Tag Archives: Joe Gatton

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.

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.

Earnest Words

Importance 06
1980’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the Guignol with Eric Johnson on the right and some duffer in spats on the left.

Janie and I had a lovely night at the theatre a while back. We watched a crisp and energetic cast perform Oscar Wilde’s brilliant “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Athens West Theatre. It was one our happiest nights for the year.

I admired the efforts of Shayne Brakefield as a sometimes befuddled, often pompous local reverend (think Robert Morley in African Queen with a pencil-thin mustache), Janet Scott in full sail as Lady Bracknell, and Paul Thomas as the butler(s); mysterious, disheveled, inscrutable, vaguely obedient, barely competent, and clearly the mind behind every scene……not.

I have worked with all these actors before.
I know their gifts…and cherish them.
I know their habits and peccadilloes…and cherish them as well.

A week later I participated in a reading of Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KING’S MEN on the Carrick Theater stage at Transylvania with Joe Gatton, Sherman Fracher, Ellie Clark, Tom Phillips, Mark Mozingo, and Geoffrey Cobb Nelson.

I have worked with Joe, Sherman, Ellie, and Tom before.

Joe, Sherman, Ellie, Tom, Shayne, Janet, and Paul…
Together we’ve been to Dracula’s Transylvania, New Jersey, New York, a Midwest Mega-Church, Agincourt, Aquitaine, Deep South Mississippi, the magical forests of Shakespeare, Deep South Alabama, Upper-Peninsula Michigan, Russia, London, Pennsyvania, Scotland. We’ve been husbands and wives and daughters and sons and kings and vassals and brothers and sisters to each other.

We have history.

We have vocabulary.

When we step on stage with each other we have a big head-start to share with an audience; a dialogue that, in some cases, has been going on for decades.

These two stage experiences prompted me into a memory (what doesn’t these days?) of an early 80’s Guignol production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”. This was, in retrospect, a wonderful cast for me; Eric Johnson, Martha Campbell, Walter Tunis, Lisa Thomas, Georgia Ferrell, Tim McClure, Ann Dalzell, and Paul Thomas (once more playing the butler – murderous, scheming, ever-expanding his role).

This production was directed by Dr. James Rodgers, and he created an atmosphere playful, quick, and creative, but fierce in language…a happy culture in which Wilde’s mots, bon et rapide, could fly.

And fly they did. At the first table read, our Lady Bracknell encountered the word “indecorous” in the script. She paused and inquired; “Is that pronounced; ‘IN-DUH-COH-RUS’?” To which another cast member replied; “No, and if you say it that way, that’s where you’ll be.”

I suspect Oscar would’ve been proud.

Vocabulary matters.

North Lime and the Christians

I had a totally lovely experience performing Lucas Hnath’s The Christians for AthensWest Theatre a couple of years ago. The script was fine, the direction astute and focused, the cast alert and wicked smart, and the choir – ah, the choir – was on fire.

I could (and still might – just a warning) write a day-by-day 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. Yes, the windows.

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

  • I had learned long ago 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 also 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 1960’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? Well…
  • Dennis (MISTER Dennis to me on orders from my Mom) was reportedly diagnosed with a terminal illness in the late 1940’s. He was still going strong in the 1960’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 happy and gracious spell of Hercules Poirot (David Suchet’s perfect depiction of Monsieur Poirot later renewed that spell).
  • One blessed afternoon, I picked up (for ten cents each) 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 (remember them?) of whatever local stage production in which we were currently involved.
  • 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? Well, maybe a better fountain.

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.

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.

Yes, that was his real name.

Charles was my adviser at UK. On the Tuesday before my first year at UK, 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 with another tiny; “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 that September 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!!!

Trump would never be elected if I said 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 changed people’s lives.

I saved the planet…from something.

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 under a rampant thermometer.

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 a 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.