A life in the theater

Peter Michael Goetz is a theater actor’s actor. Listening to him describe what it’s like to be onstage night after night is to hear the insider’s story that only a confident, experienced performer can tell.

Goetz is appearing in “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” by Alfred Uhry, in its run at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills.

One year ago today, coincidentally his birthday, Goetz received a telephone call from Ballyhoo’s New York producers, asking him to step into the role two days later, on Broadway. He played exactly 200 performances, until the show moved to Los Angeles.

Briefly describing Ballyhoo, he says it is about a Jewish family with a Christmas tree in 1939 Atlanta. “This family is trying to find its identity. It does it through the Jewish faith, but it could be anything. Everybody seems to identify.”

Rhea Perlman plays his sister. “Rhea Perlman is the most wonderful, giving, loving person I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “Every night, we talk about where we’re going and how we can make it better. She never lets up.”

The L.A. production also features Samohi graduate Ryan Hurst. Goetz had watched Hurst, a friend of his sons, in plays at Samohi, and was pleasantly surprised to find him cast in the production.


Ballyhoo’s set and props were shipped from New York. “It was nice for me to feel at home,” he says. But he faced “a minor dilemma” — how to begin anew with new actors after the 200 performances. He wondered how to try to be affected by their work and react to their work. “It was an interesting challenge I’d never had before,” he says. He would recall a line getting a big laugh from the New York actor but see the L.A. actor giving it a different form. His solution was “to stay absolutely quiet and enjoy their performances and notice that they would get a laugh, but at another place.” The audience will find its sense of relief, he says. And yes, the production kept the same director.

Goetz notices that he occasionally lapses during a performance. He looks for the laugh that he got in N.Y., playing it as he did there and not reacting to the L.A. actors. A good director, he says, will come backstage “and, as they say, take out the improvements.” At one point in its N.Y. run, the production had gained 15 minutes. “We tended to indulge, we milked the laughs,” he says.

Other times, he says, he finds himself adjusting his pace during a performance, speeding himself up if he thinks the others are slowing, speaking louder if their voices are dropping. “I’m probably not in the play properly,” he says. “I’m outside, like an actor-director. I have no business doing that. That may not occur if I’m doing a play for a month. But having done this for 300 performances, I may be grasping at ways to keep it fresh.”

Keeping a role fresh is a huge task for stage actors. “We’re so desperate,” he says. “It’s so wonderful if a fly lands on somebody’s head. It’s so real.” They hope opening nights run smoothly. Later in a long run, however, he likes when something goes wrong — someone misses an entrance, a telephone doesn’t ring. “It gets our heart racing,” he says. “It’s great for us but not great for the play or for the audience.”

Still other nights his mind wanders to the day’s events. “I’m saying a line and thinking how I’m going to fix my car. Then there’s a third voice saying, ‘My God. I’m saying my lines and thinking about my car.'”

He speaks of losing control of a play to an audience. Yes, actors hear the laughter and the absolute silence of immersion. Yes, they can tell Saturday night (the drinkers) from Tuesday nights (the bored husbands).

Born in Buffalo, he attended University of Miami and planned to become a commercial airline pilot. As an extracurricular activity, he participated in a college play. There, he met his wife, Connie. They are celebrating a 32-year marriage.

At 19, he chose “the long route” and began formal training with the Tyrone Guthrie repertory theater in Minneapolis and stayed for 12 years. With five plays in repertory at any one time, Goetz says, “I was always in all of them,” a different play every night of the week.

There, he also developed his obviously theatrical voice. The Guthrie theater was a three-quarter round, with audience behind the actors at times. “My mind has to think about the person behind me in the last row. I always play to the last person in the house, which sometimes does not always make my performances all that good for people in the front. It’s easier to make it more intimate, but the people in the back are paying, too.” As a result, he claims, he is not a natural for film. He does admit that a trained voice is missing in more and more actors.

His performance includes breath control. “I think about when I’m going to take a breath, much as a singer does.” With pausing for breath, however, comes worries about the audience getting ahead of the line.

His Guthrie teacher Michael Langham gave him another bit of fine advice — “Spit it out and get on with it.” Goetz says actors get indulgent. Rather than letting the mind say, “Look how good I’m doing,” the actor must listen, react and communicate.

When the Guthrie began using “name” actors, Goetz needed to make a reputation for himself. He looked to New York and Los Angeles, choosing the former because, as he says, “I’m a theater actor.” He considers a call from Colleen Dewhurst as his “break.” At first, he thought a friend was playing a joke on him, imitating the legendary deep voice. She had seen him perform and invited him to portray John Barrymore in her production of “Ned and Jack.”

Goetz originated roles in more than five Broadway shows, including the role of Jack, the father, in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” On the first night of L.A. press previews of the Simon play, he could tell the play would be a success. But Simon rewrote anyway. Goetz framed the yellow tablet on which Simon handwrote a new scene for him.

Goetz traveled to L.A. to make the occasional film, then moved to Malibu 12 years ago. Here, Connie ran a bookstore; now she works at Village Books in the Palisades.

His two young sons were local filmmakers. At ages 12 and 9, they shot on locations across Malibu. “Malibu was very kind to them,” he says. Filming absorbed their energies and kept them out of trouble. Dad still gets bit parts in their films, “always playing a bum in trash bins around Malibu.” Now, Michael has completed his master’s degree at USC film school and Kevin is attending Pasadena Art and Design. He hopes most for their success. “Nothing gets me more excited than when the calls come in saying they have a lead,” he says. They just completed post-production on their film, “Tycus,” with Dennis Hopper.

At the Guthrie, he was a recognized “star,” both from theater work and commercials. Living in Malibu, says Goetz, “I can look around me and see the people who are so much more successful. You certainly don’t get your ego stroked much as a working actor in Malibu. I wouldn’t trade it, but it’s an interesting change in our lives.”

Is he a superstitious actor? Only about what he has to say regarding superstition. He has never missed a performance in all his years in the theater, and he is becoming superstitious about saying that. On Ballyhoo’s opening night, his wife was taken to the emergency room with a presumed heart attack. He learned the news during intermission and finished the performance. Waiting in the hospital all night, he learned she had strained a chest muscle.

He’ll also play when he’s ill. “The audience has a thing about people who are in the program,” he says. He notices they take longer to become absorbed when an understudy is performing.

He says it’s hard to think about job hunting again when Ballyhoo closes. At this point in his life, he says, it’s just the energy it takes that worries him. Still, he sits backstage before every performance, looks up at the lights, ropes and catwalks and says “Thank God.”

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” is at the Canon Theatre through Jan. 3, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 and p.m. Tel. 310/859-2830.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

Related Articles

- Advertisement - spot_img


Latest Articles

%d bloggers like this: