Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Happy Trails"

It's the song sung backstage, usually off-key, at the Kennedy Center's Lab Theatre whenever an actor is leaving the long-running smash, Shear Madness. Last night's performance marked the departure of at least half a dozen actors, as the annual Spring Fling ended, and the summer season begins.

It was almost exactly one year ago that I last said good-bye to the Madness of Shear. Two springs in a row, I have played "Tony" in the second company of the show, performing Monday nights, and Tues-Wed afternoons at five. Last year, I maintained that the job is one of the hardest, but most satisfying, gigs in DC.

I stand behind that statement, though I have to confess, if I'm going to be honest, that this season was more difficult for me than last. There are several reasons. Last year, our cast remained in tact for the entire 18 week run. This season, we had a large overhaul around mid-way through, and replaced one actor only a month ago as well. This is not cause for great alarm for the Powers That Be: they consider the second company of Shear Madness to be a part-time job for actors, who occasionally leave the gig for a better-paying engagement. But it is cause for additional rehearsals and notes sessions for all the actors involved. We had very few weeks during the season which did not include a rehearsal or a notes session or both.

Well, certain disruptions are inevitable in that situation. By my count, over the 18 weeks of this season, I worked with two different "Barbara's", three different "Mrs. Shubert's", three different "Eddie's", and a whopping four different "Mikey's". That last number is always of concern to the actors playing Tony, as Mikey is the character who comes into the hair salon during the pre-show and gets his hair shampooed, rinsed, cream-rinsed, cut, moussed, and finally dried by Tony.

You have no idea the trouble a klutz like me has when, suddenly, I'm faced with a new head of hair to negotiate during the show.

Still, it's all part of the job.

A bigger problem we had this season was a result of the (seemingly) constant adjustments we were required to make to accommodate one or two audience members. I'll try to explain.

Shear Madness has never been an explicit show, but has always had its bawdy moments. These are completely harmless bits of fun, and always have the audience in stitches. A decade ago, when I first played in the show, the majority of audiences during the spring were high school groups who had traveled to DC for field trips and such. They adored the show, and the same schools have been sending their students to the Kennedy Center for 20 years. Shear Madness is doing something right.

These days, however, the majority of school groups attending the show are middle schools. Instead of our median audience being age 16, it's become closer to age 12. We have had more and more elementary schools showing up, too. As a result, during the spring, the show's bawdiness is toned down a bit.

This year, however, the evening cast experienced several instances where chaperons were so concerned about the show's content that they yanked their students out of the theatre in the middle of the show (this did not happen at anytime during my cast's performances, only during the night company's shows). One particular chaperon from Kentucky was so incensed that the show was portraying a gay character onstage (in 2008!!), that he complained to the Kennedy Center itself. ( I feel the need to reiterate that there is nothing in Shear Madness which can't be seen on any Will and Grace rerun at any time during the day, and there is no language in the show which can't be heard on network television nightly).

As I said, most of this controversy was happening to the evening cast. We had always been playing a slightly gentler show during the day, and to my knowledge, we received no complaints.

Still, the creative forces behind the show decided (under pressure from the Kennedy Center, I believe) that one or two mouthy right-wingers ought to have full script approval, so all of the hilarious, harmless innuendo was censured from the text. (The worst word in the script, apparently, was "bitch," uttered by my character in an explosion of pique, in one of the most hilarious moments in the show. One can hear the word "bitch" used every day on televised soap operas and sitcoms. It was replaced by "cow." As you can imagine, the life was sucked out of the sequence.)

Well, as an actor, I'm only a hired gun, and have no say in the creative direction of a piece, so I feel it's my job to make the show work as best as possible. I hope I was able to wring a bit of fun out of the new, bovine twists in the text.

There is one more reason that last night's farewell performance was difficult. A year ago, when I left the Madness, I had three gigs lined up for the remainder of the year. This year, I don't. It's always a bit scary to be leaving a secure job when you don't have any idea when your next one might pop up.

But I'll reiterate what I said before. Though this last month it sometimes felt like we were playing A Shadow of Shear Madness, the show remains the most challenging, and rewarding, job in DC.

happy trails to you...until we meet again...

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