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October 22, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 22, 2004

Living-room theater Living-room theater (October 22, 2004)

Actor Gerald Hiken performs in his home -- with dessert

by Robyn Israel

Actor Gerald Hiken doesn't mind if people close their eyes and fall asleep during his performances.

And when an embarrassed reporter began coughing during his act, Hiken immediately stopped reciting, handed the reporter a lozenge and got back in character, without missing a beat.

That would never happen on Broadway.

But this is not the Great White Way. The venue is, instead, Hiken's cozy Palo Alto cottage, where all the action takes place in his living room. Surrounded by friends, neighbors and relatives, Hiken delivers an hour-long solo performance in which he assumes three different literary characters -- Marcel Proust, W.H. Auden and Gertrude Stein -- and reads from their works.

"When I was a little boy I wanted to be a writer," said Hiken, a 40-year resident of Palo Alto. "Now this is my chance to 'become' some of the best writers I know."

Hiken's own resume is impressive, with stage, screen ("Reds") and television ("Cheers," "St. Elsewhere," "All in the Family") credits. He trained with noted acting teachers Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen. He received a Tony nomination in 1980 for "The Strider," in which he played a horse that was the embodiment of Leo Tolstoy. His office even has a caricature of that role created by the late Al Hirschfeld, the famed New York Times artist.

Two other unique features of his "living-room-theater" event include an informal discussion about the performance, after which guests gather in Hiken's kitchen, where his wife, Barbara, a former baker and pastry chef at St. Michael's Alley, serves home-made desserts.

The public is also welcome to attend the Friday and Saturday-night performances, provided people call ahead to ensure that space is available (Hiken's living room accommodates up to 12 people). Hiken calls his experiment "straw hat theater," as donations are welcome.

"I've always been upset that to get a good seat in a theater you need to pay a lot of money," he said. "Otherwise you have to sit in an uncomfortable chair far away. There's something about that class system that I don't like."

Hiken's alternative idea stemmed from his desire to perform in an intimate setting, where he can see each member of the audience.

"There's something about acting I love and a lot I don't. I'm not like most actors. I'm in it for another reason -- I'm in it for the words. I'm not in it for the horsing around. If I could get out of the curtain calls I would. Bowing is one of my least favorite things."

Hiken's current gig is not new for him. He first started performing "living room theater" in 1968, after leaving Stanford, where for four years he taught drama and helped organize the university's master's in fine arts program, with fellow actor Paul E. Richards.

The recent revival also coincides with Hiken's dislike of commuting to acting jobs. Travel has become more of an issue for the 77-year-old actor. When he recently did "Noises Off" for California Shakespeare, he lived in Berkeley and commuted to San Francisco.

"It's lost its pleasure. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of driving my body to San Francisco and back. I love playing the shows, but I don't want to live alone in an apartment in Berkeley while my family is here."

An audition for Berkeley Repertory first prompted Hiken to perform Auden's "Recitative" and "Narrative," both part of a larger work, "For the Time Being." Published in 1941, while the English poet was living in New York and feeling tormented by his war-ravaged country, the works resonated with Hiken.

"I've always been moved by that piece," he said. "It expresses the sentiments of someone who once felt invulnerable, who's lost faith."

In the aftermath of 9/11, Auden's grim poetry seemed even more appropriate, Hiken said.

"It's almost prophetic, the multi-layered experience of shock and tragedy, the seeds of which were evident but couldn't be recognized," he said.

In compiling his triumvirate of literary works, Hiken wanted to lead off with something more uplifting, so he chose Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," specifically the novel's first cycle, "Swann's Way." First published in 1913, it chronicles the story of a man who feels mediocre and useless -- until he drinks his tea and eats his madeleines. The simple tasting brings back a pleasant childhood memory, triggering feelings of happiness.

"The pain of the outside world to Auden is a contrast to the inner joy of Proust," Hiken said.

The last segment is "Narration," a lecture on newspaper writing that Gertrude Stein delivered to students at the University of Chicago in 1935. It was one of four lectures on various types of writing, when Stein was touring various college campuses after the successful publication of "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas."

Hiken has a particular fondness for this piece. He first discovered it as a high school senior in Harry Schwartz's book store in Milwaukee, WI. He fell in love with the writing and could not put it down.

"She was a very smart lady, but she was a little cuckoo, a little peculiar. Still, there's something about her spirit I like a lot."

Stein's writing can be obscure, so Hiken said he only presents the part he is able to understand. He also took the liberty of repunctuating her work, facilitating its comprehension for his audience.

"She would probably be horrified," Hiken said. "I've popularized her."

Hiken's treatment met with the approval of guest Pam Webster.

"I always heard the beat in her writing. And I could hear the poetry but I could never get the meaning," Webster said. "I never knew where she was going, let alone where she ended up. But tonight I could really understand it. It was illuminating."

Another guest, Sonia Gill, said she enjoyed the performance but struggled to connect with Auden's poetry.

"I felt like they (Stein and Proust) were working it out in front of us," Gill said. "But I felt his was all tied up and I couldn't get into it."

Hiken will be suspend his personal performances after Dec. 11, when he assumes a role in TheatreWorks' holiday show, "Shakespeare in Hollywood."

But he will resume his living-room theater in mid-February, where he will again demonstrate that in Palo Alto -- echoing Stein's famous line about Oakland -- there's a there there.

Who: Gerald Hiken, performing excerpts from the writings of Marcel Proust, W.H. Auden and Gertrude Stein

Where: 910 Moreno Ave. in Palo Alto

When: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Performances will continue through Dec. 11 and then resume in mid-February.

Cost: Donations are welcome.

Info: Please call (650) 856-6520.

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