Saturday, June 5, 2010

In Which Travel Plans Are Made

“What are you doing for the break?” asked The Traveler.
We sat in the Gulbenkian on a Friday afternoon. Outside, the cold, relentless rain of an English winter was beating at the windows and threatening to shatter them. Puddles formed on the paths. Deep puddles, where small fish could have lived comfortably.
It was close to the end of term, and, while the Gulbenkian in the early afternoon was never a quiet place, it had never possessed this air of urgency before. About eighty percent of the people were undergrads, and if you looked them in the eyes (never recommended, because if you did that, then you ran the risk of joining them in binge drinking), you saw that they were on edge. They wanted out more than anything else, and their already short attention spans were stretched thin by promises of going home and... I don’t know, doing whatever English students do on break. Sprinkled through the café, you could see the odd lecturer or postgrad with confused looks on their faces. The expressions read: “What, these kids want to get out of academia? Don’t they realize that it’s safe here?”
“Hey,” said The Traveler, snapping his fingers. “Snap out of it.”
I shook my head and took my eyes off of the people struggling to walk outside.
The Traveler was still wearing his windbreaker-type coat. He had on a Red Sox baseball cap. We were sitting here waiting for The Student, who, from time to time, called us, pleading to meet up for some coffee after his Post-Industrial Literature seminar. “Oh,” I said. “I dunno. Sit around here?”
“For a month? You’ll go mad.”
“Well fine, what are you doing?”
“I’m going to Paris.”
“Can I go?”
“No,” he said. He drank from his bottle of orange juice.
“Why not?”
“If you go, The Drunkard goes. Parisian police don’t take shit, and now they have assault rifles.” He shook his head. “Nope, I’m not dealing with having him around this time.”
I leaned back in my chair. “You’re betraying me,” I said.
“All for one and one for all!”
The Traveler hung his head, took off his ballcap, and laid it on the table. “We never said anything like that.”
“Oh. Well, come on, man. What am I supposed to do with my time?”
The Traveler shrugged. “You’re in that play, right?”
“I haven’t heard back about casting. I’m in it insofar as I’ve auditioned, and thus I am associated with the play.”
“You’ll get it. You’re Jewish.”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
The Traveler leaned forward. “Zero Mostel, Jewish.” He held up a finger. “The guy who replaced him, Jewish.” He held up another finger. “Chaim Topol, Über-Jewish.”
“Alfred Molina,” I said, holding up a finger, “not Jewish.”
“Who counts him?”
“Why shouldn’t you? He’s in the revival.”
“Yeah, but—”
“But what, he’s not Jewish? That’s reverse racism, my friend.”
“My point is, you idiot, no one’s going to associate him with the role.”
“Pah!” I said.
“Pah!” responded The Traveler.
The door at the rear of the cafe opened and a solitary figure, bent, dripping, and looking like a wet cat, walked in. He removed a few layers of covering from his head, and it turned out to be The Student. I held up my hand and whistled. He looked over, nodded, and shuffled over.
When he arrived, he heaved his leather messenger bag on the table, where it landed with a wet plop, and then heaved himself down on the chair. He shook his head. “This place. This place. I could have gone to Miami for my Master’s. The rain doesn’t kill you in Miami.”
“Hurricanes,” said The Traveler.
“At least they give you warning,” said The Student. He nodded. “Right, I’m going to get coffee.”
He stood up and left. I nudged the bag off of the table. It hit the floor and water splashed on the table next to us. The people sitting there looked over, I apologized, and they said, “Bloody Americans.” I heard the first note of the Welcome Back Kotter theme, but squelched it before it could take hold.
“Hey,” said The Traveler, “here’s an idea: How bout you and The Student do something?”
“Eh,” I said. “He’s got a girlfriend.”
“I’m not talking about a romantic getaway, here.”
“Thanks. I mean they’ve probably got plans or something. I dunno, I don’t do relationships. Don’t people in those things go out and do stuff together?”
The Traveler arched an eyebrow. “You’re a special kind of stupid, you know that?”
The Student returned to the table with a nearly-overflowing cup of americano. “Right,” he said.
“Hey, Student,” I said.
“Hey, Narrator.”
“What are you up to for the break?”
The Student shrugged. “I was thinking about going into Lille in France to visit a friend of mine from a couple years ago.”
“You and Rebecca aren’t doing anything?”
“Nah. She booked a ticket back to the States a couple of months ago. Why you asking?”
“I’ve got nothing planned for the break, and The Traveler here seems to think I’ll go nuts if I’m sitting around for a month.”
“Seems to think?” asked The Traveler. He snorted. “You’ll go nuts in a fashion that will make Jack Torrance seem like a well-adjusted individual. People will visit your flat to see the walls painted in a fine coating of Zaf.”
“Thanks for the murder insinuation,” I said.
“Yeah, hell, why don’t you come along?” said The Student. “I’ll ask her, of course, but she’ll be cool. Just, you know, bring a gift or something. Don’t want to take advantage, do we?”
“Oh, of course not,” I said.
“So how’s the Post-Industrial Lit class going?” asked The Traveler.
The Student slammed his head on the table and groaned.
“Ah,” I said.
“Has it ever struck you,” said The Traveler, “that you might want to do something you enjoy for your postgrad. You know, something that doesn’t make you want to slam your head on the table whenever it’s mentioned.”
The Student picked his head up off the table. “It’s not that I don’t like literature, cause I do. It’s just that the prevailing canons in academia are so mind-numbingly dull that the only reaction a sane person can have is to cause themselves physical pain so that the mind can have a break.”
“That’s sane?” I asked
The Traveler shrugged.
“Well, look,” said The Student, “there are good bits in Dickens, Conrad, all those authors. But the things that are taught are the ones that are taught from the perspective of making a Point, you know?”
“What do you expect?” I asked. “You’re in university, they have to give you stuff that makes a Point.”
“But the writing is atrocious.”
“So,” said The Traveler, “you want to read from an almost writerly perspective.”
“You could say that. I want stuff that makes a point but is written well. Stuff that’s not necessarily based in the real world. Something about hope rather than the inevitable decline of civilization for one reason or another. I mean, good God, these literary authors must have all been clinically depressed. But,” he continued, “then again, what do I know? I say all that now, but you come to me in a little bit, asking about my views and I might just say the complete opposite.” He sighed. “I hate seeing both sides of the situation. Makes it very hard to make a decision.”
“Easy to hit a word count in an essay, though,” I said.
“Oh, no doubt. However, when a good portion of the word count are the words, ‘on the other hand’ preceding every sentence, professors get bored fairly quickly. At this point, I just want to write this essay for Post-Ind Lit, turn it in, and go into what I’m doing next term.”
“Which is?”
The Student grinned, “Literature of Food for one, and Literature of Blindness for the other.”
“And this makes you happy?” asked The Traveler.
“Well, yes,” said The Student.
“You’re mad.”
The Student shrugged and took a sip from his coffee.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Audition

An architect killed himself after designing Rutherford and Eliot Colleges. I’d like to believe that, in designing the buildings, he stumbled upon some Lovecraftian incantation written in some dusty tome. Some spell that, while providing the perfect way to create buildings as mirror images as each other, unleashed some dark force that inhabited his mind. (I told this theory to The Student, who told never to watch Ghostbusters again.) Regardless, we had to walk through this labrynthine place in order to get to the auditions.
Once we arrived, I was reminded of a scene from the 1968 version of The Producers. A large stage, packed to the brim with cowboys, policemen, Indian chiefs, and Kaisers, all sporting square mustaches. The narrow hallway deep in the bowels of Eliot College was packed with about twenty people, half of whom were guys, all talking to each other about their experiences playing Tevye.
“Joy,” I said.
“What?” Dixie asked.
“You hear that? There’s ten Tevyes in here.”
Dixie clapped me on my shoulder, said, “That’s why I’m going for Perchik,” and laughed.
“You are a miserable comforter.”
We gingerly stepped over the people sitting on the floor like refugees, picked up a couple of scripts to be used for the audition, and walked back to the far side of the hall. “So what’s this about?” Dixie asked.
I sputtered. “You don’t know?”
Dixie shrugged. “Nope.”
“It’s...” I sputtered again. “Tradition!” (For those of you not exposed to the joys of Jewish-American culture, Fiddler is one of the cornerstones. There is a board game, kind of like Trivial Pursuit, called Tradition. While I haven’t played it in years, I seem to remember the media questions revolving around Mel Brooks and Fiddler on the Roof.)
Dixie blinked.
“Tradition!” I repeated, as if that were explanation.
We sat down on the floor and Dixie—who knew most of the people from the showcase—talked to a group of girls auditioning for the daughters. I looked at the script.
“Hey, how’s this for a Yiddish accent?” Dixie asked. He read a few lines from a bit with Perchik.
I said, “Eh.”
“Eh? That’s great.”
“Nah,” I said. “It needs to be more... Jewish.”
“What does that mean?”
“Like. Er, here.” I cleared my throat, put on what I considered a Yiddish accent, “So nu, what you want I should be, a cartoon? Some kind of stereotype, maybe?”
“That’s Italian.”
“Bullshit that’s Italian.”
It was about to escalate into some bizarre accent-off when, thankfully, the door to the music room (where the audition was to be held) opened and the director—Laura—stepped out. Instead of normal people clothing, she somehow, inexplicably, looked as if she had become The Director. (“Wait!” I can hear someone screaming. “What the hell? You’re throwing another ‘The’ at us? Bull! We’ve had enough of your crap Nar—” Yes, Dear Reader, I know. Patience. There won’t be another The. Rebecca will not turn into The Girlfriend. Laura won’t turn into The Director. This isn’t Seinfeld and they aren’t episode titles.) She had on these thick—yet non-geeky—glasses with an outfit that would have been normal, were it not for the intense glare in her eyes. It was a glare that said, “I’m not taking your shit, now shut up.” It was, in other words, a drill sergeant glare. For the first time in what would wind up to be a four- or five-month long period of abject mortal terror, I witnessed The Intensity.
She went through the instructions about how to audition and then disappeared back into the music room. We’d be called in by numbers on the top right parts of our script. Out of twenty-two, Dixie and I were seventeen and eighteen. We, in other words, had some time. I snook a glance at other people’s audition sheets. There was a section about previous productions, acting lessons, that sort of things. Generally speaking, the other people in the hallway had a large block of solid black ink, their acting experience covered so much. I looked at Dixie’s and saw that, like mine, he had just a few things put down. That made me feel a little better.
“Woah,” Dixie said.
I turned. “What?”
“You realize that you’re shaking enough to make a milkshake, right?”
“Ah, no. It’s fine,” I said. “Working the nerves up. Getting the adrenaline pumping.”
Dixie raised an eyebrow. “You sure?”
Anyway, it was close to an hour before my number was up. People had been filing in and out of the room, talking about how their pitch was off—how they might have missed a note here and there and really blown it. A note? Dear fuck, they thought they might have blown it based on one note? And what was this pitch? The pitch I knew involved baseball, not this singing stuff. Why was no one talking about the acting bit? Did the acting bit not matter? Oh God, what if the—
The door opened and a tall guy, black hair and glasses, walked out. “Seventeen, your turn. Break a leg.”
I stood. “Who’d you go for?”
I groaned. “You didn’t complain about anything.”
“I think I did all right.”
I was screwed.
I walked in the room, handed Laura and the music director—Lizzie—there were a lot of L names in this society—my audition form and my mind went blank. The good kind of blank. See, like with a lot of things, there’s a good blank, and there’s a bad blank. The bad blank is when you’re still thinking about what you’re supposed to be doing, even though you’re petrified and cannot recall any information. The only thing your mind can do is send you wholly irrelevant thoughts, like mental images of penguins sliding from an iceberg into the gaping maw of an orca whale. Then there’s the good kind of blank where there is no thought. That’s the point where the best creation and performance arises. If you’re playing guitar, you don’t need to think about what chords come next, they just arrive—or a solo just falls into place. If you’re writing, then you’re no longer sitting in a room staring at a piece of paper or your computer, you’re in the setting wherever your characters are—you see the story acted out for you as if it were a film. That is the good kind of blank and, thank God, that’s where I wound up when I walked into the music room.
So, I read the bit from the script and instead of a spot on a white wall, I saw fields struggling to grow in the Pale of Settlement. Behind me, there was a horse with a thrown shoe, limping along as I schlepped a big honking cart down this disused road. Sholom Aleichem had written about some shlemiel dairman named Tevye. Fuck him, I was Tevye.
When I came back to myself, I found that, to my surprise, I’d already done the song and was told to head out of the room and back into the hallway. I sat down at my chair, exhaled, and Dixie said, “How’d it go?”
I shook my head. “I wish I could remember.”
Laura popped her head out, called for eighteen, and Dixie went in.
Afterwards, we made a mad dash for the bar and clinked our glasses to good luck. It would be a couple of days until we heard anything about the audition, so we resigned ourselves to stewing in anticipation.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Family Hobby

When I was a kid—from about the ages of five to eight or nine—my family used to have a game  called “Spot Joel.” Before he became a scumbag attorney, my brother Joel used to be involved in community theater with the Canton Actors’ Guild. They performed in a decent-sized theater in the downtown area of Canton. (Like most Midwestern towns, Canton, Ohio’s downtown still looked like it belonged in the Twenties. I went back there a few years ago and saw that it hadn’t changed much. The buildings were still the redbrick, three- or four-storey blocks with shops on the ground floor and apartments up top. There were still a couple small parks, benches lining the streets, and a few fountains sprinkled around.) And, generally speaking, my brother was a part of every major performance. The game would involve my Mom, Dad, and I sitting around the middle of the middle section of the audience, dressed nicely, looking to all the world like a respectable family, and shouting “THERE HE IS!” when my brother walked on stage.
Now, Dad is a cartoon character. He’s prone to going completely bonkers at random times, making the most absurd noises to the delight of children and the angst of everyone else around him. (This is a habit I picked up and haven’t been able to drop.) My Dad decided that he would go on stage alongside Joel in Lost in Yonkers and, wouldn’t you know it, he got the part of the father.
With all of that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I was put into acting lessons. Sadly, since these were so long ago, the only thing I can remember about them was being on stage with a group of other seven to nine year olds and pretending that I was on a desert island with a box of toys. Why I was there, I don’t know. Why I had a box of toys, I don’t know.
Flash forward sevenish years. I’m in a drama class in high school in Smyrna, Tennessee. We were expected to put on a play at the end of the year, and the teacher had chosen Tom Sawyer. I campaigned for a version of Macbeth I’d written involving Jedis fighting alongside MacDuff against a Macbeth who was, in reality, king of the velociraptors. But the teacher felt that my play wasn’t quite accessible enough to a wide audience, so we went with Tom Sawyer.
The next year, we put on a non-musical version of Meet Me In St. Louis—mainly because, and I mean this in all honesty, no one in our class could hold a note worth a damn. So, I played the father, it was a good time, and I never thought I’d be in theater again.
Then, as I got to Kent, and my conversations with Dad kept swinging back to “What are you doing?” he’d ask. “You’re not just sitting around, are you?” I knew that I had to do something. And, as I saw it, I had two options: I could get a job and toil in monotony, generally starting to hate life as I’d be stuck on campus having to deal with customers all day (I am at my most misanthropic when stuck behind a counter of any sort), or I could find an alternate way of spending time. So, as you can tell, when Dixie told me that the Musical Theatre Society were auditioning for Fiddler on the Roof, I was ecstatic. I wouldn’t have to get a job!
I called my Dad, told him the news, and, using his Cautious Voice, he told me to break a leg. He did, however, encourage me to keep looking for a job, just in case this didn’t pan out. I took this as a compliment of the sort only he could deliver, and called Dixie—who was also going to audition that night.
He arrived a half an hour later, I let him into the apartment, and we toasted with some kosher wine. Jay (remember him? The flatmate who isn’t Zaf) walked in and saw Dixie. Jay is one of the most friendly people I’ve ever met. If he had a tail, he’d be wagging constantly. For the first term, everyone he met (including the rest of the Thes) was bombarded with questions about if they were in my course. I’d told him that the Ranting in Literature program was made up of a whopping five people—none of whom liked each other because of our own varying views about the necessity of ranting—yet, even when I had a group of, say, six people over, that was his first question. Worked as an ice breaker, I guess.
“L’chaim,” I said, clinking my glass with Dixie’s.
“You nervous?” he asked.
“Eh,” I said, shrugging and pretending like I didn’t care. I was, in reality, sweating like a pig—this only hidden by the massive black shirt that my dad bought for me before I left the States—from nerves. “No big deal, I figure,” I said, piling on the bullshit. “Not like it’s my degree to do drama. You?”
“Nah,” he said, piling on his own pile of bullshit.
We finished our glasses of wine and headed out to find the audition room.