I’ve got a lot bouncing around my head tonight. It’s late, we had another terrific show and I’m revved up as I usually am post performance. I don’t know about anyone else, but it generally takes me about two to three hours after the curtain comes down for me to be calm enough inside to be ready for bed. These days this is the real lonely time. I used to come home to Tommy working away in his studio, or busy on some project (which I would usually get sucked into) so we would talk while my system quieted down and we could think about bed. Now I come home to an empty house and bounce off the walls for a bit, not really able to focus on much of anything until the adrenaline starts to wear off. This show isn’t too bad as my track is very easy compared to most but I still have to push up my energy for the end of the show to get bureaucratic villainy across to the audience. As people whom I don’t even know have told me I’m scary at the stage door, I must be doing something right.
How does a group of people get together and create something as ephemeral and beautiful as this production? I’ve been pondering that a lot over the last week or so and have been trying to figure out how to describe it in terms that those of you who are not theatrically inclined can understand. I know my theater peeps get it but how do you unlock the door to that world to someone who may be an enthusiastic audience member but who does not have the time or the inclination to help in the creation of this type of art. And how do I begin to convey the sort of nurture that I get from working with these people, some of them in show after show over many years and some of them new to my experience, but all organelles in a cellular matrix bringing forth life where there was not life before. This particular production clicked early. At the first full run through where we finally had all 19 of the cast present, something happened and we all recognized how good the show was and we all moved our work up another notch to be worthy of the material and each other.
I hate to say it, but theater starts with money. The royalties, the physical production costs, the time and talents of professionals who have the skill sets to perform, play instruments, construct sets, build costumes. It all costs. In the community and semi-pro world in which I operate, only about a third of the operating budget can be raised from ticket sales. (You can’t price tickets above what the market will bear, you have limited runs and seating capacity). This requires a dedicated production staff who can raise money from the community via philanthropy, grants, and in kind donations. Cathy Gilmore has been working her wizardry at the Virginia Samford Theater for nearly twenty years and has given me incredible opportunities to perform in her productions over that time. She’s been quite complementary of some things I’ve done so I hope she’ll continue to ask me back in the future. I really enjoy appearing on that stage. It just feels right to me. It’s not a huge stage (and there’s no wing space stage left where you’re always dodging the fly rail) but it’s comfortable for a performer, technically sophisticated, and has a nice intimate house of just over 300 seats so it’s easy to connect with the audience. The first time I appeared on the stage was in 2004, playing the butler in Jekyll and Hyde. I was scared to death. I hadn’t done much stage work for the last fifteen years and even then, my background was in technical theater and backstage stuff. What the hell was I doing singing in front of all those people? But something clicked, I kept coming back and now, when I walk up those concrete steps and through the black metal stage door to perform, I relax and feel at home. I don’t think I’ve had stage fright in that house for more than a decade. I have done 17 shows there in 16 years and I hope there are many more.
Once you have some money in hand, you have to find your key creatives who will take the words on the page and the notes in the score and turn them into a vision which can be realized. There are four people who are, more than anyone else, responsible for what appears on the stage. The first is Henry Scott, the director. I’ve known Henry for several years. He directed a number of shows at Red Mountain Theater for which Tommy did the wigs and makeup and I know he introduced us. My first memories of Henry are of him sitting calmly in the lobby at Red Mountain playing either a lute or a mandolin and just emitting a sense of calm, despite all the chaos swirling around him in the process of a technical rehearsal. And that’s just who Henry is. Always calm, always centered when working, and always getting his desired results through positive coaching rather than yelling and drama and negative feedback. Henry has a background as a chorus boy and has taught theater and dance for years so he both directed and choreographed the show making all of the stage movement seamless in terms of transitions from book to musical staging. This is my second time working with him and he’s such a joy that if he casts me again, I’ll have no problem pushing myself wherever I need to go to give him the character he wants and needs. The second is Ben Boyer who designed both the set and the lighting. I’ve known Ben as long as I have been around Birmingham theater and no one understands the capabilities of the VST space as well as he does. He more or less built the set singlehandedly and he has always known how to light his sets for maximum effect. Lighting is so important, especially in musical theater and so under rated by the audience. The third is Michael King, the music director. Michael and I go way back as colleagues, working with him as both actor and director. The man is a keyboard genius and a great coach. He’s also another piece of the odd events that led me back to stage although I doubt he knows it. Back in 2003, he and Diane McNaron did a show they called Masters Cabaret at some venue downtown. Tommy and I had gotten to know Diane slightly when we all worked together with Ellise Mayor on the Birmingham Peace Project’s contribution to The Lysistrata Project. (That story is told elsewhere). After the Cabaret show, Diane, Ellise, Tommy and I were standing around outside the venue when Diane brought up the idea of us all working together on this improv cabaret she was thinking about and Politically Incorrect Cabaret was born. The fourth is James Lebo who built all of the costumes. James and I only met about two years ago. Somehow, our tours through Birmingham theater had never intersected until that point but we definitely found ourselves with similar tastes, senses of humor and kindred souls. He’s turned me into a churlish grandpa, a 19th century martinet and a 17th century conquistador so far. We’ll see what else he has up his commodious sleeves.
This show, has it takes place on a unit set without intermission, a nod to the Aristotalian unities please, doesn’t have a huge running crew but who we have is choice. Jenna Bellamy, our stage manager, cracks the whip and keeps us all on our toes. My original theatrical background was in stage management so I have great respect for those who do it well. What does a stage manager do you ask? He or she is the person who makes sure that the interactions between performers and the technical elements of a production come off without a hitch. He or she makes sure that all the cues for lights, sound, set changes, special effects happen and that each performance if of consistent quality. He or she is the god of the theater during the run of the show. We’ve also got Joe Zellner mixing the sound so that the balance between singers and orchestra remains correct. He also makes me scarier than I am by giving me a bit more bass and reverb and then my old pal Laura Kilgore Barnett who has done wigs and hair and came up with my Spanish grandee facial hair.
This brings us to the cast, my fellow travelers on this nightly journey. Man of La Mancha is an unusual musical in that there is really no chorus or ensemble. There are nineteen of us on stage and each one of us is a specific person in the moment. The structure of the show with the prison frame and the prisoners telling the story of Don Quixote means most are playing their prisoner character and then also whomever they become within the story as Cervantes sweeps them up into his imagination and casts them in the other roles as the tale progresses. I’m the one exception. I’m the only character that belongs to the outside world so I am always the face of authority and the villain of the piece. Villains are much more fun to play than heroes. I usually get comic villains but this one is just evil and he gets his own entrance music. I’ve decided that I’ll have had a good run if I manage to make it through every performance without taking a header down the dungeon stairs. They lower into the dungeon like a drawbridge and they have no rail and I’m not wearing my glasses.
While the show is an ensemble show and every part is necessary for the success of the whole, some parts are bigger than others and there are three principal roles. Quixote, Aldonza and Sancho. They have most of the songs and the heavy lifting. Charles Wood is Quixote. He is one of the professors of vocal performance and the director of the opera program at University of Montevallo, Tommy’s alma mater and he’s the real deal as a singer. I met him once or twice when Tommy was there getting his music degree but didn’t get to know him well as Tommy was not in his studio. Tommy always tiptoed gingerly around him. I don’t know the whole story but it had something to do with Tommy talking him into offering a history of opera class and then Tommy dropping it four weeks in for some reason. I started to get to know him better a couple of years ago when we were both in a production of Die Fledermaus. He is quiet, studious, and a perfect gentleman off stage and a giving performer on stage. Aldonza is Kristi Tingle Higginbotham, one of the reigning divas of the Birmingham stage and has been for many years. I know I first met her fifteen or so years ago when I first started to get back into theater but we didn’t really start to get to know each other well until much later when we were both in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, she as Miss Mona and me as the mayor. We’ve done a number of projects since then, my favorite being Gypsy a couple years back where she played Rose and I was her father. Of course we’re not that many years apart in real life and I wasn’t quite sure what to think when they told me I wasn’t going to need any age makeup. She never seems to age. The same is not true of yours truly. Kristi is one of those people who could easily have had a New York career had life gone differently and we are so lucky to have her locally. Nick Crawford, who plays Sancho, is one of those guys whom I have known through theater circles for a long time but this is our first show together. He’s a brilliant comic actor and is always the most interesting thing on stage in any show he is in. I’m glad to finally get to work with him and hope we have another project together sometime which gives us a nice juicy scene together.
Who’s in the supporting cast? Chris O’Rear as the Innkeeper. Tommy knew Chris slightly as Chris was getting his graduate degree in vocal performance at Alabama while Tommy was getting his undergraduate degree and I remember seeing him as Sorastro in a production of Zauberflote at UA circa 2006. I didn’t actually meet him or work with him until that same production of Die Fledermaus where I first worked with Charles. He lives a ways out of town so he doesn’t do a lot of local theater which is too bad as he’s a great dressing room companion. Shawn Reese is Carrasco. I’ve known Shawn forever and we’ve done a bunch of shows together over the last dozen years or so. Shawn is another one of my friends that never seems to age. He looks just as he did when I first met him. He’s also incredibly handy with hammer and saw and has been known to knock a set together over a weekend when you’re getting desperate. The housekeeper is Julia Hixson. Julia is a local elementary music teacher with a powerhouse voice and stage presence. I remember seeing her on stage before I started to perform and how she could effortlessly steal a scene, even in a small role. Julia and I are often cast opposite each other as comic foils and she is such fun to work with. She’s also a calming maternal presence backstage. Niece Antonia is Lauren Marino. I’ve done a couple of seasons of opera chorus with Lauren who, while young, has an amazing voice. I never realized how good until I heard her singing Pat Benatar with a bar band one night. I first met Barry Austin, who plays the padre, more than twenty years ago when I first moved to Birmingham. Steve and I joined the downtown Y and we would do our exercise routine between work and dinner that first year we were here before he became ill. Barry was on the same schedule/cycle we were. We had nodding acquaintance and I had no idea we would become friends and colleagues a number of years in the future. David Pohler, one of my favorite young people, is the Barber. I met David a couple of years ago when he was in the chorus of La Traviata at the opera. He was getting his theater degree at Montevallo and ended up being one of the caretakers of my old friend and voice teacher, Bennie Middaugh, as he required more and more assistance as he descended into dementia. David’s ability to empathize and provide care and companionship to Bennie, who was also my patient, made me realize that this is a special guy. He’s off to New York next month to try his luck with the performing scene up there and I’ll miss having him around.
Rounding out the cast is a collection of folk who run the gamut and whom I have overlapped with in many different ways over the years. Emily Hoppe, as the Innkeeper’s wife, is someone I had not worked with before. I’ve known who she is for years, ever since she played Tracy in a production of Hairspray a few years back and I’ve always enjoyed her on stage and I’m glad I’m finally getting to know her. Tahauny Cleghorn, who bellydances in the Moorish sequence, came into my life last fall with Hello, Dolly! in which she played Ermengarde. She’s another Montevallo kid (as are so many of the folk in Birmingham theater) and obviously learned her stuff. She brought along her brother Duke Cleghorn for this production, whom I had not met before this show. Duke is a slight young man, but when he opens up, that boy can sing. It’s rather scary to hear that powerful voice coming out of him. He’s not the baby of the show, though. That crown goes to Max Tatum who is still in high school. He has been performing with the VST school program and was ready to graduate to the adult stage. When I see Max wide eyed and soaking it all in during rehearsal and backstage, I cannot help but think back to teenage Andy when he was first starting out. Only slightly older is Joe Ardovino. I remember Joe as a child of six or seven. His parents are both Montevallo music faculty and old friends of Tommy’s and I remember him as a child tagging along behind them at some Montevallo events that Tommy and I went to together. Well, Joe is now fully grown and I’d love to be able to tell Tommy we’re working together. He’d be tickled. J.D. Blackmon and I go way back. We first met about fifteen years ago when we were pirates together in Peter Pan. We’ve done a couple of other projects over the years but hadn’t seen each other for some time when we both ended up cast in this. He and Mackey Atkinson have a great duet on the song Little Bird and their voices blend so well together. Mackey is another guy I’ve known for ever and a day, since he was a teenager. We would end up at the same parties and other theater events for years but didn’t actually do a show together until about five years ago. He also does my hair from time to time so you know whom to blame. I’ve been hanging out some with Mackey and with Mark Nelson who is also new to me. I had seen Mark in a couple of shows around town and admired his talent and I’m glad I’m getting a chance to work with him.
So this is the community, the circle, the family. Tomorrow, we have our last performance and the set will come down, the costumes will go to storage and the cast and crew will all move on to new projects. Some of them mayl be in the next show I’m doing (HMS Pinafore), some of them I may not work with again for years. That’s immaterial; what matters is that we have built something special that will live on in our collective memories for years.