Saturday, March 11, 2006

The View From Here #107: Chicago, IL; Williamsburg, VA & Orlando, FL

Well, the bookings have been few, but the business has been good, in its own way.

Home from New Orleans, I dove back into “Karaoke Knights.” While I had been trying to draw some video engineers into the project, one of them was tied up with a theatre project, and others worked in a Mac format, and were having difficulty opening the files that I had put together.

I had found myself taking over bits of the project as elements of the technology had come within my grasp. I’d already gotten a bit of mastery around the audio end of things, timing out the interlude music with some exactitude, which would then give way to the karaoke numbers and the original music (the downbeat for the new song, for instance, coming in on the downbeat from the previous number). While, previously, I had turned the music over to the audio engineer, with elaborate notes, at this point I had timed out a new karaoke video to synchronize exactly with the music as I had edited it, and probably no amount of explanation could get the engineer to recreate this.

Which meant pushing the project along as far as I could, mixing the music into an “mp3”, turning that into a “wav”, using the “wav” to make a “cdg”, turning the “cdg” into an “avi” file.

The key moment of this process lay in the discovery of how to edit the vocals mostly out of an existing piece of music, which meant that I could “karaokeize” the music that I had so carefully timed out, without having to re-integrate karaoke cdgs into the process. This meant going back to the start, more or less, dropping the new “karaokeized” music into the soundtrack, but it also meant that all future transitions would be under my control.

And while I’d hoped to pass the “avi” on to the engineer to “render” the video onto the dvd, in the end, I bought my own rendering program, and eventually I invested, with my friend April, on a dvd burner, and we burned the dvd ourselves.

And while it may have been a pain to take the project all this way all by myself (each stage of the project seemed to demand that I go back to the beginning on some of the songs, and start over), at least by now, when I want to rework elements of the show, it is all within my grasp, and the turnaround time, whenever I reconceptualized the work, (which I seem to do just about every time I get the new version of the show in hand) would be greatly diminished.

In the meantime, I was resuming work on “Currency,” my “personal growth” book. While I’d reconnected with my friend in Texas (who’d suggested a literary agent to me two years before), and gotten her to promise to send me his contact info, I hadn’t yet received it, and decided to press forward in refining the text, so that I would have something ready to share when the opportunity presented itself.

I did at least an hour a day on “Currency,” even to the point of creating an index (which I’d never done before). I then refocused my attention on “Acting at the Speed of Life.” It had been over a year since I’d done any work on this one (I’d gotten a couple of gentle rejections from publishers), and while previously, I couldn’t envision any improvements, a year of delivering and evolving the message through my acting workshops helped me see new insights and exercises and smoother transitions, which made it a slower process than my work on “Currency,” although the changes were getting me excited about the book again.

The deadline for getting back onto the road was bearing down relentlessly. I knew that I would have a new version of “Karaoke Knights” ready to test out, so I arranged with my friend, Freddy Weaver, to use the “Tantra Nova” space in the city to host a performance, and I dove back into rehearsals. I hadn’t memorized the new narration that carried me from one musical number to the next, and I hadn’t gotten a sense of how the counterpoint narration (on the video) would play. I was relatively confident in the songs themselves (I’d re-edited several of them to cut off key seconds in which I had nothing to actually do onstage) but they still needed fresh rehearsal as I hadn’t actually performed them since September.

There were perhaps 10 or 12 people in the (very friendly) audience for this performance, and the bits that may have worried me played very well. There were some audio balance issues, with interludes that played louder than the songs themselves, confusing moments around when I was the narrator and when I was being a character, but overall the show went as well as I might expect. (Two weeks later, I am continuing to memorize the narrative bridges, and testing the show out on anybody I can find on the road, in anticipation of a big audience at the Southeast Theatre Conference on March 3.)

With the completion of this performance, I sprinted through the last items of my to-do list en route to packing the car and getting back onto the road.

The first stop was Detroit, with an early celebration of Isaac’s 12th birthday. We managed to catch two movies (“Pink Panther” and “Zathura” … I preferred the latter), eat out a couple of times and hang out watching a bit of the Olympics.

Weather reports spoke of a winter storm that had marched along the east coast, and so I replotted the trip that was intended to carry me through Washington D.C., to stop instead in Harrisonburg, Virginia, visiting with my grad school friend, Kathy Conery, and her now-fiancée, Jeff. Kathy was working on a production of “How to Succeed in Business” which was in its final rehearsal, and I watched about 45 minutes of Act I, before sneaking out to watch “24” in the Student Union, and returning for the last half hour of “How to Succeed.”

The next morning, I was on my way to Williamsburg (or “Colonial Willamsburg” as they call it), where the weather had turned warm and sunny. I met my host, Elizabeth Wiley, who had apparently gone to great lengths to publicize both my performance and my workshop, as I saw flyers for both throughout the theatre building.

The theatre building, by the way, was commemorated by two plaques that designated it as the site of a presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, as well as the democratic primary debate from the 1988 election. Williamsburg is, of course, the site of the College of William and Mary, one of the first colleges established in “the colonies,” and the main street of Williamsburg is actually open only to foot traffic, running from the university to the former state capital. It’s rather like a very large version of Salem, Illinois, with blacksmith shops, and costumed historical characters festooning the streets.

The theatre for my show was along this street, and they were a busy facility, with historical reenactments and storytellers performing in the space 3-4 times a day. They’d put an enormous poster about my performance in their showcase, and had me listed on two or three more brochures. They clearly had the publicity side of the event down … the only question was how much of a “draw” Moliere might be in this town.

Sign spotted at the side entrance to the hotel: “FOR YOUR SECURITY, PLEASE USE YOUR ROOM KEY TO ENTER THE BUILDING.” (I suppose that’s a lot more secure than putting your fist through the window.)

Notation on a University website: “Theatre major, Heidi, has been a regular working actress since graduating from St. Mary’s.” (And what her digestion has to do with her schooling, I don’t imagine I can guess.)

In the news: “Rioting over cartoon;” Every time I hear this, I have to remind myself that this time the news ISN’T referring to the city in Africa.

The next day, following a quick technical rehearsal, I went to deliver my acting workshop, and found that, with attendees from neighboring schools, there were about 65 students in attendance. (This may have been a record.) I continue to improvise my way through the order of this workshop, putting the “Misanthrope” exercise (now known as “The Jerry Springer Show”) earlier in the process, which seems to go better with the “being seen” theme of my lecture.

The “Tartuffe” exercise (occasionally known as “Elimidate”) went very well, and when it came time for me to do a demonstration of this monologue, I picked out a flirty female volunteer, and pulled her onstage as victim. The monologue worked to terrific response and afterwards the girl was flustered: “I … I didn’t know what to expect … I didn’t know if you were going to touch me … or … I mean, I know I WANTED it, but …”

Of course, the only possible reply to that is always, “Stop by to see me after the workshop.”

Several days later, I was trading e-mails with the student’s teacher, from Virginia Commonwealth University. They were, in fact, hoping to book me for a full week at some point, and the teacher concluded with “Samantha Bishop [not her real name] is still blushing as your Elmire!” I wrote back, “Samantha Bishop SHOULD be blushing, that little hussy!”

That night, the start of my show was delayed several minutes, as I was informed there was still a line up at the box office. By the time I got out on stage, I saw that there were a good 200 or so people in the audience, which meant that the theatre might actually MAKE money off of my performance, which might portend well for getting invited back some day.

There was at least one great “laugher” out in the audience, and the show was really rocking throughout. I found myself working through the final (“Precious Young Maidens”) monologue, making eye contact with two of the women in the audience, as I always do. Somewhere in the process of connecting with them, a thought flitted through my head, wondering how well they were responding, or not, and then suddenly wondering whether I knew what my next line was. That is, of course, a question that I never want to be asking, as the answer can only be “no.”

And so, I blanked. In a very noticeable way. A few phrases from the latter portions of the monologue were popping into my head, but I had no idea how to get myself back on track. Fortunately, the technicians in the booth had the script handy, and were following along more or less. So, I called for “line.” It was perhaps the first time in about five years that I’ve actually had to call for line in the course of the show. A fragment of a line came floating down to me, but I was still lost. I asked for more.

This time, enough of the line came back to kick-start me into the speech. Fortunately, the screw-up had come early enough in the speech that I knew I had enough time to win the audience back over, with the series of “stop thiefs” that continues to build in absurdity as the scene progresses. One audience member was later kind enough to point out, my screw up actually reminded the audience of the level of difficulty involved in performing the show, making the previous monologues, in retrospect, all the more impressive.

After the show, a few friends from the afternoon’s workshop joined me for a couple of beers, and one of my new friends rumored that there was a leading role open with the local Shakespeare festival. I went back to the hotel to look up the festival on-line, and found that the show didn’t conflict with any of this year’s Fringe festivals.

It did, however, conflict with the annual French teachers’ conference I attended, and so I spent the next day’s drive to Orlando weighing my readiness to begin acting in full productions again, against my need to get more bookings in the coming year. (I have also been thinking about ditching the tour schedule entirely in the 07-08 season, and committing exclusively to directing and acting in full productions, but the jury is still out on that one.)

In Orlando, I caught up with Sandra-the-Vegan, who, ironically, was flying to Chicago the following day. Early the next afternoon, I proceeded to the hotel where the conference was being held, to be reminded that I’d paid $25 for a ticket to the awards luncheon that had started at noon.

I also discovered that this conference was due to end the following afternoon. Amid my flurry of activities leading me down to Orlando, I’d assumed that the conference would end on the Sunday. My performance of “Moliere Than Thou” was scheduled for 2:45 on Saturday, the final workshop session of the conference.

It struck me rather heavily, in that moment, to know that I was performing on the “get-away day,” after the exhibit hall was already closed and torn down, and after most of the attendees would have already moved on, catching flights.

I made a few passes through the exhibit hall and, with my promotional work cut out for me, I headed to town, staying with my friend Patty, who was, herself, house-sitting in a very plush home. I knuckled down to work on a new flyer, in the style of the flyers I’d done for Fringe Festivals past, which would announce the time and location of the preview performance I was giving the next afternoon. Early the next morning, I got copies printed up and I returned to the conference hall. In a shameless act of self-promotion, I put my wig and Moliere coat on and “flyered” conference-goers emerging from other workshops.

The flyering was executed to ever thinning groups of potential attendees, and by 2:45, it seemed like everyone had disappeared. About a dozen still showed up. It seemed that half of the attendees were there out of idle curiosity, a couple more because they were Moliere fans, and perhaps three or four because they were actually considering booking the show. Mostly, I could see them all grinning, although, once I hit the “Tartuffe” section, the conversation that I imagined in the backs of their heads was “Can we get away with this in our school?”

A couple of the attendees left in the middle of the show (evidently to catch a flight), but the rest stayed throughout, with several staying behind to thank me or to grab a video. One teacher in western Georgia (who was not at the conference) has since reported that the teacher who DID attend my performance is now talking about booking me. And several days later, I received the following e-mail from eastern Georgia …

“Wow! Let me add my praises to your list of accolades. I was in the audience at SCOLT Saturday last. I apologize for leaving early but I had to catch a plane. I wish that the performance had not been so sparsely attended. I am the prof de français at the … School of Fine Arts in Augusta GA. … I hope that I will be able to book you to perform here before long. I know it would help energize my French program also. Merci for a fantastic performance last Saturday; it was the highlight of the SCOLT conference in Orlando.”

Given that I’d thought the conference was running on into Sunday, I’d planned for another day in Orlando, and so I took the day on Sunday to finally resume the e-mail campaign that I’d left off more than a month ago. (I’d started this campaign back in August!) I finished the e-mails I was sending to Kansas schools, and moved on to Missouri and Mississippi. There are still a handful of states left, but I can’t seem to get to them as long as I keep picking up and driving almost every day.

And on Monday, I picked up and drove. I pushed northward to Raleigh, NC, where Forsyth and I caught the latest episode of “24”, and then on to Washington DC, (where I caught up with my friend Wendy Taylor), and Baltimore, where I took two days at my sister Maureen’s house, before pushing on to New York City, visiting Yvonne and catching a show by playwright Sherman Yellen (the one who’d quoted me on the Huffington Post website a couple months back).

By this time it was Friday, and I was aiming for Granby, Connecticut, where my friend Debby Reelitz was due to get married on Saturday. But first, I’d arranged a lunch appointment with a literary agent in Stamford, Connecticut. This was the fellow I’d heard about two years ago at the Texas Theatre festival. He and I had finally made e-mail contact and arranged a meet-up for Friday. I dug out the works that I thought were my most saleable (“Currency” and “Acting at the Speed of Life”), along with a few other goodies to give him a flavor of what I do (my already-published “Tartuffe” and “Imaginary Invalid” texts, and my “Karaoke Knights” CD). I kept waiting for him to seem overburdened (“Oh, not another manuscript!”), but he never seemed to give that signal, so I gave him my Moliere promotional video, as well as one of my children’s stories (“Isaac and the Dinosaurs”). We had a really charming conversation, even noting a couple of mutual acquaintances, and I left in a fabulous mood, singing my way through “Karaoke Knights” as I drove.

I drove to Debby’s house, discovering that one of my all-time favorite people, Cathy Maday, was already there, helping Debby get set up. I was in such a good mood, that I actually helped, bringing in firewood for the stove.

I think, though the course of the weekend, I must have explained the concept of “Currency” to about four or five people (their enthusiastic reactions stoked my confidence), and Cathy Maday even downloaded a copy onto her laptop and started reading it then and there.

That night was a small pizza party, and three or four of us seemed to get into a crossword puzzle groove, going through some five or six puzzles, with each of us bringing a separate-but-equal background of knowledge to the game, which meant we actually were able to finish each puzzle before moving on into the next one in the book.

The wedding was the next day, with about 40 chairs set up in the living room. The bride was gorgeous and the groom was surprisingly unflappable. (Of course, both had been through this process before.) My role in the ceremony was to actually hold the declaration of the vows for the couple to sign (I was “a table” … it was a supporting role), and later, to cause as much mischief as I could … enticing Cathy Maday to perform an impromptu dance during the party as the musician who’d played piano post-ceremony hauled out a drum for the occasion.

(Side note: I’d heard them talking abstractly about “Oh, we’ll have to get together to perform one of these days.” Knowing that Cathy was from North Carolina and the musician was from Connecticut, and that “one of these days” was code for “probably never,” I spoke up, “This is bullsh*t; just bang a rhythm on the table while Cathy dances.” Eventually, he went out to his car to get his drum, and I dragged Cathy out of the kitchen long enough to dance. After a moment, Debby joined in and the two of them gave the party crowd a performance that they’re not likely to forget for a while.)

And so, the party continued, and I tired earlier than usual. I crashed before midnight, getting up on Sunday to work on these notes. Family returned to Debby & Chris’ house for brunch, and I downloaded photos from four different cameras onto my computer, sending the couple off on their honeymoon with a disc full of wedding pictures already in hand.

I lingered, amid some fond farewells, and proceeded only about an hour south, where I met up once again with my ex-roommate, (another) Deb, and her partner Sara. I shared my “Karaoke Knights” CD with them, but decided to pull the costumes out of the car and do a full living-room performance for them, before they had a chance to hear the CD itself. Deb is actually cross-referenced in one of the songs, and I wanted to see her surprise when I performed it for her. I was a little nervous through that sequence, but Sara hooted her approval and the impromptu show went very well, giving me renewed hope about the performance I’ll be giving in Orlando at the end of this week.

Yes, I have driven from Orlando to Connecticut, only to turn around and head south to Orlando once again. And while the gas may be expensive, I’ve found friendly accommodations at every step along the way, and made a couple of connections that I look to portend terrific things for the future.

Temperature: Teens to 80s, to teens again.
In the CD Player: Red Hot & Blue, the Cole Porter Tribute
Reading: All my own stuff …
Attendance: 65 + 200 + 12 = 277
Miles on the Vibe: 171,000
Discoveries: I now know how to “karaokeize” music. * Move the ball forward in anticipation of other people stepping up. Don’t wait for them to step up to set things in motion. * Rather than freak out about a very limited schedule of bookings, I’ve renewed work on my writing, which may mean a short-term deficit, but longer-term success. In fact, the time off from performing may, in fact, be a great opportunity to make headway I wouldn’t otherwise be challenged to make. * I find myself contemplating taking a year off from the tour, to do longer residencies with full stagings of my plays … my next thought is whether I would ever get back to the tour, after having taken a year off. * I seem to worry overmuch about overburdening others.
Next Performance: Orlando, FL (3/3/06)


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