Sunday, November 15, 2009

The View From Here #141: IN, NY, VA, IL, TX, MO, AR, KY, VA, PA, IL, WI, ID

Way back in mid-September I started the fall tour, with a show in Indianapolis, hosted by a high school French teacher who was the first to successfully apply for and receive one of Kirsten’s matching grants to pull the thing together. It all came together fairly last-minute, and we were unsure whether the show would actually happen until a few days in advance of the performance, but given that I’d spent a long summer not actually earning money, I was fairly determined to make it happen.

The show took place in an auditorium in the basement of a college library, mostly designed for lectures. The acoustics were good, but a big Audio-visual platform stood between the front rows of seats, which disrupted the sight lines any time I’d come down into the audience. I got into costume in an A-V closet behind the audience, and in the flurry of getting packed up after the very well-received performance, I left Moliere’s platform shoes in the closet, not noticing that I didn’t have them with me until the next show on the schedule. (They proceeded to chase me around the country, by way of slow shipping, for the next month.)

Meanwhile, I headed up to New York, with a workshop in Rochester for my old grad-school friend, Lindsay, where her students were working on a restoration-era play. I managed to stop in Buffalo, NY on my way there, visiting Niagara Falls, and contemplating the idiots that might give in to the impulse to go over these waters in a barrel.

I took a long weekend in Baltimore, visiting my sister, Maureen and her husband, Tim, and enjoyed some late summer weather out by their fish pond, while working on more Shakespeare monologues. The trick with the Shakespeare monologues seems to be memorizing a new one while not losing my grip on the ones that I’ve memorized already. As of this writing, I’m up to 26 monologues, more or less memorized, with another ten yet to add to the mix. (More on this in a moment…)

I headed down to Roanoke, VA with a show at Hollins University. Their theatre was under construction, so I was performing in a recital hall space. Hollins is an women’s school, which generally makes for a fun performance, and the show did extremely well. Almost two months later, my own memory is vague on the details, but I have a couple of enthusiastic e-mails to remind me:

“Thank you for your wonderful performance. You brought a new world to our students... In an old sort of way. They were absolutely delighted.” (Ernest Zulia, Theatre Chair, Hollins University)

“I have been going to theatrical productions for over 60 years (I counted up so I could say that) and I have never been to one where the audience was as enthusiastic, as caught up in the spirit of the show. If you had sent us out to storm the Bastille I think we would have tried.” (Mary Hull, Roanoke, VA)

From there, it was a quick drive home to Chicago, where I was the host of “Pathways Idol,” the second annual Pathways fundraiser. Last year’s fundraiser shocked us all by bringing in over $10,000. This year we audaciously set our goal higher, and ended up bringing in $17,000! This time, the audience had a better idea of what to expect, and the songs were even more playfully fun than last year. Our good friend, Iggy, created a slide show to “Then I Saw Her Face,” saluting his girlfriend, and Michael Collins brought the house down with “I Feel Like a Woman” (below).

A few days later, I was back on the road, heading for Brownwood, Texas, where my friend, Nancy Jo Humfeld is getting ready to direct the very first production of my version of “The Bourgeois Gentleman”. I was to give a couple of acting workshops, as well as perform “Moliere Than Thou”, and was also going to meet up with Nancy Jo to talk through the show, but as the event approached, her brother, sadly, succumbed to cancer (that they’d thought he’d beaten), and she was caught up away from home when the workshops and show were going forward. (She left behind a great staff to take care of me throughout the weekend.)

The new Shakespeare Show was continuing to take shape, and, while I could construct a good half-dozen strategies for the order of performance, I decided that absolute RANDOMNESS would add a tension to the event that would make it much more exciting than any intellectual structure that I might attach to the event. While I was tempted to call the show “Shakespeare Roulette,” and spin a big wheel to choose the monologues, I couldn’t think of an easy way to guarantee that the same monologues wouldn’t come up repeatedly. I went on-line to a “Bingo” equipment website, and ordered a bingo cage with bingo balls, and proceeded to label them with Shakespeare titles. The new toy arrived in Brownwood, Texas, where I spent much of the weekend spinning the cage and rehearsing whatever monologue popped out. (It was a blast.) The new show is now titled "Shakespeare Lotto, or, Lot o' Shakespeare!"

The events in Brownwood went very well, and I’ve since been approached by one of the high school teachers in attendence, asking me to return in February to adjudicate some of their plays in competition. Meanwhile, I sped on to a show at Saginaw High School, just outside of Fort Worth, TX, where I did a show and a workshop. I’d asked the teacher whether he wanted the full 85-minute show, or the tighter 75-minute version, and he assured me that the students were mostly AP students who had an especial interest in the material, and could remain engaged for the longer show.

While the students were mostly responsive, I could sense an ongoing rumble coming from one section of the auditorium, from students who did not seem to share the especial interest that the others did. I soldiered on, but by the end of the play, the chatterers were growing more disruptive, and all of my pausing/staring-them-down tricks were only buying me brief seconds of attentivness, before they went back to their more-important conversations. When the play ended, many of the students were already out of their seats a couple of seconds into the curtain call, and I departed without my usual extra bow. The teacher would have none of this, however, and gave them all an impromptu lecture about theatre etiquitte, asking me to return to the stage once more for a proper bow.

Even in this, I found a reason to be grateful: this was clearly a lesson that this group needed to learn, and it was, perhaps, better for them to learn it from my show than from a more insecure performer, who had not gained sufficient confidence from hundreds of other, somewhat more successful performances.

From there, I continued on down to a show in San Marcos, Texas at Texas State University. While it was the French Department bringing me in for this one, I got a chance to visit with my old undergrad advisor, Chuck Pascoe, who is now with the Texas State Theatre department. The San Marcos show was also in a lecture space, but this was a more intimate, three-quarters arrangement.

The weather in San Marcos was still in the upper 80s, and my glasses would steam up when moving from an air conditioned car to the outside. They wanted me to give an acting workshop for a French Theatre class, but rather than my usual prepared exercises, they wanted me to answer a series of (more or less) random questions about film acting (they were creating films in French): how to stage a fight, how to choose a location … and so the workshop was mostly improvised, with me occasionally hitting one of my pet topics and ranting for ten minutes or so.

The performance itself went extremely well, with perhaps 80 or so showing up, many of whom were sitting behind me to either side, and I was struggling to keep them all included. The only woman in the right position to direct the “Tartuffe” speech to was holding her husband’s hand the entire time. But at least a very attractive French teacher volunteered for the Elmire scene, and it played extremely well.

The next morning, I was on the road early, heading north. Within 30 minutes of departing San Marcos, the temperature dropped fifteen degrees or so. By the time I reached Kansas City that evening, the temperature was downright cool.

The Kansas City Fringe Festival was holding a fundraiser, and I had offered up fifteen minutes of “Shakespeare Lotto, or, Lot o’Shakespeare” for the event. By this time I had perhaps fifteen monologues performance-ready, and this would be my first tryout of the material. Saturday morning we had a quick tech-through, and I stopped out for lunch afterwards before heading back for a dress rehearsal. I had recruited a volunteer who was a dancer in one of the other shows to spin my Bingo cage, which led to unavoidable jokes about the bingo balls, and which kept the stage visually interesting, as I encouraged the girl to upstage me whenever possible.

Unfortunately, my fast-food chicken lunch was not sitting well, and I made it through perhaps four monologues before having to cut the rehearsal short and clear offstage. I then spent the day doing battle with my stomach which refused to settle down and, while I continued to hold out hope for performing that night, when 8 pm rolled around, the stomach upset was on the “flow” phase of its ebb and flow, and I gave my apologies to the Fringe folks, departing the theatre just in time.

While I might have gotten especially frustrated or upset over the great distance I’d driven for no purpose, it was actually an occasion for extreme gratitude, as I realized that in 35 years of performance, this was the first time I’ve ever been unable to go onstage, and it happened to be on a night that I wasn’t actually earning any money. If this had happened for any other performance, I would’ve been out a couple thousand dollars.

I also found myself wondering whether my particular susceptibility that night had anything to do with nervousness about performing material that I’d never done in public before.

I was recovered within 24 hours, and on my way to a show in Cabot, Arkansas. The French teacher there, Kristie Robinson, had brought me in twice before, for a performance and a workshop. This time around, she was only able to secure a gymnasium for the performance, and about 400 students filled the center section of bleachers while I performed from the gym floor (where the half-court line meets the sideline).

The vast cubic footage of the space swallowed up my voice, and forced me to use every bit of oxygen I had to be heard (and understood) all the way to the back row. And yet, the students remained attentive and quiet throughout. I was astonished that, even amid this disadvantageous environment, the students were far more involved than the Saginaw group.

Through some of the more popular monologues, I could see several of the students, who had obviously been studying scenes from the show on YouTube, mouthing the words in perfect coordination to my performance, as if these were the lyrics of songs that had been played over and over again. Favorite lines such as the “Fair Marquise,” and “Stop Thief,” revealed students who were barely able to restrain their gestures from where they sat in the bleachers. I began to feel like to be a rock star.

That night I headed on to Memphis, visiting with a friend from last winters performances at the Playhouse on the Square, and pushing on to Murray, Kentucky, for my workshop and show at Murray State University.

The workshop was my “Writing, Directing and Producing the One-Man Show” session, and since the last time I’d given this one, I’d now added two shows to my repertoire, and had no lack of material to fill up two hours. I recruited a couple of theatre majors to volunteer for my performance that night.

Once again, I was performing in a recital hall, with limited tech. The French teacher, however, had recruited the music department to provide harpsichord and violin music that night, and getting several of her students and faculty to dress up in period costumes. (Fortunately, the costumed French folks didn’t want to volunteer for the scenes on stage, which would’ve looked too, too, suspiciously pre-planned.) Afterwards, they held a reception for me back at the guest house where I was staying, and I enjoyed the attentions of several “Moliere-groupies” who had clearly enjoyed the show very much.

I had a week-long break before my next performance, and I headed south to Chattanooga, where I got to introduce my Chattanooga friends, Sabra and Paul to my Atlanta friend, Lori, at the karaoke bar, and we had a great time, particularly as Lori, a divinity student at Emory U, had never been to a karaoke joint before. I spent a couple of days at Lori’s house, buying a new laptop at the nearby Staples while I was there (office supply stores were clearing out their inventory in anticipation of Windows 7 coming out), and I was anticipating a drive to South Carolina, to revisit some of my Greenwood Community Theatre friends, when the news about Mom arrived.

Dad didn’t want me to have to interrupt my tour, and impulsively, I suggested that I’d come home after my Saturday show in Virginia. I walked around in a daze for about an hour. I had been rehearsing my Shakespeare show at Lori’s house, but couldn’t focus on that. Nor could I imagine getting anything done for the next several days, and certainly the fun waiting in South Carolina didn’t seem as enjoyable as I’d anticipated.

Without making a decision, I started packing up the car. And when the car was packed, I started the long drive home. That night I made it into Kentucky, where I got a hotel room in what I was disappointed to discover was a dry county (I spent another half hour seeking out a six pack of beer). The next morning, I drove again, getting home late in the afternoon.

Fortunately, I was too late to dive into any of the many administrative plans that had already been resolved, though it was comforting to be there with the family, and to know that everyone was holding up.

The next night, I headed for Virginia, getting there in time for a Saturday morning performance of “Criteria.” There was something comforting about driving at this point, as it gave me something constructive to actually do. And it didn’t feel “wrong” to memorize lines as the miles went by.

The Virginia show was at an all-boys boarding school, and was intended as entertainment more than education. The teachers apologized that an especial lot of the students seemed to be off campus for sporting events, leaving perhaps 80 or so in the audience.

The audience seemed particularly quiet, even on what seemed to be some fairly self-evidently comic lines. Afterwards, the teachers were enthusiastic, and invited me to join them in the lunchroom, where they explained that a rather high percentage of the non-athletic students (the ones who’d remained on-campus), were foreign students, for whom English was a second language, and who would be fairly unaware of nuances of relationships between states and social security numbers, both of which are at the heart of this show.

Within an hour, I was back on the road, heading home once again, and arriving just in time for the visitation Sunday night.

While I was pleased to see Isaac, along with the many relatives and friends who’d come out to the visitation, the time passed incredibly slowly, with every twenty minutes of the six-hour event feeling like an hour.

The next morning, a brief prayer at the funeral home, gave way to a procession to the church (where I read a passage at the service), followed by a caravan to the cemetery. The hearse took a special route back by way of the family home on Forrest Avenue, which had been Mom’s beloved home of the past 48 years. The hearse paused there, in front of the house, giving mom a final goodbye, before continuing on to services in the cemetery chapel.

An absurd vision passed through my head as we approached the cemetery, reminiscent of the movie, “Defending Your Life,” where I imagined a big banner out front announcing “Welcome Shirley Mooney”.

From there, it was on to a luncheon, and a long series of goodbyes to relatives who’d come in from distant points. I had about 24 hours at the house before I had to push back onto the road myself, leaving Dad to rattle around in the empty house by himself for a while, as I proceeded to a show in Pennsylvania.

Originally, bookings that took me from Georgia to Virginia to Pennsylvania didn’t sound all that challenging, but now I was returning to Chicago between each event. I was, of course, relieved that the timing worked out such that I didn’t have to cancel any performances (a possibility that had hung over my head in recent years), but then I would immediately feel guilty that’d seemed so important in a time such as this.

I had a good feeling about the show at St. Francis University. The French teacher seemed to have prepped her students quite a bit, and we arranged for a camera operator to tape the event. The Tartuffe volunteer happened to be a girl named “Paris,” which caught me somewhat unawares, though the scene itself played very well.

The teacher was fairly certain that her shy French students might well freak out at the “Doctor” scene, and so she volunteered for it herself. And a cute girl who’d also had her hand up to volunteer for “Tartuffe”, was volunteering again when “Scapin” came around, so I brought her up. (She’s the first volunteer who has ever smacked me with the script at the point of the butt-pinch toward the end of the scene.)

In all, the show was a great success, and a few of us hit the bar afterwards, as the French teacher’s husband, a performer himself, expounded at great length about how inspiring the show had been.

Meanwhile, the French teacher e-mailed:

“We had a great time, too! I've gotten some very positive buzz about last night. Everyone is impressed with the quality of performance, and the students simply loved your inappropriateness. We are all aflutter.” (Karen Casebier)

And she sent along the reactions from a colleague:

"I was particularly impressed as to how he caught the heart of Moliere's art, that is, the ribald comedy (a product of Moliere's years in the provinces with the Comedia dell'arte) which is a combination of slapstick but also not gratuitous since it speaks to how humans interact socially, his satire of the professions and how this is conveyed aesthetically in terms of language and the theatrical genre. This presentation is so much more effective in understanding Moliere than reading Lagarde/Michard or most critics." (Vince Remillard, Professor Emeritus of French, Saint Francis University)

I had a weekend to spare, and found my way back south into West Virginia, where a friend I’d met at the West Virginia Theatre Conference a year before recommended a resort hotel where I could get an employees’ discount. It was a terrific room, though I spent much of my time inside, working on lines and reading Shakespeare. I visited a Haloween party at Glenville State College, meeting up with several students I’d worked with at WVTC, and continued on to Eastern Kentucky University, where I was being booked by the History department.

I’m booked so rarely by History groups, that I tend to assume that the audience will be less responsive, and the laughter did, in fact, start out low. This audience was accustomed to lectures, and was rather unsure how to take this outlandish performance in their midst, but about three monologues into the event, they began to respond, and by the end they were laughing at every “Stop Thief.” The only volunteer I’d attempted to prearrange was uncertain about the “Doctor” scene, but as the “Tartuffe” volunteer had been so lively, I went right back to her for the latter scene, and she played along.

Afterwards, I got to hang out for a bit with my (second) cousin, Tim McGee, who was studying at EKU, and who’d never seen my show before, though his dad, George (my first cousin), is a actor/director/teacher, who also performs one-man shows. (George and I are doing a presentation together at the Southeast Theatre Conference this spring, on “Audience Participation in the One-Man Show.”)

I worked my way back home, with a brief stop in Western Kentucky, for a visit with one of the Murray State show fans, and returning in time for my birthday. (April took me out for dinner, and we caught Rita McConville’s cabaret act with a full brass band.)

On Friday, I had a show at Libertyville High School, where they seemed unaware of the technical complexity of the show. While they were quite ready to set up microphones (which I did NOT need), the notion of having more than one light setting struck the technician as quite intimidating.

The teacher had been skittish about the salacious content of the show, and I promised to pare it back where possible. The setting allowed for an intimate relationship with the audience, although there was a three-foot barrier between the stage and the first row of seats. While Tartuffe would normally not let any such obstacle stand in the way of his seduction, I decided that clambering over the half-wall would send too much of a sensation through the audience, and get my host in trouble.

They’d set aside two class periods for the event, and even doing the entire show, there still seemed to be about 20 minutes left at the end, so that by the time I returned after changing clothes, all the kids were still in the auditorium, looking at me expectantly. I offered to do a brief Q&A session.

After the show, I swung by a school in Lake Forest, which was interested in a booking. The following day, we held our first read-through of “Tartuffe” at Lake Forest College (it’s going to be a great show). (Opens February 11.)

I finally caught a moment to assemble my reflections on mom's passing, posting them on the Daily Herald's obituary site, along with postings from Kevin, Maureen, and more of the family.

April had arranged a fiftieth birthday party for me. While I remained uninformed about the venue or the activities or attendees, I still knew that the event was going to happen (I had, in fact, drawn up my schedule a year before to keep this weekend available), and had been looking forward to it for a long time.

A great many cars on her block confirmed that the party was at her house. She met me in the driveway, blindfolded me, and walked me back into her back yard, while I started my camera running “to catch my reaction”. Unveiling the blindfold revealed a large tent, and some thirty or forty people awaiting.

While I was delighted to see everyone there, I was particularly astonished as I recognized people who were disguised in masks (the party was a Mardi Gras theme) to see that our friend, Rowena, had flown in from London, Sabra had arrived from Chattanooga, Kirsten had come in from L.A., Kelly was in out of Milwaukee, and Bill and Susan had come down from Northern Wisconsin. (Most of the video below is dark and out of focus, but that’s how it appeared to me, too, without my glasses.

An evening of fun, conspicuous drinking and karaokeing ensued. They had all gone in on a huge gift: a room in New Orleans with a balcony overlooking Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras!

The party was followed by a day of recovery.

Monday, I had a show at the College of Lake County, arranged through the French Department. Given that this performance was virtually in my back yard, there were a dozen or so people who knew me, including Rowena (from London), who’d never seen me perform anything but karaoke in the past, as well as a publisher-friend, Linda, who has been (graciously) rejecting my plays for over ten years, now. (I was glad to be able to demonstrate the play’s effect live and in person.)

Rowena had quickly made friends with the girl sitting next to her in the front row, and both knew that there were volunteer scenes approaching. When I singled out Rowena to direct “Tartuffe” to, her new friend cleared out of her seat in order to snap photos, a move the rest of the audience couldn’t help but notice. When she tried to sneak back into her seat, I did a huge “where-have you been” take to her, which cracked up the rest of the audience. For the next scene, I pulled this girl up on stage, while Rowena snapped pictures.

News had come floating in about successes of my plays in high school productions. My “The Miser” had won its district and regional competitions, and was now going to the Wisconsin State finals. My “Imaginary Invalid” was proceeding to finals in North Carolina, and “Tartuffe” was going to finals in Alabama. (Much as last year, when my “Misanthrope” had enjoyed success in Connecticut, and “Invalid” had gone on to finals in Virginia.) At least 50% of the productions that were being done of my 40-minute shortened versions were going on to state finals, a result which should bode well for future productions, as other teachers observe the success that these are enjoying. (Meanwhile, Playscripts, Inc. has announced their intent to publish my 40-minute versions of “The Misanthrope,” “Don Juan,” “The Learned Ladies” and “The School for Husbands.” – This makes for 15 published scripts!)

The school in Wisconsin suddenly wanted to bring me in for an acting workshop, and we hastily cobbled together a visit. The teacher wrote:

Nine Festival judges have now been unanimous in delighting in your script, telling us we have taken on an ENORMOUS challenge with the rhyme and timing. … Your adaptation has been a wonderful challenge for my students. I do have different levels of experience and the closer we get to state the more we see that. (Lynda Sharpe, Middleton High School)

Meanwhile, the North Carolina teacher wrote:

Tim, I just thought I'd let you know that we did quite well at festival this weekend with your adaptation of "The Imaginary Invalid," & that we are taking it to the NCTC State One-Act Play Festival on Nov. 19-20 at Greensboro College. We received 6 major awards, & the play was the talk of the festival. One judge gave it a perfect score, & the other judge gave it one point less. They simply loved it. I was so proud of the kids, too, because they got the language, the story, the characters- everything! (Barbara Mager, Matthews High School)

In Wisconsin, I sped through a quick presentation of my acting materials (with my nephew Shane in the audience, catching my act for the first time), after which the actors were eager to get my help with the difficult climax of the play. With the director’s blessing, I ran slightly roughshod over her blocking to rearrange portions of the end and get the students to play up the big discoveries of the end. Racing on to the west coast from there, I should have just enough time to do my performance(s) in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and race back to catch this show in the Wisconsin state finals.

From Madison, I was on to Minneapolis for an evening of karaoke and visiting, and from there to Miles City, Montana, dodging snowstorms on my way to Missoula, Montana (catching up with Joe Proctor), and then on to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I met up with a former student of mine from Nebraska in 1984, who’d rediscovered me when she saw my name on a poster (when North Idaho College performed my “Doctor in Spite of Himself”).

All the while, memorizing more Shakespeare.

The show ROCKED in Coeur d'Alene (videos to be uploaded soon), and I stuck around for an extra day to sit in on my buddy, Joe's classes, and to do an extra workshop performance of my latest one-man play, from the recent Kansas City Fringe Festival, which also rocked! (The students didn't want to leave at the ending, but rather stayed in their chairs for over an hour afterwards to talk about the show.) By the end I was exhausted, and starting to feel like I was running a bit of a fever. I caught a good night's sleep at the hotel, finished up these notes, and am ready for the long trek back to Chicago.

See you soon!


Miles on the Vibe: 342,000
Temperature: 90s (Texas) to 20s (Montana)
Discoveries: Every seeming disaster can be viewed as a blessing: from lost shoes, to sickness to inattentive audiences. I can always choose to see the benefit of the particular event happening in the way that it did. –
Attendance: 100 + 20 + 75 + 25 + 45 + 125 + 150 + 30 + 12 + 85 + 400 + 80 + 75 + 200 + 80 + 250 + 100 + 32 + 150 + 20 = 1,954
On the I-Pod: Dresden Dolls and Amanda Palmer
Next Performance: “Tartuffe” at Lake Forest College, 2/11-2/20/2009