Monday, August 28, 2006

The View From Here #116: Edmonton, AB

Just when you think the whole “struggling” thing is behind you, there seems to be more struggling yet in front of you.

I had looked forward to Edmonton, as rather the Shangri La of Fringes, knowing that there was a huge audience out there to be gotten, and assuming that they were already mine.

I’d assumed that a couple of the Edmonton reviewers had found their way out to Winnipeg, catching my show already on a couple of my better performances there. I don’t know why … perhaps seeing men “of a certain age” sitting off to the side at my show, or towards the back, left me to assume that my Edmonton reviews were already mostly written. Those had been among my best performances, so I was feeling pretty confident.

But I had the small matter of an opening night show yet to perform, before any reviews were to come out. An annoyance, really, but there it was. I was on at 10:30 on the opening night of the fringe. I could have gone to more effort to recruit an audience, giving away free tickets and flyers, but why bother? People would see what shows they wanted to see, and if the show they wanted was mine, then, great.

I had, maybe, twenty people there for opening night.

And at least three reviewers.

And no laughs.

Okay, it had been a long day of putting up posters in the hot weather. I marched in the opening night parade, passed out flyers and finally succumbed to the desire for a beer at the beer tent, before going on to do my show. Yes, of course, Canadian beer was a little stronger than American beer, but I was totally in control of my show.

Except that there were no laughs. And all I could do was to push the emotional expression of the character. He got bigger and louder and more powerful … but perhaps without a bit of the nuance that he’s had on some other occasions.

And they totally didn’t get me. I’ve never seen so many reviews that didn’t seem to understand the intent of the play. One of the major papers devoted extended passages trying to recount the timeline leading to the action of the play, largely recapping the slide that is up during the preshow. The only salvageable quote was: “Amazing manic zeal… funny and frantic brilliance” (which looks pretty good standing alone).

Another dwelt with such concern with the scene that finds me down to my underwear that I found myself thinking, “This guy’s got some unresolved issues!” And one of the weekly papers took the intent of the play in the exact opposite manner than intended. After several comments that led one to believe that this was a positive review (“Mooney succeeds in making his one-man genuinely engaging…”), he finished off his review with: “If this is the intended interpretation, “Criteria’s” political moral will thrill the dogmatic and irritate the contemplative: the Middle East’s Islamic fundamentalists need only embrace what is great about America for peace to occur.”

Except that that is one-hundred-eighty degrees AWAY from the intended interpretation. Somehow, this guy had missed all of the clues. The point of most sci-fi dystopias, is usually to suggest that we are NOT heading in the right direction!

And so, this guy, along with the two Edmonton Dailies, could only conjure up two-and-a-half stars for my show.

I’ll own that. Whatever should have been happening between myself and the audience clearly was not happening in this performance, and I, myself, would have had a hard time giving me anything more than three stars on this particular night.

The only problem is that in Edmonton, once you are reviewed, you stay reviewed. Unlike Minnesota, where the bloggers and audience reviewers can redeem you up to a point, here, on a daily basis, they continue to reprint the show titles, sorted by the number of “stars” that each given show has earned, to the point that it feels like struggling against the tide to get anyone to attend your show.

But, backing up a bit …

My last performance in Minnesota went great, with several of my fellow actors in the audience. The show “came down” at around 6:30, and I was back on the road within the hour, sprinting west and north. I gave in somewhere around Fargo, getting a hotel for the night, before jumping back on the road the next morning.

Sunday I crossed the border without much hassle, skirted around the southeast end of Winnipeg, and continued on towards Saskatoon, taking the “scenic route,” known as the Yellowhead Highway. I pulled into Saskatoon at about 9 pm, just as the final shows of the Saskatoon Fringe were finishing up, and actors were heading toward the cast party.

Saskatoon had been a rough fringe this year, and most of the actors were grumbling about issues with the management of the festival. I was glad to have finally made the right choice for once, opting for the Minnesota Fringe instead.

One year ago, the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon had hosted the closing night party, and I had run the karaoke event myself. This time around, they had no idea that I was coming, and the owner had arranged for another karaoke jockey for the night. In fact, I kept getting the “What are you doing here? I thought you were in Minnesota!” response most of the night.

I stuck around for a few hours, catching up, especially, with a few people who were Saskatoon locals, but headed back out shortly after midnight. I pushed on ahead, towards Edmonton, stopping for a nap every hour or so, and pulling into town at around 10 a.m.

I was quite conscious of the fact that the Saskatoon crowd were perhaps only now waking up, and I wanted to put my head start to good use. After checking in at the fringe, I went around postering throughout a quarter mile radius surrounding the fringe grounds.

Meanwhile, the fringe had lost my billet request, and so they were hunting for a place for me to stay, while I was postering. Ultimately, they found me a place north of town, a half hour from the fringe grounds. It was a great house, with a really nice family, with a guest room and bathroom all to myself. (They also had a hot tub out back, and wireless internet hookup. I was set.)

With three days to go before my first performance, I dove in to work on my personal development book (“Currency”). I hadn’t really lost any data on that book with the loss of my computers, but I had a new chapter to add, and formatting ideas that I worked through the text.

And then, Thursday night, I flyered, stopped at the beer tent, and performed, for the tiny, quiet audience.

I was trying something different for this performance. I shut off the projector halfway into the show, when I figured the audience didn’t really need it any more. I noticed that it made the rest of the show much darker, and it took away the occasional fun distraction of looking at the map for reference. I decided that this was probably a mistake, and have reinstated the projector throughout, ever since that performance. (I have also insisted that we leave the very dim houselights on, so I can make some kind of eye contact with the audience.)

Friday, my Pathways friend Stacey flew into Edmonton for a visit. I’ve known Stacey on and off for about five years, but we’ve been chatting over the couple of months since the latest Pathways event, and she’d taken an interest in coming to see what the fringe was all about. I picked her up at the airport, and took her around to see shows for several days, while she helped distributing flyers on occasion.

I’ve learned that it’s helpful to have a friend in town when I am promoting my show. Having someone else to talk to keeps me from “getting psychological”, and all wrapped up inside myself about whether or not people want to know or to hear about my show. I tend to stay much more on task, when I’m discussing it with someone other than myself, inside my own head.

And then, it was also good to have somebody there who knew better about the quality of my work when the stupid reviews came in.

My second show was on Saturday, and there were just over fifty people in the audience. This was an afternoon show, and people were wide awake and laughing this time. I had one big laugher in the front row who “got” everything, and she seemed to pass an infectious laugh around the rest of the crowd.

On performance days, I would go running, reciting my lines as I ran. On days off, I would catch shows, though I never quite geared up to seeing more than two on a single day. My friend, Stephen, from San Francisco (my billet at the San Francisco Fringe two years ago) was here with a new show, and was getting excellent reviews in the papers. I made the acquaintance of another Fringe performer, Tom X. Chao, who has a bizarre sense of humor, and a similar taste in music. His show joked about the band King Crimson at great length, and it tickled me to no end. I bought him a beer in the beer tent, and he responded by giving me a CD featuring four of his original songs. (Link to Tom's ongoing podcast.)

I had another show on Monday, this one at 8:30. In response to bad reviews coming in, I had given away a lot of free tickets to get some “buzz” going about my show, but there were still only about 30 people in the audience to this performance.

An audience review appeared on the Fringe website:

“Set against a backdrop of future terrorism, this story demonstrates the triumph of humanity. Politics, national boundaries and the “criteria” of worth may have changed, but it is that which has not changed that proves to make all the difference. After an initial, brief historical setup, Tim’s delivery pulls you in and holds you to the very end. Both funny and thought-provoking. 5 stars.”

Tuesday was Stacey’s last day in town, and we went to dinner before calling it a night, early. I drove her in to the airport early the next morning, before coming back to dive back into my work.

I was rebuilding my address book, and sending out a message to everyone in the book. These were addresses that were at least two years old (which is the last backup I’d had), and I was sending out the same e-mail to everyone, alerting them to my data loss. I would write to all of the addresses beginning with “A”, wait for the “bad” e-mail’s to bounce back to me, and then delete those addresses from my system. I may have started out with 3000 addresses in my book, but for the moment, at least, I’m down below 2000.

Gradually, I was finding inroads into my data, and my “View From Here” list is edging up close to 400 addresses again. (There were probably about 450 when the computer was stolen.) Of course, they’re not all the SAME addresses, but I have to accept that things will never be exactly the same.

I’ve also recaptured about 80% of my tour schedule information, and after consolidating various drafts of the schedule, I’ll be sending out another mailing in the next weeks, reintroducing myself to all the people who have expressed interest in booking my show over the years. Who knows? The loss of data may have reenergized my commitment to the work in a way which would not have happened otherwise. One way or another, bookings continue to come in.

Wednesday at 12:30, I had another show, this one with barely 10 people in the audience.

And Wednesday night a new review finally showed up in the papers. The Vue Weekly published a collection of Fringe reviews, and seemingly this one did not attend on the terrible Thursday:

“Timothy Mooney's (writer/director/actor) “Criteria” is an imaginative science-fiction play set in the 24th century United States -- a time when racism has been replaced by regional prejudice and identification numbers reign supreme. The play opens with a history lesson of the future: Americans have gotten bored of conquering the world and are now attacking each other within their own borders. This one-man show features Albert Gardiner, born in Two land but tasked to go undercover in Five land in a deadly mission to destroy. But his exposure to this new and fascinating world leaves him struggling to complete the mission. The story is initially hard to follow, but overcoming the challenge of the dense setting is well worth it, in an engaging and brilliant performance that sustains itself throughout. (4 stars)”.

At last.

Of course, not that many people read the Vue Weekly, and Thursday’s 4:30 show had just about 20 in the house, but they were a friendly group, with at least four of my peer actors in the audience, including Tom X. Chao and Paul Thorne (of “Dancingmonkeyboy”).

I had a better house on Friday, which was a 6:30 slot. This time 57 people were in the audience, and I was flying pretty high. (In fact I have a new mantra that I repeat before the show: “I am dancing on air.”) Halfway into the show, my computer decided that it wanted to do a virus scan on itself, which I didn’t notice was screwing with the image on the screen until I happened to turn around and look at the screen. I leaned over, closed out of the virus scan, and resumed my monologue.

My timing with the slide show has gotten really good lately, and even though the show is an hour long, the slides tend to shift almost exactly when I want them to, or within about five seconds of when they should. Of course people just assume that the stage manager is somehow controlling it from the booth. When I explain to them that it’s all timed out, their jaws drop.

And now I await the final show of the fringe. I have a midnight Saturday show, and there are at least four shows that have been selling out their performances, pitted against me in this same slot. I somehow can’t bring myself to passing out flyers any more. I just can’t get into the spirit of promoting a show that the audience will have to stay up until midnight to see. I’m sure my numbers will suffer as a result, but I’ve decided that there are plenty of other productive directions to expend my energy. If I get more than five people in this audience, I’ll be plenty happy.

I’ll have a few days off, here in Edmonton, before moving on to Grande Prairie for performances of all three of my shows over the course of three nights. And then I’ve got about two weeks off before starting the school tour, with a show in Missoula, Montana. I was going to be doing the Vancouver Fringe during that time, but some mixup in paperwork and payment took me out of the queue of that one, and left me with time to work, instead, which seems to be just as well.

At the moment, I have no idea where I am going to spend that time. I could stay up in Canada, swing down to Vancouver and Seattle and Portland, or … I don’t know. All I want is a cheap hotel, preferably with some kind of a nice view, and internet hookup.

[It turns out that 12 people came to the Midnight show on Saturday, and while I had been telling people that “I’d be happy with five people in the audience,” when pressed, I said I’d probably have twelve. When I noted this, people responded: “You need to set your expectations higher.”]

On Sunday, I just went to see shows, most notably "The Centering" by a Portland performer, Chris Harder, who I've just recently started hanging out with. Really a harrowing performance, which is pretty rare for a one-person show. I also went to see Tom X. Chao's show a second time, as well as "Drawn Abroad," and "Teaching Shakespeare III", which is also terrific.

Oh, and one final thing ...

Over the past week or so I've been preparing to go back to work on my acting textbook, and I printed out a copy of Draft #4, which seemed to be the most recent one I had, until somebody sent me a copy of Draft #5 via e-mail. Sheepishly, I printed out a copy of Draft #5 to work on, onto the backsides of Draft #4. I even started to edit a couple of these pages last night. However, today, while digging around in my car for more lost e-mail addresses, I noticed a binder. Cracking it open, I discovered that inside was the elusive Draft #6 of "Acting at the Speed of Life," which had, in fact, all of my diacritical markings for the update to Draft #7, the draft which I was in the middle of completing when my computers were stolen. So, it looks like I've caught a break. Usually, I throw out old drafts as I rewrite so that I don't get buried under a mountain of paper, but this throws me right back into the project.

All of this reminds me of the fact that I've been looking long and hard at the whole fringing experience, and wondering if my time wouldn't be better spent next summer working on my writing, instead. Somehow, I got myself onto this roller coaster in an attempt to get more exposure for my Moliere work, but the tail now seems to be wagging the dog, as the whole fringe process (and all of the ego issues that get caught up in making sure I've got a successful show) takes away any time that I might possibly be able to devote to my writing, which is, in the long run, what I'm hoping will make a difference in the world. And so, the next few months will find me reassessing that whole process.

Temperature: 25 C
Miles on the Vibe: 193,500
Reading: Isaac Asimov’s Robot Novels
In the CD Player: Lisa Olafson’s website:
Discoveries: Just when you think the whole “struggling” thing is behind you, there seems to be more struggling yet in front of you. * Never take the first performance of any given fringe for granted. * Things will never be exactly the same. * In fact, they may be, ultimately better, as the loss of data may have reenergized my commitment to the work in a way which would not have happened otherwise. * Expectations are self-fulfilling. Set them higher. * Perhaps fringing is starting to work at cross-purposes with my intended results.
Next performance: Grande Prairie, AB, September 1-3.


Paula said...

Hey, it's the big laugher from the front row who "got" everything.

Sounds like the Edmonton experience was a real learning one for you. Me, too. *hand over heart* I will never prostitute my acting skills for anyone ever again. Sigh. I'm still in recovery mode...hopefully it will all come out in the stuff I'm writing now.

"The Centering" was a harrowing experience. I sat at the end in shock, and when the audience began clapping for Chris Harder, all I could do was put my head on my arm and cry. Quite cathartic, actually.

...and people say that theatre is escapist entertainment...phhht!

Michael Ferguson said...

Hi, this is Michael Ferguson from OU. I'll be playing Thibaut in "The Doctor in Spite of Himself" I can't wait to get things going with the show. I hope you're having a great time on the road!