Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Day Two-Hundred Fifty-Five: Summer stock!!

For some reason, the number 255 sticks out in my mind. Weird.

Anyway, while I'm flashing back to years of theatre past, I feel I need to devote a bit of attention to my six summers of professional summer stock work. I know I've mentioned Horsefeathers and Applesauce a time or two already, but those years at H&A and at the Huron Playhouse in Ohio were really some of the best times of my life, so I thought I'd give 'em a bit more attention.

Your typical H&A day began at 8:00 a.m. with a full company meeting, after which we immediately went either into rehearsal or our tech crews. This is where I first started learning stage carpentry, and I ended up spending every summer at both summer stocks in the shop (as well as most afternoons in undergrad and my first year at the Players, so I suppose this is significant). We took a breakfast break from 10 to 11, so the morning shift was pretty short, and then we worked/rehearsed again until three for lunch, after which I seem to remember something called "Four O'Clock Duties" on show nights. (On non-show nights, we worked till seven, when we had dinner, and then again from eight till ten, though the shop often worked later. The lights crew had their own crazy schedule that often involved taking a break to watch the sun rise) Four O'Clock Duties featured the entire company breaking up into teams to prepare everything for that night's dinner. We had our dinner and theater on the campus of lovely Southwestern College in Winfield, so our facilities were not quite ideal, but we made do. The small choir rehearsal room (where I used to practice with the Walnut Valley Youth Choir every Tuesday when I was in sixth grade) became our dinner hall, with tables spilling out into the hall and, occasionally, into the intermission lobby. Four o'clock duty teams included a team to clean the theater, a team to set all of the tables, a team to get things ready for the box office, and a team to stock all the restrooms. (By the end of the shift, everybody was setting tables; that always took the longest)

After four o'clock duties were over, everybody--actors and techies--went to change for the performance, because when folks started showing up at six--TA DA!--we were the wait staff. We didn't cook the food, but we served up the full three-course meal in costume and makeup for the show that night. It was a really unique dynamic, and while I've always been uneasy handling other people's food, I did enjoy the interaction with the patrons before the show. We would also take turns singing for the dinner music, with anybody who wanted to taking some sheet music to our talented pianist, who could play anything we put in front of her. It was a fun night.

My last couple of seasons at H&A, I managed to get out of waiting tables and into the scrape room. Man, this was the place to be! We went from standing around for most of the meal to scraping scraps like crazy into plastic bins at the end. We'd also watch out for plates that hadn't been touched for one reason or another, and occasionally we'd pinch some of those leftovers for ourselves. Say what you want about it, but those gigantor turkey legs from Singin' in the Rain were worth it.

Anywho, that was our daily schedule. We usually got Sunday morning off, and we also took off every other Monday. We ran shows Thursday-Sunday for two weekends, then we struck following the last show on Sunday and changed over to the new set for Monday night's rehearsal. Those late strikes were some of the best nights of the summer. (I had a roommate one year who always used to go to bed on those nights and dream he was still striking. He claimed he got no rest whatsoever those nights)

My first summer at H&A was the year I was only there for Joseph, the next was the year we did Charlie Brown, South Pacific, Twelfth Night, and Singin' in the Rain, the following summer I actually hung around helping out the T.D. the week before H&A started to help with the set for All in the Timing, and my last year at H&A (and, sadly, THE last year of H&A) was the 25th anniversary season of Greater Tuna, Oklahoma!, H&A Song and Dance!, and Honk! (It was the year of exclamation points)

The summers of 2003 and 2005, I decided to branch out and go somewhere I could be completely unknown and see if I could "break in" and land some decent roles where I was a complete stranger. I also needed to know if I could hack in socially in a crowd of theatre artists with whom I had no previous experience. My years at The Huron Playhouse in Huron, Ohio, were great boosts to my confidence in both of those factors. In fact, inasmuch as the last two years of college theatre was constantly breaking down my confidence, my summer stock experiences were boosting it back up. I felt like, if I could just get out of college, I might just be all right.

Playhouse was, in a lot of ways, a better-run version of H&A. They were operated by Bowling Green State University, but the playhouse was actually a middle school we converted completely into a theater. We made the central office our box office. We laid down a new floor and brought in our own tools, and the band room became the scene shop. We rolled long stretches of masonite on the auditorium stage floor/basketball courts, and it became our stage. We also hung a drop cutting the basketball courts in half, so that we always had two sets up being built/rehearsed on directly behind the show that was currently playing. We erected two large lighting trusses in the auditorium, which had no theater lighting system. We moved our own shelves into the kitchen and cooked all our own meals. I always went a couple days early as part of the "tech staff" as well as the acting company to assist with this transformation. It was awesome. Hard, physical work, but awesome. It was incredible to see this little place absolutely transform, and the precision with which everything was done!

Playhouse ran a little different from H&A, though it kept the same 8-week timeline. When the full company arrived, we spent the first two days auditioning for three shows. Then we rehearsed the first three weeks, and we opened a new show every Tuesday for the next five weeks. Shows ran Tuesday through Saturday, with strike lasting late into Saturday night. Sunday mornings were always off, and most of the company got Sunday off until the evening shift started, when we had our first tech rehearsal for whatever show was opening next. Change-over happened Sunday afternoon, but actors were only required for changeover on a rotating basis, so I only had to do one or two a year.

Like Horsefeathers, Playhouse had an awesome relationship with its patrons. It was a very real part of Huron's summer, and that was awesome. I'd meet people at the library who'd recognize me as part of the Playhouse staff. We had a patron who would always take a group of Playhouse employees out on Lake Erie on his boat every Sunday afternoon. There was this one Italian restaurant that gave us all free lunch every Sunday. I forget what it was called, but their seafood pizza was one of the best things I've ever eaten.

Playhouse days started at eight. We took an hour for lunch at noon and had company meeting at one, where somebody always gave a "company talent." My pterodactyl and penguin impressions actually won for talent of the week one year. We took two hours for dinner at about 4:30, and we were almost always done by ten. We virtually never worked late unless it was strike. It was pretty nice, other than that whole "no days off for two months" thing.

My first summer, we did Annie Get Your Gun, Morning's at Seven, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, The Foreigner (which was the reason I auditioned at Playhouse in the first place), and Pirates of Penzance. The second summer I was there, we did South Pacific (which wasn't as bad this time around), Enchanted April (which I assistant directed), The Boyfriend, Wait Until Dark, and Guys and Dolls. Both seasons, I was one of a handful of actors to be in four of the five shows, so that was awesome. I also got to be in the two shows I most wanted to be a part of, The Foreigner and Wait Until Dark, so as I said, it was a nice confidence boost.

Final strike of the year at Huron was rough. Remember all the hard magical work we did turning the school into a theater? Well, we had to undo it all. After the show Saturday night. All of it, until we were completely done and it was a school again. Three days to set up. One night to tear down. Awesome. Both years, we worked till about five in the morning, and then were up early to take everything back to BGSU and unload, then crash at the Quality Inn.

Man, I miss summer stock. I think part of the reason I loved it so much is that I seem to do my best work when I'm staying inhumanely busy and lots of other people are stressed enough to Hulk out. (Looking back, this is another thing that had been preparing me for my time with the Players)

Okay, it's almost one in the morning, so I'ma go to bed, but tomorrow I'll post some anecdotes from those crazy, crazy, crazy summers.

(By the way, I've learned that 255 is often the highest amount of a certain thing you can get in video games. For example, in the first Zelda game you can only get 255 rupees, in Madden NFL games you can't score more than 255 points. This may be why the number was sticking out in my head)