Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween.

Well, here it again. All Hallows Eve. I went as a referee. (Though we actors sort of get to have temporary Halloweens throughout the year, don't we? Dressing up, invoking the spirits of things we are not.)

It also brings October to an end, and with it the month long celebration of my blog's one year anniversary. I know that none of my stories were overtly amazing, but they were and are a part of me and my theatrical makeup.

Not that I will never share anything from my past again, of course.

I did mention at the start of October that I would, near the end of it, mention instead of the past, the future. So here are some things I am kicking around.

I am thinking about interviewing some of my friends and local community theatre types once a month or so, and publishing the results here on the blog. As fantastically informative as I am sure you all find me to be, I thought views from some of my amateur acting peers would be welcome on occasion.

I may also include interviews with other local community theatre "big wigs", if I can find any willing to talk. Directors, techie people, that sort of thing. So in the coming months or so, look for that as a possible new addition to the blog.

Yet fear not. Always Off Book will remain a place dedicated mostly to my advise, observations and anecdotes pertaining to the wonderful world of acting. Views that I have brought to you, loyal blog readers for over a year now.

Until next time, I hope tonight you have more treats than tricks.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Well Thank You Very Much

Sometimes it is the smaller roles I really dig. In particular roles that are small but are highly memorable. My favorite example of this from my own career was playing Elvis in Jeffery Hatcher's Miss Nelson is Missing.

To be clear, I did not play Elvis Presley. But in all likelihood, it will be the closest I will ever come to doing so.

The play, based on the popular children's book, tales the story of a bunch of 3rd graders who show little to no respect for there total push over of a teacher, Miss Nelson. When an "evil" sub is brought is to replace Miss Nelson, who disappeared, the kids decide they had better straighten up, and find Miss Nelson in the process.

"Elvis" was a kid who idolized the real Elvis. Hence his talk, walk, and lines (though there were not many of them) were all very Elvis like.

I never believe in assuming you have the role in the bag before you show up for an audition. It's arrogant, and as often as not, is incorrect. Yet I confess I was very close to feeling that for this audition. You see, I had won Elvis impersonation contests in both high school, and college. I had performed Elvis at campus parties, and made frequent use of my impression on the college radio station. I was (and AM) quite the reflection of the king himself.

Add to the fact that the director was a friend of mine who more than once witnessed my Elivisations, and I felt fairly confident.

Of course, I got the role, or there would be little point in blogging about it.

I always work hard on my performances, but my hard work has rarely felt more like play for the entire run of a production. Busting moves, curling my lip, wearing a leather jacket, greasing my hair back. Singing sometimes. Even lip syncing to the king himself as the final black out ended the show. If not a dream role, it was certainly what I call a "DAYdream role".

Plus, this Elvis was a little kid, so I got to explore the inner child a bit. This was actually more of a worthwhile exercise than you might imagine. Everyone from teachers to my mother can confirm that I did not act very much like a 3rd grader, even when I was in the third grade. And in fact, the only real consistent note I got from my director was to "work on being more like a kid." So by watching kids, and most importantly, just letting lose and totally losing myself in the straight up super fun of the role, I hit the balance between Elvis, and child.

I am also proud to say, that after we performed the show for several grade school audiences, I was the recipient of the second largest amount of fan mail out of the cast. (We were allowed to write back to the kids, via their school, which I did for every one of them.)

Not a profound experience overall, this stint as Elvis. But to this day, despite all the fun I have had in theatre, it remains the one part that had the highest amount of pure hammy fun, coupled with the lowest amount of backstage drama and extra work (zero) of any role I have ever had, before or since.

And on a more sentimental note, it was the very last role I had as a college student at Marietta College.

And my last line during my last appearance as a college student ever?

"I did it my way".

Doesn't get much better than that.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Crucible as Crucible

My poster collection tells me that today is the three year anniversary of my debut at the Old Opera House. I have mentioned the circumstances of my winding up there before, at least in passing. Yet I wanted to explain more of its significance on a person level for me.

For starters, a recap of how I ended up in the production.

I had had no luck in local community theatre after graduating high school. So I tried my hand at a monthly reader's theatre. Each month a play would be selected, parts would be handed out, and the group would cold read it there at the meeting, and discuss it for a bit at the end of the evening.

On my third or fourth trip to this activity, I was told by the organizers that the Old Opera House in Charles Town, West Virginia, was still running short on men for their production of The Crucible. So I called the director, was given a part, and arrived for my first read-through sometime in August. Hence, the beginning of my association with the place. (And thus far the only time I got into a show without having to audition.) I played Thomas Putnam.

I suppose one could not have asked for a better first time experience with a theatre company. First, I had the excellent words of Arthur Miller to work with. It also happened to be the year of the 50th anniversary of the Crucible's original opening, which was noted by local press. And, we had a full house nearly every night, (a rarity for a non-musical) because the play was on the curriculum o just about every local high school. Students and teachers alike cam from everywhere to see the production.

The best part, however, was the 100% dedication of everyone involved.

I have been in many plays, and worked with many fine people. Many people I have worked with more than once. So the Crucible was by no means the only high quality production I have been in at the Opera House. But it does rank in my memory as the one show where there was zero doubt about the excitement and commitment to excellence on the part o every single cast member and crew member. From the sound design and lights, the set construction and acting. From the oldest actor in our cast, to the youngest at around age 11, everyone took every moment seriously, and still enjoyed themselves. (Something most 11 year olds these days are not exactly known for.)

The cast bonded very well, and although I am not close to any of them at this point, some of them are still counted as my friends. The more important thing though, was that at the time of the show we all got pretty close, and it allowed me to be comfortable in what was at the time, a strange theatre. Doing so did feel uncomfortable and awkward at first, so the camaraderie that developed was, in a fashion, responsible for my survival of this baptism by fire into a new theatre world.

Though there was initial awkwardness and discomfort performing on a stage other than the one I was used to (in college), my inhibitions burned away faster because of the nature of the cast and crew. In that sense, being in the Crucible, did in fact act like an actual crucible for me...burning off the impurities of my initial insecurities. It showed me that I still had it, even though college was behind me. I was no fluke. I had what it required to be an actor, without a need for the security blanket of people I went to college with.

Three years to the day, it is a lesson I have held on to.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

On the Air, With Vince

I do not subscribe to the notion, (as some of my friends and colleagues in the theatre world do), that in order to be considered a talented or accomplished actor, one to be taken seriously, one most seek out only roles which have great depth, unique flaws, or difficult circumstances that call upon the very depths of your creative soul in order to even be passable. While taken such roles certainly provides a chance for evolution in one's craft, I do think that there is nothing wrong with taking a part which is intended for the most part, to be noting but fun, for the audience and the actor.

Plus, it takes talent and dedication to pull off a good performance of a so called "fluff" part as well, (though I hate that term.) One such part that providing me with some of the most fun I have yet had in my career, was the disk jockey, Vince Fontaine, in the musical Grease.

If you do not know the show, Vince is a rowdy sort. Into the ladies, party type. Small town B-List celebrity ham, and proud to be so. I remember reading for Grease, and it being one of the very few times I had ever requested to read for a specific part. It was one of the only parts I thought I could do well in that show, given my age. Plus, for a few years I was an actual radio disk jockey, so I thought I had an inside leg.

I read one of his speeches during the audition, using the best far out 1950's radio rocker and roller voice I could come up with. I also made use of the "radio cadence", which, if you are not a DJ is hard to describe.

I was told much later by the director that he knew at that moment I would be Vince.

But being Vince in that production was going to be a bit different, which intrigued me. To begin with, a small mock up of some turn tables and a microphone was setup for me on one of the stage pods, in front of the curtain. I got to talk to the audience, as they came in, make a few jokes, and introduce the band in the pit, as the played some incidental music, to warm up the ground before the show started.

I had never had that kind of chance to play around with an audience before a show opened before. They, and I , enjoyed it.

For the first act of the show, I would return to this little pod area, to deliver my lines. In the script, Vince is only heard as a voice through the radio the characters are listening to. But in our production I got to be seen by the audience, while being heard by the rest of the cast on stage. A live theatre version of a split screen, if you will.

Costumes and such were great for that part. My hair slicked down every night with large amounts of (say it with me) grease, sneakers, and rolled up blue jeans, and a white t-shirt. Over the t-shirt, depending on which scene I was in, I would where, unbuttoned, these outlandish wild colored shirts. Hawaiian style. One I bought for myself had pineapples and hula girls dancing on it. I was allowed to use it for the show. It is a sweet shirt. I still have it.

In Act II, Vince shows up to be a judge of a dance off. This is where I originally had the least fun, because it was a pain to choreograph. Plus, in order to eliminate people, I had to grope the girls in the group, most of which were under 18 at the time.

But eventually the awkwardness wore off, the blocking smoothed out, and I got to wear the most go to hell far out tuxedo I had ever seen. Maroon and gold. And I got to ham it up by dancing around in whatever way struck me, so long as I eliminated people at the right point in the music. A very hammy moment for a very hammy part.

And an exhausting, hot part. The suit made it feel like 130 degrees by the end of the dance. I lost 10 pounds during the run of that show.

But more important than weight, I lost a few inhibitions I had as an actor. While there are still things I could not do on stage, playing Vince, with his shananagins really widened my comfort level. I was able to let go and fly with the part. I had to, or else I would sink very quickly. But by accepting the need to do that, I became more open and less timid with my performances on a permanent basis. So in addition to being a blast, the role helped me as an actor.
So much for "fluff" roles doing nothing for the serious actor.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Everyone Loves Lists

I do have, by most accounts, an excellent memory. However, I am in the habit of keeping semi-meticulous journals on productions that I am in, which enables me to recall specific, "Trivial Pursuit" type factoids about the shows I have been in.

Here is a list of statistics about the shows I have been in, which I include here purely for fun, and to give you a rough sketch of the type of career of I have had so far...

Total productions: 18

Number of musicals appeared in: 4

Number of musicals in which I had solo numbers: 2

Total plays in which I portrayed more than one character: 6

Number of shows where I appeared in the very first scene: 16

Number of shows where I appeared in the very last scene: 12

Number of shows where I delivered the very first line: 6 The very last line: 3

Largest Cast: 44 people in the musical Scrooge.

Smallest Cast: 3 people (a never before performed one act play, from this summer)

Largest crowd ever performed for: 400+

Smallest Crowd: 8 (Yes, eight individual people. Contrary to the unwritten convention, we performed, despite the cast being 4 times that size.)

Most performances of a single show: 13 (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged)

Number of plays requiring a stage kiss: 1

Number of plays that were supposed to require a stage kiss, but I talked my way out of: 1

Shakespearean plays: 1

Oldest character: Orlas in Cecile, who was written to be in his 60’s. Also the role for which I wore the most make-up ever.

Youngest Character: Elvis in Miss Nelson is Missing. Theoretically a third grader, but like all characters, acted older.

Stage most frequently performed on: The Old Opera House in Charles Town, West Virginia. (11 productions to date.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

This Mortal Coil

In all the shows I have done, it seems hard to believed my characters have never died.

Well, I supposed that depend on how you look at it. If by dying you mean a character's sincere death actually being portrayed within the context of an on going story, I have not yet done so. If, however, you count moments of absurdity and comedy, I have died nine times on stage. In only two shows.

My first lead role was as Leon Trotsky, in David Ives' Variations on the Death of Trotsky. It is a farce which is based on literal events surrounding the murder of Soviet Revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. (It just sounds like fertile ground for comedy, does it not?)

To summarize, the character of Leon walks around with an axe embedded in his skull, which at first he does not notice, until his wife points it out. He proceeds, moments later to die. But in true Ives fashion, a bell sounds, or the lights go out and come back on, and Leon is alive again, during which time he attempts to find out more facts about his untimely demise.

Until he dies again. And so on. The character dies 8 full times in the show, before the show finally being over.

I have no problem saying that it was the most bizarre role I have ever played, in the most bizarre play I have ever been in. But great fun, and a very fortunate chance for someone who had never had a leading role before.

The other "death" a character of mine experienced on stage was during The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. (The show I mentioned in the previous entry.)

Given that the gimmick of that show was to portray the action of all of Shakespeare's plays in less than two hours, one can assume that there were characters dying left and right. Indeed their were. Somehow though, even with all of this stage death going around, I ended up being the only cast member who got to "die" on stage just once. Even then it was barely noticeable, because it was a particularly chaotic scene.

The whole cast was in stage, presenting the history plays in the context of a football game. We would be tossing a crown back and forth to represent the regime changes and such. At any rate, for one play of this Royal Bowl, I played King Richard II. The ball was snapped to me or something, and a moment later, the guy playing Henry IV killed me.

I did get to say, as I fell, usually unnoticed in the mix, "My gross flesh sinks downwards", an actual line from Richard II. But it is not a well known Shakespearean line to those who have not read that play, (and many have not), so I think even those that heard it were usually unaware of what they had heard.

It was fun to die and reside such a line though. This despite the fact that 5 seconds later I had to get up and portray yet another king.

So in both plays, and all nine deaths, I had comic fun playing the death "scene", if you will. Still, though some may call it sick, I hope I play a realistic and dramatic death at some point. A realistic death on stage, whether instant or prolonged, is one of those razor thin balancing acts that an actor must walk. It is so easy to be melodramatic as opposed to just dramatic. It is a challenge I have not yet faced, but I welcome.

Just out of curiosity, have any of you loyal blog readers that act ever had a serious death scene to perform?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

One Year!

For the exact one year anniversary of this blog, I am posting here today an excerpt from a much larger writing.

The larger writing is a book I wrote. A memoir of sorts, describing, from beginning to end, of the most unique theatre projects I have yet been involved in. As it turns out, it also became one of my favorite shows to have been in, due in part to certain things that occurred while we peformed it, certain nights. One of the nights, described in the following excerpt from that book, was a critical turning point in my life as a performer.

The play was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. I was in college. We had spent months re-writing the script in our own image, while keeping some bits from the original texts. After presenting it to the collge community the standard number of times, the cast took the show on the road, literally; we visited 4 different community theatre venues throughout the area. The excerpt I am including here decribes one such night on the road.

It will be a longer entry than any before, but it is matched in significance to me personally. A personal story I share with all of you, loyal blog readers, in celebration of both the one year anniversary of Always Off Book, and the presence of theatre in my life. Enjoy.

Here is the excerpt...

The theatre was called "The Lincon Theater", and it was in New Martinsville, West Virginia. This theater would turn out to be the largest one we would perform in on the road, as far as seating. If I had to guess, I would say a full house would be able to hold roughly 700 people or so. By no means were we getting a full house, but from what we had heard in the proceeding days from their ticket office, it was nonetheless going to be a large crowd.

The stage itself was much bigger than the space we had to work in at Marietta College. There was some space in the wings, and backstage, but not much. Off to the side both left and right, there was a depth of about 5 feet from the walls of the building, to the actual stage, on both sides. Both wings were separated into little sections by a series of mini-curtains, which, in effect, created 3 or 4 cubicle type areas on either side of the stage. It was in these areas, (which were already cluttered with folding chairs, pipes, and other various stage related material), that we had to place all the costumes and props. Kind of a tight fit, but it worked.

I spent most of the prep time in the dressing room in the basement. (The rickety staircase to which was behind the back stage curtain, stage left.) I never did wear any make up during those road trips, mainly because I did not own my own, and did not know how to put it on or anything. Yet the dressing room is where we actors hung out and got psyched for a show, and so in the dressing room we convened.

Once our stage manager called for places, I made my way back up the staircase, and took my usual spot, in the down stage right wing area, between two of the mini curtains, giving the sort of feeling of having my own private warm up booth. I could hear the large murmur of the crowd, and I just had to peer out very slowly from behind said mini-curtain, (The house curtains were not closed for our show opening). It was the largest audience we had yet performed for. I estimated maybe three or four hundred people.

There was a sense of anticipation in those last few moments before starting that night that was somewhat different than previous nights. There just seemed to be a bit more of an edge to the energy of the crowd.
Finally, the lights dimmed a bit, and Gloria, who opened the show, walked out on stage. The large crowd quieted down.
Right away, I noticed something different. They clapped when she entered, which no one else had done. Furthermore, as her speech went on, they were laughing at several of the jokes. This was unique, because normally Gloria would go through her speech, and audiences would generally laugh, (modestly), at the same two jokes, if they laughed at any of them at all. (This speech was in the original script.) This audience was laughing at things that others had never laughed at; things that we as a cast had basically forgotten were supposed to be funny.

This was also true of the first few gags of the play. This crowd was not only laughing more heartily at moments that others had only giggled at, they had showed signs of enjoying things that no one else had yet laughed at. In fact, more than once or twice, I think our timing was thrown off in the first few minutes, during the opening sketch or two, because this crowd was actually laughing at things that even we as the writers and actors had forgotten were supposed to be jokes.

The energy of the crowd only built as the show went on. The folks in the house were not just watching a showl; they were letting themselves be drawn into the show. As though they all knew us personally. As a result, the cast took on a new, more exciting dynamic, unlike anything we had accomplished up until that point.

With each passing sketch or joke, the audience became even warmer, and as a result, everyone in the cast became bolder, and more confident in their individual performances. Lines were delivered with new power. Jokes were punched with better timing than we had ever had. Ad-libs came flying forth at a pace unmatched by any of our previous performances. The audience kept eating all of it up. Nothing felt like it was failing, as I was able to lose myself totally in this audience before the end of Act 1. Speaking for me, it felt fabulous.

During intermission, a very excited cast chattered about how well the show was going, as we all got into out “costumes” for the beginning of Act 2. For me and two others, this entailed putting on makeshift Roman togas. About halfway through intermission, the toga wearers had to exit the building through a side door, so we could walk up an alley, and enter the house at the top of the Act from the lobby of the theatre.
Our director had told us that we could, during these moments, interact with audience members if we so chose. All audiences at all the venues found this mildly entertaining, or in some cases confusing, when they swathe actors walking amongst them at intermission, but this crowd was impressed by it. Their excitement at watching me walk by on my way to a seat in the house was palpable. Some woman I think even whispered, “that’s him”, as I walked by.

When we interacted with the audience at this time, we could choose to do so either as ourselves, or as the character we were portraying. I myself, chose the former, opting to be myself. But I did not seek out interaction with the audience. I simply sat there quietly, and responded if anyone had anything to say to me. (Which several people did.)
One the total opposite end of that spectrum another one of my cast mates was on the other side of the house as dressed as Richard III. At that moment, he was attempting to start "the wave" with the audience members. At first I thought it a bit much to ask of them, but the audience complied! Nearly everyone in the theatre was doing it, including myself. Wonderfully fun, for all involved.

Act 2 finally got under way, and it went even better than Act 1. This crowd was giving me all kinds of energy. The audience itself was so energetic throughout the entire show, it would be hard to be performing for them and not have energy yourself. All my life I had desired reach out to a group of people like that; warm, intelligent, willing to have fun. We had all been interacting with them the whole time, of course. But I had two special chances to reach out to them all by myself.
There were two points in this particular show where I was left on stage all by myself, to deal with the audience. The first of these took place during our Hamlet sketch. When we announced plans to present Hamlet, one of our actors would get nervous, have a breakdown, and run down the aisle of the theatre to escape the show, with everyone in the cast pursuing him, except for myself. This of course left me on stage alone.

This audience totally adored this part. They applauded as the cast rushed out of the building. I knew soon enough, however, that I had not been forgotten in the fray; for when the clapping died down, I heard a girl from somewhere in the middle of the crowd shout "Yeah Ty!"

At this point in the action of the play, I would yell after the rest of the group, telling them not to “leave me with these idiots”, (referring to the audience.) Most audiences rolls with that punch. But not that night. This audience moaned at the notion of being called idiots! Imagine, 300 or so people going "hey!" collectively because of something you did. Now, I am sure they knew it was all part of the show, and were willing to go along with the jab, but so surprised was I by their response, I knew I had to make up for it somehow. Simply continuing with the bit as written would have felt false. So I bowed at the waist unto them, in an apologetic manner, saying;

"No, ladies and gentleman, I was just kidding, of course. You are not idiots. You are in fact probably the best audience we have had so far."
At this point, I pointed to some of the people in the balcony, (yes, they had a rather large balcony with a particularly enthusiastic crowd) and added,

"Especially those of you in the balcony".

They balcony applauded and waved at me.

Getting back to the script, my job was to explain that the cast would be returning any minute. When they did not after a few moments, I was to awkwardly stall, until they had the cue to come back to the stage. To accomplish this, I had written two very lame stories about how the cast knew what their duty was, or something. Everyone seemed to really enjoy these lame tales.

Perhaps that is why when I finished each story, this group applauded as though they were good, instead of being amused by the lameness of them. Even the parts that by design were supposed to appear bad and poorly constructed were adored for what they were. I am not sure if they, or I, was having a better time, though I would guess them, despite how high I felt. They just really seemed to click with me, and I with them.

That was always one of my favorite parts to perform, and that night it was even greater for me than usual. I dare say here and now, that during that part of the play that night, I ruled. It was just me, and four hundred people, who paid total attention to everything I was saying.

Not bad.

Of course that segment could not last forever. But less than an hour later I would get to be alone with them all over again. So I ended that bit, and cued the rest of the cast to come bursting back in through the doors.

The Hamlet sketch, like the whole show, was received far better than previous performances. I will never forget one particular example of how the jokes in Hamlet went off much better that night than ever before.

After the Hamlet segment, we would begin to close the show. We would thank everyone, mention where our next performance would be, and one by one re-introduce ourselves, before declaring unison “We are the Reduced Shakespeare Company”
But it was a false ending.

We had written our version of the show, so as to in a very subtle manner avoid all mention of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The gag was, the cast would claim to be done, and I would send them off ahead of me, while I “clean up”. Once they had left, I would reveal to the audience that my cast has totally forgotten to mention that particular play. I would then proceed to provide the true closing of the production, by reciting, in a straight manner, Puck’s closing speech from that play. Afterwards, the lights would go down, come back up, and I would call back the rest of the cast.

As you may have come to expect, it did not work exactly likethat on this night of night. After our false ending, I heard someone yell "hell yes!" moments before the place erupted in very powerful applause. I assumed many of them thought it was over, as was the point, of course, but for a moment I was worried that the audience would start leaving before the final speech. I could not be heard at first, over the roar. Yet I still had to tell the cast to leave without me. Though it somewhat broke the apparent spontaneity of the moment, I felt I had little choice but to raise my hand to call for quiet, in order to deliver those lines. I honestly thought if I had not, people would begin either keep applauding, or begin to leave.

Thankfully, not one person stood up to leave early.

Just as the crowd was quieting down, I sent the cast on their way. As soon as they were all out of sight, I heard someone in the front row say something to the effect of, "They left you all alone again, Ty." I looked down to said person and replied, "Yes, they did, but this time I wanted them to."

I then began my usual bit. I looked out on that amazing audience. Four hundred quiet faces looking right at me, wondering what I was up to. Yet you could feel they were, as ever, open a receptive to anything that was coming next. You could feel them waiting to be delighted.

I mentioned to them that we had not done all of the plays, but that we had skipped "A Midsummer Night's Dream". In response, a female voice in the audience called out, "I knew you had missed that one!"
These interruptions may have bugged other people, but it never really bothered me. I figure they would not be so anxious to be a part of the play if they had not enjoyed it so much. This particular time I was not sure who exactly had said it, so I looked in the general direction and said, "You are the smartest person I have ever met." Laughter all around.

I have to say that although the nature of the show allowed for this back and forth with the audience, with ad-libs and everything else, at no time during the run of the show did it feel more natural than it did that night with that crowd. I was one with this audience, as clich├ęd as that may sound.

I gave my speech, and ended the play with the snap of my fingers. The lights went out. The darkness in the large theatre made it more dramatic when thunderous sustained applause again erupted. Our hands down greatest performance in front of our greatest audience had ended.

And the "ups" did not stop once the show was over, either. In fact one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole experience took place after the cast exited the house at the end of the show, and waited in the lobby.
We all stood behind this unused receptionist desk type thing, (or perhaps it was an unused concessions stand). It resembled a bar and faced the entrance to the house of the theater. The idea was to greet the audience as they came out, and to thank them, if any of them should come to us with comments and congratulations and such.

Come they did. In droves. Within moments fans surrounded us. Not simply those trying to exit the building, but those who gathered around us for a chance to meet us. (Which is why I call them fans as opposed to merely audience members.)

There were small spurts of applause, handshaking, chatting, and a great deal of autograph seeking on the part of the fans. It was a very constant stream of people wanting us to sign things, (Who were very excited to have us do so.) I signed programs, flyers, notebooks, memo pads, just about anything. I had never signed my name so many times in one night before. (Not that I minded for a moment.)
I was amazed and very humbled by this. For a time, I caught a glimpse of what the Beatles must have felt like.

These people were no fools, either. They wanted to engage us. They talked to us at length about theater, about the play we had just did, about Shakespeare. Several people mentioned that they had seen the "Complete Works" performed according to the original script, and had found our adaptation to be much better.

After a few minutes of mingling and signing and vigorous hand shaking, three girls came up to me whom I recognized right away. They were the girls who were in the front row of the audience during the show, one of whom had been the one I had talked back and forth with during my closing bit. I would say they were between 15 and 17 years old.
One of the girls identified herself as the girl who said "I knew that", when I mentioned on stage that we had skipped "A Midsummer Night's Dream". I remember telling her that I hoped she had not taken offense by my remark of her being the "smartest person I have ever met." She had not, and I suppose had I been thinking, I would have realized that she would not have been talking to me at that moment, had I pissed her off.

I talked with the girls for several minutes, taking measures to maintain humility in the face of such adoration for my performance. They invited me to come see them in the play they would be doing for their high school in a few weeks. I told them honestly that I was not sure if I would be able to make it, but that I would certainly try, because I was sure that they had enough talent to put on a performance that was just as enjoyable as mine had been to them. (I was not able to attend, as it turns out.)

At one point the younger of the girls asked me if I had seen any of her signs while I was on stage. She said, "They were small, so I was not sure if you would be able to see them." I confessed to her that I had not noticed them while I was performing. She then pulled out a small assignment pad, on which she seemed to have written in bold letters during the show, several messages that she had intended me to see from my vantage point on stage.

Flipping through the pages slowly, I read each of the make shift signs that I had missed during the performance "You rock!" "Awesome!", and "We love you" were all among the little notes she had scrolled, in hopes of being seen from the front row.

It was at that moment that I began to realize that we had not simply entertained that night, but had overjoyed people. During these moments, I became certain that theatre was not simply a hobby, or a way of passing time, but when used properly, could do good in people's lives, and make a significant impact, if only for 2 hours at a time. Though I did not know what the future would hold for me and theatre, in the lobby with those people that night, I ceased to view it as merely an exercise.

I humbly thanked the girl, and told her she was very kind. I asked to see the pad, so I could sign it. It was the very best way I knew how to show my gratitude for her gratitude. The more I would have tried to say, the less sincere I am sure it would have sounded. So, for better or worse, I left it at that.

This fan-fest had been going on to close to 20 minutes, when out director announced that we had to be moving on. I bid goodbye to those I had been talking to, and followed the cast back into the house of the theatre, in order to retrieve our stuff from the stage.

While we were picking up our props on stage, several cast mates began to complain about botched lines, costume problems, and the like. We had obviously knocked everyone dead that night, but I started to wonder if anyone else knew that, given the banter of regret I heard from various corners. One or two people did agree it was our best audience ever, and understood where I was coming from with the power of the evening. Sadly, they all did not seem to.

But as we piled into the cars to head back to campus, it did not matter to me what the others thought. I knew, though I could not define it, that I had been immersed in something that transcended inner monologue and blocking technique. In fact, it transcended theatre. It was a night I brushed up against a sort of immortality, brought about by what I have come to believe is the most potent combination in life; people being made happy, by other people working their ass off at something the enjoy doing.

That show, and many shows have opened and closed in my life since that night. Yet the impact has never fully left me. I think back on that night whenever I question why I choose to continue acting, and wonder if it is worth the time I put into it all. So far, despite years having past, upon review of those events my answer to that question has always been, “hell yes.”

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Blocking Labor's Lost

So far, my only experience with performing Shakespeare came in college. I played Longaville in a production of Love's Labor's Lost. There is a reason why this work of the Bard's is rarely performed, and I will not get into all of that here. Suffice it to say, we, as a cast, found it as thick, confusing, and outdated as anything we had ever done.

But there is an anecdote in here, so stay a while and I will be faithful.

First, the set up.

This particular production was being presented in the round. (Or in the semi-round, as there were two sides of the stage without seating.) Our director called for mostly improvised blocking during several key scenes. (I know, I know.) Several scenes had what seemed like dozens of people on stage at one time, all vying for a place to walk while delivering a line or speech.

This was initially good news for me and a fellow theatre friend of mine. Let's call her Hannah. Hannah and I had each been heavily involved in theatre projects during our years at college, and had become friends through other activities. But it occurred to us during the rehearsals of LLL that we had never shared the stage, and therefore had never exchanged dialogue. We had very much wanted to be able to do so before all was said and done for our college years, and we figured we could make it happen for this show, even though the script never called for our characters to speak to one another openly.

Our plan was to mingle about during one of the many scenes that involved a cast of thousands. When one of the other characters would be off making a tedious speech of hours in length, we would simply allow our characters to address each other in the background. Though not heard by the audience, it would be, in our minds, interacting on stage. With the improvised nature of the blocking for this show, it would be no problem, we thought.

We were both mistaken.

Throughout all of the dress rehearsals, and 4 out of 6 performances, try as we may, other actors would improvise their movements in such a way that to go through with our plan would have been obvious to the whole world. Neither of us could motivate ourselves to the opposite side of the room, pushing through the rest of the cast, just in order to be able to pull this off.

Then came the 5th performance or so. There had been a minor flub by someone, though I do not know who. It was no big deal, and it was easily corrected by other actors, but a small amount of the usual flow of the scene had been altered. In that altered space, I found myself sitting on one of the benches for about 30 seconds longer than normal; at which time Hannah very slowly made her way over to where I was, and nodded to me, whispering, "Longaville", in greeting.

I nodded back, slightly smiling, as I greeting her with a whispered "Rosaline". Moments later she had a speech, and was off. But not before we had finally attained a goal we had both set for years, and one that very nearly did not come to past.

It was just as well, for that was one of thevery few things that went according to plan during that production. But you count your blessings in live theatre, no matter how small.

Monday, October 02, 2006

An "Alarming" Experience

In this blog, I have already talked about my very first regular stage production. (Read about that here.) However, I have yet to mention my first acting experience with other people per se, as an adult. That is what I am doing today.

First let me say that I do not include childhood pageants and such. Some people do count them as acting experience, and I suppose, they technically are. However, given the usual mandatory nature of participating in them, as well as nearly everyone having been required to do some such things in their childhood, stories of that nature are excluded in this context.

With those boundaries established, my first acting experience would have been the exceedingly silly, The Still Alarm, by George S. Kaufman.

For those of you who are not familiar, it is a short piece about two men who find themselves in an upper floor of a burning hotel building, but are about as bothered by this as a normal person might be by a housefly. An ignorable inconvenience. I played one of said gentleman.

It was part of the acting class I took in college. I have mentioned the class, and it’s mechanics before; each student would pick a script, and present its positives and negatives to the whole class. Upon hearing the descriptions, if you liked someone else’s script more than yours, you could team up with that student, and run that scene for a grade, about three weeks later.

Sometimes, if a play was popular, you would have people fighting over it. This would sometimes result in the professor having to assign certain people to certain scripts, instead of being able to pick your own. Being new to the group, I was not in the mood to fight for my first choices. I ended up doing The Still Alarm. (I do not recall who proposed he script.)

I was coupled with two other people. Both of my acting partners for this fateful project, were athletes. Decent enough guys, fun loving in their own right. Yet it was never totally clear to me why they were in that class. (After that semester, it must not have been totally clear to them, as neither of them returned for the second semester of the year long course.)

There were some obvious set backs. Horrendous rehearsal schedules which had to be formed around various sports. A possibly marijuana induced difficulty with one of them remembering lines. The other one’s overwhelming need to improvise, without warning, in the middle of the scene. (Something our professor eventually instructed him to cease.)

I suppose it was a blessing in disguise. At least a small one. For up until that time, I had been shaky on my self confidence. I was not sure if acting, outside the world of school pageants, was in me. I knew of course, that the purpose of the class was to learn, and that looking bad was expected, but I was nonetheless unwilling to do so.

But with the partners I ended up with, I knew that despite my slight embarrassment at the end product, they were both going to make me look good when it came time to present the scene to the rest of the class.

Present it, we did. (Early fall of 1999, if you are keping track of that.) Somehow, it was not a total disaster. I remembered all of my lines, mental recall always being one of my strong suits in other endeavors. To the very best of my knowledge, acting partner number 1 had not been anywhere near his stash that day, and partner number 2 add-libbed only once to my recollection, that being in a very small way that did not distract me, as his previous plot changing impromptus had done.

Despite having survived, I had hoped I would not have to work with either of them on a scene again. It turns out, I did not have to. (Though years later I actually worked with Mr. Improvisation twice again for some performance related work, but under vastly different circumstances not related to the acting class.)

So despite it’s choppy waters, my first acting experience in college eventually made it to port, with minimal horror.

Not that every subsequent scene for that class went as smoothly. But that is a story for another time.