It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Garbageman Cometh

Dave Sikula continues to wallow in garbage.

When I left off last time, I was explaining the origins and derivations of Garbage Theatre. In Part Two, I go into the specifics of its execution.

Our stage manager, Ralph Eastman, was in the lighting booth in the back of the house, watching us screw around 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.)

Before I go on, the thing I want to emphasize here is that, for all the screwing around we did onstage (and it was significant), we were having fun, and that’s what made the production work; the palpable sense of something fun going on. It must be something like what audience who saw The Marx Brothers in the 20s experienced. (There’s the famous story of George S Kaufman, who wrote the book of “Animal Crackers,” coming to see a performance, and hushing the person he was talking to: “Quiet! I think I heard one of the original lines!”) I’m not saying we were that good by any means, but I think it was the sense of barely-controlled chaos that made thing enjoyable.

I will say, though, that if a cast tried this kind of crap on me today, I’d probably make Ralph Eastman look like Gandhi. There was an actor who did something much milder in a show I directed a while back, and it infuriated me to the point where I’ll never cast that actor again.

But back to “Paint Your Wagon.”

At the beginning of Act Two, the show finally gets some women on stage when the dancing girls arrive at the saloon. They did a number that involved a series of jumprope challenges. I tried to revive the “Bottle Dancer” pool from “Fiddler,” betting on which of them might trip on the rope, but I don’t recall a lot of interest in it. (According to one of them on Facebook today, she doesn’t think they were ever flawless; I think they were once or twice, at least.)

The high point of the run, though, was the challenge to make me break. Now, one of the things I pride myself on is that, no matter what happens while I’m on stage, I won’t break character or laugh. I may ad lib or otherwise react, but it’s always in the moment and in character and prompted by an actual need to get things back on track. In a production of “Anything Goes,” we were in the middle of a scene set on the ship in the mid-Atlantic, when a dog suddenly appeared on the stage. I turned to the guy I was doing the scene with and said, “Must be one of them sea dogs.” We got rid of the dog, “asked” the audience where we were, went a couple of lines back, and finished the scene.

Anyway, when I mentioned this non-breaking trait of mine, it became the goal of everyone to get me to crack up during the final Saturday performance.

I think I had only one scene (in the aforementioned saloon), but it started with Mark Meyers (him again!) greeting me with an inflated condom on his nose. I just looked at him with a “Really?” look. The main part of the scene involved my negotiating a deal to buy one of the Mormon wives, I was given a contract to sign. Instead of the usual contract, though, Dave Jones (The Actor Claude File’s best friend) who was playing Ben Rumson, gave me the single grossest and most disgusting beaver shot I’ve ever seen (to this day). I just looked at him. He then handed me a pen with which to sign the contract. I took off the cap and the explosive device inside turned out to be a dud. I gave Dave another look and shook my head.

After that, I believe there was another musical number – it might have been the jumprope thing – but, regardless, my stuff wasn’t the focus of the scene. Claude came up to me while I was standing in the middle of the stage, though, and got me in a wrestling hold and headlock. He was doing all he could to get me to turn my head upstage. He literally mashed his hand against the right side of my face and was pushing it to my left. I took this as an attempt to get me to not look downstage, because that’s where I figured they were preparing something, so I fought back equally hard to not turn my head.

I found out when we came off stage that what he was trying to do was to get me to look behind the bar. One of the stagehands was lying behind the bar – probably visible to the folks in the balcony. He was wearing a gorilla mask and long underwear with the crotch cut out. When the moment was right, he smashed a cream pie against his groin. I never saw it – I was probably the only person in the theatre who didn’t – but always wished I had. Not only would I have gotten a kick out of it, but I’d like to know if I actually would have broken. I’ll never know …

Anyway, that’s how Garbage Theatre was born and how it hit its early peaks. I’ve never been involved with a show since that approached that level. I’ve seen some – and some performances – that have been miracles of garbage, but never one that was nothing but garbage from beginning to end. It’s sort of my holy grail.

They were crazy days, but we were young, stupid, and fearless. A few years ago, I went down to Cal State Fullerton to see what was then the brand-new theatre complex. I spent more time in my youth than I should have in the CSUF greenroom, and I wanted to get a look at it. In the years since I left, that greenroom’s been converted back into a classroom, and a new, much smaller greenroom was established down the hall. I looked in and saw a group of undergrads excitedly talking about something that meant nothing to me but was of great import to them. I was suddenly struck by how young they were, and did the mental math that they weren’t much older than the men and women who were the real old-timers and vets when I was there as a student. “We were really ever that young?” I mean, before all the idealism and hope had been beaten out of us, to be replaced by realism and cynicism.

And I had to admit that, yeah, we were.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Runnin’ on Empty

Dave Sikula is running on empty… but the blog is still full.

There comes a time in the life of every actor when the lines just won’t stick. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s a subconscious dislike of the material, maybe it’s a lack of time, maybe it’s just being tired.

I’m currently in rehearsal for a show – and am trying not to succumb to the awesome reality that we open in a week – and I’m having a horrific time remembering my lines. (The blocking is another issue; the stage manager’s frustration at me is palpable.) It’s not the material – which is very good indeed – so the other factors must be (and indeed are) in play.

As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before – but am just too damn lazy to check – in my youth, learning lines was simplicity itself. I could pretty much read through a page, learn it more-or-less photographically, and have it down in no time at all. It’d take maybe a couple of hours to learn even the longest script. As I’ve grown older, though, either my brain is full or (more likely) just old and unwilling to take on new knowledge which it knows it will need only temporarily. It’s not that this old dog can’t learn new tricks – I just started a new job (this will come up again in a moment, so consider this foreshadowing) and am having no trouble learning the things I’ll need to do for there. But I’ve been looking at this script for weeks and having the damnedest time getting the dialogue to stay in my head.

Lack of time? Well, I’ve got time to write this – and don’t think I’m not thinking “Y’know, I really should be going over my lines …” as I type. (I can feel my stage manager sending me thought waves compelling me to do so.) But with the new job? Well, I get up, head off to the salt mine, toil for eight hours, battle traffic to get to rehearsal, do that work, come home, finally get a bite to eat at 11 pm or so, watch some television (usually all I have time for is Letterman, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert), and, in the twinkling of an eye, it’s 2:30 and I’ve got to go to bed in order to start the cycle all over.

So that brings us to the “too tired” part of our list. If I’m lucky, I’ll get six, maybe six-and-a-half hours tonight, which is nowhere near enough for a boy my age. Even if I try to squeeze in the lines (in more than one sense), as I close my eyes to try to keep from cheating and looking at the page, I find myself drifting off to Dreamland.

And, yet, somehow (including disappearing at the office in order to find someplace to run lines), I’ve found myself able to learn, oh, a good 70-80% of my lines. I probably know them all well enough to paraphrase my way through the script, but given that the director is also the writer, he’d probably notice (yet another danger of having writers direct their own scripts; they know the text too well for the actors to fake it …).

Now, fortunately, our next real rehearsal isn’t for a few days, so I’ll have a wee bit of extra time to keep learning – if I don’t fall asleep. Unfortunately, that next “real rehearsal” will be our first tech. In the larger sense, I’ve got a week and I know I’ll be there (after a train wreck of a rehearsal just three nights ago, I knew that that was the worst is was going to be – and if I make the same progress in the next three days that I made the previous three, I may well know everyone’s lines …).

I’ve never missed the deadline – sure, I’ve gone up or gotten lost (who hasn’t?). But I’ve never been completely at a loss. Well, there was that one performance of “Private Lives” when I jumped seven pages. My scene partner gave me one of the most single most panicked looks I’ve ever seen on a stage. I realized what I’d done and she gave me a cue that put us back on track. We looped back to where I’d gone wrong, skipped over the dialogue I’d delivered about ten minutes previous, and moved on. And there was the five-character musical I did when the entire cast went up simultaneously. None of us had the least idea where we were.

Fortunately, it was the one moment in the show – the pretty dreadful “Whispers on the Wind” (never heard of it? Wish I hadn’t …) – where it was slow and lyrical. After about an hour – well, more like 45 seconds – someone said something that sparked someone else to say something else, which sparked something else, and pretty soon, we were back on track.

In neither case, the audience never noticed a thing. They never do.

Well, occasionally they do; like the performance of “Anything Goes” that was interrupted by a dog wandering onto the stage. That they noticed. But going up? Mistakes in blocking or business not coming off as planned? Nah.

So the short version of all of the above – now he tells us! – is simple. It’s never too early to start learning your lines. It’s not possible to get too much sleep. (I’m reminded of Paula Poundstone’s line about baby-sitting and the difficulty of trying to put her charges to bed: “Can you imagine there was ever a time in your life when you didn’t want to sleep?”) And most importantly, while you young whippersnappers may laugh now at the possibility of having trouble learning lines, trust me; your time will come.

Most of you probably don’t remember Johnny Carson anymore, or know him only vaguely, but I remember how he used to make a lot of monologue jokes about Forest Lawn cemetery. Then one day, he got a note from the folks who ran Forest Lawn. It read, “Just remember, Mr. Carson. We will have the last laugh …”

One last note: I saw “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Berkeley Rep this week and can’t recommend it highly enough. Anyone who’s done Durang knows how deceptively difficult he is to do. This cast makes the impossible look easy; hitting all the right notes and balancing the Chekhovian laughs with a surprisingly touching ending. I was actually a little misty-eyed as it ended (though I didn’t stand, you can rest assured). By all mean, go see it.