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These days, of course, the outdated “melodrama & vaudeville” format doesn’t really resonate with modern audiences, so the Melodrama produces mostly spoofs, comedies, and musicals.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.