Friday, February 28, 2014

Now Popular Even in Communist Countries!

So I’m looking at the dashboard for this here blog and was interested in some of the stats.

Now, as I’d expect, most of you are located in the U.S. But I also have a few readers in the UK, 4 in Germany, 2 in the Netherlands, and 1 each in China and Poland.

I can’t imagine who’s interested in this in the first place, but it looks like my target audience is interested in Garbage Theatre and my complaining about people complaining on the Internet.

There must be some way I can capitalize on that. If I could figure that out, I wouldn’t need a job. I must say, though, I’ve resisted adding ads to the page. Not only do I not want to seem crassly commercial, I also can’t imagine what kinds of ads would show up or why you’d click on them. I mean, who clicks on ads in this day and age?

I kinda know who the UK readers might be – at least a few of them – but China? Poland? Even my ancestral homeland isn’t in Poland – even if no one is actually sure where that homeland is. When we were kids, we were always told the Sikulas came from Hungary, but my grandparents spoke German around the house. I suppose that makes sense, given that I’m pretty sure that part of Central Europe was under German control when they left. Apparently, the town they came from is now in Romania, so it’s anyone’s guess.

One thing I do know. Back in the 70s, when they were restoring Ellis Island (and if you go to or live in New York and you’ve never been there, if you have European ancestors who came to America through there, you have to), they solicited donations to help the process. If you donated, you’d be able to have the names of your forebears engraved on a wall. Well, sometime in the mid-90’s, I was in New York for the first time in a couple of decades (the Moscow Art Theatre was doing “The Three Sisters,” and there was no way I was going to miss that), and one of my stops was Ellis Island. I toured the building, then went outside to what I guess you’d call the memorial garden. After a brief search, I located my grandparents’ names, but was I for a surprise. Rather than the “Joseph Adam Sikula” and “Magdalena Schaudenecker Sikula” I expected, I found “Joseph Adam Schwartz Chikula Sikula” and “Magdalena Schaudenecker Schwartz Chikula Sikula.”

The “Chikula” was surprising enough; I expect that that was a matter of some sort of name-changing by Ellis Island officials; the annals are rife with stories like that. But “Schwartz?” Are the Sikulas secretly Jewish? That would have come to a huge surprise to my Auntie Tess (aka Sister Mary Rosina), who spent the last fifty or so years of her life as a nun. We were all raised Catholic, whether we stayed that way or not. (In my case, it didn’t stick, obviously ...) In spite of that, I don’t think any of us have converted. (Though I do like delicatessen. Does that count?)

I’ve never had enough interest in genealogy to investigate the matter. The real interest in that field comes from other parts of my family. My mother’s brother (Uncle John) once gave me a huge binder that traced us back to the 9th century. How you can get records that far back is a mystery to me, but then, as I say, it’s not my field. My brother-in-law has traced our maternal line back to Colonial New England (Salem, MA included – my family probably had some involvement in the Witch Trials), which seems more traceable.

I was talking to someone at the show the other night and mentioned my Bohunk heritage. He looked at me with no comprehension of what I was referring to. I thought, “My god; has the state of ethnic slurs in this country sunk to those levels? Do kids nowadays not know the simplest of racial insults?” I quickly enlightened him by going through the basics .

In spite of that background, though, I don’t know anyone in Germany – are there any Sikulas there at all? (I know the only other Dave Sikula that I’ve found is a Canadian guitarist – who is probably pissed that I’ve beaten him to so many registrations of our common name) And Poland? Who in Poland has time to read this – and in Polish, yet? And how did they find me? Inquiring minds want to know.

But don’t even get me started on China or Holland.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

All Choked Up -- and Not in the Good Way

Okay. So, “The Sea Gull.”

I figured that, given my newly-developed love of Chekhov, auditioning for the show was a natural. I was probably a little too young – and too heavy – to be playing Trigorin, but for god’s sake, it was college. When else was I going to get to play him?

Even though we had a pretty good translation (Stark Young’s; done for the Lunts in the 30s), I approached the text the way some do Shakespeare: I went through all my speeches in order to figure out what the original was and how close the translation came. I didn’t change anything (to the best of my remembrance), but I had a better sense of the nuances.

We had a very good cast, all of whom have come to embody the characters in my mind in the years since; in fact, when I did my own translation of the play a few years ago, it was their voices I heard, over and over. And in the productions I’ve seen in the years since, they’ve been the standard to meet. (The production in Ashland a couple of years ago fell stunningly short of that standard; they really didn’t have a clue about what either  the characters or the play were about.)

We performed the play in late 1986, I’d guess, and it went over pretty well – the only glitch being (at long last!) the bout I fought with laryngitis in the second week of the run. I must have caught a cold – since that’s almost always the precursor to losing my voice. When I have a cold, there’s almost always one day that I have to be very careful about not speaking too much. If I can get past that, I’ll usually be fine, but between work and classes, there was little way for me to avoid speaking that week, and my voice went away.

Well, not “went away.” I never actually “lose” it to the voice of not being able to speak at all. What I get is weak and squeaky and of uncertain pitch. I never know what sound is going to come out of my mouth. The most frustrating thing is that, usually, I feel fine; I just don’t have a fully-functioning voice.

Now, this being a college production, we didn’t have understudies – hell, we still don’t, for the most part – so I was going on, no matter what. I rested my voice as much as I could, drank gallons of tea and warm water (even though we know that does absolutely no good), and took what drugs I could. Dr. Young, our voice teacher, was called in like Batman to give me some tips on supporting my voice and not using the strained parts of my throat, but it was really no use. I was playing a supposedly romantic (and certainly self-doubting and –tortured) writer who sounded like Andy Devine (nowadays, I just look like him).

This isn’t to say the run wasn’t without rewards. I made some great friends, got to absolutely nail my Act Two monologue the night my mentor was in the audience (and I didn’t even know she was there; I would have been too self-conscious if I had known), and we got to take the production to the American College Theatre Festival. All my fellow cast members were nominated for Irene Ryan Awards. I was the only principal who wasn’t, but I told myself that it was all right because they were all acting majors and I was in history and criticism. And at the ACTF banquet, I got to sit at the same table with Charles Durning and Norman Lloyd and get to hear them swap stories.

The second time I performed with laryngitis was just last summer, when I did “The Book of Liz” here in San Francisco. This show is a unique one. It’s written by David and Amy Sedaris (my opinion of whom is on the record), and is a veritable cash cow for any company that does it – although we were told that there were at least a few ticket buyers were convinced that the Sedarises were going to be in it – and then were mightily disappointed when they got us. The other unique circumstance was that – unlike any previous show – I had an understudy. When I took the gig, it was with the understanding that I had tickets for a couple of concerts and wouldn’t be able to perform at some of the performances.

Because it’s such a big-seller, we had an extra-long run. I think it was six weeks, five performances a week, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but was actually pretty wearing, since none of us was ever off stage for more than a couple of minutes – and that was mainly to give us enough time to change costumes. Well, because it was so wearing, I caught a cold and, again, lost my voice. At least with “The Sea Gull,” I was using my own voice through the entire play, With “Liz,” though, I played a couple of different characters with very different voices – one using my upper register and one my lower. It was fine when I was full-voiced, but, even though I felt fine, it sounded like I was in terrible pain.

I croaked my way through a matinee performance, but knew there was no way I was going to be able to make it through the evening show, so my understudy went on for an unscheduled performance. I mean, I could have gotten through the other performance somehow, but it would not have been pretty.

So, that’s what I faced at rehearsal tonight. It might not have been an issue if I hadn’t been in a reading last night;  again, I had no choice but to talk. We’re breaking new people into “The Speakeasy,” so we have to run their scenes before they do them with an audience (I was going to say “in front of,” but we’ve been down that road before). I didn’t have to talk a lot, but when I did, I could tell that it would be a little dicey, so I sort of muttered everything, which could not have been easy for the piano player on the other side of the room (he gets some cues from me). I got through it, but as I sit here now writing this, I feel a little tentative; the beginnings of some nasal congestion and something going on in my throat. I think if I don’t talk tomorrow, and take it easy at Thursday’s rehearsal (I’m delighted that the timing worked out to not have three performances this week), I should be fine for the actual performances this weekend. And by next week, I should be fine – knock wood.

Of course, something could happen, I could talk too much or in just the wrong way, and screw it all up – which would be unfortunate, given that I’m not even close to having an understudy and my character doesn’t just doesn’t shut up – and I’ll never be heard over this crowd.

More to come.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Laryngitis? Call the Doctor!

So, where was I? Oh, yeah: Laryngitis and performing. The first time was back in 1986 or ‘87. I was at Cal State Fullerton, and we were performing “The Sea Gull.” It was near the beginning of my obsession with Chekhov.

That began in late 1983 or 1984, when a friend of mine went through a particularly bad break-up. I knew she loved Chekhov, and, despite my relative lack of knowledge about the doctor, I decided I was going to do a translation to cheer her up. How and why I made that connection is unclear, but I did. I knew her favorite play at that time was “The Three Sisters,” so I decided that was what I’d tackle.

I managed to find a Russian text of “Три сестры, or, as I came to know it, “The Three Sisters,” at the Cal State Fullerton library. It took me a while to figure out the whole Cyrillic alphabet thing, but once I worked that out, I was surprised at how simple the whole thing seemed. Despite the obvious differences, there are a lot of cognates to English and (more interestingly) I came to discover it’s a surprisingly sensible language. If nothing else, words are spelled the way they sound and sound the way they’re spelled. Some of it’s – the lack of articles, the patronyms and nicknames (some of which are longer than the original name), the cases and genders – confusing, but enough of it makes enough sense that I was able to dope my way through it.

For some reason, I ended up going to the Anaheim city library to get a Russian-English dictionary – it was a big one and far better than any other I’ve come across since (and I’ve seen and owned a lot) – and starting on page one, I went word by word through the play. Eventually, I came up with a cheat sheet to create shortcuts for those words that I was seeing a lot, but for which I just couldn’t remember the English word or term. Working late at night, I started at a very slow pace, one page a night, but by the end (six weeks later), I could handle four or five.

It was something of a complicated process. I’d go through a couple of speeches and write the literal translation on the left page of a binder, then devise a smoother, more coherent version of those speeches on the facing page. Eventually, when I finished an act, I’d go through it all again, this time on the typewriter (yes, a typewriter, goddammit; it was the 80s), and smooth the text out even more. My goal was – still is, in fact – to keep the formality of tone of the original period while making it more relevant to an American audience a century later. Most of the translations I’d read up until then were either by academics – which were great and exact, but utterly bloodless and unperformable – or by British translators – who were better, but whose language was hopelessly stilted in British English.

Here’s an example. There’s a small exchange in Act Two that reads like this:

Тузенбах (берет со стола коробку). Где же конфекты?
Ирина. Соленый съел.
Тузенбах. Все?

Literally, in English (by my reading), it’s:

Tuzenbakh (Takes from table box). Where the candy?
Irina: Solyony ate.
Tuzenbakh: All?

The British translations I read mostly gave me things like (and this should be read with a very posh accent – and please ignore what I find are egregious mistakes in transliteration):

Tusenbach (Taking a box from the table): Where are the sweets?
Irina: Solyony’s eat (pronounced “et”) them.
Tusenbach: The whole lot?

Which is fine, if you’re an Oxford don, but for an American audience, I think a better – and more accurate – version is:

Tuzenbakh (Looking at the candy box): What happened to the candy?
Irina: Solyony ate it.
Tuzenbakh: All of it?

So, I was doing this translation and became obsessed with Chekhov. (When we moved into our house, we bought 19 IKEA bookcases which I’ve long since filled. About 2/3rds of one of them is books by and about Chekhov. You can imagine how thrilled my wife is about all of those volumes …) In the intervening years, I’ve translated two more of the plays, continually come back to “The Three Sisters” to polish it, and am going to tackle the big one (“The Cherry Orchard”) soon. I’ve even toyed with the idea of creating my own version of his last unwritten play. To quote Simon Karlinsky’s “Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary:” “We know that after completing ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ Chekhov conceived an idea for still another play, which was to deal with arctic explorers and was to show the ghost of the hero’s beloved and a ship crushed by polar ice onstage.” Not exactly aristocrats moaning about wanting to go to Moscow, is it?

The things I love about the translation process are, first, that it’s a real education in writing. Since I’m almost literally writing the play with Chekhov, I get to see why he chose particular words or phrases or try to figure out why he did or didn’t do something. The second is the “detective story” aspect; that is to say, taking the clues he gives me, what did he mean? (I suppose it’s a psychology story, in that context.) What’s he trying to say? What’s the heart of the information and what does a modern American audience need to get the equivalent of that language and information? I’m hoping there’s a third thing I’ll come to love – but I’ll save that hope for next time.

Next time? How the hell did I get off on this tangent? I was talking about laryngitis. And since I’m nearly 1000 words in, once again I’m going to call an audible and delay the conclusion for at least one more day.!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Woke up this morning and knew that something was wrong.

My throat didn’t feel quite right – though not really raw or sore. My nose was a little uncomfortable, though neither runny nor congested.

It felt like the second or third day of a cold, but I didn’t have any of the preliminary symptoms; they were suddenly just all there. Reminds me of nothing so much as the time I caught a cold in a literal split second. I’ve never forgotten it. I was fine, sneezed, and instantly had a cold: sore throat, stuffy nose, aches and pains. It was like someone had stuck a voodoo doll of me into a vat of cold germs.

It is also not dissimilar – though in a vastly different way (huh?) – to something I once experienced as a kid. I was lying in bed, blinked, and it was suddenly morning. I must have instantly fallen asleep and instantly woken up. It was like a jump cut from a movie. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. It remains the single-most unsatisfying night of sleep I’ve ever had. (I’ve had unsatisfying sleepless nights, but not unsatisfying nights of full, deep sleep.)

Throughout the day, I’ve been taking zinc lozenges and various potions and powders, trying to ward off something debilitating. Fortunately, we have a short week at The Speakeasy this week. (Rehearsals Wednesday and Thursday; performances Friday and Saturday.) Of course, even if we didn’t, I’d have to go on. I don’t have anything close to an understudy.

I’ve gone on sick before – many times, in fact. I’ve felt deathly sick before a show, but there’s something about Ol’ Doc Theatre that cures most ills – or least keeps me from feeling too awful while performing. There have been two major exceptions, both having to do with laryngitis, and even then, it had less to do with feeling awful than just not being able to talk.

Let me preface this with a story about the worst New Year’s Eve of my life: 1973 into 1974. For reasons I no longer remember, my then-girlfriend and I decided that the best thing we could do to see in the New Year would be to go to Disneyland.

And let me preface that story (a flashback within a flashback!) by talking about one of the worst days of my childhood. Somewhere around 1965, I went with a friend to Disneyland. These were the days when you needed ticket books to ride anything. (The proverbial “E Ticket.”) We were dropped off about 10 or 11 am, probably, and there was no way for us to be picked up before about 8 pm. I don’t know what we were thinking (well, we were, like 8 or 9, so we probably weren’t thinking at all), but we brought neither enough tickets nor enough money to buy new tickets (you could also do that in those days – of course, you could also buy just an admission to the park for $3), and we ran out of both sometime in the early afternoon.

It was like being in Hell. We were at Disneyland, but couldn’t ride anything; couldn’t eat anything; couldn’t even buy as little as a balloon. We were screwed. We wandered around for hours before we finally were rescued.

So, that New Years’ was only my second-worst experience at the Magic Kingdom. For yet another unknown reason (well, other than being a teenager), that year I really wanted a suede jacket with a lambs’ wool lining, so I got one. (Little did I know what was ahead of me …) I don’t remember having a cold, but I must have, since that’s been the only precursors I’ve ever had to laryngitis. (Though I’m not sure now, since I was convinced that some other friends had somehow slipped me something that screwed up my throat.)

Regardless, I couldn’t talk, but didn’t really need to to go to the park. But it was a cold night, so I wore the jacket, so even though I couldn’t speak, I was fine until it started to rain, and I discovered that this particular jacket had the unfortunate property of smelling like dog shit when it got wet.

So, I was cold, miserable, speechless, and stuck with the worst-smelling coat in the world.

Is it any wonder I hate Disneyland?

The last time I went to the park was in 1984, and I’ve never had any desire to go back. I have a number of friends who just love the place, and, for the life of me, I cannot understand the appeal of an overcrowded, overpriced enclosure full of unpleasant people. I mean, if I want that atmosphere, I can just go to Whole Foods. (Rim shot!)

I could continue this, but will save the remainder for tomorrow. One good thing about these multi-parters is that they automatically give me a topic for the next days’ post.