The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular! : A Spectacular Summary

Well, we did it. It may not be topping the charts anymore, but I and some generous friends of mine, we put on a show; a variety show; a "spectacular." On a personal level, it was a really nice adventure for me. I got to produce something I want to see more of in the world, and though it was really my first time producing something completely solo, I got to experience that anxiety (comparable, frankly, only to the anxiety I felt in the week leading up to my wedding) in a familiar environment at ETC. In fact, this was sort of my Zuppa show for the year, as Zuppa del Giorno is on an indefinite hiatus from our show-making. Maybe that explains the anxiety -- I was squeezing two months' worth into about two days.

The greatest disappointment of the show was really a fairly insubstantial, and familiar, one. That is, the audience turn-out and (presumably) corresponding community awareness. I worked quite hard at getting that part of it supported and improved from the theatre's usual struggles yet, given the fact that the event was only $5 with an open bar, have to concede defeat. This short-fall is one thing when you know you're doing something experimental or otherwise unpopular, and much the same thing when the product turns out below expectations for one reason or another. Neither was the case here, though.

My performers...were...AWESOME. Seriously. You should have been there. AWESOME. I can admit to some bias, but really, I am quite cynical when it comes to productions of which I'm a part; especially when I have some creative control beyond the actor's usual lot. I'm here to tell you that unless you were one of the 30 or so members of the audience, you missed out. Fortunately, I'm here to sum it up for you a bit. I may post video in the coming weeks, too, with the performers' permission. In the meantime, some pithy-tude and photography, the latter taken largely by Ms. Alicia Grega-Pikul.

The real process began with the arrival of the performers around 2:00 the day of the show. That gave us approximately four-and-a-half hours in which to look at what we had, what we needed, and string it all together into a pleasing shape. Billy Rogan and I -- with a little very helpful directorial assistance from Heather Stuart -- spent some small time Sunday figuring out the framework that we as MCs would use, but apart from that it was done on the day. Kate Chadwick, Richard and Sheridan Grunn, Patrick Lacey, Billy and I in the room, figuring it all out. The experience was especially solitary because neither the administrator of the second-stage program nor the technical director of the theatre were in town. This made for a kind of hectic weekend of prep for yours truly, but was also truly nice when we nervous jumpers-in (of the head-first variety) got down to brass tacks. Six of us in a space, working. It would have been a mess if I had performers who were especially insecure or needy. Such was not the case. So as people showed me their pieces, other people searched for props, and still others went about experimenting with linking their performances with other folks. And by 6:30, we knew what we were about.

That's a total lie, but not knowing exactly what we were about was part of the idea in the first place. So...

There were pre- and post-show slideshows during the mingling and sipping. The pre-show one was made entirely of sketches of people's visions of the future as they imagined it between 1890 and 1920, which I loved having projected across a shredded ballroom from the 1800s. When we got underway, I said a few introductory words about Scranton and vaudeville, and then introduced Billy, who was late due to mingling with the crowd. Billy and I opened the show by establishing our relationship as guys who had different ideas of wanting the show to be good -- me uptight, he relaxed, which segued nicely into his playing one of his songs to open. We set Billy up so he could move about, but had a nice old easy chair stage left for home base. This worked really nicely, so that he belonged on stage, but didn't have to distract from the more independent performances. Billy's a very versatile and charismatic performer, as both musician and comedian, and I owe a tremendous amount of the show's function to his presence. In fact, you really should be listening to his music while you read this, just for mood's sake.

Hard on the heels of Billy's lyrical opening came Richard's Urbano's Kitchen, in which a rather mad-looking Italian chef unleashes dish after dish upon an unsuspecting restaurant. Richard has the kind of dash that can pull this kind of act off, and that's a rare quality. Essentially, the act consists of him excitedly throwing trash on the audience in the form of yarn spaghetti, paper farfalle and plastic-bag salad. Richard has a way of doing this that compromises none of the anarchic spirit, yet feels somehow inviting, and he had the perfect counterpart in his Vincenzo, a slow-moving old man played by his four-foot son Sheridan. He and Billy were really a one-two punch at the top, relaxing and then getting the audience laughing in turns.

After that it was more music, this time in the form of an a capella performance from Kate. She took the stage gently after a brief introduction from me, and explained her Irish roots before proceeding to sing a favorite Irish folk song of her grandmother's. Kate has a beautiful, strong and well-trained voice, so we can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing Beyonce's Grammy-winning Single Ladies. As this pop song rolled out in a grandly nostalgic, traditional style, the audience went to stitches. What was really funny was that it took awhile to get through this pop song in that style, which -- rather than seeming to run long -- made the song and our appreciation of it only feel funnier and funnier. And did Kate crack a single ironic smile? She did not.

After that it was Patrick's turn to take the stage, and Patrick had some very cool things up his sleeve. I set up one of his props -- a kind of glowing crystal ball -- and bantered a bit with Billy as he prepared to play the music he and Patrick had put together just hour before. As he played eerie electric wobbles and loops and...uh...sworls (technical musical term) Patrick emerged from far stage right curtains as an impossibly tall fortune-teller. This was a new mask, and a new piece, and it was thrilling to watch Patrick debut it. The audience was geared up for more comedy, which I think actually made some of them nervous as this seven-foot woman floated to the crystal ball. She looked into it briefly, then began to convulse and collapse, until she was just a heap of fabric on the floor. Then the fabric began to twitch and convulse. Billy's music ceased, and out from under the fabric emerged a transformed creature (a cat, though debate rages on). The audience loved this piece as Patrick did something he does brilliantly, and the crystal ball becomes a cat toy as the piece transforms into something utterly playful. And, for this one, there's already video.

The piece segued directly into one of Billy's songs, a playful number called Perambulate, and after that, it was up to me and Billy to clear the stage. I came out on my stilts to ham it up for a bit and remove the prop while Billy removed the abandoned costume, and then Ms. Kate Chadwick returned, sans introduction (I think; Kate, check my miserable memory) carrying her singin' stool. The stool was a ruse, though. Billy took a seat in his easy chair as she set foot on the dance floor, setting off a click from her heels. My goodness! Tap shoes! How did they get on there? Kate does a little tapping, much to the audience's delight, and then Billy mocks her a bit by thumping out rhythms on his guitar. They get into a comic duel, which gives way into Billy's Ravi Shankar, a very energetic, rhythmic song of his with thumps and ticks that accelerate throughout. They perform a duet. THEY MET THAT AFTERNOON, AND THAT NIGHT, THEY DID A TAP'N'GUITAR DUET. I, for the record, have never, ever done anything to be so lucky as to have these people performing on my program.

Patrick then performed his masked movement piece, Emro Farm, a moving sort of dance that tells the story of a woman living on a farm -- a single place -- for her entire life. It's hard to explain this piece with words, but it's easy to describe the effect it had in the context of the evening. Patrick really grounded the whole affair with his contributions, lending it a chance to be more than just a "spectacular," allowing it to have moments of meaning and reflection that I for one am enormously grateful. Emro Farm is repetitive movement set to beautiful, occasionally melancholy, music, and the final repetition ends in silence. Due entirely to my mismanagement of rehearsal time (all four hours of it), Patrick was interrupted a bit early in this final silent repetition. I think it still worked, however. I was very fond of the transition we found. Sheridan's character, Vincenzo, enters upstage at his glacial pace, stands center and opens up one of the props for the final act: a music box. This gentle interruption of the silence and gravity of Emro Farm was really quite wonderful, and allowed Patrick's character to leave the stage in character, which was essential to the mood he had created.

The last act of the evening ended us on a playful high note, as once again Rich took the stage as Urbano. This time, it was Urbano's Circus, a rollicking puppet show of sorts that mirrored the spirit and content of the whole evening's variety nicely. With his (t)rusty assistant, Urbano wheels out a grocery cart full of eccentric puppet performers who leap (are thrown) through the air, run about (remotely controlled) on the ground and generally act up in their particular routine. It involved audience participation, gleeful imagination and of course Rich's persnickety, anarchic orchestration. He had a wonderful gimmick for it, too, in which Vincenzo would at his command open different electronic greeting cards in front of a microphone for theme music. Flight of the Valkyries never sounded so apt. It wrapped up with an unwrapped "fin" sign -- perfect punctuation on which to end the show and lead us into our curtain call.

We said goodbye, I on my stilts, and I took off my hat as I bowed, unleashing a torrent of ping-pong and bouncy balls on the unsuspecting audience and performers. Billy played a new composition on which he's working, and the evening segued into chat and another slide show, this one of black-and-white photos of strange human endeavors. The balls may have been a slight misstep on my part, as a certain segment of the audience decided to begin a bit of a war with them (resulting of course in my getting absolutely BEANED in the temple by a bouncy ball) but the mood seemed entirely jovial and it was nice to have everyone lingering afterward -- a sure sign of a job well done, as far as I'm concerned.

Attendance expectations aside and owing nearly entirely to my performers, I feel it was a resounding success. I hope the participants feel the same. Probably the most resounding lesson I take away from the experience is that when producing this kind of show, the performers are all -- get good ones, and then make them as absolutely supported as possible, on stage and off. They will be amazing. Spectacular, one could say....
 
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