The Mystery of the Fiddle

My great-grandfather was a musician. Not as a professional trade but by practice and reputation. He was an Irish immigrant back around the turn-of-the-century, moving here to escape the ongoing Irish civil war fighting, deciding instead to start anew in America. He settled in Chicago and by day took on the blue collar life of a streetcar conductor, and at night, the amateur fiddler. Family lore includes tales of winning talent shows, both in local entertainment venues and on the big-time radio shows of Chicago in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

My mother still has his violin, still in its delicate case. My Great-Grandfather's FiddleIt sits in a small, cramped closet, in a tiny home in the suburbs. Once every five or ten years someone pulls it out to take a look at it, and talk about how we don’t know anything about it, and how so many of us know little about the man who owned and played it.

Over Thanksgiving my great-grandfather came up in conversation, and thus “the fiddle” and the question of  who should inherit this….some day. (As the only family member working in the arts, I claimed dibs years ago.) I needed to see it again and wanted to show my husband this family heirloom, so I headed to the closet and gently pulled it out.

The instrument itself seems as if someone tried at some point to restore it to its glory. In fact his son did just that, trying to “clean” the exterior of the wood and sadly discolored the face. The bridge and tailpiece are off, the strings are gone, and the bow’s horse hair is frayed and fragile.

But one of the more striking details was how the back of the neck had a patch of the finish being completely worn off from use. Running my hand over that stretch made me wonder how often, how many times, for how long had his hand gripped it.

I’ve an interest in history and genealogy and now I’m on a mission to learn more of the provenance of the instrument itself, Old_Violin_labelwhich gives us few clues. We always wondered if he’d brought it with him from Ireland. That, however, seems unlikely because peering inside the F Holes we can see a label, handwritten with my great-grandfather’s name and Chicago address— an address none of us recognize. Yet. It could be an early address, but it seems to point to being purchased or made in Chicago. The note itself looks almost like a yellow post-it note, and I wonder about how common it was to put such a label inside. And how did they do that?

The only other clue comes from a stamp on the metal base of the chin rest: a large B, surrounded by “Becker Patent Trade Mark” which at first seemed really promising. Becker StampI did a few  searches online and wrote an email or two back and forth with the Carl Becker violin company of Chicago, which has been around since the turn of the century. They told me they’d have to see the violin in person to make any kind of assessment (which makes complete sense) but that from the picture of the stamp they could say that the insignia was absolutely not affiliated with them.

So where does this leave me? Still in the dark but even hungrier to learn about this fragile piece of wood. I want to talk to violin makers, musicians and historians. I want to know more about where and when it was played. I want look more closely, again, at this delicate and amazingly light violin and discover the tales it might be able to tell.

This past summer I took a fabulous trip to Ireland where I visited the old stomping grounds of my great-grandfather. We heard music in many places and fiddle music in a few. At one point I heard a violin playing traditional Irish music and we followed its sound. We discovered this young busker on the main pedestrian street in Galway, who made me wonder about my great-grandfather Felix. And I imagined that had he been born one hundred years later, perhaps he wouldn’t have come to America. Perhaps this is what that streetcar conductor would’ve been doing.

Galway Fiddler

Halsted and University

There’s something about a small, urban storefront converted into a theater that I love. Maybe it’s just my Chicago origins where storefront theater spaces abound and where I first experienced professional theatre as a professional wannabe. That city has a slew of them, so many in fact that they’ve at times become their own marketing tool and arts category.

As a young man studying acting I remember numerous trips to Steppenwolf in their old little storefront space at 2851 N. Halsted. Sadly today that spot is some modern building housing something called Golf Tec, an indoor golf lesson business or some such thing. To some people those are hallowed grounds for the pioneering work done by that company in the 1980s, and I cringe at the thought of a modern building filled with plaid pants and cleats taking up that space. Also I’m not much of a golf fan, but still – I’m sure you see my point.

2851 N Halsted, post Steppenwolf, pre-demolition. (Courtesy of PerformInk.)

I remember walking in to that theater for the first time and was surprised at how….small it was. There was hardly any lobby to speak of, the box office was a tiny corner, the ceiling was low and the place felt cramped. On another visit I recall walking in and not noticing any of those those elements because it now felt comfortable to me, but I immediately noticed the Tony Award proudly and simply displayed in a small glass case in one corner.

The theater space itself was a shallow stage, with a low ceiling. There was no room to fly anything in and if there were ever any wings it was only due to scenic design and perhaps by hanging black curtains. It wasn’t the fanciest place or the largest, but that’s not what that company is or ever has been about—it was about the work, the plays, the acting, the art of theatre. And I saw many a magic and beautiful moment on that stage, up close and personal.

After Steppenwolf built their current home, others moved in and the storefront continued to be a theater, but in 2004 it was demolished.

I’m thinking about all that now because last night after my show I was having drinks with some friends and learned about this article: Gremlin Theatre looking for a new home.

2400 University, Moon over Gremlin, November 2011

2400 University, Moon over Gremlin, November 2011

That is the theater where I’m currently doing a play. It’s a small, intimate, store-front space in an old building on University Avenue in St. Paul. The company moved in there only about five years ago, and has put a lot of sweat equity into it, as it wasn’t a performance venue prior to them. In addition to their own productions, they lease the space out to other, nomadic, groups.

It has a small lobby, the box office is an old bar in one corner, there’s no fly space, no wings, the ceiling is low, the stage itself is shallow and there are about seven rows of tiered seating.

Storefront spaces like this aren’t as common in the Twin Cities as they are in Chicago but few have reminded me as much of 2851 N. Halsted as 2400 University.

Gremlin, and the other theatres that have used its space, are gritty groups. Gremlin’s own mission includes “Gremlin Theatre seeks to… [perpetuate] the idea of theatre as a relevant, entertaining, and socially valuable activity for the audience and the artist.” An intimate space like this is just what that mission needs.

There’s something about how a storefront space is accessible and pedestrian friendly, and how a theater in such a place makes it feel like an integral part of our community, that it enhances the experience as both an audience member and as an actor. There’s no stage door for separate entrances by company members, it’s not in a big building with other businesses with which to compete or have to accommodate, and yet there’s a nice big window in front that thousands of cars drive by and pedestrians walk past and they can see that the arts are present and active and essential to our local culture.

It’s intimate and immediate and there’s nothing like it to put an audience and actors in the same space. And in my heart and mind, we as theatre artists and we as a community need more of this, not less.

2400 University closes as a such a space this coming August, and the owners will renovate it into something else entirely. I sincerely hope Gremlin finds a new home just as special.

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.

A Not So Bad Audition

The other day I auditioned for some independent film, at an old warehouse or factory building in northeast. Northeast Minneapolis, that is. Or also known as Nordeast. After living here for 20+ years I’ve finally started to find my way around that part of the city, and I don’t get lost up there nearly as much as I once did. I’m not directionally challenged in most of the world, except for a small area of Minneapolis on the other side of the river.

It was sort of an audition. More like an audition/interview. There was no camera recording me, even though this was a film audition, and strangely, think I was the most calm and confident person in the tiny studio. The writer/director seemed nervous and not sure how to go about any of this. The other person (whose position wasn’t made clear to me) was more confident, and tried to act like she knew what she was doing, even though she clearly questioned herself.

Not unlike a set of red lips along a highway

All this was fine with me—I don’t mind when others are nervous. In fact, I often wish everyone else were nervous most of the time and not me.

What would life be like then? Perhaps discomforting.

But I digress. I didn’t end up getting it.

So what does all this have to do with this picture?

Nothing really.

Except that on this beautiful afternoon when I went on this audition and as I was walking back to my car I noticed how prominent the General Mills building was on the skyline in that part of the city. In some weird way it made me think of the Magikist sign off the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, which is sadly no longer there. (The sign, I mean, not the expressway. Or Chicago.) And it didn’t remind of that because a set of big lips are like tall white mills but because it seems so brazen, so distinct against the back drop. You drive past it every day, see it all the time, and don’t really acknowledge its presence.

I stopped a moment at my car as I tossed my stuff in to the back seat and I thought, “Well, I don’t think I’m what they’re looking for, but it’s a lovely day and it wasn’t a bad audition and I’ve met some new people, so life’s not so bad. And hey—that’s kind of a cool view!”

So I took a picture.

General Mills. “Life’s not so bad.”

Fun and French, in a Cold Read

I spent the past two nights getting together with large groups of actors and reading aloud a couple plays. It was an informal gathering put together to explore these scripts as possible candidates for production. We were all assigned multiple parts, had some drinks and snacks, sat in a circle and dug in.

The first night’s play included numerous dialects, some singing and some foreign language. (This was a cold read for most of us, so there was some foreign language faking going on.) Last night’s was much tamer in that regard.

The fun of it, of course, was the discovery and the challenge. Other than the title and the authors’ names, I wasn’t familiar with either script, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Cold readings can be difficult – having to make quick choices, on the spot, about intention, attitude, relationships, character, all only based on what’s in front of you at the moment, not knowing where anything’s going.

Some times that’s a good thing. Some times you choose incorrectly.

After the readings we discussed it all – what we liked, what we didn’t, how produce-able it might be, what kind of audience it might garner, whether it’s right for this company and their audience, etc….. Lots and lots of opinions were thrown out, but there was also much agreement, and good discussion within the group. The conversation was cordial, professional and productive. There were no egos, no arguments and nothing personal.

(I’m not surprised by any of that behavior, I’m only reminded that I see it so little elsewhere.)

I learned a couple things through this exercise.

I learned I can’t always think on my feet well enough to sound clear and smart at the same time in group discussions. (I feel I usually can, but these couple night’s challenged that notion.) Life might move too fast for me, and I like to consider and explore materials when reading them. Or perhaps my mind moves too quickly, jumping to ideas, and I inadvertently skim things I shouldn’t. Or maybe I’m not as bright as I think. No…that’s not it.

Also, I learned, or re-learned, that I have a pretty solid skill of doing some accents, and many I can just toss out, on the fly, without thinking about them. While this includes a few British, Irish, Italian, Russian, Chicago, New York, ranges of Southern US and perhaps a few others, it does not include French. I don’t know why, but I can’t just jump into a French accent unless I’m improvising dialogue. On night one I had to read a character with a “slight French accent” and I started trying one, but as soon as I heard it fluctuate to some Eastern European (probably to a country that no longer exists) I gave up. I couldn’t read and accent at the same time.

But mostly I learned that this kind of thing should happen more often. At any given time I probably know several dozen actors who could be available on a Tuesday night to get together to read a script. Even if people aren’t right for the part, it doesn’t matter. Hearing a script out loud is how scripts are supposed to be heard. Hearing actors put some life (even incomplete, or slightly off-the-mark-in-a-cold-reading life) into the playwright’s words is illuminating. And getting together to practice, discuss and enjoy the process isn’t so bad either.

Every time an opportunity like this comes up I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. Perhaps it’s time it does.

Community and Friends and Celebration

Arriving at the Ivey Awards, Historic State Theater, Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

New York has its Tony, Chicago has its Jeff. For many years Minneapolis didn’t have such a thing, but for the past seven years we’ve had the Ivey. Unlike most award programs, the Ivey Awards doesn’t have set categories and there are no nominations, although there are two standard categories of Emerging Artist and Lifetime Achievement. These elements have been a point of criticism since the beginning, but so far it hasn’t kept away the crowds, lessened the excitement or diminished the glory. Of course, with no set categories and no nominations, honorees have no idea they’re going to win, so every statue handed out is a surprise to most of the room.

Two nights ago the Twin Cities theatre professionals, along with numerous fans, gathered at the historic State Theater downtown for this year’s event. It’s colloquially become called “theater prom” by some because in a field where most of the workforce tend to spend rehearsals and pre-show time wearing rather casual (often very casual) clothes, this is an opportunity to dress up big time.

But unlike prom where only certain people are invited, everyone’s welcome to this show, and elbows are rubbed between the newest and most experienced artists, between the smallest shoe-string budget company and the multi-million dollar funded institutions and everywhere in between. The beauty is in the community, coming together for one night to celebrate each other and honor some (though not all) of the standout moments and works of the previous season.

Oh, and then there’s an after party. A HUGE after party, where more elbows are rubbed and ears are bent and deals and promises are made.

I didn’t win anything although I didn’t really think I would. I am, however, awfully proud to have been a part of a show that garnered a lot of attention that night, as two of those little statues went out because of that show, Street Scene. One went to our show’s heroine, Anna Sundberg (who not surprisingly to many was the year’s emerging artist) and one to our show’s director, Craig Johnson, for his direction of the show – an overwhelming task with its 3-acts, 65 characters, 26 actors and a dog on a (relatively) tiny stage. Sitting next to Craig as his name was announced (or rather, the work and the show was announced which prompted a large contingent around him to cheer loud enough he couldn’t actually hear his name) and seeing the stunned look on his face was a real joy. I’ve been fortunate to work on many shows with him, for many years, and I couldn’t have been prouder of my good friend.

Of course, at the after party the cast members in attendance decided we made his direction look good and gave ourselves due credit. But more importantly, we celebrated our friends who won and celebrated our fortunes of working in a community with such widely diverse and strongly talented artists as these Twin Cities have. I’m happy to call it home.