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Posts Tagged ‘James A. Michener’

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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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.