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I sit in solitude in the lower dressing room, below the stage, at the Rialto Theatre in Loveland, CO, waiting for my cue to go on. The rest of the cast are upstairs in the new green room dressing and applying makeup. My preference is to get some self time before I go on. I have a bit part in our production of Father of the Bride.
The stage is set and the popcorn machines in the lobby are popping away, blowing a magical waft of diacetyl and hot corn into the dimmed auditorium. The curtain is closed and the blue low-wattage lights backstage are shining on the floor and black curtains in the wings. The stage crew are making last minute adjustments to the set dressings. Background music is playing and a few patrons are shuffling to their seats.
In a minute I’ll apply some makeup so my pasty white face topped with whitish hair will display a bit of facial expression in the bright stage lights. A bit of mascara to darken the eyebrows and some eyeliner to make the whites of the eyes pop out a bit: All to accentuate the emotional spin I will apply to the lines. This will emphasize vocal nuances contrived to convey the emotional intent of the playwright.
One of the key ideas in acting is listening. An actor must listen to the lines being said not only for the cues they may contain, but for pacing and to convey a realistic sense of the interplay. For many of us in life, conversation consists of waiting for others to be silent so we can talk. The best actors sound natural in part because they are also listening.
Opening night of our 2 week run went well. We need to fill the seats with backsides to fund the next production. Snow is predicted for tomorrow, Mother’s day. Hard to tell what effect that will have on attendance.
7:30! It’s show time!
Our theatre group has (finally) locked in the upcoming season. I just ordered scripts for Dearly Departed and for Kitchen Witches. We’ll do another play in the spring written by a fellow board member. Later this month we’ll do a reading of another one of his plays for some theatre folks in Denver. It’s called Cow Dung Dust and is about an odd collection of characters hitchhiking on a cattle trailer along Route 66.
Recently I was part of a public reading of a screenplay set in the 1870’s. It was about the US expedition to Korea. It’s historical fiction told through the eyes of a photographer. It’s fun to dissect the story and look at it from the movie making point of view.
Th’ Gaussling attended his first acting workshop this evening in Boulder. The attendees read monologs and cuttings in front of a director for much needed feedback and coaching. The four of us from our local theatre group read a variety of things.
I am particularly proud of my colleages, one in particular who read a very intense selection from Shakespeare’s Richard III. It was astonishing how she captured the frightful urgency and fear in the character. I knew she had a good bit of experience, but I had not personally witnessed her do such a dramatic part.
Another colleague portrayed a mentally disturbed character recounting driving a cab in Manhattan and picking up LBJ and Bob Hope. Her voice work was quite good, but her facial expressions brought it home.
My monolog was about an angry guy working as a department store Santa Claus. I pulled out my Brooklyn accent and mannerisms from The Odd Couple and went to work. It was a lot of fun.
Our theatre group is producing You Can’t Take it With You in 5 weeks at a modest venue in our small village. We’re heavily into rehearsal now. We have a cast of 19 and all of the attending problems that go with a mob that size. I play a Wall Street business man, so I get to be slightly more bellicose and uppity than normal. We have a handful of very experienced actors from local community theatre. They have been very gracious in putting up with tedious wannabe’s like myself. Curiously, I am not the only chemist on stage. The other chemist is far more experienced than I and she does a fantastic job.
For me, the hardest part is simply memorizing the lines. Nowhere in my life do I rely on memorizing large amounts of text. Being a scientist, I remember generalities and relationships and reason my way through problems as I encounter them. Recalling tracts of text from auditory cues is wildly outside my comfort zone. But that is what this is all about. Spending time outside the comfort zone and getting my remaining neurons active.
A few of us have formed a theatre company. It is a not-for-profit operation. It’s too sketchy to expect a profit in theatre anyway. May as well admit that up front. Among the founders is a playwright.
Our first performance as a theatre company is coming up soon and was written by our in-house writer. It is a play called Cow Dung Dust. The story takes place among hitchhikers in the back of a cattle trailer headed for California along Route 66 ca 1970. The same writer wrote the play Beets, which we performed in Loveland, Colorado, last spring. It was actually quite a hit.
The first public airing of Cow Dung Dust will be performed as readers theatre. This is much like radio mystery theatre with actors reading from a script and with a bit of lighting and sound effects. Since we do not have a few kilobucks to throw into set pieces, costumes, and lighting, readers theatre is what we are able to do first thing. It is like a garage band having to do a bunch of lean and mean gigs in order to build up a following. I have a feeling that after the readers theatre we’ll be keen to do a stage performance of it. This approach gives the playwright a chance to tweak the script after he sees the audience react to it.
The next performance will be a well known stage play. This requires paying royalties for use of the script, which is typically copywritten tighter than a piano wire. Should be fun. It is so wonderfully different from chemistry, I can’t help but enjoy it.
Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom is a musical version of Gaston Leroux’ The Phantom of the Opera. This musical actually predates Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera by a few years but, apparently, was never produced on Broadway. Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom is more of an operetta and, in my estimation, carries a bit more stylistic resemblance to late 19th century opera than does Lloyd Webbers version.
The production of Phantom we attended last night was at a local dinner theatre. The show was quite good, but the Beef Wellington could have used more beef and less Wellington. And, the bottom shelf Merlot had oxidized.
I am not a singer and am in no position to critically review anyone who sings on stage. But in my estimation, the entire cast produced very strong and clear voices in a style suitable for the context.
The stagecraft and lighting worked quite well. Three set pieces representing together a foreshortened wall with columns were set on moving platforms that were adjusted by the cast even while they were performing. It successfully gave the impression that many spaces within the building were represented, including a view from backstage toward the performers on stage. Very clever.
This was a perfectly acceptable interpretation of the book Phantom of the Opera. Yet, having seen a good production of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, I sat the entire time in anticipation of a performance of Lloyd Webber’s musical numbers which never came. This is surely a common affliction.
After a nice evening of musical theatre we stepped into reality. A driving sideways snowstorm had come in to burst our bubble and, naturally, no scraper was to be found in the car.
We’re finishing the third weekend of the 4 weekend run of our play, Room Service. After 6 weeks of rehearsal and 7 shows to date, the cast is getting a bit tired. Even the director is thinking about the next show.
Stepping on stage in character with a paying audience sitting there is a very sobering thing to do. Botched lines or less than enthusiastic performance reflects poorly on everyone. As a cast and crew, we all struggle to maintain the suspension of reality.
Backstage there is no goofing around or bullshitting. Everyone is focused on their parts and silent, mostly. There are a few remarks, but that is it.
I skipped over a few lines last night, but the other actor deftly patched the holes with plausible lines and I folded back into the script a few lines downstream. It was fairly seamless, but importantly I didn’t faint or stand there dumbstruck. My fellow players didn’t comment, thankfully.
We finished rehearsal for the play last night. Full dress rehearsal with lights, sound, props, etc. Tonight we have paying guests. This is my second production this year. I have to say that I have not been yelled at this much since third grade (or grad school). But rather than being thin skinned about it, I have taken it fairly well. It has been a positive personal growth experience, which is the point of it all.
The best advice yet has been “be a better listener” on stage. If you are present in the moment on stage, you can better cope with the inevitable slip ups and mangled or omitted lines. Rather than spending your time thinking about your next line, try to be part of the flow. If somebody drops a cue line, you’re better able to improvise a line to steer the dialog back on track.
This is good advice in general. Like many people, in conversation I find myself thinking about what I’m going to say next rather than really listening to the person I’m conversing with. This is a bad habit and reduces conversation to a comingled set of monologs or pronouncements of opinion.
The other bad habit that seems to get worse with age and education is the tendency to answer the question you wished someone had asked rather than the one actually asked. This is an irksome and possibly incurable condition of mine that those around me suffer from. Participating in staged dialog has had the effect of causing me to be more aware of this.
The play opens in two weeks so rehearsal is getting intense. My brain has some kind of grip on the lines, but it is a delicate grasp and subject to fumbling. Rote memorization is not my strength.
The play was made into a movie by RKO in 1938 and starred the Marx Brothers. They made it look easy. The madcap and rapidfire banter is really quite difficult for a drudge like me. I have to work at it. Luckily, I have minor roles and only 10 minutes of stage time.
There is a big difference between doing voices for a reading and actually acting out the role with 3 or 4 other actors on stage. My previous two plays have only gotten me to the point where I do not faint or wet myself on stage. But realistically, I suppose, the last two weeks are when a play shapes up in rehearsal. Maybe there is hope.
The opening night production of Beets went quite well. The house was packed and the cast & crew rose to the occasion. The audience was quite responsive to the script and as a result we found out where the real laugh lines were. The trick to acting is to lift a 1 dimensional string of characters from a page and give them depth and color.
The only production snag was with the house lights. For some reason the software wasn’t able to call for the house lights to dim. The lighting guy opened the door of an obscure closet in the vaudeville-era backstage to reveal a glowing, LED festooned, 6 ft tower of computerized widgetry. Working feverishly and with green pinpoints of light reflecting off his smudged bifocals (a la Dave Bowman), he finally toggled the right button and got the house lights to darken. Otherwise the software-driven lights and sound worked well.
I wasn’t nervous until 15 minutes before showtime. Standing in the wings I tried to recite my lines in my head, but just couldn’t summon them from the turbid depths. I don’t mind sayin’, this was a distressing development. But after I walked on stage the lines came on cue and we got the thing done.
From the comments at the reception after the show it was apparent that the audience understood the story and were emotionally drawn into it. For two hours we suspended reality and had a shared experience. This is the goal of the writer, director, cast, and crew. When it works it is an amazing thing.