Good Company Players rehearsal hall
You could walk right past this storefront studio and never realize what’s inside. The space is tucked in the corner of an innocuous strip mall that sits on the curvy part of Wishon Avenue, just south of Olive in the Tower District. (Babylon is at the other end of the building.) The unmarked rehearsal hall is almost invisible from the street. A screen blocks the view from the door. To a shopper walking by on the way to the thrift store a few storefronts down, it’s impossible to tell that on the other side of the screen, 25 people are singing and dancing like mad.
Well, that shopper might hear something out of the ordinary.The walls are thin. Next door to the rehearsal hall is a church. At 7 p.m. on Thursdays, the worship service lumbers into gear. On one side of the wall there’s the rumble of an organ and the bark of the minister. On the other, a line of actors hunched over like little old ladies singing a song from “The Producers.” It’s quite a combination.
I’ve been in this rehearsal space before conducting interviews for advance stories on GCP productions, but on this night, it’s in a slightly different capacity. I am in a number from “The Producers” — at least through the final dress rehearsal.
I AM one of those little old ladies.
As I write in my Sunday Spotlight column introducing this blog series, all those Fresno theater fans out there who are used to me as the dignified critic slouching in the dark may now pop their eyeballs back into their heads.
FOR THIS SHOW, I am trading in my critic’s notebook. No review from me. I’m abandoning my usual role as the dispassionate analyst who wanders in on opening night comfortably and totally oblivious to the myriad of trials, tribulations, joys and annoyances that go into the making of a show. This time, I’m on the inside.
Here’s the plan: Director Fred Bologna has arranged for me to play one of the little-old ladies in the “Along Came Bialy” scene, the first-act finale of the show. I’ll go through the rehearsal process right up to the final dress rehearsal on Sept. 17. For one number only, I’ll (hopefully) be indistinguishable from the rest of the cast: just another randy little old lady hoping to invest in Max Bialystock’s loopy idea for what he hopes will be the worst musical in the world: “Springtime for Hitler.”
And because I subscribe to the theory that what goes around, comes around, I’ve asked my fellow Bee critic Rick Bentley to come review me at the final dress rehearsal. (He’ll also handle the official review duties on opening night as well, because I’m obviously too close to this production to do it myself.)
Along the way, I hope to give readers a glimpse of what it’s like for me to get a little out of my comfort zone and be on stage instead of in the audience.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the challenges of living in a society dominated by glossy entertainments — particularly movies, television and recorded music — and how tough it is to actually participate in the creative process. Not just sit in the audience as a passive observer, but to make the art.
It didn’t used to be this way. Before mass media, most entertainment was amateur, whether it was hunter-and-gatherer folks sitting around a campfire humming a tune, members of a Roman legion putting on an impromptu skit or the best musician in a family in Georgian England plucking out tunes on a pianoforte. Today, however, we’re used to perfection. There’s an abundance of the highest caliber of entertainment available on demand. You can pretty much go an entire lifetime and only be entertained by professionals. Some people never get a chance to perform, even in elementary school.
Which is one reason that I’ve always been a big fan of community theater, as well as local painters and sculptors, folks who take dance lessons, and pretty much any activity that you gets you up out of a seat and performing for people. (There are lots of different ways to become a participant, of course: Some people love to hike, others play sports, some write.) Years ago, I was able to fulfill my own creative impulses by singing in local choirs, including the Fresno Choral Artists. (Before that, in college and high school, I was big into marching band.) But my schedule has changed, and as I’ve settled more and more into the role of professional observer — attending literally hundreds of local events a year — I’ve gotten farther and farther away from the performing side of things.
So, for me, this little theater experience is an adventure for in more ways than one. I’ll get a different view of how a Good Company show is put together — and hopefully can give readers an inside look at that process. But I’ll also have to stick myself up there for all to see, at least for one performance.
And how good will that performance be? No guarantees. Especially when you compare me to my fellow cast members, who of course had to audition to get into this show. And remember: The talent level at Good Company can be really high. (This is the company that sent Audra McDonald, Heidi Blickenstaff, Sharon Leal and Andrea Chamberlain on to starring roles on Broadway.)
As for me, I’m a decent singer and a not-so-decent dancer. I have a little bit of stage experience, but all of that was way back in my elementary and high school days. For the record, I started out strong, as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” worked my way up to Joe Hardy in “Damn Yankees,” reached the pinnacle of my theatrical career portraying the lead character in “Oliver” as a high-school freshman, then faded over the next three years as I got older and shyer, winding up as the Second Sharecropper in “Finian’s Rainbow.” By the time I got to college, I’d settled into more of a writerly interaction with the world, and except for the disciplined anonymity of marching band, I pretty much shuddered at the thought of letting it all go on stage.
Which brings us to now, hundreds of reviews and thousands of hours of theater reviewing later. For the first time in a long, long while, I’m walking into a theater space as a performer. If only my high-school drama teacher could see me now.
ON THIS NIGHT, we’re still learning the dance steps. As a little old lady, I’m supposed to be bent over and doddering, but I’m also supposed to be supple enough to do fan kicks with a walker. At one point, we all have to turn around and wiggle our little-old-lady butts to the audience. Bologna, the director, grins at me and says: “Are you regretting your decision?”
Um, not so far, Fred. But I must have looked over the part about the fan kicks in the fine print of my contract.
I’ll be writing more about the specifics of my dance in future entries, but let’s just say that the old ladies each come with a very important prop: a walker. At one point in the music, you can hear the impending tap-tap-tap of walker legs from offstage, which is the grand old-lady entrance: a senior citizen chorus line. (By the way, does any reader out there have an extra walker I can borrow? We need ‘em. I have a feeling that I’d get lots of extra points if I came in with one in my hands.)
Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Hunched over, I’m at the end of the line of “old ladies” (who are all extremely limber members of the ensemble, many of them half my age), and I shuffle with the best of them. It’s when the actual dancing starts that I begin to get nervous.
My little-old-lady dance partner, longtime GCP veteran Steve Pepper, tells me me about the woman in a show who once fell off the stage during a performance and broke her elbow. She went back on with a towel wrapped around it.
Is he trying to tell me something?
A couple of weeks ago, things got underway with music rehearsals, in which the cast sat together as a group and sorted out all the notes. On that first night, music director David Sarkisian, an amiable, bearded tutor who always seems like he’s about this close to blushing when we have to sing some of the semi-naughty lyrics in “The Producers,” announced: “We have a new ‘addition’ to the cast.” He introduced me by name. I smiled and waved. Some members of the cast looked a little surprised.
I admit: I did feel a little strange, a little out of place, at those first rehearsals. I’ve written some not-so-complimentary things over the years about some of the people in this cast. That’s what theater critics do. So you could imagine a little tension. It’s not quite like Bill O’Reilly dropping in on Barack Obama’s Thanksgiving dinner, for example, but you get the idea. The funny thing is that I write so much (and so much of it quickly) that it can be hard for me sometimes to remember exactly what I’ve written about someone in the past. But often times, actors remember very well. I’ve had discussions with some of them who are able to quote years later from one of my reviews. (And they remember the criticisms, often in excruciating detail, as well as the compliments.) As I glance around the room, I idly wonder just how many of them I’ve dissed in print.
It’s not that what I do is breathtakingly important or authoritative. I never claim to be the last word on theater in Fresno. I’m just another opinion. But there is something of an institutional thing going on here. What I write comes with at least a little bit of the weight of The Fresno Bee behind me. So I would totally understand, say, if some folks in this cast might hesitate a split second if one of those giant lights appeared to be falling on my head.
But as it turns out, after my first night, I don’t feel weird at all. People are really nice. In face, some that I’ve been most recently critical of in past GCP productions go out of their way to welcome me.
IT’S GETTING CLOSE to the end of rehearsal. I’m tired, and hot, and my brain is overstufed with things I’m supposed to do with my feet. I glance down at the thick lines on the floor of the rehearsal hall that mark off the stage in Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. Stay within those lines, I’ve been told. If not, I’ll fall into the lap of some woman with big hair who’s eagerly anticipating the double-chocolate-fudge cake she ordered for intermission.
Oh no. My foot is WAY over the line. I just fell off the stage.
I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.