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Creative Machine: Jeff Daniels, May 1 at the Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 12 March 2008 02:48

Reader issue #675 Since his big-screen debut in 1981's Ragtime, and particularly since his 1983 breakthrough in Terms of Endearment, Jeff Daniels has been one of America's most familiar and sought-after character actors, with memorable roles in such films as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Something Wild, Arachnophobia, Speed, Dumb & Dumber, Pleasantville, The Hours, The Squid & the Whale, and Good Night, and Good Luck.

Less commonly known, however, are Daniels' impressive stage credentials. A former member of New York's legendary Circle Repertory Company, he appeared on Broadway in playwright Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July in 1980 and Redwood Curtain in 1993, and after a 14-year absence, returned to the New York stage last spring in an acclaimed off-Broadway production of David Harrower's Blackbird. Daniels is also an accomplished playwright, with 11 titles professionally produced - among them the romantic comedy Apartment 3A (opening at Iowa City's Riverside Theatre on March 27) and the raucous Ecsanaba in da Moonlight - and a new work, Panhandle Slim & the Oklahoma Kid, premiering in June.

Yet perhaps even less commonly known are Daniels' musical credentials. To date, he has released three CDs of alternately comedic and poignant folk songs - 2005's Live & Unplugged, 2006's Grandfather's Hat, and 2007's Together Again - featuring material written, sung, and, on guitar, played by Daniels himself. The CDs were designed to raise funds for The Purple Rose Theatre Company, the not-for-profit professional theatre founded by Daniels (and for which he serves as executive director), based in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan.

On May 1, Daniels brings his vocal talents to the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse for two performances, and during a recent phone interview, he spoke about his musical beginnings, the modus operandi of the Purple Rose, how the American playwright can continue to thrive, and audiences that get a kick out of porcupine piss.


Musical Diary

Jeff DanielsDaniels' performance training started in musical theatre, with high-school and summer-stock roles including Harold Hill in The Music Man, El Gallo in The Fantasticks, and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Though musicals eventually took a back seat to serious drama, Daniels began writing songs about his life experiences, which he stored away in a notebook; on the Purple Rose Web site (, he states that "if you really wanted to get to know me, you'd find me in there." Daniels has thus far composed some 400 folk tunes, "300 of which," he says during our interview, "are just complete garbage. They'll never see the light of day."


I was in chorus in junior high, and then the choral teacher ended up directing the musicals in high school and during the summers, and I was one of six or eight people she knew could do musicals. She wanted to do Fiddler, she wanted to do Oliver! - everything. So you quickly learned how to sing on the stage in front of 600 people playing a character. But when I went to New York I was off-Broadway, and musicals were for, you know, people that weren't serious. And so I just stopped doin' 'em.

However, I bought a guitar, took it to New York with me, and unbeknownst even to myself, I was into writing. I was interested in writing. And I would write these songs about whatever ... getting completely creamed by the New York Times in my first play performance, and then writing four songs about rejection. And they'd go into this notebook, and it became a musical diary. I had no intention of bringing it out; it was just me trying to basically keep my sanity, living alone in New York City at 22.

Then I played with some friends, and they said, "Steven Grossman has some tablature books. Try these." And all of a sudden I'm finger-picking, and learning that there's a whole upper neck to the guitar, and then it got fun. It just became this kind of creative outlet when you're sitting in between jobs for months at a time.



Film Acting on Stage

The Purple Rose TheatreAfter appearing in several successful Hollywood films, Daniels and his wife, Kathleen (the actor's high-school sweetheart), returned to their hometown of Chelsea in 1986. Five years later, Daniels founded the Purple Rose Theatre Company, an intimate, 168-seat venue housed in a former used-car and bus garage owned by Daniels' grandfather, and dedicated to the presentation of original, modern American works.


Kathleen and I moved back to Michigan to raise our kids, and after about three, four years here - you know, when I wasn't doing movies - creatively, I was going to sleep. So I bought a building thinking that we could at least make a community theatre out of it, and I could write plays and whatever. But I gambled that there might be professional actors, that there might be people who didn't get the breaks I did, who were still around the southeast Michigan area who were good, and/or whom I could develop into doing the kind of acting that I did and knew about in New York at Circle Rep.

So that became the project, and I started gathering people, developing people, and then once they got it, once they understood, they developed other people. And that's where we are now. Creatively, we're all on the same page, from the artistic director all the way to the classes we teach. It's really kind of a machine. A creative machine. That's what it is.

It's film acting on stage. Gone is the presentational, boring acting style of many theatres, where they shoot it off the back wall and you don't believe it. Where, as an audience member, you sit there going, "You know, I'm told this is really good, but ... ." We pull you right in. It's like acting in close-up, where the audience is only three feet away. When the audience is literally three feet away from you, you don't have to shoot it out. They're right there. And when you do a play like Escanaba in da Moonlight and they [the characters] start throwin' around that porcupine piss, it ends up in the front row sometimes. And people love it. Except for the dry-cleaning bills, they absolutely love it.

So, for 16 years, that's what we've been doin'. We predominantly do new plays. We want new plays. We want living, breathing playwrights who've written about this part of the country walking in our theatre, wanting to hear the new second act because he did a re-write on it. That's when theatre is alive and well and breathing.



Get Up There

Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of CairoFor more than 10 years, Daniels kept his musical talents a secret from those at the Purple Rose. It wasn't until a visiting friend arrived in town that they finally heard him perform, with the result being local bookings, CD releases, national tours, and funds for Daniels' theatre.


They had seen me play in a bar when Lanford Wilson was in town. Lanford pushed me up on stage 'cause he remembers me playing in New York at Circle Rep. He goes, "You haven't played the guitar for them?" I said, "No, they don't even know I play." And he goes, "Get up there." And they saw me play, and they just said, "Why aren't you doing this?" And I'm going, "I'm known as an actor. I don't want to be Shatner, you know?" [The first track on Daniels' Live & Unplugged CD is titled "If William Shatner Can, I Can Too."]

But we decided to book, I think, five shows, and sell tickets, and just see what happened. And it was wonderful, newfound money. So we just recorded the shows, thinking we could release the CD in southeastern Michigan and maybe make a couple thousand bucks. And then Christine Lavin heard it and had me on her XM radio show in New York, and all of a sudden it was, you know, "Make another, make a third ... ."

They're doin' well. We've sold about a thousand of them, and online sales are up - people, because of the first two CDs, they're buying this new one. And all the money I might make as a publisher, as a songwriter, goes to the theatre. So we've been able to write checks over the years, off of all three CDs, for about 35 grand. Wonderful money for the theatre.

And I really enjoy it [touring]. It's the show I have in my back pocket, and I pull it out, and it moves around a little bit - you know, the set list becomes more fluid depending on the crowd - but I just really enjoy doin' it. And you know, I haven't played Rock Island, but I've played the Grand Opera House [in Wisconsin], and it's just a wonderful, 100-year-old opera house. Mark Twain spoke there, and Mark's brothers came through with their vaudeville act. I love that history. You know, you gotta get away from the top 10 cities.




Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney in The Squid and the WhaleDespite most theatre audiences' inclination to be wary of works they haven't previously heard of, Daniels says that the Purple Rose hasn't found it difficult to lure crowds - or at least, he adds, "Not now." He states that the key to his theatre's success, and what should be the key for venues nationwide, lies not with playwrights and producers giving audiences what it's assumed they need, but what they actually want.


I would argue - and have said to artistic directors and playwrights at regional theatres all over the country - to stop doing what New York tells you to do, and write about the people that are sitting in your audience. If you're in Davenport, write about Iowa. It's kind of the theory of the Purple Rose Theatre Company. I mean, Escanaba in da Moonlight is a comedy about a bunch of deer hunters in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and people flocked to that play.

The trick, we found, is comedy. They'll come to see that. You know, stop telling people it's art. Tell 'em that it's gonna be a great time on Saturday night. And if it is, they'll come back. And they do. From day one, they did that for us. "It's a play about Michigan, I hear!" "I hear it's funny, too!" That's all they need to know. When you tell 'em it's art, and that it's good for them ... . You know, it's like asparagus. "It's good for you - eat it." Well, they aren't gonna come then. They're payin' money, so you gotta meet 'em halfway.

If you write a play about Iowa that's funny, they'll come and see that. They want to see themselves; that will at least interest them. Then, if your production is good, and the actors are good, and the play is good, they'll come back and see the next thing you're gonna do. That's the trick.



Off Off Off Off Broadway

Jeff DanielsThough his professional career began in New York, Daniels sees the current state of theatre becoming more and more removed from the city, particularly in regard to the exorbitant cost of both producing and attending live productions. ("As far as tickets go," he says, "New York's a joke.") All the more reason, he believes, for playwrights to focus their attention not on Broadway, but on their own backyards.


You know, it's safer and easier to do a published work that's been proven in New York. And artistic directors will tend towards that, because they can kind of cut the knees out from the critics. You know, the critics at whatever papers will come to see a new work that has not been done in New York or anywhere else, and the first thing they'll think is it's workshop. It's still developing. Because the highest standard is New York.

My argument is the highest standard is not New York anymore, because the American playwright is in the regional theatres. He can't get his work done in New York. It costs too much. Even off-Broadway. It's not like it was in the '70s where you had Lanford Wilson and all these guys walkin' around and theatres that could afford to do their plays. They can't afford to do 'em anymore. They have to charge so much, even off-Broadway, that it almost becomes cost-prohibitive to do a new play, or to take a chance, and you have to go off off off off Broadway, with no production value whatsoever, to see a new American play. Not always, but it certainly isn't the way it used to be.

So where does the American playwright go? If he doesn't go to Two & a Half Men to sit around a table with 15 other ex-playwrights and write jokes for Charlie Sheen, he's in the regional theatres. Or in Iowa. Floating around. Get him or her to write about Iowa, and start telling people it's a play about them. "We're holding a mirror up to you." And they will start to come. They really will.



Jeff Daniels' CDs can be purchased - and samples of his songs can be heard - by visiting ( For tickets to Daniels' May 1 concert at Circa '21, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.

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