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Wild Writer Friday Nights

I wrote a play last night. Not what I always do with my Friday nights, but at least I can say I did that once on a Friday night in my life. I’m participating in a 24 Hour Theatre project at the Long Beach Playhouse, in which five playwrights are given identical instructions at 8pm on a Friday night, and then are left to wrangle all night with their muses and deliver a 10-15 page script by 7am Saturday morning. Directors are then randomly assigned, actors arrive at 8am, and a marathon of rehearsal begins leading up to the 8pm premiere.

I have participated in several of these spectacles at various theatres, sometimes as an actor, sometimes as a director, sometimes as a writer. From my perspective, acting is the most fun, directing is the biggest headache, and writing is the biggest challenge, but the one I feel most comfortable in.

You really can’t know how it’s going to go. My last time out as a writer, I feel like I missed the mark, committing to a flawed idea that didn’t mesh as a story and didn’t tonally meet the audience’s expectations.

After dinner, I took a half-hour nap just to prepare. A half-hour is a good length for a refresher. Then, at 8, I received an e-mail with my instructions. I was writing for two women, one teenaged, the other teenage or early 20′s; and two men, one 40′s, one 40′s or 50′s. I had to include a drum as a prop, and the line of dialogue “It seemed like a good idea at the time“. All the playwrights had different cast demographics, but we all have the same prop and prompt line.

I picked up a pen and notepad and drove to a cafe that was open late. I thought I might spend as much as an hour just generating story concepts, but in one of those serendipitous flukes, I had an idea that sounded fun before I was even in the car. There’s no predicting that sort of thing, but when it happens, you go with it.

So I ordered a cappuccino and started brainstorming on how to fill in the idea and outlining to make it play for the right length of time. I guess not every writer would commit to outlining under suuch extreme time constraints, but I find its advantages are crystallized under these circumstances. If you’re writing, you’re getting caught up in the flow of moments, discovering character curlicues, etc. You can easily end up losing the plot. When you outline, you can move as fast as your decision-making allows, and decisiveness is crucial when your deadline is sunrise.

By 9:30, I had a solid outline, and some gags and lines worked out. I drove home and took a 20-30 minute walk around the neighborhood. Again, that might seem like an extravagant expenditure of time, but things like walks are crucial for shifting things around in your brain; letting the hard work of the previous hour sink in and freeing up the consciousness for the writing process. Brainhacking is one of those writing skills that I think is sorely undertaught.

By about 10 I was typing away, taking breaks every 30-40 minutes to stretch, get a beverage, or do some chore like folding laundry. Much in the way that they recommend you rest for 10 minutes during an hour of exercise, I think a mental refresh is valuable when you have to pace your way through a big assignment like this.

A little after midnight, I finished the draft. Normally, reflection and separation is important before rewriting; here, I was only away long enough to make a title page and print out enough copies to assemble scripts for everyone who would need them. Then I went back in, made a couple of corrections, filled in a moment, and that was it. At 12:45, the 11-page script was done.

I printed and assembled 10 copies, and then got right in bed at about 1:30. From what I gather, I slept more than any of the other writers – as much as four hours.

I was at the theatre before 7, and by 8 the whole company was assembled for the day’s work. I watched the first few read throughs, offered a couple of clarifications, and then left so the director could get to work without me breathing down his neck. I’m going to take it relatively easy today, have a nice long nap, and then rejoin them just before dinner time to see how it’s come together. I was already laughing from the first reading, but given my mental state that’s not exactly predictive for how the audience will react.

That I wrote 11 pages in only a few hours does beg the question of why I couldn’t do that every day, and thus have a new screenplay every two weeks. The truth is that these tend to be a lot more sloppy and shallow than work you’d really want to present professionally. Every so often a piece rises to the occasion, but part of the experience is the desperate concentration of creativity and energy that this format generates, which is unique unto itself and offers many surprises.

I’ve done my job, though. The talent will do their part to elevate it. For the record, the script is called “Jessica and Judy Bother a Hobo”.

Serious theatre right there. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Lifeplans

Much Ado had a pretty superb weekend – we crossed that threshhold where the cast seems to collectively settle in and starting finding life and new layers in the performance. Always takes a few shows to do that. We also had a slew of reviews out, mostly very positive – although one observed that I’m “a bit old” for the role of Benedick. (I wonder what he thinks about this gentleman daring to play it.)

Another review, though, singled me out for a full paragraph of rather staggering praise, and I don’t feel quite right about that, either! I do admit it feels good, but in a review like that, you want to see some of that love spread out amongst the cast, since they’re all working hard and we lift each other up.

Still, this is going even better than I had hoped, and I think when we reach closing night, I should be able to put this play to bed for awhile, and maybe put Benedick away for good.

A week later, we have a sort of pre-season gathering for Shakespeare Orange County, which will include costume fittings and a first reading for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We don’t start official rehearsals until late May, but it will surely whet my appetite so see the familiar faces, meet the new ones, and start playing with my fellow mechanicals.

And today I booked tickets for a visit to Chicago in mid-April. I’m due to turn in drafts on a couple of projects in the next couple of weeks, and I believe I can accomplish that before my plane departs. It would be awfully nice to grant myself that time away from major project deadlines, and let the producers here wrangle my projects while I catch up with friends and take pretty pictures. It’s rare that I see Chicago in the spring.

A face hopefully a subscriber could love

Aaaaaand, there’s my face on a poster:

I’ve always said that Benedick was the first role I ever got to play where I had the best lines and got to kiss the girl. I know that I don’t have leading man looks, but my take on Benedick has always been that he doesn’t need them. Claudio has to be young and beautiful the first time you see him, but Benedick’s charms, I think, work better when they emerge as his character evolves. The industry term would that he’s a “character lead”, which indicates that there’s substance and a journey, but is also a nice way of labeling a main character that less-attractive people can play.

My face has appeared in marketing materials before, albeit selling a slightly-different aspect:

That I take as a compliment, because it’s about selling something a little weird and a little dark, which I can do and I enjoy. But the above poster blatantly says “Don’t you want to pay money to see these two people be charming and romantic?” There I’m still not 100% sure I agree on the wisdom. But I think that’s probably just my own self-confidence issues.

Yesterday I did a brief interview with the Long Beach Press Telegram as part of an overall promotional article for the show. That’s a new experience for me, and it made real for me, kind of for the first time, the fact that when you start working at institutions like the Long Beach Playhouse, there is a certain responsibility involved in playing a leading role that goes beyond what you do on the stage.

Sure, one interview and a poster is nothing compared with a months-long worldwide press junket for a Hollywood star. But it is something new to me and my acting experience – and, I must confess, at least a little cool.

A face only a season subscriber could love

Add this to the list of unexpected outcomes from this resumption of my acting habit – this arrived in the family mailbox this week:

Photobucket

It’s a promotional mailer advertising the Long Beach Playhouse’s upcoming Studio Season – and they’re using that little moment from Dracula in order to convey, in a nutshell, what the Studio is all about. I think it boils down to: “Like handsome? Like crazy? In the Long Beach Playhouse Studio – you get both!

(The Handsome, by the way, is my friend Travis Dukelow, who played Dr. Seward, and was ever-so-generous in allowing me to taunt, befuddle, abuse, and stab him every night.)

They had me on the poster and program cover along with the rest of the cast for The Odd Couple, but none of the posters left the theater, so essentially anyone who saw it was already part of the audience. I think this is the first time someone is literally selling tickets with my face. I question the wisdom of that (especially in the state it was in for that show), but how could I take it as anything but a huge compliment?

First Update

The Long Beach Playhouse has announced their full studio season for the year, and confirmed audition dates for a couple of the shows on their Facebook. Accordingly, I have updated the audition bulletin board to include the shows for which audition dates have confirmed. I think my policy is going to be to include no more than one show at a time from a company if they’re not providing confirmed audition dates – no sense cluttering up the bottom of the board with a hundred “n/a” entries if it’s not going to help you mark your calendars.

Compassionate mental care

Victorian-style:


Myself as Renfield and Barney Crow as “Attendant”

This show comes with a dry-cleaning budget

So many different types of blood necessary for this play. Blood that can spray across the face in watery streaks. Blood that can sit visible on the stage floor in thick, fat drops. Blood that can be safely ingested. Blood hidden in capsules in the mouth, sponges inside handkerchiefs, tubes inside props. Every night I see the crew mixing blood, pouring it into spray bottles, injecting it into props via syringe. Every night they have to mop the stage floor of it. I have to shampoo it out of my beard.

This is so far from The Odd Couple. Curtain goes up tonight.

Bruised and happy

I have a very dramatic fall. We staged it Thursday night. To fall sideways safely, the sequence (quickly and fluidly) is knee-hip-wrist-elbow-shoulder-back-head. Each bit absorbs SOME of the gravity so that no one part absorbs all. Most stages are going to be hard wood, so you can’t stop it from hurting a bit, and bruises are going to happen. I’ve been rehearsing in knee pads for the past couple of weeks, but I’ve got a nice solid bruise developing on my left hip and it will probably stick around until November.

Bruised skin is a good result. The bad results we avoid with the bruises are broken bones and concussions. This show isn’t Spider-Man but even little moves can be much more dangerous than they appear after they’ve been rehearsed well.

You have to do this stuff so often that you stop thinking about it. One of the reasons that Wesley v. Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride is one of the greatest sword fights in movie history is that, in order for the humor to work, they had to have the choreography cold so they could deliver their lines with that arched casualness through it all. So any minute on set that they weren’t in the scene, they were practicing the moves, making them automatic.

I feel as if I have to work extra hard because I don’t have any formal movement training – no pantomime, no clowning, no dance, no body-mapping, none of those disciplines actors add to their toolbox to prepare for a highly physical role like Renfield. I’ve done some basic exercises in general acting classes, and picked a few things up as needed for shows, and by observation and mimicry. But I think if I had internalized a broader sense of the fundamentals, I would be more instinctively expressive with my body and the character (whose body language must be a fractured as his mind) would come across more cohesively. I think I’m doing well, but I think I would be much better with that in my arsenal already. Classes may be in order next year.

Still, I am getting some amazingly positive feedback. Tonight the director paid me one of the highest compliments I think a director can give someone like me. He said – and I am paraphrasing – that he had been wondering for weeks what he was going to do with lighting in order to create a certain scenic effect, but that my acting had rendered it unnecessary.

That made me smile and smile.

Whoah – I have a new Whedonverse connection!

So, this is the gentleman playing Dracula in our show:

IMDB credits here. He was in an episode of Dollhouse! Of course, I abandoned Dollhouse after two episodes and never re-visited it, so I haven’t seen his episode, but still…Whedonverse! I’m nowhere near the top tier of Joss Junkies on the Internet, but I still think that’s pretty cool.

Actually, that makes at least two minor Whedon connections for me – my dear friend Norma Jean played the shelter volunteer Captain Hammer shoves out of the way when he flees after experiencing pain for the first time in Doctor Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog.

She also played the waitress in Men of a Certain Age, so…Bakula connection! Or…ROMANOVERSE! Whichever you prefer.

Okay, it’s not a closet, but it’s LIKE a closet

It’s about time I confessed something…

I am…um…ahem…

I seem to be an actor again.

I have posted before about how my sporadic stage appearances since college have largely happened accidentally; and that’s essentially true. I didn’t pursue many opportunities at all. But this year…what a curious year it has been.

Back in February, a friend and colleague was urging me to get to know a new theater facility getting off the ground in Orange County. Most of the time I have done theater in the last few years, it has been in LA, but that gets pricey, and difficult to coordinate with the ol’ day job. And it seemed like I ought to do more to build a creative node in my own backyard. So I decided to show up and audition.

And I got cast. As Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. There are pictures of it and everything.

I received tremendous positive feedback and encouragement – with friends, co-workers, and strangers alike asking what my next role would be. At the time, there wasn’t a plan; all I wanted was a vacation and some time for the bruises to heal (physical comedy, you know…)

Then that same friend who introduced me to this place was making her directing debut with The Odd Couple, and offered me the chance to be a part of it. And suddenly I was playing Felix in The Odd Couple.

At this point, I was having enough fun, and sacrificing enough of my off-hours to it, that it would have to be considered at least a hobby. But it cost me valuable writing time, and still didn’t hold any interest for me as a professional pursuit, so I wasn’t booking any headshot photo sessions. Still – I was tracking local stage auditions more actively. Some ambition was growing there. I liked the people I was meeting and really enjoyed being in the push of rehearsals again.

On Monday night I went to an audition at the Long Beach Playhouse. This was me punching way above my weight class – walking into a prestigious company with a nearly 90-year history and competing against Equity Actors in front of complete strangers for a non-comedic role. Put me in the right role and I can get laughs on-stage. But the dramatic muscles…no one’s called on them for awhile.

I can now announce (confess?) that somehow, strangely, I have been cast once again. I will be playing Renfield in the Playhouse’s production of Dracula, as adapted by Steven Dietz from Bram Stoker’s original novel. It’s a heavy schedule – at least 16 performances in October and possibly some private bookings on top of that. My first read-through is Saturday morning, and I’ll have to leave early to make the matinee of The Odd Couple, which is still playing for the next two weekends. My next real free time is likely to be November.

Still – a Shakespearean romantic comedy lead, a hypochondriac neat-freak, and a bug-eating asylum patient, all in a six-month span. That’s a good year for anyone who loves the stage. I can’t pretend anymore. I’m not a writer who sometimes acts. I’m a writer and an actor.