Play Nice With the Killer Clown

Making it with local theater's kindest bad guy and smartest dummy

Very soon, I'm going to let Luverne Seifert tell you about what happened when he hit New York to "make it." But first, because this doggedly prim newspaper seems to have an inexplicable reputation for smuttiness, I want to stress that we're using the term "make it" in its strictly professional, non-salacious sense. The "make it," in other words, of Frank Sinatra's vaulting "New York, New York," not the "make it" of Bread's hot-to-trot "Make it With You." Okay, let's get it on.

"I had never been out of the state until I graduated from college," says Seifert, reminiscing in his pleasant home in sleepy St. Anthony. "I just decided one day that I was going to go to New York to make it. I was with my roommate and I said, 'I'm going to New York.' So I packed up, filled three suitcases, and got on an airplane for the first time in my life."

Seifert, who is an actor, slides into this tale as if he has recited it enough times that he can make it sound like he's never told it before. He sits rather still on his couch, rarely gestures, and speaks in a relaxed yet expressive tone. It's a bedtime story, almost.

Diana Watters

"A friend from college was living out there, and I was supposed to meet her at this restaurant. So I got on that plane, and I was extremely nervous. I remember seeing three fires on the landscape below, and I was just petrified. And I got there. Somehow I caught a bus, got into Manhattan. I was carrying my three suitcases, dragging them around town. [My friend] said to go get a subway, and so I saw the subway. I pushed that little button to talk to the person in the booth, and it didn't work, so I heard this: 'Ah Ouoh Ah eh ohoh ee oh.'

"I said 'I, I can't understand you. I need to get to...'

"'AH OUOH AH EH!' And they got more and more angry. Finally, I just...I couldn't do it. So I took my suitcases and I started walking. I think I walked, like, 30 blocks with these three suitcases. Finally I got to the place. The people at the restaurant said, Yeah, Julie, she went home early, didn't she?"

That was 1984. Last year, Seifert performed at Broadway's New Victory Theater, playing Polonius in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's touring production of Hamlet. So he has, in a way, made it in New York, though not as a result of his impulsive and ultimately brief mid-'80s quest. It should be stressed, however, that his initial big-city failure can't be attributed to a shortage of talent--he has that in abundance--but to his unconventional (foolish one might even say) strategy for conquest.

Parts of his make-it-in-New-York plan were sound. He arrived with $800 and no prospects, which is fairly by-the-book. Poverty is crucial for aspiring actors. It emotionally prepares you for both comedy and tragedy, and if you're asked to play Vladimir or Estragon, you can provide your own costume. Seifert lived in a Midtown hotel, selected for being "cheaper than the YMCA." It was furnished with little more than a chest of drawers and a bed, or perhaps we should say a cot that dreamed of being a bed. As if to make up for its Spartan furnishings, the apartment was generously stocked with cockroaches. At all times there was a foot of brown standing water in the communal bathroom's shower-tub.

Where Seifert erred, arguably, was in never auditioning. It is said that some diligent casting agents will scour Gotham's squalid communal showers for promising actors and singers, but this is rare. "I just kind of experienced life," says Seifert. "I audited one class, but I never auditioned once." Seifert ran out of money, became depressed, and flew back to Minneapolis.

But I believe Seifert when he says his New York experiment was "great," simply because he seems to have one of the most sincerely optimistic worldviews of anyone I've met since I served as under-assistant to the secretary of my middle school's Norman Vincent Peale Society. There's something childlike about this stocky 42-year-old who looks about 33 (still not the age of a child, but let's not have any sticklers on this point). His hair is thinning, but none of it's gray, and his skin is smooth enough to suggest the wild Botox parties that I'm almost certain he has never attended. People are often surprised to learn that he's in his 40s, says Seifert, which also has something to do with his disarmingly vernal way of talking. When I ask about his wife (Darcey Engen, a fellow theater pro who teaches drama at Augsburg College), he says, with moony sincerity, "She's niiice," which is kind of an odd thing to say, no? I don't mean to suggest any immaturity here, nor do I mean "childlike" in that Hey, Ritchie, let's kill some bugs with a magnifying glass way. I mean that Seifert seems to have a big, innocent heart to match his easy laugh, and to favor an irrepressible sense of play.

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