This goes way back in "Star Trek." To 1967. Season one. The episode where Spock actually mind melds with a deadly subterranean creature that resembles a giant meatball. Through this, the Horta -which this creature is called - communicates that it doesn't want to fight anymore. It even adds that it likes Spock's ears.
It's a good episode, with a message that peaceful coexistence is always achievable. Even with deadly meatball aliens.
And, of all the things, the Horta is what Jason Alexander brings up, while sitting here in this small, rustic seating area, built of logs.
There are only two seats, with a table in between. Alexander sits on one side of the table, a popular TV and radio personality from Milwaukee sits on the other, interviewing him. Along with the popular TV and radio personality is a cameraperson, who stands close, shouldering a news camera, filming.
Local newspaper photographers surround in a semi-circle. They are knelt down in the tall grass, cameras aimed, shutters rapidly clicking, as if from National Geographic, capturing one of those rare occurrences in nature that may never come again. The snow leopard in the mountains of Tibet. The green-eyed tree frog in the lowlands of Indonesia. George Costanza in the forest of Genesee Depot.
It's hot back here, just off the terrace of the program center at Ten Chimneys, the famous estate where acting legends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, once hosted the biggest stars of stage and screen for nearly half a century. It's a Wednesday afternoon, this past June. About 85 degrees and humid. The previous evening's rain deepening the green of the surrounding foliage, the lushness.
Alexander looks relaxed, leaning back, elbows atop the seat railing behind him, as if he just got in tired from mowing the lawn. Naturally, the physical attributes most associated with George Costanza - the beloved character he played on "Seinfeld" for nine years - are unshakable for Alexander. He was short and bald in the show. He is short and bald here.
So, seeing Alexander at ease here - not as the uptight, buttoned-up, neurotic George in Jerry's apartment - makes it initially difficult to mentally compute. He looks strange, out of place. The same, but different. Like when, as a kid, coming across one of your school teachers at the grocery store.
Actually, Alexander, with a graying mustache and goatee, a forehead beaded with sweat - in this hut-like seating area, with the jungle-like backdrop - appears like a Colonel Kurtz of sorts, completely content having abandoned his former identity back in civilization. As if he has found himself free in - of all places - the woods of southeastern Wisconsin.
A half hour earlier, the 56-year-old Alexander arrived for this group press meeting, wearing a loose tropical-style shirt (open at the collar, first two buttons undone), faded jeans, and sneakers, saying his hellos, as unassuming as an uncle walking into a high school graduation party.
With him is Ten Chimney's president, Randy Bryant, who, despite the heat, is dressed in a full grey suit and tie. (Bryant, you'll find, is always impeccably dressed. He's an eloquent, welcoming man, of interminable poise, as if concerned Lunt and Fontanne - who've both passed away about 40 years ago - could return any moment and discover him not maintaining their caliber of graciousness).
With a hand raised to get attention of the dozen or so media members seated on placed out chairs, Bryant politely requests that focus be on the annual Master Teacher Program - which brings 10 of the best stage actors from around the country to study along with a master teacher. And Alexander, Bryant says, is truly a master. He's a Tony-award winning actor, director, producer, and writer who will share what he is working on with the actors over this weeklong visit.
In short, Bryant says, go light on the "Seinfeld" questions.
(Bryant is wise to do this. A couple of years back, when David Hyde Pierce was the master teacher, the press struck immediately hard with "Frasier" questions. Ultimately, it was a question asking if Pierce kept in touch with Eddie - the show's popular Jack Russell - that prompted all present to move on).
Still, even with Bryant's direction, only a couple of questions in, a TV news reporter asks, "George. Blessing? Curse? Or both?"
Alexander, without hesitation, answers, "Never a curse." The ripple effect from the success of "Seinfeld," he says, changed life forever for him, for his family. Certainly, Alexander says, he may not get roles because of his association with George. "But, without George," he says, "no one would know who I was, to even be considered."
Without George, Alexander says, "I wouldn't be here today at Ten Chimneys."
(Across the terrace, Bryant can be seen settling back in his chair, noticeably impressed with Alexander's skillful steering of the question back to the Master Teacher Program).
"I never knew this place existed," Alexander says.
Of course, he knew who the Lunt-Fontannes were. But he didn't know that their home once served as a retreat for their friends, the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Montgomery Clift, just to name a few. That days were full of dancing, swimming, bicycling, dinner parties, and champagne toasts. That Sir Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward and Helen Hayes all had designated bedrooms here.
Or, that the tradition is kept alive with this fellowship program, inviting master teachers - Lynn Redgrave, Alan Alda, Joel Grey, just to name a few - since 2009, to experience this magical place. "This place isn't about preservation of theater," Alexander says, "but the revitalization of theater."
The actors with him aren't his students, he says, but true masters from whom he is learning. They come from cities across the U.S. - Phoenix, Atlanta, Cleveland, Boston, Milwaukee - serving as a reminder, he says, that "theater just doesn't live in New York and Los Angeles."
Still, Alexander says, all actors, no matter how experienced, are continually confronted with the same challenges. This week, he says, they are delving into the "sausage making" of the craft together, figuring out ways to address them.
Their primary focus, Alexander says, is on the "physicalization of choice" - the powerful collaboration of mind and body in building a performance. Without using words, he explains, they are essentially learning to become "a verb" - drawing thoughts and ideas from only actions. Forcing a commitment to the material, he says, "in a much more profound way."
Alexander, on his own, steers the conversation back to George. The writing on "Seinfeld," he says, gave George a "sheer unpredictability." Making him, as an actor, having to physically pull off those awkward situations that George found himself - and with his actions, make George's human faults more lovable and relatable.
"George had a lot of charm and vulnerability," Alexander says, offering further musing on the character. "His attitude was, 'I'm absolutely worthless, and why doesn't the world value me more?'"
Somehow, Alexander says, George resonated with viewers - and remains imbedded in their minds today. Way more, he says, than even himself. And, oddly enough, this is how Alexander leads into the Horta - that deadly meatball alien from "Star Trek."
It's now nearing the end of the press meeting and Alexander sits in that aforementioned log-built seating area, talking about how he was an "original Star Trek nut." About how, when younger, he once met Spock-himself, Leonard Nimoy, and asked him about the Horta. Nimoy, however, couldn't recall the episode. At the time, Alexander couldn't believe it. But after playing George, he could.
For Nimoy, Alexander continues, the Horta was a show he did ages ago. For himself, he says, "Seinfeld" wrapped in 1998. He never watches the reruns. But viewers still do. Over and over again. So when fans shout out at him, he is often perplexed, left looking at them as if having "three heads."
"Why would anyone come up [to someone] and yell, 'Shrinkage!'" Alexander asks. He then quickly adds that this reference is only an example. "I do know that one," he admits.
And with Alexander graciously bringing up "shrinkage" all on his own, it felt proper - to all present - to respectfully move on. The final interview concludes. Alexander rises, says his goodbyes, and makes his way to the side of the terrace. He stands there, checking his wristwatch, looking ready to join the actors back at the estate.
Ready to slip away - as if he's been gone too long.