Sunday, February 16, 2014

Garbage Theatre Defined (At Last!) -- But We're Still Not Done ...

As I was saying …

So, we’re beginning rehearsals for “Paint Your Wagon.” If the first thing we did wasn’t a read-through, it was a pretty early part of the proceedings. Part of that read-through was reading aloud from the script, interrupted at regular intervals by playing the relevant songs from the 1951 cast album. Why the musical director didn’t play through the score, I have no idea; especially given the way cast albums were abridged in the 50s. (I have an idea that I'll express in a minute, though.)

Soon, though, I started to get really irritated. In those days at Cerritos College, there was a certain lighting designer who had worked her way into a position of, if not downright tenure, she at least had job security. (Were lighting designers that rare then?) The problem was, she was a complete pain in the ass. 

I don’t mind know-it-alls, per se (I mean, how hypocritical would that be?), but there was something in this particular know-it-all’s attitude that was particularly grating. As we sat there listening to every song, she would pipe up – unprompted – about how this actor’s voice was ragged and off-pitch and how shrill that actress’s voice was, or how the tempo was too fast here or the orchestration was thin there or just constantly how much more she knew about music than anyone else in the room. (Maybe that’s why the musical director wasn’t there; he didn’t want to be subject to her haranguing.) Of course, she commented on the book, too, so it couldn’t have been just her vast musical knowledge. Why the director – was it Fred Fate? I don’t remember – didn’t pull her aside and tell her to shut the fuck up; that the actors have enough of a challenge with this terrible show without your bullshit comments, I don’t know.

But that was the problem. The more we got into the nuts and bolts of “Paint Your Wagon,” the more we realized what a terrible show it was. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of Lerner and Loewe (I think “My Fair Lady” is way overwritten – do we really need all fifteen verses of “Get Me to the Church on Time?” and at least a half-hour too long; “Camelot” is notoriously unfinished – and it shows; and “Brigadoon” is just a bore), but they’re brand names and “Wagon” is rarely done – for good reasons. 

The plot is absurd – and was completely jettisoned for the ill-fated movie version (“I never miss a Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin musical”). It concerns an itinerant gold miner named Ben Rumson. Rumson is a widower with a daughter named Jennifer, and one day, he strikes it rich in the California Gold Rush. He founds a town, and Jennifer soon becomes the only woman in town, a situation that unnerves all 400 of the men who live there. Jennifer falls in love with a Mexican native who is forced to live outside the town because of  racial prejudice and plot requirements. Eventually a Mormon with two wives comes into town, and everything devolves into plot points about selling wives, native legends, and Rumson being restless and needing to move on. It really is a mess and makes about that much sense. (So the lighting designer was right to criticize it; she just didn’t need to be so generous as to share all her expertise – especially when we were going to have to do our damnedest to make a spectacular meal of this particular turkey.)

As I mentioned long, long ago, this was the show that was the genesis of Garbage Theatre. Garbage Theatre is sort of an offshoot of Coarse Acting. In that summer, many of us were exposed for the first time (by The Actor Claude File, probably) to Michael Green’s book, “The Art of Coarse Acting.” Green describes a coarse actor as one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come … Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the (theatre) may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down. He will usually be playing three parts … His aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act II so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production.” This book became our Bible.

Following Green’s precepts, little bits of business began creeping into rehearsal. This is nothing new; it happens in every show. The wise director will keep the ones that are appropriate and help the show and jettison the ones that do neither. But this show needed all the help it could get, so everything stayed in – and that is Garbage Theatre. As I always explain it, “Garbage Theatre takes its metaphor from Sylvester the cat in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Sylvester could frequently be found scrounging through alleys with a garbage-can lid in one hand as he rooted through garbage cans with the other hand. As he went through those cans, he’d pick out little bits of food (fish skeletons, etc.) and place them on the lid. The Garbage Actor does much the same thing. As he or she rehearses, they’ll accumulate gags and little bits of business. If they work, you keep them. If they don’t, you keep them because they might work later.”

To call it Garbage Theatre makes it sound like a pejorative, but don’t let that fool you. I love garbage and actors who can pull it off are among my heroes. And it’s not even a matter of “Oh they’re bad actors, but they can do funny things;” no, it’s that they’re skilled and good actors who are capable of genius. Most of them are great clowns – Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, Bert Lahr, Jennifer Coolidge, Martin Short – but there are plenty of “serious” actors – John Barrymore, Kevin Kline, David Dukes – who are masters of it, too. I love Garbage and only aspire to its heights.

So, garbage started to sneak into rehearsals (I think it started with The Actor Claude File giving his character a completely unnecessary and irrelevant stammer*), and soon everyone caught the bug. We were just doing bits and gags that had nothing to do with the plot or story, but had everything to do with keeping ourselves amused. Now, please note, we never got away from telling the story as best as we could; it’s just that the story was so badly told initially that our garbage helped it along.

The most egregious incidents I remember are these (I’m sure others will have competing memories): There was a tech rehearsal in the theatre that was really, really full of garbage. Everyone was hitting on all cylinders, and things were getting more and more out of control. My most vivid memory is of Mark Meyers (he of “Charley’s Aunt”) behind the bar of a Gold Rush saloon making real margaritas in a blender. That’s garbage of a high order.

Our stage manager, Ralph Eastman, was in the lighting booth in the back of the house, watching us and getting more and more furious. Ralph was a teacher and director, and generally pretty easygoing. But this was a special day. He may have told us to knock it off once or twice, but regardless, he suddenly went berserk, literally screaming at us for being the unprofessional group he’d ever worked with, and generally chewing us all out. He then turned off the stage lights, slammed the window of the booth closed (so hard that I was sure he’d shattered the glass), and stormed out, slamming the door so hard I thought that would break. I have no memory of what happened after that, but he must have been eventually persuaded to come back, and we must have toned it down a little, but not too much. (I do remember going on in the opening number closing night, even though I’d never been blocked into it. I was proud that I stumbled into all the choreography correctly, not missing a step.)

(*Claude was also responsible for a pre-show tradition I’ve tried to renew a few times. It’s common – if not a ritual or a superstition – among casts to wish one another a good show by saying “Break a leg” or something other than “Have a good show,” which is, of course, a jinx. I don’t really subscribe to this one, either, but I go along with it because it’s easier than rebelling and having to explain – and some people do take this one really seriously. I usually say “Have a good one” or “See you out there.” But Claude got it into his head during “Fiddler” that we should all shake hands, but, while doing so, extend the index and middle fingers and say “Lumber truck!” – emphasis on the second syllable. How and why he got the idea, I have no clue, but we all went along with it.)

(Tomorrow will come the final chapter in this epic saga – and this time, I swear it’s the end. I mean, it’s already written; it was just too damn long for one post.)


  1. So if I understand this correctly, the "garbage" in Garbage Theater is similar to the "Chicken Fat" that filled the backgrounds of panels in classic issues of Mad.

  2. In a sense. Chicken fat is more of a lagniappe, whereas garbage will usually be the focus of the moment.