Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences

BOOK: Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences
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Take Your Shirt Off and Cry

Take Your Shirt Off and Cry

A Memoir of Near-Fame
Experiences

Nancy Balbirer

Author’s note: The stories in this memoir are true. However, certain names, locations, and identifying characteristics have
been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals portrayed in this book. The author has reconstructed conversations
to the best of her recollection. The author has also, in some instances, compressed or expanded time, or otherwise altered
events for literary reasons, while remaining faithful to the essential truth of the stories.

Copyright © 2009 by Nancy Balbirer

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from
the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Bloomsbury
USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

Published by Bloomsbury USA, New York

All papers used by Bloomsbury USA are natural, recyclable products made from wood grown in well-managed forests. The manufacturing
processes conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Balbirer, Nancy.
Take your shirt off and cry : a memoir of near-fame experiences /
Nancy Balbirer.—1st U.S. ed.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-1-608-19150-5
1. Balbirer, Nancy. 2. Actresses—United States—Biography. I. Title.

PN2287.B156A3 2009
792.02'8092—dc22
[B]
2008045397

“The Weight,” by Robbie Robertson, copyright © 1968 Dwarf Music. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted
by permission.

“I Am What I Am,” from
La Cage aux Folles
,
music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, © 1983 Jerry Herman. All rights controlled by Jerryco Music Co. Exclusive agent: Edwin
H. Morris & Company, a division of MPL Music Publishing, Inc.

First U.S. Edition 2009

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Typeset by Westchester Book Group
Printed in the United States of America by Quebecor World Fairfield

For Joel

Preface

I once played
Helen of Troy in an egregiously bad production of
Troilus and Cressida
,
and the
Village Voice
’s reviewer—who panned the show—singled me out, saying that the simulated blow job I performed in my one, tiny scene was incredibly
“realistic.” This wasn’t just
any
tacky little pageant, you understand. It was
downtown
,
yes, BUT—it was
Shakespeare
;
I was
Helen-of-Fucking-Troy
,
and
Phillip Seymour Hoffman
was in it, OK?

Seriously, though, I looked at it like this: everyone has to start somewhere. I know how it sounds, but I had taken great
pains to analyze the feigned beej scene in the puristic manner of my former acting teacher, David Mamet. And in doing so,
I chose to look at the character of Helen as a fabulous metaphor for the “prostitution of patriotism,” emblematic of war’s
Pyrrhic victories: the more they all fought, the more ravaged and debauched their precious symbol became.

I knew it didn’t matter that I was only onstage for about ten minutes in a play whose running time was a little over three
and a half hours. I would be discussed at length, and thought about throughout. You don’t just give make-believe head and
then people forget you! I might be “abducted” up in my dressing room eating a cheeseburger, but I thought of this role as
something akin to Meryl Streep’s absent mother in
Kramer vs. Kramer:
out of sight but
never
out of mind. More important, I also told myself that playing Helen was a means to an end. That one day, soon after, I would
progress to more meaty roles, playing women who, unlike Helen, had more substance (and stage time) than an incidental (let’s
face it) hooker. In fact, I saw myself perfectly cast as any of the Bard’s principal feisty wenches, or the doomed dreamers
of Clifford Odets, or even the jittery eccentrics of Tennessee Williams. I thought I’d play Stella in
A Streetcar Named
Desire
in my younger years, then slip gracefully into playing the has-been (but still smokin’ hot!) actress who beds the young hustler
wannabe in
Sweet Bird of Youth
.

It was not to be. Helen of Troy was the sole Shakespearean character I played in my professional career as an actor; I never
played in Odets; alas, I never played Williams, either.

And one day, I would come to see that there would be no trading up; my life in show business would be marred by near-constant
head-banging frustration, demoralizing options, and bewildering compromises—and I’m talking about when I
was
working. In essence, I would come to view my acting career as nothing more than a series of fake blow jobs.

I had wanted to be an actor nearly my entire life. Some performers get their start through a desire to cheer up a miserable
family member, and for me, that person was my mother. I can remember being a child of about nine or ten, impersonating Joan
Crawford, whose movies I’d seen on the late show, to make my mother forget she was a bored, mostly pissed-off housewife whose
fancy Upper East Side girls’ school education had gone by the wayside.

One evening—the contents of our family dinner having erupted from the Crock-Pot an hour or so before—my mother stood stooped
over the sink in a foul mood, scrubbing a pan, snapping at me, as usual, to bring her the dirty dinner plates. Suddenly inspired,
I began running around the table, frantically grabbing plates, knives, forks, and glasses, pretending to be Crawford in the
movie
Mildred Pierce.

“And then I worked as a waitress,”
I said, all panty with a throaty-fake-movie-star accent. “
And I got good—I got so
good, I opened up my OWN restaurant . . .”

My mother laughed. She asked for an encore and naturally I obliged. It was no small feat to make my mother laugh; she was
not even remotely an easy crowd. Detached and indifferent, with a predilection for Scotch, she mostly preferred only the company
of herself. She could almost always be found avoiding her children and housewifery, curled up on the porch she for some reason
called a “Florida room,” reading racy paperback bestsellers, whose covers depicted either a tendril-tressed lass with a plunging
décolleté or a headless, partially clad woman in the midst of pulling off her wedding ring. Trying to get a reaction out of
my mother—a woman seemingly roused only by
The
Dinah Shore Show
(and even then, we’re talking about
maybe
a few wan chuckles)—was marvelous training. I certainly enjoyed making her laugh, which was intoxicating, but even more I
relished her prolonged attention. In our kitchen,
Dinah Shore
was never turned off completely, but soon, I became so entertaining that Dinah’s sound got turned down.
Way down.
And not long after that initial Crawford impersonation, with my mother’s help, I started in earnest to pursue a Life in the
Theater.

In seventh grade, I starred as the Artful Dodger in the middle school production of
Oliver!
My mother, who long ago had harbored her own actress fantasies, not only chose the role for me but taught me a Cockney accent
and coached me for my audition, coming up with “gestures” for each line of the song, “Consider Yourself.” Playing the Artful
Dodger changed everything. I was no longer entertaining in the confines of a joyless, avocado-colored, paisley-wallpapered
kitchen solely for the benefit of my somewhat tipsy mother—now I was doing it publicly and, what’s more, receiving accolades!

For once in my life, I felt I was good at something. For once, I wasn’t being chastised by my teachers at school for goofing
off or not being smart, nor was I any longer exclusively the object of other kids’ scorn for being an unpopular loudmouth—instead
I was being given respect, even admiration. I made a name for myself, playing the leads in every school and community production
up for grabs: Adele Astaire in a sweeping Gershwin revue; Lola in
Damn Yankees
; Dolly in
Hello, Dolly!
My mother was beyond thrilled. Even my father, usually leery of show business (“All actresses kill themselves . . . look at
Marilyn Monroe!”) got on board, boasting to all his lawyer associates and judges about his “talented, Broadway-bound daughter.”
It was to become so much more: five years after my portrayal of the Dodger, I left the incarcerations of my
Ice Storm–
y Connecticut town and fled to New York, to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I grew to love anything and everything
about the art of acting. I loved, for instance, being someone else, in costume, with a totally different life, imagining that
life, wondering about it day and night, and then inhabiting it. I loved the work ethic of the theater and the camaraderie
of the performers, being backstage and watching the action from the wings. All my years at NYU, I thrived. I fancied myself
an Artist who would never allow herself to be commoditized, perfectly oblivious to the fact that the people populating the
world I would soon be entering were mostly interested in money and tits.

Perhaps in a sense I felt that I
deserved
success. After all, I had studied theater for many years, I had always received my mentors’ support and encouragement, and
more than a few of my peers had gone on to enjoy not just regular acting work but wildly flourishing careers. But if even
a tad of entitlement was in evidence, it was almost always mitigated by unrelenting ambivalence. And that was the rub. Because
as much as I could get off on playing the victim, flinging blame like strands of spaghetti at the wall, at some point I had
to face my own complicity.

For many years, I existed in a state of near-constant terror that I would “not make it” as an actor. It was an awful, all-consuming
fear, and I knew that if such a tragedy befell me, it would surely be so catastrophic, such a calamity, that I would never
recover and the world would just immediately end. But when it happened, I stood, eyes tightly shut, steeling myself for the
inevitable sky-falling moment, and when I finally opened my eyes, I realized that nothing had happened at all. Or it
had
, but it just wasn’t what I had expected, and here is the most amazing thing: the impasse itself had become the opportunity.

I was a big flop—yes—all my dreams of being a working actor up in smoke, but my regrets, if I had any, were very few. And
look: this won’t be some pathetically sad rant about how unfair it all is—life, show business, the various inequities due
to being of the tit-having persuasion . . . No. The phrase “Take your shirt off and cry” may appear at first a mere shameful
indictment, and it was—once. But in fact, it was a remark a very wise person made to me in passing, one that I never forgot,
as the years transformed it into an ebullient howl. And the best part? Nothing fake about it . . .

Take Your Shirt Off and Cry

1. Take Your Shirt Off and Cry

It is the fall
of 1983. I am a freshman drama school student at NYU, sitting rapt with attention as David Mamet, the guest lecturer in our
seminar class, Intro to New York Theatre, expounds on why George Bernard Shaw had his head up his ass. I am a precocious seventeen-year-old
clad in black leggings, glittery leg warmers, and white pumps. My gray sweatshirt has been expertly cut into a
Flashdance
neckline, and my eyes, rimmed and smeared with black kohl eyeliner, are wide open.

“Shaw told us that the theater is a teaching tool: people come see a play, learn what they’re doing wrong in their lives,
and then, go change,” Mamet announces, deadpan, shrugging slightly. I dig his shorn hair, close-cropped patriarchal beard,
and mustache. His round eyeglasses reflect the stage lights, an effect that makes him look like a Talmudic raccoon.

“That,” Mamet continues, “strikes me as rather jejune, eh? It is
reductive
and it is
pretentious
. The
real
purpose of theater is to show the folks a good time—wow ’em—then, send them the fuck home.”

Everyone around me is scribbling piously, but all I can do is smile. This guy is hilarious.

“Feelings don’t matter, and neither do words,” Mamet declares, stalking about the stage during the question-and-answer portion.
He is admonishing a mousy freshman from the Strasberg Studio who has tripped onto a tricky philosophical land mine.

“The words are gibberish,” he continues. “They mean nothing, feelings mean nothing. The only thing that matters are actions.
It’s only about
what you do
.”

“But—how—how can you say that?” Mousy Method Chick sputters. “I mean, you’re a playwright, of course feelings mat—”

“Excuse me—please, tell us, madam: how do
you
know what the character is feeling?”

“Because you—well . . . when you read—”

“HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE CHARACTER IS FEELING? HOW?” he roars. “HOW DO YOU
MAKE
YOURSELF
FEEL
?”

“Well,” Mousy Method Chick’s face assumes the glow of raw hamburger meat, “you can d-d-do a ‘sense memory,’ like—”

“OHHHH!” Mamet puts his hands up, as if he’s being robbed. “OK, thank you. [
Long pause
]. Folks, this woman—what she is referring to is JERKING OFF IN PUBLIC. She is talking about
Strasberg
. What Strasberg taught was to JERK OFF IN PUBLIC AND CALL IT ACTING. OK. Thank you.”

Mousy Method Chick crumples into her seat in a daze as people continue to scribble:

Feelings don’t matter.

Do
not
jerk off in public.

Strasberg
=
Douche.

“It’s not your job to masturbate onstage,” Mamet barks at us, his face impassive. “It’s not your job
to be interesting.
Your job is to put your attention on the other actor in the scene, say your lines, and then,” he adds merrily, “you go home.”

Home. My mind wanders briefly back to Connecticut. I see myself standing beside my father on the platform at the West-port
train station, just a few weeks ago. I am leaving, heading off for school registration and my new life. My mother, whose enjoyment
of cheesy melodrama is limited to fictional settings, has opted to stay home. My father holds my bag as I peer down the track,
watching the ten thirty-seven pull into the station. I glance at him; he is shaking his head. “Don’t worry, Nance,” he says,
smiling sheepishly. “It’ll be OK.” We hug, and I know that his assurance is more for himself than it is for me. “You can always
come home to your daddy, you know.” His Brooklyn accent seems especially thick when he says the word “daddy.”
Dee-ahh-dee.
Three drawn-out syllables, as though the longer the word is, the more attached we’ll be. The lush late-summer leaves wave
a listless good-bye as I pull away and turn toward the open train doors.

“And don’t
fah-get
what I told you: only take cabs! Don’t
ev-uh
go into that shithole subway!”

Before the end of the lecture, someone asks Mamet who his favorite actresses are.

“Women who
act
are not
actresses.
They’re ACTORS. Why do they need to fucking
qualify
what their genitalia are?” The audience titters; Mamet continues to thunder. “Folks, seriously, I need to disabuse you of
the notion that ‘actress’ is anything other than a euphemism for ‘floozy.’ Do women doctors call themselves ‘
doctresses
’? [
Pause.
] Do women fucking writers call themselves ‘
writressess
’? [
Pause.
] NO! So why the fuck shouldn’t a woman who
acts
call herself an
actor
?”

The lecture is over. Everyone laughs as we file out, and I am a new person: I will never allow anyone to call me an “actress”
again.

***

At the time, David Mamet was the preeminent badass of the American theater. The following spring, he would receive the Pulitzer
Prize for Drama for his play
Glengarry Glen Ross
. Everyone at school (and elsewhere) was nuts about him. While I thought his whole vibe was killer, I was annoyed by how the
older kids tried to approximate the Mamet ethos, traipsing about with Stepfordish reverence, constantly assuming a pseudo-intellectual,
combative mien. They ate fruit-juice-sweetened granola, smoked high-grade pot, and traded in their contact lenses for Mamet-inspired
coke-bottle glasses. They spoke robotically, like Mamet characters, repeating questions and statements with a bizarre quasi
stutter:

“That’s right. That’s [
pause
]
.
Yes
. That’s exactly so
,” they’d drone at the Cozy Soup and Burger Diner near school, while ordering coffee. “Yes—I want it
regular
. Milk and sugar. Excellent. [
Pause.
] Yes . . .”

It was nauseating watching the Mamet-ites run around glassy-eyed, reeking of patchouli, saying things like “Swell” when you
asked how rehearsal was, or the party, or the laundry room. It was Harold Pinter meets Charles Manson. I assured myself I
would
never
be one of Mamet’s minions.

Apart from Mamet’s heady introduction, the first few weeks at school were mind-blowing on other levels too. Suddenly, men
were checking me out in a big way. Walking through Washington Square Park, I’d notice guys staring at me, or I’d pick up my
mail and find notes in my box from this guy or that, asking if I wanted to have coffee or check out some music at the Village
Gate. I was so unused to this kind of attention that initially I thought it was a mean joke someone was playing on me. All
through high school, I was a tomboy; only two guys ever asked me out. But somehow, the moment I arrived at NYU, I became fuckable.

My sudden popularity, however, did nothing to assuage a lifetime of self-doubt. In fact, my newfound desirability had the
paradoxical effect of making me more needy and desperate. I slept with almost anyone who asked. There were a few whom I merely
made out with, just for kicks, but I was rapidly getting a reputation as an easy lay. On the sluttiness spectrum, I suppose
I wasn’t that unusual; this was, after all, drama school, where people would routinely screw their scene partners mid-rehearsal,
then decide they were bisexual by dinner. Walking through the Drama Department halls, you would find yourself in a maze of
bodies: people making out, giving massages, bodies draped across each other, legs and arms intertwined all over the lumpy,
moth-eaten couch next to the bulletin board. There was once an entire
Hamlet
cast who gave one another crabs.

I can recall countless evenings spent listening to the ubiquitous strains of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It,”
rolling around on some random artsy dude’s BO-infested East Village mattress, wondering, what, in fact,
did
love have to do with it? I’d habitually show up to study down the hall of my dorm with guys from my History of Dramatic Literature
class wearing nothing but a tank top and bikini undies, and when they’d look at me, astonished by my shamelessness, I’d act
like
they
were crazy. I was a whirling dervish: voraciously horny, out of control, and, at the same time, deeply conflicted about the
sexual attention I seemed to court so breezily.

I found refuge from all this male attention in a blossoming friendship with my dorm roommate, Therese, a shy girl also in
the Drama Department, with a quirky, sharp wit. Therese and I immediately bonded over our mutual love of movies, Woody Allen’s
in particular. We liked to trade off Woody’s and Diane Keaton’s lines:

She’d say, “He’s a genius, Helen’s a genius, Dennis is a genius. You know a lot of geniuses.”

And I’d say, “You should meet some stupid people—you could learn something.”

We’d collapse with laughter.

Then I’d say, “You don’t need a male. Two mothers are just fine.”

And she’d answer, flawlessly, “Really? Because I feel very few people survive one mother.”

Therese and I also shared the fact that we had Jewish fathers and shiksa mothers and for kicks, we’d run around Tompkins Square
Park singing “Half-Breed” while annoyed homeless people tried to sleep. One day, we performed the entire song for a junkie
who was lying on a bench.

“What d’you think?” Therese asked him after we had finished. He reflected for a moment and then offered, “Cher sucks.”

From then on, whenever we’d ask for each other’s opinion, no matter the subject, the answer was always “Cher sucks.”

My father liked Therese. He met her when, after taking a deposition, he showed up on a whim to take me out to lunch and invited
her along.

“Now, Therese is a
brawd
who
eats
,” he enthused the next day over the phone. “Which is good: people who eat are
trustworthy
.”

Therese and I had a blast; there was such ease to our connection, and a humorous rapport that continued to deepen and grow.
As we got closer, our natural tendency toward joking about everything fell away, and through tearful, late-night analytical
conversations, we were mutually able to arrive at epiphanies about ourselves, most of which had to do with having distant
mothers from whom we craved warmth and tenderness.

We hugged, habitually brushed hair out of each other’s faces, curled up together on one of our beds to listen to Joni Mitchell’s
Blue
, or Kate Bush’s
The Kick Inside
, or the sound track to
Pippin
, crying, laughing, singing along softly.

I’d never had anyone be that affectionate with me without sex involved. Here, for the first time, was a person whom I trusted
completely, who loved me just for me, not to use me or fuck me or get anything other than just my loving back. I felt safe
with Therese; with her, I could let it all hang out.

“Why do you think that guy asked me out? You think maybe it’s some fucked-up joke?” I’d ask virtually twice a week, standing
in front of our chipped closet-door mirror, tying and retying the floppy rag bow in my hair, turning this way and that to
get every possible view of the ass I thought was so fat.

“Because you’re beautiful,” she’d say patiently, lovingly, tilting her head to the side as she watched me from her desk.

I had become obsessed with my looks. I couldn’t pass anything remotely reflective without double-taking, but as much as I
wanted to be adored, I wanted also to be left alone; I wanted to be checked out, but in fact, I couldn’t bear to be seen.
Therese took all of my insolent contradictions in stride; she was calm and loving, and I couldn’t remember anyone ever before
being as tolerant of my foibles.

In the spring, Therese decided to see if she could get into the summer program David Mamet was holding in Vermont. She was
miserable studying at her assigned studio, Stella Adler, and the thought of spending the summer with her mother in their cheerless
colonial home freaked her out, so she pleaded with me to help her with the audition. Except that there wasn’t an audition.
Instead, Mamet asked that all applicants participate in a weeklong treasure hunt to uncover the answers to ten or so riddles.
The answers were to be presented—typed up—to Mamet during an interview, at the end of which the applicant would recite a memorized
poem by Rudyard Kipling.

“You do realize that this is by far the most fucked-up thing you’ve ever auditioned for, right?” I asked Therese one day while
we sat flipping through humongous reference books at the New York Public Library.

She did, of course, but she was truly desperate. Therese hadn’t had any luck scoring roles in the school’s classy Mainstage
productions and had been relegated to trying out for the various “experimental” student productions—usually plotless ruminations
on emotional breakdowns and scatological insights—that left their audiences catatonic. She auditioned and auditioned, but
no matter how revolting the premise, she never even got a callback.

As the year progressed, she grew increasingly depressed by the rejections, downing cheap bottles of Bordeaux, then lying in
bed reading
Remembrance of Things Past
in the original French.

So when it came time for the Mamet “audition,” Therese raced all over Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens trying to
unearth answers to the brainteasers, discovering that most of them had to do with obscure World War II weaponry, con-artist
ploys, and arcane poker slang. At the end of the week, with barely half of the correct answers, Therese wept uncontrollably
as we ran through her Kipling poem.

“What do you think?” she whimpered. “Do I even have a chance?”

“I think,” I said, taking her hand, “that Cher sucks.”

I sat next to her on the bed and wiped her tears with the back of my sleeve.

The whole thing infuriated me. What kind of arrogant prick was this guy, sending these hapless kids all over hell and gone
looking for cryptic crap? It was just a load of I-say-jump-now-you-say-how-high. What did any of this have to do with
acting
, which was what he claimed he’d be teaching them? Looking at Therese’s puffy, red-blotched face as she sat blubbering on
her squeaky dorm bed, clutching her hard-won typed-up answers, I thought back to that Mamet lecture.

BOOK: Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences
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