The Thirty-Nine Steps: wrap

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Well, and another show has wrapped. The Thirty-Nine Steps is no more; I have yielded up my various hats and wigs. I don’t feel particularly sad about it being over, this time. I enjoyed it and I’m certainly glad I did it, but I’m done with it, now. It’s difficult to know, really, how we did overall, since it’s the sort of show that people are going to have wildly different reactions to anyway, but I certainly feel more good than bad about it all. Still, in the nearly-traditional format, here are some positives and negatives of my time doing the show:

The Positives

  • It’s a funny show, and it kept being funny to me through the three months or so of rehearsals and performances.
  • We seem to have broken even on the money front, or at least come awfully close to it (the receipts had not all be counted as of the end of the run yesterday). Also, we sold a bunch of tickets—I would estimate around 1,200 over the nine performances. Mind you, there were also a lot of empty seats, so we could have done better on that front, but a bunch of people came to the show (including some Gentle Readers of this blog) and we never had the experience of playing to a handful of people in a big old empty barn, hearing our own echoes overwhelming the scattered coughs and chair-settling. With a cast of only four, it’s sometimes tough to sell tickets, too, although the theater itself has a largish number of frequent flyers. I don’t actually care very much about the theater breaking even, except that it presumably makes the board happy, which makes them think favorably of my director and me.
  • I got to do some physical comedy, or clowning, or what you might call it, which I don’t often get to do very much of, and that was fun. I do, in a way, regret that I never had the discipline or the training to develop my clowning skills. I say in a way because I very much like the life I have and would not trade it for the one where I got that training, and I also quite like the person I am and would not honestly trade myself for some version of me with real discipline and presumably new flaws to replace the lack thereof. At any rate, I think I have a bit of a gift for physical comedy, and at this point I don’t have the physical strength or agility to do much of it. So it was nice to do some clowning, a little mini-combat, and a good deal of general silliness.
  • On that note, I’ll talk about a bit with a bell that made me very happy, tho’ I didn’t get it to a satisfactory point until the last couple of performances. Remember that the fundamental gag of the show is that four people are trying to stage an epic action thriller, and it’s an impossible task. Things go wrong. The fourth wall is frequently broken (although I think it’s important that it exists, so that it’s funny when it is broken). So at one point my character is alone on stage at the counter of a hotel; my clown partner needs a moment to change costume. During rehearsal, I mostly rapped on the counter with my knuckles to get the attention of the clerk. At some point late in the rehearsal process, I noticed a call bell on the prop table, so I stuck it in my coat pocket and then when we came to that part of the scene, took it out and set it on the counter to ring it. I thought that was very funny—I brought my own bell to the counter!—and was quite pleased with myself when I tapped the little button on top… and nothing happened. The thing had been rigged not to ring. I jabbed at the button a few times in bewildered silence and then shrugged and threw it over my shoulder. It was hilarious. Trust me. Now, in part it was hilarious because I almost hit one of the other actors, but it was also just a funny bit: something is wrong (there’s no bell), there’s a surprising and absurd solution (I carry my own bell), and the the solution fails in an unexpected way (the bell doesn’t ring). That’s a really well-designed bit of clowning, right there. So we kept it. But the details took forever to work out: how long does it take me to realize there’s no bell, and how do I indicate that realization to the audience? How do I attempt to ring the bell, when I take it out, and how long to I keep at it before I give up? Where do I throw the bell at the end of the bit, so that it doesn’t endanger the other actors, and doesn’t remain on the stage for the next scene, catching the light and distracting attention? I tried it a bunch of different ways, but I think I found a way that works by the last two performances. It turns out, I think, that it is really important to convey my frustration to the booth (the booth in the back balcony of the hall is where we have been directing all of our technical stuff during the show, whether it has anything to do with the people actually up there or not, because what does the audience care about the difference between light, sound, costume and props) before acknowledging the audience. Also, three attempts at ringing the bell seems to be optimal, but the big laugh came not when I threw the bell offstage but when I said ’ding’.

The Negatives

  • I think this may have as much to do with the play as with our production of it, but I think a fair number of people didn’t enjoy it very much. Which is fair—different people like different things, and that’s what makes choosing a season schedule interesting and fun. But this particular play, because of its style, strikes some people as hysterical and others as irritating. In addition, while we did try to put clues such as ‘zany’ and ‘spoof’ in the promotional materials, some of the audience appeared to be expecting a more serious adaptation of the film (or perhaps the book).
  • This is the first time that no-one in the cast has talked to me about the Play Playlist List after listening to it. I mean, statistically, there isn’t that much difference between two people out of fourteen and zero people out of three, but it’s always nice to hear people’s opinions on what I’ve put on there. Mostly I’m amusing myself, of course, with the obscure songs and the obscure covers and the obscure covers of obscure songs. One of the stagehands did say that it was fun, at the second-to-last performance, so that was good, but other than that one sentence, the thing fell into a void. Australian ska cover of the Get Smart theme! Enormous swing band backing EC on “Watching the Detectives”! The Spanish-language cover of the Secret Agent Man theme from the Repo Man soundtrack! I am afraid I expected some entertaining conversations about that stuff, and didn’t get any. Sigh.
  • I’m old. I get tired easily, and have been sore for weeks. I have bruises up my arms and legs. I didn’t do myself any major injuries, but I am dinged up like a catcher in August. Also, I really didn’t make good nutritional choices this time, particularly late at night. All in all, I feel like crap now, right when work gets busy.
  • OK, so more in terms of my performance… my main regret is that two of the characters I played had voices/accents that I think were too similar to each other to make the quick switch between them entertaining. I did clearly distinguish most of my characters vocally (one male Scot, one female Scot, one upper-class English woman, one upper-class English man, one Cockney woman, one Cockney man, one Cockney boy, one young middle-class man, one elderly middle-class man, not too difficult) but those two somehow came out quite similar. I mean, they were distinct voices, but they had a lot of similarities in rhythm, pitch and timbre. And since one of them interrupted the other, which ought to have been a funny bit, the similarities didn’t help. I didn’t hear it until very late in the process, and I wasn’t able to come up with a good replacement voice for the police inspector that would make the transition funnier.

Back when I was auditioning for this play, there were three sets of auditions more or less one right after the other. The first play to audition was also the furthest away, a production of Much Ado about Nothing with the same director and company with which I did As You Like It, which was not a good experience for me. I went ahead and auditioned for Benedick anyway, because if I am not already too old to play Benedick, I will be too old before the next opportunity comes along. Well, I didn’t get it, whether I am too old or not, so the next two auditions were for The Thirty-Nine Steps and Proof. The only part for me in Proof is the father, an incredibly juicy role, but one that would require a tremendous amount of emotional work. The 39S was first, and I was very much hoping to get into the one that was silly and fun and required no emotional investment. I’m bringing this up, at the end of the show, because in the end I did in fact have silly fun without too much emotional investment. So that’s all right, best beloved. D’y’see?

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,

3 thoughts on “The Thirty-Nine Steps: wrap

  1. irilyth

    Hey, I was going to ask about this afterwards but then forgot, and now I barely remember the details, but something at some point during the show made me say “blown off course by the storm!” to myself, and giggle (quietly to myself) a lot.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      There is a thunderclap cued by one of Anabella Schmeeeeeedt’s lines. I don’t remember which one (I was during one of the brief moments I could sit down in the wings) but it might have been her statement that if she tells him what’s going on, then he will be… involved.



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