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.

Trailing Clouds of Glory

I remember, as though it were yesterday (although it most definitely was not), going to the National Theatre in London for the first time.  I had just arrived for my semester abroad, in my junior year of college.  The show I saw was Murmuring Judges, by David Hare.  Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it – it’s a piece of political theater, very specific to British criminal justice concerns of the early 90s, and I’m not sure it’s ever been produced here in the United States.  Honestly, it’s not the play itself I remember – one or two snatches of dialogue, a tableau here or there, that’s about it.  No, it’s something else – a display I had never seen before.  (On the off chance you do know the play, you might be thinking I’m talking about the nudity, and yeah, that was memorable as well – I won’t get into why – but it’s not like I’d never seen naked people before.) An image seared into my impressionable brain.

The spray.

Whenever the light hit these supremely well-trained British theatre actors just right, you could see these great clouds of saliva droplets forming with every line they declaimed.  For the most experienced of them, those clouds appeared to measure several feet across, and hung in the air for several seconds.  They looked, for all the world, like cartoon thought bubbles; it would not have been impossible, with the right technology, to project the dialogue they were speaking upon them.

It’s become a theatrical cliché, of course – this notion that the spray of saliva is a mark of a serious theater actor.  It means one’s instrument has been properly trained, the diaphragm working as strongly as it should, the facial mask nice and loose and emotive.  The saliva’s a bi-product of all that physical technique, a sure sign that one has the proper skills to trod the boards.  The concept’s even been immortalized in a Friends episode, of all things, with Joey learning this lesson from Very Serious British Thespian Gary Oldman.  And indeed, back in the carefree days of the late 90s, this is the sort of thing you could have a laugh about.

But it’s 2022.  And if you’ll pardon the expression, all of this…lands a bit different now.

I’m currently performing in New Ambassadors’ Blurring Boundaries festival, in a one-act written by John Peña Griswold.  It’s the first time I’ve been on stage – not acting while sitting behind a laptop or gesticulating in a makeshift home studio, but actually performing on a physical stage – since the pandemic began.  (The covid-19 pandemic, that is – I believe we’re up to three simultaneous pandemics now.  Lucky us.) And it was as much a delight to get back into a rehearsal studio, script in hand, and interact with another performer as it is to hear a live audience laughing at our antics now.  But along with that came the return of another sensation – the feel of tiny droplets, from another actor’s spittle, upon my skin as they spoke their lines.

A sensation which I’ve never felt quite as keenly as now.  Nor have I ever been as hyperaware of the concussive force of another actor’s breath, or of the rise in air temperature as those sound waves reach your ears, as I have been during these rehearsals and performances.  It should be ridiculous – this is just basic biology and physics we’re talking about here.  But it isn’t, of course, not when we’re all wearing KN95 masks whenever we’re offstage, in the desperate hope of keeping each other safe from whatever airborne pathogens have been unleashed upon the world this week.

Just another thing to be conscious of, I suppose, another challenge in the endless parade of challenges you wind up facing to get even the simplest of shows up on its feet.  And as is ever the case, the goal is to address those challenges as completely as possible ahead of time, so you can be as present and “in-the-moment,” as undistracted as possible, when it’s actually time to perform.

To that end, my scene partner makes a point of gargling with mouthwash before each and every show.  Which I definitely appreciate.

Some Thoughts While Strapped to a Chair

The first screening of a film in which you’ve performed, no matter how small the role or modest the budget, is always a special occasion.  Filmmaking is always a leap of faith for the actor, given the sheer number of other collaborators and technical considerations involved; no matter how confident you are in your own performance, you have no idea how things have turned out until those images first start flickering in the dark of that first screening.  And so, perhaps in recognition of these artistic risks, the circumstances of that first viewing room have become wreathed in glamour.  Whether it’s a dingy, smoke-filled projection room where the day’s rushes are being viewed, or the glitz and high fashion of a red carpet premiere, we do everything we can to make sure that movie magic is present, no matter what becomes of the specific movie in question.  We make that fateful first viewing an event.

So there I was, in a Washington Heights two-bedroom apartment, sitting on a swivel chair with a big helmet on my head.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I recently had a chance to film a project that was designed for virtual reality.  Since a virtual reality participant can turn their attention wherever they like, the footage was all shot with a 360 degree camera, a strange little orb in the center of the room picking up everything happening around it.  Although the film winds up taking place in real time as a result – while you can dissolve from one different location to another, you can’t cut from scene to scene – it still required several months of editing to make sure all the different angles from that camera were properly stitched together and synced up with one another.  And in order to view the final cut, now that all that stitching and syncing had taken place, a viewer would need to put on a special visor, completely covering one’s own field of vision and allowing the viewer to see action wherever they happened to look.

And so, a few days ago, I was invited to a “screening” at the producer’s apartment, to view the finished product.  Of necessity, this screening could only be for an audience of one – each guest went, one at a time, into a room which had been specially repurposed for the evening.  We sat in the chair, a bit nervously, as the visor was fastened on to us, along with gloves with digital relays for pressing “play,” as it were – a menu of options floating in front of us.  A few unseen keystrokes and switch flipping from our producer, and, hey presto, there we were, in a digital recreation of the room where we’d filmed a few months ago.  And there we were, as well, the actors we were at the time, interacting with the spectator.  With ourselves, potentially.


We haven’t yet developed the technology to beam images directly into our cerebral cortex; you know full well you’re looking at a screen when watching a VR image, even if that screen is a personal video display completely surrounding you.  Even if you turn your head and twist about to examine every angle of the 360 display, the part of your brain that knows this is a projected image allows you to sit back, passively observing and processing.  Until, of course, a “character” starts interacting with you, effectively becoming your scene partner.  Now a different part of your brain is telling you that there’s a person there you need to talk to, or at least be aware of.  Except, of course, it isn’t, and there you are, in the chair with a helmet on your head, trying to process two contradictory impulses generated by images that you alone can see.

And, again, that word alone is crucial.  We could only view this piece one at a time; even if a big crowd were assembled, each member given the necessary equipment, it can only ever play to an audience of one.  The social component of an audience isn’t there – indeed, it can’t be there.

So does this mean an end to movie magic?

I doubt it.  I had a fun night with friends, after all.  Regardless of whether this technology takes off, becomes commercially viable, or what have you, the technology now exists.  The magicians now have a new trick they can spring upon us, should they so choose.

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