Wednesday, May 13, 2009

High School Musical

Here's an interesting bit.

Apparently, Amanda Palmer of Dresden Dolls and solo fame, teamed with her old high school drama teacher to put on a musical based on a Neutral Milk Hotel album, which was inspired by the story of Anne Frank. Or something.


Reading about it and watching a few minutes online did, indeed, make me miss the brief period of footlights and greasepaint from my own youth. I would have loved to have been involved in anything this interesting for a production in high school, and while we didn't stick to kiddie-stuff, I was often disappointed we weren't tackling material I might have had more interest in actually performing.

It is true that I, myself, tried my hand at acting in high school. Nothing as elaborate as bringing in a popular indie rock star, but we did several shows a year. We had auditions and rehearsals before school ever started, and usually ran two shows before the winter break, tucked a musical in there, had a spring show and maybe another. Its hard to recall exactly how it all went down, but we ran a lot of plays.

Admittedly, I wasn't much of an actor. I had a hard enough time getting "off book" (I plead made-up learning disability), and was never comfortable with the pantomime that has to occur in stage acting so that every facial movie, every line delivered, etc... reaches the person in the last row. And inhabiting other people's skins wasn't something, I suppose, I was terribly good at.

Also, my assumption is that my line delivery was akin to the sing-songy line delivery which marks most high school and community theater.

I still recall the look of horror on the basketball coach's face when I informed him I was (a) quitting the basketball team, and (b) that I recognized I needed an activity to keep me off the drugs, so I was going to try out for a play.

Amazingly, I landed an understudy role in a 40-minute version of "Midsummer Night's Dream", which actually had The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons in it as "Flute" and Broadway actor Charlie Pollock as "Bottom". And, come to think of it, Jeff Miller of Christian rock band Caedmon's Call.

Huh. never thought of it that way before.

Anyway, it was for a UIL competition, and we had an honest-to-god scandal and were booted out of state competition for a minor rule infraction. All very dramatic.

Its probably important to note that I was not quite of the proportions then that I am now, so people were not looking for me to play "Thug #2" or "Man-Child #7", as I have no doubt I'd be cast now (and did, in fact, get cast a a man-child in a friend's scene in college). We did "Rimers of Eldritch", "Rumors", "The Crucible", "You Can't Take it With You", "All My Sons", "Watch on the Rhine", and, I am sure, one or two others.

We had a few musicals. I sort of preferred backstage work. (A) It was less likely I'd screw up while standing in front of however many people came to the play. (B) Building sets, hanging lights, messing with all that stuff, was a lot more fun than running over the same lines, over and over. There's a lot less in the way of access to power tools when all you're doing is acting.

I don't know how or why, but I wound up in the "fly booth" when we did "Bye, Bye Birdie". This meant I did only two or three things during the duration of the play, but I couldn't leave the actual booth as I couldn't turn on the lights needed to make it from point A to Point B. So for about three hours I had to just sit in this box, and on cue, move signs up and down on a few cranks.

Its a job that is supposed to go unnoticed, but a few pals came to the show, and when I dropped the first sign onto the set, I heard a chorus of "Steeeeaaaaannns" erupt from the audience, just as they'd done when I was shooting free throws on the basketball team. It was sort of gratifying.

What I'd say to our younger readers: I've only seen small bits of the Disney hit, "High School Musical", but... the movie doesn't really reflect much of what happened during any of our plays. There was less dancing, singing about our love, and a lot more snarkiness and sitting around backstage chatting and missing our cues. I don't if the fiction of Disney's musical is particularly helpful, and I'm sure its led to all kinds of confusion for eager-faced kids ready to sing and dance, and finding out that its mostly standing around and occasionally getting yelled at by a tired drama teacher who doesn't want to wrangle any more kids.

I also worked backstage at a bizarre cash grab by the Performing Arts teachers at our school. Someone cooked up the idea to do a revue. Which meant a large cast, lots of set changes, and getting practically any kid who auditioned into the show. And then $8 a head for their parents and friends. And with a cast, band, crew, etc... of around 100 students doing 4 shows, we went SRO all four shows and did okay. Apparently it helped fund our next show or two.

We had a complete set change between every number or two, which was interesting. We had to recruit a bunch of freshman who'd never worked a play before, but we got our act together, and our little unit never missed a beat. I'm still proud of those kids.

Oddly, I blame this play for my recurring nightmare. Its not dissimilar to the standard "I'm back in school, and I need to take a test" dream that, reportedly, you never shake. About 3 or 4 times a year, I still wake up in a cold sweat having dreamed that I showed up to work backstage at a play, but I was supposed to be in a musical, singing and dancing. I have neither skill, so I feel frustrated that someone put me in the position of being in the play in the first place, and I am not clear on how it got to be opening night and I never knew I was in the show.

Backstage, its very much like the "Bit O' Broadway" musical revue. But on stage, I have no idea what's happening. Its something else entirely.

To my credit, I refuse to give up in this dream, declare that the show must go on, and always sort of wander out on stage, waving my arms around and sort of shuffling to the music. I will be happy to demonstrate sometime.

Not wanting to draw attention to my lack of rehearsal, I always kind of hang around the back of the chorus, just try my best to lip synch to the rest of the kids, and get off stage as quickly as possible. Sometimes I have to improvise a solo, but most times, not.

What's weirdest is that some mental sub-routine always actually has songs going to some made up dream musical that some part of my brain is writing. There are sets and costumes and the whole nine-yards that my conscious brain is incapable of putting together. I'd really love to know what this musical is, sometime. Which reminds of the library in the Sandman comics, of the books that people had dreamed but which had never existed.

Anyhow, it always has a sad lack of Amanda Palmer.


rhpt said...

I listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I don't understand all the hagiography over it.

Nathan said...

I've actually seen HSM2. It isn't bad. But it's more like "High School Movie Musical." It has much more to do with Hollywood of the 1950s than any theatrical work.

NTT said...

Drama and high school theater is always fascinating. Having had a bunch of friends be in theater you got a kind of funny outside view of everything going on.

Speaking of theater/musical related, you should check out Glee, the new show on Fox. It's being run by the guy who created Nip/Tuck so it's brimming with vicious satire. I admit I laughed pretty hard at the trailer:

Michael Corley said...

Some of my fondest memories are of prepping for UIL plays at Westwood. To this day I use the voice skills Ms. Knifton gave us for cheesy scottish accents.

I too have a dream. But it involves an annual haunted house I'm putting on with JAL. The worst part is it doesn't fail, it just SUCKS. That's my greatest fear, it seems, not to loose, but to be the suck.

The League said...

I think that's probably partially responsible for my anxiety in the dream. In no way will I NOT bring the show down around my ears and ruin it for everyone.

Sort of like team sports, a play has a hard time rising above its weakest link. And showing up, not knowing the music, dance steps, etc... on top of having no skills in those areas... yeah.

J.S. said...

Randy is wrong. Neutral Milk Hotel is a rad band, and Aeroplane ios a great album. It saddens me that they never put out another.