Passings: 4

I received word that Steven Mead Johnson, whom I portrayed in The Laramie Project in 2004, has passed away, by way of a friend of Steven’s. In reply, I wrote,

I was saddened to learn of Steven’s passing. He was such a gentle, dear man. We had the very good fortune that he was living in Reston at the time of our production, as he was pastor of a local Unitarian congregation. He was able to meet with us and thus to deepen our understanding of the people of that rugged, remote place in Wyoming. And I rather think that he was good-natured about my borrowing of some of his physical mannerisms.

Clybourne Park: an update: 2

So we closed the show yesterday afternoon, and I’m pleased, overall, with the way it went. (There’s always something that you wish could have been better. Like I wish that I’d had a coach to help me fine-tune the brief bit of stage combat.)

Every so often I use music as a way to get into the world of a character. (My friend Lisa suggested this trick a long time ago.) Now, the little Bobby McFerrin riff that Roger used as transition music at the top of Act 2 was all I needed to help me find Tom Driscoll. But for the well-meaning, somewhat feckless, gentle parish priest Rev. Jim in Act 1, I needed a complete playlist. Some of this music I already had on hand, and some was newly-purchased. Here it is, Jim’s Jam, all songs pre-1959 as far as I can tell:

  • Perry Como, “Accentuate the Positive”
  • Lawrence Welk orchestra, “Bubbles in the Wine”
  • Patsy Cline, “Walkin’ after Midnight”
  • Glenn Miller orchestra, “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo”
  • Mel Tormé, “Moonlight in Vermont”
  • Lawrence Welk orchestra, “Beer Barrel Polka”
  • Perry Como, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You”
  • Mantovani orchestra, “Charmaine”
  • Patti Page, “Old Cape Cod”
  • Glenn Miller orchestra, “A String of Pearls”
  • Perry Como, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
  • Lawrence Welk orchestra, “Village Tavern Polka”

Mantovani’s version of a 1926 waltz by Rapée and Pollack is most everyone’s idea of soul-evacuating elevator music. (I remember an ironic modern dance troupe performance from about 20 years ago, set on this song, that consisted of the entire company queueing up as if at the DMV.) But for Jim, the lush, pillowy arrangement is pure bliss, his idea of what God’s grace must feel like. Is that a zither in the mix in the last chords? Plus, you can do t’ai chi stretches to it.

Jim and Judy danced to Glenn Miller when they were courting.

The Lawrence Welk recordings, all from the pre-TV days, are astonishing. Joyful, energetic, inventive, not slick at all—nothing like the bland music I heard when I was a kid in my grandfather’s living room watching the TV show. I used to worry that I was turning into my mother. Now I should worry that I’m turning into her father.

Clybourne Park: an update

Dry tech today, so I was off seeing other shows and catching up on the e-mail pile. Our company publicist circulated a questionnaire that she will use to write a preview piece for one of the local online theater mags. Some of Lennie’s questions and my answers:

1. What drew you to Clybourne Park as a director/actor?

When I first saw this show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company six years ago, I wrote : ‘Have you ever had this experience? A play finishes its first act, and as the house lights come up for intermission, you think, “that act was so polished and well-constructed that it could stand by itself; I could go home now and be happy.” That’s how we felt at the act break…’ That’s how strong this material is.

3. In his 2011 review of Woolly Mammoth’s second production of Clybourne, Peter Marks of the Washington Post said that “the play rummages, if you will, in the eternally unfinished basement of American race relations. It is a play about people thinking they don’t sound exactly the way they do.” Your thoughts on that? Actors, how does his second sentence apply to your character(s)?

It is ever a challenge (probably greater than the one I describe in my answer to #6 below) to separate what you know, as a person, that your character sounds like from what you know and feel is going on inside that character. It is a tempting trap to put quotation marks around what your character says and does, to telegraph to the audience, “I, the actor, am not this uninformed/foolish/nasty/hateful person that I am playing.” And I think that everyone in our cast has done a good job of stepping around that trap.

4. Another review quote — when Clybourne opened on Broadway in 2012, Ben Brantley of the New York Times said, “This play probably will be topical for many years to come. That’s bad news for America, but good news for theatergoers, as ‘Clybourne Park’ proves itself more vital and relevant than ever on a big Broadway stage.” That was two years after its Off Broadway premiere. Flash forward to now, four years after the Broadway premiere. Is Clybourne again — or still — “more vital and relevant than ever”? Why?

You betcha. One of the smart things that Bruce Norris does, via the echoes down the half century from 1959 to 2009, is to call out our propensity to slap a label on something (or someone) and think that we have understood it. The character Bev, in 1959, refers with some discomfort to a young man in her community; he has what today we would call Down Syndrome, but Bev has only the word “mongoloid.” In the second act, Kathy (played by the same actor), speaks briefly, thoughtfully about a niece with Asperger’s Syndrome. Will not audiences of 2059 hear Kathy’s words and find her just as benighted?

5. What’s the importance of the specific link to A Raisin in the Sun?

Well, perhaps it is a recognition of the potency of Langston Hughes’s poem, “Harlem,” from which the image is drawn: “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” That such a simple eleven-line poem could spark Lorraine Hansberry’s full-length stage play, a musical adaptation, and now Bruce Norris’s answer play, is astonishing.

6. As an actor or director, what’s been your biggest challenge with this show? Creating two characters? Recreating the house during
intermission? Something else?

Simple mechanics: falling down, safely, in such a way that I can fall down again the next night.

Macbeth: a recollection

Reston Community Players is planning a commemorative booklet of reflections and remembrances to celebrate its 50-year mark. I offered the following story, told by many people since the event. This is my version:

I was a supernumerary in our production of Macbeth in the winter 1993 time slot, directed by Jan Belcher. I filled in the background for the battle scenes; I was a servant opening doors and setting tables; I supported the Bloody Captain during his speech; that sort of thing.

Jan was bluntly opposed to the tradition/superstition that the name of the play not be spoken within the confines of a theater, and she broke the taboo loud and clear on load-in day. Perhaps she was justified: the show went on to weather its share of mishaps and technical delays, but no more than usual.

Except for one night.

The first scene with the witches featured a dead body made of styrofoam, hung as on a gibbet. The three weird sisters (Maggie Geuting among them) did a dance around it, and at the end of scene, performed a wash-up move, cueing the flyman to take the corpse out.

But on this night, the corpse missed its spike and sailed all the way up to the top of the flyspace. We heard a loud bang as it crashed into the grid.

OK, nothing to see here; the play continued.

Lady Macbeth (Penny Cupina) came on for the letter scene. Halfway through the scene, one of the plastic corpse’s legs detached and fell to the deck, with a small crash but no ceremony. The stage manager said, “David, there’s a leg on stage. Can you help us out?” “Uh — sure thing.”

I came on to execute my next assigned gate-attendant maneuver, perhaps a little early. I strode over to the chunk of loose set dressing, scooped it up, and tried my best to hold it upstage of my body.

The gates being opened, Macbeth (Tel Monks) and his entourage entered as I skedaddled off stage and disposed of the artificial limb — to everyone’s relief.

Much Ado about Nothing: an update

We finished our last tech run tonight; tomorrow we see a preview audience. The show is snugging up nicely, and (I think) we are ready for an audience to bounce some funny off. Nick has been mixing Italian bird song (from Xeno-canto, per my recommendation) into the sound design; John’s set, with clay tile roof details and lots of hiding places for eavesdropping, looks great.

Harvey has posted pictures from last night’s run; here’s a cute one of me (Verges) looking for a gratuity from Lou (Leonato). My costume fits and looks good; I’m wearing new tights and a pair of beat-up Reeboks that, as far as I can remember, I last wore, on stage or otherwise, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

We’re still fine-tuning some business—the binding of Borachio is not quite as safe as we would like—and the timing of a couple entrances. Since Verges is one of the watchmen, any time the garden gate needs to be opened or closed, that ends up being my job.

Rewrite: an update

Tech rehearsals this week for Rewrite have been clean. Folks from the other three shows on the night have been watching the runs, and they seem to think the show is hilarious. This is one of my favorite costumes on the comfy scale: sweatshirt, baggy khakis, and boat shoes; Linus and Dan get to wear the sight gags. My third show for the Stage where most of my action is to sit and type gibberish—easy peasy. There’s one passage where the blocking still feels awkward, but it’s very short. I really like the way Tom Moran (the playwright) has crafted the Author’s texts (the Author is a mediocre-at-best novelist and we hear his first drafts): the Author’s “writing” is flabby and free-wheeling at the same time, and I hope that audiences will find it funny.

August: Osage County: an update: 1

I do expect that this will be the only series of posts with three colons in the title.

at home with the Westons We are running big chunks of the show, generally off book and off prompt. This afternoon we did a full run, which means I get to relax and watch the stunning act 2 dinner scene.

Leta is in the show, but I have zero shared stage time with her. Rather, much of my scene work is with Lee; we have a once-in-a-while shared history that goes back to a silly hotel room farce called Birthday Suite that we did for the Players in 1994.

Since I have little text to work with, I can do some micro-level dialect work, aided by the audio archive of Oklahoma speakers developed by Paul Meier and the University of Kansas. Matt shared this link with the cast; I was more or less aware of the archive but I didn’t realize that the corpus was categorized by state. The unscripted samples are the best part; the researchers found ordinary people with some really interesting stories to tell ex tempore. The standard passage, “Comma Gets a Cure,” is sometimes distracting to the subjects, especially those who have actually taken a goose to the vet.

USA Science & Engineering Festival

just stepped out of the time machineWe had a good, if tiring, time over the last two days talking to the kids visiting the USA Science & Engineering Festival. Actually, I spent a lot of my time talking to the parents, who were happy to prompt their children with “When I was your age, we loved to watch Jacques Cousteau’s TV documentaries.” We spent some time today just inside the entrance to Mellon Auditorium, where many folks were distracted by just having cleared security and the urge to find the flight simulator and the hamster globe. We had more extended conversations out on Wilson Plaza, right at the point where the booths peter out and everyone is wondering where the auditorium entrance is: it was easy to figure out whether people wanted to pause and chat and take pictures and ask awkward questions like “Who was your best friend?” (Hey, this is not a online banking security challenge, lady!) or whether people were looking to motor on to their next destination. Thanks to the family from Lebanon who kindly chose not to continue our conversation completely in French.

my favorite government workerLeta did a great job of boiling Rachel Carson’s explanation of toxin accumulations in upper trophic levels of the food web down to elevator speech length.