Thursday, September 27, 2007

The View From Here #125: Summit, NJ; Florence, SC; Glenville, WV; Bowling Green, KY; Detroit, MI

My dear friend Forsyth, in North Carolina has always kept a couch available for my use on my passes through Raleigh, and this recent pass-through was no exception. Sadly, her daughters Anna and Mary were rear-ended by a drunken driver traveling over 100 mph last Saturday. They have survived the accident, but are still in intensive care as of this writing. Please send your thoughts and prayers of healing, warmth, love and recovery to Raleigh, NC.

The two final Minnesota Fringe shows were a blast, though the attendance showed a sharp drop for both Sunday performances (a second one being added with the designation of the “Encore” show). I had a few second-time, and even a third-time attendee, and the excitement of the final day was followed with a fun wrap-up party, in a bar apparently made famous by Prince’s movie, “Purple Rain.” We took lots of pictures with some of my new friends at least one of whom (Katherine) turned out to live only blocks away from where I was staying in Evanston. She and I managed to hang out together for a few days as she prepared for trips to Europe and South America, while I geared up for my move out of the sublet and onto the highway once again.

It was then that news came in about the death of Ray (Lewis) Pickens, and my blog entry in memoriam has received more replies (including friends and relatives of Ray who had found me on-line) than any previous entry.

I pushed through the final efforts of the summer’s e-mailing campaign, with promos going out to those final states of the alphabet (Tennessee to Wyoming) which ultimately tallied to over eleven thousand e-mails! At last I moved back out of my summer sublet, rotated my tires, washed my car and took to the road with more performances already on the books (twenty-nine) than any previous touring season.

Following a brief stop to visit Isaac in Detroit, I pushed on to New Jersey, where Summit High School was planning a Moliere play for the coming semester. Anne, the teacher, was trying to choose between “Imaginary Invalid” and “Tartuffe,” but when she heard that I’d created a 40-minute version of “Invalid” for high school use in Texas, and that I was interested in creating the same for “Tartuffe”, she decided to produce both plays as part of an evening of Moliere. (I’m currently finishing up the “Tartuffe” cutting.)

I did a two-hour after school workshop for a group of perhaps thirty kids, and Anne, who had booked me four years ago sent along a collection of thank-yous from her students, who raved about “The Tim Mooney Three-Second Rule,” my three Hamlet exercises (“Rattle the lights!” “Make ugly faces!” and “Spit!”) and my brief performance of “Tartuffe.” (One tenth-grader wrote: “Your special section on the seduction in Tartuf helped me see that I shouldn’t be afraid to go all the way.”) (Public service message to the girls at Summit High School: Watch out for Michael Gorman!)

That night I continued south, listening to the books-on-disc version of “Ender’s Game” (and eventually, “Speaker for the Dead”) by Orson Scott Card, dropping in on Maureen and Tim in the suburbs of Baltimore (who proudly showed me the amazing fish pond they are building in their back yard), before pushing on through to Raleigh where I stayed, once again, with Forsyth, Mary and Anna, for an evening of making fun of the cop shows on TV.

I continued to Francis Marion University in South Carolina, a booking that had been arranged by a playwright whose work I’d produced back in the halcyon days of Stage Two.
Jon Tuttle’s “The Hammerstone” was a brilliant and hilarious piece of theatre, but he and I had never actually met, and I wished I’d reread the play before meeting him, as details of the work were coming back to me in dribs and drabs as we spoke.

Booking an outside show was a new experience for Jon, and he had no idea what to expect, attendance-wise. Fortunately, the turn-out was good, with a fair number of French students and faculty coming out. The lighting technician was a theatre professor who knew what he was doing (and even took a couple pics from the booth) and all went without a hitch.
I was just learning about how the tweaks from the Minnesota performance impacted the rest of the show when performing the full-length version. With a new, extended version of the “Don Juan” monologue, I could feel some of the gas going out of the performance towards the end.
By the time we got to the several repetitions of “Stop Thief,” most of the laughter had been wrung out of the audience. I’d planned for a return bow in the curtain call, but about half of the audience was already getting up and heading out by then.

The several faculty members, however, were very impressed and Jon gave me the idea of relocating the “Imaginary Cuckold” monologue (which seemed to have killed the laughter late in the show) to earlier on. Perhaps seven years ago I’d initially put “Cuckold” late in the play to ease the costume transition between “Imaginary Invalid” and “Scapin,” but that consideration was largely irrelevant by now.

I had a few days to spare before my next show in West Virginia, and I took the time to plot out NEXT year’s tour, so that I could circulate word of the 08-09 schedule (at the end of this blog entry) to those folks who plan a year in advance. While most of my business has come from people who book the show perhaps the semester prior, there are “presenters” whose very job it is to assemble a full season for the coming year. As such, they go to work on next year just as soon as the current year is up and running. And so, my schedule is already laid out through May of 2009!

I drove a couple of hours to Greenwood, South Carolina, where Bess Park (who once brought me in to perform at West Virginia Wesleyan) now runs the Greenwood Community Theatre. Coincidentally, Bess’ gentleman friend, David, was hosting a karaoke contest at the Chili’s restaurant that night. I explained to them that “karaoke was kind of my thing,” but I don’t think they quite understood what I meant until I performed. David took to introducing me as coming “all the way from Chicago,” and the crowd warmed up to me with each subsequent song.

At the end of the night, they presented me with a $50 gift certificate (which was good for this particular Chili’s only, and only for the next ninety days). I passed it on for David to put to good use, and he asked me to come back on a night he was running the karaoke show again.

That weekend, I met up with Sandra (better known in these pages as “Sandra the Vegan”) who has recently relocated from Orlando to Boone, North Carolina where she works for Appalacian Voices to end mountaintop removal ( Sandra was working a table at the “Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion,” a mostly-bluegrass festival that takes over several blocks of downtown Bristol, a city that straddles the state line separating Tennessee and Virginia.

During the day, she would work the table (I witnessed her at one point deftly responding to a couple of coal miners who clearly did not agree with her point of view), while I mostly worked on mailings, and during the evening we watched some of the musicians. Our favorite was Diana Jones, who performed in a coffee shop without a microphone. Her rich alto voice was warm and powerful, and I could feel it vibrating the whole room, even as I discovered that I wasn’t listening to the lyrics at all.
After the show, we said hello, and when Diana discovered that Sandra was with Appalacian Voices, she gave us an impromptu performance of a couple of songs that she had only recently developed about mountaintop removal. (By now, she’s over in Europe getting ready to open for Richard Thompson’s tour.)

On to West Virginia, with a performance at Glenville State College. (West Virginia is actually gorgeous when you get off of the interstate … or at least it is when the trees still have leaves; it seems the only time I’ve raced through, the hills have seemed stark and barren.) I passed a couple of politicians’ billboards proclaiming themselves as being “a Friend of Coal,” and my host in Glenville quickly passed me a bumper sticker from the opposing side which declared me a “Friend of Mountains.”
The next morning I met with a creative writing class, where I told the tale of “my life as a writer” or at least as much of it as I could fit into 75 minutes. The climax, though, was a performance of the old, reliable “Tartuffe” monologue, which suddenly took my conversation from the theoretical, abstractly waxing on about writing and creativity, to the practical, where discussion of rhymed, iambic pentameter verses gave way to a densely layered, hilarious seduction scene. Suddenly the few students who had been nodding were fully alert.

That night was another performance of the show, and when I saw that they had drawn up their own programs for the event, I took advantage of the opportunity to rearrange the order of the monologues.

Previously, by the time “Imaginary Cuckold” would come up as the third scene from the end, the audience was only looking for the broad, overt gestures rather than the witty dialogue. With “Cuckold” as the third monologue in the series, people were actually listening to it in a new way. This time the audience was still able to discern and appreciate the many double entendres that run through that piece and, removed from its previous, late introduction, it wouldn’t detract from the climax.

This was also a venue where I was easily able to perform off the stage, on the same level as the audience, and when I approached a woman in the second row during “Tartuffe,” she absolutely convulsed with laughter, even throwing in the occasional “Oh, my God!” when I came in close in to whisper in her ear. The second half of the “Tartuffe” scene worked extremely well, with a generously-built volunteer that no one from the theatre department seemed to know, followed by the new, extended, “Don Juan” scene, the new, audience-participatory “Doctor” scene, the audience-climbing “Scapin”
scene, and finally, “Precious Young Maidens.” “PYM” was not quite the climax that it has been in previous performances (as measured by the laughs during “Stop, Thief!”), but the faculty appreciated it for its meta-theatrical qualities, and the performance was deemed a great successs.

I had a show at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, and I spent a lot of time at the hotel working through mailing lists. I was de-constructing the 11,000 piece mailing list to pull out the Performance Series Directors, Student Activity Coordinators, Deans of Students and Vice Presidents for Student Affairs, for whom I compiled yet another e-mailing announcing the 08-09 season (sent to 1,100 people this time).

I led two workshops: my usual “Life of Moliere” workshop for a French class, and another on my development as an actor-of-one-man-shows. They were interested mostly in the aesthetic principles which guided me (yes, there are some), as well as my personal history. Once again, however, it was the performance of the “Tartuffe” scene to a seated volunteer which made the “light bulb” go on for them, and they laughed at each nuance and entendre. When I finished with this seduction scene, a cute girl in the class jumped up and ran over to where her friend sat, calling out “My turn! I’m next!”

The Western Kentucky performance was the only one that had been booked from a Campus Activities conference I’d attended last spring (where my 20-minute preview had mostly bombed), and I was concerned that this group might well be more accustomed to stand-up comics and rock bands. They’d estimated that the crowd might be forty to fifty people, and we were all greatly surprised when 150 people showed up, laughing throughout. Again, I was able to redistribute the monologues to my liking, and I brought that afternoon’s nicely-built “Tartuffe” victim back up to play the Doctor’s patient with all it’s touchy-feely hilarity.

I stopped in Louisville, checking out the Louisville Slugger museum, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, before visiting with a new friend, Colleen, who I’d first met when she’d shown up at a performance of “Criteria” in Evanston last summer.

I pushed on to Detroit, but Isaac was now out of town, on a camping field trip in West Virginia of all places. I had a show the next day for the Detroit Alliance Francaise, where I performed in a musty old club, complete with a fireplace at one end, old sofas and easy chairs as well as a bunch of wooden captain’s chairs. The lighting in the room was terrible, so I rearranged the space to place myself opposite from the windows. It would make for a wide stage running most of the length of the room, but it enabled them to see me without strain. As I returned from hauling the trunk up the several flights of stairs, I found Corinne Stavish, who’d directed me in “Harvey” back in the mid-80s!

There were at least fifty in attendance, with a wine and cheese reception preceding the event, and I milled about in street clothes assessing the audience. All but one seemed to be well over the age of forty, and so I quietly approached the young woman who affirmed her willingness to do the “Doctor” scene with me, and then slipped backstage to get into costume.

This show started slowly. These French speakers and natives may not have approved of this buffo performance of their nation’s greatest author. The elbow-to-elbow proximity was very tight and the laughs gradually started to trickle in during “School for Wives.” The chuckles increased with “Bourgeois Gentleman” and began to burst with “Tartuffe.” I was choosing good volunteers to play to, and the first “Tartuffe” victim was blushing vividly, brushing his hair out of her face as I stooped over to whisper in her ear.

From there, the response continued to build, with great response to “Don Juan” and “Imaginary Invalid,” an exciting “Doctor” scene (the bewildered young woman won the audience’s sympathy and delight), and this time “Precious Young Maidens” returned to its former success. getting bigger laughs. The audience interrupted my closing speech with applause, and when I headed off backstage, they simply continued clapping. Having been burned before for trying to stretch two bows out of one, I hesitated, but they cheered their approval when I returned for a final curtain call. Afterwards, several of them wanted to get my contact info for possible future bookings, and I visited at length with Corinne, who fixed me dinner as we recounted events of the last twenty years.

I hustled on home, where I have finally put out the huge e-mailing, and managed to assemble my thoughts as I ready yet another assault on the road, this one a much longer, protracted tour of the west and south, with no end in sight until sometime in December.

Miles on the car: 240,000

In the CD Player: Books on CD: “Ender’s Game” and “Speaker for the Dead.”

On the I-Pod: Diane Jones, Roy Zimmermanand The Prince Myshkins.

Discoveries: Subtle material works early in the show; broader later. * Enable people to do their job (in booking me) before they’ve filled their dance card for the coming year. * Get off the stage and into the audience as early and often as possible. * Keep business cards inside the trunk for when people want to ask about booking the show.

Next Performance: September 28: The Aliance Francaise of Chicago.

Political Commentary: Did anyone notice that the occasion of Alberto Gonzales FINALLY resigning was driven from the headlines almost immediately by the implosion of Senator Larry Craig? Did anyone wonder who might have thought to leak that information? Or consider that the almost overlooked guilty plea by a US Senator might not have been overlooked by the Attorney General’s office? The result was that Gonzalez resignation was a single-day’s story, not even mentioned on most of the Bobblehead Sunday Talk Shows that very weekend. (Thanks to Sam Seder of Air America for use of the term "bobblehead.")