Friday, May 27, 2016

An Open Letter to the Cast of "Assassins"


I want to try and say what’s in my heart about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I’ve had to be a part of the “Assassins” team. Heh. That doesn’t sound quite right, but so be it.

At the beginning of this week, I did not know how I was going to survive it. Three to four rehearsals a week suddenly became eight straight days of rehearsals/performances for Buck Creek’s production of “Assassins.” However, as the week progressed, the evenings spent at the Buck Creek Playhouse became the highlight of my day. I think I will never grow tired of watching this incredible show.

Did I mention I was the assistant director for this show? I use that term loosely. I’m the Joe Biden of the team. Scott Robinson is a one-man directing phenomenon, the alpha and the omega of the stage; actors clamber to work with him because he is king. He no more needs me there than Batman needs Robin. But in his graciousness, he took me on as an intern, an apprentice, and gave me the incredible gift of permission to sit at the right hand of the master.

There are not enough words to thank him for this humbling and life-changing experience of being a part of this incomparable show. What he assembled for “Assassins” has to be one of the most gifted collective of actors ever to grace a stage. Truly, after watching these eight weeks, I cannot make up my mind as to who is the strongest performer in the show. 

Is it Scott as Giuseppe Zangara, whose hatred wafts over the audience like a hot desert wind during “How I Saved Roosevelt”? Or is his best moment when he sneers his way through difficult Italian phrases or when he thrusts his gun into the air with the others on “Another National Anthem”?

Is it Trenton as John Hinckley Jr. whose young adult angst is painful to watch? I actually feel sorry for him as he’s mercilessly bullied by the Squeaky Fromme character. He sings a duet with Stacia (Squeaky) which has got to be one of the unsung high points of the performance. His character sings to Jodie Foster and hers sings to Charlie Manson and they have delivered it flawlessly night after night. It has the stuff of a top-40 love ballad and you can get caught up in the pain and yearning of the lyrics, until you remember the creepiness of their fixations.

Stacia as the aforementioned Squeaky:  even as a background character in some of the scenes, her presence on the stage draws your eye. The tension between the conflicted characters is palpable; you can see it and you can smell it; and then you see her inhaling it like secondhand smoke, like an intoxicating gas and then she clearly thrives on it. For Squeaky, if there is strife in the room, all is right with the world.

Cathy as the inept Sarah Jane Moore:  she and Stacia are, yes, the comic relief in a show called “Assassins.” She has an innate understanding of her role in this show. Her Midwestern twang, nuanced line delivery and facial expressions in reaction to Hulen’s Manson-obsessed treatises will steal the show.

Mark IS John Wilkes Booth -- the wig, the ‘stache, the coat, the GLOVES. The resemblance is remarkable. He is capable of taking the audience from disgust to empathy to respect even, for singing out his heartfelt indictment of Abraham Lincoln. His velvety vocals, his rapid-fire delivery, finally, and finally, his smoothly chilling handling of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Book Depository is enough to induce stress dreams.

Luke:  throughout the show, he plays the Balladeer, a calm and reasonable voice to challenge the persuasive Proprietor, played by Steven Linville, as if he were a carnival barker in a Stephen King book. How can this gentle person play this evil person so convincingly? More nightmares.

But back to Luke… When the ensemble parts and exits, you suddenly see the Balladeer, no longer in his good-natured woodsman’s flannel shirt. Suddenly, he is in a vaguely recognizable, plain white t-shirt, in a room surrounded by cardboard boxes. As the location of the scene slowly dawns on the over-50 crowd, you can cut the tension with a knife. Booth and the rest of the assassins sooth Oswald’s conscience and play to his need for recognition – and when Squeaky does the honors (you see on her face that she is VERY honored) of handing over the Mannlicher-Carcano, the audience will hold its breath. It is touch and go for a moment, and when Oswald finally accepts the rifle, we are dismayed, almost as if our silent collective of ‘no…no…don’t’ could actually change history.

Jake’s portrayal of the forgotten Leon Czolgosz and Daniel’s crazed reenactment of Sam Byck:  they both represent the common man in this show, so don’t be shocked when you realize that you totally understand their points of view. McDuffee’s melodic bass voice adds much to the harmonies and you can feel his disappointment in the only life he’ll ever have in his moments of silent brooding. As for Byck, be grossed out all you want by the filthy wife-beater t-shirt he wears under his Santa suit, but he’s right. He’s 100% right. Who DO we believe? And yes, we ARE scared. And what can we do about it? One can’t help but think of the chaos of the 2016 election cycle as bits of greasy French fry particles fly from his mouth during his diatribe and stick to the microphone of his tape recorder. He delivers a magnificently brilliant performance and never once loses the crazed look in his eyes.

One of my favorite parts of the show is watching David, as Charles Guiteau, react to Squeaky’s explanation of why lipstick is red. It’s just a small moment, but it speaks to the dedication of Wood to his craft. Another actor would have pulled a horrified face and gone for the laugh, but I’ve seen the seriousness of Wood’s approach to character as he walks through his part pre-performance every night. As he listens to her rambling about the cancerous guts of mice, his expression changes – without moving his face. No really. I detect no movement, yet his expression before, and then after, is noticeably different. His irrepressible Guiteau is likable to the end, in his dapper hat and suit coat, albeit with no shoes (a factual detail). He tries to woo Sarah Jane Moore, and impress Byck with his toast. He sings and dances to the gallows and we are sad and horrified at the sound of his neck snapping.


Finally, I am even in awe of the ensemble: Michael, Jessica, Logan, Bryan and Mary. Their animated performance as members of the crowd is so wonderful that you truly don’t know whom to watch. The assortment of expressions, gestures and behind the action vignettes is highly entertaining. I’ve taken to smiling throughout their numbers and I’m glad I’ve gotten to see the show so many times because while watching Jessica and Bryan, I miss what Mary, Michael and Logan are doing. If I’m watching Mary, Michael and Logan, then I miss what Jessica and Bryan are doing. I’m just glad I was there when Bryan lifted Jessica into the air so she could more easily see and be seen. Bahahaha!

So. It’s been an incredible ride. And I can’t thank everyone enough for taking me in to the Buck Creek family, talking to me, listening to my small notes, and – tee-hee – Friending me on Facebook. Words can’t express how honored I am to be a part of this production. I can’t wait to watch it again tonight—and eight more times after that. Mostly, I can’t WAIT to see the audience’s reaction.  And I very much hope they understand that they are seeing more than a musical – so much more. Break a leg tonight, guys.

With love and respect---


Chris 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Theatre Magic Can't Be Denied

It has been more than a year since my last post here, but I feel that Friday night's performance of Paranormal High School needs to recognized here in the annals of KidsPlay's history.

KidsPlay, for those of you who are reading here for the first time, has been in existence for 18 years.  In that time, we have done 36 shows:  one in the spring and one in the fall.  Our actors are in the 3rd through 8th grades, after which they "graduate" from KidsPlay and go on to their high school theatre departments.  In the spring of 2014, we lost ten 8th grade graduates; in the spring of 2015, we lost another eight to high school.  That's a lot of talent, so we are definitely in a rebuilding phase.

Oh, make no mistake--the talent is there.  The mantle of leadership has passed to Brynn Elliott and Nolan Espich, Autumn Foster, Grace Kemp and Allison Kirklin, Lainie Lawrence, Luke McCartney and Tyler Pipkin.  These kids carry the show on their shoulders.  They set the example and give guidance and advice to the youngers in the cast.  I count on them for so many things, both spoken and unspoken.  Without them, KidsPlay would be a sad group indeed.

Since the fourth week of rehearsals for Paranormal High School, I have felt a bit discouraged about this show.  It was suffering from the loss of last year's talent.  It lacked the physical comedy and blatant edgy humor of previous KidsPlay shows.  The kids struggled with character, lines, and the sometimes-scary nature of the show. The characters were mostly normal people with only moderately-humorous dialogue.   Rehearsals were fun, but mostly routine.  I felt I hadn't picked a good script for this particular group of actors.  It was just, across the board, a flat show.  Meh.  There's always next show.

*********************

As most of you know, I HATE the phrase "it all come together in the end."  My response?  Well, YES, it does, but not by magic.  A lot of HARD work, preparation and planning, hard work, attention to detail, hard work and communication go into the making of a show.  We want it to LOOK like magic; ergo, most people think it IS magic.  Wrong.  You've got, got, got to lay the all-important groundwork.

H-O-W-E-V-E-R....I can no longer discount the existence of Theatre Magic.

What happened on Friday night, when we put these kids in front of a live, LAUGHING audience, was nothing short of miraculous, undeniable MAGIC.  The audience response to our lively, funny, fast-paced show was phenomenal!  Laughter, applause.  Seriously, what more could you ask?

Our leadership, our star power was out there, delivering lines that had long-since ceased to amuse--  delivering them with comedic timing to die for, timing that would be the envy of any Broadway actor.  And getting laughs!

  • Brynn Elliott, previously known for playing mostly 'straight man' parts is suddenly the Queen of Comedy.  
  • Luke McCartney has been honing his acting skills since attending the CrazyLake Drama Camp in KINDERGARTEN.  He drew not just a line between his feigned 'bad actor' performance and his 'good actor' performance, he put the Grand Canyon between the two different characters when he threw down his copy of Macbeth (no spoilers; you'll have to seen the show) and delivered some of Shakespeare's most famous dialogue.
  • Tyler Pipkin, Allison Kirklin making sure the audience understood not only the plot of the play, but the plot of Macbeth  with LONG paragraphs of dialogue, delivered with enthusiasm, humor and interest.
  • Grace Kemp.  Shudder....  Grace Kemp as the ghost of a dead actress still looking to play her most famous role.  If the hair doesn't stand up on the back of  your neck, then you must be Stephen King.

But oh, oh, OH that up-and-coming talent:

  • Show-Stealer Olivia Alldredge grabbing the mic from Nolan and pushing Wal-Mart like Flo pushes Progressive Insurance, 
  • First-Timer Bailey Chrabascz in her first time on stage and probably the first time she's ever yelled as the frustrated television producer of "Paranormal Discovery" 
  • First-Time Ella Kleiman in her possessed performance as Lady Macbeth.  Yes, Ella 'gets' Lady Macbeth and it's chilling.
  • Future Character Actor Corbin Elliott and the physical comedy HE-HIMSELF added to the locked-door scene
  • the Inimitable Olivia Greer and the Fearless Ashley Pipkin, both students, and both coming up with enough background 'stage business' to entertain the audience AND the stage crew behind the curtain.
  • the Incredible Carter Willey and his mannered performance as Principal Wolf brought both laugher AND applause at his entrances and exits.
Yeah, it DID all come together. And I haven't been this excited after an opening night in a long time. 

*******************


PS--Any actors that I didn't hug after last night's show, see me this evening and I'll correct that oversight. <3 div="">





Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Live Theatre--Gotta Love It"

So.  Sydera hung her wig on the 'hot lights' (we really should have put tape over that switch) and it melted.  The inside was blackened in several areas.  The blond hair fused together and turned dark brown in places.  When they brought it to me, it was still too hot to touch.  But a serious session with a curling iron, scissors and the addition of a feathered bow made of feathers from her boa and it was passable.  The show moved forward and she went on, just as hilarious as usual.

Trever went to pick up the kitchen chair for his 'lion-tamer bit', and the top of it just popped off.  He took it in stride, waving it about as if he were Charles Atlas himself.  Glad Rachelle wasn't there to see it.  That vintage table and chair kitchen set is a favorite of hers.  Chris entered moments later and point-blank asked him, IN the show, "Did you break this?"  Trever said, "I'm sorry!"  And Chris proceeded to try and put it back together as best she could.

Zane's phone, upside down and tangled in the legs of his ladder; and then, when it came time for him to stand, his foot got caught in the ladder.  Thank goodness he's already playing a doofus....  (<3 p="">
Then, during Trever's frenetic dash to try and get his mother's head out of the oven, the flat rolled a little and the refrigerator door swung open.  Dennis, our Safety Chairman, had us remove the latch so that no kids would ever get locked in accidentally.  The door just very slowly opened all the way up--180 degrees.  Glad I took the time to fill the 'never-seen' inside of it with a painted milk bottle, fruits and vegetables, bowls, and other stuff to give it that 'real fridge' look.  Trever eventually glanced over at it, gave one of his patented Trever-startle jumps, got up and closed it.

It's funny, that in theatre, we strive for the flawless, perfectly-executed performance, yet it's these stories--of which there are many, worse and funnier than these--that live in infamy.


  • Geoffrey's inability to 'find Freddie'
  • the picture that fell off the wall during 'the chase' and each cast member that ran by stopped and tried to rehang it, but then was forced to resume the chase sequence before the job was completed, until finally 'the mystery hand' appeared through the door and slowly slid it into place
  • an orange juice glass that went flying
  • Austin stuffing his mouth with the picnic cookies backstage during the final performance, forgetting that he had to come on stage and say a line immediately after
  • Jesse forgetting his photographs 'in the bushes'
  • pants that fell down during the dance
  • a fake cigarette accidentally set on fire
  • fog machines that set off the smoke alarm
  • An 'F-bomb' dropped by the Catholic school teacher during the Lord's Day matinee 
  • a missed entrance, leaving two 6th grade girls to ad-lib ten minutes of dialogue while sitting on a bench at the county fair--until they finally decided to 'call it a day' and go get a lemon shake-up
And many more....  Classics, now.  These are the things we talk about, late into the night at Steak n' Shake, remembering.  Laughing hysterically.  And me, the director, trying to frown, insisting that a mistake-free performance is the bar we're reaching for, but laughing in spite of myself all the same.

Live theatre.  You gotta love it.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Let Me Wake Up in the Morning to Find I Have Somewhere Exciting to Go...."

     I leaped out of bed this morning.  Song lyrics coursing through my head.

     "Let me wake up in the morning to find I have somewhere exciting to go....."  Okay, yeah, that's from A Chorus Line but it applies here.  There should be an actor's version of this song.

     I'm just coming off of three nights of auditions for Bye Bye Birdie.  It will be the first ever CrazyLake musical.  Yes, I've come full circle now.  Bye Bye Birdie was the show I did in high school that started this whole theatre mess.  Reid LeFavour and Hilda Studabaker, wherever you are, thank you, thank you.  You have no idea how you have impacted my life.

     My co-director, music director and choreographer is Amy Studabaker--no relation to Hilda, but...certainly serendipitous, don't you think?  Last year, she was the music teacher at Mt. Vernon High School and I was the drama director--a job I stumbled into quite by accident.  I insisted upon meeting the person I with whom I would be working before even applying for the job.  We discovered that we were both from the same home town. of Bluffton...serendipitous x 2.  My family knew her family, and we have many touchstones in common, but to make a long story short, after she toured me through the building, we knew we were meant to be a team.

We worked one show together--The Music Man--at MV, and then she left on maternity leave and never came back.  End of story?  Not on your life!  When our high school production ended, she asked me, "So.  If I wanted to do some theatre, where would I go?"  [Oh, darlin', I'm so glad you asked!!]  And right then and there, Amy Studabaker and Christine Schaefer, two homegrown Bluffton girls, began laying the plans for CrazyLake's first musical, Bye Bye Birdie.

In the meantime, I directed Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a comedy that Amy took a small part in.  It was pretty much love at first sight between Amy and my CrazyLakers; our tight little family grew by one (two, if you count Patrick; three if you count Steve).  Amy directed her church choir; I directed another show at Mt. Vernon and a show at KidsPlay....and finally May , 2014, rolled into town.

Amy and I called in all our resources, all our markers.  We tapped into pockets of people we've been acquainting ourselves with from years past, shows past, jobs, past, friends, friends of friends, talented folks who lives we've touched and who have touched our lives, to come and audition for this show.

Auditions!  Such talent.  Such singers!  A preview of cra-a-a-a-zy choreography.  A demonstration of Amy's vocals.  Girls doing everything but setting their hair on fire to play the part of Kim.  Actors that knocked it out of the park for Albert, Mae Peterson, Hugo Peabody, and Ursula, and Mr. and Mrs. MacAfee.

I do believe that something's coming (thank you, West Side Story).  This could be the start of something big (thank you, Steve Allen).  The moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter is aligned with Mars (thank you, Hair).  What I mean is, I haven't been this excited about a show and a cast in awhile--well, at least since the last show, but this is different.  New.  Alive.  Buzzing with energy and excitement.  And. I. Can't. Wait.

Once again, I marvel at the frantic, frenetic, drama-filled (on multiple levels) life I lead.  How lucky I am to be here, in this time, in this place, collaborating with, quite honestly, the most talented people I know.  HOW did we all end up HERE?  HOW NOW?  What stars aligned to bring us all together?  I don't know, but I like it.  I LOVE it.  Theatre makes every day a holiday.

   

   


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What We Are Made Of...

Here is what we are made of:

I have these two young men who are co-starring in this show.  Both have been with KidsPlay since (at least) the third grade.  Both are very talented, but they bring very different skill sets to the stage. One of them, time and time again, has been my 'go-to guy' for the lead role, the dashing young hero, the love interest, the star of the show.  The other has been my 'go-to guy' for roles such as the clueless father, the king, the principal--in other words, the goofy sidekick, the 'funny guy' supporting role.  Both have made the absolute most of their very different characters.

This play, their final show together on the KidsPlay stage, is different.  They are paired together this time around, co-stars, equal billing, equal stage time.  Both are leaders.  Both are on stage for most of the show.  Both, in the past few days leading up to performance, have show the strain of being the ones to carry this show forward.  They have had their moments of stress, but both have bounced back the next rehearsal, ready for more.

A life in theatre is a life of criticism.  A director is constantly telling you what to do, how to improve.  In other words, "You're not good enough.  You're still not good enough.  You're okay now, but here's how to be even better."  And if you're a kid actor, then you have everybody from your older sibling, to your co-actors, to your backstage dad, to the lighting guy, for crissake, telling you what you're doing wrong and how to fix it.

My one lead guy, the one more used to the spotlight, has shined in this show.  I've reigned in his quirks, softened his vocals, and worked on making him more comedic than his previous 'straight man' roles have required.  My other lead guy has worked on slowing down, enunciating, and how to be more of a 'straight man' than he's played before, and how change up his line delivery.  I've worked with both of them on not upstaging each other, on being a team.  And to be honest, it's been a challenge.

Last night, at our Preview Performance, all I had hoped for came to pass.  An equally shared spotlight, continuity, smooth line delivery, flawless interaction.  Their individual performances blended together seamlessly into one co-performance.  Notes following the show, were full of praise for the one who had always played second-fiddle to the other on his spontaneous cleverness, the off-the-cuff bits he added, his clarity of voice and his consistency of character.  Numerous moments of applause from the cast, sitting and listening to the compliments.  Even his co-star jumped on the band wagon with praise for his stage partner.

But afterwards, the young man who had been the star of so many KidsPlay shows, the recipient of many, many good notes, pats on the back, congratulations for his performances, came up to me and asked, in earnest sincerity, "Is there anything I can do differently to bring my performance up to ________'s level?"

That is what we are made of here.  Amazing attitudes.  An amazing sense of team.  The understanding that we are all in this together and that the improvement of one is the improvement of us all.  We are made of this, and more:

1)  Being able to take a beating with a duffle bag full of socks.
2)  Spending the better part of the performance in handcuffs.
3)  Running from stage right to stage left behind the theatre in the rain.
4)  Changing costumes not once, not twice, but three times, and sometimes with in the span of just a couple minutes.
5)  Having to handle a ventriloquist dummy and act like you're not totally creeped out.
6)  Wearing a bald cap for the entirety of the show.
7)  Kissing TWICE on stage ("Ew, boys."  "Ew, girls.").
8)  Dealing with the stuffy and crowded conditions backstage at the Ricks.
9)  Having a 'butt' sewn into your costume, and a brassiere stuff with kleenexes because you're a 5th grade girl playing a 70-year-old woman.
10)  Making mistakes--spilled water, a suitcase that won't open, a prop thrown off stage, costumes that won't stay on--that look like they were all part of the show.

All this, and still more.  And we cannot WAIT to show the audience what we're made of.



Saturday, April 27, 2013

Why It's Hard to Find Good Children's Theatre Scripts: Example #692

From a collection of holiday plays.....


The name of the play is The Christmas Tree From Outer Space.

It is 12 pages long.

Within that 12 pages, it manages to introduce 16 characters, and this includes one double-cast (Man/Tree Salesman).  The list of characters includes (but is not limited to):  the Narrator, E. Tree, Queen Connifer, Treesa, Conifernicus, Palmala, Ministree, and having run out of 'clever' tree names, there are also, Tree #1, Tree #2, Tree #3, Tree #4, and Tree #5.

But wait, it gets better.

Setting:  Simple sets suggesting a Throne Room, the Planet Fred, Hollywood Boulevard, a living room and a Christmas tree lot--all within 12 pages of action.

Really??????




Oh, the Things We Acquire.....

Things we acquired for the past two KidsPlay shows (Attack of the Pom-Pom Zombies and Dr. Evil and the Basket of Kittens) that will probably go into deep storage never to be used again:

     1)  Five sets of wolf tales, furry gloves, and and ear hats.
     2)  Three metal period-style napkin holders (@$20 each...!!)
     3)  Four cast iron patio chairs.
     4)  A "Where's Waldo" costume and a mummy costume (that has had the seat sewn back in three times....)
     5)  Sixteen pairs of goggles.
     6)  Three foam core surfboards and 2 oars
     7)  Sixteen white lab coats.
     8)  Some 30 yards of tan and pink flowered ultra-suede material.
     9)  A Cher wig.
     10) A spinning bookshelf

Take note other theatre groups.  We are happy to rent or loan.  :-)