Friday, April 23, 2010

The Mystery Of Edwin Drood (Winter 1988)

The year had started slowly in the URI Theater Department. A staged reading of Harold Pinter's "Old Times" opened things on a decidedly somber note.

I had no idea what a staged reading was. I had no idea what the play was about. I did the reading as if I were a sleepwalker. I might as well have been reading a foreign language using phonetics.

Suffice it to say that the teeming sexual underbelly of Pinter's play was TOTALLY lost on me, a repressed nervous insecure TEENAGER who had barely even fantasized about what was clearly at stake in the story between these hardened grown-ups. I literally had NO IDEA WHAT I WAS TALKING ABOUT ONSTAGE.

The famous Pinter pauses were filled with thoughts like, "I wonder what that means," or "What could she possibly be hinting at there?" Hilarious.

I'd had something of a tumultuous summer. I'd spent a few months at the end of my freshman year dating a senior girl named Diane. Diane was awesome. She would tell everyone it was my birthday whenever we were out and about. I was always getting free donuts at Bess Eaton, cakes and candles in restaurants and illegal free beers in pizza joints. But Diane was a senior and saw the writing on the wall.

She had sensed that there was something flirtatious going on between me and Sandi, Mitchell's younger sister. Being clueless I had no idea this was happening. But she was right. She told me I should be free to date anyone I wanted. I was a freshman! Of course, she got deliberately drunk to tell me this and neither of us REALLY wanted to break up. I went out with Sandi a couple of times immediately and had a lot of fun. But I was rather confused.

By fall Sandi and I were not really seeing each other full time. We never officially dated but we never officially broke up either. We would meet occasionally, have coffee, see a movie, make out, laugh.

My main focus, however, was the Theater Department. I liken my attitude to being on a sports team. I was gung-ho. Every day was a blast.

The Fine Arts building had a giant lobby that served as a cafeteria, meeting ground, rehearsal space and communal therapist couch. Everyone rotated in and out of the lobby throughout the day. It was not uncommon to see theater games spontaneously erupt.

My favorite was the instant death game. The rules were as follows: you had to move briskly across the lobby, not a run but a very fast walk. At the height of your speed someone would call out a manner of death which you had to immediately succumb to.

Flaming arrows. Double barreled shotgun. Mack truck. Poison dart. Heartbreak.

You get the picture. Girls in skirts would flail to the ground clutching their breasts which had been strafed with hollow tipped ammunition. Guys in jean jackets would clutch at their throats as the imaginary cyanide asserted itself.

I was determined to take part in the musical this year because I'd been too cool for school my freshman year and missed out on a chance to be a part of "Anne Of Green Gables", still in the Top 5 Best Theatrical Events I've Ever Seen List. Plus my sister was Anne and she was unbelievable.

I'd never heard of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", either the unfinished Dickens novel or the musical based on it. I was cast as James Throttle, the Stage Manger of the Royal Albert Music Hall.

The conceit of this musical is a fantastic one. Dickens left the novel unfinished. A music hall troupe has decided to put on a production of the novel. Therefore it is a play-within-a-play type of deal. You get the atmosphere of a theater troupe and the great storytelling of Dickens.

The best part? The audience votes on who they believe the killer is.

The interesting thing about my part is that I was the only member of the giant cast who only played ONE role. Everyone else had a Music Hall character (slutty showgirls and grizzled cockney clowns) and a Dickens character that they then adopted.

But since I was the Stage Manager of the troupe, I was NOT IN THE PLAY. I stood off to the side at a podium and assisted in the faux production we were doing. Judith Swift immediately sensed that this part was badly defined. Why was he there? Well, her take was that I was a sort of visual reflection of what the audience should be going through.

If the scene was funny I laughed harder than humanly possible. If it was scary I was petrified. If it was romantic I was over the moon in love. I was a cartoon of emotions. I never set foot backstage. Whole worlds were lived back there, a cast unity that I was always separate from. Judith directed the cast to have vague contempt for me, which is a kind of joke in the theater community. When a stage manager is on the bad side of a cast things get nasty real fast.

My favorite part of each night was when the voting happened. Cast members accosted the audience row by row demanding that they choose a suspect. Once they'd tallied the vote from their section they would rush the blackboard slate down to me. I quickly could tell who was the winner/loser. I chronicled this hilarious process in another post called "As Datchery I Did My Bit".

As usual, the tone of the show pervaded every aspect of the theater department. Girls went around flirting in cockney accents, guys had to have muttonchops or giant beards, it all began to turn into some crazed harmless Jack The Ripper co-ed fantasy.

My main function on stage was to be the right hand man to the leader of the Music Hall, played by an amazing actor named David Wagner. He doubled as a constable or mayor in the Dickens story, some figure of authority. He was also the narrator. Whenever he would switch from Music Hall to Dickens character he would take off the soft hat he was wearing and thrust it in his pocket. I would fire the hard top hat he wore as the Mayor through the air to him. It was often quite a long toss and he and I practiced it relentlessly so it would never fail us.

I can still vividly see him whipping the crowd into a frenzy and then turning to me from across that giant stage. It was SO MUCH FUN TO DO THIS BIT. You wouldn't think that something as simple as a hat flying through the air could be exciting but the level of difficulty was actually quite stiff. The crowd loved it, they ate it up, cheering louder each time we completed the haberdash javelin.

Did David love and respect my character James Throttle more because of this connection? Of course not. His character had great scorn for poor James Throttle and this translated to David trying to get me to crack on stage by standing just offstage behind my podium and throwing pennies at me.

I have probably never had more fun in a play than during "The Mystery Of Edwin Drood". We were chosen to compete in the regional competition of the NETC and gave a monstrous standing ovation worthy performance but narrowly missed being chosen to perform at the Kennedy Center.

It didn't matter, though. We knew what we had done.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Coward's Umbrella Business (Fall: 1987)

Even though I was only a mile from the house I went to high school in, college life was a monstrous revelation. I was placed in Heathman Hall, a dorm that sat on the very Northern edge of the campus, just across the street from the woods that stretched away from the civilized academic institution into New England wild. To my naive teenage brain, Heathman seemed wilder than anything those woods would ever contain.

My first weekend sharing a suite ended in an infamous party. A blond blockhead drank too many beers at a poker game and wound up defecating all over his own unpacked bags in the back of the communal closet. He was in a new dorm by the first Monday morning, pleading with us to forgive him and give him another chance. We wondered why he wouldn't want to get some easy anonymity someplace else and were glad to be rid of him.

Girls walked up and down the hallways in towels. Accents from New Jersey predominated but there was the occasional Midwest twang and Southern drawl thrown in for good measure. I could walk home in fifteen minutes and my mind was blown so I can only imagine what it was like for those who'd been deposited by plane with a whole semester staring them in the face.

I was signed up for an introductory acting class with Kimber Wheelock, who had directed my sister in "Picnic". He was a lanky tall cranky bald man who had studied with Strasburg and taught the Method. I wound up being directed by him many times during my college career but the first play of the semester was being directed by the Chair of the Theater Department, Judith Swift.

The two of them, for me, served as an awesome teaching tool. Judith didn't give a shit if you meant it, believed it or really felt it. If the AUDIENCE believed it that was all that mattered. The cross-weaving of these two viewpoints would inform my work during those formative years and continue to reverberate today.

Audition notices were posted. The first production of the year would be "Hay Fever" by Noel Coward. I may have done a Noel Coward scene in high school and I was dimly aware of him. English accents were required for the audition. I don't remember how it worked, if you chose what part you wanted to audition for or not, but I wound up auditioning for Richard Greatham, a diplomatist on holiday.

I distinctly remember the moment when the cast was announced. I guess I expected to get in because I wasn't surprised when I saw my name. I do remember that a senior actor, a small bitter tank of a kid that I'd already harbored an intense dislike for from a party I'd attended while still in high school, stood at the cork bulletin board and expressed disbelief that he hadn't gotten in. I knew he'd auditioned for the part I'd gotten and for the first time I tasted the competitive fire that has driven me all the way to this desk job in Santa Monica!

Rehearsals began with a table read in a conference room type classroom tucked in between the administrative offices and the costume shop. The cast was a strange mix of upper- and lower-classmen and women.

"Hay Fever" tells the story of a theatrical family who are vacationing at their country estate. Mother is a grande dame of the theater and her young spoiled children are following her into the arts. Mitchell Fain, who played Simon in this production, says Simon was an aspiring cartoonist and Sorel plays the piano. Father is a novelist.

The conceit of the play is that each member of the family has invited a possible romantic partner down for the weekend. Judith (the mother) has invited Sandy, a strapping young boxer. David (the father) has invited the sultry Myra Arundel. Simon's possible flame is a flapper named Jackie who is a few pints short of a quart, and Sorel invited me, Richard Greatham, upstanding young diplomatist.

Roaming around angrily is Judith's former dresser, now maid, Clara. She is, to say the least, not suited to her new job.

Each is in turn outraged that anyone else would dare invite a guest when they have already invited one. It is never explained WHY they do what they do, but what they do is hilarious. Judith sets out to seduce her daughter's guest away from her. Sorel retaliates by coming onto the boxer. David rejects Myra in favor of the stupid dancer his son invited and Simon gloms onto Myra. Just as these romantic entanglements start to truly consummate, the family coalesces once again and mistreat the guests so thoroughly that they each storm off to return to London.

That is the whole plot of the play. The plot is not the point. The point is the extreme quirk of this family, the deliberate theatricality, the heartfelt false realities that they embrace for fun. They use their guests to amuse themselves without scruple, without restraint, with no fear of reciprocity.

For me, the rehearsal process was mind-blowing. Because the world of the play was so specific, so rooted in a certain era, we spent a full week of 4 hour rehearsals sitting around that conference table dissecting every moment Coward had carved out. We read it out loud. We hashed it out. We read it out loud again. We read sections separately. We disassembled it like an engine and then we meticulously put it back together again.

When we finally got on our feet we were primed. Our accents had been honed with tapes and coaching. I had begun to grow a beard so that I could wind up with a mustache. I had never had a beard before and this new found symbol of adulthood gave me a new sense of potency.

Judith is a choreographic director. This play without intense blocking would be interminably talky, and Judith knew EXACTLY what she wanted in each scene. She had FLOW CHARTS of movement. To give an example, in the second act the entire party is gathered in a common room for a kind of post-dinner party. Because my character was a narrow-minded, linear, practical man absolutely threatened by these bohemian surroundings, Judith had limited my movements to short straight lines that barely strayed from my chair near the piano. Simon however covered almost every inch of the stage in no discernible pattern whatsoever. Judith, a grande dame of the theater, made sweeping arced crosses and Jackie the stupid flapper made short bursts of movement that she immediately reversed or shied away from.

Like I said. SPECIFIC.

As we watched the set take shape on the floor of Will Theater we began to get very excited.

The Design Department at URI matched the genius and invention of the directing side. A two story English country house began to appear. A three leveled drawing room with a grand piano, an L-shaped stairway that ended in a landing with an ornate railing and two doors, a set of glassed French doors that led out onto a patio overhanging with actual plants that would be found in an English garden.

This set was a behemoth. Standing behind it there were two staircases that led up to platforms behind the upstairs entrances. A water system was set up so that rain could spatter the glass of the French doors.

The costumes were equally spectacular. I was in a natty suit with wingtips, the women wore fantastic dinner dresses and appropriate traveling clothes, crazy hats, veils, you-name-it. The patriarch wore florid ascots and the boxer knickers and a bowtie. If you stumbled into this rehearsal you would think you were in the 1920's in England, so perfect was the illusion.

Now, this play is not an easy one to get across. But in a 550 seat theater we DESTROYED audiences on a nightly basis. The world was so perfect, so hermetically sealed, realized so completely, it was as if we sent them back in time, back to the London of Coward's day where the erudite elite would have eaten this up with a spoon.

To this day it is one of the finest productions I have ever been a part of and rivals any of the best I've ever seen.

In a quick side note, I had my first inkling of the technical aspect of acting. My sister Sheila was working the lights on the show. She watched every night. There was a moment when Judith basically corners my character and bares her neck so that I can give it a chaste peck. She then reacts as if it were a Casanova seduction. She says "Oh, Richard" in a lusty growl. I counter, "I'm afraid I couldn't help it" as if I'd been overwhelmed by passion.

The laugh had been dwindling throughout the run. Sheila took me aside and said, "The reason you aren't nailing that laugh is because you turn towards her as you say it. When the show opened you were saying it OUT to the audience."

I made the adjustment and it worked like a charm, in fact the laugh was bigger than ever because the placement of my head was DELIBERATE. Take that, Method Acting, it had NOTHING to do with what was going on inside of me.

I also had my first lesson in the hypocrisy and hubris of critics. The show was entered in the annual NETC Competition. Any show that wished to be up for consideration was attended by a panel of judges. They watched the show in question and then stayed afterward for an appraisal and notes session. To preface this, I have to explain the blocking we used at the end of the show...

It is the morning after the disastrous dinner party. The guests straggle down to breakfast. The family has not woken up yet, the epitome of rudeness. Each guest desperately wants to leave but their etiquette forbids them such a drastic action. But they work themselves into such a frenzy that they ultimately decide to make a break for it.

Just then the family comes downstairs. They are in their pajamas. Coward only notes that as the family breakfasts, the guests sneak out the door.

We then embarked on a slapstick routine in which we threw suitcases down two flights of stairs and hid behind open umbrellas every time the family turned to look in our direction. The effect of course was that the family KNEW we were trying to sneak out and were messing with our collective heads by ALMOST noticing us over and over again. It was a ballet of repressed anger and panic. It brought the house down.

We took off our costumes and makeup and slowly gathered in the now empty theater to receive our critique. The crowd had been raucously involved; it had been our best show.

The judges then proceeded to say that they weren't sure of the relationships between the family and guests, they couldn't discern WHY the characters did what they did, etc. etc.

They neglected to tell us that they'd MISSED the first act entirely in which these things were laid out like clockwork.

But that is not the ultimate hypocrisy we witnessed that day. In attempting to give the director a compliment, they revealed themselves to be total frauds and posers.

They complimented Judith on how she handled "Coward's umbrella business".

When we heard that phrase uttered we all began to giggle on the inside. We knew there was NO mention of "umbrellas" in "Hay Fever". Judith had invented that on her own. But they tried to make themselves seem like experts, as if they had seen 27 productions of "Hay Fever" and our take on "Coward's umbrella business" was the most original.

It was this production that opened my eyes to how deep you could go in the pursuit of the truth of a play. How it is a never-ending process. How you can, if you are willing, unfold infinities in every project you attempt.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Theatrical History

So three years into this blog and I've delved into my history in any number of ways...I've written about almost every important concert I ever attended, I've named and reviewed 50 of my favorite albums and 50 of my favorite books, and most recently gone back and identified every strange brush with ill-health that I can remember.

I got to work today and wondered what would be next, where I'd take this space. After I finished the book reviews I told myself I would take a break and do some writing for myself. Immediately upon making that decision I was asked to write something for Brains Of Minerva and was in the running for a very high-profile writing gig that ultimately didn't work out.

During that break I missed the daily challenge of calling something up, doing my best to articulate something specific about it, and letting it stand.

I am currently acting in a show at the Los Angeles Theater Center. It is a World Premiere of a new play by Erik Patterson, a playwright I admire greatly. I am enjoying the heck out of this show and am very proud and pleased to have such a great project to be working on.

As with any play there is a story that goes along with it. But you usually can't name the story until later, until the project is over and you've gotten some distance from it. In ruminating over this play that I am currently doing I began to look back over my life in the theater. I cherish my memories and will never find anything that equals the thrill and power of a play being performed for a live audience.

And, voila. My next blog path arrives.

I will be going back and telling whatever "story" is connected to every play I've ever done. College, Providence, New York, Regional, Los Angeles...I am going to have a blast going back into this territory.

When I got to the University of Rhode Island theater department I was already in awe of it. My sister Sheila had been a part of the department starting when she was in high school and did a production of "Picnic" that is legendary in my family. So by the time I enrolled I knew many of the students, I knew many of the professors, I knew the theater and was very excited to sign up.

Now, my high school drama club was quite adventurous and creative. I've seen plays performed by young people that work on every dramatic level conceivable. But the leap from South Kingstown High School to URI was quite drastic. The professors were determined that our experience should closely mirror professional productions. In fact, in retrospect they were far more disciplined and regimented than many professional productions that I've heard about.

I had no idea what to expect when I was cast in my first play.

Which I will talk about tomorrow...

Hay Fever by Noel Coward, comin' right up!

The Lightbulb

So if you're a regular reader you know I've been chronicling my health history. I've dealt with (in chronological order according to my age) synovitis, a blocked eardrum, a revealed ankle bone, a gouged hip, a scarred cheek, chondromalacia of the left patella, a torn ankle tendon, a crushed vertebra from a falling fridge, a zombie toenail, a blood blister the size of a plum on my heel, Lyme's Disease, an emergency appendectomy, pleurisy for the first time, pleurisy again seventeen years later, and pneumonia, all of which were interspersed with sporadic bouts of chronic bronchitis, arthritic side-effects from the Lyme's disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, and finally fibromyalgia. Oh, yeah, and crushing depression and anger management issues.

Do I want sympathy? Do I want pity? Hell yeah, I've been trained to. Normally. But I've just about had enough of it so this time I am going to respectfully decline.

I've come to some conclusions about this spectacularly bizarre run of bullshit.

I can't discount the fact that I have a very delicate equilibrium. I am not one of those hearty folks who shrug off infection, repel collision, eat/drink/ingest whatever they want and wake up smelling like a rose. No. I am the kind of person who has one peanut M&M and winds up in the waiting room.

Like a mouse stuck in a maze I've stood on the threshold for what feels like eons, repeatedly pushing the button that looks right. And for eons I've been shocked to the core over and over and over. Finally my teeny weeny mouse brain perked up. It started January 1st, 2008 when I quit smoking cigarettes. Cigars/weed were next for the poor shocked mouse and now the worst thing I take into my body is probably a peanut butter pretzel.

Even the tiniest brain can learn not to shock itself.

If it were simply a question of will power I'd have done it a long time ago. But, no, it is more than that and this is where I begin to tread on what is for me VERY THIN ICE.

Will power cannot even come into play unless there is a FAITH at work. An inherent belief that your system is holy, that your mechanism deserves the greatest odds you can give it.

I already got hit by a car and I'd have been pissed if it had finished me off. If a bus hits me I'll be in as perfect health as can be to show off to the Medical Examiner.

I joke but this dim light has been steadily brightening for me over the past few years, illuminating dark corners I'd not have even admitted were there. And with each day that goes by in which I treat my body like a temple my brain perks up, my soul follows suit.

So what will I be writing about next week now that I've plumbed the depths of my ridiculous health history? I don't know yet, but with the light streaming into the cracks I think I'll be able to see well enough to come up with something.

I'd make a crack about how that might be because of the hole in my retina but wonder of wonders I just had an eye exam and guess what? The hole healed.

All on its own.