ewhightower

Woodminster: South Pacific, Day Two

In Theatre on August 9, 2017 at 11:56 am

(If you don’t know what happened, start here.)

Day Two: Wednesday, 19 July 2017

I’m always astonished when a Bay Area native says, “Woodminster? Where is that? I never heard of Woodminster.” Believe me, actors, singers and dancers know all about it. The shows we’ve done there attain a burnished glow in the memories of those bold souls who braved the cold, foggy summer nights to see us perform. There’s something special about Woodminster.

My first direct experience of Woodminster was seeing Ken Ross as Mayor Shinn in The Music Man sometime in the early 90’s – probably summer of 1993. Ken was one of my instructors at Las Positas College in Livermore, and had directed me in my first musical (Into The Woods, 1993, I was Cinderella’s Prince), so seeing him onstage was a treat. Things that stood out for me in that production: Ken, tall to begin with, looked even taller from the back of a 2,000 seat amphitheatre. There was a live pony or horse pulling the Wells Fargo Wagon, and it seemed to be disturbed – perhaps by the loud music – and had to be removed, kicking and screaming, from the stage. The third thing that stood out to me was the girl who played Zaneeta, Mayor Shinn’s daughter. There was something disturbing about her eyes, even from the back of the house. She smiled and stuff, but there was a strangeness to her. Little did I know how that strangeness would come to affect me.

The second time I saw a show at Woodminster was years later, after attaining my BFA at The Boston Conservatory and stumbling into a teaching job in Dublin, California – just down the road from Livermore. One of my students ended up in a production of Annie at Woodminster, and I went to see it. Veronica and I sat in sleeping bags on the hard plastic seats, we ate cheese and crackers and meats, we drank a few bottles of wine. The cold did not affect us, and the show was lovely.

I missed the auditions for Les Mis in 2014 because I was in a state of deep mental and emotional distress, teetering on the brink of self-destruction. I would have aimed for Javert or Valjean. I suspect I might have been a contender for Thenardier.

It’s always fascinating to experience the stage of a theatre where you’ve seen big shows. In this case, the warped boards of the stage itself, the occasional coffee can light hanging from what appears to be a cloth-wrapped wire with a single incandescent bulb glowing inside. The logo of the can is barely discernible beneath decades of rust. But it works. So it stays. Not unlike Woodminster itself.

This, our second night of rehearsal, consisted of reviewing the blocking of the previous night and continuing from where we’d left off. I’m obsessively early, so I arrived around 6 pm to find Josh Marx about to work on his music for the show in the men’s dressing room – which is where Daniel holds all of his small or individual music rehearsals. They roll a small piano into and then back out of the dressing room for this purpose. When we’re running the show, this piano is rolled to the stage. During the day, Daniel gets a large umbrella over him. Now that the orchestra has been moved to the stage, it seems we will need to keep large umbrellas on hand at night as well, for the freak thunderstorms that plague the occasional opening weekend.

When I saw Josh Marx, I demanded to know where Engels was. He got the joke, and I dropped my stuff on a couch before heading back up to the terrace above the men’s dressing room. I stood in the same spot and peered out at the thicket where I’d seen the mask. It was a hot day, barely a breeze. The branches didn’t move at all. I saw a trail running up the slope, right next to the theatre. Two ways to get there: down to the stage door entrance and down around the fountains on the back of the theatre, then up the slope – or up the steps to the top of the seats where the audience makes their entrance. I headed up because it looked easier.

Two tall, barbed-wire topped chain link gates stood between me and the trail beyond. I walked closer to see if perhaps the locks on the gates were not fully fastened, but – perhaps luckily for all of us – there was no way through.

I was about to head back down to the stage and take the long way when I saw something up the trail, almost out of sight around the corner. In a patch of deep shadow beneath tall trees stood a lone figure. Its exact features and shape were indistinct, as it was clad in a color which blended well with the inky blue of hot evening shade. It appeared to be tall, of that I felt certain. I wouldn’t have noticed it at all were it not for the object it held in its left hand, thrust out of shadow into bright golden sunlight.

It was a baby doll.

It had a cloth body and realistic plastic head, arms and legs. From that distance there appeared to be markings on its face. I wished I’d had my backpack with me, as I keep a pair of birding binoculars handy. The eyes of the doll appeared to be missing, and the cloth body was stained a deep rust brown. As though it had been doused with chocolate milk.

Or blood.

The hand holding the doll tilted it from side to side. A sound came from the figure, panting – only more rhythmic. I realized it was singing – or keening – a chant. I caught these words:

“Mister Place, Mister Place, [something something] get your face.

Mister guts, spilled in ruts, [something something something] butts …”

I reached for my phone to zoom in and get video.

From behind me a voice: “Edward?”

I damn near jumped out of my skin, whirling and fumbling for my phone before catching it.

It was a member of the build crew. He seemed amused at my jumpiness. “Judy’s looking for you. She’s got a note about props.”

I pointed back through the gates. “Do you see anything over there?”

We both peered at the darkness beneath the trees.

The figure was gone.

I fully intended to head down around the fountains and up the trail to that spot, but social and theatrical necessities took my attention. The next time I thought about it was well after dark. We were nearing a break, the ideal time to explore the darkened hillside. Several ensemble men had just bolted to the stage, late for their entrance on a second run of Bloody Mary. I was the only one in the men’s dressing room.

A noise came from outside the window in the wall farthest from the door. The window, frosted wire mesh glass, was open a crack. The noise sounded like a dying, asthmatic calf. I moved closer and listened. The noise came again, something familiar in its rhythm.

I tried to crank the window open further, but it wouldn’t budge.

The noise came again and I recognized it: a broken, distorted toy voice box was saying, “Ma-ma, Ma-ma …,” trailing off into a wheezing moan.

I leaned close to the window to see if there was anything discernible in the darkness below.

Something slammed against the glass. I leapt back, knocking over chairs and falling over an old leather couch. Struggling to my feet, I saw it through the frosted glass: the baby doll, its face stitched like a crazy quilt baseball.

From the darkness beyond came the same rhythmic keening I’d heard from the trees up the trail. In spite of the evening’s heat – it was 72 degrees outside – I was chilled to the bone.

I left the dressing room. Better to be near people – even if they were onstage and I was just off, just out of the light, trying to drown in music the memory of the keening voice and the wheezing baby doll.

We were released at 9:35. I walked straight to my car and turned on the heater. Loud jazz all the way home.

I’m not so sure I want to explore that slope anymore.

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