January, 2006

The Year of Equus

by George Takei

LOS ANGELES - I am a person of the theater. I love theater, I make my living from theater, and I find fulfillment in theaters - on both sides of the footlights. Theater is my life. Fittingly, the year 2005 was book-ended by theater trips. It began with a trip to snowy New York in January and it ended with a trip to the West End of London in December. Every night and every matinee afternoon, I lived in theaters.

The past year will be forever defined for me by a single theater experience - my eight-month gallop with the East West Players as psychiatrist Martin Dysart in Peter Shaffer's modern classic, "Equus." The role was challenging, the drama was powerful theater, the director was terrific, and the company of actors gathered for this production was uniformly gifted. "Equus" was a profoundly fulfilling creative experience.

To be sure, the year was filled with many memorable experiences. Without doubt, the most talked-about event in my life in 2005 was my "coming out" interview in Frontiers newsmagazine that was covered by news media outlets worldwide. I shared some of my thoughts about this in my November 2005 blog, and my partner Brad Altman and I will continue to speak out for gay and lesbian equality in 2006 and beyond.

My autobiography, "To the Stars," was published in Japanese translation in 2005. The promotional book tour for it took me through Japan from Tokyo to the ancient capital of Kyoto to the historic city of Hiroshima. Seizing the opportunity, we also took in the World Expo at Aichi. I served as a panelist at a U.S.-Japan Symposium in Tokyo sponsored by the Japan Foundation in conjunction with the Japanese American National Museum. From my service on the Independent Task Force on Television Measurement, which included travels to many of the nation's major cities, I learned a great deal about the dynamically changing demographics of this nation's diverse viewing audience and the many technologies being developed by Nielsen Research to accurately measure its viewing habits. There were trips to Honolulu and Lakeland, Florida, to narrate symphonic concerts - a musical performance arena that seems to be developing for me. Of course, there were Star Trek conventions with fans, now of many decades, gathered to share old memories and new experiences. I even did a cameo performance as, of all people, General Douglas MacArthur, in a traveling musical from Japan in its southern California run. All the songs, dances, and dialogues were in Japanese - except for those of General MacArthur. His role, very authentically - and conveniently for me - was in English.

My deepest gratification and greatest commitment, however, was to "Equus." From April, when Tim Dang, the artistic director of East West Players, offered me the lead role of Dr. Martin Dysart, until December 4, when the play closed, "Equus" became my all-consuming dedication. I ate, slept, and lived Martin Dysart.

I had first seen the play in a provincial theater in Leicester, England, back in the 70's and I was blown away by it. The drama of a psychiatrist's struggle with a demented youth who had blinded six horses with a hoof pick was, at once, awful and compelling. Muscular men wearing hoof-like lifts and sculptural horse heads played the horses. The metaphors were powerfully theatrical. It was theater in all its elemental and electrifying force. "Equus" was a play that I could not forget. It haunted me long after I saw it.

A few years later, I saw the same play on Broadway in New York with Tony Perkins, and again, in Los Angeles with Anthony Hopkins. Then I saw the film version starring my idol, Richard Burton, who had played the role on Broadway right after Hopkins. Friend and Star Trek colleague, Leonard Nimoy, had followed Burton into that part on Broadway. The role had impressive pedigrees. There were huge shoes to fill. Now I had that opportunity. I was cast to play the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart.

The first challenge was the memorization involved. Dysart is a talker. There were a lot of words with the role - six long monologues, many extended scenes and Dysart is on stage from start to finish. He is a conflicted man who verbalizes on his anguish eloquently and extensively. I began work on the script from the day I accepted the role. I ran lines daily with Brad. No matter where we were in the world - in New York, in Tokyo, in Waikiki, or in Bison Ridge, Arizona - we ran lines. So much so that I joked that he knew the lines so well that he could be my understudy - if he only he could act!

Then, there is the very complex character of Martin Dysart - an accomplished professional but lacking in personal initiative, charming and witty but uneasy with deep relationships, eloquent but emotionally inarticulate, brilliant but profoundly envious of his patient, the demented boy. Dysart is a psychiatrist struggling with many demons.

Rehearsals began on October 20. We gathered in a huge warehouse in the industrial district of downtown Los Angeles. I knew some of the actors from past works; others I was meeting for the first time. First on the agenda was the table read. We felt the thrill and excitement of hearing the words being spoken by actors for the first time. Some of the actors already had a good handle on their roles. It was promising. We had only four weeks before we would be performing before our first preview audience.

The rehearsal process can be the most engaging, most trying, most frustrating, and ultimately the most gratifying part of the process. The director, Tim Dang, challenged us with probing questions. He made us explore areas of our characters we had failed to see. I love this part of the process. It is like sculpting a character with your imagination, your voice, and your body. I would come home exhausted but feeling great. We actors have to love what we are blessed to be able to do. That love, hard work, dedication, and, of course, talented artists delivered a production of "Equus" of which I am proud to have been a part.

East West Players' production of "Equus" opened on October 26 to glowing reviews. Daily Variety called it, "Striking and highly erotic." The Los Angeles Times deemed it, "A compelling revival…gripping power." "Equus" was listed as the L.A. Times' Critic's Choice for our entire run. Our production became the fifth highest grossing box office success in the East West Players' forty-year history.

I was blessed to have worked with so many talented actors. Trieu Tran, who played the demented boy driven by his passion to commit the horrific act of blinding horses, is an impressive talent. Jeanne Sakata, the magistrate who is also Dysart's friend and confidant, delivered a nuanced and moving performance. Cheryl Tsai grew throughout rehearsals to create a charming and poignant character as the boy's girlfriend. Alberto Isaac and Dian Kobayashi, as the boy's dysfunctional parents, were at once touching and chilling. And, the six muscular young men who became the very theatrical embodiment of the horses were magnificently equine.

One of the gratifying aspects of the run was the many friends and fans that came from near and far to see me in "Equus." Star Trek fans that have become friends over the years traveled, not only from other states, but also across oceans to see me in the play. Ena Glogowska crossed the Atlantic from Staffordshire, England, and Sachie Kubo and Shingo Mizuno came across the Pacific from Japan to see me. I was so touched to have my Star Trek colleagues come to see my Martin Dysart. The night Nichelle Nichols came, I knew in advance that she was in the house because, when I stepped into my dressing room, an enormous bouquet of flowers from her greeted me. Leonard Nimoy, who had played Dysart on Broadway to great acclaim, came backstage with his wife Susan Bay Nimoy after the performance and embraced me with a hearty congratulatory hug. I asked him, "Well, how'd I do?" Always the gracious diplomat, Leonard smilingly said to me, "You were better." How can you not love a guy with that kind of graceful wit?

When I was cast in April, I thought the October opening of "Equus" seemed so far off. But, opening night galloped up on us before we knew it and soon closing night was approaching. The ride on that horse dashed through the year with amazing energy and speed. The year 2005 is now past. Time is such a precious and fleeting commodity. But, it was spent productively last year. I will always remember 2005 fondly as my year of the horse.




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