Monday, May 21, 2012

"Ragtime" For A Lifetime

Most people rarely have events that can be considered seminal, events that are so influential that they spawn a whole new way of looking at things. This is particularly true when you are as old as I am and you believe yourself to have a pretty good handle on life . Not to burst anyone's bubble, especially amongst peers in my age group, but life is an organic thing. Every now and again, if new things aren't planted the old things tend to their own languor. Eventually, they die. Over the last two months, I have progressively engaged in one of those "seminal events" through my involvement in the Near West Theatre production of "Ragtime", the stage adaptation of the novel by E.L. Doctorow. For history geeks, like me, the subject matter for this play runs head first into historical inspection. Fictional characters like Coalhouse Walker, Sarah, Father, Mother, Younger Brother and the Little Boy are interwoven with the compelling historical figures of Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman. Combined, these characters form the plot for an engaging historical quest of America during the emerging years of the 20th Century and a very real look at the racial, ethnic and class divisions that were so apparent in the period. Now, before becoming involved in this production, it had been 28 years since I had been involved in anything theatrical, dating back to my senior year at Bay High School for the spring musical "Guys and Dolls". Back then, my involvement in that production was a crowning achievement in a fun, if not terribly accomplished, four year stint at Bay. Looking back to that and participating in choir in middle school, those were, quite likely, the aged ground work that constituted my performing arts resume up to this point. Sad, but true! But it was always at the encouragement of my dear parents that I stayed involved in theater, if only as a patron. Regularly, I would see productions of many of the classic Broadway musicals and adaptations of dramas like "Death of a Salesman". On my trip to New York City in 1990, I was fortunate enough to see the marvelous comedy "Lettuce and Lovage" with the incomparable Maggie Smith and the stage adaptation of "A Few Good Men" with Bradley Whitford knocking the role of Lt. Daniel Calfee clear out of the park. Still, my theater involvement remained in the stands and not on the stage. The closest I'd come to anything remotely theatrical was the occasional dalliance into drinks at a karaoke bar and being prodded by friends to sing a number or two and my involvement in historic lifestyle reenactment. Karaoke, while fun, pales in comparison to true theater. Reenacting, while assuming a persona and wearing a costume to reflect the historical period, doesn't quite measure up theatrically either though there are obvious similarities. Now, my dear friend Theresa, whom I have known for a few years whilst reenacting, had joined us this year at the St. Patrick's Day celebration of an old friend of mine. While talking with my longtime companion, Karen, they began discussing her newest theatrical involvement. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that I had always intended to get involved again in theater. Over the years, my experiences as a spectator would consistently conjure up those memories of "Guys and Dolls" and the middle school choir. I was sure that I'd become involved again, since my patronage of theater never really waned. Theresa and Karen talked and Theresa was concerned at the lack of male voices in the chorus for her latest project. This was the point in time where Theresa asked Karen: "can he sing?" For what it's worth, that would be an affirmative. As I sat in the house, talking politics or sports or whatever the hell else came to mind with friends, Theresa and Karen had arrived at the point that I needed to be recruited for Theresa's theatrical endeavor. With the sales pitch commencing, I was skeptical, since I was taking a class for a future career as a paralegal and work had been a steady and ongoing hassle for someone running a department largely on his own. I had also been injured in a fall a couple weeks earlier, so there was that complication. Nevertheless, as I listened, it occurred to me that this would be worth a shot since I'd always seen myself returning to the stage and if things with school or work really got out of hand I could opt out. I would be at rehearsal the next evening, doing a quick vocal audition for Jordan the Musical Director. As the evening progressed, I would meet some of the members of the cast. Among them would be Geoff, who was playing Coalhouse Walker, and Hans, who was playing Tateh. It was all quite a blur. But before the end of the evening, I was informed that I had the necessary talent to become a member of the cast and would be welcomed aboard personally by Bob the Artistic Director. Over the coming weeks of rehearsal, I would be shaking off some very apparent rust that had grown on my not-that-well-developed acting gears, as well as participating in team building and role playing exercises necessary to building the framework for a successful theatrical cast. That would build into the rehearsal of scenes and the staging work that the audience sees in the finished production. All the while, I was learning the material and meeting and making new friends in the process. The complication that I had as we neared Opening Night was the reality that my paralegal class was also nearing it's end and that schedule conflict was increasingly becoming unavoidable. Decisions would need to be taken to benefit both endeavors. Fortunately, a friend in class was willing to scan and e-mail her notes and I was able to opt out of the last two, largely useless as it turned out, classes. That left me in the clear for crucial Wednesday evening rehearsals as the opening of the curtain awaited. When Opening Night arrived, I felt good. But the nerves that come with a first non-stop performance were there. On top of that, it was an abysmally humid evening that would take a toll on everyone physically. I would flub my line in the opening number (this would happen a few more times through the course of the play for some inexplicable reason that even I had a problem coming to terms with). But, by and large, the opening night and weekend, consisting of two shows, would go off as well as could be expected. Through the course of our nine show run, we grew stronger and closer as a unit of cast, crew and production team. The camaraderie continued to build. And individual scenes and moments became that much more poignant. The finale, a Sunday matinee, came off of an epic Saturday evening performance. Our voices had yet to sound as good as they did the night before. Before our usual vocal warm-ups, mike checks and other details prior to opening curtain, we were asked to write about what our involvement in this production meant to us. I will share this as I conclude here. But, the Sunday matinee, was an unqualified success and exceeded the Saturday evening performance on several levels. Friends and colleagues, many of which had extensive experience on the stage, were overwhelmed by the sheer quality of the production throughout. A few of those seasoned veterans remarked that this production could have been staged in much larger cities and venues and gotten an even larger response. The reviews described an overall majestic run of musical theater for Near West Theatre's "Ragtime" at a time when the organization is building for a very bright future. As we neared the end of our time together, we did some rudimentary cleanup in the theater, packed up props and staging and returned the facility of the St. Patrick Club Hall to as much of it's found condition as we could. After a communal meal, we gathered to share funny experiences during the production and to share thoughts and gifts with the group. Once we finished, we sought out individual cast members to offer personal thanks for how they made individual experiences in the production that much more meaningful. For me, the farewell process concluded what could probably be described as one of the most meaningful experiences to date. I shared with many in the company how much what they brought to this production meant to me personally. In return, I expressed my remorse for not becoming involved in theater that much sooner. I remembered my Mother, who would have turned 75 this Wednesday and the way she and my Father instilled in their youngest son a love for theater and performing arts. I'm certain they would have been in that audience yesterday if they were still around and they would have been very proud. Most importantly, as I thanked Theresa, I embraced her as hard as I could, sobbing uncontrollably in gratitude for what can only be described as a gift for which I could never adequately repay. As "Ragtime" has ended, it has begun a new chapter in my life. I greeted many of my fellow members of the company with the ardent hope that we would once again have the chance to play again in the future. This, for me, would be an ultimate thrill for which the opportunity cannot come soon enough. Till we reach that day, I await a glorious reunion. Until then, the memories of Near West Theatre's "Ragtime" 2012 sustain me.


Geoff Short said...

Dave - this was beautiful. Thank you for so eloquently describing our experience. It was a pleasure working with you and an even bigger pleasure getting to know you. I look forward to doing it again soon. Geoff ("Coalhouse Walker")