Adventures of a Couch-Hopping Scribbler Part 2: That Toddlin Town
Yes, that's right. The show was running Thursday to Saturday before finals week. They'd decided to take this musical that existed only in the form of a libretto written by someone with no theatre experience, and a bunch of mp3s and GarageBand project files -- no written score, dig? -- and stage it right at the time when the stress of schoolwork was at its most intense. So everyone onboard was juggling essays and exams along with... well, trying to turn this crazy gay punk Orpheus musical into something performable in the two hours and ten minutes allotted, rather than the three hours plus that it was, apparently, clocking in at during the first rehearsals -- ahem. Now that's the kind of crazy I respect.
So, yeah, I was let loose on Chicago without a babysitter. But, hey, I actually kinda like to wander as a stranger round a strange city, and the Hyde Park area of Chicago is hardly daunting to a denizen of Glasgow. And if, when I get into what one might call convention mode, I do have a tendency to ask, "Is it beer o'clock yet?" as soon as there's a scent of afternoon in the air, I'm not entirely incapable of behaving as a civilised person during daylight hours. So I was well up for a relaxing stroll in the sun. Discovered a new shade of blue while I was at it, actually. Cause, you know how there's "royal blue" and "sky blue" and "navy blue" and suchlike? Well, Lake Michigan is, I discovered, fucking blue. Man, I don't think I've seen a blue that blue in all my life. Swear to God, I want to take David Hume to that shore and say, "Is that the Missing Shade of Blue you were talking about? Is it? Cause it's a pretty fucking good candidate for it, in my book. Never seen it before in all my life, and not quite sure I could have imagined it sight unseen."
It's funny. As serene as that not-really-cerulean was, as awestruck as I was by that other-than-azure, as I sat gazing out over it, the crash of waves on rock counting the moments of a peaceful afternoon, this was the point where I slowly felt the excitement kicking in. Of course I'd been looking forward to the trip ever since it started to come together -- a trip to the US for the first time in ages! to see the world premiere of my musical! to see this madcap project brought to fruition! -- but I don't think it felt quite real till that afternoon. Till I found myself sitting on the concrete of Chicago, looking out on a blue I doubt I ever even dreamed of, feeling my heart beat just a little faster as I thought about the evening ahead. My response to this, of course, was to roll a cigarette.
Only a few hours later, I was smoking another cigarette outside the ivy-covered grandeur of the Reynolds Club, the minutes counting down before doors opened, when Bill and Laura Shunn showed up. I'd tweeted of my trip and, knowing them from WFCs in the past, ended up arranging for beer and a blether on Friday, and to see the show together on Thursday. So they showed up as a blessed relief from opening night nerves -- friends to chat with, have a quick cup of tea with, before taking our seats in the small black box theatre. I know I blathered about my travel troubles, remember us laughing about coin-operated internet, but I have to confess I was probably a bit... distracted, watching the rest of the audience file in. Watching them fill the house.
On a little dias to the left of the stage, the band warmed up with some good old-fashioned punk rock. The actor playing Joey -- Adam -- stood drinking at the bar that ran across the back of the stage, or wandered between the little round tables set in a row front of stage. In a touch of brilliance, there were seats at these tables, facing the stage, that could be taken by audience members; other seats were to be left vacant for actors to use during the performance. And Joey... but we'll get to that. After a while, Joey gets up on stage, gives an apology for the late start on account of their lead singer being missing, and goes into a rousing rendition of "Blitzkrieg Bop." As the audience joins in on the "hey ho, let's go," it probably seems just like a cool warm-up to them. Or maybe they're not sure if the show has actually started. Me. I'm sitting there, loving the cunning scheme to prime them for the Prologue.
And then it starts. The lights go down. A fiddler begins. The actor playing Chorus -- Andres -- enters. I'm not sure about his baby-faced looks, I'll admit, given the Tom Waits / Alex Harvey aged haggardness the character is meant to have, but with the costume and make-up he sure fits the bill, and I feel a little shiver run down my spine: they're doing the overture. Then, as the rest of the band kicks in, the Regulars appear, start flyering the back wall of the set both sides of the bar, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It's an overture sensibly cut down from the stupidly long seven minutes of the mp3, but I was kinda thinking they might cut this completely for the sake of time, and here it is. Here's Guy on his cellphone, here's Joey, here's the Proprietor on a balcony stage-right, as ominous as she is elegant, here's Jack staggering onto the dias, and here's Puck coming on stage-right, being stopped in his tracks by the Fates. I don't know quite how it's playing to the audience unfamiliar with the tale, but it's sure as shit working for me. I can feel the tension building as the tableau does. Fuck, man, it's working.
When the overture ends, Chorus steps forward. I'm thrown for a second as, in a normal voice with a slight tone of wry amusement, he runs through a requisite drill: Welcome to the University of Chicago's production of Nowhere Town... This show will run with one intermission, etc., etc.. But then the lights change, his demeanour changes, the whole atmosphere changes, and with the glass of fake absinthe glowing green in one hand, a leatherbound tome in the other, Andres shatters any trace of a doubt I might have had about a Chorus who looks younger than any other actor on stage. With a voice ragged as a rusty sawblade, chanelling Waits and Harvey, he launches into the Aeschylus quote that starts the Prologue, and I'm sold. Abso-fucking-lutely sold.
Alone of all the gods, Death has o love for gifts...
I can't really do justice to the feeling of seeing it all made flesh, hearing the songs performed live -- as arranged by Tristan to whom I can but doff my hat, given what he was working with. Hell, I can't really describe the experience without describing the whole fucking musical itself, which would, yanno, take a while. And besides, if I'm going to tell you about the details of the show that really blew me away, well, I'll hold off until we get to the closing night, because that's when they really knocked it out of the ballpark. That first night what I mostly remember is just the sheer joy of seeing it made real, being so blown away by the experience as a whole that I didn't even notice the subtle little things like... well, we'll get to that. No, for now I'll just say that of the little nips and tucks that had been made, in this verse or that of a song here or there, nothing was changed that I didn't think was fair play. It might not have been "perfect" as a translation of what was in my head onto the stage, but it was fucking awesome. It was Nowhere Town. And it was a fucking splendid Nowhere Town.
The audience in general seemed pretty damn happy with it, if the whooping and cheering amid the loud applause were anything to go by. With Bill and Laura both expressing an enjoyment that, I heard the next day, continued on their drive home as they cast the movie version, heh, me, I came out on a total high. A student production? Shit, man, with the time and toil and sheer bloody talent that went into it, this put a fair few professional productions I've seen to shame. I still can't quite believe that this crazy little whim that began however many years ago -- this folly of scribbling a script for a story woven through with songs that existed only inside my skull -- actually made it to a goddamn motherfucking roaring success of an opening night. And I got to sit there in the audience and watch these college kids all clearly as crazy as me make it so.
There was more to Chicago than Nowhere Town, of course. After the celebratory cocktails round at Beth's and a good night's sleep, there was a lazy day of recovery before heading out with Bill and Laura for dinner. There was the fact that the lovely Liz Gorinsky just happened to be in town to see some other shows with friends, so we all hooked up for some damn fine Japanese food in the north of the city. There was the bar where Bill and I ended up watching the Stanley Cup match that was on that night, with Chicago's own Blackhawks playing (but sadly losing). There was excellent craic over excellent beers. There was Too Much Light Makes The Baby Grow Big, a performance of thirty plays in sixty minutes. If I tell you that the entry fee is nine dollars plus whatever you roll on a die, that the end of the show involves rolling another die to see how many of the plays are to be replaced by brand new ones in the next show, that the order of the plays is defined by audience members shouting out numbers, members of the cast leaping up to grab a shouted number from a line of suspended sheets of paper -- that might give you some idea of the sheer energy of the experience. As for the plays themselves, I won't say too much because really you've just got to see it for yourself. If you're in the Chicago area, just go. Trust me. You'll fucking love it.
There was also the requisite adventure of sorts, when the planned method of getting me back into Ben's apartment -- in the absence of a functioning door buzzer or network coverage on my mobile phone in the US -- went somewhat awry. So I did end up having an amusing few hours contemplating the possibility of sleep on a bench in the park outside the apartment building. I may have somewhat drunkenly shinnied up a fence to climb onto Ben's fire escape and spent a while rapping vainly on his back door. But it all turned out fine in the end, with Stephen arriving home from a party just at the point I'd fortuitously clambered back out of the back yard and headed round to the front again.
Anyway, the point is, it wasn't just about Nowhere Town.
But, yeah, it was mostly about Nowhere Town. Cause the Saturday shows... man, the Saturday shows...
With the matinee performance, something had just clicked. The band didn't just play well this time; they were tight. I grinned as the audience applauded the ends of songs. The actors were looser, relaxing and having fun with it, Ted and Adam fleshing out the outlines of Guy and Joey with some deliciously playful ad libs, perfectly in character. In a savvy improvisation, Khyle as Jack switched in a Lady Gaga reference for a Madonna reference, in a perfect updating of a joke in Act One. You could just about hear the lumps in throats being gulped down as Rudy, as Puck, sang "Another Day." When Chorus and the Proprietor are hectoring Jack and Puck respectively, in that simultaneous dialogue that sets up "The Battle of Jack's Love," man, it was incredible. Jack and Puck in unison, crying out "Because I can't just let him go" -- that was like a punch in the gut.
Something had to go wrong, of course. And it had to go wrong at the worst possible moment, the mics going on the fritz during the big romantic finale of all places, in "Love Lost and Found." (It's a reprise! It's a medley! It's a remedleprisey!) With sound cutting out and shrieking feedback, the actors soldiered on, and it didn't ruin the performance, but it was a right scunner, cause that matinee show was kicking arse up till that moment. The cast pulled it off, brought it home, and the show still kicked arse, but it was... a bastard bit of bad luck.
Didn't matter though, cause the evening show went like a fucking dream.
I sat at one of the tables down front for that final show. I'd wanted to see it from the audience first, not be too obvious a presence on the opening night. Cause, yanno, having the writer right up in yer face on opening night might not be the best thing to relax an actor. And that gave me the chance to see exactly where the sweetest spot was to watch all the action, at the table just right of the centre table where Jack and Chorus sit in Act Two. I'd marked out my seat and I snaffled it sharpish on Saturday night, got into the spirit of things by ordering a fake absinthe from the Bartender -- Ed. As the rest of the audience filed in, I saw Adam sit down at the table to my right, chatting to the audience members sat there. It was only when he came to my table that I realised the whole warm-up thing went further -- as he, or rather Joey, started chatting with me, asking if I was here to see the band. Which is to say, the entirely fictive band, Fagsmoke, that I invented oh so many years ago. Heh.
Hell, yeah, says I. I'm a huge fan. So he asks if I've seen em before, to which I respond that I saw them in Glasgow; and we go on like that, Adam totally in character as Joey, me relishing the game and, of course, being quite capable of playing along by throwing out my favourite numbers from their set. Shit, I can even chuck in the names of songs not referenced in the script -- like "The Boy With Green Hair" or "Punk Music Makes Me Feel Big." (Or is the latter in there somewhere? I don't recall now, and can't be arsed checking.) Anyways, this is a total blast, albeit kinda bizarre, to be interacting with your own creation made flesh. So I'm already in a most excellent mood when the show starts. And this time the band are not just tight but fucking rocking. And this time the actors fucking inhabit the characters. And this time the mics work fucking perfectly.
It's hard to pick out a favourite moment from it all. I was in the fucking perfect position for Chorus's monologues to the audience, to see the actor lit sublimely, the glow of absinthe in his hand a brilliant green, dust billowing in the spot as he slams the book closed. When Jack jumped off the dias during "The Shape of Things to Cum Again," having seen the show twice before I knew it was improvised, (with Ryan, the lighting designer having to respond equally impromptu,) but even if I hadn't known that... man, as the actor paced the stage like a fucking caged panther, he fucking was Jack Flash. When Puck tells Jack that he'll be with him fucking forever, but not here in this illusory afterlife but "here, in this," it was... just fucking exquisite. And then there's the fact that as the Fates moved from table to table in Act Two -- one with measuring tape, one with thread and one with scissors -- the one with measuring tape would measure hand spans and thigh lengths of the audience members at that table. Heh.
There's so many moments I just wish I could go through again. I was so busy being utterly captivated by it I didn't even have the nous to think then, at that moment: man, if only this play was running for a month, because this is it; they've fucking nailed it. That came later. Mostly, right then, I was just plain immersed. There was so much of it that was just awesome.
But I think if there's one thing that stands out for me, it was this moment in the second act, a point where Chorus is seated at the centre table and the Proprietor is standing up on the balcony, and their eyes are locked on each other. Later in that act, the tension was fucking electric, as these two vie for Jack's raging soul, but there, in that look between them... it was as solid and sharp and cold and bloody as the switchblade that runs through the whole play. In the frozen hatred of that moment... for me, that was the thing you just can't get in a script, the point where a whole relationship is being revealed wordlessly, where even silence and stillness are invested with meaning by the actors. I don't know that it's the favourite moment per se, because there's too much competition, but I guess somehow it stands as a symbol of it all for me. The words are mine. The songs are in my head. But the drama lives in moments like that look, and that's what I traveled however many thousand miles for. And fuck but it was worth it!
And then it was over, and the audience was applauding pretty damn wildly, it seemed to me, and I was getting dragged up to take a curtain call with the cast -- and lapping it up, of course. Spirits were high. I think everyone there knew that this performance was bang-on, that the rough edges had been filed off, that the pieces had clicked into place, that everything had just come together and rocked like a motherfucker. I did my best to muck in with the breaking of the set, lugging things this way and that as directed, grabbing lighting equipment as it was deconstructed and lowered by more competent people on ladders, moving sharpish to be in the right place as they cried "Cable!" or "Instrument!" (or to not be in the wrong place as they cried "Swinging cable!") It was kinda weird as everything came apart -- as slowly, over the space of a few hours, the whole room was stripped back to its black shell. It was strange to see the fucking work of art that was the bar turned back into so many bits of wood. Or to cart out to the truck a panel of plyboard wall with "Nowhere: population zeroes" on it. I wouldn't have missed it for the world, of course; I sorta felt I owed a bit of elbow grease given the work put in by the crew, and in truth it was kinda wonderful being a dogsbody rather than... I dunno... playing a "dignitary," the author as visiting guest. It was sorta like participating in a ritual, a taste of the teamwork involved.
Actually, there was the proper ritual of the cast party afterward, in which presents are given in multiple permutations too intricate to keep track of but usually involving something cutely reflective of the recipient's character or deeds during the production... generally accompanied by something that comes in a bottle. I was well chuffed to come away with a poster signed by all involved which will shortly be adorning my wall in a frame, and with a Fagsmoke t-shirt as worn by all band members -- which is currently (still) adorning my own scrawny frame. (I took it off for a while in Helsinki, but it's not quite stinky enough yet that wearing it is just socially unacceptable. It's getting there, for sure, but it's not there yet. In my opinion. Which may be biased.)
And at that I shall leave it. Imagine my time in Chicago fading out, the lights slowly going down as I stagger round Tristan's apartment, drinking gin and tonic, buttonholing cast members to tell them how much I loved what they'd done with the roles, telling Khyle how the Gaga line is so going in the script, telling Andres and Markie how I loved the almost-incestuous subtext they'd given Chorus and the Proprietor (I seem to remember them being most chuffed at this because they'd worked out a whole backstory along those lines,) fawning over Rudy who was, it has to be said, a most puckish Puck even out of character, bless him. After that, to quote the play itself, "it's all a bit of a blur, cheers!" I hope I wasn't too... unseemly in my behaviour.
And exit Hal, stage-left, staggering down the street to Ben's apartment, singing "That Great Big Sanatorium in the Sky," as I recall.