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The inspiration of festivals (Part 2)

    Okay, onto the festival itself. Whew.

    It’s hard to imagine how 14/48 could have done more to have targeted my own personal desires better. Thursday night, 7:30, the participants gathered to drink, hear the rules, how things work, and select a theme. My theme, “Fenced In,” was the one randomly selected. (If any of the participants are curious about what inspired that suggestion, go read Metallic, one of my favorite pieces of flash fiction ever.) After that, we could hang out for a while, but were encouraged to go home and get some rest (except for the playwrights, who needed to get to work). For previous participants, the night presented a brief opportunity to catch up. For the “virgins” (like me), it mostly presented an opportunity to pour beer for the veterans, and start getting a feel for the tone of what was to come. I will say that, for someone like me who didn’t know very many people at all, it felt a little insidery. That said, that feeling went away pretty damned quick on Friday, once the work got underway.

    Friday morning, I arrived at Theater off Jackson about five minutes late (we were supposed to be there at 9:45). We’d been encouraged to bring costumes for just about any occasion. Rather than leaving my costumes in my car and returning later to grab whatever I might need, I bustled in with my arms laden down with about as much clothing (and shoes) as I could carry. I was later told that it presented a great visual and metaphor for the weekend itself. Soon after I arrived, directors drew the names of actors for the shows they’d drawn. Nik Perleros, drawing for “The Rule of Three” by Eric Lane Barnes, drew Erik Van Beuzekom, Kaleb Kerr, and me. Until that moment, I’d never met any of the playwright, director, or other actors. We’re told that we’ll be rehearsing in the lobby. So off we go. The play is about The Three Stooges. Specifically, it’s about how Larry and Curly both are tired of the act, and aspire to something greater. We do two read-throughs, and Nik casts Erik as Moe, Kaleb as Larry, and me as Curly. We laugh a lot during the read-throughs. Eric fields questions, seems happy with the casting, and heads out. We start our rehearsals.

    Rehearsals go through most of the day, with occasional cigarette/potty breaks, and breaks for lunch and dinner. During lunch, we watch some classic Three Stooges on YouTube, and practice stage slaps, which breaks my glasses (not because of physical contact, but because of my glasses flying off to the floor after whipping my head around). Fair enough: I’ve been wanting to get more used to performing without my glasses anyway. On one of our breaks, I stash ’em in the car, along with the huge pile of clothes I won’t be using (as my costume will be provided, a suit with broad pinstripes worn over a fat suit). I won’t see the glasses again the rest of the weekend, except when driving. From the moment the costume arrives in the early afternoon, I don’t take it off except for the aforementioned trip to the car. Erik and Kaleb get similarly great costumes. There is no doubt in anyone’s minds when they see us that we are The Three Stooges.

    Lots and lots and LOTS of running lines. None of us are among the youngest of the performers, and a common refrain of the weekend comes up often: damn, it gets harder and harder to memorize lines the older you get. All three of us have our own specific lines that trip us up. Nik, Erik, and Kaleb mention fairly often how good they think it’s going to be. I’m not as sure. Yes, none of us (playwright, director, actors) were particularly Stooge fans at the start and have found a new appreciation of them (we laughed our asses off while watching some of their stuff). But how would an audience react? I had no idea. And there were those damned lines that we’d been running and re-running all day, whether in official rehearsal, or sitting in the smoking cage behind the theater during breaks, or during other groups’ performances. And one of the casts, comprised of serious vets, coming into the cage after their show looking a mixture of shell-shocked and relieved. (In hearing their description of their performance, in which they “said 90% of the lines, but not in order,” I mentioned to Kaleb and Erik that I felt simultaneously looser and tighter.)

    Well. Erik and Kaleb were dead on about how good a show we’d been given. The 8:00 performance rolled around, and the house was packed. From the moment the lights came up (after the amazing band had a capella performed a brief snippet of the Stooges theme) and the audience saw us, they went nuts. It’s amazing how much an incredibly engaged audience can energize a performance. From that first laugh at the visual, it was magic. We neared the end of the show and the audience roared at the appearance of shaving cream pies in strobing slow motion, and never died down. We turned to face them and held a pose in a spotlight, and they were on their feet. God damn. A ten-minute performance put together in less than 24 hours–from scripting to rehearsing, to teching, to show–got a standing ovation. That’s something I’ll never forget.

    14/48 also has this great award, the Mazen, given each weekend to a veteran of the festival who embodies the spirit of risk-taking and support. One of its previous winners, Lisa Viertel, made a point of telling me how much she’d enjoyed the show. So did several of the guys who’d been involved in the other shows, particularly Bama Katt, Andy Jensen, and Stan Shields. That slightly insidery vibe I’d felt the night before was completely gone.

    Also at the 8:00 show, our theme for the following night was drawn from audience suggestions: “My best time ever.” When all of us on stage for curtain call heard that, we roared.

    Prep for the 10:30 show was much looser, and the house wasn’t quite as packed, so we were able to sit toward the back of the theater to watch most of the other shows, all of which I loved. Again, as our own time drew closer, we retreated from the audience to the smoking cage to do one last line-through. Performance came, and again was a blast. And that was it for day one. I started to feel that wistful feeling I always feel when a show I love has come to the end of its run. But it didn’t have much time to stay there, as I knew I’d have a fresh run at another in the morning.

    Went home almost immediately after the show. Got home about 1:00, talked to Ellen for a little bit, and went to bed. And, exhausted as I was, couldn’t fall asleep til about 3:00 in the morning.

    Gawd. This post is over 1100 words already, and that’s just day one, and is little more than a summary of what I personally did, with almost nothing about the workings of the festival itself, or what makes it so incredible. Maybe that’s as it should be. It’s difficult to collect what everyone else did, as so much of the time is spent tightly with the few people with whom you’re creating your show. There’s time to chat during cig breaks and meals, but even then, a lot of that is just spent relaxing as much as possible, or going over lines. But you’re surrounded by it, by all these people throwing themselves right into the same helter skelter creative process as yours. In reading this, my recollection of that first day sounds, even to me, incredibly self-centered. And yet… there’s the knowledge that every other person there was having a similar experience. And, truth be told, day two felt like less of a “me” experience than day one, perhaps because of that first day having been an utterly new experience, one that I’d wanted for a long time, but about which I was also more than a little nervous. Day two felt more relaxed, even as the work was similarly intense.

    But still… now it’s almost 1400 words, and I’m mindful of that blogging advice about not posting anything too damned long. So… part 3 coming up.

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