Tag Archives: Paul Thomas

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…

A Dream Cast…in a Nightmare

I read an article about Woodford County’s latest show; ENCHANTED APRIL. It looks like a dream cast. I can’t wait to see it next week. It reminded me of another dream cast.

Imagine, if you will, a show in Lexington with a cast consisting of Trish Clark, Jane Dewey, Eric Johnson, Kevin Hardesty and Paul Thomas.

Sweeter than sweet. If you’re the director of that cast your duties are basically to turn on the lights at rehearsal, yes?

Now imagine that show being not so hot.

In fact, imagine it being thoroughly shredded by the Herald’s reviewer.

As Tom Waits so elegantly says,

“Impossible you say?

Beyond the realm of possibility?

Nah!”

It can and did happen. I have the scars.

All it takes is a director with little directorial experience, even less experience with improvisational farce, and no real vision beyond “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” (I’m reminded of Mickey Rooney’s immortal query; “Hey! Why don’t we put on a show!!”).

If you’re lookin’ for a director of your production of BULLSHOT CRUMMOND with exactly that resumé, I’m your guy.

This was back in the early, early years of Actors Guild when they were performing in the basement of Levas’ Restaurant on Vine Street. The cast worked hard. Kevin played about eight different characters. Eric played two, including one duet scene with himself (a dream come true for him, I’m sure). Trish was ultra-sultry. Jane was innocent and dizzy. Paul was checking out the locations of the exits. All were trying to figure how to get new agents when they had no agents to begin with.

What can I say?

The show seemed funny to me. (BUZZER! Thank you for playing, Mr. Leasor.)

Then came opening night and we played our farce to an audience of seven (7) (VII)…plus the reviewer (Tom Carter).

It was a long night’s journey into sad.

(Fade to…)

The next morning I awoke to the devastating review. Tom summed things up by saying “Leasor has done his friends the disservice of casting them in roles for which they are not suited.”

Harsh.

My wife, Janie removed the poison/razor/gun from my hand and convinced me that though life was obviously no longer worth living it was still necessary to do so as we still owed a lot of money on the house.

Therefore, my next concern was how to help my cast through this undeserved (on their part) catastrophe.

I called an acquaintance who owned a t-shirt shop, set the wheels of foolishness in motion, and that night each member of the cast found, at their make-up station a bright red t-shirt that read “I am NOT Roger Leasor’s friend, please cast me”.

It seemed to help break the ice.

After that evening’s show, Eric went out for his post-show “snack” to Columbia’s Steakhouse (that Steak-for-Two and a Diego Salad always serves well when it’s time for a little something to take the edge off at midnight) resplendent in his new t-shirt. Guess who was standing at the bar…none other than the reviewer himself. Eric, of course, diplomat that he is, made sure Tom saw the shirt…less than 24 hours after the review was written!

Lexington’s a small town at heart. I saw Tom at lunch the next week at the Saratoga (the “Toga” always served well when a wedge and a chicken-fried steak was needed to take the edge off at noon). He was gracious and impressed with the alacrity of our response (if not our show) and life in our small town went on.

Sometimes it all falls into place, deserved or not.

Joe Gatton; You Say Lichen & I Say…

It’s a brutally cold night in Lexington and for some unfathomable reason I’m 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.

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. 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 cool, dark, cave with walls covered in lichen. I pronounced it; “litchen”.

“What’s that?”

“Litchin…litchin! That green moss that grows in cool, 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.

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 SANDBURG 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 effect 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. The show was in the Opera House in Lexington. The opening scene featured Paul and I 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 – 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, 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 wanderings 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 hours, I crouched in the mouth of the belching fog. My makeup washed 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; 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.

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.

The fog machines were so proud.

I Was a Teenage Whatever

Movie night!

Inexplicably, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN was not nominated for any Academy Awards in 1957…go figure. Nor was it made into a musical, though if it had, perhaps we wouldn’t have needed YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN…no, strike that…we still would have needed “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and Frau Brucker.

Interestingly enough (or not), this flick had a companion film; I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. I assume they were shown as a double-feature. WEREWOLF was no better or worse than FRANKENSTEIN, but WEREWOLF did feature a young Michael Landon (James Dean not being available). I find myself speculating on the potential effect of Mr. Landon’s work in this film on his later TV work. Imagine the change in viewer demographics had the title been; “Little House of the Hairy”.

But tonight’s film is I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN. It features a classic cast with Phyllis Coates (Tiger Girl of Saturday serial fame), Gary Conway (TV – “Land of the Giants”), and the always spot-on Whit Bissell (weasely, trouble-making boyfriend in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and whiny scientist nerd in THE CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON).

One of the special delights in this film is a basement scientific laboratory (complete with alligators!) that rivals anything that Ed Wood ever put on the screen.

It also features the usually mild Mr. Bissell goin’ all postal on his fiancé, Ms. Coates – a sudden and disturbing reminder that domestic violence has been with us for a long time.

To sum up; the flick is just…poor.

As my great friend; teacher and philosopher Paul Thomas frames the question when confronted with such jaw-dropping drivel; “What kind of mind…?”

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, the second at the University of Kentucky, and the third was with Phoenix Group.

The second production is the one that prompted this reminiscence.

It was directed by Joe Ferrell (this is where I first met him) 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 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 around the basketball, when Eric passed to Jim, he would, with great regularity, 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, sail under Jim’s outstretched hands and strike him 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.

 

A Geezer Remembers 1987…A Critical Response

Imagine, if you will, a show in Lexington with a cast consisting of Trish Clark, Jane Dewey, Eric Johnson, Kevin Hardesty and Paul Thomas. Sweeter than sweet. If you’re the director of that cast your duties are basically to turn on the lights at rehearsal, right?

Now imagine that show being not so hot.

In fact, imagine it being thoroughly shredded by the Herald’s reviewer.

As Tom Waits so elegantly says; “Impossible you say? Beyond the realm of possibility? Nah!”

It can and did happen. I have the scars.

All it takes is a director with little directorial experience, even less experience with improvisational farce, and NO real vision beyond “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” (I’m reminded of Mickey Rooney’s immortal query; “Hey! Why don’t we put on a show!!”)

If you are lookin’ for a director of YOUR production of BULLSHOT CRUMMOND with exactly that resume, I’m your guy.

This was back in the early, early years of Actors Guild when they were performing in the basement of Levas’ Restaurant on Vine Street. The cast worked hard. Kevin played about eight different characters. Eric played two, including one duet scene with himself (a dream come true, I’m sure). Trish was ultra-sultry. Jane was innocent and dizzy. Paul was checking out the locations of the exits. All were trying to figure how to get new agents when they had no agents to begin with.

What can I say? The show seemed funny to me. (BUZZER! Thank you for playing, Mr. Leasor.)

Then came opening night and we played our farce to an audience of seven (7) (VII)…plus the reviewer (Tom Carter).

It was a long night’s journey into sad.

(Fade to…)

The next morning I awoke to the devastating review. Tom summed things up by saying “Leasor has done his friends the disservice of casting them in roles for which they are not suited.”

Ma-a-a-n!

Janie removed the poison/razor/gun from my hand and convinced me that though life was obviously no longer worth living it was still necessary to do so as we still owed a lot of money on the house.

Therefore, my next concern was how to help my cast through this undeserved (on their part) catastrophe.

I called an acquaintance who owned a t-shirt shop, set the wheels of foolishness in motion, and that night each member of the cast found, at their make-up station a bright red t-shirt that read “I am NOT Roger Leasor’s friend, please cast me”.

It seemed to help break the ice.

After that evening’s show, Eric went out for his post-show “snack” to Columbia’s Steakhouse (that Steak-for-Two and a Diego Salad always serves well when it’s time for a little something to take the edge off at midnight) resplendent in his new t-shirt. Guess who was standing at the bar…none other than the reviewer himself. Eric, of course, diplomat that he is, made certain Tom saw the shirt…less than 24 hours after the review was written!

Lexington’s a small town at heart. I saw Tom at lunch the next week at the Saratoga (the “Toga” always served well when a wedge and a chicken-fried steak was needed to take the edge off at noon). He was gracious and impressed with the alacrity of our response (if not our show) and life in our small town went on.

Sometimes you catch a break, deserved or not.