Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Pet Peeves in Arts Journalism

Marissa Skudlarek pens her penultimate column.

We’re winding down Theater Pub and winding down the blog, so as the longest-serving blog contributor, I thought I would use my next-to-last column to complain about my biggest arts-journalism pet peeves.

(This is not meant as an indictment of anyone who has written for this blog, just of general trends and irksome phrases that bother me.)

“The Bard” — This nickname is just so corny, promotes a false idea of Shakespeare as some kind of Merrie England wandering minstrel, and contributes to the problematic belief that Shakespeare is the greatest genius who ever lived and we mere mortals are unworthy of him. (There’s a reason that overzealous admiration of Shakespeare is called “Bardolatry.”) And yet I feel like the use of this phrase is only becoming more common because “The Bard” is 8 characters while “Shakespeare” is 11. (Thanks, Twitter!) Can’t we just agree to call him “Shax”?

“Penned” — This is a pretentious, cutesy word to use as a synonym for “wrote.” When I hear the word “wrote,” with its grinding r and hard t, I picture someone laboring over a messy notebook with a sputtering pen, forcing the words out. When I hear “penned,” I picture a lady in a negligee, sitting at a dainty writing table with a quill pen poised in her hand. Authoresses pen. Writers write.

“The play’s the thing” — I have seen countless theater-related articles headlined “The Play’s the Thing” and if this was ever clever or funny, it no longer is. As a child, my parents once convinced me to use “The Play’s the Thing” as the title for some book report or essay that I wrote about theater. I am still ashamed of having done that.

“Unbelievable” — In slang, “unbelievable” is a compliment and a synonym for “amazing,” but I always find it ludicrous when it is used in theater reviews as a compliment. The goal of mainstream, realist theater is believability, so when a critic writes something like “John Doe was unbelievable in the role of Willy Loman!” and means it as praise, the critic just ends up sounding like an idiot.

“Kinetic,” “melodic” — Writing about theater really means writing about many different art forms that combine to create a show. A critic reviewing a new musical may find herself evaluating the story, the dialogue, the music, the lyrics, the singing, the acting, the dancing, the direction, the sets, the costumes, and the lighting. It’s hard to write about abstract art forms like dance and music, though, and many theater critics have no special training in those disciplines. (In his book, Sondheim complains that music critics never review Broadway scores and theater critics often know nothing about music.) So in order to say something and sound knowledgeable, critics often fall back on phrases like “kinetic choreography” or “melodic songs.” But do those phrases really tell you anything?

“Stoppard/Sondheim has a heart after all” — This has been a staple of theater criticism since the 1980s. Both of these writers (whom I admire immensely, if it wasn’t obvious) came to prominence in the ’60s with works of clever, glittering wit; then, in the ’80s, critics started to perceive a new emotional depth in their work. You can quibble with this reductive description of their careers, but, more to the point, it’s no longer news to point out that the men who wrote Arcadia or “Not A Day Goes By” are perfectly capable of breaking your heart.

Lack of knowledge of the past — Over the past year, I’ve read articles claiming that “the Schuyler Sisters are the best female musical-theater characters ever” and “Rey from Star Wars is the best movie heroine ever.” I like the Schuyler Sisters and Rey just fine, I am pleased at the increased attention paid to female representation in art, but to claim that these are the “best characters ever” is appallingly shortsighted. Yeah, yeah, the Internet demands hyperbole and most people could afford to be more wide-ranging in the art that they consume, but wanting to write about how much you love a recent work of art is no reason to put down all the art that came before it.

Too much knowledge of the past — At the same time, it really annoys me when older critics spend the bulk of their theater reviews reminiscing about how the original production did it. I feel like this reinforces the belief that theater is for old, rich people who’d rather look to past glories than attempt to push the art form forward. I was fortunate enough to see The Producers in 2001 starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, but when it’s revived in 2036 starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Justin Bieber, I hope I can take their performances on their own merits.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If she has ever committed any of these sins in her own writing, please feel free to point it out in the comments.

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Theater Around The Bay: Year-End Round-Up Act 1

Well, we’ve made it- the end of 2014! It’s been a tremendous year of learning and change, tragedy and triumph, and our eight staff bloggers are here to share with you some of their own highlights from a year of working, writing and watching in the Bay Area Theater scene (and beyond)! Enjoy! We’ll have more highlights from 2014 tomorrow and Wednesday! 

Ashley Cowan’s Top 5 Actors I Met This Year (in random order!)

1) Heather Kellogg: I had seen Heather at auditions in the past but she always intimidated me with her talent, pretty looks, and bangin’ bangs. Luckily for me, I had the chance to meet her at a reading early in the year and I immediately started my campaign to be friends. She also just amazed me in Rat Girl.

2) Justin Gillman: I feel like I saw Justin in more roles than any other actor in 2014 but I was completely blown away by his performance in Pastorella. What I appreciated so much about his time on stage was that underneath an incredible, honest portrayal was an energy that simply longed to be; there’s something so beautiful about watching someone do what they love to do and do it so well.

3) Kitty Torres: I absolutely loved The Crucible at Custom Made and while so many of the actors deserve recognition for their work, I really wanted to commend Kitty for her part in an awesome show. She had to walk the fine line of being captivating, but still and silent, while also not taking attention away from the action and dialogue happening around her in the play’s opening scene. And she nailed it. I met her in person weeks later in person and my goodness, she’s also just delightful.

4) Vince Faso: I knew of Vince but we officially met at a party in February of this year. I enjoyed getting to know him both in person and on stage but it was his roles in Terror-Rama that made me realize that Vince is like a firework; while the sky may be beautiful on its own, when he walks on stage, he naturally lights it up in a new way.

5) Terry Bamberger: I met Terry at an audition and she’s the opposite of someone you’d expect to meet in such an environment. She was incredibly kind, supportive, and while you’re hoping you get into the play, you start to equally root for her to be in it too. And after seeing Terry in Three Tall Women, it’s clear that she’s also someone who deserves to be cast from her range and skills alone.

Barbara Jwanouskos’s Top 5 Moments in Bay Area Theater Where I Admired the Writer

This year has been one of momentous changes. I spent the first five months completing the last semester of the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University and receiving my MFA. I moved back to Bay Area and since then, have tried to become enmeshed in the theater scene once again. I haven’t had the resources to see all the performances I would have liked, but this list puts together the top five moments since being back that I’ve not only enjoyed the performance, but I found myself stuck with an element of the show that made me appreciate what the playwright had put together. In no particular order…

1) The Late Wedding by Christopher Chen at Crowded Fire Theater: Chris is known for his meta-theatrical style and elements – often with great effect. I have admired the intricacy of Chris’s plays and how he is able to weave together a satisfying experience using untraditional narrative structures. While watching The Late Wedding, I found myself at first chuckling at the lines (I’m paraphrasing, but…), “You think to yourself, is this really how the whole play is going to be?” and then finding a deeper meaning beyond what was being said that revolved around the constructs we build around relationships and how we arbitrarily abdicate power to these structures. Then, of course, I noticed that thought and noted, “Man, that was some good writing…”

2) Superheroes by Sean San José at Cutting Ball Theater with Campo Santo: I was talking with another playwright friend once who said, “Sean can take anything and make it good – he’s a phenomenal editor,” and in the back of my head, I wondered what types of plays he would create if behind the wheel as playwright. In Superheroes, there is a moment where the mystery of how the government was involved in the distribution of crack unfolds and you’re suddenly in the druggy, sordid, deep personal space of actual lives affected by these shady undertakings. Seeing the powerlessness against addiction and the yearning to gain some kind of way out – I sat back and was just thinking, “Wow, I want to write with that kind of intense emotional rawness because that is striking.” I left that play with butterflies in my stomach that lasted at least two hours.

3) Fucked Up Chronicles of CIA Satan and Prison Industry Peter and Never Ending Story by Brit Frazier at the One Minute Play Festival (Playwrights Foundation): Clocking in at under a minute each – these two plays that opened the One Minute Play Festival’s Clump 6 after Intermission were among the most striking images and moments for me of that festival. Brit’s two plays were hard-hitting, pull-no-punches, extremely timely works that I just remember thinking, “Now that is how to tell a whole story in just one minute.” I was talking to a friend about the festival and he said, “Even though they were only a minute, it’s funny how you can tell who really knows how to write.” I totally agree, and the first plays that I thought of when he said that were Brit’s.

4) Millicent Scowlworthy by Rob Handel at 99 Stock Productions:
I was only familiar with Aphrodisiac and 13P on a most basic level when I decided to apply to Carnegie Mellon, but, of course, training with a working playwright and librettist, you can’t help but be curious about his other work. Though I hadn’t read Millicent Scowlworthy, the title alone was something that I figured I’d enjoy. Seeing the production this summer, I had another “So grateful I got to train with this guy” moment as I watched the plot swirl around the looming question that the characters kept on attacking, addressing, backing away from at every moment. The desperate need for the kids to act out the traumatic event from their past and from their community felt so powerfully moving. I understood, but didn’t know why – it was more of a feeling of “I know this. This is somewhere I’ve been.” And to me, what could be a better feeling to inspire out your audience with your writing?

5)
Year of the Rooster by Eric Dufault at Impact Theater: I’d met Eric at a La MaMa E.T.C. playwriting symposium in Italy a number of years ago. We all were working on group projects so you got less of a sense of what types of plays each person wrote and more of their sources of inspiration. I have to say, going to Impact to see Year of the Rooster was probably THE most enjoyable experience I’ve had in theater this year – just everything about it came together: the writing, the directing, the space, the performances… There was pizza and beer… But I was profoundly engaged in the story and also how Eric chose to tell it and it was another moment where I reflected, “where are the moments I can really grab my key audience and give them something meaty and fun?”

Will Leschber’s Top 5 Outlets That Brought You Bay Area Theater (outside of a theater)

5) Kickstarter: The Facebook account of everyone you know who crowd-funded a project this year. Sure, it got old being asked to donate once every other week to another mounting production or budding theater project. BUT, the great news is, with this new avenue of financial backing, many Bay Area theater projects that might have otherwise gone unproduced got their time in the sun. This could be viewed as equally positive or negative… I like to look on the bright side of this phenomenon.

4) Blogging: San Francisco Theater Pub Blog- I know, I know. It’s tacky to include this blog on our own top 5 list. But hey, just remember this isn’t a ranking of importance. It’s just a reminder of how Bay Area theater branches out in ways other than the stage. And I’m proud to say this is a decent example. There, I said it.

3) YouTube: A good number of independent theater performances are recorded for posterity. Theater Pub productions of yesteryear and past Olympians festival readings are no exception. I’d like to highlight Paul Anderson who tirelessly recorded this year’s Olympians Festival: Monsters Ball. Due to his efforts and the efforts of all involved, the wider community can access these readings. For a festival that highlights a springboard-process towards playwriting improvement, that can be a very valuable tool.

2) Hashtags: #Theater, #HowElseWouldWeFollowEachOther, #MyNewPlay, #YourNewPlay, #Hashtags, #KeywordsSellTickets

1) The Born Ready podcast: Each week Rob Ready and Ray Hobbs tear into the San Francisco theater scene with jokes and, dare I say it, thoughtful commentary. Looking for a wide spanning podcast that touches on the myriad levels of theater creation, production, performance and all things in between? Crack a beer and listen up! This is for you.

Charles Lewis III’s Top 5 Invaluable Lessons I Learned

This past year was a wild one; not fully good or bad. I achieved some career milestones AND failed to meet some goals. I got 86’d from some prominent companies AND formed new connections with others. With it all said and done, what have I got to show for it? Well, here are five things that stand out to me:

1) “Be mindful of what I say, but stand by every word.” I said in my very first official column piece that I had no intention of trolling – and I don’t – but when I start calling people “asshole” (no matter how accurate), it can run the risk of personal attack rather than constructive criticism. I’m trying to stick to the latter. And believe me, I have no shortage of criticism.

2) “Lucid dreams are the only way to go.” There are some projects, mostly dream roles, that I now know I’ll never do. What’s occurred to me recently is that I shouldn’t limit the creation of my dream projects to just acting. Lots of venues opened up to me recently, and they’ve set off cavalcade of ideas in my head. They might not be what I originally wanted, but it’s great to know I have more options than I first thought.

3) “It’s only ‘too late’ if you’ve decided to give up.” I don’t believe in destiny (“everything is preordained”), but I do believe in fate (the perfect alignment of seemingly random circumstance). I kinda took it for granted that the chances of me making a living at performance art had passed me by, then this year I was offered several more chances. Which ones I take is still in flux, it’s made me reassess what’s important to me about this art form.

4) “Burn a bridge or two. It’s nice to see a kingdom burn without you.” This year someone (whom I shall call “Hobgoblin”) tried to put a curse on me. Nothing magical, but more along the lines of a “You’ll never work in this town again” kinda curse. Years ago I might have been worried, but I knew his words were just that. Instead I threw back my head, started laughing, and said “Oh, Hobgoblin…”

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5) “If you EVER have the chance to work with Alisha Ehrlich, take it.” If I had to pick a “Person of The Year” for Bay Area Theatre, she’d be it. I acted alongside her in The Crucible this year and when some of us were losing focus, she brought her A-game Every. Single. Night. Most of us can only hope to be as dedicated to our work.

Anthony Miller’s Top 5 People I Loved Working With This Year

There were way more than 5, but I just wanted these people to know how much I appreciated everything they did this year!

1) Colin Johnson: This fucking guy, he was a huge part of my year and the success of Terror-Rama. He’s a fantastic Director, resourceful as hell a never ending source of positivity and enthusiasm and a swell guy .

2) Alandra Hileman: The courageous Production Stage Manager of Terror-Rama. Smart, unafraid to give an opinion or tell an actor, designer director or producer “no”, in fact she’s fantastic at “No”.

3) Brendan West: Brendan is the Composer of Zombie! The Musical!, we had our first conversation about writing the show in 2007. Since then, it’s been produced a few times, but never with live music. Working with Brendan again to finally showcase the score live in concert was incredible.

4) Robin Bradford:  In the last 3 years, when no one believed in me, Robin Bradford believed in me. This year, I was lucky enough to direct staged readings of her plays, The Ghosts of Route 66 (Co-Written by Joe Wolff) and Low Hanging Fruit. I love getting to work with the amazing actors she wrangles and incredible work she trusts me with.

5) Natalie Ashodian: My partner in life, devoted cat mother and so much more, this year, she has been my Producer, Costume Designer, Graphic Designer, Film Crew Supervisor, Zombie Wrangler and Copy Editor. She is the best. The. Best.

Allison Page’s Top 5 Moments That Made Me Love Being A Theater Maker In The Bay Area

1) The Return Of Theater Pub: I just have to say it – I’m thrilled that Theater Pub’s monthly shows are starting up again in January. It’s such a unique theater-going experience and encourages a different type of relationship to theater which is essential to new audience bases who maybe think that it isn’t for them. It infuses life and a casual feel to our beloved dramatics and welcomes any and all to have a beer and take in some art. I look forward to seeing what the new year will bring for TPub and its artistic team! And obviously, we’ll be here with ye olde blog.

2) Adventures At The TBA Conference: That sounds more thrilling and wild than it actually is. What happened is that I found I had a bunch of opinions about things! WHO KNEW?! Opinions about things and shows and companies and ideals and art and the conference itself. Conferences aren’t a perfect thing – never will be, because they’re conferences – but it does shine a light on what it is we’re doing, and that’s a biggie. Also I had a lot of whiskey with some new and old theater faces before the final session so that was cool.

3) The Opening Of The New PianoFight Venue: This is clearly getting a lot of mention from bay area theater people, because it’s exciting. No, it’s not the first theater to open up in the Tenderloin (HEYYYY EXIT Theatre!) but another multi-stage space is really encouraging. This next year will be a big one for them. Any time you’re doing something big and new, that first year is a doozy. Here’s hopin’ people get out to see things in the TL and support this giant venture. I will most definitely be there – both as an audience member and as a theater maker. It’s poised to be a real theatrical hub if enough people get on board. GET SOME!

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4) Seeing The Crucible: Seeing Custom Made’s production of The Crucible was exciting for a bunch of reasons, starting with the fact that I’ve never seen a production of it filled with actors instead of high school students. IT WAS GREAT. Yes, surprise, it’s not a boring old standard. It can be vital and thrilling and new but somehow not new at the same time. It was so full of great performances in both the larger roles and the not so large ones, and it really felt like everyone was invested in this big wrenching story they believed in – thus getting the audience to believe in it, too. Maybe that sounds like it should be common, but it’s not as much as it should be.

5) Everything That Happens At SF Sketchfest: Man, I love Sketchfest. Not just participating in it, but seeing everything I can (you can’t see all the things because there are so many, but I do what I can do). It’s this great combination of local and national stand up, improv, sketch, tributes, talkbacks, and indefinable stuff which takes over the city and points to the bay area as a place able to sustain a gigantic festival of funny people. And audiences go bonkers for the big name acts who come to town. The performers themselves get in prime mingling time with each other – something funny people can be pretty awkward about, but in this case we all know it’s going to be weird and we just go for it.

Dave Sikula’s Five Theatre Events That Defined 2014 for Me

1) Slaughterhouse Five, Custom Made Theatre Company: I’ve previously mentioned the night we had to abort our performance because of an actor injury. (I insisted at the time that it was the first time that it had happened to me in 40 years of doing theatre. I’ve since been informed that, not only had it happened to me before, it happened at the same theatre only two years ago.) Regardless, it marked for me a lesson about the magic, and hazards, of live performance. The idea that, not only can anything happen on stage, but that, if the worst comes to the worst, a company of performers will do all they can to come together and make a show work even in the most altered of circumstances.

2) The Suit, ACT: A touring production, but one that provided an invaluable reminder about simplicity. In the 80s, I’d seen Peter Brook’s nine-hour production of The Mahabrarata, and what struck me at that time was how stunningly simple it was. Brook’s faith and trust in cutting away pretense and bullshit and concentrating on simple storytelling – in a manner that is unique to a live performance; that is to say, acknowledging that we’re in the theatre, and not watching television or a movie, was a lesson in stripping things down to their essence and letting the audience use their imaginations to fill in and intensify the story.

3) The Farnsworth Invention, Palo Alto Players: I’ve written at extreme length about the controversy over our production. I’m not going to rehash it again, but I mention it as another lesson; that, in the best circumstances, theatre should provoke our audiences. Not to anger them, but to challenge and defend their preconceptions; to make them defend and/or change their opinions.

4) The Nance, Century at Tanforan: Something else I’ve written about is my frustration at how, even though we’re finally getting “televised” presentations of plays in movie theatres, they’re almost always from London. I have nothing against British theatre (well, actually, I have plenty against it, but nothing I want to get into here …) I realize American producers don’t want to cut into their profits if they can help it, but not only did film versions of Phantom and Les Mis not seem to hurt their theatrical box office receipts, is there any reason to believe that shows like The Bridges of Madison County or even Side Show wouldn’t have benefitted from either the extra publicity or extra cash that national exposure would have given them? Similarly, would broadcasts of the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen Waiting for Godot or the Nathan Lane/Brian Dennehy The Iceman Cometh do any harm? I’ll stipulate they don’t have a lot of title recognition, but did The Nance or Company other than their star leading performers? And let’s not limit it to New York. I’d like to see what’s happening in Chicago or Denver or Ashland or San Diego or Dallas or DC or Atlanta or Charlotte or Louisville or Portland or Seattle or Boston or Cleveland – or even San Francisco. The shortsightedness of producers in not wanting to grow their audiences at the expense of some mythical boost to the road box office (and even that, only in major cities) is nothing short of idiotic.

5) The Cocoanuts, Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Another one I wrote about at the time. One of those frustratingly rare occasions when a production not only met my high expectations, but wildly surpassed them. Hilarious and spontaneous, it was another reminder of why a live theatrical performance is so exciting when the actors are willing to take chances in the moment and do anything and are skilled enough to pull them off.

Marissa Skudlarek’s Top 5 Design Moments in Bay Area Theater

1) Liz Ryder’s sound design for The Crucible at Custom Made Theatre Company: Mixing Baroque harpsichord sounds with the frightening laughter of teenage girls, it created an appropriately spooky atmosphere. The friend who I saw The Crucible with went from “What does a sound designer do, anyway?” to “Now I see what sound design can do!” thanks to this show. I also want to honor Liz for the work she did on my own show, Pleiades, composing delicate finger-picked guitar music for scene transitions and putting together a rockin’ pre-show/intermission mix.

2) The Time magazine prop in The Pain and the Itch at Custom Made Theatre Company:

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This play takes place on Thanksgiving 2006, and the subtle but real differences between 2006 and 2014 can be tricky to convey (after all, clothing and furniture haven’t changed much in these eight years). But the November 6, 2006 issue of Time, with President Bush on the cover, takes you right back to the middle of the last decade. Even better, actor Peter Townley flipped through the magazine and paused at an article about Borat. Since Townley’s character was dating a broadly accented, bigoted Russian, it felt just too perfect.

3) Eric Sinkkonen’s set design for Wittenberg at the Aurora Theatre: This clever comedy takes place in the 1500s, but features puns and allusions of a more recent vintage. The set design perfectly captured the play’s tone: sure, Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door, but the door’s already covered with flyers advertising lute lessons, meetings of Wittenberg University’s Fencing Club, etc. — just like any bulletin board at any contemporary university.

4) The whirring fan in Hir, at the Magic Theatre: I am, somewhat notoriously, on record as disliking this show. But the holidays are a time for generosity, so let me highlight an element of Hir that I found very effective: at the start of the play, the sound design incorporates a whirring fan. (The monstrous mother, Paige, runs the air conditioning constantly because her disabled husband hates it.) You don’t necessarily notice the white noise at first, but the whole tone of the play changes when another character turns the AC off at a dramatic moment.

5) Whitehands’ costume in Tristan and Yseult, at Berkeley Rep:

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Technically, I saw this show in late 2013, but it ran into 2014, so I’m including it. Whitehands (played by Carly Bawden) is Tristan’s other, less-famous lover. Her little white gloves were a clever nod to her name – and, crooning “Perfidia” in a yellow Fifties suit, pillbox hat, cat-eye sunglasses, and handbag hanging perfectly in the crook of her arm, she made heartbreak look impossibly chic.

What are your top choices, picks, experiences from the last year? Let us know! 

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Thoughts on Garbage and Being Young and Stupid

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 …