Talking to James Urbaniak

Culturebot contributor Katherine Steinberg is a writer based in New York.


I think Charles Isherwood best describes Thom Pain as “stand-up existentialism.” He goes on to say that, “Mr. Eno and his performer, the actor James Urbaniak, hereby reinvent that seemingly moribund theatrical genre, the solo show.” So true, so true. This month Culturebot talks to James Urbaniak, about what it’s like being in a one-man show, how he’s handled the success and where you can catch him next. Thom Pain is currently playing at the DR2 Theater through July 3rd.

So can you tell me a little about the production and how you became involved?

I’ve known the playwright, [Will Eno], for several years; he’s actually an old friend of mine. Over the course of time I’ve done a reading or two of different plays of his, but was never involved in a real production. Then, a couple of years ago the Naked Angels company asked him to contribute a short piece to an evening of ten minute pieces. They were doing this evening on the theme of fear. It was closer to 9/11 and so a resonant idea for a topic. As you can imagine there were a lot of heavy handed pieces about 9/11 literally. At that time Will had Thom Pain written as a whole play and hadn’t done anything with it to my knowledge. So, he took that and did a super-condensed mini-version – about 10 or 15 minutes. The scene was the search for the volunteer, and the idea was that Will was scaring the audience.

Then, over the course of the next year me, Hal Brooks, who directed, Will and my wife(who has been working on the show as a dramaturge/assistant director) would meet and read the whole script. We rewrote it slightly and then started sending it out. As it turns out the Soho Theatre in London decided to produce it and planned to bring it to Edinburgh. So it went very well in Edinburgh and then it ran at their theater in London for about 3 weeks. So, basically all of us have been living with this material for a couple of years.

Given all this time you’ve had with the material, do you find the character has crept into your life?

I don’t inhabit the character outside the stage. It’s a very self-contained, hermetic thing where I go and do it and then I have the rest of my life. Part of it was just getting used to the extent of the run. It certainly takes a lot of energy. There’s a lot of humor in the play, but it is called Thom Pain so the whole thing isn’t exactly a walk on the beach. It’s all about pacing yourself during the day and getting in my naps, which are essential.

Do you have a process for getting into character?

There’s no getting into character. I just show up at the theater at the half-hour, munch on a power bar and read Disney War by James Stewart. Actually business is a big topic for me. I’m kinda fascinated by that world. All the preparation is just having worked with the material for so long in rehearsal. For me, it’s about being really relaxed beforehand and taking it easy. If you’re going to play a character with a lot of tension in it you have to be really relaxed to do it. I think it would be counterproductive for any play to sit there and work yourself into a “state of character.” It doesn’t really make any sense because the character only exists onstage with the audience. All you can do is play the actions and the beats that create the character.

Have you always had an interest in business?

I find the dramatic, dare I say Shakespearean themes, of our recent business history fascinating – Enron, Worldcom, etc. Specifically all these guys that built empires and then destroyed them. They self-destructed. They were too greedy or they thought they could get away with something and they destroyed what they have, which is actually an old dramatic theme that I may be responding to. What’s fascinating with these characters is how, in their own way, they’re very creative. Like Jeffrey Skilling, He was a visionary. He really did rethink and change the way the company was run.

Part of it is how removed they are from me. I mean show business is certainly a business, but I’m in it primarily for the artistic aspect of it. Jeffrey Skilling or Ken Lay, they don’t really care about natural gas or energy by itself the way I care about acting. They just care about that as a way to make money. There’s something about the perverse purity of that. Successes are always fascinating, but the failures and the stories of corruption are even more fascinating.

Something that fascinated me with the play was the audience reaction. Have you ever had a performance where the audience fails to “get it”?

There are pockets of people now and then who don’t get it. For the most part audiences really get it. The most interesting thing is that early on I went through a few days where there were a lot of quiet audiences. There was one night where it was deadly quiet. There’s a lot of humor in the play and a lot of really funny jokes frankly. And that night the surefire jokes weren’t getting laughs. Nothing was getting laughs. And so I was up there thinking “they hate me they hate me they hate it they hate it.” But when I took my curtain call there were actually cheers. It was a revelation to me. I realized they didn’t hate it, they were just processing it in a different way. The reaction does vary, but it varies amongst audiences who appreciate it.

And of course there are people who don’t “get it.” I remember when we did it in Edinburgh an acquaintance of mine, an English actor in his 30s, came to the festival and saw it. Afterwards he complemented me on my performance, but said he really didn’t relate to the play. And I didn’t say this, but I thought to myself: you mean your entire childhood, family and romantic history is without ripples? There’s been no tension?

I think it’s a very human story. It’s all about this character whose closed himself off and by the end of the play he starts feeling and decides to open up again. Will specifically theatricalizes that by creating a kind of love/hate hostile relationship with the audience, especially in the beginning. I think sometimes when people see that they don’t immediately get that this is a character and we’re showing you something about a man. They think it’s just some sort of vaguely avant-garde kind of attitudinizing that’s not really about a character and human being. Some people kind of shut off and think, “oh this is just a playwright being a smart-aleck.” Actually it’s the character that’s the smart aleck. Most people through the course of the evening see his actual humanity and vulnerability breakthrough that sort of smart aleck-y demeanor we get up-front. I think part of the reason my friend didn’t relate to it is because he may have shut down and just refused to see what we’re actually portraying.

Do you think you and Will will collaborate again?

I’m sure that will happen. I adore Will. I think that it would probably be a healthy thing for both of us to work with other people in the near future, but I think Will is one of the most talented guys around and I’d love to work with him again.

What upcoming projects are you working on?

Well I’ve done a few films with Hal Hartley and he’s doing a sequel to Henry Fool, which is this movie we’ve done a few years ago. It looks like we’re probably going to shoot that in the fall in Berlin.

What’s been your favorite role?

There’ve been a lot of things. I did a Richard Foreman play a few years ago, The Universe. That’s been one of the defining creative experiences of my life. That had the significance of this because it was a very intense one-hour play. Although it wasn’t a one-man play, his writing is so intense and his ideas about performance are so specific that it parallels Thom Pain. There is a very specific way you have to play this stuff. Also working with Hal Hartley and doing Henry Fool was certainly a great thing.

I used to have a theater company downtown called Arden Party and we did a lot of classic plays that I loved doing like The Importance of Being Earnest and we did some Shakespeare. I would love to do some more classic plays in New York. I had a small part in The Rivals in Lincoln center, recently, which I was very glad to be in. Although, it was a little creatively frustrating. I would have liked a more fulfilling role, not necessarily larger, but more fulfilling. I would like to do more, not necessarily main stream, but more high profile theater. One of the delights of this is that it’s written by a friend of mine from downtown that has become a high profile success somehow. We’re all quite proud of him. I don’t think any of us saw the extent of the success coming.

Is this how you envisioned your career playing out?

Kind of, actually. When I moved to New York I met this director named Karin Coonrod. She wanted to form a company and I wound up moving to New York in the late 80s and forming Arden Party with her. I worked with Arden Party exclusively for 6 years, temping during the day. Then I started working with some other downtown companies too like Cucaracha and Target Margin. This was in my 20s and at the time we were producing ourselves and I thought, “this is what I want to do.” I didn’t have, nor was I pursuing an agent and I certainly wasn’t making any money. But I always thought to myself, “well when I get into my 30s I’ll start to make a living out at this.” Then when I got into my early 30s Hal Hartley cast me in Henry Fool and you can pretty much mark that on the calendar as when I started making a living. Suddenly I was starring in a movie and that led to getting an agent and getting auditions for more sort of commercial type work. So one thing led to another and you know…

Did you always want to be an actor?

Throughout grammar school I always enjoyed acting in school projects and stuff like that. Then in high school less so. Then after high school I went to a junior college in New Jersey, called Brookdale Community College. I kind of lost interest in my studies in high school. I just kind of spaced out. So it was in this junior college where I started doing play after play after play, which is something I always enjoyed. But I was thinking at the time that I would be something else. At first I wanted to be a graphic artist or cartoonist. Then I was thinking maybe journalism, something like that. But then all my energy went into plays. I stopped going to that school. I didn’t graduate, but continued to do a lot of community theater in New Jersey. So I was living in New Jersey and just bumming around being a “young slacker.” I got a day job and then the defining event of that time was meeting Karin, in ’86. I was around 21 when we met and we hit it off. I was this young, somewhat aimless, vaguely creative kid who didn’t really know what he wanted to do, but liked acting. Then when I moved to New York to start Arden Party with her that became my focus. Suddenly I had something I cared about.

Who would you like to work with in the future?

Directors are going to be the same list every actor rattles off, you know Martin Scorcese, and so on. I’d like to work with Alexander Payne. There are lots of people.

What about actors?

Well I’m obsessed with actors and I love actors. There are so many I admire I don’t even know where to begin. Like last night I was watching (it’s not a good movie) Dolores Claiborne, just because it was on, and I was thinking “Wow, I’d like Jennifer Jason Leigh to come to the show.” She’s someone I’ve always admired and I think acting with her would be exciting because she’s someone I really respect. It’s hard to narrow it down, but the list would probably include a lot of people just as a cliche. You ask any actor and they’ll say Meryl Streep, Robert Deniro. There are just so many people I admire.

You’ve gotten quite a bit of admiration yourself. What was it like for you reading the gushing review in The New York Times?

Well, it was very humbling. When you’re an actor you’re used to things not working out. That’s the norm. The exception is when things do work out. There was still a vague sense of detachment, like it was someone else’s review. My initial reaction was not so much elation or excitement as relief. I just kind of sighed and thought, “ah, now this means that people will come.” It’s a lonely business doing a one-man show. I’m very proud of the show, but frankly I was rather stressed out. I mean we’d gotten a good response in Europe, but I didn’t know how people would react to it here because you never know. I was really concerned that if we didn’t get a strong response we wouldn’t get good houses and I’d be acting my little heart out in this arduous one man show for 25 people a night. That was a prospect that filled me with dread.

Do you have any suggestions for anyone who is trying to break into acting?

I’ve always said that once you make the decision to do it you’re already over the biggest hump. To me it all comes down to making the choice. It’s really that simple. Of course, that means committing to a certain lifestyle that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with. Unless you have money, which some people do (I didn’t), you’ve got to work another job for a long time and support yourself. But I would say just start acting.

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