Theater is an ephemeral art. It's not like music, where there is often a recording, or film, which is all about making a permanent document of a performance. But a play (or a dance) comes and goes as it happens onstage; it's different every night, and all the audience is left with is an afterimage. A play lives in the now. • That's what Jeff Norton used to say: You've got to live in the now. Fifteen years ago, I ended a profile I wrote on the actor with that declaration of artistic immediacy by him. Now it's the way I like to remember Norton, the victim of a senseless murder two weeks ago in St. Petersburg at the age of 55.
I probably saw Norton on stage more than any other actor in my life. Even more than the titans of my youth, George Grizzard and Barbara Bryne, who seemed to be in everything that the Guthrie Theatre did in the 1960s when I was growing up in Minneapolis. Recently, I totaled all the times I saw Norton perform, and it numbered some 30 plays from 1991 until 2009, and I certainly didn't see everything he was in. He had an astonishingly prolific resume in the precarious employment of Tampa Bay theater. It's a testament to his range as an actor and his dedication to the work.
The hardest thing for a critic to do is to describe what an actor actually does onstage. You'll read a lot of reviews that have no problem analyzing the playwright's text and the director's concept of the production, but how an actor moves and speaks to create his character is often given very short shrift. Whenever I reviewed a play Norton was in, I tried to get across a sense of his physical presence, because he was first and foremost a physical performer, a onetime dancer and devotee of martial arts.
One of my favorite Norton performances was as Jaques, the cynical outsider in Shakespeare's romantic comedy As You Like It, a 1995 American Stage in the Park production. It's Jaques who has the famous speech that begins, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players . . .''
Norton's performance of the set piece — known as the "seven ages of man'' because it breaks human life into seven ages — was deceptively simple. Rising from a crouch to stand erect, he gestured with his hands, but otherwise was quite still, suggesting energy and movement held in reserve. He wisely downplayed the showy aspect of Jaques' speech, because he understood the power of Shakespeare.
"What you're supposed to do with Shakespeare is rely on the words and not a lot of shtick,'' Norton told me. "The words do the job very effectively, so if you're speaking them clearly and simply and strongly, you're doing the job.''
Jaques is also a performance fondly remembered by composer Lee Ahlin, one of Norton's oldest pals in the theater, who wrote the music for that production and played in the band. "It was really hot that spring, and the costumes were heavy, so there were nights — say, on Wednesday, when the crowds were smallest — that some of the cast phoned it in,'' Ahlin said. "Never Jeff. He was fantastic every night.''
Norton was in five of American Stage's Shakespeare shows in the park, usually in finely etched character roles such as Parolles, the buffoonish fraud in All's Well That Ends Well; a servant named Launce, who delivered a heartfelt, hilarious soliloquy to a standard poodle in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and Macduff in a punk-rock Macbeth.
Some of Norton's most fabled performances came before my time in the bay area, when he was a member of two avant-garde theater groups in the 1970s and '80s, the Alice People (as in Alice in Wonderland) and School of Night. Wendy Leigh, who heads the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, has great memories of him in School of Night, which did sketch comedy from a storefront in Tampa.
"We did The Skinhead Hamlet,'' said Leigh, who was business manager of School of Night. "Every other word was f---. It was done in like 10 minutes. That was one of Jeff's things. He did this performance art piece where The Star-Spangled Banner played and he just sat and smoked a cigarette onstage. And Jeff pulled it off. You were just captivated watching him do that. It was just so fresh and raw.''
Some of my best memories of Norton include his performance as a cuckolded actor in Steven Dietz's psychological jigsaw puzzle Private Eyes; as Valentin, the macho revolutionary who falls under the spell of a drag queen in Kiss of the Spider Woman; as Deezo, the purple-suited emcee of Why the Y?, a wacky musical by Mac Wellman at the Italian Club in Ybor City; as artist Keith Haring in a one-man show he wrote; and as Astrov, the country doctor in Chekhov's melancholy classic Uncle Vanya.
But I think my favorite role of his was the poetry-spouting hero of Cyrano de Bergerac, the French romantic swashbuckler by Edmond Rostand. He did it for Warehouse Theatre in a performance dedicated to his mother, Val Norton. The Warehouse was an adventurous, short-lived venture whose co-founder was Rosemary Orlando, one of Norton's dearest friends.
In a cruel twist of fate, it was Orlando who discovered Norton's body when she went to his house last month after he didn't show up for a Sunday afternoon birthday party. A few days later, the man who mowed the actor's lawn was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Police said the motive likely was money.
As I mourn Norton's death, I take some solace in his spiritual approach to theater. He studied in Japan with a celebrated director, Tadashi Suzuki.
"Suzuki said a tragic loss in the theater was the loss of a sense of God," Norton said to me. "A lot of his exercises have a visual and physical focus just above the audience and far away. That comes from ancient Greek theater, where the actors on the stage literally believed they were performing to God. The audience was only there incidentally and in between the actor and God. In his training of actors, Suzuki tries to re-establish that presence of some concept of God."
To be sure, Norton was no angel. Once I showed up for an afternoon interview at the place he was then living, a tumbledown shack on the Hillsborough River in Tampa, and had to pound on the door for 10 minutes before he appeared. He was sleeping off a bender from the night before. And he almost never returned phone calls. But whenever I did finally get in touch, it was always a pleasure to spend time with him.
Norton had not been acting much in recent years. The last time I saw him was in September, when St. Petersburg Opera was performing Into the Woods at the Janet Root Theater of Shorecrest Prep School in St. Petersburg. He had been manager of the theater since 2002, and the job was a good fit for him, giving him some financial stability (like health insurance, which he could not afford as an actor) and providing the school a charismatic mentor for its theater program. He choreographed the fight scenes in its production of West Side Story this past spring.
I always figured I would see Norton perform again. Now he lives on in my memories of all the plays I saw him in.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.