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Doris & Bertie

This Wednesday, October 5, starting at 7pm, I’ll be featured in a reading of Tiffa Foster’s new play Doris & Bertie. It’s being presented as part of the Bar Theatre Collective’s Breaking Barriers reading series, at HB Studios here in New York. For more information, check out the link here!

Branching Out

I mentioned in passing last week that if I confined my blogging to the actual activities I perform in a week related to my artistic career, I’d be writing an entire post about me going to the library.  This remark, if you happened to notice it, might have prompted a few questions.  “His life can’t be that boring, can it?” you might have thought, to which I reply, “oh yes it can.”  More to the point, you might have wondered “how difficult can it possibly be to do library research?  You just go to the library and get the book you need.” If that is your response, Constant Reader, then I envy you your innocence.  Because in this city, things have a habit of being more complicated than you can possibly imagine.  And so, in order to broaden the horizons of your imagination, I’m going to ignore my own advice from last week and tell you all about my epic quest to get reading materials from the library.

Or rather, libraries plural.

For indeed, there is a local branch of the Brooklyn Public library just up the street from me, less than half a mile away.  With pandemic restrictions set aside (whether they should be or not is a completely different question), I can go there any time I want.  But it’s a small local branch, so if I’m working on an elaborate project – and I’m currently putting together a period piece, so from a research point of view it’s definitely elaborate – they’re not going to have what I need.  I can put in an interlibrary loan request, of course – if you’ve never done that yourself, I highly recommend it, it’s the bookworm’s best friend – but it usually takes weeks for each volume to arrive.  (That’s assuming my local librarians put in the request correctly, and my branch is very local, if you catch my meaning, so that’s not necessarily a valid assumption.) Since submission opportunities tend to have deadlines, that’s time I don’t have.  So, for most volumes in the Brooklyn Library system, it’s much easier for me to travel several miles, taking two subway lines, to reach the main branch at Grand Army Plaza and check out volumes there.

You’ll notice, however that I specified the Brooklyn Public Library system.  For you see, by a quirk of municipal history, the borough that I live in (which was once a separate city unto itself, way back in previous centuries) has a completely separate library system from the rest of New York City.  So if I want to visit the iconic main branch on Fifth Avenue – you know, the one with the stone lions, the one from Ghostbusters, the one with most of the titles I actually need for my research, that main branch – I have to make a separate trip.  With a separate library card.  And since I’m working on a period piece that involves legal history (there’s a teaser for you), some of the titles I need are in the main reading room (the one that the tourist groups visit, on the third floor, with the murals on the ceiling) and some are in a separate room on the first floor – Room 121, home of the Millstein division, which specifically houses American history materials.  Because these are two separate, non-circulating collections – you have to work with the materials on-site, so you submit your requests to the librarians and the titles are retrieved from the vast, possibly ghost-infested sub-basement corridors below – I’m choosing to count them as two separate locations.  So we’re up to four.

Now, if I want to check out a library book as part of my midtown excursion, I do have the option of going across the street to what’s called the Stavros Niarchos branch, on 5th Avenue and 40th Street.  It’s the largest circulating branch of the system, so if a title I want can be checked out, and is available, I can just get it there.  However, if the title is not available there, and not in the Brooklyn system, and I want to place an interlibrary loan request through the main New York system, I have to go to a different branch entirely.  Specifically the E. 96th street branch, about two miles to the north, which I’ve designated as my “local” branch (remember my actual “local” branch is in a completely different system) because it’s just around the corner from my day job.

We’re up to six separate libraries.

And we’re not done!  Remember how the Millstein room housed a special collection of American historical materials?  The New York library system has a number of locations devoted to those sorts of collections.  And since I happen to be researching a period of Supreme Court History that had significant ramifications for civil rights law (another teaser there), that means that some of the volumes I need are housed in the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.  That Center is affiliated with the New York Public Library, and is on 135th Street in Harlem, so that’s another mile and change further north!

So.  Seven branches.  Assuming I didn’t also just visit another local branch randomly because the online catalog said they had a particular title on site.  Which I did.  So it’s really eight separate libraries, in two separate systems, with two separate library cards, covering about twenty five miles or so geographically.  Some of which have required me to dodge ongoing construction and renovation, all of which have required me to dodge various airborne beasties both on site and in transit because there is still a goddam pandemic going on.  All in service of a historical piece which, more likely than not, will be a mid-size one act.  Maybe 40 pages or so in length.  I’m not sure how exactly to allocate it, but that’s about five pages of material to show for each separate library, each of which I’ve scoured as thoroughly as possible for those handfuls of throwaway plot points and dialogue references.

And somehow, I’ve done all this in service of a piece of theatre – and haven’t once visited the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center!  (I hope this doesn’t mean I missed something.)

The Chandelier Has Fallen

So, there’s a lot going on at the moment.

That’s usually the case, of course; since this is my actor/playwright blog, I’ll try and keep things restricted to my theatrical life, and theatrical life here in New York in general.  That’s still a lot.  Much of it is too personal and mundane to discuss; you probably don’t want to hear about all my research trips to the library this weekend, and the script I’m doing all this research for is still only in the planning stage.  There’s also things I probably can’t talk about – the venue where Tuesdays at Nine, my Tuesday night reading series, takes place – we’re back!  Come check us out here – is at the center of a protracted legal fight and its future is profoundly uncertain, and I’m not sure if I can say anything more without there potentially being an adverse effect on that aforementioned fight.  But even so, it’s September, and with it the start of the fall theatrical season.  There’s new shows going up, and casting controversies aplenty, and emerging new writers and new development opportunities and all sorts of theatrical activity, despite all the challenges – be they economic, pandemic-related, or the just the usual difficulties of twenty-first centry life – they may face.

And nobody is talking about any of that.

Instead, everybody is freaking out that Phantom of the Opera has posted a closing date.

Yes, on February 23 of next year – thirty five years and change after its opening night in 1988 – the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical will play its final Broadway performance.  It will mark the end of the longest theatrical run in Broadway history.  The end of an era.  There are folks involved in the technical aspects of the show – the dressers, the running crew, the electricians, etc – for whom their entire career has been spent in service of this show. 

It’s wild to contemplate, of course, especially with so many other eras seeming to draw to a close all of a sudden.  (People are still broken up about the whole Elizabeth II thing.) But it’s also an opportunity.  And I don’t just mean that the Majestic Theatre is about to become available (it’ll probably just go to some new Andrew Lloyd Webber import anyway).   Nor am I referring to how this beloved piece of bombast will now be available for regional productions, allowing many more venues to mount the work (and hopefully finance their more adventurous programming in the process).  No, I’m referring to the chance for an influx of new work, new opportunities, new voices.  All the folks whose lives have been tied up with Phantom are now available to workshop new plays and musicals.  The whole vast apparatus that’s existed for longer than many of my colleagues have been alive, designed to keep this one show propped up, is now available to shepherd new pieces through the development process, to get new writers in front of the public, to get remarkable new roles to the folks who’ve served as Carlottas and Firmins for all these years.  It’s the whole nature of theatre – every ending, and all shows inevitably end, holds the promise of a new beginning.  It can be a source of hope, if you look at it that way.

And a shocking number of my peers are refusing to look at it that way.  I keep hearing nothing but “oh my god, the show is closing, all those jobs are gone, the tourists aren’t coming to New York and we’re not going to have Broadway any more.”

Well, honestly, it’s going to be a while before tourists come back.  And “Broadway” will definitely feel those economic pangs for a while (it’s the primary reason for Phantom’s closing).  But as I’ve said plenty of times before, theater is more than just Broadway.  And the argument can be made (and I’m making it) that a theater that’s no longer able to simply pander to the tourist crowd, but has to address the interests and concerns of its local community, is a good thing.  Or at least it could be, if we stopped being in thrall to some entity from our past, that perhaps wasn’t as wonderful as we’d always assumed it was. If ambitious artists would go ahead and seize the opportunity. 

I really hope we choose to do that.  I’m not sure how you choose anything else.

Royal Visit

As you might have guessed by now, Constant Reader, I did a lot of theater in college.  It’s strange – once I committed to doing this professionally (or at least semi-professionally), my family members, all of whom conveniently lived here in New York at the time, rarely bothered to come and see the shows I was in.  (They weren’t always particularly good shows, so I don’t begrudge them, but still.) But when I was in college?  My parents came up to see everything, my eight-year old sister incongruously in tow to see productions of Shakespeare and Shaw.  Moreover, my maternal grandparents would come up as well, usually on a separate schedule from my parents.  They would pack up their car and tackle the five hour drive to come and see what ever production I was in that semester.

Now the thing to understand, Constant Reader, is that I am an old man (unless you’re a casting director, in which case I’m a strapping specimen of indeterminate age).  This all therefore happened several decades ago, in a time before cell phones, before email, before text messages, before GPS.  Once my aged grandparents were on the road, I had no way of knowing where they were or when to expect them.  I had my whole busy college schedule, so it was difficult to coordinate any sort of rendez-vous with them.  Prior to curtain time, they could have been anywhere, wandering around an unfamiliar campus, with nobody to assist them.

And yet I always knew where they were, at all times, and was always reasonably sure that they were safe.

And the reason for this is that my grandmother, as was mentioned to her just about every day from 1952 onward, was the spitting image of Queen Elizabeth II.

I’ve never been entirely sure how my grandmother felt about having a royal doppelganger.  I’m sure she was flattered much of the time; my grandmother cultivated a rather regal way of speaking, so I suspect she not-so-secretly encouraged the comparison.  And yet, it’s not the sort of thing you can hear at random occasions – in line at the bank, or trying to get your grocery shopping done – without getting a little bit annoyed at times.  And there’s a part of me that suspects she got angry at the comparison from time to time – after all, if they were almost identical in appearance, and only three years apart in age, then how was it fair that one of them got to live a life of opulence at Westminster and Balmoral, while the other was exiled to middle class Long Island?  (I come from that sort of a family.)

In any event, whenever she came to visit my college, it was easy to trace my grandmother’s movements.  I’d be walking from one class to another, and I’d overhear somebody say “I could have sworn I just saw Queen Elizabeth at the bookstore!”  I’d be grabbing a quick bite of lunch at the coop, and someone at the next table over would exclaim “you’re not going to believe this, but Queen Elizabeth just drove by me in a golf cart on the athletic field!”  (The groundskeepers had a habit of ferrying my grandparents around if they saw them on campus.  Wouldn’t you, if the Queen of England asked you nicely?) Eventually, my housemates caught on to this state of affairs; they’d hear rumors of an unannounced visit to campus by the British monarch, turn to me, and ask, “your grandparents are coming to the show tonight, huh?”

I remember all this vividly.  It was, however, a long time ago.

My grandmother passed away ten years ago, practically to the day.  And of course, the long, tumultuous, extraordinary reign of Queen Elizabeth II – which some folks may well have thought would never end – came to its inevitable conclusion last week.  Both women now live only in memory – and that whole “inexorable passage of time” thing guarantees that one day, my memories will fade along with me.  And so I sit here typing out these memories, for the same reason we all write, or paint, or create in whatever way we create – in the desperate, eternal hope that we can make these memories linger for just a little while longer.

Placement in the Mask

My apologies, Constant Reader – my work schedule this past week was so hectic that, although I had a blog post written, I never had the chance to post it. As my Labor Day weekend is being spent curled up with library books – useful, informative, but not the stuff of an exciting narrative – I’m posting last week’s post today. Check back next week for all-new musings!

Say it with me, everybody:

Amidst the mists, and coldest frosts, with stoutest fists and boldest boasts, he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.

Yes, Constant Reader, I’m one of those actors.  In the half hour or so I’m backstage prior to a performance, I’m running through a litany of tongue-twisters, poems, nonsense phrases, and other thoroughly unclassifiable sounds as I warm up my voice.  It’s definitely the sort of thing that attracts funny looks from onlookers; the particularly cynical or churlish, listening to a strange barrage of lip-pursing and tongue-trilling, might view it as an affectation.  I can only assure you that it’s not, and that there is genuine value to this backstage babbling.  Some of that is psychological – these oft-repeated phrases function as a mantra, and can easily be taken as a weird form of secular prayer.  But if you do them correctly, they are hugely important from a mechanical perspective, getting your vocal apparatus ready to generate sound easily in a large, theatrical setting.

Which has, of course, been a purely academic consideration for the past few years, as we’ve all been trapped in our apartments and forced to emote through our laptops in zoom readings.  The built-in microphones are surprisingly effective – but the corollary to that is that theatrical projection and articulation haven’t been as important.  Although not by choice, we’ve been in an extended on-camera workshop all this time.  This month, however, I finally got to be a stage actor again, in a one-act festival by New Ambassadors.  I finally got to be backstage, declaiming about ‘Arthur’s fish sauce shop’ and repeating ‘baddagadda baddagadda’ to myself ad infinitum, to get my voice back into theatrical shape.  Just the way I used to.

Except, of course, it wasn’t the way I used to.

We’re still in a pandemic (actually we’re in three simultaneous pandemics right now what the hell is going on CDC come on people), and New Ambassadors was extremely vigilant about protecting its performers.  We took rapid covid tests on a regular basis.  Our audiences were asked to remain masked at all times.  And we ourselves remained masked throughout, except when we were actually on stage performing.

Which means, of course, that I was doing my traditional pre-show warm-up through an N95 facemask.

In order to gain a mechanical benefit from these kind of warm-ups, you have to commit to them vocally.  Simply mouthing them halfheartedly –  like someone in a beginning acting class wondering what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into – accomplishes nothing.  You need to speak them at full voice, with proper breath support, to train the diaphragm properly.  You need to overarticulate and overenunciate, to train those facial muscles.  Ideally, you’re looking in the mirror as you do this, to help reinforce the mind-body connections you’re making.

We had a mirror backstage, of course.  I just couldn’t see my face in it.  Not below my eyes, at any rate.  And the sound coming out was muffled by the mask.

It seemed they could hear me in the back row, when it came time to actually perform.  And they laughed at all the laugh lines, so I guess my articulation was suitably crisp.  But it was strange to be out there without the usual security of having done my traditional pre-show warm-up mantra.  Strange to have that familiar ritual not take place.  No, strike that – the ritual did take place, I recited all my usual tongue-twisters, even though the circumstances were so strange and altered that any effect, any benefit was dubious at best.  I went and did them anyway.

It’s as if I still insisted I could see the ghosts.  

Playing Through the Pain

It’s my cat’s fault.

Specifically, it’s the fault of her favorite chair, the chair I’ve been using for my home office.  It’s from somewhere in the mid-60s, its internal swiveling mechanism is unstable, and it wheels around my apartment on broken casters.  It’s also torn to shreds – because the fabric it’s made of is rough and makes a certain calico of my acquaintance very happy.  When I’m not using it, she’s claimed it as a combination bed, scratching post, and jungle gym.  When I am using it, I’ve been subconsciously adjusting my body position to compensate for how wobbly it is.  And since we’ve had two and a half years of a pandemic (it’s still going strong, you guys) that has had me using that chair a lot, I’ve been doing a lot of compensating.  Until this past Wednesday, when my body finally told me enough was enough, and I pulled something in my lower back.

Which wouldn’t be the biggest worry in the world, and wouldn’t warrant mention on my actor’s blog like this – except that I had a show to do the next day.

Now fortunately, this show is a ten-minute piece that’s part of an evening of one-acts.  I enter, remain standing the whole time, play my part, and exit.  We had to do a bit of reconfiguring of the backstage traffic in between shows, and who assists with what set-up – humiliating enough, as it made me feel like something of a prima donna (I can’t bend, you guys, oh woe is me).  But the actual performance I was there to give?  I could still give it.  No problem.

Well, it always feels like a problem.  I’ve had to play through the pain before, as have we all.  Back in the early days of Classical Theatre of Harlem, we had extraordinarily physical productions that more often than not took a toll on me.  I remember rolling my ankle in a leap to the stage on one show, scraping my foot against a courtyard railing during a chase scene in another.  Unless something has gone catastrophically wrong, the audience isn’t aware of anything.  But you are.  You know that, after all the work you’ve put in during rehearsals, you’re now forced to hold back, not playing at your full capacity.  It’s infuriating.

But that very frustration tends to provide a nice jolt of adrenalin, and when you combine that with the fact that you’re presumably acting – staying in character, projecting strength and vigor even when it’s left you – the audience stays with the show.  The injury doesn’t derail anything.  The show goes on, the audience applauds at the end, you take your bow – which now has a subtle new element of triumph, as you’ve successfully overcome this newest obstacle – and go home to rest.

Of course, there’s a reason I’m writing all this in the weekly blog post – I couldn’t take that moment of triumph this time.  I can’t properly bow at the moment, you see.  Lower back trouble.

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