“It’s like Kevin Bacon,” Jay O. Sanders said to me. You see, it seemed as if any name that came up during my conversation with the actor-turned-playwright could be traced by Sanders to some connection. “My life, not unlike my life in art, has so many interconnections. I connect to everybody somewhere. Including Kevin.” (Bacon and he shared a scene in Oliver Stone’s film JFK.)
But Sanders rarely needs to exhaust six degrees; most lines connect after two or three. It’s not surprising, considering the long, varied, and busy career the actor has had on stage, on TV, and in film.
I spoke to Sanders last month, as his play Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth) was approaching preview performances. It had been chosen to open the highly-anticipated first season of Mosaic Theater Company.
Reviews have admired the play, its ambition, its compassion, and its epic sweep. “The play is a beautiful and moving piece of theatre,” wrote Jessica Pearson in her review on DCTS.
In The Washington Post, Peter Marks decreed it “a work that challenges the conscience, in a part of town that is changing rapidly, on a topic crying out for greater understanding. All of these uplifting aspects coalesce inside the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, where the freshly minted Mosaic Theater Company is unveiling its inaugural production, a drama that asks the world to examine its terrible habit of noting Africa’s tragedies, shrugging and moving on.”
John Stoltenberg, on Magic Time!, said that it “intersects community and conscience with sweeping scope and compassion, the likes of which this town needs more than it knows.” Stoltenberg, a friend and a WSC Avant Bard colleague, told me this week that he admired Unexplored Interior so much, he returned and saw it again. (The play’s run continues until November 29th.)
Sanders’ quip about Kevin Bacon occurred after I had mentioned a play I had seen in the 90s during a pre-Broadway run at Kennedy Center. Called The Twilight of the Golds, it was later filmed for cable with a cast led by Faye Dunaway.
It turns out Dunaway and Sanders “did the first TV movie made specifically for cable.” It was called Cold Sassy Tree, also starred Richard Widmark, was directed by indie film pioneer Joan Tewkesbury, and produced by Dunaway herself for, Sanders told me, the TNT network.
In recent years, Sanders’ stage work as an actor has focused on two writers in particular. William Shakespeare is one. Sanders’ Wikipedia entry makes the impressive claim that he “has appeared in more shows at the Delacorte Theater (Shakespeare in Central Park) than any other actor to date.”
Recently, Sanders played Kent in the King Lear that starred John Lithgow and Annette Bening, and he got about the best reviews in the cast. His Park credits go back to the 70s. In fact, he was in the legendary Measure for Measure that starred Sam Waterston, the late John Cazale, and a very young Meryl Streep as Isabella.
“The Public [Theater] is my home,” Sanders said about the renowned New York non-profit that produces Shakespeare in the Park. Another recent Shakespeare role at the Public (one of their Public Lab productions, not in the Park) was the title part in Titus Andronicus. (“One of my favorites,” he told me.)
The second writer he has focused on recently is Richard Nelson. Sanders created a role in Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays, repeating it for PBS when the four-play cycle was filmed for TV.
“He’s one of my greatest supporters,” Sanders said of playwright Nelson. “We’re in regular contact. I’m going on to do three new plays by him.”
October 29 – November 29, 2015
Mosaic Theater Company of DC
at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $20 – $50
This upcoming Nelson trilogy focuses on a different family in the same town in which The Apple Family Plays is set. Sanders also told me that, back in the 70s, while he was a company member here at Arena Stage, he did his first Nelson play, Scooping, a one-act monologue centering on a journalist examining his life and his work.
Sanders joined the Arena company “right out of college.” That college was SUNY Purchase, and he was in the first-ever class of its acting conservatory. “I was the first actor to ever audition, the first accepted, and the commencement speaker. I was an original three times.”
Sanders waxed nostalgic about the old company at Arena and reeled off several familiar names (including Robert Prosky and Richard Bauer) of those with whom he worked over that couple of years. Dianne Wiest was before his time, he told me, but she did come down from New York while Sanders was there, to do The Lower Depths, directed by Liviu Ciulei, perhaps the most prominent of the several Eastern European directors that Arena founder Zelda Fichandler brought to town.
It was at Arena that I first saw Sanders on-stage, in Michael Weller’s Loose Ends. A new work by the author of the early 70s hit play Moonchildren, with a cast led by a young Kevin Kline, the show transferred to Broadway’s Circle in the Square, marking Sanders’ debut on The Great White Way.
Sanders was back at Circle in the Square when I saw him next, in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. He played the defendant (the role Van Johnson played in the film version with Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg). I actually saw the production a couple of times. Michael Moriarty, who opened the revival as Queeg, moved to the role of the defense attorney after John Rubinstein left the show, and I was intrigued to see what Moriarty, a fascinating and unexpected Queeg (he was replaced by a more conventional Philip Bosco), would do with the lawyer role.
“I left the same time as John [Rubinstein,]” Sanders reminded me. “John and I both lost our fathers within six months of each other.” (Rubinstein’s Dad was the renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein.) The revival had a long run, and eventually Sanders’ part was taken over by the football star Joe Namath. (That provides Sanders with a degree of closeness to many in the world of sports!)
“It seemed like a time to turn and try something else.” The something else was TV, “a promising misfire, a sequel to M*A*S*H.” Called AfterMASH, it tracked some of the characters from the classic series as they returned home following their service in Korea, and the show didn’t last long.
My early 80s theatre-going also included catching the second cast of the hit play Agnes of God. Amanda Plummer had been replaced in her Tony-winning role by Maryann Plunkett, Sanders’ wife. However, Sanders himself didn’t see that performance — it was before they met — even though he was “living a couple of blocks away” from Agnes’ home at the Music Box Theatre.
I knew that Sanders had played Dunois when Plunkett played the lead in Saint Joan during Tony Randall’s short-lived effort to establish the National Actors Theater. I wondered if it was then that they had met.
“We were already married by then. We met here in D.C. In fact, when I met with Ari [Roth, Mosaic’s Founding Artistic Director], I was staying in the same hotel. I came down to do A Man Called Hawk.” That was another TV series that was, um, less than wildly successful. It spun-off from Spenser: For Hire and took place in D.C. “But the good news is, Maryann and I met each other and have been together ever since.” They’ve been married for 24 years. “One of the most important things: Washington, D.C. gave me my wife.”
Plunkett was also part of the cast of The Apple Family Plays. Since Serge Seiden, Mosaic’s Managing Director and Producer, is directing the local premiere, I wondered if Sanders had spoken to Seiden about it.
“We talked about it when I came down for a four day workshop [of Unexplored Interior] and I stayed with Serge, in his son’s room. It was fun to talk about some of that stuff. I’m very fond of Serge.”
Will Sanders catch Seiden’s production at Studio Theatre? “I’ve avoided anything like that. It’s a deeply personal thing. Richard hasn’t gone to see it anywhere. It’s so personal. It includes lines that have come out of my life. Maryann was the first one he wrote a role for. I was brought into it after that.” So close does he feel to the piece that he says it’s hard to determine “where you leave off and the role begins.”
Before his Broadway work, Sanders had been in the original cast of Buried Child, as Bradley. I asked if he had met Sam Shepard during that experience, but he told me that the playwright, famous for his aversion to air travel, didn’t leave his West Coast base to see the play’s New York debut.
Sanders left the extended Off-Broadway run of Buried Child to do Loose Ends, but returned for the final performances. He noted the bittersweet fact that, the day after the producers closed the show, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Sanders estimates the tally of his Central Park Shakespeare as eight or nine. “I’ve been busy with the Apple plays and missed a couple of summers in a row. I go and I ache to be up there.” (He better hurry back, or Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater might overtake his “most frequent actor in the Park” record!)
I asked for his most memorable Park stories. “There’s the obvious raccoon stuff; countless interactions with raccoons. Playing the Ghost in Hamlet, preparing to go on, moving back and forth under the stage, I saw five raccoons looking at me like I was totally out of my mind. What did I think I was doing?”
Then there was Sanders’ “great wig story” while playing the plumb role of Philip the Bastard in King John. “There’s the big, heroic battle. I’m supposed to kill my opponent with a broad sword. As the final move, I duck, take his sword, and kill him with his own sword.”
Sanders was sporting a rather impressive, rather red wig for the role. “That wig had gotten more attention than anything else. It was…redder than it was supposed to be.” And, one night, it somehow got caught and was removed by the sword during that final move of the fight. So, he’s killed his opponent and is “having this great Shakespearean moment, standing over him — in a nylon wig cap with curls underneath. And the audience is laughing harder then I’ve ever heard an audience laugh, even at a comedy.”
Sanders delivered his line of triumph, took off a couple of the bobby-pins, and threw them out into the audience. “I must have laughed for the entire intermission. It was one of those moments that keep you humble. About once a year, I run into someone who says, ‘I was there that night!’” No need for any further context: “I know what they are talking about.”
His Park tenure having begun during the lifetime of Joseph Papp, I asked Sanders to remember the legendary founder of the Public. “I received great support from him. I was one of his ‘Park Boys.’ He gave me a speaking role right out of college, which was unheard of at the time. He was quite a force. He was not a great director himself, but he was a force in the American theatre who did huge amounts with his vision and his tenacity: for multi-cultural casting, for free Shakespeare. He went toe-to-toe with politicians, with big money investors — he didn’t care. He cared about the little guy, about fighting for art.”
A lot of things go into a successful acting career: talent, training, timing, connections, breaks. And appearance: Sanders is tall and sturdily built, which made him a perfect type for roles like the Vietnam vet in Loose Ends; the naval officer in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial; Gen. George Crockett Strong in the film Glory.
Sanders has played a startlingly diverse range of real people: Galileo (in Two Men of Florence for A&E) all the way to George W. Bush (in David Hare’s play Stuff Happens).
Sanders also has eyes that suggest a piercing intelligence, which has brought him roles such as the scientist best friend of Dennis Quaid in the dystopian climate thriller The Day After Tomorrow. I asked if that was a film from which he is recognized particularly often.
It turns out that Sanders has done a lot of things that prompt those “I’ve seen you in something!” stares. “You’d be amazed how many people know you from various episodes of Law and Order or Roseanne.” Opera fans remember, in particular, Meeting Venus, a 1991 flick starring Glenn Close. “Everybody has something from their favorite genre.”
Many people he meets have a deep fondness for 1994’s Angels in the Outfield. “Guys who are 30-years-old now tell me they grew up watching it as children.”
Not all the ventures into series TV have been unsuccessful. He was in the critically-lauded Michael Mann series Crime Story in the 80s; more recently, did a season of Person of Interest; and, this year, Blindspot. “The moving of television to New York has been fantastic for stage actors, who can put the two together and have one pay for the other.”
Locals theatre-goers will remember Adam Jonas Segaller, who played the lead in Kit Marlowe at Rorschach and was in The Cherry Orchard for me at WSC. Sanders is a family friend. “His Dad [Stephen Segaller, WNET’s Vice President for Programming] got me started in documentary narration. When I started writing the play, he guided me to a documentary about [Romeo] Dallaire,” who was the head of Canada’s contingent to the U.N. Peacekeeping Force in Rwanda and is a character in Unexplored Interior. “I hope he comes down to see it.”
When the younger Segaller accepted the part of Lovborg in Hedda Gabler at WSC, he told me that he had asked Sanders for advice. “I told him to follow the roles, to take the ones that challenge you and fulfill you. I’m very fond of Adam.”
Sanders and Plunkett have a 21-year-old son. I asked if he is following in their footsteps, and was told that he is. “He’s also writing, doing slam poetry. He has a poem that went virile, called ‘This Time’.” The poem derives from his son’s personal experience. He grew up with Tourette’s Syndrome, although “you wouldn’t know it to meet him. He’s in his final year at Emerson, studying TV production. I’m very proud of him. Jamie Sanders.” He pronounced his son’s name with pronounced affection.
Sanders also spoke of working with the group Theatre of War, which “takes Greek tragedy into military communities all across the country, the world.” Discussion follows scenes performed from the plays. Here is the entire Sanders-Plunkett clan working with the group, on Ajax by Sophocles.
What roles does Sanders look forward to playing in the future? Plans include “returning to Macbeth with Maryann. We played it in Boston and are planning to do it at the Public sometime in the next year. I’m waiting to do a Claudius, in the right situation. I’m sad that I didn’t do a Hamlet or a Henry V. Falstaff is one that’s leering at me; there’s talk from various people about that.”
Favorite roles? “Titus was huge, huge…but it’s hard. I fall in love with every one. Bottom, I feel like it was written for me. Toby Belch surprised me, how deep it was. I’ll just end up naming all these roles.”
And the names kept coming. “Kent was a great role; I suppose I’d like to take the obligatory shot at Lear; Prospero — I love so many. I love the whole world of Shakespeare. Occasionally, I get sad when I feel there’s not enough time to do everything. But it’s a great thing to have that passion out there. Titus I put my mark on. Runs are not long enough, but I worked for a couple of years before rehearsal and I reached some heights in that that were very special.”
So much to do, for sure, the time-out for writing Unexplored Interior notwithstanding. Not that Sanders had much of a choice: “It worked on me for ten years until it picked me up and through me against a wall and said, ‘Write this!’”