Monday, October 23, 2006

The View From Here # 118: Lynchburg, VA; West Palm Beach & Melbourne, FL; Brunswick, GA; Hillsboro, Kingsville, TX

Well, suddenly we are in “prime time,” with shows coming fast and furious. One sequence of the past weeks has found me performing the show five times in four days! While I love doing the show, I can’t relax during periods like this. Any kind of illness could cost me big time, so it’s a constant roll of the dice.

Of course, I’ve never cancelled a show in my life, so that’s probably just my imagination working overtime.

From Idaho, I raced home in record time (two days from Boise to Chicago!), catching a Pathways celebration, and visiting with my "Tennessee girlfriend,” Sabra, who was in town for the Pathways Advanced course.

I made a quick side-trip up to Wisconsin, where I had been cast in a commercial. It was a three-hour drive to deliver a single line: Something like “Before it gets too cold, I’d better winterize my car.” And then, three hours back. (Passing by U-Wisconsin-Whitewater, I couldn’t resist dropping in on Charles Phillip Thomas, who translated Secret Obscenities, which I produced in the mid-nineties, and which I believe is the perfect two-man fringe play.)

From there it was on to Detroit, and a leisurely visit with Isaac. We caught a Detroit Tigers game (this was pre-post season, when they were really tanking), and I stuck around town to see Isaac play in a football game. Mostly we were just awed at how big he looked in his shoulder pads. He didn’t get into the game until the last five minutes or so.

Back on the highway, I drove from Detroit to Virginia (My odometer tripped over 200,000 miles somewhere in Ohio!), dropping in on my grad-school friend, Kathy, and continuing on to Lynchburg, where the Virginia Episcopal School was hosting me. There’s been a ton of rain these last couple of weeks, and I was noticing swollen rivers, particularly through the Virginia mountains, but subsequently through all of the south.

Lynchburg is the home of Jerry Fallwell’s academies, and I really hadn’t given it much thought until I was up on stage, performing the show. Not knowing quite how conservative this audience was, I found myself narrowing some of my more expressive gestures. (No matter where I perform, the words are always the same, but the gestures seem to get more or less expansive, depending on how comfortable I am in expressing the not-so-hidden secondary entendres of the speeches.)

The auditorium was packed. This boarding school holds Saturday classes on a regular basis, and the kids love the occasional break from studying. I was really “on”, too. In the “School for Wives,” Argante tends to get carried away and catch himself being overzealous. There were several moments when his mouth gets twisted in his self-righteous indignation, and I found my eyes actually looking down to my mouth in the process of “catching myself.” The teachers reported loving the show afterwards, and when I mentioned my concern about the play’s seamier side, they were fairly flip: “We’re Episcopalians,” they responded.

Still somewhat uncertain, I asked, “Is that good or bad?”

I headed south, getting a hotel in Columbia, South Carolina that night (where I was a big hit at a karaoke bar), and continuing to Orlando on Sunday.

I dropped in on my friend, Al, in Orlando, who was going to a theatre fundraiser that night. He brought me along, and I immediately wondered if anyone I knew might be present, considering that I’d done the Orlando Fringe three times in the past. Within five minutes I had bumped into Rene and Billy, two of my biggest Moliere fans, who gave me a delighted welcome. I found myself in a couple of conversations about bringing Moliere back to Orlando, and Rene jumped in repeatedly, raving about the show.

I headed for West Palm Beach, dropping in on my Aunt Evelyn (who lives in Port Saint Lucie) along the way. I hadn’t seen Aunt Evelyn in about thirty years, and was very glad to see that she’s in terrific health. I hadn’t seen her daughter (my cousin) Patty, in perhaps forty years, and she, too, was doing well. And I’d never met her granddaughter, Judy, who was now grown up with kids of her own. We had a great visit before I headed south again (losing my way, searching for the interstate for a half hour or so), settling into the hotel.

The next morning, I drove over to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, which is a huge facility. I got a peek at their largest stage, which seemed to have about 8 levels of balconies! I was performing in a smaller auditorium (capacity of around 400), and there was a staff of four people there to see to all the technical needs. They had even catered the event, and the breakfast buffet laid out for this one-man show seemed to rival the continental breakfast of most hotels.

Word had it that the attendance for these two one-hour shows would be small, perhaps 100 or so for each. As I prepared to go on for the first show, I got news that one of the schools (about seventy students) were tied up in traffic, and would be late. “Don’t worry,” my hosts said, “we’ll just put them into the audience of the second show.” And just as I entered to begin the show, the missing crowd of seventy students started to filter in. Very slowly. And ongoingly. For about five minutes.

At several points during this process, I wanted to say, “Hey, welcome everybody: you guys get settled and I’ll come in again.” But I kept thinking they were almost done. And by the time they were done I was five minutes into the show … a show I only had an hour to do.

Did I mention that these late arrivers sat far back in the auditorium? I had one row of close-sitters, and five rows of distracted chatters at a distance.

After finishing my Tartuffe scene, I introduced Don Juan, and as I usually do, I selected a boy sitting in the first row as my confidante in the Don Juan scene. And the very moment that I started directing dialogue to him, he actually stood up and left.

Assuming that he had gotten up to go to the bathroom, I adjusted my focus to a student who was sitting right next to him, and continued.

And then this guy, and the guy who was sitting next to him stood up and left.

I did a take at them as they worked their way down the aisle. And then two more, and then two more also got up and left.

I did two subsequent takes, with looks on my face that one could only describe as “WTF?”

I pushed on through, eventually getting some good laughs out of Scapin and Precious Young Maidens, but the reception and the applause rang hollow, and I wished I hadn’t arranged for that second curtain call with the lighting technician.

Offstage, word had it that the kids who’d left were hard-core Christian home-schoolers, and they’d found Tartuffe to be offensive.

After a half-hour break, I came back and did it all again, this time with an audience that was settled in their seats, sitting close and extremely attentive. I was doing the same show I’d just finished thirty minutes before, but this time, I could feel everyone hanging on every word, getting the several levels of implication and waiting for the payoff. Once, I could even hear a woman in the audience gasping with astonishment over a double entendre for which she had apparently only heard the secondary meaning. I played off of that and continued. And while, I’m sure that their attentive response inspired me to heights I hadn’t reached in the first performance, it was their listening that created the space for excellence to occur.

A couple of the attendees had been overheard saying “I’m going to go on-line and see if he’s got a MySpace page!” (The answer is yes, but no sign of them signing up as my “friends” yet.) A bunch of the students hung around to talk with me, and we chatted for about fifteen minutes. They asked about life on the road and one of the students got my mailing address, so that she could send me a mixtape to listen to. Meanwhile, the crew had packed me up a doggie bag, and we loaded the car back up, and I headed off.

Later I received the following from the teacher who’d promoted me to the Kravis Center:

"It was such a pleasure to see you perform at the Kravis yesterday! I wasn’t able to come back afterwards because I had another appointment and because I am nursing a cough—and didn’t want to make you ill—especially while you are touring. I hear that some of the students I teach did get to speak with you and were thoroughly impressed!

"Your work was wonderful and dovetails nicely with the period acting class that I am currently teaching. We are just starting to look at Commedia and Restoration. I thought your liveliness, physicality and command of language were exceptional!"

The Melbourne, Florida show was at a Catholic high school, and I’d had my concerns when the teacher told me I’d be performing in the library to an audience of about sixty. I wondered if they could possibly get their money’s worth with so few in attendance. But the teacher had seen me perform the show in a conference room at one of the French Teacher conferences that I attend. She knew what they were getting, and assumed that the library would be very close to the conference room setting. (The teacher later explained to me that there had also been a benefactor among the parents who had sponsored the performance.)

Eventually, sixty or seventy students filed into the library and packed the place. With an audience packed in elbow-to-elbow, any individual laugh passes through the audience like a ripple on a pond. There were individual points of contact where chronic laughers were sending out wave after wave, and I did my best to direct my monologues to those spots. By the time I got to the end (and to conclude the metaphor), everything was making a big splash. They got up to give me a standing ovation at the end.

Later, the teacher sent me the following note:

"Thank you so much for coming! You were great! I got nothing but very positive comments all day. Everyone who attended thoroughly loved your performance. I was amazed at how still and attentive our ADD kids were/, too. I think they were spellbound. One of the boys from AP European history said he had never seen anything like it before. The benefactors loved it, too, and were most appreciative of this unique cultural experience for our students, which surely opened their minds to a whole new outlook on the history and literature- not to mention theater. Had I recalled the references to the church I would've tapped the religion dept., too. (But then we really would have had to move to the gym which is much less desirable for many reasons). I hope we can have you again and if it is either earlier or later in the school year we could probably go in on a theatre with other schools."

I pulled up stakes and headed on to Brunswick, stopping briefly outside of Orlando to catch lunch with my good friend Sandra-the-Vegan. (Sandra’s working on a campaign to stop mountaintop removal, and encourages everyone to visit:, to help take action.) (From that point, you can also join in on their raffle for lots of cool prizes.)

I was in Brunswick, Georgia 24 hours in advance of my first performance (at Costal Georgia Community College), and was able to dig in to work, catching up with e-mails and editing my “travelogue” of The View From Here. (I’ve been putting off work on The View… ever since my laptop was stolen, largely because it’s such a huge project: 550 pages I need to edit down to 250 or less.) I took a modest bite out of the project.

CGCC has two campuses, separated by about 30 miles. They were hiring me to do the show at each campus on subsequent nights. The first was down towards the Florida border, and as soon as I saw the space, I realized that it would be difficult. It was a combination recital hall / lecture space, and the first three rows of the audience had long narrow tables in front of them, upon which we assume the students would set their laptop computers. Word had it that audiences never sat in these rows. Which meant that the closest audience members would be 25 feet away from me. I couldn’t help but feel this was deadly, and I kept trying to figure out how to overcome it.

I asked if anyone would object if, during the sequences in which I invade the audience, I might actually stand on those tables, and use them as a stage of sorts. No? Okay … (thinking, thinking, thinking …) I gave a heads-up to the host. “Tell the girl on the lights that I may go out into the audience on other occasions.” (This would cue her to bring up the houselights … which were actually brighter than the lights on the stage were.)

Four or five students sitting towards the back actually left after the opening monologue. (The Misanthrope) Of course there’s a reason that that monologue opens the show. It makes everything afterwards look good by contrast. But this was the first time anyone had walked out before the show was even ten minutes old.

I did two more monologues from the stage, and felt the audience start to warm to me, and when the Tartuffe monologue arrived, I climbed down from the stage and onto the table nearest to the audience. In other words I went from 25 feet away to 5 feet away, delivering the monologue directly to a woman in the second row. Suddenly, the audience sat stock straight in their chairs. I sometimes climbed down from the table, leaning in on the woman in the second row. It was no longer a play that the audience was looking at through a telescope, but one that had been placed in their laps.

I returned to the stage for the volunteer sequence of Tartuffe, and then made further forays onto the tables for Don Juan, and later The Imaginary Cuckold. I would even cross from one table to another, when I needed to have my character moving “upstage”. (The phrase “upstage” by the way, comes from the fact that the ancient Greeks had stages that were raked upwards, getting higher as they got farther away from the audience. In this case, for me, upstage was actually down, as the tables farther from the audience actually continued the downward progression of the audience rake, as the rows approached the stage.) From my point of view, it was like doing the show on a jungle gym.

My host was delighted, taking me out for dinner with a group of his students afterwards. I began to appreciate that this was not the usual Theatre department or French department booking, but a student government arrangement, in which all of the participants were part of an activities council. In fact, the host told me of a couple of booking conferences where he assured me I would do quite well, and I’m currently sorting out my schedule to see if I can make them work.

The next night I was at the main Brunswick campus, in a more traditional auditorium. There was no need for physical hyjinx, other than the wacky stuff I do as part of the usual show.

The next day I was on to Chattanooga. I dropped in on Sabra for a couple of days while working on “The View From Here; The Travelogue.” Even on a good day, the best I could do was to edit my way through perhaps 25 pages. This will be a long project.

I’m also working on lines for Precious Young Maidens and Doctor in Spite of Himself. I’ve arranged to do a reading with University of Oklahoma, so that the director and I can start looking at casting for shows that we’re performing in February. I’m hoping to arrive at the read-through with the lines already memorized, if only to set the bar of expectations high for the students who end up getting cast. (Having the memorization out of the way will also ease my workload for January/February, when I suppose I’ll be wanting to edit 500 pages of material.)

From Chattanooga it was a long day’s drive to Hillsboro, Texas and Hill College. I presented my workshop in the morning to a group of about fifty students. (The teachers loved it and asked if I had a DVD of the workshop. … I told them they could get the textbook when I finally find a publisher.) And then there was a show that night.

The host had alerted me that, while the show was free to the public, the first row had been reserved by a retirement community. Which I figured would make for some interesting contrasts as my onstage characters deliver some of the more salacious dialogue to women sitting in the front row.

Making my entrance, I could see there were a good 250 or so in the auditorium. Within seconds of my entrance, though, I could hear a cell phone go off, right in the first row. I ignored it as best I could, but this was a much greater struggle when the woman in the front row actually … answered it. I could only catch a few words, as I struggled to talk over this inconsiderate woman, but what I heard was, “I’m at the college now …”

I desperately put it out of my mind, as my anger could only take me off of the tracks of my memorized lines. And yet, she wasn’t done yet.

She proceeded to take out a camera, and snap pictures of me as I performed.

I ignored the first one.

With the second one, I did a “take” as if Moliere was wondering, “From whence did this strange lightening emerge?”

With the third one (and thereafter), all I could do was ignore it. She took photos all night long, every time I changed a costume. She even turned sideways, and took photos of the rest of the audience in the row with her, perhaps for the nursing home newsletter.

Her antics seemed to give someone else, in the back row, permission to follow suit. And more flashes lit up the stage.

I tried to look at the good side. Obviously I was important enough to them to want to preserve my image for their posterity. It was the only way I could restrain the resentment I had over the fact that she was placing herself and her camera between me and the rest of the audience’s ability to enjoy the show.

The scenes went well. I was cranking up my energy in an effort to distract the audience from the other distractions in the room. The volunteers were hilarious. The Tartuffe volunteer was a “cougher,” which has the unfortunate side-effect of inspiring coughs from the rest of the audience. The Scapin volunteer was a bit slow-on-the-uptake. And my takes to the audience punctuated the simplicity of his delivery.

Precious Young Maidens features a series of “Stop, thiefs” that I repeat, in five sets of three, with a pause before the third “thief” in each series. Someone in the first row, but well off to my left, repeatedly anticipated the final “thief”, speaking it before I actually said it. On the fourth pass through, when I sing the lines, that same person sang “thief” before I could sing it myself. Normally, I would ignore it and go on without breaking character. But as it had happened four times now …

I stopped dead, dropped my arms and stared in the direction from which the sound had come.

The audience roared with laughter.

I held this look for about ten seconds, before getting back into the position that I had previously paused in, and finished off right where I left off, singing the final “thief.” The audience roared again.

On the fifth and final series of “stop thiefs”, the audience singer chimed in yet again, and I was a little shocked that she had not learned her lesson. I simply raised a finger and arched an eyebrow to say, “Don’t make me come out there!” And finished the line myself.

Later on, someone explained the disposition of the singer in the audience, and I realized that there was a certain amount of impulsive helplessness, or perhaps dementia, in the woman who was singing, as she was twisting and laughing uncontrollably throughout the exchange. (People asked if she had been a “plant.”)

Following the show, the theatre had a small reception. Seemingly, the audience had actually been looking past all of "problems" facing this performance. Granted, most of them complimented that I had “an amazing memory,” but others were also conscious of the quality of the performance, too.

One attractive young woman was introduced to me as a student from Brazil, and she told me “I never laughed so hard in the theatre in my entire life.”

Okay, that made up for the woman with the camera.

I’d traveled to Kingsville four years ago, and a couple of the students were fans of my work, coming to see me every time I appeared, subsequently, at the Texas Educational Theatre Association conference. The previous Theatre professor had retired, but the French professor had met up with me at the AATF conference, and decided to bring me back. The day of the show, one of the Theatre students had asked if I would observe and respond to a rehearsal he was holding, and shared some notes with the cast. It’s been over a year since the last time I directed anything, so it felt good to coach actors again.

The Kingsville folks were worried about attendance, particularly as the school’s homecoming game was happening at the same time, as was a “salsa and margarita festival.” There were still about fifty in the audience, and it was another setting where the audience was set back at a significant distance. Again, I told the lighting guy to watch for me to move off of the stage, and I did the Tartuffe scene and the Imaginary Cuckold scene in front of the stage. The audience was scattered through the small theatre, and close to the front there were only men sitting, or else women with small children. I didn’t want the women to have to answer, “Why was that man looking at you funny?” so instead I shifted Tartuffe’s seduction focus up the aisle, to the French teacher who was sitting there with her husband. (As she had seen the show four years before, she, at least, knew what was coming.)

All the usual scenes went very well, and the show finished up with a standing ovation. There was a small reception in the lobby afterwards, and I visited with some of my theatre student friends late into the evening. The only disappointment of the evening was that the check wasn’t ready, and suddenly I was reminded that four years ago I had to chase down the Kingsville folks for about three months before getting paid.

On Sunday, I worked my way north (meeting friends for lunch in ouston and dinner in Dallas). I’m now in Norman, Oklahoma, getting ready for a reading of Precious Young Maidens and Doctor in Spite of Himself tomorrow.

By the way: God bless Keith Olberman. If you haven’t seen any of his recent Special Reports, it’s some of the best commentary I’ve seen in years.

Don’t forget to vote.

Miles on the Vibe: 203,500
Discoveries: Distractions at the top of the show stop the audience from appreciating the details that build upon the exposition, and they end up judging each bit on the intrinsic quality of the humor in that particular bit. Much more important to take the time and get the opening right, even if it means starting again. * The audience’s listening creates the space for excellence to occur.
In the CD Player: My lines for Doctor in Spite of Himself
Temperature: 80s but heading back down as I work slowly north
Next performance: Missouri Southern State University, November 4 (My Birthday!)