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Entries in theatre (2)


Lost in Translations

Valerie asks:

How about a piece on bombing — on stage, at a party, as a presenter, whatever. Clever fellow that you are, your jokes are mostly met with appreciation, but we’ve all been there.

I struggled to come up with something for this. I don’t know if improv taught me this, or my natural comfort being the center of attention has something to do with it, but by and large it doesn’t distress me overly much when things don’t go right in performance or a social function. I’ve certainly been in my share of improv scenes that have gone off the rails, and I mostly don’t remember them. One of the beautiful things about improv is neither your triumphs nor your failures last long. It’s ephemeral, which is one of the things that makes it magical. Sic transit gloria mundi, for tomorrow we die.

But there is one particular event that does jump out at me, where I would say that I bombed. In fact, it was a series of repeated events, which made it even worse.

My sophomore year I was in a production of Brian Friel’s Translations, a wonderful play set during the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland. It’s about language and culture and identity, and I loved the script. I wasn’t actually supposed to be in it, but one of the actors originally cast had to back out just after auditions, and I was the director’s choice to replace him. It was my first real dramatic role, having played a stock villain and a Shakespearean rogue in my first two college shows. And I struggled with it. We had a crazy short rehearsal schedule, and while I never had difficulty learning my lines — including the correct pronunciation of several dozen Gaelic place-names — I had trouble making parts of it real.

In middle of Act II, there is a pivotal moment. I mean that quite literally: the whole momentum of the show shifts and the trajectory of the character I played changes over the course of about two minutes. There’s a point where he hits bottom and finally lets loose with all of the anger and frustration that’s been building up. And then, because of the relationship he has with the poor fellow he unloads on, — and because they’ve both been drinking Irish moonshine for the whole scene — they both collapse into laughter, come to an understanding, and patch things up. Which, of course, sets up the tragedy that occurs in Act III.

I could not get that explosive transition from resentment to camaraderie right. It haunted me every night in rehearsal, and it never rang true. There was always something inauthentic about the way that I played it that I couldn’t shake. Come opening night it was still there. Closing night, eight performances later, same thing. Every night I would into that scene, hoping that I find the key to unlock it, to make it work. And every night I would come off stage after that scene practically in tears, angry with myself for not being able to get it right. One night I nearly smashed up a bit of furniture off-stage I was so upset. Of course, I would channel that into my appearance in the final scene of the show, when I presided over the unfolding disaster that we had inadvertently set in motion, so at least I had a use for those feelings of inadequacy.

The kicker, of course, is that I was my own worst critic. Sure, the scene wasn’t a tour de force of thespian-ism, but I didn’t exactly ruin the show either. No one gave me notes about. No one said, “That was great, except that guy who played Owen.” Audience members told me after the show that they loved my performance. There’s nothing quite like having a group of Irish nuns tell you that you’re good lad and that they enjoyed the show. The only place I really bombed was in my own head. Which, I’ve come to realize, is the only place it can hurt you.

It was only years later that I realized we should have rehearsed the scene drunk.


Fitness: Ran 2.25 miles + 30 minute workout
Writing: 300 words, 273 average

Apparently That Was Too Naked

Peter Rogers says:

I’d like to hear a story about Rice Theater!

My first thought was to tell a story about something Peter and I were in together, i.e. The Winter’s Tale. But maybe he wants to hear about something he wasn’t present for. And I’ve already done Caesar, so how about something even further afield…

Freshman year of college was when I caught the theatre bug. In high school I’d been in choir and done speech and debate, but I always had scheduling conflicts that prevented me from doing plays or musicals. When I got to Houston, I auditioned for the first Rice Players show of year, and because it had a huge cast, I got a part. The second show of year had a cast of six, so I didn’t. Instead, I started doing technical work.1 My first foray into the backstage realms was in carpentry, but I quickly expanded into set design, lighting, and pretty much everything except costuming and makeup. I was eager to help and happy to be involved.

Which is how I ended up volunteering to run lights for the premiere of short play. Its subject and the plot were not entirely clear to me, nor were its connections to the student body. What was clear after the first tech rehearsal was that it had an all-female cast, a set that was more implied by lighting than built with materials, and a substantial mix of both sheer costumes and nudity. I think there might have been a Pygmalion element to plot, but it was really this last fact that most people latched onto.2 It resulted in exchanges like the following:

“Is she naked?”

“No, she’s standing in a blue light and wearing a translucent blue dress.”

“No, no, under that…”

“Ah. Yes.”

Most of the theatre groups on campus at the time had a style of lighting board called a two-scene preset, which has two banks of sliders. The way these work is while you have one group of lights up on the active bank, you can set the next cue on the other, and then cross-fade between the two. The Players had a board that could do that and could also be fully computerized. The lighting designer would set the levels for each and then program the transition time. To run it, you only had to follow along in the script and hit the “Go” button whenever the actors got to the right spot. A trained monkey could have done it.

So in the first dress rehearsal, I’m sitting in the light booth, cheerfully hitting the monkey button. The lighting designer had told me and the director before we started that she still needed to adjust to adjust the timing and levels of some of the cues, and I was taking notes as we went along of places where I noticed the transitions were a little fast or slow. And then we got the final ten minutes of the show, a sort of dream sequence with really bold, saturated lighting. And nakedness.

So just as the statue takes off her dress, I notice that one of the three lights on her doesn’t have the color of gel in it that it’s supposed to. In fact, it looks like there isn’t one in there at all. It probably just slipped out at some point. The end result is that instead of being washed by a deep red field that is — shall we say — tastefully done, she’s basically standing naked in front of a car headlight. I make a note, and I figure we’ll fix it after the rehearsal.

At which point the director, who I’ve already realized is a little crazed and doesn’t really understand much in the way of technical details, bursts into the lighting booth and shouts at me:

“I don’t want my actress that naked in that light for that long!”

As soon as the rehearsal wrapped, we dragged out a ladder and fixed the light.


Fitness: Ran 3 miles
Writing: 252 words, 269 average

1 Which is what led to Gwen and I dating, but that’s another story.

2 To the extent that our shorthand for it later was “the lesbian soft-core play.”