I went to see a one-man show last week. And by "went to see", I mean, the producer graciously gave me a free ticket. It was "In Acting Shakespeare" by James DeVita, and it was amazing. Mr. DeVita talked about his professional journey through a life of theater, particularly his passion for Shakespeare. Many of the things he talked about resonated with me--the challenge of making Shakespeare's words accessible, the joy that occurs when the connection is sparked between actor, script, and audience, humiliating auditions (although he never had to take his shirt off like someone I could tell you about, but I won't because I still turn red just thinking about it), and much more. But the main thing I carried out of the show was when Mr. DeVita talked about meeting patrons in the lobby after a show, and how disappointed they always are with him. They try to hide it, but their fallen faces give them away. I could relate.
Greeting folks outside the theater after a show has always seemed anti-climatic for me. I mean, I understand why it's an important thing to do. You can personally thank people for plunking down good money to come out and support what you're doing, you accept what you hope are honest accolades for your efforts, and you observe first-hand the smiles of audience members as they file out of the theater. The idea of it is pretty cool.
But no matter how much someone enjoyed a show, and no matter how well you thought that particular performance may have gone, the fact remains that you are now out in the lobby, naked. (Figuratively, I hope.) You're hot and sweaty, under the harsh glare of sterile, unforgiving fluorescent lights as blobs of makeup run down your face. You can't hide anything. On the stage, you were tall, powerful, majestic. You were creating wonderful worlds and holding the audience in the palm of your hand. You were in command and it was breathtaking! But, as Mr. DeVita pointed out: "There's no magic in the lobby." It's just you. And no matter how you slice it, that's just plain disappointing.
But it also perfectly illustrates the enduring magic of theater.
The latest go-round of the Chicken Hat Plays was a couple weeks ago. Fox 21 news guy Dan Hanger joined us onstage for 8 world-premiere one act plays, and he was fantastic.He jumped right in and hammed it up, big-time. The audience loved seeing a local TV news celebrity in a non-traditional setting and overall, it was one of our biggest, most successful Chicken Hat Plays ever. Right after that, I started to notice that celebrities seem to popping up in projects all over town.There's the We Need More Cowbell fundraiser for the Northern Lights Foundation. The Minnesota Ballet has the Celebrity Dancing Challenge, which is based on the wildly popular "Dancing With The Stars". There are so many events that my friend Lawrance Bernabo jokingly suggested on his Facebook page recently that there should also be a Celebrity Acting Challenge. Now THAT'S a project that Rubber Chicken Theater can spearhead and get behind. Imagine how much fun this could be: 12 local celebrities, appearing in selected scenes from 12 classic plays, like...
-Don Ness as Hamlet, with the skull of poor Yorick hiding his script.
-Barbara Reyelts as Blanche Dubois, depending on the kindness of strange viewers.
-Renee Passel as Vladimir and Darren Danielson as Estragon, both of them Waiting For Denny.
The Celebrity Acting Challenge has to happen. Local celebrities need to provide more opportunities to make money off of them.
#1 My dad waited.
This might seem like an odd Number One choice for a Top Ten List. I admit, I was hesitant to place this memory here. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that sitting atop any list of revue experiences is right where this story about my dad belongs. For the past four years, this moment has always been on my mind when I begin the process of creating our year-end show, so that makes it a number one revue memory in my book.
2008 was an awful year around my house. We lost two cherished family pets, my teaching job was eliminated, and the theater company I had co-founded and guided for 17 years was taken away from me. But the worst part of the entire year was the fact that my dad was losing his battle to cancer. He was doing OK in August of that year when we had a fundraiser to help cover some medical costs. He even took to the stage and played with Father Stu.
But it went downhill from there rather quickly. By December, dad was transferred to the St. Luke's hospice. When the first holiday comedy revue from the new theater company (Rubber Chicken Theater, if you're keeping score at home) debuted, I was running back and forth from doing the show in Proctor to being with my family at St. Luke's. It was horrible. "Could doing this show possibly matter less?", I remember thinking more than once as I drove up and down an ice-covered I-35.
On December 30, we knew the end was close, but I had to head out to do the show. I was hesitant, but my mom reassured me that dad would definitely want me to honor my commitment and that, of course, "the show must go on". I checked my phone continuously throughout the performance for updates, but nothing had changed. I rushed back afterwards, and was able to join the entire family as the time came, and we said goodbye to dad.
Later, as we were gathering our things, my brother turned to me and said, "He waited for you, Bri." I kind of nodded, too numb to comprehend what he was saying at the time. But on the way to the final performance the next day, my brother's wisdom finally broke through.
My dad had waited for me.
He wanted me to do that performance because he knew how important revues were to me. Being big, loud, and silly was OK in dad's book..heck, Bill Matuszak had done plenty of big, loud, and silly stuff himself over the years...and so he waited until I did that show, and once his family was all back together, he let go. If my dad thought revues were that important, who the heck was I to whine and moan about having to go through one?
Ever since then, I don't take these shows for granted. I give 100% of my creativity in putting them together, and I give 100% in my performances. For sure, I owe it to you, the audience.
But I also owe it to my dad.
Bill on the sofa, Brian, Bruce, and Brenda on the floor. We're either watching "H.R. Pufnstuf" on a Saturday morning or "I Dream of Jeannie" on a Friday night.
#2 Dancing with the Mayor
When you do live theater anywhere--from Duluth to Broadway--it's understood that something, somewhere, is going to go wrong. (Google "Paul Rudd puking audience member" and you'll see what I mean.) Luckily, I haven't had that delightful experience yet, but I've still managed to have a few things go kablooey during a revue.
More often than not, it's something small, like missing dance steps during a Minden Hultstrom carefully choreographed finale. (My official title is Stage Clomper.)
Sometimes, the screwup is a bit more noticeable and involves elements that can't always be controlled, like babies, animals, or shaving cream. In 1992, for example, I moved in the middle of a sketch and inadvertently placed myself directly in the line of fire for a HUGE mound of shaving cream that flew off the overloaded pie tin, sailed across the stage, and smacked me right in the fake Ross Perot ear. The audience roared.
And that's what is fun about the miscues. Even though they are not ideal, if you go with the flow and don't let the entire show fly off the tracks, you can have fun with it and the audience will eat it up. Which is what happened last week when Mayor Don Ness was in the crowd at our current production.
We have a video in the show which we shot last month at City Hall and features Mayor Ness. The concept is that cast member Greg J. Anderson claims his new dance, Gregnam Style, is sweeping the Twin Ports. To prove it, he shows videos that feature several local celebrities prancing about in a most goofy fashion. One of these videos features the mayor. Guess which video decided to explode and NOT play the night the mayor was at the show? Bingo.
So I did what any comedian worth his weight in seltzer water would do in that situation: I asked the mayor to recreate his dance moves live onstage with us. Of course, I didn't really give him a choice. I made the request standing next to him in the audience, as the festive holiday crowd all around us went nuts. He graciously accepted the challenge.
We dug out the script from backstage, he read his couple of jokes (getting big laughs!), then proceeded to whip it, Gregnam Style, with the entire cast. It was a wonderful moment that I'll cherish forever and will never forget. Mainly because we happened to be taping the show that night.
But Don doesn't want to run for President anyway.
#3 New Year's Eve at the Great Lakes Aquarium
It was December 2005 and we didn't have a home for our Renegade Christmas revue. I asked my friends at the Duluth Arena (my mouth explodes from all the work of trying to say "the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center", so it's always the Arena to me) if we could stage it there. They said we could (hooray!) but we wouldn't be able to do our traditional New Year's Eve show there (boo!) due to the gigantic Channel 10/SMDC shindig that ate up the entire complex, from Pioneer Hall to the Auditorium, and every crevice in between.
With some quick thinking, and intense begging, we worked out a deal with the neighboring Great Lakes Aquarium to do our New Year's Eve show over there. I was a tad apprehensive, not knowing if moving the location of a performance near the end of a run would hinder attendance, but I had no choice. Denny Anderson and the SMDC crew needed to ring in 2006 at the Arena and they had more pull than I did. So we packed up all our silly props after the December 30 performance, hauled them across Harbor Drive, and hoped for a New Year's Eve miracle.
We got it, and then some. We had two packed to the gills (hah!) performances. It was amazing! The early show rocked with a huge audience that forced us to scramble throughout the aquarium to find more chairs. (Sorry, otters. You don't bend to sit anyway.) Then, folks started lining up out the door around 8pm to come to the later show. We performed in front of the huge water wall in the front lobby of GLA so there was no way to hide us from the patrons waiting to get in to the later show, but they didn't care. They laughed, they cheered, then they did it all over again when they saw the show the second time. And I learned something from that revue. Actually, two things:
1-If an audience wants to see a show, they'll follow you no matter where you stage it. Could be in a cavernous hall in the bowels of the Arena, or in front of a bunch of walleyes.
2-Casting Chris Nollet as Wally the Demon in a revue is like printing money.
#4 Christa's Christmas Brilliance
Since Christmas 1987, I have had the privilege of playing with an overloaded sleighful of talented writers and gifted performers, but none have mastered the craft of BOTH writing & performing like Christa J. Schulz. Christa can zero in on the truth of a character and bring it to quirky, delightful life. Ask anyone who has ever experienced the breathtakingly beautiful Esmerlda Portafino (pictured above). But you'll have to wait until they've stopped laughing before they can offer their opinion.
While Christa always delivers the goods on the stage, I believe she really shines on the page. Whenever I was lucky enough to work with Writer Christa on a revue, I knew I would be getting scripts that were carefully constructed winners, complete with wonderful set-ups, fully-realized, fun characters to play, and punchlines that landed the proverbial comedic punch.
If someone were to construct a Minnesota Sketch Comedy Hall of Fame (in Proctor, no doubt), rest assured that several Christa scripts would find a home there: The Minnesota Goodbye, hilariously chronicling how Northlanders can turn what should take ten seconds--"Bye bye, now!"--into a never-ending ritual; Hell Freezes Over, with the loudest and longest punchline I've ever had the pleasure of basking in; and Off Sides Story, an absolutely brilliant parody of West Side Story, the Minnesota Vikings, the Green Bay Packers, and all of their respective fans.
Plus, she'd even pretend to sympathize when her beloved Packers would trounce my beloved Vikings every single year that we worked on revues together.
That's a pal.
#5 Greg J. Anderson doing what needed to be done.
Saturday, December 8, 2012. A day that will live in local sketch comedy infamy. Greg appeared in a sketch about the Duluth Playshack staging the Naked Season. We have characters behind carefully placed coverings, doing snippets from "Sound of Music", "Godspell", and "Macbeth". When I wrote the sketch, I anticipated the actors would be wearing something behind their coverings, which they had been doing. Until last night.
Greg forgot his boxers. His entrance was coming up. Greg, whose character appears in The Naked Scottish Play, grabbed his giant skull, went onstage, and did what needed to be done to finish the sketch. The moment immediately made my Top Five Sketch Comedy Revue Memories.
But I think Fitger's lost their liquor license.
#6 Opening Night at the Dreamland Ballroom
December 1994. We were working on our latest holiday revue and I was a little apprehensive. We didn't have a huge cast that year, but what was causing my forehead to shine with sweat more than that was the fact that we didn't have a place to stage the show. I think it was Donn who steered us to the Dreamland, a former dance hall above the infamous Shish-Ka-Bar on First Street. It had cabaret-style seating, a small stage in the corner, and a full bar in the back. Things all worked out, as they usually do. We had the beautiful, talented Angie Sommerfeld join the group with this show, and the space seemed to have been built for sketch comedy revues. In fact, it was a perfect theater storm of our most popular show coupled with local audience interest in the space that packed the place to the rafters on opening night. It was magical! The Dreamland was rocking with laughter and 1994 went out on a grand note. In fact, the space, along with Angie, got all the positive ink in an otherwise drab DNT review of the show, but it didn't matter. We had a new space! And Angie!
#7 Giggling with Donn Hanson
In my early revue years, I spent a lot of time with Donn. We met doing Colder shows, then he came along with me to form Renegade Comedy Theater in 1991. All told, I think Donn and I have collaborated on ten revues. I don't know the exact number because all the memories tend to jumble up into one big, happy blur.
Time spent with Donn is joyous time where conversation quickly turns into laughter. He's an all-around good guy who can spin yarns with the best of them. He may go off on wonderfully strange tangents about his mom and Betty's Pies, or Bigfoots in the wilds of Brimson, but he always comes back around to the perfect punchline when you're working on a sketch.
Donn has stepped away from theater now, and that's too bad. Local audiences haven't been able to enjoy his talents for far too long.
Luckily, I have my old photos, videos, and memories. But I'd sure like to work with him again, too.
I haven't giggled like that in quite some time.
#8 My first, of many, "duh" momentsKeeping an objective head about you can sometimes be challenging when you are putting a revue together. You get focused on the writing initially, but then you leave that to make sure you have your technical elements together, then you look at the performances, then you beg, borrow, and steal props and costumes, and did I mention you need to memorize your lines? Uff da. In some cases, a revue is more difficult than staging a traditional scripted play. But it's still important to keep your head up and realize what is happening all around you while the show is coming together. I learned that the hard way in 1993.
We had a joke in that year's revue about a Northwest Airlines pilot. I can't even remember the specific joke but the content didn't matter. A few days before we opened the show, there was a plane crash in Hibbing that involved a Northwest Airlines plane. I was so worried about all the other aspects of getting the show open that it never occurred to me, or anyone else in the cast for that matter, that we should probably take that joke out. Even though it didn't have anything to do with the crash--the joke had been written weeks before--it didn't matter. Audiences were going to hear the words "Northwest Airlines pilot" and their minds were going to be instantly transported to that tragic event.
Actually, it DID occur to us that audiences were going to have a negative reaction to the joke....but not until approximately ten seconds before the joke was uttered onstage. I will never forget that helpless feeling of knowing the moment was coming, knowing it was going to be bad, and knowing there was nothing I could do about it.
Rightfully so, the audience hated the joke. And since this was opening night, the joke had a prominent mention in the Duluth News Tribune review the next day. I immediately tried to repair the damage with a Letter to the Editor and by offering apologies all around to anyone who would listen, but if I had been doing my director's job in the first place, and been focusing on the audience instead of everything else, I would have remembered that words, even inadvertent ones, have meanings and consequences.