Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Letter to my Mother

Jo Williams
10/18/29 - 3/28/83

Dear Mom,

Today, 24 years after you were taken from us, I attended rehearsal for one show and performed before a full house in another. I hope you would be pleased that, on this unavoidable anniversary, I spent the day doing what I love.

I know it is not the life you envisioned for me. Even in my 20's, when you were still with us, I think you believed I was merely dabbling in the arts, paying the bills with retail and food service jobs. I have a hunch you thought, "Soon, he'll realize he can never make much of a living, doing theatre, and he'll change career paths."

That never happened. Your hopes for me, I know, included financial security and a family of my own. That never happened either, but I know your biggest wish for me was that I live a happy life, and in that, you can rest easily. I don't regret my career choices, even as my childhood buddies enjoy their wealth, their various vacation homes, their children (and grandchildren!).

Pictures of you surround me in my life: The birthday party you attended at age 10 in 1934, with your buddies Martha Suddeth and Barbara Bennett; the glamour shots of you as the first Apple Blossom Queen of Hendersonville, NC; the wedding portraits of you and Dad which frame my bed; and of course, many shots of the adult woman whom I remember so clearly.

I wear your wedding band on my little finger, a constant celebration of your life, but this time of year especially (and at Christmas, and on our birthdays, both yours and mine), you resurface in my consciousness, and in my dreams. I wonder what you might think of me, if you knew me now. I know you would love me, I even think you would like me, but I hope you would also be proud that I took an unexpected path.

Way back in 1983, when I was trying to make sense of the devastation of your death, I was told that those who are taken during Holy Week are especially blessed. It is rare that March 28 falls between Palm Sunday and Easter, but in 1983, it did. I hope it's true that you have found lasting peace.

I know you watch over us.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Opus Begins

Our first few rehearsals of "Opus" have my head spinning with the realization of all the work which must be done in the next 3 weeks. I was sorry I had had lunch before our first read, as the cast was inundated with various munchies, cheeses, grapes, and the like, provided by our glorious leaders.

The first read revealed a play with heart, humor, pathos, and of course, intense musicality. To help with it all, Director Steve has engaged two consultants, who will be teaching the five of us the fine art of pretending to play the violin, viola, and cello. I am the luckiest of the group, as I'm playing the character who has been ousted from the quartet, and thus will only need to learn one piece. (Yet my role, "Dorian," is the undisputed musical genius of the play, so I get the bonus of being considered "the best" without having to actually prove it. Gotta love that.)

But it's the personal relationships among the characters which will ultimately make or break this play. So I am greatly appreciating the table work which Steve is taking us through here at the beginning of our journey.

I only wish I were attending the full rehearsal calls, but my performances of "Shear" are butting in. This week's performances at the Kennedy Center have, so far, been packed with teenagers, audiences which are loud and sometimes difficult to control during the participatory segments. Today was the first time we made any cuts in the script due to the rowdiness of the crowd. It's a necessary component of the Spring Shear Shows, the ability to clip certain bits from the show on the spur of the moment, to keep the show moving tightly.

We'll have no such component with "Opus." So next on the agenda: learning the technical moves required to play the string instruments, and of course, learning THE WORDS.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Another Project

I'm looking forward to starting work on "Opus," by Michael Hollinger, at the Washington Stage Guild, on Monday. The production will be the DC premiere. Several tense days were had this week, when one of the actors (there are only 5) received and accepted an offer at the much larger Shakespeare Theatre Company, and had to withdraw. At triple the money, his decision was really a no-brainer, but put the Stage Guild into overdrive, in order to replace him before rehearsals begin.

All is well now, as a replacement has been found and rehearsals are set to begin. Bless the Stage Guild for working around my performances of Shear Madness, which are inconveniently scheduled right in the middle of the usual rehearsal day.

Opus is a deceptively simple-looking piece, a depiction of the dynamics of a string quartet struggling with interpersonal issues. The show includes much musical accompaniment to which the actors must learn to mime the movements of a string quartet. So, interspersed with the usual type of rehearsals required for a straight play, we will also be learning how to negotiate our instruments realistically.

Wish me luck with my viola...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Tony Ending

We're two weeks into the Shear Spring Fling, and each morning I'm waking up with that unlikely mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration that comes only with being In Performance. We have eight shows under our belts, all of the houses populated with a majority of school groups in town on their Class Trip. As a result, the audiences have been raucous but very involved in the Solving of the Murder. The ultimate challenge: to encourage these young audiences to participate, while keeping control of the situation.

What audiences don't know until the final curtain is one of the things which has made the show so successful for so long: when they vote for who they think the murderer is, the cast then plays the rest of the show to reflect their choice. The vast majority of the ballots are cast for the characters of "Barbara," the gum-smacking, wise-cracking hairdresser, or "Eddie," the sleazy antiques dealer. My character, "Tony," is usually perceived as too lovable to commit a crime (except the crime of fashion: I'm wearing pink and white, with Julia Sugarbaker glasses right out of the 80's), so there is very rarely a Tony Ending. In over 200 performances in which I've played Tony over the years, I've been judged the murderer only 3 times.

Until last Thursday, when a group of kids decided Tony was just too fey for his own good, and voted him the murderer. The cast did a terrific job with this unusual scenario (so unusual that we never even rehearsed it together; I was just given the blocking one day, and that was that). There's something to be said for adrenalin (and a sense of underlying panic), and the ending came off well. In fact, I hope I get the chance to play the ending again before the gig is over, as it's great fun turning from the frivolously upbeat hairdresser into the deeply disturbed psycho who stabs the lady upstairs to keep his job.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Alarming News

...on the Musical Theatre front. The only positive spin I can put on this bit of horrifying news is: at least it's not "Cats 2, the Purring Continues..."

Let's see:
"Bring Back Birdie"
"Annie Warbucks"
"Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public"
"Divorce Me, Darling" ("The Boyfriend 2")
"Shock Treatment" ("Rocky Horror Show 2")

... has there ever been a successful sequel to a musical?

I eagerly await other possibilities:

"Jersey Men"

"Beauty and the Beast Go Hawaiian"

...and one really worth waiting for:

"Monday in the Park with George"

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Shear Shock

This was the view out the windows of the Kennedy Center's Theatre Lab for much of this week, but the mood inside was anything but gloomy. An enthusiastic group of actors was being led through their paces with verve and just a bit of urgency. The Second Company of Shear Madness was being assembled and rehearsed, under what must be considered complicated circumstances. But Shear has been doing this for almost 20 years, so somebody knows what they are doing.

The actors all have varying degrees of experience with the Madness, and were in fact rehearsed semi-separately due to the requirements of the ongoing production, which played 9 performances this week.

Our cast includes:

One undisputed veteran of the show, playing the sleazy antiques dealer. Mark fits the role like a glove. He must have played the part a thousand times or more, so we only saw him twice this week. He doesn't need the rehearsal.

One semi-vet, playing the lead detective on the case. Matt has been with Shear off and on for many years, playing three of the four male roles many, many times. He has surely worked his way up from the young cop to the role of Rosetti, who runs the investigation (and the audience participatory parts of the show).

Two actors new to the production, playing the young detective and the society grande dame. Matthew and Catie both rehearsed last month, and joined the evening company for two weeks to get their feet wet with 8 (or 9) shows a week. As they have both been performing in the evenings, we saw them only twice this week.

One brand new actress, playing the gum-smacking Barbara. Tiernan went through the challenging process of rehearsing a week all by herself, with director Bobby and stage manager Robert playing all the other roles. It's guerrilla theatre, necessitating absorption of the entire show in 6 days. I know exactly what she went through, as my first engagement with the Madness years ago was rehearsed in the same way, by myself, with no other cast members available to play with.

Oh, and we have one actor who should have remembered much more than he does, from his two previous stints with the show. That would be me. I joined Tiernan and Matt in rehearsal this week, and was surprised at how little of the previous experiences had stuck with me. But director Bobby pressed on, and as we moved through the show, moment by moment, beat by beat, and bit by bit, the thing has begun to take shape. We won't know for sure until Monday night's opening performance, but from where I'm sitting, this looks to be a comically talented group of very smart actors who know what they are about.

The fact that all six of us will be together to run the show only once, on Monday afternoon, gives only minor trepidation. This show runs like a Swiss clock when it's done right, and all of us are determined that on Monday, it will be right.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Diving In

It's long been said, "If you want to make an actor complain, give him a job." I hope I am not one of those. I'm looking forward with great anticipation to the next several months of work, the first of 2007, actually.

My rehearsals for "Shear Madness" begin tomorrow, and end on Monday. Yep, only a week's worth, but surely enough for a returning actor. The "Second Company" opens Monday night, and will run roughly four shows a week through June 21. It looks to be a very fun group this time out, including several actors I've worked with in the past on other projects. Always fun to reconnect.

Once "Shear" is up and running, I'll be starting rehearsal for "Opus" at the Washington Stage Guild. Very very excited about this production, a DC premiere directed by my grad school buddy Steve Carpenter. So, I'll be in rehearsal, or performance, or BOTH, every day from now until the end of June.

But believe me, I'm NOT complaining...

Who needs a day off from doing what you love?