February 24, 2010

Brushes With Pre-Greatness (Volume 2)

Robert Sean Leonard

Back in 1996, my improv group was performing at the John Houseman Theatre, one of the premiere off-Broadway venues in the city at the time.

Well, I take that back - we weren't technically performing in the Houseman, but rather in one of the two studio spaces beneath the Houseman, right next door to Kenny Kramer, who was using the space to show his customers videos of episodes of Seinfeld before leading them out to a tour bus to take a sightseeing tour from "the Real Kramer."

We did a few seasons in this location, so we knew our weekend matinee performances were required to start with one of us standing at the top of the staircase making sure that our audience knew to descend, rather than follow the crowd into the mainstage space to see Sylvia with Sarah Jessica Parker pretending to be a dog. (I only wish I were making that up.)

We also knew that because the signage for whatever the "big show" above was at the time would be far superior to ours, we always set out to do a huge postering of the local businesses to get the word of our show out into the public eye - or ear or any other organ that got them to buy a ticket. In 1996, I was in charge of this campaign, and on a cold and rainy weekend morning, I played point-man as I sent my postering charges out into the neighborhood in teams of two making sure we got as much coverage as possible until all the posters were gone.

At the time, the show preparing to open "above us" was ironically called Below the Belt and as it turns out, they were doing a dress rehearsal that morning. So, while I sat and read a book, every so often, into the small hallway came Judd Hirsch and Robert Sean Leonard wearing a lot of blue terry cloth. At this time, everyone knew Hirsch from his days on Taxi, but although he had been in Dead Poets Society, Leonard was not quite yet a household name. He was getting there, but it's not like Swing Kids - guilty pleasure as I think it to be - had been a box office smash.

Anyway, the postering campaign was a three-hour tour, so when the cast broke for lunch, I was still sitting there waiting for the last team to report back to home base, and as far as Robert Sean Leonard knew, I had been sitting there by myself the whole time - he had never been in the hallway when any of my teams had been there.

Slowly, he came over and excused himself, and asked if I was OK. He seemed genuinely concerned that I might be in need of help, but it was clear that he was also, at heart, a very shy individual, and was leaving his comfort zone to do so.

I explained to him why I was there, and showed him a copy of our poster. He immediately relaxed and brightened up. "I was worried you were either in trouble or a stalker. Thank goodness!" I invited him to be a guest judge, or just stop by and see the show if he had the time, and he said he would try to drop in. I don't think he actually ever did, but I do believe that when he said it, he meant it.

Anyway, it's an example of the "person" being as likable as the "actor" persona they've created. That's not always the case, so I'm always happy to encounter it and spread the word.

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