Friday, December 16, 2005

The View From Here #105: Gallatin & Nashville, TN; Hampden-Sydney, VA; New York, NY

Thanksgiving dinner in Daytona Beach consisted of hot dogs and mozzarella sticks at a bar. Which made for, if nothing else, an entirely stress-free Thanksgiving.

The next day, I drove back to Orlando, where my friend April had brought her foster kids for a visit to the Magic Kingdom. For a day, though, we hung out at the swimming pool and Nicholas battled a fever. I got a chance to visit with Sandra-the-Vegan again, dropping in on her birthday party, and by Sunday I was reluctantly on my way, driving into the rain and cooler weather of Atlanta, where I hung out with Linda once again, before pushing on to Nashville on Monday.

I settled into the Nashville hotel, and proceeded to write to the Tennessee French and theatre teachers on my list, to remind them of the performances I had coming up, and one pair of teachers from Middle Tennessee State University actually wrote back of their plans to come up and catch the show.

After completing my Texas marketing push, I moved on to the California schools, finally, and spent most of my free time through the week working on them.

The teacher at Volunteer State Community College had warned me about the upcoming show. She was a touring performer, herself (also an SIU graduate), and noted that, in light of a last minute venue change, and the anticipated tiny attendance, “This will be one of those shows where you just need to remind yourself, ‘At least I’m getting paid.’”

I set up in a meeting room within the library, which had perhaps 80 chairs set out. The most prominent feature of this room was the enormous television set dominating the up-left area of the stage. If only I was doing a multi-media style event (say, “Karaoke Knights”), it would have come in quite handy. I found that by pivoting the television so that it actually faced the Stage Right wall, it was less obtrusive, and wouldn’t draw the eye so much toward this strange box from The Future.

The technician brought in two lighting trees, and we played with the focus of these, and the manipulation of the several sets of incandescent and florescent lights which would serve as our “house lights.”

There were, perhaps, a dozen or so people in the audience to this show, and I have formulated a new motivation for occasions in which the audience is so tiny. I remind myself that, on a per-person basis, those individuals are paying more than they’d pay on Broadway shows. Rather than feeling defeated or disappointed by the lack of people, I feel honored by each individual, and a greater responsibility to give each one their money’s worth.

Also, my hostess was a great laugher, and her laugh caught on to most of the rest of the attendees, and the show went very well.

I packed up and drove about 30 minutes after the show to the south side of Nashville, where I had a performance with Lipscomb University the following night. This was a venue where they’d actually put a rider in the contract that insisted that there be nothing explicit or vulgar in the show. Whenever I get requests like this, I e-mail a copy of the script to the host, telling them that they can read through it and decide for themselves.

My sense is that nobody really minds the ribald humor of the show, but that people in the administration are looking for plausible deniability by shifting the responsibility for keeping-it-clean onto me. That way, they have a scapegoat if some student should report back to a parent about what they saw in school today. And so, I turn it back around on them. Of course, I have my doubts whether they even look at the script that I sent. Who has that kind of time? The audience for this event was around 35-40, which makes me wonder if the administration had been left a little uncertain if they should promote it far and wide.

This audience featured the faculty members from MTSU, and they also were a great bunch of laughers, so even some of my more subtle stuff was going over well, despite the low turnout.

As the tour has stretched on, really since last July with no break, I notice, on a subtle level, that my sense of satisfaction, pleasure, joy, seems to fade. I need some sort of renewal when out on the road for long periods of time. Things become a little dour and serious when it’s just me, holding conversations inside my own head. When there’s no conversation, there are very few surprises, and thus not a lot to laugh at. And so, from my to-do list, I lifted two items as part of an overall strategy for staying in a good mood:

1) Smile. I smile for at least 60 seconds a day, if only to keep those muscles from atrophying. What starts out as an entirely mechanical exercise results in making a smile feel more natural when it happens in “real life.”

2) Dance. I have a collection of favorite dance tunes downloaded on my computer, and I’ll dance along with 20 minutes or so of those as my exercise routine for the day. I enjoy it much more than the mechanical repetition of jogging, and again, it stimulates the muscles that respond to good feelings, anyway. On days that I perform, I find myself more physically engaged in the spontaneity of a given moment.

I had several days’ break, and I hadn’t entirely decided where I was going to spend it. I was planning on a trip down to Charlotte, NC, but my friend Cathy was away on a holiday, and so I started a gradual trek Eastward along Interstate 40. The first day I pulled off the highway in Knoxville for gas, and spotted a Karaoke bar just a block away from a good hotel. And so I stopped there, spending the remainder of the afternoon working on mailings, and showing up at the bar a little after 9 pm.

The bar was actually hosting a karaoke contest that night. As I perused the book, I could hear that this was mostly a country bar, and they were doing two-fers, with each singer drawling two songs in quick succession. I hauled out the heavy artillery (“Lion Sleeps Tonight”) for the contest but reverted to a countryish idiom with Conway Twitty’s “Only Make Believe.” I don’t suppose anyone in this bar had ever heard “Lion Sleeps” done as a karaoke number, and they looked rather startled at the voice coming from the guy who’d been sitting unobtrusively off to the side.

They held a final round of three singers, and I was one of the three selected. I chose Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” and the reaction was even stronger. Even the finalist who came after me said “How do you follow something like that?”

They decided the winner by audience applause, and I was surprised to receive the loudest ovation, even though I was a complete stranger, and the other two had been coming to this bar for quite some time. The “KJ,” awarding me thirty bucks, asked if I’d come back again, and I explained that I was from Chicago, and was just passing through town. Even this didn’t seem to dissuade the audience from liking me, and one group asked me to join them at their table, as we continued singing until the early hours of the morning.

The next day I continued to Asheville, North Carolina, and from there to Winston-Salem. I was working on bookings up until check-out time, driving for a couple of hours and checking into the new hotel and getting back to work. Following my success in Knoxville, I didn’t feel particularly driven to conquer any other karaoke bars at night.

You would probably not be surprised to learn that it seems to be legal to smoke wherever you like in Winston-Salem, as I noted when I went into a gas station only to find the attendant amid a thick cloud.

Sunday I continued on to the Raleigh area to visit with my friend Forsyth, and we enjoyed a movie night, watching “To Live and Die in LA,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Wal-Mart; The High Cost of Low Prices,” a movie which I was surprised to find on sale at a “Best Buy”.

The next morning, I was back on the highway, this time driving north to Hampden Sydney College. I was racing against an incoming snowstorm, and it was only in the final ten miles that the snow caught up with me.

The show wasn’t until the next night, so I set up at a small pub in their student center, where the wi-fi connection was good, and got to work. As I was getting ready to go, I noticed that 40-50 students had gathered around a pool table at the other end of the room, where an older gentleman was demonstrating trick shots.

It turned out that he was staying in the same guest house where I’d been lodged, and when he and his wife returned to the house, we traded stories of life on the road. The two of them were particularly amazed at my ability to do the tour without a second person to handle the tour administration. (I continue to seek out that elusive second person.)

The next day I gave a 90-minute acting workshop. This turned out to be an all-male school, and I was very impressed with how cordial everyone was. I moved on to the theatre space, which was another improvised room-with-lighting-trees. There were about 30 people in the audience, including perhaps a half-dozen women, which was a bit of a relief, as I need a few female victims, including the “Tartuffe” volunteer, which turned out to be the theatre teacher.

The next morning, I was back on the road by 7 a.m. I had to push on to a matinee performance of “Tartuffe” that was being produced by Lehman College in New York. The snow of two nights before was now gone, and following a rush hour delay in Richmond, I had clear sailing the rest of the way north.

I pulled in to Lehman College a half-hour in advance of the show, and met up with the director, who took me on a quick backstage tour. He set me up with several reserved seats in the second row. My friend Yvonne came to catch the show, followed by Jose and Janice (both of whom arrived toward the middle of the first half).

While the talent level of the cast was fairly mixed, the play was very well received, and while I was hearing all of the problems with the cast’s delivery, Yvonne was quick to point out just how effectively the script was playing for this audience, as did Jose and Janice, which allowed me to relax and enjoy the second half much more, which is where the play really takes off.

Afterwards, the college held a wine and cheese reception on my behalf, presenting me with a framed copy of the show’s poster and I congratulated each actor individually, and as a group. Afterwards, Jose, Janice and I went out for dinner, and I continued on to get a hotel in New Jersey, before working my way back west the next morning.

Bad weather was predicted for Ohio, and I beat the weather to Cleveland, but Winter caught up with me about an hour out of Toledo, and I found myself slogging slowly through the snow before pulling over for the night. The next morning, the snow was eight inches deep, but the snowplows had cleared the highways, enabling me to make the final push home to Chicago by 3 p.m.

This last week, I’d found myself sitting up late at night watching the DVD of Season 3 of “24,” which can sometimes be compulsive for me. I repeatedly found myself watching “just one more episode,” generally until two in the morning. I wasn’t noticing how far I was getting behind on my sleep, until I woke up my first morning at home at 11 a.m. Ironically, I found myself getting sick that same night. I haven’t been sick in perhaps a year. Had the illness come upon me at any other time, it’s quite possible, I would have had to cancel a performance. But somehow, my body knows better than I do when it can take a break.

Miles on the Vibe: 164,000
In the CD Player: k.d. lang, “Hymns from the 49th Parallel”
Attendance: 15 + 35 + 8 + 25 = 83
Temperature: 70s down to teens
Discoveries: Rather than feeling defeated or disappointed by the lack of people, I feel honored by each individual, and a greater responsibility to give each one their money’s worth. * you want to feel a particular way, engage in activity that speaks to you of that feeling, and the feeling will show up of its own accord.
Next performance: 1/13-14: Bloomington, IL (ACTF)