Oakland actor recalls life, work over 39 years on stage

By Lou Fancher
January 31, 2013

OAKLAND -- Rockridge resident and veteran Bay Area actor Dan Hiatt said the most rewarding, surprising experience in his 39 years on stage came while uttering only 54 words and spending the majority of the Samuel Beckett play "Happy Days," buried underground, completely invisible to the audience.

"Staying engaged as 'Willie' was amazing, immensely satisfying," he said, a naive wonder transforming his placid face, his bubbly tone jutting up in marked contrast to the somber, pensive voice characterizing his more-typically measured responses. A native of Idaho, Hiatt came to the profession at the age of 18 when, scrambling to declare a college major, his father suggested drama because his son was funny and good at speeches.

"My family had a great sense of humor. They didn't have opportunities of college, but they were brilliant people and appreciated low and higher kinds of humor," he said. After moving to the Bay Area and tooling around as part of "The Distractions," an ensemble comedy-musical act, while working "day jobs" such as shoe salesman and welder, Hiatt began to stake his claim on A-list stages. Director Richard Seyd introduced Hiatt to California Shakespeare Theater, American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

"And we found farce together -- how to play everything for real," he said.

Praised by the media and audiences for his comedic sensitivities, Hiatt pays homage to W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and I was born in the wrong time period. I would have been great in radio at the turn of the century. Black-and-white films -- and the actors in them -- have influenced me."

Hiatt says W.C. Fields got the laughs by investing in real problems, not clowning.

"It's cliché," he stated, "but joy and sadness are the core of truly beautiful music, drama, life. If I'm cast in the clown role, I try to pull jokes. Then I realize, this is a sad person, or one with a chip on his shoulder. That's where their comedy comes from."

Hiatt is intensely private, saying he preferred solitude from the age of 3 and regrets he's never lost the feeling he must be someone other than himself when in public life. He holds a particular fondness for acting's bookends: the first script read-through and the breakthrough period when "the most frustrating, angering, exposing part of the process" are over.

"Those two weeks -- you're in front of people, looking bad, feeling bad. Then there's a time when knowing it in your head allows you to find the bits that are opposite. There's incredulous joy, flashes of deep, kingly rage -- you think, 'Oh good, I don't have to quit after all!' "

In his role in "Old Wicked Songs," the Center Repertory production opening at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center on Friday, he is hovering on the cusp of the blissful period.

"This could be the role that teaches me the most," he speculated. "It has to do with a man who's blocked because he has something he hasn't dealt with."

Pressed to explain, Hiatt's eyes redden. Suddenly, his malleable face is filled with pained surprise, as if he's just been stung by a bee. Twenty-four hours before sitting down to discuss his life and work, Hiatt's 96-year old mother, with whom he watched his beloved W.C. Fields, said to Hiatt and his siblings, "I'll be fine," before closing her eyes and never again reawakening.

"I don't want this to be about that," Hiatt said. "But major life events change your whole perspective. This character (I am playing) has imprisoned himself because of things he experienced that forced him to build walls around himself. I'm interested in letting out more, finding more input and output."

As a 57-year old actor, Hiatt finds his thoughts turning to the future.

"I love what I'm doing, but there are less roles for someone my age and, to be honest, it's a lot to learn; five plays in one year."

Writing a play would be "a dream gig," he suggested, before ducking into his hiding hole and doubting he has the skill to "catch a play like other playwrights."

Then, revived by the engine of his innate humor, he announced, "I love to write crossword puzzles. I'll do that. It's the only thing that pays less and takes more time than acting."

Schumann in Walnut Creek

By Janos Gereben
February 3, 2013

The city's small, but bold and accomplished Center REP is presenting now through March 2: Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs. 

The play is directed by Jessica Heidt, musical direction by Brandon Adams, and featuring a duo of outstanding actors in Dan Hiatt and Patrick Russell.

Hiatt plays an elderly, shopworn music professor in Vienna who at first clashes but later connects on a deep human and artistic level with a young American pianist, played by Russell.

Working on Schumann's Dichterliebe, teacher and student traverse the music's depth and variety — the song cycle used as a plot device, but also enriching the experience of both veteran fans and those new to the music.

The play also has psychological/political depths, with references to the Jewish student's experience of Central European antisemitism, the professor's apparent bias (hiding a surprising secret), discussion of Kurt Waldheim's campaign for Austria's presidency, and much more.

The title of the play comes from the title of the last song in Dichterliebe, "Die alten, bösen Lieder" "bösen" meaning bad or angry, but "wicked" is acceptable in the context:

The old, wicked songs,
the dreams angry and nasty,
let us now bury them,
fetch a great coffin.


An Interview with Jon Marans

By Michael Butler
November 2, 2012

This February, Center REP, the resident professional company of the Lesher Center for the Arts will present Jon Marans’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, Old Wicked Songs.  I saw the original New York production in 1996 and I’ve seen two other productions since then.  I love the play and have always wanted to produce it here at Center REP.  It’s a vivid and compelling story of the affirmative power of music.  A young American piano prodigy who is struggling with a serious performance anxiety is sent to study with a Master teacher in Vienna.  Instead of help with the piano, the teacher insists they work on singing Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle.  As these two men struggle with their many dichotomies, Schumann’s beautiful and haunting score becomes a template for remembrance, healing and the return of joy. I know our audiences will love it.  I spoke with playwright Jon Marans in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment on New York’s west side.


MB:     What was the genesis of Old Wicked Songs?

JM:      In a certain way it’s quite autobiographical.  I was a student in Vienna. I was not a piano prodigy by any means, but I was going there as a writer and lyricist to study singing so that I could understand how the singer felt. Which oddly ended up mirroring the story in Old Wicked Songs, where the piano player has to understand how the singer feels as well.  It was really an eye opening time. I was only 20 years old and had never been outside the United States.  

M         Did you in fact work on the Dichterliebe song cycle?

J          I had fallen in love with the Dichterliebe the first time I listened to it.  The poem was written by Heinrich Heine, when he was a fairly young man in his 20s, and it definitely has a young man’s anger, his passion and craziness and romanticism all wrapped into one, and I really latched onto that. It was only later when I started to write the play that I realized how much Schumann took this layer, took these initial words, and added his own other layer of a slightly older man looking back on the story of the Dichterliebe.  And the Dichterliebe is a story of a young man who falls in love, who loses his love and has to go through all the processes of mourning to be able to get out, get past it.

But interestingly, the lyrics themselves don’t allow the character or the poet to actually move past them, or move to the next step beyond all of this loss.  Which is why Schumann, at the end, wrote this incredible little musical epilogue, which actually releases the singer from all of the pain that he’s gone through.

M         Oh, that’s perfect.

J          Which is sort of unsettling because it’s only music that could do that.  Only that incredible element of music, which is so important to the play.  This really is a play about two musicians.

M         I love the story of what prompted you to actually start writing Old Wicked Songs.  You were stuck somewhere and something had happened with another play….?

J          I totally forgot! Oh right!

M         And do you mind us knowing this story?

J          No, not at all.  I had written this big musical that was supposed to happen in London’s West End and the show was completely cast, we lived in London, the director and the choreographer, and the musical director, we were all there. We cast the show and then 4 days before the rehearsal was supposed to start the money fell out.

M         Oh my god.

J          And I hadn’t been paid for a year and a half basically because you know, in theater you don’t get paid...

M         It’s all spec work…

J          Exactly.  I had worked for Michael Douglas for three years before that, as a story editor for his production company, so that was the last job I had, and suddenly, not only was this not happening, I had put all my eggs in this one basket, I didn’t have any money, it was very highly publicized; you know, they used to have the second page of the NY Times of the Arts and Leisure on Fridays…

M         All the tidbits and show biz news…

J          And it was the big story of how the show fell apart, and I just, I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I completely shut down, and I just didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.  So I said the hell with it, I’m just going to go away to Dorset and I’m going to write this little two character play which revolves around a song cycle by Schumann that no one is ever going to produce and that takes place in Vienna that no one even cares about in 1986, you know when Kurt Waldheim was about to be get elected president, but again why would anyone care about this, but I didn’t care - because I cared about it.

M         So it gets premiered in Philadelphia, very quickly moves to New York, and transfers then to the Promenade, which is one of the best off-Broadway theatres - and then is nominated for a Pulitzer!  Was that as crazily, dizzyingly exciting as it sounds?

J          It was, but it was all happening so fast and I don’t think, I know I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

M         Oh, well its ok, you can appreciate it now, it’s not like it goes away.

J          And then literally within a month it opened on the West End with Bob Hoskins, so I mean it was a crazy time.  

M         Oh I bet.  Do you even know how many productions now there has been of Old Wicked Songs….hundreds I’m sure…?

J          Yeah, there have been hundreds of productions, all over the world, I’ve been very lucky.  I think I told you I’ve seen probably about 50 productions.

M         What’s the most, sort of unusual or far flung place that it’s been done?

J          Well, Japan.

M         Oh did you see it?

J          No, they were supposed to fly me in…

M         Ha ha ha!

J          Do I need to explain to you about producers?

M         Ha ha ha, no…you do not!

M         So you know Jon, I’ve now seen three productions of the play, I love it, it’s always so fresh and powerful for me.  I love all theatre that is about the making of art, the power of art that celebrates the wonderful human imaginative capability.  I think this does all of that.  It’s very moving, but I think I’ve also heard you describe it as a comedy, or certainly talk about how important comedy is in this piece.  Am I right about that?

J          One of the things that I talk about, what makes a composer great, is that he has these two sides of the coin, you know, both the comedy and the tragic side. And I think that, personally, all dramas should have a lot of humor in them, I think it’s really necessary.  I almost think that it’s easier to have laughs in drama because things get so tight and tense that the audience is ready to laugh, they need to laugh.  And I think that humor is so important to this play.  It is both what the professor teaches and I think it’s also the way he lives his life.  I mean look, even with what’s going on with Hurricane Sandy here in New York and in New Jersey, and obviously it’s devastating what’s going on.  But it’s also astounding the number of New Yorkers you hear, and New Jerseyans, that you hear… I mean they are obviously upset what has happened to them, but they are going to go on.  They’re going to fix it.  There is that ability to laugh and find that crazy side of life that makes us human and is a very important part of us.

M         That’s beautiful.  Can you tell us what you’re working on now, or is that …?

J          You mean the Paint Your Wagon?  I think I can, because I saw it listed it in their newsletter…

M         Well then, its official.

J          Right, if it’s listed in the newsletter then I think I can say it.  So I'm rewriting the book Paint Your Wagon for the Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle.

M         And it’s a pre-Broadway tryout right?

J          Knock on wood yes, so we’ll see how it all goes…

M         Congratulations, that’s a great gig!  Any final thoughts for us about Old Wicked Songs?

J          The thing that always works for me on Old Wicked Songs, always, and this is hopefully true for your audience as well, is that Schumann’s music is captivating.  It’s haunting and captivating, and it reaches you in some core way and for me that hook of the music is really quite incredible and that I can always listen to.