A Fiddler on the Roof (2)
Time: July 27, 2014Place: Stage OneRole: Motel KamzoilDirector: Sue Ellen Nelsen
How It Came to Be
I talk a lot about trying to mainly do new or less-performed shows.
But that doesn’t mean that the classics aren’t great works to do too.
And when the chance comes along to do a fun role … well, despite one’s best wishes …
Welcome to theatre.
I knew about “Fiddler” auditions but didn’t audition. I had done the show before, and there was another production that I wanted to be in: “Sweeney Todd.” But it was not meant to be, and I was not called back (not for the role I wanted at least–the crew had another role in mind, but since we weren’t in sync–anyway, you get the idea.) No dice–though I remember where the spots were.
Now the “Fiddler” director had asked me to audition, but since I had the other show in mind, I eschewed this idea. Then they asked about a callback audition for “Motel.” At that point, the other show was no longer in the picture, so I acquiesced.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Er, maybe not history, but “Tradition!”
I was offered the role and I accepted. Rehearsals started soon after.
That’s how long it had ben since I had done “Crazy for You” at Stage One back in 2002. I remember because right after it closed (literally, a week later), I was off to study in London for a semester abroad. My life would be forever changed.
“Forever changed” might be a strong phase, but it was changed, or at least greatly affected, and this all has nothing to do with “Fiddler” back at Stage One.
The theater now is mostly the same, but a little different. Before, we did most of the rehearsing in the actual theatre, but now there is a rehearsal studio. It does the job nicely and aside from the restrooms being locked too often, it is fully functional for rehearsing.
Coincidentally, it was the same director that I had worked with 12 years prior, although I had worked with her a few times at other theatres. In some ways, it was like picking off where we ended before, though the role was different.
With “Motel,” I had much more down time. No more running from stage left to stage right and changing costumes in 30 seconds flat, all the while removing streams of sweat caused by a blistering hot summer with no air conditioning in the theatre. Sure, there was a little sweating this time around, but not rivulets endlessly streaming down.
During “Fiddler One,” I had really wanted to play Motel. I wasn’t cast but was cast as Fyedka, the Russian. At that time, I was a bit dejected about not getting the role in mind, so I was going to not accept the part, but I did attend the first rehearsal, listened to the music and story, and was immediately convinced that it was where I belonged. The show is powerful for audiences and cast members alike.
Years later, I finally had a chance to play that role. It was unique in that I did remember many moments from the first time around, and that was fine, but to be frank, it was sometimes a little melancholy as a few people from the first time are no longer around, including a young actor who I would remember playing a drunk Russian after the bar scene. In this production, when we first rehearsed the bar scene, the memory would come back of how it happened the first time, but by closing, the new memory had usurped the previous one. Things just change I guess.
Last time I did “Fiddler,” I remember we had a great cast, with no divas, no major gossip, no bickering, and no hotheads. And this time…it was the same. I guess it’s either this particular musical or the casting, but it seems to bring out the best in people. We start as strangers, but eventually bond and many end up like the townspeople, where they almost refuse to leave when the time comes. Those kinds of memories last a lifetime.
Since I often had to arrive late due to a long commute, there wasn’t a lot of time for costume meetings, and most of the good stuff was gone when I finally got to choose what accessories to wear. But it all worked out.
The hardest part was the insanely fast costume change before the wedding. And the key to that was not forgetting to pre-set the costume pieces. If that happened, I imagine the lights would come up and no Motel would be in the scene, for he would be backstage, running around like a headless chicken (“There’s something about a chicken!”) trying to find his … actually, I suppose he (I) would have just done the scene with the same costume. No one would know.
From my vantage point, things seemed to go mainly according to plan. Nothing big appeared to go wrong. And people can believe all the silly superstitions they want, “Macbeth” can be uttered in a theatre without the lights all falling onto actors’ heads. I saw someone say it; I saw nothing go wrong. Apart from the psychological aspect, it’s easy to disprove time and time again.
But sometimes–and on nights where it wasn’t said–things did go a little awry.
Perhaps people have the superstition backwards.
At any rate, one night on opening weekend, I had the right lyric coming out at the wrong time. I suppose that’s not entirely bad, but it does force the brain to go into overdrive, and as it’s widely depicted in the movies, time does seem to slow down.
It’s a funny thing because the mind just starts processing information faster, all the while continuing the current course of action. When I swapped the lyric, I knew immediately that the second set was being sung first. At that point, I could “switch tracks” and finish with part II of the first one, or swap them entirely. As the song ended with a particular phrase (“God has given you to me”), I really needed that to be the end, due to the significance of the words. So I did option A and while the words didn’t rhyme. It’s crazy how much processing the brain can do in a short moment of time, when leaned upon.
And I think it might have worked, though I didn’t exactly poll the audience.
It’s the one aspect of singing that makes it a little more challenging than dialogue. With lines, you can essentially improv out of any scene and situation. It should be rather easy if the actor truly understands the motivation and reason for being in any situation. With lyrics, the notes should be fine. One just has to trust that they will be neatly placed on the correct line of the staff with the right duration. It’s almost a magnetic attraction that pulls the note into its proper place.
But with lyrics, heck, repetitive phrases or similar ones can simply just flip flop or land wherever the spirit leads them, if one isn’t extra careful. “Fiddler” doesn’t have hard music by any means, but it can be challenging keeping order in the court.
During my first musical, the director always reminded us to “trust the script.” It was written by professionals and probably had been edited repeatedly. In most cases, an actor has no need to muck with lines or try and “better” them.
I still believe that…but…"Fiddler" has “issues.” It’s not that things need changing or (gasp) updating. The scripts need fixing. There are errors all over the place. And it’s hard to know what the author intended. I remember errors in the first “Fiddler” script, and they were DIFFERENT MISTAKES! So someone somewhere is either doing this on purpose, or is very careless, but there are many places in the script where it’s unclear who should be saying a particular line–especially when it can work with either actor.
Yeah, something poorly edited, this way comes.
And “Fiddler” is probably the worst example I’ve seen of this particular peculiarity, which is somewhat ironic in that it’s a show that’s by contract supposed to be executed exactly as “written.”
The first outing was Pizza Night after opening. I forgot there was a charge and was carrying no cash. Therefore, I had no pizza (ah, so many calories avoided). The event was fun, despite many bodies fitting into a small area. My right ear was not too pleased about that. It had been a while since it complained about decibels.
I think outing number two was a picnic with just a few people. I wanted to attend, but on a Sunday after a long, long week of rehearsing, it was more important to go home and relax. I had to take a pass with a solemn promise to attend the next event…
…which was a post-show gathering at La Pinata. About a third of the cast showed up, yet the cast of “Sweeney Todd” also showed up so the place was packed. They received plenty of business that night–hopefully with some good tips. (I only had a diet Coke. No point in stuffing myself at 12am.)
After the second Sunday show, we trekked out to Alameda, where Tom had another one of his parties in his nice Victorian house. There was plenty of food, and I think I even ate some of it–after a beer or two had done its thing.
The final gathering was another Round Table pizza night. This time I was prepared and brought cash. Awards were given, speeches were made, and slowly over time, people made their exodus. The following day would be the final performance.
The crowds varied. Some night were nearly sold out. Others were half full. Some laughed at very peculiar places–which gave quizzical looks to those backstage. Others laughed non-stop. Larger crowds would have been nice, but as always, even if just one person shows up, he or she will receive a top-notch show. In theatre audiences, size really doesn’t not matter.
Tevye turned out to be very well played. And that’s saying a lot because the last time I did the show, the actor did great too. He pretty much carries the show. If Tevye isn’t outstanding, there isn’t much that can be done.
And he was great to work with, always being on his game. On one night, there was a near break during the Tevye/Motel “confrontation.” The comedic element just seemed a little higher than usual (probably due to a great audience). But I could see a slight smirk, and had a sense that this could cause a break in one or both actors. Those moments are fun and it’s tempting not combat it, yet I also hated for the continuity and flow of the scene and show to stop. “Fiddler” does somewhat break the fourth wall, but in a controlled way–Tevye speaks at the audience, but not really “to” the audience–er, he speaks “to” the audience, but not “with” the audience…uh, you get the picture.
So I just avoided eye contact, and the urge to laugh died down.
This would be the case with Tzeitel, too, as we just got the sense early on that direct eye contact in a freeze would be precarious. Actors just have to figure this stuff out early on at rehearsal to see what the best approach would be. And for me, most of my brainpower was focused on the song ahead.
This was a great solution to how to get Frumah ghost-like. Obviously, flying rigging wouldn’t be a great use of funds since it’s just one scene, and having Frumah walk around would be a little ineffective. Using a tall ladder on wheels was quite impressive and did the trick well.
Behind the Scenes
With such a large cast, there was always something interesting going on back-stage. Nothing bad of course, but just people playing guessing games with an iPhone, or sitting in groups chatting, or running around getting in place for the next number.
On occasion, an ensemble member might miss a cue, with someone stopping the conversation and saying, “Aren’t you in this number?” In which case, two things would happen: 1) the person would race off full steam ahead and get on the stage, or 2) the actor would realize it’s too late and the conversation would continue.
In either case, I would laugh hysterically.
Provided it wasn’t me.
Actually, it’s never me. I’m pretty aware of scenes and cues. If anything, when I do get involved in too much conversation, I’ll still make the scene but will not have pre-practiced the lines beforehand. Most of the time, that’s not an issue, but on occasion, it will lead to a moment of “blankness,” where the mind is in “search” mode.
Even in small scenes, I sometimes try to invent something to do, for either the audience, or the other actors, or for me. In the wedding, I doubt the audience could see all the “Motelisms,” but each time he would 1) shake his hands and/or knees from being nervous, 2) fumble with the ring some, 3) start to place the ring on the wrong finger, 4) choke a little on the wine, 5) nervously hold the wine, 6) have trouble with the veil lifting, 7) look around for Tevye’s approval, 8) look at Tzeitel with that “I can’t believe it! It’s a miracle!” look, 9) bow reverently, though it was often tough to know when since the actual speech from the Rabbi was not heard, and so forth. This isn’t to say others don’t do all this, or it’s anything special. For me, it was a reminder to try and make the most of any moment or scene …
Provided, it’s not distracting to what else is supposed to be taking place. In the wedding, it’s about the couple, so the couple has a “right” to focus. Though, it’s also about the singers too, who can be seen as well as heard, but I feel it’s okay if attention is on the couple getting married too. Again, it’s a matter of balance.
In “The Little Foxes,” the details and bits were too much, and the director let me know a few times. Heck, okay, I’ve been reminded in many times since, and that’s not a bad thing. Invent until the limit is reached. Easier to remove stuff than figure out things to add in tech week.
I had one lift in “Fiddler,” and I made the most of it since it wasn’t a show where I expected any lifts. The girl was a featherweight so she ascended until my arms reached their limit. And while I didn’t think the script really allowed enough time for my character to be in the Ghost scene, I did have a fun time with it.
Doing “Fiddler” turned out to be a wise choice. I made some new friends and got to play some fun comedy. Having the Russian character was a nice escape from the meeky, boyish quality of Motel.
Hard to say if there will be another “Fiddler” down the road, yet I will always be open for the possibility. Even within a make-believe moment of time and space, facing and handling adversity certainly does foster community.
Once again, the memories and traditions will remain.