Backstage

“Ghosts Past and Present.” Backstage 2-8 Sep. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 35

Rella Jr., Richard. “Ghosts Past and Present.” Backstage 2-8 Sep. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 35

The Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as the spiritual apprehension of divine truths or intangible realities. Actors, in general, have an amazing amount of faith. Faith that our bodies will instinctively recall the choreography that we tirelessly rehearsed for weeks. Faith that our minds will hold the seemingly endless iambic pentameter verses. Faith that our voices will not crack on the soaring falsetto sections of 1960’s classic rock songs. And, above all else, faith that our abilities can and will entertain people who are not related to us. This month, my faith was tested in many ways.

The uncertainty that accompanies this unstable career often led me to question whether bills would be paid on time, let alone being able to save enough money to ever buy a home for my family. After years of scrimping and searching, my wife and I purchased our first home on Staten Island. It is a lovely three bedroom house with a front and backyard for my daughter and a washer and dryer for my wife. Even as I write, I do it from the comfort of my study, which my daughter affectionately refers to as “daddy’s woom,” instead of my bed which doubled as my desk for the past two years.

The New York company of “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding” finally closed this month. I was hired three years ago as an understudy and have performed in six different roles and in over five hundred performances. It was the longest running engagement of my young career and it taught me many things. Aside from working on my improvisational and singing skills, I learned the importance of teamwork and commitment. But as “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding” closes in New York my manager just negotiated my first directorial contract for a charitable production of “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding” at the prestigious Piazza in the Village in Dallas, Texas at the end of September. Thus I am reminded that opportunities to perform are in abundance and all around me. I simply need to keep myself open to the new and exciting challenges that this career demands.

Finally, and sadly, my grandfather, Emanuel Lewis Mangano, passed away on August 12, 2010. He was eighty nine years old and had begun to suffer from dementia. As my family continues to grieve this month over his passing, I am reminded of the words of my uncle, Francis Mangano, who succinctly spoke the eulogy at my grandfather’s funeral: “As people of faith, we must believe that this is not the end for him.  We must believe that Grandpa is beginning a new life, one where he’s no longer weak, no longer cold and has a full recollection of his time with us. Let us not say ‘goodbye’ to him.  Let us say thank you for all he has done for us, knowing we will be together once again someday.”

Faith. Who knows what lies beyond this shallow world of fancy cars, new houses, and the busy lives which we all lead. As Christians, we are called upon to unquestioningly believe that we are all going to be in a better place when our brief time here on earth has passed. While we are here, we have to believe that our God given talents and abilities will guide us to true and meaningful happiness and satisfaction. In the words of Helen Keller, “optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.  Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

“Reflection, Revival, and Renewal…and a Wedding Singer.” Backstage 5-11 Aug. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 26

Rella Jr., Richard. “Reflection, Revival, and Renewal…and a Wedding Singer.” Backstage 5-11 Aug. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 26

Finding creative things to do in between acting jobs has always been a challenge for me,  especially in the summer where work tends to slow down. This year though, I began laying the ground work early with an entertainment company called Platinum Entertainment. Primarily handling entertainment for weddings, this company was founded in 2003 by Kevin Chester and Sal Basile. I met the owners two years ago when I was hired by a couple who saw me perform as the wedding singer in Tony N Tina’s Wedding and hired me to sing at their own wedding. Initially, I was only booked sporadically as brides and grooms were hesitant to hire an unknown live singer with no demo. Knowing the caliber of my work, Kevin and Sal decided to invite me to the weddings that they were playing and surprise the bride and groom with my performance. This July has been an amazing month as I have crashed and performed at six different weddings and one bridal showcase.

During the week, as these weddings have been primarily on the weekends, I am forced to rehearse my material, take voice lessons on a regular basis, work on choreography, and find stronger pieces to perform. I have been given a rare opportunity to craft my own performance from my choice of song to the suits that I wear. As I rehearse in my one bedroom apartment, I am constantly asking myself the question, “What kind of an artist are you?”Just like my initial audition book, a three inch binder that was bursting at the seams with every song that I had sung or wanted to sing from my church choir to the tenor arias I learned in my first voice class, so too has my itunes playlist ballooned like a wood tick. The process of sifting through the plethora of songs at my disposal is quite a lengthy one. Finding material that not only showcases my vocal ability but that I can also connect to on an emotional level is painstaking. I also know that every choice I am making is defining who I am as an artist and the words that I am singing are shaping the responses that I am getting from the audiences.

This strange wedding singing process has really helped me to create my “brand.” How do I want to be perceived and what do I want to be known for? The incredible trust and confidence that Platinum Entertainment has shown continues to inspire me. They have given me a wonderful opportunity to network and perform but, more than that, they are giving me the platform to focus and create. I am ever so grateful to them as I continue to build a fan base for my work in between acting opportunities.

“Powerful Influences, Decisions, and Memories.” Backstage 1-7 Jul. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 26

Rella Jr., Richard. “Powerful Influences, Decisions, and Memories.” Backstage 1-7 Jul. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 26

With the celebration of Father’s Day recently passing, I have to share with you some stories of the most important influence in my life. If it wasn’t for my father’s unwavering support and encouragement, I would never be an actor.

My father was an actor and some of my earliest memories are of his performances. I still vividly remember watching him as he swash buckled about the stage in the “Pirates of Penzance.” I remember going back stage after performances as he would customarily give me a tour of the theater’s facility. Everything seemed so big to me then. The stage seemed like a vast jungle of creativity reaching to the heavens and the actors that I was introduced to were some of the most exciting and kindest grown-ups that I would ever meet.

My father also took me to my first Broadway show, “Me and My Girl” starring Robert Lindsay. I remember going into Manhattan for the first time and holding my father’s hand as we squeezed through the Times Square maze of pedestrian traffic. I was terrified as I was bumped and jostled but I was constantly reassured by my father’s backward glances toward me. He was sharing something special with me and I trusted him implicitly.

When I was in high school my father continued to foster my interest in the arts. He helped me choose audition material for the school musicals and coached me once I was cast. I would spend countless hours by the piano perfecting my roles as my father would hammer out my part until I could sing it without any accompaniment at all. He introduced me to making strong, active choices in my scene work and would lecture me about the dedication that I oftentimes lacked.

My father wanted me to be a well rounded performer. I was gifted with the innate ability to sing so he suggested that I attend a strong academic university. I could not care less at the time. I was a very angry high school senior who wanted nothing to do with college. I wanted to get out into the world and start working but my father insisted that I learn from his mistakes as well as prepare myself for longevity in the field. He sent me to Fordham University, Brooklyn College, the Manhattan School of Music, and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. He felt that learning from such diverse masters could teach me things that he had neither learned nor could teach me himself.

Even today, he continues to remind me of the perseverance that I need to have. As I complain about my lack of “success” he constantly encourages me to enjoy the many blessings that I have all around me. And most importantly, he reminds me that my great grandfather came to America from Italy knowing no one and having nothing. He came here because he believed that in America you could follow your dream, whatever it may be, and if you were not doing that than you were not being true to who you are. I am ever so grateful to my father. I do not know who or where I would be today without this man. Thank you dad, I love you.

“Brave, Beautiful New Worlds.” Backstage 3-9 Jun. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 22

Rella Jr., Richard. “Brave, Beautiful New Worlds.” Backstage 3-9 Jun. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 22

I’ve only fantasized about being cast in a scene opposite Tom Cruise. I’ve imagined the excitement I would feel as my manager reported the good news to me. I’ve envisioned the sleepless nights I would have in anticipation of working with the biggest star of our generation. I’ve dreamed about the countless hours of preparation I would put in to ensure that I would give an Oscar worthy performance. Then that day would arrive, in my mind, of course, and I would just want to focus on taking in every second of working with “Maverick.”

One thing that never entered this fantasy was the prospect that I might have to act with Tom Cruise’s photo double. Imagine stepping on set to find an actor who resembles Mr. Cruise in height, weight, and coloring, wearing Mr. Cruise’s clothes, and speaking his lines. How disappointed I would be at this turn of events! All of the preparation and anticipation would culminate in a sea of disappointment and confusion.

One morning, as I sit in a miniature chair at my daughter’s activity table eating Cheerios, my cell phone rings with a familiar number. My favorite casting director is asking if I can make it to 29th Street Stages in one hour for work. Traveling from Staten Island to Long Island City in the midst of rush hour traffic would be far from easy, but, as always, I agree. The drive past the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Manhattan Bridge is a nightmare for any morning commuter and, as I slug my way along the BQE, I restlessly wonder what my day is going to entail. I know that I will be photo doubling for Mr. Cruise in his new movie “Knight and Day,” but nothing else.

When I arrive at the stages, I am immediately beset by three production assistants. One places a script in my hand, another ushers me to the wardrobe department, and the third takes my bag and asks if I would like something to eat or drink. Before I can even open my lips to reply, I hear through that same P.A.’s walkie talkie that I am needed now on set. As I make a rapid decent down two flights of stairs in a hospital gown, I glance at my script attempting to get a grasp of the scene. Fortunately, I have a second team rehearsal to see the camera line up, memorize my lines, and make some choices. From that rehearsal I could tell that the camera would be looking over my prone body and onto the principal actress. That actress would be the Academy Award nominee Viola Davis.

Ms. Davis was wonderful, gracefully crafting the scene from moment to moment. If she was disappointed that Mr. Cruise was not acting opposite her, she certainly did not show it. Instead she joked with me between takes, asking if I was making scale plus ten. We wrapped by noon because Ms. Davis had to go and act opposite of another Fordham alumni, Denzel Washington, in the Broadway play “Fences,” and I made it home in time to clean up my daughter’s Cheerios.

“Waiting, Wondering, Wrapping.” Backstage 13-19 May. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 19

Rella Jr., Richard. “Waiting, Wondering, Wrapping.” Backstage 13-19 May. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 19

Getting out of the city is sometimes a good cure for many ailments. With “30 Rock” finishing shooting season four this month, I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. I decided to take my daughter on a road trip to visit my brother and his family in upstate New York. April has been filled with fulfillment, enjoyment, indecision, rejection, and outright anguish, so getting out of town was necessary.

I love going to work every day so “30 Rock” wrapping always seems to disappoint me more than I care to admit. Being around such talented producers, directors, actors, and writers always inspires me and I will miss the daily grind at Silvercup Studios.  But as the reds and greens of the Hudson Valley speed past me on Interstate 87, I am reminded that I have much to do this summer.

As I sit sipping on a newly poured cup of coffee, gently prodding the glowing embers of my brother’s fireplace, I realize how precious and fragile acting jobs are. The New York company of “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding” had some major shake ups this month. The show changed venues and we are now performing at “Sweet Caroline’s.” In addition, the show nearly went non-union putting some thirty Equity actors out of work. I know that this is a for profit business and producers are charged with making the best decisions for the profitability of the company, but it is always hard to accept these types of decisions. Fortunately, the new producers of the show and Equity came to an agreement and we all managed to keep our jobs.

While watching the snow fall across the Adirondacks, I realize the struggle that I have maintaining a healthy, positive, and productive mentality in this business. It seems to me that every day brings peaks and valleys that challenge me to the very core of who I am. Should I wake up and get to those EPA’s? Is anyone really looking at those things? I know that they are because I received call backs to audition for the production teams of “Jersey Boys” and “South Pacific” from attending EPA’s. But the questions still arise for me. I trudged on nonetheless this month and auditioned for “Mamma Mia,” the Vineyard, Shadow Lawn Stage, and “Les Miserables.” I was offered a stage managing role at Shadow Lawn Stage in Long Branch, New Jersey but I respectfully declined the role. Instead, I passed along a colleague who was responsible for my getting hired with “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding.”

At the end of our weekend getaway, I find myself speeding southbound on Interstate 87 amidst the black night with only the occasional bright lights from Canadian bound traffic. Suddenly, my cell phone vibrates once indicating that I have a text message. It is my colleague that I recommended to Shadow Lawn Stage. They offered her the stage management role for the summer and she happily accepted. My long weekend is over and I am reminded of the words of John Adams that I keep on a folded piece of paper in my wallet, “Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”

“Sounds That Say Love.” Backstage 1-7 Apr. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 13

Rella Jr., Richard. “Sounds That Say Love.” Backstage 1-7 Apr. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 13

What did we all do before smart phones? There really is no greater feeling than being on set at “30 Rock” and opening my Blackberry to find emails from my manager. Apparently, I will be going in for a recurring role on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” This would be my third audition since the show started filming last year.

My audition is tomorrow and I have to portray a 1920’s Philadelphian gangster. Since I got back from tour I have been steadily losing weight and currently my closet is full of suits that are all too big. The last time I needed a professional wardrobe was three years ago when I made the transition from college professor to actor. My day job for a year was as a recruiting director for Northwestern Mutual. But that was three years ago and I was forty pounds heavier. I also realize that I need a haircut. I had been growing it out for “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding” but that will never do for this period piece. Finally, a portion of the sides need to be translated into Italian. Fortunately, my audition is not until two o’clock the next day so I have the morning to get my act together.

The next day is one of my best days of the year. I am up at six o’clock driving my wife to work and my daughter to her aunt. I go to the gym and rehearse with my father until nine o’clock. My dad was an actor for most of my youth so I always get his input before major auditions. He also helps me to brush up on my Italian. I am at the barber by nine thirty and searching for a suit at Macy’s by ten o’clock. By noon, my sister, daughter and I are driving to Manhattan. As I drive, I rehearse my lines with my sister. She too is an understudy in “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding,” and she challenges me on several of my choices. I love doing this type of work because it helps me to stay flexible with my interpretation.

I get to the audition and I am the only one in the waiting room. I am able to breathe and get centered. I also notice that the sides for the role that I am reading for have been changed. Fortunately, I am extremely prepared so the new sides did not throw me. On the contrary, I feel very relaxed and able to roll with any direction that I am given. On the way back to the car, I send my manager a thank you email from my Blackberry and then enjoy Wendy’s with my family. All the while, my sister and wife laugh as I cringe when my daughter feeds me ketchup drenched french fries in my new suit.

Dustin Hoffman once said, “I am not in this profession to work. I am in this profession to study acting and if by happenstance I get an acting job I’ll be very thrilled.” I didn’t get the job but I am proud of the work that I am doing. I also know that I am making a good impression with this company that I admire greatly. Besides I have one great fitting suit hanging in my closet…sans ketchup.

“Human Contact.” Backstage 4-10 Mar. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 9

Rella Jr., Richard. “Human Contact.” Backstage 4-10 Mar. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 9

I just came back from another stint on the National Tour of “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding.” We performed at the historic Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, NY.  Originally built as a vaudeville house in 1925, Proctors has seen its stage graced by such legendary performers as comedians Red Skelton, George Burns and Gracie Allen, magicians Harry Blackstone Sr. & Jr., and bandleaders Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. In recent years, they have hosted entertainers including Tony Bennett, Carol Channing and Robert Goulet. This 2,100 seat theatre is also a major stop for most National Touring companies. In fact, my wife performed here years ago on the National tour of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” I love theater history, so having the opportunity to sing twenty- two songs on these historic and meaningful boards is a truly unique experience.

The best aspect of touring though is the ability that I have to create my daily routine. Like clockwork, I am up by 7AM. I have a relaxing breakfast by myself, answer emails, and check in at home. I’m working out by 10AM and reviewing any notes from the previous day until lunch at 12PM. I’ll get to the theatre by 2PM and immediately get to work stretching and vocalizing. When the sound engineer arrives at 4PM we will work together for the next few hours tightening cues. I’ll get to makeup and wardrobe by 6PM and curtain by 7:30PM. I never allow anything to get in the way of this routine and I know that I definitely reap the rewards for sticking to this schedule.

When I get back to Staten Island however, I am promptly greeted with a dirty diaper. I have a twenty two month old daughter who, thanks to SKYPE, I have at least been able to see for the past few weeks. Before we even leave the train station, my wife gives me a laundry list of tasks and a myriad of problems to solve. Getting back to my “home life” is the most difficult transition for me. When I’m on the road I can truly focus on acting, singing, working out – me. When I’m home, my focus is pulled in all different directions. Don’t get me wrong, I love my home life. This is just part of the challenge as well as the allure of this career. I had a “real job” and I got bored, complacent. I felt myself and my gifts dying a little bit every day until that glorious morning when I decided, much to my mother’s chagrin, to decline my contract at Monmouth University. As frightening as it was to lose that job stability, I was only twenty five years old and I needed to pursue my career as a performer.

The interesting, exciting, and ever changing dichotomy of my touring life versus my home life will energize me for weeks and months to come. I’ll try, often in vain, to stick to a schedule while home. I’ll squeeze in workouts while my daughter naps, vocal lessons between family visits, auditions between background work, acting classes between auditions, and I’ll rejoin the Off-Broadway cast of “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding.” As much as I like being on the road, it’s good to be home.

“You’ve Got To Have Friends.” Backstage 4-10 Feb. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 5

Rella Jr., Richard. “You’ve Got To Have Friends.” Backstage 4-10 Feb. 2010: Vol. 51, No. 5

While evaluating my December numbers, I noticed that I actually put together a solid month of activity during 30 Rock’s hiatus. I had wonderful auditions for four Bank of America spots and an audition for a supporting role on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. I performed in Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding, and I sang at two different Holiday parties. I also booked a week long gig in Schenectady, NY. I sang there two years ago and I am very much looking forward to going back in late February.

When I received the call on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that I would be photo doubling for Maulik Pancholy, who brilliantly plays “Jonathan” on 30 Rock, I was ecstatic. The scene was nightmarishly complicated involving a song, a touch screen computer, and an iPhone. Not only would I have to reproduce Maulik’s choreography, but I would also have to fit into his costume.

In the November issue of Parade Magazine, Alec Baldwin writes that his mother’s baking is “diet kryptonite.” My Italian American mother detests that I eat whole wheat pasta, I refuse to put grated cheese on my gravy (that’s marinara sauce for the non-Italians), and under normal circumstances, I don’t eat dessert. Over the holidays, I spend more time with my family, so mom tends to pile on the food. Any dietary objections fall on deaf ears in an Italian home. Besides, my mother’s cooking is so good. Needless to say, this winter season I put on a couple of pounds.

When I get to wardrobe and button the size thirty pants, I fully recognize the error of my ways. I feel like Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, “fat guy in a little coat.” I literally stand for six hours afraid that if I sit down I will take someone’s eye out with a trouser button. I am immediately transported back to my Catholic school days. More than once, the only clue my parents would have that I was growing out of my uniform was when I’d come home from school with a stapled inseam that I tore playing football at lunch.

Thankfully, after hours of worrying about whether or not I am going to turn into the Incredible Hulk and destroy this expensive suit, we film the scene. Like all performing, it seems to be over too quickly. In the blink of an eye, I am heading back to wardrobe to get changed. Afterward, the director, who has directed several episodes in the past two seasons, asks me to call him by his first name and thanks me for my work.

All in all it was a great day, but I learned two valuable lessons. I need to be more responsible in the winter off-season. More importantly, I was reminded to laugh at myself. After all, if you don’t laugh at yourself, no one else will either.

“A Fresh Take (5).” Backstage 7-13 Jan. 2010: Vol. 51, No.1

Rella Jr., Richard. “A Fresh Take (5).” Backstage 7-13 Jan. 2010: Vol. 51, No.1

September through December is a very busy time in our profession. This is my second full season on NBC’s 30 Rock. I am a stand in as well as part of the core background unit. This also marks my third year as a swing in the Off-Broadway production of Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding. The holiday season is my favorite time of year but, since I made the transition from college professor at Monmouth University to professional actor three years ago, I seem to have less and less time to enjoy it.

Amidst the hustle and bustle that pervades New York City at this time of year, I received a call from my sister, who provides the necessary day care for my nineteen month old daughter. She asked me if I had noticed a large lump on the side of my daughter Sophia’s neck. My wife and I promptly rushed Sophia to the hospital and were told that she had to undergo intravenous antibiotics and testing. After a week of countless tests, Sophia was diagnosed with a staff infection in her lymph nodes. She would need general anesthesia, an operation to drain the lymph nodes, and in-home nursing for weeks to come.

Professionally speaking, those few weeks were a blur for me. I remember receiving text message updates from my wife while I was on set and dashing to the hospital after curtain. Of course my auditions did not stop coming in either. One such opportunity was in an email from Austin Pendleton, a former teacher of mine at the Manhattan School of Music. He wanted to see me for the lead in a new Terrance McNally play that he was directing at the Kennedy Center. It certainly wasn’t easy to memorize fifteen pages of text in the pediatrics unit but with bills to pay and my little girl relying on me, the diversion of a busy schedule was a welcome one.

As heart wrenching as it was to watch helplessly as my daughter went through this ordeal, I was consoled by a constant stream of loving visitors. Family, friends, former classmates, and coworkers, many of whom had never met Sophia before, brought us gifts, meals, blankets, and toys. One extremely memorable gift was a book from my childhood friend called The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do. In it, Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller say that leaders should value relationships as well as results. Like all of us, I am always looking for ways to further my career faster. As I look forward to 2010, I plan on deepening the current relationships that I have with casting directors, agents, cast mates, directors, crew, and production assistants who care for me and my family so very much. Most of all, I am reminded this holiday season to say thank you to and for all of the wonderful blessings and people in my life.

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