Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The View From Here #119: Norman, OK; Joplin, MO; Highland Heights, KY; Millersville, PA; Worcester, MA; Signal Mountain, TN

I spent three days in Norman, Oklahoma, attending classes and observing actors.

My tour schedule wouldn’t allow me to be present during the actual auditions for Precious Young Maidens and Doctor in Spite of Himself, so I was watching the actors perform in classroom scenes. Susan, the director of the shows, even pulled together a reading of the two plays, with me performing the two roles that I’ll be playing this winter.

I went around getting pictures and names of all of the actors. It would help for me to have a visual image during casting conversations. Ultimately, I will arrive in Oklahoma sixteen days before opening night, so I want to hit my stride quickly in rehearsal.

The readings went well. About forty actors attended, and we set up music stands with scripts, while I recorded the reading. My intent was to get people excited about auditioning for the show, and to “raise the bar” a bit with my (almost memorized) reading, so that the level of commitment would be high. My third goal was to start enthusiastic rumors about the show so that by the time opening night arrived the house would be packed.

I had a weeklong break, so I drove to Chattanooga, to make camp at Sabra’s house while working on several projects. I started planning the 07-08 tour, while making a concerted effort to edit The View From Here back down to manageable size. (550 pages are currently down to 430.)

I doubled back west to Joplin, Missouri, with a workshop and a show at Missouri Southern State University. They have a special mandate around International studies, and this was a part of their “France Semester.” I was arriving a bit breathless and last minute.

[Side note: when my hotel room wasn’t ready, I stopped next door at a Bob Evans Restaurant. I’d always imagined that if nothing else, they’d have good sausage. I was way wrong. They were tiny, dry and chewy, like the ones that they sell for your microwave.]

As this was sponsored by “International Studies,” I walked in ready to do my Moliere Workshop, but discovered that the 25 students in attendance were all actors. I adjusted the workshop as I went, still covering Moliere’s biography, but involving the actors with exercises from the acting workshop. (The workshop had arranged before my computer had been stolen, and I never checked in to find that it was the acting workshop they wanted in the first place.) Regardless, the response was enthusiastic, and the work with the Tartuffe monologue seemed especially exciting.

The show was in a small auditorium, and the host seemed unfamiliar with the operation of the light board, so I simplified the plans, and went on.

I can’t remember having this much fun with the show before. The audience was laughing at everything. The response to Tartuffe was electric. (A couple days prior to the show, a preacher in Colorado had gotten caught amid a very public scandal over sex and drugs.) The audience roared and applauded a line that they must have assumed that I’d written for just this occasion: “It is interesting to consider that even though this play was produced more than seven years ago, in 1664! … our ongoing scandals of the present day have kept this work just as pertinent as it was the day that it was first produced!”

The girl who volunteered for the Tartuffe scene fluttered with excitement as I drew her in closer, and the audience ate it up. Likewise, every time I revisited “Stop, thief” they laughed harder and harder. The show ended with a spontaneous standing ovation, and I paused to thank them (out of character for once), noting “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing on my birthday than performing for you.” They returned the acknowledgement by singing me “Happy birthday” on the spot.

Some of the kids told me where the local karaoke bar was, and I packed up to head out. I said my goodbyes to my hosts, and just as I was getting in the car, one student, who had been lingering quietly on the periphery of the others, stopped to ask me if I “knew about Jesus …”

The next day was a slow start, as my birthday celebration seemed to have gotten the best of me. But I was on the road by 10:30, listening to news of the Bears finally losing a game as I drifted in and out of the range of various ESPN stations. About 12 hours later, I was driving through Louisville, finding a hotel.

I’d assumed it would be a quick hop to Highland Heights, Kentucky, but I’d forgotten exactly which interstate ran past Northern Kentucky University, and I got stopped for speeding. After 206,000 miles of touring, I had my first speeding ticket.

I’d been to Northern Kentucky University about twenty years before for a Society of American Fight Directors workshop, but I only recognized a tiny bit of the campus. Fortunately, the French teacher knew an expert technician who understood, with only a slight bit of direction, exactly what I wanted from the light settings.

This was more of a lecture hall than an auditorium, so there was no “offstage” access. I sat, assumedly unnoticed, behind a podium that’d been shoved to the side, with probably just my hair and my feet evident to the audience who cared to notice, and waited for the music to start the show.

The crowd was composed entirely of French teachers and students. The Theatre department had been informed of the event, but had responded with a blasé “Thanks for the information,” so nobody from the theatre was really expected.

Afterwards, several of the teachers stayed behind to thank me for my work, and the French teacher, who was hoping to make the show happen again at some point, helped me track down the theatre department, where I found that the assistant chair was extremely interested in my work. I left him with flyers and continued on my way.

I spent the rest of the day in Cincinnati, swinging by Xavier and Cincinnati Universities, and visiting with my friend Tamara, from the ’05 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.

The next day, I continued east to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was election day. I camped out in a hotel in Harrisburg and parked in front of a television for the night, watching one race after another being declared for the democrats. By the end of the night, they had secured the House, had picked up every open Senate seat but one, and were leading by narrow margins in the remaining two: Montana and Virginia. Even if the votes were close enough for a recount, a look at the 2004 election suggested that if we were ahead before voting irregularities were unraveled, then the wafer-thin leads would only grow.

My theory on this year’s election: It’s pretty well understood that once people actually know someone who is gay, they become more tolerant in the realm of gay issues. Well, this year it seems that some of the Republican’s best friends, people they’d spent millions of dollars on getting us to care about (as well as people from the church itself), were gay. And for the first time we have begun to find that sticking a “defense of marriage” amendment onto the ballot is not the slam-dunk that Karl Rove seemed to think it was.

Meanwhile every exit poll reveals that voters were overwhelmingly intent on bringing an end to the war. Continuing the war will keep the electorate in a mood for more change two years from now, and they simply didn’t have the opportunity to pass judgment on the remaining 66% of the Senate this year.

I had bought a new pair of glasses back in Chattanooga, but I was having trouble with them. At first I assumed they felt strange because they were a new prescription, but I was bumping my knuckles on countertops and losing my footing on staircases. It wasn’t until after a couple of celebratory birthday drinks that I found that I could not focus my vision on the TV set in the hotel room. I could watch it through either eye, but looking through both eyes simultaneously gave it a double image.

I found a mall in Harrisburg and brought my new glasses to a Lens Crafters. The clerk seemed confused, and brought the glasses back to the technician who, after quick examination, discovered that the Chattanooga Lens Crafters had filled the prescription for the left lens with glass for my right eye, and vice versa.

This struck me as the ophthalmologic equivalent of operating on the wrong limb.

In Millersville, I was just a few miles away from Lancaster, and dropped in on the French teacher at Franklin & Marshall College. I surprised Lisa, who had hosted my show back in 2003, and wants to get it back this spring. We checked out some of the performance spaces that the show might work for.

The next day, I did a workshop for the local high school students, and the host was delighted that 120 kids showed up. Afterwards, I made another trip to Lancaster to visit with Playwright Sandra Fenichell Asher, who had written four or five plays that Stage Two had produced back in the 90’s. She showed me over to the Fulton Opera House, and the Fulton’s Playwright-in-Residence, Barry, led us on a tour through the historic facility.

Back at the theatre, we ran a quick rehearsal and set up for the play. The theatre was a big barn-of-a-space, with a huge gap between the front of the stage and the first row. Fortunately, there were already lights focused on this “pit” area, so I alerted the technician that I may go into the audience more often than planned.

I had to push my volume and slow down so that the cavernous quality of the room wouldn’t swallow up my words. And with Sandy and Barry in the audience, I did very much want to do well. I wasn’t hearing a lot of laughs, and spent the play walking the line of “Am I doing too much?/not enough?” I could see smiles on the faces out there, particularly when I pushed off into the audience, sitting briefly on Sandy’s lap during the Scapin sequence, but the audience response still seemed relatively quiet.

After the show, people were as enthusiastic as ever, and it was only then that it struck me that any “muted” quality to their response was the likely result of performing in such a large auditorium. Just as I had to pitch my voice louder, so would they, if I was to hear them. Their laughs may have been as loud as any, but those laughs were circulating up in the rafters, and never quite bouncing back to me.

The next day, I was off to New York. The air had turned crystal clear, and so I managed to snap a couple of pictures.

New York and I have a difficult relationship, and this started off no different, as I got a parking ticket my first night in town.

I went to see Yvonne’s new play, The Truth, at the Metropolitan Theatre (It’s just officially opened this weekend, and I highly recommend it.)

Somehow, I always seem to show up in New York on the night that Yvonne’s having previews for a show that’s just about to open (4 times now!). Our ritual has been to stop out at a bar afterwards and talk through what is or is not working.

Saturday, Yvonne was back to work on her show, and I met up with Tom X. Chao from the fringe circuit. We walked around Soho, finding a bar and “people watching” for a few hours. It had started out a beautiful, warm fall afternoon, but was starting to get chilly, so I ran out to buy a sweatshirt from a nearby Army/Navy surplus store. Tom congratulated me on finding a plain black sweatshirt without any of the “I Heart NY” tourist crap on it.

On Sunday, a bunch of New York-based Fringers got together for a brunch, and I spent the afternoon with a bunch of people I usually only see north of the border, and during the summer. Later, I caught up with my buddy, Jose, and we found a bar to watch the Bears/Giants game.

It turned out that the bar also had karaoke, and so I was set for the evening. Unfortunately, with the game secure in the fourth quarter, Jose and I left, missing the 108-yard missed-field-goal runback.

Monday, Yvonne and I drove north to Massachusetts, where she teaches part-time at Clark University. I did a stripped-down, one-hour version of my workshop for her two classes, and afterwards, Yvonne remarked to the class, “Have you ever seen anyone who had more of a sense of 'Ta-Da?'”

Yvonne and I met up with the theatre chair, who wants to bring me in to do my show next year. He also seems to have a couple of connections for publication and further performance/production, so it was an effective side trip.

I dropped Yvonne back off in New York, and continued on to Baltimore. My sister Maureen’s dog had died recently, and she was still pretty sad about it. She and Tim and I went out to dinner, and the next day I was on the road once again, heading back to Chattanooga.

While driving, I was working my lines for Precious Young Maidens and Doctor in Spite of Himself every possible way, and by the time I got to Tennessee, I could recite my lines for either show in less than a half-an-hour.

I was running much later than anticipated for a workshop at UT-Chattanooga, and pulled into the theatre’s loading dock about two minutes after I was to have started. Fortunately, I had alerted them, and several people were out on the loading dock to help me bring in my stuff, and my workshop was underway by 2:05.

I was squeezing content from both of my workshops into a single hour, so I proceeded at a breathless pace, jumping through scenes from Flying Doctor, School for Wives and Tartuffe, and improvising explanations of the impact of scenes that I didn’t have enough time to perform in this setting. (Some of my explanations seem to go over every bit as well as a performance of the full scene does.) Finishing up with Precious Young Maidens,” I was reminded again of Yvonne’s “Ta-Da” comment, and found myself confidently giving that little extra flourish to some of the lines, which the students found hilarious.

I drove to Signal Mountain, northeast of Chattanooga, where Sabra is the administrator for the Alexian Village health care facility. She’d arranged a performance for her residents, and perhaps seventy of them filled the small recital hall (with an unknown number watching the performance from their individual apartments on the Village’s closed-circuit television system).

It was quite different from performing for teenagers. They were a more subdued group, less inclined to guffaw loudly at the crude gestures. When it came time to ask for a volunteer, no hands went up. Eventually, one gentleman pointed over toward Sabra, saying “How about her?” And so, Sabra graciously got up to join me, uncertain of whether she should pretend that she had no idea what she was doing, or if she should play it up. Likewise, I proceeded carefully, knowing that she had to come back and “administrate” for these people the next day.

For the Scapin scene, I chose the fellow who’d “volunteered” Sabra, and he blanched a bit: “I don’t think they can hear me …” he said in a weak voice.

“You can all hear him, can’t you?” I spoke up.

“Yes,” they cheered.

He was hilarious. He’d never acted before, and was obviously enjoying it, but just as obviously had no idea what he should be doing. The crowd loved him for it.

Afterwards, this “subdued” crowd was vocal in their appreciation. There was a small punch-and-cookies reception, and they commended my memorization, as well as my articulation. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to understand what you were saying, but I heard every word!” was one typical response.

I took a day in Chattanooga to get caught up on stuff I’d been putting off: I submitted my applications for what I expect will be a much more limited Fringe tour this summer, focusing on Minnesota and Winnipeg. I sent off Coca-Cola souvenirs (from an antique shop I'd passed in Missouri) to Jill in Orlando (She’d billeted me two years back, and had coca cola stuff everywhere). And I figured out my bank balance. Now that I’m wrapping things up for the fall, I have no guaranteed income until January, so I need to be confident that I can make it through the gap. (A sudden cancellation of a performance in Knoxville had put things in doubt, but the successful performance and payment for other shows had me back on top again.)

I drove north to visit Isaac in Detroit. Susan, the director in Oklahoma has been casting Doctor in Spite and Precious and her stage manager has e-mailed photos of all 117 actors who auditioned. I’ve been matching those photos up with the characters that she’s casting them as, which reminds me of the people I met amid the flurry of activity in Norman. I have very high hopes for the show.

On Sunday, I broke down and finally bought an i-pod. At least two of my acquaintances from the road (Tom X. Chao and Dave Romm) are producing podcasts, and I felt like I was missing out. It seems that I have finally reached the age where I can turn to my progeny to understand new technology, and Isaac helped me shop, and showed me how to download stuff onto it. While I was at it, I bought an accessory that charges my i-pod from the car’s cigarette lighter while simultaneously “broadcasting” the signal onto an empty FM channel in my car. This means that rather than buying a multi-cd changer for my car, I can instead download my hundreds of CD’s onto my i-pod, and listen to weeks and weeks of music (and podcasts) as I travel.

So far, I have downloaded the A’s and B’s from my collection, and already have two days worth of material.

And finally, with the exception of three days in September in which I didn’t even unpack my car or my suitcase, I’m back home for the first time since mid-July, and the fall tour is history.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Miles on the Vibe: 209,500
Reading: Back issues of The View From Here
Temperature: Dropping to lower thirties, as I continue, reluctantly north.
Discoveries: A given audience may be laughing very hard, but their laughter may be fighting the acoustics of the room, just as much as I am. * Keeping “Ta-Da” in the back of my head, helps light up the scene. * The older you get, the less interest you have in “Audience Participation.”
Next Performance: January 17, 2007, Central Methodist University, Fayette, MO