Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The View From Here #143: TX, CO, KY, OH, NY, SC, AL, IL, WA

"Tartuffe" freakin’ Rocked!

We had a so-so preview performance, and the next day we reflected on the best rehearsal we’d had. It was one in which the cast warmed up with a run through of the first 8 minutes or so before throwing themselves into the show with reckless abandon. And so that, along with our outrageous curtain call became our warm up, and the cast recaptured that sense of reckless abandon in performance, and all the funniest stuff bubbled to the top.

I managed to record the Saturday night performance, with a lively audience and have since posted the entire play on-line, including the preshow pantomime, the between-acts flurry of activity, the intermission lazzi and the hilarious curtain call. The opening scene has already had over 200 views. (In fact, last spring’s “Misanthrope” opening scene is about to hit 4,000 views!)

Word has it that the second weekend of “Tartuffe” was even better than the first, but I was off on my way by then, with a fabulous stop in New Orleans for Mardi Gras (my birthday present from my big 50th birthday bash: Thanks April!), and then on to Texas!

In Brownwood, Texas, my friend Nancy Jo was directing the world premiere of my version of “The Bourgeois Gentleman”, and I arrived about a week before they were due to open. This is a show that I rarely even show to a producer or publisher, because the concept is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I had no idea if it would work. (Everyone in my version speaks in rhyme EXCEPT FOR Monsieur Jourdain, the “Bourgeois Gentleman!”)

When I saw the work that Nancy Jo and her students had done on the show, for the first time I realized that it COULD work, with the proper attack on the style of speech. I worked with the students on the blocking and the rhyming style (… and probably trampled their artistic sensibilities in the process), but within a couple of days, they were punctuating the rhymes in such a way that when a given line DIDN’T rhyme, it felt wrong ... like a hiccup in the speaking pattern that becomes more and more evident as the show goes on. I had to rush off to other performances before they opened the show, but was thrilled to hear that this version of the play worked, and that everyone “got” the ongoing joke. I promptly cleaned up the script that I’d been working from, and sent that one to my publisher. (Check back to this space for the review, coming soon…)

Meanwhile, it was on to Dallas, for the very first performance ever of “Lot o’ Shakespeare!”

I’d been working idly on this play for about 4 years, only making a big push with it this year, with a booking finally scheduled last summer. Given that I knew I’d be performing the show this spring, I added “LoS” to the mix in my marketing efforts, and last winter, two more schools booked the show, in ADVANCE of the planned opening! This meant that I had to have the show ready to go a month AHEAD of the intended opening date, for which I had to have THIRTY-EIGHT monologues, not only memorized but in performance readiness!

Some of these pieces were still a little too fresh in my memory to risk in performance, and so at the last minute, I dropped “Timon of Athens” and “Measure for Measure” out of the pool.

Fortunately, they had also booked “Moliere Than Thou” at this appearance (My feeling is that both shows as part of a single event will be extremely popular down the line), and I was able to win their sympathies with an hour of Moliere before trying out the new stuff on them.

“Lot o’ Shakespeare” is performed entirely at random, based on the spin of a bingo cage with 38 ping-pong balls inside of it. Each ping pong ball is labeled with a show title, and I perform whatever show comes out of the cage. Since this precludes any narrative thread, the students play along with Bingo cards, which in this case are called “IAGO” cards, and the first to get four monologues in a row wins a “Moliere Than Thou” t-shirt!

All was going great. I was, perhaps, going a little too quickly, given my nervousness over this first performance, but the response felt good… until … Fifteen minutes (perhaps 5-6 monologues) into the first performance a student WON the IAGO competition!

I had 45 minutes left of my show, and no narrative thread left to hang the “plot” of my play on!

For about 15 minutes, I continued to spin the wheel anyway, performing whatever monologues came up … but all of the really unfamiliar stuff was popping out: “Pericles”, “Coriolanus”, “Henry VI, Part II,” “Henry IV, Part 1”. (By mistake, during “Henry IV, 1, I started doing “Comedy of Errors,” as for the first time I noticed that both monologues begin with “My Liege …”)

At one point the host mused, “Don’t you have any comedies in there?”

I then proceeded to take requests, performing monologues from whatever plays the audience wanted to see!

Suddenly, I was doing “Comedy of Errors”, “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Titus Andronicus” (I have no idea how that one got so popular!) And the kids were revived and into it once again!

I breathed easily, having survived the first performance, learned a few things about the pitfalls that might loom in the performance, and realizing the importance that the concept played in maintaining the audience’s attentiveness.

I’d gotten the host to videotape this performance, and playing it back, I could see for myself just how much I was rushing through the show, particularly as I was jumping from one scene to the next. I told myself, “SLOW DOWN next time. They’ll wait!”

After the show, I raced south, beating the Dallas traffic, but hitting Austin at rush hour, on my way to San Antonio. I visited that evening with my cousins Kathy & Larry, and got up to present workshops the next day at a private San Antonio High School where I was acquainted with both the French teacher AND the Theatre teacher. I was poised to rush back north to Brownwood, to catch another night of rehearsal, but an unexpected 4 inches of snow in Texas had forced Howard Payne University to cancel all of its activities for that night (I head south in the winter to AVOID problems like these), and so I continued on toward Colorado Springs.

My path to Colorado Springs took me, for the first time, through Lamar, Colorado, a location that turned out to be critical in my short story (later my one-man show), “Criteria.” I had envisioned a friendly diner with an over-friendly waitress and an intrusive trucker, with whom my anti-hero takes great umbrage. Spending the night in Lamar, I was delighted to find a diner not unlike the one that I’d envisioned, with a pleasant waitress, and a fellow sitting in the corner who might well have been a trucker.

In Colorado, I had a sudden rush of events at Colorado College and Colorado Academy, with two appearances at the Academy, divided by one drop-in visit to a class at Colorado College, followed by a tech rehearsal and a performance that same night at Colorado College. Whenever I put together events like this, I start to worry about my health, largely because I don’t seem to have an off switch, or at least a volume dial that can force me to ratchet my energy downwards. I did manage to get through in one piece, with a little energy left for the show that night, and have since received a really nice thank-you card from the kids and host at Colorado Academy, where I ended up improvising a workshop on commercial performance (I was addressing a class on broadcasting).

I stopped back in Kansas City for a couple of days, where my friend, Lisa, has an extra room, enabling me to catch up on paperwork for a couple of days before continuing on to the Southeast Theatre Conference in Lexington, Kentucky.

This conference was happening in my Cousin George’s back yard, and he and I both, coincidently went into theatre, and both present one-man plays. George had suggested that we put together a presentation on the use of the audience in the one-man play, and I knew that I’d have any number of things to throw in on this topic, simply drawing from the now-five one-man shows that I’ve put together over the years, each of which is dependent on the audience to some degree.

The workshop went well, as did my booth at the conference, which was nicely positioned near to where the attendees first enter into the exhibit hall. Of course, I never know how these appearances have gone over until months after the fact, but the interest seemed high, and in the days following the event, I think I sent over sixty follow-up e-mails out to people I’d met. I’d drawn up a new flyer for this event, featuring the new show, and using the brilliant illustration that my artist friend, Lee Howard had created.

After a brief visit with George and his wife, Cathy, I continued on to Cincinnati, where I was to perform at Xavier University. The Theatre teacher and the French teacher had gone in together on arranging this event, and both seemed quite excited to have it. They were even speculating about the possibility of arranging future events, and programming a Moliere play for next fall.

The workshop that I gave that day was very thinly attended, with perhaps four or five students along with their two teachers, and I began to worry a bit about how many would come to the show that night. I’d put out an invitation to my cousin, John, who was coming down from Columbus, but I had no idea if he might be one of the only ones in the theatre.

The theatre had 88 seats. Perhaps a hundred people showed up. They had to bring extra chairs into the room, putting an extra first row in front of the actual first row. I was proud to have such an enthusiastic response in the room on the first time my cousin had ever seen me perform (along with his daughter and three of his grandkids!).

The next day I managed a swing through Steubenville, Ohio, visiting with one of the professors at Franciscan University, who wants to direct a Moliere play in the coming year. I left her with more material, probably, than she’ll ever be able to weed through. And from there, I continued to Baltimore, dropping in on my sister, Maureen, and her husband, Tim for a few days.

Any time I have the chance to settle in a given location for more than I day, I’m glad for the opportunity to weed through correspondence and catch up on all the little things that accumulate. I was also running lines for the new Shakespeare show every day. With two more performances quickly approaching, I really wanted to feel the confidence of being able to perform whatever might come up in the random spin of the bingo cage.

From Baltimore, I started out toward Lynchburg, Virginia, only to discover that a booking that I’d thought was pretty well settled, had not been firmed up! (Arrrgh!) I re-routed my trip to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where I dropped in on my old friend and costume designer, Kathy Conery, and talked with her about designing a new costume to go with the new Shakespeare show. Though she wouldn’t have anything ready for the upcoming performances in the coming weeks, she would be able to put something together by the summer.

I turned back north, working my way toward Syracuse, New York, where the weather turned nice just in time for my arrival. The show, as well as my workshop, were extremely well received, though early in the show, during a very active run-around, my right heel slipped out from under me, and my left knee came down onto the stage floor. I picked myself up immediately and played off the awkward moment, trying to ignore the sudden sharp pain. The last thing I wanted was for an audience to be distracted, worried about whether I might have hurt myself.

It wasn’t until after the show that I got a look at my knee, and saw that the tights now had a hole ripped in them, and a big red scrape was showing through. I hoped that nobody had been paying attention to my knee as the show progressed. Those few people that I talked to afterwards had, in fact, assumed that the slip was somehow choreographed to be part of the show!

I had a long trip south, and several days to make it, and made stops in St. Petersburg, Virginia (to meet with a woman who ran a theatre company, and who is directing “Tartuffe” next fall), in Boone, North Carolina (catching lunch with Sandra-the-Vegan), to Chattanooga, Tennessee (singing karaoke with Sabra and her husband, Paul), to Calhoun, Georgia (trying out my Shakespeare show on my friend, Lori), and Greenwood, SC (watching Romeo & Juliet at the theatre that had produced my “Misanthrope” last spring).

Finally, it was on to Newberry, South Carolina, where I was to do my second performance of “Lot o’ Shakespeare”. They’ve hosted me twice in years past, doing “Criteria” and “Karaoke Knights”, so a lot of the students were already familiar with my work. I felt comfortable performing for them, knowing that they were already a friendly audience.

Unfortunately, my video camera seemed to have shorted out on me, and my hopes of recording the performance were disappointed (though my hosts eventually found a camera of their own which could pick up a half hour of the show). I did find myself dashing all over the city of Columbia, South Carolina, trying to find the right plug for my camera in the hours before the show, which set my nerves a bit on edge prior to the start of my show. (If I get some video back from Newberry in the next couple of weeks, I’ll post it here.)

With my approach to this performance, I was focusing on two fixes from the last show: slowing down my pace through the scenes, especially in the transitions, and keeping the audience engaged with the game as far into the show as I could.

This time around, the t-shirt was not won until about 30 minutes into the performance, and at that point, I put ANOTHER t-shirt up for whomever might get a combination of four squares horizontally, vertically AND diagonally. That kept the audience engaged and in-play for another 20 minutes or so, and my hosts noted that the students really were hanging on for the possibility of winning something. As manifestly obvious a “plot device” as a free t-shirt might be, it was enough to get them to pay attention to Shakespeare!

Meanwhile, I’d planted one or two ideas with my hosts, that if I couldn’t maintain the contest throughout, there were one or two monologues that they might particularly want to request, and the host eventually requested “Julius Caesar,” which went very well. (My two 7-minute monologues, “Julius Caesar” and “Twelfth Night” stand out from the rest, if only because the characters evolve at an entirely different rate, and the size that they realize is above and beyond what I can build to in the 2-4 minute monologues.)

Excited by the success of this performance, I rushed on to Auburn, Alabama, with a performance of “Moliere Than Thou” at Auburn University. (My friend Jenny was there to help me load in and set up the venue.) I was setting up in a lecture hall once again. The connection to the audience was close and immediate, but the venue had no real masking for an entrance, so we stacked up a table on top of the computer podium so that I could hide.

Eventually some seventy students came in, and the show went great. Within an hour, I was rushing back along to Montgomery, Alabama, where Auburn University at Montgomery was hosting their annual Liberal Arts conference.

This was the big challenge. This was the school that had hosted “Moliere Than Thou” last year, and who’d called me on my bluff when I told them I was working on a new Shakespeare show. Fortunately, it was their deadline that got me working on a show that I’m sure I would’ve been no further along toward creating today than I was a year ago.

As improved as the Newberry performance was over the Dallas performance a month prior, so was the AUM performance improved since Newberry. I was able to apply the lessons from the Newberry show almost immediately, and walked out with a much more effective command of the stage than I’d felt previously.

The host who introduced me to the crowd (Val), emphasized the “participatory” nature of the show to the crowd in advance of the performance, telling them that they were free to cheer and boo and applaud through the course of the play, to the point that, from the moment I stepped out on stage, people were calling out responses to me, with one man who kept requesting “Coriolanus!”

This really loosened me up. I had to stay on my toes throughout the show, improvising retorts to people who were ready to interact with me, and that, in turn, had the effect of having my memorized sequences look fairly improvised. There were a couple of instances when I got shaken off of my lines, most notably in the “Measure for Measure” scene, where I’d never performed the scene with an actual volunteer on stage with me. This scene of Shakespearean sexual harassment was drawing low rumbling laughter from the crowd as they could see right through Angelo’s thinly disguised seduction, but while I was fairly confident on my own lines, I had completely forgotten how many of Isabella’s lines I’d left in, so I never knew when I should wait for an interruption, or continue with my line, and I had to check the script in the hand of the volunteer.

Also, once during Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, I forgot one of those words that more than 50% of the audience knew and ended up saying … “or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by … whatever… end them.”

My absolute favorite monologues were spinning out of the bingo cage, with only a slight couple of the “History” monologues, and even those were the popular “Henry V” and “Richard III” monologues. A couple of times, a couple of people in the audience roared their approval on monologues that end with a rallying cry (“Henry V” and “Julius Caesar”). And the “Are you meditating on virginity” monologue from “Alls Well that Ends Well,” got HUGE laughs.

Somehow, I had hit upon the formula. This time, I gave away a t-shirt, a CD (“Karaoke Knights”) and a book (“The Misanthrope”). I had a viable strategy for holding the audience’s attention, AND once I’d reeled them in to watch a given scene, I was able to pay off their efforts through the performance. While I’d hoped that this play might be half as good as “Moliere Than Thou,” I was now convinced that it could be AS good. And if the quality of the show was AS good as MTT, then I’d be able to book it like crazy. Because for every one class that gets taught on Moliere in the United States, there are about a hundred classes taught on Shakespeare.

After about 5 years of strategizing and memorizing, I was feeling vindicated. The formula had worked.

While I still didn’t have a camera to set up and record the show, I did at least think to draw up a feedback form for the performance which captured some great reactions:

“Glorious… I’ve been wanting to begin reading the plays again, and this performance has begun me on that! People hear the beauty of Shakespeare’s language as it frames beautiful, i.e. truthful, ideas and reveals the best and worst of human characters. People will wish to see more of each play!” (Margaret Stephens, Assoc prof of English and Humanities, ASU)

“What a fun concept! Great introduction to Shakespeare’s Canon! Midsummer – Puck; great ending.” (Neil David Seibel, Assistant Prof of Theatre AUM)

“A brilliant display of skill. It shows the relative easy access Shakespeare has.” (Mickey Lonsdale, Junior Theatre Major)

“The monologues were so entertaining, that the Shakespeare I don’t know, I will look up.” (Ashley Portis, Junior at BTW!)

“Fast, Funny. Not Reduced Shakespeare Company, but definetely more faithful!” (Laura Bramblette, Student)

“It was awesome, well performed, and very entertaining.” (Anthony Mcendarfer)

“Very enjoyable! Sweeping interest! Well Done! Delicious smorgasbord of WS, delightfully served up in random order. Always new & fresh!” (Len Daley)

“The man is a chameleon. Enraged, excited and electrifying, he is all over the stage and a joy to watch! His quick catch-up before each monologue is great for younger audiences who have not been as exposed to Shakespeare’s canon.” (Naomi Stauffer, AUM Alumni)

“It was great! I saw Moliere than Thou here at AUM last year, and this show was just as good. The way he interacts with the audience is phenomenal! It gives people (Who might not otherwise see Shakespeare) a chance to see how accessible and entertaining Shakespeare can be!” (Matthew Kemp, Senior Undergrad, AUM)

“I loved it! It is amazing – a great selection of so many famous quotations. Wow!” (Dr. Jennifer Moody)




“Hilarious & very entertaining.”


“Very entertaining; shocked by his talent”

“Amazing!!! Very interesting & very funny.”

“Perfectly amazing!” (Brittany Carden, Student)

“Wonderful. I could not stop laughing.”

“WTF? LOL. Guy was funny.”

I drove all the way home from Montgomery to Chicago in a single day on the energy of that performance.

I had a few days to get caught up on business, finally finishing my taxes from the past year, and getting back into the swing of my exercise program. (Last year I was on the road for a total of 196 days!)

I performed at North Central College in Naperville once again. The French Faculty wanted me back to do a workshop on spoken language, which I awkwardly cut and paste from my yet-unpublished acting textbook, which I followed with a performance that same evening. Some fifty or so were in attendance, seemingly enjoying themselves quite well, and the hosts seemed interested in the new Shakespeare show, which I am now high on promoting everywhere I go.

The next night, I went to the guest event in anticipation of another Pathways weekend at which I’ll be group-leading, and got inspired once more to get back to work on my acting textbook. Last summer, I came awfully close to finalizing it and self-publishing, but my efforts to get bookings booked kept me from finishing it. I realized that one of my biggest problems was “MOMENTUM,” as I seemed to drop the book entirely for almost a year at a time when I got back on the road. I made a commitment that night to edit my way through at least one chapter of the book a day, even when I’m on the road, so that by the time I got back home at the end of this month, I could be done with the latest round of corrections, and could get back to finalizing it quickly, rather than from a standing start. (So far, I’ve been through 43 pages in the last 6 days on the road!)

I packed up and headed back to Bloomington, Illinois, with my third performance at Illinois Wesleyan. The French teacher there is a real Moliere fan, as is one of the local high school teachers, and while there’d been some fall-off in attendance at my second IWU performance, this time there were about 100 people in the audience again. Many of them had seen the show in previous years, and some of them knew to sit up front, given that that was where I usually go for my volunteers.

It was a terrific night. Even the very young girl (maybe 13?) in the front row that I’d approached as Agnes (who Arnolphe condescends to painfully, was perfect, as she strived mightily to see the benevolence in Arnolphe. But every time he concluded how great a life she’d have (if she only married him and turned her back on “pleasure”), she only ended up with a confused look. Meanwhile, the “Tartuffe” volunteer was adorable, and the “Doctor” volunteer was a very warm Facebook friend, who has several times described me as the “best actor in the world.”

The next day I drove west, stopping briefly in Kearney, Nebraska, grabbing dinner with my friend Janice, who is now interested in my new Shakespeare show, and continuing up through Wyoming to Montana in the second day of driving. The third day brought me to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where I am typing this now.

I’d asked my buddy, Joe, to schedule a performance of the Shakespeare show. I’d managed to fix the video camera, and wanted to capture some good visuals of the new, reinvigorated show, so I’d have something to promote the show with over the summer, for the Fringe Festivals in Indianapolis and Kansas City, as well as for the coming year’s bookings.

Since I’d offered to do this performance in return to whatever audience contributions I might earn, I dropped in on Joe’s rehearsal, and a couple of his classes, as well as the theatre club meeting, doing a couple previews of some of the monologues that were likely to come up (and taxing my voice significantly in advance of the show).

The venue was a small auditorium/lecture hall, with a projection unit overhead. We set up quickly, and put out a basket for contributions. I was shocked to see some forty or so people coming in, at such short notice. One attendee had obviously cleaned out his/her piggy bank to see the show, as in the contribution basket was a large baggie filled with change!

Again, the show was well received. The array of monologues that came spinning out of the cage were not quite as strong as the Alabama collection, but the audience’s response seemed to be just as enthusiastic. Though I forgot to distribute feedback forms until the auditorium was almost empty, I did collect some good responses:

“Brilliant!!! So much [educational value], the expressions, the power of enunciation. Everything I saw inspired me to push more in my career. Thank you!!” (Jonathan Breitkrautz, Actor/Student)

“Loved every minute of it. The variety of voice and stature any actor should posses. How much you can do with nothing but talent.” (Michael McGiveney, America’s Quick Change Artists)

“Loved it. It was ‘Fun’ Shakespeare. I’d love to see high school students enjoy it – I think they would be less ‘scared’ of Shakespeare.” (Judith McGiveney, Costume Designer)

“It was a wonderful evening in which I was taken through true love, anger, treachery and lust, and I enjoyed every minute of it.” (Vienna Thomas, College Student & Theatre Lover)

“An engaging, compelling evening of theatre. Audiences find that Shakespeare is as entertaining as any contemporary film or TV show.” (Joe Jacoby, Theatre Instructor, North Idaho College)

Miles on the Escape: 16,500

On the i-pod: Dresden Dolls

Temperature: 30s in Idaho (having left my coat behind in 70 degree Chicago)

Attendance: 400-ish (“Tartuffe”) + 15 + 85 + 25 + 15 + 20 + 80 + 70 + 70 + 60 + 15 + 60 + 100 + 12 + 8 + 40 = 995

Discoveries: Warming up before the show with the hardest part of the show (in this case the opening scene), gives you a secure foothold into the work. * Throwing ourselves into it with reckless abandon makes the important stuff bubble to the top. * Just because I am trying something that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before does not mean that there’s something wrong with it. * I can slow down and take the time to get in that extra flourish of a moment before plowing forward to the next thing. * The audience will take the concept of the play dead seriously as long as I do. * As manifestly obvious a “plot device” as a free t-shirt might be, it was enough to get them to pay attention to Shakespeare! * The seven-minute monologues enable me to bring the emotional pitch of the scene to an epic stature. * A deadline gets me working a million times harder than an abstract intention does. * Getting the audience into the spirit of participating may keep me back on my heels, but it enables the big moments of the show to really pop. * I can still commit to maintaining my MOMENTUM on projects, even when I’m on the road.

Next shows: Snow College, Ephraim, UT (4/15) and Central Lakes College, Brainerd, MN (4/19)