Sunday, July 17, 2005

The View From Here #95: Thunder Bay, ON

The folks in Thunder Bay had been telling me how excited they were about me coming to town. At one point they were planning to have my show open the festival. Some rearrangement of the venues had nixed that plan, but they were also planning on putting me in to perform at a local restaurant, where my show would be scheduled for a dinner-theatre performance, as well as a “lunchbag” event. They were certain I would get at least a hundred people for each.

And so, in anticipation of that income, I bit the bullet to finally get some full-color posters and flyers. I was dealing with a Thunder Bay printer, and asking them to put it together last minute, and working from “power point” which is notoriously bad with “color separation,” but at last I would have full color promotional materials. In fact, I laid out my entire fringe summer schedule on the postcard, so that wherever I went, I would already have the info handy.

Not only that, I now have CD’s available, and my “I’m Looking For A Groupie” stickers, so there is plenty of Tim Mooney Repertory Theatre Swag in the car these days.

I didn’t get on the road until 8 p.m. on Tuesday night. I drove about four hours and napped at a rest stop. After the Quebec trip, this was the second instance of napping at a rest stop (rather than treating myself to a hotel) in less than a week, and my back was not pleased with me.

My memories of the previous trip to Thunder Bay, two years before were very present, especially after taking the turn into that Northeastern “wing” of Minnesota, just north of Wisconsin. You always assume that at that point it’s just a short hop into Canada, but it’s another two hours to the border.

I got through Canadian customs with just a few uncomfortable questions about my “swag,” and continued in to Thunder Bay in a much relieved mood. I headed straight for Fringe HQ, and found my technician in the multiplex theatre that we were taking over for the fringe. (Actually it was an abandoned multiplex theatre, and the mall we were in was a partial sponsor of the Fringe, hoping to increase the evening traffic, for a mall that pretty much shut down around 5:00.)

I quickly discovered that the venue rearrangement to which I previously alluded was in fact MY venue, and that I would not be performing in the restaurant, but the cineplex. Already, the information on the back of my postcards was wrong. And, I started to seriously question the previous estimates of a hundred people in the audience.

I headed for the printer to pick up my stuff, and they hadn’t quite completed work on the flyers. I got them to make a change on the flyers they hadn’t done yet, and sat down to rework the poster they were printing, in order to minimize some of the “pixilating” that the main image was doing when blown up to page size.

I went back and put up postcards around the mall, and got hooked up with my billet for the fringe (a local director and dentist with a guest room who seems to almost never be around).

That evening I performed my tech rehearsal, and we worked without the benefit of the DVD I was planning to use. My engineer in Cleveland had just completed work on the disc the day before, and would be overnighting it to me for arrival before tomorrow’s show. And so, we rehearsed with an audio CD instead, that would at least have everything in the right order. (Just as a precaution, I had put the script for the former version of the play into the binder, and warned my tech guy that all of this would change if the DVD did not come through.)

So, the postal service doesn’t overnight things to Thunder Bay. Two days at best. I didn’t find this out until a couple of hours before the show. I hadn’t been rehearsing the “old” version of the show. In fact, several songs had been reassigned to different characters, so I had to re-envision them back the way they were, which just feels wrong to me now.

There was only time to work through the show once in the new/old order, and I realized that, more than nailing each song perfectly, the virtue most in demand would be the ability to go with the flow and improvise my way through. In that light, there was a wine and cheese reception to open the festival, and I had a little something to loosen me up.

There were four people in the audience for my first show. Actually there were seven, but that includes the ushers and the bartender, each of whom had to get back to work about 15 minutes into my performance. But, the four that I had applauded heartily.

Friday was my noon performance, and while the fringe producer actually took some of my flyers attempting to promote the show to some of the neighboring office workers, there were only five people in the audience. But, an enthusiastic five.

I was feeling pretty down about this fringe. And, especially down about having three “down” fringes in a row: Orlando, Cincinnati and Thunder Bay. Yes, I’ve been planning on not “hitting it big” until Winnipeg, but as the saying goes, “if three people tell you that you’re dead, you’d better lie down.”

Later that day, the Fringe producer asked me if I wanted to promote my show in the mall’s food court at six p.m. that evening. I said yes, but when the time came, there was a busker playing music in the food court. We went outside to the open park space in front of the mall, and I tried performing a number there, but no one came by, and a restaurant manager came out to complain. Besides which, we didn’t have a microphone handy, and I was starting to do damage to my voice.

We went back to the theatres, and I set up in the theatre lobby, performing for the hour before the 7 p.m. shows were to get underway. This time I pulled out my sound system and relied heavily on the microphone. People seemed responsive and I passed out some flyers.

I was enjoying getting to know some of my fellow fringers. The casts of “The Big Funk”, “Peepshow,” “One Frigid Shining Knight” and “Timmy’s Sexual Adventures” (no, not about me), were starting to bond, and planning on giving continued moral support in Winnipeg and beyond. The bunch of us went out to a karaoke bar Thursday night, and had lots of fun.

I had a much better feeling about the Friday night performance … assuming I could get my voice back. I spent the day warming it up slowly, singing through the show twice. There had been some good attendance at some of the other shows the night before, and my 7:30 Friday Night slot seemed to be my best bet of the run. I set up my set, and heard rumor of people actually stopping at the box office to buy tickets for my show.

I started my karaoke warm-up, and there were already ten or twenty people in the audience. They continued to trickle in during the course of the warm-up, until the show got under way with a total of 56 people in the audience (which meant that there were perhaps only 10 empty seats at the most). I announced to them that this was the biggest audience my brand new show had performed to, and they applauded.

The opening number, “Dreams are Waiting” is one of the strangest in the show (a fact that is fixed in the rewrite, whenever I get it in the mail …), so there was little response to that one. I then bring a volunteer up on stage for “Too Real,” and I grabbed a woman who I knew to be a local actress. As I sing the song with my back to her, I could tell, from the audience’s reaction, that she was mugging for all she was worth. They probably only heard about half of my words, but they were enjoying the heck out of the performance.

From there it was on to my Beach Boy’s number, “Left To Say.” Big smiles, big applause. Then there is the ballet parody: “Tempted to be Tempted.” Again, big response. And then, the notorious “Forward Thinking,” in which I crawl along the stage, climb down into the audience and tie an audience member to her chair. They LOVED it.

In fact, each song was working just the way I had envisioned it working. Many of my “acting notes” to myself were going out the window, because at this point it was no longer about objectives and character, but a moment-to-moment playing of the wit of the lyrics, and feeling the audience rising to meet that vision. “Bite My Tongue,” the tango number, was another big one, as I pull a volunteer from the audience to tango with me. She usually protests that she can’t dance, but then proceeds to do a fairly serviceable job, and the audience is thrilled to see one of their own doing so well so spontaneously. (It turned out that this one was at least a head shorter than I was, so there were no problems with keeping my face open to the audience while someone was dancing downstage of me.)

The remaining songs: “Looking for a Groupie,” “Say Goodnight,” “Taking Turns Leading,” “Gravity’s Pull,” and “Simply Nothing” were, in turn, spectacular, scandalous, naughty, sad and profound, and I could feel them there with me throughout. The only problem was that they were applauding so loudly that you couldn’t hear the KJ voiceover bits (which I sometimes rely on to tell me what song I’ve got coming up next). At the end, when I returned for my bows, they stood up in their applause.

And so, after over a year of working on this material, I got a peek into just how it “plays” for a large, friendly audience. If I can generate that kind of spirit in future performances, the summer may just end up on the plus side.

That night, after “The Big Funk” (which was excellent), we headed out to an official Fringe Party at a local dance club. Aside from dancing at karaoke bars, I don’t think I’ve gone dancing in years. My legs and feet will be paying for it when I’m performing today.

In the CD Player: “Another Day On Earth” by Brian Eno
Attendance: 4 + 5 + 56 = 65
Mileage on the Vibe: 144,000
Discoveries: Sometimes the greatest virtue is opening yourself up to the flow of the moment, rather than executing the trick perfectly. * There comes a point when the electricity of the performance is such that it is no longer about objectives and character, but a direct channeling of the wit that conceived the thing in the first place.
Next Performance: 1:00 today, Thunder Bay, and Winnipeg, July 20.

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