Time: March 23, 2012Place: Las Positas CollegeRole: JesusDirector: Wendy Wisely
"Ugh. Why’d they choose that show?"
Yeah, that was my reaction when I had heard the news many months prior.
"Are you auditioning?" friends would say. "Nope," I would respond. "I can’t stand it."
Turns out I could.
You see, I had only seen the show once years prior and did not like it. It just came off as "screamy" and random, and it did not sit well with me.
Turns out it was more about the direction than the show itself.
But I had passed on the auditions since I didn’t know any better.
Afterwards, an email came. Not enough people auditioned, so I was invited to callbacks. Okay, sure, why not. Besides, it wasn’t a final commitment, just an audition. I could always say no.
For the record, I rarely say no.
I did have a little concern. I wasn’t sure if the show was blasphemous or all out insulting or the like. I asked the choreographers, who was a long-time friend and she said it was just fine, and being directly that way, so I was safe there.
I had never worked (or auditioned) for the director before, but the callback was fun. It was mainly based around improve games. Heck, we didn’t read from the script at all, and the only song was about five seconds’ worth (per person) at the end of the night. No dance either. It was my kind of callback.
After auditions, several days passed. Now, I’m not one to stress either way. Getting in a show is great, but not doing a show instantly saves a boatload of time and resources too. It’s win-win. Always.
Still, I like to know. I like to plan out the next few months of life, and that decision is based around casting. The sooner I know, the better.
I had only written down one role: Jesus. And that’s what the director offered when she called. Now, the show does have other great roles, but in this case, it’s what I preferred to play. I still hadn’t seen a script though. Did HE have a large role? I was dying to know. Pardon the pun–total accident there.
A friend was kind enough to drop the script off at my house one day, so when I came home from work, I found it waiting for me. I promptly read it. I think that’s probably what 99 out of 100 actors do when a script first comes. We all want to see what great lines and songs await us. (The one out of 100 is the person who’s already done the role twice and needs not to see the pages once again.)
I read through it. Wow. There were lines. There were lines indeed, or as Hamlet says, "Words, words, words." It wouldn’t be a hard task, per se, but it would take a lot of time and patience. Luckily, I memorize well and have no issues with a lot of dialogue. And to a small degree, I suppose my memory is partially photographic, insomuch as I at least often will have a snapshot of the page from the script in my mind. Now, it’s hard to "read" this image when it’s a full monologue, but some of the smaller lines are legible in the mind’s eye. I imagine this isn’t an unusual thing.
Despite my character’s heavy line load, there weren’t many songs. He sings an energetic song near the beginning ("Save the People"), which is one I enjoyed due to the variances in the different sections of it.
Later, there is a very fun vaudeville song, "All for the Best," which was one I never had to really worry about.
Finally, there’s a hectic number called "Alas, Alas" in the second act. That one is the bear. It has multiple time-signature shifts, but moreover, the stanzas are different, yet follow the same motifs. It’s difficult to really ensure one is singing the correct words at the right time. It’s also very fast, making it deadly if a tongue is not ready to navigate such intricate patterns of words.
At callbacks, I knew about four or five people. The rest were all new to me.
The First Meeting
A lot of things go through one’s mind at a first meeting. Will I get along with these new people? Will they accept me in the lead role? Will we have to sing through the songs on the first night? Will there be free beer?
Note: there has NEVER been free beer. No, not once.
With the cast set and scripts in hand, we took to the stage and begin putting the pieces in place. Some are shocked that it takes over two months to prepare a show. And it can take much shorter time if necessary. Then again, we only have a few hours each night and only rehearse Monday through Thursday. Eight weeks is fine with me.
One treat was getting to rehearse on the performance stage, which doesn’t always happen in shows. This allows us to–if I may borrow a popular phrase—"explore the studio space."
The first few rehearsals started off with games: charades, extreme emotions, and follow-the-leader. We would later discover how these preparatory tasks fit into the scenes. I must admit: I definitely got really into the charades. That was a blast.
It would be many weeks until the set was built, so a keen imagination was important until then. We had to mainly imagine being up on high platforms six to ten feet over the stage. But the final results would be worth it. This was a set that allowed plenty of dramatic heights in the show.
For me, it was what I loved: simple. I had one outfit that I wore from curtain to curtain. Hard to beat that.
The Stage Time
In "Godspell," everyone is on stage for nearly the entire show. Thus, one must avoid drinking too many fluids before each act. There just aren’t any bathroom breaks. As well, there’s no time to fix costumes and such either. There’s also another missing component: prep time.
Now, normally, I like to mentally go over songs, scenes, and dances before each one. It helps. I like having all that information fresh in my head. But if you’re always on-stage and always involved in the scenes, that isn’t allowed. However, that’s not to say, it’s impossible.
The secret is to find the right moments, and for me, those occurred during the scenes which heavily involved others. While I was "listening," I could mentally go over what was coming up next. It might seem like this would take away from the art of active listening, but the human mind and body are pretty fascinating and one can smile, nod, look eagerly at what is taking place, while his or her mind is planning out the next course of action. We do it all the time in real life.
I write down piano and guitar under "instruments" when auditioning. It comes up a lot, really. Last year, I even played the guitar briefly. This year, the director asked about playing piano.
"Sure, " I said. "Any piece you like."
And it wasn’t a lie. I’m no concert pianist, but if I memorize something, I can play it back. My preference is that the piece is slow and ballad-like.
The number was fast and energetic. Er, okay then.
I began working on it right away. It wasn’t a very difficult piece, but the fast pace made it all that much tougher. I will say this–when you accompany a singer, it changes everything. I considered that early on. Mistakes must be played through. Mistakes allowed for no pausing either. Start goofing it all up, and you’d better at least keep in mind what measure you are on when you finally untangle your fingers.
Many find plenty of other instruments more difficult than piano. I don’t have the experience to effectively compare, but I will say that managing 10 little fingers doing all sorts of intricate little movements can be tough. It’s also hard because despite a piano warm-up before the show, by the time I play my piece, they (my little fingers) haven’t been playing in about 40 minutes. Plus, one has to actively listen to the singer and ensure the speeds are matching.
Yeah, respect your accompanist. It’s much harder than it looks–er, sounds.
And that’s just from me playing one simple song.
I’m glad I did it, but even with all the practice and feigned confidence, if the director had asked me two weeks before opening, "You still okay doing this?" well, I might not have said, "No, thanks," but "YOU BETCHA!" probably wouldn’t have been first out of my mouth either. I’d most likely have said, "It’s whatever you think is best."
This was year number two in the new theatre. Again, I liked it. Again, I did miss the quaint little old theatre, especially for a show as intimate as "Godspell" is. Another thing the old facility did was unify the cast more backstage as it was literally right behind the theatre wall. True, privacy was a little more difficult back then, especially for changing, but it could be managed. At the new place, actors are actually rarely in the green room it seems.
So far, we haven’t used the tunnel either–at least not in the show. I use it when it’s left unlocked. It’s rather fun. I also enjoy ducking up into the box office seat area whenever possible to snap some photos and/or watch the scenes. There wasn’t much opportunity for this in this production though.
Mainly, I stick with two phrases when being directed: "Okay," and "You got it." Essentially, provided I’m not being asked to jump out a window or to off another actor, I’m agreeable to whatever is requested. And I had zero problems even internally in this show.
If there was one thing I had to maybe question or slightly go against was how intense to take the Act II opening monologue. It wasn’t that I disagreed with keeping it a very fierce intensity; I just needed to ensure I didn’t blow out my voice for the rest of the show (or worse). Yelling a lot (even if done properly) can be detrimental to the vocal chords after a long enough period. While I wanted to go all in during that scene, I also couldn’t risk wrecking my voice for the rest of the show. It was hard mentally finishing that scene knowing I could have physically gone further, but again, there’s a whole act still ahead, it has to be reached with a full voice. Heck, there’s even a bit of singing at the end.
I’m not a big fan of blowing smoke, but I do think that much of the success of "Godspell" was due to our director’s direction–in that she kept it focused and unified with a constant idea. It was excised from being trapped in the 1970s and placed into a more relatable period: modern day.
Several edits also needed to be made. And those were for the best. The crazy clowns were taken away. Some of the perverseness of the characters (very random at that) were cut out too. And the Superman shirt was gladly omitted.
Sometimes band members get to text and do Sudoku in shows.
Not this time.
Our band was out on the set–about eight feet in the air. It was a great effect, though with all the down time, I’m not sure I’d feel the same having to NOT kill time with some Angry Birds between songs.
Ah, and now we get to the famous cowbell (not "infamous," mind you; infamous is bad). I do have to wonder what people made of all this cowbell talk, especially those who didn’t see the show. I’m sure a few were nervous that we were turning the show into an historical piece glorifying the history of the cowbell and its progression into musical mainstream.
But I’ll explain.
We had a piece where people played instruments for a section. At one rehearsal, I brought up the idea of me having an instrument and it being the cowbell. The director and choreographer weren’t really sold on this idea, but then we figured another song also needed us on instruments. I had already been giving two sticks to bang together; why not just have one stick and a cowbell instead?
Well, I don’t know if I ever actually got the approval, but there wasn’t outright refusal either. I ordered the cowbell that very same night. It is much harder to turn down an actor with a sad face and a cowbell in hand.
Thus, the jokes grew–and fast. Cowbell was interspersed whenever and wherever possible. There would be no shortage there. Soon, we were all edifying the cowbell’s graces.
With all my dialogue, I wasn’t eager to learn many tricky dances for the show. Unless it was just me pulsating with the cowbell, I was hoping to avoid anything needing precise repeated movement.
After a section of dance was taught during one rehearsal, the choreographer looked over and said, "You know. YOU could be learning this dance too." And I could. And I said that I would, if she really wanted me to. You see, I’ll learn whatever I’m asked to learn, but I always just try and hope and pray for not too much dance. If they let me weasel out of it, I weasel away.
Even with my constant fore-thinking into the upcoming songs and scenes, I did make a strong effort to really listen to the scenes, actively respond, feel the joys, the frustrations, and the liveliness of what was going on around me. It helps the scenes, but it also allows actors the chance to really connect with the alternate world spinning around them.
Along with the listening, there was also the looking. Since the character was about really connecting, and thus saving the others, I wanted to ensure a lot of eye-contact was made–directly. Not the forehead or the space between the eyes, but right smack into the eyes. This was important to me, even though it can also be distracting at times too. The scene must always remain the primary focus. One doesn’t want to forget and jump 10 pages ahead into the show. While that did happen once, it was only during a rehearsal about three weeks before opening.
"Got any problem with heights?"
"Nope," I said, and the director seemed happy.
It would be many weeks before I discovered what the weight of that question meant as I was perched on a lift heading up about four feet higher from the already high section of the risen set. It was a pretty large drop, but much better than what had been proposed from the beginning, where the fall-mat was directly on the ground. Now I could have fallen that far–maybe 12 feet down–and been fine since pole vaulters do it and survive just fine. It was a pole-vaulter’s fall-mat after all, but there wasn’t any real reason to risk that height as I was beyond the audience view after about six feet. Therefore, they moved the mat up about six feet and I was that much safer. Still, I had to learn to fall back even at that height.
Mainly it isn’t about the fall itself but the trust involved. I prefer falling using the cat’s method: one lands on his feet. However, that just wouldn’t do. I needed to believe this mat would project me and stop my velocity securely. Thus, the first fall was the hardest.
And probably hurt the most.
Which was very little.
But it did sting a little bit. This was only my elbows of all places, as they reacted from being rubbed against the mat on impact. I would need a few band aids during the first week, but after that, I was fine.it just got easier and easier and by the end, it was completely enjoyable.
The reaction was mainly silence (at least during the show), but afterwards, I did get a lot of feedback of how people really liked that part of the show. I’m hoping they enjoyed the other 99.9% of our production too, but still, it was nice to hear.
The Question of Blasphemy
I guess I had to expect some jokes in the show, and they were peppered here and there. My reaction wasn’t get upset or annoyed, but to smile and nod and let it be.
Normally, I’m not a big hugger, but for this show, hugs were fine.
Overall, I’m all for ensemble casts. We’re all team members, but similar to football, I suppose the quarterback does have some added weight and responsibility. However, most often this simply boils down to doing your job and doing it well. Without being professional with one’s role, all leadership is effectively wiped out, no matter how much experience one has.
So my position could possibly be seen as a leader, but it wasn’t in instructing others or supplying feedback–that’s the director’s job only. It was (not unlike the person I was portraying) basically leading by example. I tried to always come in prepared to do the scenes and be fully memorized by the next time. Also, I tried to balance the ideas of having fun and getting down to business. In theatre, we have a job to do, but we can still enjoy doing it.
Even brush-up night needed to go mostly by the book. There were too many important pieces of the show to get familiar with again after a week’s break. Too much goofing around would cost too much valuable.
The Line Notes
By the time, line notes came, well, the damage was pretty much done. I think we started during tech week. After the first day of tech, I think I had about 38 different line notes. Most were just flubs and then next run through would have entirely new mistakes. But with so many pages of fast dialogue, you’re gonna have a few flubs here and there.
Learn Your Lessons Well
While I am Christian, one could take away a lot of good lessons from what’s told in "Godspell," not matter what he or she believes. A poignant moment is the man who makes a boatload of money but then dies early as he hears, "You have made your money; who will get it now?" It coincided with me saving a lot of my income over the past decade, but still needing to balance it with giving to others and enjoying a little of life too.
Another lesson was as follows. After our first day of tech, someone working crew needed a ride home. I wasn’t fast to blurt out, "I can do it!" since I often really like that quiet time to relax after a 3-hour rehearsal; however, I couldn’t let him just not have any ride home at all. When no one responded, I volunteered.
The next day he needed a ride again. I of course had no real reason to decline. The location wasn’t next door to me, but still only about 10 minutes away.
And this became the pattern, with several times having the person needing to be picked up too.
I agreed every time for a couple of reasons. First, he was helping out on tech, essentially being willing to sacrifice a whole 4-hour evening for about two minutes of stage time. Actors (well, smart ones) learn to appreciate what the crew does for them. Also, if I were in the same situation, I would highly appreciate someone helping me out. And lastly, this was another lesson told several times in the show: "Help out your fellow brothers," "Treat others as you would have them treat you," "Love your neighbors," and so forth. What would double the fault in not doing so was the fact that I was playing a person who was extolling such honorable virtues.
Yet contrasting my story was the lesson of keeping one’s acts of charities secret. And I did debate with this a little. In the end, the goal isn’t to "win admiration" from fellow readers, but rather to remind others to look for ways to help out their fellow men and women. If your only excuse is "It interferes with my time to relax," then yeah, you probably need to reconsider.
If you need to race home to replace the oxygen tank on your great grandmother’s life-support system, then your good deeds are needed elsewhere.
And maybe shows in general just aren’t right at this time in your life.
Most of the run went off without a hitch, but there were glitches here and there. I mainly remember one night where I said, "Makes the rain rise…" It was at that point that my brain discovered the mistake: "Error: Rain has been used instead of sun." In the next microseconds, the brain looks for escape routes or ways to cover the mistake. The flight response isn’t really applicable, as running off the stage isn’t really part of the show. But in that case, there weren’t really improvised fixes that could be done. The whole "start over" on a line technique is almost always worse as it declares that a mistake has been made. I won’t say that it breaks the fourth wall since we do start over in conversations often. But for this case, I just rolled on with "…and set on the good and bad alike." I of course had to repeat rain in the next sentence too. So there was a chance people missed the error, I guess. But I’m not taking bets either.
Other than that, everything else was fairly small or fixable.
Some take mistakes poorly, but I’m sort of glad when it happens because–well, mainly, for me, it’s nice not being the only one having anything go wrong.
Small–in terms of contrast. Our old theatre at the college was small. I think it was anywhere from 90-150 seats. Yeah, I essentially haven’t a clue, but it was much smaller than the new theatre. Thus, when it was filled with the amount of people that sold-out the old theater, it still seemed meager.
But even one ticket-buyer is enough to warrant a fabulous show, and everyone adhered well to that each show.
Speedthrus (or Plowthrus) are important for several reasons. But for me, one good one was testing out how fast the dialogue could out without it tripping up the various workings of my brain and mouth. It was a great test because I could then determine how quickly I could go during performances.
The Office Comments
Without fail, there are almost always two main comments when I put up posters for a show I’m in: "I really want to come see that" and "Sorry I missed that. Make sure to let me know about the next one." Call me jaded, but a better phrase would be "wisened up." Now, I do think people aren’t lying when they express such intentions. The idea of it might seem fun or interesting to them, or they may want to simply support a fellow worker in his activities. Thus, I don’t mind hearing those phrases uttered. However, I still do chuckle at the second one–especially if it’s a pattern repeated frequently over several years.
The Office Episode
There was an Office episode that I watched recently which did embody a good element of the theatre element: Andy’s Play. It was actually by far the funniest episode of the 7th Season. In it, a worker, Andy, is in Sweeny Todd and wants his co-worker crush to see the show–and therefore see him in his element. If the other works come, so much the better.
One probably shouldn’t read too much into any piece that’s main objective is comedic, but some other aspects can be found. While Andy loved performing, his higher love was for the girl, and thus, the role eventually took a backseat to knowing if she was coming to the show or not.
But the main effect (for me at least) was that it’s important to realize that those outside of the theater (not involved with shows, or heavily into seeing show) don’t often see theatre in the same manner. To them, it’s viewed as a hobby or something fun to do, but not a vital part of life.
Now that doesn’t mean they don’t respect people who do it, or their talents. I’ve heard many times: "I wish I could sing," or "That is so wonderful. I could never do something like that."
The reason it matters is that we as performers sometimes get upset over people not showing up. But truth be told, if an office-worker’s son with pitching at a little league baseball game, I’m most likely not going to be there. If an office-worker himself is pitching in a Triple AAA game, I’m still probably going to miss it. Heck, if an office-worker was on Glee, I’d also miss that episode like all the other ones.
Our interests vary from person to person.
As well, we sometimes get upset when mistakes happen and beat ourselves up over them. Shows just can’t be taken in that manner. Not that we shouldn’t work hard and do our best, but live theatre is live, and mistakes will happen. It’s absurd to think they won’t and worse to get overly upset when they do. Again, it’s taking ourselves too seriously. If you leave the stage knowing you did your best, it’s what truly matters. An NFL QB wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) fume at himself for not having 100% accuracy in passing. In theatre, our W’s come if the audience likes the show when exiting the theatre.
Inside my mind
I think I’ve already explained most of this, especially about using calm moments to prepare for upcoming songs or scenes. In general, I am usually reserving a small part of my mind for what’s coming next during a show. When possible, I do try to really soak in what’s going on, trying to truly feel what it’s like when people are singing to you and so forth. Sometimes, it works; other times, it’s just acting.
I think the show really came alive during the second weekend, which I hate to say because some might think that first weekends are to be avoided. With a comic musical, there’s not going to be a massive difference from opening to closing–though yes, some refinement. But with a show that contains many nuances and connections between characters, those features can grow over time and enhance the show. A third weekend would have really been spectacular (at least I believe so).
A third weekend would have been tiring too. These shows take a great amount of time and energy. When an actor works full time, it’s tough to pull off a weekend of shows, when said weekends are usually reserved for resting and recovering from the week. I was pleased with the run as it was.
The Cast Gatherings
We met at TGIFs a few times and that was fun. I believe we even had perfect cast attendance once or twice. That’s pretty rare in shows, but easier for us, having a small cast. Notably, it would also become the last time a cast gathered at Pleasanton TGIF, since it closed weeks later. (Not because of us, mind you.)
The Final Party
Strike went by fast. We tore down the massive scaffolding and got it all back to a bare stage. It’s how we start a new show, and how we end it. I’m guessing many actors feel like I do at that point–just too worn out to be melancholy.
During the last party, we ate food and shared stories. We then played some fun games (Guesstures and Catch Phrase). What was nice is that the show basically ended as it began: with people coming together, playing some games, and having fun.
Next: Well, this is awkward…