Tag Archives: Joe Ferrell

Livin’ on the Edge With Joe

My stage director/mentor/friend Joe Ferrell had a birthday this week.

Who cares?

I gather he’s getting old.

Who cares?

Well…

I kinda do.

I’ve read a bunch of tributes this week from various actors and students and friends. I am humbled by their reminiscences and the life-changing echoes of those reminiscences.

I have some of my own, of course…some might get us arrested…

May I share a silly one?

The year was 1984.

For some inexplicable reason (at least to me) Lily Tomlin came to the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky one evening and practiced a reading of the beginnings of a new one-person play. She was the “one-person”…go figure. It was free and the house was packed…go figure. I was on the front row. Thus, Lily Tomlin spit on me. I didn’t shower for two weeks. My social life dove from pitiful to non-existent…go figure.

The next day, Ms. Tomlin held a q&a in the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs) for the Theatre Department students. I took the day off from work and lurked in the back of the house (sans shower remember). Joe Ferrell was the moderator of the session.

Commenting on the barrenness of the stage – nuthin’ – no chairs, no stools, — nuthin’, Joe introduced Ms. Tomlin and suggested that they simply sit on the edge of the stage. Ms. Tomlin’s eyes twinkled a challenge echoed by her voice; “I’ll sit on the edge if you will.”

I knew Joe and I knew the answer to that challenge from anyone, anywhere, anytime, in any theatre.

They sat on the edge.

That’s my Joe, and I’m standin’ by it……on the edge.

Just Act the Hell Out of It

In the theatre, I have been blessed to work with inspiring directors. Many of them seemed to enter and re-enter my life at times when they could fulfill dual roles; stage director and off-stage mentor. Just as I could not have become the on-stage kings, fools, lawyers, doctors, and errant knights required, so I could not have become the geezer I am today (for better or worse) without their genuine care and, at times, curious advice.

Perhaps preeminent among them, if for no other reason than my bewildered youth at the time, was Charles Dickens.

That was his real name.

Charles was my advisor at UK. On Tuesday, during the “advising” session required before classes began on Monday, Charles filled out my roster of classes (my input was restricted to an awed and tiny “ok”), and informed me that my part-time job at the public library wouldn’t impede my freshman theatre activities since they didn’t cast freshmen anyway…but that I should attend and participate in the Sunday auditions of the season’s opening show (which he was directing) for the experience.

I responded; “ok”.

Monday morning, at 9:00, I attended my first college class (Physics: 101 – we learned to bend water with a comb) and was cast in my first show (“Playboy of the Western World”). I was slack-jawed at my Physics classmates (“Is that real water?”), and dazzled by my sometimes shabby but always quick cast mates in rehearsal. My path was clear.

That was in the fall of 1969.

In the spring, Charles cast me in his elaborate production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. By then, I was a complete “gym rat” in the theatre. Every day began and ended in the Fine Arts Building; the Guignol Theatre, the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs), the Green Room, the Scene Shop, the Costume Shop…even an occasional classroom. I lurked in every rehearsal I could find.

During “Measure”, Charles was deep into his Peter-Brook-THE-EMPTY-SPACE period. I may have learned half of what I know about the theatre listening to him coach actors in these rehearsals. One night, Bill Hayes, a nice actor and UK alumnus brought in by Charles to play “Angelo”, paused rehearsal to question the meaning of the line; “Let’s write ‘good angel’ on the Devil’s horn, tis not the Devil’s crest.” Charles sprang to the stage and took Bill’s script and they pondered…and pondered… Finally Charles handed the script back to Bill with the profound instruction; “Just act the hell out of it.”

Just act the hell out of it?

I had fallen in love with Shakespeare with “Measure for Measure”.

I knew what that line meant!

I could say that line!!

I could change people’s lives with that line!!!

I swore if I ever got the chance…

Well, of course, having sworn, I did, 23 years later.

In 1993, the uber-smart Ave Lawyer cast me as “Angelo” in her production of “Measure”. This production featured a remarkable cast; Eric Johnson, Sidney Shaw, Holly Hazelwood Brady, Laurie Genet Preston, Jeff Sherr, Joe Gatton, Glenn Thompson, Donna Ison, Karen Czarnecki, Spencer Christiansen… WOW!

I had my chance.

I said my line.

I acted the hell out of it.

I got up the next day and went to my day job.

Joe Gatton; You Say Lichen & I Say…

It was a brutally cold night in Lexington and for some unfathomable reason I was recalling a blistering hot summer afternoon in 1989.

We were rehearsing King Lear for Lexington’s Shakespeare in the Park. It was directed by Joe Ferrell and it was a strong cast, featuring Fred Foster, Lisa and Paul Thomas, Walter Tunis, Becky Smith, Robert Brock……and Joe Gatton.

Joe Gatton is a fine actor and a remarkable fellow. Smart, loyal, loud, murderously thoughtful, imaginative, hard-working, and an ardent admirer of cheezy movies featuring diaphanous costuming and intense backlighting. In short, a man of taste.

Joe possesses a pragmatic artistic wisdom that affects those who work with him. Michael Thompson, another highly experienced local actor explained to me one evening that he made many creative decisions by considering; “what would Joe Gatton do?” Was he serious? Knowing Michael, probably not, but it was just plausible enough…

This particular summer afternoon was a true ordeal by fire. Sunny, ninety-something degrees, 150% humidity…a real beauty. Compounding these balmy conditions was our rehearsal space. It was outdoors, in the sun, on a concrete slab that had at one time doubled as a shuffleboard arena.

The air simmered – it was hard to breathe.

The concrete sizzled – our shoes melted.

Gatton and I weren’t required on stage for a spell. We sought a shady respite. I can’t just sit and melt in the heat. I pulled out my ever-present Frisbee. Joe and I began a super-slow-motion tossing of the disc. The emphasis was not on running and jumping. The goal was tossing and catching with a minimum of actual movement.
It was cerebral, like a meditation.

Who am I fooling?

It was @%^&$#* hot.

I suggested we instead imagine something amazingly cool to fool our brains into cooling our bodies. Joe was game for the experiment. I suggested a co-o-o-ol, dark, cave with walls covered in lichen. I pronounced it; “litchen”.

“What’s that?”

“Litchin…litchin! That green moss that grows in co-o-o-ol, dark caves.”

“Oh, you mean ‘liken’.”

“No-o-o, I think it’s litchen.”

“I always thought it was liken.”

Well, we could never agree on the pronunciation, but we tried the thought experiment anyway. It failed (big surprise there) and we attributed the failure to the pronunciation uncertainty. These were pre-Google days. How’ya gonna look it up? Besides, we were being called to the stage – our turn to broil in iambic pentameter.

However, the question has festered in the back of my mind for 28 years and a few weeks ago I thought I had stumbled upon the answer.

I was binge-watching a 1962 British TV sci-fi series called PATHFINDERS TO MARS (no diaphanous costuming, no backlighting, just a boxy studio set with un-moving dials and blurry monitors). Yes, I am the world’s oldest hippie-nerd. Everyone else binge-watches OUTLANDER and GAME OF THRONES. What can I say? Nerds gonna nerd. In the first episode of the series, the young actress uses “litchen”, but in every other episode it’s “liken”. I’m guessing the first actor goofed.

I’m ready to call Joe after 28 years and announce my discovery.

BUT!

There’s always a “but”.

BUT…I live in new and wondrous age now. We have (as the 2nd President Bush called it) “the Google”. I found a site that offered an audio pronunciation for the US and the UK.

US = liken

UK = litchen

Now we know. I’m not quite sure of the usefulness of what we know, but now we know.
Does that mean we have to do KING LEAR again?

@%^&$#*

Pronounce that.

Cue the Fog………Ack!!

If you hang out with theatre people for any length of time (say 15-20 minutes), you will hear many stories and quickly perceive that many of their stories fall into genres. Most theatre folks have tales about;

  • Working with children.
  • Working with animals.
  • Costume or prop malfunctions.
  • Outdoor theatre misadventures (there’s a sub-genre about bugs).
  • And……fog.

Yes, fog.

And yes, I’ve got a few fog tales if you’ve got a minute (or say 15-20 minutes).

My fog adventures, unfortunately, are not John Carpenter’s; pirates emerging to terrorize my home town while Adrienne Barbeau croons seductively on the local radio station from her lighthouse studio.

Sigh.

I attribute that lack to the fact that Lexington is land-locked. Our nearest body of water is the Town Branch of Elkhorn Creek (and we covered that trickle with concrete a long time ago), our closest Pirates are the baseball team in Pittsburgh, and our closest lighthouse might be 400 miles away on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston.

No, my on-stage fog experiences are more pedestrian, but here they are anyway.

Fog in the theatre usually comes from machines though there are exceptions.

I was in a production of The World of Carl Sandberg in the spring of 1972. My friend and fellow cast member, Vicki James, gave a rendition of Mr. Sandburg’s poem “Fog” so evocative I remember it vividly 45 years later.

Ten years later, in a more-than-dubious production of Dracula, my friend and fellow cast member, Paul Thomas, managed to manufacture a personal fog bank by furiously puffing (heaving!) on his pipe in a sad attempt to obscure his presence in one particular way-more-than-dubious scene. I still harbor hope that I can forgive him for his attempted escape one day.

But those are exceptions. Most stage fog emanates from machines wittily referred to as “fog machines.”

My first experience with fog machines was in a 1981 production of Brigadoon. Oddly enough, it also included Paul Thomas, though in this case he is blameless. The show was in the Opera House in Lexington. The opening scene featured Paul and me as American hunters in the wilds of Scotland who have lost our way in the fog. We discuss our predicament and spot a village in the distance (neat trick considering the fog in which we’re supposed to be lost) – all behind a scrim as the orchestra in the pit plays gorgeous Lerner and Loewe music.

The dress rehearsal went fine, but the director wasn’t satisfied with the quality and quantity of the fog in the first scene. It wasn’t convincing as a fog that would baffle vibrant Americans. He ordered a second fog machine for opening night.

On opening night, the music began and the fog machines (plural) began. By the moment our opening lines were required, the fog, restrained by the scrim, had achieved a height of 7.3 feet. Paul and I could not see the audience, and the audience could not see us. When we spoke we waved our guns in the clear air above the fog to let the audience (and each other) know where we were.

Then the scrim arose and a slow tsunami of fog rolled out over the edge of the stage, into the orchestra pit, and into the first few rows of the audience. It was a sight to see the violinists slashing at the fog with their bows. I think they feared pirates were eminent. I think the audience in the front row feared they had been lured into a bizarre Gallagher-esque experience (albeit with prettier music).

We all tend to resist taking steps backwards in our lives, especially in the arts, but the second night’s performance of Brigadoon employed but one fog machine.

In 1989 I was cast in an outdoor production of King Lear as Lear’s Fool. I have played a couple of Shakespeare’s fools. I have a wealth of personal, real-life experience to bring to such roles.

Early in the rehearsal process, I made a creative decision that was accepted as valid by the director, Joe Ferrell. I felt the Fool would grovel and slither throughout the story as he insinuated his opinions on Lear’s actions and decisions, never reaching past the height of Lear’s waist. I wore out a set of kneepads during the show’s run.

Mr. Ferrell had also made quite a few creative decisions himself (as directors are wont to do), one of which was to employ fog machines during Lear’s nighttime meanderings through the stormy countryside, bereft of shelter and family, and increasingly bereft of his very senses.

Reasonable enough.

From my Fool-ish point of view however (about three feet high, remember), the fog machine was at eye level and only an arm’s length away. In one long scene, as Lear (my friend and fellow cast member, Fred Foster) raged against his daughters, his fate, and the weather for what seemed like four iambically-pounding hours, I crouched in the mouth of the belching fog. My makeup melted off. My costume dripped in streams. I gurgled my lines.

When I came out for my curtain call, I didn’t bow.

Instead I shook myself like a dog to share my wealth of moisture with those nearby.

It’s good to share.

My favorite and grandest stage fog episode was on closing night of a 1992 production of Sweeney Todd.

The house was sold-out. The cast was in place behind the curtain prepared for their grand reveal. I was storming around backstage, working myself into a damn decent homicidal frenzy.

The fog machines commenced.

However, a sold-out house was not enough for the kind-hearted and slightly greedy director, Dr. James Rodgers. He was scurrying about to find room to seat some last-minute, ticketless arrivals. He had folding chairs located and brought to place one-by-one in the corners of the house.

The fog machines dutifully blew.

A pre-show announcement was deemed necessary.

The fog machines gleefully blew and blew.

The orchestra finally began the overture.

The curtain was raised.

The cast began to “…tell the tale of Sweeney Todd.”

I strode to the doors I expected to open and allow me to attempt to scare the bejeezus out 400+ people.

Instead, the fire alarm, triggered by the fog, had summoned first responders.

The fire department arrived with the Lexington and UK police – all with bells and whistles and lights a-blazin’. We were evacuated from the building; the audience to the front lawn of the Fine Arts building and the cast and crew to the street behind the building’s loading dock. Both groups could see other in the emergency-light-decorated twilight of a lovely Kentucky summer evening – a far cry from the dingy, industrial Fleet Street of our show.

Eventually, the authorities were persuaded that conflagration was unlikely. They were thanked for their efforts and invited to stay for the show. They chose to go about their duties instead, which was a good thing as I don’t know where Jim would’ve seated them! The audience, the orchestra, the crew, and the cast reassembled and an evening of theatre juiced by the pre-show capers turned out to be real nice clambake after all.

The fog machines were so proud.

A Geezer Remembers; Play-by-Play by Gene Arkle

That Champ UK 01
“Coach” Gene Arkle center

It’s not an everyday occurrence to get a chance to act in a play or musical more than once. I don’t mean multiple performances like four weekends of The Importance of Being Earnest or two years spent touring dinner theaters in Everybody Loves Opal. I’m talking about separate productions of the same work. It’s hard enough to land an opportunity to do a play once!

I’ve done The King and I twice (different roles) and Measure for Measure twice (different roles).

Three times I’ve played the role of Tom Daley in That Championship Season. All three were successful productions. The first was at Studio Players (mid-70’s), the second at the University of Kentucky (early 80’s), and the third was with Phoenix Group (1992).

The second production is the one that prompted this reminiscence.

It was directed by Joe Ferrell (this is where I first met Joe) and featured Paul Thomas, Dr. Jim Rodgers (as an actor!), Eric Johnson, myself…and Gene Arkle. We were performing in the Laboratory Theatre in the Fine Arts Building. A few years later this theater was renamed the “Briggs Theatre”.

The play concerns the reunion of the remnants (four players and their coach) of the 1955 Pennsylvania High School Championship Team. Gene played the coach, the rest of us were the players.

Side note…

Jim Rodgers doesn’t act often but he’s a fine actor. Paul Thomas acts more often and he too is a fine actor. However, as basketball players…well…they are fine actors.

We used to warm-up each night with a real, live, no-batteries-included basketball.

We would whip it around the stage (yes, whip it…work with me…I speak though the happy filter of memory here) for ten or fifteen minutes with Joe Ferrell and Assistant Director Ralph Pate watching in terror and then begin rehearsal.

While whipping the basketball around, when Eric passed to Jim, he would, with great regularity and malice aforethought, put a forward spin on his bounce pass. Now, Jim is a master of the English language, but English on a basketball was pure Greek to him. The ball would, with great regularity and malice aforethought, sail under Jim’s outstretched hands and strike him everywhere (yes, everywhere) except those hands. Jim would emit a polite “oof”, Eric would giggle and cover his mouth, Paul would look for a place to hide and we would continue our warm-up. It was a marvel and I’m sure it somehow made us a better team.

End of side note.

The big moment in the play comes after my character has fled the scene. The remaining team members are drunk and demoralized and the Coach must rally them. He does this with a wonderful long speech. At the end of the speech, the Coach places a recording (remember them?) on his record-player (remember them??) of the play-by-play call of the final game-winning shot of their championship game. It is a stirring moment. The team members respond, I return to the fold and we lurch to the end of the show.

The closing performance of our show was going as planned until this big moment.

I was offstage…listening…thinking…of basketballs and trophies and booze and betrayals…and whether my post show snack would be a cheddarburger from Charlie Brown’s or a disastrous pile of hash browns from Tolly Ho…in short, I was preparing (as an actor must) for my next entrance.

Gene was on a roll. His speech was indeed stirring. He built it to a climax and marched to the record-player and slapped that record on.

Silence ensued…

…and continued to ensue.

Finally, Gene said “I’ve been meaning to get this thing fixed.”

Offstage, I’m saying thanks and hosannas to every god known to man that I’m not onstage.

Gene took a deep breath and continued, “As you know, the game ended like this…”

And he proceeded to recreate the entire play-by-play himself!

It was absurd. It was heroic. It was a game saver.

We were saved………..by our Coach.

As usual, there is truth in dem dere memory, but I can’t recall just how much.

I miss Gene.