Category Archives: Lexington Theatre

Pranks for the Memories

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Pranks in the theatre are traditional…unfortunately.

Pranks in the theatre are just good clean fun…uh…no.

Pranks in the theatre are mostly legendary…mostly.

Pranks in the theatre make the bestest stories after a few drinks…thank God.
My favorite on-stage prank story tells of Tallulah Bankhead. Ms. Bankhead was, I gather, a high-maintenance performer who, though admired for her ability to fill seats in the house and provide steady paychecks for her fellow company members, garnered little affection from said company members along the way.
One evening, in a dramatic duet scene, as Ms. Bankhead passed near the phone on the set, the sound booth thought it would cute to ring the phone unexpectedly. Ms. Bankhead paused, looked at the phone and waited. Sure enough, it rang again. She picked it up, listened for a moment, turned to the other actor on stage, and said; “It’s for you.” She handed him the receiver and exited stage right.

Touché and more than a bit touchy.
I despise theatre pranks, but I love the stories. I could bore you with a few dozen more, but despair not. I’ll simply refer you to a lovely coming-of-age-summer-stock-theatre flick; Those Lips, Those Eyes. Frank Langella plays a summer stock leading man and prime target of some very funny moments.
I will share one and only one from my own experience.

I was in a play that featured a second act moment in which I had to enter a darkened room to find a dead body sprawled. I was to turn the body over, examine it, and then leave it to rearrange the scene of the crime to suit my nefarious purposes, all before my wife entered to share a 20 minute or so scene to finish the act.

This was in a small theatre in which the audience was a mere 5-10 feet away from the action on stage, a small theatre in which the lights (the very warm stage lights) were a mere 5-10 feet away from the action on stage.

I entered, perceived the corpse, and knelt to turn it over and study it. The actor playing dead (extremely well, I might add) had used his eyebrow pencil to cleverly and legibly write a message to me on his eyelids, one word for each eye. This exercise thus required the message to be concise, no 144 characters here. I vividly recall the message to be; “F@#K YOU”. I may not have that spelling exactly right.

There I was, facing a cozy packed house, watching my every response, torn between the bred-in-me demand that “the play must go on,” and atavistic urge to defile a corpse, real or feigning.

I did both.

I rearranged the crime scene as required by the script, I also took a moment to fetch the heavy woolen blanket from its perch on the back of the sofa and respectfully and gently cover the foul corpse from head to toe…under those relentless lights…for the rest of the act.

By the intermission, when I next saw the corpse’s face, the message had melted away.
Occasionally, there’s justice in the world, even in a world of make-believe.

 

As I’ve stated, I despise theatre pranks, but I love the stories and I’d be happy to hear yours.

Darkness Dispelled

I was on the road to Damascus a couple of weeks ago, sitting in the darkest back row of the Singletary Concert Hall for my fifth viewing of this year’s It’s a Grand for Singing (a hugely popular show-music extravaganza, mounted by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre), when the light hit me.
I was listening to three dying soldiers in the show The Civil War dictating a message their fathers;
“…I tried to remember you are judged by what you do while passing through.”
I was jarred.

Live performance can do that to you.

That concept had been important to me until the last two years. I hadn’t thought about it as much lately. I’ve been too busy following the daily outrages of the Trump Family & Friends Medicine Show.
Before that carnival hit town, I had resisted successfully the dubious lure of reality TV.
Honey Boo-Boo, roguish pawnbrokers, Kardashians, and dynasties of ducks claimed not one minute of my attention…not one minute. Then I had allowed the Trump Reality Show powered by the 24/7/365 news industry to hijack my focus. I now am urgently convinced of the higher priority of Melania’s jacket, Hilary’s emails, and Sarah’s dinner difficulties over the abandonment of NATO, neighborly relationships with countries that actually share our borders, and most of the progress for health care made in the last ten years.
Interlude #1
People who farm are called farmers.
People who work are called workers.
People who earn are called earners.
People who loot…
A few minutes after the soldiers’ number, a single plaintive voice grew to three voices, then to ten, then to about forty voices reassuring us from the show Dear Evan Hansen;
“Even when the dark comes crashing through, when you need a friend to carry you, and when you’re broken on the ground……you will be found.”
Forty young voices singing what our leaders should be offering in response to daily reports of rising suicide rates of our youth, our veterans, our rural communities, and even our successful. Instead, we are distracted by chants of “Lock her up!” and self-pitying name-calling tweets of “witch hunt”, “me”, “no collusion”, “ME”, “fake news”, and “M-E-E-E!!”
Tweeting and chanting are legitimate forms of expression. Singing is better.
Interlude #2
People who sing are called singers.
People who act are called actors.
People who write are called writers.
People who tell stories are called storytellers.
People who mock the afflicted…
People who lie…
The show closed gloriously with a stage-full of circus-clad passion and hope from The Greatest Showman;
“But I won’t let them break me down to dust. I know that there’s a place for us…for we are glorious!”
Damn straight.
The reality show people may lie, loot, despoil, degrade, mock, and commit treason. They may then flee justice or even flee the country. But they will pass and be judged by what they did while passing through.
We will rebuild and restore and fix and repair. For we are glorious.
Interlude #3
People who teach are called teachers.
People who nurture are called nurturers.
People who heal are called healers.
People who restore are called restorers.
People who believe…
People who resist……
Literature, drama, poetry, music, and art have become time windows through which we can look back to before 2016 and be reminded of the glorious path we were on before the reality show took over. We can recapture our distracted momentum.
There will be damage to undo. We have undone damage before.
I think I know where we can find about forty young voices and citizens to help.
I believe they will resist…for they are glorious.

Lloyd Rowe – Another Varney Yarn

“Lloyd Rowe…”

Jim squinted like he could glimpse the man in question on the far horizon.

“…I haven’t thought about him in ages…haven’t wanted to.”

I was impressed with the solemnity of the moment until I reminded myself that the “far horizon” was the Green Room wall beneath the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky about eight feet in front of Jim, and just how many “ages” can a 20-year-old have actually seen?

My friend and fellow student, Bob Perkins had suggested to me that I might want to ask Jim Varney about Lloyd Rowe if I had sufficient time for a good story. This seemed like just the moment to pose the question.

It was September, 1970, and like clockwork, here was Jim, not a UK student – hell, he hadn’t even graduated from high school according to local legend, lurking in the Green Room at UK. This was a September tradition…like mums at the Saturday football games. Jim would drop in and loiter in this theatre department lair in hopes of broadening his life experience by meeting and “mentoring” the hopeful freshman actresses newly arrived on campus…or, as Jim referred to them; “sweet young things.”

This “mentoring”, to outward appearances, seemed to last a couple or three weeks until the young lady would reappear, a generally gladder but wiser girl devoted to catching up on classes missed.

Hey.

It was a freer time.

We spoke freely. We dressed freely. We undressed freely.

AYDS was still just a dietary supplement candy advertised on Paul Harvey’s radio show.

On this particular afternoon in the Green Room, the requisite young lady was present filling out some requisite semester-starting forms, I was present killing time until some rehearsal started – any rehearsal, and Jim loped in. He sized up the prospect (singular), and turned to me with a normal greeting; “Well, Goddy-dam, it’s Leasor. Howya doin’ Podge?”

I could have just let things follow their inevitable course…but no-o-o-o-o-o-o. I thought if I got Jim started on a saga it might disrupt the day in an entertaining way.

“Tell me about Lloyd Rowe.” I ventured.

That’s all it took. We’ll let Jim tell it from here.

Lloyd Rowe…

“…I haven’t thought about him in ages…haven’t wanted to.

Lloyd Rowe was mean.

He was a mean, mean man.

He was the meanest man in the world…and he knew it…he was proud of it. He got up every morning expecting to receive an award for mean-ness.

He didn’t bother to spit nails, he just digested ‘em. The only salad he would eat was poison ivy.

He took little petite little small-ass Donnie’s cake away from him and ate it. (Whatever that means.)

The laws of physics and medicine bowed to his hateful will. One day he was shot by a bullet in the chest. He whistled sharp and growled “Git back here.” That bullet backed up, healed instantly out of pure spite, and gave Lloyd a written apology.

Mean.

He was driving to Louisville one day and ‘long about Waddy/Peytona he had four simultaneous flat tires and he ran out of gas. He said; “This’ll not do.” He removed the gas cap, pissed in the tank, and crooned; “Go-o-o-o.” That car reached the White Castle in Downtown Louisville in two minutes flat and was a molten heap when it arrived. Lucky it was still under warranty.

He once lived on spite and nothing else for five months just to hurt himself.

He started campfires with small animals as kindling.

MEAN.

He decided one day to visit the mountains in Eastern Kentucky. His aims were two;

  • He wanted to broaden his life experiences by paying court to the Low-Life Sisters. There were three Low-life Sisters; Bunny Jeanette, Juanita Dean, and the little baby Nylon. Miz Low-Life had given birth to Nylon in a drugstore and named her after the first product she saw. Other naming possibilities spr-r-r-r-ing-g-g-g to mind. It would make an intriguing parlor game.
  • And two. He wanted to spend a serious moment with Greenbury Deathridge.

Greenbury Deathridge was the meanest man on Earth…and he knew it.

You perceive the problem, n’est-pas?

Lloyd wanted to settle the issue and establish harmony on the planet.

Well, he wanted to settle the issue.

He climbed mountains for thirty days through heat, humidity, snow, cyclones, tsunamis, baseball strikes, plagues, earthquakes, and “Gunsmoke” reruns. When he got to Greenbury’s cabin, he learned that the man he was seeking had died seven days before. Lloyd took that personally. He knelt at Greenbury’s grave…for three days…in abject disappointment and holy resentment. Finally, he dug up the corpse and carved it into a bar of soap. That seemed to bring closure.

He sought solace in the arms of Bunny Jeanette Low-Life, but at a crucial moment in their relationship, she cried “Oh, sweet Jesus!” Lloyd froze, appalled. He extricated himself, dressed freely, and marched back to Lexington on foot (his car being a molten heap at the time).

At this point in Jim’s narrative I cried enough.

Jim was jarred out of his fake memory rapture.

The requisite young lady? Oh, she was in love.

 

Oh, sweet Jesus.

Jim Sherburne & West Coast Jazz

Jim Sherburne doubled my jazz world all by himself.

I love jazz; old jazz, new jazz, Dixie-land, Chicago, Bop, Free…but being of a certain age, I am particularly enthralled by jazz from the mid-20th century (doesn’t that make it and me sound accurately ancient?).

Until I met Jim, I was comfortable in the belief that all the best jazz originated on the East Coast. Then one afternoon while waiting for Nancy Sherburne’s lasagna to finish simmering, Jim and I traded rants in the living room. Translate that to; he ranted while I listened and nodded and thumbed through his tattered record albums.

(Shelly Manne, Jimmy Giuffre, Howard Rumsey…who were these guys?)

Jim had graduated from UK and then lived and worked in the advertising world in Chicago during the 60’s. He developed ad campaigns that featured a singing Kool-Aid pitcher and the encouraging “Double your pleasure, double your fun, with Double-Mint, Double-Mint, Double-Mint Gum!”

The man could write.

(Bud Shank, Conte Candoli, the Lighthouse All-Stars…who WERE these guys?)

Jim began to research and write historical novels…good ones. They were published to good notices by Houghton-Mifflin; HACEY MILLER, followed by THE WAY TO FORT PILLOW, then my personal favorite; STAND LIKE MEN, about the coal union wars in Kentucky.

The Sherburne family moved back to Kentucky.

(Shorty Rogers, Chico Hamilton, Gerry Mulligan…WHO WERE THESE GUYS??)

I loved going to Jim and Nancy’s house. I would park behind their car with the informative bumper sticker; “Republican in Trunk”. I’d dutifully follow the instructions on the 1950’s era poster in the bathroom; “Don’t be a Commie! Wash your hands!” The lasagna was killer. The laughter was eye-watering. The volume was cranked up to “eleven”.

(Wince at the scratches. These records have been played to death!)

Afterwards we would play the “Song Game”. The rules were simple; we went around the room and when it was your turn, you sang a song, any song. If I had brought a date, at this point in the evening, she would generally be terrified and I knew I would have some splainin’ to do in the car home.

When it was Jim’s turn, he’d sing old union anthems I’d never heard of.

I’d be so happy for him. His world was filled with passion, anger, joy, outrage, and fierce hope. He was delighted to share it all with you.

His book, RIVERS RUN TOGETHER, depicts those chaotic days of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The hippies had taken over the park and one of their slogans was “Don’t trust anyone over 40”. Jim was over 40. His and his protagonist’s hearts were in the park with the kids, but the math excluded them both.

On the day his book; POOR BOY AND A LONG WAY FROM HOME (which features a young D. W. Griffith and a young silent film industry) was released, I drove to a bookstore in Danville to purchase the book. I knew Jim would be there to sign books. I was first in line. I like to think my graciously inscribed copy is the first of the first printing. Book nerds are just that way.

But what about the music?

When I finally got a word in between the rants and before the lasagna, I asked Jim where this music came from. He explained that while he was in Chicago, he had access to all these recordings of California musicians. Many of them worked for the movie studios and played jazz with each other on the week-ends. He thought they were pretty good.

I should say.

The West Coast jazz spoke of short sleeves, loafers, and the long, long lines of horizons. The East Coast responded with rolled-up sleeves, jackets & ties, edges & corners.

The West Coast sang of sunsets & fogs, beaches, cars & personal distances. The East Coast argues night, streets, cabs & crowds.

The West whispers innuendo. The East yells back in-your-face—OH!

The West is cool, the East hot.

Stars vs. neon.

Highways vs. subways.

Wake-up!

Don’t sleep!

It doubled my jazz world.

Thanks to Jim.

Thanks…

To Jim.

A Marvelous Party

“I have been to a marvelous party.”

Thus wrote/sang/chanted Noel Coward in 1938 and I lived it last Saturday night.

The “marvelous party” was “Encore”, ostensibly a fund-raiser for OperaLex to raise money to support the Opera Program at the University of Kentucky.

What it was, in practice, was a resounding celebration of much that is special about living in the Bluegrass.

To begin with, it was Keeneland, in May; intoxicatingly green, lush, and bursting with life…or at least the assurance of life after Derby.

Then there was the 1938 Rolls Royce convertible just inside the entrance. Is that what it takes to get a good parking space?

Then there was the wine-tasting (thank you Liquor Barn) and the mingling of Lexington’s arts supporters with the singers/students/nascent citizens of the UK Opera program. Seeing Houston Tyrrell (you’ll see him next in GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING) discussing the merits of a box of stunning South American red wines with Ben Kaufmann (you saw him in last year’s GRAND NIGHT) was jarring. I’m not completely convinced of who was advising whom, but the entertainment value…priceless.

And then the dining room; it was a palace of glassware, auguring well for the meal to come.

From the stage, Jenna Day came back from her home in Los Angeles to guide us through the evening and share her passion for this program and these students. She introduced Dr. Everett McCorvey and Dr. Tedrin Lindsey.

The spirit in the room got higher and higher;

  • Tedrin’s program for the evening included selections from the past season; LA TRAVIATA, SHOWBOAT, and BOUNCE the basketball opera.
  • Cameron Mills’ and Rex Chapman’s delight for being in the room was obvious and incandescent.
  • The passion and the talent of the singers could not be resisted.
  • Tshegofatso Clement Baloyi broke everyone’s heart with his “Ole Man River”
  • Michael Preacely and Taylor Comstock delivered world-class performances and inspiring personal stories.
  • Jessica Bayne defined class for us all.
  • Emilia Bustle charmingly explained to us that “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” isn’t what a girl supposes.

These young people come to the University of Kentucky to sing and learn to sing and learn to teach others to sing. Tell me again how Lexington, and Kentucky, and the planet is not made better by that. They are with us for two, three, four, five years. They and Lexington are made better by their time here. It is a kind of gardening of talent, and scholarship, and citizenship. Saturday’s Encore event was a kind of harvesting and renewing of that gardening.

Next year, I propose we measure the height of every participant as they enter the event, and again as they leave. I’m convinced that everyone is two inches taller for having been there.

Get It Right

There was an OperaLex Board meeting tonight.

We meet in the Schmidt Vocal Arts Center at the University of Kentucky, which is also where this year’s cast of It’s a Grand Night for Singing rehearses. After my meeting, I slipped in to watch and listen to a bit of their rehearsal.

These are early rehearsals, devoted to learning the music before the choreographer comes in next week.

Dr. Everett McCorvey was conducting the rehearsal. Two evenings ago, Dr. McCorvey was awarded UK’s highest academic award by the president of the university. Tonight he’s guiding about 30 young singers through the intricacies of the Great American Popular Songbook. The passion and the pride is the same for each night – his and the young singers. It’s the same passion and pride he’s brought to this production and these singers every year since 1993. I’ve witnessed it myself every year.

Dr. McCorvey took a moment to explain to the cast that the geezer that just sneaked in was harmless. One lady in the alto section mentioned that in the second year of Grand Night, I had sung “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” to her daughter, and that her daughter was now 29. There’s a special place in Purgatory for people like her.

They were working on “Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity.

Everett stopped the rehearsal to point out that in measure 89 (of several hundred measures), the staccato was on the first beat only. The rest of the measure was rhythmically smooth. He then ran the passage three times to emphasize the rhythm and get it right.

Get it right.

One measure out of hundreds – get it right.

Not just on a solo when everyone is watching you, but in a chorus, perhaps in the background – get it right.

Not just when it matters – it always matters – if you know what “right” is, get it right.

Not just in loud places, not just in quiet places, not just in public, not just in private, not just in the Schmidt Center, not just in Lexington, not just in Washington, not just today…

…everyday…

…it always matters.

If you know what “right” is, get it right.

That’s what the arts can teach us…and I fear we are in sore need of that teaching these days.

A Damn Grand Night

It’s May in Lexington.

It’s always a miracle. I wouldn’t miss it for the world…and never have.GN 02

It’s stupidly green. My lawn needs mowing every fifteen minutes. My trumpet vine hedge shouts “GREEN” to the sky and defies any attempt to pacify it. Every tree simultaneously erupts in a kind of chemical warfare, turning noses red, squeezing eyes shut, and sparking a drumroll of non-contagious, but orbit-achieving sneezes in much of the population.

And then, we have this horse race nearby. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s cool – 143 years cool.

I went to the Derby…decades ago. I threw my Frisbee in the infield. I got heroically muddy. I spent eight hours at the track one day and never glimpsed a horse. I sang a sad song and mysteriously cried, making my mud run, oblivious to the song’s original intent. It was real good time.

But after mowing the lawn, whacking on the trumpet, sneezing, avoiding mint juleps & poison ivy, weeping no more, and the two minute frenetic bewilderment of a herd of beautiful animals I’ve never heard of stampeding to a measure of glory likely to be forgotten in a couple of weeks…what then?

Well, oddly enough, in Lexington we turn our attention to singing songs beyond Stephen Foster’s canon.

For the last quarter-century an unlikely event happens in Lexington; It’s a Grand Night for Singing. For six nights 80+ singers, dancers, and musicians perform fierce, powerful renditions of songs from Broadway and Hollywood, old and current. Thousands of people fill the seats, their hearts to be moved by the singers of the nationally-recognized University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.

In the interest of full-disclosure, personal pride, and to keep this account going, I must fess up to having participated in this event a number of times, though frankly, the quality of the event left this hippie geezer in the dust years ago.

But there have been moments to treasure.

The first time I did the show was in 1993. I was asked to sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady. I marched in front of the orchestra to the center of the stage and began by declaiming; “Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!” At which point, a five-year-old girl in the audience chirped; “Damn!” The audience went quiet……yes, as a tomb. I turned in the general direction of the child, paused, and offered; “Everyone’s a critic.” It was probably the biggest ovation I’ve ever received.

When the show ended, the parents of the offending (?) child sought me out to apologize. I felt like I owed them money.

May in Lexington…Grand Night for Singing…miracles…I wouldn’t miss them for the world.

Damn!

Not Knowing…

In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan book; TARZAN OF THE APES, there is a moment…

The novel’s not well-written. It may Burroughs’ best, but it’s not good. There are holes in the plot that could swallow houses. I, of course, love it. It’s imaginative. It’s exotic. Hangin’ out with apes…what’s not to love? It’s like eternally living in Animal House, or tailgating seven days a week and never having to actually go to the game.

So.

Very.

Sweet.

But there’s this moment…

Tarzan is beginning to fathom that he’s not an ape, but a man…whatever that is. He’s been raised by apes. He lives as an ape. He’s not sure of the difference but he’s aware there’s a difference. His closest companion, an ape, is killed by a man. Tarzan stalks the killer, is attacked, and slays the man.

He’s hungry. This slain man…is he available for consumption? Is he different from a slain boar? If Tarzan is a man…does man eat man?

“Alas, not knowing, he stays his hand and lowers the man to the ground.”

It’s 1968.

Summer spent as an intern at an outdoor theater, meant unpaid servitude. A day of preparing breakfast, attending classes, assisting rehearsals, singing to diners, setting up chairs, preventing attendees from falling into the fire pit, and listening to the terminally tedious curtain speech was behind me and there was still twenty minutes or so of sunlight for the other interns and me to sneak off to the nearby pool house.

I recall a young lady from another state, her eyes at half-mast, purring; “I could use a Coke. If you could get me a Coke, I could be real good.”

Was that an invitation?

Was that consent?

In 1968 what the hell did “consent” mean and why should I care?

All I knew was I was on fire with a mission. I pity anyone who got between me and a Coke at that moment. I acquired the Golden Fleece and presented that fizzy Holy Grail to the damsel in need.

Now what?

…not knowing, he stayed his hand…

The arts, even the cheap, poorly written arts, can be powerful reinforcements for our better angels.

North Lime and the Christians

I have just finished a totally lovely experience performing Lucas Hnath’s The Christians for AthensWest Theatre. The script was fine, the direction astute and focused, the cast alert and wicked smart, and the choir on fire.

I could (and may…just a warning) write a daily description of the happy discoveries of our rehearsal process, but for the general purposes of this blog, let me simply describe the windows of our rehearsal space.

We rehearsed in the cafeteria of Sayre School, a room named “The Buttery”. Every evening we would rearrange the munchkin-scaled tables and chairs to create a space in which we could imagine ourselves in the epicenter of a mega-church. I say “we” but the overwhelming bulk of this furniture-moving was done by our stage manager and assistant stage manager (Paige Adams and Ben Otten) – champions……CHAMPIONS!

For me, the arresting parts of this rehearsal space were the huge windows overlooking the 200 block of North Limestone.

I strived to stay immersed in the religious crucible of The Christians, but I kept being pulled into another Lexington.

  • I recalled that Limestone was originally named Mulberry Street. It was the major artery carrying travelers from Lexington to Maysville, a key transportation leg before the Falls of the Ohio were made manageable.
  • It was a major lane of vice during Prohibition. To paraphrase an account of the time; “Prohibition became so bad in Lexington that a thirsty man had to sometimes walk a block to get a drink on Mulberry Street.”
  • In the 60’s and 70’s, it was a mecca for used books and comics. Dennis’s Bookstore and Whittington’s Books were there……what’s so important ‘bout dat?
  • Dennis was reportedly diagnosed with a terminal illness in the late 40’s. He was still going strong in the 60’s. That’s the kind of terminal diagnosis I want.
  • When Mr. Dennis learned from my mom that I loved mysteries (keep in mind, I was not yet a teenager), he gave her about twenty Agatha Christie paperbacks that weren’t selling well. I proceeded to fall under the spell of Hercules Poirot.
  • One blessed afternoon, I picked up a pile of Marvel comics at Dennis’s, including Journey Into Mystery #83, the first appearance of Thor, the Mighty. You coulda just killed me then.
  • I recalled how many late night “Nighthawk Specials” were devoured at Columbia’s Steakhouse waiting for the delivery of the Lexington Herald to the newsstand just outside the restaurant with the opening night reviews of whatever local stage production we were involved with?
  • I recalled countless lunch breaks from my high school job at the library (now the Carnegie Center) truckin’ down for a $1.89 lunch special at Brandy’s Kitchen.
  • I recalled seeing a Lexington Repertory Theatre production of The Wager featuring an impossibly young Joe Gatton in a space that now is a fountain. Joe was good enough to remember – who could ask for anything more?

In my glass-enclosed time bubble at rehearsal, it was peacefully, blissfully, difficult to remain attentive to the job at hand.

Thank you, AthensWest, for that happy challenge.

A Runner Stumbles to 1977

I had a time-warp moment last Sunday.

After our matinée performance of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians at AthensWest Theatre, there was a talk-back session with members of the audience. Talk-back sessions are not a thrill for me. They’re usually sparsely attended and fairly short, with a few timid questions and typically one unpredictable pompous answer that serves to evaporate any remaining questions, comments, or conversation.

But this show is atypical.

The innate civility of the script seems to invite participation. Several dozen audience members have been lingering each night. People are moved and want to share…emphasis on “share”. They have been challenged to listen and think and explore without judgement or solution. They have not been challenged to either change or be considered deficient. There are no instant triggers to defend feelings or questions or beliefs. Curiosity and civility seem to be in ascendance. Pomposity has left the building.

After Sunday’s talk-back concluded, a lady approached me and said; “You probably don’t remember me…”

She was wrong.

Seeing her took me back 31 years.

I play a pastor in The Christians. The last time I played a religious leader was in 1977 at Studio Players. I played an erring priest in The Runner Stumbles. My Sunday questioner was my director. How cool is that?

Runner Stumbles 06
The Runner Stumbles (1977)

However, rolling my mind back to 1977 and that show reminded me that I first met two great friends and actors in that production; Gene Arkle and Paul Thomas.

At the first company meeting of The Runner Stumbles, we were polled by our director to give our first impressions of the script. The gentleman to my right replied that the script reminded him of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. He went on to elaborate, but he had lost me at Mahler. To me at that time, “Mahler” was just a clever rhyme in the song “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch” from Sondheim’s Company. I recall my impatience by the irrelevance of his remarks and being more than a little intimidated. The gentleman was Gene Arkle. My impatience was quickly unveiled as the young know-it-all’s folly it was. Gene and I went on to do a bunch of plays together (some of them were pretty good), and because of Gene, I delved into the symphonies of Mr. Mahler (ALL of them were pretty good – go figure).

During the first blocking rehearsal of Runner, I was sitting in a scene awaiting my church superior, played by an actor I had never met; Paul Thomas. He entered and intoned; “Father Rivard, it has come to our attention…” That’s as far as he got. My guffaw brought him to a halt.

I said he “intoned.”

Actually it was more of a cross between Gabby Hayes and a soupçon of Ethel Merman, with maybe a smidgen of dentist’s drill thrown in.

I truly thought it was a rehearsal gag. I was ashamed when I was discovered my error and have spent the ensuing 31 years trying to make it up to my gifted friend. Paul and I have performed together about two dozen times and I was his best man when he and Lisa wed.

All of this flooded my mind when my Sunday lady prompted; “You probably don’t remember me…”

How wrong can a person be?

Moments of origin can’t be forgotten…certainly not by actors. We remember the people, the time, the place, the temperature, the wind direction, the smell, the sound. We dredge those moments from the past and use them to create today and hope always to launch new moments of origin…that won’t be forgotten.

It’s a powerful reason to get up in the morning…