Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Uh..Line?" A N00b Dips His Toes in Acting

Sometime back in late 2009, when I was newly divorced and adjusting to unfamiliar bachelorhood, I was whining to my friend Carly about my need to find something to do with my free time that didn't involve: a) drinking myself into a stupor; or b) re-watching the entire series run of Battlestar Galactica in my underwear while eating baked beans directly out of the saucepan.

She suggested, somewhat to my surprise, that I consider getting involved with local theater. I found the notion intriguing, as I do quite a bit of public speaking as part of my day job and I love films and plays, but I have always considered myself more of an enthusiastic audience member than an actor. In any event, the last time I acted in a play was when I was nine years old and I played my school's headmaster with a lot of talcum powder to whiten my hair. The performance was a hit with my classmates. The headmaster was less than amused.

The idea stayed in my head, however, and a few months later I volunteered to participate in a staged reading of a short play written by another friend, Peter Davis, as part of a series produced by the Playwrights Group of Baltimore. The show was performed at the Strand Theater in May of last year, and was followed by an invitation to do the readings at the Kennedy Center's Page to Stage festival.

Going from idle conversation in a cafe to acting at the Kennedy Center (admittedly not on the main stage, but still) was surprising and thrilling. Beyond the novelty of the experience, though, was the unexpected pleasure of meeting and working alongside a group of men and women for whom acting is a vocation, not a dodge. The passion, intelligence, and discipline they brought to their craft was inspiring.

I discovered that most of these actors were in their mid-to-late-twenties and many of them are associated with Glass Mind Theatre, which was named "Best New Theater" by Baltimore's City Paper in 2010. I attended a couple of GMT shows and even interviewed its associate artistic director, Sarah "Flash" Gorman, for this blog back in March. When the opportunity arose this year to audition for GMT's spring production, 'Brainstorm, Vol. 2: Baltimore Mixtape,' I thought, 'oh, what the hell.'

Here are the things that I didn't expect when I sent that email requesting an audition time slot:
1) I didn't expect to be chosen;
2) I didn't expect to rehearse five hours a day, five-to-six days each week, for a month;
3) I didn't expect to be manhandling a young woman in her underwear night after night;
4) I didn't expect to be eviscerated and devoured onstage, six inches away from my horrified mother;
5) I didn't expect to have so much fun.

For anyone who hasn't yet seen the show, which closes its run with three performances this weekend, here's the premise: GMT audience members and others were asked to write down song titles and drop them into a suggestion box; six local playwrights (including the aforementioned Flash Gorman) selected one or two songs each and wrote 10-minute plays based on them; six local directors (including the aforementioned Peter Davis) were tapped to bring the plays to life; and nine local actors were cast without knowing the roles they would eventually play. The show is produced by GMT founding member Britt Olsen-Ecker, with artistic director Andrew Peters serving as stage manager. To bring home the "mixtape" theme, Britt and Andrew invited three local musical acts (Dave DeDionisio, Red Sammy, and Quinn S.) to perform during the three weekends of the show's run.

If I seem to overuse the term "local" in the paragraph above, it's not entirely the result of sloppy writing on my part. Despite the settings of the plays, which range from the Deep South to the flatness of the Heartland, 'Brainstorm, Vol. 2' is a Baltimore production from start to finish. The first weekend even featured an ode to Natty Boh, followed by a toast with Baltimore's unofficial brew. Many of the cast and crew are graduates or current students of Goucher College, Towson University, or my own alma mater, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

During last Saturday's performance, the actors competed with the noise from a Senegalese wedding in the adjoining Load of Fun gallery. At one point, a quiet moment in the play 'The Effect of Songs' was punctured by the blended cacophony of West African nuptial revelry, the blaring of police sirens on North Avenue, and the rattle of spray cans from the graffiti artists tagging the alley just outside the theater. It was a sublimely Baltimore moment, a serendipitous snippet of a raucous urban mixtape.

One of the things that has impressed me most about GMT's cast and crew is the deft way they balance professionalism with play. There's plenty of horsing around before and after rehearsals and performances - watch the video below for proof - but when it's time to focus, the ensemble does so with a discipline that is frequently lacking in work environments, even those of the shirt-and-tie variety. This ethos is very much in evidence among GMT's standing company, whose members meet on a weekly basis to discuss everything from the organization's props budget to its Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Watching these young actors, directors, playwrights, and techies work together, I have to remind myself that this is not a full-time job for any of them. They are all variously employed as educators, bartenders, administrative assistants, and the like. Yet they approach their theater work with admirable dedication and considerable skill. This is reflected in the ways they interact with each other, with their associate artists, and with audience members.

For me, the past two months have been like an immersion course in different aspects of acting and stagecraft. I've learned about intention, blocking, and spike marks. I've engaged in Viewpoints work, courtesy of director Lynn Morton. I've done some rudimentary stage combat for the scene in which I get devoured by cannibals - or are they werewolves? - in Shaun Vain's 'Ripped and Torn.' I've tried to locate my accent in the piedmont region of North Carolina in Julie Lewis' "Which Way We Step." I've watched the lighting and sound technicians wrangle over colors and levels. I even assisted in the construction of the platform from which Erin Boots (whom the City Paper praises as "fantastic" in the show) dives at the end of 'The Effect of Songs.'

Working on 'Mixtape' has allowed me to dip my toe into the waters of theater just enough to appreciate how deep, wide, and wild those waters are. I will always be grateful for the introduction. And, being not only the least experienced actor in the cast, but also its oldest member, I profoundly appreciate the way that everyone associated with this production has made me feel part of the ensemble.

I don't know if theater will be something that I pursue with any sort of regularity, or if this is a one-time thing. But I do know that for a couple of months in 2011, at least, I was an actor.


Photos & Videos:
1. Siarra Mong & Erin Boots rehearse a scene from 'Ripped & Torn'
2. 'Ripped & Torn' director Mike Burgtorf
3. Shaun Vain, Alex Scally, & Amy Parochetti rehearse a scene from Hollis Robbins' 'Poetic Meat'
4. Musical guest Red Sammy plays 'Cactus Flower' (sorry about the camera shake in the first few seconds of that vid)
5. Lauren Saunders & Amy Parochetti rehearse a scene from 'Which Way We Step'
6. Erin Boots & Jay Hargrove get slap-happy during tech week
7. GMT founding artistic director, 'Mixtape' stage manager, & overall svengali Andrew Peters