Hanks returns to Cleveland to say big 'Thanks' to GLTF

October 10, 2009


Tom Hanks leads a repertory life, and says he still owes us for it.

He's a top-grossing movie star; a producer, writer, director; and an espouser of causes.

That's an "artistic bent, almost a philosophy, which I learned for the first time onstage in Cleveland," Hanks says. That was in 1977, when he was a 21-year-old student-intern at Great Lakes Theater Festival, where he acted, worked backstage, and changed sets past midnight.

Hanks swoops back to town Monday for a day of thank-yous.

Tops on the agenda is raising the last $600,000 in a $19.2 million drive for what Hanks calls Great Lakes' new place of "artistic worship," the Hanna Theatre. "I said, 'Look, I think that's extraordinary. Bravo. What can I do to help? Oh, I can do this.' "

What he will do is entertain an audience of students at the taping of a PBS show hosted by NPR's Scott Simon. Then he'll perform "Tom Hanks at the Hanna," a sold-out show with footage from "The Pacific," a sequel to "Band of Brothers."

Can't go? You can hear about Hanks' three years of Cleveland life-training, his Lakewood party pad and his love for the Tribe in an exclusive chat with a Cleveland-made Renaissance man who says he's still in debt to a city that launched an amazing career.

Here is Tom Hanks, condensed only slightly for clarity, ON...

... HOW HE GOT HERE
It was in the winter of 1977. I had just started at California State University in Sacramento. I had been in a show that went to the American College Theater Festival, the regionals, which is a big deal, at Fresno. Everyone who had been in that show got cast in the next show.

Except me [laughs].

I was "at liberty." And I heard about these auditions for Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" down at Sacramento Civic Repertory Theatre and that it was going to be guest-directed by a former artistic director of [Ireland's] Abbey Theatre [Great Lakes artistic director Vincent Dowling]. And I went down and was cast as the supercilious servant.

From that, with three other people, I was invited to come back [to Cleveland] and serve in the intern program as one of 28. Vince needed bodies. He needed manpower and womanpower, in order to change the sets over. He collected members of the intern program wherever he went.

"The thing is," he said, "I cannot pay you. But the thing I can give you is something that is just as valuable, and that is professional experience."

Which was true.

... CLEVELAND'S PRACTICAL LESSONS
Everything up until then had essentially been at the same speed and volume as being in college. All the excitement is there and an awful lot of creativity. But you don't go to the next step, which is: You have to grind this thing out.

Up until then, I think the longest time I had played a single role in a single show was maybe 12 performances, if that. At Great Lakes, [I was] working every night, in different roles in repertory.

Then, a show like "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," I think by the time we were done, we performed it between 60 and 80 times. That's a lot.

And on days that you're doing two shows -- matinee and evening, or a special student show plus the regular performance later on that night -- that's a different beast, and it requires a different sort of stamina, a different sort of pacing.

And look, when you're 22 years old, you don't know that you're going through something that is formative, but it was. That was professional.

We weren't studying. We had gotten the show up, we had mounted it. We were doing it, and the show was evolving the way a professional show does, and our own chops were evolving.

That's an experience you cannot get unless the people who are in charge are trying to make money at it. The entire stand-and-deliver kind of thing was what I got out of Great Lakes. You learned that you had work you had to do as an actor, all season long.

... HIS PHILOSOPHY
[I have] an artistic bent, almost a philosophy, which I learned for the first time onstage in Cleveland.

I was in "Hamlet." Or at least I carried a torch in "Hamlet." And night after night after night, I heard Hamlet's advice to the players. You know: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you -- trippingly on the tongue."

That's important. But theologically, philosophically, Hamlet also tells the players to hold the mirror up to nature. That stuck with me. I really think that's what the actor's job is, no matter how silly or space-age or fantastic the project is that you're doing.

Look, I played a guy who magically turns into a little boy, OK? That doesn't happen in real life. But there is a way to hold the mirror to human nature to reflect the authenticity of being alive. That is the actor's job.

I always sort of thought that, but until I heard Hamlet say it over and over again for the better part of 30 performances, I didn't realize that that is more than just flowery prose, that that is more than just Shakespeare's brilliance.

That's actually the commandment that the actor carries around with him. That's the vow he makes to the audience, the promise the actor has before he comes out on the stage.

... HIS REPERTORY LIFE
What I enjoyed about Great Lakes and probably what I have been, inadvertently, without even thinking about it, re-creating ever since, is the multiple disciplines of it.

When we were at Great Lakes and you're doing different parts, or when you're an intern and you're playing parts and you're also running the show and different things, it's a constant variety. It's never just one thing.

Now I don't know if I can do just one thing.

I find that each one feeds the other. You say, "Oh I get to relax by doing this one job here, I get to be an actor here." But it begins to become de rigueur, nothing is really expected of you, and all day long you're just waiting for the shot to be set up.

By producing or having a phone call or just thinking about other projects, that ends up spurring you into making something better of that moment that you're just waiting to do.

The constant variety of ideas, I find jazz. It jazzes. It's jazzy. What's a better word? Stimulating's not it. It's fun.

... 'PARKWOOD MANOR'
The guy who played Hamlet, my first show at Great Lakes, an actor by the name of Dennis Lipscomb, he had a line on a house that was going to be renovated by its owners. It was a huge, three- or four-bedroom house on Parkwood Road, right around the corner from the auditorium at Lakewood High School [where Great Lakes performed at the time], and we ended up calling it Parkwood Manor.

He didn't want to pay the whole freight for renting this house, and it was a fine house. So he invited three of us interns to pony up some dough.

I ended up sleeping up in the attic, which was clean enough and had a mattress, and everybody ended up hanging out because it was around the corner.

It was a cheap place for all the interns to gather in the off-hours, and eventually a bunch of the [professional] company would show up because there was always music playing.

And it might have pissed off the neighbors every now and again, but it was a sweet kind-of-like firehouse atmosphere, and it didn't need a ringleader per se. But I might have instigated a couple of things.

 THE INDIANS
I really loved them when they were back in the old [Cleveland Municipal] Stadium. Me and Clive Rosengren, an actor I just saw a few weeks ago, that second and third season we ended up having some more time off. So we'd go to ballgames.

It was cheap, there was nobody there. Nobody. I mean, it held 81,000 people, and 81,000 would show up for a Browns game, and 9,000 would show up for an Indians game.

It was actually hilarious. We would sit there and talk all through the game. It was cheap entertainment. I fell in love with baseball there. And you get to have a great affection for the place and the team.

So I've always had a great affection for the Tribe, even though they've moved on to greener pastures.

... HIS LOYALTY TO CLEVELAND
You gotta understand, Cleveland was my only job. No one else had said, "You are a professional actor."

So when I got on TV, TV was my second job. And Cleveland lasted longer than my TV gig did! I was in Cleveland for three seasons, I was only on TV for two. So I've always given props to Cleveland and the company, and I've always come back when I could.

This time, they contacted me and said, "We are making a huge commitment to Cleveland, and we are making a major statement."

Look, I think the new theater at the Hanna is a huge step up. I think it's a landmark. I think it's a physical space that theater aficionados around the world will want to come and see. It's a magnificent thing.

I like the idea of theaters as physical spaces of artistic worship, so to speak. And for them to build that inside the Hanna? I said, "Look, I think that's extraordinary. Bravo. What can I do to help? Oh, I can do this. I can help you raise the money. I'll come through."

This is all at my convenience, of course [laughs]. And they put this together. And I am happy to do it. 

By Tony Brown

Source : Cleveland Live