Saturday, March 15, 2008

The View From Here #130: Ann Arbor, MI; Bloomington, IL; Chattanooga, TN; Bristol, TN; Newberry, SC; Oklahoma City, OK

EDITOR’S NOTE: Once again, a computer crash has wiped some e-mail addresses from my memory. If you know of someone who ought to be receiving these posts, but is not, please put them in touch with me at

I had the first half of February at home, following through, mostly, on an e-mailing project begun in Hawaii. I was writing to the list gathered over the summer, of 11,000 Theatre, French, English and History profs, generally targeting two states per day, working my way, “virtually,” across the country.

I stumbled across news that Brother Robert Ruhl, my High School Advanced Placement English teacher, had died. While I have had teachers that I may have liked more (I was always a bit intimidated by Brother Ruhl), I must say that perhaps the measure of a great teacher is just how much that teacher’s voice remains in your head, in the years to follow. I hear Brother Ruhl’s voice repeatedly, particularly when I’m writing. Brother Ruhl ran a one-man campaign against clich├ęs, and I have to credit him for my current unwillingness to settle for easy, flip descriptions of idiosyncratic ideas or situations. Every time I hear someone use the phrase, “Needless to say …” I have to bite back the urge to say, as Brother Ruhl did so many times “… then why say it?” I am grateful for his relentless tyranny over lazy wordsmithing.

I managed to wrap up my e-mailing a couple days before I was due to hit the road again. By this time, there were almost 75 inquiries pending for the coming year. I don’t usually track things this early, but this strikes me as nearly double the usual.

I drove to Detroit, celebrating Isaac’s birthday (14 now, and taller than I am), and continued to Ann Arbor, where I was performing at the U of Michigan’s “Residential College,” a self-contained college-within-the-university, one square block of campus containing both student housing as well as classrooms and administration. The Theatre, as well as the French faculty, had teamed up to bring me in, and I enjoyed hanging out with both for coffee before the show and beer and pizza afterwards.

I gave a commedia acting workshop in the afternoon and a performance that night. I’d wanted to videotape it, but my camera (perhaps frozen from sitting in the car while I was in Hawaii?) was suddenly not powering up. It was a nice crowd of perhaps a hundred, but a quiet-ish group. The faculty still seemed quite taken with the show, and after a very cold night in Michigan, I began to inch my way southward, this time to Bloomington, Illinois.

I’d performed at Illinois Wesleyan two years before, and I continue to make use of an unequivocally enthusiastic quote from their French professor in my advertising. (He now tells me that the show was so good that “I found myself forgetting that you were speaking in English!”) He was hosting me for a workshop, but it seemed to fall outside of their normal class schedule, and ultimately three students showed up. Attendance that evening was likewise, less than three years before (a packed house), but it so happened that I’d recruited much of the audience myself. I’d written some of the local professors at Illinois State, who sent over a contingent of students working on a production of “Tartuffe,” as well as a local high school French teacher.

It so happened that the high school group had also come to the show three years previously, and some students who were Freshmen that first time around, were now Seniors, and determined to get up for the volunteer scenes this time around.

I managed to grab a few stills from the volunteer scenes to send the high school teacher the next day. (She wrote back that her students were thrilled.) And, in a bit of a coincidence, it turned out that the woman to whom I delivered my “Tartuffe” monologue was, in fact, playing Elmire in the Illinois State “Tartuffe!”

At last I found myself driving into warm weather, and it was a relief to be able to peel off a couple of layers.

In Chattanooga, I was hosted by another French teacher who had seen my show at the conference in Baton Rouge last summer. Ginnie and her husband put me up in a gorgeous house on Signal Mountain, and I managed to get a little jogging in on the morning of the show.

The show is rarely scheduled on Sundays, and I had little expectation for a large turnout, but ultimately 75 or so came out for the show, including some big laughers, particularly Ginnie’s husband, who was an English teacher at the same school. Everything was running smoothly until the last scene, during which the lights all went into a sudden blackout! Moliere noted that “It seems that a brisk wind has suddenly blown all of the candles out …” The audience remained remarkably quiet until the lights came back on about 30 seconds later.

Ginnie has since sent along a series of enthusiastic reports from her students, including ...

• You have an amazing gift for acting and you use it for the right reasons.

• … I have never seen anyone contort their face in such ways yet still manage to portray an accurate message. …

• Bravo! Your acting performance and skills were wonderful. I especially loved the audience interaction. I also enjoyed your improvation when the lights went out! You were constantly entertaining and a thrill to watch!

• Meci beaucoup! You were fantastic and hilarious! I’m so glad you came because my weekend was boring! My favorite scene was when you were the kid with the funky hat. It was so funny how you came up into the audience and your hat was absolutely amazing! …

• … I’ve never seen a one-man show, but am glad your’s was my first. The interactions you made with the audience were hilarious … even more so because of the apparent discomfort (in a good way) you caused them. Please come back for a second performance soon! Stop thief!

• … Very many times one-man shows can become tedious and long-winded, but Moliere Than Thou was entertaining and hilarious throughout the performance …

• … I’m between two scenes to pick as my favorite. Although I think I enjoyed the love scene with Forrest’s mom. …

• … You were an incredible actor. Your use of the audience (Including my mother and me) was especially cool. My favorite scene (and maybe yours?) was the “stop thief” scene. It was a great experience to read those lines on the same stage, too. Your stage presence is amazing. …

Immediately following the show (and the brief reception that followed), I raced north once again. I had a show the next morning (and a second show the next evening) at King College in Bristol, Tennessee.

I was a bit apprehensive about this performance, perhaps most specifically because the fellow who had booked me was the college “Chaplain.” When I inquired about their tolerance-level, he laughed and told me that, while they were a rather conservative group, they had been receptive to a wide variety of performers, encouraging me to go ahead with the “PG-13” version of the show.

There were about 100 students for the morning show, and I played the first “Tartuffe” scene to a theatre student in the front row, and later pulled her up on stage for the two-person scene. During the “Scapin” scene, I found myself climbing over the pews of the chapel, and where I normally look for a student holding a program to represent the “transcription,” I realized that these students had not been provided with programs, and none of them seemed to have loose papers or a notebook in hand. I found a hymnal on the back of a seat, and cracked that open to “transcribe” upon.

I was later informed that the woman whose lap Scapin sits upon during his pass through the audience, was in fact the chaplin’s wife … who seemed to be enjoying the show just fine.

During the evening show, I spied a cute student in the second row, to whom I delivered the first “Tartuffe” scene (climbing over the front row pew), and while that played to an uproarious response, when I enlisted that same student for the scene on-stage, she was a bit too freaked out for it to be much fun. I did, however, bring the much more responsive theatre department student, who’d come back to see it again, for the “Doctor” scene.

Newberry College (in South Carolina) was bringing me in to perform the rarely-booked “Criteria,” and I was feeling pretty good about the show following a successful performances in Hawaii and Texas. My host was meticulous in getting the stage and the lighting ready for the show though, unfortunately, the fellow who headed the department was stuck at home with a sick daughter that night. I had worked the show back up to speed, and again made special arrangements to get this one videotaped, since I had so little useable footage of this performance.

I emerged and began the show, performing to perhaps 50 people in the darkened auditorium. I came on strong, pushing the action forward. But I could feel that the audience wasn’t coming with me. The occasional in-jokes of the show … wry ironic observations that are funny in the context of “what really happens” 300 years into our future, went seemingly unnoticed.

They were distanced, almost as if they were watching a movie rather than a live human being. I began getting apprehensive, and dropped a line. I paused, checked back with the book that I keep on stage with me, and resumed. Later, again, I found myself farther out on the thrust stage than expected, and a quirk of the acoustics distracted me with a sudden echo. Again, I faltered in my delivery and continued, but this time perhaps half-a-page ahead of the spot that I’d left off. This would be confusing with the guy in the booth, but thankfully unnoticible to the audience.

After the show, I met with some of the theatre students, whose typical response was that “That was really … interesting!”

The next day, I was off to Greenwood, where my friend Bess was booking me to direct and act in “The Misanthrope” next March, and we pieced together a formula which would enable me to afford the extended visit, as I would earn income from three distinct sources, with one third of the money coming from the community theatre, another third from the local college, and the final third from bookings arranged with nearby schools.

With a few extra days before heading back to Chattanooga for the Southeast Theatre Conference, and no bookings to keep me afloat, I plotted stops in towns where I figured the hotels would be relatively cheap. My first stop was in Spartanburg, SC, where there just happened to be a karaoke bar in the hotel. It turned out to be perhaps one of the liveliest karaoke bars I’ve visited (their favorite song was by Rodney Carrington, with memorable audience participation).

From there, I continued to Asheville, meeting for lunch with our good friend Sandra-the-Vegan, before pushing on to Knoxville, where I spent three days getting work done, and, in anticipation of another weekend of group-leading with my Pathways ( friends in early May (May 1-4 for anyone who wants to join us), I turned my attention toward a project I’ve done two or three times in years past:

I wrote out 100 goals.

In the past, this project has been extremely revealing, as I get a look at projects unwittingly set aside. Eight years ago, while doing this, I noticed that I held the conflicting goals of quitting my day job, and getting two root-canals done. Since the day-job was necessary for the dental benefits (which made the root canals possible), my squeamishness around getting this work done was effectively keeping me from committing full time to my work. (Less than a week of completing the root canals, a call came in with an offer to direct a show!)

I found my goals fell into five separate “buckets”:

Things I can do today (Stuff like clearing out space on my hard drive, or adjusting the volume on my Preview DVD)
Things I can do in less than a single day (Like upload more scenes to YouTube, or trim “Tartuffe” down to 40 minutes)
Long projects, ranging from several days to a year (Like burn 100 Preview DVDs, or finish writing my adaptation of “Amphitryon”)
Ongoing projects that demand daily effort (Such as “Exercise Daily,” “Memorize Shakespeare Monologues,” “Work on My French”)
Eternal projects which will never be quite complete. (“End Global Warming,” or “End Torture,” or “Find Inner Peace”)

And then, as these categories surfaced, I also noted four “game changers,” goals which, if accomplished, would change the very landscape of the playing field for me.

• Publishing my collection of “Moliere Monologues”
• Getting “Moliere Than Thou” featured on a “Great Performances”-type program
• Publishing “Acting at the Speed of Life”
• Relocating to Los Angeles

In Chattanooga, at the Southeast Theatre Conference, I met up with April, who drove down to help me out. She brought down the display items for my booth, as well as my latest bit of “swag:” Moliere T-Shirts! We’ve created a new Moliere T-Shirt, with the “Moliere Bowing” logo stretched across the chest, and the “Moliere Than Thou” calligraphy on the back. Please buy one off of me the next time I’m in town!

April and I met up with my dear friend, Sabra, and her new husband, Paul, for karaoke our first night in town. We then spent Wednesday morning pulling together the last of the DVDs and creating further documentation for the exhibit booth.

However much I may prepare for a conference, different agendas arise, and about half of the pre-work goes for naught, while other things become much more important. Just about everybody, though, was quite pleased to take a brochure and a promotional DVD. And, the brochures almost ran out as the weekend continued. (The t-shirt were not especially popular, but I had actually created them so that the conference attendees might actually recognize Moliere-staff members who weren’t me.)

The booth traffic was great this year. I collected lots of business cards, lots of e-mail addresses, gave out perhaps 150 brochures and DVDs, and chatted with dozens of people interested in booking the show.

[About this time I received confirmation that I'm getting publshed again! Playscripts, Inc. has written to inform me that they'll be publishing my versions of "The Misanthrope", "The Doctor in Spite of Himself" and my 40-minute version of "Imaginary Invalid"!]

The biggest issue was that there was no self-evident watering hole where all the faculty would gather to schmooze. I happened to overhear, though, that there was a karaoke bar just a block away, and so I ended up hanging out there every night. By the end of the weekend, I had made several friends at this place, and gave one of the better singers there a Moliere T-shirt, which he proceeded to have all of the actors autograph.

Given my “Game-Changing Goals” list, I found myself focusing on the publishers who had booths in the exhibit hall, and casually asked the Samuel French representative (with whom I had a cordial saying-hello acquaintance over several of these conferences) whether they published any monologue collections (“Yes.”), and whether he might be willing to take a look at my book proposal. He said yes, and I e-mailed it to him the next morning. (It didn’t hurt that I’d enlisted April to help watch his booth while he was out speaking on a panel.)

While I was on that roll, I asked the fellows at the neighboring booth, who handle musicals, if they’d be willing to give a read/listen to my musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer In A Day.” (Another affirmative.)

April and I packed up the booth (all the while running into old theatre friends) and headed out shopping.

I had decided it was time to get a new laptop. With the bookings rolling in, and the hard drive of my old laptop filling up (dabbling in video was using massive globs of memory), I was starting to eye new machines that could hold nearly twice as much as my current laptop. And April could translate all of the computereez that the spec sheets were describing. I ultimately settled on a Sony (Vaio), with 3 gigabytes of memory and 250 gig of storage.

And then the old computer crashed.

With astounding timing, the old computer crashed and would not revive, before I could manage to transfer over the memory from one computer to the other.

Fortunately, since the last such disaster, I’ve managed to back up my documents on a fairly regular basis. I’m now working to reconstruct information that I’d gathered since February 25 (my last back-up), but the damage done is nothing compared to the theft of two computers and a hard drive backup in the summer of 2006.

I headed west, stopping in Little Rock and Norman, Oklahoma … all the while downloading and updating and memorizing. I did a workshop at Norman North High School, where they were working on Romeo and Juliet. In anticipation, I’d been working on the Mercutio “Queen Mab” speech (one of my goals is to memorize one monologue from every Shakespeare play), and had some fun working through my insights around this piece with the students.

I continued up to Oklahoma City, where there was some last minute confusion. They thought I was supposed to be performing for them on Friday, while I was certain we’d scheduled for a Thursday show. My host quickly realized that a Thursday performance would be much better than a Friday show, considering that Spring Break began on Saturday. With less than 24 hours advance notice, he pulled together a Thursday show, and about 40-50 theatre majors showed up. … and were a FABULOUS audience.

I was in a tight, tiny thrust arrangement, with students to either side of me, as I played in between banks of audience, packed in elbow-to-elbow. In this intimate arena, they responded hysterically every time I singled one of them out as the object of a given character’s derisive reference.

I wrapped up the show, headed back to the swank hotel they had me in, and am now heading south, with a weekend in Dallas, ahead of a workshop in Austin on Monday. With two days to hole up in a hotel, I’m hoping to get these words posted, download some pics and videos, and rebuild my distribution list.

Miles on the Vibe: 260,000

In the DVD Player: Battlestar Gallactica, Season One (The best “Season One” I’ve seen since the first season of “24”)

Discoveries: The measure of a great teacher is just how much that teacher’s voice remains in your head, in the years to follow. * Scanning the student responses, the vast majority cite the “audience interaction” as being their favorite part. I need to keep that in mind when arranging the performances, so that the hosts put a priority on finding an intimate setting over a vast proscenium space. * There are projects that I have unwittingly set aside in recent years, and the dreams of accomplishing them are lying dormant just beneath the surface. * Amongst my goals are certain “game changers” which may not be as difficult or as time-consuming as the rest of my goals, but which may change the entire landscape. * However much I may prepare for a conference, about half of the pre-work goes for naught, while other things become much more important.

Temperature: 78 Degrees (in Dallas)

Quick Plug for a Friend: Risa Kaparo, who I've been coaching on her one woman show is a finalist for the John Lennon Songwriting contest! Please go to and vote for her song, "The Bible, Before!" It takes about two minutes to register and you can vote once a day if you are so inclined!

Political Rant: The US Treasury is being fleeced by contractors like KBR, who, under the "cost plus" arrangement (arranged by their former CEO), have the incentive to increase their costs any way they can. As such, they triple the cost of white towels by adding embroidering with the company logo on them, thereby earning themselves triple the commission by flaunting their advertisement in the face of low-level soldiers, who get not "cost-plussed" but "stop-lossed." They used to have a phrase for it, and "war profiteering" used to be considered one step away from treason. (I wonder if the towels were made of fleece?)

Next Performance: Western New Mexico University, March 19