Repertory Theatre


by Richard Dresser

Directed by
Carolyn Houston Boone

(L-R) Jerry Miller as MERKIN and Jim Parsons as DOBBITT

April 15 - May 17, 1998 - Arena Theater


JERRY MILLER..............................................MERKIN


JIM PARSONS..............................................DOBBITT

Stages Repertory Theatre


Richard Dresser's plays include Gun-Shy from the Humana Festival at Actor's Theatre of Louisville (1997) which opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons earlier this year. Below The Belt (1995) also premiered in the Humana Festival in 1995 and was subsequently produced Off-Broadway and at a number of regional theatres. His most recent play is Something in the Air. Other plays include Alone At The Beach (Actors Theatre of Lousville, 1988), The Downside (Long Wharf Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse and other regional productions), Better Days (Primary Stages in NYC), Bait & Switch, Bed & Breakfast, At Home, Splitsville, and a number of one acts. He has twice attended the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference, is a former member of New Dramatists and a current member of the HB Playwrites Unit. He also writes for film and television.

Dobbitt (Jim Parsons) is startled by the glowing eyes of watching predators while Merkin (Jerry Miller) looks on from the protection of his office.



Interview with JERRY MILLER

by Theresa Pisula

Jerry Miller is an Astronaut Trainer and Flight Controller at NASA, where he employs his Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering Degree. He also owns STX, a company which offers technical advise to the entertainment industry. STX recently worked on Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer's Species II, as well as the Broadway drama Defying Gravity. He was also the Technical Adviser for the Disney Feature Film, Rocketman.

As an Actor, he is currently playing Merkin in Richard Dresser's Below the Belt at Stages. He was seen previously at Stages in Quills, Amphitryon, Hair, Pacific Overtures, March of the Falsettos, and many other productions. His other Houston venues include Theater LaB, New Heights Theatre, Main Street Theater and Houston Shakespeare Festival where he appeared in Breaking the Code, Vieux Carre, The Mask of Moriarty, Pericles, and many others. You can also see him in the Disney feature film Rocketman where he plays himself.

THYDE: Tell us about the part that you're playing......
JMILLER: The role that I'm playing in Below the Belt is the role of Merkin. He's the Boss of the entire Department which consist of himself and two other people. He's sort of everybody's worst fear for a boss coming true. He's insecure, he's inept, he's manipulative, he's backstabbing, he's ladder-climbing. He's all of those things that we have probably run into at least once or twice in the workplace.

Merkin (Jerry Miller) taunts the prayerful Dobbitt (Jim Parsons)

THYDE: Yes, I could identify with a lot of the things that went on in the play. It's a very well written play by the brilliant Richard Dresser. The last play I saw you in was QUILLS here at Stages, directed by Rob Bundy. The whole play was incredible, the cast consisted of only the best, William Hardy as the Marquis de Sade, and of course, James Belcher as Doctor Royer-Collard. You played the very judgmental priest, the Abbe de Coulmier. And I have this Vision of you in my head, where you were clutching the jail bars and you were screaming at the top of your voice, with your shirt wide open, and all I could think about was, "Whew! Great Abs!" (laughing) Because I know how hard it is to get those Ab squares. I was just amazed. That was my picture of you, and that was in the jail, which scene was that?

JMILLER: (laughs) The very very end of the show, the very last scene. My character, this very physically and mentally tortured priest is in the very prison where he had been keeping The Marquis de Sade, yes.
THYDE: That's right, and you played it very well.

JMILLER: Oh, Thank you.
THYDE: I mean, I noticed you in the beginning, I just didn't pay much attention to your character because he was very reserved, and he wasn't as outrageously wild as The Marquis. But then, at the very end.......

JMILLER: Little did you know........
THYDE: At the very end.....I was like, "Oh my gosh!!!" Okay, here's another one of my visions of you: Making love or having sex with this dead, white girl in a coffin. Actually, it's so funny because Rob Bundy (Artistic Director) and I talked about you during the interview with Anne Quackenbush for ASCENDANCY because I looked down in my program, after watching Quills, and realized that you were an Astronaut.

JMILLER: Astronaut Trainer. Astronaut Trainer, not an Astronaut.
THYDE: It's all mentioned in the interview. And we're sitting there laughing, cause we're going, "Great! Now this guy works at NASA and he's an astronaut....." But Rob corrected me and he told me that you were a Rocket Scientist.

JMILLER: I train Astronauts.
THYDE: I am so exhausted right now, cause I have my regular job, and I also work on the website. I'm exhausted, and I'm so tired and then, I meet someone like you who is a Rocket Scientist and an Astronaut Trainer by day, and an incredible Actor who does plays by night. And then, I'm not so tired anymore and I feel like, I really should be Circling the Moon or something like that.

JMILLER: (laughs) No, don't worry about it, it's okay.
THYDE: So, how do you do it?
JMILLER: I just have to schedule everything. My day planner, you know, is pretty much my guide to life, if I lose it, I'm in big trouble. But, I really, just have to keep a really really tight regimen.
THYDE: It's a lot of discipline. Plus those sit-ups......
JMILLER: Yeah, I'm also a fitness instructor for Bally's and so.......
THYDE: Oh, are you?
JMILLER: I'll be at NASA all day, and then I'll go in and teach a class or something, and then I'll run right from there to a rehearsal, so it really has to......

THYDE: Tell us about your background as an Engineer.....
JMILLER: My degree is in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Illinois which is where I'm from. I'm from a town which is an hour and a half south of Chicago. A very tiny little town of about three thousand people in the middle of a cornfield. I was interviewed for NASA when I was still in school and I accepted the job about a week before my last set of finals. I've been there for fifteen years, a long time.

THYDE: How did you get into Acting?
JMILLER: Well, I actually was an Actor before I was an engineer. In fact, that's how I paid for my college degree. By Acting.
THYDE: You got paid for Acting in Illinois?
JMILLER: Yeah, in Champaign, Illinois. There was a wonderful little theatre, a dinner theatre, I think it's still there called Sunshine Dinner Playhouse. And they played five nights a week and gave me plenty of money. I performed five nights a week, I was in school full time. My degree has the highest number of hours required for graduation of any degree at the University, so it was courses all day long, and performing at night and going back to my apartment after a performance and finishing up my studies for the next day. It's tiring.

THYDE: That's amazing. I get tired just looking at you. So, how did this come about? Why did you choose to be in such different fields?
JMILLER: Well, I think I'm very fortunate to have been given both an interest and opportunity to pursue divergent paths. The way I always phrase it, I wouldn't really feel like very much like a complete person if I couldn't use both hemispheres of my brain. I know some people in theatre, use just entirely their Right Brain, and they really don't tend to cope well with the logic of the real world. And then I know a lot of people in Engineering who are entirely Left Brain, and they completely shut down any Creativity, any sort of, ability to look at things from a different angle and I think that the best thing to do is to combine those as much as you can. So far so good.

THYDE: So, first lesson in this How To Book is, figure out which part of your brain to use when you get up in the morning. I guess people just don't worry about things like that. So, was Quills the last role that you played?

A day at the office for Dobbitt (Jim Parsons) and Merkin (Jerry Miller)

THYDE: And now, you're playing Merkin in Below The Belt. Do they basically call you, or do you go out and audition?
JMILLER: It's a little of each. You'll see the season for each particular theatre and you'll kinda pick what you wanna target. And then, sometimes, you'll call them up and say, "Hey, I'm really interested in this" or maybe they (the theatres) will do something, and you weren't really thinking about it, but they'll think of you and they'll say, "Hey come on in." So, that's a little of each.
THYDE: Out of all the roles you've ever done, which one is your favorite?
JMILLER: Interestingly enough, that's actually very easy. I played the role of Allan Turing in Breaking the Code for Theater LaB, which is far and away, the best thing I've ever done. It's a stunning stunning piece of theatre. It's an enormous role, it's huge. The play runs two hours and forty-five minutes and I only leave the stage twice. I have speeches that run four and five pages in length. But that was really my favorite thing, not just because it's the biggest role and for the ego being out there, but really because, it really does give me the opportunity. That role gave me the opportunity to combine both technical and artistic roles.

Allan Turing was a real person. He's the brilliant brilliant mathematician who actually laid the ground work that allowed the development of the first computers. All of his theoretical mathematics allowed the development of the logic processes that we use today in computers. And he is the person whose work broke the enigma code of the Nazis on behalf of the Allies during World War II. And he was just an amazing amazing human being. This play really deals with the emotional elements of such an extraordinarilly brilliant technical man. And so it was a wonderful wonderful show. I just love it. It was written long after his death.

THYDE: Why did you choose to become a part of this play, Below the Belt?
JMILLER: Actually, I was really looking for a comedy. I've kind of gone through phases, I don't know why. When I was much younger, I couldn't get cast in anything that wasn't a Musical. They made me sing all the time. I couldn't get onstage unless I was singing.....

THYDE: You dance too?
JMILLER: Yeah. And then, I said, "well, I don't wanna just sing. I wanna do regular plays." And then, I couldn't get cast in anything that wasn't a comedy. Well, then I wanted to do more. I wanted to do some heavy serious things, and then I went through this phase where all I did were these dark, tragic, tortured people. Before the Abbe in Quills, I played a nightingale in Vieux Carre, a Tennessee Williams show in New Heights Theatre. Again, it's this pained horrible tortured character. And after Quills, I thought, "You know, I'd like to laugh a little bit." (laughing)

THYDE: (laughing) And your character Merkin, simply forces people to laugh. You know, the boss says "Let's laugh about something, Hahahaha...."
JMILLER: That's right, I actually force everybody to laugh, don't I?

Merkin and Dobbitt watch the Office party from the Office windowsill

THYDE: So, does that affect you when you go home? Does the character that you're playing, I mean you become that character for that period of time?
JMILLER: Just for that period of time. It never affects me anywhere else. In fact when I was doing Passion, a Steven Sondheim Musical over at Theater LaB. A character that I played, was just a despicable Count. He was this horrible womanizer, and he took advantage of people and did all these sorts of things. And other people in the cast says that I was very frightening because, we'd see you standing there backstage just talking, goofing around, and then you turn around and hit the site line, and they said like, it was something out of Carrie, you know. They'd say - You were a totally different person coming onstage. But, Once it's off, it's off.

THYDE: Do you ever have time to watch regular movies?
JMILLER: Yeah, I do, I do. What was the last movie I saw? Oh, the last movie I went to go see was Species II. The only reason was because I was technical advisor for that film, and since I wrote the opening of it, I wanted to go and see it just for that.

THYDE: Now, tell us about that role. As a technical advisor, you have your own company......
JMILLER: Yes. The company is called STX, which stands for Scientific and Technological Expertise. I got involved in doing this with Disney on the film, Rocketman. I was auditioned for it as an Actor. I didn't get the role, but I told them, well, if you don't hire me as an Actor, hire me as a technical advisor. And oddly enough, they did. Actually, I was much more heavily involved and made a lot more money on the film doing that than if I'd been hired as an Actor. But it was great because it led to MGM calling me for Species II. And that was very peculiar because, I was just sitting in my office one day, and the phone rang, and they said, "Hello, this is MGM........."

THYDE: What do you have to do as a technical advisor?
JMILLER: It really varies. Like on Species II, I did a lot of writing. But on Rocketman, I did not do very much writing, but it was meeting with virtually, every department. I met with the Props people, the Set people, the Costume people. I sat down and had individual sessions with all of the actors. I was on the set for the shoots.

THYDE: When you say writing, do you mean you write part of the script?
JMILLER: Yeah, for Species II, I wrote the lines for about the first fifteen minutes of the movie, that takes place in Space. In this case, what they did is send me the original script. And I went through and re-wrote the opening of the film. Then, we did something, which you can only do in film, which is......after the special effects were edited in, they said, gosh, we've got more movie at the beginning than we have dialogue. So, they sent me the rough cuts of the film. And I went back and wrote dialogue over footage that had already been shot. So, I would sort of piece the story around footage that was already there.

THYDE: You saw Species II, where?
JMILLER: In town.
THYDE: Just to see how your work turned out.
JMILLER: Yes. I was going to go to Los Angeles for the Opening, but I was in Below The Belt. It was the final technical rehearsals for Below The Belt. It occurred on the Opening Weekend for Species II, so I couldn't leave town. Rocketman, on the other hand, is out on video now. It was out last summer. It's a Disney comedy geared towards kids, really, it's cute, it's funny. And you can see me in it, I play myself. In the course of the meetings, doing the technical work, one of the Assistant Directors and I were sitting and talking.....let's do this, let's do this, let's do this......and I said, well, I wanna do myself. I wanna play myself. And they said, that'll be fun! Why not?

And so, in Mission Control, I occupied the same seat that I occupy in the real Mission Control.

THYDE: So, you basically just formed your own company after you started getting these jobs......
JMILLER: Right. Well, when it came about, I had never done this before, and so I had absolutely no idea, really, how to go about it. So I contacted a friend of mine, who is with Creative Artists. It's the agency in L.A. who handle all of the really large names, Tom Hanks.......Creative Artists is The Big Agency in Hollywood. And a friend of mind happens to be an agent there. I called him up, and I said, "Mark, you know, Disney's talking to me about doing Technical Advising work. I have no idea what to ask in way of money".....I don't know, you know, it was totally new to me, and so, we talked a little bit. And I said, well, I went to Disney and countered with a package offer, and at that point had to form a little company for billing purposes and things. And from there, did Species II, and from there did some Technical Advisement for The Broadway Drama, Defying Gravity, which opened this past fall.

THYDE: Now, what was your company called again? (desperately trying to keep up)
JMILLER: STX. Scientific and Technological Expertise. I like that, because in film, the abbreviation for Special Effects is SFX, and so, I took that and changed it a little bit.

THYDE: Have you directed, have you done any directing? Or are you just drawn to Acting?
JMILLER: I've never been interested in directing, oddly enough. It's not something that I've really wanted to do. I like Acting. I just like being able to evoke a response from an Audience. A lady who had seen Breaking the Code, she was just delightful, she wanted to meet me after the show and she told me how much she enjoyed it. Then, she said, "Oh, you made me laugh, you made me cry, how dare you take control of me like that? (laughs) And I said, "Oh, thank you!"

THYDE: Who are your most favorite actors?
JMILLER: Daniel Day Lewis is absolutely amazing. The mark of a really great actor is to really be sort of a chameleon, not someone who's readily recognizable from role to role. And there are roles that Daniel Day Lewis has played that, if you didn't know it was the same person, you would never guess, he's just amazing.
THYDE: What qualities do you look for when you're watching an actor?
JMILLER: Believability. I've always said that, Acting is really the Ultimate Special Effect. The analogy that I make sometimes, is the old Buck Rogers movies, where you see the strings carrying the spaceships and things? That's really bad Special Effects. And there are people who's acting that you see, they're like little puppets. You can see the strings, you know? It doesn't look real.

THYDE: Now, what would you call yourself? Technically, are you a Rocket Scientist, or an Astronaut Trainer?
JMILLER: My specialization is called Extra Vehicular Activity which is Space Walking. Which is, what I train crew members for doing. The abbreviation for that is E.V.A. So, my actual label is E.V.A. Operations Officer.

THYDE: Out of the roles that you have, as an Actor, as a Rocket Scientist, as your company STX, and whatever else you might be (laughs)......Which one do you enjoy the most?
JMILLER: Oh, that's just impossible.......Everything is so different, you know. I can't really envision myself without participating in everything. So, I can't really say which I like the most. The most personal gratification, you know comes from the Acting because although it's a group effort, your performance is your own. And if you stink, you have no one to blame but yourself. And if you're good, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Whereas, in the space program, of course, it's much more of a group effort. I mean, the achievement is on a much grander scale. And so you get the gratification of being a part of something that's much bigger than just yourself.

THYDE: (laughing) That's putting it mildly, because when you drive through NASA, you see these huge Rocket ships, or part of Rocket ships........
JMILLER: (laughing) That's true.
THYDE: Who influenced you as an Artist?
JMILLER: All the really really superb Actors, I mean I watch people like Merryl Streep work and my jaw just drops. I say, "Oh, you're just amazing, I bow down to you....." Daniel Day Lewis, Merryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman. All the people who I think are really really fine Actors. And there are a lot of young people coming along that are becoming really fine actors as well.

THYDE: What would you like the audience to gain from watching this play?
JMILLER: What I would really like for people to gain is the knowledge that, even in this sort of corporate setting, that we can't lose site of our humanities. That the people that YOU might abuse every day at work, or the boss WHO is abusing you or something like that, is probably dealing with a lot more than what you think.

THYDE: What would you like to say to the Houston Theatre-going audience?
JMILLER: Please go to the Theatre. If it's not my show, go to someone's show. Because it is absolutely amazing that in the fourth largest city in the United States we have theatres struggling to get thirty and forty people into a seat. So please please please, go to the Theatre. Instead of going to a movie, go to the Theatre.