Friday, March 23, 2007

The View From Here #122: Ocala & Gainesville, FL; Atlanta, GA; Lexington, KY; Lafayette, LA

Back in January, I took a day trip down to Dallas, while we were rehearsing Moliere, nights, in Oklahoma. I performed the hour-long version of the show at a high school, where, backstage, before the show started, I could here the technicians conversing over the dressing room monitor. After the show, I returned to the dressing room to change, and could hear them talking to each other, once again.

This time, though, their conversation was something to the effect of, “Can you believe that? He totally nailed that! He was like word-for-word in the script! That was incredible! Can you believe that …?!” It was fun to be the fly on that wall.

The shows closed in Oklahoma with one last performance, which was not without its adventures, including late and missed entrances at the very end of Precious Young Maidens, particularly by an actress who only has one line. (The actors were watching the clock to judge her entrance, and we’d taken an abbreviated intermission that day.) I felt bad that she waited around all afternoon to deliver a single line and had missed it.

I stuck around to do a token bit of clean-up during set strike and ran off to finish packing my car. Susan, the director, was hosting the cast party, and I went around getting pictures of the many people I’d been working with, most especially, Melissa, my dresser, who was endlessly inventive in finding ways to make my life easier in the course of the run. (I had initially resisted the notion of having a “star” dressing room, and the added privacy and privilege that might alienate me from the rest of the cast, but when I had my bout with salmonella poisoning, I quickly learned to gratefully accept the quiet solitude and personal support.)

The next morning, I was on my way to the Oklahoma City airport at about 5 a.m., catching a flight to Saint Louis, and then on to Detroit, where I got a rental car and spent a couple days with Isaac, celebrating his 13th birthday. – In honor of the occasion, I got him shaving cream, a razor and after-shave. – On the plane to Detroit, I found myself chatting with a woman in my row, who had a sister in Ocala, Florida, which was the location of my next performance. She later e-mailed me to note that her sister was, in fact, already planning to catch my show for bonus points in her French class.

Getting back to Oklahoma City was a nightmare, as the airport in Detroit was socked in with fog. Following missed connections, I arrived six hours later than expected, and drove north into Kansas, and then on to Fayette, Missouri the next day, where I’d promised to drop in on a rehearsal of Tartuffe.

It was a fairly good rehearsal (of the second act), though some lines were simply inaudible to me, and some of the words were getting directed upstage. I shared my reactions, and the actors had at it again, this time with much improvement, perhaps because of my responses, or perhaps just because the second pass-through made them more sure of the task at hand.

Following a long day of driving, I dropped in on Sabra in Chattanooga. She was going to help me set up for a conference coming up in Atlanta, and I’d had several new promotional items shipped to her house, including a life-sized placard of one of my new publicity photos (in the “Oh, oh!” moment from Precious Young Maidens, which seems to be turning into the new signature shot).

My biggest frustration with the show in Oklahoma was that we never captured any video of the performances. I deided it was time to knuckle down and buy my own video camera. Over the last five years, hundreds of performances now live only in my vague memory, and, as I composed a new book proposal for my Moliere and acting text work, I was finding a new resolve: I wanted to find a television producer interested in creating the “Moliere Than Thou” PBS special, and I wanted to have the raw footage available to convince that producer that this would be a terrific show.

And so, I shopped. Most of the video cameras were around $500, but with a major step up in cost, I could get a high definition camera that had its own 30 gig hard drive. After a couple days of agonizing over this, I made the investment and picked up the longed-for camera in Marietta, Georgia, where I visited with my old friend, Linda.

The next day, I zipped down to Ocala, with three performances at Central Florida Community College. One glance at the long distance between stage and seats told me that I actually wanted to perform in what was essentially the “pit” in front of the audience. The technicians were quite adept, and quickly had the lights refocused. The first performance was for a high school group, but unfortunately, the shows had been scheduled simultaneous to the state’s annual standardized testing, which meant that there were only some 25 students in the audience, at least until my host’s intro to theatre class showed up, two-thirds of the way into the performance.

We’d set up the camera at the back of the auditorium, but “zoomed out,” the camera sensitized itself to the dark areas surrounding the white light I was performing in, and the image “washed out.” For the evening show, the technician would zoom in more, and since his assignment was so light (he has just two sound cues in the show), he would follow me as I moved.

Years ago, there was a play reading group in Ocala, composed mostly of retired folks, who had taken on one of my scripts, assigning out roles and reading it aloud. This group was led by Maxine and Ed, the couple that had corresponded with me for the arrangements. Well, Maxine has passed on in the intervening years, but Ed was happy to be present, and I met him beforehand. He presented me with a poem that Maxine had written in response to my show, which I posted on the dressing room mirror:

In May of 1995
Our group was born
And still we strive
To read the plays
One-act and three---
The comedy, the mystery,
The tragedy, the history.

We examined Bessie Smith,
And the Man Who Came to Dinner,
The Crucible by Miller
Was indeed another winner.

Chekhov’s Three Sisters
And Moliere’s and Mooney’s Sganarelle---
We’ll remember them well.

We explored the life of Lincoln
And the Brownings, poets both,
And to read of Daniel Webster
We were certainly not loath.

Ibsen, Miller, Christie, Synge,
Albee, Checkhov, Kesselring.
Aristophanes and Wilde
And by many more we were beguiled.

We’ve read 39 playwrights,
45 plays,
And we’ll keep on reading
For the rest of our days!!

-- Maxine Rosenberg

The show went fairly well that night, but the volunteer scenes sent it through the roof. Apparently this school has a Cosmetology Department which occasionally sends its students over to the theatre to give the students a little breadth to their education.

The Tartuffe volunteer was a cosmetology student, who seemed very nervous, blushing and shying away as Tartuffe approached. When it came time for her to speak a line, though, she reversed her field, and made overt moves on Tartuffe, grabbing him by the wrist. As Tartuffe, I paused, looked out at the audience, and let a big smile dawn on my face as they cracked up. Fortunately, I have this on video. (The girl also wore one of those candy bracelets which Tartuffe, in one of his more steamy, sensual moves, began to nibble on.)

The Scapin volunteer was also a woman, and also from the Cosmetology Department (you can identify them by their smocks). Even though this was a scene supposedly between two men, this student seemed to have learned the lesson from the earlier scene, and was playing it for its hitherto unforseen seductive qualities! There was an element of “nobody home” in her performance, though, as when I asked her where she was from, she responded “The Cosmetology Department.”

When Scapin wheels around behind her to pinch “Argante” on the backside, the stage direction in the script reads “Jump!”. This girl read aloud, “Jump!” And then squealed, “You touched by butt!” The audience went up for grabs.

The next night’s show was actually a better all-around performance, as my good friend, Sandra-the-Vegan had driven up from Orlando to see my show (She hadn’t seen it at the Orlando Fringe back in 2003). In spite of the fact that my voice was getting ragged, after three shows and a workshop in just two days, I found myself newly invigorated, seeing the show through Sandra’s eyes, as well as the eyes of the camera.

The next morning, I headed a half-hour up the road to Gainsville, where I was performing at a private high school. When I’d requested a camera operator to run my camera, the gracious French teacher offered up her husband, who had his own camera and would be able to edit and transfer the video to disc, and even add credits to the recording. That would be terrific, of course, though every time this comes up, I have to remind people that I cannot let them actually keep a recording of the full show: not only would it make bringing me back to their school, down the line, superfluous, but a single pirated copy of the show finding its way into circulation could effectively put an end to my tour.

I’d noticed the videographer setting up his stuff in the fourth row, which made me a bit uneasy, but I reassured myself that this would make for a sparkling clear picture. However, when I made my entrance at the top of the show, I could see that rows 2-5 were virtually empty, and 90% of the audience was seated behind the camera, essentially watching over the shoulder of the videographer. I hated to think of what kind of a message this was sending the kids, suggesting that the recording of the event was more important than their experience of it. I did what I could to act past the camera, alleviating whatever alienation they might be feeling.

Afterwards, the teachers were enthusiastic, with one even writing to the woman who’d booked me to say, “Congratulations on bringing THE best speaker/entertainer to Oak Hall's theater, at least in my memory.”

I stuck around to do my workshop two hours later, struggling with the attention span of one student who didn’t want to participate, though she did want to distract a student that did (does this only happen in private schools?), and then getting onto the road and heading north.

By this time, Sabra was in Atlanta, setting up my booth. There was a “mandatory orientation meeting” for this conference which I’d be unable to attend because of my commitment to the high school, so Sabra would be sitting in for me. I got in early that evening, just as the first exhibit hall session was beginning, and joined Sabra, who stuck around for a half hour or so before heading back to Chattanooga.

I’d allowed myself to be talked into this conference, in spite of a bad experience with a similar conference about four years ago, which was also largely composed of student representatives booking acts out of their student activity funds. This time around, though, I was guaranteed a showcase slot, and so I’d made the investment, while taking a pass on the Southeast Conference of Language Teachers meeting which was happening a mile away, at another Atlanta hotel.

It was a mistake. I’d worked and reworked the showcase to highlight my best stuff, and it went right over the students’ heads. Performing at a microphone, wedged in between stand-up comics and rock acts, Moliere was not on their radar screens. The subtle stuff or the ironic stuff was too subtle and ironic, and only the endless parade of “stop theif’s” in my final bit seemed to wake the students up to the tone of this humor. I cleared off, and that was that. I had three more days to hang out in the exhibit hall, handing out stickers and brochures and preview DVD’s, but there were no bookings to follow.

As such, I took all of my free time through this week, to push forward on the book proposals which I’d been laboring over for the past six weeks. I was coming towards the end of this 98-page document, and made significant progress.

The next day, I swung over to the Foreign Language teacher’s event, and was gratified to be reminded that there are still conferences where Moliere is wildly popular. Forty or fifty French teachers came to my event, as I performed forty minutes of my show, and handed out more brochures and DVD previews. Immediately, there were teachers from Georgia who were strategizing about how to get me to their schools. (One teacher called it "Phenomenal!")

Alas, when I finally got away from Atlanta, I found that the school that’d booked me for March 5 had failed to get the funding together, and the show had been cancelled. This was a bit of lingering fallout from the loss of my laptop computers last July. I’d lost the e-mail address of my contact at this school, and had only tracked her down again in the past week.

I made a stop at a friend’s house in the area (Jenny had seen the show at Auburn University a year ago), before heading back up to Marietta, where Linda, and her family were gracious enough to put me up for three days.

While staying at Linda’s, I finally finished off the book proposals and sent them off to five agents who’d requested a look at the full proposal when I’d made my big push last December.

I returned, yet again, to Atlanta, this time to the Southeast Theatre Conference (SETC). I’d been to this one twice in the past two years, both times presenting a “Fringe Festival” show, and a workshop. Most of the faculty attending this conference have received e-mails from me in the past, and I was glad to see that many of them still recognized my name. I’d lost a lot of my e-mail contacts when the computers were stolen, but I still had my “brand identity,” which will serve me well when I finally have time to rebuild my lists in June.

After SETC, I swung north, to Lexington, where I visited my cousin, George, and camped out in a hotel for three days, catching up on my correspondence, and following up with dozens of contacts that I’d made at three conferences (all in Atlanta) in the last two weeks.

The Lexington show went great, and my recent e-mailing had attracted representatives from three Lexington-area colleges (U-Kentucky, Centre College and Transylvania University) to see my show. Freshly invigorated, I pushed on south, stopping at Jenny’s in Alabama once more before pushing on to Lafayette, Louisiana, where I spent a pleasant day relaxing, taking pictures of some of the amazing trees down here (one over 450 years old, which, from a distance, looks not like a tree so much as a small forest!) and working on a new chapter for the acting textbook. The teacher, there, took me out to dinner each day I was in town.

On Monday I had a terrific workshop (captured on video), which spilled over for an extra hour into the following class. Following some confusion over the tech rehearsal, which started 45 minutes late, I performed for an audience of 75 or so. They were incredibly receptive, and I could feel their enjoyment building as the show went on. The “stop thief’ section of the play got amazing laughs throughout, and I actually had to cut off their laughing to continue the sequence. This finished with a standing ovation and a nice reception.

Tuesday, I drove to New Orleans, taking the picturesque “long way” through the south of Louisiana, and while I had images of washed out bridges and ripped-up landscape, it was actually in fairly good shape, at least from what I could see from the road.

My friend, and sometimes helper, April, joined me in New Orleans for two days of relaxation, before jumping back onto the road. I nearly made it back to Chicago in a single day, but finally pulled over in Champaign, where I finish off these comments before returning home, following some 70 days since my departure in January. (Departng again in two days ...)

PS: Thanks to all who sent well-wishes about mom. Now that I'm home, I can see she is very much recovered from the illness she was caught up in when I left. (She once again seems to like the flavor of her beer!)

Mileage: 219,800
Discoveries: Let people do nice things for you; enjoy and appreciate. * Work with the video guy to make sure you’re still creating the best experience for the audience.
Attendance: 16 + 50 + 150 + 150 + 75 + 100 = 541
Next Performance: 3/27, Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, PA and 3/29, Iona College, New Rochelle, NY