Friday, April 15, 2005

The View From Here #89: Decorah, IA, Bloomington, Elgin, Buffalo Grove, Arlington Heights, Elmhurst, IL, Grosse Point, MI & Cleveland, OH

First of all, thanks for all the inquiries about my dad. He’s doing fine, with the exception perhaps of the bother from all of the tests the hospital put him through.

Suddenly the shows race past me, and just as suddenly they come to a halt. The last two weeks of the tour were a sprint with barely any time to note what was going on. Following a fast weekend in Chicago, I made my way out to the northeast corner of Iowa. I forget that Iowa’s northern border is actually well north of Illinois’ border, which meant that I went to Iowa via Madison, Wisconsin.

It’s actually a very pretty area, with a varied landscape, particularly near the Mississippi River. My cell phone was out of commission for the course of this visit.

They actually squeezed quite a bit into two days, with a workshop for the acting students (the usual, classical acting workshop), a workshop for French students (“the Life of Moliere” and “Creative Writing” squeezed into a 50-minute class), a workshop for a local theatre troupe (more about the life of Moliere, but with all the fun monologues I don’t usually get a chance to explore), a Intro to Theatre class (“My Career in Theatre”) and, of course, a performance of “Moliere Than Thou.”

I actually performed “Moliere” in an in-the-round setting, but they only used one bank of seats, and tucked away most of their set for “Threepenny Opera.” The volunteer for the “Tartuffe” scene was a youngish girl with short-cropped hair wearing a jaunty cap. It fell off at least once during the ensuing action, and I helped her back on with it. Then in one of the moments of seduction, I got the idea to slowly lift the cap off of her head, which seemed to be distinctly scandalous. I could feel a ripple of reaction going through the audience, and she blushed as her hair was revealed.

Back on the road to Bloomington, Illinois, where I performed an April Fools’ Day show for Illinois Wesleyan University. Getting there, I realized how close they were to Illinois State University, and also that the Wesleyan French Department hadn’t really worked on involving the Theatre Department with the show, so I spent the afternoon dashing off e-mails to the two local theatre departments, telling them of the show. I don’t know if any of them eventually came, but it stimulated some conversation which may be beneficial down the line.

The Dean of Students at Wesleyan (my host) was actually a French Teacher, so he was a big advocate for my show. I did a lecture for a small French class, and he was already suggesting that they’ll want to get me back in to do it again.

A Bloomington high school brought about thirty kids to the show that night, which was on a platform in a somewhat open area of the Student Union. The kids were very responsive, and their teacher encouraged them to volunteer when those opportunities arose. Afterwards, another of the hosts was effusive, saying that she’d never hosted an event where none of the hundred or so students walked out in the middle of it. (Apparently, they’re notorious for walking out after the first hour of anything; even a recent visit from Kurt Vonnegut.) Later, the Dean (who actually DID have to leave early to sing a part in an opera) sent me this:

“I have studied Molière for thirty years and have always dreamed of seeing him perform. I have seen his plays offered by La Comédie Française and other French troupes, but have never before caught a significant glimpse of what his own performance may have looked like. That you were able to do this so successfully in English is truly commendable. I very much hope you will consider coming back to IWU. … I very much enjoyed your master class, and know the students did too. I was completely engrossed in your evening performance, and inspired to sing my own eight measures in the Magic Flute with molièresque gusto! Russell, my son, the budding actor, told me on the way home that he felt further reinforced in wanting to explore acting because of what he had seen you do. I came away from the day's activities convinced Molière would heartily approve of your work. I look forward to meeting you again and hosting you on our campus.”

The next morning, I was home again, this time for a three-day visit, working with my brother, Kevin, on some of the backing tracks for “Karaoke Knights,” and finishing off the semi-annual e-mail campaign to French teachers. (Bookings for next year are starting to fall into place.)

Sunday night I attended a celebration of life for Jeff Paige, the leader of Pathways, who had died a week before. Jeff had been a great inspiration to me, encouraging me to take on the fulfillment of the work that I was doing. He was in attendance for the first public performance of “Moliere Than Thou,” (March, 2001!) and despite the fact that I’d blanked on my lines that night, he constantly advocated for the value of what I was doing. When I couldn’t afford to quit my job to pursue my work full time, he told me that I just wasn’t ready yet. It may have been his confidence that enabled me to BE ready, when the opportunity arose less than six months later. When I expressed some concern over the apparent fall-off in bookings in my second year of touring, his answer was simple: “Charge more.” There were thousands of people at the celebration Sunday night, all of whom had received similar encouragement from Jeff. His impact will be felt for ages to come.

On Monday, I had a show in Elgin, Illinois (I was born in Elgin, but seem to have missed the commemorative plaque.) While setting up the show, I realized that I’d left my pre and post-show music CD back in Bloomington, so I had to dig through my CD collection to find something appropriately classical. I settled on Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was actually nice not to have to listen to that annoying harpsichord music for once. There were, perhaps a couple hundred students, and later, I visited with my cousin-in-law, Judy, who works at the high school library.

That afternoon, I started packing. I was getting ready for a tour that was going to take me out of town for almost three months. But first …

I had three shows on Tuesday. First thing in the morning, I had a show at Buffalo Grove High School, where my old friend Kate (we were in “Music Man” together, back in 1979!) brought me in. The kids were mostly Advanced Placement (AP) students in French, History and Theatre (with the exception of one class that filed in late and left early) and they “got” lots of the jokes. This was a fast 45-minute show followed by a quick 20-minute talkback session, before I continued on to Hersey High School (which I graduated from quite some time ago) for what I thought was a noon performance.

I was running a bit behind, loading my trunk onto the stage at about 11:15, when I noticed that students were filing into the theatre already. I checked with my host (and former teacher) Dennis McSherry, and found that the performance was actually supposed to start at 11:15!

I held the fastest technical rehearsal on record, changed into costume, and was ready to go by 11:20.

Denny gave me a warm introduction (as had Kate; both of them had hosted my show four years ago, when I was first getting it ready for performance with Stage Two), and I dove right in, somewhat grateful for the circumstances that didn’t allow me any time to get nervous about how well the show would go. Afterwards, I had another talkback session, which went very well (Denny is talking about bringing me in for a workshop next year), and then back home for a final hour of packing.

With the car fully loaded, I had one final performance of the day at 4:30 at Elmhurst College. The French teacher there had seen me perform at the Alliance Francaise a year ago, and was already enthusiastic about the performance. In fact, she came to me backstage, asking if she could perform Elmire in the volunteer sequence.

This is, I think, the first time that anyone has ever tried to arrange to be the volunteer before the show goes on. She had, in fact, run off the pages for the volunteer scene from the script that I had e-mailed to her, and was planning to carry them onto the stage. I explained that this would make her look too much like a “plant,” and gently removed the script from her hands, while encouraging her back out onto the stage to introduce the play. (Of course, since she was making the introduction, she couldn’t help but look like a plant anyway.) She turned out to be a feisty volunteer, spending most of the scene struggling out from my ever-tightening grip.

Upon completing the THIRD PERFORMANCE OF THE DAY(!), I proceeded to pack up the show and get onto the road. I had a drive to Detroit that night, with a performance at Grosse Pointe South High School the following morning. I pulled into town at about 12:45, and eventually made it off to sleep.

The tech director had arranged to meet with me at 11 a.m. to go over the show, but it turned out that the show didn’t actually go on until 1:30. Somehow, in the last two days, I had badly misjudged the starting times of two shows. (I guess it’s time to be done with this for a while.) The show went great, in a beautiful auditorium with a professional lighting/sound crew. The French teacher promised to tell other local teachers about the event. At one point, I realized that she’d overpaid me. The school had put down a deposit many months ago, but didn’t deduct that amount from the final payment. Reluctantly I pointed this out and refunded the difference. (They were, at least, impressed with my honesty.)

With the conclusion of this show, I took a break, spending five days visiting with Isaac in Detroit. He played hooky from school one day, and another day we went to his swimming tournament. (He was racing in the butterfly, the breast stroke and the freestyle.) It made for a long day, and afterwards we got a hotel room and watched TV.

The next morning, when we went down for our “continental breakfast”, I discovered that there were a few dozen people from the American Association of Community Theatre’s regional conference staying at our hotel. I grabbed some flyers and business cards out of my car (Again, I think that was Jeff Paige’s voice in my head, telling me to take advantage of this opportunity) and schmoozed through an extra cup of coffee, while Isaac went back to the room to read. (Most of the performers had noticed my “MOLIERE” license plate.)

And finally, it was on to Cleveland. Monday night was the first rehearsal for “Imaginary Invalid,” and once again, the cast was amazing. This is the first show that I’ve directed since 2001 (not counting directing myself), and the talent level is incredible. I’m just as amazed that they are so responsive to the things that I have to say, and that I actually have stuff to add to the process. We’re into the early stages of “blocking” now, and I find myself stopping about every other line to choreograph this moment and that.

For the time being, while waiting for the “interludes” to have music composed for them, the cast is inventing tunes to them, and occasionally falling into old familiar melodies which seem to fit some of these songs all too well.

They’re putting me up in one of those studio-apartment hotels while I’m in town, and for the first time in years, I actually went grocery shopping with a list. Suddenly I had to get ketchup, mustard, sugar, cream, bread, margarine …

It’s been a busy couple of days in Cleveland, putting together a rehearsal schedule, meeting with scene and costume designers, taking care of a bunch of preliminaries that I probably should have done before the first rehearsal. Things are pretty well up to speed now, allowing me a morning to collect my thoughts, here, and I’m gradually getting back to work on “Karaoke Knights.” All of the songs are now written, and my brother Kevin and old friend Greg Cruz are putting together new arrangements to three of them. My friend Lee, from Tacoma, has created an illustration. Now it’s up to me to make the show work.


Temperature: Mid-50s
Miles on the Vibe: 135,500
Attendance: 20 + 8 + 10 + 50 + 70 + 7 + 100 + 170 + 70 + 150 + 50 + 200 = 905
Reading: The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
Listening to: The Who’s Greatest Hits, which had little stickers on the package advertising “Includes ‘Who Are You’ as heard on the hit TV show CSI” and “Includes ‘Bargain’ as featured in the Nissan commercial.” -- Also: Isaac has developed a fondness for an Electric Light Orchestra CD he found in my car, so we listen a lot to “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
Discoveries: Having done the show for four years now, I’ve begun a cycle of revisiting schools that had me in before, as students who were Freshmen back then have now graduated. * Having worked with Moliere for about eight years now, the hosts are starting to introduce me as “One of the foremost experts on Moliere in the United States.” (Funny thing is: I never saw myself as an expert on anything, so much as a director with a lot of strong opinions on how things ought to go.) * Long remembered lessons from Jeff Page: Honor what people say they want to create in their lives, and respond to them where they are, rather than where I think they should be.
Next Show: Orlando, FL (Preview of Karaoke Knights) 4/25, Cleveland, OH (Imaginary Invalid) 5/20, Orlando FL (“Karaoke Knights”) 5/21-29.