Monday, October 31, 2011

tour diary #11 - traveling north

October 28, 2011

Up early and Camilla makes bacon rolls for everyone.  We’re on the road by ten and today that’s all there is, a travel day up to the Lyth Arts Centre, up by Wick, just a few miles south of the end of the world.

We drive back up through the mountains.  Some of it looks like Patagonia and some is reminiscent of Montana, but there’s a wild beauty that is all its own.  The sun is out and the autumn colors of the fields and forests make Nancy and me homesick for New England, homesick for America, homesick for home.  Two months is a long time to be away and while we wouldn’t have missed this ride for the world, we’re ready to get back.

We drive past the world famous Loch Ness and stop for lunch at the Eden Court Theater in Inverness.  Camilla and Catherine and I have the turnip and whiskey soup, which sounds bizarre and is delicious, and afterwards hit a big Tescos in town, buying supplies for the next two days.

There’s a different tenor on this drive, a minor chord you can hear creeping into our conversation.

We all know that the last show is tomorrow, the course is essentially run and the whole enterprise, rehearsal, opening and then the tour, is drawing to a close.  It’s always this way in the theater, especially with a new and untried piece. 

There’s an intense and usually effortless bonding, a group of people united against all odds to deliver a show.  Then the shared hardship and terror of opening night and, if it comes off at all, enormous celebration and an orgy of mutual admiration.  Add to this the physical toll of touring, driving and sharing meals, experiencing new venues, lodging together and after a few days you become a pack, a band, a tiny wandering tribe with its own language, jokes and customs, looking out for each other, observing the ways and habits of the townspeople, taking their money each night in exchange for some laughs and songs and then moving on the next morning, on to the next gig. 

There’s the natural bond of workers doing specialized labor in different environments, everyone knows their responsibility and respects and relies on everyone else’s contribution, but there’s also something beneath this in the theater: a private, usually unacknowledged glee that bubbles up and carries you along on tour.  On some level you all know that what you’re doing is essentially quite silly, something children do naturally and then grow out of as they age, and yet here we are, the oldest  touring company on the road, still doing it, still playing and pretending and jumping around in front of people and not only are we getting away with it, but they’re paying us as well.  
Pete and Lisa join us at a restaurant about sixty miles below Wick, having driven up from Edinburgh this morning.  Except for Tim’s Jackie, back home in Leith, the couples are all reunited.

We walk into the aptly named La Mirage in Helmsdale, a small town’s fish and chips joint where the world’s finest collection of kitsch has come to die.  A mannequin of what looks like a California Highway Patrolman, drawing his service revolver stands right in the middle of the place, hard up against half of a chorus girl with long, fishnet-stockinged legs whose torso is now a lampshade.  Countless curios and figurines crowd the windowsills and shelves and we sit at a table in the back and look around, grinning and pointing in quiet awe.

A sign out front proclaims La Mirage serves one of the six best fish and chips in the kingdom, as determined by Clarissa Dickson Wright.  My comrades all nod respectfully when they see her name and my joke about judging from the picture of Ms. Wright displayed next to her pronouncement, she has clearly sampled all of the fish and chips available in Britain, falls flat.  We order coffee only, saving ourselves for Tim’s special pasta tonight.  Our waitress disapprovingly takes our order and returns with six Nescafes, which we suffer in penitent silence.

The sun goes down as we continue north below enormous black clouds in a dark purple sky.  We arrive at the  Lyth Arts Centre and are shown to the artists housing across the parking lot, a five bedroom, two-storied dream of a guest house.  Tim commandeers the kitchen, chopping vegetables, frying onions and preparing sauce.  I settle into the living room with a glass of whiskey and feel the miles slip away from my shoulders and back.

We devour Brinkhurst’s Surprise, smoked salmon and garlic, onion and cherry tomatoes with ziti.  The wine flows, the whiskey evaporates and we shout across the table, trading stories of the last few weeks, suddenly launched on a full-on, late-night tear which lasts until the small hours and we slip away, one by one, falling into our beds, happy and blessed to be in Lyth and nearly at the end of the journey.   

Friday, October 28, 2011

tour diary #10 - braemar and thoughts on regicide

October 27, 2011

Nancy Walsh has fixed my "m" key, as she has fixed so many things in my life.  I can now type "America" and "home" and "magic" and "alchemy" and so many of my favorite words.  Going without "m" forced me to be a more selfless writer, finding myself without "me" and "mine".  Thank god that experiment is over.

Everyone has a bad night's sleep except me and we curse the Old Coach  House Hotel and the Royal British Legion Hall and all of Buckie over breakfast.

Fuck Buckie seems to be the general consensus, so we drive.

We head south to Braemar and the road turns extraordinary as we climb in between vertical fields where sheep balance effortlessly.  At one point it opens up and Camilla pulls over without speaking and we all gawp about.  Words do no justice and we aren't even in the Highlands proper yet.  The sun fills the day and the colors of the fields and forest, shades of green, yellow, rust and red turn Scotland briefly to Oz.

The van chugs and powers up the hills and down into dales.  We pass the Glenlivet distillery, a secular shrine if ever there was one.

And then we pass within six miles of Balmoral, the queen's place when she's up in these parts.

I love this country and I have great love for England as well, but the fact of monarchy can drive me from polite bemusement to full-throated Robespierrian fury in less than a minute.  I usually keep it to myself when I'm here, knowing I'm just a guest and minding my manners. I know people, clear-thinking, generous people, who will defend it, but for me it's like arguing for slavery.

At the end, when everything else is weighed and laid out, the cold fact is that this society has agreed that one family is better and more worthy than everyone else.  They somehow deserve a massive, unearned fortune, every privilege and blessing available in the land, an army of personal assistants, chefs, chauffeurs, gardeners, maids and security personnel, and all this because one of their ancestors was a stronger, craftier and more ruthless thug than the other prominent thugs of his day. 

How is this different, in essence, than a society agreeing that another family, or group of people, is less than the rest of us, born into poverty rather than wealth, stripped of all privilege instead of handed it all at birth?

One slippery step further and we can agree that the very stamp of humanity is not on their unlucky souls and they are chattel to be bought and sold.

The argument may sound extreme to some, but to me it's just the flip side of the same ancient, greasy coin.

Inherited wealth yields the same result in America, of course, but in America you're just another rich guy.  I'm not expected to call you Lord or Your Majesty or any other honorific horseshit.  You don't get to address the nation in times of crisis and your face isn't on the coins.  We don't shut down the country when one of your offspring gets married and I'm certainly not expected to fucking bow if you deign to take my hand.

I say give them all twenty-four hours to grab whatever they can carry (which would be more than you and I will probably ever see in our lifetimes) and then it's open season on royalty.  Get in a private jet and go to another island, one that's warm and covered with palm trees and good luck. 

And just be glad that you got to play King and Queen for awhile there.

We arrive in beautiful Braemar and find the Village Hall.  It's the smallest place we've played but warm and cozy and our set fits snugly at one end.  We set it all up and find our lodging which is a fully equipped cabin with three bedrooms and a common area with a kitchen and a living room, complete with leather reclining couches.  Kind of a swank, touristy feel to it, but it beats the hell out of the Old Coach House Hotel.

After our usual routine of naps and an early dinner we gather back at the hall to warm up and run a sound-check.  The show sounds great in this place, the wooden walls absorb and resonate with the music and once again it looks better in a public room than it ever did inside a theater.

Our crowd arrives, easily triple the size of the Buckie brigade and the players rip into their best show of the tour.  There's a confidence and an ease to the first half that they can feel and they feed off of each other, giving the show a pace and urgency and inevitability that thrills me sitting alone in the back.  The second half builds off of this energy and the applause is fierce at the end.

We break down and load up with the help of John, the venue rep and then back to the cabin to celebrate.  We play cards and drink cider and whiskey, glad that tomorrow's a travel day and a travel day into the Highlands at that.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

tour diary #9 - buckie

October 26, 2011

A big cooked breakfast at the restaurant downstairs and then we're off to Buckie at 11:00.  A New Pitsligoian stops on the street as we pile into the van and thanks us for last night's show.  We thank her for her patronage, she nods and walks off.

We take a detour down through the fields behind the town and into an old quarry where a hippie/entrepeneur has created a cafe/recording studio/event site/haven.

We take a quick tour given by the owner and it's one of those places where a private obsession has been rendered into glorious reality: The Lastbus Worker's Canteen.

Two old double-decker buses sit in a huge shed, both fixed out with stoves so people can sleep inside.  There's a beautiful cafe, a place for bands and all sorts of other work and living spaces scattered around the grounds.  A quiet energy and audacity radiates off both the owner and the site.  New Pitsligo continues to surprise.

We drive along the coast to Buckie as the unexpected sun breaks away the clouds and the sea rolls in beneath us, huge cresting waves breaking against the shore.  We hit Buckie and find the Royal British Legion Hall, which despite its grand title turns out be the Scottish version of a VFW hall.

And here our troubles begin.

There's a tea dance scheduled at two, which should give us two hours to set up, but signals have been crossed.  We can unload, store our stuff in a corner, but that's it.  And we can't get back in until four, so everything has to be in place and working at the end of three and a half hours, when the audience begins filing in.

Nothing to be done, so we unload and drive the van to the Old Coach House Hotel, down on High Street and check in.  Unlike the surprising elegance of the Pitsligo digs, this is a typical hotel for these parts: a bit old-fashioned with endless carpeted hallways leading to doors leading to other hallways, little flights of steps, doors, hallways, doors, steps and there at the very end, your own door.

We nap, find lunch and walk part of the town.  Judging by the dates on a few buildings, it looks to be a town built largely in the 19th century, or yesterday for this part of the world.  It sits on the Bay of Spey where the great River Spey joins the North Sea and everyone who loves their whiskey gives thanks to the sweet River Spey.

We're back at the hall at four and C. is worried, aware of the ticking clock.  We all pitch in and T. and I throw us further behind right away by hooking up all of the scaffold exactly wrong so we have to set it up and break it down twice before we get it right.

But the angels are on our side today.  We're set, focused and sound-checked by ten to six.

But we've broken a cardinal rule, done a thing every theater person knows is bad luck and an invitation to disaster.

Recalling the hustle and panic of last night, setting up tables and searching for chairs as the crowd pushed in, we set up every table we have.  The gods of theater frown on such hubris and at ten to eight a handful of locals sit in the center of the now vast hall, surrounded by the ghosts of last night's crowd. 

Our heroes play hard to the tiny house and parts of the show, especially the interview sections, play better than they ever have.  But the show is a heavy lift and the players earn their wages tonight.  We have one walk-out at the end of Shit-Grubbers, an earned one, unlike the drunken, garrulous trio of Haddington, who probably didn't even know where they were, let alone what they were leaving.

We  break down, load the van, beginning to feel the strain of the effort.

As C. pointed out Tuesday morning, before we left, we are surely the oldest touring troupe on the road.  Two shows to go and we can retire for the season. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

tour diary #8 - new pitsligo

October 25, 2011

I’ve discovered that the letter of the English alphabet that falls between “l” and “n” on this keyboard is inoperable.  I will continue this account using only twenty-five of the twenty-six letters.
Our brilliant _usician will now be known as T. and our extraordinary production _anager will be designated C.  Other than that, everything should be nor_al and just the sa_e.

A wet day, the rain isn’t falling, but it’s in the air, carried by a cool, westerly wind.  We’re up early, packed and ready for the road.  T. and C. pull up just after nine and we’re off, over the bridge and north up into Aberdeenshire.  The rain catches us outside Dundee and erases the landscape of sloping valleys and sudden hills.  Above Aberdeen the road narrows, turned two-laned and twisty, and we snake north, growing puddles on the side of the road now, trucks blasting by and showering us with their spray.

We pull into New Pitsligo just around 1:30.  It’s a low, stone, slate-roofed town, the buildings lined up shoulder to shoulder along the road like soldiers gathered for inspection. We find the hall which is locked up tight and search, unsuccessfully, for an open restaurant or café.  Back to the hall at two and we’re shown in by two silent scowling townfolk who point at stacks of chairs and file away.  Out front a young guy getting into his car shouts “Are you playing tonight?”  We say yes and he shouts “Are you any good?”  I say buy a ticket and find out and he shouts, “Perhaps I’ll be there and boo!  I’ll heckle!” and gets in his car and drives off.

So the legendary kindness and generosity of the people of New Pitsligo turns out to be true.

We load into the New Pitsligo Public Hall, another wooden, high-ceilinged space and it’s an easy one, through a side door right off the alley.  It’s just the five of us, no extra hands or venue technician to help and this is how it will be for the rest of the tour.  A self-reliant apocalyptic quintet: bringing it in, setting it up, shouting and singing and cursing for just over an hour and then breaking it down and on to the next town.

We check into the hotel, just down High Street, very nice digs for a little town out in the wilds of Aberdeenshire.  Naps, soup in the restaurant downstairs and back to the hall to focus lights and get ready.

A gang of old ladies waving their canes bursts in out of the rain about an hour before curtain.  They agree to wait in the kitchen until we open the house.  Outside the cold rain continues to fall and I worry about our crowd.  On a wet and wild Tuesday night in New Pitsligo, who wants to see a dark, brutal cabaret about the end of the world?  We’ll know in an hour.

At seven people appear, crowding in the tiny hallway that is our lobby.  And they don’t stop, a steady flow of couples, groups of four and five, sitting and talking and laughing together.  I realize that they all know each other, of course.  This is the village theater-going crowd.  They see everything that passes through, regardless of title, poster, reputation or reviews.  I feel a weird privilege in playing for this tribe tonight, knowing they will talk about us the next day in the shops and on the corners, weighing us against a shared body of experience.

We put up every table we have and line chairs up along the back and it’s just enough for everyone gathered.  Lights down and the players launch into their strongest start yet, the dialogue crisp and confident, the tone playful and charged.  It continues, our cleanest show yet.  Pace lags a little bit as the show powers on, but that’s an insider’s critique; it’s a great show.

The crowd responds throughout and at the end, one gent even stands at the end, applauding fiercely and grinning like a loon.

We break down, load up and sit in the bar back at the hotel, toasting each other, all tired but happy to have known New Pitsligo.   

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

quick programming note

We start our last big push this morning, driving up around Aberdeen for three shows and then further north to Lyth.  Lots of road and questionable internet connection, so if I go dark for awhile, know that the whole and true story will reach you on our return.  And know that somewhere out there, over the next week, we'll be carrying platforms, taping down cables, sizing up halls and spreading the good news of the Apocalypse.

tour diary #7 - haddington and the fragility of it all

October 22, 2011

We head out to Haddington, about thirty miles to the east of Edinburgh, at one.  

We’re playing the Haddington Town Hall, an old steepled stone building in the middle of town with a watchtower on top and no need of a sign to designate its function.  If you drove into town down the High Street and didn’t swerve left or right you’d crash right through the front windows.

Unlike the counterfeit-minted Glenrothes, Haddington is an old East Lothian settlement.  Designated as a royal burgh in the 12th century, it sits stubbornly along the ever-flooding River Tyne like a mendicant refusing to leave a busy streetcorner.  English armies burned it to the ground three times in a 200 year span, marching back and forth to Edinburgh; the town rebuilt and endured.  A tourist plaque on the front of the hall gives some of the history:
Traders did business by the goat-topped Mercat Cross; criminals were hanged from the Nungate Bridge.
No mention of what they did with itinerant players peddling false tales of the apocalypse.  We’ll find out tonight, I guess.
The load-in is a challenge, up a fire escape two flights from the street, but Camilla has hired two local young men, Tom and Tommy, to lend their strength to the effort.  We set up, leave Camilla and the Toms to organize the lights and run a quick line-through in a small room off the main hall with chairs, a table, a clothes-rack but no mirrors.  Catherine goes around to a charity shop and picks one up for five pounds and a dressing-room is born.

The set looks perfect in this little high-ceilinged, chandliered town hall, giving more credence to the growing thought among us that it’s not a show to be played in theaters, it works best in bars, cabaret or found spaces.  This is something more than a few critics have mentioned and they’re probably right, observant bastards.  

An overflow crowd streams up the stairs and through the doors and Camilla and I add extra tables and hustle for chairs.  The room is buzzing and the show pops at the top but then less than twenty seconds in loud voices break out from a table in the back.  It’s hard to make out words, something like “What is this?” and then “Shut up!”  The audience and the players all react and then plunge back in.  And then again, people talking in the dark with no attempt to keep their voices down, a longer exchange this time, talking right over Catherine’s Last Words bit.  People start looking around but we’re in Scotland, so no one hushes them.  It continues, a woman’s low loud voice answered by a man’s audible mumble, then the woman chiming in again.  And then again. I want to do something but I’m on the opposite side of the crowded room and I realize that shouting them down in my marked American accent would just deepen the growing confusion and probably throw the performers even further off their game.  Nancy and Catherine and Tim soldier on, but the crowd is listening to two shows and the improvised one trumps our weeks of work.

I lean back, arms crossed against my chest, at the back of the room, helpless in frustration.

This is the flip side to the thrill of live performance.  Unlike any other art, even more so than dance, the actual moment of creation is precisely when the theater artists are least in control of the art’s expression. 

The act of theater only exists in the actual, passing moments shared by a group of gathered humans; printed plays aren’t theater, videotaped performances aren’t theater, closed rehearsals aren’t theater, these are all just artifacts or replicas or practice runs of the original and unique act.  This is why a strong performance can turn into a life-altering event and is part of the reason that going to the theater is a more mindful and responsible act than going out to see a band play or watching a movie at the cineplex.

When it catches fire there’s a spell cast and you feel the involvement and life force of every single person there, all creating and sustaining the magic, the dreamers and the dream locked in a self-perpetuating creative embrace and act of discovery.

But when it goes wrong, or pear-shaped as they say here, (which happens about a hundred times more often than the alchemy hinted at above), it’s like chewing and swallowing a mouthful of coffee grounds while smiling and trying to carry on a civil conversation with a stranger.

It can come from any and every direction; it can happen at any time. Each object, individual and ghost or gremlin in the room or immediately outside it is a potential assassin and you sit there and watch your baby die.

A lamp blows and the actor stands in the dark, delivering the one essential speech.  A child sits in the front row, listening rapt to the sweating, swearing actors, in full view of the rest of the audience who worry about her moral corruption instead of listening to the nuances of the script.  An actor blithely drops a line and his partner leaps ahead three pages and they fight in the quicksand of public panic, trampling the play to death in their attempt to find their footing.

An old woman bursts into a fit of tubercular coughing, a cellphone sings out in the dark, a crucial prop sits forgotten in the wings, the usher admits a whispering gang of latecomers ten minutes after the show has started and they fumble to their seats, stealing the focus and breaking whatever meager spell you’ve started to cast. 

I’ve had fire alarms go off, fist fights in the corridor outside, rats the size of dachshunds dash across the stage, stools collapse and splinter under astonished actors, flats shudder, wobble and float grandly to the floor, all manner of mayhem and misfortune and the show, such as it is, does indeed stumble on.  Even when you wish you could put a shotgun to its temple and end its life like a spent horse in the Old West.  And everyone reading this who’s spent more than three years in the game has all of those stories and better besides.

It’s what makes you vow never to do it again at least three times in the course of a so-called career.

It’s what makes you think hard about film where you can capture the one radiant performance, edit out the pauses and vestigial lines and throw a moody soundtrack under the whole thing and it's done, frozen forever just as you want it.

But then lightning strikes again, everything is illuminated and captured and clear and you stumble out of the theater amazed, converted anew, damned to do it again. 

The voices continue.

The show flops around in front of us like a fish stuck on a spear.

And then, just before the halfway point, during Three Versions of Hell, they rise and cross in front the stage and are gone.  Afterwards we piece together from others in the crowd that it was a very drunk man who hit upon the brilliant idea of bringing his wife and his ex-wife to our show.  Possible mental instability on the part of one of the brides.  Inconclusive but likely.

Our first walk-outs and good riddance.  The crowd settles and genuinely enjoys the second half, loud and long applause at the end.

It’s Camilla’s birthday so after we’ve broken everything down and loaded up the van we give her cards and various bottles of booze on the street.  Tim has an old LP for her, something called Lady Rocks and we sing and toast our one indispensable comrade, climb in and drive back home.

Monday, October 24, 2011

tour diary #6 - glenrothes

October 21, 2011

Up before the sun for a radio interview about the show.  A car picks me up outside, drives me through the empty, pre-dawn streets and drops me off at BBC Scotland. The guy at the front desk is not expecting me or anyone else this early, he’s got the television on watching some military history program about the invasion of Panama.  He makes some calls, offers me coffee and I sip and wait.

My story checks out so my man ushers me into a small, padded room with a microphone and a set of earphones.  Turns out the show is coming out of Glasgow and I’m doing a remote, so I sit alone and listen to a Libyan-born Scotswoman talking about the death of Gaddafi.  She does the weird modern shuffle/dance around the death of a villain, “We’re all very excited and happy, not that we take joy in someone’s death, but it’s a good day.”  Why do we all need to do this these days?  I was happy to hear that Bin Laden was dead.  Simple, straightforward, glad he was gone.  Son-of-a-bitch killed 3000 people a mile and a half from where I sleep.  No moral ambiguity there.

I’m on and the hosts are well-prepared, they obviously have the press release open in front of them, so it’s an easy five minute back and forth banter and I’m done.  A car is waiting outside and I’m back home, slip into the flat just before 8:00, everyone still asleep so I sit in the kitchen alone, thrumming with too much caffeine too early, too jazzed to get back in bed, too tired to get anything done. 
The van picks us up out front at 11:00, we pile in and head east out of Edinburgh, over the magnificent Forth Road Bridge and into the kingdom of Fife, heading for Glenrothes.

Fife was one of the old Pictish kingdoms of Scotland, a peninsula bordered between the Firth of Tay above and the Firth of Forth below, both flowing east into the great North Sea.  St. Andrews is here, so here is where golf was born, as well as Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull frontman and hero of my youth. Also poor Gordon Brown, by all local accounts a good man corrupted by compromise and forever in the shade of the silver-tongued Blair.

We turn off the motorway and are immediately trapped in the sprawl, a feeling joltingly familiar to anyone who has driven in America.  We crawl through a town drawn by a child but robbed of the crayon’s color and any native charm.  Boxlike buildings, all stark rectangles and squares, randomly placed on a flat landscape under a paper-white sky.  We could be in Dayton, Ohio, Florissant, Missouri, Denton, Texas, any town in the great American in-between.

Glenrothes is one of the “new cities” created by governmental decree in Scotland after World War II and like all good-intentioned projects of grand social engineering, it‘s a grim, soul-freezing horror. The only thing that sets it apart from the other new cities is that, unique in the UK, the majority of the town’s center is indoors.

This turns out to be as scary as it sounds. 

We’re playing the Glenrothes Halls, which is part of the enormous shopping mall/entertainment complex/hive that hunkers squatly in the middle of the non-town.   The kids cluster by the entranceways, woolen hats pulled down low, kicking distractedly at skateboards, smoking unconvincingly, bored. Riot fodder if they could only be bothered.

We unload, set up and then head into the complex looking for lunch.  It’s an endless, bright corridor of shops and the Glenrothians are crawling over every square foot of it.  We find a Greggs, buy pre-packaged sandwiches and fight our way back upstream to the performance hall.  There’s a certain uniform pallor to the people in the mall, faces leached of all color, bad skin, tired eyes and I get a flash of Mole People dread or lunar colony hopelessness.  We run some lines in the dressing-room and then try to catch a nap before the show.  There’s no couch, so Nancy and I lay out coats and sweaters and huddle together on the thinly carpeted cement floor under the bright fluorescent lights, which are controlled by some master switch deep in the bowels of the Hive, no way to turn them off.  Miraculously, I sleep.

Up and down to the space for a sound check, warm-up and then our audience trickles in.  The show starts and the days off show a little bit, you can see the performers a half-step behind in some bits but it’s a solid show.  It’s our most deeply divided audience yet, some people laughing hard early, others shrinking into sullen silence.  The Shit-Grubbers section, which kicks off the second half and is on one level just an exercise in pure juvenile profanity, serves as a clear line drawn in the sand.  Sections of the audience are whooping and giggling helplessly while an arctic chill grows around them.  Catherine and Nancy bring it home at the end, their confidence growing throughout the show and the applause is strong and earned.

We break it all down, load up the van and drive the hell out of Glenrothes.

I feel for the Mole People of Fife and I’m grateful that I can just drive away from the Hive.

May god bless you all, but you live in a right shite-hole.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I craft, nimbly

I've always found Anna Hafsteinsson, of the Journal, to be one of Scotland's wisest, most perceptive and astute young critics. I've felt this way ever since I first encountered her work early yesterday morning online.

Judge for yourself, though, below:

"Two eccentric, turban-wearing, fat bottomed dames present to you, their captive audience, THE END OF THE WORLD. Yes, 'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Apocalypse and the last hour and seven minutes of your life. We hope you enjoy the show'.

This daring little performance, brought to you by The Occasional Cabaret and directed by Peter Clerke, is creative, thoughtful, and wickedly dark at times. All in all, an hour and seven minutes thoroughly well spent. This show, however, was much more than your typical Cabaret performance, boasting a real depth and intelligence in John Clancy’s nimbly crafted script and in performances from Catherine Gillard and Nancy Walsh that bring it to life with such vigor and panache. Apocalypse boldly confronts our terrifying modern world, in all its brazen glory.

After this performance it might feel as though you’ve been bombarded with few textbooks worth of existential philosophy to process. This, though, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is brilliantly audacious theatre that asks us to question ourselves and our assumptions, that attempts to uncover the real heart of the human condition, that endeavors to wake us from our ‘21st century sleep'.

There are points in the production where it seems like this dynamic duo might just have crossed the line of what is morally acceptable, even for progressive theatre, but those wildly inappropriate moments (for example, an awards show sketch honouring the greatest mass murderers of all time) are somehow transformed into a device used to flip our perceptions and prompt our brains out of their dozy stupors.

The musical direction, from Tim Brinkhurst, flawlessly combines biting satirical numbers with country inspired ditties that would not seem out of place at a Dolly Parton show. The accompanying singer/guitarist – a silver fox of a gentleman with a voice like butter and very cool shoes – must also have a mention. Even in our seemingly bleak world of overpopulation, famine, floods, hurricanes and terrorist attacks, one leaves the depths of the Traverse feeling hopeful, even excited, and very glad that it wasn't the end of the world."

See what I mean?

Off to Fife tonight, things are about to get interesting...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

days off and absent friends

October 16, 2011

A day off, with four more to come.  The exhaustion of the last two weeks catches up with us and we nap through a long easy day, gathering around the table at eight to devour Catherine’s Sunday evening roast.  They say there’s no rest for the wicked, but today we caught a break.

October 17, 2011

The weather seems to be finally changing this morning after six weeks of unexpected sunshine and warm weather.  A strong wind rattles the windows and a cold steady rain falls on all those outside cursed with appointments and gainful employment.

Nancy and I hibernate, eating homemade macaroni and cheese, staring out the windows in dreamy silence, letting the minutes tick away uncounted.  I revel in David Eagleman’s magnificent Sum, a book that fills me with the amazement and giddy pleasure I haven’t felt since I was a kid taking Vonnegut and Brautigan down from my parents’ bookshelf. 

 Everything is put aside for today: the show, business back home long since neglected, bills unpaid, all willing to wait patiently in a quiet room down the hall from this dark, wet Edinburgh day.

October 18, 2011

The sun has returned but the day stays cool and I feel the restlessness of too much idle time.

I’ve rewritten the Awards Ceremony bit, taking a good note from Paul Lucas who saw the show on Saturday.  And I’ve got a special insert for the Glenrothes show, October 21st, which is the new date for the End of the World as calculated by Dr. Harold Camping out in California.  Camping was the guy who had it set for last May and he got worldwide attention both before and (especially) after it didn’t quite come off.  We decide to wait and see if the media over here give it any play, if so, we can drop it in on the day. 

In the afternoon I write up the cast list for Captain Overlord’s Folly which is being published by indietheater now, a new outfit.  And I type the name Melissa Lynch and I have to stop and step away from the table for a moment.

Most of you didn’t know Melissa.  Most of the world didn’t since she was killed in a car wreck outside Philadelphia less than a year ago at the heartbreaking and unimaginably young age of 27.

She was here with us three years ago with Captain Overlord and I got to work with her on a couple of other things before that.  Young, talented, beautiful people dying too soon is one of the things you never accept but have to live with as you get older.

There are no words, but I miss her terribly and mourn, not just for her but for all of us who saw her burn so brightly and then saw the light snap off.

She's in the middle up above, between Eva Van Dok and Barb Pitts, in a picture taken about a mile east of where I now sit, a little over three years ago,  a lifetime ago, yesterday.

Thanks for all the good times, kid.  If there's a green room up in heaven, I know I'll see you there .

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

tour diary #5 - last night at the trav

October 15, 2011

That son-of-a-bitch Ben keeps us all in bed until 10:30 on this cursed Saturday morning.  Pete is off to Winchester for a job, gone a week, so we set sail tonight without a captain.

It’s been a tough show to direct.  The cabaret structure means there is no narrative, no story to unfold and coax along, but like any piece of theater it needs cohesion and logical development, a strong sense of internal drive and momentum.  Over the last six weeks Pete has been up late alone at the kitchen table, rearranging bits, building sections and sussing out the spine of the script while the rest of us slept.  I don’t envy him the job, but I’m glad he was there to do it. 

Directing is one of the stranger jobs in this already strange business.  The modern director as we all know it in the West was invented only about a hundred and thirty years ago.  Before that the lead actor or the impresario would pretty much call the shots and everyone was expected to know their lines and bits of stage business and everything worked out fine, or at least as well and as often as it does now.

The writer writes, the designer paints and sews, the players perform, the musicians play and our modern director is tasked with putting it all together, making it all one sensible thing.  Hard enough when you sit down at the first rehearsal with a finished, tested script, but when you’re devising and creating as you go along it’s like working on the engine of a car while it’s flying down the highway, trying to steer and keeping the terrified passengers calm, all at the same time.

After a long, quiet day we get to the theater for a six o’clock call.  Been following the Occupy Wall Street worldwide protests and wondering if we should change some of the lines about the purposelessness of modern-day civil disobedience, but we decide to let it stand for now.

A strange show tonight, the audience is small and quiet, almost frozen in their seats.  But they applaud throughout, something that hasn’t happened before and there is the usual laughter and response at the end.  In the bar afterwards, friends are vocal and sincere in their praise, going on long past what would be obligatory social lying, so we shrug and accept the fact that it was a good show, even if it felt like breaking rocks in the noonday sun.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

tour diary #4 - killing at the traverse

October 14, 2011

I’ve passed my cold on to Pete, so we sniffle and shuffle around the apartment, eat a late breakfast and, inevitably, trawl the internet for reviews.  Thom Dibdin of the Stage weighs in, another positive voice to add into the mix:

"A telling piece which bodes well for Clerke and Gillard’s latest venture after the demise of Benchtours, and makes great use of Edinburgh Festival Fringe favourites, Clancy Productions."

Dibdin’s an old friend from festivals past and we caught up after the show, me careful not to ask him what he thought, him careful not to tip his hand.

 I’ve always had an honest and easy relationship with critics both here and at home, something many of my colleagues find suspicious if not downright perverse.  Maybe it’s from having journalists in the family, but I’ve always found them a hard-working, harried, underpaid lot, always up against a deadline.  I've only felt well and truly screwed a couple of times over the last twenty years; everyone wants to read a rave every time, but then again everyone wants a standing ovation every night, everyone wants to burn the place down.  All you can do is try to do your job and accept that the critic is going to try and do hers.  

Another line-through around the kitchen table, still trying to find that ease and mastery that allow good performances to blaze into great ones.  Nancy and Catherine are both working like champions and I know I’ve given them a Herculean task with this script.  How do you judge without being judgmental?  How do you ask an audience to stare into the abyss and coax a laugh out of them at the same time?  But they’re two pros and they’re both game for it and the show is getting stronger every night.

We meet at the theater at four for a production meeting to go over the next stage of the tour.  The next week is all one-offs, loading in each morning, packing it up and driving home every night.

It’s this part of it, the physical work of theater that I love the most, the gang of people that gather every night and actually do something.  It’s the thing that separates it from almost all of the other arts and a tour magnifies this truth and makes it manifest.  We all have our jobs, unloading, setting up, performing, breaking down, loading up the van again and then Tim or Camilla will drive us all back home.  

Dinner around the corner and then back to the theater where I set up the camera to get a tape of the show tonight.  Free from the draconian Actors Equity Association Code we labor under in New York, we can tape as many performances as we want, put clips up on YouTube and market the show in true 21st century fashion.  Also, we’ll have something to show promoters and producers interested in booking us down the line.  If they can’t see it, they won’t buy it and that’s a hard and fast rule.

Friends are in tonight, Kath Mainland, director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and her man Ray along with the Gridiron crew.  Gridiron is a brilliant local company, heavily awarded from many festivals past and we’ve grown close over the years in the Bedouin way, meeting up every few years in different cities, instant communion, sharing the same stories about different catastrophes, outrages and the occasional rare triumph on the long, strange road of alternative art/show biz.

And it’s a great show for our friends and the others gathered, our strongest show yet I think, though Pete prefers Stirling.  I see his point, Stirling was a funhouse ride with no sense of what was going to happen next, tonight’s show is more controlled with less of the danger and thrill that the real possibility of falling off a cliff sparks in a performer’s eyes, but still, the response is the strongest and most consistent throughout the night and I’m glad I’ve got it down on tape.

Ben from Gridiron buys us all too much wine in the bar afterwards and we will blame him in the morning for being a bad companion and spoiling our good intentions of an early night.

Monday, October 17, 2011

tour diary #3 - traverse

October 13, 2011

I wake nursing a slight cold I picked up wandering Berwick yesterday and sit in the bright kitchen alone drinking coffee and scanning the news sites, marveling at the ascendancy of Herman Cain and then of course searching high and low for any new reviews of the show. Nothing, which is just fine.

We play the Traverse tonight, a theater exactly as old as I am, formed in 1963 and the home of new writing here in Scotland. We started the Horse Country tour here in January of 2003, a great space with the best theater bar in town.

We run lines in the kitchen and then drive up to the Traverse at four, check out the nicest dressing rooms and green room we’ll see for the entire tour and then downstairs to the theater. It’s the only place we’re playing where they’re leaving the fixed seating in as they have an afternoon show each day we’re here. Camilla has managed to get four tables on the deck, squeezed up tight against our stage, but it looks like it will work. Kevin and the technicians are setting the lights and they’re running a little behind so we sit and talk in the shifting darkness, talking through the changes which mostly involve how Nancy and Catherine can move through the crowd during the interview sections and the horsemen cabaret walk bits.

Nancy and I have an early dinner at Shakespeare’s, a pub across the road from the theater. I remember the place from eight years ago when it was thick with cigarette smoke and alive with rugby enthusiasts shouting at the enormous television screens mounted on all the walls. It’s quieter and cleaner now and the clientele sit singly at tables, staring silently at a cricket match with the volume turned down.

Back to the theater and an audience piles in, quickly filling up the tables and spilling into the fixed seating in the back. Another mixed crowd, teenagers, older couples and some friends from festivals past. Critics are in again tonight, the Traverse being a sort of second opening, which is good for us with the benefit of six shows under our collective belt.

A good show, lots of laughter early, but the performers seem tired and are working a little too hard. Big applause at the end and friends in the bar afterwards are generous with what sounds like honest praise. Pete and I know better but are happy with the response. The show is a tightrope and our balance was off tonight, we’ll nail it tonight or tomorrow.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

tour diary #2- berwick-upon-tweed

October 12, 2011

It’s Berwick-upon-Tweed tonight, a small coastal town.

We head south at noon and the road is flat and unremarkable for about an hour until the North Sea appears on our left and we zoom along its looping shore.

Berwick-upon-Tweed changed hands thirteen or fourteen times between Scotland and England, all years ago and in a relatively short span. The English, of course, wrested it back last and we cross the border and drive into the medieval town.

We pile out of the van, Nancy and Catherine stiff from the cramped back seat and we’re at The Maltings Art Center, a pretty little complex perched up on top of this fortified hill of a town. We’re playing in the Henry Travers Studio and while you don’t know his name, we all know his face. Along with dozens of roles in Hollywood films, he was Clarence the angel, sent down to save Jimmy Stewart from jumping off the bridge in Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life. He was born around the corner from here in 1874, the son of an Irish doctor from Cork and he died in California 91 years later. Local boy made very good.

After lunch and coffee in the café we unload the van, set up the stage and leave Camilla and the house technicians to figure out the lights. A line-through in the green room and then Catherine and Nancy find quiet places to rest and I hit the town.

It’s easy to see why this little place was fought over so fiercely and I imagine it’s been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, long before Edward I and Wallace drew swords. It’s set up on a steep hill right between the shore of the North Sea and the broad, deep River Tweed. Fishermen’s paradise and easy to defend. I wander around High Street, in and out of the charity shops and then see an old graveyard on the seaside side of town. I step through the iron gates, feeling like a trespasser and am immediately confirmed in this apprehension when a loud English voice behind me shouts “Hello! Can I help you?

Just looking around”, I say and the white-haired, business-suited owner of the voice bellows,

If you want to see the church, come now before Stephen locks it!”

And then to the unseen Stephen,

Stephen! Someone to see the church! Don’t lock it up yet!

So I’m in the church, turning to thank the Englishman, now gone.

It’s small, stone, beautiful and very old with extraordinary stained glass illuminated by the thin late afternoon sun. I breathe out an involuntary “Wow.” And next to me there’s a chuckle and it must be Stephen, a tiny, old man, his face split by a constant grin. I ask him how old the church is and he tells me the history of The Church of the Holy Trinity and Saint Mary, consecrated in 1652 and finished ten years later, the only parish church built under Cromwell’s reign and the northernmost Anglican church in England. He points up to the roof and says the timbers and the stone walls were all taken from the ruins of the castle that used to stand in the center of town. “They call it recycling now.

Back to the theater and Nancy and Catherine are warming up, I help to set up some tables and then the terrible wait begins. For a performer the hour before the show is hard, but at least there’s a focus to it, you can gather your strength, run the lines in your head, occupy yourself usefully. For the director or the writer, it’s empty time. Nothing for you to do, nothing more to be done, just wait and hope for the best.

Our audience arrives, thirty or so strong. I see a vigorous, elderly woman come in alone, march right up to one of the front tables and sit and lean forward expectantly, elbows on the tabletop, looking like she’s come to a town meeting and prepared for a lively debate. My heart sinks a bit, again remembering the harshness and profanity of the piece, but again, nothing to be done now.

Lights down, curtain up and the show roars to a start, easy and constant laughter in the dark. It’s sloppier than it’s been, both Nancy and Catherine jumping lines, but both in control and steering the dialogue back, covering for each other, the audience never aware that anything is off. A good sign, the relaxed focus of a confident team working together. And the loudest laughs are coming from the old woman in front, reminding me again of the folly of prejudice. Easy to forget that the old were once young and not that long ago and they lived through times arguably more interesting than ours.

Big applause at the end and we break down the show, load up the van, a quick drink in the theater bar downstairs and then the drive back to Edinburgh where we start a three-day stand at the Traverse tomorrow night.

Friday, October 14, 2011

on the road

Been awhile since the Museum's been open for business and honestly thought about burning the old place down for the insurance money.

Glad I didn't, since this is the perfect place to gather around and hear the tale of our fateful trip...

Occasional Cabaret (Peter Clerke and Catherine Gillard) and Clancy Productions (John Clancy and Nancy Walsh) collaborated to create a new cabaret piece Apocalypse! in September, 2011. Original music and musical direction was provided by Tim Brinkhurst, sets and costumes were created by Ali Maclaurin, the show was lit by Kevin MacCallum and production was managed by Camilla O’Neill.

On opening night, October 5, 2011, Joyce McMillan of the Scotsman wrote:

What's exciting about this fierce and ragged show is the way in which it tries to shake up theatrical form… timely, disturbing, and so well worked out in the best of Clancy's writing - that the show is impossible to resist, and it slices down to the hidden reality of the way we live now, in a way that makes the rest of our theatrical world seem pallid, and a little short of the courage it takes to face a terrible truth.

The following is a day-to-day account of the tour.

October 10, 2011

Five weeks ago we walked down the road and started our first rehearsal for Apocalypse. Five days ago we opened in Glasgow to a rowdy reception and three major critics watched and dutifully reported what they saw. No one hated it and the heavy in the crowd loved it, so we live to perform another day. The tour proper starts tomorrow with a date in Stirling, followed by a show in Berwickshire, three nights at the Traverse here in Edinburgh and then on to Aberdeen and points north.

The reviews, as always, set the tone for this next stage. Almost every artist you talk to claims to never read them and every single serious artist I know not only reads them but hunts them down compulsively the moment the curtain is down opening night and then memorizes every word, glowing and damning both. It’s an unjust and unavoidable part of the job. Sentences are handed down by the unelected judges and there is no court of appeals and the death penalty is not only still on the books, but frequently and capriciously rendered.

Our notices range from respectful to very good, so there is none of the doubt and quiet ill will that can poison a company after a few bad reviews.

Two hour rehearsal back in our original room, put two lines right at the top, welcoming the audience in, changes the whole opening, gives the performers a launching pad, working through Nancy’s two monologues, making them broader and more comic. How do you get people laughing about starving kids in Africa? Challenge of the whole show.

October 11

Up late after being up late. This afternoon we drive out to Stirling with three tickets sold. Tim picks us up in a rental and we drive out of Edinburgh around 2:00, past the estates, low stone houses, a beautiful area that we are told is the bad part of town. A part of Edinburgh the Festival crowd never sees. And then we are immediately in the countryside, green farmland stretching away from the road on both sides and the enormous low clouds hugging the hills on the horizon.

A short hours drive, passing the castle of Stirling, site of a great battle and used in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, a movie all Scots scoff at reflexively. About 900 years ago, September 11, 1297, Wallace led his troops across Stirling Bridge, defeating the forces of Edward I. Now you can take an audio tour and get your picture taken with a guy dressed up as a 14th century Scottish warrior.

The venue, the MacRobert, is on the campus of the University of Stirling, renowned for its high rate of suicide among the student population. We pull in, find the theater and find Camilla who’s been here since this morning, setting up.

Our stage sits incongruously in what looks like a small indoor mall. They’ve set us up in the foyer of the main theater with a working bar/cafe stage right and the ladies room stage left. It feels like the kind of place where you’d stand and sing Christmas carols while armies of shoppers trudge by, ignoring you. And in the unintended hilarity of regional touring I see that we’re following a children’s show called How the Koala Learnt to Hug. The MacRobert is covering all of its bases today. Good news is we’ve practically doubled our sales since this morning. Current total ticket sales stands at five.

The actors warm up in the space but it’s hard to run any of the bits because we’re essentially in a public place and little knots of children keep running through, chasing each other and screeching. I realize how profane most of the show is and we all begin to gear up for a rough night.

And then, ten minutes before show time, the magic and mystery of word-of-mouth kicks in and an audience arrives. Couples, groups of students, even a family with their teen-aged son, all buying tickets for the show. We scramble to set up more chairs, even have to add two additional tables and we play a raucous, spirited cabaret to our best house yet, laughing and engaged throughout. There are probably only 35 people there but they feel like 300 and the applause afterwards is long and loud. Pete and I silently shake hands and I thank all the theater gods for blessing us in Stirling tonight.