A Season of Change, Part I: The Man in the Mirror

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. . .Take a look at yourself and make that change.”—Michael Jackson

That’s a powerful quotation from an equally powerful song and it sums up my feelings about this season of change.  New shows.  New leadership at the Playhouse.  New possibilities.  New opportunities.

It’s very hard to believe that’s it’s been nearly a year and a half since I’ve done any acting.  Part of that has been the result of a busy schedule, but the other part has been because of changes wrought by the man in the mirror.

I’m going to share a secret with you. . .I’ve dropped three straight auditions.  And after the third loss, that demon of doubt did make a fleeting visit across my mind.  During his brief visit, I raced back through the halls of memory to that period I called “the drought” in my theatre tales and I had a realization.

“The drought” was far more than a battle to get cast.  It was a war with myself.  A duel between my confidence and my doubt and my doubt slapped my confidence silly during that time frame.  It wasn’t until Leaving Iowa that my confidence finally, and irrevocably, defeated my doubt, though it does attempt to pop back in every once in a while.  But all I do is go back to that lovely view I had as Don Browning and I remember I can act and doubt tucks its tail between its legs and runs.

Even though it no longer matters, losing does suck.  It’s a natural feeling.  Everybody wants to be noticed, to win, and to have their efforts rewarded.  The important thing is to not let yourself be defined by the loss.  Not so long ago, a run of defeats would have had me thinking, “They think I can’t act.”  Now my thoughts are, “I just don’t fit the mold they want.”  That moves it from an ability issue to a perception issue and the latter is what really carries the weight in getting cast.  That’s the biggest change that came from the man in the mirror.

Another change is that I’ve become a bit more selective about what I do.  I won’t just audition for anything under the sun.  It’s about finding just the right story and just the right character.  For the first time, I actually chose not to audition for a show.  In fact, I did it twice.

I’ve been thinking I might like to try my hand at directing, so lately I’ve found myself viewing roles through the eyes of the whole.  Do my personal qualities make me well suited to roles that catch my interest?

For example, I was interested in reading for David Mamet’s American Buffalo over at the Blue Barn.  It’s a story about three men who plot to rob an old man of a rare coin.  The play was definitely an interesting read and there was a role that did pique my interest.  His name was Teach and I was drawn to him because he was as diametrically opposed to me as possible.  This guy is jaded beyond belief, paranoid, and curses like a sailor.  It’s a very good role.  But as I read it, I found that I couldn’t get into it as an actor.  Viewing it from the perspective of a director, I felt that Teach has a blue collar quality that I lack.

There was a role for a young junkie who is also a good role and even fit my personal qualities.  But I pictured the guy as a teenager and I was far too old.  Even if I’d been the correct age, I pictured the guy as being very slightly built and I’m pretty powerfully built in the shoulders.  I just didn’t see me in the roles, so I made the decision not to audition, though I will review it.

The second audition was for a show that I was actually quite excited about.  It’s called The Whipping Man and it’s the story of a Confederate Jewish soldier who returns home after the surrender at Appomattox, finds the homestead abandoned, and finds two of his family’s former slaves who inherited the Jewish faith from their ex-masters.  It’s Passover and they have a traditional seder and secrets are revealed.

This is a tight, well balanced script and each of the three actors is given a chance to shine.  I was excited about the possibilities and then the Playhouse released the character descriptions.

The director wanted the soldier to be in his twenties and I’m starting to push 40 from the wrong end.  My hair is receding and is getting pretty silver.  Now my face is still pretty young looking, so I thought I might have a chance, provided I could get the director to see me as a young man who had seen the horrors of war which can badly age a person.

Now that I knew what was being looked for, I reread the script, but with the eyes of the director.  I was trying to understand why the soldier was supposed to be so young.  And I got it.  I really think the solider is supposed to have a sense of immaturity which I no longer exude or even look like I have.

I still strongly considered auditioning just to get my face shown.  Then an opportunity arose for me to travel which would take place during the run of the show and as I weighed my options, guaranteed trip vs. nearly non-existent chance of getting cast, the trip won out.  But my tendency to now view these roles through the eyes of a director is another change brought about by the man in the mirror.

And then fate tossed me a potential bone.  I was contacted by my old friend, Lara Marsh, stage manager extraordinaire, who would be moving into the director’s chair to helm the first 21 and Over event at the Playhouse which was a play entitled, Lost Boy at Whole Foods.  At the time, the audition had not been formally announced so Lara asked me to keep it under my hat.

I had actually been asked to audition and that’s something that hasn’t happened for a very long time.  Even better, I could do this show plus stay committed to my trip as it would only require 5 nights of rehearsal and a one night performance on September 30.  Whatever this role was, Lara already saw me in it and it sounded promising, so I said I’d audition.

Lost Boy at Whole Foods was my first audition in five months and only my third in nearly a year and a half, so I felt something I had never felt before at an audition. . .ring rust.  I really felt clunky.  In a previous theatre tale, I once talked about how my heart often boosted my auditions and I needed every bit of my heart as my theatre muscles had clearly lost their suppleness.  I felt that I hadn’t made a fool out of myself, but not one of my strongest auditions.

I must have done better than I thought, for Lara called me that Wednesday and asked me to return for a callback the next Friday.  I had a genuine feeling of pride as it was my first callback since 2010 and a callback signifies that the director believes you have the talent.  Now it’s just a matter of finding the right composition.

Another friend who was called back, Stephanie Kidd, slipped me the script so I had a chance to study it and I began to have a better idea of what Lara was looking for in the character of Michael.  I went into the callback feeling much stronger than I had at the original audition.

I, at first, thought that I might have already been cast in the play as I was the only person in the room who fit the parameters for the role of Michael.  Then, as Lara was about to begin, a third acquaintance, Karl Rohling entered the room.  Wow!  Literally a one on one callback.  There would be no question of who got the role.  It would either be Karl or me.

Unsurprisingly, both of us did well.  My heart didn’t have to do quite so much heavy lifting as the practice I had done during the week strengthened my theatrical muscles.  As I expected, neither Karl nor I could get the edge on the other.  I read well, executed all of Lara’s directions, and he did the same.  As I told a friend, “Flip a coin.  It could be either one of us.”

On Tuesday, I got a letter from Lara telling me that she did not cast me.  When I saw the telltale envelope in the mailbox, that was when doubt tried to worm its way into my head and tell me, “She thinks you’re a bad actor.”  But he didn’t stay very long.  I’m dead certain that it was a matter of composition.  I know who I would have blended the best with from a cosmetic standpoint and that person not being cast may very well have dictated my not getting cast or vice versa.  My ability to beat back doubt is another (and positive) change coming from the man in the mirror.

Odds are, it’s going to be a few months before my next audition, but it’s going to be a big one.  I don’t want to reveal it just yet, but I will say it’s for one of my big three shows.  I can already see the grin on the face of the man in the mirror.

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Compelling Drama, Quirky Presentation Are The Hallmarks of Playhouse’s Enron

“It’s all about the money.”–Jeffrey Skilling.

This line aptly describes the Omaha Playhouse’s season premiere Enron.  This play is based on the company of the same name, whose fall in 2001 defined corporate greed run amok.

The play is a very bold experiment in that it presents drama with an absurdist take.  The story component of the play works very, very well.  This is dramatic storytelling that will get you to think, will make you angry, will make you laugh, and will make you shake your heads at those who worship at the altar of cash.  The absurd parts of the play are a bit of hit and miss.  Velociraptors, blind mice, two headed monsters, and bullying puppets are just some of the oddities making appearances in this show.  As peculiar as it may seem, it still manages to stay grounded in reality, thanks to top notch directing from Kimberly Faith Hickman and her troupe of performers.

Enron contains a Greek chorus who deserve a rousing round of applause for their stellar work.  Each cast member always stays within the moment and adds unique spices to flavor the performance.  Special kudos go out to Danielle Smith and Raydell Cordell III for some brilliant character acting in multiple roles as well as Riley Perez, who is sweet, haunting, and exudes a stage confidence far beyond her years in the role of Jeffrey Skilling’s daughter.

Matthew Pyle admirably carries the load of this play as Jeffrey Skilling, the disgraced CEO of Enron.  In Pyle’s capable hands, he manages to imbue a certain charm into Skilling, who is a thoroughly unlikable man.  He’s arrogant and not a people person, but he is full of ideas and that is what ultimately dooms him.  An avid devotee of mark to market, the theory that companies can define their own profits based on potential future earnings, Pyle’s Skilling builds Enron up to the pinnacle of success on a foundation of hope and belief.  However, the grim reality that Enron is not profitable compels Skilling to unethically hide the debt in order to keep the company strong and his pockets lined.

Pyle really gets to shine in Act II as his empire crumbles around him.  Pyle’s expressions and nimble nuances beautifully depict the fall of a man who has never known defeat.  Even worse, they depict a man so used to being treated as a god, that he truly doesn’t understand what he has done to the mere mortals who worked under him as their life savings evaporate in the midst of Enron’s chaotic collapse.

Chris Shonka matches Pyle’s performance step for step with his epic rendition of Andy Fastow, Enron’s CFO.  As unlikable as Skilling is, Fastow is even worse as he is little more than a sycophantic, antisocial, weaselly misanthrope determined to obtain the top financial position at Enron.  Shonka is sensational as he portrays Fastow as a less than suave, yet financially savvy man who develops the means to hide Enron’s crushing debt.  Shonka easily transitions from supreme confidence to cowardly jellyfish when he sells out Skilling to save his own hide and callously demands to be recognized as a hero for his actions.

Connie Lee is also outstanding as Claudia Roe, a fictitious high powered executive created for the play.  Lee’s Roe is not nearly as bad as Skilling and Fastow.  She’s more soiled than rotten. Ms Lee presents Roe as a politician, a showman, and a very powerful woman used to getting her own way.  Yet she also ingrains Roe with a tender humanity.  She really believes in Enron and only wants to make the company strong in its original market of gas and oil.  Ironically, her department, which is constantly whittled down after Skilling is named CEO, is the only one to produce a profit.

Paul Schneider gives a shockingly sympathetic and underplayed performance as Kenneth Lay, the founder of Enron.  Schneider’s Lay is the least villainous character in the show.  He is genuinely a good man whose only crime seems to be trusting Skilling and appears to be completely unaware of the shenanigans going on behind the scenes in his company.  But Schneider also subtly plants a hint of doubt into Lay’s complete innocence in Act II when he suggests that he does know that something shady is going on behind the scenes.  He simply chooses not to pursue the matter further.

This evening’s performance did have some difficulties with volume and line bobbles, but these did not detract from the wonderful show.  Superior directing, sharp acting, a marvelous, sterile set by Jim Othuse, and a neat score by Lindsay Jones make Enron an excellent season premiere for the Omaha Playhouse’s 90th season.

Enron plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 14.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The show contains strong language and an adult situation and is not recommended for children.  Tickets cost $36 ($22 for students).  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

 

I’ve Gotta Get Back Inn Time

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After a busy month, I was more than ready to answer the call of the road again.  So it was that I found myself traveling the highways and byways of our great country to the little town of Greenfield, IA and the Back Inn Time.

Before I entered Greenfield, I made a stop about 15 miles outside of town so I could take a look at the famed Freedom Rock.  The Freedom Rock is a massive boulder that is painted with new patriotic messages every year by its owner, a local farmer.  It really is a very patriotic and inspiring piece of Americana.

The Freedom Rock

The Freedom Rock

Looking at this rock reminded me of how great this country of ours is and deepened my appreciation of the grand gift of freedom that we share.  With my good mood further bolstered by looking at the Freedom Rock, I got back into my car and drove into the town of Greenfield.

I don’t know why, but I liked Greenfield from the moment my car rolled into town.  It just had a peaceful quality that’s hard to describe.  I almost felt as if I had gone back in time to a simpler point in the past.  I drove around town and made my way to the town square so I could do a little exploring.

Greenfield is known for having a few historical buildings.  As I walked around the square I got to enjoy the architecture of the Adair County Courthouse, the Warren Cultural Center (formerly an opera house!!), and the Hotel Greenfield, an actual 5 star hotel that is back in business after having been completely restored several years ago.  If architecture isn’t your thing, there is also an antique car museum in the square.

Adair County Courthouse

Adair County Courthouse

Hotel Greenfield

Hotel Greenfield

After wandering around, I decided to grab a sandwich and head on over to some walking trails so I could commune with nature, read, and relax away the afternoon.  My directions told me to turn on this road called S Town Line, so I did and the road was your typical country road until I got about a quarter of the way down the hill.  At that point, the hill became a squishy mass of mud.  By the time my car reached it, I had no room to turn around, couldn’t go in reverse, and couldn’t go forward.  I was, in a word, stuck.

I carefully exited my car and hiked back into town.  I went to the first home I came across and rang the doorbell.  I was greeted by a friendly elderly woman and I explained my situation, so she gave me the phone number of a guy who could tow me out, warning me that he’d charge me an arm and a leg (this will be important later).  She then said her husband might be able to help me, but he was out feeding the horses and wouldn’t be back for 45 minutes.  I left her my cell number, hiked back to my car, ate my sandwich, read, and told myself that it could have been a lot worse.  It was a nice day at the very least.

Forty five minutes later, I got the call and I told the elderly woman where I was on the hill.  When they learned my location, the husband said he didn’t think his pickup would be much use in extricating me from the glop.  I thanked them for their time and called the tow guy, Alvin.

Alvin said he would get a chain and a tractor and that it would cost $85 plus tax to yank me out.  I began to hike into town to find an ATM so I could get enough cash to pay him, but ended up running into Alvin as I was walking into town.  I suddenly remembered that I did have my checkbook on me and asked if he took checks.  He said he did and I breathed a sigh of relief.  I climbed onto the tractor and he gave me a lift back to me car.

Alvin hooked the chains to my car and I started it up and put it into neutral.  Slowly, agonizingly, the tractor slowly pulled my car back to the main road.  I started rummaging around for an ink pen, but I didn’t have one and, unfortunately, neither did Alvin.  I was just about to offer Alvin my laptop as collateral so I could hike back to the person who originally helped me so I could borrow a pen to write a check when a miracle took place.

Alvin took a look at me and said, “You know something, buddy.  This is your day.  I’m not going to charge you.”  I was stunned!  I pulled out my wallet and insisted that he take something for his time.  He shook his head, shook my hand, and went on his way.  So I just want to take a moment and thank Alvin for the good turn he did me.  And if you need a tow in Greenfield, give Alvin’s Towing a call.  He will treat you right.

Well, my car looked like it had been through a mud wrestling match, but seemed none the worse for wear.  I returned to the town square where I spent an hour reading the adventures of Ellery Queen, then I made my way to the Back Inn Time.

I was greeted by the delightful owners, Ruth and Wayne Henderson, who utterly encapsulate the words “hospitable” and “friendly”.  Ruth showed me around the home and led me to the Fern Room, my temporary home away from home.  The soft green paint of the walls combined with the sleep number mattress (meaning I could make it firmer or softer at the click of a button) guaranteed a good night’s sleep.

I liked this inn at first sight.  It had quite a bit of character, surrounded by two lush gardens, and had a beautiful back deck with a koi pond.  Now this was a good, old fashioned bed and breakfast.  The house was sprawling, had unique rooms, and a shared bathroom. It also had that distinct feeling of pure Americana, like Grandma’s house.

The Fern Room

The Fern Room

The Antiques Room

The Antiques Room

The Lincoln Room

The Lincoln Room

After relaxing for a bit, I made my to a worship service at St John’s Catholic Church and followed it up with dinner at the Olive Branch in the town square.  The hospitality of the citizenry of Greenfield continued to amaze me as an elderly lady whom I had noticed at church came over to my table and welcomed me to the town, telling me that it was good to have me at church.  I replied that it had been good to be there.

For my supper I enjoyed a gyro dinner which included the gyro meat, bread, and sauce along with fresh vegetables and salad.  After savoring every tasty bite for over an hour, I returned to Back Inn Time where I had a lovely conversation with Ruth and Wayne about our travels.  They enjoyed my talking about the House on the Rock so much that they’ve now decided to go to the Wisconsin Dells next week to visit it themselves.

After two hours of talk, I retired to my room where I sunk myself into the old fashioned clawfoot tub for a long hot bath.  Afterwards, I collapsed onto the electronically softened mattress in my room where I had a peaceful night’s rest.

Breakfast today was an absolute delight as I continued my conversations with Wayne and Ruth over pineapple juice, water, sausage, and waffles topped with cream, cinnamon, and fruit.  Another two hours later, I reluctantly said my good-byes, promising I would stay there again if I happened to be in the neighborhood.

In fact you should stay there too, if you find yourself around Greenfield.  It’s a friendly town with friendly people like Ruth and Wayne.  They’ll make you feel like one of the family and you’ll feel at home.