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Woodminster: South Pacific, Day Four — Part I

In Fiction, Theatre, Writing on August 11, 2017 at 12:54 pm

(If you care about continuity, start here.)

Day Four: Friday, 21 July 2017 – Part I

Everything looks different in daylight.

A thought occurred to me today as I drove in to Woodminster: If Dolly Lurker could be all of those places outside the theatre, couldn’t Dolly Lurker also get inside the theatre? I decided I should check the perimeter for potential points of entry.

I arrived at 4:30, two and a half hours before rehearsal, and parked in the same spot, all bright hot sunshine burning away any lingering alarm. Looking at the slope in front of my car, I was surprised anyone could get up it easily, especially if they were waggling a baby doll as they walked. It’s near vertical in some spots.

I got down there and looked for footprints, signs that the earth had been disturbed as someone struggled up the slope. There was nothing I could see. Perhaps if I’d mastered the Tracking merit badge, but – alas – I chose Theatre over Scouting in 1989, and I’m pretty pleased with the results so far. (I had a choice at the time: spend my time in tents with boys my age, or spend my time in the dark with girls my age. Then get applause for what I was doing in the light. Cue dopamine flood, ignite validation and … commence addiction.)

I headed inside, enjoying the welcome buzz of varied activity that floats in the soundscape of any active theatre. I dropped my stuff in my dressing room and headed out to take pictures of anything of interest. The back gate – where I’d first seen Dolly lurk her doll at me – was fully locked, as secure as it was two days ago. The front gate, next to the box office, was open at that time, but staff and crew were in the area, and everyone is vigilant about intruders. I headed down the path through the redwoods to the lowest parking lot, then down the steps beyond.

Four terraced fountain pools grace the back of the theatre, with lovely stone steps leading up from a fountain plaza far below. Above the fountains is the back breezeway of the theatre, which is how most of us get from Stage Left to Stage Right, and vice-versa, unless we’ve got to get there quickly and the upstage crossover is our only option. Additional steps lead to the theatre itself, ending at solid steel double doors that look like they haven’t been opened in decades, one set on each side of the fountains.

Just for shits and giggles, I tried each set of doors. Locked, possibly rusted shut. So unless Dolly Lurker has magical door-opening abilities, Dolly Lurker isn’t getting in that way.

Another set of steps leads up away from the main steps, toward the left side of the theatre. I followed these and found myself outside the men’s dressing room, beneath the terrace from which I’d seen the mask among the branches on Day One. Another door in that wall – where does it go? The basement? I’m craving a look at the original blueprints. And behind me as I faced that door, about 25 feet away: the location of the first sighting.

I headed toward it, very aware of the shade of the trees around me: my first two (potential) sightings of Dolly Lurker were during daylight, in heavy shade. Within seconds I saw that I’d made an error: there was no thicket. There was a chain link fence blocking access to a small square patch of ground, and several tree branches and trunks right around and behind it. So what I’d taken for a thicket was an illusion created by the branches through which I’d made the sighting, the light at the time of day, and perhaps the chain link fence itself. Which now makes me doubt everything I’ve seen.

Along with that doubt, new questions are presented: 1) What is this chain link fence protecting? 2) Looking back at the building, how did Dolly Lurker get the baby doll to the window – a stick? A ladder? It’s too far for me, even on tip-toe, and I’m six feet tall.

I was pondering this when I heard voices nearby. I glanced around, but they were muffled. Following my ears, I came to that single steel door in that wall. The voices were coming from behind it. This is what I heard:

A) … it’s too risky. Why would you want him to know about that?

B) What it is, is too late. If you didn’t want anyone to know, you never should have left a trail of breadcrumbs.

A) You’re as much to blame as I am – it was your bread.

B) You never said what it was for –

“Edward!?”

I jumped, certain I’d been caught eavesdropping. But the call was echoing from the amphitheatre itself. Maybe someone was looking for me on the stage? The conversation behind the door had stopped, so before whoever was in there could open it and maybe look outside for me, I headed back down to the steps and around to the stage door on the other side of the building.

Something felt odd when I reached the stage door. The theatre felt deserted. There was no hammering, no music, no conversation. I paused in the doorway, saying, “Hello?”

No response came, and I stepped inside. I had the distinct feeling I was being watched. The office was empty. Knocking on the door to the ladies’ dressing room / costume shop, I peeked inside. Allison was not there. The clang of a dropped tool echoed from the region of the shop followed by what I could swear was Judy saying what sounded like, “It should never have happened in the first place!” I headed in that direction.

Distance and architecture can change things. Acoustics are mysterious. When I got to the shop, it, too, was empty. I walked onto the stage and looked out at the house. Empty. I headed back into the stage left loading bay between the shop and the stage, listening.

A groan. From the men’s dressing room. Low, but getting louder. Goosebumps flared up the back of my legs to my neck – until I recognized the sound. Old, groaning water pipes. The men’s restroom, in the men’s dressing room. I looked inside – I might have even used the facilities, briefly. By the time I was washing my hands, I’d accepted the notion that everyone was on break at once. I decided to head to Peet’s.

Grabbing my keys, I headed through the stage left loading bay. Before I could set foot on the stage, I heard it.

Echoing, distant, “Ma-MA … Ma-MA …”

She’s inside. She killed everyone.

Fight-or-flight. I couldn’t move.

Silence.

Where the hell did it come from?

Curiosity overcame fear.

I looked in the shop. Still empty. Standing outside it, I surveyed my surroundings. To my right, the door to the men’s dressing room, the door to the Production Office. Around a corner beyond that, technical and prop storage closets. The door to the breezeway over there, too. Ahead of me, the door of the stage left loading bay. To my left, a dark and cluttered storage closet, the door standing open. Behind me, the shop.

Of all of these, the only one I’ve never looked in is the storage closet to my left. It’s always been there, the door standing open, full of random, dusty stuff.

Turning on the flashlight on my phone, I headed in. A couple mannequins, a bunch of boxes with labels like, GARLANDS and BANNERS. I turned to my right.

A flight of dusty steps lead down to an open steel door, inky darkness beyond. And from that darkness, echoing,

“Ma-MA … Ma-MA …”

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Woodminster: South Pacific, Day Three

In Theatre, Writing on August 10, 2017 at 11:52 am

(If you are confused, start here.)

Day Three: Thursday, 20 July 2017

When I returned to Woodminster from the Trevarno District of Livermore, Admiral Judy called me into her office. It’s just off the main office backstage, near the stage door. She said, “Here’s your paycheck, Ed. Don’t lose it on the slippery slope of curiosity.” She waved her hand in the general direction of stage left, the men’s dressing room … and the slope. Her eyes came to rest, I remember, on an old newspaper clipping pinned to the bulletin board behind me.

“Some people like to look for mysteries where there are none, Ed. When they do, they write conversations that never happened. Look: this conversation, right now, never happened. You’re making it up. And that’s exactly what I’ll tell anyone who asks. You’re a talented writer. Not an investigative reporter. Go. No. Further.” With each of those last three words, Judy thumped her index finger on the yellowed, faded article. Then she stared at me, silent, for a full ten seconds before leaving the office.

I took a picture; the article is transcribed below:

July 6, 1952
Montclair, CA

Local Girls Missing
by Ginger Trancas

A missing persons report has been filed for Louise Archer and Bess Tremaine, both Sophomores at Piedmont High. They were last seen on Castle Drive in Montclair on the evening of July 4, wearing shorts and sneakers and matching blue gingham tops. Anyone with information should call Officer Bill Whiting with the Piedmont Police Detectives [faded to a smudge here]

It is not known at this time whether sightings of a lone figure among the trees of Joaquin Miller Park are in any way related to the girls’ disappearance. Most residents in the neighborhood attribute these sightings to high school pranksters, but local florist Betsy Hillebrandt tells another story. “I saw it clear as day,” says Hillebrandt. “I was gathering eucalyptus for my arrangements. [faded into a smudge here, too] about fifteen yards away from me. Just watching. Gave me the chills.” When asked what it looked like, the flighty florist fumbles. “Well, it was tall,” she says. “Its face looked pale, but I couldn’t see clearly. It was almost dark. But it was holding some[faded, smudged]

“Nothing to be concerned about,” says Officer Whiting. “Mysterious figures in the trees could be shadows, could be hobos. There’s no definitive proof that the girls went anywhere near any ‘mysterious [faded, smudged] saw what Mrs. Hillebrandt describes, wouldn’t they just run away and holler at the top of their lungs?”

That’s one thing everybody who lives near the park can agree upon: for the first time in years, Joaquin Miller Park was silent on the 4th of July. “Not a single firecracker,” says Ed Proust, whose backyard is separated from the park by a low picket fence. First time I haven’t [smudged] hose ready for a fire in a decade. If those girls were screaming in there, we’d have heard them.”

“The girls could be at a friend’s house, and they both have cousins in Reno. There’s no knowing what they might get up to,” says Officer Whiting. “Speculation only fans the flames. We expect them home any time now.”

For the sake of the friends and families of Louise Archer and Bess Tremaine, we hope it’s sooner than later.

Setting aside the rampant editorializing and somewhat egregious alliteration, it was an informative article. A little too informative, in fact. I began to suspect I was being pranked. So convenient, this article — just sitting there, coincidentally tacked to the bulletin board in her office. I went in search of Judy, but every time I got close to her, she was called – or simply went – away.

Call me paranoid. I started watching everyone very closely. Did I see a hint of mischief behind Linnea’s smile? Was Joel intentionally not looking in my direction because he might laugh if we made eye contact? Was Johann laughing at me, or at something Bryan said? That seems unlikely – Bryan’s what we call, “destined for hammers.”

Retreating into my work, I doubled down on memorization. We ran what we’d staged, then continued staging the show to just after I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair – the only song in the R&H canon dedicated to cum.

I allowed my questions about the figure, the doll – and now, the disappearing girls – to be subsumed by the need to master my lines. By the end of the night, I’d concluded that it was all an ornate hazing ritual. This is my third year at Woodminster, perhaps this is how they test us at the end of a probationary period. Frankly, that’s what I would do if I had a theatre company. Which is why it’s probably better that I don’t.

With a lighter heart and a far less suspicious cloud hovering at the edges of my vision, I left rehearsal that night determined to get them all back. Something really clever, but simple. I chatted with Amanda for a bit before getting into my car, then sat listening to NPR and waiting for my phone to recharge enough to listen to Aaron Mahnke’s LORE podcast on the way home.

Charging my dead phone to 5% takes about five minutes. Someone back at the stage door was laughing. Occasional cars would pass my spot – the last on the right in the lower lot, if you’re looking at the lot from the stage door – as the remaining actors and staff went home. The laughter at the stage door continued intermittently – like someone was going, “Ha-Aa! Aaaaaahhhh,” every thirty seconds or so.

I saw the lights turn off, and Judy left about one minute afterward. My phone was at 4%.

There were still people laughing back at the stage door, so I decided I’d drive over there in a second to mock them for their late-night caterwauling. There was a pause on the radio, and in that silence, the laughter came again.

It sounded wrong. Like someone in pain.

I glanced back through the hatchback on my Prius, but the glass is tinted – it’s hard to see details that far away.

I rolled down both front windows to see my driver and passenger rear view mirrors better, putting the car in reverse, which starts it beeping. The radio was still on.

The laughter was much closer to my car now.

I turned the radio down, put the car in drive to stop the beeping, and turned to look back at the stage door, rolling down my back windows, too. I could see the stage door clearly now.

It was locked. There was nobody over there.

From the trees on the dark slope in front of my car came, “Ma-ma! Ma-MA! Ahhhahhhhhhhghhhhhssssss …”

I froze. I didn’t want to look.

“Ma-MA! Ma-MA! Ahhhahhaaahhhhhghlllllhhhhssssss …”

It was louder.

Closer.

I turned front.

It stood in the shadows, just down the slope from the front of my car, baby doll held out into the glow of the streetlights, tilting side to side.

My windows are down.

It took a step forward. More of its arm was exposed. Pale white flesh. I did not turn my headlights on. I didn’t want to see.

Throwing the car into reverse, I tried to speed backward. My emergency brake was still on. I slammed my foot into it – unlocking and re-locking the brake three times before it released.

Another step forward.

I zipped backward, braking to avoid slamming into the curb separating the lot from the slope. The figure turned toward me.

I tried to roll up the windows. They wouldn’t move. I looked at the control panel. I’d engaged the driver lock. In my car, it stops even me from rolling the windows up or down. Also, the cruise control has stopped working. Unrelated. Moving on:

I’d like to say I tossed a few witty bon mots before I got the windows up. Something like, “How’s this for a glass ceiling?” Or, “You know what they say, when the Lord closes a window …” Too wordy. Maybe, “Glass half full me once, shame on you!” Or maybe, “Listen, Precious, I don’t have the ring.

What I think I said was, “Holy fuck FUCK! Get the fuck, get the FUCK, GET THE FUCK –”

Giving up on the windows, I threw the car into drive and hit the gas, slamming into every pothole on the road out. I think Oakland Parks and Rec is aiming for a record. There are more holes in that road than in my plots. And that’s saying something.

I remembered to turn on my headlights as I was passing the Ranger Station at the top of the hill. I wondered if the rangers know anything about Dolly Lurker. Regardless, I didn’t get much sleep that night, my thoughts returning to the same image for hours:

I could be wrong. It was dark. I never turned on my headlights while it was in front of me.

I thought the figure was wearing blue gingham.

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.

Woodminster: South Pacific

In Theatre on August 8, 2017 at 3:57 pm

Day One: Tuesday, 18 July 2017*

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.

………

*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