Archive for September, 2006

Boot Camp

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

There is a joke in Southern California that all the streets are named for the very thing that was bulldozed to make way for the new homes that sprung up in the fifties. There are people who live on Elm Street and Grove Street and all the rest, although there are no elms to be seen, and the groves disappeared decades before I was even born.

So, it takes a bit of an imaginative stretch to understand why I was in a group called “The Citrus Singers” for three years. It’s affiliated with Citrus College, which, of course, was named for the orange farms that were gobbled up when the school was built. The college is in the valley, just west of Montclair and North of Clairmont, if that helps.

It was incredibly difficult to get in to the troupe, there were usually hundreds of people auditioning for what were sometimes only six or seven open positions. I happen to get in to the group during an off year, when there were eleven of us chosen. And even if there had been only one open position, it probably would have gone to me. I’m not being arrogant here, for a “singer” I was just about the best musician these people had ever seen.

Keep in mind, this is southern California, so it isn’t exactly a cultural Mecca. I understand that it’s begun to blossom lately, but in the late 80s, Southern California could trace it’s cultural significance back about ten years, when David Lee Roth met Eddie Van Halen. Before that, there was the Beach Boys and, I guess, Jan and Dean or something, but basically southern California was where the shadow of the birthplaces of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon extended just to the edge of the valley, and just over that hill was where the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was snorting coke off willing underage hookers. If a guy with a nice voice shows up that can read music and recognize Bartok, you’d better grab him by the ankles.

Naturally, I thought I was the shit. Mostly because the staff kissed my ass a little bit. But, Holy SHIT, the other people in the program laid down the law on me hard. And thank God they did because it didn’t matter if I could sightread. Nothing could have prepared me for what was about to happen to me.

Starting in September, we were preparing for Christmas. At the time everything flew at my so fast, I didn’t really do the math of what exactly we were putting together, but it now occurs to me that we were preparing four completely different concerts.

First, we had to work on the classical concert, which was a fully orchestrated 70 minute evening of chorales and selections from Handel’s Messiah. Which was fine, I had done the Messiah, virtually everyone I knew were pretty familiar with at least certain parts of it. My brother Kent used to giggle at the “Oh, we like sheep” part. Really the biggest challenge to this wasn’t learning the music, it was surviving the rehearsals. The tenor part… well, let’s just say that the tenor part is so damned high that a couple of us went to the library to try to figure out if maybe Handel was writing in the wrong key, if maybe back in his day those notes weren’t quite as high as they were now.

Or, I should say, a couple of us said we were gonna go to the library. We never made it.

The second performance piece was what we called “The Pop Show”. Now, this had nothing to do with Christmas, I admit, but we did have to put together a 50 minute show choir performance, complete with choreography and between songs banter, that would be performed throughout southern California starting in October. We would, in fact, perform this show throughout the year, going to resorts and golf courses and country clubs.

Which is weird because this is also where we did the third show, a stand-up a capella choral performance. 12 or 13 carols, done a capella in four to six part harmony. Oh is that all, you ask? No, I say. No. Because no Lilly is gilded enough unless there is also a 16 PERSON HAND BELL CHOIR that performs with you. Where are these 16 people from? From within the choir, dummy. You play handbells, sometimes as many as FIVE, while still singing your frickin tenor part to “Sleigh Bells” or whatever the hell it was.

So, yeah, I guess the third show contained a fourth show, inside it, which had to be rehearsed totally separately.

But the real fourth show, or, um, the fifth… Jesus, I don’t know… let’s call it the fourth show, the REAL fourth show was the grand-daddy. This show would be a 60 minute all original musical, full costumes, amazing sets, done at our 1500 seat Performing Arts Center. Ten shows a week, three weeks, sold out run all during the month of December, complete with Santa Claus, usually some kind of toy maker, sometimes Jack Frost, life-size dolls that have their own dance number, elves, the whole works. This is the crystal cathedral crowd, remember, where they went to see the Christmas pageant and saw real life camels and donkeys and the angels actually flew and they got to watch as God impregnated Mary.

Okay, there was no impregnating. But our show was the secular answer to that, with live donkeys, full Dickensian costumes, huge two and three story sets, real ice skating on stage, the whole works. It was a spectacular, written new every year to feature the best of the Citrus Singers. I should say, the plots and characters were re-worked every year, but you weren’t gonna be surprised by any of it. It was heavily borrowed from Hans Christian Anderson and Dickens and, *ALL* of the music was “borrowed” from other plays. I have no idea how they could afford the royalties, but I guess when you’re selling out a 1500 seat auditorium at 40 something bucks a pop, you’re doing okay.

So. Give me just a second to describe the schedule.

Monday through Friday, 9 AM to Noon was music rehearsal, Tuesday and Thursday it was from 11 to 1 and dance rehearsal from six pm to ten pm. Monday and Wednesday, from 2 to 6 was hand-bell rehearsal. Each section (tenors, altos, etc.) had their own sectional rehearsal. Ours was Tuesday and Thursday from 2 to 5 and Saturday from 6 am to 8:30 am. Saturday we had dance rehearsal from 9 until 6.

Now, this wasn’t nearly enough rehearsal for everything we had to learn. And, some of the people in the group were idiots and took classes from the community college as well. The fact that I could sight-read came in handy, I was usually ahead of everyone, but I still fell hopelessly behind expectations immediately. I mean, this was the scheduled time you had to be there, but every person put in at least another ten hours a week scrambling to learn all of the music and lines. I understand that med students and shit have it worse, way worse, but, I mean, if we could handle this, why the hell weren’t we in med school?

That’s the thing. The military, med school, fancy-lawyer school, those are all places that me and the rest of the Singers would have been frickin’ KICKED OUT OF. I understand that an eighty hour week is par for the course for a dude in residency, but we were the kind of people who did “Godspell” in high school and were like “man, performing is fun!”. It never occurred to us that it would be this kind of commitment.

(Also, just as an aside, none of us has ever made the kind of money that med school or fancy lawyer school guys do. I mean, honestly, actors don’t usually make as much money as… Jesus Christ, there isn’t even a comparison. Nobody makes less money than us.)

By the time we got to late November and the Christmas season was really on us, we started having extra rehearsals on all sides. Especially funny were the handbell sleepovers, where we would all cram into someone’s shitty ass apartment after having stolen the five handbell cases from the locked closet (community college, like community theater, is chock full of thieves. Nobody locked their keys in their car for long, I can tell you that. Most people in the group could get into your car in about three seconds). During these all-nighters, the bass clef bells would s
leep for half an hour while the treble bells rehearsed and then we’d switch off. I know one girl who could sleep and play her part damn near perfectly.

The handbells come into play in this story because they set off a peculiar chain reaction. My second Christmas with the group, there were three of us that sort of vied for all of the leads and all the solos and, frankly, all the extracurricular play. It’s incredible to think about, but we were all twenty years old, and if you worked us 80 hours a week, we were still going to find time to have sex with as many of each other as possible.

We had a set of rules about sexual contact. Anything that happened on the van or during an all-night rehearsal didn’t count as “cheating” on whomever you might be dating outside the group. Any “above the clothes” rubbing also was fair game. There was a fine line about sleeping with other people inside the group, it was totally fine as long as you didn’t take the person too seriously. There was a “time-zone” law created for while we were on tour in Hawaii and in Europe, which got switched to an “area-code” law during the Christmas season. If memory serves, after a particularly strange oral sex swap I had with an engaged girl while on tour, the “stairwells don’t count” rule got invented.

In any case, there was Me, Charles and David, and the three of us were constantly battling one another. Charles had beaten out David for a solo in something, but David had been cast as Santa Claus, leaving Charles and Me with the two larger but less impressive leads in the show. I was the “red shoes” style tinker and Charles was, I believe, “head Elf”. Everyone called us the big three

So, during one of our stand up -n- sing carols performances, while the handbell choir was doing “Dance of the Wooden Soldiers”, David kept whispering shit-talking right into Charles’ ear. Charles responded by swinging his G3 bell ever so slightly behind him into David’s nuts. It was guy stuff, even though by this point I was essentially in charge of all the guys, I didn’t worry about it. Charles, who was a shit-talker from way back, for some reason also didn’t think it was that big a deal. David, who was 6’4″, 290 pound former football center, took it kinda seriously.

About two hours later, there was an epic battle, which landed Charles in the hospital with his face more or less caved in and landed David clean out of the group and fired from the show. While it may seem like it would be hard to replace one bass and one tenor, and even harder to replace G3, Ab3 and A3 to the handbell section, we also had a mere eight hours to replace Santa Claus and Head Elf.

One of the voice teachers happened to be a fat guy, and also had been the one to teach all the music to Santa in the first place. He just had to learn twenty pages of dialogue or so, figure out a couple of dances, and try like hell to keep up with the blocking. For Charles’ part, a kid in the chorus got his shot. He had been in the group for 3 and a half months, living always in the shadow of the Big Three, had been to every rehearsal and done all of his work… and somehow he had also learned all three of our parts in the Christmas show. He knew the choreography, sort of, he knew the songs, kind of, and he knew all the lines and blocking, perfectly. If he had more talent, then the choreography and songs would have been great.

God. That kid. I still remember him. The little fucker.

Of course, the show is still remembered as “the Christmas Miracle” and the rest of the season went off without much of a hitch. And that one kid? Last I heard he was cast in “Avenue Q” in Vegas. Say what you will, that little fucker never let an average talent slow him down. I’ve also seen him, over the years, in several national commercials.

And I guess that’s the moral. When I got in the group I was massively talented. I still am. But talent means very, very little. It’s like saying that an atom has the capacity to be an atom bomb. Who the fuck cares? I didn’t find my own discipline until years later. In fact, I was there for all the hours I needed to be, all the other hours I didn’t do an ounce of work. I could sight-read and I memorized really fast, plus I understood the math of the music, I could always go somewhere that made sense even when I was singing in a quartet or a trio.

But that’s what I’m saying. If you’re not working during Christmas, it’s because you don’t want to. It’s because you’re not trying hard enough. And I went years without working during Christmas, until it finally dawned on me that maybe acting isn’t for me.

Christmas, from Now On

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

From 1989 to 1991, I was involved with a series of Christmas shows as part of a performance troupe called “Citrus Singers”, and I always hated the title of the show. It was called, simply “Christmas is…” and then the year, so my second year it was “Christmas is… 1990”. I understood what they were doing, they were saying “You fill in the blank, you create the magical dream that *is* what Christmas *is* for *you*…” But for me, it ended up reading exactly the way it looks. Like “Christmas is 1990”, that Christmas is the gift of the year 1990. And I gotta tell you, those years weren’t exactly gifts to me, so it seemed like total crap.

The thing is, Christmas does mean something different to a lot of people. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I found out that Christmas meant Chinese food and a movie for all my Jewish friends. I don’t know what I thought they did on Christmas, but it didn’t occur to me for a second that there would be people missing out on the gigantic pile of greed and sloth that is Christmas in my family, with a ceiling scraping tree and an entire room dedicated to presents. I was so dizzied by how frickin’ awesome kid-Christmas is that it took me years to realize it wasn’t just a grab bag of gluttony.

But here’s the thing. Christmas does mean different things to different people, even among those who celebrate it. For most people, there are carollers, or they go to church and hear the songs. For a lot of people, it’s the TV specials, the claymation thingies with Rudolph and “I want to be a dentist!” and Mr. Heat-miser and stuff. And I’m not at all under-selling the fact that for a majority of people, the holiday is about promise, about the fact that in every little baby child there is the chance for greatness that can change the history of the world. Even for non-believers, the Christ-story has such significance because at birth, this little thing, this baby, was powerless and simple, born in the humblest of circumstances with only the shepherds and donkeys there to watch. From this tiny moment would come, if not the redemption of the world, then one of the wisest and strongest souls to ever set foot on our planet.


Y’know what Christmas means to me? MONEY.

Look, I’ve spent my life, since I was a kid, I’ve spent my entire life as a performer. And Christmas is when everyone wants a performance. You know that cartoon, that clamation thing? People got some *ROYALTIES* on that mother fucker, tell you what. You know how you go to your country club and hear that amazing group of carollers sing “Little Drummer Boy” and “Hark How The Bells”? Those carollers have sung those songs ONE THOUSAND TIMES, and every fricking “brum-pum” the tenors coo means money in their pockets.

Seriously, I know that there are no atheists in foxholes and there are no hungry homeless on Thanksgiving, but there are also no unemployed artists at Christmas. If you aren’t working at Christmas, then you just don’t want the work. If you spend all year in your studio writing 12 tone cycles decrying the war, then just chill out for a minute, pick a key and write a song about missing your soldier boy. You will find yourself with an extra 1200 dollars a year in royalties. If you spend all year at the gym, getting up at 6 in the morning for your EPA audition and saving your pennies for new headshots, then come November, go to every regional Christmas show audition. You’ll find yourself in Dayton playing Bob Cratchet.

Now, I’m a softie. Just because Christmas means work doesn’t mean I’m not still moved by the miracle and all that. I am, and I’m sure over the course of the next week or so, that will totally leak out. Jordana asked me, on our first date, what my favorite story was as a child, and I told her it was the story of Christ’s birth. Now, fortunately, I can say that, as an ardent atheist and asshole, it becomes a “Nixon Goes To China” kind of thing. Most people say that on a first date and the Jewish girl would be all “I forgot something in the car… Or rather, I have to take the car to where the thing is that I forgot and it’s, um, in another city… where I will be living… from now on…” But fortunately, I had already been plenty obnoxious, so it just came across as a moment of sweetness in a lifetime of assininity.

Yeah. Assininity. What?

Anyway, I’m gonna take the next several posts to write about Christmas. It’s the only way I know how to do this, so I’m doing it this way. In the end, I don’t know how much of this will be useful, but I have discovered that when I write by myself, absolutely nothing comes out. When I write on this blog, not only is an inner censor on (the censor that tries to cut out “boring” stuff, rather than “offensive” stuff) but I also seem to actually write. I’m a horrible narcissist, if nobody’s paying attention, I just don’t see the point.

Two is the Least Lonely Number

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

It has been said that there are two kinds of people, those who split the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. The truth is that, as much as I may claim to be a progressive thinker with a liberal bent, I tend to split the world into two different kinds of people, and I wanted to include some of my favorite theater-related pairings.

There are two kinds of actors, those that are willing to commit themselves to truth in performance, and therefore will allow themselves to look like complete fools for the sake of a show, and those who commit themselves to look good, regardless of what the show asks of them. There is, of course, a certain amount of pride and hubris in allowing yourself to look like a complete ass in a show, so it’s sometimes difficult to make the delineation. The guy who’s willing to come out on stage in a thong even though he’s fat and covered in hair… this guy is acting out of pride. The guy who fights for a character that is extremely unattractive, this guy doesn’t care who hates him.

Audience Members
There are two kinds of audiences, those that want to buy what you’re selling, and those that want to figure out how they got ripped off. I’ve been to shows with people who complain about the way an actor’s British accent slips, or how you could tell that one guy wasn’t a real golfer or whatever, and meanwhile, going on all around them, there’s a wonderful play. I’ve also been to plays with people when someone gets kicked in the nuts and they go ahead and laugh. The show’s got nut kicking! Go ahead and enjoy it!

There are two types of critics, those that want to protect the audience, and those that want to protect an ideal. When you read reviews and you get a simple recounting of the plot, the critic is simply doing her best to let you know what happens, so you can be prepared when you go see the show. She will even go so far as to explain which bits are good and which are bad. But the type of critics who watch a play with the perfect version of the play in the back of their minds, these critics will celebrate certain things and savage others with a religious passion. A critic who really eviscerates a show is someone who wants to punish the people who made the play, as opposed to the critic who simply wants to warn an audience away from an unpleasant experience.

There are two types of playwrights, those that are telling you their story, and those that are telling you a story. It takes some people a lifetime to stop writing the play that exacts revenge on the world they were born in to, to stop declaring their own brilliance within the plots of their stories. Many playwrights have no need to stop telling their story, their story is exciting and every new version works. The playwrights who tell you a story are working within their own frame of reference, of course, letting you in on their mindset and sometimes revealing more about themselves by not including a suspiciously familiar playwright character in every play, but you won’t find more than one (if that many) play that features a young man or woman who struggles to create something and ends up conquering all enemies through art.

There are two types of musicians, the fashion designers and the coalminers. There are musicians who talk about how important a specific performance of turn of phrase is, and then there are musicians who practice. Every day. Like, they practice their scales. One the one hand, you’ve got musicians who go back and forth about the various recordings of Grateful Dead or Liza or whatever you’re particular bottle of wine is, and then you’ve got guys who have figured out figured bass. There are guys who pick up a guitar and *love* the way it feels, and there are guys who spend hours every single day mining greatness one small note at a time.

There are two types of directors, over-educated, under-experienced megalomaniacal jackasses and potters. I don’t know how better to describe the first group, except to say that I’m fairly sure these people exist in giant numbers. The second group are people who know how to let the wheel spin and let their hands sit on the clay. They can shape both by speeding up the wheel, or by pressing harder, they can throw more clay on, they can use different tools to take clay off, but mostly, they simply work with the material given and turn it into something beautiful. If you’re one of these people, please feel free to write me an email.

Obviously, there are more than two types of people in every group. Seriously, I don’t split groups into twos. But each group just keeps being split into twos, on and on. Except for directors. That part is totally right.

Home Away From Home

Friday, September 15th, 2006

I’m the only one left in my family that actually lives in New York and though I understand the clarion call of, y’know, “the possibility of success and happiness” I’m just bummed that I’m the only one left. It may all change in the coming months and years, but as for now, my family’s gone. It’s not a bad thing, it just is what it is.

And, the thing is, if I was doing what I’m doing now in any smaller town, just about anywhere in the country, I’d be a phenomenal success. If my writing partners and I were living in Pittsburgh or Toledo or whatever, then the shows we’re putting on would be responded to. As a matter of fact, if this latest Fringe Festival proved anything, we’d probably have as good a chance or better if we were producing musicals in the middle of America of getting them seen in a New York venue.

And there’s a part of me that would love that. I’d love to be like my dad, the most famous musician in all of Cedar Rapids Iowa. I’m not being remotely ironic or snotty here, I really want that. And my whole family is on the west coast now, AGAIN, as there seems to be a constant shift from one coast to another. The theater community is booming in the valleys of southern Cali, and if I moved the company, lock stock and barrel, to Napa, I’d have an enormous support system already in place.

And if I was in one of these places, I could develop a show over the course of months instead of weeks. The truth is that we’ve developed an arsenal of theater pieces that would cover us for the first two years of shows. We choose two established plays and put them up with two-three pieces we’ve already developed and the first two seasons are taken care of. Rehearsal space would be a fraction, the shows could run for the same length of time they do here, except they would be well-attended, and you can’t convince me that the audiences in San Francisco are less educated than the idiots on our audience here…

So, why do we stay? Why wouldn’t we follow the exodus to a place that makes more sense.

I can’t describe it, but it’s the city itself. It’s the very sense that what you do here doesn’t make a mark on the greatness of this place. The towers went up, the towers went down, and it didn’t change New York. Disney moves in and, eventually, Disney will move out. The crack whores will be replaced by some other kind of whores, but New York hasn’t changed. There are surface alterations, but this is still the center of the universe.

I live in Astoria now, and I don’t get in to the city unless something forces me in, but I still go in at least three days a week. When you get out of the subway at 47th street, when the rains come in mid-September, when April hits and you can smell the thaw…

We won’t leave this city. We have no loyalty to her, and god knows this city could give a flying shit about us. We stay here because we love the city, like the way you love an opera or a girlfriend or a book. I’m the worst romantic I know, and I love the city the way I love old recordings, the way I love a great friend’s great idea. I love the city in the way only a convert can love God. Every day, this is where I want to wake up, and when I’m on vacation I want to come home. This isn’t where I started, and I can’t say that New York is my home, but I didn’t know who I was until I was myself here, and it really doesn’t matter how much better aspects of my life would be somewhere else, that life wouldn’t be lived here.

Slow To Post

Wednesday, September 6th, 2006

I think that this blog will, in pretty short order, be turned over to a daddy-n-me blog about our boy who’s supposed to come at some point between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. What I would like to do is to create a theater blog that is completely anonymous, but that’s basically impossible. The other option is that I call a spade a spade, and everyone who works with me does so knowing that they will end up being mocked or praised relentlessly on this site, but the people I work with most frequently would really rather I didn’t do that.

I’m not sure how people manage to post politically, but it might be that most people are in development a lot more than we are, and their pieces certainly don’t suffer for it. We are always pressing toward a production, we are always actually working with people we don’t know, and there is a fear that they will find this under-read blog and get pissed.

Which is kinda weird if you think about it. What if I never wrote anything that wasn’t true? What if I relentlessly mocked someone for, just as an example, saying all of their lines letter perfect in rehearsal and then *never* saying them in performance? Or if I made fun of a director for not knowing the plot of the show he was directing? I mean, these would be criticisms that the rest of the theater community should know about, by hiding these deficiencies, am I actually hurting the art-form that I love most deeply?

It’s a question for another time, I guess.

What I would really like, in a perfect world, would be for an assembly line mentality to putting on a show. I wish that there was an understanding of how long a rehearsal schedule was, of what the responsibilities of each person involved are, and a timeline by which those things needed to be accomplished. I wish there wasn’t this sense of “okay, by Saturday, we’re off-book, and by tuesday, we’re doing a run” or whatever.

I know that’s insane. but I really wish that when you get cast in a show, and then you don’t have your lines memorized by a certain number of rehearsal hours after the beginning, you didn’t have a leg to stand on. I wish that it didn’t have to be *said* that what happens in rehearsal is what is supposed to happen in performance, barring a person in the audience dying or a falling fresnel or whatever.

Of course, I guess the question is, who would decide? What would the industry standard be? In my opinion, it’s perfectly reasonable for a director to spend 25% of the rehearsal period working out the physical space, 40% of the rehearsal period working out the emotional and interpersonal relationships, and the last 35% of the time fixing problems. The actor should be expected to use all of the time outside rehearsal developing the internal personal life of the character and articulating all of the personal physical motions and movements, so that 100% of the time in rehearsal is spent working on timing and relationships with other actors.

But that’s just my opinion. The very second that a director says “At this point, you should take your hands out of your pockets and cross them” I think to myself “the money that was just spent on rehearsal will never come back, the ten second it took for that director to say that will never come back, those ten seconds are now gone, and now something important will disappear…”

Of course, the second an actor says “why does my character cross stage right” I think to myself, “Oh my God, I hate you so fucking much.”

Actually, what I think is, “Since you obviously have never taken an acting class in your life, and since you’ve never worked toward solving mildly inorganic problems in a way that makes sense, let me just let you know that your entire life when you are not on stage you make movements toward no obvious goal, you have very small and simply motivations for everything you do, and discovering those little things is YOUR FUCKING JOB. Establishing stage pictures and balance is the DIRECTOR’S FUCKING JOB. If you want to learn about yourself and have magical feel-good moments then go back to school and get some fucking Svengali acting teacher that will learn you how to cry real tears and shit, but so help me God if you stall in the face of forward motion on the making of this play, I will take it as sabotage and I will want nothing more than to rip your fucking heart out.”

Which is why, maybe, I should create a blog where I’m anonymous. That hatred that you guys feel toward dictators and bad presidents and your boss at work? I reserve that ire for bad theater people. I’ve never been torn from slumber by President Bush, but I have from bad directors and actors.