Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The View From Here #114: Chicago, IL; Winnipeg, MB

I take it as a great sign of my own personal evolution that I am still upbeat these days.

As my previous message has indicated, I lost quite a bit in a car break-in the other day. Data that I have been assembling, generating and accumulating for 10 years was lost. I have started over from zero, and am currently caught up to somewhere around the fall of 2004.

Either I have lost my mind, or there is something refreshing about actually being able to start over from zero. Perhaps for once I don’t feel responsible for stuff I’ve been carrying around with me for years.

And all around me, people are rallying to my aid: Donations, equipment loans, a beer here and there. An article in the newspaper. If you never fall, you never give the universe the opportunity to catch you.

I will be recovering from this loss for at least the next three months. Probably the next year. But for the moment, the slate is clean, and I can choose my priorities.

But back to where we left off … a month or so ago … (cue flashback music here)

I got a 30-day trial download of Adobe Illustrator, and went to work on all of my promotional stuff. I re-did flyers, advertisements, brochures. I updated my 3-show brochure, and put together a new poster featuring all three shows. My former roommate, Deb, took over getting them all copied, and two big boxes arrived just before I left town. (Word on the street in Winnipeg is that my “Criteria” poster is quite arresting.)

My last weeks in Chicago featured mailings, especially to French Teachers, organizing and reorganizing my tour schedule. Working my way through my acting textbook. And setting up and performing six shows in two nights in Chicago.

Attendance was fairly light at the performances, but there were some good friends who hadn’t seen all of my shows before, who came and were very responsive. I was generally pretty exhausted by the end of each evening. But again, it was good to know that it could be done. One question that came up for me, though, was whether it devalued the worth of any individual play by doing all three of them in a single night. Was I making it look “too easy?”

Saying goodbyes to family and friends, I set out onto the road, with plans to be gone for as much as four months this time around. I drove to Minneapolis, where I unloaded the props/costumes/equipment that I would not need in Winnipeg into Amy Salloway’s apartment, thus making room for Amy and her stuff in my car, and the two of us rode up together. We made the border crossing smoothly, and arrived in Winnipeg mid-afternoon on Monday.

I hit the ground running, getting a few posters up around the ticket sales area, and checking in with my billet before racing on to the media event at my venue (“Ragpickers”). They were about a half-hour into the event, and apparently two of the University radio stations had come out especially to interview me. Either my “comic sci-fi thriller” genre appeals to the University crowd, or it appeals to the techno-philes who work at radio stations.

The next day was more postering, and I set out in a fairly systematic way, grabbing what I felt were the most effective spots for posters that I could find, and working my way from one side of the fringe to another. “You’re everywhere!” is the response that I’ve been hearing from some of my fellow fringers.

Tuesday, I was to have my tech rehearsal, except that it turned out that I had no technician. While the fringe usually supplies the single technician that I need, this year I’m in a BYOV (bring your own venue), and some miscommunication left the venue host with the assumption that I wouldn’t need anyone. I still managed to set up my stuff, and figure out where the projector and the screen would “live” through the course of my show.

That night, I reunited with my buddy, Robin, at the King’s Head Pub, and we caught up on old times. Robin has done a nice tribute page to me at phantomfringer.com, and has been looking forward to seeing the “final” version of “Criteria” as he’d only seen a workshop of the show three years ago.

Wednesday was the fringe “free-for-all”, and I prepared two minutes of “Criteria”. They ran way behind, though, and it seemed that all of the media people were gone by the time I got onto the big outdoor stage.

Halfway into my free-for-all routine (the encounter with the waitress), a fire truck went by, getting louder and louder. At first I tried to top it, but eventually I simply had to pause, as it passed within about 50 feet of the stage, before continuing. By this time, however, I was distracted, and couldn’t remember exactly which lines came when, and where I’d planned to make a cut, and what I was going to leave intact. I pushed my way through to some semblance of an end with the punch-line I’d been saving (“The sleazy waitress was the love play-thing to every passer-by who came through her stop!”) and got off the stage.

In spite of the confusion, people said they enjoyed it, and at least one couple reported that it was seeing that preview that got them interested in attending.

Later that day, I finally held my tech rehearsal, with a stage manager who had been recruited from another show. She was efficient, and very logical, and I ended up getting the benefit of two tech rehearsal slots: one Tuesday, setting up my stuff, and another one Wednesday, figuring out the cues, and running the show.

Thursday, I opened the show, to an audience of perhaps 22. Great response from the audience, so I felt things might go well. I then took in a couple of friends’ shows, and relaxed at the beer tent, visiting old friends Melanie and David. I had been telling a new acquaintance about my promotional campaigns, and wanted to show her my latest brochure. I made a run out to my car to grab a brochure from out of the passenger seat.

And there I noticed that the laptop computers weren’t where I’d left them … on the floor of the passenger side.

I looked across at the other side of the car, and saw it: the driver’s side window had been smashed in. The impact hit me all at once. Everything was gone. Everything. Inside the cases holding the laptops, were discs that I’d backed up all of my works onto, including a large independent hard drive.

Actually, the thieves hadn’t stolen my projector or my digital camera.

I stumbled around the fringe grounds for a bit, getting a call in to the police (a fringe volunteer gave me a beer), and eventually driving back to my billet. The next morning, I put in calls to the insurance company, stopped at a glass repair shop, and tried to figure out how I would do the show without a computer.

Eventually, Kristen, from Ragpickers, loaned me the use of her computer, and I downloaded the key maps onto her hard drive. I explained to the audience of twenty that the usual Power Point slides would not be transitioning so smoothly, and I began the show. The audience was extremely responsive, and things were going great. And then about 40 minutes into the show, a circuit went out in the theatre. The slides went black, the air conditioner went silent, and two lighting instruments remained on. I paused for about a half-second, and continued. I could see the audience smiling as they realized that nothing was going to stop me from finishing the show. Suddenly, there was greater depth and excitement to every moment. With the air conditioning off, I could include quiet moments as well as loud in my range of expression, and it was extremely effective.

I looked forward to Saturday. My BYOV had simplified the scheduling by putting all of the shows at the same time every day, and my slot was 4:30. This meant that a lot of people who work during the day would have to come on the weekend. A review had already showed up on the Free Press blog (later printed in the paper), and it was mostly very positive:
“It's a sci-fi action flick, a thriller, a mystery and a road movie all boiled into a riveting one-man show. The setting is bleak 24th-century America. Oil and gas have been depleted, the United States is divided into three warring unions, and the social insurance number tattooed on your hand determines all aspects of your existence. Seasoned Illinois actor and playwright Timothy Mooney convincingly -- and with great range and depth -- plays an identity-less terrorist who is taken from his mother at birth and raised in seclusion to be a killing machine. Now he's traveling across America to fulfill what he believes is his heroic destiny. This hour-long show is dense and a bit dry at first, and at times Mooney gets bogged down in details about the social security system, politics and racism. But if you stick with it, you'll be well rewarded. The intrigue culminates in an edge-of-your-seat finale in which the terrorist quite literally holds the fate of America in his hands.” -- Cheryl Binning
The odd thing was that she finished off by assigning the show “3 1/2 stars”, which on the 5-star Canadian scale is pretty close to average. Odd, I guess, because words like “riveting,” “great range and depth” and “edge-of-your-seat finale” seem to lead one to a different conclusion. (Fortunately this was not my own observation. Keir Cutler of “Teaching Shakespeare” pointed it out, asking “Do they even read their own reviews?”) The problem is that a lot of theatre-goers here look first for the number of stars, and then, maybe, read the reviews.

But certainly, there are some good pull-quotes there, and some increased attendance. Saturday’s show, however, did not show much improvement. A Fringe employee had come to my rescue, putting together a computer for me to use in my show through the remainder of the festival, and I began rebuilding the slide show once again. There were about 30 in attendance, including four reviewers, and at least one reviewer sat off to the back, away from everybody else. I took this as a bad sign, as he wouldn’t feel the impact of the communal laughter. And, probably wanted to maintain an intellectual “distance,” which is death.

It turned out that there wasn’t much communal laughter in this performance anyway. One of the college radio station guys showed up with a microphone, to record the performance (I’d given him permission), and I think that when an audience sees this, they try to remain politely quiet, so as not to ruin the recording.

During the day, I’d been reading a book, perhaps my first bit of recreational reading in a year or so. The lack of a laptop computer was keeping me from doing some of the busy work I’d need to do with the upcoming bookings (I’m going shopping mid-week), and it felt good to indulge myself, reading Isaac Asimov’s “The Robots of Dawn.”

Sunday things took a turn for the better. The audience was up around fifty, and they were responding heartily again. A couple more good reviews were starting to appear. My friends Melanie and David wrote:
“An unusual thriller based 300 years in the future, this one man show will both make you laugh and puzzle over the future of the united states. Actor Tim Mooney (still single... hee hee) cleverly examines how numbers define cultural identity. A must see!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
(The “still single” part was their idea.) Melanie and David brought their Asian friend, Gio, with them to the show, and afterwards they were joking around at the beer tent. I assume that somebody had made a racially tinged joke, and Gio held up his hand, where the “tattoo” from the performance of “Criteria” still remained, and exclaimed “Did this mean NOTHING to you, man?!”

And a woman attending the power-failure performance wrote:
“Despite production woes (2 stolen laptops needed to project his supporting backdrop, an overloaded electrical circuit which blew halfway through the show, knocking out his replacement laptop and the air conditioning), Tim Mooney did a very professional job of performing his new play, Criteria.

”It's set in a dystopian future somewhat reminiscent of Orwell's 1984, with its warring superstates. These superstates are 3 new nations carved out of the existing USA, based (rather cleverly, I thought), on US Social Security Numbers, which start with the numbers 0 through to 5 and which are based on where you're born (e.g., if born in the western states, your SSN starts with a "5"). Mooney plays a terrorist from the "3" state (Middle America, from Texas to Minnesota, an straightlaced militaristic country) who has snuck into the "decadent 5" state to blow up a train carrying nuclear waste. He's trying to pass as a "5" but keeps giving himself away, particularly in a hilarious interchange with a friendly waitress at a dinner in Kansas.
“Don't worry about the laptop glitches - this is a solid "4 star" performance well worth coming from out of town to see.”
There were more reactions, positive and negative, and to me, at least, they seem to correspond with which performance the viewer happened to see. Sunday’s performance was one of my best, but when I found myself at the end of the play, I lost my way through some of the final wrapping up of plot threads, and kind of worked my way into the end, somehow. Monday’s performance was much more exact, but the audience was subdued, probably from the oppressive heat that was in the room that day.

My friend April had been planning a vacation to Winnipeg to finally see what fringe festivals are all about, and as she also happens to be my computer guru, I got her stop at my folks house to pick up some discs and some paperwork to help with the rebuilding process. I met her at the airport just before Wednesday’s show, and she helped pass out some flyers. It turned out to be a well-attended show, perhaps partially because it was my “volunteer appreciation show” and a bunch of them got in for free.

This was followed by an evening at the beer tent, mostly, with a couple of really good shows. Really good shows so far have included: “Burden of Poof,” “Britchick,” “Switchback,” “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “Josie With The Toes” and “dancingmonkeyboy.” There are other great ones, but I haven’t had much time for viewing, with all of the mishaps.

I’ve been in an odd suspended state these past few days. Dealing with the break-in, while trying to perform a show every day, and riding the roller coaster of good and … less-good audiences from one day to the next. It’s almost an existential quandary: with no record of the last ten years of work, do they still exist? Am I my writings? Is lost work reworkable? Would I want to rework it if it were? Do I want to begin from scratch in rebuilding my contacts amid the theatre/French faculties? Or is this the perfect chance to chuck it all, move to L.A., and start auditioning for movies? Is fate / karma sending me a message about where I really can begin to focus my energies?

I don’t know the answers to any of these, and my answers seem to change on an hourly basis. I figure it will be at least three months to a year before I’m back up to the speed that I’ve been at. But do I want to be on the road while I’ve got that kind of a project now pending? But if I go off the road, can I afford to do the things I want? For once, I just don’t know the answers to this. And perhaps the hardest part is to live in the state of not knowing.

Love,
Tim

Addendum:

I wrote these thoughts mid-week, and couldn’t send any of them, since I didn’t have my computer back, and my contact list restored.

Since that time, I’ve bought a new computer. It seems I always end up spending the same amount for a computer every time I replace my laptop (usually about $1500), but as the technology continues to improve, I get much more value with each successive purchase.

On Thursday, the “Jenny Revue” newspaper came out, with the following reviews:

“When was the last time you attended a Fringe show where, all around you, audience members were literally leaning forward in their seats, virtually mesmerized and determined not to miss a single word? It happened the other afternoon with “Criteria”, a very clever cautionary science fiction tale.
“Mooney starts his show with a timeline of American history from the Civil War to the 24th century “present”, paying special attention to the era known as “The Terror”, which began in 2001 (wet it?). During this time, the United States Department of Homeland Security began classifying, and then segregating, all Americans according to their Social Security Number.
“Like all good sci-fi premises, it’s just plausible enough to be creepy. And in Mooney’s universe, it leads to the breakup of the country into three parts, each ignorant and suspicious of the other two.
“Mooney plays a spy sent to destroy “California”, as the Western half of the nation is now called, with a nuclear device. His sure-footed and often intense delivery as he acted out his character’s mood swings from self-doubt to bouts of hyper patriotism to pangs of conscience, won the audience over within minutes. And when he reached the climax of the story on the almost bare stage, straddling a bridge preparing to drop his nuclear device onto a train moving beneath him, the entire audience was up on that bridge with him.
“One of the best and most original things in Fringe 2006. Welcome back, Mr. Mooney”
(Janice Sawka)

“Written and performed by Tim Mooney, Criteria is a futuristic, sci-fi conspiracy thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.
“Set in the 24th century, we follow the story of a special agent as he sets out on a secret mission to tip the balance of power in the fractured American political landscape.
“After taking us through the events that have led to the current situation in United States of the 2300s, Mr. Mooney embarks on an adventure that will satisfy the most ardent fans of the sci-fi genre.”
(Ken Gordon)

It seems “edge of your seat” is a favorite phrase describing the end of my show. That, along with “riveting” or “gripping” have popped up more than once.

Attendance was back down on Thursday, with just about a dozen in the audience. And then, also on Thursday, the Uptown review came out.

"A" (Rating)
“In the future, an energy-starved United States will be torn apart by divisions based on people's social-security numbers. Silly what inconsequential things discrimination is based on, isn't it? Timothy Mooney's one-man show is provocative, funny, thoughtful, shocking and compelling. Stuff like this is what the fringe is all about. See it.”
(Quentin Mills-Fenn ,Winnipeg "Uptown")

And so, Friday’s attendance started to creep up again (about 50 in the audience), with lots of fellow actors in the house, and, I suspect, a reviewer from Edmonton. April was in the audience again, and the audience seemed to pick up her infectious laugh. Saturday’s audience was up to 60, with more great laughers, and Sunday’s fell off slightly, to 40.

Sunday was a blizzard of activity, with closing night get-togethers and parties. The wrap-up “Jenny Revue” party was at the King’s Head, and I found myself going from one conversation to the next almost non-stop. They wind it all up with an awards event, of sorts. They divide the plays into a series of categories, usually based on some theme, such as “Time,” which was where my play, set 300 years in the future, was placed. And then they announce each contestant and judge them based on applause. They announced my play and a healthy roar went up from the crowd, myself included. And I won! It is, of course, simply a popularity contest, but when was the last time I won a popularity contest? I proceeded to drink and schmooze for another two hours.

Next performance: Minneapolis, MN: The Minnesota Fringe
Attendance: 369
Miles on the Vibe: 192,000 (with a broken window)
Discoveries: There is something refreshing about being able to start over from zero. * If you never fall, you never give people the opportunity to catch you. * The hardest part is to live in the state of not knowing. … It’s probably also the only state in which we are open to learning anything.

PS: I have begun my own personal boycott of Diebold ATM’s. I don’t believe in letting them extort two dollars from me every time I need some money, particularly as they simply take those two dollars and use them to rig elections.

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