Friday, March 24, 2006

The View From Here #109: Norman, OK

I was coming down with my first cold in about 3 years. My luck on the road has been terrific, but there are two factors to which I attribute this latest ill fortune.

1) My body knows better than I how to take care of itself, and as long as I have a show coming up, I stay healthy. In thirty years of performing, I’ve never had to cancel a show.

2) I’ve been taking a nutritional drink, “Re-Liv” for the past three years, and I ran out about two weeks before coming down with the cold. I had been holding out to get more of the “stuff” (as Barry Bonds might call it) for when I got back in town, but I think the nonstop performing/workshopping/schmoozing/drinking of SETC had finally caught up with me.

I paused on my way back from Orlando, visiting with Sabra, a new friend I’d made at the last Mensa conference (where I’d performed “Criteria”). She went off to work during the day, while I hooked up to the internet and made great progress on the e-mailings. We had planned to hit a karaoke bar at some point, but with my throat the way it was I was even having trouble swallowing, so for the most part, in the evenings we just relaxed in front of the TV.

My friend Tanya, (from the Poor Yorick Shakespeare Catalogue) had given me the idea to hire some help to track down new venues, and within 90 minutes of putting out the e-mail, I had an actual employee, trained and ready to go. (Applications continued to come in, and I think I’ve heard from 25 or so since then.)

I continued, e-mailing the Texas schools, and while I was at it, I happened to hear back from Tennessee Tech University (which is in Cookeville), and met up with the director there, who was very interested in hosting Moliere for next fall.

Next fall, by the way, is looking very good, with a couple of bookings kicking off the tour within two days of the close of “Fringe Season” in Idaho and Montana. (Idaho and Montana are tough nuts for me to crack, and lining up shows there this far in advance is a great sign… assuming I haven’t maxed out the credit cards by then.)

After four days in Tennessee, with the cold finally starting to fade, I hit the road again, getting back to Chicago, and replenishing the “stuff.”

Back at home, I got back to work on my writing: I was editing my acting text, while also beginning a new project: I was tracking back through these editions of “The View From Here,” (reliving those heady early days on the road), looking to edit my 500-plus pages down to a hundred pages of my best stuff.

I had a hard time actually cutting anything. By the time I’d worked my way through the first fifty pages, I hadn’t even managed to cut five pages of material. The problem was that, on this pass through, I had no idea what key episodes of action and excitement I was working towards, or away from. And then an idea struck me. What if I changed my focuse to INcluding the really fun material, rather than working to EXclude the really crappy stuff? That way, when I came across a passage that I absolutely knew I wanted to keep, I would change the font color on the screen to red. Now when I’m done, all I’ll need to do is to figure out what portions absolutely need to be left in place in order to make sense of this “best stuff.”

I found myself in a sudden whirl of writing in the day and going out in the evenings: meeting up with people I’d meant to catch up with for some time. I went to my first Children’s Book Writers meeting in about three years (I get their e-mails, but I’m always out of town when they’re meeting.) Impulsively, I brought my musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer In A Day” to the meeting, and it was extremely well received by the group, which reminded me that I need to get that one back out in circulation.

I hit the karaoke joints a couple of times, went out to see “Pajama Men” and “Oleanna”, and the visit home was over already. I packed on Friday, and Saturday morning, I was back on the road.

It was a full day of driving, with a lunch stop in Springfield to visit my old college sweetheart, Abbe (and her daughter, Charlotte), and then on through the long haul to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I visited once again, with Dave and Helga. I ran lines for both “Criteria” and “Moliere Than Thou” twice, as I drove, as I had performances of both coming up in Oklahoma, and I hadn’t performed Moliere since mid-February, or “Criteria” since mid-January. The lines seemed surprisingly secure, but that feeling can be deceptive.

Following a Sunday breakfast excursion with Dave and Helga, I was on the road again, this time taking a short hop to Norman. I stopped, first, in Oklahoma City, for a look at the memorial to the victims of the bombing, and found it to be quite touching and surprisingly un-politicized: a loving tribute and a sincere stand against violence, with a beautiful reflecting pool between two impressive portals. Just outside was perhaps 50 feet of the original chain link fence that had surrounded the area, which had become a spontaneous repository of teddy bears, t-shirts, I.D. cards, caps and messages, still hanging on through all kinds of weather, more than ten years after the bombing.

In Norman, I met Matthew, my very helpful host for this visit, who brought me to a reception at one of the faculty homes. The reception was on behalf of myself and another guest artist who was visiting this week, but it seems that his plane was delayed because of the rainy Oklahoma weather (a desperately needed rain that put an end to a series of brush fires), and so I was the only guest of honor. Surprisingly, about 90% of the theatre faculty was present (most theatre faculties I know of could barely get 10% together for such an event, and can barely get 90% for the official faculty meetings). And the department chair, Tom, hinted at an interest in a longer visit next year, in which I might act in and co-direct one of my Moliere works, such as “Bourgeois Gentleman.”

On Monday, I sat in on Susan’s Shakespeare class (Susan was my host the last time I stopped at OU, two years ago), and I observed and responded to the student’s monologues. It was great to get a peek at their work, as it reminded me of my own feelings about Shakespearean performance, showed me where students tend to be in relation to my vision, which in turn has helped me articulate a new chapter for my acting text.

Later that day, I returned to lead my usual “Acting in the Classical Theatre” workshop, and though there were only ten or so in attendance, they seemed very responsive. The first student to raise her hand actually answered my “What are the two foremost responsibilities of the actor?” question perfectly, and it turns out that Susan has been teaching that perspective ever since my visit to OU two years ago.

I took a pass on observing a play rehearsal that night, so that I could go back to the hotel (and watch “24”) and get ready for the next day’s extremely full schedule.

I drilled my lines for “Criteria” and re-edited the material for my newest workshop: “Writing, Producing and Touring the One-Person Show” (kind of like a highly-edited version of these pages). I’ve delivered it twice before, but have never made it through the entire presentation, as each time I’ve had to jump ahead into my performance of “Criteria” before I had quite finished. This time, however, we’d planned for two-and-a-half hours, and I managed to cover all the material, and still preview two of the songs in “Karaoke Knights” for the group. I then shifted to perform “Criteria,” where I had a single line glitch early on … checked the script, and continued.

I think the cause of the glitch was the fact that they were such a responsive audience. There were about 30 of them, laughing at just about every ironic comment, and their laughter led me to point up the funnier stuff with some of my more exaggerated attitudes.

This play stands up to that kind of exaggeration better than I thought it would. While I think of this as being much more subtle than “Moliere,” when I allow the series of discoveries and transitions play freely across my face, the audience responds, seemingly grateful for knowing more clearly where they have the go-ahead to laugh.

As soon as “Criteria” concluded, we hustled down to the theatre space, where we conducted a quick tech rehearsal for “Moliere Than Thou.” And while I wanted to give my voice a needed rest, I just had to run the lines yet one more time before the evening show.

It was a small audience of big laughers, and when I know that each new take that I add to the mix is going to get a laugh, it stimulates a lot more mugging and posing. I noticed quickly that Tom was in the audience, and immediately realized that this would be my “audition” for “Bourgeois Gentleman” (or whatever Moliere project they wanted to do next year). Early on, amid the first monologue (from “Misanthrope”), I again had a memory glitch, but I “backed up” a half of a line, and this second time through, the words formed on my lips in just the moment I needed to remember them.

When it came time to get a female volunteer from the audience, one of Susan’s two daughters had her hand up. I was a little surprised, especially knowing that Susan had seen this play before, and had some sense of what I do to the volunteers! While “Miranda” seemed shy and quiet at first, she got louder as we got into it, but still seemed to panic, variously, about what I might be doing to her. Not only is this the best type of volunteer to get, as the audience identifies with her fears, but at least half of the audience had to be aware that this was Susan’s daughter, which seemed to double the outrageousness quotient.

After that, the rest of the show went great, with a surprisingly good undergrad volunteering and playing along for “Scapin” and big laughs throughout the “Precious Young Maidens” scene (aka “Stop Thief”).

Afterwards Matt and Tom and I stopped out for a couple of beers, further discussing a potential project for next year, and calling it a night. It had been a day filled with two line-throughs, one workshop and two shows, and my voice was pretty shot.

The next morning, I pulled my stuff together and met Susan for coffee. I think I nearly choked on my coffee when Susan answered that her daughter was only 14.

I headed south, meeting my old Nebraska friend, Kevin (formerly, “Ken”) Page in Dallas for lunch. Kevin has had some success in the movies, with parts in “Robocop,” “Seinfeld,” “Friday Night Lights” and “The Alamo,” and he told me the story of what a great movie “The Alamo” was (the only big question was whether it would win 11 or 13 Oscars) until Michael Eisner cut an hour or so of the best stuff out of it. Kevin’s stuff survived the cutting, but by this time it was no longer the ensemble film they thought they were working on. Given how famously that movie bombed, he made just as much for his three days of work on “Friday Night Lights” as he did for five months on the set of “The Alamo.”

And from Dallas, I headed along to Brownwood, Texas, home of Howard Payne University, and my good friend, Nancy Jo Humfeld. I made a quick appearance in Nancy Jo’s voice and diction class (performing a couple monologues, and discovering that my voice had not quite returned to me since my big day in Oklahoma). Nancy Jo has actually headed up to Commerce, Texas to do a little business, and has left me with the run of her place to get caught up on work. I’ve got almost a week now, before my next gig in California, so the plan is to work the bookings, drive west, work the bookings, drive west, work the bookings, drive west. Do a show, drive north.

Miles on the Vibe: 175,700
Attendance: 15, 10, 30, 50
Discoveries: I don’t have to do it all by myself. Isolating and distributing discrete parts of the work enables me to focus on the things that earn me the “big money.” * What seems to me to be exaggeration in the context of a realistic performance, usually plays to the audience as a helpful guide through the transitions and discoveries of the scene. * Focus on including the fun stuff rather than on excluding the crappy stuff. * Sitting in on a class really helps me to continue to define and articulate what I know for the developing textbook.
Temperature: Upper 30s
In the CD Player: “Karaoke Knights”
Next Performance: CSU-Long Beach, Long Beach, CA

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