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: 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 …