Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

We Loved Her … We Hope She Knew

I act like someone in a bomb shelter trying to raise everyone’s spirits.”  Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarists

I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”  Carrie Fisher, Shockaholic

 

I am a red-blooded American male. But, it must be noted, I am not a standard one.

Standard ones, whether they’re fans of the Star Wars movies or not, think that the best Princess Leia moment, hands down, is any moment in Episode VI, “Return of the Jedi”, taking place inside Jabba the Hutt’s palace wherein the former Imperial Senator and current leader of the Rebel Alliance is being compelled to wear a ridiculous gold bikini thing.

I’d be lying if I tried to convince you that I never really noticed that scene, or that outfit. I’d also be lying if I tried to suggest to you that as the seventeen-year-old me watched the ensuing big Jabba-Sail-Barge fight scene … wherein the good Princess chokes Jabba to death with her slave-outfit chain and then runs out onto the Sail Barge’s deck and basically destroys it by firing a laser cannon down into it … I didn’t think, “boy, Ms. Fisher must not have had any fun doing all those stunts in that outfit.”

I was, and am, again, non-standard in some ways.

So here’s another way: my favorite Princess Leia moments?

They all involve Ms. Fisher’s smile.

 

Episode IV: Luke Skywalker and Han Solo have just walked half a mile in order to receive their shiny Rebel Alliance gold medals after having blown up the Death Star. The first one. Princess Leia strives mightily to appear every bit the cool, aloof, regal Princess, straight face and all. Luke looks up at her, not yet knowing she’s really his sister, and grins shyly. And Leia levels a smile at him that is partly amusement, hey look the farm boy who’s a little short to be a stormtrooper actually helped us win, and one part affection, yeah actually as it turns out you’re all right, my friend.

Of course, in 1977, we all thought she was suggesting that yeah, in the sequel the farm boy might have half a chance of wooing; and by 1983 we realized that either she wasn’t suggesting that or she was wrong about a detail or two because during that medal ceremony who knew? But the smile is free of Princess Leia’s previous no-nonsense snark – and also free of her utter delight when she leaps into Luke’s and Han’s arms, as they return victorious from the big battle. It’s as if Leia had overheard Luke reminding Han, “I do … I care.” It’s just a very genuine smile. She cares too.

 

Episode V: Luke is having a new mechanical hand attached aboard a Rebel spaceship, and Leia looks on with a concerned look on her face. But as much as she’s concerned about what it must be like to have one’s hand cut off by the biggest baddest Sith Lord in the galaxy, she’s at least as concerned about the fact that shortly after “I love you / I know”, her new beau (who isn’t Luke; and Luke appears to be dealing with this without weeping) was encased in rock and taken away to who knows where.

Over the intercom, Lando Calrissian promises Leia that he’ll pilot the Millennium Falcon and find the frozen Han. Leia doesn’t even nod an acknowledgment – as if she’s anesthetized, retreated into herself, afraid to move for fear that the worry will overwhelm her. But then, from the Falcon‘s cockpit, the faithful Wookiee Chewbacca adds his own version of “don’t you worry”, and the best smile in the world spreads across Leia’s face, metaphorically lighting it up. It’s just a very genuine smile. Other people care about her. A big fuzzy other person cares. How can she resist that?

 

Episode VI: The good guys have prevailed. The bad guys are in ruins. The cute scene in which Leia clues Han in to the truth, which is that she and Luke are siblings and it will be all right for him to give her many pecks on the cheek in the days ahead, is complete. Our heroes are surrounded by partying Ewoks and all’s right with the world(s). One by one, the main characters’ particular modes of celebration are revealed. One of our heroes is missing, though.

In a scene that lasts not more than four seconds onscreen, into the Ewok village finally strides Luke Skywalker, who has missed half the party in order to make a proper Jedi funeral pyre out of his estranged father’s fearsome costume, but now joins his friends. Leia steps away from Han, and the two siblings meet in a relieved and contented hug that has a little physical impact to it.  Han’s the new significant other, but Luke is safe and victorious and he’s family. The smile on Leia’s face has all the emotions of the two previous smiles in it, and something else besides. After all this craziness and quite literally death-defying running about, improbably, she and the long-lost brother she didn’t even know she had (whose identity she hardly would have predicted, at the beginning of all the craziness) are together, and safe, and care about each other, and have surrounded themselves with good people who also care about them.

 

The nice lady responsible for that smile, Carrie Fisher, passed away this morning.

She was an actress. Decades ago, she played those moments as beautifully as one can play them, considering that the movies that contained those moments were silly things, all about zap guns and spaceships and lightsabers and caped space villains and fuzzy co-pilots and one allpowerful Force controlling everything.

So it was a performance. Three particular performances that I’m thinking of tonight. On the days of filming, Ms. Fisher might have been having the worst day of her life, or might have been suffering from sleep deprivation, or might have been ecstatic that it was finally the last day of filming. But good acting has to come from somewhere. And even considering the complicated life she lived – contending with her self-professed mental illness, abusing a long list of controlled substances, divorce and tumultuous personal relationships … that smile had to come from somewhere.

And when that onscreen smile reached her eyes and made them twinkle … that was when I did the teenage-boy heart-skip-a-beat thing.

A non-standard reaction; but it was genuine.

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December 27, 2016 Posted by | celebrity, current events, entertainment, movies, science fiction | , , , , | Leave a comment

Serious Drama

Serious theatre” and I … don’t seem to bang into each other much.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy it when we do. Given the right presenters, I can thoroughly enjoy an evening of Shakespeare, for example. (In performance, ya don’t really need all those footnotes translating 16th century English; you get the gist … you just kinda de-focus your brain a bit and receive the tone of voice and body language, kinda like stepping back and getting a wider-angle view of the scenery.)

I just have much more experience with silly theatre – whether of the children’s-theatre variety or not. Slapstick and bad puns and pratfalls, and books and lyrics that you don’t need Cliff’s Notes to wrap your brain around.

One summer at the fabled creative arts day camp, I participated in the production of a show called “Left Out”, which – in short – was the first time I’d experienced a children’s musical that was a Serious Play With Funny Lines. Its climactic scene, involving the betrayal of the eventual villain by just about everyone else in the cast, was one of those very rare examples of a children’s musical eliciting gasps of surprise from its audience.

But, again, I haven’t trafficked in that sort of drama as a matter of course.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the tougher stuff.

Probably the first play I ever saw which definitely counted as Serious Theatrical Literature came courtesy of a college visit. The college drama guild was performing a fluffy little piece called “The Crucible”.

Holy. o_O

I remember the screaming, and the gnashing of teeth, and the accusations of witchcraft, and the complete and utter lack of a toe-tapping finale.

And not much else. No knock on the collegiate thespians, either. The caterwauling was convincing, and it was in the script, after all. It was impressive; but I determined (with all the life experience of a 17-year-old) that in general, I wasn’t so fond of Dark Foreboding Followed By Shrieking in my stage plays.

So, as I have endeavored in the past several years to dream up some theatrical creations of my own, audiences may note that I tend much more toward quips than angst; more toward character self-examination via brightly-lit song-and-dance than via Hamlet-esque chest-clutching soliloquy in a lonely follow-spot.

Honestly, friends … I wrote a show about chickens and turkeys in a barnyard. It wasn’t exactly entitled “Death of a Poultry Salesman”, either.

So, regarding the coming-to-grips with Serious Theatre, as well as other forms of art and performance, I’ve discovered that sometimes “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” You may not know a thing about sculpture, about poetry slams, about baroque music, about modern dance … but you go because you know a name associated with it. (How many Star Trek fans were introduced to Shakespeare because Patrick Stewart was a purveyor?)

Hold that thought.

This past weekend, I took advantage of that little gateway, and quite enjoyed myself.

I ventured into the eastern sliver of Cambridge, Massachusetts (via the newly-resuscitated MBTA) to attend a play, the final event in a fortnight-long arts festival called “We Are…”

The festival’s organizers, The Poets’ Theatre [www.poetstheatre.org], described the event as “dedicated to the subject of Identity, with a particular focus on gender and race … we will present a series of exciting poets, dance companies, and theatrical events that highlight the urgent discussions about who we are as a nation that fill the headlines today.”

So. Not silly.

And maybe not the kind of thing that I would naturally gravitate toward, as has been previously chronicled.

The play was called “Gilding the Lily”. It was a semi-biographical, ninety-minute piece about Victorian-era English actress Lillie Langtry. The play’s press materials said, “the notorious 19th century celebrity takes the stage as Shakespeare’s Rosalind, but the American critics are unimpressed. Please join Lillie as she examines her life, loves and the Forest of Arden to discover the difficult art of letting our hearts be our craft.”

Okay, there were actually some laughs.

Some of them were in response to Ms. Langtry’s quips; and some were of the sympathetic and somewhat uncomfortable variety, as the audience is reminded of the differences between how we view the world and how the world actually may be. Very few belly laughs; lots more knowing murmurs.

So, an unmistakable air of a character holding back the incursion of realities she may not wish to face directly, just yet.

It was a terrific evening.

It was a one-person show.

It was a play written, produced, performed (and, one must assume, promoted) by one single person.

There’s a reason why I always participated in school theatrical productions from the safety of the orchestra pit: I’m no good at memorizing lines of dialogue. At all. Unless I spend years living with them, and that is not hyperbole.

And a one-person show is in fact one gigantic line of dialogue. I had nothing but admiration for folks who memorize a single role in a show, and can be reminded of what they’re supposed to be doing, if necessary, by the other actors.

If you experience memory block in a one-person show, there’s no safety net. The silence, I imagine, might seem many decades long; the focus of the spotlight, blinding and unforgiving. I’ll keep my show music safely in front of me, thank you.

On top of which, if you’re presenting a one-person show of your own creation, you are laying yourself doubly or quadruply bare. This is my work; this is my performance; if you like it, that’s wonderful; if you don’t, there’s nowhere to deflect the critique. It’s all on you. No risk, no reward, they say. The rewards, I imagine, are grand. The peril, I suspect, is similarly sweeping.

As the play finished, and the lengthy ovation subsided, I leaned over to my theater-going comrade (who doubles as a lifelong friend) and whispered, “I can’t do any of that.” She chuckled madly.

I left you hanging, a while back.

There was that sometimes frustrating “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” aphorism.

This phrase more often applies to securing employment or gigs or similar opportunities for one’s self. In this case, I turned it to my advantage: I accessed a piece of dramatical artistry that I may not have actively sought out otherwise. A different sort of opportunity.

And I did so because I knew the play’s creator, and promoter, and presenter.

Her name is Susannah Melone.

Something like three decades ago, she was a creative-arts day-camp student, acting on stage in the middle of that serious play with funny lines called “Left Out”. I was a member of the camp faculty pit orchestra. And until this weekend, I hadn’t seen her live and in-person, for most of those three decades.

We camp counselors occasionally would wonder which of the on-stage kids might one day do what they were doing, but for a living, professionally … and perhaps dimly wondered if we’d ever get to see them in action.

Yes, of course I came to your show,” I said to her afterward, when she suggested (overestimatingly!) that my presence at the show was any kind of a big deal.

For openers, it’s what we do for friends. Come and support them. Woo hoo! and Rah rah rah guys! and all that.

But via her social media postings over the past few years, I’d gotten the sense, however remotely, of the work and research it took her to wrestle “Gilding the Lily” into being, and of the perspiration and desperation and inspiration and outright love that it took to haul the thing onto stages in New York and, now, “home” to Boston.

And it didn’t take much observation to sense that this was going to be For Real.

Because along with being a producer and writer and such, she’s an Actor. A card-carrying, professional, New York City-based actor, and (to my admittedly unpracticed eye, based at least on what I saw the other night) a great one.

For the first about six minutes, as she trod the boards, I was watching my friend Susannah, whom I hadn’t seen in ages.

For the next about eighty-four minutes, I was laughing and sighing with Lillie.

That, I mused afterward, must be how it’s done.

April 12, 2015 Posted by | arts, CRCAP, entertainment, friends, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Payoff

I went and got myself a little culture last night. (In the land of my upbringing, here in the great northeast of the United States, that’s pronounced “cult-chah”.)

In my current music-ed line of work, I’m mostly in front of or otherwise in charge of some artistic endeavor or other. So, although it’s not a politically-correct phrase anymore, it’s still true: it’s nice every once in a while to be an Indian and not a Chief.

So I jumped in the car, drove for a while, found the former firehouse that had been converted into a little black-box theater, and settled into a seat in the back corner of the house (the better to not have anyone whisper “down in front!” at me). For twenty minutes, I perused the playbill and watched other people come in and decide on their favorite general-admission seats … and then the lights above me went down, the lights on stage went up, and the community-theater presentation of a rather famous musical show began.

To this show, I had carried a couple of items of unfortunate baggage.  Here’s the first:

In the mid-1990s, a snarky little movie was released called “Waiting for Guffman”, which told the story of a community-theater group in a Midwestern town. The movie was made by the same people who made “A Mighty Wind”, “Best in Show”, and “This Is Spinal Tap” – all “mockumentaries” which poked fun at recreational activities and their participants. “Guffman” has been a favorite of mine, not merely because one of the characters is played by an actor to whom I bear some resemblance. A lot of its humor comes from the foibles of some purveyors of the amateur musical-theatre activity. It does so as gently as probably can be done, revealing most of its story’s small-town would-be actors as enthusiastic, doggedly serious about their craft, and blissfully unaware that most of them are only vaguely good at it … and perhaps pathetically noble through all of that. Still, Fred Willard is in it, so there’s going to be a certain amount of over-the-top.

So I went to last night’s show having not been to a super lot of what could be called “local amateur community musical theater” productions. I’ve been involved in children’s theater for quite some time now, and I understand all too well the truth that in those shows, utter perfection will likely not be achieved. There, we’re focusing at least as much on offering our kids the experience of Putting On A Show which may inspire them to keep doing it throughout their lives … as we are on hitting marks, singing great notes, saying the funny lines such that people will laugh, and speaking clearly so the audience can hear.

I wasn’t sure what I should expect from, if you will, “grownups’ theater”. Or even whom I should expect.

The cast ranged in age from “just out of college” to “my kids are just out of college”. There were some very, very fine voices attached to a lot of those people, even if all of them hadn’t been voice majors. Good thing: it was challenging stuff. And much more often than not, the acting made me forget that it was acting.

And, as a pit-orchestra veteran, I appreciated how well last night’s pit orchestra rose to the challenge of the particular score they were tasked with playing, and also how well they did it from a location that was completely out of sight of the stage. That’s how “little” this little black-box theater was. The pit was somewhere backstage. I think. It was either telepathy or, more likely, a whole lot of quality rehearsal that gave the audience reason to believe that the pit was “out of sight” figuratively as well as literally.

A few paragraphs ago, I did mention that I’d carried more than one piece of baggage to the show. Here’s the other. It’s a piece of baggage that weighed on me at the start of the evening.

I own the DVD of the Broadway revival of this particular show, from about seven years ago. On top of that, I’ve bookmarked and carefully watched the video of a recent staged-concert version of this show, which is currently posted (infringing copyright heavily) on YouTube.

The people in those productions are professionals with the experience, and the willingness to study their craft, and the kind of talent, that gets people in position to be On Broadway in the first place. Slaving at the five-and-ten, dreaming of the great day when … they’ll be in a Show.

The Broadway people whose names we know – and *the influence of whose performances we can recognize in other people’s interpretations of their roles!* – are phenomenal performers. They are so good at their job that they can do it practically in their sleep … while deathly ill … or while myriad offstage calamities are simultaneously befalling them. No matter what, they are utterly, reliably skilled, such that they make us believe it’s effortless. They make us forget that they’re humans, and could flop at any moment unless they bring their “A” game all the time.

Most other people on earth who try to do what they do … stand a nearly-one-hundred-percent chance of not looking or sounding quite that good. Because for the majority of us (and I am part of that “us”, no doubt!), our “A” game will not look like their “A” game.

The people on stage last night were bucking those odds. As well, they were putting on a show that at least a few of the people in the audience, myself included, knew backwards and forwards. I found myself mouthing most of the words to most of the tunes. It sure wasn’t a totally new show, never-before-seen. It wasn’t one of those shows which closed after three performances on Broadway in 1951 and then faded into obscurity, songs and all. People knew what that show was supposed to look and sound like. And yet more perilous: some of us had brought precise and recent images of award-winning performances with us into that black-box theater last night.

Probably not fair to load all this on top of a cast made up of people with degrees in subjects other than greasepaint. But boy, it was fun. It was almost as if the cast was gleefully thumbing its collective nose at the risks of putting that sort of show on.

All of this is not to offer some kind of patronizing apology for the fact that the Broadway Illusion Of Complete Perfection tends to be seen only on Broadway. (Broadway people will probably be able to quote you chapter and verse about the miscues and screwups and other imperfections that they’ve been part of, even though the paying customers might not have noticed any of them.) No need to say something condescending like “not bad, for amateurs”. Last night’s was a thoroughly enjoyable show – probably because of, not in spite of, the fact that the presenters were taking part in the activity for the love of it.

The word “amateur” has taken on an unfair connotation. It’s come to imply low-quality performance, or a lack of training. But at heart, doesn’t it mean … “we’re just not getting paid”?

In fact, I think I had such a good time because the presenters generally didn’t make a living at it. Only a couple of them had majored in this stuff. Many had plenty of experience treading the boards, but it was their avocation, not their vocation. I think I discovered that, as much as I enjoy laying out big bucks every so often to see someone like Harry Connick Jr. strut his stuff, or to listen to the Boston Symphony Orchestra play a definitive version of a classical work, the payoff of a performance presented by people who don’t do it for a living can often be at least as great. That curtain call last night seemed genuinely joyful.

True: in my case, it helped that I knew a couple of the folks involved with the show. Full disclosure. I was rooting pretty hard.

Regardless … last night’s payoff was good and big.

 

[Most of the shows in the Marblehead Little Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” are sold out, but there may yet be a couple of tickets left for one of next weekend’s shows. Please do go here to find out. I think you will not be sorry you did.]

March 15, 2014 Posted by | arts, entertainment, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment