Before New Yorker Raymond J. Barry became a familiar face on a number of hit episodic television programs, he launched his career in theatre, appearing in more than 100 productions, which garnered him two Obie Awards (“Leaf People,” and “Molly’s Dream”) and a Drama Critic’s Circle Award for his play “Once in Doubt.” Barry earned a degree in philosophy from Brown University where he was as a star athlete in football, basketball, and track. This was followed by acceptance into the Yale School of Drama and the rest is, as they say, résumé history.
Barry’s film credits include “Dead Man Walking,” “Training Day,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Falling Down,” “The Chamber,” and “Cool Runnings.” His television credits span decades beginning in 1974 with “Upstairs, Downstairs,” and include guest appearances on “The X-Files,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and can currently be seen in a running role on FX’s “Justified.”
Barry recently sat down with The Mirror for an exclusive interview to discuss, among other things, his play, “Awake In A World That Encourages Sleep,” co-starring Joseph Culp and Tacey Adams which just completed a run at the Electric Lodge in Venice.
The following has been edited for continuity and print purposes.
What was it about the state of the world that motivated you to write “Awake in a World That Encourages Sleep?
Barry: I’ve gradually become aware of the fact that people in Congress are no longer my heroes, with some exceptions like Dennis Kucinich. They capitalize on their power and it’s a known fact that they’re all rich because of insider trading and other forms of corruption. Generally speaking, I don’t have much hope for the future of this country in terms of the direction in which it’s going. Power and wealth are in the hands of a few people and these people make choices to go to war, which has to do with economics. You had a handful of people deciding to invade Iraq. In 1990 I was on my honeymoon in Paris with my new wife, who is still my wife, and we’re watching the bombardment of Baghdad on television. What a bizarre program to be watching on television in Paris. I didn’t advocate this type of invasion. This was the first President Bush who made that decision. You know those decisions kill people. Then you see on television a young Iraqi boy being flown to the U.S. who has lost one arm and two legs and we’re patting ourselves on our back for giving him the most up to date prosthesis – false legs and a false arm – to make up for what we did to him? This kid had nothing to do with the invasion. The whole thing just made me feel like it’s hopeless. I said to a guy, I don’t know what to write about any more. I’ve written about my neuroses and my latent homosexuality, my half-gay family, my dysfunctional home life, male violence towards females, and about a dysfunctional relationship between an artist and his live-in girlfriend. I’m tired of all that. My friend said, “Write what you care about.” I said I didn’t care about anything and then, as an addendum, I said, “Well maybe politics,” and he said write about that. I said, “Are you kidding me? I don’t want to write a political science lecture.” Long story short, I wrote this play and the main obstacle was not to allow it to become didactic. It was a tricky thing to pull off. The glue between the woman and the two men, the love affair aspect of it, was the focus, with the backdrop of politics.
How long did it take to write the play and how long did you workshop it?
Barry:I worked on it for about five years, two hours a day, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. in the morning until 11 p.m. at night. You don’t make the rehearsals long – you make them short. You futz around, you don’t put a lot of pressure on people, there’s a lot of laughter, and a lot of fooling around and you make it as enjoyable as possible. If one of the actors doesn’t want to rehearse, no questions are asked. Nobody’s getting paid. The point being, it had to be a relaxed, enjoyable situation or all could be lost.
The program did not list a director or set design credit. Did you do both?
Barry: Yes. I directed it. As far as the set, that was a faux pas, and I am a little upset about it. Marcus Moret from New York designed that set. In the New York production, Marcus gave us a big white circle in a huge theatre, with a white tree and white benches and it was cool. He has an appetite for simplicity and designs all my stuff.
Your played is quite stylized both in the dialogue and movement. Were you influenced by the Theatre of Absurd style of theatre?
Barry: I don’t know what Theatre of the Absurd means. I put it together like a piece of music. I get bored when I watch plays because I hear the same sounds all the time. You talk, then I talk, then you talk, then I talk and the rhythm will very seldom change, so I started to challenge that maybe 25, 30 years ago which is when I began to futz around in workshops.
I had a company in New York and I noticed that when I messed around with your turn, my turn format, and we both talked simultaneously or you say half of your line, and I say half of my line, and you finish your line and I finish my line. It’s an overlap, and changes the rhythm of what you’re hearing verbally. I became fascinated with that, in the same way I would be fascinated with a horn and a violin making a sound simultaneously. By playing around with the number of voices speaking at one time, I noticed I could accentuate a specific line. I put it together like a piece of music, like a piece of jazz, as opposed to ‘I want to you to feel such and such.’ The actors will come up with their own feelings and interpretation of the lines. I’m not particularly interested in that. It will happen and if it ain’t happening, I’ll say to Tacey, (Adams who co-starred in “Awake In A World That Encourages Sleep) for example, ‘fake it baby – just fake it.” Go like this (He demonstrates ‘indicated’ or fake crying). Just do it for Christ sake. And, that’s how she arrives at the crying every night.
It’s probably the longest crying jag in history.
Barry: Yeah. And it’s cool as opposed to getting into her soul and making her cry and oh God, it’s such a bore. It’s not for this work, but would be useful for “Dead Man Walking” or for some kind of emotional, naturalistic movie. Movies have an advantage. You can put a little music in.
In your more than 100 plays and tons of television, is there one character that has stayed with you?
Barry: Yes. The painter in a play that I wrote called “Once in Doubt.” That’s my favorite character. He was an anarchist and an artist on the brink of death. He slashes his wrist in the opening beat of the play and proceeds to make a painting out of the blood (laughs). Now mind you, there’s no blood in the play. It’s all done with pantomime like this (extends his arms into the air and moves them around). It was a dance which I enjoyed doing. It was also an exhausting kind of a play. I did it all over the country. I did it in Philly, New York at La Mama, Chicago, Dallas, and three productions here in Los Angeles. It’s published. No one can do it. All my plays are completely indecipherable. If you read, “Awake In A World that Encourages Sleep,” it would be indecipherable.
The physical life of your character was fascinating. Do you have a dance background or classes in movement for actors?
Barry: I took some superficial classes and studied modern dance a bit and know how to dance. But I was an athlete in college and played a lot of sports and was always coordinated. I’m at home in my body so that part comes easily to me. I wish everything came as easily.
You and Joseph Culp have similar technique training. Does that give you a short hand in working together and how do you work with actors who have different techniques?
Barry: The experience both of us had at Herbert Berghoff Studio (HB Studio) is completely irrelevant in terms of the communication we have with each other in this work. The main deal is to learn the lines, say them every day to each other, get bored with them, go through the boredom, come back tomorrow, say the lines again, get bored again, then laugh, then somebody says a joke, then you’re laughing about the play, and the whole thing seems absurd and you say out loud, ‘Here we are saying these dumb lines to each other over and over and over and isn’t it absurd? When you reach the point where you don’t care, you can relax and that’s really the difference. If you care so much that you get tense over it, and where you hold on to some kind of concept of how it’s supposed to be done, what a bore and how uncomfortable it is to work under those circumstances. It all has to do with caring too much.
When an actor has less skill or training, is it easier from a director’s point of view?
Barry: Sometimes I work with people who are highly skilled, like Joe, or Jack Black who worked with me on one of my plays. He’s skilled. More often than not, I work with people who have less skill, but they’re not working and want to work on something, so they work on my play. If the person respects what I’m trying to do, they’ll acquiesce. Sometimes they’ll resist, and if they resist enough, I’ll say, ‘okay, let’s not do that, we’ll do something else.’ The training part of it is that sometimes I work with people who are badly trained and what they are doing is really not right, but they’ll end up being excellent in the play because they worked on it for four years.
What are the challenges of career, father, and husband? How do you manage all those roles?
Barry: That’s a fun question. I have a wife who is so cool and trusts my whole situation. I have a studio where I go to every day and spend five, six, or seven hours there. She knows exactly where I am. She absolutely allows me my space and visa versa I might say. I don’t know where she is right now and I don’t care. We have three kids between us ranging in ages from 20 down to 12 to three. I’m a 72-year-old man and have a three year old (laughter). It’s a trip. As far as my career is concerned, I make good money so she’s happy. We own our own place. No mortgage and the schools are getting paid for. I teach kids how to play basketball and all that stuff so my hand is in that. I have a girl so I don’t know what I’ll do with her. Maybe track – maybe a runner. I could teach her how to high jump.
There’s always soccer.
Barry: I don’t know the game. I respect soccer, but I know track and basketball. End of story.