The Better Than Expected Tour
Volume 4 Book 5 of
Living in the Bonus Round
(Part 10)
Jay Johnson, Joe Mantegna
Jay Johnson, Joe Mantegna.

[ Book 4-3 ] -- [ Pt 1 ] [ Pt 2 ] [ Pt 3 ] [ Pt 4 ] [ Pt 5 ] [ Pt 6
[ Pt 7 ] [ Pt 8 ] [
Pt 9 ] [ Pt 10 ] [ Pt 11 ] - [ Book 4-6 ]

January 23-25, 2006.
Openings, Birthdays & Sad Anniversaries.
On Sunday, we had the great privilege of taking actress Piper Laurie, who has now become a close friend, to lunch for her birthday, along with our friends, Heidi and Tom.  Piper has this great chirrupy laugh that never fails to make me smile. She's such a brilliant actress, and I'm so astonished at actually sitting at a table with her, that I sometimes forget who I'm with. I look over at her and think, "Oh my god, I'm sitting with Piper Laurie!"

And to think I just think of her as my friend. What a world.

Jim Brochu, Piper Laurie, Steve Schalchlin
Jim, Piper, Steve.

Heidi, Tom, Piper Laurie, Steve Schalchlin
Tom, Heidi, Piper, Steve.

Monday night, we were invited to the opening of Jay Johnson's brilliant, hilarious and moving play called "The Two & Only." The place was filled with celebrities. I brought my camera to the afterparty but neglected to bring it to the red carpet opening so I missed taking a lot of the photos I should have gotten. Jay is a ventriloquist you might remember from the sitcom "Soap." He's probably the best ventriloquist on the planet but his play, which features his puppets, isn't just a puppet show. It traces the stirring and beautiful relationship he had, as a 17 year old, with a 70 year old ventriloquist who carved him his first puppet, Squeaky.

Jay's show demonstrates how ventriloquism used to be viewed as a sickness or demon possession, and how early ventriloquists used to use their skill as shamans to "animate" dead bodies or chopped off heads in order to get whole villages to do their bidding. The oracles of delphi were probably ventriloquists, for instance. Jay's show is moving to Broadway this year and the only black spot of the whole night was a weirdly psychotic review in the LA Times where the reviewer praised Jay's skills but had this strange attitude about puppets.

Some people are actually afraid of ventriloquist's dummies and you could tell from the review that this critic was creeped out. I think the critic needs to get to a psychiatrist because he totally missed the beauty of Jay's stunning achievement. Hilarious and moving, if you live in LA, go see The Two & Only. It will honestly move you in the most unexpected ways.

Patricia Morrison
Broadway legend Patricia Morrison.

Dan Lauria, Charles Durning.
Dan Lauria, Charles Durning at the pizza table.

Charles Durning, Jim Brochu, Dan Lauria

Anthony Barnao, Steve Schalchlin
Anthony Barnao, Steve Schalchlin.

Jim Brochu, Jay Johnson, Robert Mandan.
Jim Brochu, Jay Johnson, Robert Mandan.

On Tuesday night, I had the great privilege of singing for the women's group at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. VBS is well known for its progressiveness as a congregation and its generosity to the community in its outreach. I felt very honored to be there with them. My friend Merrill brought me in and I brought Jimmy along.

The concert was basically focused on TLS songs. It was held in a big banquet hall and the piano was placed on the floor at one end. So, after we ate our Mexican dinner, I asked Merrill if we could move all the chairs around the piano so I could see everyone and they could see me. It was a wonderful night, very emotional. But it had been so long since I had sung the TLS songs I almost forgot them. I would start a song and just hope the words would appear in my mouth as I got to each new verse.

On Wednesday, I got a note from Amy reminding me that the 25th was the anniversary of Dickie's death six years ago. Has it really been that long? Why does it seem like only yesterday? We're planning a trip out to the gravesite soon. I couldn't go yesterday. By the time we had finished all our chores and things, I was really tired. As energetic as I feel these days, I still have to sleep for several hours every afternoon.

So, I will write something about Dickie soon. It's still painful to think of him being gone. He was in my life for only a short time, but he had a most profound effect. I thought of him when I was singing for the women at Valley Beth Shalom. A strikingly attractive woman came up to me after the concert, with tears in her eyes, and she said, "My husband of 52 years died just a few months ago. Your songs really..."

...and at that point she stopped. What can you say? When you really love someone so dearly for so long and then suddenly they're not there, it leaves a hole that really cannot be filled. I asked her how she was doing and she just smiled sadly, knowingly.

I took her in my arms and kissed her cheek.

The pain never really goes away, but you learn to live with it. Learning to live with pain is what life is about sometimes. We hold them in our hearts so that they can't really get away, but we live with the knowledge that you can't call them up or hear their voices again.

And you survive. One day at a time, maybe. But you survive.

January 26-28, 2006.
The Art Of Being Yourself.
No matter how confidently I might speak about The Big Voice, I always, like most artists, live in perpetual fear that some day I'm going to go out there on the stage and the entire audience is going to yawn collectively and wonder what the hell we think we're doing up there, prancing around like a couple of teenagers. I suppose most writer/actors feel that way. And in our case, because the show is based on our own lives, it feels even more possible that it's all going to just come undone.

So, as I write this on Sunday morning, I'm thinking both of the two performances we just experienced and the one coming up this afternoon.

First the good news: Both shows on Friday and Saturday were packed totally to capacity. On Saturday we had to bring in extra chairs and line them up in front of the regular chairs, so we had people literally sitting on the stage, inches away from us when we would stand stage center.

The buzz in the room, pre-show, which we could hear from our vantage point off-stage, was full of noisy excitement as everyone seemed to eagerly be anticipating "light's down" for our entrance.

One of the reasons we are doing these three shows is partly to help the little Avery Schreiber Theatre pay some bills and partly to help us remember the show since it's been about six months since our last performance. Also, many people here in Los Angeles, shocked that our tiny production would win the Ovation Award, now wanted to see what they'd missed.

This was nerve-wracking, of course, because it's one thing to enter a theatre not expecting much ("who are these two guys? what is this show?") and quite another to enter expecting The Next Big Thing. In the former, you are surprised that they can even walk across the stage without falling over. In the latter, you sit crossed-armed in a "show me" pose.

Well, we needn't have worried. The response, from the first moment that Jim spins around and says, "And show business was born!" the laughs hit and all we had to do was find our marks and say our lines.

And, man! It felt so good to be out there! When you take a break from a show, it all feels fresh and new again. And that goes double for me because, since I'm not a trained actor in any traditional sense, the freshness is one of the things that helps me continue to evolve. I can look back at the three years we've been doing this show with some perspective and continue to find new ways of delivering lines.

This was especially apparent when we got to the opening of act two where I'm alone on stage and it's my job to, basically, bring everyone back from the intermission and get them involved again in what's going on onstage.

One of the things that hampered us this time around, though, was the fact that one of the lighting power packs had blown. So, every time the lights went up, then flickered, dimmed, flickered, glared, flickered, dimmed, flickered flared, etc. It was extremely annoying. It's one of those things where you wonder if the audience thinks we're doing some kind of special effect.

Anyway, if you've ever read anything about acting, you know that one of the principles of good acting is to "not act." That is, to just be out there and seem totally natural and not look like you're doing anything. I always found this difficult because, as a performer and singer, "doing something" was always what I thought people were buying tickets to see me do. Know what I mean? If I just stand there "doing nothing," then they could just as easily be watching Uncle Bob reading the newspaper.

However, in watching Linda Fulton's kids do improv she was showing them a technique of being onstage with an "attitude." Anthony, our director, had been talking to me, in early rehearsals about "the character" of "Steve." Not to belabor the point, but on Friday night, I finally kind of put two and two together and when I went out for the opening of act two, instead of "acting" the lines and "going for the punchline," I think, after three years, I finally "got" what it was all about.

it's impossible to describe in prose here, but for some reason, without thinking about it, without calculating it in advance, I simply walked out and in a quiet voice, said my first line, "Okay, enough about Catholics" without trying to go for a laugh. It was just me sounding absolutely and completely sincere, very quietly just looking out at the audience.

And I swear to you the laugh was so loud and so long, I could have played a game of chess waiting for it to die down. And it didn't stop there. Each line provoked an even bigger response. And I just stood there. I can't even tell you what I was feeling or how I must have looked. All I know is I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING. I just WAS. Or rather "Steve" just was. God, it's so hard to put this into words.

What I know is that the place came apart. On. Every. Line. And even the follow-up line a little later on, "Well, curtain up" got an even BIGGER response. Now, if you haven't seen the show then you don't know the context of these punchlines and you probably don't know why that's funny. But I realized then and there that all those times before, I was pushing the lines anticipating them to be funny -- or, saying them as if they were a joke -- and rarely have they ever really gotten a great response. But Saturday night! Wow!

The next day I was talking to Alexandra describing this moment and saying, "I dread tonight. I know exactly what's going to happen. I'm going to go out there and try to reproduce what I did last night and it's going to be a disaster..."

I wasn't being negative. The fact is that anytime you try to "reproduce" something from another performance, you will always fail. You can't, as they say, dip your toe in the river in the same place twice. You have to just go out as if it's the first time and let the chips fall where they may.

So, on Saturday night, the audience, bigger than Friday's, more raucous than Friday's (and the lights even more flickering and annoying that Friday's), I was totally, at first, dreading the opening of act two. I just knew that...

And then I thought, "Wait. Don't act. Don't try to reproduce last night. Just go out there and say the lines. Be the character. Trust the material." I decided to think positively rather than de-psych myself into a disaster. Just do the line. You've done this show a billion times. Just do it. And, mostly, don't go out there expecting laughs. Don't think of your lines as a "punchline."

I told myself that I could do it. And that I would not be disappointed if the reaction wasn't exactly the same. Think POSITIVELY. CREATE the reality, as Rev. James said last Sunday.

And that's exactly what I did. And, what do you know, the audience's response was even bigger than Friday night's.

It's like performing a magic trick. You do it right and the rabbit pops out of the hat. I can't even desribe my excitement. And best of all, I wasn't acting. I was just being. Now, why didn't I try that three years ago? I will tell you this, it's like a life lesson. It's way more easy to just be than to act. How many times in life do we find ourselves trying to impress people by anticipating what it is we think they want when it's so much easier to just be yourself?

And why does it seem to take a lifetime to learn how to do this?

January 29-30, 2006.
Podcasting the Supershow.
I just uploaded a podcast, the first of four, of the band -- musical collective, really -- of which I'm a part. Last year you might remember we released the Trouth Supershow which featured my song "Franco Ate The Paperwork" and the cover consisted of that old photo of me from the 70s? Well, I've converted the album into a podcast which will be issued in four parts. Part One is now up at The direct link to the mp3 is here.

It's a rock and roll revolution, baby!

February 1-5, 2006.
Part 2 & Letter to Alex.
The second part of the Trout Supershow is now uploaded. The link to the entry is yes, I know it's a big file, so you really need a fast connection to get it but it contains 10 songs, so I can't compress it any further. Meanwhile, as a diary entry, so you can see inside the workings here, I'm going to reproduce a letter to Alexandra Billings which I sent her after our recording session here.

Ernie and I fixed the bugs in the desktop so now we finally have a working music computer. In fact, as I type this, it's after having spent 30 straight hours working music arrangements following the session Alex and I had on Thursday. I'm a boy with a toy!


Today was a great day. The first thing I want to thank you for is your willingness to hit wrong notes with me. That helps me greatly. I like knowing everything about your voice, learning what you can do and not do. I also like it when we take chances because we never know when we're going to stumble into something great that we wouldn't have found had we calculated it.

I'm sitting here now working on the arrangement. Something you said, about focusing in on the words and not letting it just slide by. Like Muzak, I added. As I sit here listening, I realize that the most important thing I can do, producing this, is to get out of the way of the song. Since the piano sound is really beautiful, we can let that speak first musically.

I also like this cold opening, where we just start the song without an intro. I had only done that for expediency in setting the song up since I only actually had a day to get it ready, since it took me a number of days to chase out all the bugs after we set it up. But there's something about it that works and not works. We'll see.

Right now, I've stripped down all the temp strings/horns/guitar/percussion and I'm starting from scratch. I thought you might like to hear my process. I begin by starting the song and listening to the first thing I hear. Then what I want is for each "thing" -- sound -- to be introduced in the open air. So, first we hear piano, then voice -- but with voice, it's not just sound, it's content. Listen to the content. Wait until it takes a little breath or is ready to set into a pattern, then add something.

The point is that the ear only hears one thing at a time. A cacophony is one thing. It's a cacophony. You ear doesn't hear the parts until after the cacophony continues and you mentally go digging into it to hear the individual parts. But, on first impression, all you hear is one thing. That's how the mind works. If we begin the song with EVERYTHING, then we will have created that Muzak that you talked about.

My point is when you made that observation you weren't just talking about your singing. I mean YOU may have, at the time, been talking about your singing but it applies across the board, don't you agree?

Today, as we were working, you saw my more intense side. It was thrilling to musical direct you. It's also thrilling that you know exactly when it's not working.

Hm. I made have just had an epiphany. Some people think they can sing, so they think everything they sing sounds great. They wouldn' t know it if a bad producer told them it was good when it wasn't good. But you, you know when it's not working. You also have a terrific musical instinct. I'm going to say something that you won't hear very often in the music business:

I trust your ears.

As for your singing, I felt very complimented when you, after I told you you sounded good, you said you were just imitating me. I shall tell you a story.

I was, for one month, the lead singer of an alt rock band whose name escapes me [edit: I just remembered, they were called The Unknowns]. We never sang a gig. We never had a single rehearsal. Instead, I was flopped on the couch in the band house in L.A. and they wanted me to listen to nothing but a certain artist from the 50s. They loved to watch TV.  They liked "Cheers" but would mute the remote when the theme song came on.

The leader was this little punky guy who, one night, as I lay on my back on the floor, stood astride my body and delivered a lecture about how evil it is to bend the strings on a guitar, blues-fashion. I didn't realize it then, but, for him, the greatest guitar riff is the theme from Bonanza. Surf guitar.

I can still picture myself lying under him and he said, "You can't really imitate anyone! No matter who you think you sing like, you really don't sound like them. It's your own voice. My vocal technique is 40 years singing non-stop on the road. Take all you want. Talent borrows. Genius steals. You will never really sound like me, but you will gain a dimension. And similarly, by the way, I'm stealing from you. I'm not conscious of what it is yet because I don't work by thinking. I do the thinking afterwards, after I've just felt it.

We are making a great record together. And we don't have to go anywhere else to do it. We can do it right here. Saves everybody money. We create great art. All by ourselves.

BTW, I don't know why I didn't turn on the video camera but, in retrospect, though I would have loved to have had that on tape, it might not have been the same experience. Next time, after we know what we're doing, THEN we'll tape it.

Okay, I needed a little break to clear my head. You were it.

February 6-10, 2006.
Quick Update.
Sunday afternoon, Feb. 5th, the show was explosive. Mindboggling. All our friends kept asking us if we had added new songs or changed anything. That it seemed like a brand new show. Nope. Just a nip here. A tuck there. But, no, it's the same show.

The standing ovation was foot-stomping. I have it on video. I went onstage and took my bow holding my camera but we did not tape the show. It just felt like it would have been tacky to have set up cameras in that little space. Plus, once you're doing it for the cameras, it's like having a stranger watch you rehearse. We talked about it and said, no, this show would for the people in the audience, ourselves and no one else.

I realize, dear diary reader, that I have been neglecting you. I apologize profusely for  this. It's not that I don't love keeping this diary. It's that, well, with the help of Ernie and Ken, as I mentioned before, I now have a working music computer to make demos on.

I have spent the last two weeks literally doing nothing but sitting here debugging the equipment and learning how to use the software. It's not exactly the most thrilling "action" to talk about. We upgraded the processor and the sound card, and I was able to get a much better microphone... as opposed to singing into the $2 Radio Shack computer mic (although I was able to work miracles with that little thing even if I do say so myself).

I had a reader write, "Hey Steve! It's nice that you've been tellling about all the stuff you're doing, but I just want to know if you're happy. You know, how ARE you?"

So, I'll tell you. I've never been happier in my life.

Makes for lousy diary reading, I know. But nothing makes me happier than being in a studio and with all these new upgrades, I'm a student again. My health is doing really well. I'm still running, although I've been somewhat neglectful and not running quite as vociferously as I used to (since it's impossible to drag me away from my headphones). But I do put on my running shoes and I do hit the streets.

I also have been taking videos of some of the work I've been doing here, but I haven't edited them down into anything yet. Too busy getting onto the next song. Jim has been booked for another speaking engagement beginning Valentine's Day, so we'll be gone again through the beginning of March and I wanted to get as much done as possible before we take off. My plan is to upload some good things to my vlog site before we leave.

I'm not sure what else to day. If I think of something, I'll write it down. I swear. Meanwhile, back to the music!

[ Book 4-3 ] -- [ Pt 1 ] [ Pt 2 ] [ Pt 3 ] [ Pt 4 ] [ Pt 5 ] [ Pt 6 ] [ Pt 7 ] [ Pt 8 ]
[ Pt 9 ] [ Pt 10 ] [ Pt 11 ] - [ Book 4-6 ]
© 1996-2005 by Steve Schalchlin.
You have permission to print from this diary and distribute for use in support groups, schools, or to just give to a friend. You do not have permission to sell it.