Category Archives: Lexington Theatre

The Thrill of Opening Night

Once upon a time long, long ago, theatre was invented. About 15 minutes later, I was cast in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion.

Peering back through the nainsook scrim of geezer memory, it seemed like a real good time.

The planet, at the time, was lousy with hippies…when hippies were still hippies and not yet freed from the specter of the Selective Service. Student loans and Aids had not yet been invented. Ways were free, which was good ‘coz we didn’t have much money. But, as Bob Dylan explained; “When ya got nuthin’, ya got nuthin’ to lose…How does it feel?” Well…actually…it felt pretty good.

There was no snow ever. I didn’t own a coat. For a buck-ninety-nine you could get a 21-shrimp plate (plus fries and a drink) for a vegan (as defined in those days before we learned to spell keto and sushi) lunch at the Kampus Korner. Two more bucks would get you a burger and a beer at the Paddock Club for dinner. I didn’t need the beer so I was left with some change for the pinball machine. Besides, I had rehearsal for Androcles and the Lion to navigate and needed a clear head.

Androcles and the Lion featured an actor in a floppy lion suit growling and crawling about the stage.

You just know that’s gonna be cool.

I remember I played a beggar/criminal type in rags and scabs. I remember I yelled a lot. I remember I was definitive. I was excellent. I was the reason to buy a ticket.

I remember being shocked that the play’s review overlooked my six lines. I assume it was a rigged review.

I recall there was a character named Ferrovius; another poor person destined to be devoured in the arena. Ferrovius would come to the theatre each night, put on his make-up, and dress for the show. He would then report to the costume shop, where the costumer would tease and spray his hippie-ish hair into a foot high maelstrom of chaos. Ferrovius would then leave the costume shop, march directly to the full-length mirror in the green room, whip out a comb, and fiddle with his “do” until he had a Troy Donahue thing happnin’ that Troy woulda envied.

In those ancient days, this is what we called a Proud Boy.

I learned from watching this routine.

I knew that as a species, we lie.

I learned from this observation that within the spectrum of deceit we practice, we lie most fiercely to ourselves. We preach against vanity and we teach against vanity as a cautionary tale in the theatre.

But then we put a full-length mirror in the green room.

(sigh…)

But in a world of modern Proud Boys, and coronaviruses, and children in cages, and the designated hitter, this vanity and self-foolery seems more charming than destructive.

One night I watched the rehearsal of the first scene of our show. It was a lively and erudite scene between Androcles and his harridan wife. It ended with the wife slapping Androcles.

I knew Androcles, and I had done a couple of shows with the actress playing his wife. After his scene, Androcles and I were chatting and I decided to be helpful.

“You know, I’ve worked with your wife. She’s a remarkable actress.”

“Yes. I’m glad she’s playing the part.”

“You may not know…uh…she…uh…gets very…uh…pumped up…on opening night. You…might want to be prepared.”

“Oh, I get excited too! It’ll be great.”

I watched the opening scene from the wings on opening night. The big first moment came. The wife’s eyes grew eggs-over-easy. Her hair began to rise like Sigourney Weaver’s in Ghostbusters. Her face ruddy-fied to borderline ruby. She inhaled and several audience members fainted from the dip in available oxygen.

She swung.

It was titanic.

Her heels were firmly planted. Her hips opened in front of her shoulders. The arm came through after the hips with flashing bat speed, and the launch angle was a pure 30 degrees.

Androcles dropped straight to his knees on contact and spun 180 degrees, which was good: it left him aimed in precisely the correct direction to slither off the stage.

There were several seismic centers in the region that measured the event and one even issued a tsunami alert before realizing the Town Branch of the Elkhorn Creek was completely underground in Lexington.

No one was seriously hurt and the play went on and I was great.

I don’t really remember what I did.

Probably, after that first scene, Androcles didn’t remember either.

Mamas Don’ Let Yer Babies Grow Up to Be…

…actors.

It’s a poor business plan for all but the tiniest portion of the population.

No, wait…let’s not sugar-coat it.

It’s a poor business plan for all but the tiniest portion of the tiniest portion of the population.

By profession, I’m no actor. I’m a retail manager. In 50+ years, I’ve performed in well over a hundred shows. My lifetime income from acting (so far) is somewhere in the neighborhood of less than $5,000. Retail management paid my bills.

The best actors I’ve known have made most of their money from activities other than acting.

  • One is an artist of rising reputation in oils and watercolors.
  • One is a successful screenwriter.
  • One is a lawyer.
  • One is an accountant.
  • Several are teachers (grade school and college).
  • One is a motivational speaker.
  • One trains doctors.
  • One was a pari-mutuel employee.
  • Several are waiters in restaurants.
  • One is a farmer.
  • One makes jams.
  • One reads horoscopes.

You get my point.

We don’t pay people to act.

But we like it when they do.

My professor and mentor Charles Dickens used to assuage parents of acting students; “There’s nothing nobler than bringing the greatest words and ideas in the English language to life on the stage.”

Spot on, Charles!

Of course he didn’t address the absence of paychecks for this noble stance.

I recall Charles sitting in on my audition in New York for a summer theatre job in Vermont that would allow me to work backstage and perhaps play a bit part, for the handsome remuneration of zero, zilch, nada, goose egg. After the audition, Charles treated me to lunch with an actress that was currently in a Tennessee Williams play and had just been lauded by Mr. Williams in a national magazine as the definitive actress for his writing. The lunch was nice and the company was impressive until she mentioned that her show had one week to run until it closed. I asked her what she would do then. She replied she would head to the unemployment office on Monday.

“Noble” don’t pay the rent.

No, don’t let your babies grow up to be actors…for a living.

But let them act.

Yes, yes, yes!

Let them act.

Let them learn to walk and talk at the same time…in front of a roomful of people. Let them learn to command a room. Let them learn to listen well when someone else commands the room. Let them learn to trust others on stage and let them learn to be worthy of trust. Let them learn to speak loudly and clearly and let them learn the power of being silent. Let them learn to laugh freely and know why. Let them learn to cry freely and know why. Let them learn to swing a sword to effect. Let them learn to kiss to greater effect.

Let them learn to be something other than themselves. Thus, they can shatter the limits of what they can be themselves.

There’s nothing nobler…or more useful.

Ask any of my list of best actors if they could be what they are for a living without their acting.

Ask yourself.

Varney’s Posse

I had the great good luck to be about the same age as Jim Varney aka Ernest.

I met Jim when we were both in high school, long before he had saved Christmas. When we met, Jim was already legendary as a high school actor and was already developing riffs and routines that would later evolve into his standup routines and, of course, Ernest. A typical conversation with Jim during this time featured only a tiny amount of Jim. Instead, you found yourself deeply involved in philosophical (and ludicrous) discussions with Jim-Bob, Lloyd Rowe, the All-Teeth State Trooper, Studley Hungwell, the Low-Life Sisters (Bunny Jeanette, Juanita Dean, & the baby Nylon), and the totally evil Greenbury Deathridge.

Well…truth be told, you found yourself simply struggling to get a word in at all with that crowd. And whatever the topic of the confab, you were always too slow, interrupted, and outvoted.

One of those early high school routines featured a hopeless teenager called “petite little small ass Donnie”. This poor chump’s claim to fame was that he spent all day sitting on his grandmother’s couch watching TV. His response to everything was; “Got any cake?”

Our cat, Sprite, reminds me a great deal of petite little small ass Donnie. She has a similar agenda.

I love the kitten.

And I still miss Jim…all of the hims.

Well…maybe not Greenbury.

Missing Sidney on This Sunny Day

It’s strange what can trigger a memory.

Today I heard my friend and adopted faux-daughter Karyn Czar asking the first reporter’s question at the governor’s press conference. I was so proud.

I first met Karyn on stage in a play.

Today was also to be the opening day for the local minor league baseball team; the Lexington Legends. Of course there’ll be no game and perhaps no season at all thanks to the corona virus. My friend Sidney Shaw loved to go to the Legends’ games. He would not have been pleased with the waste of a fine sunny day with no baseball.

I first met Sidney in the same play.

It was the summer of 1994. It was a production of Measure for Measure in the Lexington Shakespeare Festival when it was still in Woodland Park.

I remember admiring Sidney’s ease with the language and the wisdom with which he infused the character he played. I remember being delighted the first night in rehearsal when his character cast aside wisdom for outraged passion. It made the dramatic moment mean something more…more human. Working with Shakespeare’s foreign-to-us cadences and vocabulary can make an actor forget the humanity of the situations being depicted.

Sidney didn’t forget.

This was a nice production with a bunch of new (to me) actors, most of whom I’ve had the good fortune to work with multiple times over the ensuing years. This group of actors has gone on to mean much to Lexington’s theatre audiences; Karyn Czar, Jeff Sherr, Donna Ison, Eric Johnson, Laurie Genet Preston, Joe Gatton, Glenn Thompson, Spencer Christiansen, Holly Hazelwood, and others.

Ave Lawyer directed. It was my first time to work with Ave and certainly not my last. I’ve moved furniture and learned lines for her in a number of shows since then.

Thus it was with Sidney. He and I shared the stage in four or five productions. He was always good company and I learned something from him in every show.

However, my favorite theatre experience with Sidney was as an audience member for his performance in Death of a Salesman. I watched my friend Sidney disappear into Willie Loman. The growing desperation and evaporating control of Willie Loman was so alien to the Sidney Shaw I knew. It was a remarkable stretch for an actor and Sidney handled it adroitly and broke my heart.

I miss Sidney.

What’s French for Pep?

Flea 06

I was in a French farce once…
…on stage.

I’ve participated in and initiated many a farce in my life but they weren’t French and they weren’t onstage.
This one was.

On opening night, the director (a guest director imported from New York City, no less) assembled the cast in the Green Room for a pre-show chat (aka pep talk). This perplexed me. At the stupidly young age of 19 when I, of course, knew everything, one of the things I knew was if your farce required an injection of pep to achieve “farcicality” you might want to consider doing Ibsen instead. Shouldn’t a prominent bed and sturdy doors that slammed loudly be farcical enough?

Be that as it may, we assembled in full regalia (wigs, tails, boas, bustles, and spats) and our director spoke.

“When I was a young man, I apprenticed at a summer one-week-stock theater in the Catskills. Each night as we traveled from the green room to the stage, we passed under a large sign that read;
‘IT’S A COMEDY HOUSE. PLAY IT LOUD AND FAST.’
I came to hate that sign that summer. I knew theater was far more than important than that. I knew acting involved far more than that. I swore when I was a director I would not sell my art out like that.
And we haven’t.
We will take the stage tonight knowing who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and why we’re making this journey. We’ve listened to each other, and laughed with each other, and cried, and kissed, and slapped…we’ve loved and betrayed…we’ve explored every path of this theatrical journey and we’re ready to take our audience with us.
Just…
…just…
…remember this;
IT’S A COMEDY HOUSE. PLAY IT LOUD AND FAST!”

<< sigh >>

Well…
…the bed was prominent, the doors worked, the walls were mostly pink, and the accents were vaguely French.

It was a farce.

Happy Rumors

Janie and I had a hilarious night at the theater last week. We attended Woodford Theater’s production of Neil Simon’s Rumors.

This is theater craft at a very high level.

First (and always first) there’s the playwright. Neil Simon is nothing if not a craftsman. He’s successfully written relentless froth and relentless foolishness and relentless heartbreak and relentless hope…and made us laugh with every step along the way.

And then there’s Rumors.

Relentless farce…there’s no other kind of farce.

It never stops. It’s one implausible twist after another, never giving you or the characters onstage a moment to recognize the implausibility of what’s happening. Just gasp another breath before the next guffaw.

It is a genius of craft, and Mr. Simon nails it.

This production nails it as well. The director, Joe Ferrell, has to be a relentless traffic cop, keeping things moving at a terrific pace (no time to think, remember?) while maintaining clarity between moments and relationships and physical mayhem.

Check, check, and check.

This collection of actors seemed to enjoy each other’s company immensely. The audience felt comfortably ensconced in a nest of affection. Nothing serious is happening here no matter how seriously we’re doing it.
Relax…and try to keep up.

By the time Carmen Geraci tells his second act story (perfectly, by the way), we have fallen in love with the foibles of the ensemble. Deafness, gunshots, blood, hunger, thirst, suicide, marital betrayal (imagined and real), police interrogation, and career destruction…
…meh…
…nothing serious happening here…
…keep laughing and move on.

And then there’s the set.

The designer of this production, Todd Pickett, understands farce.

Farce demands doors.
Lots of doors.
Doors that work fiercely. They can be slammed repeatedly and quickly to punctuate and define beats in the show.

Farce demands room to run, or at least dash. Everything has to done right now in farce. There’s no moseying in farce.

Farce is an onslaught. It must fling color at the audience.

Check, check, and check.

Thank you, Mr. Pickett.

Thank you, cast.

Thank you, Mr. Ferrell…
…again.

The Three Kevins

curse05
Haggard Leaning, Moi Reclining

I have worked on stage with The Three Kevins.

Wanna touch me?

The Guignol Theater at the University of Kentucky has a history that extends to the middle of the last century. A history of that length has room for several “Golden Ages.” I like to think I was lucky to have been a student in one of those halcyon eras. In the early 70’s the theater department was flush with young actors who had participated in the two-year experiment of one-week summer stock theater experience in the Guignol called Centennial Theater. New York actors mingled with UK student actors rehearsing one play in the afternoons and performing another in the evenings. I arrived on the campus in 1969 to a collection of veteran players and immediately understood I had to catch up quick or sprout roots in the UK library. My academics atrophied but rehearsals were soaring.

I foolishly accepted the trade then and I wisely accept the trade now.

Another “Golden Age of the Guignol” happened about ten years later. Dr. Jim Rodgers attracted a talented faculty and talented student actors followed.
Tim McClure, Martha Bernier, Sheila Omer, Lisa Jones, Sue Grizzell, Walter Tunis, Patti Heying, Bill Felty, Julie Klier, Billy Breed, Nancy Shane. What an assemblage of talent!

But I think of it as the time of The Three Kevins; the “Kevins” being Haggard, Hardesty, and Kennedy.

Kevin Kennedy was bright and quick. I worked with him in Terra Nova. The Antarctic was not nearly as cool as his wit. I think he makes violins in Colorado now.

Kevin Hardesty has a voice that makes you listen eagerly even if he’s merely reading the phone book. I worked with him Glengarry Glen Ross. Kevin is currently the rage as Daniel Boone in the Chautauqua Program of the Kentucky Humanities Council.

Kevin Haggard is a professional actor. He moves with reason and purpose. He speaks from the heart when his character must, from his head when his character must, reluctantly when his character must, and impetuously when his character must. I worked with Kevin in The Curse of the Starving Class. I’m a fan.

This reminiscence was triggered by viewing a Fox program I’d never heard of; The Resident. Kevin Haggard appears briefly as a hospital board member participating in decisions that would not qualify one as a “better angel.” Kevin had three or four lines and maybe a total of 40 seconds of screen time. A small part, but played with integrity and attention. Just what I’d expect from Kev.

Kevin moved to Nashville from Lexington and seems to be always working as an actor and seems to have become respected in his profession and seems to be happily married. Talented and nice guys don’t finish last.

I have worked on stage with The Three Kevins…and all these Guignol Golden Agers.
I was made better by all of them.
Lexington was made better by all of them.
That’s what the arts do.

Cherish them, please.

Dickens and the Deity

Charles Dickens was a good friend of mine.

No, not that Charles Dickens.

This Charles Dickens was a teacher/director in the University of Kentucky Theatre Department in the 60’s and 70’s and yes, that was his real name. He was tiny and skinny with a voice that was neither tiny nor skinny. He shuffled though the halls of the Fine Arts Building during play rehearsals followed by Bridey, his Scottish terrier and smoking (it was long ago and a freer age then – dinosaurs still roamed the savannahs, probably smoking — ‘splains a lot).

Charles was an important teacher for me, though I never had a class with him.

How does that work?

Charles was my director in four different shows and he was a fellow actor in three. I learned much about theatre in those experiences.

But my first experience with Charles (unbeknownst to him) was before I even reached UK.

The year was 1969.

The place was the Guignol Theatre.

The reason was the Kentucky High School Play Competition.

I had competed earlier in the year at the regionals. We did well, but did not advance to the state finals. It was at these regionals however, where I met and befriended Jim Varney (see “Pre-Ernest Musings” in the archives of this blog). Thus, I was simply a spectator, enjoying the efforts of other schools.

Charles was one of the judges.

I knew of Mr. Dickens. I had seen one of the plays he directed and heard exotic tales. Don’t get too excited. “Exotic” to this Southern Baptist-raised high-schooler probably consisted of hearing that Mr. Dickens;

– Wore turtle necks.

– Drank…something…other than Coca-Cola.

– Quoted old movies like Gospel.

– Smoked…(sotto voce)…a lot!

Exotic.

But here he was, in the house of the Guignol, about ten rows in front of me. We were watching and evaluating the same plays. I felt wiser instantly and was reveling in my newfound sagacity.

Then Henry Clay High School took the stage. For some unfathomable reason, they had chosen to do a miracle play; “Noah’s Ark.”

There it was, a gigantic backdrop of the titular boat. In front of the ark, strutted sheet-bedecked high-school actors announcing and pronouncing archaic and utterly boring lines that didn’t even have the good manners to be iambic pentameter. At least you could have danced to that. It would be another nine years until Animal House came out. Otherwise, I would have erroneously assumed I had stumbled into a toga party.

The play slogged along through through the swamps of pomposity and vague righteousness until it reached a tense moment. The tense moment was tipped off by a tiny rumble of thunder offstage right. The ark backdrop rippled alarmingly and from out of the top of the ark, holding on for dear life, popped a head that had not yet needed to face a razor ensconced in the midst of a medical cotton nimbus and beard.

It was God.

God stabilized his precarious perch, looked down, and sternly said; “No-O-ah-H!”

Now you fellows reading this…

At this point I need you to keep in mind the age of this young boy-becoming-a-man and recall that first tough moment when your voice changed and fled your control. Now, please turn and describe that moment to the females in our audience so they can also comprehend what just happened to our young actor…

…as he was playing God…

…In the Kentucky State High School Play Competition.

OMG.

As if that weren’t enough…

…at that moment, a great rolling guffaw filled the theatre.

It was the hooting of Zeus.

It was the howl of Odin.

All emanating from this tiny man judging the competition.

It was Charles Dickens, laughing out loud…at God.

My inchoate sagacity evaporated.

I wanted to hide under my seat and await the inevitable lightning strike.

It was exotic.

I learned a lot about theatre from that minuscule blasphemous thundering chuckler.

The Gatton Signals

Imagine being in a play, standing onstage, in front of a hundred…or a hundred thousand people, and not remembering what your next line is.

I wouldn’t think about that if I were you…you’d only get depressed.

Being on stage, pretending to be someone else, is such a high, why doesn’t everyone wanna do it? I have always suspected the fear of “going up” on your lines is a major deterrent to participation.

It’s an understandable fear.
But it so rarely happens.

It happened to me once, and that once was before I was ever cast in a show. In the eighth grade I was asked to introduce my friend who was running for Student Council President of Bryan Station Junior High for his campaign speech to the ninth graders. I moseyed to the podium and announced to my upper-classmen; “I seem to have forgotten what I was going to say.”

I collapsed and died on the spot, blocking the podium, and requiring the County Coroner to be called to determine the cause. My candidate lost his election, turned to drugs and dog-fighting, read way too much Bukowski, and eventually voted for Nixon twice and would have voted for him again if given the chance…a wasted life.

Ah-h-h-h! None of that really happened except losing the election.

What also didn’t happen is; I never have gone up on my lines again…after a hundred-plus shows (knock on wood).

In all those shows, I have only ever been on stage twice when another actor has blanked out. Both of those events were presaged by the eyes of the suffering actor immediately doubling their size and shedding the ability to blink. Think of deer in the headlights. It’s an obvious tell. It’s a look that screams; “I don’t know who I am, or why I’m here, or why I have this great seat to watch this show, but you, Buster, are now on your own.”

It’s a tough moment for all concerned, but I find it kind of exhilarating. I mean, all bets are off at that moment. I can now take this evening any direction I please. It’s like being Billy Taylor on the piano and Chet Baker turning to you and saying; “Take it.”

Oh-h-h-h-h!
My goodness!
Here we go!

Whoa.
Calm down, Rog.

Thankfully there are alternatives to Roger rewriting the evening in bad iambic ramblings on the fly.

There are the Gatton Signals.

I give my friend Joe Gatton full credit for this onstage survival semaphore system because that’s where I learned it. Joe himself attributes (blames?) it on another actor. But I’ve never heard of nor met this legendary critter so the laurels fall to Joe.

The signals are precise.
– If an actor looks pensive and places his finger on the side of his nose, he’s saying; “I don’t know my next line.”
– If an actor looks down and, starting at his forehead, runs his fingers through his hair, it means; “I’ve forgotten what play we’re doing.”
– If an actor raises both arms above his head and pumps them repeatedly, he’s silently screaming; “I don’t know who I am, or why I’m here, or why I have this great seat to watch this show, but you Buster, are now on your own.”

The third signal is dire and usually followed by the actor in question abruptly exiting the stage, forfeiting his right to ever “lunch” again in this town, and leaving his colleague to sort things out or, in my case, to turn the drama into a personal and bizarre cabaret presentation.

What fun!

It plumb evades me why everyone doesn’t wanna do this.

Game-Stopper!

The word “improvisation” in the theater sends me cowering to the nearest corner.

I leap away from the word, hissing like ol’ Christopher Lee when facing a crucifix.

It’s irrational, I know.

It seems to me that improvisation in the theatre usually means one of two things.

I love the first meaning. It is the air I breathe in rehearsal. When I am immersed in the script and the character and the moment; when I am listening and alert and listening and watching and listening; every gesture, every glance, every inflection has the immediate potential to send us spinning into places we’ve never been…maybe places where no one has been. Sometimes when we reach those places, we find the character we’re searching for. Sometimes we find bits of ourselves…which may be the same thing. It is thrilling and addictive.

The second meaning though…
…is theatre games.

Theatre games are disguised as “fun” and “team-building” and “warm-ups.”
They can involve balls and circles and imaginary boxes.
Notice please, they don’t as a rule involve characters or scripts. I sign on for characters and scripts…not imaginary boxes.

Theatre games tend to be just that; games. They usually decay rapidly into competitions won by the clever and the funny. How that furthers our explorations of MacBeth plumb evades me. I’ve yet to hear MacBeth described as clever or funny.

(Insert various grumpy comments here. Any will do. “Get offa my lawn!” is trite but appropriate enough.)

I mostly despair of any good rehearsal time lost to theatre games.

Mostly…
There are special moments, however…

Once upon an evening, I was involved in a particularly useless “warm-up” game before a rehearsal. The cast formed a circle with one member in the center. The person in the center had to chant; “I’m (state their name) and (state some fact about themselves).” At that point, every person in the circle for whom the fact stated was also true had to abandon their spot in the circle and assume another spot. The center person would try to poach an abandoned spot and whoever was left out would be relegated to the center and would repeat the process.

Whee!

Most of the chants proceeded along the lines of;

– “I’m Jane Doe and I went to the movies today.” (scurrying and giggles)
– “I’m John Doe and I drive a Chevy.” (scrambling and guffaws)
– “I’m Becky Doober and I like pizza.” (chasing and chortles)

All very helpful when ferreting out the subtext of a Sam Shepard script.
You can only imagine the utter hilarity that filled the room.
Ri-i-i-i-ght.

This jocular exercise continued until a middle-aged fellow (no, not me) found himself in the center and chanted;

“I’m Joe Doober and I’m a convicted felon.”

The silence of the group…
…was of the soul-searching, exit-locating variety.

The stillness of the group…
…was as profound as a sudden wish for invisibility.

The director broke the meditative moment by chirping;

“Well, that’s enough for tonight. Let’s get started. Set up for Act I.”