Tuesday, October 25, 2005

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

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

The View From Here #171: Summer, 2017

I began my summer heading south, with the last performance of the year’s “school tour” at the Christel House Academy in Indianapolis. ...