Tuesday, February 28, 2006

First rehearsal

This is the most professional show I’ve been associated with. I mean, we signed contracts! We have a dramaturg!

The crew has been working for weeks and presented all this stuff to us last night at the first rehearsal. The set designer showed us models of the set. (He actually had two – one in miniature and one table-topped size, beautifully detailed, constructed in wood, with all the doors and windows and little pieces of furniture and stuff.) And the costume designer had a board for each character, with cut-outs from magazines of suits and dresses and shoes and hats and coats and other things to inspire the eventual wardrobe choices. And the dramaturg had a half-inch thick stack of research for us to look over – background and articles on 9/11, the FBI, Arab-American issues, case studies, etc.


(The play is about an Arab American who, in the wake of a domestic terrorist attack, gets a surprise visit from two FBI agents. Things unfold – or unravel – from there.)

Tonight we’re going to meet with the ACLU and also talk to a person who was interrogated by the FBI. And on Saturday we get to sit down for an hour with a retired FBI agent who worked on counter-terrorism stuff.

It’s all so cool. The crew is twice the size of the cast. And some board members were there and they were talking about the buzz this play is already getting and the meetings they’re going to have with various civic groups. And, of course, the story gets more and more relevant every day, with the whole issue of security versus freedom.

So it’s really great to be involved with this show. Really, really great. Really. I mean it.

The only thing is … I’m an understudy. I’m not gonna be one of the guys out there every night. I get two performances, yes. I get PAID, yes (almost unheard of in non-equity theatre). And everyone from the artistic director to the director on down is going out of there way to ensure that we feel as much a part of the production as everyone else.

But. I’m not the one on stage every night. I’m not the one that the critics will see, or most of the audience members. I’m not out there every night, on the line. So that’s hard. I mean, I know the guy I’m understudying for. He’s good. We’ve both seen each perform. He’s got a lot more experience than I do so, yes, this is the natural order of things.

It’s just hard. Going from big lead roles in smaller storefront productions to an understudy role in a big production. I guess it’s just growing pains. I want to contribute, which I will have a chance to do. I want to be out front, which I won’t.

It’s fine. It’s really, really fine. These are great people and this will be a great experience this will lead to even greater opportunities. Really.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Lines 2

Tonight is first rehearsal for Back of the Throat. I'd wanted to have all my lines for one of the two characters I'm understudying finished by this time, but I didn't quite make it. I'm close -- page 89 out of 107. Damn vacation! Of course we weren't required or even expected to have anything done by today, but I wanted to get ahead of the game since the two characters together probably make up 80% of the play's dialogue.

It'll be good to get back into a regular rehearsal schedule (for this and for two readings I'm doing this month). I'm not positive what my obligation is. Contractually, understudies rehearse on Sundays and are required to attend two of the five other regular cast rehearsals each week. So I need to get a sense of what's really expected versus what's required. I don't want to be a slacker, but it's also hard to imagine sitting and watching a 4-hour rehearsal several times a week. I'm supposed to observe and record all the blocking and other directions for my characters.

Anyway I should have the lines for my main character, Carl, (the one I'll actually be performing) done by Sunday's understudy rehearsal, so I can then work on the other, Bart. That's right. Carl and Bart. Carl and Bart the nasty FBI agents.

It's been kind of nice having weekends off, but that's over until sometime in June.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Now on DVD

I'm hoping The Weatherman does better on DVD than it did in theatres. Again, not because I've got a part of any significance in it whatsoever (other than to me), but because I really did like the film and think more people should see it.

Someone on Amazon wrote an interesting review that maybe captured the main problem with this movie -- it's got an indie tone and viewpoint set within a big-budget environment. So the result is kind of discordant. The marquee actors, lush cinematography, and other major studio-style elements set up an expectation for a different sort of film -- a more predictable, less grim and unsettling film. Or perhaps it just sucked.

I was in Blockbuster yesterday and was surprised to see that 1) they'd ordered huge quantities (it had its own section of shelves, floor-to-ceiling) and 2) all copies were checked out. So that was interesting.

I will have to purchase my own copy. When they discount it from $21.99 ...

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Like a Virgin

Several years ago, when I was in my first "real" show, all I could think about in the weeks leading up to it was the moment on stage when we'd be taking our bows and absorbing the applause of friends and family and strangers. And when the moments finally came, it was amazing. It really was.

But then a funny thing happened. As we got more and more into the run, it meant less and less. And what I really enjoyed was those moments on stage when you feel a definite, palpable connection to the audience, where they're going along with you and you with them and you're all experiencing the same thing, the same emotions -- it's like some kind of collective soul. Anyway, by the time of the show's closing night, I was on stage for the last scene and the lights went down and ... I forgot about the curtain call. I spun around and started leaving the stage. My friend Shawna had to grab me and pull me into the line. It was the funniest thing. This thing that had meant so much to me in my imagination was now an afterthought.

And still today the bow is kind of a self-conscious moment for me. It just feels weird. What I like more is the individual interactions with people -- some of them are so affected by what they've seen and are really generous in their comments.

I thought about that last night because I did this show for Chicago Scriptworks.
For a variety of reasons, I wasn't sure whether to do it, but in the end I'm glad I did. It was "just" a staged reading, but they have this huge following -- we had more than a hundred people there. And they loved it. Afterwards, on the subway platform I ran into this nice older couple from the audience who were very kind with their comments. It felt great.

It felt like -- after a couple of months off the stage -- like one of those first times.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"Dress comfortably for the audition"

Man, those are words I don't like to hear. The last time I was told to "dress comfortably" for an audition, I had to impersonate a Solid Gold dancer. I've loosened up considerably in the last couple of years, but I admit I still like to play to my strengths. Which do not typically involve clowning. Especially at 10 am on a Saturday. Oh well. We'll see. I'm sure it'll be fine.

I'm much better in rehearsals, when I've had a little time to get to know the material and the people I'm working with. Like tonight. Everyone was having fun trying new stuff and cracking each other up. It must be a little something like musicians jamming or athletes trying out new moves on each other. It's part competitive, part playful. Very few things in life afford you that instant feedback. You give a line a different reading or emphasis or add a new gesture or reaction and people respond or they don't. It feels good.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Why I'm fun at parties

At a party this weekend, the hostess discussed the martial arts lessons she's taking and showed us her white belt with the little hash marks representing all the work she's put into it. We all thought it was very cool but I guess it occurred only to me that a fun thing to do would be to put her self-defense skills to the test by randomly "attacking" her at various points throughout the night. So with mock choke-holds, karate chops and behind-the-back pounces, I managed 7 consecutive "kills." Of course, we both had had more than our share of Mardi Gras punch ...

The screenplay continues to give me fits. Over vacation I saw Junebug, which is very much the type of "small" film I'm imagining. Of course, like McKee warned, hardly anybody saw it. I loved it, though, and highly recommend it. So I've been retooling the story over and over and trying to figure out how best to proceed.

There's lots of other activity to keep me occupied in the meantime. I'm doing a staged reading tomorrow night, then rehearsals begin next week for Back of the Throat, then the week after that are rehearsals for another reading ...

And I continue to send out my headshots in response to audition notices. I'm pretty vigilant about keeping up with that. I think it's important to keep yourself in circulation.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Bad Audiences

This morning's Trib has an article on theatre-going etiquette, replete with nightmare stories from actors and directors around Chicago. They didn't interview me, but I thought I'd add my own:
  • One show I did had a special performance for a social services charity where they invited the group's beneficiaries (many of them children) to attend. It was a nice thing to do, sure, but these were not seasoned theatregoers. One girl, about 11, not only had her cell phone on, but proceeded to conduct several long phone conversations during the show loud enough for us to hear on stage. Slightly in her defense, it wasn't that great a show ...
  • At the same show a character of mine had a joke and just as I performed the setup, someone in the audience called out the punch line.
  • At my very first show ever, a bunch of friends attended. It was a late show and they had been across the street drinking margaritas at a Mexican place. The restaurant was even kind enough to pour the remains of their pitcher into a big "to-go" cup. Or maybe they just brought the pitcher? Now this was a late night show, so audiences tend to be a little more rowdy. Plus, it was improv, so they're also encouraged at certain points to contribute suggestions. This, however, was not one of those points. I was doing an intimate scene with another actor who said, "Do you know Lindsey?" As it happens, that was one of my friend's names. She called out, "Yes, he does" and various other things when I failed to acknowledge her. We still laugh about it. Hi, Lindsay!!
  • At a sketch show I was in a scene where one of the lines contained the words "New Jersey," which one extraordinarily drunk patron found hilarious. Throughout the rest of the scene, and even other parts of the show that were supposed to be intimate moments, she would randomly and Tourettes-like scream out "NEW JERSEY!!!" and burst into gales of laughter. Then she'd pass out, wake up, and repeat. We all wanted to kill her. I, in fact, was in a driving scene and I was about to ad-lib something about the fat cow in the road ahead (she was right in front, like 6 feet from the stage). Turns out she was a friend of one of the writers.
  • I was doing a play in a tiny storefront theatre where the closet-sized lobby was used as an offstage area between scenes. Several of us were gathered there ready to make our entrances when this woman bearing pamphlets (I think she was Jehovah's Witness) came through the door and started evangelizing loud enough for the audience on the other side of the curtain to hear.
  • Lots of small storefront theatres, especially for late night shows, allow and even encourage drinking. This was not one of those shows. Still, another group of friends (maybe I should get different friends?), were having trouble handling their alcohol. Literally. They knocked over several full beer bottles and almost gave the house manager an aneurism.
Those are just off the top of my head. No doubt there are others. And I could probably come up with an equal number of stories where fellow actors behaved badly. But there must be a lesson in all this. Perhaps it's that I should be in more entertaining shows?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The children called him Weenie Face

It takes a ridiculously long time for me to grow back my facial hair. Like almost a week to get to the point where you can see it from across the room. I have the beard growth of an 11-year-old Malaysian boy. On the bright side, that probably means I'll avoid cultivating excessive amounts of back hair ... at least until such time as dating is no longer a viable option.

Still, the worst part of having to shave for that gig last week was that my vacation started the following day, thus enshrining forever what I call my "weenie face" in my recorded memories of this trip.

Pictured here is the face at Hour 49. Oh yeah, and the Pacific Ocean. I have no idea who that girl is. But it's a safe bet she is verrrry, verrrrry tolerant ....

Monday, February 13, 2006

Vacation (all I ever wanted)

So I made the most of the tail-end of this little performing lull by taking my first "real" vacation in ... I don't know how long. I've had some ski trips and extended weekends and things, but this was the real deal. Six days away. Far away ... in Washington and Oregon (Oregon giving me my 44th state visited). Portland, Seattle, Oregon Coast, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. And the weather was unbelievable. After record-setting rains the skies cleared for almost the whole time we were there.

Vacations aren't quite the same with e-mail, Internet, cell phones and voice mail. In the old days (a few years ago), it felt more like you were really away. Still, it was a good break. But now I'm pooped (my trips tend to be pretty fast-paced -- lots of miles and rarely a night in the same place) and I have a bunch of work and performing stuff coming up.

Back of the Throat (the play I'm understudying for), its playwright and the company producing it here in Chicago continue to get massive buzz. Saturday's New York Times had a big feature on the front of it's Arts section. This is getting more and more exciting, especially as I continue to dig in to the script, which I made great progress on.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Doctor in the house

I had this photo shoot for a print job today and they were really cool and talented people, but it was grueling. First, I was called for 1 pm, but they were running behind and didn't start shooting me until after 4, making me late for my first rehearsal of The Newlywed Game, and causing me to miss working out -- though I suppose that was counteracted somewhat by the fact that I couldn't eat for 10 hours straight.

Second, they made me shave! Which I've happily done in the past for gigs, but I've always known beforehand. So that was a drag. I was supposed to be a doctor (a MIDDLE-AGED DOCTOR, according to the storyboards!), and by the time the goatee was off and my hair was pasted down and they put the conservative shirt and tie and lab coat and stethoscope on me, well, I looked like a middle-aged doctor. How sad.

Finally, it was painful. The positions they contorted me into were like a freaky game of solo twister. Sit up on the stool, lean forward, elbows down on the table, right shoulder back, chin up, face right, eyes left to camera above. It really did hurt. And you have to stay exactly positioned, with clamps attached all over your arms and back to keep the fabric creases down, while they re-set the lights and check the image and mess with the background.

Then, of course, projecting all that warmth for the camera. 'Cause you can't just "act" warm, you gotta be warm. And that might have been the toughest challenge of all. At least the photos turned out well. I, however, have a giant monkey fist mid-spine ...

From there I had to go to rehearsal and, on the spot, create Regis and Dr. Phil impressions for a room full of strangers.

I am exhausted. And my face is hairless and covered in makeup.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Well-Appointed Room

Last night I went to see the Steppenwolf show that I auditioned to understudy for. It's a world premiere by Richard Greenberg, who wrote Take Me Out and The Violet Hour. My pal Britt, who works in the box office, scored me a couple of comps.

First, it was great to see a show that I truly wanted to see (as opposed to those you see sometimes out of obligation to friends). It got middling reviews but I enjoyed it -- the writing and the performances. And having read the script for the audition, I felt kind of vested in it.

It was especially cool seeing the scenes I read for, and to find that I wasn't that far off -- at least in intentions and beats and such. The performance, of course, was better, but I think I "got it" in terms of what the character and scene and lines were about. At the time I thought it was interesting that I looked a little like Tracy Letts (okay, we're both white guys with cool glasses). Then, of course, he completely changed his appearance for the show, with long hair and a beard.

And it's such a change seeing a high-budget production. The set was beautiful and the actors were all first rate. I guess one of the guys, Josh Charles, used to be on Sports Night. They all had a long list of amazing credits.

In a way, seeing shows like this is a little depressing. It reminds me of where I am. Which is far, far behind. I have to keep reminding myself that I've only been at this for a couple of years. Still, I'll make it a point to go see a really crappy show soon.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Good morning, muffin top

It's a slow week, so I will just say it came as remarkable news to me last weekend that "muffin top" is definitely not viewed by women as a term of endearment, even if given in a tongue in cheek way. Apparently it has another meaning I wasn't aware of.

Arguing that the top, as illustrated in Seinfeld, is widely considered the best part of the muffin is of no help.

And such alternatives as "muffin stump," "muffin cup," and "muffin bakery" are no more welcome.

Just a tip for you.