Actors Fried and Epstein remain 'endlessly curious'

by Erica Mixon / Beacon Correspondent • October 1, 2014

Jonathan Fried visited Emerson.
Jonathan Fried visited Emerson.

A question from an Emerson student summed up actor Jonathan Fried’s weeklong residency at the college: “How do you sustain yourself in a career in the theater when so much of what you have to do is a series of brutal indignities?”

Fried, 55, visited various performing arts classes during his week at Emerson, and advised doing things that lead to creative satisfaction. 

“He said that you should actively try to do something creative every day,” said Erin Schwall, an adjunct professor of performing arts. “Part of being a good actor is not just straight acting work, but reading all kinds of books.”

Fried said it’s important to him to maintain his other interests, which include French culture and vintage photography.

“My experience is that the way to sustain myself is to remain teachable, a student of life...to treat my education as an open-ended process,” Fried said.

Kathleen Donohue, an associate performing arts professor, said her acting students appreciated Fried’s candor during his time in class.

“They loved that he was confident, and yet there was a humility to him,”  Donohue said. “He also was able to be quite vulnerable in class.”

Teachability, for Fried, is a quality that he found prevalent in the life of Alvin Epstein, a legendary Broadway actor who played Lucky in the play Waiting for Godot in its American premiere. Fried told stories from Epstein’s life in an event on Friday, Sept. 26 that culminated his residency at Emerson. 

Fried met Epstein, who is now 89, in 1992 while working on a production of King Lear. During rehearsal breaks Epstein often invited Fried to his dressing room, where he would tell him rich stories of his life.

“When I first met [Epstein] in 1992, I was struck by the fact that here’s this guy pushing 70, who is a major figure in American theater, and he comes into rehearsal every morning as though he’s one of his own acting students,” Fried said. “He was always ready to play and ready to learn.”

Fried said that through Epstein, he was taught to be “endlessly curious about the world, and the people around him,” and that remaining teachable was one of the most important things about being an actor.

Fried recounted that when he asked Epstein if he could record these stories, Epstein “very firmly but politely said no.” 

“It bothered me that these stories had never been written down,” Fried said, “that one day, they would vanish with Alvin.”

For 18 years, Fried said whenever he would see Epstein in social or professional settings, he would ask him for permission. It wasn’t until 2009, when both actors were cast in The Bridge Project—a three-year transatlantic project created by Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes to showcase New York and London talent—when Epstein finally agreed to let Fried record his stories.

Fried began recording, on the first day of The Bridge Project’s international tour.

“By the time we arrived in London, it was clear that it was going to be more than a CD,” Fried said. “We had a significant project on our hands, and the idea of a book became obvious.” 

Now, four years have passed since the tour ended, and Fried has a nearly finished manuscript that he said he expects to publish into a book. It was this from which he read excerpts at Emerson at the Sept. 26 event.

Melia Bensussen, chair of the performing arts department at Emerson and Fried’s long-time colleague, said it was important for Emerson students to witness a celebration of the life of an actor who was a major force in the American theater scene.

“To have that exposure to Alvin thanks to Jonathan’s writing is huge,” Bensussen said. “Given that Alvin is 89 years old, it’s not likely to happen again.”

The readings lasted about an hour and were followed by a Q&A section with Epstein and Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater.

“The question and answer was a show in itself,” said Fried. “When we were done, people came down out of the audience and surrounded [Epstein]. When I left, he hadn’t gotten out of his seat. He was still surrounded by people wanting to reconnect with him.”

As for the Emerson student’s question, Fried said that through Epstein, he was taught to be “endlessly curious about the world, and the people around him.”

Schwall agreed that Epstein was an inspiration.

“You can’t sum him up quickly,” she said. “There’s still a mischievousness about him...he’s still as vibrant as ever.” 

Fried emphasized that he wasn’t the only one to be touched by Epstein’s life and career.

“I’m just part of a continuum about theater artists and theater goers,” he said, “who have been touched by Alvins’ artistry and example about how to live a creative life.”