Monday, November 19, 2018

Calling All Ears (radio drama)

Fall quarter my sophomore year at Ohio University, our acting professor reached out to my buddies and I about a special project. A class in the RTV building was studying radio drama and they had a special guest, David Ossman.

Most recently Ossman was a producer for various programs on NPR, and PBS voice-over work. We knew him, however, as a member of The Firesign Theatre, that satirical radio comedy troupe of the late 60s-early 70s. We were very excited to get to work with him, and even went to the local record store to pick up copies of their work to bone up before meeting him.

Seriously. We went to the local record store and bought vinyl copies of Don’t Crush That Dwarf Hand Me The Pliers, Everything You Know Is Wrong, I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus, Wait For The Electrician (Or Someone Like Him) and How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All. They were all right there, waiting for us, in the store. Athens!

I was a little bummed out because at the moment my voice was almost destroyed. That quarter part of theater practicum was clearing out the attic space in Kantner Hall decades worth of props and smaller set pieces which had been stored there and largely forgotten about. The entire room had a thick layer of dust and I was surprised to learn the deep gray cement floor was, when vacuumed, actually a pristine white.

The end result of having inhaled so much dust, however, was that I could barely speak. However, one of the scripts we worked on in the radio production class featured an elderly gentleman, and I was able to push through a rather convincing impression of the character of the decrepit manservant Catherwood from The Future Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye, originally performed by (yes, indeed) David Ossman.

David Ossman, left
The technicians learned a lot but we actors did, too, about microphone placement, Foley effects, pacing, the use of music, etc., etc. In one all-too-brief session I learned lessons that we would apply through our time at school, creating radio dramas that Guerrilla Theater would broadcast on WRUW, and that we would employ much later creating radio drama for WCPN.

That was the first time I met David Ossman. The second was when he produced Calling All Ears for WCPN 90.3, which broadcast the night before Thanksgiving, November 27, 1991. Produced in collaboration with Cleveland Public Theatre, the event was held at the Metro Campus of Cuyahoga Community College.

An evening of “live radio theater” the show was to include three winners of a writing competition, though apparently one of them was for some forgotten reason unusable (inappropriate? too complicated?) and so the third piece was one from Ossman’s bag of tricks, Max Morgan: Crime Cabbie. As he explained it, by the 1950s radio drama was on the wane, with every conceivable detective show angle played out, and this was a satire of one of those.

It was thrilling and unnerving was when I discovered I was cast as the bartender Fergus, opposite Ossman himself as Max Morgan! Unfortunately, my twenty-three year-old self worked a little too hard to impress, and as a result I spent much of the performance trying to out-dick the dick, playing a smarmy variation on Nick Danger instead of the role I had been cast as, the easily-impressed sounding board for the actual hero of the story.

Most memorable for me was the large acting company, where I met for the first numerous players who would have a profound effect on my life. Freshly out of school and only recently settled into a daily Cleveland existence, this process introduced me to a large Cleveland theater community -- and we were all so young then, too.

Brian Pedaci, Peggy Sullivan, David Thonnings, Jenny Litt, Lee T. Wilson, Shruti Amin; there were all folks I would play with in the following years. I also made the acquaintance of Dave Caban from WRUW, Karen Schaefer from WCPN, and broadcast project director Jordan Davis.

My favorite piece of the evening was penned by the late Cleveland playwright Aubrey Wertheim. Originally titled Make Way for Dyke-lings, the more radio-friendly Along Party Lines is totally early 90s. Imagine if you will, a pair of suburban teenage girls waiting in the food court at Tower City to meet and see a movie with a pair of strange guys one of them met over a “party line.”

A "party line." Look that up, Millennials. I’ll wait.

The whole thing is crammed with Foley and recorded effects, a vast company of colorful characters, and a surprisingly progressive take on young adult relationships. It also includes my favorite tagline for Tremont, one which I find amusing even today.

The early 90s were a difficult time for Cleveland, the city center continue to be hollowed out, Tower City and the Galleria were already going into decline, the entire nation was in economic doldrums, there was no clear end to our woes. But it was a joyful moment, as a young artist, to meet and collaborate with so many exciting people.

Even so, the attendance that evening was all right, perhaps a hundred people were in the audience for this live event, enough to generate an audible audience response but not a very strong one. Getting people to come downtown, to do absolutely anything, was a difficult challenge at that time.

This past weekend I returned, with my family, to that same venue, the auditorium at the Tri-C Metro Campus, to see my kid perform their first concert with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, a unique and exceptionally talented ensemble under the direction of Liza Grossman. The place was packed, the room buzzing with excitement. It got me all excited for the holidays.

Get out into the world this season. Enjoy Cleveland. And Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Professor Street Theater

2275 Professor Street (1992)
It was November 4, 1992. We were having rehearsal for our third week of performances of You Have the Right to Remain Silent!

I went up to the office during a break to check the election returns on CNN, where I was stunned to see the projected returns quite solidly suggested that Bill Clinton was going to win.

The idea that twelve years of Republican presidency, and specifically the Reagan-Bush Era, was coming to a close, was beyond my ken.

In 1980 I was twelve. Then I was twenty-four.

I came downstairs and announced the news, which led to a general cheer from the entire company.

Retro, our more libertarian member, sneered, “Man. What the hell are you people gonna write about now?”

The space was the Professor Street Theater. We’d signed the lease in August, $700 a month for two thousand feet of performance space downstairs and four rooms upstairs.

Four could squat for $175 each and we’d never need to generate a penny’s worth of profit for our work. We presented Silent! for eight months, closing in May to take a short break, produced a Shakespeare and then vacated for a different Tremont location.

Retro held onto the lease for a while, creating and presenting the Off-Hollywood Flick Fest there before the owner sold the place and it was a private residence and artists’ studio for nearly twenty-five years before the coffee shop Beviamo relocated there last year.

Professor Street Theater (above) and Beviamo Cafe (below)

Last April, I stepped into the space at 2275 Professor for the first time for the first time in almost a quarter century for a latte, and to get majorly freaked out.

It’s the same room, only so much brighter and different. Our early 90s landlord was adamant about our not changing a thing about the building, he pitched a fit when we painted a sign on the front door without his permission. It was easier to ask forgiveness.

The walls had been paneled all the way to the ceiling, the present occupants stripped away top level revealing fashionable brick, and painted the lower part white, brightening to room. We had papered over the windows for show privacy and to render the room entirely dark if necessary. Now the room is full of natural light.

Then & now.
While there are a few major alterations (the bathroom has been rerouted) what was startling was how the same the room felt. It was disorienting, sitting on a new platform in the window, sipping coffee and looking over the space like a hovering ghost.

Thoughts of a revival were inevitable. What if we staged a fundraiser, reading old scripts, or even writing new ones, right here where it all happened? No, really, maybe we shouldn’t. And besides, no one knows where the scripts are anymore. I don’t have them.

So what did we have to write about, now that "our guy" was going to the White House? We had only for two been weeks criticizing the George H. W Bush administration, would we now be praising and supporting this new president? Waving the flag for the status quo?

We did begin that way, we had to. He repealed the gag rule, that abortion could not be discussed in the military. And we would champion his attempts at health care reform and allowing gays to serve openly in the military … two agendas which failed, and failed badly in short order.

Much of our work turned inward, and by that I mean not only introspective (and also, unfortunately, at each other) but more local.

In the final days of 1992, an African-American man died while in police custody. He had been placed in a choke hold which rendered him unconscious, and was later determined to have been the cause of death. Then, as now, excessive force is an issue which plagues the Cleveland police department. Torque wrote a piece about that.

The choke hold play (title?)
There were audience members who openly objected to the political stuff, especially when it wasn’t funny. We took a stand against being portrayed as a sketch comedy group (or God forbid, improv) and intentionally threw in conceptual pieces for their own sake, with no punchline whatsoever.

The Scene Magazine reviewer, turgidly recounting every minute sexual reference from the performance he witnessed (even creating a few where they didn't existed) claimed the choke hold scene "backfired like a '62 Buick."

He also described Beemer as a "solid gold b----," so I guess that's funny?

After election day we retired a piece written by Jelly Jam, one I was proud to have had a hand in, creating a recorded soundscape of musical and nature sounds, and a weird voice-over (Lee's voice slowed down.)

With the lights dimmed, the entire company of seven crawled the floor, rose to their feet, came together but then fell away as the voice described and ancient ritual which made a people strong, but as more and more failed to participate, the civilization collapsed.

The ritual was called “voting.”

Yes, we were young and determined and optimistic and basic. We were also right.

Vote on November 6th.

Source: "Comedy for the Young at Heart" by Keith Joseph, Cleveland Scene, 2/18/1993

Thanks to Kim Martin for the 2018 photos!