A memory from October 2010:
It was in 2009 when I finally decided to jump into acting. It was an idea that I had toyed with over the decades but had never pursued. In October 2009 I saw an audition notification in the Cedar Rapids “Gazette” for “Dangerous Women” and as it said, “All ages, sizes and experience levels welcome,” I figured I had a shot at a part. Jim Stewart cast me in my first play since 1976 and I had so much fun that I tried out for and was cast in two more plays with the Ushers Ferry Theatre Group. While I immensely enjoyed working with UFTG my huge ego longed for larger audiences and a production that included props, lights and the other accouterments that one associates with theatre.
Theatre Cedar Rapids is the BFILP (Big fish in little pond) around here and I thought, “Hey, why not try out for a TCR production?” I had auditioned for but not yet been cast in “Dangerous” so I auditioned for “Laramie Project.” I figured, gee- what’s the worst that could happen- I get cast in two plays? (Oh, delusion, how sweetly you beckon to us!) I was not cast in “Laramie” but subsequently tried out for “Proof” where I was again not cast, nor was I called back on either audition. In between auditioning for “Dangerous Women” and “Six Characters in Search of an Author” a lot of things happened.
The biggest thing that happened was I got to be in three plays. Not just be in, but to have substantial roles that grew larger with each subsequent production. I worked with people that I learned from and I listened to what was being said to my fellow actors and tried to apply what direction was being given to my fellow cast-mates to me: To generalize specific information into ways that would allow me to grow into a better actor. I got to grow, but I was also given too much access to the audience for my experience level. This was on my mind when I heard The Director say to The Stepdaughter in, “Six”, “You’re a spoiled little shit aren’t you?” I was spoiled by the roles I played at UFTG and supposed that big roles were what people get cast in. Now, bear in mind that UFTG does not draw large auditions as does TCR: At Ushers Ferry there frequently seem to be as many roles as there are potential actors; which makes for a pretty sure fire audition experience!
Imagine everyone who showed up at a TCR audition getting a speaking part! Crazy? You bet! But true, none-the-less. Now imagine seasoned actors working next to neophytes where the newbie has a substantial, pivotal role. Heady experience for the wanna’be but also an experience that creates warped expectations. If there are twelve parts to be cast and eleven people audition we have a NASA, “Houston, we have a problem,” situation. I never got to “sit there and look pretty” and so my expectations for casting were twisted and unrealistic. (If you think that I don’t understand how silly the above statements make me look be assured that I do- I am just trying to tell it how I lived it.) When I mentioned to Jim Stewart that I had auditioned for “Six Characters” he asked how I felt it had gone. I told him it had gone great. In fact I said, “I felt like I owned the ‘f-ing’ room!”
Now don’t get me wrong! What I meant by that is that I feel my strongest talent is as an oral reader. Where many people have taken acting lessons I have actually had a class in “Reading Aloud” (I got an “A”!). When I substitute teach I always try to read out loud for the children- I have had teachers stop and listen to me read during their planning time because they enjoy my antics. My proudest moment was when I literally got a teacher to fall off his chair when I read to his class for “America Reads Day.” Rightly or wrongly, I have confidence in my reading abilities.
Reading is not acting. If a man can run 100 meters in 10 seconds that doesn’t mean he’ll be a great football player. Reading is a small sub-skill of acting and I think it is my peak in a topographical portfolio of valleys. I was very excited to get “called back” by Jason Alberty for “Six Characters”. Because of my previous experience with casting and my belief that I had read well I was confident that I would receive not only a part, but a major role. It had always been such, so surely it would be so again. I scornfully said to Jim Stewart, “The only thing I’m afraid of is that I’ll get offered the role of ‘actor’, ‘stage manager’ or ‘tech director’.” (For those of you unfamiliar with “Six Characters” these parts have well under a dozen lines.) Jim cautioned me that TCR seldom casts unknowns in major roles, but he wished me luck and said how happy he was with my growth as an actor in the productions he had directed me in.
Starting in the wee hours of the designated day I anxiously scanned the TCR website for audition call backs. Finding no new notices there I surreptitiously kept the webpage minimized on the communal computer at my work station and checked the site every half hour or so. (Sorry, Northtowne!) Finally, LATE in the day (before 10:00 am) there was the call back list and my name was on it! But what blemish is this? Next to my name is the dreaded asterisk asking about schedule clarifications. No! I was not to be thwarted by my work schedule in my quest for acting credentials. I hurriedly wrote a rough draft of my availability and included to that schedule a “cover letter” as if for a resume outlining my desire for work, my great work ethic, love of dogs and children (half true) and that if Jason cast me he would never regret it.
I hurried home after work, typed up my information, showered, dressed in some natty attire and drove to the call back. When I arrived Jason graciously let me audition first as I had a previous appointment for later that night. He paired me up with Brian Smith, said the parts we were reading were the parts he was considering casting us in and he had us read for actor and leading man! (Leading man is NOT a major part- it too has about a dozen lines.) What irony! The parts I had previously scorned I now longed to be cast in. “Pride cometh before a fall,” but at least I recognized and smiled at my turn of perspective.
Being in a play at TCR with Jason Alberty was a lot of things for me. I was a bit concerned about playing for Jason because of conversations I had with half-a-dozen actors in the days leading up to the auditions. I was finishing up with Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” at UFTG and asked my fellow cast members if any of them were auditioning for “Six Characters.” Jim Stewart said he loved the play and that he might. Nick Hayes said he was doing “TCR Underground” but that he was sure I would love working with Jason. I talked to other actors that I ran into and heard comments like, “You’ll learn a lot,” which I felt was slightly ominous but more of a call to be on my best behavior rather than a call to arms: Comments ranged from rave reviews to, “No. I don’t like working with that director.”
While I may be new to acting but I’m not new to actors. I had hung around The Montgomery Playhouse in Maryland as a teenager with my then girlfriend Eileen (Potocnak) Arnold and her mother who were regulars at that venue. I may be a bit slow witted, but I know that actors tend to be… dramatic. So I came to TCR figuring that things would be similar to UFTG, only bigger and better. It turns out that what really happened was that I became my sister Susie (Kenel) Davis and the date reverted to September 1971.
In September 1971 my family moved from Bloomington, Illinois to Rockville, Maryland (suburban D.C.). Bloomington is much like Cedar Rapids. It is a small city or big town and while we had not been born in Illinois, for me and my four siblings it was all we had ever known. Moving from Bloomington to D.C. was a complete change in culture. It was hard for me but for my big sister it was hardest of all. I was going into fifth grade and so I exchanged one elementary school for another, but she was starting junior high (like middle school, only seventh and eighth grades.) She was taken from her friends and plunked in a bigger school with new rules and faster people along with pubescent physical and emotional changes and junior high is just plain MEAN.
Again, don’t get me wrong, TCR is not mean. I was just starting over and didn’t know anybody and aside from having “met” Jason when I auditioned for “Laramie” I had only met one other person (B.J. Moeller) before. I was excited to be working with people that I was proud to be working with. I had seen many of these folks audition and there wasn’t anybody in that room who was cast because, “We have to cast SOMEBODY,” which is how I sometimes felt at UFTG. I went from a Mom & Pop diner to a small corporation and felt intimidated and off balance.
Many in the cast were friendly from the get-go and I will always treasure watching Katy Slaven as she interacted with various people and gave so willingly of herself. The combination of being a terrific actor, generous person and fine looking lady are three things that should allow Katy to go in the directions she hopes to. My son Sean is friends with fellow cast member T.J. Crompton’s son and she and I hit it off. I felt as though everyone was welcoming and some I got to know earlier and some more gradually as our interactions and dispositions dictated. I was especially pleased with how little drama about the drama the cast created. While there were some grumblings that occurred around cocktails I never heard anybody “bitch” about the play, cast, rehearsals, etcetera (other than lack of sleep.) I had only worked with one other cast that was as eager to create theatre and not complain as the cast of “Six Characters.” It was just TCR was a sea change and I was a bit unprepared for it.
After a few weeks of rehearsals I called Jim Stewart to offer him two tickets to the Thursday pre-view show. We got to talking and he asked me what I thought of Jason. My immediate response was that their directing styles could not be more different and yet both of them couldn’t be more civil and respectful if they tried. Jim is fairly laid back and gives his actors substantial free reign. Jason is much more controlling and will stop scenes frequently (“Let’s catch that!”) and is more than willing to show the actor exactly what he wants to see and hear. Upon reflection I decided that the two differ in the same way that my speaking and writing styles differ.
When I have a conversation with someone I want to share ideas. I have a direction that I wish to go but I am easily and willingly sidetracked by the free associations that pop into my brain as we talk along. If we’re talking about pop culture and turn to pop tarts which takes us to Lady Gaga and then we meander over to Lady Godiva and riding “bare-back” and condom distribution in schools and then back to using pop culture to cement the relevance of a classic piece of literature and yes I love pie then it’s all a big merry synapse fest and if you can’t make the connections fast enough then you’re only having half as much fun as life can dish out.
(Mmmm, deep dish pie!)
But when I write I have control. I may choose to go off on a tangent, but I may edit out my meanderings. If I get an idea down on paper but don’t like my presentation then I can re-write and edit until my fingers are bloody stumps and I am content with my creation. With writing I have a destination in mind and while I plan to enjoy the journey and hope to show you some fabulous things along the way I can choose as wide or as narrow of a brush as I see fit. I am the artist when I write, and I choose what is appropriate and what is not.
Now this analogy is not true to detail. Jim has a destination in mind, but he is loath to read a passage for an actor. As the father in “Six” David Morton says, “If we could all see the evil that may spring from good, what should we do?” This always brings to mind the difference between the cliché, “The ends justify the means” and that quintessentially Quaker statement uttered by George Fox over two centuries ago that, “The means justify the end.” The father is claiming that his actions were good and that he cannot reasonably be held accountable for the end product which is his horridly maladjusted son and family. To George Fox doing noble things is an inherently right action and that if things turn out badly then they fell apart for reasons outside our control. If we are process driven then we do “proper” things for “the right reasons” and if we are product driven then we take the necessary steps to create the end that we want. In my mind Jim employs a process that has a product as its destination while Jason has a product in mind that has a process as part of his creation. It is not primarily a “control” issue. It is a process versus product dilemma and I have learned much by listening to both of them.
On opening night before the show Jason told us that theatre was his church. I am not sure what he meant by that, but I know what it meant to me. Striving for excellence is important to me. Starting with a labored, half understood notion and progressing to basic understanding of a principal or procedure and then possibly attaining mastery and always striving for but never truly reaching perfection are things that matter to me. I worship creation and working together with a likeminded team on a project is the best way for me to bond with people. Whether as an actor, a writer, an athlete or tradesman I wish to create things and moments and experiences of which I am proud; and I am proud to have carried a spear in “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” If we can create “A reality” on stage then I believe we can influence all reality in how we choose to live our lives. Striving for moments of greatness in our daily lives is something that I hope to always feel wonder at when in its presence. In this way theatre can be my church too.
It was interesting and educational to go from a Mom and Pop theatre experience to one withe “Departments,” support staff and paid employees. The work of the crew, costumes and sets really made my first TCR play a personal standout in comparison to my working at UFTG. Thank you all for making me feel welcome and I’m sure I’ll either be working with or watching you again in the future.