Category Archives: Acting

Time Flies

I know it’s a cliche, but the truth of the saying ‘time flies’ seems never more evident than right now.

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m trying to impose some order in preparation for the fall semester, which starts tomorrow. I only turned in my grades for summer school last Tuesday! I spent every spare moment this week rebuilding my classes, because the beginning of school completely caught me by surprise. No, seriously. I thought it started Wednesday after Labor Day. Imagine my astonishment. But both versions of the online classes are updated and in place for a new semester.

In the past, I’ve spent the week before school organizing paperwork and closets so I could feel we were starting with a clean slate. I’m doing my best, but the boxes from the farmhouse, small pieces of furniture from various rooms, and the paperwork from my 2016 taxes are still cluttering the living room. I will just have to continue cleaning around them until some things get back to normal.

Why 2016 taxes, you ask? I always seem to be busy in April and file an extension. Then I do my tax worksheets in the heated torpor of August-September and get them to my accountant in October.

The left-over paperwork from last year is still spread out on my dining table because I haven’t been able to get to the table over the furniture and boxes from two ongoing remediation projects in my life.

Today is almost exactly the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked havoc and mayhem in all our lives. It doesn’t seem possible that it was a year ago. But there it is. And while the damage to my house was relatively minor, my adventures with contractors were hugely intimidating. The furniture is finally back in my master bedroom and the guest room, and my bathroom is completely overhauled. But the confusion and disorganization wrought by the storm lingers in the corners of most every room of the house, and the chaos imposed on my psyche sometimes resembles PTSD.

Complicating matters, Harvey hit just as I had begun tearing down part of the Lexington farmhouse where I grew up, in order to save the rest of it. That was interrupted by my Houston repairs. The farmhouse still has a huge gaping wound plugged with plywood on one side of the structure, tarps on the roof, and piles of rubble all around. I’ve made some headway in cleaning and stacking the antique brick from the chimney. The house has been leveled, and repairs made to the damaged wood on the west side of the house, where a new set of French doors are now covered with weather sheeting until I can address new siding. Boxes of my parents accumulated treasures are part of the ongoing clutter in my living room. The house and its contents haunt my dreams and drain my bank account and still there seems to be little progress.

Time seems to trickle away in every direction. While I stayed busy with school and theatre projects this year, my two cats have increasingly begun to show their age. They sleep a great deal, but I’ve noticed that it is harder for them to jump onto the furniture recently. When Christabel started throwing up and peeing everywhere, I took her in for tests. Hundreds of dollars later, she is being treated for a urinary tract infection and I have medication to sooth her stomach. But the evidence is overwhelming that her kidneys are progressively failing and sometime soon, I will have to face the fact that the quality of her life is slipping away as well. My vet has chosen this time to retire, but assures me that when the time comes, he will come into the office to be with me and Christabel.

And through all this whirlwind, I’ve found blessed little time to write anything new. I cranked out a number of short stories the beginning of this year, and I’ve reworked two on my novels yet again, but I have yet to finish the third novel which I started for NaNoWriMo in 2016.

Increasingly, I want the freedom of retirement. But I don’t see how I can afford to quit my full-time job, even though I could work from anywhere. I have directing assignments coming up, and the short film I did in January is premiering in Austin in September. But it’s been four years since I’ve been onstage as an actor.

Moving back to Lexington to be close to my sister and brother and their families sounds increasingly more appealing. But updating the farmhouse is going to require me to sell my Houston house and put the proceeds into renovations. Where will I live and how can I continue to work remotely in the interim? These are all questions I know I must face soon. And maybe it is for the best that Christabel will not be subjected to that upheaval.

Meanwhile, I drift from project to project, semester to semester, production to production, and time disappears without my noticing or adequately preparing for it. When will moving and rebuilding become too much for me to physically face? Will I wait too long? While I hesitate, time continues to evaporate. I’m reminded of John Lennon’s lyric, “Life is what happens while we’re making other plans.”

 

No More Shakin’ Goin’ On

Well, as is the way with all good things, the production of Shakin’ the Blue Flamingo is at an end. It was an exciting and rewarding journey. We had some sold out houses and some modest houses. While not necessarily a financial boon to Queensbury Theatre, it was a noble and groundbreaking endeavor. I think it drew audience members that would not normally have ventured outside the loop for their theater fare.

I attended the last performance and stayed after for pictures with the cast. (The one above is courtesy of Jan Johnson, our production photographer.)

There was the usual melancholy task of retrieving all the costume pieces and props that I personally  provided to the effort; then the hugs, kisses, and general thanks to each member of the cast and crew who made this a special time. And of course, adieu to our playwright Gwen Flager and her partner Ruth Ann.  But I suspect from our conversation there will be more projects in the future.

Now we each go on to the next project, closer friends, but no longer to see each other on an almost daily basis. As is the way with theater friends, we will share email announcements of current projects, see each other on Facebook and on the ‘boards’, and for a few moments after a performance, but probably not spend significant time with each other for months or even years. At some point, I will work with many of these women again and we will pick up our friendships where we left them—still dear and with the measure of trust we have earned.

Turning a Corner: Shakin’ the Blue Flamingo

Sunday was our extended tech rehearsal for Shakin’ the Blue Flamingo. As we incorporate technical aspects and refine acting objectives, there is always one very long day where it all has to start coming together. Sunday we rehearsed from 1 pm to 10 pm with a break for dinner.  We completed two full runs and choreographed the prop crew’s efforts during the scene breaks. I always like to make the changeover look like part of the show if possible, so our prop crew is dressed as if they are employees of Edna’s diner.

The musical segues and interludes are a play list of all the great torchy female vocalists of the 70s and 80s. The mature members of our audience will have a great time trying to remember names of all the singers and the years the songs came out.

Adding costumes and sound can be distracting to some actors, especially when fast changes are involved, so I was pleased to see that this did not derail us. Although, we are still tweaking and accessorizing, the physical personae of each character became clearer. Some actors find that adding the clothes of their characters can give them that last nudge into realizing them as three-dimensional people. And so it seemed to be yesterday.

My lead actress has been struggling for clarity in her character, as she felt the text sent her back and forth in opposing directions concerning what she really wanted. Talking through this in notes, I suggested that she needed to decide what ‘she’ wants to do to the other person and try her best to do that. The emotional baggage of what she secretly wants as opposed to what she is doing is what weakens her resolve occasionally and becomes an obstacle to overcome. She wants to protect herself from being hurt by the person she has been in love with for years. So every time Mac pushes Rosie away, her love pushes right back and opens the possibility of hope. That hope is what undermines her resolve and what she struggles against. She cannot hope and barricade her heart at the same time. She has to choose when to open herself up, and that choice is the crux of the play.

When we came back for the second run-thru, everyone was more energized, pushing the envelope and working their objectives. And suddenly, it seemed like we might be on the brink of having the play I’ve envisioned in my head; the one Gwen Flager wrote and rewrote.

As Geoffrey Rush says in “Shakespeare in Love” when he is asked how something fine can come out of the chaos of rehearsal, “I dunno, it’s the magic of theatre.”

We open on Thursday, July 12, 2018. Hope you have us on your schedule. Currently, the run is only two weeks, and it is in the Black Box theatre. So don’t wait til the last minute to buy your tickets.  Our staged reading turned people away. For schedule and information go to:

https://www.queensburytheatre.org/shakintheblueflamingo

Check out my interview about the show:

Check out my interview about Shakin’ the Blue Flamingo on the Queensbury Theatre facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/QueensburyTheatre/videos/1957135634330687/

Thanks,

Claire Hart-Palumbo

Rehearsal for “Shakin’ the Blue Flamingo”

We are now three weeks into rehearsals and our process is alternately blissful and excruciating. We work subtle nuances of one scene until all seems to click, and then go on to a scene we think already perfected and discover we’ve lost the rhythm or the refinements…or the lines.

Each of my actors is a veteran theater professional, but each with very different experience, skills, and strengths. Some learned the lines almost immediately but struggle to remember blocking. Others get the blocking, but stutter step through the words—which have been changing as we refine this wonderful new play.

Some with a strong vocal instrument and ready access to the ‘psychology’ of the character came in strong, but now begin the torturous journey to dig deeper than their usual comfort level. One actress informed me that I was terrifying, but then admitted that I was only demanding her best. I try never to yell or throw tantrums, but my expectations of these women are very high. And sometimes my frustration has to show. I suppose that can be terrifying if you are used to relying on technique or the usual bag of tricks and I insist on more.

It is a constant ebb and flow. One day five or six of the seven are working at high energy. Another day, someone who has been struggling makes a breakthrough. We discover a ‘moment’ in the play that wasn’t previously defined, and it’s all worth it. Painstakingly, we carve the emotional terrain of this play and hope our audience will find us and recognize the labor and the love that has brought us to the stage.

As we define the action and perfect the emotional pitch, the next struggle will be as we begin to integrate the technical aspects, stop miming the actions and begin working with food and liquids and prop phones. How to master the swing of a kitchen door, time the sound of a chair scraping the floor, or a spoon clinking on a cup? These are the millions of details that go into making the perfect arc of the play. Mastery of one thing only leads to larger challenges and obstacles.

Oh, but the joy of finding the right note, the perfect laugh, the synchronous movement and line. There is the satisfaction that keeps us working for low wages at a craft we are passionate about. At the service of the words, and hopefully the playwright.

Our own dear playwright, Gwen Flager has brought her own energy and focus to this process. She is learning much from this shared experience. For a play may be born of a writer’s mind, but it is birthed by the collaborative effort into a living and breathing thing.

For Gwen’s notes, pictures and musings on this process, go to her website:  http://gwenflager.com/blog/.

Above photo by Julye Newlin.

Hope everyone will come share the bounty with us when we open on July 12, 2018.

 

 

Phase 3 – Shakin’ the Blue Flamingo

Queensbury Theatre’s 2017 Playwrighting Competition winner, Girls Who Sing in the Choir, by Gwen Flager, has a new name! Shakin’ the Blue Flamingo will be the title going forward, and hopefully in print. Along with the new title, we have a new ending for the play.  Based on the developmental readings and feedback from myself, cast members and audience talk backs, Gwen has reworked the ending in a way that I believe all will find more satisfying and hopeful.

Those of you who have followed my previous posts about the play development project I’m working on at Queensbury will be happy to hear that we have started rehearsals for the full production. There have been a couple of new additions to the cast. We are excited to welcome Susan Shofner and Jennifer Doctorovich who replace two cast members from the developmental readings. Both are Actors Equity Association members.

Blocking rehearsals began last week and the new cast members and new groundplan for the set encouraged me to experiment a bit with the flow. Characters are evolving and being more clearly defined and the relationships are being plumbed to a new level. The general feeling among the cast is one of excitement to be working so closely with the playwright, who is almost instantly responsive to our questions and suggestions. It’s evolving as a true collaboration.

The play tracks a group of former sorority sisters as they sponsor and plan an LGBT prom for gay students at the local high school. In the process, old secrets, lies, attractions, and betrayals are revealed in often hilarious and alternately painful ways. An old love is rekindled, friendships are tested, and at least one relationship will be destroyed.

This full production, the result of an eight-month process, will preview to the press and friends on Thursday 7/12/18, open on Friday 7/13/18, and perform Thursdays through Sundays at Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane, Houston, Texas 77024. It performs through 7/22, with an Industry Night on Monday 7/16/18.  For dates and times and to buy tickets, call the box office at 713-467-4497 ext 1, or go online to:  https://www.queensburytheatre.org/girlswhosinginthechoir

Industry rates are available to all working theater professionals if you ask. Otherwise, use Promo Code: PRIDE for discounted tickets.

Hope to see you there.

“There You Are” Premiers at OutFest in LA

There You Are, will be world-premiering at Outfest in Los Angeles this July!

As many of you may remember, I was part of a wonderful short film project back in January of this year.  Just received word from our illustrious director, Lisa Donato, that “There You Are” has been accepted to premiere at Los Angeles’ OutFest in July.

“There You Are” is the story of a transgender woman (Jessica/Justin played by Jenn Richards), in a loving relationship with another woman, who is called home by her conservative and judgmental mother because her maternal grandmother is dying. She makes the effort to meet her mother’s expectations of a ‘son’ and to deal with the grief and tragedy of loss in a high-stress and deeply emotional situation. I was blessed to be cast as the repressive mother and had a wonderful experience shooting this short film with a very talented cast and crew.

If any of you will be in Los Angeles in July, here is the link to the schedule.

Screening Dates/Times:

“Cleo” at Alley Theatre

Last Saturday, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Alley Theatre’s World Premiere of Cleo, by Austin writer Lawrence Wright.

I’m a subscriber, but I don’t normally schedule my tickets for Saturday. So I was delightfully surprised to find I had been given me a seat dead center in the Hubbard Theatre. Standing to allow people through to sit next to me, I realized they were talking to a couple in front of us, which turned out to be Lawrence Wright and his wife.

A Pulitzer-Prize winning author, he is also a screenwriter, television producer, and sometimes playwright. His six previous plays all have a historical/political bent and have been produced by Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; the Old Globe in San Diego; off-Broadway and  the Public Theater in New York; and as far away as the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.

It is tempting to think of Cleo as something completely outside his usual subject-matter, which often deals with the Middle East. But the play is about a real-life historic and very scandalous love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, a hugely expensive movie about the most famous Egyptian queen of all time. The professional, political, and sexual wrangling on and off screen documented in the play is not that different from the politics of world ideologies.

I am old enough to remember some of the scandalous headlines that my mother tried to shield me from, while gorging on the details herself. I am an avid movie fan, currently teaching Film Appreciation classes. I also know enough about the body of work between Taylor, Burton and Rex Harrison, and Liz’s personal tragedies and many marriages to have had a preconceived notion of what the play was about. I must say, I was delightfully validated and surprised.

Wright has taken the stuff of tabloids and woven in the tragic death of Liz’s great love Mike Todd, her subsequent co-opting of her friend Debbie Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher, and her sometimes pathetic need for validation as a serious actress, to paint a vivid and riveting picture of a film icon we all think we know. We meet her after these events and as she sets out on arguably the most ambitious film of her career, supported by the overly protective Fisher and Joe Mankiewicz, the gentle and caring director.  For Mankiewicz, this is the grandest project of his illustrious career (only a few years after being blacklisted in Hollywood) and he must juggle not only the needs of his three very different stars, but Fisher’s as well.

Against the politics of a dying studio system, a failing marriage, and an apocalyptic sexual attraction, Wright (under the brilliant direction of Bob Balaban) manages to give us a truly human and heartbreaking tale of two beautifully talented and self-destructive people.

Liz, a bona fide star since she was child, is terrified to be playing opposite two legitimate actors: Rex Harrison, the pompous aging film star, and Richard Burton the scrappy, alcoholic Welshman.  She fully expects to be taken to school by these celebrated stage actors. Instead, she becomes the object of a ridiculous bet based on sexual conquest. The fact that Harrison is condescendingly oblivious to how ridiculous his aspirations are makes him comic relief.

Three major supporting characters bring warmth and humor to the play. Mark Capri plays Harrison with all the dignity and ego of an aging icon, who cannot see that his character of Caesar is not the star of the film. Brian Dykstra, as Joe Mankiewicz, is a teddy bear of a man, balancing all these egos and pyrotechnics with a humanity that is reaffirming. Adam Gibbs plays Eddie Fisher, not as the smooth and fashionable crooner we remember from photos and album covers, but as a swaggering street-wise Rat Pack wannabe. Some of that personae is warranted from the often pandering and constantly needy character Wright has written. But no effort is made to make Gibbs look or speak like Fisher. It is only when he starts to sing (and sell) some of Fisher’s ballads that we finally understand why he was the inevitable casting choice from the Alley Company.

Lisa Birnbaum seems to be channeling Taylor on the stage. Make-up and costumes play their part, but she genuinely looks and behaves like Liz Taylor, alternately sniveling and needy, and then the diva star. Her postures and hand gestures are not imitations of Liz, but the embodiment. Her voice captures the same lilt and inflections that made Liz distinctive, without the irritating tendency toward shrillness. Her performance rings so true, that after the first few scenes I stopped thinking of her as anyone but Liz.

Richard Short plays Richard Burton. We see a dissipated, raunchy, alcoholic street kid who has parlayed his very real acting talent into a way to live a wanton and careless life. Forever straying from his long-suffering wife, but firm in the belief that she will never leave him for his philandering. What Wright makes clear in the text is that Burton lusts for Liz, like any other conquest, but never intends to fall victim to that passion. What we fail to get from Short’s portrayal of Richard Burton is the tragic waste of a brilliant actor’s gifts and his self-loathing that drives him to try and destroy everything good in himself and in this new and fragile relationship. We get a lusty, gorgeous hunk, but not the brilliant Shakespearean actor. He plays the doomed relationship and not the character traits that will make it so.

In their scenes together, Short and Birnbaum bring real fire and passion to the stage. The difference between their performances can be summed up in one observation. Birnbaum is always generous in her playing, and not afraid to turn her back to the audience and let the other actor be the focus. In the pivotal climactic scene near the end when Liz is preparing to leave with her alternately rejected and retrieved husband Fisher, she is blocked to spend much of the scene on steps with her back to us. This is Short’s scene, where he must break through the barriers and try to make her understand, and finally admit that he loves her, very much against his will. He should be trying to make her turn around and look at him. Instead, he faces downstage toward the audience doing what I call ‘TV acting’. It is possible that director Bob Balaban blocked the scene this way. But considering the effectiveness of the visual pictures throughout, I find that hard to believe. It felt more like an actor trying to get as much mileage as possible out of his big scene.

Nevertheless, this is a rousing success and no doubt meant for greater glory in New York. I congratulated the glowing Mr. Wright, who very kindly used his own pen to sign my program.