Category Archives: Theater

The Actor’s Studio

I’m a fan of the BRAVO channel; one of my favorite shows is Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton. I think he is a gifted interviewer; it is clear he loves actors and the process and all that great stuff. It makes me happy. He asks good questions, and it is the perfect mix of interview, gush, and insight. I like to see who squirms and who basks in the glow of attention. There are some awesome interviews with amazing actors: Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert Deniro, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Kate Blanchet, and the list goes on and on. There have been some wonderfully talented people on that show, really incredibly talented actors. I would love to be an acting student in the room when one of the greats is being interviewed.

However, there are some interviews of some folks that I have a hard time taking seriously as “actors.” For example: Brooke Shields, Mickey Rourke, Sharon Stone, Jay Leno, the band Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, the cast of The Simpsons, and Kanye West. These people have actually, legitimately been on the show as guests. Sure, Mickey Rourke made that one good film, you know the one I mean, right? Yeah, I can’t remember the name either, but sure, he made one. Then he turned into a freaky looking dude and made fairly odd choices in his life, but who am I to judge? Kanye West? As an actor?

It also bugs me when Lipton asks these famous people, “If not acting, then what?” they wistfully look up and take a deep breath and nine times out of ten, they say, “I would have liked to have been a teacher….” Really? Put them in a classroom for a month, on a teacher’s salary and then see what they say. I can just imagine a downtrodden, tired, not-so-good-looking-without-that-facial-every-week Tom Cruise (pre-Hollywood smile) addressing his class. “Why aren’t you listening to me? Listen to me! And put that desk down…”

Sure, teaching seems noble, fun and perhaps even a bit fabulous to the casual observer, and sometimes it really is noble, fun and fabulous, but it’s also hard work, both intellectually and emotionally, and frankly, after eating school lunch for over 24 years, losing a BIG chunk of my salary due to Act 10, getting chastised by a few parents, as well as their children and watching my profession be brought to its knees due to standardized testing and budget cuts, well, that kind of nonsense can get under my skin. There are days (more than a few) where I would absolutely change places with Meryl Streep or Julie Roberts in a fraction of a heartbeat. I totally understand the likelihood of that ever happening is about as good as Kanye West winning an Oscar for his acting, but it is fun to daydream about.

Here’s a fun-fact. Lipton’s famous questions at the end of every interview were first made popular by Bernard Pivot on a show called Apostrophes. They are great questions.  If I ever make it on “The Actor’s Studio” these would be my super spontaneous, authentic answers.  (Feel free to answer them too in comments.)

1. What is your favorite word?

-F*ck. By a long shot.

2. What is your least favorite word?

-Moist.

3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

-Winning praise of people I admire and respect.

4. What turns you off?

-People who drop the ball. And slavery. And misogynists.

5. What is your favorite curse word?

-F*ck. By a long shot.

6. What sound or noise do you love?

-Little girls giggling, particularly my own.

7. What sound or noise do you hate?

-Instruments that are out of tune. And angry men shouting at children, women or animals.

8. If not acting, then what?

-(Wistfully looks up) Teaching…

9. What profession would you not like to do?

-Cleaning out porta-potties.

10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

-“Nice job kiddo; you did good. Now, get back in there.”

I’m now less than a decade away from retirement, and on occasion, my mind drifts toward daydreams of that time when I no longer teach. Will I stay busy? Will I miss it? Will my brain turn to mush? If not teaching, then what? Directing? Writing? Learning a new language? Distilling my own vodka? Regardless of how that plays out, I plan on making a really great retiree; I bet I still do all kinds of noble, fun and fabulous things.  However, I bet I still spend some time of the couch watching old reruns of “The Actor’s Studio.”

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Where the Hell did Summer go?

I haven’t blogged for a while, so I am back on that not-so-gravy-train of literary fun. Let me fill you in what has been keeping me busy this summer, or at least in June.

A few years ago, Kriner and I started a tradition of taking the last 2 weeks of June after school is out and taking a trip, usually out east. Aside from seeing family, we like to plan little adventures and side excursions, which is exactly what we did this year. Did I mention this is a car trip? Yup.

My parents took a long car trip once with kids and another family, and frankly, that infamous trip to Texas is deserving of it’s own blog, so I won’t go into it here, but suffice to say, they did it once. That was how wise and insightful my parents were. They took a long family car trip once. This makes number three for us. Kriner and I have a problem with martyrdom but admitting it is half the problem, right? That being said, Kriner is an amazing vacation planner (please see Disney blog…) so he planned our trip around….amusement parks! I don’t necessarily like amusement parks, but I like my husband and my kid, and I really like seeing them happy, so I agreed.

If you haven’t met him, Kriner is a cynic. Not a “bit of a cynic” who may point out the price of a gift, but just a straight up, the world is pretty messed up, people kind of suck, Capitalism is awful, kind of cynic. Here’s the awesome thing about cynics. When they find something they really love, they really, really love it. They’re a tough crowd in general, so when something wins them over, it’s a huge boon. I love him for that. I tend to be a bit easy with loving stuff (he says I use the word “awesome” too much) and he tends to be a bit tougher audience member for that sort of thing. We’re a great balance. Anyway, anytime I can see him in a state of joy I will go for it. Skiing brings him joy, football gives him joy, playing drums gives him joy, watching his daughter do pretty much anything brings him joy, and roller coasters bring him joy. A lot of joy. This blog will recount our trip, and the roller coasters Kriner and Em road along the way.

APPLETON, WI to Lawrence University, for my 24th reunion. That is not a typo. I was friends with a lot of folks a year older than me, which made for a pretty lonely senior year. When I was a freshmen, my room was placed in the middle of a group of Delta Gamma sophomores who loved me and took me under their wing immediately. Needless to say, I soaked up said love, and it made me do something I never (in a million years) thought I would do; I joined a sorority. Yes, I am a “DG” and no, I will not show you the secret handshake. The reunion was a lovely affair, made only more lovely because another 24ther showed up, my friend Liz. Liz and I were more acquaintances in college, but in the past few years, we have become good friends over the internet, with shared experiences, most including lazy students and breast cancer, not necessarily in that order. Here are some important things I learned at my 24th reunion at Lawrence University.

1) Former professors are as arrogant and douche-baggy as you remember.

2) Even though I was the youngest in the room, I managed to look the oldest.

3) People’s belly laughs don’t change with age, thankfully.

4) People who you thought would be incredibly happy may not be, and people who look bored may actually be at peace and pretty cool with the world.

5) I really haven’t necessarily done that well for myself considering the education I received.

 

ROLLER COASTER COUNT

-On Saturday, Kriner and Em went to Green Bay (about a 20 minute drive) and explored the “Zippin’ Pippin” which is located on the edge of Lake Michigan. It is a city-run park (a plus for my commie husband) and the coaster is a replica of Elvis Presley’s favorite coaster. Totally serious. For some reason, the city of Green Bay decided to build a replica of a dead music icon’s favorite ride. After that, they went to the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame. (Aside from the roller coasters, he worked in some sports too…)

NEXT STOP – CEDAR POINT, SANDUSKY, OHIO

There is no reason to go to Sandusky, save going to Cedar Point Amusement Park. I know that now, because we went there. Seriously, if you love roller coasters, then you already know about Cedar Point. If you’re like me, and don’t love them, then Sandusky is not for you. Cedar Point has the largest number of roller coasters of any park in the United States. There really aren’t a whole lot of other rides. Just coasters. This meant I got a lot of reading done on my kindle. Emily and Kriner rode 12 roller coasters in one day. Seriously. I don’t think the AMA supports that kind of nonsense, but they did it. The only reason they stopped, was because Kriner pulled his left chest muscle on a wooden roller coaster (they apparently are more jerky and he was trying to hold himself steady) and he didn’t want park officials thinking he was having a heart attack, as he was forced to clutch his chest when on the rides. Seriously.

NEXT STOP – WILKES-BARRE, PA

Kriner’s family lives there. His mom recently sold her home and moved into an apartment, for which, we are all happy. (She was smack in the middle of flood country. Now she gets a pool.) We were out there for her birthday, and had a lovely time. We spent a day in NYC, as Wilkes-Barre is less than 2 hours away. We saw Spiderman. Kriner and Em were the ones who braved the 1/2 price line.  Now, I must admit that Spiderman wasn’t on my list of shows I wanted to see, ever.  But, I immediately did a “look for the rainbow” check of my disappointment. “Hey, I’m in New York, going to see a Broadway show…you’re going to love it…look how happy – dare I say ‘joyful’ my husband looks! Shut up and enjoy the damn show.” You know what? I totally enjoyed it.

The script sucked, the music was..well, you know that one U2 song you know? Go ahead and get it in your head for a minute…Yeah, it sounds like that. But the technical aspects of this show were staggeringly good. It was like they picked up the gauntlet that “Wicked” threw down and ran with it around the track a few times. The set never stopped moving, they had more intelligent lights than I could count and the acrobatics were stunning. It was easy to see how a few actors had to be sacrificed for it. (If you didn’t know, it had a very rough opening, and more than 1 hospitalization…I get it now.) However, the night we saw it, no one got hurt, and Spiderman and Julie Taymore (one of my favorite directors ever) saved the day.

COASTER COUNT – We also spent a day at one of my favorite amusement parks, Knobbel’s. I actually like this park a lot. It is owned by a family, and has that kind of feel to it. There is no booze allowed, which, for those who know me, may be shocked, but it really makes it all the more fun. Tons of happy kids, tons of sunburned, laughing parents and tons of rides. One thing they have at the park is a really, really old and beautifully restored Merry-Go-Round with the “ring” feature. You know that saying “catch the brass ring?” Well, it came from old rides like this. The Merry-Go-Round has a metal arm that pushes out when the ride starts, and iron rings that pop out; you grab them as you go. In that line of iron rings, is one brass ring, and if you get the brass ring, then you get to ride again for free. I really, really love that. How great that a catch phrase came from a ride? I love the metaphor of it all. It makes me happy and actually, brings me joy.

This was the first year Emily could reach the rings. I cried. They actually sell brass rings in the gift shop, and every year, I buy too many and give them as gifts. Again, the perfect metaphor. “Here you go, here’s your brass ring. You’ve got it all.” I see them time to time on my friend’s key chains. Still makes me happy. Oh yeah, Emily and Kriner rode on 6 coasters that day.

NEXT STOP WASHINGTON D.C.

I had never been to our Nation’s Capitol and I thought it was high time we introduced our little American to it. I had been warned the city causes a pretty serious patriotic reaction, bordering on jingoistic. It’s true. We were about a seven minute walk from the White House and when I spotted it over the trees, my eyes filled immediately. The one thing about that trip was we walked a ton. We saw as much as we could and walked almost everywhere. We took the subway once, and took a cab once. Other than that, we hoofed it. We went to three of the Smithsonian Museums: Space, American and Native American. Screw the art, right? I saw space shuttles and the Hope Diamond. I saw Marvin Defoe’s birchbark canoe. (He’s a local Red Cliff resident, pretty cool!) We toured Congress and even met the First Lady. OK, not really, but we had to be re-routed twice as motorcades came and went. That was pretty cool. The food in D.C. is easy for a vegan, and we stayed in a fabulous hotel. (Note to self – when asked “would you like the free upgrade to the suite?” always answer “yes, please.”)

No roller coasters, but my heart rose and sank just the same when I saw the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King statue. We toured the Ford’s Theater, and had a fabulous lunch with our friend Timothy who is a local girl done good, as she now is a curator for the new African-American Smithsonian Museum they are building. The lawn was ripped up and the reflecting pool was empty (metaphor?) but we didn’t care. It was a great trip.

 

COASTER COUNT – 0

NEXT STOP – CINCINNATI

Turns out, one of my all-time best friends from high school, and all-around fabulous guy, Joe Rigotti lives in Cincinnati. Also, it is a logical place to stay given the drive and (gasp) turns out the Brewer’s were playing the Reds while we were there. Kriner and Em caught a few games.

I spent time in the hotel by myself, a new-found hobby. I am not the type of person who enjoys being alone; I find it exhausting. I also feel bad for doing “nothing.” If I am home alone, I tend to do laundry or dishes or find something to do. However, in a hotel room, I can’t do that, I just lay around and watch HBO. No guilt, no “to do” list, no nothing, just me and the bed and the remote. Luxury.

At one point I dig drag myself up and out to go meet with Joe for a coffee and later dinner.  He looks fabulous (again, I am amazed that these people look so much younger than I) and seems happy. He is an event coordinator, and everyone in town knows and likes him, or at least it seems that way. He may be outgrowing Cincinnati…he’s that awesome.

Cinncinati is a pretty cool town. Right on a river, it has a lot going for it. We went up the Rod Carew Tower, although we were trying to figure out why it is called that, since he wasn’t from there and wasn’t really known for playing with the Reds; it was a nice view nonetheless. It’s very tall; tall enough to make me nervous in the rickety old elevator that holds 4 at a time, but a lovely view.

Coaster Count – 0 (but that tower was really tall)

LAST STOP BEFORE HOME – MACKINAW.

This was the first time we kind of explored the city of Mackinaw, and it was a fun tourist trap for sure. There are lots of restaurants and stores, ice cream, fudge and moccasins, but they present it in a very pretty package. Unknowingly, we trespassed into a closed fort, and walked around. We were so surprised to see everything was open, and we just kind of sauntered around, peeking in buildings and checking stuff out. On our way out, I noticed the gate, and the lock, and the signs…oops. When you’re walking on the beach, well, sometimes you miss stuff.

Mackinaw is pretty cool, especially under the bridge.  I  like dipping my toe into one Great Lake and then take a few steps and dipping it into another.

COASTER COUNT – 0 but driving over the bridge should totally count.

FINALLY TALLY:

Coasters ridden – 19

Great Lakes stepped in – 4

Miles walked – 1,793,967,355,298,089,786,766,102,800.

Amazing Things Seen – too many to remember them all, but hopefully enough to make some great memories.

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What I Have Learned from Directing Plays

When I started as a teacher, part of the reason I got hired was because of my background in theater.  Aside from needing an English teacher, Ashland had an opening for a drama coach. Sure, I had performance experience; I had been on stage since I was 14, but there was one small detail I left out of the interview.  I had never directed a play in my life.  Never.  Not even in college; the closest I had come was directing some student scenes, but honestly, in school, I only studied acting.  I didn’t take any classes in technical theater, lighting, set design, directing, and here I was, about to hold auditions.  My sister gave me great advice. “Fake it ‘till you make it.”

Oddly enough, that first play, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was to this day, one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.  Back then, I was 22 years old, and my cast members were mainly 17 and some 18 year olds.

 (Guess which one is the student?)

I was closer in age to these kids than I was to my co-workers.  We took it to state and won awards; it was a success.  It was great fun, but more importantly, I learned a ton.  I had a crash course in lighting design, set construction (although six boxes isn’t much of a set) and the dangers of letting the cast have too much power.  Now, I work more with adults than kids, but I still learn boatloads from every play I direct.  I learn things about theater, psychology, ego, and ultimately myself.  After directing over 30 plays in the past 20 years, this is some of what I have learned…

1. Always get good people to be your “crew chiefs.”  Delegate to them, trust them, stay out of their way, and then ride their coat tails for all they’re worth!  Take all of the credit for their hard work.   After all, it was your vision, right?

2. It is easy to work with people who have little or no experience on stage.  They have an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious.  With little or no ego, they take direction well, and learn fast.  They often are the ones who shine the most on opening night.  They are like puppies; they love the attention, they are full of joy, and their breath is often quite pleasant.

3. It is easy to work with people who have had lots and lots of experience on stage.  They are professional, they can take a note (a.k.a. doing what the director says) and they know their craft.  Their ego is strong enough to take criticism, even if they don’t agree with it.  They don’t have to shine on opening night, because they glow throughout the run.  However, their breath often smells of cigarettes, coffee, whiskey and if you’re lucky a cough drop.

4. It can be very difficult to work with people who have only appeared on stage a few times.  This isn’t true for all, but sadly true for some.  These people only have enough knowledge to be a danger to themselves and to the cast.  They often don’t take notes, because after that successful run as the butler in the community theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest they now know all they need!  Often, they’ll even go one further, giving other cast members notes. (This is really frowned upon in the theater world, trust me.)  These are the actors who will usually drive the costumer nuts with ridiculous requests…

These buttons are a black/black; my suit is more blue/black”

and also eat up a lot of time with the director asking exactly “how” to deliver those three lines of dialogue:

“When my character says ‘Hello’ I’m thinking she is more angry than inquisitive.  I’ve done some internal background work, and my character has had a horrid morning.  I would like to discuss it at length later, but for right now, I really think I need to have more anger here. ‘HELLO!!!’”

They try too hard to shine on opening night.  Their breath smells horrid because they “don’t eat before a show…”   Unfortunately, I was this kind of actress for a very long time.   I’m lucky I never directed myself.  I mean that.  (Also, currently I am lucky enough to be working with a crackerjack team who always have nice breath and take notes very well.)

5. Always kiss up to your costumer.  Often, he or she doesn’t get paid the same as the set designer, but puts in as many hours.

Also, the eyes of the audience will go to the set for the first five minutes of a show, but those same eyes will stay on the costumes for the entire night.

Good costumers make your actors look good, or in some cases, not so good. They often live on cookies and coffee.  Make sure they get plenty.

6. Be appreciative, but clear with your set builders.  At least in my case, I have been walked over too many times and have had to put up with something I didn’t intend.  (For the record, the past few plays I have directed, I have been very happy with the set.)  Also, this next rule is absolute and will never change.  No matter who he is, what he says, or what he promises, the paint on the set will be wet for opening.  Period.  Live with it, accept it, roll your eyes and move on.

7. Never, ever, ever underestimate the importance of a good lighting design (please to revisit lesson #1.)

It can make an ugly set look like a Buckingham Palace, and make a dingy, uninspired costume look like an Oscar gown.  That being said, work closely with your lighting people.  If you leave them alone, your show will undoubtedly look really, super-arty and cool, but often, it will be too dark and your actors will be bumping into things and each other.  Nothing says “pro” like an actor waving his arms in front of his body as to avoid running into anything. (You could always pass it off as an interesting directorial choice…)

8. Make the cast acknowledge the crew, and thank them often. They don’t get the glory.  They live in the dark shadows of “backstage” and frequently talk smack about the snottier folks in the cast, so be wary.  Also, they all seem to be a bit dark and emo, and therefore, capable of messing with the actors or directors in deceitful and wily ways.  Of course, they will have covered their tracks so well, they escape blame.  That prop that fell apart?  The light that blew?  That nail that ripped the costume?  Just saying…

9. Watch out for cast crushes, especially when directing high school kids.  Although it isn’t necessarily the director’s business, it can soon become the director’s problem.  (For the non-actors out there, when actors play characters in love, it is way too easy, and in fact, all too common to develop a crush on your opposite leading man or lady.)  This is one more advantage to working with actors who have a lot of stage experience, because they’ve “been there, done that.”  Otherwise you have love-sick nonsense backstage that can alienate or disgust the rest of the cast.  Also, it can mess with the acting.  How on earth are you supposed to hate that woman on stage when you have her lipstick all over your face?  (Again, it was an interesting directorial choice.)

10. Never, ever, ever give up on a show.  That is a cardinal sin, and unfortunately, I committed it a few times in my past.  It was before I knew any better, and shame on me for it.  It is never too late to give a note, or try to clean up a scene.  Don’t ever throw in the towel on a show.  Even on the last matinée, a director should be vigilant.  Don’t ever let an actor “phone it in.”

11. Directors will be hated at some point in the rehearsal process.  Like the wet paint on opening night, it is inevitable. Undoubtedly, someone will not like a note, or the crew will feel slighted, no matter how many Snickers you buy them. The cast and crew will talk some shit about you.  That’s the unfortunate side of leadership.  The good news is that it is usually forgotten the minute a standing ovation happens.  Always serve the play rather than the actors.  It may make the journey more challenging, but the goal will be far greater for it.

12.  Every cast becomes a family, and every cast is special.  By the time the curtain goes up, you will love everyone involved in the show very much, in spite of the smack-talk.  You will also miss them terribly once the play is over.  You may, for a week or two, consider bringing it back and doing it again, but don’t.  You never really recapture the magic; it just prolongs the agony, like pulling a band-aid off slowly.  The good news is that the blues you encounter after a show closes will fade in time.  And after all, there’s always another show.

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Why I love the musical Oklahoma!

I come from a musical family.  I am fortunate in that.  Both of my parents sang; my mother played piano, and my siblings and I were forced to do the same.  In spite of our grumbling and complaining, we all grew up to be musicians of a sort and are grateful for it.

The piano was the heart of our house.  It was played daily.  My mother was a firm believer in practicing, which we all did plenty of, but she also played for pleasure.  It was necessary for her sanity.  She was a stay-at-home-mom with quiet aspirations to do more.  (She had been a nurse, but gave it up to raise kids.)  Music was her balm, her meditation, her sanctuary.

After practicing Bach or Debussy, inevitably my mother would start a familiar show tune, and my father would put down his paper, bound up from the couch, put his hand on her shoulder and sing along.  He had a beautiful and distinctive tenor voice.  My father was a tad “larger than life,” especially in my eyes, but his singing voice was warm and inviting.  Often my mother would harmonize with him.  As I kid, I thought this was normal, that everyone’s parents would leap into song in a moment’s notice; only later did I realize this wasn’t necessarily the case.

Their favorite songs were from American musicals.  Hymns were for church, rock was for the radio, but show tunes were for fun and their melodies filled our family room.  My parents had never been to Broadway, but you wouldn’t know it from the stacks of scores and librettos piled on the top of the upright.  I grew up listening to the music from The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, Mame, Kismet, The King and I, West Side Story, I Do, I Do, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and of course Oklahoma!

As I entered my teens, I remember thinking these songs were cheesy and dated.  I never understood why my mother (and sometimes my father) would tear up and get emotional when they reached certain lines like, “for here you are, standing there loving me, whether or not you should” or “don’t cry young lovers, whatever you do, don’t cry because I’m alone; all of my memories are happy tonight, I’ve had a love of my own” or “open your angel’s arms, to this stranger in paradise, and tell him that he need be a stranger no more.”  After the song was finished, they would kiss and I would roll my eyes.

 – My father and mother singing, with my sister Mary.

As an adult, I get it.  Now I understand that lyrics like, “your hand feels so grand in mine” and “out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly, I will come as evening comes to woo a waiting sky” are close to perfection in that they have both depth and simplicity.  Now those same lyrics make me weep.

There are a lot of reasons to love this show.  Sure, Oklahoma! was the first collaboration between Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein.  Sure, it was groundbreaking in that Agnes DeMille (in her first Broadway appearance) created the iconic dream ballet.  Sure, it received stunning reviews, and yes, it has withstood the test of time to remain one of America’s favorite musicals.

However, for me, I will always associate this show with my parent’s love of music, and their love for each other.  Even in the midst of a busy rehearsal, with a million little problems that somehow need to be solved yesterday, I stop in my tracks when I hear “I’ve got a beautiful feeling, everything’s going my way” because I swear I can hear that clear and distinctive tenor voice singing along.

*Liz Woodworth is current directing a version of Oklahoma! presented at Stagenorth and opening (gulp) April 26th.  Make your reservations now.

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