Thursday, September 29, 2005

Watching the Orionrise

Here is the story of my 22-hour day.

Yesterday I did this commercial up in Green Bay. My call time (i.e., the time I was supposed to be there) was 11:30 am. So I made the 4-hour drive through rush hour traffic and got there just in time to ... sit on my ass for 9 hours while they finished another spot. We wrapped up at just past midnight.

I suspected it would be a mess since they put me through FOUR auditions, and changed the script every time, even at the actual audition. But the money was good. And I guess it will run nationally on cable for several months, with a chance for an extension if it does well. It's funny, because sitting here now I just saw one of their commercials airing.

So do I sleep in Green Bay a few hours and fight the traffic back to Chicago in the morning? Sounds like a good idea. So I don't. I got in the car and did 200 miles in 3 hrs, 15 min. I feel like I should have made it in 3-flat. Damned gas.

So tonight I think I'm going to unload the remaining One-Eye postcards by doing a quick circuit of key theatre spaces around town. Don't know how much can be done to get people out at this point, but I'd feel bad if we had an off night and I hadn't at least tried some more. A bunch of people I know are coming out tomorrow night, so we'll see.

Oh, Orion. My favorite constellation. It's visible only in winter, but obviously winter's coming because on the drive home it was just slightly above the Eastern horizon, laying on its side. I've never seen it so low before. All the way home it was out the left window and getting higher in the sky. It was nice company. That and a box of fig newtons.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Nicolas Cage & Me

For whatever damned reason, I can't post photos right now, so you'll have to go here to see me standing right behind Nicolas Cage and Hope Davis in The Weatherman, which FINALLY opens next month. I was an extra for a day -- okay, a featured extra -- in this film almost a year-and-half ago.

Anyway, on the trailer that runs on the site's home page (above), I am in this tiny little scene and you can just barely spot me if you hit the pause fast enough. They filmed for an entire day and got lots of other shots for this scene, so we'll see how much of me actually makes it to the screen. You can read the back story here.

The movie's opening has been pushed back numerous times, which is usually a pretty bad sign. Michael Caine is also in it, and the director, Gore Verbinski, did Pirates of the Caribbean, so you'd think it would be decent. Who knows? Either way, this is one Nicolas Cage movie that's getting my $9, that's for certain.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Nice turnout

I think I use the word "nice" too much. But it's a good word. Tidy. Like my show.

Word up to good pal and former classmate Jonald, who brought his posse of TEN PEOPLE out last night to see the show. Thanks, Mr. Brown -- you, your cousins and friends rule. Of course, I may change my tune once I read his review. Jonald's a budding entrepreneur, so check out his Chicago Hotlist site for cool happenings around town.

Anyway, we had a good crowd last night -- about 45 people -- with good energy working for us, so I was really pleased.

Just two more performances. I'd really like to get a sellout or two ...

I'm very tired, my apartment is filthy and I've got spoiled chicken in the fridge (thankfully, I gave it a sniff test last night before making it into dinner!).

Friday, September 23, 2005

Will they come?

So now I'm wondering what kind of house we'll get tonight. Last week, people pulled out all the stops -- Jack brought like a dozen people, Rob blast e-mailed his list, 14 of mine came out -- all to ensure we get a nice big audience there for the reviewer. I hope this week isn't a letdown. I only know of a handful of friends that are or may be coming, and I don't know how effective the review will be at pulling in strangers. It's not like it was Critic's Choice or Recommended. I did e-mail it yesterday to my list, which I think is around 150 people, and posted it on message boards, and I went up Clark street to check on posters and created a little label that I affixed to them ("Engaging" ... "admirably honest" ... "Durang meets Python" -- The Chicago Reader). So we'll see. It's a little like the anxiety of throwing a party ... times 11.

I hadn't really focused yesterday on the Durang-meets-Python comment. That is way cool. A couple of people asked me who Durang was, but theatre people will get it.

Yesterday I had this photo shoot, which was nice, easy money. I judge a commercial job by whether it pays as much or more than my regular job. Sometimes they don't. This one did. It was for some company that creates customized vitamin regimens based on an analysis of your DNA. No shit. I was to look "healthy and confident." Very confident. The photographer said, "Can you show me smug" and I was like, "Please, I was born with a shit-eating grin on."

The really nice thing about a photo shoot is you just stand there and do what you're told and you get direct, instant feedback on everything you're doing -- "Chin-up (good!), now tilt your head camera left (good!), shift your shoulders to the right (perfect!), take a half step over (that's it!)... okay, give me confident (perfect!), now determined (good!), now curious (excellent!), thoughtful (great!)." It's a nice contrast to this show I'm rehearsing, where we are working as an ensemble to create a lot of the movement and even the text. I've just been so drained I haven't been able to give that process everything I can, so it's nice to just relax and take direction for a while. They're not all like that -- some are really grueling and others are long and boring -- but, again, for the money and time it's a pretty sweet gig.

Now I have to staple 30 headshots/resumes and get them down to my agent's. Good times.



Thursday, September 22, 2005

"Tidy and engaging"

No, not me -- the show! That's according to the Chicago Reader, at least.

The review came out today and I honestly was about to vomit in my mouth on the way to pick it up. There's a bookstore three miles from my place that gets the paper (it's a weekly) hours earlier than most other places in town. So I went down there to get it, came back, typed it up (it doesn't go online until tonight or tomorrow), and e-mailed and posted it all over the Internet world.

I was really worried they'd have something particularly savage to say about the show, as they very often do about others, so I was actually hoping toward the end for a merely tepid, mediocre review. But I got more -- so much more:

THE ONE-EYED CAT AND OTHER TALES OF NEED -- This tidy, engaging little collection of one-acts from Danger Boy Productions comes courtesy of writer Rob Biesenbach and director Rob Chambers, Second City guys both. Like Biesenbach's scripts, the acting is occasionally workmanlike but admirably honest and unmannered. Jack McCabe and Spencer Wawak, the oldest and youngest in the ensemble, fare best in scenes driven by generational conflict, while Jonathan Beran and Cameron Jappe are most adept with lighter, Durang-meets-Python stuff. There's a faint familiarity to all the scenarios, but only The Ledge, a two-suicides-meet-cute bit, feels completely played out. And as directed by Chambers, Jappe and Catherina Kusch make even that one go down easy -- so to speak. -- Brian Nemtusak

It's funny that The Ledge was his least favorite -- audiences have seemed to respond really strongly to that one in particular. And I suppose it can be interpreted as a tad condescending in places -- "little one-acts" and "occasionally workmanlike." But hell, I'll take "engaging" and "admirably honest and unmannered" any day! Very interesting word choice indeed, considering I wrote this about them just a few weeks ago: "I'd like to think there's a unique point of view. And some true, honest moments. That they're at least compelling and hold the audience's attention."

Now I can breathe. If I have the energy, I will create little labels with quotes from the review and stick them on the posters that are up around town.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

On disappointing others

Being an actor means you are going to be a constant source of disappointment to those closest to you. It means being busy when they're free -- 4 to 7 nights a week, including Fridays and Saturdays, plus very often Saturday and Sunday mornings and/or afternoons.

And that's just theatre. During the weekdays you're also at the mercy of talent agents and casting directors, calling you in to auditions and bookings, usually with less than 24 hours notice. This is Wednesday and I've been to 3 auditions and one half-day commercial booking. On top of that, you've got your day job. I'm immensely fortunate that mine is pretty flexible.

I actually went back and counted -- so far this year I have had exactly 4 weekends off (that's weekends with no shows, rehearsals or auditions). Three if you count Friday night as part of the weekend, which most people do. I haven't had a Friday night off since July 22.

I was all set to take a 3-day weekend -- Saturday to Monday -- in a couple of weeks. I'd arranged to get out of rehearsals for Evangeline, and leave first thing Saturday, after my Friday night show. And now I just got called for a 3-day shoot of an industrial video, Monday to Wednesday. Lots of people work lots of hours, or odd hours, but this is a business where you have so little control over your schedule. If you can't make the audition or the gig on the date they have scheduled, then tough luck. Rarely, at this stage, will they work around your schedule. And, unfortunately, I'm not in a position right now where turning down a couple thousand dollars is advisable.

In the past two years I have worked on Memorial Day, Labor Day, 4th of July, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, the day after Thanksgiving, Superbowl Sunday, my birthday, other peoples' birthdays, etc. Not many people are interested in putting up with that kind of thing. Those who can and do are really ... special.

Mind you, this beats the alternative. I'm grateful to be busy and working and in-demand. It just comes with a lot of guilt and stress.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Origins (Part 2)

If Fish Could Scream is the oldest of the five plays. I wrote it originally as a sketch back in my Second City writing classes almost two years ago. At the time, I wrote it mainly as an exercise -- much of my writing tends to be people standing around talking. Sure, they're saying clever things and all, but they're still just standing around. So I wanted to write something that had some action and object work that not only served the story, but actually helped drive the narrative.

I probably thought of fishing because I used to go fishing a lot with my Dad when I was a kid. Plus, I think the casting motion is very graceful, and would look nice on stage.

Anyway, I expanded it to a 10-minute play when Second City was accepting short play submissions for a show of one-acts they were doing. My play wasn't chosen, but I did get cast to perform in the show (The Egg & Idle Chatter).

This one evolved quite a bit over the course of the year. A lot of dialogue carried all the way through the various drafts, but I kept working and re-working the core conflict between the father and son, trying to make it more specific and more real. And simplifying things as much as possible. This was the play that gave us the idea for age-appropriate casting -- having an actual child play the child, instead of a 24-year-old. In fact, that's what the Egg director said was the main issue with the play -- that it really demanded a child actor, which didn't really work for that show.

For most of its life it was titled "Fathers & Sons," but I was never happy with that because it's the name of a Hemingway short story and has been used by lots of others. If Fish Could Scream is a more interesting title, and is based on a line in the play that actually comes from my real life: when I was a kid, fishing with my Dad one day, I asked, "What if minnows could scream?" and my Dad replied, "There probably wouldn't be too many fishermen."

Other than that, there's nothing really autobiographical at all in this play.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

57

That's the size of last night's audience. Fourteen of them my friends, or people my friends brought, plus a couple of armies of fans brought by other actors. I'm happy and relieved to an extent that's impossible to describe.

But more important than the numbers, we put on a really good show. Different in a lot of ways from last week, but just as good -- maybe better. A cell phone went off (twice!) during one of the plays and the actors plowed through and overcame it. They are great. I feel dwarfed by their talent. In fact, my own performance ... I don't know what it is. It's hard to get out of my head when I'm worrying about the box office or the critic or whatever. I'm glad now I'm in only one of the plays, but I also feel like I'm not really showcasing myself much as an actor. Maybe someone else could do more with the role. I don't know. Who wrote this character anyway?

So the reviewer got to see a fair representation of what we do, and a good-sized house. I couldn't have asked for more. I don't mind so much being judged as long as we're being judged on what we're really capable of.

And again, the people who attended, friends and strangers alike, were really complimentary and very gracious in telling me afterwards how much they enjoyed the show. People really love these stories. And everyone it seems finds something that relates very directly and personally to things going on in their own lives -- an ill parent, a bad breakup or a strained relationship.

So I'm not even going to concern myself with what the reviewer says. Honest. I can wait 'til it's published. Just 119 hours from now.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Rob Biesenbach Show

So we're listed in TimeOut Chicago (twice actually, under "Comedy" and "Theatre"): "Five comic/dramatic ten-minute plays by Rob Biesenbach ..." And the Reader's was "Danger Boy Productions presents five short plays by Rob Biesenbach ..."

Hmm. I didn't really mean to market this show as THE ROB BIESENBACH SHOW. I mean, the press release came from me, but hell, I didn't even mention myself until the next-to-last paragraph! Oh well, I guess when they critique the show it'll be focused a good bit on me. Which makes sense to an extent, since I'm the writer. Still, it feels ... funny.

The Reader is coming tonight. False alarm last week. Tonight is it. I hope we get a good crowd. I think about 10-12 people I know are coming. I've done a bunch more this week to try to get people out -- asking my old Second City teachers to plug the show to their students, writing to artistic directors at theatres where I've performed, getting last week's audience members to write reviews on Metromix and message boards, more postering and postcarding. I started what will be a weekly "preview" on this message board for improvisers/actors, which I think might draw interest. The guy who cuts my hair says he'll come out. I stopped short at doing another mass e-mail -- there's a non-so-fine line between persistence and annoyance, and I think I've alread crossed it!

So we'll see. Nothing I can do now. We've all had a week off so I hope with a quick run-through we can shake off the rust and give another great performance. Then we'll sweat it out until Thursday when the Reader review comes out ...

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Origins, Part 1

I get two questions: 1) How long did it take to write these plays and, 2) Where did you get the idea?

For Question 1, I have no idea. First draft of one of these took anywhere from 2 hours in one sitting to 10 hours over several. Then 4 or 5 rewrites over weeks or even months. For The One-Eyed Cat, originally titled "Bagel Boy," the first draft was written in September 2004, with subsequent rewrites in October, November, then March, June and September of 2005.

As for question #2, I know a playwright isn't really supposed to explain his work, but I like talking about it. So I thought I'd tackle that question for each of the five plays over the next few weeks.

For One-Eyed Cat, I came up with the general concept, and a good bit of the core dialogue, one Saturday morning as I was doing my usual summer routine at the time -- breakfast at Einstein's bagels followed by a visit to the farmer's market at Division and State. I'm constantly thinking up dialogues in my head for situations I may encounter -- running into someone I know or a complete stranger.

In any case, for whatever reason, this idea occurred to me of two people meeting at a farmer's market and hitting it off. I had all this quick, witty banter in my head and went home and typed up an 8-page script in just a couple of hours. Looking at it now, much of the basic structure -- and 2-3 pages of complete dialogue -- made it through all the way to the final draft. It was pretty breezy and light at the time, and as it evolved it got darker, with a lot more depth to and higher stakes for the characters. The cat wasn't added until near the end -- mainly as a device to illustrate the underlying theme of peoples' attraction to damaged goods. (The cat is real, by the way. In fact, I know two one-eyed cats.)

I always have a terrible time naming characters -- 80% of the male characters I have written are named Sam (my nephew's name), Andy (my middle name), Stewart (my idea of an archetypical nerd name), and Charlie (the name I would call myself if I were really cool). Usually I just go through my e-mail address book to find names.

Of the four dramatic plays, this is the least dark (though not by much), and it's got some nice light moments, so it makes an easy introduction into the evening. Plus it's where I got the show's title, obviously.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Opening Night

It's taken me 24 hours to figure out how I feel about opening night. First, from a performance standpoint, it was a huge success. All the actors were on fire -- high energy, solid moments -- and the whole night was as about as flawless technically as you could hope to get. The audience really loved the show. They were fully engaged. As someone said, there was a lot of "sighing" going on. These really are some brutally sad stories. And it seems a lot of people found things that related very directly and painfully to things in their own lives. By the time of the fifth and final play, which is the only out-and-out comedy, they were really ready to laugh, and so it wrapped up exactly how we envisioned.

I was also really, really pleased that my friends and the people they brought totaled 17 people. That was really cool. Some people have to wait for their funeral to find out how people really feel about them, so that was terrific. Afterwards, most of them and the cast and crew, and other audience members went out to the bar and we commandeered a huge section of the patio. A couple of people said it was like a wedding reception, as I moved from group to group to thank them and talk with them. It was just a really ... grand evening. I felt on top of the world.

When I woke up, however, I realized that economically, we're going to have to grow our audience size. I didn't realize how hard it was to get people out to the theatre who don't know you. And relying on friends and family alone just will not cut it. At this pace, I will lose more than $500, maybe more. So yesterday morning I wanted to shoot myself with a rusty gun. By the end of the day, however, I had a half-dozen ideas for things I could do in the next few days to get more people out.

Losing money is not the end of the world. And I would trade sold-out houses for the audience we had Friday night (which was very decent-sized, just short of my goal of 50-60) any day. They were connected and engaged in a way that is palpable to the performers and helps feed the energy in the room. One of the best audiences I've played for was 6 people. And I've been in full houses that felt dead.

So it's not really the money. The heartbreak is, I just finally came around to the fact Friday night that this is a very good, very powerful, very affecting show, and it would be a crying, crying shame if as many people as possible did not see it.

Also the reviewer we expected did not show. The review would have helped drive audiences for the rest of the run. However, a whole slew of shows opened this weekend, the "beginning" of the season, so I know scheduling is tough. I will call and see if we can get them out this week.

One of the sweetest surprises Friday night was to feel accepted as a "real" actor by the other actors in this show. It means a lot, because I admire them so much.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The (p)reviews are in!

From today's Chicago Reader:

THE ONE-EYED CAT AND OTHER TALES OF NEED Danger Boy Productions presents a quintet of short plays by Rob Biesenbach, directed by Rob Chambers. Opens Fri 9/9, 9 PM. Through 10/7: Fri 9 PM. Second City Training Center, Donny's Skybox Studio, Piper's Alley, 1608 N. Wells (fourth floor), 312-337-3992 $8-$10.

Funny. "Danger Boy Productions" sounds so official in print. "Quintet." wish I'd thought of that -- sounds so much better than "five."

At least 13 people I know are coming tonight. I think it will be a good crowd. And a really good show.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Ready

So tonight the director ends the rehearsal early, telling us we're ready -- he's done his job, the show's in our hands now.

So here we go.

As writer, my work was done weeks ago, save for some minor rewrites of lines here and there. As an actor, well, I know there's more I can do in terms of adding depth and texture to the performance. As producer? The marketing will continue throughout the run, but for tomorrow's opening I think I've done all I can. Of course, that's relative. Have I really done everything I could?

Just about, I suppose. I could have, say, gone to street festivals and the air show and the beach and El stops handing out postcards to people. But then, how many actual theatre-goers would that reach? What's the percentage of the population that regularly attends the theatre? Not the ones who occasionally go to big Broadway touring shows for special occasions, but people who see theatre, storefront theatre, 2-4 times a month. Probably less than 3%. A good deal less, most likely. How many of those people are at the Sheffield Garden Walk? If I hand out 500 postcards there (half my stock), how many theatregoers will I reach? Maybe 1 or 2?

Standing outside of theatres, now that's an idea. Of course, the actual times that shows run -- Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons -- I've had performances or rehearsals probably 80% of the time. And the other 20% ... sometimes a night off is really, really nice.

I've sent multiple mailings to critics, but have I tried getting them on the phone and personally pitching them the story? I hate pitching. That's one area of PR that I am really bad at. Reporters are SO busy. They really hate to have their time wasted. So I send them info, and really nice, informative, pointed letters, all professionally done.

The improv and comedy community? This isn't an improv or comedy show. Cat owners? They'd probably be a bit disappointed that the show's not about cats.

So we're listed in a couple of media outlets. Posters are up in key neighborhoods. Postcards at 30 theatres. E-mails, message boards, mailings, etc. I've probably alienated every friend and actor I know with my e-mails.


I could have found out how many reservations we have, but I was afraid of being disappointed. I can wait until tomorrow night. This is a very good show. People should see it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Oops

I'm a dumbass. So I agreed to be in this new show that started rehearsals last night. About to go to second rehearsal tonight. Then Saturday morning at 10 (after One-Eye's opening night), and five days a week after that. I am so tired, and I've still got several things to finish up for One-Eye -- program, press kits, etc., and all of this is causing me to push back my actual work-work, so that's going to bite me in the ass.

I know I whine a lot about my schedule and have no one to blame but myself. But if I didn't have to work -- if I had just one job, acting/writing, then all of this would be a lot more manageable. I would love to just sleep tonight.

So the Chicago Reader called and is going to review the show Friday. That's great. And a nightmare. Both. Ideally, we'd have a preview or two before the media came out, but with a 5-show run, you've pretty much got to go out and nail it every night. Actually, as long as we give our best, I don't care what they say about us. Well, I'll care, but ... I really want to make sure we're evaluated on a solid performance.

48 hours.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

60 Internet-free hours

The last time I went without the Internet or e-mail for more than two days was probably back before the Internet was invented. Or at least 4 years.

I was in Annapolis, Maryland this weekend for a wedding, sandwiched between rehearsals Friday night and Monday night. I didn't make it to the ocean, as hoped, but I was by the water, and on the water, and ate many creatures from the water, especially crab. On the East Coast, they make crabcakes the right way, as crabcakes. Unlike the Midwest, which should call them cakecrabs, since they're 90% bread. I can't believe I lived in DC and its environs for two decades and never made the 35-mile trip to this very cool little town. Lots of history and beautiful architecture and great food. And hills and trees and the sea. I love Chicago, but I miss those things.

This was my first out-of-town trip since Christmas. I used to travel all the time -- several vacations a year. It was my favorite thing to do, before I started acting. But now it's so hard to get away. Rarely do more than a couple of days go by without a rehearsal or show or audition. In fact, I was invited to what would have been a cool audition this weekend but couldn't do it. That's the thing with auditions. You're there or you're not. They don't really do makeups. But I need to find a way to do more traveling.

Tonight (Monday) was our second-to-last rehearsal. In the next 4 days, I need to: do one more round of postering; finalize and print the program; create press kits (if critics indicate they're attending); send a final broadcast e-mail and message board postings; hit a couple of the theatre schools now that the college kids are back, update the website and a few other things. Oh, and my job. And rehearsal for this new show. And t-shirts. Still would love t-shirts ....

Friday, September 02, 2005

Seven Days ...

Multiple thoughts this morning at 7 days to opening:
  • I said before how I get impatient with tricked-up fantasy elements and other gimickry in plays that distract from the relationships and the real issues at stake. I don't know now. Maybe that's what makes a play interesting, that takes people out of their worlds and sweeps them up. I've watched (and read in my head) these plays maybe a hundred times now. Sometimes I have no idea if they're any good. On the other hand, people still add things in rehearsals that surprise me or make me laugh out loud. I think we're ready to get in front of people. 3 more rehearsals.
  • People tell me I'm doing a great job with the marketing. But I don't know. We all know the truths within ourselves that others don't see. Yes, we've put up a 100-plus posters, and distributed 500+ postcards, hitting theatres, coffee shops and store windows, and we have a nice website, and more than a dozen critics are getting 3 rounds of mailings, and message boards are being used, and I've individually e-mailed a hundred people and group blasted dozens of others, and snail-mailed postcards, and hit-up faculty to promote to their students, and ... etc. Still, I'm not sure we've really connected. People are coming to the websites, but maybe not as many as I hoped. We haven't created a true two-way interaction with potential audiences. I had visions of cat-photo contests, tie-ins with shelters (which seemed disingenuous, since the show isn't really about cats), sending One-Eye on a media tour (okay, maybe not). As the President likes to say, "it's hard." There are 300+ theatre companies in town competing for attention. And there's not one spot -- like a message board or mailing list -- to find all these people. If I had an army (and a load of $) I'd dispatch them to 3-dozen theatres with t-shirts and postcards and hit people coming out the doors. Oh, well. We've done our best -- we'll just have to see what happens.
  • I signed on to a new show that opens a couple of weeks after One-Eye closes. It was a hard decision. I'm so tired I can barely think about starting another show. On the other hand, I know once One-Eye goes up I'd be twiddling my thumbs with 6 nights off. First rehearsal is Tuesday, though -- a little sooner than I'd like, but we can't really control these things.
  • This weekend, for the first time since Christmas, I'll be getting out of town. I'd really like to see the ocean, but that may not be doable. Crazy timing, but couldn't be helped. Hope to come back rejuvenated for the final push.
  • Time to get ready for an audition. Supposed to dance to "This House is Rocking." I should look up this song on itunes.