Saturday, September 20, 2014

Hitting Rock Bottom

Time was, and not so long ago, I was a Somebody in the New Orleans theatre scene. Then my long-time producer died. I tried producing my own shows and nearly went broke. Nobody else had any gigs for me. I had overstayed my welcome and was just hanging around until somebody got up the nerve to tell me to leave the party.

A few days ago I received an email from a former actor I had once directed. He’s directing now. The exchange went down like this:
He began by saying, “Howdy Glenn, I know you don’t prefer to act on stage, but I do believe it’s worthwhile reaching out to you again. I’d like you to consider auditioning for the role of Harold (the “father figure”) in the play Orphans that I am directing at Allways Theatre. Auditions are this Saturday afternoon. We start rehearsing right away, and open in mid-October through first week of November. Are you familiar with Orphans? Poignant, comic, and poetic. At the very least, I hope you’ll attend the play. But I do think you’d give a strong read as Harold. I need mature men with solid acting chops and emotional dexterity. Let me know your thoughts. hope you’re well. haven’t seen you in a minute. Ciao-ciao.”

I wrote back, “Would it be at all possible to borrow a copy of the script to read the whole thing? I looked at the sample on the Samuel French website and would like to see more. Thanks.”

“Not likely before the auditions on Saturday. Scripts are on order, might arrive by Friday. In the meantime, I have the only copy. And I need it. The sides will be a different scene, from Act 2, where you can see the fatherly influence that Harold assumes over the boys.”

“Well, I guess I can come and read. Can you put me down for a time in the latter part if the afternoon? I plan on seeing Reby at her birthday brunch that morning.”

“Thanks, Glenn. I’ll pass that info on to the producer. He’ll get back to you to confirm a time.”
So today, this afternoon, there I was. For all the world, another loser. A former theatre director, fallen so low he was reduced to auditioning for acting roles. The humiliation was all-consuming.

I decided I couldn’t go through with it.

When nobody was around, I sidled up to the stage manager and whispered that I had to leave, couldn’t stay, had somewhere else to be, someone I had to check on, sorry, have to run. Have. To. Go!

And I was out, away, as though I’d never been.

And there was no one there to see this man dissolve into a dew except for that one poor kid who didn’t have an inkling he’d just witnessed an old enchanter break his staff and drown his book.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Short Story

She asked him, “What do you do?”

He intended to say he was retired, but instead he said, “I cope.”

She looked surprised.

He’d surprised himself.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Veronica Russell

Veronica Russell could always have her way with me; and here she is pulling me back to this place.

Veronica was an actor, a costume designer, a miniature float maker (this is New Orleans—we do parades), a burlesque escape artist (you read that right), and a former Big Easy Rollergirl.

She died last Wednesday, August 6th. Ovarian cancer. She was 44 years old. Certainly too young to go; but Veronica had never wasted many minutes of her time.

Now, she never struck me as one of those creatures who devour life. That implies a certain desperation, and Veronica was never desperate. Rather, she knew her worth, what she was due, so she sat, as it were, impeccably done up, as if at an elegantly-laid table in a prominent corner of some grand old restaurant near the river and permitted life to serve her its courses. And if this or that dish did not please her, she did not hesitate to send it back. With a smile.

She began to penetrate my tiny world when she was remounting her production of A Different Woman: A True Story of a Texas Childhood in preparation for a tour of Canada.

When a local reviewer grabbed the opportunity to offer his suggestions as to how her performance (and the entire production) could have been improved under the dictates of a director (who would, of course, implement the reviewer’s recommendations), she actually responded to his column in writing and said:
Valid observations, mister. Irony being: in the beginning, I was pretty much going to do the whole thing [sitting] in the chair, but ‘twas a director that gave me blocking. Thanks for the feedback, I’ll take it under advisement...

She overwhelmed me.

I came to know her personally when she worked on a project I co-directed called Standing on Ceremony.

It was during this production that I accepted the assignment to mount a production of Tennessee Williams’ seminal work, Battle of Angels. After my first reading of the play, I believed Veronica would be a perfect fit for the character of Myra Torrence, the unfulfilled shopkeeper at the center of the drama.

She agreed to do the part and thus became a key figure in a production that turned out to be one of the most pleasant and most successful of the plays I had done in New Orleans.

Here are a few “snapshots” of what it was like working with her on a show.
  1. When she first saw a preliminary plan for the set (which was an old-time country store), she expressed her pleasure. “Thank God, there’s furniture. I need furniture. I cannot cross from one spot on a stage to another without grabbing onto every table and chair, kitchen sink, and hat stand along the way.” And she couldn’t. But what, to her, was a crutch turned out to be, in fact, a visually stunning way of making stage pictures, of breathing metaphor into each object she touched, and of transforming Williams’ text into something almost visual and weighted with meaning.
  2. The only time I ever saw her lose her composure was on a night or two before we opened. The set was nearing completion and it appeared there would be no functional shelving units to hold rows of real shoe boxes, only illustrated ones. She sent me a text message asking that I get to the theatre as soon as possible and come to her in the dressing room. When I reached her, I found her shaking with rage and fighting back tears. This new and sudden situation with the set was untenable. She had rehearsed the play for weeks imagining real shelves. She had expected real shelves. And now she required real shelves, upon which would nest real shoe boxes. Yes, it might be true that she only handled one of those boxes, and Val Xavier might handle one or two more, but the story she was there to tell necessitated row upon row of boxes of shoes. Myra Torrence would have nothing less in her store! I am proud to say I met with the designer, and when our play opened, the shelves and the shoe boxes upon them were real. And Veronica made sure to make contact of some kind with each of them. She might glance at one as she described a certain silver and white slipper, she would certainly dust a few as she walked past the shelves, and she often took a moment to straighten and rearrange them to make them more visually pleasing to the ladies who frequented her establishment.
  3. She said to me one evening, “I hope you don’t expect me to dance in this speech over here toward the end of Act Two, Scene 2. I do not dance. I do not sing, and I do not dance. That’s why you never see me trilling my heart out in some Tulane Summer Lyric operetta. Just because I’m supposed to be fading off into one of those Tennessee Williams’ reveries of overripe girlhood and attentive suitors doesn’t mean I’m going to get up off my ample rump and shake a leg.” I asked her to consider the text. Myra recalls dancing at a grand ballroom in her youth. She whirls. Photographers take her picture. Autograph seekers ask her to sign their books. That’s the dance. That’s all it is. In the end, she danced. Veronica danced.  Rapt in recollection there in her country store, Myra sprang from her chair and whirled; she posed for a picture; she signed her name for some small boy who thought she was pretty. Then the dance was done. But she had danced.
Veronica was a joy. Bossy. Bawdy. Endearing. Exasperating. Tough and tender.

My soul is richer for having shared her company.

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