Once a year, I lock myself in my apartment, order pizza and watch all three extended versions of Lord of the Rings.  It takes the entire day.  A full twelve hours.  For those of you who don’t know me even a little, I love these books and movies like few other things in my life.  Many of my friends have nicknamed me Frodo.  I sit in my apartment for these twelve hours in complete awe.  I cry, oh yes, I cry – from the opening strings of the ring’s theme to “well…I’m back” not to mention Annie Lennox’s Into the West, which I want sung at my funeral, (as well as Bilbo’s traveling song.)  
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgcoBKWTW14
(And I’ll tell you – it’s even better when you know what Into the West actually means…)

Travelling Song

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say. 

What draws me to this story?  What compels me to spend an entire day out of the year doing this?  I’m not sure I understand completely why.  But there is something so big about these stories that resonates so deeply within me.  These are the stories of magic and power, and the stakes are unimaginably high.  The story is so simple in that it deals with pure emotions.  Love is love, honor is honor, and evil is evil.    Archetypes are so hard to portray with dignity, yet that is exactly what these men are.  Within moments of meeting these characters, you know exactly who they are.  It’s hard to make such simplicity believable.  Oddly enough, I’d say it’s the hardest on stage, where there is no “narrator” telling the story, rather a person who has to portray it, and no real battle sequences to liven up the action.  And I’d argue that its harder than acting a real three-dimensional character.  But here, they embrace it; the heroes, and even the men who choose to follow, enter these battles, knowing they are going to their death.

Arise! Arise, Riders of Théoden!  Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day... a red day... and the sun rises! Ride now... Ride now... Ride! Ride for ruin and the world's ending! Death! 

(Purists will say those lines aren’t in the book, but the sentiment certainly is.)  But what story is more deserving to be told?  These men fight simply because it is their destiny, though they are doomed to lose and all is in vain.   

Even the deaths, though sad, are so satisfying because even as they fall, you get the sense that it was destiny, and a larger hand guided them to it.  They accept it with grace.  Theoden says as he dies “I go to the halls of my fathers, in who’s mighty company, I shall not now feel ashamed.”  What a beautiful way to look at how you lived and died.   

And as Samwise says:

It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo—the ones that really mattered… full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? but in the end, it’s only a passing thing. Even darkness will pass—a new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine all the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you and meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think I do understand—I know now. The folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t—they kept going, because they were holding onto something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Samwise: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

And to me, these are the stories worth telling.  Why is it wrong that we believe in a little magic, the power of song?  To be moved by moments of selfless chivalry?  Why should we not lament what is good that has passed and seek to rebuild glory and honor in the future rather than trudging on through the day to day until use and age accept it?  The hobbits do great things, but through the story keep protesting that they cannot for they are too small.  How often do we feel that way?  That we are too small to effect change?  “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”  In a way, it calls for us to be bigger than ourselves - and fight the foes that we know are far too great to ever defeat; yet, it is the fighting that matters.

Lord of the Rings tells a complete story from beginning to end, yet you get the feeling that this story doesn’t end with Annie Lennox, nor did it begin with the Galadriel’s backstory “The world is changed.”  In fact, I’ve read the book where it does all begin.  I highly suggest you read it.  The story entitled The Music of the Anuir is I think it one of the most beautiful creation stories ever written, and even in that story, it hints at a glorious armeggedon where the music of Ea (god) will conclude in an unfathomable final chord.  An entire cosmology has been created, where we can see both the will of “god” and the story of one small hobbit, and somehow each piece of the puzzle is immeasurably important.

There are a million other reasons why I love this story so much, but I halfheartedly tried to link this back to theatre and storytelling in some way, so I’ll leave it there.  

One more thing: the substory running though the story is Bilbo writing his book - “There and Back Again.”  People argue that the end is too long.  I agree that there is some extra that MAY have been cut, but I don’t think so – the story must end with Samwise saying “Well I’m back.”  It is there that this chapter closes of the tale of the ring, as Frodo sails into the west, but the road  that goes ever on and on…

 
Since getting back from the holiday, I’ve been trying to get a lot of the behind the scenes work done for all my shows… I’ve been trying to get a hold of the projection designer for R&J, but he’s been out of town.  I’m starting to nail down the sound design, and figure out at least a rough sketch of my ideas for the blocking.  But in general, I like to allow the actors to find some of the blocking themselves – so this is in case they don’t have any other ideas.  This is also a slightly different experience because it is in ¾ versus a proscenium stage, so many of the actors may not be as used to it.  As Dan Smith (Mercutio) made clear in one rehearsal, this stage is all about diagonals.

I have been seeing on a few of my fellow bloggers pages their end of year recap/goals for the new year.  I think I might jump on that bandwagon a little more thoroughly in a few days.  But as a little precursor, I have decided to focus more on marketing myself.  (Other than this website…) (OH!  On another note, my mother got me a beautiful business card holder for Christmas.  Thanks mom!)  I contacted Annie, the new marketing coach that I will be working with, and I think we will begin doing sessions in January.  Thank you to Kathryn Neville Browne for introducing us.  She gave me a few pre-homework assignments.  (Which I have still been delinquent with…) including picking up a book of all the summer playhouses, and a list of my top 20 shows.  She also mentioned that my website was a little too simple.  Well I take that as a personal assault.  Are you saying that my simple cut and paste website that requires absolutely no computer skill to operate isn’t exciting enough!?!?!  Well I agree.  I did initially actually want a no-frills, get the information across website, but I am interested in finding a little more elegance to it… especially since I am an artist, I should have a website with a little more, well, art.

I am also resolving to get my contact list a little more under control.  Admittedly, I am VERY bad about that, but since that’s how I get the word out, I need to get better, so I can have more complete mass mailings, or even E-mailings, so that my major marketing is not my website and facebook.
 
I don’t even know where to start.  The holiday is of course a flutter of activity, and since I spent very little time at a computer, I didn’t do much blogging.  And I know that all you dear readers have been sitting on pins and needles.  Perhaps sneaking away from the Christmas table to see if I have made your Christmas a bit more merry.  Well I’m back, and I hope I haven’t caused you any undue pain, and I hope you all had a very happy holiday season.  In order to keep you all in suspense, I’ll break up all of the wonderful events over a few days – I also don’t want to overwhelm you.

So, beginning with last Saturday… The day of the big blizzard.  After a great rehearsal, I stayed around and finally saw Titus.  Luckily I stayed for the matinee because the evening performance was cancelled.  I’m so glad I stayed.  It was me and two other audience members.  One of which was a middle aged woman who got incredibly drunk and was rooting for the bad guys.  The woman playing Tamora was who she came to see, so any vengeance enacted by the Andronicus family was met with hisses and angry whispers.  It couldn’t have been a more exciting audience. 


On an artistic note, I do feel that though many of the reviews are unnecessarily harsh, I do understand what they were saying.  I think many of the actors did a valiant job, and Thom did a wonderful job as Titus, even with the fact that he is far too young to play the role.  But I think that at this economic level of theater, an audience must be sensitive to that fact and suspend their disbelief just a little bit further.  The coffins which were used as the predominant, mobile set pieces created a variety of locals, though to be honest, I’m not sure what a few of them were supposed to be.  I got a little lost in the verbiage sometimes, but as I think I’ve made clear up to this point, I’m a stickler for text work.  I also feel that there could have been a little more clarity and focus in the directing.  The director said this is a “black and white” piece, and used the set and costumes to “show” that, but I didn’t feel that conceptually throughout.  It blended too many different styles and didn’t follow through with any of them enough to provide a truly cohesive picture.  But then again, this is a problem piece.  Read on…

It’s funny, because I’ve always said that I wanted to direct this piece.  I’m not sure that I do any more.  It goes off in too many different directions and asks for an awful lot for a very juvenile payoff (i.e. a lot of blood and a stab to the hoo-hoo).  For example, the brothers die defending their sister’s honor and Bassanio’s right to claim her.  Then in a few scenes, we are to accept that everyone will believe the plot that they killed him.  AND EVERYONE GOES FOR IT!  Seems like a bit of a stretch to me. 

Again, thanks to our private performance with drunk lady, all in all, it was a great time.  Titus runs for two more weeks at the Secret Theatre.  

I then hightailed it out of there to go see the closing night of God Bless You Mister Scrooge.  I have never waited so long in between performances to go see my show again.  I will say it was a bit of a mixed bag.  Some things settled amazingly well, and some things settled a little TOO much.  But Janet again was very happy with it, and the audience seemed to really enjoy it.  It was odd that there were definitely some new set and costume pieces.  But that’s what I get for leaving after final dress…

The weekend finished up so well with our final text run thrus.  They really have a wonderful grasp on the show now, and I am very ready to put it on its feet.  The set design is coming along (a ruined cityscape shadow – see I knew he could do it!) and we had our first big costume meeting.  We did lose one of our actors to a well-paying equity job, which really makes me sad, I really enjoyed his performance.  But I wish him all the best, and the role was filled quickly.  The new prince, Ari, comes to us from Titus, where he played one of the brothers.  I am excited to begin work with him, and the entire cast.
 
With every rehearsal it seems to get smoother and smoother.  For what many members of the cast is a crash course in Shakespeare, they have really taken to the work.  And now we are even starting to find the freedom in it in these first times through.  This is quite a shift from the early rehearsals, where I had to do quite a bit more coaxing to get everything I needed.  I’d say it is a shame that we only have one rehearsal to do all the text work, when really you need to take a whole day just to digest the language, then put the acting work on top of that.  But now that the actors are beginning to develop an ear for it, we are able to synthesize all of the work much more quickly.  I could not be more pleased.  We have been jumping all over the place though.  Last night alone, Romeo and Juliet got married, then the next scene we worked on was Romeo finding out Juliet was “dead”.  Talk about a shift!  But there is such variety in the work.  The performances don’t feel at all one note, or too shouty, or whiny.  I couldn’t be more pleased with the work right now.  We’ve been doing such a strong job, that we’ve gotten out early the past two nights.  (They’ve also been work on shorter scenes.)  Richard jokingly said as we were leaving (hopefully with kindness) “Oh I wish I was in Greg’s show – everyone is so happy, and everyone gets out early.  Such a light process.”  Well I hope that is the case.  But its because the work is getting done.  I don’t think anyone would say that I go too easy on them, rather, they are really grabbing hold.

I also spoke with Allen again yesterday.  I have decided to not go as stylized with the set. He is upset that we don’t have the budget to really fill the concept I want.  So he feels that we are just making a “pretty” set that doesn’t tell any of the story.     He is concerned that it won’t feel unified.  I do not have the same reservations.  What he has designed till now is exactly what I need to make the show happen.  Now this is not to say that I am not interested in the art of the project.  What happens on top of that for me is gravy.  I want to hear all his ideas as to what he can do to further the storytelling with the design.    Though for me, it does tell the story – it matches the style I want and it gives me the sense that this world is dying.  But he insists that because we do not have the budget to build it the way I would really want it - bricks that are falling apart etc., and that it will look flat and uninteresting, even sloppy.  I am not a designer, I don’t visualize things in that way, so I can’t argue.  Instead I have opened it up. We have agreed that the form remains the same, but we have basically tabled the current design, just the “dying pattern wash” as the “last resort” design.  He is leaving town on Sunday, so he has promised me some ideas before then.  I am excited to hear what will come forth in the next few days.
 
We had our first big rehearsal for R&J on Saturday.  We predominantly worked the party scene.  It really is amazing that if you have a strong basis in the text, the blocking works most of itself out.  We got to the point where a few of the actors were saying that they wish we would just stage it already.  But one thing at a time.  I want them to really focus on speaking the words, not where they need to move.  Speaking of blocking, I finally got the set design nailed down, and am expecting a full sketch and inventory by Wednesday.  I am determined to keep us organized and on track during this process.  (Funny enough, even typing that has reminded me of some more people I need to contact to stay on deadline.)  

One of the biggest notes I’ve been giving the past few days is simply to have more fun.  It seems a little counterintuitive for such a downer of a play, but we’re still in the first few scenes, and we have to see the excitement of being young in this world before we deal with the consequences.  I am constantly saying to my actors that I know I’m throwing A LOT of technique at them.  But instead of letting that bog them down, I’m really encouraging them to relish it.  This is the time to be a little indulgent and to enjoy the sounds that you are making!  And it actually makes the scene more interesting if the actors are actually enjoying saying what they’re saying.

Pocket Opera’s first show concluded yesterday.  It was Handel’s Messiah.  They had a production of it at Wei-En’s church down the street for me.  It was beautifully sung and the orchestra was quite good as well.  Chad (who is playing Serse) did a wonderful job as the tenor soloist.  I wish I had the opportunity to see it fully produced, as some of the staging and projection choices didn’t register well for me, but I credit that to the fact that this was not the space that it was designed for.  Chad and I have arranged to meet on Friday to nail down some of the particulars for Woods and Serse.  I’m looking forward to staying organized on all fronts!
 
The first bit of exciting news is we got a write-up in the Times for God Bless You Mr. Scrooge.  It’s not a review per se, (nothing great I can use on my review page…shucks) but it still says some nice things – especially for it not being a review - and will hopefully bring some more butts in the seats.  And it’s the first show I’ve ever directed that has been mentioned in the Times!  Check it out! 

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/11/theater/11holiday.html?scp=2&sq

In other news, we are really starting to work out some of the technical stuff on R&J.  We’re definitely getting clear with what we DON’T want.  I found a lot of images that inspire me, and passed them along to the designers.  We’re also trying to figure out where different scenes are being placed on the stage.  I had initially wanted all the interior scenes to be on the balcony.  But when I realized that they were in bed for some of these scenes, I found it didn’t really work.  I’m also doing a lot of work for the sound design.  The more I look at Battlestar, the more it’s exactly what I want.  I found an image – strong stone walls decaying into rubble, yellow faded tint, vegetation struggling to survive – and a big spaceship in the middle.  Well, ok, its exactly what I want except the spaceship.  But for the sound, I found six or seven songs from the first season’s soundtrack that give the exact mood that I’m looking for.  For the most part, want a drum and single wind instrument sound.  I find that it gives off a timeless vibe.  There is something ancient, yet very contemporary about that sound.  Primal, yet immediately identifiable.  So for all you BSG fans, you’re gonna love this.

As far as rehearsals go, I know we’re probably still in the famed “theater honeymoon” stage, where you think the show is going to be absolutely flawless and everything is going perfectly, but I’m very pleased with how the show is going so far.  After two rehearsals, we’ve pretty much done all the text work for Act I (that’s Shakespeare’s, not mine) going through what I’m calling “Romeo’s whiny” track.  (It’s the part where he’s still “in love” with Rosaline and is just so freakin depressed.)  I’ve really gravitated toward the analogy that working on Shakespeare is like working on a piece of music.  That you have to get all the technical stuff down before you can get to the art.  In these first few scenes, the technical stuff is down pat, specifically with Romeo.  It is actually to the point where I had to tell him to forget about it a little bit, because it began to get TOO technical, and we were losing the honesty.  It’s funny, we work so hard, only to just trust and let it go.  It made me laugh because it reminds me of that Waiting for Guffman scene.  I tried to find the clip for you to reference, but I couldn’t, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well too bad for you, go watch the movie!

One of the biggest challenges of the night however, was the infamous Queen Mab speech.  What a strange speech.  Where does it come from?  We talked about that for quite a while.  Who is Mercutio to go on this crazy journey in a matter of a couple of lines.  He goes crazy by the end!  But Dan is doing a fantastic job.  I told him at the end of the night, as good a job as he did with Touchstone, I think this role is perfectly suited for him.  I did have to remind him about the line endings though.  I assure you he is not the only one.  But its just another great example of how one can use them to help instead of hinder them.  The monologue itself is so out of control.  What better way to manifest that vocally then breathing right in the middle of your thought and then spiraling on to the next one?  It really is a great piece of writing, and I really look forward to continuing the work on it!
 
So funny story – Wei-En (producer of Pocket Opera) wrote me an e-mail saying he really wanted to get started on production before Christmas.  I thought that was a fantastic idea.  Though I’m already up to my neck in R&J (in a good way), I felt I should get at least a little direction on how we’re going to attack this.  He actually lives right down the street from me, so we met for lunch.  He proceeds to tell me that he only wants to do the first act.  Actually, only a 45 minute excerpt so it can fit into a class period.  Huh?  

I neglected to mention that he had entitled his e-mail “Into the Woods”.  Now I had thought that he had meant that we were getting into it, getting dirty, etc.  No, he meant Into the Woods.  Apparently someone somewhere along the line was supposed to have approached me to direct this.  Never happened.  Perhaps once at their meet and greet, but certainly nothing official.  Now I’m quite familiar with the show, having already directed it, and though it pains me a little bit to do the act that really ends “happy ever after”, its no problem to undertake.  Especially since it sounds to me that this is going to be little more than a concert version, with maybe a little bit of staging.  Pocket Opera is doing this because they got a grant, and Chad (the other producer) works at a children’s hospital so this is their community outreach.  It sounds like a very rewarding project.  

I told them there is no way I can start before Romeo & Juliet goes up, but after that, since they own my time anyway, I said I could do it.  It seems that we’re only talking a weekend or a few days worth of rehearsals anyway, and though there is no monetary compensation, it seems like a worthwhile project in other ways.  

Meanwhile, I did ask that we talk for at least a few minutes about why I THOUGHT we were talking in the first place.  I learned that we will be performing at the Wings Theater, which I know from the Dare Projects that I have worked on.  Because of budgetary constraints (what every director hates to hear, but I completely understand) they are considering doing Xerxes and Cosí in rep.  That will make the design concept a little harder, since it will force the show to be even more minimalist, since we’ll be sharing it with another show.  In all honesty, I am more concerned about how the director of Cosí will take it (Rod Gomez, a lot of nice credits, look him up if you get a chance.)  All I REALLY need is a tree.  Everything else, I can make it work.  I told Wei-En that I would like to speak with Rod ASAP so I can see what he’s thinking and if I can work around it/with it/in spite of it/whatever.  It is just another reminder of how collaborative the performing arts have to be.  The good news – we will be rehearsing at the Taiwan church, which is halfway between my house and the hospital.  So we are talking a three minute walk to rehearsal!  I discussed with Wei-En how I envisioned us approaching the rehearsal process, since I have nothing upon which to base this process, (spending a lot of time working on it in English) and he said that that is both smart and common.  Perhaps this won’t be as different as I thought.
 
Rehearsals have begun!  We had our first read-through Monday night.  The show is very quickly paced.  I think it may rival Midsummer in terms of quickness.  I think it will run about 2:10 with the intermission.  So the prince will not be lying – “Is now the two hours traffic of our stage.”  (Intermissions don’t count.)  But people have already really begun taking to the work, and had made some nice choices even in that first read.  A bunch of the cast then took me out for drinks for my birthday.  It was a very nice time – especially since the bartender that is so rude wasn’t there.  Some old friends met us out, and it was nice to catch up.

I have to admit, the first rehearsal is always my least favorite rehearsal.  (except if tech is going badly…)  I just have to sit there and listen, and I’m not allowed to SAY anything!  It’s so frustrating!  But come the second rehearsal – you’re mine!  And I made good on that promise.  I worked the entire first scene (sans a few parts that couldn’t make it).  And I admit, it is very frustrating.  I have really begun to equate Shakespeare to music.  You have to learn the scales before you can play the piece.  At this stage, there isn’t as much “acting” going on.  We are finding the depth of the text, that we can then FILL with all that contemporary truth-centric acting.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much in favor of that too. My Romeo says to me “I’m just feeling like I’m being so melodramatic.”  My response?  “Good.”  The one note I kept giving last night was SLOW DOWN.  Give yourself time to experience every single word.  We can always speed it up later, but for now we are simply mining the text.  Then we can really connect it to a physicality (we don’t even start blocking until after the holiday) and truth.  But it was very rewarding when the actors say to me how amazingly more specific the scene gets from the beginning to the end of the rehearsal, both as a performer and an audience member.  If this is just after the first day, imagine how clear and REAL it will be five weeks from now!
 
Saturday was the gala opening for the Big Secret Theatre.  It was a very nice evening, extremely well put together by Anthony Martinez and Shelleen Kostabi.  They got some fantastic prizes and really made the space look spectacular.  The evening was topped off with a very moving speech by the company’s artistic director, Richard Mazda.


I then had the pleasure of seeing Katherine Carter’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the smaller space.  It was very smart and quick.  They cut it down to fewer than two hours, so it was over before you knew it.  Her concept was that it was in fact, all a dream, so everyone was in colorful pajamas on a stark white space, which made for a very striking contrast.  There was also some great text work, which is of course an important point for me as well.  Congratulations cast.

 
God Bless You Mr. Scrooge had its final dress rehearsal last night.  A few kinks, which is understandable given that certain aspects of the scene changes have never even been run before, but all in all I think it came together nicely.  There are a few bumpy transitions, but I think with a few run-throughs of those sections before opening should clear it up.  Scrooge is really starting to settle into a rhythm and find the variety in the long monologues that could potentially be very awkward – yet he is navigating them well.  The supporting cast found a number of very nice moments as well and I hope they will continue to do so as the run progresses.  The audience seemed to really appreciate it.  I look forward to hearing about how future audiences respond, and seeing it again myself toward the end of the run.  Janet seems very pleased, which has been my goal for the entire process.  After the show several of the cast and I went out for a well-deserved drink.  Best of luck cast!

As for me… I get three days off, (its funny how I consider a day off a day where I ONLY have to go to work) and then diving into R&J.  And of course, Wei-En from the opera e-mailed me today, he wants to get started on Xerxes.  He wants a concrete plan before the holiday.  No rest for the weary!  But I am still very excited to keep the creative juices flowing on two very ambitious and challenging projects.