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Theatre


So, the time has come for me to really begin my next major project, Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Karel Čapek’s RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots.

“Never heard of it,” you might say. You would be one of the masses that might be saying that. And it’s really a shame. RUR is one of the major plays to come out of the surprisingly vibrant Czech literary tradition. But, unless you’re a multiculturalist, that isn’t reason enough to embrace it.

For me, it’s about the once-grand, now-quaint, beginnings of the tech-dystopia genre. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep —and, consequently, Bladerunner— can trace their line directly to RUR.

Today the play reads as a bit of a 1950’s B-movie techno-parable. But this thing was produced in 1920. Nineteen-twenty! It is the text that coined our contemporary usage of the word “robot.” And, as a reaction to World War I, the warnings of our fascination with technology and machines parallel it squarely with Tolkien’s warnings in The Lord of the Rings. The first audience must have had their minds blown.

TANGENT! There are a few first performances I would have liked to have witnessed: The Rite of Spring (which caused a riot), Aida (in Cairo), Hamlet, Beethoven’s Ninth, A Streetcar Named Desire, and RUR. Of course there are others, but these are the top. Each one, in its way, was groundbreaking enough to create an audience-wide numinosum: a spiritual reaction caused by the power of the piece or the performance.

I didn’t even know that RUR existed until TCR’s artistic director asked if I was interested in directing it. Honestly, I wasn’t, especially after I read it the first time. It seemed so dated. But after rereading and researching, I started falling in love with it and, specifically, with the challenges that it creates.

I have had the great luck of directing some remarkably challenging theatre: Streetcar, Macbeth, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Gross Indecency, Six Characters. With the exception of Six Characters, which had overwhelming and multiple daunting challenges, the directing was very much about the logistics. Certainly the acting was a huge part of them—it always is—but there are specific logistical nightmares brought on by episodic texts (LWW, Gross), large casts and multiple roles (LWW, Gross, Mac), and re-envisioning well-known and beloved texts (Streetcar, LWW), that make certain plays formidable.

RUR is challenging in a much different way. The fact that it is not a well-known play automatically counts against it in our city. People here mostly want to see shows they know. I get it. I want that too. And ticket prices are such that most people want a known commodity, which I also understand. But that kind of issue is out of my hands. I just get to create the best product possible and hope that people come see it.

The main challenge for me is the text itself, not the logistics of the thing. It is a philosophical text filled with exposition and, to a certain extent, inner monologue. It is clichéd, in that all plays, texts, and films that followed use RUR’s structure and themes, so we’ve seen it in various guises, usually with explosions. Explosions are always a plus.

Well, we are not going to have pyrotechnics for this show. It will be actors working to make old ideas feel fresh and spontaneous, working to turn long passages into interesting windows opening upon a specific human’s thoughts and fears and motivations.

This show will be acting at its most stripped and basic level. I can’t think of anything more exciting that that.

I can barely wait to bite into this thing!

I have been gifted a role that is one of my top three dream characters. This summer for the Classics at Brucemore I will be playing Cyrano. Yup, the dude with the nose.

This is a huge deal for me. Cyrano is one of those general bucket roles, like Hamlet and Stanley Kowalski. Except it’s really the role for those actors who are too homely or morphologically challenged to play Hamlet or Stanley. Perfect.

I’ve been directing and acting in the Classics now for, I think, seventeen years. This will be my first lead. In fact this will only be my third leading role in all my years of serious acting, and I don’t really consider the other two as counting, though they were great experiences.

Cyrano has been called one of the greatest roles ever written, and I tend to agree. He has such a tragic and real human depth to him that he feels real. It’s not difficult to place one’s self in his skin. He is a man who clearly dislikes certain parts of himself, and because of that hesitates to commit to the one he loves because he fears what most of us fear: rejection. And so he pours himself into an almost obsessive passion for swordplay and acts with near disregard for his life. After all, who would suffer if he were to lose it? No one, or so he thinks. And thus his bravado, his easy wit, his panache all become a compensated extension of self-conscious weakness.

Boy-howdy: pretty close to home.

I don’t think that, emotionally or spiritually, I have a long way to go to formulate my version of Cyrano. He reminds me of my middle-school self. His nose was my fat. His bravado was my performing. His Roxanne was a pretty and nice blonde girl named Sheila. Ahh, Sheila, when she moved away it broke my heart. Oh, well.

Anyway, I will periodically update “Nosing Around” with thoughts and issues that I discover while digging into Cyrano. I have three Writers’ Room shows and I am directing RUR for Theatre Cedar Rapids before Cyrano hits, so there are other things cooking.

However, I have decided to begin working the set-piece speeches now. Nothing better than getting to rehearsal having the lines down.

I have also started sword work with my trusty friend and rapier companion Marty, under the tutelage of our fight master Jason Tipsword—I shit you not, that is his given name. And I have taken to purchasing and working our elliptical for two miles or more a day.

The show Cyrano de Bergerac has been my Roxanne for a while. But this one I am preparing myself for and I am not planning on letting it get away.

For those of you keeping track, I am just starting the rehearsal process for the play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. I’ve got a good cast, which is trick number one. But this Christmas break I am planning on blocking the show.

For you theatrical neophytes “blocking” is the term we use for the action of moving the actors around the stage. I might say, “Okay, Sir Laurence, now please cross to down left, turn to the audience, and then you may begin your speech.” Then Sir Laurence, in theory, writes the note “X DL” in his script next to the line he should move on.

That’s blocking. The scuttlebutt it that it’s called blocking because directors of the Victorian age, like W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, used blocks to represent actors on a model stage to see how they wanted the actors to move.

Well, over the last two days I have gotten as far as page two. I am absolutely stumped by this show.

I have general spaces for specific things, like a witness box and a judge’s bench. I also have areas marked for easy blocking. That means I can say things like, “Ms. Close, if you could please move to mark B, that would be lovely.” But I look at the script, and the way it’s written has rendered me utterly blocking impotent.

To top it off, as I was writing this post, I received an email from one of my actors pulling out of show. Apparently he has to move suddenly. Yes, my head exploded.

For some reason, I have a sordid history of this kind of thing happening to me. This is now my fourth show where an actor has either not accepted a role or has pulled out early in the process. I have had all kinds of unplanned crazy-making shit happen to me while directing shows, and, quite frankly, it’s becoming a bit tiresome.

So, in the next few days I need to not only plan the blocking of a really tough show, but I will also need to find a new actor.

I was hoping for a relaxing break.

Oh well…

Well, my new adventure began on Sunday. This time the show is Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moisés Kaufman. It is, oddly enough, about the three gross indecency trials of Oscar Wilde at the end of the 19th century.

If that doesn’t ring a bell, Oscar Wilde, the great English author and playwright (The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest) was put on trial in the 1890s for being what they called a sodomite. He was homosexual before that word was even coined. And it was illegal.

Anyway, this play is about those trials. It’s very talky and intellectual and kind of a tough show to do right.

The idea is to use about nine male actors to present about forty different characters, including women. It’s a tough task. I know. I’ve done it with The Laramie Project.

That’s why I’m pretty excited about the show. Because it’s tough to do it right.

The role of Oscar Wilde is, naturally, an important one. But some of the utility actors (people who must play multiple roles) have to be really good.

The problem isn’t just multiple roles, it’s multiple British accents, too. Good, believable British accents are not really that easy to do.

For an American audience, Kaufman has really set up for community theatre what could become a campy Monty Pythonesque British send-up. But this play is a serious, often uncomfortable drama where actors must change from gruff English ruffian into Queen Victoria within a page. That’s tough to pull off without it being funny.

That challenge excites me.

So tonight is the second night of auditions. Tomorrow will be callbacks. The play will be cast Wednesday morning and our first read-thru that night.

I love starting a new show!

I just opened up the script for Gross Indecency, my next directing gig for Theatre Cedar Rapids. That means the near total immersion will begin within the week. And auditions for the show aren’t until mid-December.

Most people have no idea what goes into producing a high quality stageplay. And I guess that’s okay, because it really does need to be a bit of magic, like some diaphanous vision that condenses to clarity for an hour or two then disappears forever. That’s one of the things I love about theatre.

I always turn the script into a pdf and layout the page to my liking. I’m a bit of a control freak that way. It gives me room to write. Write my thoughts. Write my blocking. Write my scene breaks. The usual stuff. Market scripts just don’t give you any room to write. I honestly don’t understand it. You’d think that publishers that focus solely on scripts would make them more user friendly for actors and directors. Oh, well.

Anyway, Gross Indecency is an interesting script. It’s not one that really grabs me emotionally as a director though. But it’s one of those whacky Moisés Kaufman interviewed docudrama style plays, which makes the preproduction work and the rehearsals particularly interesting.

There are around 40 characters with only nine actors. That’s really where the challenge comes. And, unlike most plays, it really doesn’t tell you which actors should play which roles. It’s gives you a general sort of idea for the major roles, but the rest is up to you. So today I have pulled out the Excel and have started creating the actor/character/scene/page number spreadsheet. Nightmare!

Then, this is a topic I know almost nothing about, so there is a good deal of research to do.

Then we’ve got some preproduction meetings to work the set and the costumes.

All this is, of course, coming intertwined with finishing up Alice in Wonderland, as well as the ongoing writing and performing in the Writer’s Room Series. I’ve also been asked to write a short thing for an upcoming United Way conference.

Whew! It’s going to get pretty sporty here in December.

Some of you may know that I am lucky enough to be a member of SPT’s Writers’ Room. It’s a stable of five writers — four of whom perform as well —who write sketches and monologues for five or six shows a year. The shows are all themed and involve sketches, monologues and music, all wrapped together thematically.  We bring in local guest actors and musicians for each show. We get a bout six weeks to write each show and about a week of rehearsal before we do two nights of shows. It’s a blast, and it pays some bills.

Well, my shtick is usually the goof or the idiot, sometimes the guy with the accent, and I usually do some “thoughtful” personal monologue.

It is a rare occasion that I actually get to sing. And it creates in me a terrifying joy. I am not a singer. I am an actor who occasionally sings.

So when I hear that I am to sing in one of our shows I am simultaneously thrilled and nauseated.

Now, I usually get nervous before any show. That’s normal. But for shows that I sing in, vomiting before the show is not beyond the question. No joke.

I’m not sure why I love doing something that makes me so nervous and terrified that I could vomit. I hate haunted houses, most amusement park rides and riding while my wife is driving. But none of those make me as nervous as singing in a show.

Well, let the vomiting begin, for I am to sing in the next show. Yea! Brachagumbaphhhhhhsplat!

This time a shirt goes to Wes for this suggestion.

So last Thursday night we began our last weekend of Rabbit Hole performances. It is perhaps the most fulfilling and enriching production I have participated in as an actor. I will miss it terribly. I will miss the show because it is a beautifully written script, a gorgeous and intimate venue, and deftly directed. I will miss the people, not only because I love them, but because I feel totally safe with them.

Which brings me back to Thursday.

During the final scene of the show — a beautiful and softly tense scene between a husband and wife trying to navigate their own and each other’s sense of loss — I went up.

“To go up,” in acting parlance means “to forget one’s lines.”

Yup. My acting partner and I were rolling along in this beautiful scene and I simply went blank. She sat there waiting for my next line and all I could do was watch her picking at an open aluminum foil parcel of zucchini bread. We looked at each other and smiled.

She said, “Would you like a piece?” — not an actual line in the play, by the way.

I took it and ate it and said, “Thanks.” Another non line in the show. Then I said, “It’s so quiet,” which was, in fact a line. However, I skipped about half a page of pretty important character material that sort of puts this scene into perspective. Both of us knew it, but neither of us panicked. That cool-headedness does not always prevail in shows. In fact, it rarely prevails.

But I trusted her and she trusted me. We wove our back to the important info and, by the time this emotionally draining scene was over, I’m pretty sure we only really missed one line. We got everything in, it made sense, and it didn’t harm the emotional arc of the scene. That is what can happen when you trust your scene partner and you trust yourself. There is a certain love for your fellow actors that an experience like this can instill in you.

I am not always that level headed. Especially in my daily life. And especially when I was younger.

I remember the first time I went up, I mean really went up. It was high school and, quite strangely, it was during a choir concert.

We were singing this raucous sea shanty (yes, you read that right, “sea shanty”) called “Jack was Every Inch a Sailor.” Our choir director, who was kind of like a demi-god to us, had added a couple of verses because he wanted to have several of us sing little solos between the chorus of:

Oh, Jack was every inch a sailor,
Five and twenty years a whaler;
Jack was every inch a sailor,
He was born upon the bright blue sea.

I was embarrassingly excited, because I had had a verse bestowed upon me. I believe the verse was:

When Jack returned to port he found a mermaid on a pier.
(Bah da da!)
He took her home and she became his wife for forty years.
(Bah da da!)
To buy his wife some furniture caused Jack to scratch his head.
(Bah da da!)
That’s how he was the man who did invent the waterbed.

As you can see each line is punctuated with the virile all-male chorus singing through their manly smiles the phrase “Bah da da!” It was actually a really fun song.

But, alas, that fateful night. Alas!

We began the tune and it was a manly barrage of shantysong. One by one, the other soloists stepped forward and belted their verse and we Bah-da-dad!

It came my turn. I stepped forward, and this is what the audience heard:

When Jack …
(Bah da da!)
Ahh …
(Bah da da!)

(Bah da da!)
Um…

And even more horrific, the chorus did not come. Our choir director redirected the pianist to loop the verse. I soon realized, and this is what the audience saw and heard:

Jason’s head cocked to the right, his eyes swiveled left, trying to comprehend
(Bah da da!)
Jason took a step forward toward the choir director.
(Bah da da!)
Jason whispers desperately, “What are the words?”
(Bah da da!)
The choir director, grinning like a madman, shakes his head no.”
(Bah da da!)

Oh, that’s right. You saw an extra Bah-da-da! at the end of that four line phrase. Bah da da! He just rolled it right on over. Bah da da!

It became my own personal little Telltale Heart. Bah da da!

What’s that fat kid doing?
(Bah da da!)
I’ve never seen anyone sweat so much in my life!
(Bah da da!)
God I love watching people die on stage!
(Bah da da!)
Is this the third time they’ve rolled through this verse?
(Bah da da!)

Finally, I think it was the fourth time around I was able to get out

When Jack…
(Bah da da!)
Yea, Jack!
(Bah da da!)
I believe it is at this point that I began to dance a jig. A little blond fat-boy jig.
(Bah da da!)
Go, Jack!

It was at this point that I forced my director’s hand, because I slipped back into the hopeful anonymity of my choirmates.

Mercifully the chorus rolled into my ears.

I was, as you might imagine, devastated. Dev-a-stated!

I think when the men’s chorus was done I actually hid under the stage.

But, evidently, it was the hit of the evening. At that point I didn’t know how funny a jig dancing fat boy was. Apparently…HI-larious!

I suppose that painful moment launched my performing hobby in earnest.

Thanks, Wes, for reminding me of this moment. It was tucked into one of the old dusty pigeonholes in my mental rolltop. It took a while. But it has become a fun memory.

Sorry, Gang. The wife is back to work this week, so I’m soloing with the two boys for the first time. Trying to get a handle on the world. Also had a show open this week.

Thus, I did not get a post for today.

But the reviews are in for Urban Theater Project of Iowa’s production of Rabbit Hole.

Here are the links:

Rabbit Hole a Rare Treat

Peter Brook said he could take any empty space and call it a bare stage. Urban Theatre Project brings this claim to life in a very practical way. As Cedar Rapids’ “gypsy theatre,” UTP will create theatre anywhere someone will let them land for a few weeks. The aesthetic dispenses with all the spectacle of a proscenium stage and a dazzling lighting rig, focusing instead on the basics: actors performing powerful scripts with intention and clarity.

Go See “Rabbit Hole” Right Now. Seriously.

I just came from seeing Urban Theater Project’s opening-night performance of “Rabbit Hole.” I see a lot of theatre, and I don’t usually wrote Facebook notes about it afterward. But I am today. Because, seriously, people. This is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time … and hardly anyone even knows it’s happening. Which blows my mind.

Okay, I’ve done what I can. I think it’s the best acting work I have ever done. It’s a brilliant tight cast, lead by a very smart, very thoughtful director, in a beautiful setting. Come see it if you can.

Okay, gang, the Urban Theater Project of Iowa production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole opens tomorrow night!

This thing won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a Tony. The New York Times called it “a wrenching new play,” and said, “the sad, sweet release of Rabbit Hole lies precisely in the access it allows to the pain of others, in its meticulously mapped empathy.” The review ends with, “Jokes and cute anecdotes only wound; kindly advice is received as if it were a slap in the face. Family conversations are shaped by a spastic pattern of recrimination and apology, of irritation and misdirected comfort.”

This is the best new script I have read. And, if you follow my blog, you may have read in my post for August 5th, “Rabbit Hole,” how important this experience has been for me.

I’m loving finally acting with one of my good friends, a joy in itself. But the other actors that people this family and the seminal event in their lives really makes this something to see. It’s difficult for me not to watch my acting partners work. I need to force myself away from the set to prepare for next scenes. That is always a good thing.

As per UTP/Iowa’s mandate, we are in a non-theatrical space. It’s gorgeous. Locally known as the Cook House, we are in the brick mansion, just off the Brucemore property: 222 Crescent Street SE.

This brings me to an important topic. Yes: the thing has been made into a movie — a good one, as I hear, though I have been waiting to watch it until after our run. But it’s a movie. And a play is much, much different. And with our beautiful venue, a person in the first row of the audience is so close they could reach out and touch the actors. This closeness affords actors the ability and the opportunity to create a performance that is closer to themselves, more open, more vulnerable. It is a rare treat for both actors and audience.

Finally, again with the UTP/Iowa mandate, each night there are only 30 seats available. Urban Theater is all about presenting powerful shows in non-theatrical venues for small audiences at a reasonable price ($10 tickets) . This one really fits the bill. And to top it off, it puts two actors, Leslie Charipar and I — who are usually directors — into roles they might not normally perform.

I really hope you can come see it. I am as proud of my work in this show as I have ever been.

To reserve seats (remember the limited seating) call 319-431-2110.

Shows run from August 18-20 and 25-27.

Show begins at 8:00, but there is mansion open house that begins at 7:00.

This has been a great summer for me. I had a second son born to me, I got one spiritual fix from the play at Brucemore —a fix much like walking into a cathedral, a physically numinous experience— and now I am getting my second spiritual fix — this one less physical, more of a psychical numinosum.

Urban Theater Project of Iowa —of which I am a member — is mounting David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole. Yes, it is a movie. But before that it was a Pulitzer Prize winning stage play.

I actually suggested we do this play — for a couple of reasons — and I was really excited when the company members went for it. It is perhaps the best contemporary play I have read in years, in staging, plot, character and dialogue. And I desperately wanted to play Howie, the father.

I’ve always felt that people view me as a comedic actor, probably because that’s how I view myself. I love comedy and think I do comedy pretty well. But there are a handful of straight roles that I have always wanted: Horatio (for which I am too old), Richard III (which is a tough production to get mounted), and Tom Robinson from Mockingbird (which…well, I guess you can probably figure that problem out on your own).

I read a review of the play Rabbit Hole and within about five minutes had ordered the script. When I read it I knew that I had to play Howie. The problem: I’m not a leading man type of guy. Granted, Howie is not really a romantic lead, he is much more developed and rich than just that. But if I were to audition for this play, no one would take a second look at me for that role. It’s just how the industry is.

Howie is thinner, taller, handsomer, and well-dress…eder. I am none of those. Nor am I a financial advisor. In fact, when I talk with our family financial advisor I always come armed with my anxiety meds. It helps to keep the stress-induced rash at bay.

But he’s also funny, sensitive, caring, hopeful, and he forgets to feed the dog. Essentially, he’s me…if I turned out to be a thin, tall, handsome, well-dressed financial advisor.

That’s one of the reasons I love Urban Theater. We get to do the kinds of shows we want to do. And you know what, there are a lot of Howies out there that aren’t thin, tall or handsome. I’m a little tired of the chiseled chins and wry grins that we see in film.

The other reason I really wanted to do this show is rooted in my spiritual belief in theatre. Aristotle wrote of catharsis, which was the idea that if people go see tragedy, they live vicariously through the specific destruction of the play’s main character. This act releases the viewer of their stresses and fears, specifically in line with the character’s hamartia, their fatal flaw.

As I said earlier, Howie is much like me. He and his wife Becca lose their four year-old son in an auto accident, and it has done a number on their marriage. I think I would react much as Howie has. He is particularly close to me.

My wife has gone on record saying that she will simply not be able to watch this show. She is so scared of this show that she won’t run lines with me, which is a first. I get it. I understand where she is coming from on this one. And I totally respect her position.

But for me, acting in this show is like washing in the Ganges. It is a spiritual restorative. I am living the sadder alternate life in the show, much like the universal rabbit holes discussed in the play. This play life is the sadder life of loss, so my real life can break free of that disastrous possibility.

It’s getting me cleaner with each rehearsal. I can’t wait for people to see it.

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