Saturday, February 15, 2014

On SCCT, Being Young and Stupid, and the Origins of Garbage Theatre

I’m not really sure what to write about tonight.

I’m sick of writing about the show; not that I’m tired of the show, by any means, but that there are times I just don’t have anything new to say about it.

That said, a few things did happen. After one sequence, an audience member who was probably well-meaning, but something of a jackass (and desperate to somehow be a part of the production) came up from behind, slapped me on the back, and advised me “Don’t tell them to buy RCA! Twitter is the medium of the future!” among other inappropriate anachronisms. He went on in that vein for a while, sitting next to me, saying “I don’t want you to break character, but do you have a reading list for the show?” I replied, “I read the newspapers; all I know is what I read in the papers.” He shot back, “Have you read ‘Since Yesterday?’” (which is, by the way, a wonderful history of the 20s and 30s by Frederick Lewis Allen; I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the period, along with its predecessor, “Only Yesterday”). I misunderstood him and thought he was asking if I had read since yesterday the newspapers I’d just mentioned. Even though I’ve read the book, I didn’t understand him and said, “No.” (Though I wasn’t about to engage him in conversation; there was no winning that argument without breaking character.) He eventually got a drink and left me alone.

We also revised the new opening I talked about last time; it wasn’t much better, but it at least had some context now. The audience was a little more receptive to the ventriloquist, but he played mostly to ghostly silence once again. Something that I enjoyed, since I’m a fan of both bits that don’t work and Garbage Theatre.

One of my many quirks is that I’m a sucker for Garbage Theatre. Pretty much anyone who’s worked with me will know about Garbage Theatre, but I’ll take the liberty of explaining it here.

First some background. From 1977 to 1980, I was part of the company of the Southern California Conservatory Theatre at Cerritos College in Norwalk, CA. SCCT (as it was fondly known) began as an experiment in summer theatre and training. The goal was to hire a bunch of young actors, have them attend classes in movement, stage combat, dialect work, Shakespearean scansion, and other skills in the morning, rehearse plays in the afternoon, and perform in the evenings. It seemed workable since we were all young and full of energy (and stupid, probably). While things started off with the best of intentions, young actors being what they are, people started skipping classes to sleep in or screw around, and more time than anticipated was needed to rehearse the shows (“West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet” in rotating repertory) than was planned, and pretty soon, it turned into a more or less traditional summer theatre, which was fine. The productions were pretty good, or at least good enough that the school district ponied up the dough for a second season in 1978.

That year, the repertory expanded to three shows –  “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a revival of the production of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” the school had done earlier in the year (we were, by the way, the first college in the country to do the show; that and my status of being among the first people to drive over the new Bay Bridge, plus three bucks, will get me a cup of tea at Starbucks) would split the company in two, and we’d all join together again at the end of the season to do the musical version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (by John Guare and Mel Shapiro, and Galt MacDermot,) “Two Gents” remains one of the worst shows I’ve ever done. Our director was the esteemed theatre teacher Robert Cohen, slumming from his post at UC Irvine. Cohen’s book, “Acting Professionally,” was at that time, the latest word in acting texts (it may still be relevant; I haven’t looked at it in 25 years), so getting him was quite a coup. The problem was that he was a terrible director; at least on this show. He had no vision, no ability to talk to his actors, and was constantly deferring to his choreographer. About all I remember from his work was his constant refrain of “What do you think, Jan?”

Of course, Stanislavskii, Piscator, and Peter Brook combined probably couldn’t have made “Two Gents” work. It is, frankly, a terrible show. Bob Cohen described it as “bridging the Love Generation of the 60s and the Me Generation of the 70s.” The book is about as timely and humorous as a Bob Hope special from the late 80s, the music is insipid, and the lyrics are vile. There is nothing right with show (which, somehow – in a drug-inspired frenzy, perhaps? – beat our Sondheim and Goldman’s “Follies” for the Best Musical Tony in 1972), and we were hampered by the show and the set, which was the disco of your nightmares. (The costume and set designers are among the best I’ve ever worked with, but even they couldn’t save this thing,)

Somehow, though, SCCT was brought back for a third season. The city of La Mirada, right next door to Norwalk (and, coincidentally, my home town) had just spent a bundle converting its old movie theatre (where I’d seen The Three Stooges perform live and many of the formative movies of my youth) into a legit house (that is, by the way, still thriving) and they were looking for tenants. SCCT fit the bill, and we were booked into the theatre.

The third season mirrored the second in that the company would be split in two for the first two shows (Lanford Wilson’s “Hot L Baltimore” and “Diamond Studs” by Jim Wann and the – appropriately named – Bland Simpson), with everyone coming together for the third – “Fiddler on the Roof.” “Diamond Studs” was another revival from the school’s previous season. It’s a not-very-good musical based on the life of Jesse James. The thing that made it stand out as a production was that it featured casino gambling before the show and it was staged in a black box theatre, with the scenes all taking place around the audience, who were sitting at café tables (they may have offered food and drink; I no longer remember) in the middle. It was a huge hit in its original run, so it was natural to bring back. (And it proved to be a huge financial – if not artistic – success again) Being not very good, though, almost none of us wanted to be in it, preferring the acting challenge of the Wilson play. Many of us considered being cast in the show as the Booby Prize of the summer, although by the time we added scenes, rewrote dialogue, and interpolared new numbers, it probably bore little resemblance to the original. (I doubled as one of the two hosts/emcees and Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. It was not among my finest hours …)

The third show was, obviously, “Fiddler,” to be done in La Mirada. Starring as Tevye was Claude File, who was the Tevye of your dreams. Warm, funny, and human, he knocked it out of the park every night. The rest of the show was pretty good, too, in spite of a set that our choreographer (correctly) slammed as “looking like a forest fire” and some bizarre direction. Our director was (and I swear this is his real name) Fred Fate. Fred was brought into Cerritos as a guest director, and through guile, cunning, and his supreme con-man skills, took over the department. He wasn’t a bad director, though; you just had to cut through the bullshit.

Among Fred’s brainstorms was that he wanted “If I Were a Rich Man” to be about Tevye interacting with the whole town, which undercut the purpose of the number. I played Avram, and was blocked to sit on a staircase, reading a newspaper (it was the Wall St. Journal, though you couldn’t tell it from the house). Well, as Fred saw the number wasn’t working as he’d intended, he cut more and more people from it, until it was down to just Claude performing the number and me sitting there, reading the paper, neither of us reacting to the other. I’m sure the audience was waiting for some payoff – or even some reason – but it never came; to this day, I don’t know why I was in that number. (This also the production that featured Claude substituting a lyric in “Sunrise, Sunset.” In the number, Perchik and Hodel sing the line “Is there a canopy in store for me?” Well, Claude insisted on it being “Is there a can of peas in this store for me?” I was standing way up right on a platform of the forest fire set, and Claude was way down left on the deck, but every night, when we came to that line, we would turn to each other and exchange a knowing, tearful look. (I still sing that lyric today whenever I hear the song.) The show also has the “bottle dance” number, which features a number of Orthodox Jews doing an elaborate dance while balancing bottles on their broad-brimmed hats. I’m sure we were not the first nor last production to have a daily pool betting on which, if any, of the bottle dancers would knock the bottle off their hats.

In spite of the artistic difficulties of “Diamond Studs” (which, by the way, I pronounced correctly by emphasizing the first word and everyone else mispronounced by emphasizing the second), the season was such a huge hit that not only did La Mirada agree to have us back, but they wanted a second show from us in their theatre.

The 1980 season was probably the most successful of the four I was there. It began with Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh’s “Man of La Mancha,” continued with Brandon Thomas’s “Charley’s Aunt,” and concluded with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “Paint Your Wagon.”

Seeing as how I’m over 1700 words into this, and have only barely scratched the surface, I’m going to leave you in suspense until tomorrow, when I reveal the true origins of Garbage Theatre, the great “Break Up Dave” contest, and the Meltdown of Ralph Eastman.

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