Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The View From Here #133: Liege, Belgium; Paris, France; Minneapolis, MN

Quick announcement: My long-time friend, accountant, board member of the Stage Two Theatre and Mensa member, Terry Hall, is running for Illinois State Senate! Wouldn't it be great to have someone who can balance a budget in there? Check her out at www.voteterry.com, and float a couple bucks her way!

Returning from Lincoln, Nebraska, I threw myself into editing of my Moliere scripts for submission. I would do one “pass” through a script per day, along with a rehearsal or two of “Karaoke Knights.” With each day’s rehearsal, I would re-introduce elements of the play into the mix, such as the video, the costumes or the projector. With each step I would remind myself of another layer of the play’s demands, and adjust my performance accordingly.

Finally, I videotaped myself performing the show in the basement, and virtually had to chain myself to the computer to watch the video. I am often very uncomfortable watching myself on tape, but I diverted my discomfort through my notepad, taking notes on any problems that I observed, as if I was the director, watching someone ELSE perform.

Of course, as my own worst/best critic, I had lots of notes. Most of them had to do with instances of seeing “Tim” pop up inside the five characters who were “not-Tim.” I realized all the gestures that I was doing which were so indicative of “me,” and began work on a method which would “get me out of myself,” fashioning a “psychological gesture” for each of my several characters, and using that gesture to remind me of the embodiment of each individual. (This will ultimately be yet another chapter in my eventual acting textbook.)

On July 15, I broke off from the rehearsal process and drove to Detroit, where I met Isaac and the two of us flew to Belgium, for the annual meeting of the American Association of Teachers of French.

The big box of flyers, discs, costumes and banners I wanted to ship to meet me there was weighing in at about 40 pounds, and the FedEx guy was estimating a cost of $400 to send it to Belgium.

I decided there was no way of justifying spending $800 to ship this (round trip), and so I stripped away all but the bare necessities and found a smaller box that I could check as baggage on the airplane. Since it was holding banners that were 31 inches wide, this made for a long box, which was still rather heavy, and unwieldy in airports and on the street.

Isaac and I arrived with no problems (other than lack of sleep), and unloaded our stuff in Belgium with nary a question being asked (other than the purpose of our trip). A couple of familiar faces from the airplane directed us toward the train station, and we took one train directly from the airport to the first stop. (We were redirected by the conductor, who informed us that we’d inadvertently sat in first class, which Isaac noted, looked like a compartment out of Harry Potter). We arrived at an extremely confusing terminal with a dozen train platforms, none of which seemed to be directed toward our ultimate destination (all the while maneuvering luggage and a clumsy, heavy box up and down stairs and ramps).

Eventually the nice guy at the information booth directed us to a train which was destined to a town with an unfamiliar name. Belgium is a multi-lingual nation, and they cannot even agree on single names for given cities. Thus “Liege” is actually known as “Luik” if you are in a Flemmish region of Belgium.

We pulled in to Liege around noon and walked the luggage and ourselves the two kilometers to the conference hall. (At this point, I was economizing on taxis.) When the struggle with the extra bag got to be too much, I relied on my strapping young son to maneuver it for a block or two, and we traded off for the remainder of the walk.

At the conference center, we dropped off the box and its contents, setting up the booth in record time, before working our way towards the hotel, which was yet another kilometer or so away. But this time, at least, we were only maneuvering our own luggage, SANS the box of display stuff, though it did choose that moment to begin raining.

We paused for a bite in a local pub, in a cobblestone alley that reminded me of New Orleans, and had our first difficulty with translation. The guy at the bar did not want to respond to English. (I had poked my head in asking “Are you open?” before realizing that even if I did have the right French words, “Are you open” was probably idiomatic to English, and he might not recognize my intent.) Meanwhile Isaac was digging for the exact French words, and I convinced the guy to respond to my awful mash of French and English phrases, enabling us to order sandwiches and cokes, before moving on to the hotel.

By the time we got to the hotel, I had learned to ask, first, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” before launching into a conversation, and we got on much better. Isaac was disappointed that this circumvented his role as the official “translator,” though he later admitted that, after three years of middle-school French, “You know, Dad, I’m learning that the French that they teach you in school is crap.”

We had a tiny hotel room, and the internet service was non-functional. I paid for 60 minutes of connectivity, and managed to download my messages in about thirty seconds, but was unable to hook up again until after we left Liege, three days later.

After a much-needed nap, we returned to the conference center, and I donned the white coat and wig for the course of the exhibit hall soiree, which is usually my best sales opportunity of this conference. (Since everyone has a ticket for a free glass of wine in the exhibit hall, just about everyone shows up and wanders past the various booths.) I caught up with lots of old friends, and folks who’d booked me and who were looking to book me in the future. I managed to hook potential hosts up with previous hosts to testify about the quality of the show, and over the course of three days, I collected info on about 40 potential bookers.

The exhibit hall soiree segued into a “walking dinner” (i.e., tall tables with no chairs, so that the attendees would continue to circulate), and we visited lots of folks, all of whom were impressed by Isaac, his French interests, his intelligence his height, his willingness to be dragged halfway around the world... Given that we were in Belgium (where 14 is an acceptable drinking age), I indulged him in a glass of wine. (In my opinion, there’s lots less binge drinking in Europe because people don’t make such a big deal about it.)

We headed back to the hotel, struggled with the internet connection for an hour or so, and slept very deeply. The next day, I got to the exhibit hall at 9 a.m., and Isaac stumbled in around noon. It was a mostly quiet day, and I was preparing for a performance the following morning.

That day I woke up at around 5 a.m., and strolled the streets of Liege, looking for a coffee shop, drilling my lines the whole time. Isaac hadn’t seen a performance of my show for perhaps four or five years, and he arrived at the conference center about five minutes before I went on, performing to an audience of twenty or so.

I chose a woman in the second row to deliver my “Tartuffe” monologue to, and as she kept a mostly straight face through the performance, I was surprised when she volunteered to play the scene across from me. She did very well, and later I invited her to join Isaac and I and some friends to dinner.

The exhibit hall closed at noon, and we packed up rather quickly, hauling the now-marginally lighter box (having given away a few dozen brochures and discs) back to the hotel. We were joined by my old friend, Jose (who has made previous appearances in these pages from the days he used to live in New York), and along with Susie (the woman from the “Tartuffe” scene), we walked through Liege, taking photos and finding a restaurant. Susie encouraged all of Isaac’s worst impulses, as he ordered the snails. Ewwww.

The next day Jose drove us to his home in Ghent, which is on the Flemish side of Belgium, a rather dark, gothic city (though the sun did manage to break through). It was a big day for some sort of a Ghent beer festival … or it was at least a festival where beer was a prominent component, and we found a table along the river overlooking tour boats that arrived and departed every couple of minutes.

The next day, Jose put Isaac and I on a train which bulleted us from Brussells to Paris in about 75 minutes (at estimated speeds of 130 mph.) This time I invested in a taxi to take us to the hotel, which was about a mile southeast of the center of Paris.

I gave Isaac the first choice of what to do, and he voted for the Eiffel Tower. We waited in line for about 45 minutes before taking the elevators all the way to the top (where the battery of my camera gave out). While my fear-of-heights was present, it wasn’t as bad as I’d recalled from the time we’d visited the Statue of Liberty, and from above I was actually able to get a feel for the layout of Paris, as we marked the several sites we wanted to visit in our three-day stop.

I had no desire to take the subway, and I think we learned the city fairly well in three days by walking everywhere. We probably walked ten miles a day (and my knee was starting to make noise once again), but the sights were amazing. It was a much lighter, aesthetically pleasing city than Ghent, and we started to feel very much at home. (Even though Isaac mistakenly attempted to order some sort of grocery store for dinner.)

Our second day in Paris, we set out for the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery. There is a marker for the grave of Moliere, which probably does not actually contain his remains (the cemetery was built in 1804, and Moliere died in 1673). We also visited the grave of Jim Morrison, which was littered not only with flowers, but cigarette butts and at least one beer can.

Jumping forward for a moment, on the very day that I returned to the U.S., I downloaded an e-mail from a Canadian theatre teacher who reported the following:

“I just want you to know that I read your translation of Moliere's 'Doctor in spite of Himself' with my Ontario students in France. The kicker is that we sat around Moliere's grave in the Pere Lachaise cemetery and read the whole thing aloud, to the amusement and bemusement of passers-by. Some stayed and listened. …”

I can only imagine the thrill that I would have felt if I had only stumbled across this group myself while I was touring the cemetery.

On our last full day in Paris, Isaac and I headed to the Comedie Francaise, where I had an appointment with the “Conservateur-archiviste de la Bibliothèque-Musée” to take a tour of the building. The fellow was extremely generous in showing me around the backstage areas, and I was amazed to see the many paintingsand busts that I had long been observing in books and on-line, in their original form. He even showed me the famous “Invalid chair” which Moliere himself had sat in as part of the production of “Le Malade Imaginaire” (The Imaginary Invalid) only hours before he died. (The chair, worn and splintering, is protected inside of a glass box.)

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos, but the painting which most amazed me was a very large frescoe of the many characters of Moliere’s plays in various poses, as seen above.

By now, my Paris experience was complete, and we topped it off with a walk down the Champs Elysees that evening, to the Arc de Triomphe at the far end.

The next morning, we were up at 5 a.m. to catch the shuttle to the airport, and a flight directly to the Detroit Metro airport. The ticket clerk had gotten us seats by the exit door, which meant we had lots of leg room, and were much more comfortable on the flight home than we’d been going out. I said goodbye to Isaac in Detroit and continued the drive home.

Back home, I threw myself back into preparations for the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Some of the Chicago area actors who were touring to the festival had put together a Mini-Fringe, and we all did 20-30 minutes of our shows in a somewhat improvised space. Unfortunately, the space had a cement floor, and I think I AGAIN did a bit of damage to my knee during my brief performance.

I was writing and re-writing my DVD, cutting the karaoke interludes of my script entirely at one point, and while I’d been performing version 6.1 of the show for over two years, I quickly found myself drafting a new variation, almost on a daily basis, and was performing KK 10.0 by the time I arrived in Minnesota.

This time around, I’d arranged a BYOV (Bringe Your Own Venue) with the fringe, performing at an Irish Pub/Karaoke Bar called McMahon’s, which had the best stage of the venues I’d visited last December.

The negotiations with the bar had been somewhat strained and uncertain, and I never knew if the agreement would fall apart at any given hurdle. The “tech rehearsal” was a bit of a struggle as the handful of bar patrons seemed hostile to a play which was drowning out their jukebox.

The fringe Out-of-Towner Showcase was a lot of fun, visiting with lots of people that I’d met in recent years, and I was glad to be the second act performing out of some 15 theatre groups. Sitting backstage while other people are performing leads me to compare myself to them in all kinds of unhealthy ways, but when I got up early, I could feel that no one had quite depicted the style that I was performing in my song, “The Dreaming Tax” before I’d gotten up to take my turn.

The next night my stage manager, Andrea, and I set up at the bar, and did the show to about a dozen in the audience. Without the karaoke numbers, there was far less audience participation, as there were no cues for the audience to sing along. There were also patrons off to the side making their usual patron noise during the show itself, as well as waitresses working their way through the crowd, taking food and drink orders. During the last song, a bar patron with a VERY LOUD VOICE was holding forth on some topic while I was trying to perform.

Many in the audience seemed pleased with the show, but I was unsatisfied with the experience. I had a chat with the woman in charge, who promised to keep the bar patrons much quieter for future shows, and I decided to restore the karaoke numbers to the performance. This, of course, meant spending another full day with the DVD, returning to version 6.1 and reworking it into version 11.0, which would trim extraneous verses of the karaoke music, and fade them in more slowly, so I was only using about 15 seconds of material for the audience to sing along with, before cutting to my own, original stuff.

Meanwhile, the first review appeared on-line, suggesting:

“… And yet, he was a trooper. He sang and danced through it all anyway. Unfortunately, his dancing was campy, and his singing was mediocre. The premise of the show was interesting, but the execution left a lot to be desired. He tried too hard to be "deep" with the song lyrics; he tried too hard to be "funny" with the characters; he just tried too hard, and missed the mark as a result.” (Stef B)

It was about this time that I got a note from Playscripts, Inc., congratulating me on the opening of the show, and insisting that if I wanted my four latest script to go into their new cataologue, they would need the proofs by Monday. This proceeded to occupy the remainder of my weekend. (The plays are already published! Go here.)

Also, around this same time, I learned that my "Uncle Blanford" had died. Horace Blanford Mooney was my dad's older brother, and had always lived on the west coast (as long as I can remember), so I only rarely saw him, but his company was always warm, appreciative and encouraging.

More reviews were starting to come in, but after the first one went on at length about the venue, every subsequent reviewer seemed to need to argue this theme, pro and con. And thus, the “frame” of the discussion for this show had been drawn around the venue itself, which left very little room for commentary on the actual content of the play.

“Extraordinary character studies of karaoke contestants. Tim Mooney establishes characters in a few seconds so he can delve into the psyches of people you just met. Meanwhile, the karaoke teleprompter is kissin' cousins with "The Word" graphic on The Colbert Report. The karaoke contest is typical, but the songs that play inside Karaoke Knights are original and revealing. The venue is not ideal for the Fringe …” (Dave Romm)

“This is a good show in a tough location. Tim is great at delineating his five different characters through the original songs he gives them -- "Dreaming Tax" was a particular stand-out. I liked the karaoke machine's own comments on the songs …” (Delano duGarm)

“I'm kind of stunned that so many people are complaining about the venue, because I thought it was perfect -- public humiliation is the point of the show, and this wouldn't have anything like the same effect in a theatre space. Surprisingly vulnerable, and that's only wonderfully abetted by the bewilderment of the bar regulars. This is exactly the kind of bizarre experience I Fringe for.” (Phillip Low)

“Tim Mooney returns to the Fringe with 'Karaoke Knights', his most schizophrenic show yet. Tim, while adhering to the one-man show format, has decided that he needs a larger cast - and he's up to the task. 'Karaoke Knights' is a great ride, a journey through the minds of five contestants in a karaoke competition, delving into the reasons people go to bars, what they're hoping for on stage, and ultimately why they sing karaoke….” (Kale Ganann)

Meanwhile, the performances were improving (even as my knee was getting worse), and the reinsertion of the sing-along created the atmosphere of camaraderie I was looking for. Even so, the attendance remained very thin, with the audience numbers mostly fluctuating between ten and twenty. Late in the run, I had a performance with thirty in the house, and then for the final performance, there were 41 in the audience, which the box office workers declared to be our “sell-out” figure.

Knowing that this last show would be the best attended, I brought out my video camera, and enlisted my billeter’s brother (also in town from Chicago) to tape the show, proceeding thereafter to upload scene after scene to YouTube. (I was going to get my promotional fix out of this festival one way or another!) Considering that the most recent videotaping of this show was for an audience of only three people in Boulder, Colorado, 2005, this would prove to be an invaluable resource, demonstrating to potential bookers the style and quality of the work and the fun that the crowd was having in the process.

A fun alternative from the reviews were two on-line interviews that I did, both before and after the run of my show. You can find them at: Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine ... then proceed to click on the videos marked Minnesota Fringe Festival: Act I and Minnesota Fringe Festival: Act V.

Independent of the reception that the show was getting (by the end, I was hearing quite a number of people saying that they’d been hearing how good it was, which was validated by the final day’s attendance), I was enjoying the fringe society quite a bit. Every night, following an evening of show-going, a couple of hundred of us descended on “Fringe Central”, a theatre that had it’s own bar, including a rooftop patio, with a terrific view of downtown Minneapolis. I found myself circulating like a pinball, visiting people whose shows I’d liked, or who I’d met in previous years, or who I’d vaguely remembered from previous years.

Quite often it was they who remembered me, and there were several people who approached me to tell me how much they’d enjoyed “Criteria” which I’d performed at the Minneapolis Fringe back in 2006! It is perhaps the greatest satisfaction of what I do, to grasp the notion that some piece of who I am, or what I did, continues to mean something to people for years after I am gone. They may only come into contact with me for a single hour, but the memories of that hour make an impact that I will never quite be privy to.

Speaking of impact, my favorite production of the Minnesota Fringe this summer was a show called "The Pumpkin Pie Show," based on "Rest Area" by Clay McLeod Chapman (pictured right). Also fun were Shave & Reilly, who performed "The Department of Angels" (Caitlin Reilly is the volunteer that I grabbed for my "Bite My Tongue" video, above.")

The final night at the fringe found us partying, once more, at the First Avenue, the nightclub made somewhat famous by Prince and the movie “Purple Rain.” I managed to enjoy one last visit with friends, including the adorable stage manager from the show from "Red Tide," a show from Miami (pictured below). And while I had barely managed to get through the run of my show without damaging my knee, I couldn’t resist dancing a bit.

Monday, I was back on the road, and home in several hours. I now face a full month of time off between performances, and contemplate all the new projects that I will attempt to squeeze into that space: including three books about the theatre that are tossing around in my mind, particularly a study of Shakespeare’s most challenging soliloquies, which will also be occupying my time as I continue my attempt to memorize one monologue from each of Shakespeare’s plays! Then there’s editing more Moliere plays, possibly writing one more adaptation (of a very short one), and probably a few ventures to the karaoke bar.

Miles on the Vibe: 274,400

Temperature: A comfy 70 degrees.

Discoveries: I can make huge improvements if I can only get Tim-the-Actor to allow Tim-the-Director to contribute to the process. * While most of my acting efforts go towards unleashing my natural energy, the show grows just as much from efforts at restraint, keeping the Tim-gestures at bay, and enabling someone else to take over. * “Parlez-vous Anglais?” are probably the three most important words for a tourist to come armed with. * You can get to know a city better by walking through it than taking a taxi, or subway.* The “frame” that the first review or reviews put around your play becomes the prism through which subsequent viewers will perceive it, or at least find themselves forced to comment on someone else’s frame. * Some piece of who I am, or what I did, continues to mean something to people for years after I am gone.

Next performance: A workshop at North Park College (Sept 9), and another at Cardinal Stritch College (Sept 10), with a performance scheduled in Denver at the Alliance for Colorado Theatre Sept 19.

Political Rant: If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything around you starts looking like a nail. Apparently the only thing that John McCain sees as a cure-all to the nation's ills is to bomb the crap out of anything that doesn't toe the shifting line that lives in his feeble imagination. His answer: "Bomb Iraq." "Bomb Iran." "Surge Iraq." "Surge the Economy." Scorn his opponent for actually having done well in school!