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.

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