Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Special Guest Appearance!

Help me. I'm doing a cameo.

This week I'm playing the surly bartender in a short play for the Little Red Studio's "Erotic Shorts." I have about eight lines.

Which means over the course of an evening of nine plays, I have over two hours to think about my minute of stage time.

That's way too much time to think.

I'll admit--I'm not doing this for the acting experience, but as a favor to the director, who I love dearly and who has done me many favors in the past. But I should have learned by now that cameo roles have strange and significant challenges.

I once had a slightly larger role--though still "supporting," as we like to say--about 17 years ago as "Actor #2" in a production of the very odd play "The Protagonist" by Georg Kaiser. It's probably best known for its music by Kurt Weill, which is quite lovely for those that like Weimar-era dissonant string music, and sort of "Psycho-lite" for those that don't. The show was produced at the Southwark Playhouse, a small fringe theater in London.

My friend the director had some inventive and clever ideas about the staging. The theatre was a converted warehouse, and towards the back of the stage was a trapdoor that led to a tiny little storage closet under the stage, about four feet square. At the top of the play, I and Actor #1 would enter with the Protagonist, and he would send us off to stable the horses or something. We exited not to backstage but down the trapdoor, where the two of us would wait for the start of the "play within the play."

There we crouched. I timed it out once at 37 minutes. In a 4x4 box. With another actor. "No talking down there!" the director had yelled at an early rehearsal--the lead actor, the one walking around over us, loved dramatic pauses, and if he heard us he'd complain to the director, and we'd get yelled at again. So we couldn't speak above a whisper. Not that there's a lot to talk about when you're crouched with another actor in a dark hole under a stage.

Once we emerged, we had a nice scene where I got to put on a silly dress (which really looked good with my full beard) and move seductively against a window, until the lead actor went nuts and knifed someone or took poison or something else very angst-driven and Weimar-era. But this was only for about 15 minutes.

The play ran three weeks, Thursday-Sunday, with me spending more time sitting under the stage than on it. At times while I sat there I fantasized that the show would be picked up by a West End producer, and of course I would follow the show into a professional theatre, where it would enjoy a year-long run. Where I would sit. In a box. For 37 minutes a night.

This time? I can always wander back to the bar.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Closing Night at The Lusty Lady

Last night I went down with my friend Ron to the final night of live dancing at The Lusty Lady, Seattle's last remaining peep show.

It was a research trip. Really.

Ron and I are pulling together a solo show about his experiences working the cashier's desk at The Lusty Lady in the late '80s and early '90s. He's got amazing stories about the people--the dancers, the managers, the backstage staff, and of course the customers. As he likes to say it was his dream job--when he was 18.

Final night was a carnival--an early arrival of "Playday," a Lusty Lady annual tradition where the dancers take the place over entirely for the night and amateurs dance with the professionals. The place was filled with a lot of curiosity-seekers. Plenty of women in couples and larger groups, which Ron said was unheard of during its usual times of operation. (At one point a short-haired lesbian couple headed to a back room for a four-dancer lapdance, and exited ten minutes later beaming.) Dancers stood out on the street in swimsuits and lingerie coaxing in passersby, just like they used to do back in the days when First Avenue was filled with porn theatres and stripclubs. Dancers wandered the halls chatting with customers, including old-timers back just for the night, wearing little tags like Ron's saying "Lusty Lady Alumnus." And dancers filled the red carpeted stage ringed by the booths, giving it their all through the glass for whoever was willing to step into a booth and put in a quarter.

The place was packed with the old, the young (lots of students) friends and those who consider themselves family. Film crews would circle around outside, and at one point someone dressed as an Imperial Stormtrooper wandered in. A dancer near the door gave a shriek of delight and ran up to a manager. "Can I give the Imperial Stormtrooper a free lap dance?" she pleaded.

Sweet, strange, erotic, and melancholy. As the night wore on Ron repeatedly flipped between sadness and anger. "I keep thinking I'm looking for someone to beat up," he kept saying. (I suggested the Stormtrooper, and pointed out that even though he'd actually not done anything worthy of a beating, you could say the same for a lot of guys dressed like that in the Star Wars movies. Wrong place, wrong time, and the wrong white armor.) But then his anger would ebb away and we'd again leave the club to get another drink in a nearby bar.

Ron requested the microphone from the young woman at the front of desk, and when she handed it to him he put on in his best barker voice and reminded the customers that a smile is always appreciated and so are the tips. We drifted about and he talked to old friends, strippers who stood with grown daughters that Ron remembered as babies in strollers. He'd stood on the sidewalk minding those strollers while their Moms ran in to collect their paychecks and grab laundry from their lockers. He chatted with the current door guy, who'd brought out the baseball bat that the Lady had recently retired. Ron turned the worn brown wood over in his hands. "This bat was here when I came," he said. "It might be older than I am." He pointed to names and initials carved into the wood, laughing in recognition of old friends. He couldn't find his own name, but as the cashier pointed out, the bat was so scarred, worn and taped that it wasn't a surprise.

All things change--that's the only constant.

More on "My Time with the Lady" in the weeks to come.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Producer's Eye View of a Show

Ah, the theatrical producer as God. I've always loved this picture of famed British producer "Binky" Beaumont, placing the last touches on some undoubtedly well-made play of the West End's golden age.

As much as it may gall us creative types, professional theatre is only partly the result of talented artists and technicians. There's ultimately a Suit (or several Suits) looming above the stage, and when we call them "Angels" it's with a mixture of love and fear. Those puppet strings Beaumont is holding are made of money. Without them, we may still have a show, but we won't have ushers, stagehands, posters, a theatre bar, or probably even a theatre for that matter.

Having met a fair number of theatrical producers, I'm usually struck by how pleasant most of them are--more than they need to be, considering how much power they actually wield. Almost anyone who works in theatre--artists, tech staff, administrators--could be making more money doing the same job someplace else, and that certainly includes those who raise the money and make the deals.
We're fortunate that so many of the God-like figures sustaining theatre are benevolent. Because whether they are or they aren't, they're the ones who are holding the strings--and when they cut us loose, though it's still possible to stand and support ourselves on our own, there's no denying that it's a lot harder.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Shamed Into Blogging!

Welcome to the early days of Longenblog. Before we get too far into this, here are a few thoughts about what I’m trying to do here.

Eventually, I’d like this to be a semi-regular look at Seattle’s theatre scene, with occasional “think pieces” about theater and its role in society, the give-and-take between artists and critics, and the importance of playwrights in the middle of this whole mish-mash of art, commerce and opinion. I’m hopeful that as someone with over twenty years of experience in theatre in different forms (director, playwright, former critic, semi-retired arts journalist, current PR professional), I can explore these issues from some complementary and unusual angles.

But right now what I’m doing is working through my ambivalence about blogging.

Consider: my last blog, an interview with the tremendously personable and talented Montana von Fliss, was completed over two months ago, but I only posted it when I realized with a shock that von Fliss had just opened “Cancer: the Musical!,” a project that was but a gleam in her eye when we’d last spoken. The prospect of avoiding Montana for the rest of our lives so that she didn't ask me, quite reasonably, whatever happened to that lengthy phone interview she gave me finally forced me to action, and with a grimace I went ahead and posted the piece.

Yes, that’s right: I was shamed into blogging.

Why? What’s the big deal about posting some thoughts on the Internet?

There are three things that really bug me about blogs.

1) No editor. Editors catch small and stupid mistakes that I’m prone to, like misspelled names and the occasional ungrammatical construction. What’s more, once you've experienced a good editor, unedited writing feels flabby and half-baked. (For example, a good editor might have told me that this entire post was a bad idea.)

2) No deadlines. Usually provided by editors, these largely arbitrary dates have the magical ability to put actual writing on an empty page when nothing else will.

3) No pay. Since the mechanics of actually making money from blogging are esoteric and involve such loathsome apparatus as selling ads and self-promotion (I kid—somewhat), the whole effort feels like a hobby. I moved from writing as a hobby to a profession about 15 years ago, and it’s strange and a little annoying to take this step back.

So there you go! Add these to all of the other reasons for not writing—and like any writers I have an impressive list—and you can see that keeping this regularly updated is going to be a struggle.

A little encouragement goes a long way though. If you've come across this blog and want to give me some feedback, please comment below or drop me a note. It’s always grand for a writer to know that one’s work isn't a proverbial tree in the silent forest, and that someone, somewhere, has taken a look.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Big Sky State, Small Intense Actress: A Profile of Montana von Fliss

At 5’4”, Montana von Fliss—blonde and pretty but with some surprising muscularity—packs a disproportionate amount of power into a compact frame. In this season’s WET production of Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s new play about survival of the fittest among a quartet of 30-something friends, she literally went toe-to-toe, via some elaborately choreographed fight scenes, with fellow actors Patrick Allcorn and Hannah Franklin, each of whom is a six-foot-something. She more than held her own.

I was first introduced to Montana by Artis the Spoonman at a late-night cabaret years ago, and it turns out that’s no surprise: she’s spent a good portion of her life on the neo-Vaudevillian circuit. When she was 12, the house she and her mother had been staying in burned down, and the friend that they moved in with belonged to a performing troupe. “I just started going to rehearsals,” she recalls. “Pretty soon I was performing at places like the Pike Place Market and Bumbershoot and Folklife. I’ve been a part of that group ever since, singing dancing, skits, acrobatic stuff.” This same group of musicians and performers, neo-Vaudevillians and acrobats run the annual Moisture Festival now.

The eclectic training suited her. “I just wanted to do it all, right? I’d get up on the trapeze, get in tap shoes and be in the chorus line, play flute in the band, juggle, whatever they would let me do. But acting was the thing that really stuck. It was my favorite part.”

Before she went on the UW’s Professional Acting Training Program, she worked at “a lot of fringe companies, Annex and some companies that no longer exist. I would self- produce stuff in the Fringe Festival. Not much professional work, some stuff at Taproot.” Since graduating from PATP in 2008, she’s been in a couple of shows at Equity houses in town—The Three Musketeers at The Rep, Rock and Roll at ACT, and understudying for their Christmas Carol.

Since then there have been “numerous corporate training videos and Microsoft videos that I’m proud of,” she says, with a cheery voice that might be sarcasm—von Fliss is very good at cheerful sarcasm. But she’s sincere about the excitement of working at the big theatres. “I went to those theatres as a kid. Seeing shows on those stages while on school trips, that was what I aspired to as an actor. It’s a huge note in my tiny book that I’ve acted on some of those stages.”

I asked her about how she’d gotten involved with WET. “I was asked to audition for their first production, Laura’s Bush, and I wasn’t available. I was actually heading off on a cross-country road trip right after my Dad died. Then when I went back to school at the UW, I wasn’t able to be a member. So I was a fan for the first four years, and saw practically everything they did. After school when I decided to stay in Seattle, I realized this was my favorite company in town. If I had the opportunity to make work, this is where it should be. So I asked, and they invited me to join.”

As a company, WET slammed onto the scene in 2004 with productions that began winning critical acclaim practically from the moment they opened their doors. Founded by a group of ambitious young UW grads, they took original works and unconventional scripts and created the sort of theatre that fringe is reputed to be but seldom is: experimental, risk-taking, defiantly physical and subversively funny. But after a couple of years, company members began drifting off, the company’s critical reputation took a hit, and its audiences drifted to even newer companies like Balagan and Satori. (The problem with being Young Turks is that eventually you aren’t so young anymore.) I asked Von Fliss if she felt that “WET 2.0” is back to being philosophically and artistically sound.

“I do,” she answered firmly. “And it’s not back to being something great, it’s gone forward. I was always a fan of this company, and loved all of their productions. When I saw Crave [Sarah Kane’s harrowing play, produced by WET in 2005], I thought ‘this is what I need to be doing.’ But we’re not that group any more. In this kind of organization turnover is natural and positive. Even though I wanted to be a member of that company as it was, we’re coming to a new high point artistically.”

It’s clear that von Fliss has a big crush on WET, so we discussed what elements of the company had drawn her to working with them. “There’s the complete open courage. I remember thinking they were so brave. And I was really attracted to this idea of highly collaborative theatre. Everyone in the room has a voice. An actor might have an idea about lighting, and a lighting designer might contribute something like a directorial concept without a feeling of transgression. As I got to know them I realized that it may move slower and it’s not perfect, but having the openness of everyone’s creative input can make some amazing stuff. What you see on stage isn’t just the director’s vision; it’s the company’s vision.”

Von Fliss says that her great challenge with Hunter Gatherers was that the character of Pam was so tremendously different from herself, particularly in her passivity. “It’s easily one of the toughest roles I’ve ever played. I hope I’m a nice person but I’m not a Pam. She’s optimist where I’m pessimistic, she’s earnest where I’m sarcastic. One thing I focused on was Pam’s priorities. It’s more important to her that other people are happy and that things go well than anything else. Creating that as her strongest desire is really helpful. It results in a list of responses and expectations and reactions that made it seem plausible to me.”

Surprisingly, the fact that she had to spend the last 20 minutes of the show in her underwear wasn’t a challenge. “I’m not particularly modest in that way,” she laughs. “I thought of it as Pam’s superhero underwear. If she was a superhero outfit, this would be it. It’s more of a costume than vulnerability.”

Given all that Hunter Gatherers asked from its actors—the script mixes up comedy, drama, slapstick and stage fighting, I asked her where her comfort level was, and she had to mull that a bit before she answered. “Comedy. I like the structure of a joke—where does the funny live?” And that’s an easy segue into talking about her next project, which takes on the comedy question full-on. “It’s a solo show that I’ve written called Cancer: the Musical. It’s based on the true story of my Dad getting cancer, quitting my job to take care of him, and his subsequent death and what followed.” She says that the result is a show that deliberately mixes genres and tones. “Sometimes it feels like being in a lab trying to measure loss, Sometimes it feels like a musical. But there’s a lot of comedy. My family’s first response to anything is a joke.”

“This show is really an attempt to show that we really don’t have a lot of time here,” she continues, “and if you haven’t experienced something like this, you will, so seize the day. If your Mom always wanted to go to Paris take her now, because she won’t always be around. And at the same time it’s for people who are trying to navigate the awful map of grief. It is possible to get through it and laugh about it.”

Finally I ask if WET has become for von Fliss what so many artists want from a theatre company: a home. “Having been here for almost two years now—it does feel like home,” she reflects. “It feels a lot like the place I’m actually living, my apartment. It is absolutely perfect for right now. Since watching the closest person in the world to me die, I’ve just gotten out of the habit of planning too far ahead. I work at being in the moment every day, being here, now. I am actively practicing very hard.”

For more info on "Cancer: The Musical!" playing now at WET, go to: