Saturday, December 13, 2008

Unsinkable and Unforgettable

I finally made a deal with David Fofi of Elephant Theatre. We have a theatre! Rehearsals begin after the New Year, the shows will run Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, opening on a Friday night, February 20th, 2009. 'Blue Baby, A Memoir', will run Thursdays and Saturdays, 'Bohemian Cowboy' will run Fridays and Sundays. Shows will close on March 21st. Show times will be at 8:00p. I will continue to post the information in the event that you would like to come over to Los Angeles to see one or both of the shows. The Elephant Theatre is at 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood, CA. As soon as I set up the box office, I will give out the number for tickets. Its on! 

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... 

6 comments:

Gerry said...

It's a treat to read some memories of notable roles you played. I remember how surprised I was when you landed that role in the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Not being able to sing I was astounded that you sounded pretty good, you actually acted the part wonderfully. You were the one who had to tell the horrors you experienced while trying to sing on key with no training in that genre. I thought you must have really impressed David Wo with your acting, and poor David Wo worked so hard in his theater company that he had a heart attack that he never really recovered from and died, tragically, in his forties. He had been adopted by a Chinese couple and did not know that diabetes was in his genes. Thank god, you have survived your theater ordeals so far. I had to give up acting because I couldn't stand up to the strain of the last week. Oh acting, acting. It takes guts and stamina. I know that you are going about these productions with such precision, that you may get through them alive and still relatively healthy! I am praying for you. M.

caroline said...

so Raymond, are you up for the production and your role to be effortless? to be flying? that's another way to get through your fears...

Mojo Joss said...

I remember you showing that movie in our theater class. I always loved when you made us watch movies we wouldn't consider watching in this lifetime. Ultimately though, 'The Dresser' and 'Jesus' Son' are the top. Lord knows the whole "f*ck-head" scene never gets old.

You're a very talented being Mr. Shurtz, whether you feel confident or not about a character and that is why your students look up to you as a hero and they are able to walk away with a sense of pride instead of shame in the event of a big or even small theatre mishap.

Pamela said...

You have come so far since your arrival in LA! You sure have not let any grass grow underneath your feet. I'm so glad you have a theatre and I look so forward to seeing the performances!! I'm excited!!
Hope you have a good week!

Grace said...

Sometimes, on a late, crisp afternoon, I envy your prowess.

congratulations, champ.

Larena said...

It is so cool that you got your theater space Raymond. I'm sure you will work just as hard to make this another great accomplishment as you have on all your productions. Maybe nothing great can be done without those sweaty palms. When Mason (Randy's son) was a darn good hockey player he chewed his fingernails down to the quick before each game. I said,"At least you don't have to go throw up." He said it was close many times. Since Bohemian Cowboys is closer to you, and you have lived it all of your life one way or the other, it will be easy for you to slip on stage and give a terrific performance.

I remember David Wo and his theater very well. It must have been because I went to see you in Unsinkable Molly Brown. Probably I was among the 40% of the audience that was fooled into thinking you could sing and knew exactly what you were doing. I'm enjoying your blogs to the max.

I wish you the very best of holidays. Love and Blessings, L