Monthly Archives: August 2017

Dial M for Ray

As the curtain rises.

In the fall of 1984 I was spinning a bit. I had filed for divorce, was living in a 56-year-old house with a 25-year-old furnace, 2 window air-conditioners, 3 shiDial 01ngle roofs on top of each other, a 30-year/1-year-old mortgage (at 18%) and a strange tortoise-shell cat. The math wasn’t favorable – the cat (Scandal) was desperately trying to pull me through.

My friends had divided themselves into two camps. Some became hard to reach – I understand that – ya got yer own lives to muddle through. Others made life better. They didn’t ask what they could do, they just did it. I will always hold a “reverse grudge” for those folks.

On stage, I was active but playing a lot of amputees and drunks; violent amputees and drunks…gay and violent amputees and drunks. It’s not an acting category for which you see much advertising frequently. Hey, it was acting/storytelling opportunities…great……but it didn’t have me “looking at the stars.”

Then Ray Smith offered me the lead in his February production of DIAL M FOR MURDER. I explained to Ray that I was going through a rough patch just now and maybe I should pass on this chance. He dismissed my misgivings; “All the more reason you should do it! It’ll do you good!!” Well…no…it would do Ray good. But the script was good, the cast was fine, and the character had a full inventory of limbs, wasn’t a drunk (though he did have excellent taste in Port), and got to wear a couple of nice suits. Hey, I’m easy and Scandal said; “Go ahead, but change my litter first, you lazy son-of-a-bitch.” Ya know…to be called pejoratively a son-of-a-bitch by a cat…it just makes ya go “Hm-m-m-m” on so many levels.

Historical (or hysterical) notes

Ray had directed me in BILLY BUDD my freshman year at UK. It occurred to me then that it was an odd choice to choose to do a show featuring a cast of 22 men and no women in a theatre department that featured 15 men and 80 women, but what did I know? I was a freshman and just happy to be there. <<Cue the big goofy grin at the camera>>

I also puzzled about the wisdom of having a tech rehearsal that began at 7pm Saturday and ended about 5pm Sunday. Is that really a good business plan? However, it did afford me the quality green room time necessary to learn the basics of bridge over the weekend.

But it seemed odd.

Later that year, I served as Ray’s stage manager for WING OF EXPECTATION, an opera based on the insanity trial of Mary Todd Lincoln. Ray discovered I was a mere freshman a few days before opening night of the show. He wasn’t happy about the newly discovered vulnerability of having his show (about to be produced at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC) running in the hands of a fellow who just twelve months ago was trying to score a date to his high school prom – go figger. He made my life a living hell from that moment through closing night.

Again…odd.

I’ve written more about that episode. See “A Horizontal Lincoln at That” in the blog archives if you’re interested.

There was also the moment one night when leaving the Paddock Club (a legendary theatre-folk rendez-vous of burgers and cheap beer and dim lights and rugged pinball machines and blurry dissections of the New York theatre scene of which we knew nothing) at closing time when vague suggestions of an advancement of blurriness concerning the student/teacher relationship hovered in the air. The “no” was definite and un-blurry and graciously accepted as definitive and un-blurry and never spoken of again. Hell, I doubt he ever remembered it.

Mama never said there’d be days like this.

Well, those were hippie days, blessedly free and easy. There was often more than a bit of confusion about possibilities and desirabilities. Clarity was a valuable commodity for all concerned but not always handy.

Ray and I had also acted together once in THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL. He played Ralph Waldo Emerson to my Henry David Thoreau. Ray was at a point where his grasp of his lines was acute but a bit exotic and his grip on his lines was fragile. One performance, Ray got a look on his face that clearly read; “Rodge, ol’ buddy, I haven’t a clue. You might wanta take it from here and save the women and children.”

I have since seen that look on other thespian faces and, thanks to Ray, it holds no terror for me. I seize it as an opportunity to practice survival skills and/or just chat for a while in front of a lot of captive people who paid to be there.

I liked Ray…a lot.

I considered him, as Kurt Vonnegut puts it; “another nice way for people to be.”

He added much to life in Lexington and subtracted little. I miss him. The math was good.

DIAL M FOR MURDER

All this is to say I knew what I was getting into with DIAL M. I hoped to entertain with our performance and I was anticipating that Ray would be entertaining along the way to opening night. I was not disappointed.

Our first rehearsal began 20 minutes late because Michael arrived 15 minutes late. Ray spent the other five minutes lecturing everyone on the infinite damage inflicted on rehearsals due to tardiness. Math was not Ray’s particular long suit but he performed some for us and demonstrated that Michael’s 15 minutes, when multiplied by the number of rehearsal participants affected, was actually 2 ½ hours. At this point I humbly asked if that meant every further minute of delay was actually ten minutes and Ray ordered the stage manager to commence the rehearsal.

But the damage had been done. I knew it. Nancy and Bob knew it. We had worked with Ray before.

Michael’s fate was sealed.

Ray had a habit of settling on one member of each cast to be the whipping boy. Michael’s initial tardiness promoted him into that position for DIAL M. Since we were all working for free, it was a brevet promotion; more grief – same pay.

Ray’s standard lecture on “magnetic toes” was demonstrated repeated and loudly on Michael’s feet. “Magnetic toes” was Ray’s metaphor for actors that habitually and artificially faced straight front. It was if they had magnets in their shoes that forced their shoes to turn straight front. It was a bizarre concept, but simple, and I kinda dug the sci-fi behind it…the first time I heard it. Michael heard it in at least 5-6 rehearsals. He was perplexed.

And then was the pipe/line/ash tray ballet.

Michael’s character held a pipe and an ash tray and had to deliver a crucial line. Ray described what he wanted;

“Start the line…pause…tap the pipe three times on the ash tray…say the next word…tap twice…look at Roger…finish the line.”

Michael took the plunge;

Tap twice…say the line.

“No, no, no!” Ray restated the agenda; start, pause, three taps, word, two taps, look, finish.

Michael winged it.

Start, tap twice, look, finish the line, look.

“No, No, no!!” Ray shook his head, took the props from Michael and demonstrated; start, pause, three taps, word, two taps, look, finish.

Michael took a quick inventory of available exits from the theatre and tried again.

Start, pause, tap, word, look, three taps, finish.

“No, No, No!!!”

……

On about the tenth repetition of this morbidly entertaining cycle, Michael gave me a look – a desperate and silent plea for release from this mortal coil. I took that as an opportunity to check in visually with the other actors in the room. Nancy was reading a book, Bob was snickering in the corner, and Paul (who had never worked with Ray before) had assumed his now classic “What kind of mind……?” posture.

Well, it was never resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

I felt bad for Michael, but damn, it was funny, and I’m glad it wasn’t me.

The SEAGULL

My favorite moment in the DIAL M experience actually happened at a different play. We were rehearsing and performing in a small theatre at UK, but the backstage area was connected through a scene construction shop to larger stage where a production of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL was being rehearsed.

Our stage had virtually no backstage space. Thus, we lingered (and malingered) in the scene shop before our entrances. It was real good time. I recall one evening when Bob and I recreated (to the soul-killing boredom of the rest of the cast) all of Robert Altman’s movie NASHVILLE – every word in every inane song. A recording should have been made…and immediately destroyed.

The director of THE SEAGULL was not as charmed by our antics as we were (imagine that) and complained at a Theatre Department meeting that she was doing “goddam Chekov” and deserved a measure of respect. That only served to provide us with our mantra; “We’re doin’ goddam Frederick Knott!”

SEAGULL opened a week after our show. On their opening night Ray scheduled a line speed-through to prepare us for our second weekend. We started early and went really fast. We wanted to go the opening of SEAGULL. We finished and ran around to the audience entrance of the other stage. It was sold out and the only seats left when I arrived were on the very back row…except for one.

Ray, being on the faculty was allowed to cut through the scene shop and enter before the general audience. He took full advantage. When I walked into the in-the-round configured theatre I saw Ray on the front row, legs and arms tightly crossed, smoking a cigarette (ah, how times have changed). He had commandeered and defended the seat next to him and when he saw me he flung his cigarette hand in the air, raised his eyebrows to the approximate orbit of the moon, and gestured with a tilt to his head to the empty seat beside him.

I had a front row seat.

Sweet.

But…

The configuration was in-the-round. I hate theatre in-the-round for two reasons;

  1. I paid for a show and I only get to see half the show. Half the time the actors are facing away from me and playing to the other side of the audience.
  2. I came to see the play, not the audience on the other side of the stage.

This was demonstrated immediately that night. I looked out over the set on the stage and in the ineffective darkness across the stage picked out several regular Lexington theatre-goers including Anna-Mae H–, a devoted attendee. She waved gaily.

The lights dimmed (except for Ray’s cig). Ray leaned over and murmured; “I understand there’s a lot of suffering in this play.”

The lights came up and one of my favorite actresses raced onto the stage and wailed; “I am suffering!”

I looked back at Ray and his eyebrows had achieved the approximate altitude of Saturn in an expression that wailed; “What did I tell you?”

I was painfully choking back the giggles at a play by goddam Chekhov.

Anna-Mae waved gaily.

I lied.

I said that was my favorite DIAL M experience. Actually it was number two.

In the audience on the closing night of DIAL M FOR MURDER there was a cute little redhead. I was allowed to miss strike so I could take the cute little redhead out for a drink after the show. It was our first date.

Last week, we celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary.

Ray was right. Doing this show?

It did me good!

Funeralville

Funeralville

Kentucky is unendingly interesting to me. I’m perfectly happy to spend all my time here. It is composed of many things that are unsurprising, predictable …pedestrian even. Still, it combines its un-exotic components and its people in small ways that don’t change the world, but delight me, or disappoint me, or both. Whatever, I have never not been interested.

A friend of mine died.

I can’t say I knew her well, even though she was one of my ex-wives – I have many ex-wives from the stage.

We did one show together. For about seven weeks we explored Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT. She was bright, quick, supportive, intuitive, and enthusiastic. As far I knew that was all she was. I can assume she had bad days and moments, and possessed the same weaknesses and peccadilloes endemic to the species, but I didn’t spend enough time with her to know. I only saw the pleasant and the productive. AND I witnessed over the ensuing years the beneficent effect she seemed to have on my other friends and their children.

I knew enough to know she made the world better. S’enough.

Her funeral was being held in a small town about an hour south of my home.

It was a fine summer day. Sunny, warm and humid (but not stifling). Ample rain for the season meant everything green was in full celebration. It was a day for ignoring the interstate highway and instead, meandering to my destination on smaller state roads. Kentucky does state roads pretty well, asphalt being the life blood of politics in the state. Along the way there were discoveries, perhaps not on the scale of the first sights of Daniel Boone on his wanderings but happier (and safer) discoveries for me.

  • The box turtle precariously plowing his way across the highway with the same confused alacrity of newly hatched sea turtles on the beach on Sullivan’s Island. I made a mental note to once more drag out my old Pogo books and ponder the adventures of Churchy LaFemme when I returned home.
  • I felt I had been properly admonished to; “Be prepared! The Lord is coming!!” The spray-painted 4X8 sign was effective, though it occurred to me that another line might have been added; “And she’s pissed!!!”
  • There appeared a yellow traffic sign like those signs that warn of “Deer Crossing” and “Falling Rock”. This one showed an icon of a horse and buggy. I was just registering the import of the sign when I popped over a rise and there in front of me was the sign made manifest; a real-life horse and carriage toting two bonnet-ed heads. It took me a moment to radically reduce my speed to 10 mph to prevent the acquiring of some intriguing, if gruesome, hood ornaments. Though I passed them carefully, the bonnets were still startled. My hybrid runs silently.
  • Trumpet vine was rampant along the fence rows. It has become in these days of warmer temperatures and milder winters a slower, more substantial kudzu, but with the advantages of blooms attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. I love this plant, but spend too much of my summer days physically denying its ceaseless attempts to gerrymander my backyard.

It was a happy, thoughtful journey also aided by the jazz stylings of Conte Candoli on the car’s sound system.  <<boo-waaaah, boo-waaaah…>>

Journeys eventually arrive…dammit.

This one arrived at the funeral home.

Funerals in Kentucky vary – but not that much. This one was solidly within the range of what passes for normality ‘round here.

  1. Ya gotta sign the book.

For a goodly number of people, that’s the nuts.

Mission accomplished.

My work here is done.

I use this as a lesson in participation all the time. If you say you want to participate in what we’re trying to do, that doesn’t mean just “signing the book”. Ya gotta participate.

I do this part of funerals OK.

I stand in line.

I sign.

  1. Visitation is always intense. It may be two hours long. It may be 16 hours long (over two days). I’ve experienced both. There’s usually a dead person lying openly nearby, which invariably troubles me. There are people in various stages of grief and anxiety all around. These stages are not always compatible. There are old grudges, new feelings of shame, and cultural resentments adrift in the room. It’s easy to lose track for whom this event is happening.

Visitation worries me.

I wanna sneak off to a private room with my friends and eat and drink and tell stories.

I think “for whom this event is happening” might be me. My deceased friend doesn’t care. It’s me who’s lost something. It’s me who has to face tomorrow without my friend. I could use a little time away alone or with other friends in a similar frame of mind to come to grips with this now altered universe.

  1. And then there’s the actual service. <<cue the music from JAWS>>

Today’s service is being conducted by a local minister who admittedly didn’t know my friend very well. This is not unusual. I’ve attended several funerals where the minister spent 15-30 minutes describing someone I never knew. It‘s OK. I believe rite and ritual, even devoid of content and context can still facilitate the grieving process and offer comfort to those of us going on with life.

The minister invited participation in the form of stories and thoughts about my friend from the assembled mourners. I suspected he did so to fill the time and to garner some research for his message. I also suspect he failed to accurately judge the ramifications of offering an “open mike” to the two dozen plus theatre folks in attendance. The minister and the 50-60 local attendees were treated to stories about the love and tolerance the deceased showed to everyone – all types of people; republican, democrat, white, black, gay, straight, left-handed, right-handed, Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Hari Krishnan, Kentucky fans, Louisville fans…

I watched and wondered if perhaps the world and spirit being described might have exceeded the expectations and comfort level of the local attendees who were most likely just as passionate about the deceased, but less verbal about it.

Still, love and hurt was in the air for everyone and that’s we’re gathering to assuage…yes?

Well, it was time for the preacher’s message.

I perceived he was in a bit of a spot.

To whom should he direct this message?

  1. To the 25% of the crowd who were the theatre folks who’d be hittin’ the interstate back Lexington the minute the service was over?
  2. To the rest of the room who would be looking to him for counsel and comfort for the rest of their lives?
  3. To everyone? Was there possibly a message that would knit the room into a single-minded community of caring?

He tried “c”.

I admire him for trying.

He reached back in his schoolin’ and dredged one line from AS YOU LIKE IT; “All the world’s a stage…” He got immediately hung up on ”entrances” and “exits”, got the two reversed a couple of times, and never quite sorted it out. It was far from iambic…hell, it was barely coherent. I didn’t mind it so much. I did the show myself and occasionally found it barely coherent.

He didn’t give up.

He reached back in his schoolin’ once more and suggested we could look to “Old Walt” for inspiration.

Now, I’ll fess up here. I was jarred by this suggestion…in a good way. I didn’t know what wisdom Walt Disney could impart to this solemn occasion, but I knew my departed friend. She was a gleeful gal and a quote from Mickey Mouse or a chorus or two from “It’s a Small World After All” would no doubt make her smile.

But no, “Old Walt” turned out to be Walt Whitman. <<cue the JAWS music again>>

I feared the minister was navigating dangerous waters. The Walt Whitman I knew had backwaters foreign to most established religions. My misgivings were wasted (may they always be). The minister again only had one line at instant recall. He said it. We all blinked in unified incomprehension. It was the closest he got to truly unify the room.

At that point, he dropped option “c” like last week’s newspaper.

He began quoting various verses from the Bible like a rapper. The air was filled with chapters and verses……and numbers were chanted……I expected the ball to be hiked at any moment.

It became clear that he was gonna “save” the out-of-town theatre co-conspirators (his word) in front of his neighbors.

Too bad.

I didn’t mind so much either. I was raised Southern Baptist. I was familiar with the physical need to block the doors and pass the plate and “invite” professions of faith. I still recall several verses of “Just as I Am”. It was the guy’s job.

Yes, I felt hi-jacked and held hostage. I felt bad for my friend. She would not have wanted to be a bad host.

Meh.

I drifted away to a kind of “dream time”, filled with box turtles wearing bonnets driving horse-drawn carriages through jungles of blooming trumpet vine and butterflies (my friend liked butterflies).

Then I hit that interstate back home.