Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why Didn't He Tell Me (Tragedy in Albany)

“Why Didn’t He Tell Me?”

There are a lot of crazy people in this business that is ‘like no other’ and a lot of craziness to be experienced (and avoided). Here's a bit that I didn't miss. It's the story of getting cast in my first play in New York, except that it was going to be produced in Albany…

The Audition - at Barnes and Nobles, with “producer” Warren. A bohemian/grunge type with sweater and knit hat. He's filming it. I’m doing a monologue, reading sides, explaining that I’m not a trapeze artist and that I don’t sing—all the while trying to keep the volume down because, after all, it's a bookstore.

The Carrot - googling the director Ominike (Yale, USC, award at Cannes), being told that if the production went well it would be made into a film.

Sign #1 (actually sign #2 if you count the audition) – the script, picked up at a random UPS at 100-and-someodd and Broadway, written in film format and with too many scene changes for stage.

Sign #2 or #3 – the rehearsal schedule, only 5 rehearsals of two-hours each!?!

First Rehearsal – meeting the director, tight hair and empty smiles. No introductions, just an improv about a train station and terrorist bombs. Improvs, improvs, improvs, right up until the very end—even when there is still no scenery or costumes or run-throughs and it’s the day before opening…

Rehearsals – getting kicked out of rehearsal space, rehearsing in her apartment, rehearsing at a Starbucks in Port Authority (improvs, of course). What about these other important scenes, like the trapeze (and falling off of it) or killing my brother’s maid…? "How about we do another improv of the diner scene..."

Missing people – where’s the cop? Having to stand in/read for several parts at a time, because half the cast isn’t there. Still getting notes and direction even when you are just reading someone else’s part. This literally continues and even on the fateful Friday “performance” when it comes time for the girl to go to the police, there is nobody there and the girl sits alone on stage waiting. Finally, the director grabs a script from the audience and calls out the lines for the missing policeman.

A new Darlene – a new actress almost every rehearsal for Darlene, including Jennifer the yoga teacher who nearly had a nervous breakdown about needing to do some Microsoft organizing and virus protection.

Albany – the gray and depressing state capital. Getting picked up at the bus station in an old Honda with junk in it: Warren’s welding equipment, old plastic bottles, tapes, cigarettes. Warren starting to drive crazier and crazier and always talking on the phone. Seeing his apartment, dark and with his bartender girlfriend sleeping in the next room. A mountain of Guinness bottles in the corner. He asks if we’re hungry and whether we want subs or pizza. He comes back with a package of bologna, bagged lettuce, mayonnaise and hot dog buns. Bon appétit!

The Theater – driving along a strip with car dealerships, discount grocery stores, motels and then the theater/instrument store/singing lessons/gymnastics lessons. The guy staring at the TV while waiting for his next singing/karaoke lesson to arrive (watching the Wizard of Oz, sometimes just a blank screen).

Outnumbered – arriving on Wednesday, two days before opening, and meeting the 10 student hair and make-up girls and their teacher from the local professional school who have volunteered to work on the show. We are outnumbered 3-to-1 at this first meeting… “uh where’s the trapeze and the set that should be on stage?”

Community theater – the amateurs arrive at night after work and after school. They love the elaborate make-up and have never been in a play before in their life. Gilles, who is so nervous he stutters his lines (like ‘Shakespeare in Love’ producer character). He can’t quite jump on his cue to rush up and ask us questions as a reporter, we keep leaving the stage before he makes his move. The two kids, one is ADD and too honest--“Gee you’re not very good at that trapeze (or singing)” The other is a little Rushmore-PoinDexter. He’s a future stage manager, complete with glasses and clip board. I catch him spray painting a Starbucks coffee cup bright orange that he’s first covered with masking tape. He’s spraying it right over the prop and make-up table (what props there were!). He says its for the Paris picnic basket—one of the few props that exist, a small basket with three plastic apples. He wants to add the bright orange coffee-cup-thing to the basket to help fill it out. I gently dissuade him. The other guy, who is a little weird, and who is making name tags for our cubbyholes or asking the director if he can do this little gesture with his line, this is in the middle of the complete chaos and approaching train-wreck of opening night. He has no idea that there is no possible way that the show can go on. When it comes time, he is standing in for the surgeon (if there ever was someone cast for the part). Alex has to grab his hand onstage and pull it towards my face so we can pretend he is starting the surgery and the scene can end. Seconds before, I saw the kid preparing to move a mattress across the stage, presumably to better store it stage-right and presumably unaware that we were still performing or that intermission was over… Another woman, a real sad story, is playing Fortaleeza the nurse maid. The woman has been living in Albany (as if that isn’t bad enough) for the last few years since her husband died. She is a single mother and can’t afford a baby-sitter. This show means a lot to her and she has had to resort to bringing her daughter to the theater during rehearsals, which end up going until like 3am and Fortaleeza hasn’t even gotten to do her scenes. At times, she is so overcome with emotion (?) that she has to take a break and sit down. I really feel bad for her when the show doesn’t go on.

Revolution #1 – the day before opening, we finally insist that we go scene by scene and see what scenery exists and how one scene will lead from one to the next, rather than do another improv. This takes about 8 hours and it becomes apparent that there is no plan for the staging or the scenography, nor the costuming or props. Thursday night, our dress rehearsal lasts about 5 hours, it’s the first time that all the scenes are ever “run” back-to-back. There are a few set pieces and props, the wooden cut-out car, for example. It’s about four panels and 10’ long and is painted as a 20’s car (the show is set in the 50’s). It takes three or four people about three minutes to drag it on stage and set it up. The car scene only lasts about 20 seconds. I have the only line of dialogue. “Hey we can give you ride home if you want. I live just down the street from you at 21 Rivercrest,” or something important like that.

Accommodations – after the nightmare dress rehearsal, it appears that not everybody has a place to sleep. We’ve been served a hotpot full of meatballs and hot dog buns for dinner (about 5 hours prior). Alex is missing, she is supposedly getting a ride from Ned, the guy who made the masks. Christian is getting ready to bed down in the theater. Mike ends up at Ginger’s house, who owns the theater, where he is offered an old blanket and couch (there are clearly several guest rooms that are not being used)—he finally goes to a motel down the road. We arrive at our house to find the keys don’t work. Warren tries to call his friend, but it’s like 2 or 3 in the morning. Alex is still missing, Warren tells us that Ned is a born-again, so no worries. At least she might have a place to sleep I think as we turn around to join Christian and the rats at the theater. A minute later, we get through to the owner of our house, so we turn around. Alex calls and begs us not to leave her and to wait up for her. Apparently, Ned wanted to show her more than just a few local sights and has offered that they should get a hotel room. Did I mention Alex is 18? Alex, who is a senior at a professional arts school in New York is a great kid, by the way, she is now playing like 7 different characters.

The local Divo – the child star/singer who is in all the unions and regularly checks in with his agent stops by. He rehearses one scene with his incredible camp and vibrato, then fakes a call with his agent about non-unions rules and whatnot to get the hell out of the train which is clearly heading for a big wreck. Maybe he is the only sensible one?

The Trapeze – It is Thursday evening when the gym teacher, who also has a full-time job, finally is able to set up the trapeze. The ceiling of the theater is one of those false hanging ceilings made up of speckled white rectangles of Styrofoam that you see in most office buildings. He has removed 1 panel and hung a trapeze from the rafter above. There is now a white office ceiling with one panel missing and a trapeze, a bit of insulation and a bit of electrical cord hanging out. The trapeze is about 5’8” off the floor, or as one cast member described it, something his hamster could jump off of without hurting itself (remember, I am supposed not only to do a high-flying trapeze scene, but also a scene where I fall from it and crush my face beyond recognition). In a moment of humility, I realize that even despite the limited range of motion and height of the trapeze, I am not even strong enough to perform a simple mount and twirl… and time is ticking (tomorrow is opening night)… During Friday’s “performance”, the trapeze becomes detached from the wall and is swinging freely in the middle of the stage during our Paris street and picnic scenes. Then, during the tense, I just killed my brother’s maid scene and am face to mask/face with my brother who I haven’t seen for 15 years, the little ADD girl decides to come on stage and try to reconnect the trapeze to the wall. Unfortunately, she isn’t quite tall enough to reach the hook and the clown/comedic set-up is complete.

Revolution #2 – the café. We wake up Friday realizing that the theater fairies have not descended from the sky to save this production and that there is no way in hell we can open that night. The New York cast calls a meeting with the Director and the Owner (hosted by Warren, the “producer” at a nearby cafe). Ominike comes in with a slightly droopy ‘Forest Whitaker’ with glasses look-a-like. He keeps whispering into her ear before anybody speaks. Finally, someone asks who he is and what he’s doing at our meeting. “I’m a US citizen,” he replies. They say that he has no business being there and he gets up and tells them to “Fuck-you”. He then tells us that this is a “Lynch mob”. Ominike manages to calm him down then explains that she should have introduced him sooner, “This is my fiancé,” she says. “No, I’m your husband,” he quickly interjects. Bizarre. The conversation continues. We explain that there is no way you can do a show and not have a plan for sets, props, costumes etc. The conversation slips to the more tangible, the terrible accommodations and lack of food. Things get heated again and the bull-dog gets in Warren’s face and tells him to “Fuck off”. Warren warns him that the police station is just around the corner. To this he says, “I designed the goddamn police station.” Ominike has to take him outside. The owner, Ginger, a kindly 80-year-old woman whose had a stroke, explains that this was her dead mother’s story and that she asked Ominike to adapt and direct it. From the beginning, she had made it clear that she didn’t have the budget for New York actors etc. etc. She was supposed to be in Florida, but found out only recently (yesterday?) how disastrous the situation was. She tells us she can’t afford to pay us, but if we “go on with the show” like “any professional would do” that she will do her best and send us $100 or split the box-office with us. Ginger used to be a powder-puff stock car racer and professional drummer… We discuss and negotiate and finally agree to do the show on Saturday and Sunday if proper food and accommodations are provided and if the show that evening, Friday, is cancelled. We also make it clear that some things need to change, organized etc. for the play. During this very intense meeting, one of the actors, Isabelle a Spanish woman, goes to the bathroom. We are in a local café and there are patrons who have been watching/listening to everything. One of the women is clearly interested and concerned by the situation and asks Isabelle what she thinks we will decide and what if anything she has learned from the experience?

Warren – is becoming more and more belligerent and wants to have a drink at every occasion. Didn’t I see an AA book at his apartment. Apparently he’s fallen off the wagon almost as fast as our Divo got off of the speeding train. He’s going on long tirades about Ominike the director and Ginger the owner who wouldn’t give him a budget. To his credit, he has spent the day dumpster diving for props and calling friends to see if Christian can crash at their house instead of the theater. Finally, he comes crashing in after Friday’s crazy “rehearsal/second-run-through/cancelled performance”. Granted we still haven’t been fed properly and it’s like 1am, but we are calmly doing notes from the run—the only thing resembling a normal theatrical experience thus far. He bursts in and starts yelling, “This is crazy. This is crazy. This is nuts. I’m pulling the plug. No more, this is not possible. It’s too much. They’re going to eat now!”

Dénouement – after the Friday “show”, which was actually fun for me despite the continued chaos of missing actors, props, mixed up scenes, singing numbers (did I mention that we went ahead with the angst-ridden and musical moments where my character sings out his despair at being alone and kicked out of the house or having been disfigured), dangling trapeze, etc., any remaining curiosity or attachment keeping us in Albany has disappeared. Almost everyone wants to go home, some feel that we have been lied to (there were a few people in the audience) and that nothing has changed artistically (no surprise) or in terms of food and accommodations. Nonetheless, Ginger has said she wants to buy us dinner and will meet us a some restaurant. Some of the cast flat out refuse to eat with Ominike or Ginger. And as the nice guy and de facto porte-parole of the group, it falls to me to call Ginger and explain to her why we won’t be joining her at the restaurant. As we eat wings and drink beer at a local bar, Warren continues to rage how Ominike and Ginger don’t deserve us. Apparently he wants us to walk out as well, and at this point he is more or less preaching to the choir. Everyone but Michael and myself seem resolved to return to New York. It falls to me, of course, to call Ginger in the morning as we are trying to round everyone up and get to the bus station for the 11am express to Manhattan. All my clothes and bags are in Warren’s car, having preferred to get back early and safely rather than wait for Warren and his increasingly out of control driving. We are sleep deprived and I am wearing the same clothes as the night before, minus my socks, which are now gross. Thinking I’ve dialed Warren, I quickly explain that we are heading to the bus station and can he pick us up and help us get our stuff. Unfortunately, it’s Ginger on the other line and I find myself trying to quickly and politely explain why everyone has decided to leave again... On the bus ride home we realize what an amazing story we've just survived and decide we will try and make a film out of it.

What's the term for a picture, within a picture, within a picture, a palimpsest? I'm hoping that our film about the play isn't doomed to turn into some sort of clownish palimpsest of disaster...