Monday, May 9, 2016

"I Hate This" at Talespinner Children's Theatre

Last Saturday night I performed I Hate This (a play without the baby) at Talespinner Children's Theatre. I took the photo at right backstage, minutes before the show began.

I first performed this piece when I was thirty-five. The events it describes happened when I was thirty-three. I am now nearly forty-eight.

I had, on occasion, used hair dye to cover those patches of gray which were arriving daily, to keep my appearance more in line with how I looked in my early thirties. Even then one critic described me as having the somber, cavernous face of an old man. Today my cheeks sag, my eyes have sunk. If I tried darkening my hair or putting pink in my cheeks I'd just look like that guy from Death In Venice.

Besides, the whole point of this endeavor was to tell the story from now. Not in any obvious way (though I did add a brief, new scene to represent Calvin's most recent birthday) but if this go-round has taught me anything it is that the piece works best when I just tell it. More telling, less acting. The writing has always been better, anyway.

Writing the cues on Friday night I thought my, what a lot of work for one performance. But isn’t that how it always is? And it is worth it to do something right the only time you do it. Josh and Chennelle in the booth, he would run his video and sound, she the lights. As we went cue to cue, she made a few new suggestions, to cut some things and to add others. Learned response said no. My heart and more importantly my voice said yes. I was not alone. I was free.

Driving there.

Back in 2002, this script was presented at an invitation-only event at Dobama. I can only imagine what my delivery was then, but the script was positively received. At that time, a colleague observed that my new piece contradicted the commonly held belief that it takes ten years before someone can truly write about personal tragedy. She was impressed with how much I was able to see from outside of myself to write it.

However, after this most recent performance, perhaps it remains true that even if you can write it, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can play it. I last performed I Hate This in 2011, ten years after the events in question, and at that time I was trying to recapture the sense of my original performance, as though honesty could only be found in recreating the feelings I had when I first wrote and performed it.

Retro desk.
I was playing anxiety, playing sadness, even playing anger. Chennelle was direct. She didn’t believe me. I am one of her supervisors at work, I have trained her to do the work she does in schools as an actor-teacher. We are friends and we are colleagues, and we have even been artistic collaborators before (see: Love In Pieces) but there still exists a mentor-student dynamic which can probably best be described by age. I am older than she is by a generation, and as such she is suited to best reflect back to me the kind of person I appear to those who do not know me.

That was the best note I received; "But that’s not you."

By slowing down, by lecturing, by being direct myself, there were more opportunities for surprise when I was vulnerable, more time and space for subtlety. I was able to loosen up the words. My delivery became spontaneous, not rehearsed.

I did blow a number of lines, I cannot say for sure whether anyone even noticed. I made unintentional cuts to phrases that I realized in the moment were not even necessary and it didn’t even throw me. I improvised successfully, I was never able to do that with this script before.

The difference, in time and attitude, was apparent almost immediately, and the evidence was laughter. Real, genuine, unafraid laughter. I could see the audience, could see unfamiliar faces in the front row and by looking at them I knew they were fellow travelers, that’s why they were there. And as we began, as I began from the beginning, from the first realization on that horrible day in March, that something was horribly wrong, I felt the same sense of dread and sadness wash over the crowd, the apprehension.

Photo: Anthony Gray (2003)
Then I made the observation of the Christmas tree in the waiting room. The absurdity of the Christmas tree. The wrongness of the presence of a Christmas tree. Get it?

"It was March!"

This was almost shouted. It surprised me. And I got a laugh. A BIG laugh. I’d always wanted a laugh there, but it had been impossible to achieve before. Why? Because it seemed inappropriate to laugh in this situation no matter what I said? Because it wasn’t clear before what my point was?

Or was it the clock? The awareness that this didn’t just happen, that it happened a long time ago for me, and that my telling it no longer has a desperate urgency that demands careful walking?

I have always insisted there are funny moments in this play. Saturday night there were hilarious moments. In the past, audiences have often been entirely unprepared or unable to laugh at them.

Except for the Irish. I once had the opportunity to perform the show in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, and they thought it was hilarious. You may draw your own conclusions about the Irish sense of humor.

Brian P. has seen I Hate This many times since the very beginning. He said, “I guess I should assume you would be a better actor now that you used to be,” to which I responded, I hope so, isn’t that how things are supposed to work? He went on to make an observation about this subtlety I have been remarking upon. A confidence in the work, perhaps? I should have such confidence in every show I do. Maybe that’s why I don’t act.

Often we host a talkback following this performance. People have questions. One of the often asked questions is in regards to the First Birthday: March 20, 2002 scene. Do we still celebrate Calvin’s birthday? Do we do the same things?

In Saturday evening’s performance that question got answered. In a new scene, Fifteenth Birthday: March 20, 2016, I mention all the traditions; cake, chalk, the zoo. That’s not why I included it, my impetus for the new scene was all the reasons I wanted to do the show, at least once, this year. It’s Calvin's fifteenth birthday. I am no longer the person I was. And my father has died.

However, feeling that Saturday was a celebration, as opposed to a teaching moment (those are important, too) and basically believing at long last that the play says what I want to say, and that after sixty minutes I have talked enough, I wanted everyone to have the chance to talk to each other.

Photo: Liz Conway
So I got some light refreshments; cheese, crackers, grapes, some wine and beer, a little seltzer, and encouraged everyone to stay for a bit. I thought we’d hang out for a half hour or so. Before I knew it two hours had passed.

It was like a wedding reception, everyone wanted to have a word with me, which was nice, and I did my best to give everyone my full attention, and also to share it. The crowd was diverse, though a large number were friends and colleagues, some I have known for decades, others were my new, much younger protégés.

Several had arrived because they were fresh in their own grief. Friends had recommended the show to them. I hear the familiar, comforting refrain; the details may be different, but we have far much more in common.

Perhaps the most important to me were those in attendance who have never had the opportunity to see it before, my living children. They know about Calvin, they participate in his annual celebration. March 20th is a great day, we take them out of school, we go to the zoo, the aquarium, there's a big dinner and cake. It's fun! It's happy. We also visit the cemetery. They know why, they understand what it's about, and they always have.

However, they've never really heard the story, this story, this play. And now they have, and they enjoyed it. Their favorite part? The scene where I mention them, Fifteenth Birthday.

For years I resisted incorporating any mention of subsequent children in the production. I didn't want to let the audience off the hook, as in, "Oh, they had living children. Everything is all right then." But I knew these two would be there Saturday night, and so many members of their family are represented; uncles, grandparents, cousins, and their big brother. It would have been odd for them not to be a part of it.

Read the complete script of "I Hate This" on INDIE THEATER NOW

Driving home.
Does WMJI have a quota?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Eden On The River (musical)

Not your daughter's Aaron Burr.
This week the Tony Award nominations were announced, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton received an unprecedented sixteen nominations, including a record seven nominations for individual performances from a single production.

The man himself received a nod for Best Performance by an Actor for a Lead Role in a Musical for the eponymous character, but so did his co-star Leslie Odom Jr. for the inimitable role of Aaron Burr. Historical precedent notwithstanding, I am sure their conflict will be handled with grace and mutual celebration.

Prior to its introduction at the Public Theatre a year ago, the average American who knew anything about Alexander Hamilton probably knew two things; he was the first Secretary of the Treasury and that he was shot in a duel with Aaron Burr. Most probably only knew that second part.

Miranda’s decision to make Aaron Burr the near-omniscient narrator of this production was brilliant, echoing the use of Judas Iscariot as the audience’s confidente and co-conspirator in Jesus Christ Superstar. By the end of the evening, it is as though we know more about the mercurial Burr than we do the fallen angel Hamilton.

The playwright is far too kind to his antagonist, however, depicting a Burr who in the moment of his greatest error expressing instant regret and immediately reflecting upon his haunted future. The historical Aaron Burr returned across the Hudson after mortally wounding his foe, had a good meal and received appointed visitors without once mentioning what he’d just done.

As performed by Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton’s Burr is not only sympathetic, but attractive with a voice attributable to the heavens. And the historical Burr lived, and his remaining years were adventurous. Perhaps there is a sequel in the works, even now, a musical about the wilderness years of former Vice President Aaron Burr.

Only it’s already been done.

Blennerhassett Mansion
Over forty years ago, John H. Lee of Parkersburg, WV wrote a one-act play called Conclave, which was later expanded in 1974 into a three-hour musical called Eden of the River, in collaboration with Joyce Ancrile and Genevieve Greene (lyrics and music, respectively.) The subject was primarily the personages of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, Irish immigrants of some personal fortune who spent their way west until settling at the very edge of European civilization on the island which now bears their name. Blennerhassett Island sits in the Ohio River between present day Parkersburg and Marietta, Ohio.

They had built a charming little mansion and began a farm and entertained dignitaries from far and wide and were by all reports very delightful hosts whose ability to burn through cash was rivaled by their failure in agriculture. An unremarkable American story. Except for the arrival of one very special guest..

Aaron Burr, sir.

The plan was to raise men and funds and head south to drive Spain out of Mexico. The question was whether he intended to join war with Spain when declared by Jefferson, or if he was planning to raise his own army for the purpose of seizing Mexico for himself. Harman Blennerhassett was persuaded to invest in the great man’s venture, and for his troubles was eventually imprisoned and his lands confiscated for joining what was branded a conspiracy.

Blennerhassett was almost ruined. Burr was acquitted, spent some time in Europe, and returned to New York City to quietly practice law, dying at the age of 80.

The Aaron Burr of Eden of the River is a seductive populist, as comfortable throwing back moonshine with western Virginian settlers as he is receiving Blennerhassett guests like the young Senator Henry Clay; the script includes reference to many historical figures who actually visited Blennerhassett Island. In fact, one of the supporting players is Burr’s eldest daughter, dear Theodosia.

Program, 1989.
The most salacious plot point in the play is the suggestion that in attempting to seduce Harman, Burr also made a play for this wife, Margaret. One, single cabin survives from the Blennerhassett era and someone once found the initials “AB+MB” scratched into the warped, almost two century old glass, giving rise to a legend of extra-marital behavior.

Of course, absolutely anyone could have made that inscription over the years.

Eden On The River was modeled after other outdoor historical dramas like Trumpet In The Land and Tecumseh! However, where the production lacked horses and flaming arrows, it did feature live, wandering peacocks and the quaintly majestic backdrop of a reconstructed Blennerhassett Mansion.

Yes, for four summers 1987-1990, Eden was presented on the isle where it happened. I was a member of the chorus (and also Henry Clay, who has one line) for the second and third seasons. The first two years the production able to use the mansion itself as “backstage.” It was still in the process of construction, the floors were bare and the walls naked sheetrock.

Apparently some company members were less than professional with the space, and by the third season we were exiled to a number of air conditioned trailers behind the building. 1989 was a very wet summer, the mosquitoes were rampant but most company members preferred to sit outdoors rather than in the trailers, which were rendered funky and uninhabitable almost immediately.

I was bitten so many times I developed an allergic reaction, creating rash from my right knee all the way up to my crotch, for which I required antibiotics. You’re welcome.

But why was this outdoor musical mothballed after four years? Why is Eden not celebrating its thirtieth season on the river this summer? Once upon a time I might have suggested it was because it’s not very good, but upon further reflection and enjoying a twenty-six year old VHS cassette, I have come to the conclusion that that is simply not the case. It’s no Hamilton, but what is? There are several songs which are much better than I had recalled, and it does have high, historical spirit.

It is a bit too long. Originally staged for the island by Ohio University professor Bob Winters, Bob judiciously cut the three-and-one-half hour long event down to a much more manageable two and a half hours, but after two seasons he retired himself from the production, and the third season it was re-staged by creator John Lee … who promptly restored several songs adding almost another half-hour.

And as I said, Eden didn’t have any fights or exotic animals or any Christian themes or racist native American stereotypes, elements which appear to be necessary for the perpetuation of a destination outdoor musical. Just some attractive turn of the nineteenth century, lots of young dancers from the local colleges, and starring some fine, classically trained voices; veterans from opera companies in Cleveland, Cincinnati, New York City, and beyond. Perhaps folks just want their outdoor drama less genteel, more rugged, and with fewer mosquitoes.

Update:  Leslie Odom Jr. won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as Aaron Burr in "Hamilton".