It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Sitting in Limbo

Dave Sikula, hanging in space.

An acquaintance of mine (I can’t call her a friend, even if we are Facebook friends) has a CD by this title, featuring the tune of the same name by Jimmy Cliff. The title and the song refer (as might seem pretty obvious) to the gap between the known, the expected, and what’s to come.

Waiting.

Waiting.

I feel particularly “in limbo” right now for a couple of reasons. The more immediate one is the one referred to in our last meeting: David Letterman’s retirement, which not only has now actually occurred, but (as I write this) is airing on the east coast. All day long, I’ve been in communication with my friends who were at the theatre during the taping. (They weren’t in the theatre, but actually stuck in Rupert Jee’s Hello Deli around the corner while security kept them from leaving while the show was being taped. Alec Baldwin’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s trailers were just outside the deli and many, many limos were parked on 53 rd St. while they waited.) From all reports, it’s quite a show, running 20 minutes longer than usual, and is likely to make me as much of an emotional mess as I expected (all day long, I’ve felt as though someone I know died), but I’m in limbo to see the actual results until the show airs here.

More specifically to this page’s usual mission, though, is my other feeling of limbo – and that one is actually a double one. As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the Custom Made Theatre Company production of the musical Grey Gardens. From what I can tell, it’s going to be a superb show. (I almost used the word “amazing,” but that’s a word that’s so overused that it’s really become meaningless.) I pretty much exempt myself from this assessment, in that it refers mainly to the women who play the various incarnations of the Beale women in the story. They are truly phenomenal performances, and not only am I astonished by what these women do every night, I’m honored to be part of a company with them. (And let me hasten to add that the men and girls in the company aren’t too shabby, either.)

Trust me; it's brilliant.

Trust me; it’s brilliant.

All that said, because of the vagaries of the space we’re working in, we’re off tonight (Wednesday), two nights before our first preview. Taking a break at a time like this (tech week) is always odd, in that we’ve added tech and costumes, and are gaining momentum when we suddenly have to hit the pause button and put ourselves in the limbo of taking a hiatus from the work we’ve been doing. I’m delighted for a night off and the chance to rest both mentally and vocally, but feel suspended between the past of the what we’ve done and the future of playing to actual audiences.

Which brings me to my last state of limbo: the gap between the impressions of the past and the present of the rehearsal process and the anticipation of and curiosity about not just the way audiences will receive the show, but the ways in which that reception will make the show grow.

I don’t think there’s ever been a show that I’ve done where there wasn’t at least one sure fire laugh or bit that failed to work and died a horrible death or something that, completely unexpectedly, played like a house on fire. (By the way, if you’re ever doing a show with me and think I’m doing something well, please don’t tell me that until the show’s over; otherwise, I’ll become totally self-conscious about it and it’ll never work that way again.)

The last couple of days of rehearsal for me are always bittersweet. There’s a sense of not being able to wait for an audience to see it – and to play off of – and at the same time, there’s a sense of loss; that it’s not “ours” or “mine” anymore; that something that’s been private until opening night is suddenly in the public domain and open to discussion, critique, and criticism (because I know, as good as this show is, there are going to be people who just plain won’t like it, or – worse – be meh about it).

But it’s all limbo; that state of knowing that not only have we done all we can, but we still have more to do, even if we don’t know what that is.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Hashtag Goodbye Dave

No, Dave Sikula is not leaving, but he’s a little torn up about another Dave who is.

One thing about writing these blog posts is the regular schedule. I know that, no matter what else I do, every two weeks, I’ll be turning out an article bloviating about something or other.

But even as I write this, I know that, when my next deadline rolls around in a fortnight, I’ll be as depressed as I’ve been in a long time.

“Why?,” you may ask. “Because,” I would answer, “I’ll be writing in the absence of David Letterman.” Dave and I have a long history together. It’s not like I’ve ever met the man, though I have seen his show live (I think) seven times, but he’s been a big part of my life for, damn, nearly 40 years.

david-letterman-retirement

I’ve long admitted I didn’t like his standup when he was beginning. There was something about it – and him – that I found kinda smarmy, so it took me a while to watch his morning show that aired in 1980. But once I discovered that show, I became a fan for life, and I realized the other day that his humor and comedy have been major influences on me for more than half of my life, and certainly almost all of my adult life. (And when you consider that I’ve missed only a handful of David Letterman Shows, Late Shows with David Letterman, and no Late Nights with David Letterman, it’s in the neighborhood of 6,000 hours – nearly eight solid months – I’ve spent watching the guy.)

I’m not alone in this, well, obsession. Since 1993, I’ve been part of an online group that tracks, discusses, and dissects the show – and Dave – and those people have become some of my dearest friends, even if I’ve actually met most of them only a few times.

(You’ll have to excuse me. Tina Fey just stripped down to her underwear on Dave’s show.)

Where was I?

Ah, yes; the AFLers. Back in the early days of the Internet, there was a thing called Usenet, which allowed people with similar interests to gather and post about them. (Usenet still exists in a vastly altered form. Most of the content was overwhelmed by spammers and trolls, and the remainder was more or less absorbed by Google.) Most of these groups had names that were prefaced with the prefix “alt” or “rec,” and alt.fan.letterman was one of those many thousands of groups. The people of AFL are some of the finest I know, and knowledgeable about many, many things outside of late night talk shows. We have doctors, educators, editors, musicians – including a musicologist who’s become the unofficial official archivist of the show. (Seriously, his New York apartment is apparently filled to capacity with VHS tapes of virtually every broadcast Dave has ever done.) Not to mention, we even have current and past writers for the show as members. (The Usenet group has long since migrated to Facebook.)

The AFLers; I'd rather be with them than with the finest people. You can just see my head peeping up there in the middle.

The AFLers; I’d rather be with them than with the finest people. You can just see my head peeping up there in the middle.

Every year, the AFLers gather in New York for “Davecon” to see the show live and in person, have dinner, crack wise, and (for the newbies) get a tour of the Ed Sullivan Theatre – yes, I’ve stood on the spot where the Beatles performed and sat behind Dave’s desk – and just gather. Over the years, we’ve come to know staffers, writers, and producers from the show – even the security guy. (And Rupert Jee, who owns the Hello Deli next door to Dave’s theatre? Nicest and most modest guy in the world.) This year will (obviously) be the last assemblage (and I have to miss it, dammit; it’s during our preview week for Grey Gardens – which you should see, since it’s going to be a remarkable show, even with me. But I know where my heart will be Monday the 18 th at 3:30 pm PT), but the memories of Davecons past will linger.

What was really happening behind that desk.

What was really happening behind that desk.

Now, in spite of all of that, I was sure that, given how, in recent years, the show isn’t what it once was (Dave’s lost a lot of interest in doing the show, it feels like), that when it was over, I’d be sad, but not too much so, But now that the number of remaining shows is in the single digits, I’m starting to feel the loss already, and know I’m going to be a mess when Paul Shaffer and the band hit that final final note to end the show.
The thing that got me thinking about all of this tonight was that, as we were leaving rehearsal tonight, I mentioned that I had no idea what I was going to write about this week (is it that obvious?), and one of my fellow cast members, who is determined to turn my name into a hashtag, said I should write about that. I begged off, thinking it as uninteresting as I am, the idea of becoming any kind of a meme is even moreso. But it did remind me of how, not only are the AFLers responsible for a couple of my favorite nicknames, but turned me into an acronym that also doubles as a hashtag I’m happy to use. (Seriously; it’s in the Urban Dictionary on the prestigious Internet.)

At this point in an article, I usually try to bring a couple of seemingly unrelated points together in an effort to make a larger point, but I have to admit I got nothin’ in that regard this time. Being in rehearsal, I haven’t had time to see anything to comment on, really. (Other than Stupid Fucking Bird at SF Playhouse, which is a really interesting production and has been sticking in my head, not for the least reason that it’s making me rethink my approach to translating Chekhov; that and Sister Play at the Magic, which was really good and criminally underlooked.) What’s been at the forefront of my mind in terms of “entertainment” and art has been Dave Letterman.

So, while this hasn’t been the most incisive, analytical, or insightful of articles, it is the smallest of explanations for why I’m both so thankful for a man who’s played a major part in shaping American comedy for the last 40 years and a warning that in two weeks, I won’t be in much of a mood to write.

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.