March 30, 2019

Me as the Captain of the Inquisition in Man of La Mancha

I was trying to decide what to entitle this post.  Man of La Mancha Part 2? Man of La Mancha, the sequel?, Son of La Mancha?  La Mancha 2: Electric Boogaloo?  None of them seemed quite right somehow.  One of the theater games often played backstage is to come up with the most ridiculous sequel to a classic musical or play and I can recall fleshing out the plot of Oklahoma! Two:  Jud’s Revenge in which zombie Jud returned with a machete and hay fork and killed most of the rest of the cast. It must have been a particularly dreary stretch of technical rehearsals for something or other. It’s one of the thousand or so little ways that companies bond with each other during the painstaking process of putting together a production.  The two hours of stagecraft that an audience sees represents hundreds of hours of rehearsal, design, construction, and various people wondering why they just don’t go out in the alley and hit each other over the head with a stick a few times as it would be less painful.   So why do I do it?

My parents, relatively cultured individuals, started taking me to both children’s and the occasional adult theater performance around the age of six and I can still remember some of those early experiences and how transfixed I was at the real live magic happening on stage.  When I was about 11, my mother, who had stopped out of the work force to be there for her young children, went back to work as an instructor at the local junior college, teaching various sciences.  Her boss, a man named Herb Bryce, was involved in local theater on the technical end and so my parents started going to the plays with which he was involved.  When he started working on a string of classic American musicals, my parents got tickets for the whole family and we started going regularly to see them.  This was the 1970s and the shows of the golden age were only 20 or 30 years old and were amongst the soundtrack of my parents’ youth.  I was already in love with musical movies courtesy of Disney and the family friendly fare of the 60s and after starting to see decent productions of good shows, I became more and more enamored of the musical as an art form and started exploring cast albums, reading scripts in the library and seeking out film versions at the revival house. (VCRs weren’t yet a thing…) 

Before make up

I never really thought about being a performer.  There was no tradition of it in my family.  My father had a nice singing voice and taught himself to play several instruments by ear but my mother was not very musical at all and I was much more my mother’s child.  I did learn to play clarinet starting in 4th grade and had become pretty good by high school but that was about it.  I always thought that performing was for people who were born with some sort of hugely innate talent and I was pretty sure that wasn’t me.   I did do some plays in school.  I got the title role in Rumplestiltskin in third grade because I was the shortest boy in the school capable of memorizing the lines.  I also remember being Abraham Lincoln in 5th grade with a beard rubber cemented to my face that made my skin break out for two weeks.  And I was pretty darn certain I couldn’t sing.

When I was a junior in high school, the school embarked on a building program and one of the new facilities they constructed was a theater.  In retrospect, it wasn’t much of a theater.  The fly system was primitive at best, it didn’t have a ton of backstage facilities but, when I walked into the completed building for the first time, something happened to me.  I looked up at the booth, through the backstage area and stood on the stage looking out at the house and knew that, more than anything else, I wanted to learn how to use these tools to make theater magic.  I signed up for the tech theater classes and did a little bit of everything backstage and it soon became apparent, with my organized and methodical ways, that I was a good stage manager and had some promise as a director.

Change out of civvies and put on the microphone

When I went off to college, I quickly learned how to find my people.  They were the ones who, like I, were interested in the magic of theater, especially musical theater.  There were so many bright and talented kids who knew so much more than I did that, even though I was double majoring in chemistry and biology,  I would have to spend as much time as possible working with and learning from them.  I worked tech crew, building sets and hanging lights.  There is a tradition at Stanford of dorm theater.  Dorms tend to be houses of 50-100 people and each dorm would put on a theatrical production sometime during the year.  I volunteered to direct our dorm show my freshman year (You Can’t Take It With You) which got me noticed and I moved on to stage management for campus wide companies.  I directed my first musical (The Pajama Game) sophomore year and by the middle of junior year, I had catapulted myself into the thick of the production/technical group of folks, many of whom remain close friends thirty-five years later.  My senior year, I directed the big student produced musical (Anything Goes) on the mainstage and, after graduation, headed off to medical school in Seattle where I continued stage managing and directing in community theater whenever my schedule would permit.

After graduating form medical school, moving to Sacramento, and hitting residency, I gave it all up.  Every third night on call and theatrical production do not mix.  I chose to focus on training and career and, nine months after moving to California I met Steve and built a life and relationship with him which provided more than enough drama for anyone.  I missed it and every once in a while, I would stick my toes into the Sacramento theater waters.  I made some friends who did theater and helped out backstage with props or sound or some such from time to time.  Steve and I also went to the theater every chance we could get.  Between Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, there wasn’t much we missed in the 90s.  Then came the disasters of 1998 and the collapse of our California life and the need to move somewhere else if my career was going to continue.

I’ve told the story of the job search and the odd chain of circumstances that led us to Birmingham elsewhere.  The move was followed shortly by his illness and my need to keep myself devoted to two things, his needs and my job until his inevitable death.  My response to that and to my pain was to run away.  For the first year or so after he died, I spent every possible moment away from home that I could.  I booked business trips.  I took vacations.  I visited family.  I didn’t want to be in the house alone with my feelings and I just couldn’t think of another constructive coping mechanism.   I couldn’t completely abandon Birmingham.  My job did expect me to show up routinely but there was more flexibility in my schedule at that point than I have now so I could do a lot of long weekends.

Add Eugene Levy eyebrows, hollow the eyes and cheeks, and darken the furrows

I met Tommy in late 2002.  At this point, I’d been living in Birmingham for four years but I knew almost no one outside of the people I worked with.  We hit it off and by mid 2003 were more or less a couple.  Tommy had always been of Birmingham and was one of those people who knew everyone.  With a new companion, we started going to local theater routinely, egged on by church friends like Ellise Mayor and Ginny Crooks.  We started to get involved with production beginning with the Lysistrata project in 2003 which eventually morphed into Politically Incorrect Cabaret.  Tommy was musical.  Tommy had always performed.  He knew I had a background in theater and asked me why I didn’t perform as well.  I told him it was because I didn’t have any talent.  He pooh poohed me and told me how he had seen me work a room with my public speaking engagements and that there was no reason I couldn’t transfer those skills to stage.  I told him I liked musicals but couldn’t sing.  His response to that was to get voice lessons so I ended up working with Diane McNaron and soon came to realize that I actually could carry a tune.  I was never going to be Alfred Drake but I could handle a character role.  I started auditioning in 2004, kept getting cast to my complete surprise, and here I am some fifty Birmingham productions later.

It wasn’t Tommy who brought me back to life after Steve’s death.  It was his opening the door back into the world of theater.  Together we found our tribe.  The people we could love and be loved by.  The people we could count on.  The people who would have our backs and help us through our hardest moments.  That’s what keeps me coming back show after show – the circle of humanity within a company that demands your best, elevates you, and holds you up when you feel like life has stomped you into the dirt.  I don’t choose projects based on the size of my role or what song I get to sing or how many lines I have.  I choose them based on the group of people with whom I am going to share my life and my vulnerabilities for six or eight weeks.  Somehow I have been lucky enough to be accepted by some of the best performers in town as one of them.

Stick on some facial hair

I tend to have a very bad case of impostor syndrome.  I think it’s common in high achievers.  It’s that feeling that you don’t really belong in whatever position in life you’ve managed to reach and that if others really knew you and your insecurities, you’d be busted back down to buck private in a manner of minutes.  Having two careers, I get a double dose of it.  I’ve almost shaken it in my physician career.  It’s been thirty-one years since I graduated from medical school and people started calling my doctor.  It took me at least a decade to stop looking over my shoulder when someone used the word and another decade after that to start to feel relatively comfortable with my abilities and my role as a physician and healer.  I get a lot of accolades these days for my work in geriatrics.  I’m one of the few that’s dedicated my life to an unpopular and underserved specialty and I’ve been in one place long enough for people to get to know me so, even though I don’t think I really deserve them, I have learned to accept them with a certain amount of grace and humility.  I haven’t begun to shake the impostor syndrome as a performer.  Every time I am cast, I begin to worry if I could possibly be good enough, that they should have gone with another choice, that the audience will know that I don’t belong up there in that group of consummate professionals and all those other things the committee in my head will start telling me. It doesn’t matter if I’m the lead or a member of the ensemble in the back row.  I’ve learned to cope by turning my super-ego off when I walk through the stage door and leaving Andy and all his insecurities at home so I can just be present in that moment with those people and do the job that has been so carefully rehearsed that it starts to become second nature.

I have one more long post I want to do about all the feelings stirred up by Man of La Mancha.  I’m trying to figure out to write about the couple of dozen individuals involved in the show that make up my tribe.  How they entered my life, what they have meant to me, anecdotes of our time together around various Birmingham stages.  I have a lot of ideas swirling around but I haven’t yet figured out how to make it engaging to a reader and not just a litany of names.  It’s a challenge and I’ve always been about setting myself challenges and seeing if I can surmount them with my writing.  I’ll start putting some stuff down and see if it amounts to anything I’m willing to show in public.

I had one lovely experience last night.  A woman, whom I had not previously known, found my first post about Man of La Mancha on line as I had tagged a mutual friend.  She read it and it compelled her to immediately come down to the theater, buy a ticket and ask to meet me.  How flattering and what a perfect illustration of the theme of both the show and that post – the power of story and narrative to move people.  Sometimes I wonder why I’m writing these long posts and then something like that happens and it gives me the energy and the courage to go on.

Add the armor and voila…

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