Category Archives: Lexington Theatre

My Guerilla Theatre Career

“I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” – Bob Dylan.

“Come ON Roger! Dammit!

MOVE!

We’ve got to GO!”

These delicately emphasized instructions landed like thunder on 1970 Southern-Baptist-raised freshman ears that were still trying to accommodate Rhett Butler’s curtain line.

The assault continued; “Get in the car! Sit on Dixie’s lap! She’ll explain. Have you got your sign?”

The sheer number of questions generated thus far was daunting, but offered a promising seating arrangement for the adventure (though he would have preferred to be providing the lap), Rodge opted for eschewing quizzing the leader (upper-classman of the Theatre Department, Barker) of this expedition and pursuing Dixie’s expertise in the seeking of understanding the intentions of the enterprise and perhaps the eventual attentions of Dixie herself.

In the car for the next three blocks…

Dixie draped a shirt card with strings attached around my neck. It read; “Broad Form Deed.”

She elaborated; “That’s who you’re playing. We’re protesting against the Peabody Coal Company recruiting today on campus. Barker’s playing the Appalachian farm owner – you’ll see his sign –. When he asks you; ‘What do I get if I sign?’ you smile real big, maybe wiggle some jazz hands behind ears and say; ‘One hundred dollars!’”

“Wait. I’m playing an inanimate object?”

“Yes.”

“What’s a broad form deed, anyway?”

“A slimy legal thing.”

“What’s my motivation?”

“Don’t get arrested. If you see anyone in a uniform, lose the sign and disappear into the crowd…if there is one. Oh, and if Barker likes you and remembers, he may be the student director of next fall’s show. Could help in auditions. We’re here.”

“Here” was in front of Kennedy’s Book Store at the corner of Limestone and Avenue of Champions. We tumbled out and stumbled about in front of 10-12 mildly befuddled students. I shouted; “One hundred dollars!” We reloaded the car and proceeded to a restaurant named Alfalfa’s, three other campus sites, and a witness-less finale at the courthouse in downtown Lexington (several miles from campus and half a state from the Peabody Coal Company).

From there we dissipated.

I had long lost my sign.

I hoofed it back to my campus apartment.

I had a performance experience that never appeared on my resumé.

I never saw Dixie again.

My arrest record remained pristine.

A couple years later, John Prine’s Muhlenburg County. Resonated immediately with me.

All-in-all……I suppose I was made better by the afternoon. But…………Dixie was pretty cute.

Jim Rodgers’ Natal Day

Oh!

The places we’ve gone…

…the people we’ve been!

We’ve been to Pennsylvania (THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, ERRATA), and Texas (THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS). We’ve been to Sweden (A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC), Spain (MAN OF LA MANCHA), and England (THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, SWEENEY TODD, and CAMELOT).

We’ve plumbed the depths of Oscar Wilde and Western Kentucky (FLOYD COLLINS).

All because you saw us there.

I’ve been a lawyer, a doctor, a murderer, a playwright, a sheriff, a barber…

…the King of England…

……a starkeeper……

Hell.

I was even a goose!

All because you said I could.

Once, we even got to sing together. That might have been the best.

Jim, you are a fine, fine traveling companion.

Thank you.

Queasy Rider

Rick the Smear was shallow and damned proud of it.

He bragged about it.

He repeated funny stories his friends created to describe his reading habits (Clair Bee baseball stories, Agatha Christie cozies, and the Sunday funnies) and viewing habits (Ed Woods’ DEVIL’S NIGHT ORGY, NBA regular season basketball, and reruns of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND…he was a dedicated Ginger fan……sigh).

He claimed he couldn’t even spell “conspiracy theory.”

He even invented his moniker; “I’m so shallow I’m a smear.”

Nobody was fooled, but it sounded great and you could riff on it forever.

The truth was he was a pretty sharp guy. His acting work was beyond superior and his painting and watercolors were beyond that. Plus, he could sing a little and his juggling was mesmerizing. The man could fling a half-eaten muffin twenty feet in the air, deliver an act-ending Oscar Wilde zinger, and then catch and swallow the soaring pastry in front of a full theatre house. I admit that last might not testify to his profundity…but YOU try it.

But now…

But now…he had bought a Vespa.

Topping out at about six-foot-five and pushing 70 years, he had indulged in a mid-life dream about thirty years late. He was ecstatic, living out the memory of a 22-year-old hippie-type art student zipping along the 1971 perpetually summer (but beautiful) coastal lanes of Santa Barbara, in the guise of a 70-year-old silver-haired mensch on the often stifling (but also beautiful) ocean-less county roads of Central Kentucky.

Yes…a dream.

A dream perhaps tainted just a bit by the heat and humidity, or the jacket-requiring chilliness of Kentucky’s changeable weather. And compromised a just smidge by the prudency of taking a quick inventory of every passing pickup (and there were plenty of those, given the restraints in velocity of what a Vespa can do) to ascertain the presence of a gun rack and a passenger with a free hand. We all know how that flick ends and it’s not with; “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Still…

…there was such glee…such jubilation…

…until…

…there was a beyond-inconvenient flat tire on a hunting-and-gathering foray to the Dixie Café.

Scrapes, bruises, an embarrassed call for rescue and a ride home, and a screwed-up reuben on rye…

<< sigh >>

The Vespa was sold the next week.

As Rick the Smear was fond of saying; “I didn’t say I was stupid…just shallow.”

Montana Joe & Weird Willie

“I am sure, as many as have good beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.”

Rosalind said it prettily and clearly and thus endeth our final run-through before technical and dress rehearsals and then opening night.

I was in the wings, muttering; “I’ll bid you farewell. There won’t be a half-dozen people a night that’ll understand that line.”

It was 2007 and the play was Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

My head-shaking over the prospects of decipherability of this closing line was not a singular bobble. I was doubtful about many such moments in the play. Moments? How ‘bout whole ten-minute segments of brilliant verbiage swirling over, around, and through a 21st century audience like Casper the Friendly Ghost, leaving them feeling like something remarkable had happened, but who knows what it was…and I guess it’s okay…it sounded impressive.

And most of those bewildering lines were mine.

I don’t like As You Like It, but I admire it.

The speech; “All the world’s a stage…” is worth the price of admission by itself.

I have seen the play four times and now performed it once.

‘At’s enuf fer me.

Bitterest Fool

I was playing one of the fools and was well on my way to crafting the bitterest fool in the history of theatre. I was too old to be flopping about in voluminous motley, toting elfin ingénues and scolding the audience in iambic pentameter.

But I did it.

Why?

Well…

…it was Shakespeare…

…it was a fine cast…

…and it was being directed by Montana Joe and he asked me to do it.

As I said, the run-through was now completed, and I could go home, flip though the script, and look for a bit of brightness that I was sure I was neglecting.

But no-o-o-o-o.

Montana Joe assembled the cast for a few notes.

Joe sat in the front row.

The cast sprawled on the apron of the stage.

Rapt and waiting.

Else, why would you show up for the first read-through, except to hear Montana Joe’s musings for the run of the journey?

Joe slouched and stared a hole in the carpet about three feet in front of his feet. He slow-tugged at the end of his not-quite-Fu-Manchu mustache. His eyebrows lifted to allow room for his pupils to beseech the firmament for le mot juste.

“There is a moment…when we are working on a play…probing and exploring…and playing…and stumbling…and discovering.”

Joe sank a little in his chair, his shoulders and arms and head folded in. We leaned in to hear.

Inherently, we are lost and looking. A director is pointing and guessing…we find things. Some finds are rejected. Some finds are clung to.”

Joe sank further in his sucking pit of a seat.

“Then…there is this moment…when the play takes on a life…when that life is taken on by the cast…and no longer belongs to the director.”

Seat A12

At this point, Joe’s seat (seat number A12, I believe) became a full-fledged black hole and began to whisk him away. His chin was curled to his knees and he plunged away butt-first, muttering…growling…crooning;

“What…a…joy!”

After the guffaws from the cast, we called the local fire department. They came promptly and managed to retrieve Montana Joe and we quickly established call times for the remaining tech rehearsals and headed home.

What a spellsinger.

A Great Blessing

There was so much right on so many levels tonight at the Opera House in Lexington.

Literally…

  • Every level of seating in the Opera House seemed to be populated fully as far as I could see.
  • The orchestra level was raised to stage level, effectively social-distancing the audience from the musicians and singers.

And figuratively…

  • The tickets were cyber-tix. I bought my tickets on-line, they were delivered on-line, and they were executed on-line. I had to show the bar code on my phone and the ticket-taker scanned my bar code and let me proceed. I fretted in anticipation when I learned of this arrangement. I envisioned a major patron jam of geezers fiddling fruitlessly with our phones while the orchestra initiated their warning warm-ups. I envisioned the major geezer obstacle being me, patron saint of the clumsy thumbs. Thankfully, Janie (Our Lady of Fer-Gods-Sake-Get-a-Hold-of-Yerself) schooled me this afternoon and I was prepared. Wonder of wonders, so was everyone else! Folks were admitted and seated with their self-respect intact, and the show started on time.
  • Dr. Everett McCorvey walked out on stage with Dr. Sandy Archer (president of OperaLex). Applause, relief, and release filled the venue. Everyone breathed…maybe for the first time in over a year. Dr. McCorvey’s organic ebullience on the stage was roared back at him at the same level by a Lexington audience in their historic performing venue; a venue that had “…been through some good times, been through some bad times, but my dear, I’m still here.” –Stephen Sondheim.

The show itself was lovely.

  • I confess I wept during the opening number; “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” But frankly, I would have wept if they had sang the phone book (remember those?). Hearing these powerful young voices singing live on stage…… It was a religious moment.
  • Seeing and hearing the growth of Houston Tyrrell and Jessica Bayne…a joy.
  • “Why We Build the Wall”, from HADESTOWN was, as it always has been for me, a breath-suspending experience. Nathaniel E. Thompson should be congratulated for attempting this signature moment and thanked for nailing it. Then, of course, the rest of us must go home a think about it…a lot.
  • Michael Preacely…”The Impossible Dream.” Encouraging, instructive, powerful, and melodic. This was great blessing.

Michael had the line that summed up the whole evening for me;

“The world will be better for this.”

I know I was.

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. Imagine… a university training students for a then non-existent career as a sports team mascot. Still, our last governor would have preferred that to teaching them about French literature.

And you just know that’s gotta be cool.

Not-So-Proud Boy

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.

Proud Boy

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 our Androcles rehearsal of the first scene. It was a lively and erudite scene between Androcles and his harridan wife. It ended with the wife slapping Androcles. Ah, that Shavian wit.

I knew the actor playing 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.

Pounded Boy

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…all six lines spot on.

I don’t really remember a bit of what I did.

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

At least he didn’t include it in his autobiography.

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.

I have heard my friend and adopted faux-daughter Karyn Czar asking the first reporter’s question at the governor’s press conferences. I’m always proud.

I first met Karyn on stage in a play. Recalling that play, and feeling today’s sun, and the end of the baseball lockout, triggered another happy flashback.

Today now looks to be the opening day for this year’s baseball spring training…at last. It was beginning to look like there would be no spring training and perhaps no season at all thanks to the oligarchs of baseball (the owners AND the players). My friend Sidney Shaw loved to go to the Lexington 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 as I met Karyn.

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…and still doing Shakespeare.

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 that 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. It’s always a real nice clambake.

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.