Theater Thursday

Theater Thursday: Young Frankenstein - Part Two

With rehearsals for Young Frankenstein well underway, I was swiftly learning all of the hard work that went into producing a musical. It took everything that was normally part of a stage production and added to it a live musical performance, an elaborate and changing set, complex lighting and sound cues. Late nights became later nights, stressed cast and crew were each brought to the end of their respective ropes on various occasions. Would the production truly be worth all of this work?

In short, yes. But I don't like to do things in short, so let's get on with the final post for the Theater Thursday series as we close out our retrospective of Young Frankenstein...

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How much can I sweat?

I sweat. A lot. And in any normal production I always sweat through my costume during rehearsals, and even moreso once the lights are on my and anxiety is running high. Young Frankenstein, however, brought out an entirely new level of perspiration. While I've sweat on stage plenty of times before, I've never seen the sweat flying from my hair and face in droplets, illuminated in the stage lights like disgusting little diamonds arcing through the air as I turned my head from side to side in the course of a scene.

Dress rehearsals were specifically designed to make me sweat, as in Young Frankenstein I was often wearing the basics of one costume beneath the outer layers of another in order to quickly change from one to the next. I was afforded little off-stage time, especially in Act One, and so I had to sing and dance and act all while beneath four or more layers of shirts, vests, coats, lab coats, and overcoats.

Beyond the moistness of my brow and armpits, dress and tech went remarkably well, in my own opinion. Sure, there are always moments of frustration as nights that were supposed to end by 10 extend towards 11 and onward. There's the stop and go as we do cue to cue, and there's the struggle of making sure your voice is at the right volume and your mic is placed just so to ensure that every line and every song is heard throughout. But all of that considered, tech and dress felt strong over all. We all got off book in a reasonable amount of time, and while there were a few actors who had to miss various, late-stage rehearsals, everyone was able to pull together for the nights they were present, all at the behest of Patrick and Stephanie.

The only real hangup - for me, at least - was the live music. We had done our vocal rehearsals with Sarah on the piano, but while on stage and doing choreography we were using the rehearsal music. And recorded music doesn't wait for your line or pay attention to your cues. The live orchestra was a blessing - but the first few days it felt like a curse. But despite that, Sarah assured me that I should sing at a comfortable speed, and the orchestra would follow my lead.

It didn't turn out to be so cut and dry.

In all honesty, it felt like I was getting conflicting feedback. Either that or my perception of how fast I sing in the music room and how fast I sing on stage is completely out of whack (which is very likely the case). Sarah and I would conduct extra vocal rehearsals with a couple of problem songs of mine, but when I would sing those on stage with the live orchestra, I felt like I was maintaining the same pace that we did in the music room. I would learn, however, according to literally everyone else but me that I was flying through the music. Maybe I was singing at the same speed as in rehearsals, and maybe that speed was simply too fast for the orchestra to keep up. All I know is that I stressed a lot - A LOT - about being able to maintain my pitch and my tempo in concert with the orchestra.

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"What if the table didn't fly?" And Other Tech Issues

Early on in the rehearsal process - and I mean really early on - we were told that it was Patrick's goal to get the operating table to fly, with both the monster and myself lifted into the air with it. The thought scared and excited me, and I was eager to try it all out when it was ready. The sooner I could stand on the table as it was raised, the sooner I'd be able to grow accustomed to it and not freak my shit while suspended twenty feet above the stage.

As rehearsals went on the topic didn't really come up again until Patrick pulled me aside and told me that he and George Marsolek - our resident tech master at BCT - were not confident in the safety of having people on the table as it flew. Their solution: to have a tabletop that spun end over end, allowing us to have a dummy on the table during the song, beneath a sheet as it lifted into the air. As the table would descend, through tricky lightning changes and swift action from myself, the tabletop would spin, the dummy would fall into a hidden alcove beneath the table's base (which remained on stage), and Jesse would emerge from the same alcove, replacing the dummy on the tabletop.

It was a smart alternative, but it never made it far into tech rehearsals. One or two attempts with the tabletop proved to be doable, but difficult. I wasn't confident in my ability to move it all fast enough and with enough precision that the table would be safe for Jesse Brutscher - our monster who stands well over 6' and is at least 500 lbs. of pure, farm-toned muscle - to lay atop without the whole thing collapsing on itself. And this is in no way a remark against George's ability to create a sturdy and spinnable table. It's just that, on stage, I was the one in charge of removing supports, spinning the table, and properly replacing supports all in the span of a second or two.

I didn't really voice this level of concern to Patrick - I was given a task and I was going to learn to do it - but he must have reached a similar conclusion when watching the scene unfold from his perch out in the audience during rehearsals. A few weeks before opening night, he nixxed the idea entirely and had George turn our crazy, magician's spinning table into a normal table. The table wouldn't fly, I wouldn't fly, the dummy would be removed entirely. It was the safest way to approach the scene.

I was a bit worried. This was Young Frankenstein, and when someone comes to see a Frankenstein story, don't they expect the whole flying table bit? Apparently not, as not a single person who saw the show asked 'so why didn't the lab table go up?' Proving once again that I tend to over-worry.

And besides, with a spinning bookcase, a hay wagon, and a gigantic castle door that had an entire house on it's reverse side - all of which was crafted beautifully and accompanied by countless other amazing set pieces - we didn't really give the audience the chance to stop and think 'something's missing here...'.

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And I think I interacted with the tech more than anyone else on stage - save for maybe Travis Chaput, who played Igor. It did get stressful, and it did get taxing. I was on an anxiety roller coaster each and every night. Luckily for me I spent a lot of time with Rebecca Timmins, Travis Chaput, and Sadie Wunder.

Travis was my counterpart, the Igor to my Frederick, but he was more than that. He was my first stop for advice and feedback, and we shared many conversations about theater, about art, about podcasting, and about plans for the future. I found a great friend in him, someone who was reliable and also a lot of fun, even if he stole my spotlight a few times. I cannot wait to share the stage with him again, though I know that my time to do so is running out, as he is planning a move in the relatively near future.

I had acted with Rebecca before, and I already knew that we got along very well. She and I often confided our frustrations in each other, both acting as sort of a sounding board for each other as we dealt with the stresses of the show - both those that came with any production, as well as those unique to this particular production. I also knew she would roll with pretty much anything I did on stage, and that level of freedom in my scene partners was always reassuring.

Finally, Sadie Wunder and I shared a lot of time together not only on stage but off stage waiting to come on, as well as on the lab table in Act Two. Sadie Wunder was a joy to work with, her quirky humor and subtle, dry delivery always cracked me up, and she also found my brand of 'keep-talking-until-someone-laughs' comedy surprisingly funny. When we weren't discussing blocking changes or practicing swing dancing we were often snickering backstage or while lying on the table in the middle of the stage. She is among the easiest actors I have ever worked with, and she delivers her performance very naturally, even if she doesn't feel like it.

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Everyone else in the show were also amazingly helpful and talented, and know that while I'll be listing off a number of them, I could never hope to get all of them. This entire post would be a love letter to the entire cast and crew otherwise.

Jesse was the soft-spoken yes man (but in a good way). If I kissed his forehead during a scene, or sat on his lap while he cried like a baby, he went with it. Rachael showed the utmost patience with me as we we learned to waltz together, and didn't hesitate to explain to me how to improve (which I needed). Charlie and I talked about writing, and science fiction, and story structure, and artistic expression, and many of the things I loved outside of theater. Ed and I discussed music thoroughly, both of us from different times but sharing more than a few favorite artists or bands. Kevin was the encouraging and inspiring rock he had always been - he came in, he did the work, he offered me a pat on the back and a reminder that I was doing alright, and you could always rely on him and Marc to pick up the slack with scene transitions (seriously, these two did WAY too much work). Marc was my costume master and I was his sandwich holder. Rachel led the ensemble's tap routine in Puttin' on the Ritz, and also led the ensemble in hilarious quips and one-liners. Nicole continued to be one of my favorite people to work with, even if we only shared a few scenes together. Isaac played a werewolf, Dracula, the executioner, and more, and you could see he enjoyed it all. Lori was our assistant stage manager, and her thoroughness with lines and blocking was astounding, even if it caused me to reach a new level of frustration with myself. Bri stepped in with the little bits of insight that I often overlooked, like where some props were waiting, or finding a home for my water bottle, and even being willing and able to step in to a small solo when another of our ensemble had to leave mid-run after an injury. And on that note, we cannot leave out Austin, who was willing to sacrifice his body in order to keep the show going, dancing through more than one song on an almost-broken foot before being brought to the hospital in the act break.

And it was through the hard work of all of the above, and many more, that by the time we reached the night of Thursday, April 26th, we were ready for opening night.

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Opening Night - Reaching New Heights in Anxiety

I cannot explain the level of anxiety I had on opening night. Anybody who has been in a show and suffers from social anxiety undoubtedly knows what I am talking about, but this was an entirely new experience for me. I'd been nervous before, but never like this.

I did all of my pre-show routines; I ate, I pooped, I brushed my teeth, I drank a lot of water, I went over my lines non-stop for a good chunk of time, I worked on my songs, I arrived to the college a full hour before call time. I said many a silent prayer. I spoke with everyone in the show in an effort to briefly take my mind off of things. And then the lights went down, the pre-show recording played, and the curtain went up as the orchestra played the overture.

I felt like I was going to shit myself right there, back stage. I felt like I was having trouble breathing. I had been sweating so much that now I stopped sweating, and I wondered briefly if I was suffering from heat stroke. What would happen? Would they take Ed out of the wheelchair and put me in instead, pushing me on stage to mumble my lines because 'the show must go on'? Where was my lab coat? I NEEDED MY LAB COAT!? Oh I was wearing my lab coat. BUT WHERE WAS MY SKELETON?! WHO WOULD WHEEL OUT MY SKELETON IF NOT ME?!

The overture nearly brought me to tears every single night. It was a beautiful collection of melodies from each song in the show, and it served as sort of a reminder of the distance we'd all come since first read through, what felt like a lifetime ago. The opening scene finished, I brought out my skeleton along with everyone else doing the scene change, and then tried not to cry as I stood with my back to the audience, spotlight square on me, as the rest of the cast on stage was sing/shouting "FRANKENSTEIN! FRANKENSTEIN! FRANKENSTEIN!"

"Fronk-en-STEEN!"

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With that one word, that one line, my anxiety dissipated. It melted away, and my body took over, muscle memory kicking in as I strode about the stage, motioning to body parts and singing like crazy.

Opening night felt rough, but we got through it. The first curtain call hit me like a truck. I walked out to the standing ovation, joined my fellow actors on stage, and I felt me knees almost give out as I accepted the applause and cheers of the audience.

I had done it.

The audience who came to see it - my parents, former coworker and fellow thespian Eric Boyles, among many others - all had glowing things to say about it. Nobody asked about the times I missed my note, or the cues that were dropped. Nobody asked about any of the problems that felt so huge from my perspective. Everyone loved it.

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Confidence, Reception, and Where To From Here?

This process continued for pretty much every show. My anxiety abated, but only a bit. It would continue to build every night, reaching it's peak with the spotlight on my back, and then receding immediately as I shouted my first line. There were problems here and there, there were moments when the show felt like it would hit a snag or have an issue, but we got through them all and - at least it seemed - the audience didn't take notice.

Reception was overwhelmingly positive, and I mean overwhelmingly. I had never been in a show that was so well received, where the people who came to see it actually sought me out to tell me how good everything was. I got stopped at restaurants around town. I got a call at work on my office phone. I got social media messages and notifications. It was utterly surprising how strongly the audiences reacted to the show.

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It was also from Young Frankenstein that I met my first two - what I would call - super fans.

The first was a high school student named Jacob, a charming young man who was undeniably excited to talk with me after the show. I have never encountered that before - a situation where someone is so impressed with the work you've done that they have trouble getting the words out. I know I have been like that on many occasions, and it was truly humbling to be on the receiving end of that for once. His mother - the box office manager for BCT - asked if I would do a photo with him, which I happily obliged. This was one of the very few times an audience member had asked to be in a photo with me, although in retrospect I wish I had been dressed better than with my black socks, workout Cardboard of the Rings shirt, and my messy, sweaty hair. But he didn't seem to mind, so neither did I, I guess.

The second was Jan. On the second to last night of the show I was stopped by photographer John Erickson - the talented artist who captured most of the images in these last two blog posts, as well as dozens of others - who wanted to introduce me to his wife. John had been an incredibly supportive, unofficial asset throughout the course of the show's rehearsal. He and his wife had come to see the show the night prior, and then again on the second to last evening because they both had enjoyed it so much. After the show, Jan Erickson and I spoke at length about the process, the ins and outs of the show, about my theater experience (or lack thereof, in the case of musicals), and about plans for the future. John had already given me many wonderful words through social media, and now his wife was doing so again, tenfold, in person.

At one point she asked me "where do you work?" I told her I work at the FedEx ground station south of town, in the office. She said "well I certainly hope that your coworkers came out to see what a wonderful job you've done."

It was strange. I'd never had an audience member bring up my job before, nor express a desire for my coworkers to see my show. In truth, I had posted multiple posters for Young Frankenstein in the office as well as in the warehouse, to ensure that as many people as possible saw it. I spoke about it constantly with my coworkers, and talked about it with delivery drivers and package handlers until I was blue in the face.

When she said that, I lied and said "a few made it out." In truth, one driver and his wife made it to a show, and that was it. None of my fellow office administrators, none of my fellow coordinators, none of the managers, none of the package handlers I've known for years, nobody else. One driver and his wife.

Don't get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for the two of them attending, but it was a subtle little knife that poked my heart at Jan's words. In that small moment my mind was flooded with the people who hadn't made it out to the show - THE show - to see it. I had plastered it all over social media that of all my shows to see, that this was the one. I had made Facebook posts daily. I had talked about it nonstop. And yet there were a number of people - not just coworkers - that had not made it out. A number of people very close to me. Friends and family that I regarded as close, as important, and they missed it.

But for the ones who didn't - or couldn't - see the show, there were so many more who had. People traveled from across the state to see it driving two or more hours to watch Young Frankenstein. These people easily reminded me why I do shows. Their love and support means the world to me, and it - along with the amazing people I get the honor of working beside - are why I return to the stage again and again.

It's a strange feeling, coming off of Young Frankenstein. My acting life has had a very real momentum to it, followed a trajectory that was steadily progressing upwards - in both my responsibility and its emotional impact on my life - and now, with Young Frankenstein, it sort of bears this strange feeling that it's my high point, my cap, the exciting climax to a wild ride over the last five years. Is it really the end of my acting? No. I'm already looking to other shows that are coming to our area in the next year and a half. But if it were to be my last, I don't think I would have any regrets.

After all, after a role like Frederick in a show like Young Frankenstein, with all of the people that were in it, how could I ask for a better experience?

And now the show is well behind me, with over a month having passed since our final performance. And yet, I still find the time to play the soundtrack in my car on occasion, singing my parts loud and proud, and for a brief moment I'm back on that stage, surrounded by the wonderful actors, and taking in the experience all again.

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