The View From Here #102: Auburn, AL; Athens, Powell & Clarksville, TN

In short order: from Grand Junction to Denver, from Denver to Kearney, Nebraska, and then on to Chicago in record time, with a brief stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, for lunch with the new chair of the U-Nebraska theatre department (which is where I got my MFA). UNL was given a very generous grant from Johnny Carson shortly before he died. They seem to have run out of buildings that aren’t already named for somebody, so they have renamed the department “The Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.”

Anyway, it should be quite a program in another couple of years, and the chair and I brainstormed about some Moliere projects we might want to explore. (This marks the third such conversation in recent months, following the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and the University of Arizona, and I expect that as I get tired of traveling, I may well find myself doing longer residencies around projects like this. I’ve begun posing the question to myself: “What do you really want to do?”)

Back at home, I threw myself back into the promotional campaign, writing to all of the Theatre teachers and French teachers I could find in Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and, eventually, Georgia. I was surfing strategically. Rather than going through schools alphabetically, I was surfing the states where my current schedule left me with the most open dates to schedule performances. (Next up is Texas, and I’m doing all that I can to put off taking on that sizeable project.)

Following a long layoff (6-8 weeks?), during which I’ve actually been swimming quite a bit, I started jogging again. I was shocked at how creaky my knees were. My first time out, I could only run once around the block (probably about 3/4 of a mile). Either it’s age setting in, or sitting in the car for days at a time, or both.

Down in Tennessee, Austin Peay University was working on my version of “The Misanthrope.” At one point, I received an e-mail from the director asking if they could make cuts to “a couple of lines” from the script (for time, only). I said, okay, as long as they sent me a list of what they were cutting.

As I resumed my trip, Austin Peay was my first stop, catching a rehearsal of “Misanthrope,” which was due to open the following week. I had requested a copy of the script so that I could work on my own edits as I watched the show.

Flipping through the script, I could now see that they had cut, not a couple, but dozens of lines from the show. And some of the lines had been “cherry-picked,” slicing out individual words in a manner which would save no actual “time,” but which apparently didn’t feel comfortable for the director. Some of my absolute favorite lines had been extracted (usually the ones that made me burst out laughing as I was writing them), such as Alceste’s character-defining: “I treasure this oppression as my ticket / For telling the whole world where they can stick it!” Or, “When they act more like horse’s feces / I want to break away from my own species!”

So, somewhere in there, the director and I were going in two different directions. And that should have been evident from the tone of the rehearsal itself: languid, ponderous. After the rehearsal, I talked with the cast about period style, in general, and stayed away from character notes for the most part, which would have taken me several hours to explore.

The next day, the director and I met for lunch, and I went into my notes at great length. I indicated that she didn’t have to follow through on any of these; that it was her show and up to her what she did and did not do. I bracketed the lines in the script that I very much missed, noting that she did not HAVE to restore them, but that I thought it would be a better play with them back in.

I must note here, that I played the role of Alceste in the Stage Two production of the play, and so my insight into his character was pretty fixed. And perhaps because it was so fixed, I was compensating by taking a rather wide berth, noting, “You are welcome to disagree with me, here, but this is my interpretation …” (I eventually found that the director did, in fact, disagree, as she adopted almost none of my notes.)

I continued south to Alabama, with a show at Auburn University. I would be performing in a lecture hall, which is not usually the best setting for the show. The lighting is usually designed to be brighter in the audience than “on stage,” and there are usually computer boards built into industrial-sized desks with overhead projectors that can never actually be removed from the space. (Which doesn’t generaly fit with Moliere’s time period.) In this case, there was also a low table downstage center, which was actually bolted to the floor. The maintenance crew either couldn’t or wouldn’t remove the table prior to the show, which meant that there was a low-lying obstacle between myself and the front row throughout.

The only door that led to the “stage” led directly outdoors, so instead I squirreled away up in the “booth,” a small room behind the audience, with a window in it. Which meant that I watched people filtering into the auditorium. I was discouraged when I saw that about 75% of the audience were sitting in the back 25% of the rows, assumedly for an easy escape, when they needed to get away, or so that they could engage in discreet text-messaging without anybody noticing.

I think I am better off not knowing these things.

I put it mostly out of my head, and concentrated on performing for the 25% of the audience in the forward 75% of the seats, particularly as at least some of them seemed to be having a grand old time.

I was engaged in an ongoing dance with the low table in front of me, stationing myself far back from it, when possible, so that it would not cut me off at the knees, visually, or positioning myself stage right or stage left of it when I absolutely had to approach a member of the audience. Occasionally, I would even do a pass downstage of the table, which put me just a couple of feet away from the front row of seats. It was too close for the style that I was playing in, but it probably woke people up a little.

When it came to the Tartuffe volunteer scene, I placed the imaginary “Orgon” underneath the table, which is where he would usually be positioned in a typical performance of the show. I then backed my volunteer into a backbend over the table during the seduction, and she picked up the cue, waving and trying to signal Orgon, below, from her position, above.

Somewhere around the midpoint of the show, there was an exodous of about eight to ten students, who apparently had other commitments, or had perhaps decided that they had been there long enough to write a report, or to pass a quiz on the material. For the most part, the rest remained throughout.

At the end of the play, several students and teachers came forward to thank me, as I folded up what costumes I could, and when the auditorium had emptied, I went up to finish changing, before reloading the car and getting on the road.

And while I was conscious of all of the obstacles in pulling off the lecture-hall version of the show, I apparently got through to a number of people. The next day I got an e-mail from someone who’d tracked me via the Moliere website:

“Mille mercies! Your performance in Auburn was delicious. I’m the brunette in green who never stopped laughing. … Moliere has long been my favorite playwright and the publicity blurb of “Moliere lives” is no lie. … Everything that I ever imagined Moliere to be, you gave me in your performance. … I roared with laughter, came home feeling SO good from all that laughing that I can’t thank you sufficiently. GREAT JOB! I can only think that Moliere would be proud and pleased. I’m still smiling.”

And, a theatre professor wrote to say:

“Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed what I saw of your performance yesterday and apologize for having to leave early with some of my students. We are in the midst of a monstrous tech week of a show that opens this evening and we had to be back at the theatre for a 6:00 p.m. final dress. …One of my students said, ‘Now I really understand what Tartuffe’s character is all about.’ High praise indeed.”

I drove north, to Athens, Tennessee, where I arrived just after midnight. Along the way, I occasionally timed myself on the performance I’d be giving the following day at 11 a.m. The school had requested a 30-minute version of my show, and the various monologue combinations that I was exploring usually clocked in at 33 minutes or more.

When I arrived at the school, I found that they weren’t going to hold me to a 30-minute deadline. “Just as long as they get out in time to get lunch before noon.” And so, I did the 33-minute version of the show, which stretched to about 40 minutes with audience laughter and “acting”. This version included “Bourgeois Gentleman,” the “Tartuffe” monologue, the “Tartuffe” volunteer scene, the “Scapin” volunteer scene and the “Precious Young Maidens.” In other words, the stuff that gets the best response. And, I could feel that the hundred or so students, were getting it. After the show, the teachers speculated about bringing the full performance in for an evening show next year, and the theatre teacher asked if I would come in to talk to her 1:00 class.

The school hadn’t paid the extra that I normally charge for a class visit, but I hate to disappoint anybody, or to pass up the opportunity to connect with the kids, so I offered to “pop in” for about twenty minutes, before getting on the road.

That afternoon, I had just about an hour’s drive north to Powell, Tennessee, a suburb of Knoxville.

This was my third appearance at Powell, and they have made an annual event of my visit. I had met the teacher at the conference in Martinique three summers before, and her enthusiasm about the show has never waned. While most other schools insist that they need to have a four-year gap before bringing me in again (when there will be an entirely new group of students present), Saralee just automatically schedules a performance while I’m in Tennessee.

I notice that the audience has grown in the three years that I’ve been doing the show. While last year’s audience may have been around 150 students, this year there are closer to 250 in the seats. It seems that a network of local teachers have learned about the performance, and new schools join the list every year, bussing their kids in to Powell from up to an hour’s drive away.

Likewise, the rumor of the show seems to have spread among the students themselves, and their attentiveness seems better than any of the other high schools that I perform for. Some of the students have seen me in past years, but seemingly most of them are new to the show, but have heard rumor of what to watch for. When I request volunteers for “Tartuffe” or “Scapin,” there are students who are jumping out of their chairs, absolutely determined to be the one selected this year.

I found myself wondering, even as I was reciting my lines, whether there might be an Eastern Tennessee renaissance in Moliere studies in the next ten years or so. Perhaps, the University of Tennessee (just about 10 miles away, in Knoxville) would find a sudden influx of French or Theatre students in the coming years. And I think about how some franchise restaurants do exceptionally well in some certain regions, while they never quite get a toe-hold in other cities. Who knows why the Cincinnati area is so big on Chili, or why Chicago loves Chicago-style hot dogs? If my experience is any indicator, it is probably because somewhere along the line, there was one influential advocate (such as Saralee) for the work, whose enthusiasm caught on among the people within her sphere.

Somehow, performing the show the third time in as many days, I was feeling a bit looser about the performance, and found myself exploring. One girl in the front row had a persistent cough, and I could feel it taking away from particular moments of the “Doctor in Spite of Himself” scene, and so, when a moment arrived between scenes, I excused myself, picked up the glass of water I have onstage with me (which I rarely drink from, anyway), walked out into the audience and offered it to her, slapping her on the back. Many of the audience seemed bewildered by this pause, but I think it at least communicated that noise from the audience was in fact heard upon the stage, and her cough seemed to quiet for the remainder of the play.

During the Scapin volunteer scene, I was in a playful mood, and when I jumped out into the audience, I found myself facing a student who was sleeping (which happens more often than I’d care to admit). In this scene, I always refer to individuals in the audience as members of the long list of characters that I am describing, and so I slapped this student on the leg a few times, which stirred him from his sleep. I proceeded to grasp his head and weave it side to side as I projected loudly, directly into his face. He gaped back at me with a terrified look, and I continued on through the audience. The audience cheered with approval.

When I finished the play several minutes later, the entire audience stood to applaud. Again, I was struck by their enthusiasm, and felt fairly certain that the good buzz that my show received from them year-round, puts them in a position where they are ready to appreciate the show, and thereby respond.

This group likes to do photos with “Moliere,” and the several schools always pose with me on the steps in front of the stage, as one group after another heads off to their bus.

After this, Saralee wanted to take more pictures, getting one of me in each of my costumes, so that she could do a slide show presentation in a conference of French teachers that was coming up. I was, of course, happy to comply. I did my usual acting workshop. This year there was a deaf student present for my workshop, and it took two sign language interpreters, trading off a couple of times, to keep up with my lecture.

At last, I hustled off, trying to beat the school traffic, and driving back to Clarksville for opening night of “The Misanthrope.”

In performance, I could sense a better feel for the style of the play among the actors. They were delivering their lines forward more comfortably, physically staying open to the audience better. And yet, the tone was still dark and brooding. At intermission, I noticed a school newspaper in the lobby, and opened it to find a publicity photo from the show. The caption described “The Misanthrope” as a “Comic Tragedy.” Suddenly, I could see just where things had gone off in a different direction.

After the show, there was a reception, and I thanked the actors individually, telling them “Great job.” I didn’t want to lay my responses on the director immediately after opening night. (I suspected that she wouldn’t “hear” them quite, and that for tonight at least, any negativity would be unwelcome.) I asked her to call me the next day.

She never called. Eventually, I called her to leave a message, and proceeded to type up and e-mail my notes to her.

I heard nothing back, and the show was no different the following night. While there were specific audibility notes that I could still take, it was pointless for me to sit through the show again, layering notes upon notes that had gone unread. And so, I did something that I almost never do. I left at intermission.

The director caught up with me as I was just on my way out. I explained in my nicest tone that there was no point to me being there if I was not contributing to the process in any way (the school was, after all, paying for my hotel, and I supposed that they wanted me to be doing something besides occupying a seat), and I left.

The next day, I had lunch with Leni (the department coordinator, and a friend dating back to the early 80s), and I caught her up on the interaction with this director. It was clear that Leni was supportive of my perspective, and she gave me a backstage peek of her observations, recalling her own discovery that cuts had been made to the script, whereupon she had insisted that the director get my approval.

That day I did my “The Life of Moliere” workshop with a French class (of about 5 people) and it went over great. The teacher was responsive and enthusiastic and wanted to recommend me to other schools in the area.

About fifteen minutes prior to an acting workshop that I was about to give, I saw the director and drew her aside. I asserted that I could see a seeming conflict between us, suggesting that perhaps my opinions about my show were in conflict with her faculty advisor’s opinions? No, she responded. It was she, herself, who saw the show in a different manner than I did.

I was a little bit shocked, if only because the previous week we’d had a two-hour lunch in which I’d expressed my opinions at great length, and she’d voiced no conflicting opinion. For me, it paralleled the way she pretended that the cuts she had made were for “length only.” She had been avoiding confrontation, and pretending there was no difference of opinion, while proceeding to go her own way. Now that the cat was out of the bag, she even started to suggest that perhaps I “didn’t understand Moliere the way she did…”

That night, the show was better. The director had at least taken one of my notes (that things were taking too long), and tightened it up. I saw her for a brief moment afterwards to say “good show,” before continuing home. I was not really surprised when she made no attempt to contact me that following day.

On my last day in town (continuing with my e-mail projects), I contemplated whether I should attend this final performance. Was my presence just making people uncomfortable, since I assumed word of my contrary view had circulated among the cast? Was it too painful for me to listen to this version?

I decided that my absence would make a bad statement which would seem petty in perspective, and regardless of my disagreements with the director, the cast was working very hard, and had no personal disagreements with my opinions. And, attending this performance, I was actually able to enjoy the work more, once again. It had continued to improve, and while there were moments that did not work for me, I could appreciate that, on the whole, this was a good show, and might well move on to further levels of competition with the American College Theatre Festival.

I reached one further conclusion. Following the performances for which the school had already contracted (which included a performance at the Tennessee Theatre Association in the coming week), they would need to enter into a new contract with me for future shows. And if they wanted to continue to use my material, they would need to restore the cut lines.

I contemplated whether I should specify exactly which cuts they should restore, and which they might leave in (since some of them bothered me more than others), but resolved that negotiating the matter would only weaken my position. And, perhaps the educational value for the students was in learning about the responsibility of the production to the playwright (since they seemed to assume none) … and something about copyright law. The best way to get the words back that had been “cherry-picked,” was simply to insist on a word-for-word adherence. Perhaps in that process, the actors would rediscover words that for now made no sense, details that I couldn’t begin to address if I didn’t have access to interact with them.

Late that night, I laid out all of these details in a note to Leni, and the next morning, I left town, heading home once again. When I arrived, there was a response from Leni in my e-mail. She acknowledged that they would restore the play the way I had written it.

In the process, I had to confront my own willingness to make such a demand on people. How much of my reaction was just a response to feeling “dissed”? Not being consulted? Not having my bio appear in the program? When it came down to it, however, I had to ask, “What if this play does, in fact, go all the way in competition?” Would people think that what was being performed was my original script? Without the full battery of the jokes I’d included, might they get a wrong impression about my script, and either dislike the material, or like it for the wrong reasons? Either way, I would certainly not take as much pride in the success of the play as it was currently being produced, and so I insisted on the change, if for no other reason than because, as the playwright, that was my option.

Miles on the Vibe: 154,000
Temperature: Upper 80s, dropping into the 40s
Attendance: 80 + 100 + 250 + 50 + 5 + 15 = 500
On the Disc Player: Fiona Apple, “An Extraordinary Machine”
Reading: Back issues of The Nation
Discoveries: As I get tired of traveling, I am starting to look at other options, and in the process I find that I have to repeatedly ask myself, “What do you want to do?” The answer that I usually give myself often responds to the question, “What do you think you CAN do?” And I have to continually reassert the original question. * One enthusiastic advocate may be all that it takes to stimulate a renaissance around a given subject matter. * When confronted with a dysfunctional situation, I tend to absorb the blame myself, before standing up for what I believe. * Sometimes it is okay to insist on the way you want something, if only because you can.
Next performance: The Illinois Mensa Convention, 10/29

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Thanks for the update! They did Tartuffe in Vancouver and had the set in Shaughnessy. The story seemed so modern that I don't know if the majority of the audience even realized it was a French classic.
I guess that's the beauty of great literature, it's relevance and story still rings true.
I didn't get a chance to see your show in Vancouver after all, but I hope it went well.
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