Friday, December 07, 2007

The View From Here #128: Highland Heights, KY; Spartanburg & Charleston, SC; Charlotte, NC; Steubenville & Delaware, OH; LaGrange, IL & Green Bay, WI

The semester closes in a rush, with lots of shows, lots of driving and little time to think in-between.

From Memphis I drove to Northern Kentucky, spending my birthday weekend with a book and a karaoke bar (all the while trying to upload the last edition of “The View Fro Here”). [Most scenic pics from this posting are from Charlotte, SC (with the exception of the two River Pictures taken across from Cincinnati, and the tall buildings in Charlotte).]

Meanwhile, even more reviews from Arkansas: For the French among us:

C'etait absolument magnifique ! Merci encore - infiniment! … Mes étudiants étaient enchantés avec la pièce, si on peut l'appeler une pièce. Tim a joué ses rôles variées avec facilité, et d'une façon amusante. Et quel triomphe d'avoir jouer deux scenes avec les jeunes gens. Bravo, Tim! Ça valait la peine, bien sûr! (Jane McGregor RHS)

I saw your show in Conway this week — fantastic. I love how well you use the entire body in your performance — something our students have difficulty doing. At first I was saying to myself (very American): "He's clowning, he's not really becoming some of these characters." Then I realized: "Wait a minute; these are Moliere's farce plays, and they came right from Commedia — it's brazenly theatrical! Plus, when he's Moliere, he's extremely genuine." I love it when my biases are exposed like that! Anyway, it was extremely entertaining, and to captivate ninth-graders with material from the 17th Century — hooray! I hope you are able to come back. (Kevin T. Browne, U of Central Arkansas)

And, while I’m at it, responses were following me from the workshop in Phoenix a week before.

The kids are showing so much improvement since your visit. They are so motivated to put on a show that will really live up to standards!! … I was in awe of how well, yet delicately you pushed the envelope. The students have really made a 360 degree turn around since your visit. Much more dedication, enthusiasm, and investment in their roles/characters. What they need now is an audience to feed off of. It is getting harder and harder for them to stay motivated with the same audience feedback night after night that they received from me, stage managers and techies. Teenagers are so instant gratification, it’s harder everyday to keep going. (JinHee Rhodes, Bourgade High School)

“I also need to extend my sincerest gratitudes all to you. Without your workshop, I don't think I would have done any better. I took into consideration of making Argan as ugly, boisterous, and... "spitful?" as possible. My mother couldn't stop laughing! PLus, another thank you I owe to you, Is for without this show, I would never have gotten an audition at …” (Eric Johnson, Bourgade High School)

I had an afternoon show at Northern Kentucky University, which drew audience from the greater Cincinnati area. It was the second NKU show in two years, this one somewhat better attended than the first. The show was followed by my Moliere lecture, to which an old friend arrived thinking that it was the performance that had been scheduled for 1 pm, and not the lecture. (I squeezed as much performing as I could into that lecture.)

Dropping south I popped in on my cousin George (the other actor of the family), catching him amid “tech week” for the big musical, having been up building the set into the wee hours the night before. I continued south through Knoxville (where a teacher at UTK had forgotten our 3pm appointment), and on down to Cleveland, TN, where I crashed at Sabra’s house. (In preparation for her recent wedding, Sabra was actually away when I arrived, but let me have the run of the place while she was gone.)

From there, I continued on to Marietta, GA, where Linda and her husband David were starting to consider escape routes, should the drought in the southeast continue on much longer, and then on to Spartansburg, where the South Carolina Theatre Association was meeting.

There I caught up with Bess Park (and her friend, David), who are planning to bring me down to South Carolina to direct/perform in “The Misanthrope” in the Spring of 09... We strategized about publicizing the event, and my availability for tour during that visit, and hit the karaoke contest in the hotel (I won a couple of gift certificates; Bess and David seem to be good luck for me). I set up a booth in the conference’s display area, sharing stickers and flyers with students and faculty, and tracking down a sexy-looking “volunteer” for my Sunday morning show.

The Sunday performance was actually after most of the conference attendees had gone, and perhaps 50 people showed up for the performance, mostly sitting far away from the stage, in the second tier of the auditorium seating. As such, the performance felt rather lackluster to me (visiting the “hospitality suite” the night before might have had something to do with it), though the response after the show was good, with a couple of the students seeming quite star-struck afterwards.

I grabbed lunch with Bess and David, and headed yet further south, to Charleston, South Carolina. The College of Charleston put me up in a nice guest house, and my host took me to dinner the night before. They supplied me with lots of assistance when it came time for the show, and I employed a couple of the extra girls who’d been assigned to my show, to run on an errand to pick up a couple of fresh pairs of tights at the drug store (I always feel weird buying these for myself), and to videotape the performance. There were a couple of burned out lightbulbs which threatened to severely darken the performance, until such time as the technician discovered a follow-spot up in the booth, and managed to integrate its use into the show.

The daytime performance was very well attended, and I searched the audience for any of the girls I’d met at the conference the previous weekend, who’d promised to be my volunteer for the “Doctor” scene. None were evident.

The show was, however, going extremely well (with the exception of the moment in which the French Department Chair’s cell phone went off; he proceeded to take the call, and carry on a conversation while the show proceeded.) Just as I was introducing the “Doctor” scene, one student let out a hysterical laugh, and I decided to take a chance on bringing her up to volunteer. She was a terrific “victim” and the laughs continued to escalate. Making my pass through the audience during the “Scapin” scene, when I normally swipe a program out of someone’s hands, I instead grabbed a notebook off of the lap of a girl in the audience. As I looked down at the notebook in my hand, I realized that it was covered with notes about my performance. I read the first one aloud: “He is so in character!” before the girl grabbed it back out of my hands, while the audience burst into laughter.

The show ended with a good rendition of the “Precious Young Maidens” scene, and I was glad to have captured that performance on video, but even as I changed out of my costume backstage, I could hear the voices of the audience walking by on the opposite side of the wall, raving about the show. In that moment, I realized: THAT’s the sort of reaction that I ought to be capturing on video. While the comments from faculty are all supportive after the fact, I need to get people in the midst of their enthusiasm in order to convey the actual impact of the show. (Some of these reactions, captured from the last three shows of the season, are up on YouTube now, as well.)

[In fact; ruh-roh! "Blogger" will take direct links from "YouTube" and post them. Which means that I can include the YouTube pieces inside this blog! And when the scene has completed, YouTube will immediately offer you more options of videos of mine, that you can watch without even leaving this site! Better settle in for the duration!]

The next day, I was off, north, to Charlotte, stopping for a brief tour of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, before continuing to the Charlotte Latin School.

This was a very rich school on a huge K-12 campus, and I would be performing to a group of 80 students in a conference room adjacent to the library. While I had just done a show for 800 high school kids in Arkansas, these 80 were a much tougher crowd. I could feel them resisting me at every step, and several times I would “stare down” a disruptive student in the midst of a monologue. Of course, the troublemakers were probably no more than 10% of the audience, while there may well have been another 10% in the room who were entirely captivated at the other end of the spectrum. That’s one of those things I’ll never know.

After the show, I’d been hired to do a brief after-school workshop for theatre students. Three students came out. Regardless, the theatre teacher was very enthused, and reinforced some of the issues I’ve been ranting about for years, particularly with regard to students wearing microphones. (The richer the school, the more they inhibit the good speech of their students by putting a microphone in front of their mouths any time they’re on stage.)

Heading north, I spun through Knoxville again, this time catching up with the teacher I’d planned to meet with previously, and sharing perhaps a half-dozen of my scenes with him. I continued on to Wheeling, West Virginia. I had a weekend to waste, while awaiting a performance in Steubenville, so I got a cheap hotel room and read books for a couple of days, all the while thinning out my e-mail inbox and editing my Acting Textbook.

In Steubenville, I noted that they were performing “Mary Stuart” the Sunday afternoon that I arrived in town, and I nosed in to watch the first act, continuing to be reminded of some of the stage movement theories I was building upon in my book.

I did not capture a video of this particular performance, though I wished that I might have. The laughs were terrific, and one gentleman, off to the side had a terrific laugh. When I went to approach a woman in the second row during the initial “Tartuffe” monologue, she practically JUMPED up out of her seat (picking herself up at least a foot off of the seat itself!) when Tartuffe climbed over the front row of seats to perform in front of her.

The gentleman with the infectious laugh volunteered for the Scapin scene, and I later found out he was a local critic. About a week later, I received an e-mail from him, commending me on my “sharp and fast-paced production,” even as he took a couple of sideways shots at the performances that he usually sees at the school. Of course, I assumed that this would imply that his review of my show was entirely enthusiastic. However, out of a three paragraph review, one entire paragraph was as follows:

“The show’s only weakness is the same as any Moliere translation that insists on retaining the playwright’s annoying end-rhymed couplets in English. While the device might have worked in the original French (I don’t know because I don’t speak French), in English it’s an unremitting irritation, reminiscent of bad greeting card verse or Edward Guest’s doggerel. Can’t someone translate Moliere into unrhymed iambic pentameter or, better yet, prose?”

The word “curmudgeon” comes to mind.

At least one of the students who was in attendance (at both the show and my acting workshop) has written me since then, insisting:

"You’re this week’s most quoted person in our theatre department, thought you’d like to know!” Later she explained “Your ‘stop thief’ is extremely popular,” and that “Imitating your facial expressions is becoming a requirement for all drama majors here."

Interestingly, one of the students from the big show in Arkansas (In fact, it was the "Tartuffe" volunteer) also wrote, indicating:

"I would like to take a moment to thank you so much on behalf of my entire troupe for your splendid performance on Oct 31 in Conway. All of my friends enjoyed it, and are still to this day saying "STOP THIEF" in class. It serves as our own private joke outside the drama room. (Excluding all of the non thespians is almost a hobby for us.) As a serious student of theater, I was thoroughly impressed with your high energy, and even more so with your ability to captivate a packed theater of ADD high school students."

I continued on to spend Thanksgiving in Detroit with Isaac and Jo, before doubling back to Ohio with a show at Ohio Wesleyan University. While the show played fairly well, my new experiment with trying to capture audience reaction after the show was limited by the voice of the camera operator who, in addition to asking “What did you think of the show” would also ask “Wasn’t that a great show?” In addition to being too “leading” of a question, it doesn’t leave much room for the audience to respond, and when their response to this question was an indifferent shrug, I felt more than slightly embarrassed.

At last, I could drive home to Chicago, spending all of one night at the old homestead, before zipping down to a performance at Lyons Township High School, in the western suburb of La Grange.

This time the show came off extremely well, and the open space in front of the stage enabled me to get down, close to the audience of 650 students several times. Again, I managed to capture videotape, and this time the operator allowed the audience the space to respond however they liked. Of course this also meant seeing some responses that were coolly indifferent, as well as the ones who were eager and enthusiastic. The teachers actually provided some of the best responses, as they talked about how effective the show was in supporting their curricular needs.

The next day, I was off to Green Bay, Wisconsin, with a mid-day Moliere lecture with the French Department. The temperature had plummeted since those warm days in Charleston, South Carolina (I was still carrying around clothes originally packed in August!), and I tried catching a nap in the hotel prior to that night’s show.

At the theatre, no one was expecting a big turnout, as the Green Bay Packers had a Thursday night game. Even my technician, dressed in a #4 Green Bay Jersey, was planning to TiVo the game and go home to watch it right after the show. (I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was some resentment among the Theatre faculty who’d accommodated the French Department by hosting this show.) Having learned my lesson from the South Carolina conference, I encouraged them to push all the audience to the front tier of seating, where the laughs were infectious.

I managed to hire a student to run the video camera, and the technicians did a terrific job setting up and running the lights. There was a row of mostly girls in the second row, and again, there was an easy climb over the first row to perform much of the Tartuffe monologue in their laps, which set off a great chain reaction of laughs. When it came time for the volunteer scene, the student that I’d delivered the “School for Wives” monologue to got up to participate, which I can’t recall ever happening before. She was not an actress, but seemed rather smolderingly attracted to Tartuffe as the scene proceeded.

A young boy who’d attempted to volunteer for the “Tartuffe” scene, this time around was right for the “Scapin” scene. He was hilarious (the scene is up on YouTube), getting applause from the audience with his very first line. The video operator captured him afterwards saying it was “the best show ever” with his mom (the French teacher) bubbling with enthusiasm. We also captured the Tartuffe volunteer’s friends teasing her about now being “in love with the theatre.”

I spent the next morning editing video, and got on the road to Minneapolis in time to catch a Fringe Festival fundraising event, along with Erika and Julie (two friends from last summer). I spent four more days in Minneapolis scouting out karaoke bars with Erika’s assistance, as well as my billeting hosts, Klee and Dave, looking for a venue where I might perform “Karaoke Knights” if I should end up in the Minneapolis Fringe next summer.

Over those four days, Minneapolis was socked in with a snow emergency, and I spent my days editing on the acting textbook, and writing to the several theatres I’d auditioned for this past fall. I wanted to get them on board in the coming month, before distributing my schedule to the 10,000 or so teachers I’d e-mailed in the past summer. I wouldn’t have to look up all of their e-mail addresses this year, though the process of sending out that many e-mails would probably take me a month, all by itself. I wanted to have the available dates very clear before disseminating my stuff far and wide.

I headed southwest into Iowa. My performance season was over, but there was a student at Northwest College (where my friends Jeff and Karen teach) who was directing my version of “Sganarelle” for her directing class project, so I drove down to see the eight or so directors’ presentations over the course of an evening.

I was slated to drop in on Jeff’s directing class the next morning, and so I took notes through the course of the shows, just in case they might be looking for some feedback. The shows were mostly a lot of fun, and I enjoyed being reminded of the “Sganarelle” script. I’d been performing a cutting from this play for the past seven years, but had largely forgotten the context of the script. It played well, though I doubted, in several instances, whether all of the words were actually making sense to the audience.

Jeff had reminded me of a directing textbook he’d been encouraging me to write. (He’d remembered a directing lecture that I’d given over twenty years ago!) It brought back a particular point of view I’d had about this craft, which was significantly distinct from my acting textbook. Given the several notes I’d now accumulated about a variety of individual directors’ efforts, I realized that I was beginning to accumulate a substantive collection of ideas about what young directors needed to learn in becoming more effective. And meanwhile, I’d been wondering just what I’d be doing for my “December project” this year, now that the Fall tour was done. And so, I sat down the next morning and examined the notes I’d taken, beginning to identify important chapters for the new book I would work on in the coming month.

Sitting in on the directing class that afternoon, Jeff had no particular agenda for my contribution to the class, and when I suggested I could share my feedback from the night before, their eyebrows raised with interest, and I did a quick once-over of my several reactions.

After about 45 minutes of this, Jeff needed to get back to wrapping up the class, and I needed to get back onto the road. The snow had been flurrying through most of the morning, and it was a long slog across southern Minnesota, through Wisconsin, and back into Illinois.

Where I now type these words, and look forward to diving into the latest creative endeavor.


Miles on the Vibe: 252,500

In the I-Pod: Evanescence, Joe Cocker and Donovan

Temperature: 80s (South Carolina) to single digits (Minneapolis)

Reading: The “Bean Series” of books from Ender Scott Card

Discoveries: When the audience sits far away, the students who don’t really want to get involved, don’t, but those who do, enjoy the show on an intellectual level … which doesn’t manifest itself in any response that I might be conscious of until after the performance. * It’s the reaction immediately AFTER the performance which will most effectively convey the audience’s enthusiasm and the actual impact of the show. * The richer the school, the more they inhibit the good speech of their students by putting a microphone in front of their mouths any time they’re on stage. * I have a whole distinct set of opinions to share with directors about the challenges that face directors, early in their careers.

Attendance: 60 + 40 + 35 + 60 + 80 + 4 + 60 + 50 + 650 + 40 + 70 = 1,439

Political commentary: If Obama or Edwards wins a significant victory over the other in Iowa, watch for the Anyone-But-Hillary vote to shift strongly onto one or the other.

Next performances: Texas Educational Theatre Festival, Dallas, TX, 1/25-26.