BWW Interview: Robert Townsend of LIVING THE SHUFFLE at The Marsh Berkeley Has Some Hollywood Tales to Share with You
Filmmaker Robert Townsend has truly had a singular career ever since coming to prominence with his groundbreaking 1987 film "The Hollywood Shuffle." That satirical comedy about Black actors dealing with racial stereotypes in the film and TV industry was famously self-financed by Townsend maxing out his credit cards. Perhaps even more remarkably, he has successfully maintained simultaneous careers over the ensuing decades as an actor, director, writer and producer working in both film and TV, narratives and documentaries, with the occasional mockumentary thrown in for good measure. Along the way, he has worked with a virtual galaxy of stars - Beyoncé, James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman to name just a few - while surviving the inevitable ups and downs of a career in show business. Townsend is now returning to his roots as a stage performer with his solo show "Living the Shuffle" at The Marsh Berkeley. BroadwayWorld caught up with him recently in Los Angeles before he headed North for the five-week run. In conversation, he is incredibly affable and easy-going for someone who has spent most of his life working in such a high-powered industry. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
The title of your show "Living the Shuffle" obviously refers back to the movie that first brought you widespread acclaim. How would you describe the show, and how does it relate to the film?
The show is really my journey as an artist, a roller coaster ride about Hollywood and life and how does one find one's way. I think it's a really beautiful journey and I have all these stories from my life that I think are pretty amazing. I've put them together to make an evening that hopefully will inspire a new generation of filmmakers.
You've had a long and very successful career as a multi-hyphenate actor-writer-director-producer in film and TV. Why choose to do live theater at this point in your career? Why does it seem to be the right time for you to do this show?
Well, first off, I love performing. [laughs] I am a ham and I love the stage and I have missed the stage. I write, I direct, I produce, I act, I started as a standup comedian, and when I'm onstage I'm still silly and laughing, and everybody's laughing and having a great time. And then like I said, I have all these unique stories about show business that I don't think I tell on the screen, that the audience would love. I've done this show different places around the country. I still love entertaining folks so I'm just gonna have a good time up there.
Actor, writer, director, producer, comedian: Which role comes to you most naturally? Which one do you enjoy the most?
Truth be told, I love them all equally. When I'm writing, I love coming up with that hook, I love coming up with that line. When I'm directing, I love creating a world. As a producer I love staying on budget and seeing if I can make it work with whatever limitations are presented to me. And then as an actor and comedian, you know there's nothin' better when you hear an audience laugh at stuff you wrote. You go like "I can't wait for them to hear this." And then they laugh! I've been in rehearsals, putting the show up in front of different groups and I rewrote one of the scenes. I wrote it that afternoon and thought I'm gonna put it up tonight and just work on one chunk, and the audience went crazy. And it's like "It worked!" So it's those little things. As a performer, there's nothing like a live audience.
Most any theater company in the country would have been thrilled to work with you on this project. How did you connect with The Marsh?
The Marsh connection came because of my good friend, Don Reed. He's been doing performances, doing his one-man show, for years. I saw one of his shows in New York, East 14th Street. I've known him as a comedian, we've worked together over the years, but when I saw his one-man show it was really inspiring for me. So he's been kind of a catalyst for this - "Robert, you've got to get onstage." I saw him and I was like, "Aw, man! You're making me miss that other side of my brain." And that's how it started. He said, "I know the perfect theater for you to come up and play - The Marsh." I love Berkeley! There's something about the vibe in Berkeley that I just really love.
I've always been fascinated by people who seem to have a really strong internal compass even when working within systems that don't really value what they bring to the table. At the time you made "Hollywood Shuffle," you were an up and coming actor [with some solid credits like 1984's "A Soldier's Story" alongside a not-yet-famous Denzel Washington], but the industry was obviously not giving you the message, "Robert, we need you to make your film!" What gave you the belief in yourself to go ahead and do it anyway?
Well, I've never been one to complain. You know, a lot of people complain about what they don't have or how the industry treats them. I never watched television with a prejudiced eye. I always loved everybody I saw on television. I mean, I wanted to be Humphrey Bogart. So then when I started to act, I knew that there were certain people that would try to, you know, put me in a box. And rather than complain, my mantra is "There's always another way." So I said, "You know what? I'll make my own movie!" [laughs] In this show I talk about how Keenen Ivory Wayans, who co-wrote the film script with me, how we just went on this journey to shoot a movie and didn't know anything about how to make a movie and figured it out and won.
You wrote the film with Keenen before he hit it big with "In Living Color." How did the two of you originally meet?
Keenen and I met standing online at the Improv in New York City as two young comedians trying to get onstage. And you talk about a who's who of comedy back then - Jay Leno was the host, you had Billy Crystal, Robert Klein, Rodney Dangerfield, Andy Kaufman. We were really the only two brothers at the club, and we were soaking in all this comedy. That's where I met Keenen and we became lifelong friends from that first time waiting to get in and audition for Bud Freeman.
You've worked with a lot of iconic artists, but the person I most want to know about is the amazing Diahann Carroll who appeared in your 1991 film "The Five Heartbeats" and who we sadly just lost. She was such a unique talent, and as an African-American such a trailblazer, both onstage and onscreen. What was she like to work with? What was she like as a person?
Oh, my goodness! When I was coming up with "The Five Heartbeats", Keenen and I wrote the character of Eleanor who is the wife of the manager that discovers us, and she has this twist and turn in the film. The only person I had in mind was Diahann Carroll because when I was a kid [I saw] this movie "Claudine" about my childhood - single mother, raising a kid on welfare, that's my story. When I reached out to her, she was like "I'd love to meet with you." [but] she didn't right away say "Yes, I'm going to do it." We met at the Plaza Hotel in New York and I was like a little kid, all giddy and everything, and she was like you're in the presence of royalty, the queen, you know what I mean? And as we started to talk, she is a very smart actress and she was asking me questions that made me go deeper as a director and as a writer about the character, add layers to the character. That continued when we got on set and every moment she was like "Do you want more from me? What about this?" She had ideas. When you work with really great artists and actors, they elevate the material. You know - I worked with her four times. I did "Heartbeats" with her, I did "The Natalie Cole Story" with her, I did "Jackie's Back!" with her - she did a cameo with Jenifer Lewis, Better Midler and Liza Minnelli - and I did "Diary of a Single Mom" with her, a web series I created.
Your film and TV work has included both documentaries and narratives. As a storyteller, do you approach those differently?
I was just at the Gary Indiana film festival yesterday showing my documentary "Making the Five Heartbeats." You know, I'm a storyteller so I want to make sure there is a certain energy to whatever I create that is entertaining. Sometimes I've seen documentaries and it just becomes very talky-talky, heavy-heavy. When you see "Making the Five Heartbeats" there's a story; it's not just a documentary. There's connective tissue to drive it so that yesterday people were laughing and one woman said she cried. Really great documentaries have an emotional spine. For me the first thing is always going to be, am I entertaining, am I engaging the audience?
In a documentary, how do you find that emotional spine?
Well, as it relates to "Making The Five Heartbeats" I looked at it from Robert the artist struggling to make his second movie, that's a layer. The studio giving suggestions, that's a layer. The actors not doing what I want them to do and sometimes challenging me, that's a layer. And so it's all these different twists and turns, and then you go like "Is he gonna get this movie made?" [laughs] And then the movie dies at the box office, but then when it comes on television, it is one of the highest-rated movies ever. You go like "You mean, this movie that now over 300 million people have shared clips from was a bomb?!" And I go "Yeah!" I just look for the layers and the truth of the narrative
Any plans for "Living the Shuffle" after the run at The Marsh?
You know what? I have not [made further plans] - I'm really crazy busy. I leave Berkeley and I go to New York where I'm doing "The Tracy Morgan Show" with Tiffany Haddish. I'm gonna do another show and I'm writing the script [for that], but I'd love to sit in the theater somewhere. This [show] is such a treat for me. I love John Leguizamo and I'd love to sit on Broadway. That's always been a dream of mine so if I say "What's the big picture?" I'd love for this show to tour the country and then sit on Broadway, and just have fun in New York City.
Great! You know, as a writer for BroadwayWorld, that's kind of where I was heading with that question, but I was trying not to feed you your lines.
[laughs] I wasn't even thinking about that! It's just that I go to New York and I'll see twelve shows, no lie, back-to-back just cause I love theater that much.
"Living the Shuffle" runs through Sunday, December 1st at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA. For information or to order tickets visit themarsh.org or call (415) 282-3055 (Monday through Friday, 1pm-4pm).