Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer
Last summer I was joyfully transported through time and space to Czarist Russia by Erik Stein’s boffo performance as Tevye the milkman in the classic musical, Fiddler on the Roof. I was entertained under the stars by the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) Theaterfest production in Solvang, the heart of California’s Central Coast wine country.
Months later during the holidays, Erik and I decided to meet in La Jolla, California, where I was camped out at the coastal resort’s Grande Dame, The Grande Colonial. At age 100, it’s steeped in a rich history. Its guests have included Hollywood royalty and during the Twenties the hotel even had a pharmacy that was managed by Gregory Peck’s father. My room has a majestic view of the Pacific Ocean and is spacious, superior, and casually elegant.
Mr. Stein is an accomplished actor, director, teacher, and former company founder with credits ranging from Broadway to regional theater and film. Early in his career, he studied at PCPA and is presently coaching actors there (“I am honored to teach in the Conservatory that trained me.”) Over the years, he and his wife, Jacqueline Hildebrand, a fellow actor, have lost friends and peers to AIDS and have been involved with several HIV/AIDS organizations, including Broadway Cares. Cat lovers like moi, they are “devoted” to their two little ones, Pawsey and Zoe.
On a cool evening, Erik and I convene near the cracklin’ fireplace in the hotel’s dashing lobby.
Ruby Comer: What was the first Broadway show that you ever saw?
Erik Stein: It was Three Penny Opera with Sting. I was eighteen years-old.
Must have been spectacular. My first was Seesaw with Michele Lee, Ken Howard, and Tommy Tune. I was mesmerized! What character are you dying to play?
I would love to play Sweeny Todd, and I would like to be involved in any way with Sunday in the Park with George. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and music changed my life, and they continue to thrill me every time I hear them. I’d also like to play Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—it scares me to no end, but I work better when I push myself out of my comfort zone and leap into the unknown.
I wish I had that kind of chutzpah! Tell me, when did you first hear about the epidemic?
While in high school. I grew up in a small town in the middle of California so AIDS was not a part of our lives, though we were told to use condoms in sex-ed class. I graduated in 1988 and remember that summer I was working on a play outdoors and worried that I might be able to get AIDS from a mosquito.
Holy mackerel! The myths back then were endless….
It wasn’t until I went to PCPA that I met someone who had actually encountered the disease. After my audition—I sang “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Misérables—I met with the head of the Conservatory. He asked if I had any personal connection to the song. I was eighteen. Having lived a pretty sheltered life, I didn’t know how to answer. He explained that the song reminded him of the late seventies when he was living in San Francisco where he and his friends had been working hard for gay rights. AIDS claimed many of his friend’s lives. When he hears this song, he told me, it called to mind the friends that he had lost. I was speechless. He made me realize that I could use something so personal in my art. This man became my mentor and not only did he help me become a better actor, he helped me become a better human being. Like him, I still think of those men [who died of AIDS] every time I sing that song now.
What a lovely tale. What do you think of when I say “AIDS?”
It makes me anxious. It makes me sad. It makes me think of a generation of amazing artists who were wiped out, yet oddly enough, it also makes me think of community and hope. The theater community came together in force to take this disease down. They fought hard to help support and care for people who, in some ways, were considered untouchable. They also fought hard to prevent others from getting the disease. Their work is a shining example of what people can do together. Fortunately, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. [A sea of flashing light distracts us. It’s the paparazzi. I think, How did they know I was here? Alas, it was just another celebrity. Erik sums up.] A community came together, Ruby, and made a profound change relatively quickly. That gives me hope.
What was your first personal encounter with the epidemic?
I was working at a dinner theater in Indiana. We learned that one of our company members had to drop out because he had just been diagnosed and he wanted to focus on his health. He left without saying goodbye. It seemed unreal to me and I pushed it out of my mind. It had a profound effect on me. I don’t know if he died, but later that year, a group of us from this theater were watching the Tonys where they presented a retrospective of dance numbers from the decade of the eighties. The dance number from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas came on. When the number ended, an actor who was a bit older than the rest of us started to cry. We asked him what was wrong and he just said, “They’re all gone.” You see, most of the young men we had just watched dance had died of AIDS. It really affected me.
Heartbreaking. Before we met you asked if I might tell you in advance a couple of questions I might ask. I said I might want you to comment on the current high rates of HIV infection in the younger generation, especially since you teach young people.
Yes, I got together a few of my acting students and posed that question. Well, it seems that AIDS awareness is a part of their lives, that condoms are available, and they know they should get tested regularly. Do they get tested? Some more than others. They grew up with AIDS and it has been a part of their lives, but they don’t seem to be as scared as I was when I was their age. That’s not to say that the students are more reckless, they just talk about it a lot more easily. They don’t view AIDS as a death sentence. I asked them what scared them the most and they said that they are afraid of those who are actively trying to get the disease.
That’s frightfully frightening, Erik [shaking my head and sneering, eyes darted upward].
I asked some gay students how we could reach the closeted community and they said TV is what made them comfortable about coming out, shows like Will & Grace and Glee. The more gay kids can learn that they are not alone, the more they will let go of their need to hide. One of my students told me he didn’t know that there was anyone else like him in the world until he saw an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Another student told me that the sooner young people are comfortable with their sexuality the sooner they will stop defining themselves by their sexuality. Then they will no longer make risky decisions in order to define their sexuality. After all, life has so much more to offer.
Well said, Erik. What motivates you to be so active?
My motivation for volunteering is selfish. I like being around like-minded people. I like working with a community to create something positive. It’s what I do for a living. In the theater we come together as an ensemble to create a piece of work. We all know that the play is the thing, and we are all in service to the play. Life is about shared experiences. Some get on the phone and send money, and that is great. I like to be in the room with other people and ride the wave of like-minded energy.
Before I take my daily stroll along the picturesque cove and watch the lively seals, is there anything else you’d like to add Erik?
When my wife and I were living on the Central Coast, we became a bit sheltered, and it started to seem as if the disease was going away. Yet in 2010, our close friend was diagnosed with AIDS in April and dead by the end of June. He hadn’t gotten tested until a sore appeared on his face. By that time it was too late. This was a real wake-up call. The disease is still very real. We have made a lot of progress, but we can’t stop. People are still getting infected. People are still dying—not just in Africa—but here in this country. They’re our neighbors and our friends.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]