Letters to Holly

Friday, May 22

Game Face

Two things happened last weekend that affected this week's rehearsals:

1) Rainmaker fell apart (and may have been scuttled by a director given a "dream role" in another theater).

2) The play debuting after ours is falling apart. I found out last night that the playwright is changing lines during rehearsals. These people are memorizing a changing script, a young actor was just yanked by his mom, and the lead has two weeks to learn a three-act show. They open next Friday and run six nights. This could be 2009's version of the Scrooge disaster, and they haven't even chosen the next season's shows yet.

The theatre needs something good right now. RIGHT NOW. And if I have to make this one-act a one-man show and do it myself, I will. That's competition and positioning solely for my benefit. If I can make this thing work when two veteran directors literally couldn't get their acts together, maybe the theatre will listen to my notions for future season philosophies. And if they can't, well, my planned hiatus from this company might force them to reconsider their own philosophies.

I, and a lot of people like me in this town, are what the theatre desperately needs, but they can't win us over. They don't have us in their mailing database, they let dumb-fuck directors shoo us out of auditions for skin color (a black actor in community theatre is a singularity) , and they don't even try to market a show for younger audiences. That leaves a core unit of cranky retirees jostling for territory and approaching stage work as a lark to get out of the house. We have young actors and volunteers who want to play baseball, and this group only offers Duck Duck Goose.

Last night started with my announcement that Rainmaker was off. This means there will be no other group using our rehearsal space as we feared. The cast agreed to two rehearsals next week and a dry run at our performance space just before it opens to the public. This lack of access makes our group feel like a roving band of actors, and I like that.

The cast is focusing on costumes, and I don't want to worry about them. But I'm not so averse to them that I'm banning them outright. I'll let them doll up as they want to. It's not a battle worth fighting, and it'll save my declarations for final touches next week.

The actor wants to have long socks with sandals as the script calls for, but he wants them specifically so he can draw attention to them (and get a cheap laugh) by hitching up the socks during his entrance. I wouldn't go for that laugh. I'd throw it back. But with the gang we'll probably seat and feed next week, it might go over. I tell him to at least wear black socks so the people at the back tables can see them.

We run the show twice, and while we're not yet running interrupted, we're still hovering just over 30 minutes. Without my interjections for delivery and movement, we'll pull a half-hour easy, and a quick running time was my first goal. I was asked about potentially running longer if the audience laughs too much, and I said that was a hardship I'd gladly bear.

I think I'm giving them directions well. When I need to interrupt them, I slowly make the "time out" hand signal so they know to stop within a line or two. I'll bark out "volume" if they get too quiet. They've done enough theatre to be used to this, and they keep going, albeit louder. I'll cue them for a line if there's too much time passing. Simple stuff, and it should be at this point in the rehearsals. I'm also piling on accolades for the group when we finish. It's a collaboration, and they're trusting me, and I want them to know I genuinely appreciate it.

Because I open the floor for comments and questions before we start, they present ideas for character moments and details, and we'll adopt them to some degree. Rarely have I outright said no, and I usually say "I wouldn't worry about it." Last night, we all arrived at the notion of using music that relates to the script to cue the start and end of the play. We'll start with "It's My Party" and end with "Michelle" by the Beatles (the mom character customizes it to "Rochelle" after one of her daughters).

I called the person setting up the luncheon space to reserve our table and chairs for the play, and we've covered 99% of our props. We're still missing a squirt ring, and we can always pantomime it.

We're at a good pace, and I'm optimistic that we'll be the best thing about next weekend's double debut. I want to win this competition that exists only in my head.

+ + +

This weekend will mark one year since Dad died, and I don't know how Mom's going to handle it. I don't know how I'll handle it. I've worn Dad's work shoes for most of this past year, and I told myself I'd retire them when a year was up. That may be harder than I expect.

Picture of the Day
This is the epitome of "mixed messages." Two of the three cover stories are about people renowned only for giving birth.

Thursday, May 21

The Curtain Comes Down

No Rainmaker. I got the call as I was leaving our rehearsal for the one-act. The producer of the show told me the director didn't have a cast he could build the play around. It's difficult not to take that personal to a degree. Maybe if I had done a better job, the play could have proceeded. I'm also slightly crushed as a theatre volunteer. I advocated that play hard during the script committee. I talked the others into adding it to the season. I also did that with the sex farce. Two shows I gave the hard sell couldn't draw a decent audition. Frustrating.

As I said, this call came just as I was driving home. The rehearsal was mostly very solid. The week-long hiatus had allowed the cast to "marinade" in the script, and the delivery was far beyond what I feared. They had snap and inflection. I heaped the praise upon them repeatedly even after telling them I wasn't going to focus on delivery that night. I was more concerned with settling blocking and props.

I had a, well, let's call it a strong conversation with one actor about props. He's adamant that we need a birthday cake. We already have a cake box carried onstage for this play with the word "birthday" in the title and a play that revolves around a birthday party. But he was worried that no one saw the cake. I reminded him that the cake isn't shown in the script. And it doesn't need to be. It adds nothing to the show except one more prop on an already crowded table. He cited an earlier play where a bed didn't have a mattress. He argued then that it was an unfair expectation for the audience to mentally create one for the whole play. I responded that such a play was probably done on a more formal stage than what we have to work with. We, I reminded, are doing a moving radio play. Selective depiction is the philosophy. That seemed to help him understand what I wanted, and we were at ease within minutes.

We also ditched the walker. The script called for it, and we managed to find a walking cane. The same actor wanted us to change the script to match the cane we had, and I was already considering dumping it out of convenience. It's not necessary to the story to see it, just to know the mother has one. Also, it frees that actress from lugging it around with her script. We tried the show without it, and she did seem to be more focused on the story. So it's out. I feel like I lost the equivalent weight of the damn thing. I'd love to ditch more props if we can manage it. The actor suggested we then change the script to say the walker was in another room, and I voted it down. The audience is more forgiving and conspiratorial with the actors than we tend to believe, and we cannot overthink the show. Any show.

For the most part, the cast moved well, and we had some adjustments to make and hammer out. But what I suggested to them seemed to work, and they supplied good notions too. They're definitely involved in make a good performance, and no matter how easy it might be if my every utterance was law, I'd rather they be passionate about the show and argue their point than be disinterested. They accept that it's my call, and I've have yet to declare "because I say so."

The actor has tried to memorize the script despite my previous comments about using the scripts. I made that point again after the rehearsal and underscored that the author will be in attendance. She will no doubt know every scrambled line and replaced word. The priority is the script, I reminded. This is the rare show where you can rely on it at -- and in -- hand.

I still need some details about the performance space and the schedule, but I feel pretty good about where we are with just over a week to go. Especially compared to the full-show debuting that night. That sounds like a possible debacle. Given the cancellation of Rainmaker, the theater need a good show right now.

Picture of the Day
That other show had to bring in Brick to play the lead. He just got back from New York where he took acting classes and did some extra work. In fact, he was on Law & Order last night as a jury member.

This is him from Scrooge.

And here he is on our magic speakity box. He got ample face time too.

Wednesday, May 20

Crash and Burn

I contacted Brick through Facebook, and he is indeed in town. He was called in for a prominent role (if not the lead) in the three-act play that debuts mere hours after the one-act I'm directing. Apparently, the original lead backed out. I also heard that another actor dropped out without any warning. His mother called the director to say the young'en was unavailable on Sundays. The director and some other backstage folks hoped Brick could take the lead for Rainmaker, but he said he's learning 500 lines in two weeks. He can't do another show so soon after. Understandable. I passed along the news, and it didn't go over well.

Again, we're doing too many shows while reliant on too few actors. A company that can't cast a six-person comedy and a seven-person drama within three months is producing two debut plays on the same weekend. And they wonder why they can't find anyone, why they have to call people (like me) and ask them to even consider reading the script.

There's word that the first scheduled play of the fall -- Bell, Book and Candle, the romantic witch comedy -- will be scuttled and replaced with a musical. Musicals bring in more money. They also cost more money to produce. Traditionally, musical directors are paid more, and the sets are opulent. The last musical this theatre did looked like an off-Broadway show; it was decked out more than any other show I've seen here.

Killing Bell is also gonna kill my theatre liaison. He's planned to direct this show for about ten years, and, every time I talk to him, he's chomping at the bit to get started. He's already dream-cast it (including Brick and me), and I don't want to be in the room if he's told the show is no go. He's threatened to walk away from the theatre before. This might be the last straw.

The audition last night actually had a real-live applicant for the female lead, and she read the entire time. I read a few scenes as different characters, and my opinion of how I did differed from the director's. He still thinks I'm reading too loudly, too belligerently. Starbuck is pretty ardent in his philosophy, and I don't see him soft-selling his shtick. When we were through the director asked me to consider doing theatre in Hendersonville, but he also said he had doubts about rainmaker seeing the light of day.

As I type, I'm writing off the play and concentrating on my directing. We start again tonight after practically a week off, and I hope my oldest actress customized her script so she can pipe up quicker.

+ + +

Phantom Menace turned ten years old yesterday. I was working at the daily paper then, and we covered the midnight toy release and the line of fans waiting for the first showing. I knew someone who sat in line for at least a few days, maybe a week. She had two friends acting as bodyguards. I saw it with Your Sister, and it might have been my second time seeing it. Can't recall.

+ + +

The biggest sports story of the day combines wrestling and basketball. The WWE does a Monday show each week. The USA Network carries the show live from 9 to 11 p.m. Months ago, the WWE booked their Monday show for Denver's only arena, a venue that serves as the home court for the Nuggets basketball team. They've sold 10,000 tickets already. When the venue was booked for the WWE, the team owners apparently didn't think the Nuggets would make it this far into the playoffs. They did. They are one of four teams left to vie for the title. The NBA schedule says Denver will host a game that very same Monday at the same time the WWE is supposed to be there.

Everyone assumes the NBA will toss the WWE a basket of money to relocate, but it will take quite a lot. The WWE drives dozens of trucks across the country as part of their never-ending national tour. If they have to go to another city Monday, it'll wreck their travel schedule. Also, there's the matter of filling two hours of live airtime and the 10,000 tickets sold. It's a mess.

+ + +

Using the curry cookbook you gave us a few years back as inspiration, Your Sister made an original curry last night. 'Twas delish. It's my turn to make dinner tonight, but the rehearsal will stretch until 8:30, and we'll be eating late.

Picture of the Day
The crew of Atlantis before they went spaceward.

Tuesday, May 19

Oh, Right.

We scrambled to cover the garden when we got home. It's a bit late in the year for a frost warning, at least in this hemisphere, but scramble we did. We used tarps and newspaper cones to cover the seedlings and the peonies. I then hustled off to the next audition for Rainmaker.

I was surprised yesterday to see so many men show up. We had no women appear though, and the director assured us he had asked three candidates to show up. Tonight, he tells us that two of them have backed out because of gas prices. Another has yet to arrive, and things are looking bleak. There were three of us there returning, and we didn't read one line of dialogue.

Instead, the director stated plainly that he might have to cancel the show because he had no Lizzie and Starbuck. That was a sudden shot across my bow, because I wanted that role. A few people were trying to talk him into casting Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and my translator from the Scrooge play. I didn't know he was back in town, but I was assured he was. Last I heard, he was in New York. I know he's appearing on Law & Order this Wednesday as a jury member.

I told the director I'd like to try the role, and he gave me an odd expression. I read it as disbelief, but he said instead he was trying to picture it. He also mentioned that he wouldn't cast a seven-person show with the seven people who showed up to audition. Also, another theatre has a standing invite for him to take the male lead in On Golden Pond, and he admitted he always wanted that role.

As it stands now, if we don't have a Lizzie try out, there's no show. The theatre, I assume, would pick another play, get another director, and try to cast that.

After about an hour, the director suggested we go out for drinks, and we repaired to the local pub. It was here that I may have won him over through pure charm. I know enough about old-school pop culture that I could keep pace as they mentioned Rita Hayworth and the Andrew Sisters. I coughed up a few one-liners that went over much better than they had any right to, and I think I showed the director that I wasn't just a comely visage. I suggested I could play the female lead, but only if I keep my bread. That, I explained, is why she can't find a man. I also suggested we combine the next two plays and make Bell, Book, and Rainmaker, the tale of a mean wizard who threatens to flood the farmland unless they pay him.

I like this director, and I hope this comes together.

Your Sister decided over dinner that she would try out for Lizzie, and I gave her specific scenes to consider explaining why Lizzie is alone and how she regards the suitors. We had talked about this before. Years before. We have only done one show together -- the one where we met -- and we thought this smaller company would love to cast spouses as romantic leads. I encouraged her to try out, even if I didn't get Starbuck. She asked how I'd react to seeing her love on another guy, and I told her it was only fair given what she's seen me do onstage.

This morning, however, she reconsidered, and I think it's best for now. We'll be halfway through rehearsals when her school work ends. Those first weeks would be a hard slog for her. But I do want to act opposite her. We'd love to try Much Ado About Nothing.

Picture of the Day
Coming next summer: Iron Porpoise starring Robert Dolphin Jr.

Monday, May 18

Sudden Hopes

I drove down to Spartanburg Friday to help Mom rearrange Dad's bank accounts. We hit two credit unions and a bank, and it took much too long. One bank used a dot-matrix printer, and we were seated in the manager's chairs for ninety minutes. It didn't help our moods; we were already a bit tense. Mom was upset that we were removing Dad's name from the accounts. No, you can't leave the name on them as it implies legal control.

It didn't help that S-Burg imported swamp air, and we melted each time we entered and exited our nation's sterling financial institutions. The lunch at Olive Garden did more than help. I am now eager for more of their tasty vittles, and I am ignoring the siren song from the Garden just down the road.

I fixed my lawnmower and garden fence Saturday. It's rained often, and the plants are sprouting right nice. But we have a frost warning for tonight, and we'll have to cover the plants before my audition.

Yes, I'm auditioning again. I agreed to read for Rainmaker last year when we picked it for the theatre season. I advocated it strongly. Here's what I said online:

We're considering The Rainmaker specifically because we have a "drama quota" to fill. We can't just offer wacky hijinx and English murders. Or worse, English hijinx. Ever hear a dozen retired Floridians attempt Cockney for three hours? Imagine someone raising generations of Michael Caine clones. These people sound like Artificial Caine Batch Number 17 when we replaced some DNA with airplane glue.

But the problem with drama is the universal assumption that "drama" will deliver nothing but dour gloominess. Grapes of Wrath. Red Pony. Glass fucking Menagerie. Doll's House. People forget that most popular TV shows are dramas and entertain beyond the meaty thoughtfulness of stymied characters. I've laughed my ass off with West Wing, and it's assuredly a dramatic drama. Desperate Housewives is technically a drama.

The Rainmaker is labeled on the script as a romantic comedy. Those of us on the committee who know anything about the show vehemently deny this. This is a drama. But reading it, I can see why it might be packaged otherwise. The Midwest ranchers veer toward stereotype. They either predate or copy outright the leads from Bonanza. We've got the affable dad, the dimwit giant, and the crafty bedrock son. But we also have Lizzie, the plain-jane who can't get a husband. She'd rather be alone than be rejected.

And if you have read Moon for the Misbegotten or Ballad of the Sad Cafe -- a REAL drama that pummels you to dust -- you know where this is going. A stranger comes to town and commences to wooing, but it's too good to be true. Starbuck promises rain and charges $100 for it. The boys try to hook Lizzie up with the local deputy, a man whose wife abandoned him. He would rather be alone too.

Starbuck is selling happiness to everybody and starts to believe the woo he's tossing at Lizzie. He wants to be liked. She wants to be loved. Her eagerness spooks him, and he wants to leave town even before the sheriff comes looking for this cross-country con man.

It does have laughs. The dimwit snags the local hussy, and his post-engagement celebration is warm and fun. He turns into Frasier, basically, and it's done right. Most important, Lizzie develops a genuine acceptance of who she is and what she needs to do to find love. It's not cheap, and it's not simple. We get to watch her evolve, and everyone really has such an arc. It's a play about people escaping dismay. We see it happen, and we leave happy.

You can get that with a comedy, yeah, but good drama, like The Rainmaker, gives you more than afterglow. You get a lighter heart through catharsis. Sometimes, anyway.

We can do this show, and I think we should.

And we are. But I was cynical about the turnout of actors. The play needs six men. We canceled the sex farce after the theatre couldn't draft three. I wasn't enthused, and I debated taking a dive at the auditions.

But I'm competitive. As soon as I saw four guys reading various parts, I wanted in. I wanted to win a role. Also, the director is someone I haven't worked with before, and he clearly has his shit together. The audition paperwork alone surpasses what I've seen in other community theatres, and the whole presentation suggests a realy-o, truly-o theatrical effort. Yes, I want in on this.

I read for three parts: Starbuck, the lonely deputy, and the bitter older brother. The director cut the auditions short for the day becuase none of the hoped-for Lizzies arrived, and he wanted to try out scenes with them. I'm going back again tonight and maybe tomorrow. I have hopes for this, and I may be a sucker.

For instance, we watched the DVD of the Scrooge play on Friday. This was the first time I had seen it. Holy wow, is it bad. I should pay back your family for seeing it. Your Sister saw it live three times. That's spousal abuse. I chuckled at a few things (mostly me, but I had the best comic lines), but I relived the horror of the crumbling ending. This is a tape from the first weekend, maybe the first performance, and the lawyers go off the rails just as spectacularly as I thought they did as I sweated under a ghost robe and nervously twiddled my skeleton fingers.

Rainmaker has to be better than this, regardless of who they cast.

We saw Star Trek again, scurried to the Krispy Kreme again, and chatted up the film for the entire drive back. We also watched a filly conquer the Preakness for the second time in 80 years.

Picture of the Day
Here's my cast in rehearsal. The mother rules the birthday party with a Burger King crown and a flyswatter sceptre.