Woodminster: South Pacific

In Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Theatre, Writing on August 8, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Day One: Tuesday, 18 July 2017*

[*Note: This entry and the next few are a direct homage to James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, upon which the musical South Pacific is based. If you read that novel — and you should — you will see that I have based the first few entries of this series on his first few chapters.

This was originally something I had intended to continue throughout, but as certain other elements of the story took over, I elected to abandon Michener in favor of Hightower. I hope it brings an uptic in urgency, in spite of any detriment to quality.

With apologies to the ghost of James A. Michener,

— Edward Hightower]

I wish I could tell you about Woodminster Amphitheatre. The way it actually is. The sparkling bay. The infinite specks of light after sundown. Redwood and Eucalyptus swaying gracefully toward the east, as if gesturing actors to springboard to New York. The mountainside upon which clouds are torn apart each night by our sets and lights, whirling around actors to embrace us in surprise ambiance, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating tech rehearsals, the full moon shining over a full house, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.

But whenever I start to talk about Woodminster, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the blistering afternoon heat is like, and the first thing I know I’m telling them about the first time I auditioned at Woodminster and Harriet Schlader took me back out onstage before I could leave, insisting that they sing me for a role that matched my type. “Would you sing him for the Pirate King, for the love of Pete?!”

Or somebody asks me, “What is playing a 2,000-seat amphitheatre really like?” And before I can describe the tidal wave of terror that fuels my every entrance, I’m rambling on about Rod Voltaire Edora, man of ten thousand talents, who willingly designs and sometimes – as in the case of Honey Bun in this production – applies specialized makeup for me. May his success ever increase.

I love working at Woodminster. It’s a temple to the arts in the middle of a redwood forest. It was built by the WPA. It has a bomb shelter underneath it that is sealed off because, I surmise, cleaning it out would be prohibitively expensive for the city of Oakland. All of these things conspire to make me love the place itself.

The people are generally splendid and specifically delightful; I believe this is because the powers that be recognize that hiring talented people who are also easy to work with leads to an overall positive experience for all involved. When the cast is having a good time together, the show works that much better.

We’re rehearsing South Pacific. I’m playing Luther Billis. My call today was 5:35, and the first order of business today was to learn my music with Daniel Thomas, who was also music director on my first two shows at Woodminster: The Producers (2015) and Shrek (2016). Daniel works fast, he’s efficient and succinct. I have a total of about ten sung lines in the show. And I’ve played this part before (The Willows Theatre, 2003). So it took all of five minutes to nail down and record my material. After that I was free to wander the theatre until rehearsal with the full cast.

I chatted for a while with Chris Vettel and Amanda Johnson (Emile De Becque and Nellie Forbush, respectively), until we were given an official hour’s break between 6:00 and 7:00. They headed off on individual errands, and I went up to the roof of the theatre.

There are picnic tables all over the top of Woodminster. You can reserve them for a picnic before the show. During rehearsal, they’re a great area to go run lines, work dance steps, or fart. There’s a whole unspoken theatrical etiquette around farting. As a gentleman, I prefer releasing flati away from the sensitive palates of my fellow thespians. Where better than a deserted theatrical rooftop?

Smuggling what felt like an angry octopus in my intestines, I made my way to the roof from the stage left stairs. An array of symmetrically-placed rat shit dotted a two-foot radius around trash cans near the top of the stairs (thanks so much for your attention, City of Oakland.) The rooftop picnic terrace above the men’s dressing room, being farthest from the stage door and any sparse chatter I could hear, became my immediate goal: a nice shady spot to study my lines. And fart.

From the distant corner of that terrace, you can lean over to look at the slope below: clad in dry, golden grass, it craves goats to crop it even as it tempts the gods of fire. Occasionally I see goats on these slopes, but not often enough, and never this far into the park. From this corner one could rappel the short distance to one of three or four exterior windows on the dressing room. Glancing around to make sure I wasn’t going to offend a napping soprano, I let fly the gaseous demon trapped in my bowels.

Oh, the glory! How she spread her wings and with what guttural joy she warbled! Like a wet latex umbrella being forced from the deepest recesses of a pipe organ. Hail Mary, full of Bass. Thus relieved, I turned to sit and study my lines.

As I did so, I caught a glimpse of something through the branches of a nearby pine. In a thicket about twenty-five yards away, a face: white, expressionless, with empty eyes. A mask? Leaning out over the edge, I pulled my glasses on. Whatever it was, if anything, had gone. The branches where it might have been were wiggling. Against the wind.

I wanted to go explore that spot, but was accosted upon my return to the stage by the charming Amanda Johnson, whose kindness and talent I hold in very high regard. I confess that, until documenting today, I was thereafter distracted by the necessities of staging.

We blocked Act One, until the middle of Scene 3, ending right after There Is Nothing Like A Dame. Men were released from rehearsal at 9:33, women were kept to work vocals.

I can’t stop thinking about that mask.

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