Featured, Theater Thursday

Theater Thursday: Play On!

Acting hasn't been a part of my life for too long, but in the last few years it has been incredibly influential and undeniably eye-opening. As I've completed eleven production in almost five years, the conversations I've had and the memories I've shared with my theater family have made me realize I don't remember all of my previous productions as well as I had thought. So this blog series seeks to delve deep into the experiences I've had thus far, as few as they may be when compared to many people I've acted beside.

With Flowers for Algernon behind me, I was ready for a comedy again. And not just any comedy, but one that I would feel like I truly fit. I'm not talking about a Blithe Spirit - which was fun in its own way - and I'm not talking about a Bill W. & Dr. Bob - where the comedy is only half of the production. No, I'm talking about something that builds jokes from act one onward, with plenty of physical humor, and is just downright fun. And this came in the form of Play On!...

 Left to right: Clayton Castle, Marc Oliphaunt, Beth Selinger, Bri Keran, Emili Lane, Michelle Waldoch, myself, Rebecca Timmins, Shane Keran, Jennifer Anderson

Left to right: Clayton Castle, Marc Oliphaunt, Beth Selinger, Bri Keran, Emili Lane, Michelle Waldoch, myself, Rebecca Timmins, Shane Keran, Jennifer Anderson

A Good Actor Playing A Mediocre Actor Playing A Role... Poorly

Play On! was a show within a show. It took the story of an original community theater group putting on a show written by a local playwright - and that playwright was never content to let the show be. Changes were made to the script during the production process, and hilarity ensued as the cast and crew tried to keep pace. I played the role of Billy, a young and experienced actor who was more invested in following his hormones than he was with taking his own role seriously.

It was a fun and original exercise to play a character who was playing a character. And it was especially fun to explore how my character (Billy) would play his character poorly - due to mixing up lines, missing cues, tech problems, and the like.

There are two very distinct memories I have with rehearsals for this production, and both of them involve the wonderful Emili Lane. She played the romantic interest for both my character and my character's character, and so we had a couple of moments together where we had to sell that romance. Now, I'm a modest man whose confidence comes and goes like the wind. Those two aspects combine to make me uncertain at the outset of showing romance on stage. It always starts awkward, but the more we rehearse and the more we do it, the easier I get with it and the more natural it eventually becomes.

 Myself with Emili Lane

Myself with Emili Lane

There is a scene early on in Act One where our characters act on their urges, collapsing on each other in a hilariously overblown impromptu make-out session. We had awkwardly approached the scene for our first few rehearsals, afterwards I apologized to Emili for making it awkward, and told her that I'd get there. Well, apparently when I was ready to get there, she wasn't expecting it. The scene came to our kiss, I went in for it, resulting in a look of panic as she made to dodge my advance. Eventually we landed on selling it all as a stage kiss with frantic groping, but that initial moment still replays in my head on occasion. Sorry, Emili!

The other truly striking moment was during one of our final dress rehearsals. In a scene late in act three, my character falls onto the couch center stage, where Emili's character is waiting. The particular couch we were using for the performance was an old couch on creaky, wooden legs and a wobbly backrest. Everyone joked about me breaking the backrest of the couch, expecting it to be almost inevitable. Well, during this particular scene, I entered and fell onto the couch as I was supposed to. After a pause for laughter, I righted myself, sitting next to Emili. And it was then that I heard an audible crack from behind me as one of the rear legs of the couch broke off. The next thing I knew I had fallen onto my back, staring up at my feet and the lights above. I quickly rolled off the couch and attempted to continue the scene, but the raucous laughter from the actors off stage, the director, and from Emili still down on the broken couch, was too much for me to hold my composure.

I can only hope that I didn't scare Emili away from acting alongside me in future productions. Other than Young Frankenstein, of course.

Bring Back That Improv!

Play On! also gave me the opportunity to revisit my capabilities for improvisational comedy on stage, even if it was in a much more limited scope that it had been for The Servant of Two Masters. The third act of Play On! was the opening night performance of the actual play our characters had been working on the entire show prior, and it was supposed to be a comedy of errors. Lines were misplaced, cues were dropped, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. And with this veil of in-character ineptness, it allowed us the freedom to make some stuff up on the fly, as long as it remained internally consistent. Finding myself once more on stage beside Shane Keran, the show was ripe with opportunity for improv. From changing the punch lines to embellishing our reactions to hamming it up as we acted on the far side of tipsy during the final scene, Shane and I found plenty of moments to not only keep the rest of the cast on their feet, but also the two of us.

I also had the chance to work with a number of actors for the first time - not just Emili - who were talented and wonderful individuals to share the stage with. Jennifer Anderson, who played the director, was a joy to work with and could turn her 'Angry Director' mode on and off at the drop of a hat. Clayton Castle and Rebecca Timmins were both relatively new to the area, and both brought their own theater experiences to bear on the stage for Play On!  as the tech director and the playwright respectively. Clayton proved to be an observant actor who was willing to roll with almost anything we threw at him, and Rebecca was someone who could strike a profound balance between having fun with a show and bringing a sense of professionalism. And Michelle Waldoch rounded out the actors I hadn't worked with before, bringing her own brand of soft-spoken humor to the show as she played the actress portraying the maid, a character who was positioned to hammer home some of the best gags in the show.

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All in all, Play On! was more than just a good show. As we neared our final performance, it truly felt like we had hit something truly special with this play. The actors and crew bonded together in a way that hadn't really been true in other shows. Perhaps it was a sign of me growing into the hobby, or perhaps it was truly a measure of our connection on stage. Or maybe it was both.

Also, hobby? I know that word is technically the correct one, but the amount of time and effort, the blood, sweat and tears that go into each show just make the word hobby feel too... small.

The First Annual GLAPA Gala

I'll breeze over the performances for Play On! by saying that they went extremely well. We were met with receptive audiences, even if we didn't sell out a show in our entire run. And the energy of the performers was palpable each night (at least, in retrospect, it seemed that way). Instead, I'll focus on an event important to our entire theater community, and how this performance and that event helped to change the way I see myself in terms of acting.

My motto for some time now has been "I am nothing if not a work in progress." And I believe this. There are always things to improve upon, and I should never stop trying to improve. This belief has been primarily beneficial when it comes to my creative expression, as it drives me to always work to better my writing, my storytelling, my podcasting, and my acting, among other things. It keeps me humble. But it also keeps me from giving myself proper credit, and it may keep me from believing whether or not I can do something, even if everyone around me is telling me I can.

This is a tough situation to be in, but ultimately I'd rather see myself as a work in progress than as an accomplished individual, simply for the fact that one implies growth whereas the other implies success. And while I want to be successful, I want never want to close my mind to learning along the way.

This is all a roundabout way to lead into an anecdote that took place during the production of Play On!. Rebecca Timmins and I were back stage during a dress rehearsal, discussing our acting experience. It was during this conversation that she told me that I am talented enough as an actor to pursue it as a career, to audition for paid acting gigs down in the Twin Cities. I have a deep respect for Rebecca, and she has been working in and around theater for some time, and so hearing this from her sank in deeper than if I had heard it from, say, a colleague at work or a friend from high school. And even though I wouldn't act on those words, it gave me a new surge of confidence, unlocked a higher level of self-esteem that had otherwise been gated from me.

Fast forward some months, and the Greater Lakes Area Performing Arts guild - headed up by Kevin Yaeger - is organizing their first ever gala to recognize and honor all of the hard work and talent that goes into every theater production in our greater community, specifically over the year of 2017. As a member of the guild, I receive the emails, and saw that not only would the guild be recognizing shows from 2017 with the first ever annual Lambie Awards, but also that I was one of the nominees for Best Supporting Actor in a Play or Drama for my portrayal as Billy in Play On!. It was exciting to see my name there, even if I all but knew I wouldn't win. Not when there were other talented actors also nominated for the same award. I had, after all, only performed in Play On! that year, and while it was nice to be nominated, I didn't feel the role was of the same caliber as others.

Weeks passed and I never even considered going to the Gala. It felt like an event for the veterans of the theater community, and despite having been acting for over four years at that point, I still felt like the New Guy (TM). I suffer from a degree of Imposter Syndrome - a potentially crippling state of low self-esteem where you can be doing something, something you're good at, and you can have done it for a while, and still feel like you're an imposter, like you're not actually good, and sooner or later people will come to realize that you've been faking it all along (even if you have been giving your all every single time). It's a completely irrational thing to think, but I do think it from time to time. When I'm Game Mastering a tabletop RPG, when I'm publishing a book, and when I'm acting. But then I got a message from Kevin Yaeger asking me if I was planning on attending. He called me, we spoke, I talked about scheduling conflicts, about my uncertain work schedule for the day, and about how it wasn't looking good for me to attend. He said something to the effect of 'of all the guys who were nominated, you're the only one who hasn't confirmed yet, and I think it's really important for you to be there.' As the Gala was an event spearheaded by Kevin, I wanted to be there to. I wanted to show my support for all of the work he had been doing, both as a friend as a member of community theater. So I told him that if I got done with work in time to make it up, I'd be there.

The night came, my work shift finished early, and I was on time for the Gala. Bri Keran was looking out for me, and had saved me a seat at her table with a bunch of other friends I knew and a couple I didn't. The whole time I felt more out of place than I ever had before. I had just landed the lead in Young Frankenstein (which we will discuss next week), and my imposter syndrome had never been stronger. Here were these people, composed of a professionalism, of a knowledge of theater, and of a measure of talent the likes of which I felt like I couldn't hope to measure up to.

And then they started the awards, and it was such a treat to see all of these wonderful people with whom I had worked - and a number of those I hadn't - walk up to the podium amidst their well-deserved applause and receive the awards they so rightfully deserved.

And then they got to Best Supporting Actor in a Play or Drama, and they called my name.

My heart dropped. My palms began sweating immediately. I glanced at the door and wondered if I could make it out before anyone noticed I was actually there. But after what felt like minutes of mentally prepping myself I walked up there on quivering legs and said my brief thank you's, all the while holding back tears like and trying to keep my voice from cracking like a silly child.

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The night was fun, but after accepting the award and talking with a fair few people, I sort of just existed there like an island. Any time someone would engage with me, I'd pray that they wouldn't leave, and when they did I would nervously look around for someone else I knew, someone else I could at least stand beside so as not to look like the outsider I felt like.

After a couple of hours I left, still on cloud nine. Rebecca's, my wife's words, and all of the encouragement and kindness everyone had shown me over the last four to five years had finally felt like they were true. Now I was an actor. I hadn't done everything, but I had done enough to prove that I could. Even to myself. Everything from here would be easy, right?

Well, I was about to start work on the most anxiety-ridden, emotionally-taxing experience I have ever had in community theater as I stepped into not only my first musical, but the lead role of that musical in Young Frankenstein...