P. Diddy's Broadway Crash Course
By JASON ZINOMAN

Published: April 25, 2004


Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Sean Combs with his "guru, coach, hero" Susan Batson at the Royale Theater.

At the beginning of this year, Sean Combs, who is not only one of the biggest, but also one of the most frequently changed, names in hip-hop, underwent another one of his famous transformations. He had already gone by Puffy (starting in high school), Puff Daddy (in his early days as an impresario) and P. Diddy (after he was acquitted of charges of bribery and gun possession). But after prolonged consultation with Susan Batson, the woman he calls "my guru, coach, hero," he quietly started asking friends to refer to him as Walter Lee.

Walter Lee Younger is the character he portrays in "A Raisin in the Sun," the play in which he is making his unlikely Broadway debut tomorrow, when it opens at the Royale Theater. And Ms. Batson is the woman who was hired to teach him how to do it — how to step out of the roles in which he has cast himself so successfully, into the part made famous by Sidney Poitier in the 1959 Broadway premiere of Lorraine Hansberry's classic play. "His public persona is so strong that I thought it was necessary for him," Ms. Batson said of the name change.

With the exception of a few minor film appearances, Mr. Combs, 34, has had no real experience as an actor. But he has willingly embraced a situation that many people have experienced only as a terrifying nightmare: appearing on a Broadway stage with very little preparation. Learning in a few months what others take years to study and master — and doing so for such a large role in a major revival — has, he says, been the most difficult challenge of his life.

"The emotional drain, the depression, the pain — this has me; there's nothing else I can think about," he said, sitting in his dressing room at the Royale, surely the only one decked out with a flat-screen television. "I'm the most inexperienced kid in the class, but I'm full of life experiences, and that's what Susan has helped me tap into and kind of, you know, level the playing field."

As the artistic director of Black Nexxus Inc., an acting school based in New York and Los Angeles, Ms. Batson has acquired a reputation as an acting coach to the stars. Tom Cruise thanked her in his Golden Globes acceptance speech. Spike Lee hires her as a creative consultant on most of his films. And Jennifer Lopez and Nicole Kidman, both students of hers, are planning to star in a World War II-era film, "American Darlings," that she is producing. She is listed as one of the producers of "Raisin," even though she has not invested money in it or raised funds.

Like most acting teachers, Ms. Batson — a 50-something dynamo with a mane of Tina Turner hair — tends to be a little, well, dramatic. She delivers long intense stares and says things like "it was beyond beyond." A former actor (she was in the original cast of "Hair"), she has a talent for putting big stars at ease. "Susan and I have a real intimacy," said Ms. Kidman, in a telephone interview. "She understands me as an actor and a woman."

Whether they are celebrities or not, her students often describe her the way a patient talks about a beloved shrink. Ms. Batson is quick to point out the difference. "I don't try to change anybody," she said. "You were a bad boy. Good, let's use it."

Personal acting coaches are common in Hollywood, where rehearsal time is scarce and money is not. But on Broadway, though stars of musical theater often work with voice coaches, very few experienced theater actors hire an expert to help them prepare for a play. As more film and television stars moonlight in the theater, however, coaches are increasingly in demand. Chris Noth studied with one before starring in "Gore Vidal's `The Best Man' " and Ms. Batson trained Ms. Kidman on "The Blue Room" and Juliette Binoche on "Betrayal."

Ms. Batson first met Mr. Combs five years ago, when he contacted her about a part he did not end up taking — the quarterback in Oliver Stone's football film, "Any Given Sunday." Knowing Mr. Combs as a figure of gossip, and occasionally scandal, she was skeptical about his commitment to acting. But, she recalled, "My son told me I had to work with him."

Mr. Combs quickly won her over. "He told me he didn't want to do this in a small way," she said. "He said he thinks about doing things historically. I was impressed because that's how I was raised, too."

They had long talked about him taking on meatier roles, so when David Binder, the lead producer for "Raisin," asked Ms. Batson for advice on casting the part of Walter Lee, she immediately suggested Mr. Combs.


Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Sean Combs as Walter Lee Younger in "A Raisin in the Sun."

Mr. Binder was intrigued, but he wondered if a celebrity as busy as Mr. Combs would commit to a grueling rehearsal process and a 15-week run. Ms. Batson called to find out, and her pupil answered with the sheepish greeting, "What did I do wrong?"

Mr. Combs was immediately interested in the opportunity. "This is a role of a lifetime," he said recently. Two auditions later, he was cast.

Mr. Binder has said that Mr. Combs is the perfect actor for the role, but there is surely also a calculation that his celebrity will boost ticket sales and draw new (and younger) audiences to see a half-century old play.

In any case, landing the role turned out to be the easy part. With no previous training, Mr. Combs had just four months to learn how to play Walter Lee, a frustrated chauffeur from the South Side of Chicago. So he and Ms. Batson embarked on a crash course, beginning just after New Year's in Mr. Combs's Miami home. "I got the sense that he needed reassurance that he could do this," she said.

That's an unfamiliar sensation for Mr. Combs, who, as the chief executive of Bad Boy Entertainment, is more accustomed to grooming callow hip-hop artists into savvy stars. Now he was the student. "I'm in the category of not going to the theater, not going to Broadway, not even knowing that we was invited to that party," he said.

Among other things, he didn't know the meaning of upstage, downstage, stage left and stage right, as well as when to look at other actors and when to face the audience. Ms. Batson took him through these basics and then began work on the script. She helped him break down each scene into beats, pick apart his character's psychology, locate his tragic flaw.

Walter Lee is a famously tortured character still living with his mother and struggling to find his place in the world. Ms. Batson encouraged Mr. Combs to imagine what Walter Lee's biography might have been before the play's opening scene, and to "personalize the text" — theater jargon for finding parallels in an actor's life that will help, as she said, "to reveal the truth of a character."

Mr. Combs came to feel he had a lot in common with Walter Lee. "I'm a dreamer," he said. "I understand chasing a dream. His father died and my father died early. He came from a house full of women. I did, too. It's not my exact story, but there's a lot of similarities."

The difference, of course, is that Sean Combs has achieved his dreams on a rather spectacular scale. Even when he has failed, he has always bounced back. Which might be why he had so much trouble with a scene in which Walter Lee, having lost most of his money, falls into despair.

"Failure is not in his vocabulary — and that's his problem," Ms. Batson said. "When I'd say, `What if someone came in and said they'd run off with your money,' he said: `Oh, no, no, no. It wouldn't happen. You can't ask someone like me to imagine that because I won't allow it.' "

Eventually, Ms. Batson said, he found a way to connect to it: "He opened a door that I thought would have taken much longer to open, and wasn't even sure it would open. But it will be an every-night challenge to keep your foot in the door."

Ms. Batson declined to go into detail, but Mr. Combs said that it involved a loss he had suffered. "My loss is crazy," he said. "It isn't the average kind of loss. There are times when you have to break down things and use the emotional stuff that's within you, and that's been a scary part for me."

While he made appearances at the Grammy Awards and the N.B.A. All-Star game and performed at the now-legendary Super Bowl half-time show, Ms. Batson flew around the country to meet with him and keep him studying.

"Remember the coach from the movie `Rocky'? " Mr. Combs said. "Susan is like that. We'd be in my house to 6 in the morning. `That's not the truth!' she'd yell. `You're going to stay here until you tell the truth!' "

Rehearsals with the rest of the cast, which includes Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan, began on Feb. 24. That's the point in the process when Ms. Batson usually steps aside. But in this case, she made an exception — "due to time and the newness of Sean," she said.

Before previews began, Mr. Combs started getting bad publicity. The New York Post said he did not know his lines and several actors publicly criticized the choice to cast him in the first place. But rumors of an impending catastrophe were put to rest after the production's first previews. Mr. Combs was not forgetting his lines, nor was he descending to the stereotype sent up in George C. Wolfe's satire, "The Colored Museum," in which the Walter Lee character is killed for overacting.

Playfully dashing around the stage with a bashful look on his face, Mr. Combs often appears like an overgrown child, especially in the scene in which he drunkenly dances with his sister. Ms. Batson said it was while working on that scene that she discovered Mr. Combs's sensitive side — which she refers to as "his little boy."

"He has a fantastic little boy," she said. "Very sweet, imaginative and alive."

As she watched each night's previews, however, she was more concerned about Mr. Combs's ability to handle the play's wrenching emotional moments. With less than three weeks remaining before opening night, she said that she had not been moved to tears nearly enough. "This is about him going public," she said. "This play touched millions of people. And I'm not totally, completely, in regards to him, in the depth of the play. He must get there. It's essential."

That's what Mr. Combs was working on backstage at the Royale on a recent Friday afternoon. Dressed in loose blue jeans, a striped shirt and no jewelry, he was hunched over, earnestly scribbling notes with a sharpened pencil. If it weren't for his tan Louis Vuitton sneakers, he could have been a Midwestern college student.

For about 15 minutes, Ms. Batson made practical suggestions ("Don't fear making it presentational") and mused about the text ("This is life. This is the dream. This is it"). And when she didn't like something, she was brutally honest ("You're just not getting the moment").

Mr. Combs made a point: "You have all these other teachers like Strasberg," he said, turning toward Ms. Batson to check whether he had correctly pronounced the name of the illustrious acting teacher and co-founder of the Group Theater. Ms. Batson, who studied with Strasberg at the Actors Studio, nodded. "But," he continued, "Susan has been able to simplify and make it more direct. Sometimes her help can be as crazy as `Dare to eat the eggs.' "

He was referring to an early scene in which Walter Lee's wife — Ms. McDonald — makes him scrambled eggs. In the first few previews, Mr. Combs left the eggs on his plate, but after that he started taking a few forkfuls. "People have come to see the play — real New York thespians — and they're like, `Damn, he's really eating the eggs,' " Mr. Combs said. " `I can't believe it. He really can act.' "

The next evening, Ms. Batson attended a performance with a class of her students — a group of aspiring stars who jumped to attention when their leader said "Listen up, troops!" During the show, Ms. Batson seemed to be in constant motion, shifting in her seat and writing notes furiously. But during the breakfast scene, she froze after Mr. Combs ate his scrambled eggs. He started choking, coughing so hard he practically brought the performance to a halt. Ms. McDonald, quick on her feet, brought him a glass of water and, after a few seconds, he recovered gracefully. Ms. Batson shook her head and giggled. "I can see the headline," she whispered. " `Coach Kills Combs.' "

The eggs were still on her mind after the show, when she went backstage to give notes. Mr. Combs was visiting with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, so she waited in a room across the hall. Kenny Leon, the director of "Raisin," joined her. After a long pause, he said, "He's not going to eat those eggs."

It's unusual for an acting coach to take an active role in a Broadway production that is already under way, so friction with the director may be inevitable. "I'm very apt to overstep the boundaries," Ms. Batson said. "If you have an actor who is new like this, a dependency forms just out of the newness. And Kenny has allowed me to step over the boundaries more than he would in any other circumstance."

In retrospect, Ms. Batson said, a few days after the egg incident: "Kenny's probably just protecting his actor's life. Me, I'm challenging him to be as real as he can be on the stage."

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