Thursday, September 01, 2005

The View From Here #99: Saskatoon, SK & Boulder, CO

I am SOOOO looking forward to Vancouver!

From which you may infer that, yes, the remaining shows of Saskatoon, and the Boulder Fringe were a bit of a bust.

But I am sooo looking forward to Vancouver.

I start this note from a little hotel in Craig, Colorado. The road is calling to me, but I want to at least get a start on this, so my thoughts start to organize themselves. I kept waiting for that brilliant moment of resolution which would create that nicely-packaged happy ending for my latest episode of TVFH.

And it’s not that there is no happy ending to capture, but it’s not the one I was anticipating.

And here I continue to anticipate: this time it’s Vancouver, which is going to be a brilliant show, for reasons that I’ll get to in a moment. (The Vancouver website has a link to my blog, so hopefully, the anticipation from the audience will be high, as well.) (Are you out there, Vancouverites? How about dropping me a note?)

So, no review of my show ever appeared in the Saskatoon paper. It felt like a tree falling in the forest. There was just no way I was going to get more than 25-30 people in to see my show, if there was not some sort of external validation from the press. I sent an e-mail to the reviewer from the main paper to complain.

He eventually wrote back noting that he’d planned to see a show, but that a mixup in “child-care issues” had sprung upon him at the last minute. Which left me playing to tiny houses, and wondering if it was worth coming to Saskatoon.

They held a “Fringe Spoof Night” in Saskatoon, which was a lot of fun, and some people came up with some incredibly funny stuff to make fun of some of the other shows, each in three minutes or less. I wrote a monologue to parody “Everything Falls Apart and More.” It got good laughs, but I realized that it was a show that almost nobody in the audience had seen, so only the actor who had actually done the show was getting the jokes on the various levels that I’d written them.

The “Drag Queens on Trial” group were parodying me, and most of them had seen my show on “disaster night.” They cued up the music that I do my ballet parody to, and had the opening ten seconds or so, play and stop, play and stop, to the point that the heavier member of the cast, was replaced by the skinnier of the group, in a suggestion that I was repeating and repeating my dance, endlessly, and losing a lot of weight. It was funny, but brought back a lot of my own feelings of dread.

Anyway, I had two more performances, and I seem to recall them going very well. By Sunday, people were largely “fringed out”, and the attendance had dwindled. I still had a solid 20-25 though, and had lots of fun. Afterwards, I packed up the car and headed out to see one more show and to party.

The backstage bar of the Off-Broadway theatre was having a karaoke event that night, and of course, I was all over it. When the owner noted that he really didn’t want to run the thing himself, I took over.

I only sang a half-dozen times through the course of a very long evening, but people continued to turn in slips to sing, to the point that there were about 40 people waiting to sing at one time! The owner was thrilled at how well it was going, and kept buying me beers. At one point he took up a collection, and they passed the hat for me, getting enough for gas money that would take me … oh, at least into Montana.

And, while my show hadn’t necessarily broken through in Saskatoon, my karaoke jockeying seemed to, and I was left feeling like Saskatoon wasn’t all that bad, after all. I wouldn’t write it off completely, though next summer would still be a “let’s see how it goes” kind of thing.

The next morning, I said a fond goodbye to my billeters, George and Shirley, and got on the road. While others were heading West toward Edmonton, I was dropping south toward Boulder.

This was the first year of the Boulder fringe, and early signs were not particularly reassuring. I had quietly dubbed it “the anal fringe.”

Months in advance of the fringe, they were insisting that everybody had to get their liability waiver in by a given date or else risk being cancelled out of the fringe. (No other fringe, with the exception of New York, perhaps, has ever insisted on a waiver at all.) Meanwhile, there had seemingly been no progress on billeting issues, and rumor had come to me through back-channels that they were not overwhelmingly concerned about this, at least partially because “there was nothing in the contract that they were obliged to billet me.”

I think they got wind of the fact that I had gotten wind. And soon a billeter had emerged. A foreign student who’d rented a house with more rooms than he needed. He was willing to rent out rooms for $10 a day. It wasn’t free, but it was much less than a hotel.

When I arrived, my friend Randy Rutherford was already staying there. By the second day, three other performers had arrived, and more were anticipated. For a house with one bathroom, this was not looking so great.

And then, the surprise. Potential billeters had called in to the fringe office, suggesting that they’d most prefer to billet me for the week. The fringe folks mentioned the name (“Crosley”) but the only Crosley I could remember was Emma from last year’s Edmonton Finge.

It turned out that these were old friends from last year’s San Francisco fringe, Meredith and Christopher, members of the “Old Man McGinty” sketch troupe. They were actually from Chicago, but had moved recently to Boulder, so that Meredith could attend the performance program at Naropa College. They had a terrific townhouse east of the city, with an office/guest room (and a swimming pool).

Meanwhile, the show was in progress, and things were not going well. At the tech rehearsal both the DVD player and the flat-screen tv had failed to work. Also, the technician couldn’t get the lights or the sound to work for the first couple of hours of rehearsal. (Fortunately, I had Kelli, my friend from Denver, in as an assistant, and she figured out most of the lighting issues.) We ended up rehearsing another version of the show, but, I had no idea what I might end up performing on opening night.

The next day, I was back at Costco, returning my flat-screen TV, which had failed to even power-up at the rehearsal. They were good about taking it back, and, in fact, gave me a full credit for the TV. When I looked through the store, I found that Flat-screens had dropped in price, giving me an extra $100 to work with. I bought a better TV and got cases of water and soda and grapefruit juice with the balance.

I tried putting up posters on kiosks in town, but it was evident that these sites got papered over very quickly, and most of the shops in town didn’t take flyers. And, I had yet to see my show mentioned once in any of the pre-fringe publicity.

Opening night there were seven people in the audience: two from the fringe office (which is more than I can say for most fringes; most of the people involved are too busy to be bothered with seeing shows), two from University of Colorado (one a teacher who is producing Moliere this year), and three old friends who ran a theatre in the Denver suburbs. I’d performed at their theatre about two years ago, and had forgotten to tell them about my show in Boulder. Thankfully, they’ve been following these adventures on-line.

And, while the TV was now working perfectly, the DVD had gone “skitchy" on me again. Testing it before the show, I could hear that there were gaps and skips on the disc. I didn’t have time to test it all the way through. I cleaned the disc as best I could and hoped for the best (with an advance warning to the audience).

On the third song into the set, the skips started to come up, and I muscled my way through as best I could, racing some of my lines to catch up with the jumps in music. When a second song started to do the same thing, I decided to switch discs. The audience was still very much with me. Somehow disaster brings out the best in them. I popped in another disc of the show, with different narration and a different song order, and skipped through the songs that had already been done, and gradually made my way through the show.

The CU faculty who’d come to the show waited afterwards and we had dinner together, discussing the possibility of using my version of “The Learned Ladies” (the “Feminine Savants” in my translation), and having me come in to do a workshop with their students.

The next day I returned the DVD player to Costco, and picked up another, less expensive model.

My Saturday and Sunday performances went perfectly, though there were only 8 in the audience on Saturday, and five on Sunday. There had been no reviewer at either show, and now I had a five-day layoff between performances. (My venue was only available on the weekends.)

I wrote a letter to the newspaper to complain of the lack of coverage. I’ve seen other festivals die from a lack of coverage, and they were getting much more “ink” than the Boulder Fringe was. (The Boulder staff has been thrilled by their pre-fringe publicity, and I just wanted to tell them to set their expectations higher.)

The reviewer wrote back to say that they’re planning reviews for the Friday arts supplement to their paper.

That is to say, they were planning to report on the shows that they’ve seen on day #8 of a 10-day festival.

My luck had turned absurdly bad. There was nothing left to do but laugh about it at this point. I guess there’s a part of me that likes having bad luck, because I can at least blame something then.

I decided my best bet at this point was to write off Boulder. All the promoting and advertising in the world might only sell a handful of tickets. Instead, I could work on perfecting the show for Vancouver, where a tiny push of publicity would go much further.

On the five-day layoff, I did manage to catch a few good shows, and was particularly impressed with a work called “Your Nightgown is Jealous When You Dream,” adapted from a Chinese folk tale.

During the daytime, I launched into working on the next version of “Karaoke Knights.” I rehearsed the new narration that I intended to perform live, and timed it out to the exact second. I lifted new bits of music that I wanted to integrate, and got the exact pieces onto a disc that I was planning to send to my engineer back in Cleveland. My intent was to integrate music that would comment more directly on the songs that they were drifting into. My understanding of the biggest “problem” of the show was that people were not getting that the new material was intended to be what was happening inside the minds of the singers at the karaoke bars. (Not that “getting” this even matters, but people seem to want that bit of context.) Particularly with the early version of the disc I was now performing, there would often be gaps of up to three seconds between the karaoke interlude and the original songs, and those three seconds felt like forever.

I then turned my attention to something I’d been wanting to pursue for a long time. I found a “karaoke building” program on line and purchased it. I could now take the original material that I’d been singing, and put the lyrics up on the screen so that people could actually read my songs as they listened to them. In particular, for the song “Next,” I knew that things were going by so fast that people didn’t quite manage to grasp the full extent of the meaning before the words had gone by already. If I could get those words onto the screen, I could feel there would be a new level of delight to the song.

And as I plotted this out with Kelli Sunday afternoon, I started thinking about other songs that would benefit from this treatment. We noted the songs where the lyrics went by too fast, or where there was some other distraction (like a tango being performed) that might cause people to lose the words. There seemed to be an order, in which five songs, picking every other song, worked well for karaoke imagery.

And so, I sat down and started to figure out how to work the program. I’d imagined that it would be incredibly complex, as you essentially have to order the program to show given words on the screen at a given time, and instruct the program just how fast to sweep the color-changing effect across the words. This seemed incredibly difficult … until I sat down to do it.

Essentially, once the lyrics have been input, all I really had to do was to tap out the rhythm of the song on the spacebar of the computer, and the computer inserted the color-change sweep in time with the rhythm I was tapping out. Some problems would come up, such as the screen having to “refresh” itself quickly, which would leave lingering images of words interfering with new words coming onto it. Occasionally, this would look like spaghetti on the screen. Before too long, I got the hang of fixing this as necessary.

It was about a one-day learning curve before I had essentially created all five karaoke videos. And by that time I couldn’t stop myself. I could always see good reason for the next song or the next song to be interpreted karaoke-style. And once I’d gone that far, then any song that did not have karaoke lyrics would certainly be a disappointment.

Eventually, I redid the entire show in karaoke. Once I knew what I was doing, I could do an entire song in about 30 minutes.

I think it’s going to be great, like having a second actor on-stage with me. While people may, in time, get tired of watching me on stage, or may prefer one song over another, the karaoke video will be a constant distraction, or point of intrigue. I found ways to keep lyrics hidden from the audience until the last possible moment, so that the “punch lines” of certain songs would be enhanced rather than spoiled by someone “reading ahead.”

And it also seemed to act as a reminder of just how literary of a work this was. There’s a new level of appreciation possible for the writing, when you can actually see the structure of the lyric on a page in front of you. (It’s one thing to hear alliteration, for instance, but quite another to see that parade of repeating consonants on the screen in front of you.)

For a while I flirted with learning a DVD-building program, but the learning curve on that one seemed much longer. And I had my engineer (James) in Cleveland ready to start work on this again. And, it was now time to get back to work on getting bookings for the fall. I finished up the new audio and video material as best I could (timing everything out to the second), and shipped them off to Cleveland.

I turned my attention back to the e-mails that had been building up. College was back in session in many places, and a few teachers were renewing their pursuit of my show. I traced my way through e-mails, and started another mailing to the French teachers who’d been to the conference last July. (I’m now about halfway through that one.)

Thank God for Christopher and Meredith. They had high-speed internet hookup in their place, and Christopher is an accomplished videographer, and so I had all of the coaching and the internet time that I needed to make serious progress in my five-day break between shows.

On Friday, I met the Artistic Director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival for lunch. I had been sending him e-mails for a few years now, and recently I’d met a mutual friend, who’d also recommended I get to know him. When I finally knew I was coming to Boulder, I wrote again, and he suggested that I call him when in town.

There was no spoken agenda to the conversation; we were just learning more about what each other does. I was certainly interested in getting the festival to produce one of my Moliere plays, but I was unsure where his interest might lie. He talked at length of their season that had just closed, and next summer’s projected season. (Plans were well underway, which meant that there’d be no Moliere there for 2006 at least.) As we talked, though, he seemed very interested in my career and my Moliere work, asking how long I felt I could keep up the touring. At the end, I said outright that if he ever wanted to produce one of my scripts, I’d be happy to take the summer off from touring to come and act in it for him. He seemed very interested by that prospect, and promised to come and see my show that weekend, and the workshop I would be teaching on Monday.

There were three people in attendance at my Saturday show. One of them was Christopher, who was videotaping the show. A musical just doesn’t seem right with only three people in the audience. Hearing that vacant clap – clap – clap sound at the end of each number is a pretty rough go. I went out karaokeing Saturday night.

I opened up my Sunday show to performers to see for free, and about fifteen or so showed up. Suddenly the show was back to its original form, as the audience was picking up on all the subtle jokes that were buried in the lyrics. The volunteers were especially playful, and it all felt “right” again. It was good to get that one in under my belt before heading off to Vancouver.

I packed up the car, worked on some more e-mails and went to the closing night party.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival director had not made it to see “Karaoke Knights” (he later explained that family issues had come up), but he was in attendance at my workshop Monday morning.

Which went great! I hadn’t done the workshop since at least April, but I’ve collected even more material in that time. The kids were responsive, probably partly because the Artistic Director was watching. But I could feel each point sinking in, and could see the smiling agreement on the faces of the two teachers who’d brought me in to do the work.

We said thanks all around, and then I loaded up my stuff and headed out. I’d decided to head more or less directly west to San Francisco, and then turn north towards Vancouver. I hadn’t crossed through the Rocky Mountain National Park in years, and so I took some amazing pictures. At one point, I was on top of one of the highest accessible rock formations there (probably about 13,000 feet), and I lay on top of it, looking up at the clouds. I had a sudden rush of panic that I could feel in my stomach. I had been fine, standing atop the rock, only a moment before, but lying on my back with my abdomen open to the sky, which seemed just about close enough to touch, sent convulsions to my center. It was the same feeling I’d had in Sedona, lying down on top of a rock formation there. I guess I had a fear of falling off, but it was more like a fear of being lifted up and spirited away. Eventually, the feeling subsided a little bit, so I could lie there at length. I took a photo of a cloud from my belly’s p.o.v.

I pushed on, eventually making it to Craig, Colorado that night. The next morning I wanted to go through the Flaming Gorge National Park. I drove to Vernal, Utah, and turned right (there are no signs indicating “This way to Flaming Gorge”), and the landscape was gorgeous as I climbed upwards. I’d been through Flaming Gorge once before, about 15 years ago, and just as I did then, I thought that somehow I’d missed the incredible view and had driven past it. When suddenly, you turn a bend in the road, and there are two amazing, sweeping outcroppings of rock, perhaps fifty stories tall, flaming red-orange-tan, sloping downwards to a beautiful blue lake.

I took lots of pictures. (I’ll try to post them somewhere soon.) And jumped back on the road. Flaming Gorge probably delayed me by three hours (there’s no easy way to get there off of the highway, so very few people know about it). And I continued up into Wyoming, and then through Utah, racing through Salt Lake City and continuing west.

This is a stretch of I-80 that I’d never been on (there are very few stretches of Interstate left that I haven’t been on), and I noticed that “the Great Salt Lake” had given way to miles and miles of plain salt. Salt had deposited itself across the land as though it was a lake of salt. A rest stop revealed that this was, in fact, the Bonneville Salt Flats, where they run all of the land speed record events.

As I drove, I was continuing to sing along to “Karaoke Knights,” and I came up with a new concept for what I’d perform in Vancouver. I’d been planning to switch to a “live read” of the karaoke jockey narration all along, but I could present it to the audience as if it was part of a foul-up of the DVD system. They could then enjoy the excitement of having me somehow make the show work, even though I had planned for this “crisis” all along.

I continued into Nevada, and it was getting late. I had not gotten as far as I wanted to quite yet. Nevada was 400 miles across, and I was starting to feel tired. I’d hoped to make it at least halfway across, but when I noticed the “Check Engine” light come on in my car, I scaled back my ambition and stopped about 100 miles into the state.

The next day I pushed through to San Francisco, and spent the evening with my friends, Stephen and Kajsa. Stephen is getting ready for the San Francisco Fringe (I’ll be in Vancouver when it’s going on), and I shared the latest developments with Karaoke Knights. (I’d performed bits of it for them last year.) I played one of the karaoke videos and Stephen was enthralled by the words on the screen. Kajsa could occasionally look away from the screen and watch what I was doing as I performed the human part of the song. I suspect I’m going to have to get used to people watching me only about half of the time. As I predicted, though, Stephen was picking up subtleties in the lyrics that he’d missed the first time around.

A note about gas prices: Yipes! I was astounded when Canadian gas prices broke the one-dollar-a-liter level. But now American gas is over three-dollars-a-gallon in most states! A tank of gas costs as much as a hotel room. I am watching the RPM meter on my dashboard as carefully as I am watching the MPH meter. (If it jumps over 3000 rpm, I take my foot off the gas.)

And now there’s a fresh crisis to blame the prices on. The oil companies feast on every crisis that comes along. Exxon just had their most profitable quarter EVER. You notice that as soon as a crisis comes up the prices jump? They’re not so quick to go back down the other way. (Hmm. “Prices” and “crisis” rhyme. Coincidence? I think not.)

Note of interest: Gas prices have now TRIPLED since George Bush moved into the White House.

While I’m injecting politics into this rant, can anyone explain to me why Robert Novak is still working? Do newspapers have no shame in giving this man a platform? He willingly obliged the administration by exposing a CIA operative (treason, last we checked), and the newspapers and CNN website continues to carry the postured ramblings of this pariah, feeding off of his slimy entrails. Have they, at last, no shame?

I actually write to CNN on an occasional basis, every time I notice that they continue to publish more material by this weasel. They just ignore my e-mails, so I’ve decided to take my opinion public. I wrote again:

“I know you have shame. Otherwise you would have written back to me by now. You must be so embarrassed about your own lack of backbone that you just can't think of a response. Really, it's okay. Have some principles. You'll feel better about yourselves.

“By the way, since you are pretending you're not reading these comments, I've decided to start sharing them on my blog. I was just going to keep them to myself, but really, your total callous denial and inaction is just too outrageous not to share with everybody I know. I know my friends will have a good laugh at your expense. It's about time that somebody besides Bob Novak did.

“And, you know, I guess I’ll encourage my readers to share these comments with everyone that they think will enjoy them, too.”

Temperature: 50’s to 100s
Miles on the Vibe: 148,000
Attendance: 25 + 30 + 8 + 7 + 5 + 3 + 15 = 93
Discoveries: Disaster brings out the best in an audience. * There’s a part of me that likes having bad luck, because it at least gives me something to blame. * Sometimes the best solution is to write off the present struggle and throw all of your energy into winning the next time around. * My imagined struggle with learning the karaoke program was much greater than the actual work. How often do I stop myself from getting something the way I want it because I imagine it will be difficult?
Next performances: Vancouver, BC: Fri, Sept 9, 3:30 pm.; Sat. Sept 10, 6:30 pm; Sun, Sept 11, 4:45 pm.


Holly said...

WELCOME to Vancouver. Enjoy the storm last night? Not sure if I'll get out to see your show.

Don't worry about small audiences, it's part of the Fringe experience. The best show I saw one year was a one-man show doing the speechs of a 1930's politician.

OK, so the speeches didn't inspire me, but with only one paying member of the audience and me (a volunteer) he gave the show everything he had. So hurrah for him and I still remember him years later. OK I don't remember his name, but the performance is what lasts....

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