Chicago Actor Larry Neumann Jr.
Conversation with Nancy Bishop
By: Nancy Bishop - Nov 11, 2019
Larry Neumann Jr. is known as one of
Larry, I have vivid memories of you in many plays but my favorite was probably the Famous Door production of Cider House Rules in 2003. There was a film version of Cider House Rules, with Michael Caine playing Dr. Larch. But there weren’t dozens of productions or dozens of Dr. Larches. That’s quite different from your next role, playing Vladimir or Didi in Waiting for Godot. There have been hundreds of productions of that play, many featuring some of the most famous actors in the world.
How do you create a role like that? Do you study those other performances—or do you avoid all those other Didis?
We have seen a little of these other productions. What’s been fascinating is that there are actors in
And on the other hand, Lucky is a little gem of a role too. Pozzo’s servant.
Oh yes. Lucky, Pozzo’s servant who’s deaf and dumb pretty much throughout the play, but then has that one magnificent scene. It’s a three-page monologue of absurdity. Just amazing.
Beckett is one of my favorite writers. So I was excited for the opportunity, when Dennis (director Dennis Zacek) called me and said, I could use you, can you do this? I said, of course. Why wouldn’t I want to do this role? And it’s great. So I guess I can cross that off the bucket list.
I have a question about the pronunciation of the title—it’s controversial. Some people pronounce it the European way with the accent on the first syllable—GODoh—and some use the American pronunciation.
Yeah, we’re using the American pronunciation, GooDOH.
Your director, Dennis Zacek, is a legend in
I think what Dennis is focusing on with us is the listening. Even though some of the sequences are absurd, it’s a matter of trying to find the truth. It’s that simple. Find the truth in the words and use the words. Because if you follow the words and the little punctuation bits and the ahs and the pauses and all of that, you’ll get the sense of the play. You know, there’s no need to add bells and whistles to Beckett.
Godot has kind of a gloomy magic. That’s how one writer described it. But if someone asked me what it was about, I might be a smart ass and say it’s like Seinfeld, it’s about nothing. But it isn’t, is it?
My sister-in-law asked me last night, well, what’s the play about? And it took me a moment. It’s about waiting. And it’s about doing, you know, either wait, wait, wait, wait. Or you actually take hold of your life and get on with it. The will to keep moving. No matter what happens, no matter where you are in your life, you gotta keep going on.
I’d like to talk about your career. You’ve been acting in
Playing Artaud (Antonin Artoud in Artaud at Rodez, by Charles Marowitz) was the first kind of breakout thing that I did. That was when me and a few friends from college (at Illinois Wesleyan) started Blind Parrot Theatre and focused on absurdist plays. And then after that, I was sort of free for a bit and then worked with Famous Door for about 10 years until it folded in about 2005. That was the last company I was with and I sort of miss being part of an ensemble.
But I’ve been very blessed, I’ve worked almost every house in
You mentioned that Dennis Zacek called you and asked you to do this. Do you have to audition for roles very much any more? Or do directors say this is a Larry Neumann part. Let’s get him.
Yeah, that happens. We’d like to see Larry come in and give us a turn. That’s pretty much how it is.
So back in the early days, did you have some horrible audition experiences?
The nightmare auditions were mostly related to TV. I was always very confident, but for TV, it’s that you come in and it’s like this is what we want for the scene and you do it. It sounds bad, but there’s no working with the actor.. There’s more time when you’re on a feature film. There’ll be more time to work on a rehearsal process. But for the most part, anything smaller, like if you have a guest part on a television show, you’re there to support the main people. You’re there to be a character that advances the plot. You’re the homeless guy, you know, or the drunk. That’s what you specialize in.
Do you remember what your first professional role was?
I guess it was with Blind Parrot. But we weren’t paid, it certainly was not an Equity production. And this production (of Godot) sort of hearkens back to that a little bit really because it’s a short process. Three weeks of rehearsal, then tech rehearsal, then preview. So next week is tech.
I’ve seen Waiting for Godot, I don’t know how many times. I saw a production in a church basement where the setting was the Mexican border. And that excellent Irish production that was at
He played Didi. He’s going to come and see me. That whole cast was great.
How long did it take you to get your Equity card?
I got an Equity card first for stage managing down in Park Forest (at the
Thinking again about Cider House Rules. There were some days when you did both parts—six hours of performance.
We were at the old
That has to be physically exhausting. How do you do that?
You learn how to conserve your energy, you know, so that you had to keep in your head. I’m doing both parts today. But at the same time, the beauty of that show was when we did both shows in the same day, the audience was really involved in the story. It was a beautiful way to see it. And nobody felt exhausted. It was well received and everybody I think loved doing that. We won six Jeff awards for that. I know I got one.
Is Waiting for Godot going to be exhausting?
We’re got about an hour in the first act and about 45ish for the second, so it runs two hours with the 15 minute intermission. It’s a five-week run, I think, and by the end of the run, we’re exhausted. By the end of the ride. End of the play.
It will be different once we’re in performance mode because now, you know, we start the day really early. I’m not a morning person. We’re starting about 10 o’clock and rehearsing four or five hours. And then my character doesn’t ever sit down. Gogo sits down to get his boots off or on. But Didi, never. He’s the one with the urinary problems.
Well, who carries the vegetables in his pocket? Didi or Gogo?
That would be me—Didi. He has both carrots and turnips. Godot is sometimes funny. There are a lot of vaudeville bits.
Did you have a life before theater in between college and when you started that theater?
There were two years I was helping my dad out with the hot dog stand. Jay’s Where Beef Is King—that was at 9400 South Commercial underneath the Skyway. So I was doing that and then I saw this opportunity to go to Park Forest and work for the
After that some younger friends who had graduated by then told me, Hey, we’re starting a theater company. You have to be part of it. That was Blind Parrot. That was when I finally transitioned from the South side to the North side. Now I’m back on the South side again, living in
What neighborhood did you grow up in?
I grew up in what they called the East side, around 101st and
What did he think of what you did?
Oh, he thought that was ridiculous. I said, but dad, I’m doing what I want to do. He said, but how are you going to live? I’ll live, I said. I’ll be fine.
Do your parents and family come to see your shows?
They do come and see the shows, usually the extended family. My parents are frail. But yeah, my sister and probably my other brother will come and see the show and they’ll bring them with them and make a day of it, you know? Sometimes my aunts, cousins, nephews, people like that. It’s great to have all that support, you know. It’s love. It is.
Do you see a lot of theater, other than what you’re working on?
I try, you know when I’m not working. You have to keep yourself open to what’s going on, you know, it’s your life.
Do you have any heroes in theater, actors, directors, playwrights that you particularly admire?
I would certainly say
In film, I was always drawn to (Robert) DeNiro’s work because that was when I was growing up and being a young actor. Yeah, he’s still great.
Is there any playwright you’d particularly like to do?
I’d like to do more Beckett. I’d like to do more Beckett and there’s more out there. Steve (
Is there some particular role that’s made a mark on you, that’s changed you in some way?
Probably there are a few. The Puppetmaster of
The audience has to be with you there. It’s the empathy that builds up for that character and his struggle. it’s what I try to focus on—the empathy and the love that keeps people going. That’s what drives us. The puppetmaster—Finkelbaum—was a Holocaust survivor, basically holes himself up in a garret and creates a puppet of his wife. And there were a couple sizes of puppets. There was one that was close to life size. She was made out of wire and cloth and she was about this high (measures). Then there was a tiny one. And he tried, he was reenacting their life.
So a classic question for a veteran actor. If an acting student asked you for advice, what would you say you wished you had known before you started this acting stuff that you have dedicated your life to?
Don’t. Don’t do it. And I don’t know if it’s generational or maybe because it’s who I am. You can’t get this mindset of, okay, I’m going to get my union card and then I’m going to head out to LA and get a TV thing and boom, there I go. That’s my career. But sometimes they come back.
Maybe you can say that I took a safer route and didn’t go out there, but for me it was always the sense of community here. I mean, it’s what
This is a question that theater people don’t agree on. Do you read reviews? Some actors say they never read reviews, or they don’t read reviews of their own work.
No, I read them. And when I was young, yeah, I would go out in the middle of the night when the reviews came out in the papers. I used to do that. Well I think it was basically what I was used to—I did speech competition in high school, you know. So you were always being judged and you got a score. So there was always that in the back of my head, I want to see what they say. What’s the review? What bothered them.
Do you ever take note of what a reviewer says?
I read it and that’s it. I’ve read it. No, but I will analyze, I will see what they got from the show, what they thought of my performance. And then of course now being old and jaded, I’ll have my opinions of the critics as well and what their work is like. And then you have the audience’s reaction too, but then the critic hopefully, is more familiar with the material. And that’s important, you know?
Is there a difference to you being in a small theater like this (the upstairs theater at
Oh, certainly. Certainly you feel more connection with the audience, I think. And that’s how
Is there a role you always wanted to play that you’ve never been asked to play? Do you ever want to play Macbeth or Hamlet?
It was this one until now–Godot. I’m too old for Hamlet and Macbeth now. So this is a good role, now that I just turned 60—I’m starting my sixties, playing Beckett, that’s good.
Sort of philosophically thinking, what has acting taught you about yourself or about human nature?
We’re all capable of anything, of being anything. I think we all have a seed within us of pure good and pure evil. I think it’s a matter of where you focus your life and of course your circumstances. But I think every man is Everyman.
So is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you’d like to comment on?
This little soapbox is my chance? Just keep doing it, you know and be sure it’s true. Someone said, I remember, it just flashed in my head about someone, I won’t say who, an artist said we need to do this because this is what we do and we don’t care about the audience. And I was so adamant against that kind of thinking. It’s anathema to me—because it’s for the audience, for making that connection. You know, you could do your play with no audience and what is the purpose?
Well, thank you, Larry. This has been great and I appreciate your taking time to talk to us.
It’s been fun for me too. Thanks.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot opens Sunday, November 17, in the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens Theater. Previews begin Friday, November 15.
Posted courtesy of Third Coast Review,