Monthly Archives: February 2017

Hey! It’s What We Do

fifth-07

I’ve written before about the first time I was directed by Joe Ferrell in That Championship Season on the Laboratory Theatre stage at the University of Kentucky. A couple of years after that show, Joe cast me as Kenny Talley in The Fifth of July on the Guignol Stage at UK. It was a wondrous cast, though at the time they were all new to me as performers except for the actor playing Jed. I had just finished directing him in Whodunit Darling at Studio Players, but I had never worked with Martha, Sheila, Tim, Michael, or Sue. The early rehearsals were filled with delightfully intimidating discoveries as we explored each other’s’ storytelling gifts. I’ve gone on happily to do a lot of theatre with those folks. I count every one of them as an admired friend.

“Jed” and I had the interesting challenge (for the mid-1980’s) of two straight actors playing gay lovers. My character had the further complication of being a double AK amputee veteran of the Vietnam War.

Hey!

I know it’s a stretch.

That’s why we’re here.

It’s what we do.

In the first scene of the play, in the first ten minutes of the play, Jed and Kenny (my character) quarrel about our garden, our house, our guests, and our lives. The argument reaches its peak and a relationship-testing silence ensues. In that silence, Jed kisses Kenny and we all understand in that moment there are things on the planet more important than our garden, our house, and our guests…and maybe our lives. It is our loves that matter. Having established that “minor” understanding, we can now have a play and tell our story.

An explanation is in order here. I love to rehearse.

Strangely enough, I also like to audition. Un-strangely enough, I really like to perform.

But I love to rehearse.

By the time an audience sees the show, they’re only seeing one of about a dozen things we’ve tried in rehearsal. Many of those unseen choices are embarrassing or just plain awful, but in rehearsal it’s OK to try ‘em anyway. It’s where a useful new reality gets invented; the “alternative” reality of an imaginary world. For me, there may not be a more powerful reality. But…it’s not for the real world. Don’t try this at home. And most certainly don’t try this in the White House. Please.

This was our first rehearsal on our feet for The Fifth of July.

The first few rehearsals of a Joe Ferrell-directed play usually take place around a table, reading and discussing.

For this first rehearsal on our feet, we were in a large room and we began at the top of the show. “Jed” and I were on stage and the rest of the cast arranged themselves around the perimeter of the room with their books and knitting and whittling. I’m lyin’ ‘bout the whittling, but remember these were primitive days before laptops, ipads, and smart phones. Hell, this was back when you actually had to know things – you couldn’t just google it – primitive! I like it better now.

Jed and I stumbled through the opening argument and arrived at the kiss.

The rehearsal room became silent. Everyone was still bent over their distractions, but their eyes had shifted to an impossible position on the side of their heads. Avid nonchalance reigned.

Silent…

Like the first time you mentioned a girl to your parents…

Silent…

Like your wisest response to the officer’s query; “Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?”…

Silent…

Like your friends’ reactions when you let slip the fact you actually liked Independence Day: Resurrection.

Silent.

We went on for a few more lines and then Joe stopped us. I vaguely remember we discussed the opening spat and the possible reasons for it. We discussed phlox and verbena in Jed’s garden and what legless Kenny might see every morning in the mirror. Then we did the scene again from the top.

The big moment returned and so did the silence.

We stopped again and discussed how we felt about Aunt Sally’s (Martha’s character) visit, and my feckless friends’ (Sue and Michael) visit, and the heat of a Fourth of July weekend in Missouri. And we did the scene again.

And again.

And again.

By about the tenth time through, the kiss meant nothing except in the flow of the story of these two men. It also meant nothing to the rest of the cast except for their desire for us to get it right so they could finally rehearse their scenes.

Awkwardness had been diffused.

A new reality had been established in about 45 minutes.

Hey!

It’s what we do.

25 years later or so, I was cast by Joe in his production of A Lion in Winter at Woodford Theatre. My character had to kiss his mistress (30+ years younger than me) in front of his wife and his grown children in full knowledge of all involved. Awkward.

We did the scene once, stopped, discussed, and did the scene once more. A new reality was created in 15 minutes.

Hey!

It’s what we do.

It Was a Close Day

It was a close day.

Summer afternoons in Central Kentucky can be that way. They portend delicious summer nights, viscous and promising.

We call a day “close” because it wraps itself around you; a lover that wants more and then more. It closes in on every cranny of you, insisting on your total attention and concentration. It obliterates free will. It obliterates independent thought and movement. It ridicules quickness. It ferrets out any remnant of energy and smilingly, triumphantly commandeers it for its own. And you have no objection. The southern night will soon follow…promising, remember?

This was a close day indeed.

Heat, yes… Humidity, certainly… And an impending doom or salvation in the form of a draft lottery. The air was saturated. All kinds of dew points were high.

The sidewalk was certifiably warm on Cayton’s butt as he squatted under the awning of Streemer’s at the corner of Grove and Proclus. He was waiting for the evening newspaper to be dropped at the stand.

Streemer’s was renown in the county as serving the best chili in town. The Iconic Basketball Coach at the college had pronounced it as such and was believed to consume serious quantities of the stuff every other day. Fans without season tickets, wishing to catch a glimpse of the Iconic Basketball Coach, would patronize the restaurant and dutifully order the chili, or peer into the establishment through the street windows. But today wasn’t “chili” weather and it wasn’t basketball season. It was a slow day at Streemer’s. Cayton had the sidewalk and the newspaper stand to himself.

There were two businesses across Proclos Street, a florist and a shop that apparently sold pianos and cacti. It seemed to be a slow day for them too. 86 degrees, chili, flowers, pianos, and cacti…Cayton couldn’t imagine anyone’s shopping list requiring a visit to this shopping mecca. Strangely enough, his did.

He needed information; detailed information.

The results of college had been……mixed for Cayton. Classwork had been a disaster for two years, but theatre work had been challenging and exhilarating. He suspected the success in one area compromised the other – duh. He didn’t care. He loved the theatre. He loved rehearsing. He loved the emotional exploration. He loved the puzzle of script and character. He loved the audience. He loved to speak loudly. He loved to sing…yes, loudly. And, God help him, he loved to pretend to be someone else. Most people travel geographically to expand their experience – he traveled through characters and stories for same reason. For him, it was a fair trade and reasonable choice; skip Physics 101 – rehearse “Measure for Measure” instead. “Be absolute for death. Either death or life will thereby be the sweeter.” made more sense as a way to spend time than bending a stream of water with a comb.

There was a “rub” in the trade, however.

It wasn’t money. These were days when student debt was a non-factor. A semester’s in-state tuition was in the $120-150 range in the early 70’s. No, it wasn’t money.

It was freedom.

While theatre work made Cayton a bigger, happier, and more valuable person, it did not maintain his deferment from the draft. Because of his sterling academic record, his deferment was about to evaporate.

Not to worry. The draft lottery had been held earlier today. Each date of birth was drawn and given a random number; 1-365. Eligible men would be drafted in that order. Cayton had done the math (he was dedicated to an unusual path of study but he wasn’t stupid) and felt pretty good about his chances. 80-90 numbers is about what would be drafted. Higher numbers were assumed safe forever after that. He needed to know so he could get on with his next show.

The evening newspaper was the easiest and fastest way. Cayton didn’t have a TV and even if he did, the network news didn’t come on till six and they wouldn’t waste their precious half hour giving out all 365 results. Ditto for the AM radio news; five minutes at the top of every hour? How much detail could they provide?

Cayton was sweating. He was out of the direct sun and the odds were in his favor, but it was a close day and the moment was at hand. His head was swirling.

“I got this. It’s OK. I’m supposed to be off book for tonight’s rehearsal. Who the hell buys a cactus from a piano store? Look at the heat waves over the street. Act two tonight – don’t have much to learn. Look at the buildings shimmer. How am I gonna explain this? I won’t have to. The odds are in my favor. No sweat. So what if I’m drafted – I’ll go to Canada. It’s cooler there. I’m sweatin’. I got this.”

The newspaper’s panel truck pulled up. The driver climbed out and opened the back and hauled out a stack of papers. He carried it over to the stand and cut the strings that bound the stack. Cayton shuffled over. The driver looked at him; “You waitin’ for these? Here, it‘s on me.” Cayton took the paper back under the awning and unfolded his future. The story was on the bottom of the front page, but the details were on page three. He flipped the pages and checked the chart for his birthday.

His number was 12.

He sat hard on the cement. The day sat hard on him. The day was no longer close – it had arrived.

He squinted out from under the awning into the glare of summer and truth reflected off the three stores across the street.

Three?

The piano store, the book store, and the florist…

Book store?

(perhaps to be continued…)

Fire Truck (Revised)

Now before I start ramblin’, all you fact-checkers, and score-keepers – just let it go.

Relax.

This little tale has been pressed through a 40-year-plus filter of memory. If it’s not perfectly factual and accurate…as the very fine Kentucky songwriter Mitch Barrett puts it; “I ain’t lyin’, I’m tellin’ you a story”.

Besides, it’s not like I have the codes to our country’s nuclear arsenal or anything.

This is simply how I remember it.

Groucho Marx tells a story of how he ended up in show business;

“I saw this advertisement in the newspaper for a job. I needed a job. I ran 15 blocks and up 5 flights of stairs and I knocked on the door. This fellow answered the door wearing lipstick and a dress. I thought; ‘How long has this been going on?’”

I suspect most theatre participants have had a similar moment of truth (or deception).

I know I did.

When I was in high school, I had a part time job in the children’s department of the public library in Lexington. At that time, the library’s main (and only) branch was in what is now known as the Carnegie Reading Center in Gratz Park. I would finish my school day at Bryan Station High School, walk over to the junior high building (neither middle school nor paper having been invented then), and catch the city bus for a 35-minute ride to my 70-cents-an-hour part-time gig at the library. Did I also mention that it snowed every day and the roads all ran uphill – coming and going?

I loved the job and I loved being in the Gratz Park neighborhood.

The bus would drop me at the Apothecary (not drug store, mind you – apothecary) on the corner of Market and Second, usually about 30-40 minutes before I was scheduled to start my shift. The Apothecary was next door to the original Morris Book Store. Occasionally, I would peruse the book store. Mr. Morris himself special-ordered for me my hardbound editions of THE LORD OF THE RINGS in 1968. But most of the time, I would slip downstairs to the Apothecary and get a bag of chips and a coke and slink through their back door and down the hall to a strange little subterranean chamber in which resided a parrot (or macaw or dodo…or whatever) on a guano-ringed floor stand. There were also stacks of story magazines in the room. No, not porn, just story magazines. I would feast on my chips and coke and reading material under the baleful eye of the parrot (or macaw or dodo…or whatever) until it was time to cross the street to the library. It all sounds so exotic today – not so much then.

I would take my lunch breaks and either throw my frisbee in the park until Mrs. Gratz (for real!) would come out and explain that her-husband-had-given-the-land-to-the-city-and-frisbee-throwing-was-not-what-he-had-in-mind-and-how-come-my-hair-was-so-long-if-I-was-a-boy, or I would walk down to Brandy’s Kitchen, step over the Smiley Pete memorial, and get a $1.35 daily special.

At nine o’clock, I would catch the bus home unless my mom came down to give me a ride home. Any excuse for mom to visit the library was legit.

My duties were sometimes tedious, but mostly heavenly. I would shelve the returned books (restricting myself to only reading every other one), assist the “kiddie-lit” students from Transy, and listen to the children recite their reading adventures so they could gain credit in their “Busy Bee Reading Club”.

I fear it was during this period that Dr. Seuss, Walter Farley, Carol Kendall, Hugh Lofting, and Enid Blyton became more important to me than Milton, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley (Mr. or Mrs.).

One afternoon, my assignment was to read and tell a book to several Head Start classes visiting the library. It was a rainy day. Thus, I think there were 80+ kids in that session. I read the story and then selected several kids to act it out. There weren’t nearly enough parts for all the kids. There were two six-year-old boys on the front row who were raucous in their desire to participate. (RAUCOUS PARTICIPATION IS ENCOURAGED – wouldn’t that be a great title for someone’s biography?) I pointed to one of the six-year-olds and asked him if he could play the fire truck mentioned in the story. He roared; “YES!” and began to wail his “siren” and wave his arm as a ladder. His partner and lifelong friend (six years old, remember) was crushed to left behind. I asked him what color the fire truck was. “Ray-udd!” he shouted, and with my extraordinary but certification-lacking linguistic dexterity I immediately interpreted that as “red”. I asked if he could be “red”. He leapt to his feet, stood next to his fire-truck-playing friend, made “jazz hands”, and danced frantically around his friend.

The room and I went graveyard silent in sheer awe and admiration.

That was my Groucho Marx moment.

“How long has this been going on?”

At that moment, I wanted to grow up to be that 6-year-old.

I still do.

(April, 2016 – Revised February 1, 2017)