Volume 2 Book 9 Part 6 of "Living In The Bonus Round"
The Online Diary of Steve Schalchlin
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Amy Coleman, Jay Falzone & Danette Sheppard in
their "Friendly Fire" costumes.
January 7-14, 2002.
Oh Rochester!The first thing I told Amy Coleman when we arrived in Rochester New York was that it has long been my dream to be able to do an extended run of TLS with her as Vicki and me as Gideon. Amy was our first pick when we cast it in New York, she played it in Laguna and Los Angeles, and, as Jimmy says, she IS Vicki.
We weren't sure, of course, what we were in for here since we had nothing to do with the casting. I mean, this is Rochester NY in the winter in a tiny theatre that seats 50. So I thought to myself going into it, even if the other actors aren't that good, at least Amy and I will kick some butt -- and we'll hope for the best. Right? (Turns out we had nothing to worry about, as you'll see).
I was picked up at the airport in Buffalo by cast member Jay Falzone and Guy Olivieri, who is also a performer at the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre. The skies were overcast and gray, lots of snow on the ground and Jay's windshield was frosted with ice. Kinda scary. We made the hour-long drive, though, without incident and arrived at the cast house that would be my home for the next five weeks.
Standing in front of the cast house.
Amy and I would be sharing this house with three other inhabitants and one very cute dog named Ginger. Sue, who owns Ginger, works at the theatre a lot so I asked her for a key to her apartment so that I could play with Ginger when Sue's not here. And she did! (Thanks, Sue!)
The fancy shmancy couch and curtains in our cast house.The scary thing about this whole production is that we have exactly five days to stage it, light it, memorize it and open. So I was thrilled when I got here to discover that Jay and Danette (Buddy and Tryshia) had already learned their music and their lines.And better, Chris Kawolsky who is directing and producing, cast a really great musician named Chris Burley in the role of Jim. Not only is he going to be playing guitar onstage for "Somebody's Friend" but he'll be playing bass and strings during the rest of the show on the other numbers.January 15-16, 2002.
Chris Burley as Jim
The best news of all, though, was finding out that Jay and Danette are fantastic actors with great voices. Danette, especially, in the role of Tryshia, has one of the those huge, amazing Gospel voices that basically brings down the house. You almost want to rewrite the play and have HER sing all the songs. Seriously. I found that she just got off the road from singing back-up for such stars as Gladys Knight (who, ironically, almost at one point was going to play the role of Tryshia but for a scheduling conflict).
Anyway, from Friday through Sunday, all I've done is rehearse, eat, play with Ginger the Dog and sleep. Rehearse, eat, play with Ginger the Dog and sleep. The weather here is cold but, with my coat and woolies, not too terribly uncomfortable.
Funny story: Because I'm protecting my throat, it's forced me to speak as casually as possible during rehearsals. Just saying the lines normally and quietly; no "projecting" or getting loud. So, one night Amy came up to me and said she was amazed at how good my acting was. ACTING? Then we realized, that because I really CAN'T do anything except just talk normally, I'm coming off really natural on stage. It's not that I'm acting well, it's that I'm not acting at all. Which, of course, is what they say good acting IS.
Note to self: Do not act. Do not act. Do not act. Anyway, we're two days away from dress rehearsal so I'm going to post this right away. My next report will be after our first show in front of an audience.
Ru Paul, Roy Rogers and Chris Kawolsky.
Amy Coleman in front of the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre 2Last night I had this dream that we were in Hollywood having dinner with Ru Paul. And in the dream Ru Paul introduced us to a special dinner guest, Roy Rogers. I sat across from Roy Rogers and told him that he was my dad's favorite singer. And as I told this to Roy I began to weep.
So Roy took my hand and for a very brief moment we had this moment of perfect understanding. See, I think my dad looks like Roy Rogers. He has that same look, that squinting at the dusty horizon look that my dad has. A look, a feel of absolute simplicity.
My dad, probably the most misunderstood person I've ever known, is just that. A man of perfect simplicity. He knows two things: Taking care of my mom and taking care of everyone else. He's from a different world. A world of selfless duty and honor.
I remember my mom once, back in Buna Texas, when we were just barely, with four kids, making it. My dad was the pastor of this tiny country church of almost 100. I forgot what we were talking about at the time; maybe we were looking at some fancy people on TV or whatever -- and it's funny because I remember this moment with crystal clarity. My mom looked at me and said, "You know, your daddy would do anything for me. If I told him him I wanted a big color TV or a fur coat he would drop everything and go get it for me. But I don't need those things. I don't ask for fancy things."
It's easy in this age to make fun of simple people. As the world gets more and more complicated, the best way I can describe my dad is to say he's a man of duty, love and honor. He might not have been the most articulate man in the world, but no matter where goes, people are drawn to him because he's a man of love. A man of conviction.
Here in Rochester I have met another man of absolute purity of heart and conviction. And he reins over a kind of church, too. A temple of worship that also sometimes seems to be from another age.
Chris Kawolsky, Producing Director of the
Downstairs Cabaret Theatre of Rochester NY
His name is Chris Kawolsky. And the "church" he leads is a not for profit institution called the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre. For five years, Chris Kawolsky has been promising his folks and me that he was going to produce The Last Session. The first time I came here they had just lost their lease on a cozy, basement theatre that was nestled in the bottom of this office building. So they moved over into another building. The offices were a big mess, the space was barely put together, and it always seemed like they were all but barely keeping the bills paid and the doors open.
But everytime I found myself anywhere near here, they always invited me to sing, and each time, Chris would promise that they were absolutely going to do TLS. Then a year would go by and another year. He would make that promise and it wouldn't get done. Then another year would go by and it wouldn't get done. Then last month he said, "Okay, we're gonna do it. We're just gonna put it on the schedule and make it happen no matter what."
Last night, after five very short days of rehearsal, we had our first preview performance for an invited audience. Just before we went on, Chris came up to our dressing room and said, "We've produced 143 things here at this theatre. Five years ago I saw Last Session in New York and I knew we'd never be complete until we did this play here. And I think we have the best cast. The perfect cast."
I wish, dear reader, I could truly take you on the journey we've been through. I wish I could show you the utter dedication Chris has to the text, the spirit, and the meaning of TLS. It would be as if the words "labor of love" were invented for this moment. For this production. And considering the amount of love that I've experienced, first with Jimmy who wrote the book, Kim and Ronda who practically sacrificed their whole business to make TLS work, to "Aunt" Michael Alden, Carl D. White & Jamie Cesa, the Sessionauts, the investors and just about every other person who worked to make TLS happen, this is saying a lot.
But this. Maybe it's because I know it almost seems as if this production has been thrown together with matchsticks and glue, because the set and the room so perfectly match the funky basement studio I always imagined "Jim's" studio would be...
But I think, honestly, that this might be the most powerful production of TLS that's ever been staged. And that's saying a LOT.
Last night at that preview, something happened that I've NEVER seen happen before. Danette Sheppard -- who has the most AMAZING Gospel voice you could possibly imagine -- got to the end of "Singer and the Song," tears streaming down her face. Amy Coleman and Jay Falzone were (also in tears) singing with her. They got to the end of the number, which is HUGE. This great big gigantic ending, where they're trying to convince Gideon, their longtime friend to please try to hang on to life, to not kill himself the following day... their voices vibrating the walls.. "ONE... MORE... DAY!!!!" Then the piano does this huge glissando for the big ending. BOOM!
Normally, the audience members practically BURST from their seats with an extended applause.
But last night, when the song finished, no one moved. No one breathed. There was an absolute dead silence that washed over all of us. Sitting on the stage it was such an unnerving surprise I literally did not know what to do. I mean we've experienced this happening at the end of "Going It Alone" before (which it did last night, too) but "Going It Alone" is a quiet moment. It casts a spell, when the moment is right, that almost CALLS for that kind of reaction.
But "Singer and the Song"????? It would be as if you looked out at the audience and went "TA-DA!!!" with your arms spread and no one moved. The musical arrangement practically BEGS for a huge ovation.
Nothing. Not a sound. Not a movement. Not a breath.
It was the single most powerful moment in the history of this show, bar none. It was STARTLING. It was magical.
Afterwards, of course, we were rewarded with a standing ovation. All of the cast members stood in the lobby and got zillions of hugs and kisses from the people in attendance as they filed out, with tears streaming down THEIR faces.
Then back at the cast house, Ginger the Dog's "mommy," Sue (who is running lights for us) came home with her boyfriend Scott (who up to now has been very cordial). Scott's a "regular" kinda guy. You know, he likes baseball and sports. Theatre just isn't his "thing." Well, he bounded across the kitchen, thrust his hand out at me and said, "Tonight I finally understood what theatre is. Now I get it."
He explained that he's been working at the Downstairs Cabaret for a little over a year but that he's "not a theatre person." He works in the offices selling memberships. He explained that he has never even sat through a whole show before, preferring to stand in the back and go out for cigarettes. He never really understood what people "saw" in it. That theatre is just "not my thing."
"So," he said, "I went last night, frankly, just be near Sue. I had had three beers and was sitting on my stool at the back. Ten minutes into it I had to really pee but I couldn't leave. Twice in the first act you almost made me cry. And then I DID cry after that song at the end." (He meant "Singer and the Song").
I went back to my room and wrote a note to the TLS list telling them about our "moment" onstage. Then passed promptly out cuz my Sustiva was kicking in. Who knows if that moment will ever happen again. You can't recreate magic. All you can do in live theatre is be thankful that you were there, that, as Vicki would say, you saw it with your own eyes.
I have no doubt that we are going to have more moments LIKE that, though. And, yeah, I give credit to this cast. I give credit to the designers who slaved away for the last 36 hours building a set from nothing, who hung the lights and all that stuff.
But, frankly, the one who really deserves the credit, as far as I'm concerned, is Chris. I think that's why I had this dream about Roy Rogers and my dad. Why, in my dream, I was crying, thinking about purity of vision and love.
Chris Kawolsky fell in love with TLS five years ago and this past week his love for the piece, his perfect eye for casting, his slavish attention to detail and his own vision for the show, has brought this whole engine roaring back to full-blooded life. Even with technical glitches like the monitors not working and the piano suddenly stopping in the middle of song, and the lighting cues slightly off, the tiny room was filled roars of laughter, with the sound of people crying and sobbing, with perfect stillness after "Going It Alone" and "Singer".
And it just occurred to me. We haven't even opened yet.
[ Diary Index ]
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