ewhightower

Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

Bus Stop: Next Stop, Livermore! Part III

In Theatre on February 24, 2014 at 12:47 am

The producer is in the bar at Uncle Yu’s, slamming a double scotch and desperately calling everyone she knows. She even calls the set designer, isn’t that nice of her? She knows he’s done some acting, and it’s not really his sort of role but would he be willing to fill in or does he know someone? Thankfully, this set designer is realistic regarding his type and the time he would have to lose 30 lbs. before opening: one week. He declines, all gracious charm, and says he’ll put the word out. The producer keeps calling people.

The designer, after his luck with the door, is cautiously sending out feelers to the young male lead types in his network. Prophecy: none are close enough / available / willing to do the role. [Ed.: originally, the word “door” linked to a blog I wrote about finding the right door for the production of Bus Stop upon which this bit of fantasy is based. The gist: in 2008, Role Players Ensemble could only find one type of door for the entrance to the diner: a contemporary internal tract home door. I tried to find a better door. Shenanigans ensued. We were stuck with the shitty door they had. Moving on:]

On her third scotch, the producer sees something amazing; she blinks, leans forward … there, across the restaurant, a very handsome young man is putting on a customer’s cowboy hat at the behest of the customer and his younger, bleached and leathered wife. The handsome young man is a waiter. Server. Whatever the fuck, he’s wearing the hat and he looks … let’s not jinx it: he looks like he might work if we tweeze his eyebrows.

At his side, she stuffs a hundred-dollar bill into his hand, “You’re coming with me, I’m a theatrical producer, we need your help immediately, where’s your manager and will this nice man let us borrow his hat for twenty minutes? Here’s fifty as a deposit on the hat.”

“I’m the manager,” says the manager, overhearing from the host station. Drunk producers are loud.

“I am borrowing this darling boy for twenty minutes, please do not fire him, there’s a set of comps we open at the Bankhead next week tell them I sent you and before any of you think I am going to do naughty things to this boy I want you to know that I am happily married for the fifth time and so it shall remain!”

This does not stop her from thoroughly squeezing the young man’s biceps, pectorals, buttocks and one or two other pieces of prime real estate as she whisks him across the street and down the block and into the middle of rehearsal with a triumphant cry of, “I’ve found our lead!”

Rehearsal stops dead.

Director: Can he act?

Producer: Of course he can, what’s your name young man?

Waiter: Bo.

Director: You’re shitting me.

Producer: Ever done any theatre?

Waiter: That’s what I’m studying at the local college.

Producer: This is a paid production. Contracts are involved. Could you get the time off from school and Uncle Yu’s?

Waiter: Sure. I usually work lunch, I’m only filling in —

[Edward has to interrupt: I know it’s completely unrealistic. It’s what I’d want to happen. Can you blame me?]

Producer: Shut up, Edward.

Waiter: I have to finish my shift.

Director: That’s fine, be here tomorrow night —

Producer: Tomorrow night, seven o’clock, erhm, six forty-five on the dot, darling, early is on time in theatre and if they haven’t told you that at the college yet you should kill them all.

Waiter: I’m always early. Except where it matters.

He smiles a little at the female lead. She stops her frantic and destined-to-go-unanswered text to the former male lead.

This is the miracle they needed. It galvanizes the cast, new energy and innovation zap into the show and it sells out every performance. The Village Theatre has a pretty nice talent show, proving that there is Talent in Danville. The set finally has curtains on the window, the front door has a real window in it, and there is a snow machine and everything else the set designer could dream of, to improve the show.

Right?

Right. A wonderful fable.

But what really would have to happen would be an independent production company in Livermore approaching Role Players with a brilliantly prepared presentation which they would have to be insane to ignore, particularly because it will cost them very little or nothing at all and Role Players will get the credit for originating the production.

This would possibly involve a new director, and one or two actors might need to be replaced depending on conflicts.

It’s possible. I would even say plausible, were there an independent 501-c3 in Livermore who could pull it off.

Do I think it will happen / would have happened / could ever happen?

Maybe, with the current (as of late February, 2014) management of Role Players and the Village Theatre.

But could it ever have happened in 2008?

Nah.

Advertisements

Bus Stop: Next Stop, Livermore! Part II

In Theatre on February 18, 2014 at 10:25 am

[As mentioned in my previous post, this is a portion of something I originally wrote in another time and place. I share it here for reasons previously stated; if you haven’t read Part I, that’s where you should begin.]

First order of business: contracts! Not something many community theatres are good at, I’m giving Role Players the benefit of the doubt: contracts are on the table, and (we’re bordering on fantasy here) Role Players is willing to reimburse all gas and travel expenditures to and from Livermore for the duration of remount rehearsals, tech and performance. (Even if they were not willing to do that, in my experience many if not most non-AEA actors in the Bay Area would agree to a remount of this nature; assuming they still like the show and their castmates, of course, there’s something alluring in the shoddy glamour of a community theatre tour.)

So: we’ve got the actors and the director signing contracts. Things are looking good. It’s unrealistically rosy. Which invites the Jinx. This is what happens when things seem to be going swimmingly in theatre: someone will invariably predict success. The Jinx, being alive and well, rears its ugly head and swoops into the building, scattering seeds of doubt, distress, jealousy and betrayal whithersoever it may. Whether it’s an actual force of nature or just chinks in the armor of human nature, the Jinx is always there. Lurking.

So let’s watch where the seeds take root: will it be the supporting actress who thinks she could do it better than the lead? Will it be the chorus boy who has a jealous crush on the male ingénue and wants said ingénue’s hot girlfriend out of the show? Will it be the director who so longs for the lips of this or that actor, s/he is willing to risk the entire production by re-casting that actor in the lead, in hopes of some flustered, dusty fellatio in a props closet or the parking lot of Wal-Mart after the preview performance? (Understand that these are generic instances and do not apply directly to the cast of Bus Stop, thanks.)

The Jinx will come to fruition in one of two ways. The first, if we’re lucky, is that an actor will have an unpleasant revelation while he’s looking at the contract. Actors being actors, however, it’s more likely that he will come to his realization the night before the first rehearsal in the new space. He won’t call the director, but he will leave ten minutes earlier than usual to try to catch the director outside the theatre, break the bad news, and still have time to make a 7:30 movie with a girlfriend. The bad news is this: the male lead cannot do the show. Whatever his reasons — and they could be anything but he will devise something dire and serious — he is completely unable to go any further with the project.

This prompts two immediate questions from the director: a) if it’s so fucking serious, how could you not have known about it before now?!; and b) what the fuck is wrong with your brain you fucking asshole, how could you do this to me?

If the actor is very clever, he will devise something that has at its heart a kernel of truth, to which he can cling with complete sincerity. He will also make it something he could not possibly have known about before that very day. The director will buy it. If the actor is very good, he will use his natural alarm and anxiety in the situation to fuel honest tears, which will stun the director. Having had to struggle to get that kind of performance during rehearsals, the director will swallow the actor’s story hook, line, sinker and dinghy.

The actor departs, promising to keep in touch. The director marshals his resources, adjusts the strap on his used Kenneth Cole attaché case and marches courageously into the theatre to break the news. People are shocked. The female lead immediately dials her now-former opposite, leaving a whispered an impassioned inquiry via voice mail. As she is doing this, the director is telling the cast why the actor cannot do the show; surprisingly, even this old war-horse with over a decade of community theatre and semi-professional regional theatre is moved to tears. Briefly. It is a moment that the female lead will recall decades later in the bar at O’Flaherty’s, drawing deep on a Parliament and staring off into the middle distance, “I heard he moved to New York, that’s actually why I came. I never expected to get work. Funny how that happens. Little fucker never called any of us again. Far as I know, he’s fat and married in Suburbia. At least I am in New York.

Back to the present: one actor dropping out sends shockwaves through the cast. Those who considered it begin to reevaluate. The female lead is only here because he was going to do the show. Her parents were coming down from Oregon to sort of officially meet him but she made her mother promise not to freak Dad out. Or smile at him with big eyes and teeth that say marry my daughter, marry my daughter, you’re the first straight actor she’s ever liked and the last guy was a meth-head who hit her. A lot.

The production is in danger of breaking down here. Realistically, it probably would. In Edward’s Imaginary Theatre of Yes!, however, the producer steps in with bold and encouraging words: “You are all under contract. That actor will have me to reckon with and his reputation will suffer. We will find a replacement. You are all wonderful, truly the most amazing and talented cast I have ever seen in my life. This show will be a complete success no matter what. I feel it in my bones. Now, I want you all to work very hard today. It’s going to be tough, but I know that together, we can do it. I will find you a new lead. Hooray!”

Actors are generally desperate people. This rousing speech brings them to their feet, applauding and cheering. Rehearsal gets off to an unnaturally cheery start, with the director working all scenes in which the male lead is not an immediate part; the Stage Manager reads the lead’s lines from the second row, completely monotone. It’s a superb performance by all involved.

Bus Stop: Next Stop, Livermore! Part I

In Theatre on February 16, 2014 at 3:46 am

[Originally posted on my other blog, this post is one of several in which I chronicle the various rinky-dink aspects of American Theatre, from the very small community endeavors to the opulence of major Broadway productions. My theory is that, with only a few rare exceptions, there is always some aspect of every production — from Hamlet to Shrek the Musical — which is rinky-dink. If it’s not a problem with the writing, there’s a disconnect between Director, Designers, Management or Audience. It could be anything from the Producer pressuring the director to cast her daughter in the lead, to just plain terrible costumes. It delights me to tell you the truth about these things, because apparently I’m the only one who sees them. It’s equal parts therapeutic and just plain catty. I make no apologies. If you think your feelings might be hurt, fuck off in advance.]

On January 24, 2008 I heard Susan Steinberg of the Livermore Independent ask Dana Anderson (director of Bus Stop at Role Players Ensemble in Danville) if it would be possible to move Bus Stop to the new Bankhead Theatre in Livermore after it closes its Danville run. That’s how much she loves this production. Her review in the Independent (check archives for 1/24/08 here) is further proof of her love; sadly, she smothers the show with affection. The result is a plot and character play-by-play, effectively spoiling all the highlights for future audiences. I realize that many community papers review community theatre this way. I also realize that dogs lick their own asses. Neither of these truths makes me want to kiss the parties involved.

What’s interesting here is the question of moving the show to the Bankhead. The first thing it tells us is how little is known of theatre by nice ladies who write synopses for local papers. Perhaps Steinberg knows more: is there a financial trapdoor one can use to avoid the $2,000.00-per-night price tag that comes with doing a show at the Bankhead? I doubt it, but I will inquire.

I further doubt that Role Players Ensemble of Danville will be much interested in transferring their show to Livermore. A reliable source, who for professional and personal reasons chooses to remain anonymous, tells me that the Board of Role Players is very much interested in proving that Danville’s got Talent. So much so they are considering holding auditions for a Talent Show. Something tells me that Role Players and the Town of Danville will be too busy with that worthy endeavor to take any time off re-mounting Bus Stop in déclassé Livermore. Though one surmises Livermorians may know a bit more about bus stop diners and cowboys than do the effete elite of D-Town.

Just for fun, let’s look at what it would take for Role Players to actually produce a tour of Bus Stop to Livermore; I realize that this is highly unlikely. But this is exactly the kind of word problem I love to solve.

First there is the question of the people involved: does the cast want to go to Livermore? Or, better angle: who cannot go?

If all have pressing previous engagements, next question: would the director be willing to re-cast and re-stage the production?

If the answer is yes, would he want it exactly as it was, or would he be able to resist the temptation to tinker with things?

Would there even be time to tinker?

If the director does not want to re-cast and re-stage, is he okay with someone else directing the re-mount?

If he’s okay with it, how much of this production is still Role Players’? The set … the sound design maybe … But then, a Broadway Tour is accepted as not exactly the original but definitely the next best thing. We’ve all heard stories of tours where the performances were better than Broadway. Does this sound to me like something Role Players would still be interested in producing? No. So let’s pretend that most of the original Danville cast wants to go to Livermore, and the director is thrilled to re-mount the production.

[Thus ends Part I of this too too engaging saga. Please do comment if you’d like to read more. The rest is pure speculation, but potentially entertaining for those of you who, like me, have squirmed in your seats as you’ve been treated to productions mounted by people who — if they’re being paid to produce this stuff — really ought to know better.]

Steam

In Writing on February 3, 2014 at 10:50 pm

I wrote the following last night, it’s a first pass at poem for Brandon Fraley’s new game, “…Of Sword and Steam”:

In Days of Sword and Steam

I know it’s not quite there, yet. But I thought I’d share it. Fraley is certainly pleased.

I’d love to know what you think.

The Kind of Work I Want to Do

In Employment, Intent, Theatre on February 2, 2014 at 8:56 pm

It’s a sad day. Philip Seymour Hoffman has apparently died. I say apparently because there is a large part of me — my entire soul — which wishes for this to be a massive hoax. Until I hear otherwise, I am going with the news sources (WSJ, CNN, PBS) reporting that he is, in fact, dead from an apparent drug overdose.

The first thing I feel is great sadness: Hoffman had a quality about him that made me feel as though he and I were great friends who simply hadn’t met, yet. I have, in my mind, this unwritten agenda of things to do in life, and one of the items I’ve only today realized was high on the list was to thank Philip Seymour Hoffman for the amazing breadth and depth of his work. Simplicity is central to everything he does, and seems to be the path to honesty in acting.

I don’t know if this is true for you, but it is for me: when I lose someone I admire, a strict stock-taking is prompted in my mind and soul. What have I done with my life? How come I never met them / didn’t know them better? Why is my life bogged down with the kind of mediocrity against which I rail when holding petty court at a rehearsal or on break while filming, and to which I return to rest at the end of the day? Why is my nest cluttered with shit, and why is my work gathering dust while I frantically try to get all the dishes done or sweep the floors before V gets home?

Ridiculous bullshit, all.

So I’m focusing on the kind of work I want to do. And it’s pretty simple to sum up: I want to do the kind of work Philip Seymour Hoffman did. Does, in all extant samples of his work. Simplicity. Honesty. Bullseye.

I’m not pleased with my career — or lack thereof — and its effects on the rest of my life. Such a big mistake coming back to California from NYC. So foolish. I do not know if I will ever feel otherwise. The idiocy of that decision hangs over everything I do like a vast, deadly avalanche that has fallen, is about to fall, will fall.

Maybe I can find a way out of it. Maybe if I approach everything with honesty and simplicity, I can find the path away from the nest I’ve cluttered together under the threat of impending disaster.

So here’s the kind of work I want to do:

In Film, I want to work on well-written projects, only. No more impassioned note sessions with writer/directors who can’t understand how to use an apostrophe or comma. If they don’t know how to do that shit, I’m not in their project. I want to work with brilliant writers, brilliant directors and brilliant cinematographers. People who do work like this:

In Theatre, Regional Theatre is as low as I’ll go from now on. The next project I’m in is THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Berkeley Playhouse, a venue that appears to be Community Theatre (I’ll know more as rehearsals progress; if you’re interested, ask for updates). Here’s some honesty for you: the only reason I took the job is because it’s directed by Kimberly Dooley. She’s one of the founders of Shotgun Players, which, for my money, is the best (most daring, most potentially powerful, most impassioned) theatre company in the East Bay — possibly in the Bay Area.Working with Kimberly will be, I hope, a helpful lubricant to penetrating Shotgun. Zing.

There are other places I’d like to work in the Bay Area: Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley Rep (I’ve understudied there, once), TheatreWorks, possibly ACT and definitely Marin Theatre Company. But the reason I love Shotgun Players so much is simple: they have that lithe, quick, spare quality that keeps theatrical art vibrant. The larger a theatre company gets, the more slowly it moves, until it becomes bogged down in political struggles between the Artistic Director, the Managing Director, the Board of Trustees, the Designers, the Donors … What was once a powerful, dynamic space in which miracles were possible becomes a behemoth wallowing in its own inability to create without upsetting the myriad apple carts others have built on its haunches.

The problem area that lies between the work I want to do and the work I’m doing is simple: nobody knows my work. I’d allowed myself to get trapped working at Solano College Theatre, which, while itself a once-vibrant Regional Theatre in Fairfield, CA, reached its high-water mark with The Producers in 2009 and has receded ever since. The college gutted the company in 2011/2012, and it’s now nothing more than a community college theatre department. Sad, sad days. So, while some of my best work was being done at SCT 2008 – 2013 (as both actor and, eventually, director), nobody came to see it.

The result is that, in many ways, I have to start over. While my resume is impressive, I was spending so much time at Solano that nobody in the greater Bay Area had any idea what I was doing. It’s basically impossible to get anyone to come see your show if they have to drive more than 30 minutes and/or cross a bridge. I actually offered to buy some people a tank of gas and dinner if they would come see The Producers. They never responded to that ridiculous plea, rightly turned off by its sheer desperation. That could easily be a contributing factor to my not having worked at any of the biggies in a while.

So I’m starting over. At 40, soon to be 41, years of age, I am doing Community Theatre for less-than-minimum-wage, all in the hopes that the simplicity of my own work will lead to more jobs at better theatres that pay a living wage and are creative springboards to wider, deeper ponds.

Cross your fingers, gentle readers, and comment if you have any thoughts you’d like to share.