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Thursday, March 25, 2010

An Actor

The play that I appeared in closed last Sunday.  We performed Larry Shue's The Foreigner.  Before a few weeks ago, I'd never acted before.  Well....I guess that's not entirely true.  I've certainly been performing for years.  As I wrote in The Funny Guy, I've long employed humor to get a laugh, ease tension, be mean spirited, be the center of attention, make clean phrases sound dirty, amuse children, get jobs, get free stuff - and food, and of course charm women (though now just one.  Yes, my wife.).   But never before had I appeared, so to speak, on the stage.  So to leap into a full-length play was perhaps a bit audacious.  Even for me.

A few months ago I saw an ad in the paper for open auditions at the Bradley Playhouse in nearby Putnam, CT.  There have been a few times in the course of my life when I've pondered acting (always briefly).  I felt the occasional pang of regret for not having been in a high school play.  Looking back, I realize now that despite my inclination to make jokes, I was a lot more self-conscious than I let on.  A classic case of my laugh-getting antics masking what is probably a normal in adolescent insecurity.  After all, when I told jokes, walked silly, or answered every question asked of me with, "Bend over and I'll show you," I was the star of my own show.  There were no lines to forget or cues to miss.  There was no scene to blow because everything was improvisational. I possessed (still?) a mind that was quick enough to be witty on the go and a predilection to be funny.  More than that, I processed almost everything I saw, heard, read or thought so that it was funny - and thankfully I could present it as such to my audience.  My audience was my family, friends, co-workers, and students.  Sometimes I gave toasts at weddings or was an emcee for large meetings.  I'd been up in front of several hundred people with their undivided attention before.  I had prepared and given speeches.  With my own material, and my own style of delivery, I said funny things and made silly faces.  But a play?  A play is a different thing altogether.

So after a lifetime of hearing people tell me how funny I am and asking me if I'd ever considered acting,  here was an opportunity perfect for me (as was the role).  An open audition at a community theater.  Why not?  A few days before the audition, before I'd even committed myself to going, I stopped into the theater to pick up the readings for the script.  The theater manager greeted me, introduced me to the roles, and asked about my experience.  I humbly told her that I had none.  No matter she said, the theater actively encourages first timers to audition.  She added that sometimes not that many people audition.  In other words, I had a shot at being cast.  Long story short:  I was cast and I was cast in the title role of the play.  I had only read snippets of the script, knew nothing of the character and how many lines I had, to say nothing of the fact that many of them were in a completely made up language!

I reflected in By Heart how the whole concept of learning lines was a skill I'd employed little of in recent years.  Memorization.  It's work.  When rehearsals began (three times a week) we had only 7 weeks or so until the play opened. At first we rehearsed upstairs in the function room at Victoria Station and later on a mostly empty stage while our set was being built.  Some of my fellow actors had years of experience in theater - acting, directing, stage managing, doing technical work behind the scenes.  I was the only one who had zero formal experience.  As the weeks progressed, I casually read my script and  also read from it during rehearsal.  The experienced actors had soon memorized many scenes, only needing to call for a line from time to time.  With less than two weeks before opening night, I was just getting a handle on some of my lines.  Frighteningly to me, I wasn't the only one.  At this point, I didn't leave the house, much less the room, without my script.  I tested myself and I had everyone in my vicinity read lines with me - my wife, mother, mother-in-law, friends, gas station attendants, pharmacists, and supermarket cashiers.  

A week before the show opened, the scenes were rough.  Some of us still didn't know our lines - well we did, but not exactly when to say them.  I left that rehearsal certain that the show would be a disaster.  I imagined a silent audience.  Perhaps a few polite chuckles at first -  then nothing.  Folded arms, people slowly and quietly leaving and then rotten tomatoes.  Remember I hadn't done this before.

Slowly at first, but at an increasing rate our timing and recall improved.  We got through scenes with less hiccups.  As we learned our lines, we learned our roles and were now freer to be the character instead of just speak the lines.  I might even hazard to say that I began to act.  Two nights before we opened our director had us do a 'speed through.'  We basically performed the play at double speed.  To our collective amazement we ran through the whole play barely missing a beat, cue, or lines.  It was, at least by our measure, crisp.  We, at least, knew our lines.  I finally gained the confidence to know that come opening night, we'd be able to get through the show,  perhaps even put on a half-way decent one.

The Bradley Theater was built in 1901 and has close to 400 seats.  (For a history of theater, click here and look for history tab.  Find out about the ghosts here)  It's a charming old building which though it shows its age, retains the warmth of its literally storied past.  Below the stage is a narrow hallway and a row of small dressing rooms.  Across from the dressing rooms is a low-ceilinged storage and mechanical area known affectionately and aptly as "The Dungeon."  When below stage, you can hear the floor boards creak above and the sound of voices, though muffled, is clear.  It's there, below stage that we gather before the play starts.  At regular intervals before the show, the stage manager alerts us of how much time we have.  "Doors are open."  "30 minutes."  "15 minutes."  "5 minutes."  Finally, "Places."

I stand on the stairs behind a closed door that opens onto the stage.  After the director makes some theater announcements the house lights go down.  When they next go up, I'll follow "Froggy" on stage.  Froggy begins the play's opening dialogue.  Except that it's really a monologue as my character - Charlie - is so despondent that he only stares forlornly into space.  As I cross the stage and sit on the couch, I feel my heart pounding.  My first line is "I shouldn't have come" and that's all I can think about.  I listen to Froggy for my cue and once I hear it, it's like I am shot out of a cannon.  Soon after the play begins, it's revealed that my character must pretend not to speak or understand English, though he most certainly can.  For much of the first act I have few lines, but must make faces which express what Charlie is either thinking or what he wants others to think.  By act two, I get very comfortable with "my pretending not to speak English" and have a lot of fun doing so.  

At the end of the first show, after everyone else comes out for their bows, I come front and center and lead our cast in a group bow.  I am not Japanese, nor ruled by royalty.  I haven't had much occasion to bow.  I found it an odd feeling.  Though I've long been shameless in seeking praise, laughter and attention, I never took a bow for it.  It was, initially, as if I was thanking them for letting me grace them with my presence.  Twenty plus years out of adolescence, I felt awkward all over again.  After thinking about it a bit, I think that I felt weird because for the first time I was, we all were, admitting that we were not who we were portraying.  It wasn't Charlie Baker taking a bow - as I actually did in the play, but it was Dave Ring taking a bow and that felt showy to me.   At first.

During the run of the play, six shows over two weekends, I got more comfortable - with everything.  I relaxed more before the show, I fell more easily into character, and we as a cast played better off of one another.  By the end of the show, going on stage and taking a bow no longer felt odd to me - it actually was just part of the show.  The play was a success.  We got lots of laughs, especially in the second act when the pace and action quicken.  We got standing ovations.  In the lobby after the show, many people (and not just the ones related to me) made a point to tell me that I did a great job and that they really enjoyed the play.  Many people (perhaps you, too) have wondered and asked if I am going to do another show.

The answer is probably.  Since it was my first time and everything about it was new it took a lot out of me.  Not just in the time spent rehearsing, studying lines, helping to put the set together, etc.  When you're acting - as we actors know - your senses are dramatically heightened.  You have to be hyper aware, engaged, energetic, and attentive.  Having run a marathon, I can attest that when on stage you are no less attuned to your body and mind.  It is the proverbial rush.  I am attracted to acting, but as with running, my body requires rest afterward.  So for now, I'll recuperate and consider future efforts when I can wrap my head and body around it again.

There were many laughs and for me, no surprise, that's the hook.  And not just the laughs we got on stage.  I also liked the laughs in rehearsal and after the shows.  We missed lines here and there and there were occasional snafus.  The cast and crew enjoyed the good natured ribbing that comes along with camaraderie.  We also laughed at technical difficulties and the audience itself.  One night it was raining so hard outside the roof began to leak onstage.  The play's first act is set in a rainstorm, so 'Owen' worked it into his entrance.  Another night, the explosion we were to hear didn't play and 'David' just yelled "BOOM" instead.  From the stage we could hear an elderly person's hearing aid beeping above the din of the show.  I saw a very large couple in the front row, splayed out and fast asleep for much of the entire play.  There were the requisite ill-placed baby cries, the strikingly loud 'guffawer,' and people who couldn't help but audibly repeat our punch lines or say things like, "Oh, so he's the one doing it!"

It's only been four days since our last show and I am sure many of these reflections will season with time, but as it stands now, fresh in my mind, I can't help but feel a great sense of pride in having done it. I took a risk and with risk there is reward.  To be sure it was a calculated risk, but frankly, it's good to try new things and it's good to push your comfort zone.  May this inspire you to try something you've always wanted to do.  And if it's not your style, it doesn't have to be in front of a live audience

Thank you and good night.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Against Better Judgement

The Boston Marathon is one of the most prestigious marathons in the world.  There are just a few ways one can get an official entry.  You can be fast.  If you're one of the elite marathoners in the world, the Boston Athletic Association will extend an invitation to you.  If you're a pretty fast runner you can qualify on time. I'd have to run faster than a 3 hour 20 minute qualifying race to be considered.  That will not happen.  Many people raise money for great and worthy causes and get entry through Team in Training or Dana Farber   Another way is the way I got my number.  I belong to a running club and each year my club gets a few qualifying exemptions.  I still had to pay the $250 entry fee, though.

Here's the problem.  Several weeks ago, during a long training run, I felt a twinge in my left Achilles tendon.  I didn't tear it, but it didn't feel right.  Later that day it was sore and inflamed.  Since then I've iced, stretched, took time off, cross-trained, gone to physical therapy, taken loads of ibuprofen, and have even applied essential oils in the hope that I can still run Boston.  With just a month to go, it's still unclear if I will be able to do it.  My training regimen has been compromised and I still can't run without some pain and inflammation.  No doubt the smartest thing I could do is not run.  Rest and recuperate.  But here's the thing, since moving to Connecticut it's unlikely that my Massachusetts running club will grant me another club exemption.  I can't transfer or defer my entry.  And I haven't fallen in love with marathons so much that I know I'll opt to train and run another.  This might be my only opportunity.

My options are to cease training, accept defeat, and live to run another day.  Or I could continue with my training, endure some pain and attempt to run Boston, knowing it might be possible that sometime during the run, I'll have to quit and register a DNF (Did Not Finish).  Or make my way 26.2 miles come hell or high water, or ruptured Achilles no matter how long it takes me.  I don't like any of those choices, so against my better judgement, as of this moment, I plan on running Boston, albeit likely not at the same goal pace I'd originally intended.  I will take it one run at a time.  This weekend I am supposed to run 13-15 miles.  I am icing my Achilles even now as I type.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Below the Surface

Over the past couple of months I've been spending a lot of time on a feasibility study.  I'm assembling the costs associated with the complete renovation of the vacant farmhouse which belongs to my wife's family and analyzing those figures to see if we can actually afford to do it.  Despite its dilapidated appearance, the house is structurally very sound and ripe for restoration.  (I wrote more about the house here:  The Farm.)

The house was built circa 1926 and was last occupied in the 1980s.  After my in-laws moved from Texas to Connecticut in the late 1990s to take care of the family property much work was done on the house to prepare it for its eventual restoration.  The removal of copious amounts of asbestos in the cellar and a new roof were two expensive and necessary investments.  Additionally, much effort and time (and money) was spent gutting the house to its bare studs to prepare for eventual transformation.  And that is essentially the condition it's in today.

Our hope is that we can afford to renovate the house and transform it into a beautiful and hospitable bed & breakfast/inn.  In order to know if we can actually do that, we obviously need to know what it will cost.  So over the past month or so I've been working with a local and reputable contractor to begin the process of estimating the costs.  Every week it seems a new group of contractors comes by to survey the house and property.  We've met with builders, painters, electricians, masons, plumbers, HVAC people, and even a representative of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

With each visitor comes a new line item in the budget.  But many of these professionals also have the irksome habit of raising issues which seem to precipitate other potential costs.  "What kind of septic system is here?" "What kind of water volume does the well generate?"  The answer is, "I don't know, but I bet it's going to cost us more money to find out."  There are costs we can estimate now, but several others are dependent on what we find underground.  Soil tests to determine leach and fill for the septic system await and with that information will come a new contractor estimate.  We might need an entirely new septic system and we might need new wells dug to generate enough water supply for the large house.   Like much in life, the important answers, the deeper meaning, the hidden truths are buried below the surface.

Once we have rough estimates for all the work required, we need to add in the costs to furnish the house, buy and install appliances, and do all the little things that are needed to actually open for business.  The list of costs is a long one and it's as yet unclear if the estimated projected revenue will be sufficient to cover them.  There are many months ahead of business planning, estimating, and securing funds (anyone win the lottery lately?!).  It will still be many months thereafter to actually complete the project.  One thing that is extremely heartening is that to a person, those who come into the house can't help but marvel.  They speak about the remarkable straightness of the house.  They comment on the unexpected good condition of the interior.  Few can mask their surprise at how much bigger the house is compared to its exterior appearance.

This is no small endeavor.  To say it's a big job is a gross understatement - the house is about 5,000 square feet not including the full size attic which might become another livable space.  There's a difficult decision to be made at each juncture and each one has a financial implication - a life implication - both for the short and long term.  I have the distinct feeling that when we get the estimates back from the contractors someone is going to have to pick my jaw up off the floor.  I once heard it said that a compromise is an agreement where neither party is happy and I can easily predict that there'll have to be more than a few trade-offs along the way if we're really going to be able to pull this off.

We're often reminded that life is not about the destination, but rather it's the journey that counts.  We humans are so eager to get to where we think we want to be, only to arrive there and soon be anxious to move forward again to some new goal or destination.  I know that there will come a time when we make great progress on this house and that I'll be focused on the next stage - there will always be something to do.  I must however be mindful that the urge to move forward is really an expression of the ego.  While I am aware that my motivation to tackle this project is my ego at work, I must also remember that life's real answers aren't in the future at all, but rather in the present and often just below the surface.  Dig.