Letters to Holly

Saturday, December 13

First Show

It's a blur of emotion but here are the highlights:

1. This is the grand ribbon-cutting for the new theatre space. Tonight's audience will be treated to a presentation of planned renovation and hit up for donations. Our play is a fundraiser, of sorts. As soon as I'm backstage to dress, a rumor spreads that the playwright is here. Now, Brick is a Facebook friend of his and assures who he can that the guy is in Florida, acting in this very same play. This doesn't help. Marley is apoplectic. The director is thrilled. She was introduced to an audience member, misheard the name, and thought he was the playwright. She learns her mistake and leaves the green room to apologize to the guy.

2. Scrooge is the last to arrive from the makeup session. With half his costume on, our tech lady sneaks in the green room to confess she's lost the sound cues on the computer. Everything is gone. He's kind about it until he learns this actually happened last night, and she's waited til right now -- maybe ten minutes before we start the show -- to tell him this. He has to put on his street clothes, wade into the audience, and reset the tech PC, come back, change into his costume, and psych himself back into character.

3. We stand in the wings to start the show. All the lights are out, and we're waiting for the stage lights to come on so we can take the stage. There's a knock at the backstage door. It's the tech lady. She doesn't know how to turn on the stage lights. Scrooge has to save her again. When she's gone back to her station, he mumbles that this will be her last show with this duty.

4. Despite a strong beginning and a responsive audience, the leads go offscript at the same spots as last night. The audience deflates, and the first act feels like a marathon. The two attorneys are so focused on their lines that they have ignored their stage movements. Doc is locked in a short pattern of crouching and staring away from the witnesses to scrape the dialogue from his brain. Scrooge tries so hard to croak his lines in a Scrooge-like fashion that he doesn't remember where he is. He smothers every punchline that should be powering this show.

5. Mrs. Cratchit decides not to join the other witnesses onstage. As I sit in the gallery, I plan some rewrites to work around her absence. On her cue, however, she appears and does her lines.
6. Cratchit gets some laughs.

8. Act Two begins with both actors standing up to introduce two different witnesses. That's not in the script. The judge salvages the scene.

9. Future Christmas steals the show, but Scrooge leaps offtrack midway through our scene. So does Doc. Within one minute, Brick and I repeat a line three times because Doc has asked us the same question three times. Then it gets bad. Scrooge mangles the grand unveiling of Marley as the fake Scrooge body. He forgets the indignant accusation scene. The judge, despite holding the script in his hands, loses his words for his verdict. The two attorneys utterly and completely botch the ending in such a way that they have removed the exit lines. The characters -- all of us -- now have no way to get offstage. The climactic conversation is shredded and reassembled in a panic, and we lose both the momentous declaration of Christmas, our departures, and the twist revelation. It feels like forever. In short, they fuck up huge in this, our grand opening of the stage and optimistic fundraiser. Now, really, what excuse do we have for not casting younger folk, again? Could they do any worse than these veterans?

The cast finally take our bows to polite applause and walk into the audience to meet and greet. There's some polite congratulations, but the Future ghost and his translator are clearly the stars. We shouldn't be, but we know our lines. We get the humor, and we can surf the script for the most laughs. Also, we have slapstick, and that's hard to compete with. But if the leads had their stuff together, they'd mop the floor with us.

I change, grab some reception food, and drive home cursing at the windshield. If they had sabotaged the show on purpose, this wouldn't hurt any more. I avoided this theatre out of fear of this kind of shambled productions, and now I feel suckered. I showed up, I learned my lines, I gave my other actors consistency with which to hang their cues, and they blow us up. Going back to Asheville's theatre sounds really good right now.

Oh, and the theatre president and the spring director are both vying for my commitment. The president wants me on the board, and the director wants me to starts what I assume is a new company. It's not the best time to woo me when I want to clobber the leads. Death hate bile.

Thursday, December 11

Open Dress Rehearsal

I was nervous all day Thursday, and the giant hot cocoa from Books-A-Million probably didn't help. But as I shopped for Christmas gifts through the book aisles, I mumbled my lines to calm my nerves. It's much easier this show compared to the last shows'. Those took an hour. These lines take about five minutes. Here's my goofy image for you: A peacoated Bob Cratchit mumbling about Tiny Tim while thumbing through Dracula.

It's the usual pre-audience jitters mixed with a giddiness that this week is nearing the end. Opening week is always a slog. It's eight performances in as many days. Except this theatre likes to take a day off before a show opens, a tradition that's lovely if your cast knows its play. Needless to say, that didn't happen this time.

We show up at the warehouse early for our makeup. Marley takes an appropriately long time to get ready. We have yellow stage lights, making heavy makeup for the rest of us unnecessary. White lights wash actors out, which is why they need strong make-up to retain color. We get to the stage and fine the dressing room has no light. We put a lamp there a few days back, but the power is no not working. This doesn't go over well. Some folks scramble to the audience bathroom to dress before our guests arrive. I stay in the dressing room. There's enough ambient light for my carrot-powered eyes. Marley complains these are no accommodations for actors becuase he must complain. Marley trivia: He's a licensed clown. I just found that out. We do get the good news later that the actors have their own bathroom downstairs. Our play is so short that I never had to go during rehearsals, but I have one of two spry bladders in this cast.

We have about 15 people there, including Your Sis. She warned me beforehand that she'd only catch the first act our of exhaustion. The director gives a curtain speech to prepare the audience for potential power outages, the actors huddle on the stage-right wing, and then we take we start the show.

It starts strong and stays strong for about the first 20 pages. The Cratcihit scene goes well, and the nephew scene goes well. Then we move to the fundraiser, and Scrooge goes off the rails. The judge had prepared a full script and made arrangements for the two attorneys. if they're in trouble they are to request a sidebar and hear the judge whisper their lines. Scorrge does this. But it happens again so often that the judge starts whispering the lines as the actors stand near his bench. His Issac Newton wig and real mustache hide the cheating well enough, and this subterfuge saves the play all night long. But this works as long as the actors face the judge. When they turn out to the audience and lose their place, they are sunk. And that happens a lot.

They also skip around the script, regain their balance, and repeat lines to get back on track. That happens a lot. Again, I'm sitting onstage for the entire first act, and it feels much longer than the 60 minutes the act stretches. It probably should run at 45 minutes, but the pauses and line-juggling inflate the running time. We lose the humor almost entirely. There's no timing or sparkling delivery. We have turned a banter script into a melodrama, and you can feel the audience yearn for more. Our tech operator decides to cut the stage lights before the act is over.

We regroup during intermission, and Scrooge, -- the tech chief -- spends the entirety of it working on wiring the camera. Oh, did I mention this is being taped. We didn't know that until we showed up and saw the camera. The camera guy says he needs a wired mic for the second act, and we wonder what if anything he could hear from the first act.

We start the second act. Almost immediately, it goes wrong. The attorneys call for witnesses in teh wrong order, and the judge has to impovise. He makes a sterling decree about following the witness docket (and this is nowhere in the script), and he saves the collective bacon. The leads corkscrew their way through the act and receive lines from the judge. When everyone is onstage for the play's twist revelation, Scrooge loses the lines completely. And this is the situation I feared most: He's trying to cue me without feeding me the proper line. As the Future Ghost, I can mumble an interjection and hope that my translator can follow my gestures and feed Scrooge a line he can follow. I do that, and he does that, but Scrooge doesn't reset. He's still lost. He fumbles for a bit, and eventually, wisely, skips ahead, and we kind of regain balance.

But then the climactic attorney negotiations is utterly shuffled. The bailiff loses his cue, and he is supposed to start the stage exodus. That doesn't happen. The attorneys vamp to try the cue again and eventually get him to say his line. The cast dribbles offstage. Our momentum is gone, and now we're just trying to stop the pain. The show ends with dead silence, and the audience only realizes the show is over when we come out for the bows.

My nerves are utterly gone. I've done my lines in front of a crowd, and my brain finally accepts that I have a smaller role and can feed me less adrenaline to gear up for the show. It's a big relief. My nerves were so amped that I was starving by intermission. The judge and attorneys are allegedly meeting Friday afternoon to run lines. I breeze through mine during my commute.

I talk to Your Sister at home, and her questions about the play are all answered with "he screwed up." Supposedly, a bad final rehearsal portends a strong show. But this was our best rehearsal so far. What is that an omen of? At least we didn't lose power during the practice.

Picture of the Day
Save us, punk Supergirl!

Wednesday, December 10

Countdown: Two Nights

As I've mentioned before, I spend the vast majority of Act One sitting silently. I'm lazy enough to enjoy this and let someone else do the heavy lifting this time. But becuase I have to use an accent, this onstage downtime works against me. Normally, I'd practice backstage before going on. If I had a proper entrance, I would pace backstage, tighten my accent, wait for my cue, walk onstage, and make with the British blabber. In this play, I don't have that immediate prep time, and our speakers aren't using true accents. I can't vicariously keep my accent muscles ready by listening to them. I start talking cold.

I've concentrated on my accent over the last few days. I can hear BBC Radio over the internet. I have a British author audiobook for the commute. I've even played with mixing dialects, moving from Michael Caine to Ricky Gervaise and Hugh Grant and Patrick Stewart. Cratchit can't be refined. He's low class compared to Scrooge, but Scrooge is only successful middle class. He's not aristocracy, which may be the most subtle trick of the original story. Scrooge is marginally higher in station than Cratchit, but he's hoarded his money. The middle class, then, can be comfortable and successful without being born into money. Scrooge has earned it but with such focus that he became a miser. He has no servants or coachmen. Scrooge represents the potential of wrong in all strata of society. A Christmas Carol is not class warfare. It's the "prodigal son" story if the dad went bad.

One more note about British accents. Almost all us amateur actors make the same mistake when they slap one on: They get airy. They push the voice high and powdery, and they lose projection. The cultural association is that British speakers have no vocal bass. It's wrong, but there it is. I had to bring my voice down when I really tried Cratchit the first time. It remains the first trick for me to keep in mind. Then I work on selective enunciation -- "and" becomes "n" and "men" becomes "m'n." But certain syllables are drawn out for that dry texture. And then of course there's the "r" pronunciations. Yes, it's a lot to work with, and this is why I wanted the accents dropped when we did the spring play, and it's probably why the major characters don't have them for this play.

But let's get back to the rehearsals.

Here's when you know you're in real trouble: The director makes Xerox copies of the script for the lead actors who have not had one clean rehearsal. The script is enlarged to a loose-leaf format to be easily read at a glance. They can be kept onstage and used throughout the show. No more awkward pauses and obvious requests for lines. She holds them out to the actors. They refuse them. Now -- right now -- you're in trouble. The actors claim their notes are sufficient. These are the same notes that have failed them all these weeks. These are the same notes that befuddle them as they run scenes. These are ineffective notes, and the actors clearly state they prefer them to the full script which they can refer to any time during the show.

I was in the same position -- the exact same position -- last year. I had a shitload of lines in a courtroom play. I had notes. I had a near-disastrous open rehearsal where I confused my cues at the exhibit table and blanked hard for what seemed like eight years. But that was my lone boo-boo, and I expanded my onstage notes. If someone had offered me a full script, I would have refused. And I think I did. But I tightened my notes, and I didn't have that hiccup with an audience, and that error happened just once. Once.

The judge is told to arm himself onstage with the script to cue the actors when trouble arises. he explains it will confuse him. He's already reading half his lines from his bench, so I don't know what the problem might be.

Anyway, we have our first audience Thursday night, and we there isn't one scene without line trouble. Doc says he did the math and realizes we'd be fine if we had Wednesday rehearsals. I agree. Tonight's practice is not bad for a show that opens in a week, but it's scary for a show that opens this weekend. Whole pages are skipped. The four-page climactic argument is rearranged. The defense attorney only halfway stands up during objections because he's not sure if he should object or on what grounds. Mrs. Cratchit reads her great comic interjection as a weepy monologue. The costume chief wants us to reblock the last scene because she doesn't like the sight of the empty witness gallery. The tech board operator petitions to add music we hadn't planned for. The circuit breaker cuts off our lights randomly through the show.

The director asks if we can add a rehearsal Thursday afternoon, and I say I can't make it. I have to work. Other voices echo mine. The stage manager says the judge and attorneys should meet up and run lines, something I thought of about two weeks back.

Here's what I can do: Prepare my lines (only takes five minutes to run them), and treat this show as an exercise in improv. Stay on my toes. Worry only about my stuff. Nail my scenes and stay light.

As I type this, there are ten hours before we take the stage for invited guests. Then we have three nights of performances until Monday's wings and beer. Wings and beer are my tunnel light. Wings and beer are my Christmas spirits. A chance and a hope.

A chance and a hope, Ebenezer.

Picture of the Day

Countdown: Three Nights

I forget that I've shaved until I pass a mirror and -- WHAMMO -- I'm Victorian. It's very much a bad look for me. I hope the director lets me scale back the chops to slacker-cool sideburns. Once this show is done, I'll shave everything and start from scratch.

I went to the local costume shop and found a mesh mask. The only ones that had were all framed by a colorful fringe, but I at least found one the matches the purple trim of the ghost robe. I hope we can cut it off. And by "we," I mean the costume chief.

Three words for tonight's practice: Gee. Zus. Christ.

Twice I had to ad-lib to save Doc, the defense attorney. Both times I was on the witness stand. It's really difficult to leapfrog chunks of dialogue when all of your lines are dependent on the other actor. It's even trickier when you are a wordless character who can only hope your translator can pick up on your pantomiming and feed that attorney a cue.

Oh. Oh God.

The attorney is working with notes in two locations: his table and the judge's bench. He has index cards with shorthand cues. When he blanks, he can turn away from the audience and reset himself. Unless, of course, he forgets what that shorthand is supposed to mean. Or he can't read the writing. We struggle through this throughout the rehearsal.

We started off on the right foot. Even though we dress for Act One, we start with the last third of Act Two. We sit and run lines. Then we take our places and run those same lines. Then we start the play properly. When we reach the play's end, then, it makes the third time that night we've run that scene. And it still requires copious cues from the stage manager.

The director finally asks the cast what more can be done to help.

"Cheat sheets," says the costume chief.

"Give them them the scripts," I say.

And we mean it. The attorneys and judge can have the entire script on their tables. It will looks like appropriate props. This was our option for the last courtroom play, and Doc had virtually his entire script then on note cards. Legible, clear note cards. Why not do it again? The director calls our state "appalling," and it's true. Friday is both our first official night, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony for our new stage space. It would be very bad to suck that day.

I finally get to take a photo of Scrooge for the magnet design, but I still need a photo of me as the ghost. I bought a mesh mask Tuesday, and that night's rehearsal was the first pass at using it. It worked OK, I think. By adding another layer between me and the audience, it goosed me to make my gestures bigger, which I like.

It also means I have on seven layers when I take the stand in that scene -- t-shirt, dress shirt, vest, black shirt, robe, hood, mask. I am dying under there. The stage lights and heaters only make it harder to concentrate. Thankfully, there's no way we we'll be onstage so long when we have an audience. Of course, by then they may have burned down the stage in protest.

Picture of the Day
Measure for measure.

Tuesday, December 9

Countdown: Four Nights

We get our first audience Thursday night -- invited folks who otherwise wouldn't pay to attend. Monday's rehearsal means we have three more nights to clean up our act.

A number of us are sick with various degrees of crud. I'm doing much better. Brick and Doc are bad off. Mrs. Cracthit and Past Christmas are sniffling. 'Tis the season.

I put on the Cratchit jacket, gloves, and scarf because I want to mark the time needed to take those off and put on my ghost costume. I find I have plenty of time even when I figure in the time for the mesh mask I have to buy Tuesday. Because I'm feeling better, I take my place in the onstage witness gallery for the entirety of Act One. I speak for about eight pages and spend 40 just sitting behind the defense attorney.

It's nerve-wracking to watch actors struggle with lines, and I remind myself that, just a year ago, I was in their shoes. I was roaming a stage for the entire play, desperate to recall the dialogue, while the majority of the cast sat and watched and waited for their short bits of stage time. I can tell you honestly that I prefer being in this position now. This is the comfort of a bit part. Also, I make myself relax. I'm have sympathy pains for them but this isn't my cross to bear. Not this time.

If we don't tighten up the lines in three nights, we will open our brand-new digs with a parade of incompetence. We have major, major problems, and the best thing we can do is run scenes multiple times to hammer them into shape. Scrooge assures us he'll be ready, and I hope he is. I don't want any of the actors to fall on their face. And I want the theatre to have a grand opening to their new season. And I don't want to be so worried about them that I make a stupid mistake.

It's entirely possible that the Future Ghost will steal the show. Not me. The ghost. I just have to do the role justice. But I discovered last night that it's impossible to overdo the part.

As I write this, I have shaved myself an anti-goatee. I have muttonchops, and there's a very good reason they went out of style.

Picture of the Day
A fashion photo reminiscent of the horserace scene in My Fair Lady.

Monday, December 8

Rehearsal Sixteen: Tech

Normally a tech runs like so: The crew get the script, and the actors walk through any moments that require sound or light changes. The director sees the effects and makes adjustments based on technical options or artistic wallop. With all the cues set, the entire play is rehearsed to lock down the tech stuff. In a full-sized three-act show, this can take literally all day. This show, however, is practically black box. Aside from the opening and close of tech show, the only effects are for the ghost entrances. This tech runs differently.

Our Scrooge is the effects guru, and he spends the entire rehearsal adjusting lights and teaching the new person running the effects board. She was the director of the courtroom show last fall. She doesn't seem to adjust well to the board controls. Maybe it's a stodgy set-up. I dunno. Anyway, instead of nailing down the cues, the director has us run the rehearsal as normal with the effects popping in on those rare moments that call for them. Meanwhile, the crew move among the actors to move lights. At one point, Marley is in the witness box reciting lines as a light guy wobbles on a ladder right behind him.

We go to the warehouse before the rehearsal to grab our costumes. The new theatre green room is in shambles. The exiting partitions are gone, wiring hangs from the ceiling, the floor is filthy, and there's no heat. One could argue this is method preparation for Victorian characters. We have a small space heater running, and a few free-standing screens to use for changing clothes. But it's freezing in there, and we'll be here mostly when the sun goes down. Thankfully, most of the actors are onstage the entire play. If they stayed in the room for the play, they'd get sick. Like me, with the Klingon death flu.

The director asks if I should go back home, and I argue that I get shaky just thinking of missing a rehearsal this close to the show opening. I sip some home-brewed tea and pop my cough drops. The director reads for Scrooge, and I read for him when it's her character's turn to take the stand.

My Cratchit costume is just right. I hate the five-button fly though, and I can see now why the Victorians earned their reputation as prudes: It would take too long to get out of the clothes to have any fun. The ghost costume doesn't reach the floor, and the hood shows too much of my face. I'll go to the costume store and buy a mesh mask. But I enjoy wearing the get-up, and the gloves allow me to make broad muppet-like gestures. I'm just this side of waving my arms over my head like Kermit. Brick looks downright jaunty in his costume, but he's unsure about his fake sideburns. I have to ask when we're to shave down to the muttonchops.

We end about three hours after we start, unheard of for techs. I'm not complaining. I'm headsick, and the director tells me outright to stay home if I'm not any better Monday night. Frankly, I'd have to be bedridden to stay away. We need to tighten our lines. We get an audience in four nights.