Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why Tevye is My Hero

So I've been watching this Tevye character for several weeks now. He's a poor man, he complains a lot; he yells a lot. He loves his family, his god, his heritage, and his community. He accepts his lot in life. But....there's more there than meets the eye.

I have a pretty short list of heroes: Lincoln, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Walt Disney, and Randy Pausch. These are people whose values/contributions to the world I revere. I'd like to add the multi-faceted character of Tevye to that list.

First of all, he must have done something right with his daughters. Although he doesn't always agree with their life choices, somewhere along the line--in a very femme-repressed society--he taught them to think for themselves, to stand up for themselves, and to go after happiness. Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava all have courage and take risks to find love and happiness in their lives. Honestly, what more could you want for your children?

Tevye, in his hundred years ago east European village has some of the same issues we have today. He sings about money and wanting to be a rich man, true. But the verse that jumps out at me is this: "If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray. And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall...that would be the sweetest thing of all." Ultimately, what he really wants is a little quiet time, a time to sit and reflect, and hear the inner voice that guides him through life. Yes...I'm right there with you, Tevye.

He loves his family, his five daughters, and ultimately, his wife, with whom he has shared 25 years of hardship in life. His life is very difficult, but he doesn't shirk his responsibilities. He loves his community and the traditions therein.

He is a forgiving man. What Chava did went against the very core of his being, everything he stood for and believed in. And although he can't forget, he does forgive her, and wishes her well with, "God go with you."

But I think what I admire about him most of all comes to light just after he celebrates his daughter's engagement to Lazar Wolf. There is a huge celebration in the tavern, and then the Constable shows up to burden Tevye with the announcement that there will be a 'demonstration' in his village... This is hard news, and he takes it as such, but...the Constable moves on. The music swells and Tevye, in spite of the difficulties of his life, in spite of what he has just been told, and the load he carries, is still able--always able--to find the strength and the joy within and slowly, slowly, he returns to his dance. This I admire about him and I hope that in spite of whatever hand I'm dealt in life, I, too, will always be able to hear the music and return to the dance.

So these things I admire about this 'plain, simple' musical theatre character. He's a model for us us all. God go with you, Tevye. And with us, too.

Nerves...No Hype This Time

Nervousness. What a strange, illusive, intangible concept this is.

Sunday--I got thrown off during the tech rehearsal because I didn't have my right bag to carry. How stupid. Brian said, "Don't worry, it's not about the acting tonight." Uh-huh, right. It's ALWAYS about the acting, Brian, and you know it.
Monday--nervous to the point of nausea. I did fine, however.
Tuesday--not quite so nervous...and I DID make a mistake, but I learned that I can recover. That's what I teach the kids--and they do it like breathing (I'm a good teacher....), but I really didn't know if I, myself, could do that.
Wednesday--back to being nervous again. I just couldn't get my breath. I felt dizzy, overheated (which I probably am in all those clothes), just weird. Being nervous is one thing, but not being able to support your speeches with breath is another. I drank a lot of water, ate all the cookies in my bag... I felt better after awhile. And the show went fine.

I don't know why I get so nervous.
I know my lines better than I know my address and phone number. In fact, I think everyone knows my lines. Hudson, that saint, has listened to me say them over and over and over again. HE knows them. Omg, I can never thank him enough for all the support and emotional handholding he's done for me. And DC, too.
I also think I'm...not too the show. I hope I am. So why should I be so nervous? Why can't I just relax and enjoy it? Everyone else seems to.
I asked Hudson if my nervousness shows. He said no. Wow. I almost can't believe that, especially when it's pulsing through me like the blood in my veins. He tells me what an enigma I am, to be so theatre-oriented, so good in the show, but so ill-at-ease there.... It is strange, isn't it?

I won't let anyone talk to me, or pat me on the back, or wish me well during the show. I just need to stay completely focused. That's not fun for Hudson. He loves the backstage camaradarie and he doesn't get any from me at all.

When I think about it in my head, it seems easy enough, a cakewalk, something I've done 10,000 times....for someone as extroverted and theatrical as me, it should be easy. I picture myself out there, smiling, confident, calmly, methodically, going through my part. Reacting to Beth, to CVett, to the audience's laughter, adding little bits, a kid playing in the home on the stage and in front of all the people. I can only hope and pray that's what I project and not the gritty nervousness I feel.

Break a leg, Christine. You CAN do this...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

On Hype and Nerves

"Meeting the challenge of making an audience laugh is one of the most rewarding things I have ever had the privilege to experience. I cannot WAIT for you to feel that when you step out in front of the audience after all this time directing, Chris. I'm not talking about the chuckles we got with our skits - I'm talking about the roar. The place will erupt with laughter, and it will be for YOU!"

This is what my friend Dennis wishes for me, as we head into this critical week, which will culminate in opening night of "Fiddler on the Roof". I won't let him say it to me in person because...what if I don't live up to my hype, everyone's expectations of me, my expectations of myself? I don't want to believe that I can jump off a building and fly. Human beings can't do that, and I can't either. Don't tell me because I don't want to hear it...not now. Maybe later.

You just...can't...think about it too much. Just do it. Just go out there and do it.

Oh, I get so nervous...

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Love Letter to My Director

Now, I'm not saying I'm all that as a director, but...I take what I do very seriously...

"Directing is a search for truth: truth in movement, truth in voice, in reaction, in facial expression, body position, physical location, and juxtaposition to others near you, etc., etc. When I’m watching, I’m watching for what rings true and what appears false. So when we say, “Does this work?”, we’re really saying, “Is this true?” The difference between what is true and what is false can be as slight as two steps this way, looking down instead of up, tone of voice or inflection. And sometimes it’s true one time; and it’s not true the next, because everything is always moving..."*

As a director, I'm mostly self-taught. I've used trial and error, instinct, and my sense of 'how it should feel' to guide my direction. I've known for awhile now that there was room to grow and I was looking for the time and the right experience to make that happen. Amazingly, it landed right in my lap.

I can't begin to share what this experience has been for me. Walking in the shoes of the actor, being on the other side of the clipboard...has been AMAZING. I know now what it feels like (per our previous director) to be yelled at, to be...disregarded, to feel frustrated and blocked. I also know now what it's like to hang on the every word of the director, and to wait--sometimes in vain--for that dog bone of praise.

And then, that director left and we fell into the hands of a legend. How could we get so lucky?

I’m not sure I can put into words the exhilarating rehearsal we had last night. We got some direction—some REAL direction—and it was all I had hoped it would be and more.

He took the blocking of our previous (non)director and completely revamped it. Put his thumbprint on it. Made it his. He fined-tuned us, talked about character and motivation and what we, in the role, should be thinking and feeling. It was...awesome. I soaked it up like a sponge, like a thirsty man in the desert. His style, I think, validated mine, and he TOTALLY met MY needs as an actor to run it, and run it again; the need of an actor to feel valued; and the need of an actor to front of him and in front of others.

I so much wanted this experience to go beyond just having fun with my theatre buddies. Because God only knows when I'll have an opportunity like this again. Thanks to our director, my One Director, it is all I'd hoped and more.

*from "The Show Turns the Corner"

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On Being IN the Show Instead of Directing It

You know, I almost didn’t do this. I wasn’t sure I wanted to ‘mix blood’ with the Ricks-Weil people. I didn’t think I could commit—I was going on vacation right in the middle of the rehearsal period, I was directing a teen show, conducting a drama camp, working full time. I was afraid of a musical.

I got a LOT of pressure from Beth and from Dave. They courted me, shall we say, pretty heavily. “A part made for you”, they said….. “You’d be perfect”, they said. “Mmmm….” I said.

The night of auditions was a busy night for me. I had auditions of my own for my teen show until 8 p.m. Couldn’t get down to the theater until the last minute...and a last minute decision it definitely was.

When I walked into the theater, someone--don't know who--said, “There she is!” and people applauded. Applauded. At the audition. Wow. But you can't allow stuff like that to sneak into your head. Praise is a drug that makes you think you can jump off a building and fly when you really can't.

And so I read and I got the part. And I’m thankful every day for this experience…that Dave and Beth pushed me and that I made the decision to take on this challenge. In spite of all the drama-drama, I am having the time of my life.

Every day. Thankful, EVERY DAY.

Friday, July 17, 2009

An Evening of Other People' Theatre

I have so many thoughts about this and I know that many of you wanted to hear my opinion, so I thought I'd kill several dozen birds (or hold several dozen conversations) with one blog post. So here are my thoughts.


In the beginning, honestly, I couldn't understand why everyone wanted to do this. I saw what they did last year, and it was no great shakes. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to attach his or her name to this show. But apparently, they did.
I heard a lot of reasons: experience, fun, young, likable directors, it was the only show in town, etc. They courted my prodigy with a ‘role just for you’, and when he asked my opinion, the advice I gave was to consider it CALENDAR IN HAND, rather than with his male actor's ego. He did, I think. He was able to fit it in. But that advice, in hindsight of course, turned out to be two-fold; there was another time-issue question that needed to be asked that maybe wasn't.

I had my doubts about the script. I tend not to enjoy (and certainly don't attempt) shows where some of the characters are animals. I worried about the scant rehearsal calendar. Could it actually be done within the confines of the production schedule that was laid out?

During production, I heard stories of rehearsal: wasted time, missing actors, lines not learned, goofing around. It was worrisome to me. Stressful. Not even my show and it was stressful. This week, I saw them still working late at night when I was finished with "Fiddler" rehearsal. I saw planks of lumber and set pieces outside the theater yesterday morning, and I worried. Will they be ready? Stopping by, I saw the aisles of the theater littered with props and costumes being sewn yet today, opening day. Would they be ready??? Stressful and not even my show.

I had faith when Hudson told me that they'd pulled in enough talent so that no matter what happened, the results would be pretty good. And there was a lot of talent: Hudson himself, Lauren, Carie, Hannah, Michael, for all his foibles, created a GREAT character in the Centipede. Watching him on stage actually made me wish (again) I'd gotten a chance to work with him this past summer.

But what I saw on stage last night was...something between amateur talent night at the county fair and a junior high improv class. After the first five minutes, I literally put my hand over my eyes.

I couldn't hear. I was sitting in the second row and I couldn't hear some of what was said--whether it was the British accent, or talking too fast, or not talking loud enough, or the frequently muttered cover-the-gap lines. They had mics, so I don't know what the problem was there.

The script, the story--I'll go out on a limb here and put of the blame for this on the script. "James and the Giant Peach"—who picked this, and WHY is it considered such a beloved children's story? It's like some child's stream of consciousness dream (or nightmare). Human-sized bugs? Crawling around inside a sticky-icky peach? Shark attack? Falling? And at the end, a ticker-tape parade through NYC. (For what? Spattering the city with thousands of gallons of fermenting peach juice? Ew.) The dialogue—and granted, it was hard to determine what were actually lines from the script as opposed to the abundant filler dialogue the kids threw in when their memories failed them—but we learn about the characters through their dialogue; and the things these oversized insects say to each other were just weird. They were whiny and complaining. A more pessimistic bunch of vermin I never saw. I didn’t like ANY of the characters…the vain centipede and his boot fetish, the gypsy spider, the ladybug who seemed to be of NO value to the story line. And what was with the sailors on the ocean liner? WHAT was the purpose of that mostly ad-libbed scene?

The scope of the production in the time allotted for it-here…I lay 30% of the blame. The play was very short, but the preparation required for it was massive. The special effect that it called for were…more than I would have ever attempted (so I respect the leadership on their courage and ambition), but…they only allowed right around three weeks to put this together. It just wasn’t enough time.


***Now you’re going to get a little insight into how I see myself in the theatre world. I generally walk through this world devaluing what I bring to it, flinching at praise, even stopping my ears at times because praise…is…like a drug…that makes you think you’re more than you are. Sure you can jump off that building…I know you can do it…you’re great!!! Wrong. You’ve got to keep both feet on the ground and keep your head and your wits about you. And then there’s the part of me that believes the hype and KNOWS just who I am and what I DO bring to my corner of the world.***

And so I look at this production from both sides of the glass. I marvel in horrified awe at what these two young people could possibly have been thinking to try and mount this production? In THREE weeks. With the production value requirement and the set required? WHAT were they thinking? From my outside [read: OUTSIDE] view, it seems like a LOT of time was wasted, actors didn’t show up for rehearsals, blah, blah, blah.
But from the OTHER side of the glass, the Smeagol side, I have to look at these two young people from the shadows and whisper to myself, “There for the grace of god go I…” I mean, both of us start with a happy vision: “Here is what we will create! And it will be wonderful! It will be fun! It will be art!” What happens between the origination of the idea and the final product? What IS the difference? What makes one group able to make it happen and another….not? People show up for my rehearsals. People learn their lines when I tell them to. I have a strict rehearsal schedule, set in stone before we start, and it doesn’t change. And…maybe I have a more realistic vision of what is possible to accomplish… I don’t know. There are many variables here.

I think that the final 10% of the blame belongs on the kids themselves. Their natural work ethic and dedication didn’t shine through here. They should have known their lines* and they should not have missed even one rehearsal in that short calendar. That, to me, is unforgivable. That, my children, is the one area where YOU had control. You may not have had control over production issues, bad script, costume delays, set problems, but YOU have control over your attendance and your line memorization.

In watching this week, part of me wanted to go up to the young director and say, “Let me help you….please….I can see you are drowning in this and it has ceased to be fun for you…” But three things held me back. First, I hardly know her. The second was that I am already over my head in my own projects and if I stepped up to help her, I would get lost in her project and lose focus on mine. The third was the groveling, self-effacing side of me feared that she would think that I think I’m ‘all that’, as in, “Here I am, the great Chris Schaefer and I will be the savior of your production.” No, no, no. I don’t think that at all.

The down side of me says stuff isn’t all that great**. I’m just too close to it to really judge whether it’s good or bad. Of course, however, no one does anything unless they think they do it better than anyone else, right? Of course, right. I think that KidsPlay/CrazyLake are the hidden treasures of Greenfield. I know my faults, my areas of weakness….and maybe they aren’t the jewels I think they are Maybe they’re just another kiddie/community theatre. Everyone thinks that what they do is the best, the best, best. And so do I. But how can it ALL be the best? Some of it is not, but which? And who decides?

And then… I get my comeuppance when I’m met by the opinion of people I respect who say, “Wasn’t that great? The kids did a good job, didn’t they?” What??? Are you kidding? You’re not, are you? So….apparently, it doesn’t matter if you work for 12 weeks or 3 weeks on a production, the audience will not know the difference and the response from the will be the same. That’s….disheartening, to say the least….


I couldn’t relax and enjoy it. I’m too close to theatre, too close to the kids in the show to just sit back and let it flow over me. Is there such a thing as vicarious stress? This was a classic example. I couldn’t sit down, couldn’t relax, I paced around like a caged tiger during intermission, actually going back and forth to the Gallery twice….

What was good:

1) The costumes were excellent. Excellent. Hats off to Haberman and Heather for that. I said earlier that I would never attempt a play with animal characters—bravo for your courage.

2) The make-up, particularly the spider and the grasshopper. Loved the pink highlights in Lauren’s hair.

3) The bells and whistles—again, these details are TOTALLY not on my radar screen of experience. In fact, we got all the way to the end of “Howl” before I even thought about the lab experiment scene—and Urban ended up helping us with that. Anyway, the growing peach, the lights and scrim (?) work, faulty as it was, went beyond my scope of experience. The flying bird, the snow (?), the infamous confetti cannons.

4) Given the poor script, the production issues and the limited rehearsal time, the acting, for the most part, was good. Their training sticks. Character communication (that is, how the character communicates itself to the audience) is so important, and you totally pulled that off. I saw the Aunts, James, the Spider, the venerable old Grasshopper, the Centipede, the Lady Bug and, yes, I saw the Earthworm. The ghosts of past characters standing in the wings, yes, but the acting and the current characters were there and strong and steady. Very good, my children. I am proud of you.

5) There was also one other REALLY cool moment when all the insects were standing on top of the peach, and they were backlit so that they were in silhouette. Really cool effect.

The worst moment of the evening, however, was the kids’ faces after the show. And this part made me angry. They knew. They KNOW me and they know what a theatre snob I am. They know what I think. One of the kids said, “Please don’t say, ‘I told you so’.” and my heart went out to him. They looked at me, sad, defeated, apologetic. And that’s when I felt angry. They should NOT have to feel that way about their work, their HARD work. They’re kids…and they signed on to this…and they trust the powers that be to lead them through it. They want to have fun and be PROUD of what they’ve done. That is ONE thing I promise all the KidsPlayers at the very first parents meeting: “We will work hard, and in March or early April, we’ll be tired of rehearsing and sick of each other…but I promise you, when we’re finished, and you’re on that stage taking your bow, you will have been part of something to be proud of. I promise you that.” That promise got broken for these kids last night. And who is going to be held responsible for that….?

**And how would I feel if someone came in and took MY show apart like this? Well, you don’t learn anything from being told how wonderful you are all the time. It’s happened to me, twice. Once, early in my career—someone, I didn’t know who it was—I still don’t—absolutely shredded my program. Ouch. And it happened again this spring after “The Odd Couple”. There were lessons that needed to be learned… You take what you can use, what you can deal with…and leave the rest for another time.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Being Yente

I cried over my lines in the shower this morning. No concerns. It was a good kind of cry.

I'm really worried about my performance right now. See, I'm on vacation--right smack dab in the middle of the rehearsals, I had a vacation planned. I'm so worried about this...that everyone in the show is getting better and better (yesssss, I have a typical actor's ego....), while I'm just 'staying in one place' in my part, my character development, and so forth. I'm worried that I won't shine the way I want to.

I'm particularly having trouble with my second act speeches. Yente just blathers on and on, rarely waits for people to comment or ask questions...she has long speeches. And the Eastern European way of forming sentences--real 'Yoda-like'. :-) I'm worried that in my nervousness to learn them and recite them, I'll just rattle through them with no 'acted' character at all.

The last monologue is the one I'm working on now, where she tells Golde what she's going to do since she and all the other Jews have to leave Anatevka. She tells Golde that she's going to the Holy Land to be a matchmaker. I heard myself delivering the lines, and suddenly, she was really me, telling someone (Dennis, Stan...) about some big new idea I had. And Yente became Chris and Chris became Yente, in that moment. And that small epiphany made me cry.