Dave Sikula, Garbage Aficionado.
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 necessary background. In my early 20s, I was part of the company at the Southern California Conservatory Theatre at Cerritos College, down in Norwalk. 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 the morning, rehearse 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. The productions turned out pretty well, or at least good enough that the school district ponied up the dough for a second and even a third season, the finale of which was “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Starring in “Fiddler” 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 to the college 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. 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 fourth season’s finale was Lerner and Loewe’s “Paint Your Wagon.” In the run-up to that season, Fred Fate (whom I realized I should have described; think of a gymnastic, energetic, and blond Moe Howard) was giving interviews and sending out press releases. One of his selling points was Claude File. Fred said something about the company having brilliant directors, fascinating shows, great designers, and a talented company, including “the actor Claude File.” From that moment, poor Claude was marked. To this day, he is known among our circle as “The Actor Claude File.”
So, we’re beginning rehearsals for “Paint Your Wagon.” The more we got into the nuts and bolts of it, though, 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 vague 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.
This was the show, though, that was the ground zero 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 one of the actors standing behind the bar of a Gold Rush saloon making real margaritas in a blender. That’s garbage of a high order.
To be continued next time …