Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

13May/170

3 Impossible Questions

Given that it's mentioned in the Fishnapped! program, I believe I can safely announce this now: A play I'm in the latter stages of writing, called 3 Impossible Questions, will be the fourth play in Olympia Family Theater's next mainstage season. It adapts fables from all over the Islamic world and introduces Western audiences to a beloved figure in many of those countries: Mullah Nasreddin. Nasreddin is a sort of wiseacre imam who teaches via riddles and paradox. I compare him to Bugs Bunny in American popular entertainment. For folks who think of Muslims as humorless, especially with respect to questioning Islamic beliefs and traditions, his popularity will come as a shock; but he appears in comic books, TV cartoon shows and bedtime stories all over the world.

I've had a wonderful time getting to know Mullah Nasreddin (as I also spend time with the congregants at the Islamic Center of Olympia), and I look forward to helping introduce him to you. This show will be directed by Ted Ryle, and it's my debut as a full-length, professional playwright. (I've had short plays produced in four states.) Look for exact dates and audition notices as we get closer to Questions' early-2018 run, insha'Allah.

Incidentally, my Muslim friends know I'm agnostic and are absolutely fine with it. One of them, in fact, likes to introduce me to other congregants at the mosque as "Christian...who isn't one."

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9Sep/160

Two Quick Links

Words, Words, Words: Science Fiction

Before I write anything else, I want to thank everyone who came out to hear me read from Mr. Klein's Wild Ride this week in Lacey, Olympia and Tacoma. If you bought a book, double thanks. Let me know what you think of it. In fact, please let everyone know, especially if you enjoyed it. Go to my Amazon page via the links in the post below and leave a critique. Authors say this all the time, but we say it because it's true: reviews from readers like you matter. If someone looks for my book and finds few or zero reader responses, it de-legitimizes both me and the book. So even if you don't like it--and I'm pretty sure you will--post a review. It shows the book is getting some action. And it may just talk someone else into buying it!

Now, then. In addition to writing novels and being the managing editor of Oly Arts, I also still write for the Weekly Volcano. This week's cover article is a preview of 10 shows planned for this theatre season that I think you're most likely to enjoy:

"Top 10 Shows Not to Miss"

And here's an essay about why you should attend a show I curated, called Words, Words, Words: Science Fiction. It's a benefit for Theater Artists Olympia that collects beloved tales of the fantastic from 1897 to the present. I chose half; our stellar cast chose the rest. You're gonna love it. And if you buy one of my books while you're there, I'll donate two bucks to the Midnight Sun Performance Space. Everybody wins!

"Futures Past and Present"

I hope to see you out there in the stars!

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21Jun/160

The Orlando Project

When Seven Ways to Get There closed in late May, I figured I was done with theatre for at least a few months. Then the Orlando massacre happened...

...and I just erased a political screed I wrote here, because this isn't about that. This is better, and more to the point. This is about a wonderful way you can help. We can't negate the grief caused by 49 deaths and a renewed threat of danger to our gay and transgendered friends. What we can do is raise money, money for Equality Institute Florida and the Rainbow Center of Tacoma. So we will. That money's earmarked for survivors of the massacre, and they can use it. Having five or six bullets dug out of you tends to run up a hospital b--nope, sorry, still not going there. Please forgive me. That particular line of rage doesn't need to be your problem today.

Instead, your only problem right now is reserving time this Sunday to drive to Tacoma and watch a staged reading of The Laramie Project, created by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, and directed by Rachel Fitzgerald. It's at 7:30 p.m., June 26, in Tacoma Little Theatre at 210 North I St. The reading is free, but donations will be encouraged and collected. Some of the best actors in this region pleaded to be in the show on extremely short notice. I was lucky enough to wangle my way in at the very last minute. I have 14 lines...and I promise they mean more to me than some of my leads. One doesn't spend 40 years in the theatre without making dozens of gay and transgendered friends. These are my people, my family. What happens to them happens to me. I hope you feel the same.

This is a one-time event. I'm doing it, not to help raise money alone, but to spend time being human with my theatre community in the wake of a tragedy that jolted us all. I don't imagine there'll be a dry eye in the house Sunday night, but some events deserve crying. So please come. Let's be human together. Any empty seat that night in TLT will break my heart.

[More info on OLYARTS.com]

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12Apr/160

Art of Noise

Now that The Credeaux Canvas has closed and its set has been struck, I wanted to highlight some of the music we used in the show.

The house music began with this piece by Morten Lauridsen, "O Magnum Mysterium," sung here by the Nordic Chamber Choir. I wanted to hint to the audience that I find this show beautiful, so I led with fifteen minutes of liturgical choir pieces.

After "Miserere Mei, Deus" and Luis de Victoria's "Ave Maria," I wanted the music to be sexy. I also wanted to pull from the present day, not rely on music from when I was the age of the characters in the show (mid-20s). Thus it amused me to use "Adore You" by Miley Cyrus, which is not only sexy by itself but has an almost comically steamy music video.

On nights when the theater wasn't completely fully of people, I heard audience members laughing at this next song, King Missile's "Sensitive Artist." Between us, I felt it poked fun at my snooty MFA reputation.

The first act got underway with a minute of Mozart's "Ave Venum Corpus," as sung by King's College Choir. Boy sopranos bring tears to my eyes every time.

We signaled the audience it was time to buckle up for the "naked scene," I.2, with the first verse of Alanis Morissette's "Uninvited."

As we faded to blackout for intermission, astute listeners may have caught a foreshadowing of Act II in Rufus Wainwright's "The Art Teacher."

Intermission concluded with some arty jazz. First came "In a Sentimental Mood" by Coltrane and Ellington, then another foreshadowing of bad news to follow: Miles Davis' sultry rendition of Kern and Harbach's classic "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

House out, go! We played the first two verses of "The Trouble With Classicists" by Lou Reed and John Cale, then used the guitar sting to "smash cut" into Act II. I found out later this song was written for a tribute album to Andy Warhol (Songs for Drella, 1990).

I promised my Facebook friends I'd discovered the saddest piece of music ever written. I think I can now deliver on that promise. And it's not just the music; it's how that music was inspired. Grab a tissue, friends. This one doesn't play fair. It's Polish composer Henryk Górecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." We used the second movement as we abandoned Jamie in sobbing, suicidal despair.

Finally, as it is the responsibility of a director to never leave a tender moment alone, we restated the theme of the play for its curtain call. Here is the one and only Adele's poignant "Million Years Ago."

Choosing the soundtrack for a show is one of my favorite aspects of directing. It gives me a chance to show off music I've discovered, including some I've loved for years. It amplifies the emotions of a script and guides the audience into a common heartbeat.

In answer to a question I've been asked several times lately, I have no idea what or when my next directing project will be. I'm fond of a Laura Gunderson script, "Silent Sky," which tells a story I'd been meaning to tell on stage anyway. For the moment, though, I'm burned out on dealing with backstage psychodrama, and I lack the mana to deal with the technical challenges of a play about astronomy. Instead, I'll complete my work on Seven Ways to Get There and then relax for the summer. Perhaps I'll even have a chance to catch up on some of other people's shows I've been missing around Puget Sound. I'd like that very much. Directing eats my life in large, messy bites, and I've been pushing Credeaux for four years.

THE CREDEAUX CANVAS by Keith Bunin
Produced by Theater Artists Olympia (and Carv's Thinky Works)

Stage Manager: Vanessa Postil
Assistant Stage Manager: Sara Geiger
Set Designer: Matthew Moeller
Set Dresser and Props Master: Hally Phillips
Running Crew: George Dougherty
Master Artist: R. Owen Cummings
Additional Art: Matt Ackerman, Alec Clayton, Becky Knold, Steve Saxton

WINSTON: Christopher Rocco
AMELIA (and costumes): Alayna Chamberland
JAMIE: Mark Alford
TESS: Amanda Stevens

Directed by Christian Carvajal

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22Mar/160

Naked

It's been a while, hasn't it? Well, I've been busy. My contract with MightyPlay ended when we delivered a bundle of developmental math games, so I'm looking for big-boy jobs. (I have irons in the fire, as they say.) Compiling an application for any of those can take days. More than anything, I've been concentrating on The Credeaux Canvas, a Keith Bunin dramedy I'm directing for Theater Artists Olympia in the Midnight Sun Performance Space. Producing this play has been a dream of mine since I first heard L.A. Theatre Works' audio production four years ago. I must've flirted with every theater company within an hour's radius about it. They all admired the script, but a 22-minute nude scene in Act I dissuaded most. Not so TAO. They see themselves as the company that produces shows others are too conservative to try. It was a perfect fit.

I cast the play in November, anticipating it would take our four actors months to memorize their lines and prepare for rehearsals. The casting process wasn't easy. As often seems to happen in our smallish but bohemian city, I had several people audition who did absolutely nothing wrong, but who simply didn't fit the emerging recipe. It's heartbreaking for them and me. My loyalty has to be to the show I've envisioned. First read-through was a clubby get-together with celebratory port (Quinta das Carvalhas--"It's my family label!"). In early months, actors Alayna Chamberland (Amelia) and Christopher Rocco (Winston) spent a lot of time psychologically bracing themselves for the adventure of disrobing before an audience of friends, peers and strangers. I can tell you from having done it myself (Angels in America, 1996) that it takes a superhuman level of intestinal fortitude. I can also tell you that stage manager Vanessa Postil helped provide a safe place for thespian heroics, and we passed the dreaded first "Naked Night" three nights early.

I did an interview with Molly Gilmore of the Olympian newspaper yesterday, and she asked the question we knew we'd hear from many: did they have to get naked? Is it essential to the play? And the answer, it turns out, is yes. Not for any story reason, though the nudity makes perfectly logical sense within the context of the play--as it does in Angels, Wit, and so many other modern plays. In fact, I could argue it belongs in some Greek and Shakespeare (King Lear, Act III, Scene 4, for example). Set aside for a moment the fact that human beings get naked sometimes, and such coy evasions as TV's "L-shaped sheet" only threaten credulity. Set aside also the ubiquity of nudity on cable, which makes nakedness an element of professional actor employment. Look instead at the relationship it creates between a character and an audience. What I've learned through several examples is when an actor exposes him- or herself before an audience, each audience member becomes complicit. The psychological side effect is a feeling of protectiveness toward that actor. I feel it strongly as a director. And as we watch the characters of Amelia and Winston fall for each other, giving all of themselves to each other, we cannot help but fall in love with them. And the scene must go on as long as it does. When actors get naked in a production like Hair, in which the nudity lasts less than half a minute, it's something of a special effect. In Credeaux, we spend the first minute feeling terribly uncomfortable, the second minute adjusting, and the next twenty appreciating these characters' vulnerability and beauty.

I've also said all along that every character, Jamie (Mark Alford) and Tess (Amanda Stevens) included, gets naked in this show. They may not take their clothes off, but Jamie has a moment that is among the most difficult for an actor to achieve. It takes absolute weakness, and that is something even the best actors find themselves resisting. Amanda must play a character older and less respected than herself. I think Amelia's nakedest moment on stage is not the Act I nude scene, but her fragility deep in Act II. All four actors immersed themselves in a new-to-them acting approach, the technique devised by esteemed teacher Sanford Meisner. 'Acting,' he said (though no one quite agrees on his phrasing), 'is living truthfully under the given imaginary circumstances.' In other words, when you attend The Credeaux Canvas, you won't be seeing professional "stage liars" impersonating human behavior for your enjoyment, as valuable as that is in all our lives. Instead, for this show, you'll see four people who've accepted the circumstances in the room, fictional though they may have been to start with, and then interact with each other in real time. The emotions get very intense--exhausting even. When they fight, they FIGHT. When they love, they fall in LOVE. When they get hurt, they fall APART. And we live all that with them. The result is two hours of operatic emotion on a level that envelops us in its obvious, unforced reality. I think you'll find it to be a singular experience.

My work as an acting teacher on this show is finished, for all intents and purposes. This week adds set details courtesy of stage designer Matthew Moeller and props artist Hally Phillips, plus original artwork by Owen Cummings. The music is set. Vanessa is knocking herself out trying to make the most artful use of new LED lights donated by TAO board members. (Thanks, guys!) And I watch every night with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye, because there is something so amazing about watching humans be humans, purely and with no barriers or apologies. I should also note that there's a pretty darn suspenseful art heist plot, as Winston and Jamie try to convince Tess that a portrait of Amelia was actually painted by early 20th-century Fauvist Jean-Paul Credeaux. Will she be convinced? If so, it would rescue them from soul-crushing East Village McJobs. If not, it could land them in jail for five years. And of course Jamie's relationship with Amelia hangs in the balance.

So that's the emotional feast we've prepared for you. I offer it to you with enormous pride--pride in these four actors, pride in TAO's courage and sensitivity, and pride in our stewardship of Bunin's amazing script. I hope you'll see fit to buy tickets as soon as possible. We're in a small house of only about 40 seats, and for only eight shows. I know the show deserves to sell out. I think once word gets out, some nights will. I don't want you to miss your opportunity to see it. I can tell you for a fact that if you miss TAO's production, you won't see it anywhere else soon.

I'm doing something for this show that I haven't done for any show I've directed since college: I'm attending every single performance. I love it that much. I want to be there when you discover it. From beginning to end this has been an experience I'll look back on with great fondness for decades to come.

-----

It also gives me great pleasure to announce that I'll be playing the role of rage-addicted Anthony in TAO's next production, 7 Ways to Get There by Bryan Willis and Dwayne J. Clark. It's a great script, and I have an opportunity to work with actors I love plus some new folks I've admired from offstage. I expect it to be an absolute lark.

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12Nov/150

If William Shatner Can, He Can, Too

Note: I recently had the opportunity to interview actor/playwright/singer/songwriter Jeff Daniels. My wife and I caught his live show last night and greatly enjoyed it. Because of that, I wanted to publish my full interview transcript, which was cut down to less than 500 words for print. The edited version appeared online here and in last week's print edition of the Weekly Volcano. Enjoy.

If William Shatner can, he can too
The multi-talented Jeff Daniels
Christian Carvajal

If you’ve seen a movie this week, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed the work of reliable talent Jeff Daniels. He plays a NASA chief in The Martian and Apple CEO John Sculley in Steve Jobs, written by multiple-award winner Aaron Sorkin. We spoke to Daniels in advance of his Broadway Center appearance as singer, songwriter, guitarist and raconteur. He was amiable but groggy, understandable given his movie career plus concert tour plus Emmy-winning lead performance on HBO’s The Newsroom.

Weekly Volcano: A lot of your music is very frisky and jokey, but is there a song in particular that moves you when you perform it?

JEFF DANIELS: Yeah, we do a song in the show called “California.” I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the place. I couldn’t imagine living there. The problem was all mine. That’s where I’ve done most of my work over the career. It turned from a necessary evil to a place that I needed and grew to love a little bit, doing Newsroom. It was written in the early ’90s, when I’d fly out there and do meetings and take the redeye home that night. It’s kind of, “I’m out here, and yet I don’t feel at home here, and yet I need to be here,” kind of looking around at all those things it is. "All’s fair in love and war, and everything means so much more in California." It’s a young actor observing that this is where his life took him. The other one is “Back When You Were Into Me.” Amanda [Daniels, daughter-in-law] sings it in the middle of the show, and it stops the show. This is the fourth tour we’ve done together with [the] Ben [Daniels] Band, and the first one was last year, August. It did what it did: it stopped the show. So we were putting Days Like These together. We were almost mastering, and we stopped, and I said put it on the end of the CD. I don’t care, It’s a good song. It’s well-written, and she sings it great. They’re going, “Well, you aren’t singing it.” I don’t care. I tell the story in the show, which is true with a lot of these songs. It was a crew member sitting in McAvoy’s office with me, and they’re lighting something somewhere else. You spend seven months with people, sixteen hours a day, you get to know ’em. It’s kind of forced friendships and you tell each other things that you wouldn’t ordinarily, because you’re spending so much time together. And she started talking about her marriage. I was more just a listener, and she’s talking to me about talking to me, talking to herself. And she said, “Y’know, he used to do this for me, he used to do that, but that was back when he was into me.” And she said it so plainly, it just hung in the air. I just grabbed it. Those are the ones that you grab, and they usually come pretty quickly. “Mile 416” is a song that we aren’t doing in the show right now, but I might, ’cause I wrote it driving down Route 2 at the top of the country. I went via eastern Montana, which is flat, as you know, and you go by and there’s one of those wooden crosses with flowers at mile 416. And I just grabbed a legal pad and had a conversation with this person that had gone away.

WV: Did the woman whose husband wasn’t into her anymore give you any feedback on the song? Have you heard from her?

JD: No. Never told her! She would never know. She would never remember. That’s what you do as a writer. Playwrights do it. Lanford Wilson taught me that. Just grab things. People say things. Grab ’em, and they’ll turn into something: a play, a book, a song, a poem, whatever. But you have to be listening. You have to be aware of what people are doing. It’s all fair game. I mean, you put her name in there? Sure. Absolutely. But I don’t. It could be anyone, and that’s the universal truth of the song, is that there are a lot of people out there going, “Y’know, back when he was into me.” You’re damn right. I probably have a couple of wives out there looking at their husbands after the song.

WV: Speaking of your playwriting, tell me a little about your new play Casting Session.

JD: Casting Session is a love letter to the off-Broadway actors. And I used to be that, and I still occasionally go to New York and do a reading for an off-Broadway company or a theater like that that’s considering doing a play. You’ll come in and you’ll read it, and they’ll make a decision as to whether to go forward with the play or not. But I’ve been in that casting director’s office. It’s the fifth floor of some midtown casting office, and you go in, and it’s for a play that’s not good, but you need the job. And it’s gonna be off-off-Broadway, and you’ll play to 14 people a night.

WV: For 14 bucks.

JD: Yeah, and I would do those plays. I mean, my God, that’s how you start. It was seven years before I got Terms of Endearment, kicking around off-Broadway, just trying to stay in the business. And you worked where you could. And a friend of mine who’s in his 60s, and you know, he’s doing some television and audiobooks and stuff like that, so he’s out of that room. But sometimes he’ll go into that room, because he wants to do a play and wants to stay in the city and all that. But he said he was sitting in that room, and he started telling me--I mean, you just wonder why you’re doing this. And the young director for this play is not back from lunch yet. He’s late and unprofessional, and the receptionist doesn’t care whether you’re there or not, and you hear these footsteps coming up to the fourth floor ’cause the elevator’s out. And you see another 63-year-old guy that this actor recognizes, ’cause they go up on the same auditions quite a bit and have for decades. And the guy just leans into the doorway breathing heavily, and just says, “I’m too f***in’ old for this.” And I said, there’s the play. I blew it up, I put two 60-something actors in there who have auditioned against each other for decades, and their careers have never progressed. They’ve never gone beyond that kind of play at that level. And they hate each other. They compete, they’re rivals, they’re Michigan/Michigan State, and they’re just saying, “Here’s that guy again.” And they’re stuck in that room together, auditioning for what they think is a play.

WV: Boy, I’ve been in that room so many times. If you could have your manager email me that script, I’d love to read it.

JD: I imagine it’ll be available soon. Here’s what we do with my scripts. We premiere ’em at the Purple Rose, and it’ll go till Christmas. I don’t know when they’ll make the script available, but we license them out of the Purple Rose. I’ve done a couple Samuel Frenches and Dramatists Play Services. Four of them are with Dramatists, and the other twelve including Casting are Purple Rose. And I just split the cut, heavy on the side of the Purple Rose whenever someone does the play. So the point is that they’ll have a printed copy of the script, I would think, by the end of the year.

WV: Back in those early days, Jack Lemmon once told you to “be a little strange” in auditions. How did you put that advice into effect?

JD: You gotta stand out. That’s [the name of a song] I do in the show. He went on. He said, “You can’t be normal. You gotta be strange. You gotta be a little bit different, kid. Go in with a corncob pipe.” I said, what? You mean an actual--? He goes, “No, it’s a metaphor. I’m kidding. You gotta stand out. Don’t be like the five guys in front of you and the ten guys after you. And whatever that means to you, and to crazy actors who need work--some guys can get pretty...you know. I know one actor who during an audition punched a hole through the wall to show them. ’Cause the guy gets angry in the scene, so he punched a hole through the drywall.

WV: Did it work?

JD: He ended up getting the part, yeah.

WV: It’s interesting, because both you and Lemmon are known for being in that “everyman” mold, so I guess you probably are sitting in a room with twenty-four Jack Lemmons, or wannabe Jack Lemmons anyway.

JD: Oh my God, yeah, I mean, you get to New York and L.A., and trust me, there are a hundred guys behind you who can’t wait for you to get done with your audition. And they all look just like you. They’re all variations on you or whatever that “everyman” thing is, yeah.

WV: I’ve seen both The Martian and Steve Jobs. I quite enjoyed both. Sorkin wrote you a terrific argument scene in Steve Jobs, and I don’t know your method in particular, but how close were you to punching Michael Fassbender?

JD: Oh, not at all. Not at all, and that’s the fun of it for us. It becomes a dance, because once you get on top of the words--which is a lot of work, because Sorkin writes so many--a lot of work and a lot of repetition so that they become second nature. Y’know, you may have read this somewhere, but you try to get them so ingrained in you that it feels like the one-hundredth performance of a Sorkin play. I mean, you aren’t even thinking about it. The curtain goes up and you just--it’s like dominoes. It just falls, one at a time. And that’s different from the opening night, where every line, every moment, you’re all, "God, I’ve gotta remember this, remember that." Once you get on top of it, then it becomes this, you know, “it takes two to tango” kinda thing. And we’d come out of a take, and cut; and I’d go, Michael, I was late on that. He goes, “No, no, I was early. We’ll fix it.” Okay, good. And then you go: take two. It becomes this choreographed thing that, when we work together and we use each other—that’s what’s so great about working with the people at this level, in Jobs and other movies. We use and abuse each other, and then help each other up when they say cut. That’s the fun of it. That’s the joy of it, you know, in taking your emotions and twisting ’em like a pretzel in front of the camera. And also making it happen for the first time in front of the camera. I mean, a lot of what Michael and I did was--the camera just had to catch it. We never had gone that hard at it, purposefully, in rehearsals. We kinda walked up to it and kind of did the speech maybe at 25 percent steam. But when they say action, it’s like the start of the Kentucky Derby.

WV: Well, it’s just an amazing scene, and I think people will be talking about it for a long time. What is the key to performing a Sorkin “walk and talk?” And I ask because I just came off a Sorkin play myself. I’m an actor as well, and I find the speed of it is very challenging.

JD: Yeah, back to that--it’s the repetition of the lines, the preparation. Because it’s one thing to sit in your chair at home and do the scene. It’s--in a way, because you’re moving now, you’re doing two things. It’s the walking and chewing your gum at the same time, that joke. But you’re doing an independent activity, other than what you’re saying. You’re going somewhere. You’re going from point A to point B. So part of you has to be focused on where you’re going, and I’ve got to get to the newsroom, and what is it you want? Y’know, but you’re going somewhere. And you just have to be talking as you’re going from point A to point B. A helpful thing for me was always--I mean, it’s silly, but you memorize the lines and you walk from the living room to the kitchen, and you pour a glass of water, and then you walk back and set it on the table in the living room. You’re doing something else while you’re saying this other thing. And that’s confusing and difficult, and your body and your mind want to do one thing, not two. It’s getting your mind right, and that’s just forcing your mind to multitask when it’s trying to remember lines, if that makes any sense at all.

WV: No, it absolutely does.

JD: You gotta do the mechanics of what you’re gonna do as well as remember all those words. Yeah, and the two are not really related. You’re going to the newsroom to do the broadcast, and Mac’s talking to you about the weather. They don’t relate, but...

WV: But it adds urgency to the scene.

JD: It allows you to do two things at once.

WV: Right.

JD: Which is what we do in life, y’know? We’re constantly walking and talking and going somewhere and saying something and probably having a conversation that has nothing to do with where we’re going.

WV: Is there a movie of yours that, if you pass it on cable, you have to watch it to the end?

JD: No.

WV: No?

JD: No, they um, no. There are movies of other people. I mean, I’ll--no, I tend not to even look at my stuff, to be honest. I mean, I’ll see Purple Rose of Cairo or I’ll see The House on Carroll Street. I rarely go to it, rarely if ever. I can’t remember the last time I stopped and said I’ll watch--let’s watch Dumb and Dumber, y’know?

WV: If I pass Pleasantville, especially if it’s before the scene where you see paintings for the first time, I’m done. I’m stuck till the end. That scene is one of my favorites ever. It’s a stunner.

JD: Gary Ross wrote a great, great script. I loved what he did with that. I wish that film had gotten more attention.

WV: My wife would slaughter me if I didn’t ask you: is there any chance of a Dumb and Dumberest in our future?

JD: Y’know, I think the second one did pretty good. Y’know, there were a few studios that just said, it’s gonna die, it’s just a horrible idea, and so it did fine. It comes down to Jim and the Farrellys, and I have a feeling it’d be like Lemmon and Matthau, y’know? Maybe when we’re almost 70, Jim’ll go, “Hey! One more time!” And you go, okay, here we go! They’re always fun to do. It’s so inappropriate, so outlandish, and the second one--to be middle-aged and still that stupid was uh--it’s very refreshing, I must say. It’s like a cleanse.

WV: Well, I really enjoyed your SNL appearance in support of it. That seemed like a fun day in New York.

JD: Oh, it was. It was great of them to include me, yeah.

WV: All right, Mr. Daniels, I know you’re super busy, and I will let you get back to it, but I appreciate your time.

JD: All right, thanks, Christian. Take care.

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12Jun/152

Ten Things I Know About Acting

Today is my 47th birthday: no big deal, except it marks the start of my fifth decade in theatre. It also marks opening night for Theater Artists Olympia's production of Tartuffe, in which I play Orgon and my wife is Dorine. Next month, I'll help guide actors through the grinder of Olympia Audition League generals, a summer event that recruits actors for productions all over the South Sound. Ergo, this seems an appropriate time to offer a list of ten guidelines for less experienced actors. Feel free to disagree; actors are good at that. But this is how I feel about our craft at this moment, informed by my particular series of influences, mentors and experiences.

1. Focus. If you want to get better at acting, you have to take it seriously. I know it's called "play," but it's work, too. Actors who believe differently tend to cause problems for castmates. As you prepare for an audition or read-through, look up difficult words, including proper nouns. Treat rehearsals as if your reputation depends upon your behavior there, because it does. Learn your lines as quickly as possible. Use the hour before a performance to get control of your body and mind. Leave the grab-ass and hijinks to dilettantes who will never get better. Avoid "theatre games" before a performance. I know they're fun, but rare is the show that benefits from tossing an imaginary ball around when you should be spending time concentrating on your lines and performance. In an audition, taking a moment to center yourself, breathe, and focus on your monologue will prevent the dreaded "Oops, can I start again?" (Don't start again, by the way. The damage is already done. Just take another breath, correct the problem, and move forward. Directors are impressed by calm recoveries.)

2. Imagine. Explore your range. Get to know all kinds of people, then ask yourself how you might go about portraying them. True, actors get shoved into types, but types are at least preferable to ruts. Why contribute to your own typecasting by playing the same performance note every time? A cold-reading audition or callback is a wonderful opportunity to show off your range, as it's an open invitation to play almost any character in the script. Use that!

3. Know thy instrument. You don't have to be in perfect shape. You don't have to be gorgeous. You don't have to sing like an opera star. You do have to be realistic about your body, voice and features, and keep track of the range of things they can actually do. If you're an alto, the soprano piece "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods is a poor choice for an audition no matter how much you enjoy it or even love singing it. In other words, don't audition with a song unless you're 100% confident you can hit all its notes on your worst day. Keep track of what your face is doing; a surprising number of actors smile as they're performing tragic monologues, and that's just creepy.

4. Stand normally. Find a full-body mirror and watch yourself standing silently. See how your hands hang at your sides? Notice how you're standing perpendicular to the ground? Yeah. That's a good place to start. I can't tell you how many times I've watched auditioners sway from side to side like a metronome or flail their arms about like they were miming semaphore signals. I also roll my eyes when auditioners choose monologues that require them to act like they're talking on phones--which they usually represent by holding empty fists up to their ears. Don't they realize how silly that looks? Avoid monologues with phones. I mean that, okay? Just be present. Take a breath. It's all good. There isn't a person in that audition room who wants you to fail. They need you to be great just as much as, or perhaps even more than, you need them to admire your work. This is your house. Enjoy it.

5. Gobble life. Travel. Read a lot. Skinny dip. See great movies. Fall in love. Have an enviable sex life. Imbibe the world. Pay attention to people's accents, gestures, and expressions. Explore the many ways people signal they're in love or about to throw a punch. Generally speaking, it's easier to recall what you've experienced and reproduce it than invent a life experience on the spot.

6. Listen. The best actors are reactors. They pay attention to fellow actors and respond as seems fitting. It seldom matters what technique you use, so long as dialogue becomes conversation, but that can't happen if you're listening for a single cue word or contemplating the hottie in the front row. Often when an actor goes up on his or her lines, the previous dialogue included a question that demanded the very line that's gone missing as its answer.

7. Show respect. Sometimes that means showing respect for yourself. You do yourself no favors by performing loaded, letting yourself get treated like a worthless commodity, or snapping at directors or fellow actors. I'm not saying one should always be a doormat. I'm also not claiming a perfect track record myself when it comes to treating people fairly or politely. But by showing respect for everyone in the building, from the greenest cast or crew member all the way up to the artistic director, an actor establishes his or her professional identity. When I direct, I'd much rather cast a green actor who plays by the rules than a superstar who amps up a scene by attacking his fellow actors or takes physical liberties backstage. We're all in this together, folks. Let's play by the rules. They exist because they work.

8. Laugh. Pretending to be someone else is inherently ridiculous. We're grown adults, yet we put on bizarre costumes and recite rhyming couplets and fall in and out of love as drama dictates. That's what kids do. It's a craft, yes, and an art form as worthy as any. It's also what children do without breaking a sweat, so enjoy it as they do. Watch a kid playing army or Star Wars. Kids know how to play and take things seriously at the same time. Let that kid be your role model.

9. Learn. There's not an actor on earth who can't add to his or her tool chest. Every critic is right, from a certain point of view at least, whether he or she is panning you or praising you. A critic's (or audience member's) experience of your work is partly subjective, partly influenced by your mastery of craft, partly in the hands of other cast and crew members--not to mention the whims of fate. Your director is right about your work, too, even if/when he or she is being an absolute moron, because that's the way a moronic person perceived your performance. That, in theatre parlance, is how your work "read." Take it in, let it simmer a while, and extract whatever value you can from people's responses to what you do. A bad review's not the end of the world, no matter how much a thumbs-down might sting. But assuming you have nothing left to learn is the end of your progression as an actor. So why stop now when you've come so far?

10. Keep theatre holy. Look, I get that this sounds totally woo-woo, but the stage is my church. A grad professor described it as a "liminal space," a defined area in which the rules of surrounding culture are permitted (or encouraged) to change. I love my wife, but if a play calls for me to love another character while I'm in that liminal space, then I have, grab, and fully enjoy the obligation to do that. If my character's in conflict with another, I give myself the liberty to scream and cry and demand the very gods strike my enemy down on the spot. That, my friends, is why theatre is cathartic for actors even as it is for an audience. But remember: when you go back across the edge of that liminal space on your way to the dressing room, those rules have to change back. You have to let that love, anger, libido, power, you name it, slip away. In short, you have to go back to being you. It's the only way to keep sane in this business of show; and besides, it'll soon be time to reboot for your next grand theatrical adventure.

Break a leg!

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2Apr/150

#TBT

The picture below was taken by Gretchen Phillips at Charlie's Bar & Grill in Olympia after Laughing Stock's opening night. It includes much of the cast and crew of our show, plus friends and family. There's Amanda, for example, checking her phone after four failed attempts at taking the picture.

Laughing Stock Opening Night

Laughing Stock Opening Night

[Pictured from left to right: Rick Pearlstein, K.C. Beadle, Tom Sanders (standing), Phil Folan, Anthony Neff, Jess Allan, audience member Louise Morgan, David Phillips, Conner Engelking (sitting behind us), Hannah Eklund, audience member Jen Leonard, Abby Wells, Christian Carvajal, Amanda Stevens, George Dougherty, Heather Cantrell (blouse), Hally Phillips (green fingernails)]

Something about that photo nagged at me. It seemed familiar to me somehow, as did much of the experience of putting this show together. Suddenly it dawned on me: it reminded me of the picture below, taken almost 22 years earlier.

Opening night for The Boys Next Door at ECU, spring of 1993

Opening night for The Boys Next Door at ECU, spring of 1993

[Pictured from left to right: unknown, Paul Dowell, Angie Reynolds, Dorya Garrett (Huser), Cheryl Beck (Carvajal)]

That photo was taken by, I think, my mom, the night we opened The Boys Next Door at ECU. I didn't know it then, but the blonde with the red-eye at lower right would soon be my sister-in-law. (She also played the adorable "Sheila" in Boys.) The Boys Next Door was the first full-length show I ever directed, and, like this new show, Laughing Stock, it was a smash hit right out of the gate. Both featured huge laughs that set up more sentimental moments. Both benefited from friendships I made in the five years before while introducing me to talented strangers. I set both shows in 1993. And when all is said and done, I'll have enormous pride in both.

Laughing Stock sold out its entire opening weekend. That never happens in theatre, at OLT or anywhere else. Tickets are selling fast for the remainder of our four-week run. I love my cast and crew; we've been through a lot together. Being involved with Laughing Stock, a show I consider theirs as much as mine, has filled me with a sense of grateful accomplishment and joy matched by few other recent career developments. If you live anywhere close, I do hope you'll make plans to see it. I'll be there Saturday and probably at least one more time during the course of the run. For ticket information, please visit OLT's website or call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006. This show is turning into something of a phenomenon. I'd hate for you to miss it, not for my own aggrandizement at this point, but because I know how much you'll enjoy it. It takes me back to a place and time when I came into ECU's drama department thinking the only thing that mattered was self-expression...then came out five years later with a new lifelong family. This show represents my family album. Perhaps it's yours, too.

Opening night of The Boys Next Door at ECU, 1993

Opening night of The Boys Next Door at ECU, 1993

Note the shirt I'm wearing in these ECU photos. The night of first read-through on Laughing Stock, I decided to wear a shirt I owned in 1993. I dug this one out of a drawer and put it on. I believe it's the only such garment I still own. Imagine my surprise when I realized, just last that week, that I wore it to The Boys Next Door all those many years ago. Our lives carry echoes. Those peak moments follow us down through the years.

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24Mar/151

All In

When directing for community theatre, it's often a given that one will wear numerous hats. That has certainly been the case with Laughing Stock at Olympia Little Theatre. Of course, I don't mean to give the impression that I'm doing it all alone. No, fourteen actors and four hardcore crew members have been busting their butts from the start. We benefit from the years of labor that went into compiling OLT's shop, and then we borrowed from another. But when there's literally not a single aspect of the show that hasn't had my input at some point, it's hard not to take special pride in it. It's also impossible for me not to worry, though intellectually I know we're in good shape. I just feel incredibly invested, and that increases my anxiety level. If something goes wrong, no matter what or which department, I know I'll be partly to blame.

We've reached the last three rehearsals, when I step back and let the stage management team of K.C. Beadle and Phil Folan take the reins. Assuming actors get their lines out correctly, always a trick given an accelerated rehearsal period, we'll be in good shape. People who've seen the show have laughed throughout, often convulsively. It's sentimental in all the right places and really takes me back to a time in my life when I first figured out what I was capable of being. I'm reminded of people who taught me how to be whatever approximation of grown-up behavior I've achieved. At this point, especially after generating a binder full of promotional material, "The Playhouse" in Charles Morey's script is very real to me. I've started accidentally referring to the cast by their character names, even in casual conversation. I know what the place smells like, how the light comes through in summer, what the walls might say first if they could talk. It reminds me of 1993, when I was younger and braver and cooler than I am now but had no idea any of those qualities applied to me.

In the past few weeks, we've exhausted ourselves to the point of shaking. We've left literal blood, sweat and tears on the boards at OLT. In a month it'll all be gone and we'll move on to other projects. So why do we do it? What drives us to kill ourselves for ephemera? We do it so both we and you can laugh. We do it to tell and enjoy a good story. We do it because your inexpensive ticket helps keep OLT's lights on for season 76, but more importantly, because coming together to share adventures and emotions is what makes community an actual thing. And my God, this is an emotional show. I feel safe in saying it's crawled inside all of us. We can feel we've made something special. And part of what we've made, an important part, is the coming together of "another little temporary family." And that, Gentle Reader, has been the story of my life, over and over again.

Aw, sniffle. Look, never mind all that. You're immune to such maudlin sentimentality. Just know this show is really, really funny. It's been hysterically funny from the first read-through on. That's to Morey's credit, but also to actors who've given life to his words and, I promise you, augmented them. And while it won't happen every night, some nights the guy laughing loudest in the audience will probably be me. That's my right. It's okay to laugh at family.

Laughing Stock
Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE
For tickets call (360) 786-9484

A funny and affectionate look at the magic that lies at the heart of the theatrical world. When "The Playhouse," a rustic New England summer theatre, schedules a repertory season of Charley's Aunt, Dracula and Hamlet, predictably, confusion ensues. Follow the well-intentioned but over-matched company from outrageous auditions to ego-driven rehearsals through opening nights gone disastrously awry, to the elation of a great play well-told and the comic and nostalgic final night of the season.

$8-$14

7:55pm: 3/27, 3/28, 4/2, 4/3, 4/4, 4/9, 4/10, 4/11, 4/16, 4/17, 4/18;
1:55pm: 4/12, 4/19

"Good theatre hurts."

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11Mar/150

A Straight Meditation on National Themes, Part 2

I spent February in the skin of a monster. I played Roy Cohn, the very real attorney who guided the knife point of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare, then adamantly denied his own homosexuality even as he was dying of AIDS. He's a character in Tony Kushner's landmark, two-part play Angels in America, which was directed for Olympia Little Theatre by Nic Olson. The show inspires bizarre moments on stage.

OLT's new artistic director Kendra Malm was delivering opening-night house announcements when suddenly, a stack of boxes that formed a wall of the set leaned over and collapsed. The destruction of that wall, and the emergence of an angel through the breach, mark the climax of Part 1, Millennium Approaches. "I don't think that was supposed to happen," Malm announced accurately. No one was standing anywhere near the structure, which remained upright for 21 hours prior to the fall. This sort of thing makes actors believe in theater ghosts.

We performed for a larger house the second night. After the three-hour show, as per OLT custom, we greeted departing guests as they passed through the lobby. An audience member (and frequent OLT actor) came over to shake my hand. "Hey, do you watch that show Breaking Bad?" she asked. I replied it was one of my favorites. "Your Cohn kinda reminds me of that lawyer," she mused, meaning Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). I threw my arms in a V and claimed victory for the night. That performance, at least, I won Angels in America. That was one of my favorite audience compliments ever.

By Saturday we were inured to the occasional walkout. (The show pushes people's buttons.) We agree it was our finest performance of Millennium Approaches, and the crowd responded warmly. Sunday? Not so much. An audience member shook my hand and asked, "How do you do all that yelling?" Another complimented each of us in turn before arriving at the last actor in line. Instead of praising his performance, the audience member announced, "You need to speak up more," then strode out the door.

I wonder if anyone in the Saturday-night performance of Part 2, Perestroika noticed Roy's blessing of Joe included the split-finger Vulcan symbol. I learned Leonard Nimoy, who passed away that morning, based the gesture on the Hebrew letter shin. That letter stands kabbalistically for both Shaddai (Almighty) and Shekinah (the feminine dimension of God).

You have to hand it to any audience member who sits through, and tracks with, an epic night of theatre that makes David Mamet sound like the Disney Channel. Even a brief male-male sex scene, which caused pandemonium in the SIU-C theater where I played Louis twenty-two years ago, raised nary an eyebrow over the weekend. I did learn something new: in Olympia, snapping your fingers at an actor means, "I agree." Apparently, it's something students do at The Evergreen State College to avoid interrupting discussions or lectures. I wish I'd known that beforehand; in theatre circles, snapping fingers usually means "hurry up." I was acting as fast as I could!

I think the cast of Angels in America would agree that a role in that show is something an actor hopes to achieve as much as enjoy. We tested our mettle against it and emerged with minimal bruising. Thanks to every audience member who braved its content and morally complex characters. Now, on to directing a nostalgic comedy! In the week and a half since we wrapped Angels, the cast of Laughing Stock at OLT has already blocked that new show and worked through most of its scenes. That's good, because we open in sixteen days. No pressure!

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