Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Road Trip-Part 1: The "Scottish Play" and the Sensitivity of Initial Conditions to its Impact

I'd like to take you on a trip with me.  
I've already taken this trip.  And as the song says, "what a long, strange trip it was," too.  It took place at the end of summer, 1985.  It was after I graduated from college.  It was after my first professional gig as an actor outside of school.  With all the stuff I owned at the time crammed into my old Chevy Chevette, I was going to drive across the country, from Park City, Utah to Flat Rock, North Carolina, to see my sister get married, then go off into my new life of becoming a performing artist. 
It didn't quite happen like that.  Not by a long shot.  
This trip, which I refer to in my own personal history as "The Road Trip," it...  Well, it...  Changed me.  The handful of people I knew from before this journey that I've kept in touch with have all noted and mentioned it to me.  
I've tried several times to figure out how these changes took place, the buttons in my psyche that the Road Trip pushed.  I have a collection of unfinished stories where I attempted to pull some scene or moment from the Road Trip and use it as the representative moment for the experience.  None of those fictional attempts have been successful.  
So, I've decided to give it another try, here.  It will take us a while to reach our destination.  About six weeks, I'm guessing.  By the time I'm done, maybe...  Hopefully...  I'll be able to tell you what the Road Trip means for me.  If not, then maybe one of you can tell me instead.  
Like most strange little tales, the story of The Road Trip began on an dark and stormy night...
In June of 1985, I graduated, with honors, from Cal State Fullerton with a BA in Theatre Arts with an emphasis in acting.  A little name dropping moment: Marc Cherry, the creator of "Desperate Housewives" was in my graduating class.  We knew each other well and even once did a scene for someone's directing project where we danced together (I led).   
A week after graduation I was on the road to Park City, Utah.  I had auditioned for and had been cast in several roles in the Park City Shakespeare Festival.  Park City is a ski resort just east of Salt Lake City.  Today it's also famous as the site of the Sundance Film festival.  Two friends from school, Wendy and Erica, had also been cast in various roles in the festival.  
The play opening the festival was Macbeth.  I was playing the role of "Ross-plus."  I called it Ross-plus because in addition to the part of Ross, Tony, the director, gave me the lines for Angus and any other unnamed lord that was in the play.  Tony hadn't been at my audition.  He told me that if he had, he would have cast me in a much bigger role.  To make up for that, he was going to pad my part as much as he could and put me on the stage at every opportunity.  Thus was born, "Ross-plus."  
I enjoyed playing Ross-plus.  I played around a lot in making up the character, who would be seen talking with Macduff and then later chumming it up with Macbeth.  It gave Erica, who played Lady Macduff, and I a scene where we came up with this idea of a secret illicit affair as subtext that made it really fun.  This scene was followed by the one where Ross has to tell Macduff that Macbeth had his wife murdered.  Really dramatic stuff.  I also had a fight scene that wasn't in the script added for me, where I got to "kill" the guy who played the murder.  Very cool stuff.   
For the uninitiated, I think this is where I should point out that Macbeth has a particular history in theatre lore.  It's considered to be a "cursed" play.  It is bad luck to say the name of the play in a theater.  The safer nomenclature is, "The Scottish Play."  And the main character is to be called, "The Scottish Prince."  If you DO say "Macbeth" out loud, then you are required to leave the theater immediately and perform a ritual before you can be allowed back in.  The specifics of the ritual can change from theater to theater, and from actor to actor.  What I learned was that you had to go outside, turning around three times in place, spit, and then politely ask your colleagues to be allowed back into the space. 
There are actors who take this superstition and the attendant ritual VERY seriously.  At a previous Shakespeare festival I'd performed at, in Garden Grove, I was forced by one of the other actors to do this very same ritual when...  Something other than "The Scottish Play," slipped from my lips.  
Historical Note: There is actually a reason behind the superstition surrounding Macbeth.  Macbeth is, from a historical standpoint, the most popular play in the English language, having had more performances since its original opening than any other.  It was so popular that theaters that found themselves running out of money would stage a production in order to have an inexpensive, sure-fire "hit" that would bring much needed cash into their coffers.  Often this influx was too little, too late.  The theatrical world started to notice the growing number of theaters closing after a production of Macbeth.  It was from that observation that Macbeth's reputation as a "cursed play" began.  
All of us in the festival knew about this superstition, of course.  Should we open the festival with Macbeth?  With all these fight scenes, swinging these heavy metal swords that sparked and clanged, might not someone get hurt?  How would rehearsals go?  
They went well.  Very well, in fact.  Macbeth had one of the smoothest rehearsal processes of any show I can remember being in.  Wendy, who played Lady Macbeth, was wonderful in the role.  Erica, who was double-cast as Hecat, and I worked on our scene.  And I was running all over the place as Ross-plus.  I remember on dress rehearsal night, someone commenting about how well everything had gone up until that point.  "Guess there isn't much to this 'Macbeth' thing after all,  huh?" I believe they said.  
The next day, the storm hit. 
And it was a big one.  The largest thunderstorm to hit Northern Utah in umpteen years.  Somewhere west of Salt Lake City, one of its lightening bolts hit a power station.  The entire northern half of the state, including Park City, was in blackout.  
We were performing in a tent set up at the Park City Community Center.  It was starting to sprinkle when I made the walk from the condos where they put us up to the center.  By the time I got there, the tent was shaking and thrashing about from the wind.  There would be brilliant flashes of light, followed by rolling artillery blasts of thunder.  Some of our cast members, predominately Mormons from local schools, were huddled in the darkness, praying and crying.  
Guess we got all the Macbeth bad luck all at once.  
But there was no talk of canceling the show.  For one thing, we HAD a FULL HOUSE!  With every television and movie screen without power, sitting in the cold and dark to watch Shakespeare didn't seem so bad.  Everyone who had a car was asked to park it around the tent.  We used the car's headlights to light the stage.  
And the performance was...  Fantastic.  For one thing, everyone was keyed up.  And it FELT like we were in medieval Scotland, with the cold and the dark and the rain.  Every part of the play was elevated.
For instance, there's a scene early on, after Duncan, the previous king, is murdered by Macbeth.  Ross and Macduff are talking.  At one point Ross asks Macduff if he'll be going to Scone, where Macbeth is headed.  Macduff's response is, "No, Cousin.  I'll to Fife."  
This is a big deal.  It's the first indication that Macduff doesn't trust Macbeth.  It is an act of defiance and is tantamount to treason to go home instead of joining the king.  Brent, the guy who played Macduff, and I worked on scene a lot in the hopes of conveying the seriousness of his response to the audience. 
On opening night, this is what happened...
There was a lull in the storm when I made my entrance.  I'm talking to "The Old Man" about the previous night's deadly business.  The guy playing the Old Man didn't have to fake his shudder, it was freezing cold on stage.  
Brent, as Macduff, makes his entrance.  You can hear the wind whistling and whispering outside the tent, making the sheets flap and shake and the water trapped on the surface  of the tent above slosh about.  I feel the very real chill in the air eating into my bones as we talk about horsing breaking the stalls and eating each other, and murderous children fleeing the country.  
I look at Brent/Macduff.  He's only two feet away, but all I can really make out is his silhouette from the light of a Ford truck poking it's nose in under a tent flap off stage left.  I ask him, "Will you to Scone?"  
Brent/Macduff turns to face me.  It that resolve I see in his eyes?  Or is he struggling to hold it together against all the confusion caused by the storm.  "No, cousin," he says to me.  "I'll to Fife."  
Right after he says that, there is this HUGE crash of thunder.  It sounds like the sky has broken in two directly over our heads.  The whole tent dances like a convicted man hanging by his neck at the end of his rope.  
I take a step back.  I can see Brent's eyes are as wide as mine.  I wait for the sound effects to end to deliver my final lines and quickly leave.  
Back stage, when Brent gets back there, we immediately find each other and say to each other at the same time, "Did YOU SEE THAT?  YEAH, I was RIGHT THERE WITH YOU!"   
We got our reviews a few days later.  Everyone loved the show.  One paper said that if we could perform this well under such conditions, imagine how well we could do when we had everything in place.  That same paper later named me and Brent the two best performers over the course of the festival.  
That's where I started from when I went on The Road Trip.  I was young and confidant.  Sure of myself and my abilities.  I mean, if I could take the Macbeth curse head-on in the form of a blackout causing storm and turn into a positive, then NOTHING was going to stop me from getting where I wanted to be.  
Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Wendy, Myself & Erica, backstage during Macbeth - 1985


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