Tag Archives: Theatre

Episode VI: Return of the Merch Whore

3 Feb

Greeting and salutations, Dear Reader. I’m so glad you’ve decided to stick with me, despite my lengthy absence. So much has happened in the last year and I’m anxious to tell you all about it.

In last year’s big cliffhanger (OK…it was more of a series finale with the possibility of a spinoff), I was about to leave the Kinky Boots national tour and move to Orlando, Florida to pursue my dream of performing at Walt Disney World. You’ll recall that I was quite anxious about the move and the return to the “real world” after being on the road for so long, and those fears and anxieties were for good reason, and unfortunately, many of those fears have become reality.

Now, I don’t mean to start this reboot on a negative note. Let me first start off by saying that I did, in fact, get myself a job at Walt Disney World, but not as a performer. Within a month of moving, I was hired as an Attractions Host at Magic Kingdom, working at Big Thunder Mountain – the wildest ride in the wilderness! I spent nearly 10 months at Old Man Thunder before I was transferred to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where I am now an Attractions Host at the new Star Wars Launch Bay. I enjoy my job at Disney very much, though it is not by any means where I want to be in my career. Performing in the parks is still the goal, and I’ve been auditioning as often as I can, time and health allowing, for Voices of Liberty, the Dapper Dans, Finding Nemo: The Musical and other shows around the parks. More on those auditions later.

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Me on my last day at Big Thunder Mountain.

In addition to working at Walt Disney World, I also landed a job selling merchandise – surprise, surprise! – at Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which admittedly I knew nothing about when I interviewed for the job. Many would agree that I still don’t, but I do a very good job of faking it. I still can’t tell you what the horcruxes are. I’m not even sure that I spelled “horcruxes” correctly. Don’t you judge me!

Adjusting to life in the real world has been difficult. Money is, as always, a constant struggle for me, which was one of my greatest fears of delving back into reality. My money management skills are pretty much non-existent. Of course, I had to have a car, so I got a cute little green Kia Soul and named him Elliott (SEE ALSO: Pete’s Dragon), and then I realized that 90% of Kia Souls on the road are also Elliott Green, but I still love him. I nearly had a heart attack when I found out how much my car payment was going to be, though. I hadn’t had a car in 14 years and had just quit my job and had no prospects on the horizon. It was no exaggeration when I dramatically exclaimed to my Dad, “It’s fine! I’ll just get a third non-existent job to pay for it!” Even though I work nearly 55 hours a week between the two jobs, it still isn’t enough to cover all my expenses. I’ve fallen way behind on my student loan payments – again – but on the bright side, one of my credit cards is nearly paid off thanks to the credit consolidation plan I started before I went out on the road. Once that’s paid off, I can start applying that money to my loans. So there’s that.

There’s also my health. I would like to go on record to state that I never missed one show while I was on the road. Not one in two years. I was healthy as a horse. But here in Florida, I have been sick with something almost from the day I got here. Allergies, colds, bronchitis, sinus infections, ear infections, strep throat, the flu…you name it, I’ve had it since I moved here. I’m sick now, in fact, getting over some sort of malady that laid me out at home for two days. But I can’t afford to call out of work, so I plow ahead, shortening my lifespan by a few years with each mucus-filled shift. I know that most of this illness stems from the other thing that has been difficult to adjust to: the weather.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, Floridians…we live in the Devil’s Armpit. It’s hot, moist and, frankly, sometimes smelly down here. I’ve never lived in a place where a summer rain shower (and by “shower,” I mean “deluge”) actually makes the temperature hotter than before. I have accepted Swamp Ass into my life and should just go ahead and buy stock in Gold Bond powder to foolishly attempt stop the chub rub and chaffing between my thighs. Here’s the truth: It doesn’t work. It’s a fool’s errand to try to soak up all the moisture, so just accept the Swamp Ass and move on with your day.

It took me about three weeks to accept that every time I stood up from my seat on the shuttle bus from the parking lot or from a chair in the break room, I would leave a stamp of sweat behind. Sure, you can try to slide out of the seat to wipe some of it away, but after a while, you just give up. It’s a sad, sick, disgusting part of life down here and I hate it. I worked a parade shift once in August in which I sweat so much that I was sent back to change clothes because it looked like I’d wet myself.

I miss the snow! I miss the cold! I miss the air!

“But what about the good things,” you ask? “Surely something makes it worth being there!”

Yes. The people I’ve met down here make it worth it. I’ve made wonderful friends at both of my jobs. Getting to go to Disney World pretty much whenever I want to makes it worth it. Mickey and I are very tight, and I get to talk about Star Wars all day long. I even run into Darth Vader – sometimes, quite literally, run into him – backstage and he scares the bejesus out of me, because I get to be an 8 year old again. At work. And that’s awesome. I’ve met some of the most incredible Guests and made Magical Moments for people and

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That’s me behind Neil Patrick Harris.

have gotten choked up over meeting the coolest little kids on the planet in their cute Princess gowns and their little Darth Vader costumes. I’ve seen people weep over being chosen by a wand. I even got to perform at Epcot this Christmas as part of the Candlelight Processional, finally singing again and getting to do it behind people like Neil Patrick Harris and Daniel Dae Kim. And one of my best friends in the world, Brance, moved down here this summer and we’ve played mini golf and watched movies and played in the parks and shopped for Star Wars t-shirts and I’ve loved getting to spend that time with him. I’ve hung out in the parks with my college friend, Sara, and her wonderful husband and totally amazing daughter, Nora. I’ve seen old friends from all aspects of my life when they’ve come to the parks on vacation and I get to see my Mom and Dad more often than I did when I lived in New York because my Dad works in Tampa for a few days every month, and we meet up for dinner when he’s near.

So things aren’t all bad, and part of the reason that I’m rebooting the blog is to remind myself of that. Don’t get me wrong, y’all – the struggle is real – but I’m not alone in this. And I’m still pursuing my dreams. I’ve started taking better care of myself and taking control of the enormous amount of weight that I have gained over the last 3 years. Oprah and I are doing WeightWatchers and I’m making excellent use of my new FitBit Surge, walking an average of about 14,000 steps a day. More, if I’m able. It turned out to be one of the best Christmas gifts I could have asked for. And I’ve lost 11 pounds in the last month.

FitBit Report

Almost every night, I take a screenshot of my FitBit summary and post it to Instagram (jasonb1976) and Facebook, mostly to keep myself accountable and excited about going out to exercise, but hopefully to also encourage others to do the same. Tonight, a friend of mine from the Evita tour sent me a message on Facebook to let me know that she was inspired by my FitBit posts and that she’s about to embark on a 28 day fitness challenge that’s making her a bit nervous. She wrote, “Long story short..it’s going to be hard for me but I was thinking about your posts and they just put a smile on my face and made me excited to work toward a healthier me.” Guys. Pick me up off the floor. I don’t even know how to respond to something like that. I have inspired someone to work toward being healthier!?! That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever told me. If I can inspire her, maybe I can inspire someone else on here, too. And then I can inspire the world! Or at least take over the entire tri-state area!

Next month I’m moving into a new living situation that I think will be better for me both financially and emotionally and, as you can see, I’m writing again, which excites and scares me. I’m under very strict guidelines regarding what I can and cannot write about with both of my jobs, so please understand if I don’t mention work very often. You won’t get any secrets out of me. Nor will you get free tickets, but that’s another entry for another day.

So there it is, folks! Episode VI: Return of the Merch Whore. I look forward to seeing you again very soon. May the merch be with you.

 

 

You Is Smart. You Is Kind. You Is Important. But You Isn’t That Important.

2 Aug

There’s an old adage that says, “The Customer Is Always Right.” I could not disagree more.

Being back in New York after six months on the road has reminded me that people are dumb here, too. I don’t know exactly how I never noticed it, but people say and do the most ridiculous things, and often because they feel entitled to something. The example that immediately comes to mind transpired in Houston, Texas, just a few weeks ago. Here’s how it went down:

PATRON (buying a sweatshirt): Do you have posters?
ME (indicating the poster under her hand): Yep…that’s the poster there.
PATRON: Is it free with my purchase?
ME: Um, no. The poster is $15.
PATRON: Oh! Well. Can we make an exception for me?
ME: Are you accustomed to getting a free poster with your merchandise purchases?
PATRON: Sometimes.
ME: But not all of the time.
PATRON: Sometimes.
ME: Well, unfortunately this will not be one of those times.

What, exactly, made this woman think that simply by asking, I would make an exception for her and give her a poster for free? Everyone else had to pay $15 for a poster if they wanted one, but for some reason she thought that didn’t apply to her. Would she walk into a western wear store and ask to get a free pair of spurs with her purchase of boots? My guess is that yes, she probably would. But why?! I’m all for self esteem and whatnot, but really – who did she think she was? The Queen of Houston? The Czarina of Texas?

Tonight a scenario played out that I surprisingly experienced last year at Evita. It went a little something like this:

PATRON (on her way out the theatre with her 12-year old daughter in tow): Hi. My daughter bought this mug and then when we were waiting in line for the bathroom, someone bumped into us and it shattered. I was wondering if you could just give me a new one that’s not broken…?
ME: Was the mug broken when you purchased it?
PATRON: No, it wasn’t. It got broken after we bought it.
ME: No…I’m sorry. If the mug had been damaged when we sold it to you, I could, but it was in good shape when you purchased it. (Inner monologue: It’s not our fault you can’t take care of things for more than 10 minutes.)
PATRON (Offended, as if I’d just told her that no, she could not take her top off in the lobby): Oh! Fine! I was just asking, but that’s fine!

Can someone please explain her reasoning to me? From a salesperson’s perspective, here’s how I see it: The merchandise was in sellable condition when she purchased it. Had the mug been cracked or broken when it was handed to her, I would happily have replaced it. However, when she paid for said mug, she became the owner of that mug. I simply do not believe that someone bumping into you would shatter a ceramic mug. My guess is she or her daughter dropped it or hit it against something much more rigid than another human being, so why should I – or, more specifically, my boss – have to give her a second mug for free to replace the one that she was so careless with in the first place?

Now, I know some of you may think that’s harsh or rude or unprofessional, but let me put it to you another way. Scenario: You walk into Macy’s and buy a bottle of perfume. Ten minutes later, you go to the bathroom and set the bag in which your perfume is stuffed on the counter as you wash your hands. As you turn to grab a paper towel, you accidentally knock the bag to the ground and your bottle of Exclamation! or Electric Youth shatters all over the tile floor. Would you return to the perfume counter and honestly expect Macy’s to provide you with a brand new bottle of perfume free of charge because you “just bought it a few minutes ago?” I think most people with any common sense would say “No!,” but sadly I’m learning that we are in a severe common sense drought in America. To me, expecting to get a free replacement for something you bought and destroyed in less than 10 minutes is as asinine as being shocked by a “You Break It, You Bought It” policy.

To continue this line of entitlement, yesterday during the matinee intermission I had a very large group of people rush to my booth, including several theatre camp kids who all wanted to buy keychains and magnets – basically anything under $20. Including those kids, I probably had about 60 people waiting for me to help them, and I was trying to handle three people at a time. After all, I only had 15 minutes to help them all. (Selling on the road has prepared me well for getting through large groups of people quickly.) To my right, I could see a woman was standing there sort of staring at me. While I was counting someone’s money, this happened:

WOMAN: How much are the t-shirts?
ME (shocked that she clearly didn’t notice or care that I was in the middle of three separate transactions): Ma’am, the line starts back there.
WOMAN: I was just asking how much the t-shirts are!
ME: They’re $30 or $35. Now, please…the line starts back there. All of these people are waiting patiently for me to help them.
WOMAN: I was just asking how much they were! You don’t have to get pissy!

Again I wonder, “What made that person think that she didn’t have to wait in line while everyone else did?” She “just” had a question about prices, but I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone in the line wanted to know, too. She just didn’t want to wait, so she skipped the line. It would have been unfair for me to take care of her needs while I had three people waiting for their change or shirts and fifty some-odd people waiting behind them, but she felt that I was rude to her by suggesting that she had to wait just like everyone else. So she complained about me. And, unfortunately, that’s how this job goes sometimes. I had already explained the situation to my manager by the time the complaint was made and he was able to blow it off, but still – I don’t like getting complaints. Especially when I don’t feel that I was in the wrong.

So, please. Someone please explain to me this idea of entitlement…this mentality of “the rules apply to everyone but me,” because I was certainly not raised that way. You is smart. You is kind. You is important. But you isn’t that important.

Back To Broadway

24 Jul

Greetings from my sublet room in Brooklyn, New York. It’s about 1:15 in the morning. I’ve just gotten home from working at Pippin on Broadway, and I have to be up tomorrow to turn around and go right back to the theatre. I miss being on tour, and I miss our tour schedule. 

I haven’t written in a while because, well…I’m home in New York and that means I’ve been hustling since I got here to make money. ‘Cause that’s typically how it works here. For me, at least. I’ve spent the last week or so working days in our office, looping thousands of gold tassels into bookmarks that are to be sent out to Chicago to promote the upcoming tour of Peter and the Starcatcher and I’ve been either working in the theatres at night or out trying to have some semblance of a life. Or I’ve just been avoiding the commute and shirt-drenching walk home to the apartment in Brooklyn. I miss Astoria, where I know where everything is and how late it stays open. Thursday night I went to Chelsea Cinemas to see “Murder on the Orient Express.” I dozed off midway through the film. I may have even woken myself with a snore or two. Sorry. Friday night I had dinner with a new friend, which was lovely. Sunday night I went to see “The Conjuring,” which gave me goosebumps almost from the moment the movie started. I highly recommend seeing it.

Now that my work in the office is done, it’s back to working the shows. It’s such a joy to work at Pippin, though it’s never been one of my favorite shows. This production, though, is thrilling and scary and dark and funny and touching. And Andrea Martin gets a standing ovation midway through the show almost every night. How many times have you seen someone literally stop the show?? Watching her number, I have caught myself so overwhelmed by joy and wonder at what she’s doing up there that I get tears in my eyes and I have to laugh. It’s truly remarkable.

Later this week, I’m working at Peter and the Starcatcher for the first time since it transferred back to off-Broadway. It’ll be good to work it and see the show again – and to familiarize myself with the merchandise and the prices again considering I’m opening the tour in Denver in a few weeks. I’ll be there for two weeks, as far as I can tell, setting up and opening the show and then training the regular merchandise manager during the second week of the run. From there I’ll come back to New York for a week and then I’ll head to Providence, Rhode Island to open the Evita tour. Then I’ll go to Memphis the next week to meet up with Flashdance again for two weeks and then I’m off to St. Louis, Missouri to meet up with Evita again and I’ll stay with that show until who knows when. Confused? Me, too. I better be getting a lot of frequent flier miles for this. That’s the plan for now, anyway. It could all change tomorrow. And that’s showbiz, kids.

Anyway. It’s late and I have a show tomorrow. I should hit the hay. 

 

Off The Road Again…

16 Jul

Greetings from my temporary home in Brooklyn, New York. Sunday night was our last night of Flashdance in Kansas City and was, as best I can tell, my last night with the show. My boss tells me there’s a chance I may be going back to it at some point in September for a week or two, but that’s all still up in the air. I’d like to say that it was hard to say goodbye to the show and the cast and crew, but it wasn’t really anything for me. It was hard to be sad knowing there’s the possibility that I’ll be going back, even if just for a short while, but I was also acutely aware that it could be the last time I saw them. It was very strange for me to not know exactly how to feel. Regardless of what happens in September, I’m going to miss them all very much and I wish them all the best.

Yesterday we had what amounted to an almost 12 hour travel day. We had a 2-hour delay in Dallas, so I got to my sublet in Brooklyn at around 11:30 last night. It was a long day. And it’s hot here. According to my phone, it was 86° at 11:15 last night. According to the thermostat on my taxi driver’s dashboard it was 91°. Is it autumn yet?

So, here I am, back in New York. I slept in today, enjoying the air conditioning and putting off the 15-minute walk to the subway. I need to go into the office today to drop off paperwork and sort of debrief…talk about the future…all that fun stuff. And I’m working tonight. No rest for the weary. Thank goodness I’m working – I can’t afford to be here for three weeks and not work. Honestly, I couldn’t afford to be here for three days without working! I’m already looking forward to going back into the bubble that is touring, where I don’t have to worry about making my bed or buying toilet paper or paying electric bills or rent. I can’t wait, actually. I guess there’s nothing to do but go out and face this hateful city, though, and try to make amends with her. I better get moving…

Cream Of The Crop, Tip Of The Top, It’s Mary Poppins, And There We Stop!

12 Jul

Greetings from Kansas City (still here…) where the temperature has significantly dropped since my last entry. It’s a cool 86° – a full 20° cooler than it was two days ago when we opened the show. I’m still looking forward to temperatures in the 60’s, but I’ll take this for now.

Today while I was trolling Facebook I came across a link for the first trailer to be released for Disney’s upcoming “Saving Mr. Banks.” The film centers around P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) – the author of the Mary Poppins books – and Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) struggle to get her to release the rights and to approve the production of the film, which would go on to earn 13 Academy Award nominations and 5 wins, including Best Actress in a Leading Role for Julie Andrews.

“Mary Poppins” is maybe the first movie I remember actually seeing in the theater (or at least it’s the one I’ve been thinking I saw for 30 years). In the late 70’s/early 80’s, we didn’t have VCRs or DVD/BluRay players yet, so we didn’t watch movies at home unless they were on TV. I suppose it’s possible that “Mary Poppins” had been broadcast, but I specifically remember seeing it at the Showcase Cinemas on Bardstown Road in Louisville. The way I remember it, the movie was cut short because of a tornado warning, and we were all sent home to hide in our bathtubs. That’s my first real recollection of going to the movies – a tornado coming through town. It’s a wonder I ever set foot in a movie theater again!

I feel like I must have seen “Mary Poppins” before then, though, because from as far back as I can remember, my family has told me that I was always hopping off the ledge of my grandparent’s fireplace with an umbrella in my hand, claiming to be Mary Poppins. I also liked to pretend I was C3-PO and R2-D2, but I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw “Star Wars,” either.

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“Mousercise” was one of my favorite LPs as a kid.

Back in the day when we had record players, I had a huge collection of albums for a 5-year old. I had all sorts of Disney-related storytelling albums and “Disco Mickey Mouse” and “Mousercise.” I also had Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton-John and I’d borrow my Mom’s Motown records sometimes, too. But I mostly listened to those Disney albums. I knew every word to every song – “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” “It’s A Small World,” “When You Wish Upon A Star,” “Lavender Blue (Dilly-Dilly).” When we moved to England, they had something we didn’t have in the States yet – something called Picture Disc. It was a clear album with pictures sandwiched between the two sides, and on the record was the full story and songs of whatever you were listening to – “The Fox and the Hound,” “Lady and the Tramp,” and my favorite – “Mary Poppins.” I would listen to it for hours on end. Even today, when I’m feeling down and need a pick-me-up, “Mary Poppins” is usually my first choice to lift my spirits.

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I knew every word of this “Mary Poppins” Picture Disc LP.

I don’t know what the connection is for me. Perhaps it’s just the nostalgia – maybe it takes me back to being a child again. Maybe it’s Julie Andrews. She can do no wrong in my book. Maybe it’s the magic. Who wouldn’t want to slide up banisters and leap into chalk drawings and have a tea party on the ceiling? What I wouldn’t given even now to just snap my fingers and make my room clean itself. I think it’s a combination of all of those things, I guess. Whatever it is, Mary Poppins – the movie and Mr. Disney’s vision of the character – mean a great deal to me.

A few months ago, our tour was in Costa Mesa, California, just a few miles from Disneyland in Anaheim. My good friends Tom and Anthony live in San Diego and they have annual passes to Disneyland, so I was lucky that they were able to drive up and spend two days with me at the park. It was my first time at Disneyland or California Adventure, though certainly not my first time at a Disney park. I had been to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea when I was in Japan, and back in the mid-80’s, my grandparents took me to Disney World, back when there was only the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT. Yeah, I’m old school.

Me with Bianca (of "The Rescuers") at Walt Disney World circa 1984.

Me with Bianca (of “The Rescuers”) at Walt Disney World circa 1984.

While we were in Disneyland, Tom and Anthony – two of the biggest Disnerds I’ve ever met – were talking about the changes they made to the park when the film “Saving Mr. Banks” was being shot on location. Tom pulled up some pictures on his phone and they were was really remarkable. The old character costumes had been pulled out and dusted off, some of the colors had changed, the guests were all dressed in their best early 60‘s clothes (Side note: If people really did wear dresses and long pants to Disneyland, I can’t imagine what Uncle Walt would think about what people wear to the park today), but it was still Disneyland.

When the Broadway production of Mary Poppins opened in 2006, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a press event at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street, where Poppins was going to move in when The Lion King moved to the Minskoff Theatre. It was a big to-do for industry folks, introduced by the President of Disney Theatricals, Thomas Schumacher. The writers of the new material for the show, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, came out and sang through a couple of the new pieces and then, as a surprise, the surviving composer of the film score, Richard Sherman, was introduced and he sang through a few of the original songs and told one or two short anecdotes about his involvement with the film and the new stage production. Just as we thought the event was ending, a curtain raised up and a full orchestra was onstage playing a suite of music from “Mary Poppins.” It was so beautiful, and I won’t mind admitting that I got a little choked up. On our way out the door, Disney one-upped themselves by giving each of us a Mary Poppins umbrella, complete with a parrot head handle. It was maybe the most amazing piece of merchandising I’ve ever seen. Sadly, I have no idea where that umbrella is now.

As a child, I believed there was magic in that umbrella. Even after 12 years of living in New York, which is enough to make anyone jaded, I still do. Watching Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke – bad Cockney accent and all – dancing through cartoon farmyards still makes me think, “How did they do that?!” “Step In Time” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (or “dociousaliexpiisticfragilcalirupus” backwards (kind of), but that’s going a bit too far, don’t you think?) take me back to a time when I wanted to recreate those numbers step by step on a stage for people to enjoy as much as I did. “Stay Awake” still gives me that melancholy feeling of knowing it’s time to go to bed, even though you don’t want to. And watching Mary Poppins fly off into the sunset always makes me feel a little bit as if she’s leaving me – not the Banks children. What a comfort to know that I can always hit PLAY and there she’ll be again, sitting in that cloud, powdering her nose.

Needless to say, I am very excited about “Saving Mr. Banks.” I’ll be in Costa Mesa again the week it opens. If there’s anything happening at Disneyland to celebrate the premiere, I plan to find a way to be there. Now get off your computer and go fly a kite!

And for those of you who are keeping up: I’m now 93 hours diet soda free. Woohoo!

Jesus, Be A Raindrop. Or Central Air.

10 Jul
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A view of the audience and the stage from the back of the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, MO. My booth is under the white tent in the lower left hand corner.

Greetings from my air conditioned hotel room in Kansas City, MO. Tonight was our opening night at the Starlight Theatre, which is an 8,000-seat outdoor amphitheater just south of downtown Kansas City. I had my idea of what the place was going to look like based on my experiences of working in outdoor theatre in Louisville and Tulsa, but I was pleasantly surprised by the facility. What surprised me most was the large garage door that actually closed off the stage, allowing it to remain air conditioned until the curtain/garage door went up for the top of the show. Good for the cast and crew. I had to sweat it out on the concrete.

I arrived at the theatre today at 4:45 in the afternoon. At that point, our crew had been working for about 10, maybe 12 hours, loading the show in, so I really shouldn’t complain. I did my load-in as usual, only outside in the heat under a tent in an area with absolutely no ventilation. That’s a good thing for the display set-up. No wind means there’s no chance that giant steel plates set up behind me will get blown over. It also means no breeze for me.

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The temperature when I arrived at the theatre was about 100°F. The heat index was right at 106°F. I set up my booth as quickly and efficiently as I could. I’ve been doing this almost every week for six months, so it doesn’t take very long, but in such extreme heat, I was moving much slower than usual. Once the booth was set up, I went backstage into the air conditioned hallway to count in the three boxes that were delivered to me. There wasn’t much workspace back there, and I was so hot and sweaty…I was really starting to get grouchy. I could also feel that my skin was hot, which I knew was a sign that my body temperature was getting too high, so I slowed down, took a moment to drink some water and, once I’d cooled off sufficiently, I went back out to my booth and started folding the stacks of sweatshirts that I needed to add to my booth. And by “fold,” I mean “drip sweat all over.”

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Our show started at 8pm. The sun didn’t go down until about 9:00. That made the lighting and projection designs obsolete for three quarters of the first act. I was really concerned for the cast tonight, knowing how hot it really was out there…seeing them dancing full-out in coats and jackets and jeans. Apparently some of the girls backstage were taking bets on who would pass out first. Even though they were joking about it, I know each of them were fully aware of how dangerous it could have been for them tonight. Still, they all gave a wonderful show.

After the performance, and after everyone had gone home, I had to count my inventory and money as I normally do, and then I had to tear down my entire set-up and roll it back inside, just in case it rains or to protect it from being blown over by the wind. That means tomorrow I have to go back and set it all back up again. It’s only supposed to be 90° tomorrow. “Only.”

I’m sure most of you have seen this video floating around Facebook or YouTube, but it pretty much sums up exactly how I felt tonight, dripping with sweat and unable to get any relief. I wanted to slit somebody’s throat. I just didn’t have the patience to deal with the heat and stupid people. Where the hell is Moses?

Get Me Aboard, Call Out My Name! I Must Get Off That Ship!

5 Jul

In the summer of 2003, I booked a summer stock job at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. BCP had, at one time, been a theatre where many Broadway shows were tried out, including Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. Dick Van Dyke, Liza Minnelli, Tyne Daly, Grace Kelly, Walter Mathau and Angela Lansbury had all performed there. Audra McDonald had played Aldonza in Man of La Mancha there. It had been a big deal.

By the time I was hired to work there, it was a non-Equity theatre that did summer stock. It was owned and operated by a man named Ralph Miller, who also owned three other theatres – The Falmouth Playhouse in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the Pocono Playhouse in Mountainhome, PA, and the Woodstock Playhouse in Woodstock, NY. The Woodstock Playhouse mysteriously burned to the ground in 1988 and the Falmouth Playhouse, which had been insured at $1.5 million, also burned to the ground in 1994. See a pattern?

I had been hired to do Maury Yeston’s Titanic and Frank Wildhorn’s The Scarlet Pimpernel at both the Bucks County Playhouse and the Pocono Playhouse. There was another group of actors – the Dancer Company, we called them – who would perform Fiddler on the Roof and Lil Abner (I think) – in one theatre while we were in the other and then we’d switch. And the Singer Company would have a three week hiatus mid-season, so I could go home to New York for a bit. That also meant I wouldn’t be able to sublet my apartment. I had to pay rent. I don’t remember how much I was being paid – $250 a week, maybe? That sounds a little high… My rent at the time was $550 a month for one room with no kitchen and a shared bathroom in the hallway. Needless to say, I wasn’t making any money off this gig.

I had to take a bus out to Mountainhome to start rehearsals at the Pocono Playhouse. Our stage manager, Grey, picked me up and drove me to our company housing, which turned out to be an old, run-down summer camp – very Camp Crystal Lake. The rooms stunk of mildew, the mattresses were about 3/4” thick and there were mushrooms growing out of the floor in the bathroom. The dorm buildings were situated about a quarter mile back from the main road down a dirt road that cut through the woods with no lighting whatsoever. There was a rec room/commons building on the corner of the main road, which is where the TV and kitchen were. And a chipmunk that lived in the garbage can. It would jump out at you like that squirrel in the Christmas tree in “Christmas Vacation.” I was terrified to go in there. There was a bathroom in the commons building, too, but someone pooped in there before realizing the toilet didn’t flush. That turd, which stuck around for weeks, should have been a warning…a sign of things to come.

The next day, we all went to the Pocono Playhouse to start rehearsals for Titanic. I was so excited to do that show – it was one of my favorite scores, and I had always had a strange connection to the story of the Titanic’s sinking. It fascinated and horrified me. I looked forward to getting to wear fantastic costumes and I was really, really curious to know what the sets were going to look like.

The first few days of rehearsal were just about learning the music. That score is tough. It’s practically an opera. It sits high in the voice and there’s a lot of it. The harmonies are very tight. And did I mention there’s a lot of it? Our cast was comprised of a lot of folks with varying levels of musical knowledge. A few of us had degrees in voice, some had acting degrees, some were just folks who dabbled in community theatre. It was a challenge even for those of us who could read music and had a good ear. But we sounded good! I was very excited to see where this was going to go.

Once we got the show on its feet, I started putting a few things together that didn’t quite add up. Our stage manager was also playing Mr. Strauss. How was he going to call the show and work the fly rail and move set pieces and then come out and sing a love song to his wife? Where was the tech crew? And where was the orchestra? Surely they must be rehearsing off-site somewhere and we’d have a sitzprobe later… Right?

The set was a huge, billion-pound mass of 2×4’s and plywood. We had huge ramps that would serve as the loading ramp for the passengers at the top of the show and, when flipped around the other direction, would be the sinking ship, and then there were a bunch of other platforms that would serve as other acting spaces. As it turned out, we – the actors – were also the crew and we had to move those giant pieces while Grey would run around in his tailcoat and heavily drawn-on age lines, flying in drops and then sprinting back out to do his scenes. During one of our last rehearsals before opening, it still hadn’t been decided how, exactly, we were going to hit an iceberg, and it became clear that there was to be no orchestra. We were going to be singing to a track, and it sounded like it had been recorded on one of those tiny Casio keyboards from the early 90’s. *plink plink…plink plink…plink plink…plink plink…* It was horrible.

I don’t remember if it was final tech or opening night – I’ll call it opening night for dramatic effect – but I remember standing in the wings just before curtain. The lights went down and suddenly this glorious, huge orchestral overture started. Had Ralph spent the money to have the tracks recorded with an orchestra?! Our answer came about 2 minutes into the overture, when the track switched back to the *plink plink…plink plink* of the Casio. Ralph hadn’t paid for new tracks – he’d just taken the overture from the Original Broadway Cast Recording and tacked it onto the beginning of our show! Surely that wasn’t legal, not to mention how deceiving it would be for the audience. My friends Matt and Don (who had to come out and sing the first song over that awful track) and I couldn’t believe it. It was just so…wrong. Still, the show must go on.

I got through my first scene as Mr. Pitman (“First class passengers, proceed at once to the gangway!”) and had a 30-second costume change to Mr. Henry Etches before I had to run up the steps to the top platform for my next scene. We didn’t have dressers, so I had pre-set my Etches jacket and vest, draped over a support beam of one of the giant ramps upstage right. As I was making my change, I felt as if I were stepping on something, but I wasn’t sure what it was because it was completely dark back there. I made the change, got up the stairs (barely) and served Captain Smith his coffee. A few minutes later I was onstage for something else and I started noticing silver splotches on the black floor. Then I noticed them on my tux pants. I had no clue what it was until I noticed my suede-soled Capezio character shoes were sticking to the floor. I had stepped in a puddle of silver paint that had been spilled right where my quick change was. Rather than clean it up, someone had just thrown some newspaper over it and left it there. By the end of that performance, there was silver paint everywhere and my $200 character shoes were ruined. I was never reimbursed for those…

By the end of the first act, the actors in the show still weren’t sure how we were going to hit an iceberg. The scene involves lots of vignettes of various passengers interacting with one another, so we were staged in couples and groups and we were awash in a pale blue light. We heard, “Iceberg! Right ahead!” and suddenly a white scrim – a piece of fabric which is opaque when lit from the front and transparent when lit from behind – flew in downstage and we saw a beautiful video of the Titanic sailing along the Atlantic and suddenly hitting an iceberg…while a tiny computer-generated Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio dodged falling pieces of ice. Now, I knew this was illegal – we’d just used part of James Cameron’s multiple Oscar-winning film as part of our show. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could anyone else.

We opened Titanic at the Bucks County Playhouse and played there for three weeks. During the third week of the run, we started rehearsals for The Scarlet Pimpernel. We were so happy to be working on new material that few of us seemed to notice how exhausted we actually were. We learned that show in a week. For this show, we had wigs and tights and gigantic period costumes made out of upholstery fabric you would typically use to cover a large sofa. By this time, it was late June and it was hot in Pennsylvania, even with the air conditioning running in the theatre. We didn’t have air conditioning at the cast house in New Hope, which was a large farm house out in the middle of nowhere, where we had three or four people to a room. I was so looking forward to going home to my dumpy apartment in New York. I couldn’t wait.

Pimpernel ran for two weeks at Bucks County and then we had a three week hiatus before we opened at the Poconos Playhouse, where we had rehearsed Titanic earlier in the summer. We got to the theatre after our break to find out that we would be doing two weeks of Pimpernel and one week of Titanic in the Poconos, which was flipped from what we’d been told we would be doing when we signed our contracts. We only had three weeks to go, and it wasn’t as if they were canceling anything, so it wasn’t a big deal.

What was a big deal, however, was our first brush-up rehearsal before opening night. When we arrived at the theatre, we were told to search through the various big black garbage bags in the dressing rooms for our costume pieces. I assumed the costumes had been dry cleaned and put into the bags for storage, but no…they had been taken off the hangers and shoved into the bags – wigs and all – soaking wet with sweat, and sent up to the Poconos to stew for three weeks in tied up garbage bags. They smelled terrible and they were still wet with month-old sweat, and we were being asked to put them on and do our show. Bottles of Febreeze had been provided in each dressing room to help with the smell, but we were told that there wasn’t enough money in the costume budget to get the sofa coats cleaned. And we were told that there was no air conditioning in the Poconos Playhouse – onstage or off. Two weeks later we found our Titanic costumes in a similar condition, having steamed in our various juices for over six weeks in those big black bags. The life vests seemed to smell the worst, but nothing there smelled good.

I have kept in touch with many of my cast mates from that season. They’re scattered all over the world doing all sorts of amazing things. I’m incredibly proud of all of them. As miserable as parts of that summer were, I remember standing next to Liz Asti during the finale of Titanic and just sobbing – both of us. But I was also ready to be done with that experience. It wasn’t for me.

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The Pocono Playhouse after the fire in 2009.

In 2009, several of my BCP friends sent me messages on Facebook to let me know that the Pocono Playhouse had “mysteriously” burnt down. None of us were terribly shocked and we all came to the same conclusion as to who was responsible. Bucks County Playhouse was bought in 2010 by several big New York theatre people and it’s been revamped into a legitimate Equity house again. But I will never, ever forget that summer of 2003, wearing a wet, limp wig on my head, a soggy sofa on my back and silver character shoes with some of the coolest kids I’d ever met. Gosh, I wish I’d taken some pictures…