shock and sadness and gratitude. This is my personal eulogy for Victor D’Altorio, actor, director, teacher and mentor to many.

I initially thought that Vic was the most outrageous person I’d ever met. He was adamant about his homosexuality, brutally honest with his judgments and generally blunt in a way that I had never before experienced. At the time I was rather bottled up emotionally, so the contrast between our personalities was disconcerting, to say the least. It was also very refreshing. And life changing.

During my first semester at The Actors Center, I began learning Sanford Meisner’s acting techniques as interpreted by Victor and Eileen Vorbach.* The basics for The Repetition Exercise are this:

Two actors go up onstage. One actor begins by making an observation about his or her partner. The other actor must repeat exactly what the first actor said until something changes. The goal is to freely allow whatever happens in each moment to direct the action between the two people. This is way more difficult than it sounds, because each of us has a variety of blockages – parts of ourselves that we are unwilling to show to the world. The “work”, then, is to progressively get one’s self-consciousness out of the way to allow the reality of the moment to flourish. The rules are simple:

Observe the look, sound and behavior of your partner.
Speak the truth.
Keep your attention on your partner.
Say the first important thing that pops into your mind.
Stay in the moment.

Victor would alternately cajole, wheedle, berate and coddle us to get the results he wanted onstage. As demanding as he was, I can’t remember a class where he neglected to remind us that “this is a process” and that it takes time to develop the ability to respond and behave truthfully in each given moment onstage.

Victor sent me up onstage with the busty would-be actress that day because he thought I’d “be the only one in class brave enough to say it.” Vic encouraged courage and rejected fakery of every kind. He wanted his students to be as real, raw and forthcoming as possible. He stopped many an exercise by yelling “Too safe!”, and sending the mortified pair of actors back to their seats.

The process was often terrifying. There’d be times when I’d be sitting in class trying to will myself into invisibility so that I wouldn’t get called up there to face the heat. Victor would occasionally remind us that no one had yet died while doing the exercise in one of his classes, despite the fact that it often felt as if death was imminent (and perhaps would be welcome at certain moments).

When an actor had a breakthrough of some kind, Vic would say something like: “Good. You opened that door. Now put a brick in there and don’t let it close on you.” He likened the basic human emotions to drinking taps; you need to have all the taps (fear, joy, sadness, anger etc) open and flowing if you want to be an actor. When students were especially resistant, Vic would ask us why we wanted to be actors if we didn’t like exposing our inner selves. Of course, it wasn’t so much dislike as it was our fear of being fully seen that got in our way.

It was in the area of sexuality that Victor was most insistent. He was very good at sussing out the variety and shades of attraction that we so liked to avoid during our improvised little scenes. His sexuality was so out in the open and present; he wanted us to unfold ours in order to be able to use the myriad emotions that get stirred up via our sexual impulses: joy, shame, guilt, fear and so on.

In the Spring of 1998, I was fortunate enough to get cast in a production of Edward Albee’s The American Dream, which Victor directed. The rehearsal process was, for me, an intense extension of the work I’d been doing in classes. It was a challenging and difficult time, but ultimately a very rewarding one. Victor had some unusual methods: at one point he came over and started pounding me on the chest to demonstrate how the behavior of one of the characters should (literally) hit me. I got to work with some great people and the production was, by most accounts, a success. It felt great to be a part of the entire experience.

It is difficult for me to accept that Victor is gone. I hadn’t seen him in many years, but I think of him often. Many of the scenes I witnessed or took part in continue to be present in my consciousness. I have incorporated many of the principles Vic taught into my life as a musical performer and teacher. I truly feel that Vic was the best “therapist” I ever had; his classes had a profoundly liberating affect on me. I also know that he touched many other people in similar ways. He will not be forgotten any time soon.

I don’t know if Victor was buried or cremated, but if he has a headstone I know what it should read. In the spirit of stripping away our fears and social conventions in order to behave truthfully onstage, I’d like to propose a quote from Mr. Meisner himself:

Here lies Victor D’Altorio.

"Fuck polite!"

*The classes at the Actors Center were team taught by Vic and the wonderful Eileen Vorbach, who is thankfully very much alive and kicking actors’ butts as I write this.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kucinich (Once Again) Says It All on Health Care

There's no way I could say it better or more succinctly then Dennis Kucinich:

"Forty-seven million Americans are without health insurance. Why? Because they can't afford it.

And what's Washington's solution? Require people to buy private insurance with the government providing a subsidy to the health insurance companies.

What a pathetic state of affairs that our national government cannot respond to the needs of the people and must first respond to the needs of Wall Street and the health insurance industry and their stock prices.

I am going to continue to fight for single-payer. And I'm going to continue to try to get in the final legislation a provision which will protect the rights of states to be able to move forward with single-payer health care plans of their own.

It is time that we broke the chains, which the health insurance companies have on our political process. It's time that we have a government that we can call our own. And it's time that Congress respond to the needs of the American people first, and recognize that health care is a basic right in a democratic society."

Or watch the video: