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BONUS ACTIVITY: In honour of the final, belated, and final belated post about my tour, make a list of the things that are mentioned that make actors happy and the things that make actors sad. Feel free to illustrate your favourites. Or do an interpretive dance.

Rockville, Maryland, March 24-26:

The Piercing Eloquence troupe wrapped up its tour in fine style at Montgomery College, where, coincidentally, Sasha Olinick, one of the fine actors in the American Shakespeare Center’s Summer/Fall season works. Sasha’s Feste in Twelfth Night is AWESOME, all the moreso because his completely-different Cornwall in King Lear and Elbow/Barnadine in Measure for Measure also rock. Go see Twelfth Night right now. No, literally, go right now. …No, don’t actually go right now.

N.B. I know the meaning of the word ‘literally,’ but this literally/actually joke is a private shout-out to the rest of the Piercing Eloquence tour on this, the much-belated final chronicle of the tour.

Our stay at Montgomery College was fantastic because they treated us like kings, or at least dukes. They gave us presents, they had fruit platters in the dressing room, and, most importantly, they put us up in a FANTASTIC hotel. It was not, perhaps, my personal favourite, because the Belmont Inn in South Carolina and the Partridge Inn in Georgia get style points for being from the nineteenth century, and the place in the Florida Keys (La Siesta?) gets style points for having eighty-five palm trees and an ocean. However, these suites in Gaithersburg were certainly luxurious. Everyone got their own bedroom, and the bedrooms shared a living room/kitchen. Having a kitchen is just about the most blessed thing one can imagine after having been on tour more or less since September, precisely at the moment that even the sight of the bizarre architectural façade of a Bob Evans makes one want to barf.

Here are some pictures of my suite:

They have WILLIAM MORRIS prints on the wall! Ten points: the most reasonable thing a hotel can do if denied the advantage of being from the nineteenth century. The hotel also had one of the best hotel fitness rooms we saw on tour, and a happy hour with free wine, beer, and food, most notably hummus, one of my two and a half favourite food items. So you could go to the gym and then drink wine with increased justification! Heaven. Sheffield visited Ginna whilst we were here; Evan stayed with Jacki; Scot celebrated his birthday by trying to hide the fact that it was his birthday from the rest of us; everyone was happy.

Despite the fact that these were our last shows on the road, I remember fairly little about them, especially compared with the previous shows in Virginia Beach and in Minnesota. The auditorium had a central seating area that was a good five or six feet lower than areas along the side and in the back of the auditorium, which were roughly the same height as the stage. In explaining it this way, I suddenly realise that it’s the same basic format of the Blackfriars, only without seating along the sides and in the back of the stage, and larger in square footage, if not in number of seats. An odd wall came down from the ceiling in front of the seating area in the back, which we were told made it very difficult to hear. So, once again, we had to resonate in each other’s faces, but thankfully it would be the last time, at least for these shows: in addition to being the most beautiful theatre I’ve ever been in, the Blackfriars also has just about the World’s Best Acoustics.

The only distinctive things I recall about our performance of Taming of the Shrew would appear to not bespeak the best of the audience, so I have to place a disclaimer that I think it was a very friendly and attentive audience, and a good show. I was still having a lot of fun exploring the icing on Bianca’s physicality, to continue to borrow the metaphor from Gremio’s line “My cake is dough.”

However, during my first scene as Bianca (which I unofficially think of as the “Will you any wife?” scene, after yet another Gremio line), a woman’s cell phone went off. It was doubly unfortunate for her that she was sitting in one of the seats onstage, and perhaps trebly unfortunate that there is a fairly lengthy portion of the pre-show in which Chris Seiler beats Chris Johnston with a whacker noodle for being on his cell phone. (“I’ll call you back in five minutes!” WHACK “I’ll call you back in fifteen minutes!” WHACK “I’ll call you back after the show…and tell you what a wonderful time I just had!”) The Use of Cell Phones is also what makes actors Very Sad, as is evidenced by the whacker noodle ‘long tears’ made famous in The Great Whacker Noodle Massacre and Its Redemption.

The cell-phone started going off in the middle of my line, but as that line is very much in the business of being demur and making my books and instruments my company, it didn’t even occur to me to lay the whacker noodle into the cell phone perpetrator. God and my fellow troupe members know, I’ve got no aversion to adding text to justify spur-of-the-moment bizarre occurances, but not if it would break character. So I just stopped, and stared at the woman with the tuneful shoulderbag, using the default response taught to me by Diego Arciniegas of the Publick Theatre in Boston, still one of my favourite directors of all time, as a way to deal with the airplanes, helicopters and sirens that sometimes appear in Sidley Park, Syracuse, Italy, or Elizabethan London if your theater is outdoors in the middle of a city. Just stop, counselled Diego. And stare. And he was right, as he was in so many things. Audiences respond to actors staring at an airplane as though the actors had reinvented the wheel, or perhaps even the airplane.

Of course, it’s a little different when you’re staring at an animate object no less than five feet away, and that animate object is desperately tearing through her shoulderbag whilst the inanimate object inside the bag starts to go through the second cycle of its ringtone. My ever-resourceful Papa/the ever-resourceful Mr. Seiler, having also had some prior experience with slugging Mr. Johnston during the pre-show for having a fictional cell phone, borrowed a whacker noodle from her neighbour and gave the girl one solid Whack of Remonstrance.

The cell phone, being inanimate and insensible, continued to ring. Or, more accurately, melodically beep.

Mr. Seiler, dismayed either that the woman still was unable to locate the cell phone in her bag or that the whacker noodle did not have the same effect on real cell phones that it did on the fictional one in the pre-show, decided to press on. The only problem was that, instead of going over to Gremio to be ‘enticed’ by the truly hideous quasi-cloisonné double-headed tiger bracelet, I had cross downstage to counter Baptisa’s whacker noodle initiative. Somehow, we all sorted ourselves out, and the scene continued; I couldn’t even tell you what was left out, or if anything was, but I think the audience was as distracted as we were and probably did not notice that anything had gone wrong. …Aside from a cell phone going off for what seemed to me to be about a minute, and probably seemed to be about eighty-five minutes to the girl who possessed it.

The only other thing I remember about this Shrew was the voluminous number of people who decided to visit the bathroom during the scene where Raffi and I are waiting to make an entrance from the back of the house. When someone random passes through the lobby of any given theater whilst I’m waiting there, which is a common occurrence when we perform on college campuses, I always give them a huge wave and a slightly farcical grin. I found that the best defence was a good offence as far as receiving looks for being dressed in a huge blue-and-pink paisley dress, or as a boy, depending upon the show that has me waiting in the lobby. But whenever it’s actual audience members, I always feel awkward. It’s a mixture of ‘I see you care deeply enough about our show to visit the bathroom 10 minutes before the end’ and ‘So, howzabout that suspension of disbelief?’

Our final Merchant of Venice on the road was not what I would have wished our final Merchant of Venice on the road to be, in order to provide a nice close to this narrative. But I suppose humans feel the need for narrative so strongly precisely because our lives, in most cases, lack a good structural narrative. In the interest of preserving the narrative of my last post, I kept this fact apart, but now it must out: after our last performance of Merchant in Virginia Beach, which had been so revelatory for me on so many counts, Aaron announced that the show had run about quite a few minutes over its best running time. I don’t recall the actual figure by this point, but it was some horrendous amount like ten minutes, and as the character with the most lines in the show I was probably responsible for a healthy (or unhealthy) percentage of that. The upshot of this fact was that we were asked to tighten up our cues as much as humanly possible, and the upshot of that request was that I spent the final show on the road thinking predominantly about picking up cues and eliminating any hairbreadth of a pause.

I by no means believe in pause-ridden Shakespeare, but, on the other hand, I have enough faith in myself in a person who likes to Move the Text that I stopped thinking about it, and that was obviously the place I had gotten to in Virginia Beach. And I appreciate that perhaps the show in Maryland was better than its immediate predecessor for the audience, but I felt straitjacketed simply by having to think very hard about something other than telling the story—it’s precisely the same reason why the first show in an any acoustically difficult space was trying for me, because I always had to keep part of my mind on this utterly technical point.

I know I strive, as an actor, to reach a point where I am no longer thinking—perhaps we all do, though in working with this troupe of actors for an entire year I was able to glean enough to speculate this may not be everyone’s goal. But I think I came to the point of being halfway-decent, as an actor, when I learned how to shut off as much of my thinking brain as possible and just be a little stupid. (My eternal thanks to Dennis Krausnick of Shakespeare and Company for leading me to that point.) And in order to do what I think is my best work, I need to not-think about verse, and not-think about text work, and not-think about pacing. And, even in my modesty, I think I did that many times within this season. But it didn’t happen with the Merchant at Montgomery College.

But Aaron was happy with the show, which is more important than the skewed opinion of my internal judge. Afterwards, he announced with some triumph that the show was back to its original length, and asked us if we noticed the difference. Ginna, I recall, thought it was a great show, but Josh made some comment about feeling as though he was in his head, with which I more than sympathised.

We had what amounted to a day off in between the two performances, when only a couple of people had a workshop in the morning. (I participated in an interesting workshop about direction in which both Ginna and I agreed that we were very glad we don’t do the darker and more violent Kate/Bianca Bound scene that we tried as a redirection.) I decided to go into D.C. to go to a museum, and, perhaps to the shame of my Art-Historian mother, was taken with a desire to go to the Air and Space Museum over an art museum.

I took three astronomy courses in college and am consequently a kind of dilettante astronomer, my current efforts being constrained to reading relevant newspaper articles with interest, possessing a proclivity to the Air and Space Museum, and reading physics-for-the-masses books like The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. These are tasks well-befitting my abilities, as none of them involve math. But I found the Air and Space museum less enchanting than it had been for me at, say, age eight, and narrated to one of my dear Astronomy professors from B.U. that my mind would have rather preferred more Space and less Air, however my lungs might feel about the matter.

That evening, I had dinner with my aunt, uncle, and cousin, the self-same who were proud witnesses of One of the Finest Moments of Theatre, Shakespearean or Otherwise, That I Have Ever Seen. We went to a Chinese restaurant, under the false impression that they had Dim Sum all day. It was no matter, because Dan and I went to get Dim Sum the following morning, and I think I ate enough Dim Sum to have sufficed for the previous evening, and perhaps the following evening, as well.

Here is a picture taken after our final performance. We have our hands in the ‘Fancy Bred’ circle that we would do prior to some performances. Points go to Head Historian Paul for the orchestration of this photo, which as you can possibly infer, involved a ladder. When he first asked for a ladder I thought he was going to try to do a re-creation of the 1987 Henry V picture of the first production that led to the formation of Shenandoah Shakespeare, later the American Shakespeare Center. I am glad that he did not, because no one would have been able to recreate the leather shirt on the esteemed Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, FEDADOM, and the smiley unbearded face of Jim Warren. (This photo is by the rehearsal hall in the Blackfriars, and if you, dear reader, go on a guided tour of the theatre, you can see this picture yourself.)

As I look at this photograph, it seems to me as if the unseen photographer is saying to Alisa, ‘Give me sexy, baby,’ and to Ginna ‘Give me cool, baby, work it,’ and to me ‘Give me overcompensation for the fact that you’re sad the final show on the road wasn’t the experience you hoped, yeah.’ I do not mean to put overcompensation on anyone else’s smile, but knowing that Josh confessed to a similar opinion of the show, I do wonder about the fact that we’re almost the smiliest ones in the photograph. Besides Dan. But Dan is smiley because he’s one of the best people on earth.

Clockwise from lower left: Paul Reisman, Ellen Adair, Josh Carpenter, Chris Seiler, Alisa Ledyard, Evan Hoffmann, Ginna Hoben, Scot Carson, Chris Johnston, Raffi Barsoumian, Daniel Kennedy

Piercing Eloquence 2007-2008

I couldn’t ask for a more talented group of actors to roam the east half of the U.S. in three vans with. Thank you.

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Powhattan, Virginia, September 30-31:

What was supposed to be a two-hour drive became a five-hour inch-forward through a traffic jam. I avoided any irritation, myself, by sleeping as though I had been drugged, though I retained some awareness of the valiant driver (Mr. Aaron Hochhalter) and skilled navigator (Ms. Ginna Hoben) doing all of the re-routing and swearing that the job required. When we finally saw the Days Inn, its sign rising majestically above the strip mall, but could not figure out how to actually get around said strip mall to the hotel, Raffi started singing, “C-e-l-e-brate good times COME ON.” It remains, to this hour, unspeakably funny to me, though I grant that I had the benefit of one who had not truly experienced five hours of supreme traffic-related annoyance.

We performed two shows of Taming of the Shrew at Powhattan High School, the first of which is known as “the Battle for the Stage” and “the Great Whacker Noodle Massacre” by alternate historians. Whacker noodles, for those of you unacquainted with these august objects, are foam tubes used in our production of Shrew largely for masters to beat their uncooperative servants, or for servants to beat other uncooperative servants. As we demonstrate in the pre-show, they do not really hurt, provided that the blow is not aimed in a delicate place (“Stay away from the 8×10,” said Jim, referring to the headshot area, “And the 3×3,” added Ginna, referring to the line “Away, you three-inch fool!” and subsequent jests). We hand them out for the front rows of the audience, to hold them, but Chris and Chris also inform the audience that they may hit the actors if they’d like.

Like all great historic battles, in which one soldier or commander turns to another and says something that will prove oddly prescient or bittersweet by the end of the day, this story has a prologue. Alisa and I were standing backstage, as we are the Whacker Noodle Wenches, and were listening to the pre-show. At one point, Chris Johnston says, “There’s something that makes actors very sad,” in response to which Chris Seiler holds up his two blue whacker noodles under weepy eyes. Johnston comments, “Those are some long tears, my friend.” I find this funnier every time I hear it. And on this fateful day, I said to Alisa, “You know, I think the ‘long tears’ are my favourite part of the whole pre-show.”

In brief, the high school students had the highest F.P.C. we’ve yet encountered, achieving units of whoopage comparable to the Sumatra earthquake on the Richter Scale. Allow me to be upfront: I vastly prefer this kind of high school audience to its alternative, the Sleeping High School Audience. Perhaps the most disturbing is the Awake But Staring Ahead with the Recognition of the Undead High School Audience. But when a High School Audience is feisty, I hardly feel we can take all the credit; at least one-third of their feistiness is due to the fact that we are neither their teachers nor a video, and one-third of their feistiness is due to the fact that they are teenagers. The remaining one-third, in this case, was perhaps largely inspired by the fact that they were told they could hit the actors. After two kids ran into the middle of the stage to whack Lucentio and Tranio with their pants around their ankles, I think all bets were off.

Let me be clear: I was never actually hit, nor do I really have enough lines in the 90-minute version to have to contend vocally with audibly rambunctious audience. I noted to Ginna, after the Kate/Bianca Bound scene, “It’s a little intense out there,” and that was about the utmost of my experience until the Five Kissing Poses of Lucentio and Bianca scene in the fourth act. But High School kids always scream when they see people kissing, and it didn’t even particularly surprise me that they were yelling things like “Get a room!” (I think I remember, pretty clearly, a high school kid telling Peter and Anne in Diary of Anne Frank to get a room, and thinking, ‘How have you not grasped the central concept that we are all stuck in an attic?’)  However, I felt poorly for the actors who were actually talking whilst we were kissing, or whilst really anything else was going on. A lot of whacker noodle blows were received by the company, but I think the knowledge that those were pulling focus, more than that there were blows at all, was distressing to many.

The true tragedy was that a couple of the whacker noodles were snuck all the way into the middle of the auditorium. When we realised that we were missing a couple of them by the end of the show, Evan (because he is charismatic and his surfer dude Biondello always wins over the audience, especially high school ones) and Alisa (because the whacker noodles are her prop children) went out on stage to plead for their return. I didn’t see what was going on, but I heard Evan saying, “C’mon, we need them back,” about ten times, and Alisa repeating, “We can’t get more because it’s not pool season anymore!” When the noodles were slowly restored, it became obvious why their homecoming had been so hesitant. They were maimed, and, in a couple cases, completely vivisected. Specifically one of the blue noodles. And when Alisa mourned, “Now there won’t be any more long tears,” I had to mourn with her.

But, as is often the case, recalcitrant high school students can be the most noticeable, but they are not representative of the whole, or even the majority, of the student body. In my opinion, whatever their faults, redemption for them came about ten-fold. Our second audience was perhaps the best Shrew audience we’ve had yet—student or adult. They were excited, responsive, and, it seemed to me, utterly wrapped up in the story. (I think the fact that we told them to hold the whacker noodles, but made no mention of hitting the actors, may have helped.)

I thought Ginna had a really amazing show the second day, whenever I was lucky enough to be on stage to witness it. I hope I am divulging any confidence when I write here that she later commented that the students were really with her, perhaps because they identified with her rebellion. And at the end, she said, it felt as though she was betraying them. When in the final speech she said, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,” she heard a girl say, “Sike!” But I think that speech has never been so clear, and so urgent, and I think that they were simply very giving as audience members—no matter the gift. From my own experience, these two audiences are the only ones in which every single person that Bianca flirted with waved back. In Baltimore, I recall, the boy that I waved to actually turned his head, assuming that I was waving at the person beside him.

But even more heart-warming than this was a student named Amanda Walker, who came to us before the show on the second day with an entire bag full of whacker noodles that had been at her grandmother’s house. Amazing! Amanda, and her friend (I think?) Samantha also wrote us a letter of appreciation, delivered to us after the second show. Amanda Walker of Powhattan High School, we love you. I wish I had your address to write you a thank-you card. But for the time being, we’ve simply rechristened Gremio’s walker, which we always dubbed “Walker Texas Ranger” to the “Amanda Walker.” And that’s the kind of elegant and dignified memorial one can receive in the theatre.

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