Feedback Loop

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I keep forgetting that live theater is a feedback loop. The actors draw energy from the audience and the audience feeds energy to the actors. Opening matinee had alot of energy. A full house downstairs at the Avalon and. despite some minor hiccups with cues and set changes, the show was very good. You could tell the audience really appreciated the effort of the performers. Monday night was a dinner theater and the energy that rocketed between the audience and the actors was palpable. It was a great show. The actors has settled into the characters and were the most believable we had seen. Everybody left the theater pumped. Just the way you’d want it to be.

Avalon dinner theater

Tuesday night was another dinner theater. Sold out! But it seemed like the audience didn’t react to much of anything. Laura and I were sitting at a table toward the back and wondered if the microphones were on. Cece Davis at the tech table assured us they were. Even if you couldn’t hear all the lines, you’d have to ooh and aah over the cute kids in elf costumes.

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It seemed like the only people reacting to the play were Bannings wait staff. Even though the actors were all doing what they had done the night before,  you could feel the energy ebbing by the end of the first act. Cece said it was bad juju because of something positive Tim Weigand, the director, had said to the actors in the green room. “Theater is full of all sorts of superstitions,” she told us. I guess it’s that break a leg thing.

Cece turned the amplification up for the second act and Laura whooped and hollered from the back. The energy began to pick up and the audience got more into the play. They gave the cast a standing ovation at the end, but the performance just didn’t have the energy it had the night before. Tonight is an evening performance. It will be interesting to see what happens between the audience and the cast.

My head knows this is not a film where you get to choose the best takes and edit them into a cohesive whole; my heart wants every performance to be over the top fantastic. I know that’s what the cast wants, too.  They want to audience to love them. I’m hoping for good juju tonight and a rockin’ feedback loop.

I Love a Parade

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The dancing Santa on the poster Laura Ambler designed is part of the branding of The Santa Diaries. Last night we carried the poster in the Easton, Maryland, Christmas parade along with cast members from the show. Marie U’ren had outfitted people in Victorian costumes, and although those will appear only briefly on stage they are colorful and evoke the season. From left to right in the photo are Cathy Cassell, Laura Ambler, Mala Burt and Erik Higgins.

Easton paradeThe big weatherproof poster has been hanging in front of the Avalon Theatre. On Saturday afternoon when Laura  went to pick it up and it was still hanging outside. Nobody was around to help her get it down so she found a stool behind the ticket desk in the lobby and used it to climb up and unhook the poster. All the while she’s thinking “this is not a good idea” especially when she discovered the top of the stool swiveled. But need prevailed over common sense and she retrieved the poster, attached it to a dowel rod, and added red bows. It was parade ready.

At the staging area I made my way back in the line up of floats, old cars, and kids wrapped up like Christmas boxes until I found a group of people in Victorian costumes. Laura was there with the poster. As it grew closer to the start time we wondered where Marie U’ren was. Erik Higgins got a call from a mother of one of the kids saying her daughter couldn’t find the group, then a little later a call to say she had found them – except Selena wasn’t with us. So we knew there must be another group of Victorian costumed parade walkers somewhere in the line up. Someone took off toward the front of the line, then came running back. The rest of the our people were three back from the start of the parade. We found the other group, and got ourselves organized just as the whistle blew. We were off.

The Easton parade is held at night and the floats and fire trucks were decked with lights. The streets were lined with  waving kids, smiling adults and well behaved dogs. The kids and adults in our group handed out postcards about the play and candy to the children. As we passed the Avalon Theatre we saw Jessica Rogers, Cece Davis, Liza Ledford and other Avalon staff. Play Director Tim Weigand was walking with us.

It was chilly, but not bitterly cold. Just a perfect night to watch the glitter and lights that signal the beginning of the Christmas season. At the end of the parade Santa wound his way through town in a cherry picker. What fun! When it was all over Laura and I met our husbands at Bartlett Pear Inn for dinner. It was a wonderful night. Next Saturday we march in the Christmas in St. Michaels parade which starts at ten in the morning. It’s all part of letting people know about The Santa Diaries play and branding our dancing Santa.

 

It Takes a Small-town

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Rehearsal 11-25-12: More people are becoming involved as The Santa Diaries becomes the project of Easton, our small-town.

Laura and I sit toward the back of the auditorium. Behind us is a door to the alley and a bearded guy is going in and out. I don’t know his name, but I think he is one of the set people and perhaps the father of one of the child actors. I’ve seen him at previous rehearsals. Sometimes he’s using a circular saw with the door partially open and the cold air blows in on us. Sometimes the door is almost closed. In any event he’s trying to be as quiet as possible, but like everyone in the theater he has a job to do.

On stage behind the actors a guy is at the top of a really tall ladder. He’s using a portable drill to attach something to something we can’t see. The actors are ignoring the distractions and are running their lines, incorporating some changes Laura and I were asked to make two days ago. This is a good sign. It means the actors are really focused on their characters.

A little later the ladder guy moves to the side of the stage apron and begins drilling. A long roll of something white is at the very back of the stage. Can this be part of the scenery project we’ve been hearing rumors about?

Behind us Marie is putting the finishing touches on outfits for kids and adults walking in the Easton Christmas parade next Saturday evening. In the Avalon entrance hall Cavin Moore is rehearsing a dance sequence. Cece Davis with her new love, Ralphie, a French bulldog in a holiday sweater, is at the sound board inserting sound effects (a door bell, a drill that shorts out, a Santa ring tone, background music) into the scenes—sometimes where they belong, often missing the mark. This is what rehearsal is all about.

But all those details are being worked on and progress is being made. I have loved watching locally produced theater, but I now have a much more realistic appreciation of what is involved behind the scenes of creating a play. This doesn’t take a village, it takes a small town.

Use Your Imagination: November 18, 2012

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Use your imagination. Can you see it? The costumes, the scenery, the acting, the live animals? It’s The Santa Diaries!

Yesterday afternoon the Avalon Theatre sprouted walls from electrical cords and a metal ruler laid on the stage and doorways materialized from pieces of masking tape. In the back of the auditorium Marie U’ren was fitting cast members into costumes, and a dog waited patiently for his walk-on during the second act. Al Bond and Jessica Rogers were on a laptop working on sets and scenery which they told us would be like nothing that has been done at the Avalon before, and cautioned everyone not to say anything. We can’t because we have no idea what they’re doing, but Jessica promised spectacular.

On stage Director Tim Weigand was doing the first run through of the whole play. Assistant Director Cecile Davis and Producer Liza Ledford were tracking lines and reading the parts of people who couldn’t make rehearsal. All in all it was chaotic, but you can begin to see what it’s going to be like. Actors had a hard time remembering that the metal ruler represented a wall so it got stepped on alot as people transported themselves through the invisible walls. We heard actor’s calling out, “Where’s the door?”

Cece Davis posted a photo gallery from rehearsal on The Santa Diaries Play FB page. When she took off her Assistant Director hat and put on her photographer hat, she took some beautiful black and white pictures

Most of the people are off book by now, but not quite 100%, so there were some improvised lines. That’s a problem when the line you are supposed to say is important to the dialog that follows. Cues get missed.  Picking up the pace is an ongoing issue. It will be helpful when people know where the walls of the set are, but despite all the moving parts we could feel a coalescence of the effort of so many people. We are using our imagination and the costumes, the scenery, the acting and the live animals will all be where they are supposed to be when the play opens on December 16th.

Actor’s Toolbox: Think About When the Cat Died!

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At the last rehearsal Harper Lee (who plays teenage Tallulah) was trying to summon up enough sadness to be tearful. It just wasn’t happening until her younger sister, Halle (who plays Tory), shouted out, “Think about when the cat died.” All actors need a really sad moment in their actor’s toolbox to be able to call up difficult emotions and Halle nailed that for her sister. Those of us in the audience cracked up.

Assistant Director Cecile Davis talked to the actors about the need for pauses in acting. She said it was sometimes hard not to step in to “help” a fellow actor if you thought they had forgotten their line, so actors were instructed to call “line” if they forgot what they were supposed to say. As writers we imagine those pauses, but we are not the actors or directors, so only occasionally do we offer a suggestion. The character needs to feel where the pauses should be.

At this rehearsal we were back on the main stage and did a complete run through of the first act. There were a couple of actors missing and others had to stand in for them, but it gave a pretty good idea of the running time (about 47 minutes which is right about what we’d hoped for). There are still some blocking issues when we have everybody on stage.

When the run through was completed, Tim gave “notes” to the actors. Then he turned to Laura and me and said, “Ladies, we need a better transition between Scenes 4 and 5. He was right. What we had written was too abrupt, so today we wrote a small bridge scene which gave us the opportunity to show the emotional change happening to Will (Casey Rauch). We’ll get to see it at Sunday’s rehearsal. Our being at rehearsals and seeing the progress makes us better able to fix this sort of problem. In the long run, the play will be better for the fixes and the actor’s toolboxes re-opened.

A Busy Avalon – Sunday Rehearsal 11/4/12

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The Avalon Theatre is a busy place. On Sunday afternoon there was a Mozart concert performed by Easton’s Choral Arts Society on stage, and the Cinema Society met Sunday night and needed the main stage AND the Stoltz Listening Room at 4:30. In fact, the stage won’t be available for rehearsals all this week and weekend as a Waterfowl Festival event is being setting up in the auditorium. Hopefully all will be back to normal next week.

So on Sunday rehearsals were limited to adults in Stoltz from 2 – 4:30. One of our characters sings with the Choral Arts Society so she couldn’t be there. Rehearsals are a huge commitment of time and accommodations to people’s schedules are constantly made.

The acting instructions continue to be fascinating. Assistant Director Cecile Davis brought some of the character books  she had created for productions in which she has appeared. The books had pictures of what she thought her character looked like, the backstory she imagined for her character, comments and direction from the director, and magazine photos and research from the time period of the play. She encouraged the Santa Diaries actors to create their own character books.

Cece recommended two books to the actors. The Enneagram Made Easy by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele, and Trusting the Actor by Brian Astbury.

In a previous blog we mentioned the directors putting the actors through an “anger run”. It seems there are all kinds of acting “runs.”  Cece did a “spoken thoughts” run with Casey Rauch (Will) in which she followed closely behind him speaking the kind of thoughts that might be going through his character’s mind. It must have been hugely distracting, but Casey stayed focused got through his long speech without a hitch. Then she did an excercise with Jenny Madino (Jessica) in which she had her do a scene using a variety of emotions (anger, sadness, happy, childlike), louder and softer, faster and faster. We could all feel the energy this created. Note to Jenny from the authors: it’s The Night Before Christmas, not The Nightmare Before Christmas. LOL.

At one point Cece referred to The Santa Diaries as “our play”. Laura and I got goosebumps. The more ownership everyone feels the better the show will be. The Santa Diaries is OUR community play.

p.s. On Sunday Laura and I left rehearsal early because we were going to Baltimore for theater. At Tuesday night’s rehearsal we learned that Cece had two of the leads doing a scene while doing push-ups. So sorry we missed that!

A Higgins Family Affair

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Last year two of the Higgins family were in A Christmas Carol. Erik and his son Izaiah continue the tradition this year as both perform in The Santa Diaries.

Erik plays Josh Shankman, the Los Angeles business manager of Will Hawes. Since Erik is the first person to play this role he says that in rehearsals he is still struggling to find “that guy in me”. With Tim Weigand’s and Cece Davis’s help he is trying on different interpretations of the role until he finds the right fit. As one of the writers of the play, I always saw the character of Josh in red hightops. Does that help, Erik? If Italian loafers or Doc Martins work for you, you get to decide. It is your role!

                        

Laura Ambler has written two original songs for the play. In one of them Erik gets to rap! He has an amazing singing voice, so we can’t wait to hear what he does with this.

Erik’s son, Izaiah, age 8, plays ballerina boy, number 1. He has some dance steps and a line of dialogue. This year’s performance follows on last year’s where he played one of the Victorian kids in A Christmas Carol. We don’t know what his costume will be this year, but don’t worry, Izaiah, it won’t be a tutu.

We asked Izaiah how he would know if he is successful in his role and he replied, “The thunderous applause when I bow!” Spoken like a true thespian in training. His father’s reply to that same question was, “I’ll get that tingling feeling.”

When asked what is your favorite thing about the holidays, Izaiah (age 8) told us, “opening presents, being home for Christmas, and remembering the true meaning of this special day.” His father said, “knowing that I’ll get new socks and underwear.” As a man, Izaiah has lots of things to look forward to in his life. Christmas socks and underwear is one of them, but perhaps starring in an Avalon production is another.