I’ve Gotta Get Back in Thyme. . .Again

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Friday, July 29:  the day the road took me to my most poignant place.

On this sunny day I began a journey nearly 14 years in the making.  For it was on this day that I headed to Bonner Springs, KS to be a guest at Back in Thyme Bed and Breakfast and to review The Elephant Man for The Barn Players of Mission, KS.

If you’re a first time visitor to this website, The Elephant Man is my favorite play and it played a rather profound moment in my life.  For the full details of that story, click here.  I had long made my peace with the events of that day which is why I was so excited to finally have an opportunity to see the show and come fullish circle.  The timing couldn’t be more appropriate as this article will be posted on the 14th anniversary that I heard the results of that audition.

Bonner Springs is a suburb of Kansas City so it provides a unique blend of small town living with the perks of a nearby major metropolitan area for things to do.  Back in Thyme, owned and operated by Judy Vickers, is a beautiful “new-old” Queen Anne house nestled on a secluded acreage near Nettleton Avenue.

Given the size of the house I was surprised that it only boasted 3 bedrooms for rental.  On the other hand, the limited number of rooms does make it ideal for peace and quiet.  As I climbed the porch steps, I met Brantley and Ashley, fellow guests who were in the area to see a Rascal Flatts concert.  As I reached the top step, I was greeted by Judy, a very hospitable host and a fount of knowledge on fun things to do in the area.

Judy led me to the Bay Laurel Room which would serve as my base of operations.  It’s one of the most comfortable rooms in which I’ve stayed with its soft armchairs, burgundy walls, feather pillows, and a queen bed with a firm mattress.  The room also boasts a fireplace and I mildly wished it were colder so I could get a crackling blaze going.

I unwound in my room for a while before sprucing up for the show and enjoying a 6pm appetizer with Judy and a couple of her friends.  I ended up in a great conversation with Fred, a rather intelligent man who is currently writing three books.  I enjoyed a pleasant hour conversing with Fred as we nibbled on cheese, olives, crackers, and baba ganoush.

When Fred noticed traffic starting to back up on the highway, I decided to head over to the Barn Players.  Once more, Mapquest tried to put one over on me by telling me to make a right turn on a street when it should have been a left.  Shades of Richardson, TX flashed through my brain as I got my bearings and got back on the right track.  Luckily, I made it to the theatre with about 7 minutes to spare.

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The Barn Players is a bit of an institution in Mission and has quite an impressive reputation.  Many of its alumni have gone on to professional acting careers, most notably Chris Cooper.  The show was almost everything that I hoped it would be.  A few flaws kept it out of the excellent region, but it was still very good and thoroughly enjoyable.  You can read my review for the show here.

I returned to Back in Thyme where I wrote my review and curled up in my bed for a good night’s rest.

After a comfy night’s sleep, I awoke ravenous.  I headed downstairs and enjoyed chit-chat with Brantley and Ashley as we dined on Judy’s wonderful scrambled eggs cooked in thyme butter, crispy bacon, French toast, and fried apples.

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Having restored the inner man, I went upstairs to do a little work on the computer before deciding to take advantage of the pleasant day and walk along some trails I found behind the house.  Normally I like communing with nature, but I got a faceful of nature in the most literal sense as I stumbled through myriad spider webs as I wandered through the woods.  I escaped from the woods yanking webbing off of my face and hair.

Judy had suggested several areas of interest, some of which I will save for a future visit to the K.C. area, but I did take time to visit Bonner Springs’ famed Moon Marble Company.

As the name implies, the store is famed for its marbles and even gives demonstrations into a making of marbles, but the store is so much more than that.  The store also specializes in board games, puzzles, and classic toys.  I was amazed at all of the hard to find toys and games located in the shop.  Duncan Yo-yos, rare board games, Jacob’s ladders, Fisher-Price toys that I remembered from my childhood.  If you like vintage toys and games, take some time to visit Moon Marble Company if you find yourselves in Bonner Springs.

After I drove around the downtown area, I returned to the inn where I killed a few hours watching a mystery series before cleaning up for church and dinner.

I attended services at Good Shepherd Catholic Community in Shawnee, KS where I enjoyed a wonderful service preached by Fr. Oswaldo.  When services were done, I headed over to Hereford House for dinner.

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Hereford House is a Kansas City institution and this was one of the tastiest meals I have ever eaten.  I indulged in a small salad with creamy Italian dressing before supping on the main course of a 12 oz ribeye blackened with garlic butter and a side of Cheddar Ranch potatoes and a bit of bread.  Most of my dinner came back with me where it currently rests in the inn’s guest fridge for a future meal.

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I spent the remainder of the evening working on this article before turning in for the night.

I awoke to a rather gloomy day and am expecting some rain on the drive home.  I spent a bit of time editing this article and then went downstairs for another rousing breakfast.

At the table, I met Courtney and Ashley from Olathe, KS who had just come in from having coffee on the porch and we chatted while Judy served us a sumptuous meal of sausage, green chile egg casserole with salsa (now one of my favorite dishes), zucchini muffins, and cantaloupe.  The pleasant meal and talk was over much too quickly and I began to pack up for the drive home.

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So if you find yourself in the Kansas City area, spend an evening at Back in Thyme in Bonner Springs.  You’ll find some good (and healthy) home cooking on a peaceful estate with plenty to do nearby.

What Makes a Man?

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Take a good, long look at the above photo.  Imagine being caged in a body like that.  Hideously ugly.  Virtually crippled.  But inside that tragic figure your heart beats with the sensibilities of an artist, the innocence of a child, and the charming wit of a gentleman.  This was Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who defied his pitiable circumstances to become the toast of London society.  His life story is the focus of The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance which is currently playing at the Barn Players Community Theatre.

Time for a little full disclosure.  This is my favorite play.  I know it backwards and forwards and am a cornucopia of knowledge in the history of the real Joseph (misnamed John) Merrick.  As you can imagine, I’ve got some pretty high standards for this show.  I’m very pleased to say that The Barn Players met my standards and even exceeded them at some points in a very powerful and poignant piece of storytelling.

Pomerance’s script is an interesting blend of historical fact (though some events are embellished for dramatic effect) and compelling themes such as strength of spirit, egoism, love, friendship, and what really makes us human.  Despite being the title character, Merrick’s presence is more of a force that touches the lives of everyone he meets in some form or another.  Some realize their own humanity while others lose theirs.  Interestingly, many of the other characters project their own qualities onto Merrick and only two actually see Merrick for the beautiful soul that he is.

These ideals make for storytelling at its finest and the cast and crew do a very good job on the whole in telling that story.

Mark Hamilton should be especially proud of his direction.  His staging is excellent and he has coached performances ranging from very good to superior from his actors.  I did note a couple of beats that could be mined for greater dramatic impact, but those moments can still bloom during this show’s run.

I consider the role of Merrick to be one of the most difficult and grueling an actor can undertake.  Not only does the actor playing the role need to be unbelievably versatile to handle the complexities of the character, he must also adopt an awkward and demanding body language to communicate the infirmities of Merrick.  With that being said, Coleman Crenshaw does extreme honor to the role.

Crenshaw certainly did his homework as he understands Merrick right down to the ground.  His physicality was tremendous, though he needs to keep that body language in mind at all times.  He made some movements that would either have been impossible for the real Merrick or done only with excruciating difficulty.  That quibble aside, his interpretation of the dialogue blew me away.

Crenshaw’s delivery is so nuanced it almost staggers the imagination.  With incredible ease, he captures Merrick’s innocence, wit, genius, fears, awkwardness, and goodness.  And he does it with a clogged and slobbering speech that still retains flawless diction.  His evolving of Merrick from frightened creature to bold man over the course of the show is a tour de force and I foresee Crenshaw being in the running for many local acting awards.

David Innis does a fairly good job as Dr. Frederick Treves, the doctor who found Merrick and gave him a home at the London Hospital.  Innis presents Treves as a full of himself young doctor who originally gets involved with Merrick solely because he is a good subject for study. His inherent decency appears when he brings Merrick to live at the London Hospital after he is abandoned by his manager.

From there, Innis does a marvelous job showing Treves’ awakening to his own humanity and ugliness as he comes to know Merrick’s internal beauty.  Treves grows to hate himself as he believes he has turned Merrick into a freak, albeit a high class one, as he introduces him to London society and bitterly regrets seeing him as a mere research subject.

One thing Innis must master during this run is to project.  He was so quiet that, had I not known the dialogue so well, I would not have understood large portions of his speeches.

Stefanie Stevens brings depth and intelligence to the role of Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends Merrick.  Originally brought in to visit Merrick because she is trained to hide her true emotions, Mrs. Kendal instantly recognizes the man within the monstrous body and forms a kinship with him.  Ms Stevens plays the role with an elegant sincerity and is especially impressive in the moment when she decides to grant Merrick’s fond desire of seeing a real woman in all of her naturalness.

Special notice also goes out to Jeph Scanlon and Sean Leistico who play the roles of Carr-Gomm and Ross.  As Carr-Gomm, the administrator of the London Hospital, Scanlon manages to be kindly if a little stiff and serious.  And I never thought I would make a critique like this, but he actually needs to enunciate a little less.  He was hitting his syllables so hard that it made his dialogue a little staccato.  Softening his syllables will let his speech have a more natural flow.

Leistico adds a third dimension to Ross with sheer force of acting ability.  The role could be treated as a throwaway, but Leistico is pathetically oily as the manager who robs Merrick of his life savings and is just pathetic when he comes crawling back, sick and dying, in the hopes that Merrick will throw away the life he’s created to be a high class freak.

Holly Daniel’s costumes are gorgeous and a perfect fit for Victorian era London.  Laura Burkhart has developed a wonderful “less is more” set that easily shifts from Merrick’s room to the hospital to Belgium.  I would also be remiss if I did not mention the music of Daniel Yung.  He provides all of the sounds and music of the show with a superior piece of cello playing that he suits to each and every moment of the play.

What ultimately makes the show so compelling is Merrick’s humanity and that teaches a valuable lesson to us all.  Life dealt him the worst possible hand and he did not become embittered by it. He rose above it and taught us all what it means to be human.

The Elephant Man plays at the Barn Players Community Theatre through August 14.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  There will be an industry night performance on Monday, August 8.  Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for students (w/ID) and groups of 10 or more.  Industry night tickets are $12 at the door.  To order tickets, visit the Barn Players website at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  Parental discretion is advised due to a scene of partial nudity.  The Barn Players Community Theatre is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

Devastation

A grand Saturday to you all.

For all of my adventures in theatre, this one has always been the hardest to share.  So you might want to go ahead and grab a hanky. . .Seriously.  I’ll wait.

Doo de doo de doo doo doo de doo.

Ready?

In “Chasing the Dream”, you learned how I got interested in theatre and pursued the dream for 4 long years before I finally managed to get cast in back to back shows.  A change came over me during the run of The Mask of Moriarty.  I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning.  I was sad a lot and life just didn’t seem as rosy as it once did.  I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was experiencing the early symptoms of situational depression.

I had been considering going back to school for a master’s degree, but as the depression gained a greater hold, I had to put that plan on hold which only worsened my depression because I felt like a quitter and as my previous trilogy hopefully showed, “quit” is not a word in my vocabulary.  I had hoped that theatre could be the key to shaking my blues, but I was wrong.

Oh, I was so, so wrong.

Due to the depression, I had lost all confidence in myself.  And the small gains I had made in theatre crumbled to dust.  I began to perceive myself as having a lot of shortcomings as a performer.  And I began to overcompensate for these perceived shortcomings and rattled off a series of auditions so terrible, it probably made some people blush.

I hit rock bottom, acting-wise, with an audition for a show called Inspecting Carol at the Omaha Playhouse.  This was, without question, the single, worst audition I ever had. In my early days, I would often attend both nights of the audition and would get called up to read at least once or twice a night, each night for the most part.  This time around, I gave an audition that was so hideously awful that I only got to read once.  I came back the second night and was neither asked to read nor did I volunteer to read because I saw the writing on the wall and realized I could not undo the damage of that wretched first read.

Eventually I had decided that my plan for a master’s degree was in the wrong field.  I realized that my previous credits at Creighton had me not too far from a certification in HR, so I enrolled there instead.  My confidence was still virtually non-existent, but I had always been an excellent scholar, so as I fell into my studies and realized that I could still do that, my depression started to lift a bit.

I even took a gamble and decided to audition at Creighton again.  My first audition back was for a one act play called The Zoo Story by Edward Albee.  This play is about a quiet man named Peter who goes to the park to read.  While there he meets a man called Jerry who tells Peter the story about why he came to the zoo.  As Jerry’s story continues, Peter learns that Jerry is a very dangerous lunatic.  Jerry provokes a fight with Peter and gets stabbed in the struggle and all to prove his point that people are just like animals.

I really wanted to play Jerry, but ended up having an astounding read for Peter.  This was the longest flash I had in an audition because I managed to get a grip on it and ride it through to the end of the audition.  A friend of mine named Paul Thelen looked at me after my first read as Peter and said, “You have a real naturalness for that role”.

I ended up getting to the final grouping of people and ended up narrowly being edged out for the role of Peter.  There was a direction that I didn’t take far enough and Paul thought if I had done so, I would have landed the part and I think he was right.

Still it was a tremendous boost in confidence.  So much so that I auditioned for A View From the Bridge later that year at Creighton.  I had a fairly solid showing, but had a memorable moment towards the end of the audition.  Bill Hutson wanted to improvise a scene where immigration agents came to collect a couple of illegal immigrants (an important plot point in the play).  I opted to go for a very no nonsense agent and when I came to collect the character, he jerked away from to hug his cousin good-bye.  I pried him loose and snarled, “You can send her a letter.”

Immediately, I thought I had erred and that this comment was too comedic for the scene.  But I was delighted to hear the opposite reaction from the other actors.  They erupted into oohs and one person commented, “Wow!  What cruelty.”  A few days later I learned I had got into the play and I credit that moment for sealing the deal.  And it was nice that I could end my time at Creighton with a sense of peace with the theatre department.

It was a good show and I met some good people and my depression lifted a little bit more.  Then I went to the Playhouse to see a show in March of 2002 and I met a friend of mine who worked for the Playhouse’s professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan.  I asked him if he knew any shows that would be produced next year and he mentioned several which I mentally filed and then my brain ground to a halt when he said, The Elephant Man.

For the first time in a long time, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.  The Elephant Man is my favorite film and play.  I saw the play on TV when I was 9 and I was so struck by the strength of spirit of Joseph (John) Merrick that I learned all that I could about him and became an expert.  For those who don’t know, Joseph Merrick (misnamed John by Dr. Frederick Treves who shared his story) suffered from an ultrarare genetic condition called Proteus Syndrome which not only caused tumors to grow all over and in his body, but savagely disfigured him as well.  He made his living as a sideshow freak until Dr. Treves discovered him at a freak show and thought he would make a good subject for a paper.  Treves discovered the man trapped within the hideous body and ended up giving him a better life.  Despite the tragic life he had led, Merrick maintained a strong faith in God and was a witty, intelligent, artistic man who built a model of St John’s Church with his one good arm and almost entirely from his imagination.  The church remains at a museum in London to this day.

I had long felt that I was born to play this part and knew if I could have the chance that I could really show how good of an actor I could be with this role.  I rapidly completed my studies at Creighton and began to prepare for what I felt would be a momentous audition.  My knowledge of the character already gave me some decided advantages as I knew Merrick’s story intimately and was well acquainted with his physicality from photographs I had studied in the past.  Now I just needed to prepare the audition.

I even got an extra bit of good news when I learned that Kevin Lawler (of The Empty Plough audition) would be directing the show.  I remember the good showing I had given him at the previous audition and admired his philosophy of him having enough faith in his directorial prowess to get the actor out of people.  I believed I would head into this audition on absolutely equal footing with the other performers.

As I worked on my audition, I realized something wasn’t quite right so I asked my old friend, Kay McGuigan, if she would help me with my audition.  She was more than happy to and with her help I discovered the big flaw.  I made Merrick too angry.  I let the injustice I felt at his treatment influence my performance and it was wrong.  With Kay’s help, we spent 2 hours reworking and fixing my interpretation and when we were done I was ready to fly.

Then came the audition night.  Never had I been so nervous for an audition.  I brought a cane with me to help me feel more like Merrick and I wanted to be the first reader so I could set the bar to impossible heights.  After I signed in, I noticed there were only monologues available so I knew it to be a one on one audition.  However, the monologues were only for Dr. Treves and Ross, Merrick’s “owner”.  Even though, he is the title character, Merrick has no lengthy monologues due to the difficulty he had talking because of his affliction.  The first thought that sprung to mind was that all of my work had just gone up in smoke.  But I took a deep breath and told myself that I could just ask Kevin if I could read for Merrick.

I spent a few minutes studying the monologue and was called over by the stage manager.  Kevin was waiting and he took a look at me and said, “I think I remember this guy” before shaking my hand.  Another shot of confidence because it meant he had remembered my audition from The Empty Plough from four years past.  We went into the theatre and he complimented me on my cane and I explained why I had brought it and told him I was hoping I could show him my Merrick as well.  He said that might be a possibility, but let’s see how I handled the monologue first.

I was reading a monologue of Treves where he confesses to Bishop Howe that he feels he has made Merrick a freak again, albeit a high class one.  I attacked the monologue with a very earnest read, almost a sense of desperation.  I saw Treves as trying to explain how he felt, but not quite knowing how to say it, and hoping that his earnestness would explain the situation.  As I got about halfway through the monologue, Kevin stopped me and said, “I want you to try something.  Grab a chair and have a seat.  I want you to pretend that you’ve been in a bar drinking and are sharing this story.  Don’t be so earnest, but more like, ‘This is bullshit and that’s bullshit and my life is a lie’.  And I don’t want to see any anger.”

“HA!” I thought to myself.  “Here’s where I make up for The Empty Plough.”

I redid the monologue with Kevin’s suggestions and it worked very well.  The monologue was directed more towards myself and carried a lot more gravitas as a result.  When I finished, Kevin said, “That was much better.  Good changes.”  Then he allowed me to read Merrick.

He helped me read a scene where Merrick has a final meeting with his former “owner” and declares his humanity.  Immediately I fell into the role, transforming my body into Merrick, and proceeded to have what I still consider the absolute best read I have ever given.  As I finished up a little paragraph from Merrick, I waited for Kevin to feed me the next line and heard nothing.  I looked up at him and saw him staring at me, eyes shining.  To this day I still wonder what he was thinking at that moment.

“Kevin?” I stated.

That snapped him out of his reverie and he said, “Well you’ve certainly been studying photographs.  You’ve got a good grip on his infirmities.”  Then he asked me if I had read the play and I said that I had and told him why I found the character so fascinating.  You see, I was bullied a bit in my childhood which is why I connected so well with Merrick.  He had it worse than I ever did and never lost his faith and stayed a good man and I’m proud to say that I’ve done the same.  When I finished my explanation, Kevin said, “So you feel you have a strong connection with the character?” and I said, “Yes.  I guess I do.”

Kevin had one more task for me.  He wanted me to take a few minutes to study the monologue of Ross and then come back and read it.  If it helped, he told me that Ross was a very oily individual.  I went out, studied, came back and gave a decent accounting of myself.  Right intention.  Right attitude.  But the delivery seemed slightly off target.  Just slightly and in no way undid the other good work I had done.  Kevin seemed pleased and said, “That was just what I wanted to see.  Something completely different.”

I then asked Kevin what would happen next.  He said he needed to cast the play by August 1 and if I didn’t hear anything by then, it would, unfortunately, mean that I hadn’t been cast.  He thanked me for my time and clapped me on the back.  As he did, I got a terrific chill.  I suddenly had the odd sensation that I was not going to be cast.  I chalked it up to nerves and left, fully confident, that I had a real chance.

For the next 3 weeks, I dove at the phone every time it rang, hoping that it would be the call.  On July 31, I came home and found a letter waiting for me from the Playhouse.  All the feeling drained from my body.  I opened up the envelope, removed the card, and read the all too familiar words thanking me for my time, but I was not going to be cast in The Elephant Man.  I went to my bedroom and buried my face in my hands.

I was struck numb.  If I could have cried, I may have felt better, but I couldn’t even do that.  I just felt nothing.  “How?”  I asked myself.  And it rattled in my head like a mantra.  This had been my very best audition.  And it failed.  What did that mean about every other audition I had done or might do?

I didn’t know what to do.  There is an unwritten rule in theatre that says you never ask why you don’t get cast.  And it’s a good rule.  As I’ve stated in a previous blog, there are so many uncontrollable factors outside an actor’s control that dictate whether he or she gets cast.  And I didn’t need to know why I didn’t get cast.  I just needed to know that my audition meant something.  I struggled with the decision for a few hours, but finally sat down and wrote Kevin an e-mail where I simply asked if I had been in the running and what he thought of the audition.

A month later, I got the following response:

Dear Chris,

Yes, you were in the running.  I was moved by the preparation you had done.  I also thought you had done some good work in your preparations, but it worried me that you had done so much work on it.  I wasn’t quite sure where the breathing room would be.  It was almost as if you had worked so hard that there might be little room for change or to begin from scratch even if that’s what was called for.  What I was more concerned about seeing was how versatile an actor you were.  Where your qualities lay in the cold readings.  Having said all that, I must tell you that it was one of the most wonderful displays of heart and care that I have ever come across from an actor in an audition.  I thank you for that.

I am sorry that it didn’t work out this time, but I think you should, and will, keep auditioning if you love theatre as much as it seems you do.

Many thanks, Chris,

Kevin

What mixed feelings I had.  I was deeply touched by the letter, but that was countered by the horror that the things I did to give myself the best possible chance destroyed my chances.  Even worse was the knowledge I had that I had not worked as hard as Kevin had thought.  Remember, most of my knowledge had been acquired over the years.  And he didn’t know that I had reworked the entire audition the previous day and was quite directable.  And never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would not have been cast at all.

This audition haunted me for a long time.  And it wasn’t until a long time later that I saw the good that came out of it.

Most importantly, I believe God sent me the audition because preparing for it was what finally pulled me out of the depression I had been suffering from once and for all.

It was inspiring.  Instead of telling myself that I never could do better, I vowed to get my auditions up to that level on a regular basis.

I did get close.  Perhaps even the second choice.

Finally, Kevin made the right call.  In the sense that if I couldn’t play Merrick, it was best not to be in the show at that stage in my life.  Although I was free of the depression, my acting confidence was still incredibly low.  And Daniel Dorner, who won the role, did a magnificent job and won every major acting award for it.  Had I been cast and watched him work his magic, I would not be an actor today because I would have convinced myself that I could never have matched it and quit.

Nowadays I look back and I take great pride in what I did accomplish with that read.  And there was much to be proud of.

NEXT TIME:  The Awakening.  Our hero’s sleeping powers finally awaken.