25 February 2008

"Gee, Phy, Why Haven't You Done Any Theatre in Seven Years?

As my longtime readers know, I have done a bit of theatre in the past. From college productions to community theatre to professional summer stock, and I've loved it all. Being involved in theatre productions is one of the few "jobs" I've had that didn't bore me in one way or another.

You see, I get real tired of doing the same thing, day in and day out, in order to earn a living. Been there, done that, got bored out of my mind. Theatre, though, is different every single day. One day you're playing eleven different characters in the comedy "A Tuna Christmas" and the next you're understudy for the role of Daniel Boone in an outdoor drama. Or you're building sets, gathering props, or whatever. It's always different. As I said, I loved it.

For the most part, anyway.

Eight years ago, I was cast in a production of Sam Shepard's "True West" done by a now-defunct theatre company in Asheville. I had done a couple of shows with this company before (a Comforter in Archibald MacLeish's "J.B.", and Robert in Pinter's "Betrayal"), and was asked to play a small role in "True West", which was being produced at the request of one of the regular actors ... he'd wanted to play the role of Lee ever since he saw Gary Sinise and John Malkovich do the show in Chicago (where he had lived).

As it worked out, however, the actor who requested the play ended up quitting, and I was bumped to the lead. Not a problem. You'll rarely find an actor that will turn down a chance at a lead role.

At about the same time we began rehearsals for "True West", CtF (the abbreviation of the company's name)was in negotiations with the owner of the old Woolworth building in Asheville to lease the basement and renovate it into a performance space. At a rehearsal one night, a couple of board members were there, and I asked what plans they had for the renovation.

"Ummm, well ..." they had only general ideas, such as "a stage and some dressing rooms". "Well," says I, "if you like, I could do some measurements and draw up some basic plans for the space" ... because the board was preparing a grant application for funds (501-3C non-profit org., and all that) and I knew that, "even though I'm not an architect, I do have a good eye and some concrete plans will be helpful."

They accepted my offer happily, and I did so (I still have the drawings, btw), and they were thrilled with what I came up with - as, in truth, was I.

A dream of mine had long been to build a theatre, and this seemed to be the chance. The Artistic Director of the company and I were talking after I showed the board my drawings, and she asked me if I would be willing to be the Technical Director ... and to be in charge of the buildout (they had a contractor under whose license the permits would be pulled) and, as I was both unemployed at the time and willing to work for much less than an actual contractor, it was a no-brainer for them and me.

And so I began the renovation. A wall down the middle of the space to divide the "house" from backstage, movable stage risers and seating platforms, so we could set up in proscenium, thrust, or theatre-in-the-round configurations, offices for the AD, producer and myself. I also designed and built the set for "True West", which was originally planned to be the first show in the new space.

Things didn't work out that way (there was a "delay" in the grant process), so, even though I did not build a traveling set, we moved it to another space for the run of the show.

At about the same time that we began the run of "True West", rehearsals began for the next show of the season, Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden". For that production I was going to do set and lighting design, and we would use it to open the space.

All the while, I continued working on the renovation of the space, including a new opening in a cinderblock wall, a scene dock, and a long ADA ramp to make up the 30" difference in floor level from the outside door and the main floor of the space, as funds became available for materials.

As had happened in "True West", one of the actors in "Death and the Maiden" had to drop out (I believe it was due to a scheduling confict, but don't really remember). The director asked me if I would take the role, and I agreed, despite my dislike for the character I would have to play.

From the above "Death and the Maiden" link:

Death and the Maiden is a moral thriller about a woman, Paulina, who believes that a stranger who comes to her home is the doctor who, under a military dictatorship, tortured and raped her many years before.

I had to play the role of the doctor.

So, the rehearsals started back up again, with me in the role of Roberto Miranda, the (maybe/maybe not) rapist.

As we continued rehearsals, and I continued working on the space whenever possible, I was voted onto the board of directors for the company (as TD, this was basically a given). In my new position as a board member, I began to take a more active interest in the procuring of funds for the renovation - I had not before, because a significant portion of said funds were payment to me (and my helper) for the work.

Which was when I found out, after a bit of digging, that the "delay" in the grant application was due to the person in charge of the application (who, officially, was the Producer) never actually submitting it. Well.

That certainly put a new twist on things. After relieving the Producer from his grant-writing responsibility, the board selected a group of people to move the application process forward. I was a part of that group. One of the first things we did, was review the accounting. Well, we tried to.

We asked the Producer, who was responsible for most of the spending, for his records, and he produced, after some delay, a grocery bag full of receipts - a large portion of which turned out to be for gasoline for his car, and beer and cigarettes for himself.

Also, it turned out that there were a couple thousand dollars that were not accounted for. When we confronted the Producer about all this, he accused us of a "witch-hunt", resigned and left town. Hmmm.

Oh, did I mention that he was playing the role of Gerardo In "Death and the Maiden"? Another cast change. And no money for continuing the renovation (not to mention putting food in my belly). And little prospect for getting a grant, since any review of the books would show the cash discrepancies.

We found a new actor to take on the now-vacant role and began rehearsing again. By this time it was mid-July, and the show had been originally scheduled to go up in early May. Basically, we had to start all over with rehearsals, and, at the same time, the board was trying to figure out a way to get the space open, at least provisionally, so that we could perform the show and generate some income.

To that end, some of the board members made credit cards available for materials and such, with the deal that they would eventually be paid back .. or else write off the purchases as donations to a non-profit.

I finally got the space ready, had a set built (unfortunately I do not have any photos of the set ... but I was very pleased with it), we got a temporary occupancy permit, and we were ready to perform.

We set opening night for Friday, September 14, 2001.

After the September 11th attacks, we at first decided to delay the opening for a week or so, and then decided that, no, it was not the right time to be doing such a dark play.

Also, the board was split on the question of whether or not to continue trying to get the space open ... and we all just sort of ... drifted apart.

I was not there when they took the set down, and dismantled the stage and house seating. And I've not done any theatre since.

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