“Very seldom do you get to speak the words first,” said actor Denis Arndt on performing in the world premiere of Matthew Barber’s “Fireflies” at Long Wharf Theater, “It’s a great privilege.”
For someone who has been in the business a long time, Mr. Arndt recently has had more than a few moments of great theatrical privilege. Besides making his Long Wharf debut alongside two stage veterans, he was nominated for a Tony this summer for Simon Stephens’ two-hander “Heisenberg” with Mary-Louise Parker. It was his first Tony nomination and also his Broadway debut, an impressive career milestone made at age 77. A West Coast native, he said he has been interested in theater since high school when a “literature nut” teacher got him hooked on drama. But in 1957, his passion for the stage took a detour when he enlisted in the Army, eventually spending time as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Over ten years later, he (now in his early thirties) auditioned for a local play and “theater accidentally returned to [his] life and the circle has been closed.” Since then, he has been involved in professional theater in California and across the country, working with and eventually founding different theater companies. He’s also had a fair share of on-screen work, including “Basic Instinct” and a stint on “The Practice.”
Just about to go into tech for “Fireflies,” I spoke to Mr. Arndt on the phone to learn more about his latest play and what about the theater keeps him coming back.
How have rehearsals been going so far?
DA: Very well, very well! My goodness, I'm onstage with two true princesses of the American stage that have been around for a long time: Judith Ivey and, of course, the inimitable Jane Alexander. What a pleasure it is to be onstage with them. I feel like I'm playing marbles with the big kids.
What is "Fireflies" about?
It's about an hour fifty-five [Laughs] No, it's about two people who meet each other. It's a December/December situation. They're seniors who've lived quite different lives and circumstances have brought them inadvertently together. You sense beginnings at an age when everybody's thinking about your grave.
Why did you want to be a part of this show?
DA: To be with Gordon Edelstein, who is the artistic director here at Long Wharf and director of this play. We've talked about working together for probably the last...I don't know, 35 years. This is the first time it came true. My schedule was right and the play was right. It's a new play and we have access to the playwright, Matthew Barber, and he's been with us for the duration of the rehearsals. He'll be here through opening night, I’m sure. It's just been a joy all the way around.
You've had quite a whirlwind year between making your Broadway debut and getting a Tony nomination, what has been your favorite moment?
DA: It's hard to put it into words. I would say, the first thing that jumps to mind is getting permission to be considered legitimate or something like that. To be named among the cadre of all-time Tony nominees is one of the great honors of a career. It's just beyond belief to be a member of that group. Getting to go to the Tony’s and that party. To be in the third-row aisle, it was just a great honor and a wonderful evening. The accidents of career developments and the way things lead and the way things unfold in front of you. I try not to think too much about the whirlwind part of it, although it was a whirlwind. I try not to think too much about what has happened, I need to pay attention to what is happening.
You've had a long career in the theater. What keeps you motivated?
DA: One thing I couldn’t ever get tired of is being part of a good story. The method that the story is being told is the human act of theater. We're the only ones that get together, turn off the lights and participate in this falsehood in which comes some truth about human existence. When you're in a room and a story is being told, you know that everybody in that room’s cerebral cortex is focused on exactly on the story as though it was happening to them. You know when that happens. I guess my motivation is that, that spiritual, empathic intercourse that happens between storyteller and audience member, the unrehearsed player.
“Fireflies” runs October 11-November 5 at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, CT. For more information, visit: www.longwharf.org.