Monday, March 07, 2005

The View From Here # 87: Gresham, OR, Palos Verdes & Long Beach, CA, Houston, TX, Greensboro, NC

I sometimes despair of the fact that I will not ever be able to capture all the details passing by as weeks pass between “Views.” I then realize that some of you probably despair that I will.

I am about 5,000 miles along the road since the last time I checked in. From Pocatello, Idaho, I raced on to Portland, Oregon, and a beautiful hotel/bed & breakfast/brewery/winery where I was being housed for two nights. Early on I was actually frustrated by the fact that there were no TV’s in the room, or phone connections. As time passed, I grew to appreciate the fact that this led me out of the room itself, and down to the winery, where cordial fraternity ensued. (There was a party of 8 lesbians celebrating a birthday.)

The hotel (McMenamin’s) was painted all over, with a different painting on every door, and even paintings on the hot water pipes, or any odd surface.

I arrived at Mount Hood Community College on a beautiful blue-skied day (the weather had been kind to me already, crossing the mountains in February). Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens stood out vividly in the distance.

I met my host, who actually had first met me on the trip to Martinique two summers ago, and he led me to the performance space, which was a lecture hall next to an art gallery. What nobody had told me was that they were re-flooring the space, and the bare cement floor was interrupted by three power outlets elevated three inches above the surface. By some heightened sense of awareness that I don’t understand, I never came tripped over these during the show.

The 200-seat hall was eventually filled with 170 audience members (a good rear-end-to-seat ratio), and their response was great. It was a noon show, and the school had recruited some high schools to attend. Remembering the last noon show that I’d done had been interrupted by a 1 pm exodus of students going to their next class, I had suggested that we do my 1-hour version of the show, followed by a 1-hour lecture on Moliere’s life. My webmaster, Bruce (who’s been promoting the show for years, but only managed to see it for the first time now), noted that the lecture was as successful as the performance. A teacher, who’d seen a teaser that I put into the program, requested hearing my rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and I sang a verse of it to big cheers. I think the French professor wanted to get in a final word of thanks, but he was drowned out. (I noted sardonically the fact that 8 years of scholarly work on Moliere was upstaged by twenty seconds of singing.)

The professor is already suggesting that he’d like to get me back again for next year. One of the high school teachers e-mailed immediately afterwards with the perfect endorsement: “We really enjoyed the show. The students asked today if they could memorize some of these dialogues in French and act them out for the class. Thanks for offering the opportunity to inspire them.”

I continued into Portland proper, visiting with my friend, Tina. (I met her at the conference in Atlanta, where she failed in her efforts to set me up with her sister-in-law.) Tina brought me in to speak to a class of middle-school acting students the next day, which is quite a task. Getting their attention is like herding kittens. Afterwards we went to the famous Powell’s Books, where I bought three or four Moliere biographies and a book or two by Isaac Asimov.

I stopped in Salem the next day, visiting brother Pat (and Kathy and Ryan and Michael), before heading along again, this time to San Francisco. While I’d been receiving reports about the terrible rain that California had been getting, my visit was more sunny than not. I stayed, once again, with Stephen and Kajsa, and we hit the karaoke bar that night. Before racing on ahead, I had a really nice dinner with Mia, who’d had a one-woman show at the SF Fringe last fall.

And again, I was on my way south, pausing in Porterville to meet with a French teacher/theatre enthusiast (Alfonso) for lunch and a tour of the local community theatre. An enormous rainbow appeared over the mountains nearby.

I pulled in to L.A., staying with my friends Thessaly and Casper (also from the San Francisco Fringe). The next morning I actually went jogging again (my exercise program has fallen off miserably) around the lake at Echo Park, and noticed the impact that the rains had on L.A. There were sidewalks that had been overrun with turf, as the sod on the neighboring hill had slid completely off of the mud. Some homeowners had taken to covering the hills bordering their property with plastic sheeting, so that the rain could not soak into the ground any more.

From there, I went on to Redondo Beach, where my hotel overlooked the Ocean. The weather was bad, but the next day it cleared and the view was terrific. The hotel had a pool, so my exercise routine was gradually resuming. The show was in a private school in Palos Verdes, on a high hill overlooking Los Angeles. Again, the response was terrific. “Tartuffe” was a little “too good,” as the cute volunteer brought a boisterous reaction from the crowd, and it was not easy getting their attention back.

They’d wanted me to perform a 40-minute show. The start was delayed, as the kids took their time coming in, and the French students recited an introduction to their fellow students. By the time I finished the show and got back offstage, it was an hour after the scheduled starting time. I apologized at some length, but both the French teacher and the principal insisted that it was okay. The teacher later e-mailed the following:

“I got feedback from my students today. They were a little surprised by the ‘Tartuffe’ scene, but enjoyed the presentation as a show. They said that it was the best performance they've seen at school during our assembly period this year. That's a compliment! A colleague also called me to thank me for bringing you to campus, saying that she really enjoyed your show. My department chair also said that she was pleased, and wouldn't it be great if we could have you come every four years.”

I grabbed a quick lunch with the charming French teacher, before heading off to a same-day performance for California State University-Long Beach (CSULB). I was performing in a library gallery space on the fifth floor, and there were about fifty chairs set up in front of me. There were about twenty-five students in the chairs, and people continued to arrive as the show proceeded. As they arrived, they sat off to one side or another, where there were tables on one side and easy chairs at the other. By the end of the show, there may have been some sixty people watching.

The men were slow to volunteer, so I “volunteered” the professor who’d hired me for the “Scapin” scene. I could sense he had a bit of showmanship about him, and I’d also noticed that his four-year old daughter was a bit restless watching the show (lots of people had brought their kids to this show). I figured if I got her dad up on stage, she’d pay better attention, which she did.

Again, the show went great. My “tip basket” had $24 in it. And the host is already thinking about bringing it back in next year.

I worked my way down to San Diego, where I’d intended to meet some old friends for karaoke, but both were no-shows, and I ended up singing with a friend of a friend. When I realized that neither Lisa nor Jeff were going to make it, I decided to head off early, to get east of San Diego and avoid the next morning’s rush hour. I worked my way to El Centrino, where there was no hotel room to be found. Apparently there was either a new mall being built, or a film being shot or both. There were likewise, no hotels in Yuma, and I decided to nap my way to Tucson, pulling into town much earlier than expected.

I met with the chair of my former department at NIU (now chair of U of Arizona) who, in spite of my unkempt air, offered to book me for the coming year. I’d already booked Arizona State for September 25, and it turned out that Sept 26 worked for UA, which means that I’ll sweep through Arizona in the course of two days next fall.

I pushed on to Las Cruces, New Mexico before finally finding a hotel. The next day, I worked my way back to Brownwood Texas, where I’d performed in January, and where the professor, Nancy Jo, has been talking up my show to all the schools in her neighborhood (if you can call the entire state of Texas a “neighborhood”). I offered to perform my musical for her and her students once again. It had gone through numerous changes in the interim, and another dozen of her kids who hadn’t seen it the first time came to watch.

I’ve decided that my juggling metaphor (keeping three shows performance-ready) isn’t quite accurate. It’s more like spinning plates. The Moliere plate only needs an occasional spin, and the “Criteria” plate needs somewhat more management, while “Karaoke Knights” is one of those wobbly plates that threatens to fall off the moment you look away. Knowing that I’d be doing a show in Brownwood, I sang my way through the show three times as I drove, and recited “Criteria” twice.

While I’m on the subject of metaphors, I’ve decided that developing a one-man show is like rearranging the furniture in your living room. Every time you move something, it means that something else has to adjust, which leads to more and more changes. The sofa may be right where you want it, but the end-tables no longer fit where you wanted them, and the lamps no longer illuminate the important areas… and who can see the TV from there? But hey, once you get it all just the way you want, then it’s just a matter of running the vacuum over it now and then.

Sunday night Nancy Jo and I relaxed and watched the Oscars.

Monday I was off to Houston. My friend Cheryl (who, like Nancy Jo, I’d also met at the ‘04 TETA Conference, a very productive event for me) had set up another performance, inviting many of her theatre-teacher friends. The turnout was very small, and while there were some really enthusiastic observers, there was at least one guy who obviously didn’t want to be there. (I suspect that the invitation to the play made him think he was coming to a party, and he was disappointed to find the attention on somebody else.) When I asked for a volunteer for the Scapin scene, he noted very loudly that he had to leave for a poker game “in a couple of minutes.” (Meanwhile, the gentleman whose home I was performing in made an exit of his own to take care of the dogs, I think.)

On the good side, the volunteers that I eventually got for Tartuffe and Scapin were a lot of fun. (I always enjoy when the “Tartuffe” volunteer forgets that her objective is supposed to be to run away.) Later that night, Cheryl’s boyfriend (who just happens to be a rocket scientist with NASA) and I sat up drinking beer, arguing the efficacy of sending nuclear waste into the sun.

I was working my way east again. I made it to Montgomery that night, and dropped in on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival the next morning, before continuing on to Charlotte Wednesday night. I enjoyed a dinner with the darling Cathy Maday, who I hadn’t seen in more than two years. I shared a couple of the songs from “Karaoke Knights” with her.

I finally pulled in to Greensboro, where SETC (Southeast Theatre Conference) was happening. I’ve heard about SETC for more than twenty years, but never attended. I learned my lesson from the Texas conference in January and stocked up on loads of brochures and videotapes before going in. There were a series of booths set up for a couple dozen Universities, and I worked my way through, introducing myself to the faculty, some of whom knew of me already from the e-mail campaign I’d been running for three years. There were also some faculty I knew from my alma mater SIU, including Bill Lewis (one of several who said he wants to bring my show in), who wrote the first play I ever directed back in 1980!

Friday night I performed “Moliere Than Thou” as part of the conference’s “Fringe Festival”, and the attendance was disappointing. Apparently, the conference had design awards as well as audition callbacks scheduled for the same time, so there were only about 25 people in attendance. I recruited my North Carolina friend, Forsyth, and her boyfriend, Wayne, to help, running the house lights, and distributing brochures and videotapes afterwards.

There was a publisher in the audience, and knowing she was watching kept me redoubling my efforts throughout the show. The small audience was theatrically savvy, and everything was getting big laughs. In fact, the only parts that didn’t seem to work so well were the volunteer scenes, as the actors who volunteered did not have that wide-eyed bewilderment that usually makes the volunteer scene so funny. At the end, the show got a standing ovation, and the feedback was great.

The next day, I ran the lines of “Criteria” twice. Again, Forsyth and Wayne came in to help out for the performance, and this time the audience was about double that of the night before.

It turned out to be the best “Criteria” yet. The audience was laughing at the opening music. I could feel a new level of control, where I could take that extra instant before moving on to leave the space for the audience to respond. There were about five seconds where I spaced out the next scene, and started to grab for my script, but as soon as I relaxed, the words came back, and I continued.

The “diner scene” got great laughs, and just about every line from the “waitress” drew more laughter. I found myself wondering whether I’d lost the audience in the last twenty minutes, as they went largely quiet on me. There were still a few big responses, so I had a sense that they were responding more deeply. And when I finished off the show and came back onstage for my bow, I received one of the more gratifying ovations I can remember. The audience seemed to realize, individually, that the show was over, and the applause grew as they stood up spontaneously. (That is to say, it wasn’t a couple of people in the front row standing up, with others standing in response to their cue.)

In retrospect, I was especially glad that Forsyth was at this performance. I’d read “Criteria” aloud to her, back in the fall of 2002, and it was her laughs that encouraged me to turn the story into a show. And more than two years later, the humor this audience was picking up on matched what she’d laughed at the first time around. On some pathological level, I’m glad that my reports of the success of the show can be validated by a witness.

I disassembled the show quickly and some forty students showed up at the workshop I was delivering a half-hour later, about fifteen of whom had attended one of my shows or the other. The workshop was actually my most successful event in terms of giving out brochures and videos, and even the students were talking about passing word on to their teachers to bring me in. Which makes me think that, as well as the shows go over, it’s the workshop that communicates in my “voice,” and people respond to me as a human being rather than as a character.

Finally, with the shows packed into my car, I could spend the rest of the evening partying. The hotel had about three bars in it, and I drifted from one to the other, checking in with familiar faculty. I ended up hanging out with my friend Leni, who’d been the first to encourage me to come to SETC. She’d helped me build backup costumes for Moliere, and she’s starting to talk about bringing my shows back to Austin Peay University.

It’s Sunday now, and I’m hanging out at Forsyth’s house, before getting caught up in the whirlwind of March performances. I’m staring down about 20 performances over the next thirty days! I’ll send this out as soon as I get my new computer up to speed with the group mailing address list (Don’t forget to sign up for the listserv! Unless you’d rather not get these messages in the future.

Temperature: 60s
Miles on the Vibe: 129,400
Attendance: 170 + 400 + 60 + 12 + 12 + 25 + 50 = 729
Discoveries: Eight years of scholarly work can be upstaged by twenty seconds of singing. Likewise, the workshop, in which I speak (rather than Moliere or “Albert”) touches the students more directly. * Doing three plays at once is like spinning plates. * Developing a one-man show is like arranging the furniture in your living room. * Always have plenty of “product” ready to hand out, because you never know when it’ll be in demand. *
In the CD Player: A Martha Wainwright CD I can’t name without getting “blocked” by many of your servers.
Next Performances: Morganton, NC (3/8), Ferrum, VA (3/9), Belmont, NH (3/12)


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