Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Looking Glass Shows (Fall, Winter, Spring: 1992-1993)

I ended my last post, as I am wont to do, with a dramatic exit line.

"I would never perform on stage in Rhode Island again."

And, as with most exit lines, it might be effective but that doesn't make it altogether true.

"True West" closed in January, if I recall correctly. And while I would never again rehearse and put up a play at night for grownups in Little Rhody, I was still doing two shows a day with Looking Glass Theater.

So before I make the fateful journey down I-95 and begin recounting my New York theater exploits I have to give a short precis of each of the magical shows we did in elementary schools all over New England.

But first, my audition two years earlier.

My friend Mitchell had been the third member of the troupe for a year but was moving to Chicago. He suggested that I take over for him. I thought this made it a done deal so I went to the audition much like I went to the "Camelot" one, full of what would turn out to be false confidence.

Diane Postoian put me through one of the more exhausting audition processes I've ever been through. And when I look back at what the job actually entailed, she was absolutely right to do so.

The offices of Looking Glass Theater were housed above a church in a leafy corner of the West Side of Providence. The space was filled with props from former shows, toys from the church day care and shelves and shelves of books. It feels like where the kids in the Peter Pan family might live.

We ran through a few scenes from some material they'd used in the past. We ran through a few scenes from a few of the shows they were currently running.

And then Diane said the words that can still shrink my testicles in any audition.

"Let's do some improv!"

Now, I know there are actors out there who just can't wait to be given permission to go off script. I am not one of them, especially in an audition situation. Part of this is a block that I've tried to approach over the years by facing it head on. I actually joined an improv company in Providence to get over my issue.

Part of the trouble is that when I go OFF, when I really go OFF, I tend to cross lines. My friends and family know this about me, which is why many of them are surprised when I say I don't really like improv. But I have, in the name of humor, ruffled so many feathers in my life that I can't really trust myself to play by the rules. I have made good friends cry. I've also said things which I thought were hilarious which offended just about everyone in earshot. I once had to leave a game of "Scruples" in college.

So part of my trepidation comes from a real sense of truth about my sense of humor and how utterly inappropriate it can get.

But part of it comes from a real love of STRUCTURE. To my way of thinking, the best art comes from forethought, from injecting spontaneity into craft. Do I think Sacha Baron Cohen is talented? Yes. Do I like the Borat movie? Not one bit. I think he was a thousand times more interesting in Talladega Nights. That's just me.

In any case, when Diane told me that the next phase of the process would be improv based I felt a giant lock close, shutting the door to my access. I started to sweat. And the cool job that I didn't know I really wanted started to slip away.

I don't even remember what she asked me to do, but she really needed to know whether I could think on my feet this way. The job entailed constant interactions with large groups of schoolkids, none of which would be scripted. Which I had no problem envisioning myself doing, but Diane didn't KNOW me, how could she KNOW that I'd be fine?

Anyway, the audition dragged on for what seemed like hours. I think that Diane was confused...why was the spark that she saw in my readings not present anymore? Why was this confident funny actor sweating bullets and stuttering?

Finally she asked me to ACT out a story from my childhood.

And I did, telling the infamous Case Of The Governor's Limo story.

By the end I was crouched on a tricycle pedaling madly, completely transported back to that day.

Diane later told me that this was the moment that sealed the deal for her. I wandered off into the Providence day EXHAUSTED.

I went into a whirlwind rehearsal process, learning the slate of shows that Looking Glass offered. There was a literacy show for younger kids that didn't really have a plot, it was more an interactive slide-show designed to get kids interested in books.

What I was most excited about was the production of "From The Mixed Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" in which I played Jamie, the resourceful younger brother of the heroine of the book. This book was a huge part of my childhood. I used to fantasize about doing just what the characters in the book do, run away and live in a museum!

There was a short lived production of "Strega Nona" that was shot down by Tommy Di Paola's lawyers. There was a disastrous adaptation of "The Search For Delicious" that was not directed by Diane and that we cast members eventually demanded be removed from the lineup. The schools were usually furious with us after that show, so bad was it. They were used to GREAT shows from Looking Glass and the response was akin to a patron who comes to their favorite restaurant every day and gets their usual only to find that it is DISGUSTING. The outrage is tripled because your expectations are so high.

In any case, my proudest memory from Looking Glass Theater is the show we created for Delta Dental on a State Grant. Taxpayer money put to good use! And I mean that.

Delta Dental had been given a big chunk of change to create a show that promoted taking good care of your teeth. We got the contract. They didn't know what they wanted. We came up with a show that ran for three or four years, long after I left.

And here is where the improv gene started to kick in in a different way. We had to create the show from scratch. The two actresses, Wendy and Christa, Diane and myself holed up above the church and started brainstorming and playing around. A few intense weeks later we had a show.

In it, Sweet Tooth is on trial for causing tooth decay. Wendy played Sweet Tooth as a Southern Belle in a Kentucky Derby hat. I played the lawyer prosecuting her for her terrible crime. But Christa played the kid who had to ultimately take responsibility for the health of her teeth, it wasn't Sweet Tooth's fault!

At least, that's how I remember it. I am probably getting some details wrong. The play was an absolute blast. The kids got to play teeth, they got to play germs, they got to play plaque, they got to be toothbrushes. The interactive aspect of the show was key.

I had a great line that I still remember to this day which ended with me browbeating Sweet Tooth about her "heinous sugar habit" which my Southern accent twisted into "HIGH-anus sugra habit". I loved that line.

But what I remember most about Looking Glass Theater is driving around Rhode Island in our van, carrying our show with us like we were on a cart pulled by a horse from town to town in the Middle Ages. We drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, talked about our lives and then turned right around and did shows at the drop of a hat.

I was going through a very difficult time and those relationships got me through it. So thanks, Diane, thanks for insisting that what I was offering wasn't quite enough, for sensing that I had more to give. And thanks to Wendy and Christa for putting up with my bullshit and pulling me through my own darkness.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I so remember the Looking Glass Theater! I mean, I remember them coming to Richmond Elementary School (in Richmond, RI) when I was in second grade! (So, that must have been 1975?) All I remember was that a very dynamic dude came to my 2nd grade class and taught us how to be *germs*! I think the play was about the human body and illness and such. Anyway, our class was the germ! And the germ was the bad-guy of the play. We were invading the body and causing trouble!

We got to all crowd underneath a huge, spotted, slightly see-through blanket and wave our arms and make germ noises. (All under the guidance of the actor dude, who was our leader!) During the performance we scampered around the cafeteria floor (which was the stage, with the rest of the school playing other roles in other places in the cafeteria) and attack other groups of kids who were various body parts. It was awesome!

And the actor dude never told us that we had to die in the end! But some part of our collective, 2nd grade mind was watching the plot of the show and knew that in the end the antibodies or vaccine or whatever would defeat us. Until then, though, we were terror! Eventually we saw our leader crumple in fear of the healing powers of the human body and we knew our life as germs was coming to a close. We cowered, rolled on our backs, and kicked our legs in the air in an obvious act of kid improv death.

I LOVED this! I thought it was one of the most fun things I had ever done in school, which isn't saying all that much, you know, being in 2nd grade. But it was magical! Years later, thinking about this, made me think that whatever funding or payment the Looking Glass Theater got for this was so worth it.

And therefore I'm delighted to learn that you were able to be a part of this tradition. I'm sure there were hundreds of kids that were shown magic through you like I was through that germ actor dude.

Anonymous said...

Oh crap. I forgot to sign my post. This is Tom Hull.

Brendan O'Malley said...

I remember them coming to my school as well...I think everyone did. It lasted a long time...from what I understand they folded in recent years, not sure why.

Yeah, the kids had NO inhibitions about diving right in. And they loved dying. They had to die as plaque germs!