Monday, March 30, 2009

The View From Here #138: Monterey, CA; Springfield, MO; Auburn, AL; Rome, GA; Birmingham, AL; Slippery Rock, PA; Newberry & Greenwood, SC

I spent a couple days visiting my old high school friend, Kirsten in Santa Clarita. Kirsten and I went to high school together, and we stumbled back across each other through friends of friends of friends. (She’s turned out to be an enthusiastic supporter of the Moliere tour.) From there it was on to visit “Airplane Jane” in Fresno (watching old episodes of “Battlestar Gallactica,” which just wrapped up it’s four-year series last week).

And then on to Monterey, where I was performing at Santa Catalina High School for an audience of about 200 girls who were fabulous gigglers. The teacher there had seen my show back in the Washington D.C. area, and remembered me when she returned to the west coast.

The performance was originally supposed to be an hour long, shortened to 50 minutes, and later cut to about 40 minutes. The teacher was signaling me active from the front of the auditorium before I even got to the “Precious Young Maidens” scene. Even without the climax of the show, a couple teachers suggested that it was the best assembly event of the year.

Everybody was positive about the show … The girls were generally "shocked" because of subject content and the power of theater ( you!) to create strong emotions! (Anne O’Dowd, French Teacher, Santa Catalina High School)

While I don't have copies of them to paste up here, you can see photos from the "Tartuffe" scene here and here.

The next day I started pushing my way back east again, with overnight stops in Arizona, New Mexico, the Texas panhandle and Missouri. In Springfield, MO, I spent quality time with the Ozarks Technical Community College, as they rehearsed my version of “Tartuffe”, giving them my acting workshop, a performance of “Moliere Than Thou” >along with a stop at rehearsal. They were working on a 60s version of “Tartuffe” (the 1960s, that is), and later produced a fun video promoting the show (along with a special appearance from myself). They were very, very happy to have me there, and at the end of my visit, most of them asked me to autograph their scripts. (One of them actually turned up on-line on the costumer’s website.)

[I must note that there was a dicey period right around here where there were three schools in a row that did not “have the check ready” when I was in town. Despite the fact that “payment is due on the date of performance”, people did not seem to be coming up with the goods in a timely fashion. I found myself contemplating notions of helplessness while wondering how to pay my bills with money that I’d earned but not received.]

[It was also about this time that I started to hear news of high schools that were producing shortened versions of my plays moving up in competition. Scituate High School in Massachusetts took “The Misanthrope” all the way to state semi-finals competition, while my “Imaginary Invalid,” produced by York High School in Virginia, was a State Finalist.]

From Springfield, I drove to Montgomery, Alabama, where I was brought in to present the show as part of a Humanities conference. The host had met me at the American Assn of Teachers of French conference last summer, and he introduced me to the theatre department at Auburn University-Montgomery. He gave me a tour of Montgomery, including Hank Williams (astroturfed) gravesite, and several civil rights historical sites.

The show was well received. The hosts wrote that:

“Your show and workshop were the hit of the conference. As well as the conference went overall, that's saying quite a lot.” (Steve Daniel, French Professor, Auburn University-Montgomery)

That was such a fun evening. Your talent and energy are amazing. I can't remember when I've seen an audience so engaged. (Katie Pearson, Theatre Coordinator, Auburn University-Montgomery)

I came in this morning to write you how much I enjoyed the performance/ Moliere (there just is not enough live Moliere in Montgomery!). Your zest for character and words is contagious--M. Poquelin would be so proud of the evening! (Susan Willis, Auburn University-Montgomery)

Meanwhile, a fan and friend from a previous performance at Auburn University wrote:

The performance was spectacular. I was surprised to find myself not shaking the entire time which was actually the case the first time, but I guess some of the anticipation was gone, knowing what was coming. Nevertheless, I laughed fully and deliciously and (as I'm sure you saw) even had eyes that looked like I'd been crying because of all the tears that come with real mccoy all-out laughter, and I had a ridiculously happy smile on my face whenever I was not actually laughing. (Jennifer Moody, Auburn University)

A show in Orlando, Florida had been cancelled, so I ran up to spend a weekend with Isaac in Detroit (his fifteenth birthday), before swinging back to Chicago for a few days.

Resuming the tour, I dropped down to Chattanooga, TN, visiting Sabra and her husband Paul (again we hit the Chattanooga karaoke bar, where we have been mostly famous ever since last year’s SETC conference). And again I pushed on to visit my friend, Lori, in Calhoun, GA for a couple days, before swinging back to Rome, Georgia for a show at Berry College.

Berry College apparently has the largest campus in the world, which seems to be just as populated by deer as it is by students. They put me up in a nice cottage setting, where the deer lingered nearby. The show itself really rocked, and I got some good footage out of it (which I quickly uploaded to YouTube). The French professor had seen me perform in Belgium last summer, and he was quoted in the press release for the show, saying:

Mooney really embodies Moliere’s spirit. You will become spellbound after only a few seconds of watching him. (Vincent Gregoire, French Professor, Berry College)

And another unsolicited note came in from an audience member:

Tim, your performance at Berry College was perfect antidote to winter doldrums. In awe of your talent, facial expressions, and word manipulation. (Susan Harvey, Georgia Artist)

I set out for Birmingham, where the Southeast Theatre Conference was meeting. This was my fifth year of attendance, and I spent the entire several days, running into one old friend after another. Kirsten flew out from L.A. to catch the performance I was giving at midnight as the opening event of the SETC “Fringe Festival.” While some 300 or more people had assured me that they wanted to catch the midnight show, never before was the phrase “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” more apropos. Perhaps 70 or so people attended the late-night show, and they were very enthusiastic, though they did seem to hit a wall somewhere around 1 a.m. (which meant that “Stop Thief” was showing diminishing returns over the fifteen times I repeat that particular line). On the up-side, though, I’d been invited to do a scene from the show as a part of the opening night reception, and about 500 people saw me do the “Stop Thief!” sequence from “Precious Young Maidens” in the open 16-story lobby of the Sheraton hotel. (People who were lying in bed in their rooms later reported having heart my voice booming through the hotel.)

There’s always the bar scene at these conference, and at one point, I found myself hanging with Kirsten, our mutual friend, Mark, and two of the “past presidents” of SETC (both of whose schools I’d performed at). One of these gentlemen actually blew off a performance of his state’s theatre contest winner to hang out and drink well into the night. (Apparently, hanging with Moliere takes a certain priority.)

The day after the conference, I was on to Greenwood, South Carolina. A couple of anticipated shows in the Northeast had fallen through, which meant that I got to commit more time to the Greenwood Community Theatre which had brought me in to direct and act in “The Misanthrope”. They had been rehearsing for a couple weeks up to this point, working off of blocking that I had drawn up on a ground plan, so that they could learn where they were supposed to stand, even before the director arrived in town.

As forced, and false and unnatural as that might sound, to me it felt right for this show, which was going to be reaching back to another era. I went so far as to plot out the blocking in color coordinated markers, using a different color for every character on stage. Perhaps I am the only one who may have thought of this as a thing of great beauty.

I spent three days in town, working through the show as well as giving them my acting workshop, before making a fast dash north to a single show in Slippery Rock, PA.

The trip to Slippery Rock gave me the opportunity to finish memorizing “Misanthrope”, and Moliere played very well in a conference room with some hundred chairs set up. Unfortunately the lighting was not so good (so the video we captured was not the best), but the audience, which included the Mayor of Slippery Rock (who also happened to be a retired member of the theatre faculty … how often does that happen?), loved the show lots. In fact, as is evident in this video: “They really enjoyed the show.”

Following another day’s drive, back down to Greenwood, we dove fully into rehearsals. We had to part ways with one actor, who was chronically late, and I could feel it sending a shock wave through the cast, who were suddenly conscious that there might be quality standards at play in this little “community theatre” show. As difficult a decision as that was to make, since then, I have observed the effort and enthusiasm of the cast spiraling upwards.

When we did run-throughs, we would videotape the rehearsal, so that I might be able to actually watch the show afterwards and type up notes for the cast. I was also able to cut some scenes together to put up on my YouTube site to help promote the performance:


I've been casually referring to the house that I’m staying in as “Suzy’s Puppet Place”, a comfortable home in which Suzy (who lives elsewhere), once upon a time, gave puppet performances. It features a couple of puppet stages, with large mirrors on the walls (to see the effects of the puppet movements during rehearsal), as well as all kinds of puppets, all over the house. (This can be a little spooky late at night, when I trip over a life-sized puppet’s feet on the way to the bathroom.) The mirrors on the wall were of great assistance when I was rehearsing “Karaoke Knights”, as I could see how each of the characters were coming across as I was performing them, and eventually I loaded in all of my amplification equipment, to remind myself of the tangle of wires that leads from DVD player to PA system to three separate microphones, and to the projector.

I ran off to perform “Karaoke Knights” at Newberry College. Newberry had hosted my “Criteria” a year before, and they’re talking about hosting “Moliere” next year. It took about a week to work “Karaoke Knights” back up to performance conditions, and I had very little sense of how it would go over, considering that I hadn’t performed it for a college crowd in years. The tech director there was extremely supportive in getting the show set up, and I did a run through with his technicians “playing” with the levels. When this didn’t quite have the desired effect, the techs spent another couple of hours re-gelling lights, and reworking the cues.

Ultimately, the play was quite well received, even with an audience of only thirty people or so, and I managed to post many of these scenes on-line. (The scenes looked and played much better on video that was shot in a theatre, rather than the noisy bar I’d performed at in Minneapolis last summer.)

Given this success, I headed on to a performance at Lander University (here in town where I’m working with the Greenwood Community Theatre) with some confidence. I would be on an even bigger stage, with better amplification and better lighting.

And yet, I was feeling less secure. The theatre’s booth was about fifty yards away, and from what I could see, they didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the show. They hit “play” on the DVD early, so that when we started the play, we were already perhaps 15 seconds into the video. This meant that my opening monologue, which is timed down to the second, would need to be cut on-the-fly, though I didn’t know how much I would have to cut out in order to be in place in time for the opening number. Likewise, the stage had large barriers separating the audience from the stage, which meant that for any volunteers who would be coming up on-stage, they would need to first move away from the stage, up to the first landing, before turning to the side, and approaching the stage from a distant ramp. This meant that I was beginning two of the songs before I had even gotten the volunteers in place.

The audience was much larger than the Newberry crowd, but they were less attentive, and seemed to have arrived in the mood for a sing-along, not for a play. (Later, my theatre-department contact at Lander explained that this was the way that the publicity had circulated.) As such, I could feel a collective “hunh?” going up from the crowd, as I narrated/sang/danced my way through a supposed “karaoke competition,” in which I was the only participant.

With the conclusion of this performance, I decided that I am ready to be done performing “Karaoke Knights.” Over four years of hauling it out and around to perform, I seemed to have, at best, a 50% success record with the show. My vision has gone from that of a spoken-word poetry performance, to a “one-man rock opera”, to a collection of different karaoke-singing characters, to a series of songs bridged by popular karaoke numbers, to a narrated karaoke contest, to a full-out karaoke video, revealing the lyrics to all of the original songs, as well as the popular numbers, along with a disembodied, omnipresent karaoke narrator commenting on the performance and the content. This technological beast has resulted in several nightmare performances through the years, when videos broke down, or microphones didn’t work, or bar patrons were not only inattentive, but battling my sound system to be heard over me.

And now that I’ve got, at least one decent performance on video, one glimpse of what it might have been, when all the stars aligned, I’m ready to be done. There are too many projects waiting for my attention for me to spend a week or more preparing the next performance of the show, which may or may not result in theatrical genius, or perhaps, some sort of a lawsuit.

Feels rather like a load off of my back.

I went on to more successful events with Lander University, as I was the “Distinguished Speaker” for their lecture series. (I was quick to note that I’ve been called many things over the years, but “distinguished” has never been one of them. My parents would be so surprised.)

I also performed “Moliere Than Thou” for a combination of high school students, college kids and retirement community folks. I was forewarned that I should be on my best behavior (“This is the bible belt, and one of our schools attending is Greenwood Christian”), and the seventy or so in the audience seemed to be highly entertained.

And yet, at the end of the next-to-last scene, from Scapin, I was suddenly aware of a large cloud, coming, seemingly out of the “pit” underneath the stage. I had heard one of the technicians futzing around backstage, and apparently he had chosen this time to play with the “hazing machine”. From my perspective, it looked like someone was beating all of the dust out of a hundred rugs, sending this cloud into the audience and perhaps into my lungs. I kept acting, hoping that none of us were in any potential danger from this event, and knowing that if any damage were inflicted, it would be on the one who was using the most oxygen: myself.

I pitched a bit of a fit after the show.

So, here we are, with a show opening this week in Greenwood, running April 2-5. Tonight, there is a reviewer due to show up, even though the costumes are not done and the scenery is only halfway there. The actors, however, are ready, and I am delighted for the early motivation for them to throw that much more energy into their performance. It will be fun to revisit this favorite script of mine, originally produced about 9 years ago, in a performance that folks back in Chicago sometimes still talk about.

And already the "reviews" are coming in for "Misanthrope," as the Artistic Director's mom saw the show the other night, and e-mailed me this poem:

Ode to "The Misanthrope"

I seek a way to praise your play,
But the words are quite elusive.
It is brilliant, dazzling, amazing, and superb;
But I fear I become effusive!

I can't find the words---Oh, what a pity!
For this play so fabulous, remarkable, and witty.
So stunning, extraordinary, sensational, and glorious!
Bravo, Tim Mooney! As a playwright you're victorious!!!
(Jean Park)

Finally, I had an advance peek at the review for "The Misanthrope," and though I'll wait for it to be published to share the entire thing, I'll quote this much:

As Alceste, the protagonist whose rigid honesty makes him the Simon Cowell of 17th century France (at least when it comes to judging sonnets), Mooney brings a wit and style to the stage that easily resonates with contemporary audiences. Anyone who enjoys the television series House will certainly like this play with its clever word play and philosophical insights. (Virginia Dumont-Poston, Lander University)

Miles on the Vibe: 299,999 plus another 8,000 registered on the trip odometer, plus another 2,250 miles that I drove before realizing I could track my mileage on the trip odometer.

Discoveries: It’s not the lack of money that bothers me as much as the helplessness about when I can count on having it in the bank. * Midnight shows always sound like a good idea at the time, but in practicality, about 25% of the expected audience actually show up. * Actually drawing up blocking, in full color, has given the show a strong foundation to start from, even when it feels a little bit false at first. * Recasting a role when the commitment level wasn’t there has inspired much greater commitment from the actors who realize that there are, in fact, standards to which they will be held. * There comes a point when I can choose to continue attempting to bang a show into the shape that will work for an audience, and a time when I recognize that it no longer resembles the shape in which it was once envisioned, and no amount of re-molding the work will produce the vision that will ultimately satisfy my muse. As such, there is no lack of new visions that will occupy my muse in the years to come.

Temperature: Currently upper-50s/lower-60s in Greenwood, SC

On the DVD Player: Mostly “The Misanthrope” rehearsal videos

Attendance: 200
+ 20 + 70 + 100 + 100 + 500 + 70 + 50 + 35 + 200 + 40 + 75 = 1460

Next Performance: April 2-5, Greenwood, SC