Friday, November 11, 2005

The View From Here #103: Arlington Heights, IL; Hanover, IN; Interlochen, MI & Wilmington, DE

I enjoyed a week at home following my Tennessee/Alabama adventures, and while I’d wanted to push forward with the surfing project (e-mailing schools in Texas and California), my e-mail inbox had become clogged with inquiries about possible performances that needed to be indexed among my list of potential gigs. I spent much of the week doing just that (and now I wonder if my doing that only puts those potential shows out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind, rather like moving a stack of bills into a file that you never open).

At the end of the week, there was a family gathering for my parents’ anniversary, and I managed to capture a couple of good photos of the Gang of Five (the “kids”) and the Gang of Seven (with Mom & Dad). (Drop me a note if you’d like copies.)

Saturday night was my performance for the Illinois Mensa Convention. Four years ago, they’d hosted “Moliere Than Thou” as their keynote event at the banquet, and I’ve always remembered how fun it was. They tend to pick up on the innuendo that I hide a little more deeply inside the wordplay. The event’s coordinator has written in the past noting that the participants enjoyed Moliere so much that they insisted she would “never be able to top this.”

And so, she brought me back, this time to do my sci-fi thriller, “Criteria.”

Rather than in the banquet hall, I found she’d set me up with a small stage in a conference room that holds 2-300 people. Apparently the banquet attendees were promised priority seating for “Criteria,” and yet they wanted to open the show up to people who weren’t at the banquet, as well.

The first thing I ever check in any venue is the lighting, and this conference room was not designed as a theatre space. A chandelier suspended towards house-left threw the only useable light onto stage right. My Pathways training came in handy, as I spent a half-hour relocating the audience chairs about ten feet to the left, while narrowing the wide center aisle. This way, the most extreme house-right seats would not be so far from the place where I would be performing most of the show.

Good thing, too, as quite a few still found their way to sit all the way over by the far right aisle. There were about a hundred or so in attendance. The room had a slight echo to it, and I had to slow down, just a touch, to keep the words from being garbled. Usually I launch into this play at warp speed, as it were, but this time the pace was more deliberate.

In response, it seemed that the audience was attentive, but not bursting with laughs. Many were in suits, tuxes, or nice dresses, and my odd bit of guerrilla theatre seemed just a bit out of place. But the highs were still high, the funny scenes still funny, and the climax felt powerful. Afterwards, I thanked them and noted that I had (newly published) scripts available for sale, as well as CD’s from “Karaoke Knights,” and I actually sold about 10 items to people who had responded very strongly to the work.

At least one of them was a sci-fi fan, and he alluded to some of the upcoming sci-fi conventions in the Midwest. I made notes of their names and looked them up the next day.

There are DOZENS of sci-fi conventions out there! I found a “webring” of sites for these “cons”, and started indexing the cities and the dates. It was nearing time to plot out my 06-07 schedule, and here I had another factor to consider in scheduling. Now, in addition to schools, I’m looking at sci-fi conventions, foreign language conferences and performance festivals. While I’m looking to downshift a bit on my travel schedule, more performance possibilities keep presenting themselves.

Monday, I was back on the road. I was headed south once again, this time to Hanover, Indiana. The bottom end of Indiana slopes northward as you move from west to east, and even though this was not as far south as southern Indiana can get, it was still as far as I could go without falling into Kentucky. The school itself overlooks the Ohio River, which can be a rather dramatic view. (I sat there at one point, watching what must have been about a million birds migrating past me in an endless stream. I had never really contemplated just how outnumbered we are by the bird population … at least not since the last time I saw the Hitchcock movie.)

This show was to be performed in a recital hall, which meant that it would, at least have great acoustics, although it did not have the traditional theatrical accoutrements.

I hadn’t seen anything around campus promoting the show, and the French teacher was citing this or that 6-person class or 12-person class that was required to attend, and so I was assuming that this would be a tiny house and a constant struggle. I was very surprised to see about 85 people filter in to the theatre. As I peeked out from backstage to watch people come in, I was immediately struck by the looks of a girl sitting down by herself in the fourth row. I immediately thought that she would be the perfect volunteer for the Tartuffe scene.

Even better, they were an audience of laughers. There were at least two or three scattered about who had infectious laughs, and so I could feel that I “had them” from my opening speech. Even little things, that normally zip by the audience were landing. Moliere talks about the man’s fear of the “alternatives” that Arnolphe’s intended wife may discover, and everyone got exactly what Moliere was suggesting.

I played the first half of the “Tartuffe” scene to a girl in the third row, just a few feet from the one I’d observed coming in. When the volunteer scene arrived, the girl I’d noticed immediately stood up and walked to the stage. There was a tangible nervous tension between us from the outset. I engaged in my usual pre-scene flirtation, and she (“Julie”) was playful in return. I asked if she had any experience acting, and she assured me that she was “a theatre major.” Moliere didn’t quite understand that and asked if that was, perhaps one step over a “Theatre Sergeant” or a “Theatre Lieutenant?”

When it was time to start the scene, Julie started reading the first Elmire line of the script. I stopped her to note that I had a rather long line before it was her turn to speak, and she responded, “Sorry, I got excited …”

I replied, demurely, with the only line that came to mind. “I seem to have that effect.”

The scene played great, the crowd ate it up, and the nervous energy was palpable. I could see her lips trembling, as Julie had no idea what I was going to do next, though she was seemingly enjoying herself very much in the process.

After the show, as I packed up, the volunteer returned to say hello, and I thanked her for 'letting me seduce her.'

The next day I drove north.

The show was in Interlochen, Michigan, which is not quite as far north as the Upper Peninsula, but it sure seemed close.

Previously, I was supposed to have a show in Northern Indiana to perform along the way. The teacher had booked me in, but had never signed the contract. Several days before, I wrote to check up on details for scheduling, and he wrote back with a long apology indicating that the show had fallen through from an inability to coordinate the schedule with classes and facilities. At least twice, he insisted that he would “take responsibility for this falling through.”

It strikes me that the notion of “responsibility” is not what it used to be. Whatever he might say in this context, I’m still the one who’s out the money. Which kind of reminds me of the Bush administration. (Did anybody read those recently released memos to and from Mike “I am a fashion god” Brownie? Amid a national disaster of seemingly Biblical proportions, they were trading fashion advice and restaurant recommendations: “Make sure you’ve got your sleeves rolled up!”)

And so, I continued on to the Interlochen Arts Academy.

What a great campus! Set between two lakes, they put me in a cabin on-campus, and the French teacher was incredibly excited. “I can’t believe it’s here!” he said. We went to dinner the night I arrived, and met again for breakfast before going to my 8 a.m. lecture on “The Life of Moliere” for the French class. The lecture went very well, but when I squeeze it into a single hour, there are always more monologues and examples that I want to give in order to illustrate the several chapters from Moliere’s life. I always try to finish it off with a description of Moliere’s death scene, and a scene from “Imaginary Invalid,” which is very powerful in context.

We then went to set up for the performance, and I was thrilled at the facility. It was a beautiful stage with a plush auditorium. The blue velvet curtain was awash in green and blue light. The technicians knew exactly what I wanted and made it work perfectly. The girl volunteering for Tartuffe was a cute blond theatre student, with lots of pincurls in her hair. When Moliere asked where she was from, she responded with “Interlochen,” which Moliere obviously didn’t understand, and she tried “the United States” and eventually, “the wilderness.”

Moliere responded, “That must explain the hair.”

Again, the “Tartuffe” scene was a blast, and the volunteer for the “Scapin” scene introduced himself as “Parker,” but he said it with one of those Thurston Howell III voices. I couldn’t tell if he was pretending to be an uppity WASP, or if he really was, but I matched his droll drawl for a few lines of exchange before getting down to the scene.

Afterwards I packed up the show and headed on to one more class: a two-hour acting workshop. I tried a couple of new things with this group, doing the Misanthrope scene much earlier than I usually do in the process, but it seemed to fall flat (it’s a hard scene to do with cold-reading). I worked the energy back up and pushed through to the end, finishing up with fifteen minutes of questions. Or actually one question: “How did you end up doing what you’re doing now, touring with Moliere?” And a fifteen minute answer. Except for the final request of a rendition of “Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

That night, following a home-cooked dinner, the French teacher arranged a reception for me with the students, and some twenty or thirty students arrived (They had recruited them from the student center, spreading the word that there was free food). They brought out a cake, singing “Happy Birthday” to me. This was November 3, and my birthday was just a couple of hours away, on November 4.

(And thanks, all of you, for the various birthday greetings. It’s good to know that people are thinking of me while I’m on the road. I do celebrate my birthday through the course of the month of November, so there’s still plenty of time …)

Friday I was on the road by 6 a.m., heading for Detroit. It was parents’ day at Isaac’s new school. He’s at a private school these days, where they seem to be teaching him stuff that I never learned until high school. In fact, his science and math classes seem to be at the far edge of anything I’ve ever learned, so I’m hoping he never asks for help with any homework. For what it’s worth, he tends to spend 95% of each class with his hand in the air to answer questions, so the good news is that he knows everything already.

That night we went to see “Chicken Little,” which was all right, as far as recent Disney movies go, but Disney is not reclaiming the cutting edge with this one. It’s no “Toy Story.”

The next day, we checked out the latest Star Wars on DVD, and went out to eat. On Sunday, I was back on the road. I pushed through to Delaware that night, with a show the following morning at a high school.

I walked in to find the theatre was a huge auditorium, with perhaps 800 seats, and at least a twenty-foot throw from the edge of the stage to the first row of seats. I knew immediately that this would not be an intimate performance. Rather, it would be about me laying out the goods for an audience to witness. From twenty (and more) feet away, I cannot see what they might be responding to. And I can only barely hear them laughing. Even when they do laugh, there’s that whole laughing-with-me/laughing-at-me dichotomy that I can’t quite penetrate.

Every once in a while, I hear my own voice, and realize that it has been pitched rather high, in my most penetrating and strident tone for rather a long time. I rein myself back in and get quiet, in order to let them “come to me” for a while.

Fortunately, I was only doing the one-hour version of the show, and with a single hour to fill, I can simply put out all my best stuff, and let them absorb it “from a distance” as it were. Once I cross the one-hour barrier to seventy-five or ninety minutes, there’s a different sort of attentiveness that is demanded. In an hour, I can take them by shock or surprise. Any longer than that, and I need to engage them more personally. They need to care about me.

I had at least one fan, which was the girl that volunteered for “Tartuffe.” A black girl was quick and demonstrative about volunteering for the scene, and she was extremely playful on stage. Like many of the others, she was unsure about what her reaction should be: and swung between demonstrative affection and feigned offense.

Attention lagged during the “Don Juan” scene, but the audience participation of the “Scapin” scene woke them back up again. Even so, the connection dissipated once more during “Precious Young Maidens” and I couldn’t finish up the play fast enough. Even the infamous “Stop thief” couldn’t quite win them back.

And, still, after the show, the French teacher was very happy, and one of the sponsors of the show wished aloud that she’d invited the whole school to see the show. A bunch of the theatre students lingered, asking for autographs, and wanting advice about how to act in their upcoming show.

This was not an especially healthy theatre department. The middle-aged couple who ran my lights and sound were alumni of the school’s theatre. They also built and paid for all of the sets of the shows in the theatre. They were giving their sweat and blood over to the school, and the school had become dependent on them. And, perhaps as a result, they never hired a technical director. In the process of saving individual shows, they may have been enablers, winning the battles while losing the war.

From Delaware I drove north to Connecticut, visiting with my friend (and calligrapher) Debby (, and her new gentleman-friend, Chris (and his three kids). I caught up on the e-mails which seem to flood my inbox every time I get on the road for an eight-hour day, and by Tuesday afternoon (today, as I write this), I continued on up to New Hampshire, where I enjoy a very luxurious hotel, and type up my memories, while drinking beer and enjoying a brief respite before shows tomorrow and Friday.

Yesterday, in the inbox, came a thank-you from the teacher in Indiana: “Students and faculty had nothing but great things to say about your show—your energy, humor, and ability to convey characters with a simple change of wig and voice. Their favorite part seemed to be “Stop, thief!” One student who had never read Moliere was delighted with the satirical aspect of his works, and now wants to read them. I, too, was pleased with the turnout. I know that many came because they wanted to, not because they were required to by a professor. Good luck in your travels. I will certainly spread the word about you fabulous show.”

Oh, and now there’s a note from the theatre prof at the same school: “I really enjoyed your show--I was able to laugh as a 'civilian' patron while at the same time appreciating the skillful, committed performance and the clever writing in the 'frame' material. I was thinking of recommending you to the guy who coordinates our annual arts series. Do you have a packet, or should I point him to your web-site? Which of your shows would work best for a family audience?”

One more late-breaking bulletin! The US off-year elections reveal that (to coin a phrase): “The Emperor Has No Coattails.”

Mileage: 158,500
Reading: “The Truth … with Jokes” by Al Franken (laugh-out-loud funny)
In the CD Player: “Oh No” by “Ok Go”
Temperature: Unseasonably warm
Discoveries: My proclivity for indexing may well be an excuse to delay follow through. * The birds outnumber us. * “Responsibility” is not what it used to be. * Some performances are more about me laying out the goods for an audience to witness than any intimate connection. * And yet, even so, I need to rein myself back in and get quiet, in order to let them “come to me” for a while. * With a single hour to fill, I can simply put out all my best stuff, and let them absorb it “from a distance” as it were. * Once I cross the one-hour barrier to seventy-five or ninety minutes, there’s a different sort of attentiveness that is demanded. For an hour, I can take them by shock or surprise. Any longer than that, and I need to engage them more personally.
Next Performances: Plymouth, NH, 11/9, Bowdoin, ME, 11/10, Lynchburg, VA, 11/14


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