BWW Interviews: Actor and Author Arthur Wooten
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by Gregory G. Allen
There are times when artists cross over onto different artistic paths. Actors become authors. Dancers become directors. That has occurred with New York actor Arthur Wooten who began authoring novels seven years ago. With several under his belt, his latest DIZZY: A FICTIONAL MEMOIR shares stories of the New York acting world along with a truly inspirational story based on the author’s actual life. BroadwayWorld talked to the actor turned author about his latest work that uses Broadway as the backdrop for the book.
BWW: Arthur, I’m so glad to talk to you about this book that I absolutely loved! First, tell the readers a little about your background as an actor.
Arthur Wooten: I was a child actor and describe a bit more of that later on. But while attending UMass at Amherst and majoring in pre-veterinarian medicine, I was cast in Dames At Sea. And I didn’t catch the acting bug; I was knocked out by the virus. This had to be my life. So I switched my major to theatre and communications and was cast in several other musicals while studying there. Some were comedies/satires like Adaptation/Next others quite dramatic like playing Queenie in Fortune In Men’s Eyes.
On weekend evenings I was a singing waiter at the Jolly Bull restaurant. Thank GOD I could sing and entertain because I was the world’s worst waiter. We did concert style versions of shows like Cabaret, Godspell and Brigadoon. And each summer while still in college I went off and did summer stock. In DIZZY there is a flashback where Angie talks about her summer stock gig at the Off-Broadway Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. And I really did survive doing thirteen musicals in repertory within a ten-week period. It was mind-boggling. Honestly, if it was Tuesday, it was Call Me Madam. But what a learning experience. I also spent a summer at Penn State with the American Theatre Festival doing Wonderful Town and Girl Crazy. Not only were they great productions but I met two of my longtime, best friends – Broadway press agent Sam Rudy and actress Mia Dillon.
Once moving to New York City I was first cast in the children’s musical Dirty Ferdie Comes Clean playing Lester The Laundry Bag down at the Provincetown Playhouse and then a slew of dinner theatre jobs came my way. I also worked in regional theatre and of course, the infamous bus and truck tours. One of those productions, The Sound of Music, ended up in the book. Then I segued into commercials, soap operas and small bits of film work. Then I retired from acting back in 1985. I never did make it to Broadway but am proud that I never stopped working. Then I discovered a love for writing and my first TV pilot, A New Leash on Life – about a NYC dogwalker, was optioned by Dick Cavett of all people. Next, I found myself at William Morris – and the rest is, as they say, history.
You have such a knack for translating some wonderful backstage stories into your novel. Did you have to change names to protect the innocent?
I hope I did. Minor changes. Some people will clearly pick up on whom I’m really dishing about. But some things like the schools and theatres – like HB Studios, the Off-Broadway Theatre or Production-Center Studios are real places. Like in my novel ON PICKING FRUIT and its sequel FRUIT COCKTAIL, my lawyer suggested I change the names and the dates I “fictionally” wrote about. Actually, I wanted to keep their real names in and convict the guilty. Just kidding. Kinda.
Smart that you did! Did you know you always wanted to be a performer?
I’m not quite sure I knew I wanted to be a performer – I just performed! The first show I remember doing I must have been about eight and it was Rumpelstiltskin. Staged in my garage, I produced, directed, and acted in it demanding that everyone involved, including myself, perform the show on roller skates. I guess I was thinking outside of the box even then. (I also charged kids in the neighborhood to watch me ride my unicycle.) But growing up in Andover, MA, we had a fantastic theatre department in school, which also did full scale productions in the summer. I was cast in quite a few shows where they did lavish productions with full orchestras and exact replicas of the Broadway sets. I remember doing Mame, Funny Girl, The King And I, The Music Man, to name a few. They were really top-notch productions.
As a writer and theater person myself, I’ve always said that writing novels is just another way in which I can tell stories: same as if I’m on stage performing or directing a show. Do you agree?
Oh totally. And as writers we get to wear all the hats. We’re the director, casting agent, costume designer, set designer, etc. I studied at HB Studios and worked with Bob Elston and Uta Hagen. It was her book, RESPECT FOR ACTING that strongly influenced not only my acting but eventually my writing too. When I write a character, I know everything about them. Often mannerisms or habits they have never make it into the books. But when I know my characters that well, I can put them into any scene and the material almost writes itself. And because you and I are actors, Gregory, I think it’s easier to slip ourselves into other people’s shoes. I owe so much of my writing success to my acting background.
Why did you choose to fictionalize this book instead of creating it as a real memoir about yourself?
Simple answer – my life is too boring. I say that half-seriously. I love my life and some exciting things have happened but when I was diagnosed with the same disease that Angie, our lead character has, I had a writing career that I could continue doing. Granted, I have to take breaks from the computer because it makes my symptoms pretty scary but I didn’t have to give it up. In the book, the lead character is an actress, singer, and dancer. You can’t do that when you have symptoms as extreme as mine. I think it makes for a much more exciting if not heartbreaking story. Angie has to completely reinvent herself.
You’ve alluded to it now, but in a nutshell, can you tell the readers a little about the book?
DIZZY is the story about Angie Styles, a beloved Broadway actress, singer, dancer who at the height of her career is struck down by a mysterious disease and is forced to reevaluate her life and the people in it as she struggles to survive.
So this mysterious disease in the book is something that you actually deal with it. Something very few people know about. Tell us about it.
It’s called bilateral vestibulopathy with oscillopsia. I know, it’s a mouthful. Basically, in 2005, a virus went to my brain without me feeling a thing and it destroyed the workings of both of my inner ears. One of the jobs the inner ear does is to relay information to your brain, letting it know where you are in space. Well, I’ve lost that ability. I have no sense of balance. Ironic for a former dancer and gymnast. Every step I take in life, actually every movement of my head, feels like I’m bouncing on a trampoline. And it never goes away. On bad days it feels like I’m dropping in an elevator or walking through life on a waterbed. That’s the vestibular part.
The oscillopsia is my brain forcing my eyes to look onto objects to get a reading as to where I am in the world. It needs to know whether I’m upright or upside down or sideways. Whether I’m turning, standing up or sitting down, it has to get a reading or I just fall over. My brain has no idea where I am. And it’s stubborn. It makes my eyes stick on objects and then they will jump to another very quickly. So I see life through an erratic handheld camera. Think bad indie film. Speaking of films and TV, while watching movies or shows, my brain thinks I’m in them. Action pictures are real tough for me and afterwards it’s almost impossible to walk for awhile. But I have exercises I do to teach my brain to stop locking my eyes onto things. It’s exhausting and sometimes painful but my eyes are tracking smoother. But stress, adrenaline and change in barometric pressure wreak havoc with my symptoms. Even word retrieval can be affected. Not a good thing for a writer.
So fascinating to hear about something that we simply do not know exists. Did you think in terms of the awareness you would bring to Vestibular Disorders when writing the book or was it more a cathartic experience?
Both. Writing the book was extremely cathartic. So much so, that I put off writing it for several years. Every time I thought about it, I’d breakdown into an emotional puddle. The process of getting DIZZY out of me was so emotional; it made my symptoms incredibly severe. There is a very dramatic scene, what we would call the denouement (that I don’t want to spoil) but once I wrote that chapter, I felt better. It was like the calm after the storm. Once the book was done, I clearly realized that this was an opportunity to come out of the vestibular closet. Many people had no idea I was dealing with this syndrome but DIZZY now offers me a platform to inform, educate and help others suffering from this disease, help them find support and let them know they are not alone out there.
Did this have anything to do with you stopping your performance career and switching gears to that of a writer?
No, not at all. As I mentioned earlier, I segued into writing before the vestibular disease appeared. But honestly, the book signings I do are very much my performance pieces. And in many ways I am acting again, every day of my life. I try to blend in as well as possible so that people don’t notice my symptoms. A constant sensation is that internally I feel drunk. And if I’m not careful, I’ll look that way too. One day not too long ago I laughed and said to myself, “Just go with the drunkenness. Enjoy it. Hell, there’s no hangover!” In truth, my life now is the biggest acting job I’ve ever had.
You have had some wonderful feedback on much of your work in the past from Phylicia Rashad to Debbie Allen as well as productions of plays you’ve written performed in the states and internationally. Knowing you as I do, I think it’s because you are so approachable and write such believable work. How has it been turning to some of those people from your past as you approached a book about the theater community?
It’s been fantastic and therapeutic. Everyone has been so supportive. Phylicia and Debbie have been friends of mine since 1987. I love them dearly and over the years we’ve worked on projects together. And I’ve reconnected with old friends like Peter Gregus who’s starring in Jersey Boys. We worked together – gosh – maybe back in 1980 at Nanuet Dinner Theatre. He was just a kid then! And I’ve met new friends like Donna McKechnie who’s shared with me that my scenario is very close to what she’s experienced in her life. And who knows, maybe DIZZY will become a Broadway musical one day. Wouldn’t that be a great way to say thank you to my theatre colleagues, by offering them all jobs?
I know that readers of BroadwayWorld love the theater community and I believe they will absolutely love DIZZY. Thanks for sharing it with us today. The book launches December 10 from Galaxias Productions and information can be found at www.arthurwooten.com