Saturday, February 02, 2008

The View From Here #129: Kaua'i, HI; Dallas, TX; Point Lookout, MO & Shreveport, LA

Getting home from the fall tour, I started by throwing myself into the writing project that I’d begun envisioning in Iowa. This would be a directing textbook which would continue on in the same tone as “Acting at the Speed of Life” (which I continue to shop around to publishers).

The first few chapters came naturally to me, but I soon found myself on a tangent that I hadn’t anticipated: I started looking at the history of directing as expressed through reviews of “Hamlet.” I’m fascinated by the way that every era has its own great Hamlet, whether it be Richard Burbage, John Barrymore or Lawrence Olivier, and they all tend to describe them in the same way (except for Burbage, who was the first Hamlet). They all tend to say just how much “truer” this new great Hamlet is, compared to the one before who was (choose one) too bombastic, flat, effete, sophisticated, etc.

What this tells me is that it is, in fact, the nature of TRUTH which continues to shift from one generation to another. And wouldn’t it be fascinating glimpse of history, and the history of directing through that lens. (The history of “Hamlet” also happens to have a lot of fun anecdotes attached to it, too, particularly the chapter surrounding that rake, John Barrymore.)

So, I diverted to start thinking about this new project, when yet ANOTHER idea came to mind.

My several auditions for professional theatres and Shakespeare Festivals during the fall had me thinking about firming up some Shakespeare monologues (in addition to the Moliere monologues that I could whip out at a moment’s notice). Noticing the wide variety of Shakespeare plays being produced, I started thinking about what an advantage it would be to be able to instantly pull out a monologue from whatever play was being produced. (“Oh, you’re doing ‘Coriolanus?’ Here, lemme do this one for you …”)

And so … memorizing some thirty-six monologues by Shakespeare. It could provide the opportunity to demonstrate the acting theories that I’ve begun to put forward in my acting text with a practical demonostration that would work through Shakespeare’s catalogue.

So, I’ve started memorizing. Currently working on the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from “Julius Caesar.” Probably one of the greatest speeches of all time. This project will be at least a year in the works.

And then, with Christmas approaching, I got back to work on three more projects:

A) I produced my annual “family calendar,” a power point document that featured old family photos of relatives in the individual squares of the dates of their birth. Since I do this while tinkering in a rather clumsy “Power Point” program, it’s rather rough hewn, and occasionally, I create a month with 31 days where only 30 days are required, or vice versa. (But the family is always very generous and appreciative.) This year I stumbled across a treasure trove of old family photo albums, so there were some great surprises to be included.

B) Since the calendar project would demand getting some printing done, I decided to rework my brochure, updating my prices (which go up a bit every January 1), and finally working my new publicity photos in. This printing job would be on Adobe Illustrator, which I’m less adept at working, but which creates a much sharper finished product. I worked and re-worked the layout, trying to get it to make visual sense, all the while continually re-editing the material, until I got what I felt was the strongest possible message. (If anybody out there wants to book the show, please let me know and I’ll send you the new brochure.)

C) I re-did my business cards, going back to the very popular “Moliere bowing” image.

This all kept me very busy, right up until Christmas, at which point Isaac arrived from Michigan, and I forced myself to take time off of work, limiting myself to reading the occasional Shakespeare play.

Isaac and I enjoyed the occasional ping-pong game, movie or Chicago-style pizza, and as he headed back to Detroit with Jo (his mom), I threw myself into the next phase of my work: figuring my taxes.

Usually I save starting my taxes until January 1, as a good way of spending the day when nothing but parades and football games are on TV, but I was anticipating a January 3 departure for Hawaii, so this time around, I was actually done with my taxes on the first of the year, e-mailing the documentation to Terry Hall (my accountant) on what must be a record: January 1.

In the pre-dawn dark of January 3, I loaded my suitcase into my dad’s car, banging the heck out of my shin in the process, and he drove me to the airport. About 14 hours later, I was on the island of Kaua’i (aka, “The Garden Island”). I’ve been working with my friend, Risa on developing a one-woman show based on her music, and we worked out an exchange, with a place for me to stay in Hawaii while I coached her on her show.

I arrived to temperatures in the mid-70s to mid-80s, delicious food, a beautiful view out the back window, fabulous walks along the beach, fun nights at the karaoke bar, and a fair amount of work, as well, working through my winter e-mailing campaign to schools.

Risa would occasionally take me out to meet her friends (she hangs out with a lot of tango dancers) and many of them wanted to see me perform. We made arrangements with a coffee house in town, and I worked up a performance of “Criteria” for them. (I hadn’t done “Criteria” publically for over a year, not counting shows in my living room, and so I ran my lines on a daily basis for about a week in advance of the show.) It was an interesting venue, and as the action developed, the distraction of the espresso machine diminished, until, by the end, the store manager said that he’d never seen people so quiet in the shop.

We went on a number of expeditions through Kaua’i, walking to the “Queen’s Bath” in Princeville, a small cove sheltered by lava, which was occasionally splashed over by strong waves and on a long hike along a mountain ridge surrounded by green upon green. (I’m sure you’ve figured out that most of these photos were from this.)

I also took the opportunity to fly over to Maui for a day, and while I remembered my camera, I forgot my camera’s battery, which I’d left in the recharger. And so I took advantage of the opportunity to buy a new Canon camera (Canon was listed first among environmentally friendly companies by “Climate Counts”). Digital cameras have gotten cheaper and better since the first one I bought five years ago, and hopefully that will show in my pics. I visited with my old buddy, Ray, who has gotten a job doing electrical work in the middle of paradise. He took me over to a fire dance on the beach, and drove me to drop in on an agent I’d been chatting with a year ago, about the possibility of representing me.

Back on Kaua’i, I had another week in the sun before it was time to say goodbye, and Risa took me to the airport. This time it was an overnight flight coming back, and I lazily watched the video programming, while trying to drop off to sleep.

The airline was repeating a movie on the way back that they’d also shown on the way out (though I wasn’t watching it then), but this time around, they added a short feature of “Ebert and Roper” which discussed the movie we were about to see. The problem was that Roper, at least, HATED the movie we were about to see. I’d pretty much figured that it was a crappy movie, but do you really want somebody telling you what an awful movie you’re about to see in a situation where you can’t escape?

A day after landing, I was heading south again, this time driving to Dallas. The Texas Educational Theatre Association was bringing me in as a featured guest artist this year, which meant that they were putting me up at the very nice hotel, as well as giving me a stipend, while scheduling me to do a TON of work.

I was still on “Hawaii time” and was having a hard time adjusting (It just felt right to stay up until 2 a.m. most nights), but I was up at 6 a.m. on the first day of the Texas conference for a 7:30 rehearsal, and a 9 a.m. show. The rehearsal was disrupted by the student rock band they’d scheduled to play as the audience was coming in. They’d promised that the band rehearsal wouldn’t interrupt our tech rehearsal, but there were clearly more people who were overly concerned about tweaking the details of the band’s sound, and my show was taking a back seat. I concentrated on working with the lighting technician.

“Moliere Than Thou” was the “student convocation” of the conference. Things were clicking very well, and the students were responding. There may have been a dozen people walking out after the steamy “Tartuffe” monologue (there were no complaints reported back to me, so who knows what that was about). As I passed through the audience during the Scapin scene, I went to sit on a girl’s lap as I often do during the “… or else some woman that the man intends to…” sequence, and the girl was more receptive than most. (I kind of hated to head back to the stage.) As the weekend proceeded, she came back to see my workshop and a performance of Criteria, and later she e-mailed:

I just wanted to tell you that i totally adored your show!!! It was a wonderful experience since i am from the country of Panama and theatre is not very big down there. I'd have loved to stay longer to see the complete show at night but we had to leave after Criteria. :(

I was supposed to speak for the 30-minute balance of time following my show, but between the rock band, the preliminary welcome, the introductions, and my performance running long, I had less than fifteen minutes left by then. I ditched my prepared remarks and opened the floor to questions immediately. Of course the first question that came across was “How did you end up doing what it is that you do?” (which was what I had prepared my remarks about anyway). This allowed me to speak very cleverly on the topic, seeming to shoot from the hip while quoting mostly things I’d planned to say anyway.

At 10:30 that morning, I was sitting on a panel, the topic of which was “Writing the one-man play.” To either side were a couple of “heavyweights”: Tony/Obie/Pulitzer winner Doug Wright, (“Quills” and “I Am My Own Wife”), Richard Kornberg, (Public Relations rep for “Hairspray”, “Rent” and the NY Shakespeare Fest), as well as Paul J. Williams a stand up-comic who has been getting raves for his one-man show “Dishing it Out”. It was a lively conversation among four guys who are generally accustomed to dominating the conversation themselves. This was my “break”.

From there I rushed to a 12 noon workshop on “The Life of Moliere,” and, while I was in town, the conference director had recruited me to give that same workshop to the French students at his high school, about 25 minutes away. Did I mention that I hadn’t had time for breakfast that morning? By now I was feeling it, and when I finally got back to the hotel, I stuffed myself on the most fattening hamburger I could order. I went back to the room, taking naps and hot baths to allow my energy to regenerate before my rehearsal for “Criteria” that evening.

The next day I caught Richard Kornberg’s publicity workshop at 10:30, performed by my own acting workshop at noon followed by a performance of “Criteria.” Doing “Criteria” to perhaps 100 people in a huge ballroom of about 800 seats, I let them hook me up to a microphone, which I have never done for a show before. While my voice could have filled the space, the acoustics of the room had an echo which would have slowed me down greatly in the process. They had to strap the radio pack underneath my shirt, which created rather an odd lump.

I was noticing a lot of the same people at my workshops and shows, and swinging by the exhibit hall, I discovered that the folks at the Playscripts booth (who published my “Tartuffe” and “Imaginary Invalid”) had sold out the couple copies of my scripts that they’d brought, and so I offered them the copies I was carrying around to sell (they sold another five by the end of the weekend).

I finished day two of the conference with one more performance of “Moliere Than Thou”. I’d been trying to capture video on several of the events through the weekend, but this was the first one close enough to the action. This show was working magically, with the audience laughing in all the right places. The volunteer for “Tartuffe” was wearing a thick sweater over her shirt, and amid his seduction, Tartuffe would draw it smoothly just off of her shoulder. Every time Tartuffe turned away, the volunteer would sneak the sweater back up into place, and of course Tartuffe could not resist fixing it back to the new position, and it became a separate game playing underneath the scene.

I wandered into a danger zone as the volunteer for “Doctor in Spite” who claimed to be over 18 admitted after the show that she was only actually 15. The “Stop Thief” song drew spontaneous applause, and the show ended with an enthusiastic standing ovation, and I loaded the trunk out to the car (with help from my friend Nancy Jo, who had come to see the show for perhaps the fourth or fifth time). I recconoitered back to the bar, meeting up with some of my new friends, including a particular couple from a community theatre in the Houston area who had come to see nearly all of my events.

The next morning I loaded up the car, and every time I passed through the lobby, it seemed, someone would flag me down with thoughts about my show, or questions about Moliere or booking. I realized that I had been rushing about so much all weekend long, that no one actually COULD have approached me about a booking if they had wanted to! I decided to simply hang out and make myself available for a couple of hours before getting back onto the road and driving north. (I think I initiated conversations about at least three bookings that morning.)

In the days that followed I received more feedback via e-mail:

Bonjour Monsieur,
I am a high school student who just recently attended the TETA conference and was fortunate enough to sit in on your classical theatre workshop. Your advice was invaluable and I cannot thank you enough for your time. Also your performances were astounding. I am attempting to perform a monologue from "The Blunderer" for college auditions, and your interpretations of Moliere's various characters has helped me in many ways. Hopefully I will be able to see you somewhere else around the country.
Thank you again ...
And ...

Recently at the TETA conference you pulled me up on stage one morning during "Moliere Than Thou".I believe it was during Scapin's spiel. It was an experience I will never forget. I was so awestruck by your impressive acting ability, and it was truly a joy to be on stage with you. As a matter of fact, you inspired me to write a one-man show myself. Then in the process of creating that script, another idea has taken flight. You Sir truly are an inspiration and an amazing author and actor.
Thank you ...
I headed for Point Lookout, Missouri, which actually turns out to be a town comprised exclusively of the College of the Ozarks, overlooking Branson, Missouri. (I’ve never been to Branson before, but it strikes me as a cross between Orlando and Las Vegas.) I was a bit concerned about this show, because the school was clearly very conservative, which left me wonering why they’d chosen me to appear there, but my host was very friendly, and I worked out ways to take some of the “edge” off of the more salacious material.

It actually worked very well for the show, as I continued to ride the edge of some of the bawdier humor, which kept a level of tension present throughout. (The audience continues to wonder, “Did he really mean it in the way that I think he said it?”) Afterwards the theater faculty were very enthusiastic about the show, particularly glad to be able to demonstrate to their kids just how well they can make themselves be heard, even without a microphone.

The next morning was a quick drop south once again, this time to Shreveport, with a show booked by a high school teacher at a local youth center. She was only expecting about fifty students in attendance, and that was almost exactly how many showed up. I was working without music, and with only basic lighting in a former church space. I was waiting to come on from backstage, and didn’t actually hear the teacher giving her introduction. Eventually, I heard a tapping at the door, and heard her asking if I was ready to come on. “Yes, of course,” I responded and immediately made my entrance. But I could tell from the general lack of energy in the audience that they had actually been awaiting my entrance for some time by then.

This crowd’s response was very quiet, and only gradually did they warm up to the show. The applause after the initial monologues was muted, and only with the audience interactive scenes did they seem to be “getting” the humor. Afterwards, however, a dozen or so students lingered to tell me just how much they’d enjoyed themselves, and how amazed they were at my performance and my memory. One rather attractive black girl said to me, “Wow, you have got a really big ... vocabulary!”

That night, the following showed up in my inbox:

I just saw your play today with my French club...
And totally loved it.
Sure, i felt kinda violated. :D
But it was hilarious.
And really, I love guys with long black hair and ruffly shirts :D
My only regret is that all my friends weren't there to see it!
My friend Jeremy and I thought the show was AWESOME!!!
So I'm definately a fan now. :)
<3 Amanda Rivers
P.S. Sureeee there's like a 30 year age difference between us, but when I turn 18 next year, we can still totally get married, right? :DDD
Thanks for comin to Louisiana!

My host was quite pleased with how the show went, and we went out for a bite to eat afterwards, where a couple from the audience were by then finishing up dinner. One of them was a French teacher on a local college faculty, and he was quite enthusiastic, with thoughts of bringing the show back again sometime.

I headed on to my hotel and got a good night’s sleep (finally, my system was back on “Midwest time” rather than Hawaii time), and I raced back home, just ahead of a huge snowstorm, and now I’ve got about two weeks to finish my winter mailing before jumping back onto the road for another two months of the tour.


Miles on the Car: 256,000

Attendance: 40 + 200 + 25 + 50 + 75 + 60 + 100 + 200 + 300 + 50 = 1100

Temperature: 0-90 (Chicago and Hawaii, respectively)

Discoveries: Somehow the tangents from any given writing project seem much more interesting than the original composition. * The nature of TRUTH continues to shift from one generation to another. * Do you really want somebody telling you what an awful movie you’re about to see in a situation where you can’t escape? * Allowing the audience to ask the first question makes me look much more spontaneously clever. * Respond to everything the volunteer does! * There are people waiting to ask me about booking my show, if I’ll just slow down long enough to let them catch up to me. * Holding back on some of the more overt innuendo actually helps to maintain the tension through the course of the scene.

Next Performance: February 19 (Isaac's birthday) at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)

Political Sentiment: I’m hereby endorsing Barack Obama! -- The rap on Obama is that he is "just" an inspirational speaker. But the very fact of his inspirational speaking gives him the ability to make a transformational shift in our thoughts and actions. Whereas Reagan might have been able to make people think that what was in their own best interests would probably be in the country's best interest, Obama has the ability to enable people to believe that what is in the country's best interest is, in fact, in their own best interest. While Hillary might be able to nibble away at the edges of policy arguments, in the face of opposition that has hardened against her, Obama has the transcendent ability to rearrange our point of view.

Reading: "The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman

On the I-Pod: "Back to Black" by Amy Winehouse