This week, let’s quickly wrap up the series I promised on interesting places where I’ve worked. Precisely NO ONE is insisting I do this, but I am a man of my word (at least, I try to be), and it would definitively IRK the obsessive-compulsive half of my head if I failed to even half-heartedly ATTEMPT to fulfill my foolhardy I.O.U.
This is, incidentally, the eighth entry for this weekly blog. We are now two months in to this word-heavy voyage, and I have been giving some thought as to the direction in which I would like things to head. I believe I have struck on the course we shall next chart, but before we press on, setting sail for distant shores, let us once more glance back. To save time, we’ll do all my past places of employ at once in one go.
Let us, then, sally promptly forth in EFFICIENT fashion, touching BRIEFLY on each theatre in turn. These are ALL excellent establishments, each worthy of much gushing and long tributes in song, but our attentions are limited and life itself all too short. For clarity’s sake, we shall proceed chronologically.
Timber Lake Playhouse
Located deep in the heart of rural Northern Illinois, between two cornfields and across from a campground, sits the awesome institution that is Timber Lake Playhouse. To imagine it, picture your typical summer camp complete with sketchily constructed cabins, spider-infested showers, a central campfire, and various communal buildings. Now imagine someone pushed all these buildings together into a tight, though erratic formation around a THEATRE, added a scene shop, a costume shop, and some storage, and then called it a day.
I did my first round of professional summer stock at TLP. It paid almost nothing, but they provided free housing and free food, so with no bills and nothing else to do in the middle of nowhere but rehearse and cause trouble, it was really the perfect way to begin the strange Bohemian life we actors so often lead. They do amazing work at TLP. They take it very seriously. The choreography, particularly, is topnotch. I, it must be said, did not dance there. That probably had something to do with them taking it seriously.
My second summer of stock, as they call it, was spent at Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, Ohio, which had only recently been renovated. Formerly, it had been open to the elements, boasting only a roof with no walls around the stage and bleachers. I am UNSPEAKABLY GRATEFUL that I arrived after walls and AIR-CONDITIONING had been added.
My time there was mostly defined by the strong bond the cast developed. I do not know how housing works there now, but in the summer of 2011 they had rented an entire dormitory at a steep discount from Denison University, just down the road, and everyone stayed there together, each with their own room. The actors stayed on the top two floors, with the techs staying on the bottom floor. The entire thing was like a mad slumber party whenever we were not in rehearsal or performing. It was entirely too much fun. No one got much sleep. But we were all young and crazy and it didn’t matter.
Blue Gate Musicals
I have worked twice for Blue Gate Musicals - once right out of college, and once again in 2015. Originally founded in Shipshewana, Indiana by the owner of the Blue Gate Restaurant and a few compatriots from Nashville, the company now runs shows at four different locations in four states, specializing in producing original musicals based on best-selling Amish book series, which are REAL things that sell in the MILLIONS.
It all sounds like some sort of SNL skit, but it is all very real. And it is brilliant business. The shows are produced at established Amish tourist traps in picturesque parts of our country and sell out to people guaranteed to be interested in the subject matter. Blue Gate is EXTREMELY clever when it comes to understanding its audience and marketing its products, and I would actually like to discuss some of the lessons I learned there in a later essay. For now, let’s move on.
In the fine state of Michigan, just above the border from the slightly finer state of Indiana (state of my birth), in between the storied cities of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, right next to M-96, you will find a 400+ seat Equity theatre constructed out of an old dairy barn. This, my friends, is the Barn Theatre. Originally founded in the 40s, it is an amazingly ramshackle old structure, every inch utilized and ONE-THOUSAND PERCENT HAUNTED. It just IS. If you don’t believe in that, fine, but YOU try going into that basement by yourself after everything is shut down and YOU explain the footsteps, etc. I DARE YOU.
At the Barn, like at many places, unless you are a union company member or a guest artist, you are a member of the “apprentice program,” which is code for hellish internship. Let me stress that I say this fondly, as internships are a widely KNOWN TO BE TERRIBLE, and you should know what you are getting into when you sign up. I did. It was hard work, and stressful as all hell, and in the end, we did a lot of great shows and good work. Stress dissipates in the end, and you are left with only the Art that you made.
Oregon Cabaret Theatre
I love all these theatres, but I currently love the Oregon Cab the MOST. It is a lovely place, run by lovely people, located in the beautiful town of Ashland, Oregon, which is a hilariously perfect POSTCARD of a town populated entirely by wealthy retirees, hippies, and tourists. The theatre is in a deconsecrated, classily remodeled Baptist church, complete with upper balcony seating and a gorgeous, antique chandelier from a 1920s movie house that hangs above the audience. It is dinner theatre done RIGHT, with a complete wait staff, an amazing chef that works wonders, and a menu with specials that change for every show. I cannot speak highly enough about it. If you are ever in Oregon, check it out.
As an actor, one of the really special things about OCT is that it is TWO BLOCKS away from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is a world-renown theatre company that produces Shakespeare, other classics, AND new works. Very rarely, when working in regional theatre, are you near enough to another theatre to get to see theatre yourself, so it is a genuine pleasure to be able to walk down the street and see multiple shows at a place as legit as OSF. So, go check both places out. If OSF’s production of Coriolanus bums you out, go see a song-and-dance piece at the Cab!
Maples Repertory Theatre
In the humble hamlet of Macon, Missouri there sits an old, crumbling opera and vaudeville house called the “Royal Theatre,” which is the current home of Maples Repertory Theatre, a formerly community theatre now gone professional. It is a small town, and the only thing that keeps a professional theatre running there is tremendous community support. Right down the street is the train tracks, and right next to that is a large factory that manufactures chicken nuggets. They probably make other things, too, but you can definitely tell they make chicken nuggets, because when the ovens are on, that is just about the only thing you can smell in that part of town.
The rehearsal space for the theatre is a block across the way, on the second floor of another tumble-down building right above the costume shop. The room possesses a memorably antique floor that creaks dangerously whenever large casts of actors are dancing. I can only imagine how the costumers feel, peering anxiously up from their sewing machines, no doubt praying fervently that the actors tap dancing over their heads continue to remain comfortably ABOVE them.
I could, of course, continue to ramble on and on and ON about the many intricate eccentricities and detailed specificities of these theatres, but let us end there for the present. In the coming weeks, I would like to begin looking forward, examining first why I think acting (and live theatre in particular) is increasingly vital and relevant in today’s world and then looking at ways I think theatre companies could work better in today’s economy. If you would care to join me, I will see you next week. If you wouldn’t, well, the internet is LARGE. I am sure someone else has some drivel posted which would better please you. I wish you well.
Last week we began a series of essays on interesting places where I have been privileged to perform. Fret not, my friends, this series will continue in due time. But for now, let us leave the pre-proscribed path and strike out on a merry (if brief) detour into the trees.
I just returned this evening from a last second work trip up to Northern California. Every so often, when a presenter with CWE is unable to work, schedules are shuffled round so that we can cover all bases with the staff that we have. This week’s shuffle demanded that I fly up to Oakland International Airport, rent a car, crash at a hotel, cover the necessary programs the next day, then fly back, all in the space of 24 hours. I was informed of this exciting development as soon as I checked my phone after yesterday’s presentation. My flight was already booked. Take off was in four hours.
For some, this unforeseen fork in the road would signal a magnificent gift from the famously fickle Fates. Here I was, on a Thursday, almost, but not quite, to the weekend, awash in the drably expected tides of the regular and routine, and here was ADVENTURE calling. Here was a chance to do something different, to strike out into the wild yellow yonder.
But to me, it just seemed stressful. In all honesty, that was my first reaction.
Which I do regret.
I am not by nature adventurous. I prepare. I anticipate. I take carefully calculated risks. And though my life has included many trips and much travel, it is not something I do for its own sake. And I do not always react positively to surprise. Travel can be fun, but it can also be tiring – and risky. Things go wrong. Planes are delayed. Left to my own devices, I am ashamed to say that I would probably be a creature of complete routine, blazing through life with my nose very much to the grindstone, meeting goals, but forgetting to smell most every rose along the way.
So tonight, as I type out this latest post, I find myself reflecting on the fact that life is not just a checklist. It is far more than simply a sequence of hoops through which we must jump. Life is the journey. I write these words – trite, but true – more for myself than for you. This is little more than a note to self, digitally penned after a quick and successful, if unforeseen and initially stressful flight to the North.
The trip went fine. To the surprise of no one, Northern California is beautiful. There are fates indescribably worse than driving it’s winding, if slightly confusing, roads through tunnels and green, green hills flecked with trees.
Life happens. It just does. And when an unforeseen fork in the road confronts you, ready or not, remember to take a breath and choose to see the adventure. Because it is a choice. Yes, Philip, I am talking to YOU.
And if anyone finds themselves staying at the Diablo Mountain Inn in Walnut Creek, take a walk down the road. Less than a half mile down you will find the Home of Chicken and Waffles, a soul food joint that is DELICIOUS. I recommend both the chicken and the waffles. And the grits.
Last week we talked about my current job as a full-time presenter for CWE. This week, I would like to begin a new series of essays looking at interesting places where I have worked as an actor. The regional theatres that still dot our land, grimly sticking to their guns in the face of hard times and tough markets, passionately offering art (and a few laughs) to their surrounding populations, are each unique, memorable, and well worth describing. Let us begin with the theatre that has most shaped the dubious set of performance skills I now wield.
As you may or may not know (probably not), I spent what amounted to several YEARS of my life working at an immensely specific little theatre called The Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville. (Yes, that is the actual name of the establishment.) It sits on a particularly dusty and easily overlooked stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway near Pismo Beach, California in the dodgiest bit of the Five Cities, which are five little beachside hamlets that melt into each other and may as well be the same place, but ARE NOT, as they will insist on insisting.
First founded in 1975, the Melodrama was conceived as a throwback theatre. As the name suggests, it offered classic melodramas and vaudeville revues of the sort that had been performed popularly all throughout the country prior to the all-consuming advent of movies and television. Retirees in the 1970s had grown up going to see such entertainments, and the throwback format worked well at the time. The founders built a stage in the corner of an old hardware store, threw up some tables and chairs, and called it a theatre.
Forty years later, that theatre is still up and running. After several extensive rounds of renovations over the intervening years, the place is barely recognizable as a former hardware store. Here is a picture:
These days, of course, the outdated “melodrama & vaudeville” format doesn’t really resonate with modern audiences, so the Melodrama produces mostly spoofs, comedies, and musicals. (Think Saturday Night Live on a smaller budget, sans cameras – that is essentially the vibe.) Seven shows are produced a year, each one consisting of a two-act main show followed by a third act “revue” composed of silly songs, dances, and skits. Performances take place most weeknights and all weekends FIFTY WEEKS OF THE YEAR. If that sounds exhausting, it CAN be. But it’s also wonderful and worth it. Beginning in 2012, and over the course of three different contracts, I put in 29 months at the Melodrama, performing in 16 different shows. That sounds like a lot, and it FELT like a lot, but the number is peanuts compared to the storied greats who have their pictures up on the walls there. I know several people who have easily done 50+ shows.
Here is the description of a night at the Melodrama, plucked straight from the company’s website. I don’t feel bad stealing these words, because I wrote them.
“Performances at the Melodrama are fun for the whole family. Guests arrive and are ushered to their seats to the sounds of live, honky-tonk style piano. Our snack bar is open prior to the show and during intermissions. It serves stadium-style fare such as soda, beer, wine, nachos, hotdogs, popcorn, and the like. The snack bar is staffed by the actors performing that night, adding to the lively, interactive feel … As the theatre’s name suggests, many shows are performed in a classic melodramatic style, with patrons encouraged to cheer the hero and boo the villain. An evening at the Melodrama promises affordable fun and laughs for all ages.”
If you ever find yourself in California’s Central Coast, lost, or killing time, I would encourage you catch a show. They are great. It is schlock of the first order, but produced with care and skill.
My years at the Melodrama taught me many things that actor training doesn’t necessarily cover these days. Shows there are performed with no mics, so I learned how to be loud in a healthy way. There are virtually no effects; it’s just you and some lights on stage in front of a paying crowd, so you learn how to be entertaining without any tricks. When you are acting in spoofs and homespun comedies, often the lines you are saying are … well, there is really no good way to say it. Often you ARE FORCED TO SPEAK HORRIBLY CORNY DIALOGUE. You learn how to take a terrible turd of a joke and polish it as bright as you can. You learn to rock lackluster lines.
And above all, the Melodrama taught me to ignore the so-called “fourth wall”. In modern theatre, the actors pretend to not know the audience is there. They do their scenes as though alone. In classic melodrama, where the audience boos and cheers and sometimes yells out adlibs of their own, you can directly address the crowd. They are there in the scene with you. It is a decidedly strange thing, but the sensation of improv-ing along with the crowd, creating a fun, humorous moment TOGETHER, is absolutely addicting. I miss it when I perform at more traditional theatres.
Looking back, some of my favorite moments at the Melodrama were when I would spot a kid in the audience who was completely captivated by the silliness and theatricality of the show. I would think, I’m tired, I am sick of these dumb jokes, but that kid is having the time of his life. So, I’m gonna finish this one for THAT kid. He deserves it.
And I suppose that ties nicely in with the work I do now.
I am, for the moment, going to abandon the “How To”/”Self-Improvement” format of my first few posts. These are, indeed, essays no one asked for, but that doesn’t mean I need to slap together a soap box in order to preach TIPS ON EXISTENCE to the three of you that happen to stumble across my little corner of the internet.
Today, I would simply like to explain what it is I’m doing now, as my current line of work requires a bit of explaining. Some of you who have talked with me recently will already have heard this particular ramble, so feel free to skip it. Or, read on. Or, stand up and do 25 jumping jacks. Or, go eat a cookie. Your life is your own; carve out your own path. You don’t need me to order you about.
I am presently working for a company called California Weekly Explorer, which is a privately held educational company that specializes in interactive history presentations called “Walkthroughs”. These are two and a half hour programs for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classes that tie in with the standard history curriculum taught in California. My job title is “Presenter,” because I am one of the people who drive around presenting the presentations.
Whenever I mention this new job to people, I can literally see the wheels of their minds spinning as they begin picturing me in some sort of historical outfit, complete with powdered wig and antiquated coat, holding court before a crowd of glazed-eyed students just starting to snore. This is not actually the case. I do NOT impersonate Benjamin Franklin, and no one gets to ask me silly questions, forcing me to “improv” answers. For work, I wear company-issued polo shirts with a logo and my name emblazoned proudly across the front, which look almost exactly like company-issued polo shirts worn by the employees of any other company with a standard uniform. I wear khakis, because for some strange societal reason, we are all still pretending jeans look rebellious. And I wear dark, comfortable shoes, because colorful shoes wouldn’t go with the “uniformed” look, and because COMFORTABLE shoes are one of life’s real requirements.
Essentially, I run a traveling game show for students. Each morning, I drive my Toyota Corolla to a different school, check in with the office, unload my equipment on to a sturdy cart, and proceed to set up my kit. There is no set-up crew. I am an army of one. On more traditional “acting” gigs, this sort of thing is frowned upon as an imposition on the actors. It is seen as a cost-cutting measure, to be avoided by anyone looking for serious acting work. But THIS is more or less a TEACHING gig with performance overtones, and I am finding I enjoy the setups. There is something slightly Zen about setting up your own stuff. Doing that same task each day is strangely satisfying, and as I am a younger man (for now), blessed (so far) with sound health, the task of hefting speakers and boxes is not overly burdensome.
Each grade gets their own presentation, tied in with their history curriculum. The idea is to make the history come alive. The students are broken into teams. They compete for points. This is what makes it gameshow-like. THEY are the ones encouraged to dress up. (Making it a competition, with points, helps them to pay attention – something is AT STAKE.) The students are sent preparation packets ahead of time, so they (hopefully) arrive prepared. Ideally, the whole thing plays out in front of an invited audience of parents and friends in a multi-purpose room, somewhere larger than a classroom.
In the 4th grade program, we set up the conceit of a TIME MACHINE (referring to our sound system). Then we take the kids on a trip through time, occasionally recruiting a student to come up and act as a historical character. We build a giant relief map of California and learn about the names of interesting places all around the state. In the 5th grade, the students are divided into teams of Redcoats, Tories, and Patriots, and they act out famous battles of the American Revolution as we go through the events in order. Several have been assigned sections of the Declaration of Independence, which they read or recite to the sounds of America the Beautiful. (This sounds corny, and it can be, but when they get into it, it’s actually moving. A student today gave such a passionate delivery of our unalienable rights that I almost cried – ALMOST.) And in the 6th grade, the students are divided into Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and we proceed chronologically through their respective timelines. As these are the oldest students, they present skits THEY WROTE about what daily life was like in their ancient civilizations. These can be TERRIBLE, but they CAN ALSO be great. One class I had built a model of the Roman Colosseum out of cardboard and acted out a gladiator fight that was legitimately amazing.
Working with kids every day was what worried me most about accepting this job, but it has become my favorite part. Kids can be a complete handful, and marshaling a rowdy bunch can feel like scaling a cliff face in the rain, but teachers aren’t kidding when they say it is rewarding. IT IS.
My family moved for the first time when I was going into the third grade. We only moved two hours west inside the same state, Indiana, but it was a rough transition for me. When my family moved again, a year later, we moved to southern Russia. This was right as I started sixth grade. I don’t talk about that time much. In truth, I think about it as little as I can. I still vividly remember being that age. My circumstances were somewhat heightened at the time, living in a far off, strange land, feeling very alone and different from everyone around me. At first, I was home schooled. We tried to enter a private, Russian-language school, but the accelerated curriculum and genuine middle school awkward made this almost impossible. For a few years, I attended an online academy, and then, after we moved to Moscow, I finished school at a private, English-language academy.
I mention my odd origin story only because it has, in a way I did not anticipate, made the work I do now surprisingly meaningful. As a person, I am intensely aware of group dynamics. Perhaps it stems from the way I grew up, typically on the outside, looking in. I tend to notice how people are feeling. And I am aware of how the kids in my classes are feeling. And there is something wonderful about enabling them to do well. I am the presenter. My one job is to make sure they feel comfortable, that this is a fun time for them. I get to be the person who comes in and makes topics that can seem dull and unimportant come to life. I get to make a room full of kids laugh. And if someone is uncomfortable or nervous, I get to help.
And that is what I love about my job. Do I love getting up at 5:30 am? No. Do I enjoy occasional long commutes? No. Do I love wearing company-issued polos and khakis and dark comfortable shoes? Not particularly. But I love hearing a kid that looked scared just two hours ago say that they had a great time.
That is what I’m doing now. And that is why I love it.