Tuesday, Kurt (the director for 'Bohemian Cowboy') Brungardt, flies in from NYC, to spend three days on the script and to look at the theatre. The pressure is on to get through a certain amount of the rewriting in the next three days. I'll sequester here with some coffee, some bagels, and a sack of russet potatoes (just kidding on the potatoes). Its really cool to be able to just focus just on the project, and particularly, a new play.
Today, I was driving to my Saturday meeting in Hollywood, and I got that rush of fear that goes with the future thoughts of standing on stage having to know fifty single spaced pages of dialogue. Yesterday, as I was walking and memorizing, I once again was having difficulty with the opening Shakespeare monologue, luckily, its not to long. I remember so many plays, standing in the wings waiting to go on and thinking, "now what's my first line?" It always reminds me of the movie, 'The Dresser', with Albert Finney, playing, 'Sir', the Artistic Director of a Shakespearean Theatre Co. during World War II in England. In my early years teaching, I used to show this movie to my students, my palms would sweat during the whole movie, as 'Sir', was slowly going insane. His 'dresser' played by Tom Courtney, would have to remind him what play he was doing, right before he would go on. I would sweat because in the movie, he is playing 'King Lear', one of the most difficult roles in the English language. I would be thinking, "Oh my God! Don't let him go out there!" If you haven't seen this movie, rent it and get a cold rag to wipe your face, and watch 'Sir' insanely go through 'King Lear'. Every time I watched it, I would come away shaken, until finally I put it away, still, I can just think about it and get sweaty palms. Talk about an actor's nightmare.
My most horrifying experience as an actor had to be playing 'Leadville Johnny Brown' in the musical, 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown'. After not doing theatre for several years, I came home from the National Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, (I had several gymnasts in the meet) and decided I'd go back to the theatre, and not only act again, but become a playwright. When I told my wife at the time, she said, "You're going to do WHAT?!" "Become a playwright," I said. Without getting into details, I was soon divorced, jobless, living on my brother's couch and driving an old chevy vega that didn't have a driver's side window. I had done pretty well as a gymnastics coach, and after the National Championships, my star was on the rise. I had a nice condo, two new cars, I had two really cool wind surfing boards, a little extra cash, and had even started an art collection. In less than three months time, all that was over, and all I had was the hostility of just about everyone I knew at the time, (except my Mother, she understood, thanks Mom!) . I can remember laying on the couch thinking, "My God, what have I done?" The next day, I read about an audition in the paper, a man named David Wo was starting a new theatre company. The first play would be, 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown". Well, I'd never done a musical, but I sing a little bit, "how hard can that be?" I'll tell ya', REALLY F______ING hard! I sang a song, 'He', for my audition, and lying MAO about my musical back round, I got the part. I thought, "Now what am I going to do?" I had no real support from anyone, (except Mom), couldn't read music, and didn't know that 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown' was one of the most difficult librettos (music score and lyrics) in the entire canon of Roger's and Hammerstein's storied careers. The director gave me a tape of Harve Presnell singing the songs, and I went to work, imitating him exactly. During rehearsals, it became clear to me that not only was the director not my friend, but I was always about two beats off the rhythm. That wasn't all. He did not want a Harve Presnell impersonation, he wanted me to really be a musical theatre actor/singer. I could go into stories of being completely humiliated by the director in front of everyone, but I won't, (maybe in the book). Same story as doing Shakespeare, I had to sequester and sing each song a thousand times. Because I had never learned to count rhythm, (I since have) I had to memorize the rhythm of the song, which did me no good if things got off. I was gearing up for a disaster. I worked even harder. I did twenty nine shows of 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown', and each show but one, had its little disaster. I don't know how I got relatively okay reviews, maybe because the music was so freaking me out the acting was easy. There are two disasters that are most memorable. The first, (thank god it happened in a preview) was starting a song in the wrong key, (higher) which would have been okay except in the middle of the song there is a key change, (higher) by the time I got to the end of the song, I was singing in a falsetto voice that would have hurt the ears of Neil Young.(Use your imagination as to how that sounded, and you would be correct.) However, that was not the worst. In another part of the show, I had to come out in front of the audience and sing a refrain. "Hear yourself laugh, and you'll laugh a lot more. Gives a man confidence to holler in the mountains!" (I can still remember this song after all these years). When I came out, my mind went blank. There were no actors to save me, just I and the audience. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, I sang in a foreign language. Except I did not know a foreign language, and perhaps, it was the only time in theatre history that gibberish was sung in that refrain. But ya' know, as much heat and humiliation as I caught from that, I still think fifty percent of the audience where fooled, rather, they were astounded! I am proud, however, of that one show out of twenty-nine that I didn't make a mistake. Oh, there were lots of little bobbles, and well, I didn't die. That was my initial experience getting back on the stage. I learned a valuable lesson. Musical theatre is really hard! Oh, yea, and you should have some training. I've always seemed to 'train by fire'. I would love to do another musical today.
I just wrote my first 'full length' musical last year, which was produced at Metro Arts called 'Dreaming in Color'. There was a perfect 'full circle' finish to that project, only because most people don't know what I went through for years to learn how to construct and write a musical. I noticed that some of my students had similar experiences executing the play, but that is one way of learning the craft. I was proud of the experience. Proud of the songs I wrote, and proud of those who were part of that production. Sometimes, it is years before one begins to understand what happened and what was learned in a production. Sometimes, in 'flight or fight' situations, something very primal has to take over to get you through. Can gorillas sing? Yes, they can!
Lastly, I think in life, we do have to 'do what scares us' to optimize experience. I mean, it is frightening enough to be human and live in an uncertain world, but, still, it is the obstacles we overcome that 'flesh out' our characters. For me, it doesn't matter how many stage experiences I've had on stage as an actor, director, designer, or playwright, each one has its own horrifying element. The experiences teach us that yes, we can overcome the obstacles because we have a history of it, however, the challenging nature of 'putting ourselves out there' is always a new experience it seems. I'm still hungry to scare myself, I guess. Still looking for the new challenge. Still looking for a thrill, a performance, another experience before I leave this earth...