Friday, May 22, 2015

Sitting in Limbo

An acquaintance of mine (I can’t call her a friend, even if we are Facebook friends) has a CD by this title, featuring the tune of the same name by Jimmy Cliff. The title and the song refer (as might seem pretty obvious) to the gap between the known, the expected, and what’s to come.

Waiting,

I feel particularly “in limbo” right now for a couple of reasons. The more immediate one is the one referred to in our last meeting: David Letterman’s retirement, which not only has now actually occurred, but (as I write this) is airing on the east coast. All day long, I’ve been in communication with my friends who were at the theatre during the taping. (They weren’t in the theatre, but actually stuck in Rupert Jee’s Hello Deli around the corner while security kept them from leaving while the show was being taped. Alec Baldwin’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s trailers were just outside the deli and many, many limos were parked on 53rd St. while they waited.) From all reports, it’s quite a show, running 20 minutes longer than usual, and is likely to make me as much of an emotional mess as I expected (all day long, I’ve felt as though someone I know died), but I’m in limbo to see the actual results until the show airs here.

More specifically to this page’s usual mission, though, is my other feeling of limbo – and that one is actually a double one. As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the Custom Made Theatre Company production of the musical Grey Gardens. From what I can tell, it’s going to be a superb show. (I almost used the word “amazing,” but that’s a word that’s so overused that it’s really become meaningless.) I pretty much exempt myself from this assessment, in that it refers mainly to the women who play the various incarnations of the Beale women in the story. They are truly phenomenal performances, and not only am I astonished by what these women do every night, I’m honored to be part of a company with them. (And let me hasten to add that the men and girls in the company aren’t too shabby, either.) 
 
Trust me, it's brilliant


All that said, because of the vagaries of the space we’re working in, we’re off tonight (Wednesday), two nights before our first preview. Taking a break at a time like this (tech week) is always odd, in that we’ve added tech and costumes, and are gaining momentum when we suddenly have to hit the pause button and put ourselves in the limbo of taking a hiatus from the work we’ve been doing. I’m delighted for a night off and the chance to rest both mentally and vocally, but feel suspended between the past of the what we’ve done and the future of playing to actual audiences.

Which brings me to my last state of limbo: the gap between the impressions of the past and the present of the rehearsal process and the anticipation of and curiosity about not just the way audiences will receive the show, but the ways in which that reception will make the show grow.

I don’t think there’s ever been a show that I’ve done where there wasn’t at least one sure fire laugh or bit that failed to work and died a horrible death or something that, completely unexpectedly, played like a house on fire. (By the way, if you’re ever doing a show with me and think I’m doing something well, please don’t tell me that until the show’s over; otherwise, I’ll become totally self-conscious about it and it’ll never work that way again.)

The last couple of days of rehearsal for me are always bittersweet. There’s a sense of not being able to wait for an audience to see it – and to play off of – and at the same time, there’s a sense of loss; that it’s not “ours” or “mine” anymore; that something that’s been private until opening night is suddenly in the public domain and open to discussion, critique, and criticism (because I know, as good as this show is, there are going to be people who just plain won't like it, or – worse – be meh about it).
 
And, of course, it goes without saying that I'm also in the state of knowing that, even as we're on the verge of opening, we're also on the verge of closing, so I'm hung between those two worlds.
 
But it’s all limbo; that state of knowing that not only have we done all we can, but we still have more to do, even if we don’t know what that is.
 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Hashtag: Goodbye Dave

One thing about writing these blog posts is the regular schedule. I know that, no matter what else I do, every two weeks, I’ll be turning out an article bloviating about something or other.


But even as I write this, I know that, when my next deadline rolls around in a fortnight, I’ll be as depressed as I’ve been in a long time.

“Why?,” you may ask. “Because,” I would answer, “I’ll be writing in the absence of David Letterman.” Dave and I have a long history together. It’s not like I’ve ever met the man, though I have seen his show live (I think) seven times, but he’s been a big part of my life for, damn, nearly 40 years.

Dave

I’ve long admitted I didn’t like his standup when he was beginning. There was something about it – and him – that I found kinda smarmy, so it took me a while to watch his morning show that aired in 1980. But once I discovered that show, I became a fan for life, and I realized the other day that his humor and comedy have been major influences on me for more than half of my life, and certainly almost all of my adult life. (And when you consider that I’ve missed only a handful of David Letterman Shows, Late Shows with David Letterman, and no Late Nights with David Letterman, it’s in the neighborhood of 6,000 hours – nearly eight solid months – I’ve spent watching the guy.)


I’m not alone in this, well, obsession. Since 1993, I’ve been part of an online group that tracks, discusses, and dissects the show – and Dave – and those people have become some of my dearest friends, even if I’ve actually met most of them only a few times.


(You’ll have to excuse me. Tina Fey just stripped down to her underwear on Dave’s show.)

Where was I?


Ah, yes; the AFLers. Back in the early days of the Internet, there was a thing called Usenet, which allowed people with similar interests to gather and post about them. (Usenet still exists in a vastly altered form. Most of the content was overwhelmed by spammers and trolls, and the remainder was more or less absorbed by Google.) Most of these groups had names that were prefaced with the prefix “alt” or “rec,” and alt.fan.letterman was one of those many thousands of groups. The people of AFL are some of the finest I know, and knowledgeable about many, many things outside of late night talk shows. We have doctors, educators, editors, musicians – including a musicologist who’s become the unofficial official archivist of the show. (Seriously, his New York apartment is apparently filled to capacity with VHS tapes of virtually every broadcast Dave has ever done.) Not to mention, we even have current and past writers for the show as members. (The Usenet group has long since migrated to Facebook.)

Inline image
The AFLers; I'd rather be with them than with the finest people. You can just see my head peeping up there in the middle.

Every year, the AFLers gather in New York for “Davecon” to see the show live and in person, have dinner, crack wise, and (for the newbies) get a tour of the Ed Sullivan Theatre – yes, I’ve stood on the spot where the Beatles performed and sat behind Dave’s desk – and just gather. Over the years, we’ve come to know staffers, writers, and producers from the show – even the security guy. (And Rupert Jee, who owns the Hello Deli next door to Dave’s theatre? Nicest and most modest guy in the world.) This year will (obviously) be the last assemblage (and I have to miss it, dammit; it’s during our preview week for Grey Gardens – which you should see, since it’s going to be a remarkable show, even with me. But I know where my heart will be Monday the 11th at 3:30 pm PT), but the memories of Davecons past will linger.

Inline image
What was really happening behind that desk.

Now, in spite of all of that, I was sure that, given how, in recent years, the show isn’t what it once was (Dave’s lost a lot of interest in doing the show, it feels like), that when it was over, I’d be sad, but not too much so, But now that the number of remaining shows is in the single digits, I’m starting to feel the loss already, and know I’m going to be a mess when Paul Shaffer and the band hit that final final note to end the show.

The thing that got me thinking about all of this tonight was that, as we were leaving rehearsal tonight (and you really should have bought your Grey Gardens tickets by now), I mentioned that I had no idea what I was going to write about this week (is it that obvious?), and one of my fellow cast members, who is determined to turn my name into a hashtag, said I should write about that. I begged off, thinking it as uninteresting as I am, the idea of becoming any kind of a meme is even moreso. But it did remind me of how, not only are the AFLers responsible for a couple of my favorite nicknames, but turned me into an acronym that also doubles as a hashtag I’m happy to use. (Seriously; it’s in the Urban Dictionary on the prestigious Internet.)


At this point in an article, I usually try to bring a couple of seemingly unrelated points together in an effort to make a larger point, but I have to admit I got nothin’ in that regard this time. Being in rehearsal, I haven’t had time to see anything to comment on, really. (Other than Stupid Fucking Bird at SF Playhouse, which is a really interesting production and has been sticking in my head, not for the least reason that it’s making me rethink my approach to translating Chekhov; that and Sister Play at the Magic, which was really good and criminally underlooked.) What’s been at the forefront of my mind in terms of “entertainment” and art has been Dave Letterman.


So, while this hasn’t been the most incisive, analytical, or insightful of articles, it is the smallest of explanations for why I’m both so thankful for a man who’s played a major part in shaping American comedy for the last 40 years (since he started working as a stand-up) and a warning that in two weeks, I won’t be in much of a mood to write.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Put Your Head on My Chest - and I'm Mr. Success



Frank has his own definition -- as you'd expect

I have a feeling the seams are gonna show on this one, but go with me.


I arrived at rehearsal last Tuesday night just in time to hear part of a discussion about “success” in the theatre, and just what that word might mean. (I also heard my name being bruited about as a hashtag standing in for “not liking things,” but that couldn’t be more false. Why, just last week, I caught Sister Play at the Magic, and loved it. But I digress … )


I believe I’ve mentioned more than once that, at this point in my career, I have a pretty good sense of whether a show I’ve directed or am acting in is any good. (And let me qualify that; once we open and the finished product is in place, I have an idea. Many is the time I’ve come home from rehearsal and said that I have no idea of how it was going to go over – or been sure on the final Monday or Tuesday that we were as doomed as doomed can be, only to have the ship right itself yet again.) I can tell if I’m good or if the show is good, but is it a “success?” Boy, is that a can of worms.


There are just too many definitions for success. Is it financial? Is it a (sincere) standing ovation from the audience? Is it (appropriate) laughter or tears? Is it good reviews? Is it personal satisfaction? Is it knowing you got the most out of all the actors and characters? All of the above? Some of them?


I don’t know. I can be satisfied and delighted with something, but does that equal “success?”


This is the part where it’s going to get sticky. In my last couple of offerings, I’ve talked about the plan by Actor’s Equity to kill Los Angeles’s 99-seat plan. For those who came in late*, in brief, there was a waiver that allowed theatres with 99 seats or fewer to pay union actors less than scale (like, as little as $7 a performance) in order for them to do material that was more challenging or interesting or larger-scale or experimental than work for television or movies. (I also expressed a wish that we had something similar in the Bay Area – not because I think actors shouldn’t be paid, but because I think they should be able to work on whatever they want wherever they want.)



Equity members down there voted on whether they wanted to keep the waiver plan in place (with changes) or scrap it all together. By a 2-to-1 margin, they voted in favor of keeping the plan. It was strictly an advisory vote, so Equity’s New York offices announced Tuesday (as expected) that they’d be scrapping the plan and, basically, putting dozens of successful companies out of business and preventing the very actors they were claiming to protect from working. At least one company, the Long Beach Playhouse (worked there; did two good shows, two okay shows, and one that was one of the worst theatrical experiences of my life), announced immediately that they were going strictly non-Equity, and I heard of at least three cases where actors were literally physically prevented from auditioning for shows.

 The Long Beach Playhouse -- in business since 1929

Okay, what does all this have to do with “success?” A lot, I think. Consider the sides. The theatres in question? Mostly “successful” both artistically and financially. The way the vote went? “Successfully” for the actors. Equity’s take on what they’ve done? A “success” for themselves and their members. And yet, all three of them can be seen in just the opposite way. Those theatres? Well, not everything they did worked. (I mean, no theatre hits it out of the park every time. If they did, they’d have a formula that every other theatre would copy.) The vote? Well, about half of the 6,000 (yes, six thousand) Equity members in Los Angeles didn’t even vote, and Equity “lost” the vote. Where’s the success there? And Equity’s plan to kill the theatres is seen as a strong loss by the dissenters (my Facebook feed has been afire with outrage all day). Three events. Three successes. Three failures.


Getting back to the inciting incident (remember my walking into rehearsal way back up at the top of the page?), I was reminded of another conversation I’d walked in on, discussing a recent production some of us had seen. Some (like me) had liked it, others didn’t, though each side could understand the logic of the other. Was the production a “success?” It certainly was for me in that it succeeded (that word!) in illuminating the story and text it was trying to convey in an entertaining way. For others, it was a failure because the very nature of its story and text were fatally flawed. One production. One success. One failure.


To bring all of this up to the present, the rehearsal I was at was for Grey Gardens. It’s a musical. A very good one. (One might even call it “successful,” if one were so inclined.) It ran on Broadway for “only” seven months, so one could term it either a success or not. (And, no; I’m not being paid each time I use the word “success” … ) I think this production will be a very good one. The cast is marvelous (I exempt myself from this assessment) and we’re having a great time even though we’ve barely started. There are two things to discuss here, though. The first – and more germane – is whether it’ll be a success. I believe it will work artistically and will sell very well (get your tickets now!), so from those standpoints, it was be a success. Though for all of that, I have no doubt that there will be people who see it and think it’s putrid and the worst thing they’ve ever seen. They’ll storm out at intermission, angry at having that hour of their life eradicated. No success there – unless there’s a perverse success in not succeeding …


But on a personal level, I’ll be dealing with not just my usual struggle with lines (though these are – knock wood – coming reasonably easily), but I’ll need to add music, lyrics, and choreography to the mix, and other assessments will come into play. Will I move (I won’t say dance) as directed? Will I get those damn harmonies? Will I get the lyrics right? For my purposes, doing those will constitute success. Will I be good while doing it? I’ll do as well as I can and then judge whether I think the results are good. As with the rest of the production, I know there will be people who will roll their eyes and shake their heads at how inept I am.


So, what’s the upshot? That there’s no such thing as artistic success. It’s too objective and personal. I can be satisfied or happy (or neither) about whether I think I’ve met my personal goals for the role and my place in the show. Whether that’s a success or a failure will be in the eye of the beholder.


(*Completely, and literally, parenthetically, in the late ‘90s, I directed a production of The Night Boat. It was an okay production of a not-very-good 1920 musical. About 20 minutes into the show, three women called the “Plot Demonstrators” came out and did a number titled “For Those Who Came in Late,” which recapped the plot to that moment. About 20 minutes before the end of the show, they came out again to tell how it all ended, so that people who had to catch trains would know how things turned out [spoiler alert: happily]. It was that kind of show … )

"The Night Boat's" original production. That kind of show

Friday, April 3, 2015

I Don't Know Art, But I Know What I Like



I just got back from a week in Hollywood at the TCM Classic Film Festival. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s three and a half days of (mostly) old movies shown by the good people at Turner Classic Movies. From 9:00 in the morning until 1:00 or 2:00 the next morning, literally tens of thousands of people congregate in movie theatres on Hollywood Boulevard and fill them to see classic films on the big screen. (You wouldn’t believe how exhausting it is to do that, but that’s another story.)


When you can get more than 900 people excited to see The Sound of Music, fer chrissakes, you're doing something right.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that in a Facebook group for people who go to the Festival (and is there anything there isn’t a Facebook group for?), someone mentioned that his 82-year-old father couldn’t understand why people came from all over the world to watch movies they could just watch on TV, or if they did it at all, why it wasn’t free, since everything is so old (and, parenthetically, I’ll add that the movies ranged in vintage from 1902 to 1996, so there was really something for everyone).

Why do those thousands turn out and pay an arm and a leg to watch something they could watch for free on their televisions or phones or tablets or computers? It’s not like Cary Grant is suddenly going to do something different in The Philadelphia Story after 75 years. There’s comfort in that. In a sense, it’s like spending time with old friends, even if you know exactly what those friends will say and do every single time. (And this is not to say that every movie is familiar. Of the 18 movies I saw, I’d never seen 10 of them before – and hadn’t even heard of a couple of them.)


"You want me to do what?"

In the Facebook group I mentioned, there was a great deal of complaining when the schedule was announced. “Too many new movies!” was the cry. Not enough “classic” films! (Whatever “classic” means; to most, it can’t include anything that was made or done while you were aware of it.) It seemed like these people didn’t want anything in color – or even with sound.

Regardless of the reaction to the age of the films, the biggest takeaway for me is that people, under this circumstance, want something comfortable and familiar. We know the rules of movies made under the studio system and prefer not to be surprised. (I think this is the same reason we see so many remakes and franchises in Hollywood. People want to see just what they’ve seen before, just slightly different this time.)

As much as I enjoy old movies in general, and the TCM Festival in particular, I have the opposite reaction to live theatre. It’s understandable, though. Even if you could give the same director the same script, the same actors, and the same set, it would be different, even from night after night. And even if it were somehow possible to offer the exact same experience, why in the world would you want to do it?

Part of the excitement of being in the theatre is not just doing new scripts but also new productions of old scripts with different people. I’ve just started rehearsals for a new show, and have never worked with any of the other actors before. Given the caliber of the talent, I’m going to have to step up my game, though, and that’s as exciting as it is daunting.

Not to make this LA-centric, but, as I mentioned last time, in Los Angeles, Equity members are currently voting on whether to change the current 99-seat waiver plan. (In short, theatres with 99 seats or fewer can get waivers from the union to allow Equity actors to work in them at pay rates that are lower than standard – usually unpaid for rehearsal and anywhere from $7 to $25 per performance. You know; what we get here in San Francisco.) Equity, understandably, wants to get rid of the waiver and ensure that all union actors make at least scale.

The Matrix on Melrose; your basic waiver theatre.

As I also mentioned last time, I’m in favor of keeping the basics of the plan; in the thirty years the plan’s been in place, scores of companies have sprung up, doing all kinds of interesting work, with casts that can be huge – which is something that would be financially impossible if everyone were making even minimum wage, unless ticket prices went sky high, and, realistically, no one is going to pay that much. (We all love theatre, but it is can be pretty damn expensive to see it.) Even at the currently reasonable prices, it’s tough for theatres to always draw enough ticket-buyers to stay comfortably afloat.

And yet, the TCM Festival charges crazy amounts of money and turns people away from screenings.

What am I saying here? That theatres should jack up their prices unreasonably in order to become more financially stable and generously compensate actors for their work? That TCM should lower its prices? (Well, yes to that latter, but that’s not my point …)

No, I’m saying that the Festival is able to charge that much because they offer their patrons something different and unique and exciting. Something they can’t get anywhere else. Something that will have people coming from Australia and Sweden to see it. And that’s a lesson I think we all could learn. That while it seems that people want the familiar and the routine and what they’ve seen before, I think what they want is just the opposite: the chance to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience (and, as I said, every performance is completely different from every other) that is exciting, entertaining, and enlightening. Something that will make them delighted to pay for dinner and a sitter and parking next time.

Take my recently-closed production of The Imaginary Invalid, for example. I’m not saying it was a great show; I’m not saying it was even a good show (though it was both). What I am saying is that my cast knocked themselves out every performance, getting on a freight train and doing whatever it took to make the material work and entertain their audience. Our first few performances were sparsely attended, and nothing kills comedy like small houses. But, somehow, word of mouth spread and we were packed the last few weeks.

It doesn’t matter if it’s something original or a war horse or a revival of something no one but you has ever heard of. If you’re doing it with passion and panache – and if you’re not, what the hell’s the point, really? – if you build it, they’ll come. Good work will find an audience. Even if you’re charging thousands of dollars for a ticket. (As the old joke has it, “I only need to sell one …”)

Friday, March 20, 2015

What? And Quit Show Business?

The thing that’s foremost on my mind this week is the 99-seat kerfuffle in Los Angeles. I’m sure many of my constant readers are aware of the situation, but for those who aren’t, here’s a precis (as best I understand it). Back in the ‘80s, a plan was implemented in Los Angeles theatres to allow members of Actor’s Equity to act in theatres with 99 seats or fewer at pay rates below Equity minimum. This usually amounted to token payments (in the low single or double figures) for rehearsals and performances. The most contentious part of this was that Equity had to be forced into the plan because of a court order.

Now, I’ll stipulate that, in a perfect world, anyone involved with a theatrical production – actors, designers, directors, technicians, stage managers, running crew, front-of-house staff – would be paid a living wage, but anyone in this business knows that we don’t live in a perfect world, do we?  If we get paid at all, it’s a token amount that pays for gas or BART or Muni fare. And that’s fine. There’s an old saying that you can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living; none of us does this to get rich. It’s all about – or should be about – the creative process and the chance to do interesting work.

When I started auditioning for shows in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s, it was (for the most part) not good. The scene was filled with shows that were intended mainly as showcases for people to get agents to do film and television. There was some quality work – at The Odyssey, The Matrix, South Coast Rep; some other places – but most was middling or bad or featured TV and movie stars who wanted to tread the boards, to mixed results. (The Charlton Heston/Deborah Kerr Long Day’s Journey was particularly gruesome, but Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, Ralph Waite, and Bruce French did an unforgettable Godot; the second-best I’ve ever seen).

Didi, Gogo, Pozzo 
 
Heston as Tyrone. *Shudder*

After the waiver was implemented, LA theatre bloomed and entered, if not a golden age, then an explosion of creativity. Companies sprang up and thrived as actors, both known and unknown were able (to use a phrase I hate) to “practice their craft,” be creative, take artistic risks, and find their own level of success, unhampered by undue financial concerns.

For the last twenty-some years, this system must have stuck in Equity’s craw, and in recent months, they’ve announced plans to get rid of the waiver and ensure union actors are paid, at the very least, minimum wage. Now in theory, who could object to that? Actors should be able to make at least as much as the kid at McDonald’s who runs the drive-thru (a job that actually requires him or her to act being friendly for at least part of a shift), but doing that will drive up production costs to ruinous levels (I’ve read between 5,000% and 9,000%) that will drive a lot of companies out of business – ironically depriving the very actors whom the union wants to be paid for working. It seems Equity’s position is that actual work at small compensation is preferable to no work at minimum wage.

I was stunned to hear that there are 8,000 Equity members in the Los Angeles area. I don’t think there are 8,000 actors in the Bay Area, let along Equity members. (Of course, it seems like a good portion of the Equity actors working here live in New York … ) Now, obviously, not all of those union actors are working on stage, either fully paid or underpaid, but even if half of them were/are doing waiver shows, that half will soon be deprived of work, because the companies that have allowed them to do something with substance (or even something frivolous) won’t be there anymore.

As might be guessed, this proposal is causing large rifts in the LA theatre community, with plenty of actors – and plenty of them famous, if that makes any difference – pitted against their own union. (And let it be notes, the new plan has plenty of supporters.) While both sides are pretty adamant in their stances, Equity isn’t really playing fair, using phone banks to spread, if not misinformation, then incomplete information and deleting opposing comments from their Facebook and other web pages. And, on top of that, even though Equity members will be voting on whether to institute a new plan, it’s strictly advisory, and the union’s board will be free to dump the old plan and put in a new one. (And let me hasten to add, many of the people against the new plan acknowledge that the current one could stand some changes – just not the proposed one.)

Even Hal Holbrook is in favor of the waiver. (Hey, that rhymes.)

Now, even though I’m a member of two unions (which will go unnamed) myself, not only am I in favor of keeping the waiver in Los Angeles, I wish we here had something similar; not because I don’t want actors to be paid, but because the talent pool available to a lot of directors and theatre companies in the Bay Area would rise dramatically (no pun intended). I haven’t been a member of the LA theatre community for over 20 years, but from what I read and hear about it, it’s vibrant, experimental, bold, and, most important, open. Even though theatre space has always been at a premium in the Bay Area – now (when it seems like any building in mid-Market is being replaced by skyscraping condo projects) more than ever – I’d have to think that a move that allowed actors to work in so many venues and with so any company that met the criteria would be a shot in the arm and kick start the golden age of theatre that San Francisco’s been on the verge of for the last 20 years. #pro99

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Moliere: Made to Order “Wile-U-Wait”



I’m directing again. I enjoy directing. I’m not bad at it and the results are almost always worth the time it all took. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to this, but Dirty Work at the Crossroads and Damn Yankees will go unmentioned in these pages. (Though I will give you a full debriefing if you get enough alcohol into me – though there’s not that much alcohol in the world …)

But I digress.

I’m directing, and this time, it’s a unique experience for me because I’m directing my own script. Now, let me clarify that. It’s my script, but it’s neither original nor wholly my own. It’s an adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, written in collaboration with, primarily, my long-suffering wife and, secondarily, the cast.

When I toured the theatre at the interview, I knew it was going to be a small-scale production. I could see I wasn’t going to be able to fly in chandeliers or helicopters, and my royalty budget was going to be minimal, so I started thinking of what I could do that would fit the budget and the space. That’s fine. In the last decade, I’ve become more of a minimalist, and do what I can to get by with metaphor and suggestion. I was given carte blanche on what script to select, and after some brief thought, I remembered how two of the funniest productions I’ve ever seen were of Invalid, and that it might be time for me to try some Moliere. And if I was going to do Moliere, well, why not do my own translation? I mean, there would be no royalties at all, so the script would say exactly what I’d want it to, and it could be fun. Regardless, it would push me out of a comfort zone and force my creativity into an unfamiliar direction.

 Pushed out of a comfort zone, or off a cliff?

Now, I know I’m not unique in this. Playwrights do it all the time – the proprietor here is a prime example. But there’s a lot to do. It’s not as complicated as acting in a show while directing it, but it’s no walk in the park. We’re three weeks into rehearsal (and I’m already on my third ingenue. Don’t ask …), and it’s a constant battle to watch staging, add business, and course correct while simultaneously wondering if something is phrased correctly, gets the point across, advances the plot, and sounds right. And, most importantly, there’s no writer to blame if any of those script factors are lacking.

One of the things I’ve wanted to do during this process was to give the actors a literal voice; to make sure that not only are their ideas implemented, but that my deathless dialogue feel organic to them. (I can’t really call it Moliere’s deathless dialogue because A) it’s not in 17th century French, B) it’s not in rhyming Alexandrines, and C) I’m pretty sure Moliere never included references to Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, or Taylor Swift.) That’s the beauty part; even though Moliere’s point was that all doctors are quacks and frauds, and that none of them are to be trusted (which is ironic, because this is the play in which he suffered a fatal seizure while performing), we’re able to take his basic characters and situations and make them do whatever we want. (And, of course, since Moliere himself was adapting commedia archetypes and making them say and do whatever he wanted, I feel no qualms about doing that to him.) In my case, it means ribbing both “natural” medicine and hard-core evangelicals, among other targets. Given the time, and a desire to stick to the basic structure of the play, I wasn’t able to take it as far as I wanted to, but I neither wanted to really insult people nor lose the lightness of the original. It’s a dumb comedy about a rich hypochondriac who gets fleeced by con men, and that’s the story I wanted to stay with. All the rest is layering and dressing.

 That whirring sound? Moliere, spinning in his grave

The thing this whole experience has pointed out to me is how back to basics it all is. It’s not quite “two planks and a passion,” but it’s not lavish. Jeebus knows that none of us do this for the money, but this is an extreme case of that. We’re taking a story and telling it in a fun and light manner. We don’t have much in the way of sets or costumes or props; we’re not skimping, but it’s not a show about the trappings. It’s a show about a company getting together, playing multiple parts, and entertaining an audience, and maybe giving them the slightest of messages to take home with them. 

Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Not in Moliere's original

It’s something I’d recommend to any director. Sure, it’s a privilege to work with big budgets and be able to get anything you want, but it’s truly bracing and challenging to have limited resources and make your creativity work rather than writing a check.