Behind the Scenes

We Built This City

“He’s not going to be very handy around the house.” – Lenya, Fools (Act II, Scene 2)

And really, I’m not. Though, I do try.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about labors of love. It’s why I get involved with things like the theatre and Rotary. It’s hard work at times, and I’ll often say yes to something that’s well down the road, only to be completely overwhelmed when it arrives because there are three other things I’ve also agreed to do. But really, when I look back at doing what I’ve done, it’s extremely satisfying.

To me, that feeling of a job well done is even more pronounced when the labor is physical. To be able to take raw materials and, through skill and style, form them into something functional and appealing brings with it an almost tangible gratification.

All of this leads me to my point; it takes a village to build a village, and villagers are always valued.

The experience I’m having playing Leon in La Crosse Community Theatre’s upcoming production of Neil Simon’s Fools is second to none. It’s a great cast of characters led by an incredible director and production team. We’re going to give you a fast, frantic and fun evening of chaotic comedy, so I encourage everyone to reserve your seats now!

Shameless plug aside, I’m trying to get into this habit of working more backstage, and that’s where my real call to arms lies. There are only so many parts in any given play, but there are always plenty of opportunities to get involved with the production while learning new skills and finding a deep sense of satisfaction. And at a place like LCT, there’s a professional technical staff who are willing, patient teachers and happy to have a hand–even if it’s only an hour here or there, which is usually all I’ve got to give.

img_20181002_1223211936739372508051615733.jpg
The set of “Fools” under construction on the Lyche Theater stage

That’s the beauty of it. Finding a place to volunteer like LCT, one can learn so much that’s useful in other facets of life while also contributing to a collaborative, creative effort. I want to be a better handyman, so I’m taking my crash course from the staff and other volunteers who have been doing this for years. It’s basically a free and flexible mentorship program–a true win-win.

Outside of my professional life, I am an amateur in every sense of the word. I’m not the most adept at what I do, but I do what I do for the “love of” what I do.

I encourage and challenge all of you to find some aspect of volunteerism you love to do, whether your skilled at it or not, and just go do it. Chances are, it will be appreciated, you’ll likely learn something and feel extremely satisfied.

As the late, great Neil Simon himself said, “If no one ever took risks, Michaelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.”

Go find your village.

Reference Roundup – Part 2

Happy second weekend of [title of show]! I’m really looking forward to digging back into this beautiful sandbox of creativity. But before that happens, I’d like to share some of the bits of this show (and playing the part of Jeff in particular) that mean a lot to me personally.

  1. You Have a Story to Tell
    Two parts in particular call to one of my deeply held desires. The foremost is the lyric right after the heaviest part of the song “Die Vampire, Die,” which through its quirky metaphor truly has one of the best messages of this show–don’t listen to your doubts (vampires). Instead, kill them by letting your creative expression shine. And right after Susan lays it all on the line, I sound off with “You have a story to tell, pull your novel out of that sock drawer!” At that moment, I feel like I’m speaking as much to myself as anyone else. Similarly, Hunter’s line in Scene 5 poses the question:

    Hunter: I mean can you imagine if we got to make our living just writing? Actually making money doing what we love?

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I truly feel like journalism and specifically being a news anchor is a dream job. But there is a part of me that’s always wanted to write–a part that I once let loose during the month of November 2012. As part of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short) challenge, I wrote a 50,000+ word story that’s been sitting on a flash drive, unedited, ever since. I’ve also got a few ideas bouncing around the back of my brain for another historical fiction story. I know I’ve got a long road ahead, but whether or not anything comes of it, I think this is the spark I need to say to myself, “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to try anyway.” Stay tuned.

  2. Jeff the Web-designing, Gaming Nerd
    Hey! I’ve got a website (you’re here now–welcome, enjoy). While I feel that its fitting that Jeff works as a web-designer–this is the line that really spoke to my inner-techie:

    Hunter: Hey. Did I wake you?
    Jeff: No, I’m playing “RollerCoaster Tycoon 3.” I have to build a log flume that has a thrill rating of at least 4.

    So, it’s not the third edition of this computer classic, but…IMG_20180727_093005598-1.jpg
    …yeah. The mere 16 hours is only due to the fact that I recently rediscovered it on Steam. My parents could likely attest to the hours (days?) I spent on our old Compaq as a theme-park Tycoon. Ah, nostalgia. And in case you’re wondering, the original still holds its own in my book. Keep your Fortnite. I’ll take my RollerCoaster Tycoon any day of the week.

  3. Jeff the Grammar Gestapo
    The sign at my desk that reads “I am silently correcting your grammar” really says it all. So, when I first read this exchange…

    Jeff: That’s redundant.
    Hunter: What?
    Jeff: The ‘M’ already stands for “machine.” It’s like you’re saying “Automated Teller Machine Machine.”
    Hunter: Well, anyway I went to the ATM and I forgot my pin number and the…
    Jeff: That’s redundant too. Personal Identification Number Number.
    Hunter: Okay, so anyway I forgot my PIN… totally forgot it, and I was gonna say the irony is, it didn’t matter ’cause there was no money in my account anyway.
    Jeff: That’s not really ironic, that just sucks. It would be ironic if…
    Hunter: Oh my god, I’m gonna kill you!

    …I felt like I was reading my inner-monologue! Sorry, not sorry friends–I strive for mastery of the English language. Also, while I agree it’s less of an offense to do so, I do also enjoy the part in the dream sequence when Jeff suggests “flying around that preposition at the end of your sentence.” This character speaks to me.

  4. Parents, amirite?
    Though she doesn’t win flat screen TVs at bingo, my mom has been known to do pretty well at the casino from time to time. But the most important parental reference to me is in “Montage (Part One) – September Song” (and it’s not the one you might be thinking). Simply:

    Hunter: Has your mom come to every show?
    Jeff: Every one.

    Also simply: I can’t thank my parents enough for their continued love and support. I don’t always have space to put it in the program bio, but I want them to know that it truly means the world to me to have them in the audience as much as they are (even with such a risque show as this). It also serves as an example that I fully intend to pay forward with my own little guys. Mom & Dad, you’re the best.

  5. Finding a Way Back to Then
    The denouement of the show begins with Heidi’s powerful, gorgeous song “A Way Back to Then” and I know it hits all of us in the cast. For me, it’s two-fold.

    The “opportunity [that] walks through the door” in my life is my lovely and talented wife. Five years ago now, she prodded me to take a chance and audition for La Crosse Community Theatre’s production of Noises Off. After wavering, I relented on the day of auditions and haven’t looked back since. Through this wonderful local theatre community, I’ve connected “with the thing that [I] forgot that [I’ve] been looking for.” Now, here I am, doing what I love–creating art with the “craziest of company” and “having a kick-ass time” doing it. And I couldn’t do it without the love and support of my partner in this life. To her, I dedicate this performance.

    It’s also got me thinking ahead, though. I watch my sons “in the backyard dancing” and think of the dreams they’ll have and the lives that lie ahead. This affirms my vow of support to them. While not wishing time away, I cannot wait to see what they can do.

So, that about sums it up. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see [title of show] and find your own meanings in its message, please don’t miss your chance. Four more nights: July 27 & 28, August 3 & 4 at the Weber Center. Get tickets online or at the door, and I hope to see you there! We’ll have some fun.

Reference Roundup – Part 1

Like the Naked Cowboy with a lasso (does he even lasso, bro?) I’m going to try to pull together a list of some of the Broadway nods and Easter eggs that make [title of show] the musical mayhem it is. Thankfully, “The Gray Lady” already compiled quite the compendium (including a gem of an original from co-creator Hunter Bell–check out the video in the sidebar):

As for some of those not mentioned in the article above, here’s what I found out from diving down the [title of show] rabbit hole:

  1. Jeff Bowen, Birdwatcher
    [title of show] co-creator, Jeff Bowen appears to be a fan of our winged friends. While not a prominent Broadway reference or plot point, it informs a particular line in the first scene:

    [Jeff] Look, I’m going to go to the park and do some bird watching. Let’s both brainstorm and I’ll come over later.
    [Hunter] Okay. Bye.

    Browsing Twitter (appropriately enough), I soon found @jefbowen and the plethora of posts about his Central Park finds:

    twitter.com/jefbowen

    Turns out he also created a website in 2016 called birdingwithjeff.com. I tried to check it out, but it turned up empty for me. I digress. Still, context to the show.

  2. Wonder Woman
    Not only are the tunes of the show copyright of “INVISIBLE JET MUSIC,” but there’s also this gem in “Montage (Part One): September Song”

    [Jeff] Was it Lynda Carter? I’ll die if it was Lynda Carter.
    [Hunter] Would you stop? I’m trying to tell you we had a lot of important industry and producer people here tonight. Maybe it wasn’t our last show!

    Further references to “Wonder Woman for President” and the like lead me to believe one of our intrepid heroes is a big fan of Princess Diana of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta.

  3. Super-Awesome Sardi’s Caricature
    In the song “Part of It All,” Jeff and Hunter pretty much lay it all on the table how awesome life would be if they could make a living doing what they love and take advantage of all the perks that go along with it. Aside from splurging on the cable, VIP tickets to Wicked and lunch dates with Bernadette Peters, they long for “a night to stare at your super-awesome Sardi’s caricature.” You might have heard of the Manhattan restaurant that got its humble start in 1921 moving to its current location (234 West 44th St) in 1927 and features the mugs of hundreds of show-biz celebs adorning the walls. Also getting a nod in another famous show about a show (The Producers) and a show about nothing (Seinfeld), Sardi’s is the birthplace of the Tony Award. Per Wikipedia:

    after Antoinette Perry‘s death in 1946, her partner, theatrical producer and director Brock Pemberton, was eating lunch at Sardi’s when he came up with the idea of a theater award to be given in Perry’s honor. For many years Sardi’s was the location where Tony Award nominations were announced.

  4. The Vineyard, Off-Broadway
    It’s where lots of things are happening (per the song “Montage [Part Three]: Development Medley”), but in reality, that’s pretty true. Billing itself as “New York’s home for bold theatre,” it’s a non-profit company at 108 East 15th in Manhattan where both [title of show] and the [title of show]-referenced Avenue Q had their debut before hitting the Great White Way. From its first production in 1981 to this fall’s upcoming Good Grief the Vinyard Theatre and its contributors have earned two Pulitzer Prizes, five Tony Awards and 23 Obie Awards.
  5. Winning

    [Hunter] (sung) What if this show won a Tony? What if this show won a Tony Award? Papa, would that change the way you see your little boy now…

    While Mr. Bell will have to keep fantasizing about collecting the hardware, [title of show] did earn a nomination in 2009 for Best Book of a Musical, ultimately coming up short against that year’s powerhouse Billy Elliot. Nonetheless, despite wondering whether his buddy ever sits on the “terlet” (toilet) thinking about winning even an Obie, that turned out to be more of a reality than a pipe dream (had to) as the group picked up the Special Citation win in 2006.

    Awards or no, you’ll certainly be #winning if you score tickets to see our production of [title of show] July 20-August 4 at the Weber Center. Tickets at webercenterarts.org. #shamelessplug

    Stay tuned for (a more personal) Reference Roundup – Part 2 later this week!

[we need a] Montage

So, about that keeping updated thing… yeah. It’s been a (little more than) a week, and plenty has happened, so let’s go all montage to catch you up.

First, a little taste to whet your [title of show] appetite:

As you can see from this brief moment I get to enjoy the talents of my castmates, the first (little more than) half of this 90 minute, one-act beast is on its feet and sounds & looks pretty good! But, the reality is that we do have fewer than two weeks and the last couple of songs/scenes hit you (and us) fast and hard. As the plot picks up, so too does the variety of song styles and witty dialogue building to a [title of show]-splosion that feels a lot like art imitating life for many of us. You know when you starts something exciting and it snowballs to a level of stress that just becomes overwhelming? Yeah, something like that. But you’ll have to find out how it all plays out when you come see it.

It’s probably a good thing I’m still super excited to come to rehearsal each day (even today when we slogged through the beast that is “Montage Part 3: Development Medley”). This group plays so well off each other and makes wonderful discoveries each time we run through a scene. It truly continues to be a joyWhen it comes to the music, I’ve learned that while I have a tendency to lose my part once we add the choreography, I’m still jazzed enough to put in the work plunking out notes until I’ve got it (mostly) in my head–at least enough to where it locks in when we get back to it at rehearsal.

So that’s where we’re at. Blocking wraps up tomorrow and then we have about two weeks to clean, polish and spit-shine all the sparkly [title of show] goodness.

Oh, and if you haven’t done so yet, get tickets at the Weber Center website. July 20-21, 27-28 or August 3-4 at 7p. See you there!

Untitled Opening Post

As promised on Instagram, I’m going to try to post updates on this latest theatrical venture as Jeff in [title of show] at the Weber Center. So, let’s do it.

For those who aren’t familiar with the production, [title of show] is a Tony-nominated musical about a group of friends trying to come up with an original musical to enter into a New York theatre festival. Their way to avoid copying what they’ve seen before is to literally set the process of creating the show to music. Full of humor (mostly R-rated), self-awareness, obscure references and some catchy, catchy tunes, [title of show] also hits home with questions many of us face, namely: does what I’m doing actually matter? It’s a one-act, 90-minute ride that makes you feel like you’re on the inside of this group’s inside joke. Why’s it called [title of show] you may ask? Well, you’ll have to see it to find out!

I am truly humbled to be on the inside, so to speak, with this talented group. The level I’m stepping up to with Matt (Hunter/director), Stephanie (Heidi), Liz (Susan) and our accompanist Shealan (Mary) is an ensemble unlike any I’ve ever worked with before. I’m coming at this as an amateur in theatre–I do what I do for the love of it, and now I get a chance to work with people who have all worked professionally as actors and musicians.

For that same reason, I was incredibly nervous–right up until the first rehearsal. I had worked on a few songs ahead of time with Shealan and listened extensively to the Broadway cast album (for real–[title of show] songs have been exclusively running through my head for the better part of a month), but I didn’t want it to look too obvious I hadn’t really done this too much before. Thankfully, Matt put me at ease right away by keeping the expectations pretty easy. Add in the support, energy and enthusiasm everyone brought, and three days in I can safely say I think we’ve already clicked.

Now my nerves turn to the task of getting all of this down in three weeks. Yeah. The show goes up July 20 for six Friday & Saturday evening performances at the Weber Center, and while we sound pretty good on a few songs so far, there’s still “The September Song” and “Development Medley” ahead. Ugh. But hey, we’ve got three weeks, right?

Buckle up. It’s going to be a great ride!

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