Monday, March 31, 2008

Cat's Cradle, Pt. 1: Alone, Combustible

I spent several months on the campus of UNC/Chapel Hill in the winter of 1999. I had been cast in Martin McDonogh's masterpiece 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' at Playmakers Repertory. This was a major turning point for me in many ways. It was my first Equity acting job. My marriage was on the rocks. Everything was at a crossroads.

I was determined to make my 8 weeks in North Carolina as productive as possible. The daily responsibility of raising and caring for Cash would be removed. The striving for the next gig would be removed. All I would be concentrating on was my part in the play. While a very important part, the part of Ray appears intermittently in the 4 character play. The main thrust of the play concerns the twisted mother/daughter relationship. This meant that I'd have plenty of leisure time to fill.

I had two areas I wanted to concentrate on. First I wanted to get in physical shape. I tracked down my cousin Timothy to ask his advice in designing a physical fitness plan. He sent me a handwritten manifesto that kept coming back to 3 main concepts.

1. Focus
2. Water
3. Protein

He wrote out a rotating workout schedule that toggled back and forth between cardio and weight training. I arrived in Chapel Hill and found the gym on my first day.

Second I wanted to go see as much live music as possible. Being long acquainted with the punk underground, I knew that Cat's Cradle was a legendary club. Every band I knew and loved had played there over the years. It served as Chapel Hill's Living Room.

I deliberately didn't bring any books. I didn't bring my guitar. I brought workout clothes, my workout plan, and a blank notebook.

The campus itself is a dream. Gorgeous in as understated a manner as could be imagined. Playmakers Rep set me up in what is called 'The Actor's House', a massive colonial right off of Franklin Street. Franklin Street is the commercial hub of the campus, coffee shops, record stores, movie theaters, restaurants, and municipal buildings co-exist happily. The theater was a 5 minute walk away, the gym 10.

Rehearsals began. Never before or since have I experienced a process as fertile and simple. Rehearsals were scheduled from between 9 and 5. I was so used to rehearsing at night after a full day of other activity that I was shocked at how much progress was so easily made. It was not uncommon that I'd be called for an hour a day, never more than 3 hours.

This left me ample time to hit the gym for the first time in my life. I noticed immediate results.

I checked the Cat's Cradle schedule. A band called Combustible Edison was playing. They'd developed a small cult following in the lounge/martini craze that had hit in reaction to grunge. I knew of them because they were from Providence.

Cat's Cradle sits in a modestly sized commercial retail strip mall. I don't remember what sat on either side of it but I remember thinking that it seemed odd to me, as if it were a donut shop or pharmacy. But once inside it had all the makings of the perfect music venue.

A tunnel entrance opened onto a large square room. The stage was to your immediate right. At the back of the square was an elevated porch of sorts where the soundboard sat ringed by benches. A doorway led to a back room with a pool table, some video games, and the bar and bathrooms.

I had taken my wedding ring off for the trip. Our therapist had encouraged us to look at this as a separation in order for us to more clearly see how we felt about each other, about the relationship. I don't know if my ex took her ring off but I did. I felt a desperate urge to connect with my basic self, the one that belonged to no one, the self I was born with.

Combustible Edison took the stage. They all wore thrift store tuxes and cocktail dresses. Their music, while lively and well-played, felt as false to me as the faux-emotional-bombast they were supposedly counteracting. They brought out a bit of the dumb jock in me. The crowd was much the same and the martini glasses that peppered the landscape seemed insincere. I was driving and on a strict dietary plan, but the contrarian in me felt obliged to order a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I drank it slowly, abandoning it when it lost the frost. Combustible Edison were still wriggling, somehow excluding those of us who weren't wearing plaster of Paris rings or flowers in previously owned silk lapels. I headed out early so I could hit the gym early.

Focus, water, protein. The self I was born with.

No comments: