Another Closing Night

Almost any theatre artist will tell you that closing nights can be bittersweet.

There’s a camaraderie amongst a cast and crew that grows quickly, and at times intensely, over the few months’ course of any given production. People come together to create this living, breathing piece of art which by its very nature is not permanent – which will have to disappear into memory. In this process they come to know each other intimately, rely on each other and, hopefully, trust each other. This is most true for those who are part of every performance, on stage and off, working with a live audience who may love it or hate it or both.

There’s nothing like performing live. There are no second takes in theatre, there’s only another chance the next night….until there isn’t. And you close.

Tonight is the closing night of my current show: Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

It’s an ensemble piece in the truest sense. Nine actors creating over fifty characters. (The remnants of one of mine are seen here.)

The remnants of a character

There’s a beauty in this kind of group work, in this non-linear script, where energy is tossed or thrown or deftly handed from person to person. And in this show most of us are always on stage the entire time. I don’t think I’ve ever watched my cast mates more in any other production. I love watching actors work. I’ve loved watching these actors work.

This has been quite a memorable experience, challenging in its own unique way. There are so many new-to-me people and the cast is filled with actors I’ve come to admire—well, a few I already had admired and I’m very glad to have had this experience with them—but most of the them I didn’t know before this show.

Part of this cast is young—young enough to make me feel old, and I don’t think of myself as old. They’ve reaffirmed my hope for the future of theatre. They’re creative, talented, ambitious and hungry. They’re the reason the theatre has never died, despite the calls for its demise that appear every now and then.

Until I get another chance to do so, I’m going to miss working with all of them.

I’ve been fortunate to have been working on some project, whether as actor or director, since September, and do not have anything definite laid out in the future just yet. (That actually may change as I write this….) This too makes the closing a little bitter. Doing theatre is something that fills me like no other thing, and when I’m away from it from too long….well, I go a bit stir crazy. I doubt that will happen.

There’s only one take left, one more chance. Like every play I’ve done there are things I still strive to make more beautiful, more artful, more true. No two performances are ever the same, and tonight there’s another unique group of people who will come together to be the tenth actor in this performance: our audience. I hope they bring their A-game. I suspect we will.


Opening Night, and the Morning After

I haven’t written much lately – I’ve been a bit more than busy. My schedule has been full getting to another opening night, which occurred a little more than twelve hours ago. Here it is, Saturday morning, and I’m in a daze, unsure what to do with myself. I’ve got the day free, but am still reeling from last night’s performance and am anticipating tonight’s.

This play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, is a big play. There are dozens of characters played by nine actors, using numerous actual sources to tell the story of Wilde’s love and trials. There are a lot of words. And a lot of interjections with little scenes and asides, often in seemingly non-sequiterian ways. Just memorizing lines became a challenge.

Theatre GarageLast night we opened to a huge crowd, who laughed at all the right places (and a few we didn’t know would be funny at all) and got very quiet, just the way the rehearsal room would, when we got to those other, more difficult and tender moments. The challenge of last night was to not let all the extra energy and stimulus in the Theatre Garage—a small, intimate space where almost every audience member can be looked at in the eye by every actor on stage—to not let it throw us off our game, not distract us, not put some new random thought in our head and take us off our the path of our previously discovered objective and strategy.

Add to that challenge that the construct of the play includes that our characters constantly talk to the audience. So it’s like getting a new scene partner after five weeks of rehearsal. Things are bound to get wobbly.

Thankfully, of course, nothing went awry. A few stumbled words here or there by a few people, but nothing really. This was immediately followed by some drinks and snacks and long conversations in the lobby. Somehow, strangely, almost the entire cast ended up back down in the green room with a few guests, chatting along before someone said “Why are we down here?!” (Anyone who has been in the green room of that theater would understand.)

And now here I sit. The morning after opening. It’s a bit like the first day after the semester when all that’s left is finals’ week. There’s a sense of relaxation, a sense of freedom of time, but there’s the continual presence of being ready to go back, muster the concentration and connection, and do it all over again with another new scene partner, made up of another hundred strangers, and see what happens this time around.

In the meantime, perhaps I’ll do some laundry and finish my taxes.

A Morphing Murmur

I once referred to Scream Blue Murmur as my favorite group of Irish poets. This Northern Ireland collective has expanded, contracted and morphed over the past few years and their work has shifted from spoken word with some music to songs, a melange of funk, soul and jazz. Their core seems to have moved from the power of the word to the power of the sound. I’m still loving this stuff, and it’s clear to me from their latest product that the mind of its driving force, Gordon Hewitt, hasn’t stopped moving and exploring new ways to tell the stories.

The Secret Life of Gam Bambino, is a two-song grouping that’s taken their sound a little further down the path they’ve been going. The title song itself has a heavy bass, rhythm, soul-jazz, mixture. While listening to it, I was sort of reminded of The Stray Cats sound, but this is more clever and complex. Regardless of Setzer’s rep, I mean this as a compliment, as something fun, upbeat and enjoyable.

The B-side of this duo is Sonny Has Sturdy Legs.  Its prominent trumpet and sax lines make this song feel rather jazzy, but then the vocal styles lay on a kind of soul element, more reminiscent of some of their earlier works. Meanwhile the whole thing has a sort of comfortable beat that kept my foot tapping throughout.

Both songs have the feeling of being performed in a tightly packed and dimly-lit bar, and are a clear progression from earlier pieces by the group, particularly from Cassius Marcellus, which shares the layering even if with a different styling and pace.

One thing I found interesting about visiting the site was the collection’s cover image. I don’t know if anyone called Gam Bambino existed, or exactly who Sonny may be (in this case, that is) but I wanted to know more. The lyrics in both pieces, which are slight, keep the tales limited. My mind went to finding the story amongst both songs and the picture.

Which one is Sonny? Which one is Gam? Are they the same person? Or were they enemies?

And, whose head was bashed in?

This has the makings of a longer compilation of songs, and I hope to hear a full album with these pieces as a kind of base.

How Peter Pan Changed My Life

Recently I came across a short video about pursuing work that makes one happy. It was  by a college professor who identified it as the kind of advice he’s provided to his students over the years. Its message was essentially “don’t worry about making money, instead do what you’re interested in doing and making money will find a way to happen.” While I don’t think that’s entirely true—that is there’s a need to find a way to make ends meet because that doesn’t happen by magic—it’s a bit of a philosophy which I’ve followed for many years.

When I was 16 I decided I wanted to be an actor and work in theatre because I enjoyed it. I had considered a number of fields, but only because I was a good student with good grades. I was expected to consider things like engineering or law. As I explained to my mother that this was my choice for my college major (a big discovery, by the way: “I can major in acting?!”) I told her how I had watched her and other adults go to jobs that they didn’t enjoy. I remember saying, “If I’m going to put that much time and energy in to something, I want it to be something I like doing.”

Many years later I still thoroughly enjoy it. Now, of course, I know the realities of working as a theatre artist and how that idyllic life I dreamed up when I was a kid is a far fetched reality. But I digress.

My discovery and love for live performance came in what I now see as an unlikely adventure, and were it not for a technical error I might be a financial broker today.

A few years before that fateful life choice, when I was in middle school I went on a field trip to see the Broadway touring production of Peter Pan, starring Sandy Duncan, which had come to Chicago. It was there in the Arie Crown Theater that my life changed.

This was a big, colorful happy musical and we were enjoying it as much as a bunch of kids could. I knew the story, for the most part, and I even knew that Sandy Duncan was a big famous person, so I knew this was something special. But then the moment came for Peter to fly for the first time and things went wrong.

Commemorative program from the national tour

Commemorative program, 1981

The music intro began just fine, the kids asked all the right questions—”Can you really fly?”—and Ms. Duncan raised her arms and said, “You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts and up you’ll go!”

And she didn’t move.

And then the wire jerked, and she sort of lifted and stopped and landed again, and she began singing, and the wire jerked again, and lifted and dropped, and finally up she went a small ways.

And then the moment happened that I’ll never forget. Sandy Duncan stopped the show.

She stopped singing, she dropped character, started waving her arms about, shouting “Stop! Stop! Let’s go back! Stop!” Directing the crew to put her back down and the orchestra to stop. As they lowered her down and the instruments dropped out, one by one, I became enthralled, because it was all so real. “The fourth wall” had been broken and I didn’t even know what a fourth wall was!

Finally she looked out to the audience and said to us, “You paid good money to see this, you might as well see it the right way!”

I was stunned: This wasn’t Peter Pan on script, this wasn’t planned, this was Sandy Duncan talking to us. This was all happening unrehearsed and live.

She and the kids all got back to their spots, she looked around, addressing the cast, crew and musicians, asking “Everybody ready?” Then pointing at the youngest boy, shouted “Hit it, John!” He piped up with his line, “Can you really fly?!”

And this time with her “…up you go!” Sandy Duncan flew high in the air! And despite our seeing behind the scenes the magic of theatre filled that huge auditorium and we erupted into applause.

I had already dabbled a bit in performing but that experience made me fall in love with the craft of storytelling, the beauty in pretending and the immediacy of a live performance. As I did with most movies I saw as a kid, when I got home I described every moment of the play in great detail to my mother. (I’d follow her around the house, talking and talking….it probably took as long as the actual production.) But I recall that this time I focused mostly on the most remarkable moment of the show—that part that wasn’t supposed to be, the part that was a one-time only, unique, experience just for those of us in that theater on that particularly day.

My program is still in good shape

Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan

I know this only goes to show my naiveté at the time, but I was really just a kid, and I’d never seen anything like it. That moment is still vivid in my mind and thirty-two years later I still tell the story, still attribute it to why I do theatre, and yes…..I still have my “signed” program.

Looking over my shoulder

I probably shouldn’t compare years. It doesn’t seem fair. Some years are better than others for their own reasons, and one year can have great successes for me while others seem to have been nothing but wasted opportunities.

Odd numbered years seem to be important to me, more than even. This, of course, makes no sense either logically or in fact.

Good years = 1985, 1989, 1992, and 2009. (No, that’s not a 17 year dry stretch.) Bad years = 1985, 1999, 2008. See? No sense. But it’s generally how I feel.

2012 was a fine year.

So before moving on to the (odd) 2013 future, I’m pondering just a few highlights of the art in and around my life for the past year:

  • One day out of the blue I was contacted by a local theatre looking for other theatres and/or performers to produce a late night show during the run of their own play. My schedule allowed for it, or so I figured, and I was suddenly producing, adapting and directing a play, to go up in mere weeks. Four classic tales, unrelated and yet thematic, with a talented (and hard working!) ensemble were worked staged and presented. We called it And Things in the Walls and it came together beautifully. It was exhausting.
  • In the midst of that chaos, I squeezed in the best theatre experience once can have: Pillsbury House Theatre’s Chicago Avenue Project. Take a group of young, eager, energetic neighborhood kids, help them write their own plays, and bring in directors and actors and produce it for their families, friends and neighbors to see. This is the third time I’ve directed for this program, and it warms the inside of my sometimes jaded heart. We should never lose the playful imagination we used so easily when we were 8 years old. I think those kids teach us more than we teach them.
  • It was great to spend time as a real hired actor on multiple occasions and projects this year, but one stood out. Last spring I shot an anti-bullying video where I played a guy getting more than picked on at his work place. The piece was used by a national anti-bullying project, about which CNN did a story that included the video. My Facebook feed lit up and I had a voice message asking if I realized I was on the home page of CNN. (I later learned portions of it were aired as part of their broadcast story too.) It was a powerful video that garnered many, many comments for months from everyone I knew. At first I was just glad to get a gig, shooting a little video for a day. But it’s nice when art (acting) and work (paid gig!) combine to make an impact. It’s on YouTube, but you can see it on their site here.
  • I’m always taking pictures.

    Crashing waves in Puerto Vallarta

    In 2012 both my cameras were stolen, although thankfully one was returned. And when I upgraded my cell phone to to the latest and greatest, the camera was a serious downgrade. (Thank goodness for Instagram, huh?) Still, I took this picture, one of my favorites, in one of my favorite places.

  • As always, I saw a lot of theatre. Some good, some…not so good. The Fringe Festival is always a mixed bag, but this year’s crop gave me two great inspirations. Make that three if you count the stuff I really didn’t like and would never want to emulate. But it’s always great acting that makes me most excited, as I wrote about back in May in what was likely my favorite production I saw in 2012: Compleat Female Stage Beauty.
  • And when it comes to pop culture meets drama: I fell in love with Downton Abbey. Well written, impeccably performed, beautiful to look at and compelling story lines. I mean, come on! Maggie Smith alone...”What is a ‘week-end’? Indeed.

That’s what’s over my shoulder back there, where I also was able to line up two productions to fill what’s in front me, thus getting me through the winter and well into spring, working with companies and people new to my resume. Not bad, 2012!

So far it’s looking like a lucky ’13.

Acting with my Whole Body

Last weekend I finished up my brief run of a holiday show, which was both exhausting and a lot of fun. It was at a history museum, with an historical story-line.  Audiences seemed to have a good time with its broad and quirky comedy, and there were plenty of opportunities for me to improv and ad-lib things, interacting with audience members.

Part of the setup of the show was that I’m a museum employee, not an actor and am sort of recruited in to playing some parts so I have to carry the script around (this huge binder weighing several pounds) and learn things quickly. Some people continue to think it’s true that I work there as opposed to being a hired actor. I’m not sure how.

One woman actually said to me after the show, “You should consider taking up acting!”
Ok, perhaps I will.

The play was under an hour but we would do three shows a night, each an hour apart. I spent most of the performance running up and down stairs, changing costumes, and grabbing props. Then after leading the audience out, and running around resetting props and costumes I would have maybe five minutes to sit, get a drink of water and then start all over, looking fresh and happy and hopefully free-of-sweat, for the next group.

I’d get home tired and sore.

I’m avoiding the “I’m getting too old for this….” remark.

This week I started rehearsals for my next play, and one night we spent the evening sitting on gym mats on the floor because there were no chairs available. I’ve never been much of floor sitter, but nowadays….boy was my back stiff when I crawled my way up. Then at last night’s rehearsal I was finding myself doing things like climbing over, through and twisting around metal hand railings up on a raised level, sliding down the short wall to the floor beneath (completely my idea, by the way) and then I found myself sore this morning.

I may not be getting too old, but boy am I out of shape. I’ll take credit though for throwing everything I’ve got in to my work. Ouch.

Being an Actor is Weird

Earlier this Fall I had a few auditions for a film. Theatre auditions can vary greatly in how they’re handled by the producer or director, but film auditions are a really mixed bag. Small rooms, large rooms, cameras or none, one-on-one interviews with the director or with a table full of writers, producers, P.A.s, someone’s grandfather, and a dog. I’d say these recent auditions fell somewhere in the middle—there were enough people there to show me they were serious about making this thing and they were all normal and polite enough to tell me I’d not regret working with them if they hired me.

I didn’t get the part.

That’s not why things can be weird. In fact, there was really nothing weird about this thing except that I was never told I didn’t get it. Generally speaking after a second or third audition an actor is typically notified (that is, at least when they’re representing themselves and not by an agent) and the last thing I was told was “You’ll be hearing from us by the weekend.”

That was over eight weeks ago.

The other day I came across something online that told me the name of the actor who got the part. He’s perfect for it, a much better a casting choice than I would’ve been (yes, I can manage some objectivity) and he’s a great actor. I can’t feel bad—they got the right guy. I’ve worked with him before and consider him a friend, so I had to send him a congratulatory and sarcastic note along the lines of “thanks for taking my part from me.”

Obviously it’s not the first part I haven’t got, wasn’t the last, and I don’t really fret about losing a role. That would be really self-destructive. It’s just the nature of the work. And that’s kind of the weird thing. Auditions are this ridiculous way of getting a job. You stand up in front of people to be judged, and frankly liked, and you have to have the right skills, the right talent, the right look. You could be too short, too young, too old, or even not look enough like someone else. Or too much. And even then, there’s this weird elusive thing about chemistry with another actor, usually a stranger.

As my friend said in his response DUDE! I’m sorry about taking your part. Isn’t acting weird? We do our thing and a bunch of other people get to decide if we work, where we work, when we work and what we work on.

He’s right. But of course, if that were the only thing it would be just like everything else. I mean, if I were a chemist and wanted to work for 3M it’s not like I could just show up one day and say, “Hey, I can do this. Where can I set up in the lab?” I’d still have to apply, interview and be chosen. But if we apply the rules of hiring actors to the process of hiring a chemist then the chemist also has to be the right gender, the right age, the right “type”, look like he could wear the right lab coat, and it would make a difference as to whether or not he showed up to the interview with a pocket protector.

Do chemists use pocket protectors? Probably. But I digress.

A couple days ago I had an audition for a commercial. I didn’t even have to speak, it was just walk and give the right attitude. There are no lines. You’d think just about anyone could do it. For that job I have a callback on Monday. Yes, there are callback auditions for that non-speaking ,5-seconds of film, job, because of the thirty guys they’ve seen they couldn’t just pick one.

My friend was right. Being an actor is weird. This isn’t news to me, but sometimes things happen that really bring it home.

I’m going to practice my attitude now.