Not exactly a theatre tale, but the link below will take you to the Musing show I performed in on Oct 26. I’m number three, but every story is a great one.
Category Archives: theatre tales
The Night I Returned
Well, I’ll be dipped, I actually have another theatre tale for you.
As you may remember, I finally got my theatre mojo back after it being in abeyance for quite a while. Of course, in true comedic fashion, the universe decided to answer my renewed mojo by either not having plays with suitable roles for me or the double whammy of having the rear end of my car redesigned by a truck and the conflict of my annual Christmas B & B review interfering with shows that did.
Then fate finally tossed me a bone.
Last year, BlueBarn Theatre began a new series called Musing which is a storytelling series where people (not necessarily actors) tell a true story based on the theme of the night. The series has been wildly successful with routine full houses. Now I’ve lived a story or two, but I knew this one would be dynamite for the show once the proper theme night was available.
In August, Musing announced that two sessions would be held during the 2022-2023 season and the theme for both would be Storyteller’s Choice.
I contacted Seth Fox, Musing’s curator, and sent him the link to Devastation for a pitch. In less than an hour, I had a reply from him saying that he loved the story and that he had a spot open in the October session and offered it to me. I accepted without batting an eye.
While not a role, it was my first performance in a very long time and I was glad that I’d be sharing the tale of my audition for The Elephant Man. For starters, we had just passed the 20th anniversary of that audition so it seemed a bit of poetic justice to commemorate it in some way. But more importantly, it was the most honest and dramatic work I could present.
I’ve had a pretty good body of work, but, in my regular acting days, I got typed/perceived/what have you as a light-hearted actor. Don’t get me wrong. I love doing comedy and bits and I enjoy watching them. But my first love in theatre has always been dramas and my dramatic moments on the stage have been few and far between.
So if Musing was going to begin a regular return to the stage, it was important to me to be able to present myself in a new light so that those who knew me would see me differently and to introduce myself to those who only know me as the writer in the boldest way possible.
So I went about cutting my story down to the 10-12 minutes I would need for Musing and began to polish it up. I started performing it simply so I could get a feel for the words. Then I started preparing it the way I knew best: as an actor. I added the emotion and interpretation and began shaping it into a performance piece.
Now the preparation for Musing was closer to reader’s theatre. Seth and I met twice virtually to work on my story and then we had 2 full group rehearsals before the performance.
Our first group meeting was at Sozo’s Coffeehouse where Seth had rented a study room and we presented our stories publicly (more or less) for the first time.
Other storytellers were Ralph Kellogg who had a moving and brutally honest story of how he dealt with a most unwelcome houseguest; Teresa Conway had the funniest story of the group with how she took an advanced ballet class with a group of kids; local beat poet, Fernando Antonio Montejano, kept eyes pinned to him with his well spokentale about returning to his hometown for the funeral of his sister, Bianca; and Sara Strattan closed things with the sweet, but sad, tale about her relationship with her husband who had died from cancer.
All of them did a wonderful job with only minor changes needed. I just loved their honesty and their sincerity and it just reached out and grabbed you.
Then there was me.
No, no, I’m not about to beat myself up. But I presented the story through the lens of an actor. And, as a performance piece, it wasn’t too shabby. But it was the wrong take.
I remember my late friend, Kay McGuigan, once saying my acting style reminded her of Val Kilmer due to its intensity. I never really understood that until after I did this piece, but I finally got it. I do put serious oomph into my performances which makes for good acting. But acting was not what was needed here.
Seth told me to take Kevin’s advice of not being so earnest and to tell the story as if I were telling it to friends over coffee. With those words and the vision of the works of the others flashing through my mind, my path lit up clear as day.
There was no need to enhance the emotion of the story. It was there, naturally. I didn’t need to perform the story, I just simply needed to tell it.
I literally got into my car and did the story again, but removed the theatre from it. And I knew I had something magical. I chuckled at the way life seemed to be repeating itself. Back in 2002, Kay had helped me get Merrick on the correct course. Now with Seth’s mentoring, a story about Merrick was now set on the proper course.
Each time I practiced my piece from thenceforth, I could feel the momentum building and I was ready for the dress rehearsal on Monday.
On Monday, it was a completely different ballgame. I felt the power of the simple delivery and when I wrapped up, I knew I had struck pay dirt with the entranced looks and thumbs up coming from my fellow readers. Seth’s compliment of, “That was some great fine tuning” left me with a profound feeling of satisfaction.
Then came the real deal.
The one downside to the whole process was how little bonding time I had with these people. Still we did have a sense of camaraderie as we all shared the same vision of blowing the socks off the audience with our tales. We did enjoy a little fun time as Sara and Teresa battled Ralph and myself in the game, I Should Have Known That. (We lost).
Then it was time to go to work. Seth had changed the lineup. Originally, I was to be the fourth reader, but ended up swapping places with Fernando to become the third reader and the flow made perfect sense. Most of our stories were heart tuggers, but there was definitely a different energy and feel to each. Ralph’s tale was a hard hitting intro that segued into Teresa’s lighthearted fare. I became the bridge from Teresa to Fernando as my piece was certainly sad, but ends on a positive note. From there Fernando broke the hearts of the audience while Sara certainly had the audience sobbing, but its sweetness helped to buoy them.
For my own work, I was extremely pleased. I don’t normally take much stock in my own voice, but this time it was like a part of me disengaged and I heard myself telling the story as I was telling the story and I thought, “Dang, this is gripping.” It was the storytelling equivalent of forgetting I was acting which is the peak that an actor can hit. I had forgotten I was telling the story. I was that lost in it.
All too soon, it seemed like the show had come to an end. We took our final bows in front of a standing ovation, mingled with the audience, took a group photo, and went our separate ways.
My only regret of the night is that we couldn’t do it a few more times, but I was glad for the brief time and truly enjoyed my return to the stage.
The good news for those you reading this who now wish they could have seen it, you will get your wish. The show was recorded and I shall be posting the link to the Corner once the show is posted.
Until the next time.
It’s been a long time since I’ve pumped out one of these. But the pandemic ground my auditioning to a standstill so I haven’t had material with which to work. But I did have one doozy of a tale at the height of the pandemic. A story of rejuvenation.
This year marks an anniversary for me. Mid-July will mark the twentieth anniversary of my audition for The Elephant Man. For those of you unfamiliar with that saga, click here.
At the end of that tale, I had mentioned my belief that God used the play to pull me out of the depression from which I’d been suffering. Little did I know He’d use it again to galvanize me.
One of the last theatre tales I wrote was to address the question of when would I be on stage again. I answered honestly, but I had real time to further analyze that question during the pandemic with the sudden plethora of time I had on my hands.
When I did Leaving Iowa, I finally believed fully in my acting prowess. Even better, I was now able to audition with a greater sense of freedom since I could enjoy being in the moment instead of worrying about whether or not I’d get cast.
Though I was now enjoying the freedom of the audition, the reality was that my fortunes didn’t change all that much. Granted, I was auditioning much less, but I was back to giving great auditions, but unable to land parts. In fact, I’ve only performed twice in the last 9 years and the gap separating those two performances was 5 ½ years.
I no longer doubted my ability to act, but I did start to doubt my ability to get cast. An x factor over which no performer has control.
I was starting to wonder, in my heart of hearts, whether or not my storytelling days were done and if my future involvement would solely be dedicated to writing. I didn’t have any sadness as I could look back on my body of work with a sense of satisfaction, but I did have a sense of melancholy as I felt I had sped through the five stages of acting.
1. Who’s Chris Elston?
2. Get me Chris Elston.
3. Get me a young Chris Elston.
4. Get me a Chris Elston type.
5. Who’s Chris Elston?
In my case, I felt I had skipped steps two and three. And, yet, I also couldn’t say people were asking “Who’s Chris Elston?” The Corner made me an ever present name in theatre. It’s just that I was now far better known for my writing than I ever was for my acting.
But in recent times I began to hear that question more and more. “When are we going to see you on stage again?”
One night I was pondering that question when I was suddenly struck by a powerful desire to break out my copy of The Elephant Man which I hadn’t looked at since the night of the audition back in 2002.
I scooted my coffee table out of the way. Then, purely for my own enjoyment, I began acting out scenes from the play. When I finished, I sank into my couch with a deep sense of satisfaction.
My time as a storyteller was not quite finished yet. Maybe it was just getting started or restarted as the case may be.
This feeling has only continued to grow as theatre has begun to regain some sense of normalcy. I can feel my creativity surging through my veins again. I genuinely want to be back on stage again.
So I don’t know when I’m going to be back on stage again, but I firmly believe it will be soon because I know this much.
I am ready.
The Purpose of an Audition
What is the purpose of an audition?
“To get the role,” I hear you say. But, no. That’s the hope of an audition.
The purpose of an audition is simply to be memorable. For if you are memorable, directors will want to see you again and, sooner or later, will want to work with you.
So how is one memorable? It begins from the moment you enter the audition locale.
- Always be polite.
–Politeness pays. From the moment you walk in the door you are always under observation. Believe me, if you’re rude or obnoxious or a bad sport, that word will get to the ears of the casting agents/directors and you will be dead before you start. Be sure to thank your accompanist and the casting agents/directors. Be gracious to the other auditioners. Little things go a long way.
I earned my second role through politeness. I knew from the beginning that it certainly wasn’t because of my chops as the audition was lousy. But the director told me that my genuine interest in the show combined with my friendliness is what made him decide to give me a bit part.
- Always keep in mind that this is a showcase, not a competition.
–I can’t stress this one enough as it was the lesson that took me the longest to learn. For years I treated auditions as a competition. For me, it was simple. If I were the best reader for a part, logically I should get that part.
Boy, was I wrong about that.
When a director casts a show, he or she is piecing together a puzzle and attempting to build something that suits her or his vision of the story. Your acting is the one and only thing you get to control and that amounts to about 1% in the casting process. As such, you can be the worst performer in the room as I certainly was in the previous example and somehow get a part. Or you can be on the opposite side and lap the others several times and still somehow not get cast.
But, if you’re good, you’ll be remembered. And if you’re remembered, you’ll get cast eventually.
- Trust your instincts.
–Everybody is going to see a character differently. The actors, the director, the stage manager, the costume designer, everyone is going to have a different idea about a character. So just go full steam ahead with your take on the role. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ask questions about the character if you need some clarity. But don’t be worried about trying to match your character to the director’s vision. When the whole begins to come together, that vision is likely to change many times over before the final result.
The final show I auditioned for in college before I graduated was called Death of a Blind, Old Man, a modernized take on Oedipus at Colonus. At the audition, I noted that everyone reading for Oedipus played him strongly as if he were still the mighty warrior before his life was blasted. My instinct ran completely the other direction and I broke him in two. I read him as a frightened, beaten old man. Without question, it was one of the two best reads I ever had in college and while I didn’t make the cut, I was darn proud of the read. And that’s the feeling you want to have when you finish a read.
- Be bold.
–This goes hand in hand with trusting your instincts. Time and again I’ve seen actors (not to mention myself) hold back because they’re afraid of making a mistake. That’s the surest way to destroy your creativity.
This is an audition. There’s no such thing as a mistake. I’ll repeat that. This is an audition. There’s no such thing as a mistake.
Your view of the character may be completely off the wall and off the mark, but if you’re bold and brave about that choice, the director may very well step in and give you some direction and if you then make that change based off the direction, you will look brilliant. What the director is more concerned about is your ability to make a strong choice, not necessarily the “correct” choice.
Years ago, I auditioned for The Elephant Man and I was reading a monologue for the character of Dr. Treves. At this point in the show, he was feeling incredibly guilty and despondent about making the title character a freak again, albeit a high class one. He’s trying to explain to the bishop his feelings, but doesn’t quite know how to spit it out.
Now I saw the character as heading towards a breakdown and I attacked the read as such. I mean I read the monologue with an impassioned desperation.
Was it the right trek? No. But I was so bold about the choice that the director stepped in and had me make a massive adjustment. So I went from nearly cracking up to quietly shaming myself. He loved the changes and I looked like a million bucks.
No, I didn’t get in the show, but the director has never forgotten me.
- Keep perspective.
By this I mean, don’t fall apart at the seams if you thought your audition sucked or if you thought it was brilliant and didn’t get in. . .at least not publicly. Take your moment to be sad privately. Punch out a pillow. Scream to the fields. Do whatever you need to get the feeling out and then let it go. But remain professional until you can get to that private place.
There’s a lot of rejection in this field and, as clichéd as it sounds, there truly is always another show. I openly admit that in my early days, rejection gnawed on me like a hungry dog enjoying a tasty bone. Auditions were almost life and death and it always felt like a shotgun blast to my stomach when I wasn’t cast.
Even when I got good at the acting side of things, auditions continued to haunt me. But when I finally realized how little control I had over the casting process, I was finally able to let that burden go. Then I got to enjoy myself and became more memorable.
So when you audition, keep your head held high. Be brave. Be bold. BE YOU!! Then you’ll be memorable. You may not get cast every time, but you will get cast sometimes.
Seasons of Returning to My Roots
“When are we going to see you on stage again?”
You’d be surprised at how often I’ve heard that question recently.
“The next time I audition” is what I would like to say, but, as my regular readers have learned, we actors have very little control over when we get our next role.
“When a role I want intersects with a director seeing me in said role,” might be a little closer to the mark, but I still don’t think it’s the right answer. It’s also a mouthful to say.
I have the answer, but I’ll wait until the end to reveal it.
It’s been a while since I’ve had enough tales built up to merit writing an entry, but this season and the close of last season have provided some pretty interesting fare.
It began late last season with auditions for One Man, Two Guvnors over at the Omaha Community Playhouse and guest directed by Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek.
This is a modern day rewrite of A Servant of Two Masters and tells the story of Francis Henshall, a minder (British slang for bodyguard), lackey, and all around gofer for two criminals and his desperate shenanigans to prevent the two bosses from ever meeting.
There was only one role I really wanted in this show and that was Alan Dangle, a wannabe actor who is constantly on and a pretty poor performer to boot. With a lot of Omaha’s finest auditioning for this one, I figured there would be a lot of good playing around at this audition.
While that may have been true, it simply wasn’t going to be true for me. My instincts were on target. A sad pity that my execution was not. The vision in my head did not match the interpretation coming out of my mouth. I had stumbled getting out of the gate and never managed to regain lost ground.
I didn’t even hold a faint glimmer of hope about this one. I actually had a weird sense of satisfaction being able to look into a mirror and saying, “Hey, buddy. That one was all on you” after I got the rejection. After years of being rejected for reasons other than my prowess, it was almost refreshing to know I was the cause of my own downfall.
Then came this season. My defeat in One Man, Two Guvnors was a return to my roots in the wrong way albeit an oddly satisfying wrong, but now I was getting back to the right way with the most auditions I had done in quite a long time.
I would begin with the OCP’s season premiere of Sweat which would be guest directed by Susie Baer-Collins.
Sweat is inspired by the story of Reading, Pennsylvania. This steel mill town went from being one of the most prosperous in the country to one of the poorest due to the Great Recession. The play focuses on the employees of a steel mill and the bar where they enjoy hanging out. The steel mill employees are lifers looking towards fat pensions at their retirements. When the recession strikes, the employees go from looking at lucrative pensions to unemployment. As things go from bad to worse, tensions rise and racism rears its ugly face until the show’s devastating conclusion.
Now this sounded like a great show. But I was up against stiff circumstances. There were only roles for 2 Caucasian actors and I fell right in between their ages. The younger one was completely out of the question. Even with my unusually youthful features, my hair and hairline were going to put me out of the running. However, I hoped they might prove helpful in playing the older man who was suggested to be in his fifties, but I was hoping that maybe he could be bought as a man in his mid to late 40s at a push.
That idea was quickly blasted when I read the line that stated he had been on the floor for 28 years before an injury ended his mill career. I still had fun with the read as it was a different character from my real personality: rougher and coarser. I think I even stunned Susie a bit with my take as she looked at me with a surprised look in her eyes as she walked me out of the room and said, “Good job!” with a bit of wonderment in her voice.
To no shock at all, I wasn’t cast.
Next on my list was the Blue Barn Christmas show, A Very Die Hard Christmas which would mark my first audition with the theatre and Susan Clement-Toberer in five years.
Believe it or not, I have never seen Die Hard in its entirety, though I have seen enough of it to know the story. Not that it mattered because the character I wanted to play was original to the script and that was the Narrator.
Imagine a role where you just rattle off variations of Twas the Night Before Christmas, sing at inappropriate moments, and just react to the lunacy going on around you while being somewhat separate from it. This would be a role of great fun.
Even better, the Blue Barn was planning something a bit different this time. Not only did they want you to sign up for an audition time, but they were encouraging actors to bring monologues. At last!! The moment for which I had been waiting.
I’ve long kept a secret weapon for just this opportunity. A monologue from one of my favorite plays that’s guaranteed to make any director who knows me see me in a brand new way. To make sure the monologue would be in top form, I revealed the weapon to my friend and ace director, Lara Marsh, who spent an afternoon helping me to polish and refine it. I was even amazed by the new discoveries made during the process.
The day of the audition arrived and I was practically bursting with excitement though I kept a cool exterior. I arrived in plenty of time for my 3pm audition which allowed me to engage in some small talk with friends and acquaintances and then the auditions started. Though I had been expecting to read at 3pm, I didn’t actually get to read until 4:10pm. But the extra time gave me an opportunity to run through my monologue again and center myself.
When I was on deck to audition, I was handed a side for the Narrator by Blue Barn’s dramaturg, Barry Carman. I was surprised as I thought they wanted monologues. But I figured I’d be asked about it once I got inside.
I entered the theatre and met a group consisting of Susan, Susie Baer-Collins, Barry, and Hughston Walkinshaw who would be playing the role of Hans Gruber in the play. I nailed the read to the floor, managing to infuse a bit of my sheepish humor into the character. Susan said, “That was really awesome, Chris (pause as she thinks for a moment). I may or may not be having callbacks for this one. But you know how things run here and you know I know you” before thanking me for coming. For a brief moment, I thought I should ask if she would like to hear the monologue, but I pushed it aside, deciding that the idea must have been scrapped. I was happy with my read and thought I had a good chance based on its strength.
In hindsight, I wish I had obeyed my instinct.
That Friday, I had a thoroughly wretched day. I mean it was foul! When I got home, I started to open my mailbox and stopped. I just had this terrible notion that my day was about to end on an awfully sour note. I told God that I feared my rejection was in there and asked if it were possible to please hold off for one day if I was rejected just so I could end the day somewhat easier in mind.
I opened the mailbox and saw one letter. I grabbed it and slowly turned it to face me to see the Blue Barn stationery.
I exhaled a mighty sigh. I really didn’t want to open the envelope, but did in the faint hopes that maybe it would be a personalized rejection to help cushion the blow. It wasn’t.
“That’s it. I’m going to bed,” I thought to myself.
I admit it. This one got to me. I really wanted to be part of this project and thought I had a good chance of being involved and the rapidity of my defeat got me in the breadbasket. As I laid down on my bed, I wondered what might have happened had I brought up the monologue. Getting to perform it may not have altered the result. Heck, I may not have even been permitted to read it. But, in either case, at least I would have known that I had my biggest and best bite at the apple as dictated by the circumstances. On the plus side, I do have it in my back pocket for the future.
My next audition (more than likely, my last of the season) was a real return to my roots. It marked my first audition for the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company in. . .I couldn’t tell you how long. It also marked my first audition for Scott Kurz since he originally read me for Dracula all the way back in 2003.
BSB’s holiday show was going to be a night of one acts capped with an original version of The Monsters are Due on Maple Street which was being reimagined by Scott. I was looking forward to this one as I’m a big fan of the works of Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone.
My audition night came and I was up for the game and feeling good. I shook Scott’s hand and began filling out the audition form. As I scanned the top, I did a double take. I looked away and blinked. Then I looked at the form again.
According to the website the show was supposed to end on December 15, but the form said the last day was going to be Dec 22. I asked Scott if the dates had been changed. He said there had been an issue scheduling the show with the venue holding it and it had to be pushed back a week. Internally, I crumbled. I had to sheepishly admit that I had to fly out to Phoenix at 8am on Dec 22. Scott seemed just as bummed as I felt. I offered to stay as an extra body so Scott could have another reader and he thought that was a good idea.
With no stakes to speak of, my reads lacked the full power of my heart. Not to say they were bad. On the contrary, technically I was solid. There were a few characters that didn’t feel quite right, but I loved my takes on Tommy who I reimagined as an autistic man and as the mysterious boss figure to whom I gave a quiet malevolence and a slight edge of insanity.
Scott had said he’d send e-mails out by the end of the week, but it ended up being two weeks later. A lot had changed in that interim as Scott had informed us that The Twilight Zone was experiencing another burst in popularity and ten classic episodes were being released to the big screen in November, one of which was “Monsters”. As such, CBS would not release performance rights.
Scott spent that two weeks searching for a new show and found it, but wanted to ask if actors still wanted to be part of it. Due to my inescapable conflict, I formally took myself out of the running though I suspect my conflict had outed me anyway.
And so my season has come to an end. It didn’t quite work out the way I planned, but it did open the doors to pleasurable non-theatre activities that would not have been possible had I been doing one of the Christmas shows. And, of course, it raises the question:
“When are we going to see you on stage again?”
When the time is right.
A Season of Deja Vu
Déjà vu: The sensation that you are doing something that you have done before.
It’s almost eerie how much this season mirrored the last one. Like last year, it ended quite early and I only was able to audition for a couple of shows.
This season actually began unusually early. Back in March, to be precise.
I had attended the Omaha Playhouse’s announcement of the 2017-18 season and they announced the season premiere would also be a world premiere as they would kick off with an original play called Eminent Domain written by local actress/playwright, Laura Leininger-Campbell. They further announced that the auditions for this show would take place the next week as the actors would be helping to refine the show.
I managed to get a PDF of the script from Laura and found it to be a fascinating read. The play explores themes of family with the framing device of a Nebraska farm family being threatened by an oil company claiming eminent domain to annex part of their property to lay a pipeline.
I was especially drawn to the character of the autistic Evan MacLeod whom I found to be a deep well of character acting. I spent the next week taking a crash course in autism in order to properly present my take on Evan.
When I went to the auditions next week, I found that Laura’s play had really struck a chord with the community. It seems as if the entire theatre community had come out to audition. Not only was I up against some of the brightest names in Omaha theatre, but I was also up against much of the original cast who had been part of the show back when it was a staged reading.
My old shipmate, Frank Insolera, was one of the hopefuls and we started catching up on old times. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Christina Rohling, whom you might remember as the director of Elephant’s Graveyard and A Heavy Rain, heading in our direction. Frank and I reached a pause in our conversation and both looked her way.
Addressing me, she said, “I just want you to know that you made my job (for Elephant’s Graveyard) very difficult. It just came down to the 2 different energy levels between you and the guy I chose.”
Once more, I felt that strange mixture of pride and melancholy as I added another story to my ever growing pile of “good” rejections. It only lasted for a moment as I thanked her for the compliment and then found out I would actually be reading with her when I made my stab at Evan.
Christina also happens to be one of the top talents in Omaha, so I was glad for the opportunity to bounce ideas of the scene as I explained to her my vision of Evan. She seemed surprised at my attention to detail as she said, “It sounds like you’ve done some serious homework.”
We walked into the conference room on the 2nd floor of the Playhouse under the scrutinizing eyes of director Amy Lane and Laura. Christina and I sat on the floor and I immediately started becoming Evan. From my research, I decided that Evan was on the more severe side of the autism spectrum and had developed physicality and vocal patterns to suit that. I adopted an awkward sitting position as I twisted my legs together and thrust my right hand between them, resting my hand on my left knee. I slightly tilted my head and avoided any eye contact with Christina. I also adopted a monotone, sing-song cadence for my speech.
I was actually extremely pleased with my take and felt as if I were hitting the right notes. It also ended up being my best bite at the apple as my second read was for a different character who didn’t have a lot to do in that side.
Intellectually, I knew that I was up against a formidable challenge, but I still hoped against hope that I mustered up enough magic for a callback.
Alas, that hope was dashed shortly afterwards.
For the first time in a long while, I really felt the bitter disappointment of defeat. I was surprised, yet not surprised at the same time. With the extra effort I had put into it and with the full power of my heart behind it, I think it would have been more of a surprise had I not felt stung by the rejection. And, of course, the lack of a callback made me wonder, “Did my efforts make any sort of an impact?”
Nowadays, I don’t dwell on those moments for long and I was quickly back to my old self.
I would next read for the staged readings of Angels in America and In the Heat of the Night, but there isn’t much of a story there. Solid reads and no casting. Que sera, sera.
Then came Ripcord.
I knew that I had to read for this show from the moment I read the synopsis. The thrust of the story is that Abby and Marilyn share a room at the nursing home. Abby had had the room to herself for a long while and wasn’t particularly keen on getting a new roommate. Even worse, Marilyn’s sunshiney nature really grates on Abby’s curmudgeonly personality. When Marilyn claims never to get angry and Abby claims never to get scared, the two women make a bet. If Abby can anger Marilyn, Marilyn will get another room so Abby can be on her own again. But if Marilyn can scare Abby, then Marilyn gets Abby’s bed because she likes it better than hers. The result is an increasingly dangerous game of one-upsmanship.
There were 3 roles for men which included the nurse, Scotty, and two character actors who would play 3 distinct characters apiece. I felt a little too old to play Scotty and relished the idea of the two character roles as I would get the rare opportunity to go completely over the top.
This play would mark my second reading for Kimberly Faith Hickman, the new artistic director of the Omaha Playhouse. The first had been Angels in America.
I was surprised when my first side was for Scotty, but figured it was because not many men showed up to that first day of auditions. Then I stepped inside the dance hall and it happened.
I felt the magic.
This was my most enjoyable audition in several years. I didn’t care about getting cast. I just wanted to go in and have some fun and I did just that. I understood Scotty from the get-go and felt strong as I read the role.
When I finished the read and went back outside, I was given a side for one of the character actors. After reading this side, I have come to the conclusion that I must project a natural aura of niceness as my side was for one of the regular roles performed by the character actors. I actually felt a twinge of disappointment as I had been hoping to sink my teeth into one of the broader sides.
Not that the side I had was dull, but it was the same type of character I often find myself reading for and I just wanted to show that I could do more than essentially play myself.
Imagine my surprise when I was asked to stick around for a third read. Once more I read as Scotty and varied my performance a bit from the first read. After this read, I was let go, but there was also only one more group to read after I had finished.
Needless to say, I had quite a bit of hope as it had been ages since I had been at an audition from start to finish. A few days later, my hope was rewarded when I got the call asking me to come to callbacks where I would be considered for the role of Scotty. I laughed at the irony as the role I thought I had the least chance for ended up being the only role I would be considered for. . .or so I thought.
At the callbacks, I was given a side for Scotty that would FINALLY allow me a chance to go over the top. I felt so giddy, I nearly broke into a soft shoe routine. I had been chomping at the bit for this for eons and I let loose for all I was worth when I read the side. I won’t spoil the scene, but I will say that I unleashed a scream not unlike the one emitted by Daniel Stern when he was mugged by the pigeons in Home Alone 2.
Immediately after finishing the read, Kimberly said, “I know I said I was only considering you for Scotty, but I want you to read this side for Benjamin.”
I was floored by the side. It was a tremendously powerful and poignant scene as Benjamin is the estranged son of Abby and this was a complete 180 from the previous side and I looked forward to performing it.
When I went back in, I gave the most honest and heartfelt read I could muster and was really feeling Benjamin’s angst and heartache. Shortly after this read, I was dismissed.
A few days later, I found an e-mail waiting for me from Kimberly. The fact of the e-mail told me I did not make it in, but the fact that it was from the director told me that it was also something more. I opened it up and read the following message:
I wanted to personally thank you for attending auditions and callbacks for RIPCORD. I really enjoyed watching you and your work throughout the process. This was a very difficult play to cast as so many talented people came to the auditions. I ended up going with another actor for the roles of Scotty/Benjamin, but I wanted to let you know of that decision from me personally rather than a general notification e-mail. I also want to encourage you to continue auditioning at OCP. You have tremendous talent and I look forward to the next opportunity we may have to work together.
I was proud of this message and moved it to my scrapbook. I had no regrets and had thoroughly enjoyed myself and I had made an impact. You can’t ask for more than that.
We’ll talk again next season.
A Season Most Short
I had once planned to call this year’s story series “A Season of Renewal”, but life had other ideas as it’s actually become my shortest season in history.
Picking up from our last tale, Lost Boy Found In Whole Foods continued its critical success into that year’s Playhouse Awards. All of my actors were nominated for acting prizes which certainly made me proud with my first dip into the directing side of things. We ended up taking home 4 prizes (Best Featured Actor, Best Supporting Actor & Actress, and Best Cameo by an Actress).
Success followed us to that year’s TAG Awards where Lara Marsh took home the Best Director prize in a three way tie. I’ve laid claim to the left big toe of the statuette.
Broadway World Awards were next on the list where we ended up taking Best Actor, Director, Supporting Actress & Actor, and Best Set Design (Large Theatre). I truly was blessed to have been involved with such an astounding production.
But for my own little endeavors as a performer, it was a long wait for my next audition. In fact, my first audition for the season took place only a month ago. It had been a year and a half since my last audition, the longest amount of time that had ever passed between attempts.
I auditioned for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Omaha Playhouse under the direction of Jeff Horger. The film version is one of my favorite westerns and it’s a powerful story of a man standing on principle against the law of the gun.
For those of you familiar with the film, the play is quite a bit different than you may expect. The play more closely resembles the short story with which the film took quite a few liberties. Characters have different names. Some characters in the film aren’t present in the play. The language is a bit stronger. Valance is considerably more intelligent. The play is also quite a bit talkier.
My choices were pretty limited. Originally I had been interested in the roles of Ransome Foster (played by Jimmy Stewart under the name Ransome Stoddard in the film) and Dutton Peabody, the newspaperman (played by Edmund O’Brien in the film). There isn’t a Peabody character in the play so that went out. That left me with either Foster or the Marshal. Valance didn’t enter my mind as I don’t have the look of a stone cold killer. Foster was even a long shot as most of the characters in the show were supposed to be in their mid twenties. While I still look younger than I am in the face, my hairline and hair color more readily reveal the truth that I am about to turn 40 in a few months.
From the start, I felt there was something off about this read. From a technical standpoint, I was pretty solid. But the spark of my heart simply wasn’t there. It just felt like I was going through the motions. For the first time in years, I walked out of an audition without the glimmer of hope that I had a chance and that ended up being the case. Given that most of the primary cast is in their mid twenties, I take some solace in the fact that even a top flight audition might not have netted me a role.
I actually had my last audition for the season earlier this week. I received an invitation from Christina Belford-Rohling to audition for Elephant’s Graveyard, the next reader’s theatre production of the Playhouse’s Alternative Programming series. The play is based on the true story of the lynching of a circus elephant.
I came to the audition and was pleased to see quite a few faces, many of them new to me. I’ve noted that the reader’s theatre productions tend to bring out quite a few people since there is a lot more flexibility in the casting.
Aside from the brief synopsis, I knew nothing about the play so I was open to any character. When I read the character, I felt a pull towards the Ringmaster, Clown, and Preacher.
Let me tell you something. Monday’s audition was the best type of audition. I read the monologue for the clown and the beats just fell into place. I walked into the room and nailed the read. The spark was there and I was truly enjoying myself.
When I finished, Christina said, “Truly excellent. I want you to try something for me.”
Then she brought out a music stand and had me place the monologue on it. She then asked me to actually mime juggling and do the last half of the monologue and really make her feel like I loved that elephant at the end. I had actually envisioned the juggling when I originally read the monologue so this worked out well.
I started juggling and the physicality of it made my read a little more nonchalant. And I switched up the juggling as I spoke, moving from two hands to one back to two, tossing it under my leg, and catching it behind my back. I caught my imaginary balls and delivered the love line which could have been taken a smidge farther.
Christina said, “Really excellent. I don’t think I need to see anymore if that’s all right with you.” I had no problems with that and went home, content with a good read.
Let me tell you something. Monday’s audition was the worst type of audition. Despite an excellent read, I failed to make the cut. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the reward is always in the read. If you read well, you won. The casting really doesn’t matter. It’s just the icing on the cake.
Until the next season.
A Season of Exploration, Part IV: From the Other Side of the Table
Well, it’s been a while since my last theatre tale and this one will actually conclude this season of tales.
As I stated in my last entry, I was going to serve as an Assistant to the Director for Lara Marsh for the Playhouse production of Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods. This was an interesting process from start to finish as Lara actually put me through an orientation of sorts before launching me on the project.
First and foremost, she wanted to know why this particular show because she knows how selective I am about the projects I choose to take on. I’ve always been particularly attracted to scripts that feature great strength of spirit and this play has that in spades in the form of its two leading characters, Christine and Gabriel. Since I had also read for the role of Michael Dolan back when the show was a staged reading, I had enough familiarity with the script to decide it would be a good project to learn the ropes of directing.
My first assignment was to do some background research for the show. As the story centers around helping a young refugee from the Sudanese Civil War, I compiled some research about Sudan, the Sudanese Civil War, Sudanese culture and customs, and Somalia and its culture (due to one of the characters being from that region).
Lara had done a large amount of research as well. Over the past two years Lara had become a living encyclopedia about the Sudan and the Lost Boys in her efforts to bring this show to life. She had mastered the extremely difficult Dinka dialect, had watched a number of documentaries, and read What is the What by Dave Eggers, a very hard to read, but eye opening account of the trek of the Lost Boys through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng who lived through it.
I am a big “devil in the details” type of person and Lara is of a similar bent which is why we worked so well together during this process and saw eye to eye on 98% of things. Some directors prefer actors to have done no prep work before beginning the creative process so they can grow organically. Others want the actors to have read the script before auditioning. But Lara wanted her cast to be well grounded in the history behind this play so they would be able to better develop their characters.
Then came the night of auditions where I got to formally meet Jeanne Shelton, a stage manager I had read in front of on numerous occasions. The auditions were a little less than I hoped for in terms of size. I had secretly hoped for a slew of actors so we could have an overwhelming selection to pick and choose from. We had enough people show up to cast the play with just a little overage. But the lack of quantity was, by and large, made up by the quality shown by the people who did come to audition.
I had once heard it said that a director only needs 15 seconds to determine whether or not he or she is going to cast you. I agree with that to an extent. We may need more than 15 seconds to decide to cast you, but it only takes about 15 seconds to decide not to cast you. And don’t think that means that the audition was bad. I mentally eliminated a couple of people who had great reads immediately simply because they were not suitable for any of our roles.
Fortunately, we were able to cast most of our cast from the auditions. A couple of roles didn’t have enough people audition and those that did were not quite right, so Lara had to find people to fill those roles.
Now we had a cast and could begin the creative process. During the process I learned that directing is a lot more than just handling the artistic side of things. I’m used to coming early and staying late as an actor, but a director needs to be there much earlier than anyone else and must stay much later. Countless details need to be considered like sounds, lights, props, etc.
I even learned that directing has its own political side to get the things one needs for a show to be the best that it can be. One prominent thing I learned is that the season finale in the Playhouse’s smaller theatre is nicknamed the “death slot”.
This isn’t a bad moniker. But this show takes place at the end of the season so a great deal of money has already been spent by this point and there is still the final musical to be produced on the Playhouse’s Main Stage which is going to need a lot of money as they are usually big, lavish affairs. It just means that some strategy and negotiation is necessary for the shows in this slot to get what it needs. Keep in mind that some of the Playhouse’s best shows have taken place in this slot such as Biloxi Blues, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and our little effort which has become a critical darling.
As Assistant to the Director, you may think that my job duties were relegated to getting Lara’s coffee, sharpening her pencils, and being her all around gofer. The reality was that I was closer to an Assistant Director. I gave ideas to Lara and took very copious acting notes for the performers. Lara took me very seriously, often incorporating my ideas into her own notes.
I learned a great deal about directing under Lara’s learning tree. Like acting, directing is also an art because it’s about a lot more than telling actors how to perform. It’s about working with all types of learning curves, temperaments, and experience levels. It’s about knowing where, when, and why to give a note.
As a details guy, I was ready to get into the grit and gristle of things right away. Lara taught me that you have to let the actors experiment at first. Early notes are simple as the performers build the frame of the house. Directors gently guide it so the proper foundation is built. As that confidence grows, the notes become more detailed and nuanced to refine and shape the story.
I would have to say that my favorite directing moment came when I was working on a scene with our lead actress, Julie Fitzgerald Ryan, and Victoria Luther, who was playing her daughter. They were having an argument and Julie’s character has a line where she says, “We’re supposed to be living in circles. Concentric circles. Circles within circles.”
When I heard that line, I said, “Do I dare? Yes, I dare.” Then I asked Victoria to mouth the words along with Julie as I felt her character had heard this speech about a million times. It’s hit the mark every single time.
One thing I’ve noticed about working in this slot is that the rehearsal period seems to be a bit reduced. There’s only about 4 weeks of rehearsal as opposed to the 5 or 6 weeks I’m used to. That means rehearsals almost every day for 4 to 5 hours at a clip to get where we need to be.
So fast forward to preview night. I hadn’t been so nervous for a show since my first one. What will the audience think? Will they love it? Will they hate it? Will they ride me out of town on a rail?
I wait with baited breath until the end of the show and the audience rose to its feet for a standing ovation. I breathe a sigh of relief. One hurdle crossed.
Now it’s opening night. The extra real deal, as it were. The cast came out all guns a blazing and just nailed it to the floor. Every review (5 of them at this point) has been glowing making Lost Boys Found at Whole Foods one of the most critically well received shows of the season. And I had helped make it happen.
I rank this event as one of my prouder accomplishments in theatre and something more remarkable happened. As I helped to guide this cast, my own skills as an actor were reinforced and, for the first time in a long while, I good and truly felt the itch to perform again. So now I’m looking to tell a story again and found at least one promising show next year.
Well, that wraps up this season of tales. I will return with a new season that I like to call “A Season of Renewal”. We’ll see you then.
Cotton Patch Redux, Days 3 & 4: Cotton Patchless
I imagine you saw the title and thought, “Huh?” Unfortunately, it is true. Have you ever had one of those days where fate seemed to conspire against you? Well, I had that day on Friday and that conspiracy caused me to miss Cotton Patch Gospel. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The drive to Arlington was a shorter trip though somewhat marred by bumpy roads, construction, and heavy Friday traffic. After weeding through the obstacles, I finally found myself in the town of Arlington where I would be staying at the Thornton Inn owned and operated by Sunny and Terry Graham.
Thornton Inn is quite unique in the sense that it is actually a renovated fraternity house. The house is actually one of the oldest homes in Arlington being built in the early 1900s. Eventually it became a frat house until a ruling by the University of Texas-Arlington decreed that all fraternity and sorority houses had to be located on campus. The home was bought by the Grahams to be used as an office for Sunny’s real estate brokerage. A suggestion that the home would make a good B & B inspired the Grahams to restore the house to its former scholarly glory and open it to guests in 2013.
Sunny and Terry are very kind hosts and great conversationalists. Terry, in particular, is full of many incredible tales. Terry led me to my room, the Remington, which housed a massive king bed which has been one of the most comfortable I have ever slept in and a beautiful modern bathroom with a shower that reminded me of the “Car Wash” in the now defunct Quill and Quilt of Cannon Falls, MN.
After settling in, Terry was kind enough to print out better directions for the Repertory Company Theatre. After dressing for the play, I briefly toyed with the idea of arranging for a taxi to take me as I was tired after several days of driving. In hindsight, I wish I had gone with the idea.
Under the best of circumstances, the drive from Thornton Inn to Repertory Company Theatre is about 40 minutes. What I had to deal with was anything but the best of circumstances.
The journey must be experienced as it is very difficult to describe the roads used to travel from Arlington to Richardson. One must use the LBJ Freeway and the George Bush Turnpike which consists of a maze of roads and exits which could easily baffle much better drivers than myself.
I was actually doing pretty well and wasn’t too far from my exit point when I saw an electronic sign flash the message that an accident had occurred right where I needed to exit and traffic ground to a halt. I managed to get around the accident, breathing a sigh of relief that I had given myself 90 minutes just in case. Then I faced my second problem.
My directions said one had to stay to the left in order to make the necessary turn. Well, I followed those instructions to the letter. . .and it put me back on the freeway. Not a problem, I got off at the next exit and got turned back around as precious minutes ticked away.
I found my road and thought I would make it in time to the show, but then I glanced at the road signs where, to my mounting horror, I suddenly saw I was somehow on a different street. It turns out that the roads in Richardson are not unlike the roads in Flagstaff, AZ. In Flagstaff if you turn left, the road is Apple Street. But if you turn left, it’s Blueberry Street. In Richardson, you need to be in just the right lane or you may find yourself on a road other than the one you want.
I desperately tried to find my road again, getting directions from a gas station. I finally got back to my road and found the area where the theatre was located, but knew it was an exercise in futility as the show had already started. I heaved a frustrated sigh and headed back to the inn.
I debated about whether or not I wanted to try again the next night, but there were problems with that. I knew that each performance had less than 3 rows of seats still available before starting the trip so I wasn’t sure if I could still get a ticket. You also cannot buy tickets online once it its 24 hours before showtime. You can call the theatre for a ticket, but the box office doesn’t open until an hour before curtain. Assuming I could still get a ticket, I still would have had the 40+ minute journey to re-endure. It was too much of a gamble. I wrote a letter to the theatre thanking them for Friday’s ticket and explaining why I was unable to make it.
The stress of the failed trip took a toll on my sleep as I woke up during the night with my body going through symptoms similar to a panic attack. A few deep breaths brought my twitching body back under control and the comfort of the bed helped me fall back asleep.
Terry and Sunny were very sympathetic about my plight. Terry felt guilty as he had printed out directions for me, but I assured him he could have done nothing more. The bad luck was completely beyond his control. But the delicious breakfast of breakfast tacos, fruit, bacon, and a hash brown helped perk me up.
Luckily I had a relaxing activity planned for the day. I had arranged for a 90 minute massage at the Sanford House Bed and Breakfast and Spa. Under Margo’s ministrations I felt my body loosen up and unwind and some cheese and water afterwards helped complete the treatment. The Sanford Spa is definitely worth a visit if you want some pampering.
Afterwards, I headed to the Parks at Arlington mall where I wandered around briefly before returning to the inn where I watched some Elementary, finished a video game, and caught a nap.
I attended worship services at St Maria Goretti Catholic Church. This was a beautiful church and the people were so welcoming. It was a nice service with a good sermon from Father.
When worship had ended and under the suggestion from Sunny, I had dinner at Babe’s Chicken Dinner House. Sunny had raved about their food and the crowd that met me certainly testified to the quality of the meal as it was packed to the rafters. Even as the dynamic uno, I had to wait 30 minutes for a table.
But it was worth the wait. Babe’s is better as a group as it is family style dining. You get your choice of one of 5 meats and sides of corn, biscuits, salad, green beans, gravy, and mashed potatoes are brought on. I opted for chicken fried steak which I managed to eat half of and helped myself to a little of each of the sides. The mashed potatoes are the best I’ve ever tasted. Price is about $15 per person, so it is very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food.
When dinner was done, I did a little work posting photos, but found myself uninspired to write. I decided to go to bed.
The next morning I had a filling breakfast of French toast, fruit, bacon, and sausage to strengthen me for the drive home.
I truly did enjoy my time at Thornton Inn and you cannot find better hosts than Sunny and Terry. If you find yourself in Arlington, do yourself a favor and book a room here.
Cotton Patch Redux, Day 1: Sanctuary
Hello, dear readers, it’s nice to see you again. I’m so glad you are able to join me for one of my biggest projects to date.
For my regular readers, you may remember that over the summer I visited the town of Whitehall, MI so I could review the play Cotton Patch Gospel at the Howmet Playhouse. Due to the success of that review, I pursued an opportunity with the Repertory Company Theatre of Richardson, TX which offered me a free ticket to review its production of that show. So I found myself on a frosty February morning heading down south to enjoy a worshipful play and escape from Old Man Winter’s grip on Omaha.
Continuing the weather trend from my escapades in Iowa over the holiday season, Omaha was hammered by a winter storm the day before I was set to leave for Texas. Thankfully, this time I did not have to drive in it and the road crews had a chance to clean things up pretty well before I went on my way.
One of the more enjoyable things about this drive was that I was finally seeing some new scenery. There are two main interstates out of the city (I-29 and I-80) that I normally have to take whenever I begin these excursions. This time, I got to take Hwy 75 pretty much straight to my first stop in Topeka, KS.
It was very peaceful to travel through the smaller towns of Nebraska and enjoy traditional Americana. I also considered it to be a fast forward view to spring as I watched winter’s clutch on the state weaken the further south I got. By the time I reached the Nebraska City area, the snow was a mere dusting and by the time I reached Auburn it was gone, though the weather was still quite cold.
The first leg of the drive seemed to go faster than normal as I admired the countryside and listened to the tunes of my MP3. Before I knew it I had arrived in Kansas’ capital city.
My first stop was at the Woodward Inns at Fillmore which is a hop, skip, and jump from the capitol building. The Woodward is far more than a B & B. It’s a little village of its own consisting of one gothic mansion, three stately executive inns, and three family inns with an eighth property set to open later this year that will be a luxury extended stay.
I was staying in the main inn, a Tudor mansion built in 1923 for Chester Woodward who wanted his final estate to be as authentically English as possible. It is an impressive abode which boasts charmingly gothic rooms and a 2 ½ story library modeled after the King Henry VIII library found at London’s Hampton Hall. It also features a year round lap pool heated to 90 degrees, though it was closed for cleaning due to a recent storm.
The mansion was bought by Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) in 1994 who had built a successful lobbying firm in the Topeka area. Hearing the call of God to take care of others, she gave up her lobbying career to enter the hospitality field and begin building the empire of the Woodward.
Elizabeth was a most gracious host. She is extremely knowledgeable about the Topeka area and is a fascinating conversationalist. She gave me a tour of the mansion and offered to show me some of the other properties after breakfast the next morning. After exploring the main inn, Elizabeth led me to the Master, my home for the night.
This room was almost too much room for one person. The room boasts a large 4 poster bed with a fireplace (put to good use on this chilly night and morning) and sitting room. After getting my stuff settled, my thoughts turned to dinner.
Elizabeth had suggested an eatery run by a friend of hers called the Blind Tiger Brewery and recognized for world championship caliber beers. The building is quite unique. I didn’t notice it from the outside, but once I got indoors, the place reminded me of a 3-D puzzle due to its construction and branching hallways. It would be rather easy to get lost in this place.
For my dinner, I did a rarity and sampled some of the beers due to its championship reputation. I had samples of brown ale, Munich Dunkles, pale ale, and raw wheat. I enjoyed the brown ale and the raw wheat the most. For my entrée, I enjoyed the Texas Roadrunner which was a grilled chicken breast topped with beef brisket, cheeses, and peppers served on a bed of rice and steak fries.
The Blind Tiger Brewery apparently has a haunted history as Elizabeth suggested I ask about the ghost tour which I did, but there wasn’t anybody there who knew enough about the history to tell me the story. So I returned to the mansion, organized some photos, set up the artificial fire for the night and hit the hay.
I awoke the next morning feeling ravenous. I headed to the dining room where I found goblets of water and black cherry/cranberry juice waiting for me. I sipped the glass of juice and found the fusion of the two fruits worked very well.
Within a few moments, Elizabeth brought me my breakfast which was an oven baked pancake with orange maple syrup, cream, blueberries, and bananas. I managed to eat the fruit, but only made it halfway through the pancake before I felt full.
After breakfast, Elizabeth had her associate, Sarah, show me around her new properties called the Woodward Row Houses. These will be luxury extended stay rooms and they look very nice. My favorite was the basement studio apartment which is one of the nicest apartments I have ever seen.
Alas, it seemed my time came to an end too soon. Currently I am putting the finishing touches on this article before beginning the next leg of my journey which will bring me to Norman, OK.
But if you are in the Topeka area, take some time to visit one of the many rooms of the Woodward. You will find rooms suited to all tastes on the financial spectrum and one amazing innkeeper in Elizabeth Taylor.