Dan Butler got the call on a Wednesday. By Sunday, with only a few days to rehearse, he was onstage playing Truman Capote in the first performance of a world premiere, “WarholCapote,” at American Repertory Theater.
“I don’t know if I’m compartmentalizing,” says Butler, best known for his work as Bulldog Briscoe on TV’s “Frasier,” “but I’m just trying to take it in steps. I’ve certainly learned to keep my sense of humor.”
Butler stepped into the role when Leslie Jordan, originally cast as Capote, left the production for personal reasons after a month of rehearsals. Butler got a call from his agent as he and his husband, actor and director Richard Waterhouse, were preparing to leave their home in Vermont. Waterhouse is teaching at Brown University this fall, and Butler was heading back to New York. With only a day to read the script and decide whether to take the role, Butler says he tried to make a list of pros and cons.
“But I couldn’t come up with any cons,” he says. “Opportunities come into your life for a reason, and you have to just go with it.”
“WARHOLCAPOTE” consists of a series of conversations the visual artist and the writer had when they were considering collaborating on a play in the 1970s. Adapter Rob Roth sifted through many hours of audio tape to craft a show that allows both men to reveal their vulnerability, their struggles with celebrity, and doubts about their craft.
“There’s really no time to overthink it,” Butler says with a laugh. “I landed in the midst of tech week, so I immediately sat down on the set in costume, someone immediately put makeup on me, and off we went.”
Although he has been performing with script in hand during previews, with each performance, he says, he’s been able to rely on it less and less. At an early preview, when Butler’s script was missing a page, costar Stephen Spinella stayed in character as Warhol to ask the prompter in the front row to hand over her page.
“The challenge is that because Rob Roth used the exact words Andy Warhol and Truman Capote spoke, the script is filled with ‘buts,’ ‘I means,’ and ‘you knows,’ that are harder to integrate,” Butler says.
Although many actors understudy roles and are prepared to step in at the last minute, going in cold is rare. The last time Butler was asked to jump in without much rehearsal was in 2008, when the New York Theatre Workshop production of Michael Weller’s “Beast” required a last-minute substitute.
“But I was only in two scenes in that one,” Butler says. “This . . . this is much bigger.”
With each performance, he says, he’s also able to step more deeply into the character.
“Truman is all about language, and I feel like I have the rhythm of his speech now,” Butler says.
Working opposite Spinella, a Tony Award-winning actor, has also made a difference, Butler says.
“Stephen and I have known each other for years, but never worked together,” he says. “He’s been great. The show is set up in some ways like the Andy Warhol Talk Show, with Andy as the mysterious presence and Truman as his guest, so I do take my cues from him.”
But the beauty of the piece, says Butler, is that “WARHOLCAPOTE” explores a section of their lives people don’t know. The two men are drawn to each other because they are both “peculiar, unique, and authentic,” Butler says.
“It’s easy to get lost in the things Truman is saying because both he and Andy are worrying about the impact of celebrity on their ability to be creative, and wonder if they’ve wasted their lives.” Adapter Roth says Butler is “the bravest man I know, to step in at the last minute.”
But Butler says he hopes he earns his applause, “not because I was the last-minute fill-in, but because I’ve created a compelling character.”
In Lowell, changes onstage and off
At the start of his third season as artistic director at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Sean Daniels says he’s proud of the growth the company has achieved. “What’s great about our audiences is that they are committed to the theater,” Daniels says. “Many people renew their subscriptions before we announce the season.”
Since four out of the seven plays last season were world premieres, with another four this season, Daniels says that commitment indicates their faith in the artistic team’s ability to curate an experience for them. Now, he says, the theater needs to reward that commitment by finding ways to engage the audience in the work MRT is doing.
“The board is confident that we’ve turned around our artistic vision,” he says. “Now we need to do the same with our administrative effort.”
To help make that a reality, the MRT announced this week the appointment of Bonnie J. Butkas as executive director. Butkas, who is coming from the Rochester Institute of Technology where she served as director of corporation and foundation relations, worked with Daniels as the director of development when they were both at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. “We share a love of a certain kind of theater,” Daniels says, “and Bonnie brings a real understanding of fund-raising to support tour audience engagement and education efforts.”
Daniels says he’s eager to build on the education programs he’s launching. “It’s never been a priority to get young people into the theater,” Daniels says. “We need to dedicate resources to this. The truth is, we aren’t working with a drama department in most schools, we are the drama department and we need to meet that need.”
Dressing the part
“It’s kind of been my lifelong dream to be a drag queen,” says Boston actress Kiki Samko. When she performed in the Gold Dust Orphans’ “Greece” in a Marilyn Monroe-inspired performance as the goddess Daphne, she says some audience members weren’t sure if she was a man. “I have kind of big shoulders, and Marilyn Monroe is an iconic drag character, so I guess that threw them off.”
After a run earlier this year in Boston, the Orphans will reprise their mash-up of “Grease” and Greek mythology in New York Oct. 13-15 at Theatre 80 St. Marks. But before Samko goes, she will perform as a “faux” or “bio” drag queen opposite Varla Jean Merman and Gold Dust Orphan playwright and artistic director Ryan Landry in “5 to 9.”
Landry’s reworking of the film “9 to 5,” which starred Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, will play at Machine nightclub on Boylston Street Sept. 21-24. The tale of three secretaries who get even with their boss for his sexist treatment has been updated, Landry-style, to reflect three White House secretaries in the current administration. The show has been running all summer in Provincetown, but Peaches Christ, the drag artist who was playing the Jane Fonda role, is heading out on tour, so Landry tapped Samko.
“It was intimidating at first,” says Samko of performing with two prima drag artists. “I already have a big persona, but I had to turn up the light a little more to match them.”
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.