Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The View From Here #101: Vancouver, BC; Phoenix & Tempe, AZ & Las Vegas, NV

Sunday afternoon in Vancouver I finished packing the car, picked up farewell gifts for my technician and my billeter, and headed in. I had a few flyers left over, and I managed to give most of them away. I set up to perform one last time, and about thirty people shuffled in. They seemed to be in a slightly better mood than the group from Saturday. Notably, there was one, extremely attractive woman, attending with her precocious son (who seemed fascinated by the karaoke TV display). As I was starting the final warm-up song (Jimmy Buffet’s “Why Don’t We Get Drunk”), I apologized, noting that the song was a bit ‘PG-13”, and she responded, “Oh, I’m a single mom; he’s heard everything.”

I stopped, with a sudden interest “You’re a single mom?” Playing the oily, sleazy character (for which I am so famous), I stated to hit on her, before realizing, “Oh! I’m leaving town right after the show!”

This by-play, seemed to put the rest of the audience into a good mood, and as the show started, I was reminded of some of the original inspiration for songs like, “I’m Looking For A Groupie.”

Somehow I managed to resist using her as the volunteer for “Too Real” and as the microphone cord victim for “Forward Thinking,” holding out instead to bring her onstage to do the tango for “Bite My Tongue.” She was great, and she stuck around after the show to get me to autograph the CD. She continued to flirt outrageously, and I’m sure I gave back as good as I got, but ultimately it was time to go. She left me with her card, and with a sigh, I packed up, said goodbye to my technician, and was headed south within a half an hour. Speculating of course, on how these things always happen on my last day in town.

By 8 pm I was in Seattle, where I dropped in on former college roommate-juggler-pal, Thomas Arthur for a quick visit. And then on a little further south to visit with my friend and illustrator, Lee Howard. I met Lee at the Seattle Fringe three years ago, and he’s done illustrations for “Criteria” and “Karaoke Knights” since then. Lee and I traded some of our latest swag: I gave him a copy of the CD, and he gave me his latest, a book for kids/teens that he wrote and illustrated called “Sebastian Reckless.” (It’s very cool; I read it as soon as I got to Phoenix, and all of your kids will want copies. As soon as I find his website again, I’ll relay it to you.)

Back in the car, I continued south. I spent the night doing short hops; driving an hour or two and napping at rest stops. Out of curiosity, I noted that you can see Mount Shasta within about five miles of the California border, and you continue to see it for about 150 miles. It dominates the landscape along Interstate 5 to the point that every time I drive through California I think that “This must be a different mountain I’m looking at by now.”

I finally pulled over in Stockton, California, and resumed driving early the next morning. Just north of Los Angeles, I turned left, and pulled in to Phoenix just in time for their rush hour. I found my way to the timeshare place, which was very luxurious: king sized bed, oversized tub with Jacuzzi jets, and a huge pool. I settled in and got back to work … eventually.

I picked up where I had left off in the e-mail campaign. Along the drive, I’d had plenty of time to make plans, and I realized that there were some states where, due to my path, there would be a much greater earning potential. As such my initial focus would be on Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. (Which is as far as I’ve gotten so far). Subsequent projects will focus on North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Texas.

I found myself continually adding to the complexity of this mailing. I had started out by looking up the theatre professors in the Junior Colleges of a given state. I realized that, while I was at it, I might as well look up their counterparts in the French department. And then, before leaving the state, I went back to my previous list of University theatre professors, but, as it’s been over three years since I developed this list, I decided to surf back to those schools’ websites and check whether these e-mail addresses were still any good. And, of course, having looked up these schools once again, I would surf to the French department and mail to their list of faculty, too.

And so, while I’d initially envisioned that I’d be mailing to two or three states each day, I was lucky to be able to finish one, and by the time I came to Illinois, with over three hundred eligible French and theatre teachers, and the resumption of my performance schedule, it took me the rest of the week.

Part of the problem was that the more e-mails I sent out, the more responses I would get back. Which is, of course, a great thing. People were asking my prices, my availability, whether I worked in French or English, what grade level it was appropriate for … and each of these merited a personal response. Often I had information of people in their neighborhood who were also trying to arrange for the show, and I wanted to hook these people up with each other.

And while the bookings were slowly growing, I found myself wondering if there wasn’t a natural leveling off point, where an accelerated marketing program was arrested by the weight of its own success, as eight hours of “cold calls” were transformed into four hours of cold calls interrupted by four hours of follow-up.

And yet, I had put together another document, where I tracked the money coming in, and noted that the anticipated fall income was creeping slowly, and significantly upwards.

It was interesting to note that I was completely unsuccessful in arranging shows between Arizona and Chicago, during the span of my drive home, even though I was offering these schools an extraordinary discount. I made a note to myself: don’t offer huge discounts to schools as a last-ditch effort just before passing through. It’s hard for them to arrange that close to the date, and only ends up devaluing the “product.”

I’ve also come away renewed in my belief that fewer options lead to more bookings. Whereas previously, I would write to schools and attach my entire itinerary, in hopes that they would scan the dates to find one that would work for them, this time, while concentrating more intently on particular states, I picked out the exact dates that I wanted to schedule something, and would promote those dates only. When venues have a limited number of options, they are much more likely to check their calendars to see if those dates work for them.

I forced myself to push away from the desk a couple times a day, going for a swim in the hot Arizona sun.

It struck me that Arizona, or at least Phoenix, is the most energy inefficient place on the planet. Huge SUV’s and trucks litter the broad roadways. There is no sign of a recycling program anywhere. The entire state has to be air conditioned to make it livable (most days were over 100 degrees). They pump billions of gallons of water across the desert, just to create tiny patches of green lawns (which they then mow, almost daily). Swimming pools, and even restaurants spray constant mists of water out from under their awnings just to cool off the patrons. And there, at the timeshare (essentially a hotel/resort on a golf course) the maintenance staff struggles on a daily basis to blow the tiny leaves that fall from the trees, off of the sidewalks and parking lots, as if the patrons would be terribly inconvenienced to step on, or drive over a leaf, from time to time.

If global warming has a ground zero, it is Phoenix, Arizona.

Five days at the timeshare disappear quickly, with only a single expedition to a karaoke bar, and a dinner meeting with one of my hosts (Tamara, who has been working on getting me to Arizona State for several years). On Sunday, I packed up to move out of the resort, and in to the local Motel 6, where the school was putting me up. I found a local park, with a series of walking paths that encircled two large bluffs, and drilled my lines as I climbed and walked. I found a large natural amphitheatre, and ran two of my scenes in front of the stone steps. A family of four, climbing over the bluffs heard me, and came down to sit in the front row to observe. I hadn’t performed Moliere for a live audience for almost six months, so it was good to feel the characters in my body, as it were.

Word had it that there were already 200 tickets sold for this show (in an auditorium that seats 450), so I was feeling pretty good about the result. My host was a retired professor, who apparently had time to do the legwork to pull the show together, and had even gone out on speaking engagements to promote the show. He was somewhat disappointed with the result, wanting to fill the auditorium, but I reassured him that his work was quite successful. And, in fact, by the time the show began, there were more like 300 people in the seats.

With such a long lay-off, and such a long struggling summer, I’d managed to forget just how fun playing Moliere can be, but it all came back in the opening moments of the show, when people were laughing already, before I had even spoken a word.

The play was “fresh” in a way that it cannot be when I’m performing it on a daily basis. While I was relatively sure about my lines, I wasn’t entirely conscious of what was coming next, and so the many moments of discovery played out on my face in greater detail, and the audience followed the stories much more clearly.

It was in the between-monologue sections that I found myself on shaky ground, occasionally having to figure out new words to get me from point A to point B. As I approached the end of the play, I realized that I had skipped one monologue entirely, and doubled back again to pick it up. (The monologue was listed in the program, so the audience would know that they had missed something unless I performed it.) It was the “Imaginary Invalid” piece, and I was startled at how enthusiastically they applauded afterwards. (I wondered if I oughtn’t relocate that one permanently.) And finally, I did the “Precious Young Maidens” piece. This time, in addition to the laughter that runs through the “Stop Thief” part, they broke into applause at the end of the sung sequence. And rather than pushing forward, as I often do, I allowed Moliere to enjoy the moment of acknowledgement.

It had been a youngish crowd, probably 75% students (including Michelle, an old karaoke friend from Chicago), and a dozen or so had walked out of the show, about fifteen minutes before the end (I assume to catch the season premiere of “Desperate Housewives”), but those who remained gave me a standing ovation at the end, and I felt rejuvenated.

Afterwards there were thanks and congrats all around. I went to dinner with Tamara and her family, and gradually felt my energy ebbing away.

The next day I headed south to Tuscon, where a swank hotel awaited. I didn’t have much time to take advantage of it before I was on to a tech rehearsal at U of Arizona. The student-technicians were well-managed and responsive, and apparently I was their object-lesson in how to mount a show that techs and performs all on the same day.

While this auditorium was slightly smaller than the one in Tempe, ultimately all 350 seats were sold out. (There were empty seats, but those were no-shows that had already paid.) The theatre department had used the show to promote their season, and subscribers got first crack at tickets for my show. I had previously assumed that my show was a giveaway of sorts to anybody who had purchased the season subscription, but was amazed to discover that they were charging $25 a ticket! And had still sold out the show!

I remember, I’d been concerned whether the school could afford to bring me in at my full, undiscounted rate, but when I did the math, I realized that they had made back perhaps five times their initial investment.

Sometimes it’s just good to know that you’re paying your way, and not just living off of grant money.

This show was not as “fresh” as the one I’d performed the night before, but it was every bit as successful. The audience was older. In fact, just about all of the theatre students were in rehearsal, so this performance was almost exclusively for the general public. The girl who volunteered for “Tartuffe” was very good (people thought she was a “ringer”, and I later found out that she was a high school acting teacher with whom I’d previously corresponded), and when no men volunteered for the Scapin scene, a young girl volunteered and did exceptionally well.

Again, the sung version of the “Stop thief” recital got applause, and I began to think that somewhere in the last several months of festival going, I’d gotten a better sense for the theatricality of it all.

I finished off the show, packed up, and went to get my car from the parking garage to load out. And there, in line to pay for their parking, stood thirty or so of the audience I had just performed for, gradually recognizing me and telling me how much they’d enjoyed it. It was a bit awkward, standing in line, at that point, if only because I could feel it breaking their image of Moliere, who was now just this guy who stands in line to have his parking ticket validated just like everybody else.

I loaded up the car, and drove back to the hotel, where I caught a quick dinner with my host, Al Tucci. Al had been the chair of the theatre department at Northern Illinois University, where I’d taught for a couple of years in the mid-80s, and he brought along a member of the theatre’s board of directors to join us. They were both very glad about the success of the show, and hinted that they’d like to do it again sometime, or perhaps to involve me in a production of another play (“Tartuffe”?) somewhere down the line.

The next morning I was off to Las Vegas. The drive was a bit longer than expected, but I pulled into town around 3 p.m., in sufficient time to meet up with my host, and get a quick tour of the school and its facilities. This was the “Las Vegas Academy of International Studies and Performing Arts,” a venue that seemed ready-made for my show. I unloaded the trunk, and headed for my hotel.

In this case, my hotel was the Golden Nugget. (So much for the Motel 6 and the Holiday Inn Express.)

Actually, the Golden Nugget has probably seen better days. There was a long line at the check-in counter, and by the time I’d checked in, and then doubled back to the check-in to get a credit card onto my account so that I could use the internet, the pool had closed. (They close the pool at 5 p.m., assumedly to encourage people to go back inside and gamble.) I went back to the room and resumed the e-mail campaign. I made an early night of it, considering that I had a 7 a.m. class to teach the next morning.

The wake-up call was prompt, but it was only then that I discovered that there was no in-room coffee maker. Again, we assume, to encourage people to get out of their rooms, go down to the casino and gamble.

I led the early-morning acting class without benefit of coffee or breakfast. I had a break afterwards, and ran out to eat, before returning for my tech rehearsal and a 12:30 performance.

For some reason, the technical needs of my show had not gotten communicated to Rebekah, the theatre manager, and we had to negotiate to get more rehearsal time than the 15 minutes they’d scheduled around an ongoing dance rehearsal. They were accommodating, but I was also rather insistent, particularly when I could see that the lighting was not focused to my advantage. (There is nothing worse than starting the show and realizing that you are going to be performing this bright peppy comedy in a dull amber glow for the next 90 minutes. I think of it as performing Moliere in Willy Loman lighting.)

Eventually all was righted, and I put on my makeup (chasing a cello rehearsal out of the dressing room), waiting for the show to begin. We seemed to get off to a late start, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. There seemed to be well over 500 students in attendance (in this 1200-seat house), and I could feel my performance rising to the size of the space. Occasionally, I would have to pause to let the titters of the audience dissipate, and sometimes I had to “stare down” the students to get them to shut up.

The “Tartuffe” scene was particularly sensational, and I chose a volunteer who I had seen before the show, excitedly grabbing a seat in the front row before anyone else had arrived. She was a lot of fun, really playing up the coughing sequence, in which Elmire is trying to signal her husband to come out and interrupt Tartuffe. When Moliere calls after the volunteer “If you’d care to stop backstage after the play …” she responded “Oh, yeah!”

I keep forgetting that the high school audience gets too worked up from “Tartuffe” to be able to pay good attention to what follows. While they’re with me for the next two or three monologues, by the time I get to “The Imaginary Cuckold”, their energy is sapped, and I could hear a couple of girls in the front row chatting amongst themselves, and even staring them down has little effect).

The “Scapin” volunteer was much more sober, emoting almost not at all. I’ve discovered that people often assume my trip through the audience during Scapin is entirely improvised, as a response to perceived bad behavior in the audience. By the time I get back to the stage, they are, once again, more or less “with me.”

Again, “Precious Young Maidens” went well, and received a huge round of applause at the end of “Stop Thief.” Unfortunately, the bell was ringing at the same time. And perhaps 20% of the audience got up to leave. I still had a couple minutes of “Precious Young Maidens” left to perform, as well as Moliere’s final two-minute monologue. I raced through the rest of “PYM”, and cut the play there. I took my final bows, and got out. Afterwards, I visited briefly with the foreign language teachers, who were all enthusiastic, as well as with Rebekah, who reported that other schools had been asking her about how to book me. I left her with brochures and loaded up the car and returned to the hotel.

The next day, I had four ninety-minute workshops to lead: two for the theatre classes, and two for the French classes. The theatre students were particularly amazed that I had not been “miked” at all. In an auditorium of that size, giving the performer a microphone is automatic, and they were surprised that they could hear me perfectly through the course of the show. Of course, that made for a good launching point for my workshop about “being seen and being heard.”

By the end of the day, I had been speaking almost non-stop for six hours. Several students and teachers had purchased copies of my scripts, which I was now carrying with me, to autograph and sell. I only make a few dollars on each sale, but you never know when somebody is going to be looking to produce “Tartuffe” or “Imaginary Invalid.”

That evening, I joined the theater students in a trip to see “Blue Man Group” playing at the Venetian Hotel. It was a lot of fun, but I remember very little of it, probably due to the fact that I’d settled my nerves from the day at school with a couple of beers, poolside.

I wasn’t quite ready to leave Las Vegas. I had been staying at the Golden Nugget, which was a part of what they call “old Las Vegas.” The hotels at the south end of town were much glitzier, and I got a room at the Hilton for a night, mostly to enjoy one last day of sun at the poolside before heading north. The Hilton was unfortunately awash in Barry Manilow promotion (apparently he is their ongoing headliner), but they also have the “Star Trek Experience” there. I went looking for a karaoke bar that night to no avail.

And so the next morning, I packed up and headed east once more. I wanted to visit a friend in Durango, but found that even though, as the crow flies, it was on the way from Vegas to Chicago, getting there would add about three to four hours of driving, as I had to steer north or south of the Grand Canyon. I chose to steer north, driving through beautiful, breath-taking southern Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado, where I’ve holed up in a hotel to tap out these lines. Another three days and I’ll be home at last, following three months on the road. I’m tired … but at least now, it’s a good tired.

Miles on the Vibe: 153,000
Attendance: 300 + 350 + 500 = 1150 (in three performances I’ve performed for more people than saw me all summer long)
In the CD player: “Bremner Sings Weil”
Reading: “Sebastian Reckless” by Lee Rushton
Discoveries: An accelerated marketing campaign can be arrested by the weight of its own success. * Don’t offer huge discounts to schools as a last-ditch effort just before passing through. It’s hard for them to arrange that close to the date, and only ends up devaluing the “product.” * Fewer options lead to more bookings. * If global warming has a ground zero, it is Phoenix, Arizona. * Long layoffs actually improve the quality of the show. * I can allow Moliere to indulge himself in enjoying the applause. My sense of theatricality improves as a result of a summer filled with attending plays. * Sometimes it’s just good to know that you’re paying your way, and not just living off of grant money. * People assume the trip through the audience in “Scapin” is entirely improvised. *
Next performance: Auburn University (Auburn, AL), 10/17


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