Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

St. Louis, MO

Lawdy, Lawdy....

If you had told either Angie or me, both veterans of work at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, that we would one day return to stay at the Rep Theater housing, for two weeks, with our spouse, both employed in the same show, a musical no less, on the road for a year, with our dog, a 65lb. pit bull, a car, and having left our apartment which we now own but which I've spent less than two full months in...well, you can imagine our response.

But as we pulled into the parking lot of the Garden Apartments in Webster Groves, MO, a suburb of St. Louis, the home of Webster University, and literally a quarter mile from the university theater where my father worked while he earned his doctorate, the first theater in which this author ever performed (at less than 2 yrs. old, and without an Equity card, let it be noted) and also a quarter mile from the first house to which said author was returned subsequent to his birthing and in which he was reared lo, these 41 years ago, the thought occurred to me with the Weight of Great Profundity and the Recognition of Harmonious Resonance, " The more things change..."

Here's the deal - travelling with our Rather Very Large, or at least, Rather Very Heavy dog, we sometimes can stay in the company hotel options, sometimes not. St. Louis was one time during which we could not. Angie, in her inevitable cleverness, called the company manager at St. Louis Rep. Could we stay there? she queeried. Would they be alright with a dog? she inquired. Could we park there? she requested. And how much would it be? she ultimately asked. Long story short, Yes, Yes, Yes, and Cheeeep. Deal done. Booked it & took it.

So on our drive down to Missouri from Ohio, we checked in with the company manager who explained she'd leave the apartment unlocked & we could settle up in the morning. No rush. Make yourselves at home. And so we did, quite happily. And you know, I'm not quite sure, but I almost think I lived in that very apartment once, during on of the earlier shows I did at the Rep. I'm not sure, and granted all the rooms are much the same (room-by-room renovations notwithstanding). In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the VCR in the room was the same. Certainly, the advent of wi-fi internet connectivity was the clearest sign of the times. But other than that, well - close my eyes, and I might well have been doing KING LEAR in October of 2001.

More surprising still was the serendipitous online inquiry into the current St. Louis Rep season, at which point I discovered they were in rehearsal for THE MIRACLE WORKER, and playing the role of Helen Keller's mom was my dear friend Krista Hoeppner (seen here, in the role of Kate, in production photos from the show). Quickly, I shot off an e-mail note to her, presumably unaware of my presence in St. Louis. How funny you're in St. Louis, I wrote; I know those apartments well. Where are you? I asked. As luck would have had it, she was online at the time. Apartment K-1, she wrote back soon after. Now, Angie and I were in Apartment J-1. Literally, precisely, Right Next Door. And so it was, in the morning, I kept one eye out the window and, as I saw her trotting off to rehearsal that day, we casually opened the door and bid one very surprised Krista good morning.

Sometimes, this world is so - very - small.

And visiting Krista at the time was her husband Jay Leahy, entertaining the troops as well as anyone who knows him would assume him to be. And one of Krista's castmates was one John Rensenhouse, late of many St. Louis Rep shows but beknownst to me as Cornwall, in the production of KING LEAR of which I was a part. We shared a dressing room and the daily CryptoQuip during LEAR's tenure, and it was much fun catching up with him.

The Rep housing worked out perfectly. Long walks with Butley along winding, leafy, brick-housed streets - that is when we weren't walking across campus quadrangles & lawns. A university gym we joined which gave us access to a full health club facility within a short walk's distance. A full kitchen. A living room. And - luxury of luxuries - a front door opening up onto a small courtyard, such that morning canine peeing was no more an event than opening the door, waiting for a minute, then recalling the dog, shutting the door, and returning to bed. So THIS was how the Other Half lived.

Now, as the the theater. The Fox Theater, aka the Fabulous Fox, is ... well ... big. Something like 4,500 seats. Our nightly audiences were probably a modest 40% percent, or 1,800. But they were good houses, surprisingly audible for a house of that magnitude. And of all the "ohmygoshthistheaterisfullofhistoryandyoureallyshouldlookaround" theaters that I've played, the Fox is one of those at the top of the list. Gaudy, grand, luxurious, bejeweled, bedecked, and truly amazing. A lobby that feels like a ballroom at the Ottoman emperor's palace. And a first balcony circle along the back of the house offers a full-service dinner menu during the show. Here's how big the theater is: you can't hear a single fork clink or plate clatter from the stage during the performance.

I know - because after six months, I finally got a chance to do the role I've been understudying all this time. Henry Stram took the day off to visit some family in Kansas City, and I covered for him for the first Sunday's matinee and evening performances. It went fine; very fun to finally get up on stage with the rest of the cast, and it's such a talented group of performers that it's a real treat to be able to not only see their work up close but to be able to work with them. Including Angie. Nonetheless, for this tour, I'm really very happy to be backstage, at the keyboard. I mean, I didn't take this job to actually work for a living; I'm sort of like a farmer paid a subsidy to not farm - paid, in other words, not for the work I actually do as instead for the work I'm not able to do, or able to try to get. (Of course, in this economy, that's not such a loss.) But such is the life of a professional, sometimes. And such is my guilty pleasure, this yearlong busman's holiday, which I've enjoyed perhaps shamefully more than I imagined I might.

So - Hmmm, taking in St. Louis. Well, not a lot of that really happened. We did dine at Favazza's the first night. St. Louis is known for good restaurants, and good steak & Italian, in particular, and Favazza's was not a disappointment. I opted for the best and truest test of an Italian restaurant: the spaghetti & meatballs. Now no, it wasn't as good as my grandmother's recipe (which then became my mother's and then my sister's), but yeah - it was good. We also had lunch one day at Sqwires in Lafayette Square. Built in an old industrial & manufacturing complex, Sqwires effects the task of urban revitalization very well: take an old, rundown, brick industrial plant, clean it, add swanky fixtures straight from the pages of a chic design magazine, serve really good food, and do little else. 'S all you really need. We only had lunch there, but it pointed promisingly to great dinner & music.

We did spend a lot of time over at Washington University, helping out Angie's friends who both teach there. One is a writer, Carter Lewis, who asked us to serve as actors for his undergraduate playwriting class, and is one a director, Andrea Urice, who asked us to talk to her class of actors, to whom we tried to give a reasonably accurate description of our professional experiences while not frightening them so much that they changed majors. Angie had been directed by Andrea in Carter's play Ordinary Nation at Rep. Theater of St. Louis while I was on tour with the first year of Twelve Angry Men.

The talking to the actors was a simple, straightforward affair - two hours or so. And they had great questions & were extremely interested & prepared. The rehearsal & performing for the writers was more intensive, but it was fantastic, actually. Very good, short one-acts - six of them - which were written with two late thirties, early forties actors in mind, one male, one female (part of the class assignment being to actually write for your actors). I was very impressed, by the breadth of styles, by Carter's skill at nurturing their work without imposing his own style onto it, and at the level at which the students had been able to provide actors enough material with which to work, without providing so much as to dictate the performance, or trying to direct from the keyboard. And it was a nice change of pace from the routine of the show...

Other than that, not really so much to say. No, we didn't get any Ted Drewes ice cream. No, we didn't go up in the St. Louis Gateway Arch, opened to the public the summer of my birth which, I've always suspected, was the arch's real cause for commemoration. Such things would have made more sense, had this been our first time in the Gateway City. But this time, yours truly had a fair amount of rehearsal, and we also had other goals in mind, not the least of which was The Big Swap.

THE BIG SWAP

OK. So this would really be a crazy story, were it not something happening to us while on this tour, crazy stories apparently being the norm. Let me point out the preceding events & details, and perhaps you can guess the end result:

• We own a 65 lb. pit bull.
• There is a province-wide ban on all 'bully breeds' in Ontario.
• Knowing we were going to be playing Toronto, we had investigated all the various possibilities, including a Cleveland - NYC - Toronto drive, during which we'd leave Butley with his walker for 5 weeks.
• Butley was recently certified as a therapy dog in Des Moines.
• The therapy dog evaluators we met are also training an 8 mo. old golden lab puppy to be a mobility service dog.
• Said puppy, "Tag," is at the point in his training where he knows a series of commands and needs most of all to be exposed to a wide range of experiences. Such experiences as one might accrue while on national tour with a Broadway musical.
• St. Louis is about 5 hours away from Des Moines, and said evaluators are willing to take a vacation in June to Louisville, after law school is done.
• Said evaluators love Butley.
• Said evaluators are very generous.
• Said evaluators are a little nuts.
• Said evaluators made the offer all on on their own.

So yeah. We traded dogs for three months.

O. M. G.

To that end, I introduce to you the official dog-swap blog: http://dog-swap.blogspot.com/. This is run by both said evaluators and yours truly as a way we can both keep each other apprised of our respective dogs' status, share video, training tips, etc.

K-9 laden as this online report has been already, I'll spare you, gentle readers, from merely repeating what can already be found on the other blog. But let it suffice to be known that:

• Yes, we miss Butley.
• Yes, we're glad to have Tag.
• Yes, we're glad we don't have to worry about the ban.
• Yes, we know it sounds kinda crazy, but it really works out well for everyone.

Butley's getting to live & work with a professional dog trainer for three months. We get a dog we can take into any hotel, any restaurant, any grocery store, any theater (remember: he's a legitimate service dog).

And so, at the end of our stay in St. Louis, we traded dogs. Followers of the Rude Awakening blog, I introduce Tag:


Tag, meanwhile, is missed not only by his trainers but by the family who also helped raise him. To give them a little video hello, and to show everyone how much Tag's life is about to change, I present to you the official Tag Swap video:



So, while Butley's in farm country with his two new canine housemates, Cadence & Roggen, and his two new human handlers, Nicole & Eric Shumate, Tag has assumed the mantle of world traveller. And you, dear reader, have now TWO blogs to follow, if you so choose. For all you time wasters, forget Facebook. Let our blogs be the cause of your diminished productivity.


And yes - that's the ACTUAL house that modeled for Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic". The picture was taken on Butley's ride back to Des Moines from St. Louis, to begin his Iowa "residency."



And so, in light of the odd circumstances, the impossible coincidences, the remarkable arrangements, and all the surprises that seem to constitute our regular existence, we close as we opened, with the bowed-head-shaking, knee-softly-slapping, tongue-gently-clacking exclamation....

Lawdy, lawdy, LAWDY...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Columbus, OH

Gentle readers,

Regret is a funny thing. None of us seem to want it - and yet we all seem to have it. About something. And those of us who deny having it do so at the risk of incurring accusations of denial, of suppressed memory, of the re-writing of history. Regret would seem to be like psychic flatulence - we all fear even the mildest case of our own in a crowded room, yet we only take note at the most egregious infractions of others (and some may be truly egregious). Continuing on down the path of this simile is, doubtless, a doomed affair. And yet the point, I think, is made. Moving on, then, I can only say that, for those regular followers of these minor missives who have even noticed a delay at all in my posting hereto, I must express my apologies, my regret, not for my actions but for my nature. I can get easily distracted. I am distractible. But as we are, thus we must ever be; and so, the inevitable delay was surely that - inevitable.

So - Columbus.


Arriving in Columbus was, yet again, an exercise in cold-weather logistics. Unloading at the hotel was bitter, not helped by the fact of our late evening arrival and the having-already-set-long-ago sun. We've been inordinately lucky, throughout the trip, to have enjoyed clear driving weather on every commute thus far, save for the occasional and passing rainstorm. But safely cocooned in our temperature-controlled, all-wheel-drive, Beverly-Hillbillies-laden Forester, we have often experienced the winter chill en route as the unfortunate arctic blast to be endured while refueling. But when travelling after sunset, the condensation inside the car often results in a frosty buildup on all windows but the windshield, and we have to resort to the periodic interior scraping that reminds me of U-boat sailors 'bailing the hatch' or 'stoking the main' or whatever it was that U-boat sailors would do mid-journey to keep their submersibles operational. (I say U-boat, because - when we're fully loaded up - that's a bit what the interior of the car feels like.)

Nonetheless, once ensconced in the motherly arms of yet another anonymous dwelling, we three hunkered in for the night. Or rather, after Angie and I had sallied forth for some dinner, we three hunkered in. Hunkered down? Somehow it felt more like hunkering IN.

And for dinner, we discovered the first of many fine little gems in this former post-graduate home of my once childhood friend and now graphic designer, Brad Egnor. This is a town which Brad has talked about fondly in the past - not without some sense of having outgrown it, and yet fondly nonethless. He spoke of there being a certain subculture, a certain funky flair that seeps into the town in nooks and crannies. In fact, while we were there, I saw at least a couple references to Columbus as being the "indie art capital of the Midwest." And having been there I can believe it, based on the short, shivering week we spent.

Exhibit A: Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails. Where else in the Midwest would you go to find a spacious and yet cosy feeling pub, fully stocked with local microbrews and domestic & imported favorites, many on tap, with a menu that stretches far beyond the usual pub grub to include quiche, spaghetti & meatballs, meatloaf and sweet potatoes, all manner of delectable salads, a jukebox stocked with great alt rock selections from the 90's (sorry, Beyoncé fans), a knowledgeable bar staff and a very friendly waitstaff, all open - kitchen included - until 2am? 2AM, mind you, being, Midwest-wise, the biggest cause for bragging rights in any downtown eatery.

Yea, and verily did we dine there. And it was good.

Columbus audiences were ... fine. You know, they clapped when they should, that laughed & gasped, for the most part, where they oughtta. Granted, two boys kissing wasn't high on their list, though I imagine the Guilty Ones who were in the audience were all the more appreciative for our kind of theatrical fare. But the kind of folks in Columbus who pony up the pennies for a Broadway Series ticket were, as like as not, just very polite to the point of undue restraint (though they did come alive at the curtain call). Also, in these enormous houses such as we're wont to play, it's often hard to hear the audience response. What would have been booming back at the Atlantic often feels, in these enormous old vaudeville houses, like politesse. However, I think everyone felt like they were turning in good shows and, as I say, the curtain calls were enthusiastic.

Hm - did I actually just talk about the show right there? I must be slipping - back to the REAL part of the tour. Our adventures.

Another fun part of Columbus was German Village. One would - well, THIS one would, at any rate - presume that there was a large German contingent that helped found and settle Columbus. I will leave that possibly mythic interpretation to others to dispel, but should that prove to be the case, the very existence of German Village, if not the preponderance of German street names, German or Yiddish restaurants, and other such Germania would no doubt be the first, biggest clue.

And my own personal favorite discoveries were Katzinger's Deli and the German Village Book Loft. I'll call them Exhibits B and C.

B - Katzinger's Deli: Were you to judge solely on the basis of the available option of cheeses, olives, olive oil, ethnic desserts, knishes and latkes, and such, you would surely think you had stumbled into a very small tasting room for Fairway in New York City. Katzinger's is, to be sure, MUCH, MUCH tinier, and not a grocery but a deli. But the same sense of avocational devotion to their product imbues every answer to your questions about the available foods on display. Fun little chachka-candies, sandwiches with names that sound like songtitles from an Arlo Guthrie album ("Jimmy's Photo Finish", or "Bob says 'Ella Makes My Day'"), Frosttop rootbeer (which I have only ever had elsewhere in Huntington, WV), and an overall vibe that's part Midwest hospitality, part Vermonter stubborn individuality, and part Upper West Side old world import.

C - Book Loft: In a large house, or actually - I think - a series of houses which have been functionally attached, you wander from room to room, stacked floor to ceiling with books all categorized according to the room's designation. The Graphic Novels room. The Science Fiction room. Not to be confused with the Fantasy Literature Room. The Dead, European Classicists' Room. You get the idea. Meanwhile, posters from movies past and present adorn whatever wallspace remains. Ask for directions to the bathroom and they run something like, "Go up to the North East Wing, turn left at Military History, and it's behind the 'Napoleon Dynamite' poster." Angie and I spent over an hour there. We bought nothing. We barely saw every room. As I left, I felt like I had just leafed through every page of a terrific magazine, which is one reason I love to browse through bookshops: dilettante-reading, perusing only book jacket backs and clipped & posted reviews, and feeling amply read for the day...

Add to the list of exhibits, along the way, COSI, the Columbus children's science center. Hands-on doesn't really begin to describe COSI's mandate. Hands-in, hands-full-of, hands-all-over - these may all come closer.




Above you see one Angela Reed astride a participatory demonstration of weight and counter-balance. Tour weight notwithstanding, we could both make it to the end & back, securely strapped in and nudged out onto the wire, peddling over the heads of ninth-graders who doubtless thought us very silly and yet envied us all the same. There's an enormous human skeleton, accurately constructed out of wire mesh, bone-for-bone; a hot-air balloon duo that you can, with the push of a button, heat & deflate up & down a wire; there's an actual car outside that, in the warmth of the summer, can be lifted, with the remarkable help of a complex system of pulleys and cables, by one average-strength human being; there's a rotating optical illusion that, when stared at for thirty seconds, makes all the hallway look like a scene out of "The Matrix", with the very walls wobbling, the people a bit two-dimensional, and the carpet seeming to squirm underneath your feet.

There is also: Rat Basketball!

video

Ginger and Marianne, two lab rats who each get a single Cheerio when they put the unused & modified ball of a roll-on deodorant through their own assigned basket, met on the field of athletic battle as we cheered them on. We, the audience, were divided into cheering sections. We cheered for Marianne. She lost. My theory is that if she'd been playing for Cap'n Crunch, we would have won.

Meanwhile, although our constant canine companion was underwhelmed by the frigid outdoors, the discovery of snow-covered, riverside Bicentennial Park was a a great joy and much gamboling about was had by one Butley Cerveris-Reed. Apparently, the abundant presence of goose poop just below the snow was intoxicating, although the frozen nature of the hardpack forced a difficult choice: dig or run. After some indecision, he wisely opted for run. (I imagine the experience was much like a cat's atop a mattress filled with catnip.)

My dad and his wife were able to visit, while we were there, Columbus being about three hours from Pittsburgh. It was at that point, after I counted the weeks and months backwards city by city, an idiom which my father considered reminiscent of a Johnny Cash song, that it had been over a year since I'd seen the two of them. As the profound reality of the length of my touring sank in, I wobbled a bit. Can it be? Really? It had felt so much like we'd been in touch quite often, which of course we were, thanks to every modern means of communication, and yet no meeting in realtime. A warning to us all, I suppose. When I was a very little kid, I remember hearing Harry Chapin's "Cat's In The Cradle" while with my mother in the Dairy Queen in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, one summer when the family had gone down to accompany my dad's then-annual stint as musical director, and thought I to my six-year-old self that the son in that song would never be me. And actually, throughout my life, I've strived to ensure exactly that. Nonetheless, as I replayed a time-lapsed year in my mind, I felt like I had come dangerously close. And I don't even have sick children to blame it on (a quick test of your lyric recollection, for all you forty-to-fifty-somethings out there)...Anyway, lesson-learned.

It was a backward recount, by the way, for which we had more than ample time as it was a task undertaken while waiting for service at the hotel restaurant. For anyone staying at the Doubletree in Columbus, it's a nice enough place in many respects, but HERE IS FAIR WARNING: don't plan to eat or drink there! Not unless you're a particularly singular fan of cool soup, warm salad, difficult bartenders, and waiting-time of paint-drying duration....

Yet another exhibit of the alternative culture trendiness that one can find in Columbus, in the very trendy "Short North" area, is the evocatively-named used CD & vinyl store, Magnolia Thunderpussy. At said store, I managed to acquire a recording of Stephin Merritt's soundtrack to the 2002 film "Eban and Charley", a cherished and gladly purchased anew CD of Porno For Pyros' self-titled debut CD, a used copy of Mercury Rev's "Deserter's Songs," a disappointing Mission of Burma's "ONoffON," and - because one simply must get one if one can - a Magnolia Thunderpussy t-shirt, dark blue with yellow logo & lettering. [NB: it would appear that the store's name comes from the band, Magnolia Thunderpussy, whose website describes it as "...a source of pride and inspiration for Westside LA’s mid-‘80s underground,... the first high school age band to earn a record contract with legendary indie label SST."]

If only I was a cool, indie musician who could garner yet more alternative cachet by sporting such a t-shirt at his next gig, even more coyly obscured by the Fender Stratocaster across his chest...Instead of a 41-year-old actor who can play the iPod and little else, posing as a cool, indie musician who could garner yet more alternative cachet by sporting such a t-shirt at his next gig, even more coyly obscured by the Fender Stratocaster across his chest.

But we all have our place in this world, no? 'Course, try telling that to this abandoned shopping cart, left smack in the middle of the ice of the frozen solid Scioto River.


The shopping cart seemed to be a remaining relic of a poetry event held literally on the ice of the Scioto, which runs through downtown Columbus, an event demonstrating both the cold of the area and the resiliency of its population. What to many of us would be cause to retreat inside, to Columbusians (?) was merely another performance venue.... And long after the event was left over, the cart there still remained, like a Duchamp sculpture, quizzically and beautifully out of place. Much like the Midwestern subculture we were lucky to discover, much like the "indie art capital of the midwest" itself, nestled amongst the cornfields and combines of Ohio.

Still, I'm tellin' you. It was cold....

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Minneapolis

Cold.

Ass cold.

I mean - COLD.

And yet, not without cause for fun.


One Surprising Note About Minneapolis in the Winter: They don't sell long underwear. No, let me say that again. There is no long silk winter underwear on any of the shelves. At a time when the temperature dips below 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the evening, when the streets are black with city slush and parking meters are bagged to prevent their use (leaving streets clear for snow removal), a city which is one of the northernmost major cities in the continental United States, whose very own football team's name recalls far off, distant lands with savage winters, and where even the local dialect seems intentionally designed to keep the opening to the human mouth as small as possible, to preserve as much body heat as possible ("Ooooh, yah, shure, I knooooow it...") - there is not a single pair of long, silk underwear in any size below XXL on the shelves of Macy's, Target, Marshall's.

I asked a sales clerk how this could be, and her response was, "Oooh, yah, gosh, I dooon't knooow. Guess we all bought 'em up, y'knooow?" I gave up looking. We're here for a week. I can use the skyway.

This is now the second time I've been to the home of Mary Tyler Moore on tour, and both times it's been smack in the middle of winter. I think that's enough.

But it has proven to be the land of surprising coincidence. My friend, Paul Fontana - sporting a new Inigo Montoya look - happened to be in town, in his capacity of Education Director for The Acting Company, which is debuting their production of Henry V here at the Guthrie. Thanks to Facebook, we realized our mutually serendipitous city status, and made use of the chance to catch up over a drink at the Marquette Hotel.

Also, a friend who was an undergrad in the theater department at UCSD while I was in grad school there, Elise Langer, has recently emigrated to these hinterlands and set up shop. I caught a Sunday matinee performance (in between our own matinee & evening shows) of Open Eye Figure Theater's new production of "Snowman." A brilliant and visually arresting fable that was a great midday surprise.

We also visited the Walker Arts Center - in equal parts, an inspiring, confounding, stultifying, and astounding artspace that has a broad range of artistic work. Kind of great - kind of weird - always worth a look.

And the Minneapolis audiences share the enthusiasm of their Iowan cousins. Always nice for the cast to be subjects of such adulation. In this series of one-week stands we're in the middle of, that's exactly what they need to keep their spirits up.

Beyond that, there's a shocking paucity of reportage to be had. Call it the fault of the icy conditions. We enjoyed the comfortable, king-sized bed of the downtown Radisson and the luxury of HBO, which we haven't had for awhile, actually. What can I say - it's tour. Some weeks, you just wanna hibernate...

Oh, and yes ... GO STEELERS!!!!