Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer - Thespian



I was divorced in 1993. I had a twelve year old daughter I was taking care of and working two jobs to make ends get into waving distance of each other. We ate a lot of Ramen noodles and hot dogs. Refried beans, too. In tacos. We were so poor we had to refry our beans. I had a can of Spam I put on the refrigerator. I said to Kristin, If we ever run out of food, we'll at least have the emergency Spam. Which means we still won't have any food.

After a few years I paid off a car loan, which was approximately equal to what I was making as an adjunct faculty member at the community college in Hartford where I worked nights. I had a choice. I could continue teaching as a junk facility member and use the money somewhere else, or give up the job and still break even. I decided that time was, in this case, worth more than money. My family had been helping me with Kristin, who was a latchkey kid. My brother, Dan, took Kristin out to dinner one night a week while I worked and she spent the night with a friend from school on my late night when I didn't get home until after 10:00.

I wanted to spend more time with my daughter. I also wanted to have us do something as a family and not just come home and watch TV all night. Might as well just give our brains to Madison Avenue. And our wallets to Wall Street. Someone suggested community theater. She said there was one in Putnam and anyone could join. It sounded promising. Kristin was always an outgoing girl. She had been in school plays and Church productions. She was a natural. Why not?

So we found this community theater in Putnam, The Bradley Playhouse, and gave it a whirl. We had actually been there before and seen a show or two, so I at least knew where it was. I don't know exactly how we got involved, but I know some people there reached out to us and followed up on our inquiry. I said we don't know much about theater, or 'theatre' as they spell it. He said we could come up and help with set construction or usher a show. We did both.

The first day we were there Kristin stayed glued to my side. I think she was terrified. We met people and made first impressions, good ones, I hope. Then a girl named Sarah spotted Kristin and asked her if she'd like to see back stage. Soon I noticed that my glue girl was gone. What, hey? Where's Kristin? She was gone. The theatre had taken another. And another.

They asked us to audition for the next show, 'A Christmas Carol.' Audition? You mean like, on stage and everything? OK. You know I'm not Richard Harris and she's not Shirley Temple, right? We both got cast. I played a couple of minor roles but Kristin got Scrooge's sister, Fan, in the Ghost of Christmas Past sequence. We were hooked.

Curse you, Thalia and Melpomeni, muses of comedy and tragedy. You snared another two!

Of course, we didn't automatically get cast in every show we auditioned for. In one show I was cast but Kristin wasn't. I declined the role but said it was because I wanted to be able to do this with my daughter. We'd gladly do something else connected with the show. The director was understanding and asked us to run spot lights. Cool. It was then that I learned the gleeful ecstasy of being a techie: Making fun of actors while on headsets!

On another show I was cast for a very good part. The show was 'The Butler Did It' which was a spoof of dime novel mysteries. I played a character called Louie Fan, obviously a take off of Charlie Chan. I actually had people come up to me after the show and say, You mean you're not actually Chinese? There were no roles for children in that show but Kristin was able to work back stage as a stage hand. All in the family.

So bit by bit we learned stage craft from the trenches, as it were. Set construction. Props. The light board up in the booth. It was primitive. You had two sets of sliders. One was currently active and one was not. You would program in the next que on the inactive set and then, on que, switch between the two. Then you had to do the same thing on the now inactive set for the next que. Sometimes you had very little time between ques and you had to play the board like a Bach cantata. Today you just program all the ques in advance and hit 'Go' to get the next que. It's hardly sporting.

Same thing with the sound board. You had two cassette tape decks and a box of cassettes. Each tape had one sound effect. A blaring horn. A screeching breaks. Doorbells. Whatever. Before you could use a tape you had to put a pencil erasure in the drive gear and turn it until the magnetic tape rolled around to the read head. Then you'd put the tape in and hit 'Play' at the right moment in the script. Now it's all done from a laptop. Just click for the next que. Pathetic.

Gradually we learned. Oh, I never considered myself a real theatre person. Still don't. There were people there with tremendous theatre experience. I was happy to learn as much as I could. Still am. I learned stage managing. That's fun. I like stage managing. The stage manager is basically the line supervisor of the show. He runs the show after the director is finished with it. If the director is still futzing with cues and giving notes by opening night then something is wrong. By opening night the director should have no responsibilities. She should stay in the auditorium and schmooze with the audience, and then come back stage before the show starts and schmooze with the cast and crew. And maybe come out on stage and welcome the audience.

I was asked to assistant direct a show. And then I was asked to direct a show. 'Deathtrap.' I asked for some time, a week to think about it. I read the script and called a few people and asked them to be on my crew. We all appeared before the artistic committee the following week to make a presentation. They were impressed. I got the gig.

I've directed other plays since then. Kristin worked on some of them with me. She was going through high school and getting ready for college and enduring normal teenage angst. Me, too. I was still trying to make sure we had a life together. She had a network of theatre friends, plus the theatre group at NFA where she attended high school. She and I acted in 'A Midsummer Nights Dream.' She was one of the fairies and I was one of the rude mechanicals, Snug the Joiner. We called her and her fairy friends 'The teenage mafia.' It fit.

We were in Macbeth, oops, The Scottish Play, together. She was Hekate, queen of the witches, and I was some scrappy Scotsman. I got to channel my inner brogue. She got to channel her inner witch. Type casting!

Kristin moved on. Through college. On her own adventures in Boston and New York. Changed jobs as often as she changed boyfriends. I didn't like it. Not the boyfriend part. The not being around part. She had a job that required her to travel a lot. Once, I got a phone call from her. Hey, Dad! Guess where I am? Where? New Jersey! Oh, I'm sorry. I'll be free tomorrow. Wanna meet in New York and see a play?

She wanted to see Daniel Radcliffe in 'How to Succeed in Business' but it was sold out. Instead I got tickets to 'The Addams Family' with Brooke Shields as Morticia. It was great. I was very pleased that she wanted to do something with me and thought of me when she was close by. And that it was theatre related.

I'm still at The Bradley. It's my second family. I'm on the board of directors. Work in the house during shows, run box office, sell popcorn, empty the garbage. Flirt with the business manager and make sure the patrons feel welcome. And flirt with them, too. It's all part of the package. I'm currently cast in this year's Christmas show. Once again, 'A Christmas Carol.' I'm playing Old Joe, the scruffy rag picker that fences Scrooges stolen goods. More type casting.

And I get all the popcorn I can eat!

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