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.

‘The Elephant Man’ Opens at Barn Players on July 29

The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance opens on July 29th! Get your tickets today at www.thebarnplayers.org/tickets

Directed by Mark Hamilton

Stage Managed by Diane Bulan
Set Design by Laura Burkhart & Mark Hamilton
Lighting Design by Phil Leonard
Costume Coordination by Ashley Christopher
Choreography & Movement Coaching by Meghann Deveroux
Assistant Stage Management by Amanda Rhodes
Sound Design by Sean Leistico
Production Intern: Alicia Miro

July 29th – August 14th
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sunday at 2:00pm
(Industry Night: Monday, August 8th)

STARRING
Coleman Crenshaw, David Innis & Stefanie Stevens
FEATURING
Eli Biesemeyer, Richard J. Burt, Meghann Deveroux, Dee Dee Diemer, Sean Leistico, Lindsay Lovejoy, Alicia Miro, Jeph Scanlon, Scott Turner & Daniel Yung

SYNOPSIS:
The Elephant Man is based on the life of John Merrick, who lived in London during the latter part of the nineteenth century. A horribly deformed young man, victim of rare skin and bone diseases, he has become the star freak attraction in traveling side shows. Found abandoned and helpless, he is admitted to London’s prestigious Whitechapel Hospital. Under the care of celebrated young physician Frederick Treves, Merrick is introduced to London society and slowly evolves from an object of pity to an urbane and witty favorite of the aristocracy and literati only to be denied his ultimate dream, to become a man like any other.

All performances are at:
The Barn Players Theatre, 6219 Martway, Mission, KS.

Ticket pricing:
REGULAR – $18.00
SENIORS – $ 15.00
GROUPS (10 OR MORE) – $12.00
STUDENTS (WITH A VALID STUDENT ID) – $12.00

WE ACCEPT CREDIT CARDS!
VISA, MASTERCARD & DISCOVER!
The box office opens one hour before curtain time.
For reservations, please call or call 1-800-838-3006
or visit our website at www.thebarnplayers.org

Production support provided by…
The Mainstreet Credit Union
Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce
St. Pius School
Media partner support provided by…
94.9 KCMO
710 AM / 103.7 KCMO Talk Radio

The Barn Players embraces diversity in all aspects of our organization. Non-traditional and equal-opportunity casting is encouraged.

A Season of Change, Part III: Waving Good-Bye to the Cuckoo’s Nest

Nearly twelve years after my first opportunity at the role, I received a second, and final, chance at playing Billy Bibbit from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Sunday night.

For those of you new to my blog, I had originally auditioned for this role back in 2003 when the Circle Theatre was going to try to mount it.  Unfortunately, the whole show got canceled when the theatre was unable to cast the key role of Chief Bromden.  Even more unfortunate was the fact that I later learned I would have played Bibbit had the show been produced.

When I learned that the Chanticleer Theatre in Council Bluffs, Iowa was going to mount the show this season, I hoped I would have one last crack at the role.  I knew that the Bibbit of the novel by Ken Kesey was a man in his mid-thirties so terribly repressed that he comes off as much younger.  But, for whatever reason, he is usually cast as a man in his twenties, so I was concerned that, at the age of 37 with rapidly silvering hair, I might not be seriously considered for the part.  Not that the lead role of Randall McMurphy was a bad one to get, but I really wanted to play Billy.  I breathed a massive sigh of relief when the Chanticleer released character descriptions and it appeared that they were looking for someone closer to the novel’s depiction of the character.

So it was on Sunday that I found myself at the Chanticleer ready to give the performance of my life.  I was a bit surprised, but more than pleased to find my good friend, David Sindelar, at the auditions.  I had been twisting his arm a bit to get him to go as I knew there were a couple of great roles for him.

From the moment I first got onstage, I knew it was going to be a magical night.  I was fully in the auditioning frame of mind and I was hungry for a role.  I ended up being the second reader of the night in the role of McMurphy and was pleased with what I did.  But the real magic began about an hour into the night.

Director, Ron Hines, asked anybody if there was a role they wanted to read for before we moved on and I said I’d like to take a crack at Billy.  The second I opened my mouth, I was off to the races.  I can’t remember the last time I had been that supremely confident.  I had zero self-consciousness.  I was making bold choices.  I was animated and it was probably some of the very best acting between the lines I had ever done for an audition.  In all honesty, I felt I had finally given an audition that matched the quality of my read as John Merrick back in 2002.

For the rest of the night, all I did was alternate between reading for Bibbit and McMurphy.  There was another young man there (I believe his name was Sean Kelley) and we would pretty much trade the roles in the same scenes.  I thought he was a terrific McMurphy and had a good look for him.  He had a blocky build suitable for a brawler and, whether intentional or unintentional, wore a stocking cap just like McMurphy.  My only concern is that he might have been too young for the role.  My build was more suited to Billy, but there was that concern that I might be a touch too old.

The producers and the director gushed over my reads.  Producer, Terry Debenedictus, said she loved my reads while Ron Hines said he had written, “I like this guy!” at the top of my audition sheet to remember me.  I was actually getting a little embarrassed from the notices.

Intellectually speaking, I knew this praise in no way guaranteed my getting cast.  On an emotional level, my head was somewhere in the clouds.  I knew I was rock solid and hoped beyond hope that this was leading to something great.  I was asked to stay at the end of the night for physical analysis and a final 2 reads.

After the audition, Dave and I had a post-audition analysis meal at Burger King.  Dave didn’t get to read a whole lot, but he gave a pitch perfect reading as Cheswick at the end of the night.  That read plus his physical appropriateness for the role gave me a good feeling for him.  (With good reason, for he won that particular role.)

While on a conference call at work, I received a call from Jerry Abels, the stage manager of the show.  Needless to say, I was beyond excited.  Like most theatres, the Chanticleer sends out a form letter if you’re not cast in the show.  So I took it for granted that I was cast as somebody.

As soon as my meeting ended, I called Jerry on the phone and he told me that they had a great turnout for the show with about 46 people auditioning and that leads to the good problem of having too much choice which means that some good people don’t get in.  In my mind I thought, “Yeah, that is a tough thing.  So who am I playing?”  And then Jerry said, “With that being said, unfortunately you were one of the people who didn’t make it in.”

I was stunned to silence.  I actually dropped the pen I was holding because I was so taken aback.  “If I wasn’t cast, why are you calling?” I thought to myself.  Jerry answered my unspoken question as he continued.  “We wanted you to know that it had absolutely nothing to do with your talent.  Please, and we really mean this, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please come back to read for us again.  This theatre can always, ALWAYS, use a talent like yours.”

The words were kind, but I won’t lie to you, they hurt.  A lot.  For those of you who have read my theatre tales, you know I’ve often said the acting part counts for precious little in the casting process and this is a classic example of that lesson.  But it stings nonetheless.  I realized that, short of a miracle, this was the last time I could conceivably play Billy as next time, if there is one, I will simply be too old for the role.

On a sort of upside, not getting cast in this show did solve my problem of how to audition for another show as its audition dates were going to take place during tech week.  But now I bid a final good-bye to the role of Billy Bibbit and move my eyes to the future.

POSTSCRIPT:  In one of the biggest shocks of my life, I received a phone call from the Chanticleer on January 27.  At first, I thought I simply hadn’t deleted my old voice mail which led to my being told about my rejection.  I thought, “Well at most I’ll just look like a dope if I call and make certain it wasn’t a new message.”  I called Jerry Abels and cautiously asked if he had left me a message.  He said that he had.  It turns out one of the actors had dropped out of the show and now they wanted to offer me the role of Aide Warren.  I mulled it over for a little bit, but taking this role would have meant losing out on the opportunity to audition for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so I declined the opportunity, but told Jerry I very much appreciated the phone call.  So defeat becomes a victory, after all.

What Do I See?

A short while ago, I wrote an article on the power of perception which discussed the idea that how actors are seen dictates if and how they are cast.  I’ve said that an actor exerts very little control over this aspect of the business and that is certainly true.  But how an actor perceives himself or herself certainly dictates the types of roles she or he pursues.
 
Some actors only see themselves as leading characters and will only accept a role of that type.  Others may prefer the sidekick/second banana role.  Still more may be willing to accept a role of any kind.
 
When it comes to me, I always seek out the most challenging role.  In my experience, that role is usually something other than the leading role.  So, in a sense, I am probably a character actor, though I think what I pursue is something more than that and somewhat defies a description.
 
If I were to put it into words, I would call myself a storyteller.  This is why I prefer John Merrick to Frederick Treves, Billy Bibbit to Randall McMurphy, and Renfield to Count Dracula.  I really don’t have a particular taste as I will always look for the role that intrigues me, though I do seem to have a predilection for characters that exhibit great strength of spirit.
 
Since I view myself as a storyteller, the size of my part does not matter.  I just want the challenge.  If I thought the leading role in a play was the most difficult one, then that is what I would pursue.  If I thought a character with no lines was the most challenging role, then that is the role that I would want.  With the pursuit of the challenge, a wide plethora of roles is available to me.
 
Not that I will do any role that comes my way.  I have refused roles in the past because I didn’t think they had the difficulty which I seek or just didn’t think myself well suited to the role.  As my abilities as an actor have grown and evolved, I have become a little choosier in what I will do.  For example, at this point in my avocation, the odds of me taking a supernumerary role aren’t particularly high.  Just like in climbing the corporate ladder where you have to work from the bottom up, I believe a role like that needs to go to an inexperienced, untested performer to give her or him a chance to show some grace and aplomb. 
 
As to my style. . .well, I’d like to consider myself a naturalistic actor.  I try to imagine what I would do if I were to find myself in the same situation that that character does and react accordingly.  Sometimes I think I’m too realistic as I need to work a little harder at being over the top when it comes to farce since my instinct is to play things as believably as I can even when my character may be in the midst of an unbelievable situation.
 
My perception of how I’m often cast is that directors tend to cast me in characters that seem to reflect my real personality.  Though, over the past few years, I’ve managed to start obtaining roles different to myself such as the loutish drunkard, Eric Birling, in An Inspector Calls and the adult version of Don Browning in Leaving Iowa.  Rest assured, child Don was very much me and probably the most fun I’ve had being me on stage.
 
And it’s not that I haven’t enjoyed playing the characters who reflect the real me.  I’ve loved them all.  But I’m me every day so I already know I can do that.  In order to continue my growth as an actor, I have to show the sides of me that aren’t seen very much.  This is why I’ll often try a different take on a “me” character to make it a little less “me” when I’m playing that type of role.
 
When I first got started in this business, I didn’t understand what acting was all about.  I felt I had to feel like I was doing something in order to be acting and this road, unquestionably, led to being perceived as a poor performer.
 
Along the road I met those who helped me understand that I didn’t have to feel like I was doing something, I just had to do it.  That is what helped me to become a stronger actor over the years.  Learning to trust my instinct and be in the moment also helped me to achieve that truly rare feat of altering perceptions of me as a bad actor.  Mind you, I didn’t consciously set out to do this.  I just did it because I kept trying, working, practicing, and learning.  My conscious goal was simply to get roles.
 
The theatre season is fully cast and, for the first time in years, I didn’t do a show.  It wasn’t that long ago that I would consider that a failure and the frustration would be weighing on my shoulders like a ton of bricks.  But my perception of me has changed and I now accept myself as a good, capable actor. 
 
There’ll always be another show.  And I’ll be offering directors all of me which is the only thing I can give.  My instinct.  My effort.  My imagination.  My interpretation.  When it comes to casting me, directors may not always agree with me, but they will know that they got the best me.

Soaring, Part 3

Biloxi Blues still ranks as one of the greatest experiences of my theatrical life.  Just like my very first show, I had an incredible cast that all liked each other and all egos were checked at the door.  Susan had the most amazing directing style I had ever seen.  It’s so subtle that you don’t always know that you’re being directed, but then. . .BOOM!  You’re right where she needed you to be.

I looked forward to rehearsal each and every night and when opening night rolled around, all of us were just white hot and ready to tear it up.  We were so skilled, that we could have swapped roles around amongst our group and our show would have been just as strong, I kid you not.

Biloxi Blues was considered one of the top shows of the season and the reviews were glowing.  One paper called our cast “the next vanguard of theatre”.  I garnered a tremendous amount of praise both in the papers and within the theatre community and I was riding Cloud 9.  Thanks to Susan’s direction, my game had been advanced to a whole new level and I was finally able to win over the 2 artistic heads of the Playhouse (Carl Beck & Susie Baer-Collins).  Susie gave me a big hug after she saw the show and told me I had been absolutely wonderful.  That show accomplished for me with those two what might have taken 20 auditions apiece ordinarily.

At the Playhouse Awards that year, Biloxi Blues won every actor award on the non-musical side of things.  The show would go on to garner a Best Show nomination at that year’s Theatre Arts Guild Awards as well as another in the inaugural Omaha Entertainment Arts Awards Show.  And then Hamlet got nominated for Best Show in the OEAs as well.  So I had been in two highly regarded shows in the same season and I had helped them gain that acclaim.  All of my trials, perseverance, work, and hope were finally paying dividends and, man, did it feel good.

During the run of Biloxi Blues, I even found time to gain a feeling of redemption from The Elephant Man.  Kevin Lawler was returning to town to guest direct a one man show for SNAP Productions called I Am My Own Wife.  This appealed to me on several levels.  Not only would a one man show really allow me a chance to test my ever increasing abilities, but it felt like a way I could close the book on The Elephant Man.

Despite the crushing blow I received from that audition, I never bore a grudge or any anger towards Kevin.  I understood that he did what he felt was right for the show based on what he saw and thought at the time and I respected that.  By just showing up for this audition, it felt like I would be saying, “Everything is fine between us.”

I ended up using a monologue from a one man musical called Cotton Patch Gospel and. . .What’s that?  You’ve never heard of Cotton Patch Gospel

Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised.  The show was a big hit when it was released in 1982, but has fallen into obscurity over time.  It’s the story of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew told southern style.  It’s one of my favorite plays and I often use it when I need to perform a monologue as most directors will not be aware of the show.

Due to having to perform in Biloxi Blues that afternoon, I signed up to be the first person to audition.  And I was quite nervous.  Kevin came out of the performing area, said hello, and we shook hands.  And I thought everything would be cool after that.

I walked into the theatre and did a double take at the set which was decked out like a Catholic Church for their production of Defending Marriage.  Kevin asked me about my acting work since the last time we met and I had told him I had done 11 more shows and was currently working on Biloxi Blues.  He asked me what I thought about working with Susan and I sang her praises.

Then he asked me to do my monologue and I nailed it exactly the way that I wanted to hit it.  When I finished, Kevin said, “That was really good, Chris.  I can really see the growth you’ve made, even from The Elephant Man which I think was the last time you auditioned for me.  It’s obvious you’ve been doing a lot more of this.  That was such an interesting piece.  Where the hell did you find it?”

And I told him the story of how the show had been produced when I was in high school and it had always stayed with me and I found a copy of the original production and bought it.

Kevin then asked me if I could do the monologue again, but do it as if I were really bored.  I thought for a moment, then did a sleepy take on the passage.  Kevin stopped me and said I was doing it, but on a scale of 1-10, I was at a 4 and he needed me at an 8.  I tried again and really slathered on the boredom.  I’m not sure if I was at an 8, but I think a 6.5 might be accurate.

Then he asked me to do it again as a fire and brimstone preacher.  I thought back to televangelists I had seen and did my best to emulate them, feeling I had done a respectable job.  Partway through the read, Kevin stopped me and asked me to try my strongest Southern accent.  Fortunately, I’ve got a pretty good ear for accents and had a fairly decent Southern preacher going.  When I finished, Kevin thanked me for my time and said I would hear something either way.

It took five weeks, but I was finally called and informed that another actor had won the role.  But I had gained peace of mind.  And I must have made it down to the final cut if it took that long to finally be rejected.

But even that wasn’t the end of the saga of The Elephant Man.  The true end actually came two years later when I bumped into Kevin at the inaugural Mid-Plains Theatre Conference.  We chatted a bit and then he floored me when he said:

“You know you had a really wonderful audition for The Elephant Man.  It was amazing to see an actor come in with that type of heart and passion.  I’m really sorry I couldn’t cast you.”

That’s when I closed the book because I knew that the audition had meant something if he still remembered it so vividly after six years.  And that is why I suspect I really might have been the runner-up for the role.

Still riding high from my banner year in theatre, I started off the 2006-07 season with an audition for The Talented Mr. Ripley for Susie Baer-Collins at the Playhouse.  My string of really good auditions stayed intact as I had another solid showing.  I managed to differentiate my Ripley from other actors by emphasizing his ability to think on his feet and not backpedaling whenever caught in a lie.  I would just cover the lie with another lie.

When the audition ended, Susie told me I had given an excellent audition and I earned another callback.  That was exciting enough, but when Susie told me she was considering me for the role of Tom Ripley, my jaw hit the floor.  The title role.  That’s when I knew I had come a really long way.

Eight of us were called back for the show and seven of us could have easily played any of the roles.  I ended up coming up on the short end of the stick, but got a novella of a rejection from Susie who praised my audition to the heavens.

Change was definitely in the air.

Soaring, Part 1

After the awakening and having sampled a taste of Shakespeare, I was ready to tackle what is widely considered the greatest play ever written:  Hamlet.

I had decided to pursue the role of Laertes, the brother of Ophelia and the son of Polonius.  This character is a bit of a hothead and somewhat arrogant which made him the perfect character in my mind because his personality was so drastically different from my own.  A friend of mine suggested I would make a good Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend.  I really wanted Laertes, but decided I would take a look at Horatio.

As I prepared for the audition, I got more and more into the character of Horatio.  He was so intelligent, loyal, and deep that I thought I could really do a lot with him.  I ended up changing my focus to Horatio, but kept Laertes prepared as I would then be able to display some versatility at the audition.  I also made a fateful decision.  Prior to this audition, I had always been willing to take any role in a production.  Now I had been in theatre for nearly 10 years and many of my roles had been small or bit parts.  I felt it was time to view things from a business perspective.  If directors saw that I was only doing unchallenging roles, there was a real danger that they may begin to think I was not capable of handling anything with some heft.  So I stated that I only wanted to be considered for Horatio and Laertes.  I knew I was taking a colossal chance, but I felt it to be well worth the risk.

Audition night came and I ended up reading first and as Horatio.  And I started off very strongly.  I had a great read with Scott as Hamlet and I felt natural and believable.  When I finished my turn, I noticed a lot of people in the theatre looking impressed, but my biggest badge of honor came from my friend, David Sindelar, who smiled and nodded at me.  Dave has always told things as he sees them, so to have won him over was a well earned prize, indeed.

I did get to read as Laertes and I didn’t do too badly, but there were a few others who I thought had a better attitude for the character as well as being a better fit physically.  Still, Cathy asked us to return the next time to be read some more.  Strangely, I was not asked to read as Horatio again, but read several times as Guildenstern which I found peculiar because I was very clear on whom I wanted to play.  And I also vowed that I was going to stick to my guns.  At this point, being take seriously was more important than getting cast.

That Friday, July 15, I received a call from Cathy at 6:30pm.  I’ve always found this to be a little eerie and ironic because it was exactly three years to the minute I had stepped foot in the Playhouse for The Elephant Man three years prior.  Our conversation went as follows:

“Chris, I’d like to talk to you about Hamlet.”

“All right.”

“Before I begin, I just want you to know that I think you are tremendously talented and that you have a very bright future in theatre, but at this point I just don’t think you’re experienced enough to play Horatio.” 

“I see,” I replied as I sat on my couch and felt my heart plummet to the pits of my stomach.

“I really want you in this play, but you have such a young look and I just envision Horatio as being older and more settled than you are.”

“I understand,” I said, feeling my face flush white as a sheet.

“I just haven’t worked with you enough yet.  But I still really want you to be part of this production because it would be a tremendous loss if we didn’t have you, but I’d like to give you a different role if you’re still interested.”

(Pause)  “All right.  I’ll play somebody else,” I said in a very soft voice.

“I’m really glad to hear that.  I won’t be casting the show for a few more days because I’m holding callbacks for Polonius and Claudius, but I’ll be in touch soon.”

As I suspected, I ended up with the role of Guildenstern and I don’t regret taking the part.  For one thing, it began my acting partnership with David Sindelar who played Rosencrantz.  Although we shared a scene in Dracula, I felt this was the first time I was really working with him as my skills had now evolved dramatically and could now experiment a bit with him.

One of my fondest memories of the show actually began 2 years prior in His Girl Friday.  Cathy and Scott are very big on what they call “walla wallas” which is actors improvising dialogue in crowd scenes to make it more believable.  On the last day of the show, I asked Dave’s character where the editor of the newspaper was and he looked at me and, with a deadpan expression, said, “You go to hell.  Go straight to hell.  Don’t pass Go.  Don’t collect $200.”  I had to pull my hat over my face to cover the laugh that was threatening to bust out.

In Hamlet, I got a bit of payback.  There is a scene where a troupe of actors arrives at the castle and Hamlet tells me of a monologue he once heard and begins to recite it.  I forget the exact line, but it had to do with the color of some item.  Dave took to saying that he remembered this monologue and kept trying to remember the color.  During rehearsals, I kept supplying normal colors.  On opening night, I said the first color which popped into my head which was, “Periwinkle”.  Dave’s expression told me I caught him somewhat off guard, but he recovered with the beautiful comeback, “It’s not periwinkle”.

Another fond moment is when Hamlet was talking to the leader of the acting troupe and, in the background, Dave and I improvised a story about why we came to Denmark.  It was something about Rosencrantz losing all of our money when he bet on a horse named Sloth.  This story grew bigger and bigger every night, but the best thing is that nobody in the cast or audience knew what we were saying.  We both were skilled enough and subtle enough that we were able to do this in a way that did not distract from the primary action.

I gained a great sense of satisfaction from this role.  One actor, David Dechant, praised Dave Sindelar and myself for being able to add a third dimension to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern just through sheer strength of acting ability.  We even gained notice in the review in the Omaha World-Herald which cited us as being good.  My greatest compliment came from the mother of one of the BSB regulars.  She was an actor, herself, and when she came to the show, she walked up to me afterwards and said, “Young man, you have shot up miles.”  I felt real pride after that praise.

Unfortunately, I hit a major stumbling block after Hamlet.  Scott asked me if I would play the role of Paul Trochard in the BSB’s second production, My Three Angels.  I accepted and looked forward to playing a sort of villainous role.  The show was plagued with trouble from the start.  We didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time.  We lost an actor partway through the rehearsal process due to a death in the family and he had to be replaced.  And I think Hamlet took a toll on Scott’s directing and certainly on my acting. 

Hamlet had been a grueling show.  It’s very long and we had a 2 month rehearsal process as opposed to one, plus the 4 week run of the show.  And then we jumped straight into rehearsing for My Three Angels.  Playing the title role was undoubtedly arduous for Scott and I think it dulled his creativity a smidge when directing this show, especially when he was compelled to take a role in it and have his focus split.  My acting, to be blunt, sucked. 

I simply could not get a firm grip on the role.  I had some moments that weren’t too bad, but for the most part, I just didn’t believe myself and it showed in the reviews.  Although I wasn’t mentioned by name, references were made to “wooden” and “uneven” acting and I knew the references were about me and I carried it like a weight on my shoulders.

It was my first real failure as an active performer. . .but the breakthrough was soon to follow.

To be continued. . .