Monday, May 10, 2010

The Geography Of Yearning: (Fall, 1992)

I wish I could take credit for the amazing title of today's post, but alas, I cannot. Eric Overmyer, who would go on to be one of the main writers for "Law And Order", coined the phrase, which is a secondary title to his genius play "On The Verge".

I started working as an actor for Looking Glass Theater in the fall of 1992. I'd done "South Pacific" at Theater-By-The-Sea that summer and was now going to be working full time as an actor. My ambition lay buried deep inside like a virus.

The producer of Theater-By-The-Sea was a Renaissance man named Richard Ericson. He had been producing plays for the better part of a decade in New York and had gotten a group of investors together and totally revamped Theater-By-The-Sea. He also was a dialect coach who'd worked with high-profile movie stars when they needed specific accent work. Richard hired Judith Swift to direct "South Pacific" and then she asked him to direct a play at URI that fall.

I was technically still a student at URI. I was taking the final English class that I needed to complete my English Literature degree. I had never heard of "On The Verge, or The Geography of Yearning" although I was certainly intimately familiar with the concept.

The play takes three modern women on a journey through time where they come face to face with eight different male characters, all ostensibly to be played by the same actor. Since it was a college production they split the eight parts up between four different actors. This still fulfilled the need of the play to place the male/female relationship in some sort of theoretical loop whereby certain roles are expected to be played.

The play begins in Victorian England with three women on an expedition. You slowly begin to realize that they are actually traveling forward through time. The two characters I played were Alphonse and Gus.

Alphonse is actually a nameless cannibal who has EATEN a man named Alphonse and taken on his soul. Alphonse had been a dirigible pilot who crashed his balloon in an unfortunate locale and was eaten. This led to some confusion in the character as he could talk openly about the balloon but didn't really know what it was.

Later in the play the women have traveled all the way to 1955. Gus is the epitome of the 1950's American teenager who is pumping gas and chewing gum.

It was strange to be back on the Will Theater stage. I was acting during the day in elementary schools all over the state and living at home. My life was an odd mix of adulthood and prolonged adolescence.

I'd started a band. I was making money. But I was still in college and living with my parents. Marissa and I were quickly disintegrating. She was a full-time RISD student and had an entire existence happening that had nothing to do with me. The happy little world of the summer stock romance had almost completely dissipated, like a brake pad worn away until metal screeched against metal.

I was very busy. I did two shows a day, rehearsed "On The Verge" at night, and had one or two band rehearsals a week as well.

The set for "On The Verge" was magical. It looked like an old-fashioned pocket-watch, the kind hung from a fob, open on the stage. It was highly raked, which is a theater term meaning it was tilted towards the audience. When you stood on it it was like standing on a steep hill. You could stand under the set and have your feet on the stage floor.

This led to my favorite entrance that I've ever made in any theatrical production.

The women have fought their way forward into the future, marveling at the changes that they've witnessed while also struggling to make sense out of the MAN they keep encountering who seems hellbent on making their journey intolerable. As they hit the 1950's they have had it up to here with the MAN.

For my entrance I headed down into the tunnels beneath the stage. Quietly. There, on an elaborate pulley system, sat a gas pump right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I wore jeans and a t-shirt with a baseball hat. A team of backstage workers sat silently in little cubby-corners waiting for my cue.

When it came, they pulled on their levers and I flew fifteen feet up into the air through an opening in the stage. From the audience's perspective, a hole opened up in the stage and I shot up through it, snapping my gum and polishing the gas pump with a handkerchief. It was a great stage effect.

Of course the women have no idea what a car is, what Chiclets are, let alone any frame of reference to deal with an American teenager. But Gus is, for the first time, an innocent in his dealings with the women. He doesn't actively try to throw them off, he simply is too young to know anything.

I had a hard time with this role. He was so fresh, so without guile, so positive. It was very difficult for me to get in touch with those qualities. It was as if I'd lost the ability to perceive them in me. I remember Richard trying to get us to improv the scene to achieve some sort of a breakthrough. I was very rigid and resistant. I didn't like improv as a rehearsal tool. I still don't but I would be so much more capable of giving over to the experience now. Then? I couldn't let go.

Strange that I'd spent almost a full year in a foreign country and yet was still almost entirely incapable of having an open mind. I was busy in artistic pursuit pretty much twenty-four-seven but there was no release. No sense of achievement. I was Jetson on a treadmill.

You'd think I might have cottoned on the the thrust of Overmyer's play, but when you don't allow yourself to yearn, you have no geography to map.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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