Encounters with René: Love Letters in Ferndale, CA
by Lynne Fuller
(originally published in the ORACLE newsletter)
In 2003, when I had my first major encounter with René Auberjonois in more than twenty years (since the early 1980s when I was fortunate to see several of his performances at the Mark Taper Repertory Company in Los Angeles), I went to a Creation Con in Las Vegas, NV (my current hometown). One of the highlights of the Star Trek Convention was René and Nana Visitor performing the first half of Love Letters in a less than optimal situation. Optimal would be an attentive audience in a quite atmosphere where the viewing was adequate and the spectators respectful. René and Nana Visitor performed their hearts out without being well rewarded for trying so hard.
I had not seen the play before, but knew that many actors often perform it for charity because it takes little rehearsal with the other actor, is a two-person play, and delivers well for the actors and the audience. The premise is two friends/lovers who grow up together and write letters back and forth throughout their lives, recounting not only their relationship but the obstacles and experiences they face while apart.
After seeing the first act at the con, I quickly went to the local library and borrowed the play, read it in an afternoon, and knew that I would love to see it in a better situation. I had heard and read others’ loving recounts of seeing it performed at a dinner at a Slanted Fedora convention. When it was announced by a fellow RAFL member that René would be performing it in northern California at Ferndale Repertory Company with Marilyn McCormick, I knew I had to find a way to go see it. (René met Ms. McCormick while he was at the Sharon Playhouse doing summer stock in Sharon, CT. She says, “He was an actor, I was a techie. But we did share the stage several times. He was best friends with my future husband, Robert Foxworth. We all shared many laughs and wonderful creative moments.” Following Carnegie, they went to the Arena Stage in Washington, DC where Foxworth and Auberjonois were members of the Arena Stage Repertory Company.)
I tried to determine a quick and inexpensive way to get to Ferndale. I found there was none. Ferndale is in northern California just south of Eureka, CA. It’s 575 miles from Las Vegas, 222 miles from Oakland, and 142 miles from Medford, OR. In other words, a long way from any convenient airport. The next choice was flying into somewhere and then driving. I remembered how much fun it had been in the past to travel to northern California from where I used to live in Los Angeles and go to the wine country of Napa/Sonoma. I called my dad, who is retired, and asked him if he would be interested in flying into Oakland, CA and driving to wine country, touring around the wineries for a day, and then heading up to Ferndale, CA to see René in Love Letters. My dad had met René when we went to New York to see Sly Fox and had thoroughly enjoyed our trip together and had particularly enjoyed seeing a Broadway play and meeting René. He said, “Sure!”
We quickly planned our trip (we only had two and a half weeks to plan after we decided to go) and we were on our way. We met at the Oakland airport, grabbed a rental car and headed for Napa, where we toured several wineries (and tasting rooms), including Beringer, Silverado (owned by Disney’s daughter Diane Miller), and Beaulieu Vineyards. Thereafter, we drove to Santa Rosa and discovered that many roads are not straight in this beautiful country. To say that the roads meander is being kind to the roads. My dad had suggested one route and I pointed out another that looked shorter. I proved to be wrong and, being the driver, paid for my mistake. Many hairpin turns were found and, being that the day was coming to an end, many a deep shadow alternating with glaring, setting-sun gaps.
The next morning we ate our hotel’s free continental breakfast and set out on our way to Ferndale to see the Saturday night performance. I get my wanderlust from my dad who, before retiring, had been a traveling salesman. He decided that we needed to take scenic route 128 through Anderson Valley to route 1 on the coast, then drive inland to route 101 and try a couple of wineries along our way through Anderson Valley. It did prove to be quite beautiful, until we hit the road to route 101, where more very “meandering” roads were found. We were traveling quickly until we hit the first twenty-mile-an hour hairpin curves inland. Many doublebacks, twists, turns, coils, and corkscrews were encountered along the way. I’m just glad that I was driving as I think I would have been car sick if I hadn’t been. Thankfully, my dad has always had a strong constitution. We did stop at several beautiful wineries in Anderson Valley. Picturesque doesn’t explain the beauty of the area. We also got near the Pacific, but I can only say “near” as it was very foggy and we could only hear the sounds of the waves.
Finally, we arrived on route 101 and drove to Ferndale, CA. It is a quaint little town that looks like Main Street, U.S.A. with old “turn-of-the-century” buildings, cow pastures, and a population of around 1,400 people. It is about fifteen miles away from the larger Eureka, CA which features a whopping population of 26,000. I understand that Ferndale is quite busy with vacationers in the summer. Being that it was into September, stores were having “End of Season” sales and it looked like some were closing up after the busy season. We drove into town to make sure that we would know where to return that evening. “Love Letters, starring René Auberjonois” graced the old marquee of the theatre right in the middle of the main drag.
After finding our hotel in Eureka and having a good dinner at Marie Callenders, we returned to Ferndale for the evening’s show. The theatre is reminiscent of a fondly remembered high school auditorium, with concrete floors and red metal seats. There were two desks of different sorts gracing the stage, one on each side, facing toward the audience with chairs behind. My heart starting thumping in my chest as showtime arrived. We got there about a half-hour before the show because we knew that there was open seating. The two-thirds full audience chose to distribute itself throughout the house. We chose the third row so that we could see both actors without feeling like we were at a tennis tournament.
The lights dimmed, and René Auberjonois and Marilyn McCormick, Executive Director of the Ferndale Repertory Theatre, took the stage. The play progresses from early childhood through maturity of a pair of star-crossed soul mates who never really are successful at “being” together. Ambitious, strait-laced Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and poor little headstrong, rich girl besotted by the bottle and a dysfunctional family Melissa Gardner write sometimes passionate, sometimes antagonistic or sarcastic letters to each other. Each actor remained at their desks reading their letters (scripts) to each other, never looking at one another, but reacting to the contents of the other’s correspondence. The play contains many of the emotions of an actor’s palate. Although I was there primarily to see René’s performance, Marilyn McCormick was so good that I couldn’t help myself from watching her as well. René has always had such an expressive face that it is a joy to see. His “rubbery face,” as I have read others call it, and equally expressive body is a perfect match for this play. One might expect that this play could be a burden to watch when performed by lesser actors with lesser expressions, but with these two master actors it was as exciting as a well-crafted Spielberg special effects movie, with a very moving script. There was a fifteen-minute intermission and then the second half began. After the show, the audience was invited to stay for an informal chat and Q&A discussion.
After the discussion, Dad and I went to the small lobby hoping to be able to say a word or two to René. When René came into the lobby, I noticed there were several other people there to greet him, including a couple of obvious Star Trek fans with collectible trading cards in hand. René graciously greeted them and signed the cards, telling them that he would be glad to sign all they had, but they declined the kind offer. Several of the people who ran the theatre were standing around discussing the “after party”, obviously being impatient to get to the venue as they were quickly shutting off lights, etc. I had my program and pen at the ready (I learned to be at the ready after being too nervous to get my Sly Fox program signed in NYC) as well as my digital camera in hand, hoping to get a picture with René to show my fellow ORACLE subscribers. Suddenly, I realized I better make myself known and said, stepping in front of René, “Hello, sir.”
He turned and said, in a wonderfully excited tone, “Lynne!!!” and reached out to hug me. I returned the hug and nervously told him how wonderful I thought his performance was.
He inquired where I was from and I told him, “Las Vegas, well really Henderson but it’s right next door.” He asked what we had been doing and I explained to him that the day before we had gone to Napa to some wineries, but the real reason for our trip was to see the show. He asked whether I had seen him do Love Letters before and I told him that I had seen the less-than-optimal situation of the first half he had done at the Creation Con in Las Vegas, but had really wanted to see the whole thing and thus we had come all this way to see his performance. He told me that the Q&A session would have to be shorter after Sunday’s performance because he needed to leave soon after to catch a plane to Los Angeles and then another to New York City to see his son Remy in the play that was opening off-Broadway Monday night, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.” He kindly stood with me to have my dad take a picture of us in the lobby. We looked at it together and it was a bit washed out, so, being the wonderful photographer he is, he looked around and chose a better location for the shot in the hallway leading to the exit. Good thing, because the theatre people impatiently turned the lobby lights off. My dad took another picture that turned out much better in the hallway. As we walked toward the exit together, we both started to speak. He started saying “Did…” but let me continue. I quickly asked him if it would be okay if we took pictures during the next afternoon’s Q&A session. Then I asked him to continue his line of thought but, upon exiting the building, Ms. McCormick and some of the others stood around waiting for René. He introduced me to them as “one of the ladies” that help him raise money for his charity, Doctor Without Borders, and they said, “hello.” I watched René as he turned around and I suggested to my dad that we had better be going. Part of me wanted to see as much of René as I could, but I didn’t want to be a nudge as I knew he needed to meet with his theatre “public” at another location.
I often find, after having spent a few moments with Mr. Auberjonois, that I would love to ask him a million things, but don’t have the time. Also, even though I have met him several times and he now recognizes me as part of his ORACLE group of fans, I don’t want to ask him anything that he might find too personal, even though he has generously shared things with us such as his daughter’s pregnancy and his children’s weddings and his art and photography. Often it winds up that he does the question asking and I respectfully answer, even though I have many things to ask him that never do get asked. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the actor/fan relationship that we have with René is both formal and informal to a degree that can feel quite bewildering and incredibly wonderful. But to me, most relationships are that way anyway.
The next day, my dad and I left the hotel we were staying at and went to Ferndale early so we could walk around some more and take pictures of the lovely main town drag and look in some of the stores. There was an old-fashioned soda fountain a few doors up the street from the theatre where we stopped for some ice cream before the one o’clock show.
Theatre is truly magic in that no show is truly like another. This show had a totally different feel to it than the evening before. Some might say that it was the half-filled audience and the fact that it was during the day, probably just after church for some and not after a good dinner and perhaps a few drinks as the night before, but I also believe that it was the actors. That is the true magic of live theatre—there are so many elements that go into one performance of a show. Sunday’s performance seemed to move at a quicker pace. I don’t whether it was because I was seeing the play a second time or because of the time of day or because René had a plane to catch after the performance, but there are so many factors that can make a play’s performance different: the audience, the actors, the environment, and all the combinations thereof.
At the end of the play, Andy has a long monologue, lamenting the loss of his friend. René hit this moment square on and nailed it bigtime on Sunday. I was sneakily preparing my camera so that I might take a few pictures of their curtain call, this time having chosen to sit in the front row, and I still wound up almost in tears. After the show, as Auberjonois and McCormick took a moment backstage I exclaimed to my dad, and he most thoroughly agreed, that René had hit that moment square on and that made that performance a most memorable one.
One of the questions at Sunday’s Q&A session came from another patron who was there for the second time. This person observed that Sunday’s ending seemed even stronger than it had the evening before, and asked how an actor gets to that emotional summit. René explained that he found the ending where Andy recollects about how important Melissa was to his life, and also the part where Andy talks about losing his father, very emotional. But an actor can’t really go to the strong emotions one feels about the passages. An actor’s job is to make the emotion available to the audience so that they might experience the feelings in empathy with the character. An actor needs to be an editor in the moment and can’t allow himself to “lose it.” In acting, an actor makes a “pact” with the audience to provide them with what they need to enjoy or otherwise experience the piece. Through this give and take, an actor can often experience an “intense pleasure of performance” that makes acting in front of a live audience such a delight and a passion. Another factor that probably led to Sunday’s performance ending more strongly was that, on Saturday, René had been waiting for Marilyn McCormick to say a line in response to Andy’s sense of loss—and the line never came.
Ms. McCormick stated that she was so riveted by René’s performance (at the very end of the play, Melissa gets to look in Andy’s direction) that she forgot she had one to say.
During the Sunday Q&A session, when René was asked whether he had performed the show since the time that he had performed it with Nana Visitor in a dinner theatre performance, he looked down to me and asked me. He introduced me to the audience as a “dear friend,” and continued to say that I was an expert on “him.” I told him that I believed only the less-than-optimal Creation Con performance. He went on to hilariously describe how one could hear the “dealers’ room” hawkers going on in the background during that performance, and how the Star Trek fans in attendance had no idea why the play ended halfway through. The truth was, he and Nana were told by the Creation administrative staff to stop performing the piece after the first act during what should have been the intermission of the piece.
After the Q&A session, another patron of the theatre took a picture of René with Marilyn McCormick (I tried but couldn’t get into position in time to catch their pose). René spoke to a few other people, then, as he was preparing to hurry off and leave to catch his plane, he yelled out, “Lynne!” and kissed the air at me and told me to “Take care and keep in touch!”
I certainly do hope to keep in touch with this master actor and very kind and warm person. If I can go to Pasadena, CA, Toronto, Canada, and Ferndale, CA to see him and experience such kind treatment and respect, I figure I’ll probably keep doing so.
Questions from the Q&A sessions of Love Letters
It was discussed that the idea of two people sitting and reading letters to one another is a play concept that shouldn’t work, but that indeed it does. Also that, because of e-mail, writing is coming back in style. In fact, René keeps in contact with Ms. McCormick through that form of communication. It was questioned whether there was an effect on the performance because of the actors’ past history together. René related that, in doing plays, the “company” (one’s fellow actors) becomes a family and there is danger in seeing yourselves that way. You can’t let this familiarity get into the play and it often contradicts the character’s relationships and can harm the discovery in the action of the play.
René stated that character actors are often mistaken for people’s dry cleaners; people know they’ve seen the face before, but they can’t quite place where they’ve seen it.
There was a discussion of René’s early career. There was a gentleman in the audience who recalled seeing some of René’s performances at ACT in San Francisco. René recounted that he also spent three years at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC and that there was a Russian director, Mikhail Kalatozishvili, there that had directed an art film called The Cranes are Flying. Kalatozishvili called theatre a “ticket to a miracle” in that theatre is, for actors, like being thrown to the lions. The magic of theatre is that each performance is a one-time thing. Every show is different. The audience is different, as was demonstrated by the way the Saturday night audience for Love Letters was very different than the one on Sunday afternoon. There was different energy in the audience and from the actors.
One questioner asked René’s “advice to theatre goers” and his answer was to support their local community theatre, the “grass roots” of the art form.
Another question was whether there is any difference between “local community theatre” and Broadway. René said there really isn’t any difference in preparing or performing in either as they both require the same amount of concentration and participation. He even feels the same before going through the curtain whether he is doing a local production or Broadway.
Someone asked, “What do you look for in a role?”
René said he often finds himself attracted to roles with aspects that he is not right for or that provide him a challenge to play. An actor needs to keep their instrument in tune. One example he gave was when he played in King Lear with Lee J. Cobb, who hadn’t kept his acting chops up. Cobb had waited 25 years to do another theatre piece because he had become a “movie star.” It was not a happy experience for those involved. Theatre is a “sport.” One needs to keep in shape for it. René had noticed that even after just rehearsing Love Letters Saturday afternoon and performing the piece Saturday night, he found his voice was tired. He also related how different theatre was from TV or film. He had spent six years on Benson, seven on DS9, and now he’s doing Boston Legal. There is a different kind of focus with each art form. Doing episodic TV in front of a live audience was somewhat comparable to doing live theatre. Feature film, though, is a different kind of creature—a large, dark being with a personality. There is a different kind of rhythm in film or filmed TV. He described a scene he had just done on Boston Legal in which he had one and a half pages of dialogue, speaking with a district attorney. In the scene, Denny Crane, played by William Shatner, would interject comments like “Can’t do it” every so often. If René had been doing a play, he would be able to rehearse the piece for a while to gain confidence in the dialogue, but with TV or film there is not much, if any, time to rehearse. With film, there is a “distillation of concentration”—no rehearsal that must be learned by an actor that is quite different from the experience of performing on the stage. René related that he keeps in shape by biking, hiking, and doing yoga. Theatre is a learned art where one must learn to keep playing the same moments over again while on stage each night. He said that his mantra is “Leap empty-handed into the void,” taken from a rune he drew. You must learn to trust yourself and learn that, if you do your homework, everything that you need will be there when you need it.
One of the topics discussed was the play and the differences of political ideology evident between Andy and Melissa, with Andy being very conservative and Melissa being more liberal. René stated that one almost feels a need to mourn for a time when Democrat and Republican ideology actually were quite different from each other because today they seem to have grown much closer.
The play reminisces about times that were quite different than they are now. The play remembers those times with a sense of reality, not sugar-coated. The play doesn’t remember the past with a sense of idyllic memory, as if the past was not filled with pain. There never were the “good old days.”
One of the questions came from an older gentleman who first asked Marilyn if he could hug her, and then asked René how much he weighed. René said “Okay, you want to hug her and weigh me”. The audience found this question to be very funny. René answered, “One hundred sixty-five pounds.” The gentleman said that he looked like he couldn’t get into his alien suit now. René answered with a grin, “But I was ten pounds heavier then.”
A patron asked about Boston Legal and René said that this was the third series he has been on. He feels so strongly about Boston Legal that he tells everyone he meets that they need to “WATCH THAT SHOW.” He knows he doesn’t do a lot on it (line- and time- wise), but he feels very strongly about the political views and content of the show.
Another question was, “How did Melissa die? Was it by illness or by suicide?” This is left up to each audience member to decide for themselves. In fact, the whole play is like watching Melissa die a slow-motion suicide.
I asked, “One of the play’s themes seems to be the importance of one’s art as therapy in one’s life. What is you’re reaction to this in terms of your own art?” (Melissa Gardner is a fine artist who has shows of her art and does get some recognition, but often, throughout her life, leaves her work behind. Andy suggests at bad times in her life that she should return to her art.)
René and Marilyn reacted, “Oh, a ‘’Serious Question’.”
René responded, “Do you mean in terms of my wire sculpture?”
I added, “And your photography.”
René went on to relate how he had been feeling tired Sunday morning but now, after performing the play, he felt quite good and enlivened. He finds that his acting does have a positive effect on his life. At first I found this to be an avoidance of the question, but I keep forgetting that René doesn’t see himself as an “artist”, even though he does dabble in other art forms other than acting and has achieved quite an aptitude at those skills.
One of the last questions was what they would do next for another fundraiser. Both Auberjonois and McCormick stated that they will have to come up with something else they can do because this was the second time they had performed Love Letters in Ferndale and they believe that it has run its course.