More Memories of Michael

Old G stage

The Old Guthrie

Michael Langham had a way with words, often very profound, poetic. He knew exactly what he meant but sometimes others didn’t. For instance, he had a special phrase to motivate actors: ‘When you step on stage, bring the world with you.’ Now it worked with actors, so they must have understood what Michael was trying to get across them. But sometimes his Michaelisms puzzled us stagehands.

Here is a great Michael remembrance that perhaps explains his advice to actors. It was sent to me by Lance Davis, a mainstay in the Guthrie acting company during the Langham era. Lance is currently the Founder, Artistic Director, play adapter, actor, and the force behind THE PARSON’S NOSE Theater, Pasadena, California.

Here is the story in Lance’s own words: ‘One of many Micheal stories for me was during the rehearsals for LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST. I was confused at two lines Costard had that didn’t seem to go together. I asked Michael and he said, “Why, I think he sees a squirrel. He starts one thought and then sees a squirrel.” So I put it in. Cranny, the stage manager, was sitting next to Michael at the next rehearsal and the line came. Cranny leaned over to Michael who was chuckling. Cranny asked, “What in the hell is Lance doing?” and Michael said, “He sees a squirrel!’

So when you step on stage as an actor, bring the world with you, even the squirrels.

My all time favorite Michaelisms came during the tech for OEDIPUS THE KING, a Langham- directed adaptation by Anthony Burgess. It called for an earthquake at the end of Act I. When the play came back the next season, Michael changed it to a one-act, no intermission but still with the earthquake.

Bill, the sound man at the time, tried sound-effects after sound-effects of earthquakes. Each time he played one for Michael, Michael always thanked him, but… Bill tried every sound library he could think of, the Guthrie’s, the public library of both Minneapolis and St. Paul, the one at the TV studio that Bill had worked for. Always the same, ‘Thank you, Bill. But…’ This went on for almost a week.

Finally Bill got on the horn in the booth and asked, ‘Michael, just what exactly are you looking for?’

Michael, standing on stage, looked up to the booth. He extended his arms and thought for a bit. Finally he answered, ‘I want it to sound like..like the earth in anguish.’

Bill, never one to be without a retort, said over the mic, ‘Oh, gee, Michael. I wish you would have told me sooner. I wouldn’t have bothered you with all those other effects.’ Bill toggled off the mic, turned to me and repeated, ‘The earth in anguish? That’ll take two-six packs of beer to figure what Michael means by ‘the earth in anguish.’

The next morning Bill mounted two huge bass speakers, cone up, a few inches from the underside of the stage floor. When he played a lengthy tape of an earthquake with those two bad boys cranked up to eleven, not only did he get a world-in-anguish eruption, he also caused the stage floor to shake a little.

That afternoon Michael walked on stage to get ready for a bit and pieces rehearsal. When he reached center stage, Bill turned the mic on. ‘Michael, just hang right there. I got something to play for you.’

First came the low rumble from under the stage, then Bill increased the volume slightly and sent it also through the surround speakers. Michael had a strange look on his face as the effect grew louder, and when the stage began to shake, he just stared at the floor. When it ended he looked up to the booth.

‘Perfect, Bill’ he said. ‘Just what I wanted. Thank you, Bill. Thank you.’

‘I thought you would like it, Michael,’ said Bill.

‘But, Bill,’ Michael asked, ‘Will it be safe?’

“Oh, sure, Michael,’ Bill answered, as he shut off the mic. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Anyway, I hope it will be.’

And so we found out what was meant when Michael meant by asking to hear the earth in anguish.

Since theatrical sound was still in it’s infancy at that time, Michael didn’t have a handle on it yet; but not so with theatrical lighting. After opening night of any of the plays he directed,, he would wait for several performances and then watch and do some fine-tuning. A change in blocking. Perhaps in the delivery of a line. Maybe a cue to be called a tad later, or perhaps a change in lighting. Even though the lighting designer was no longer around, Michael trusted me to make his changes. Perhaps a big change that would enhance the particular mood he wanted. Or maybe he would ask a small change like having me  dim down the upstage in a crowd scene. ‘The extras up there are trying to act,’ he would tell me.

The spear-carriers might bring their world, complete with squirrels, on stage with them, but Michael wanted them to save their acting it out for a production where they were more than window-dressing.

It seemed that no matter what the changes, large or small, that Michael made, always made the play better.

Michael made a point to know everyone in the Guthrie family and went out of his way to talk to them. A special theatrical director, but also a special person.

Chuck, a carpenter in the scene shop, had been a navigator in a plane that was shot down over Germany. In his first and only parachute jump, Chuck broke his back and was captured. He lucked out and spent some time in a German civilian hospital under the care of good doctors; and then, when he was healed, he was transferred to a stalag where he spent the rest of the war as a POW.

Before the war Chuck and his wife Mary Margaret had hoped for a big family. Three years and nothing. They were about to take the doctor’s advise and adopt a child, but Pearl Harbor happened.

When Chuck made it back home they reasoned that Chuck, having through so much, needed some time before they adopted a child. Surprise! Chuck hadn’t been home six months when Mary Margaret announced she was pregnant. Their first child was a boy. Their next six were also boys. The last son was starting school, they figured their family had reached it limit. Surprise! Their little tag-along was a girl they named Margaret Mary.

During the Langham years at the Guthrie, the sitcom about POWs in WWII, HOGAN’S HEROES was a prime time favorite.

Michael liked to go to the shop on the day after a HOGAN showing and laugh over the episode with Chuck. Often one of the two would relate a funny incident from his stalag, and the two would laugh and laugh.

Two men, born an ocean apart, both figuratively and literately, British and American, upper class and middle class, united in the experience of having been a prisoner-of-war in WWII. Two men, management and labor, artistic and technical, both united in the fact that they were both war heroes, who endured.

And that’s a wrap.

LANCED!

Old G stage

In my years at the Guthrie, one question was always asked me, ‘Doesn’t it get boring watching the same play over and over’?

It probably would if it was the same play over and over; but, while the script and blocking may be the same, it is not the same play each performance. Every performance brings something different, something that only is noticed by watching it over and over. There is always the interaction between the audience and the actors, sometimes a laugh line brings snickers, sometimes roars. An audience member with a loud unforgettable laugh can influence the audience, the actors.

Some times a scene ends in just a blackout. Sometimes it endS with the audience in tears. Often the play ends with a polite applause, sometimes with a standing ovation. And there was the three times at the end of OEDIPUS, directed by Michael Langham from a translation by Anthony Burgess, author of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the play ended, the audience sat frozen. The stage lights brightened and the curtain call began, the audience sat frozen. Even when Oedipus, who blinded himself, walks back on the promontory, stares at the audience, bows his head and walks back off stage, the audience sat frozen. And not until the last actor had left the stage, and I had dimmed the stage lights and turned the house lights full did the audience finally break out of their trance, rise in unison and applaud like mad. Strong performance of a strong classic, and a chilling experience.

And performances are often influenced by outside events. The only time I remember the Guthrie not started a play on time was the night the audience sat in silence while the voice of Richard M. Nixon was broadcasted live over the house speakers. When he started he was President Nixon. When he finished, he was ex-President Nixon. And at the end you could hear a collective sigh from the audience. The national soap opera was over at last. I did my cues on autopilot that performance, and I am sure the cast and audience felt the same numbness.

And the unexpected. A flubbed line. A technical miscue. An elderly patron actually walking on stage during a performance and asking the actors to help him find his seat. Sometimes only the cast and crew realized what happened, the audience accepts it as part of the play. Just about anything can happen in a Shakespeare play and the audience accepts it.

For instance there was a very late entrance in WINTER’S TALE leaving an actor to adlib with such dialogue as: ‘The Duke is lateth.’ ‘I am certain the Duke will cometh.” Me thinks I hear the Duke – but he still ist far away.’ ‘Hey, I seeth the Duke.’ The Duke came on and the sweating actor ran off stage. It cracked up the three of us in the booth, but the audience just accepted it.

In a performance of KING LEAR the audience actually accepted the impossible. Edgar and Edmund have a duel that results in Edmund being mortally wounded; but he doesn’t die until he delivers a very important speech to let the audience know of events that happened off stage important to the story.

This time though prior to the fatal thrust Edgar lost the handle on his sword and it went flying into the audience. Edgar, thinking on his feet, grabbed Edmund by the neck; and since he couldn’t stab Edmund to cause his death, he throttled him. Edmund fell to the stage, death by strangulation.

But Edmund, thinking on his back, knowing he still had to deliver his important speech, rose up into a sitting position. He delivered his speech and fell back into his corpse position. Death by strangulation. The audience accepted it without a so much as a snicker; but the three of us in the booth were laughing so hard, we had a hard time doing our cues to get into the next scene.

The other day in a Facebook thread, Lance Davis mentioned that the actors often said it looked like the crew in the booth was having more fun than the cast on the stage, and often it was true. The sound tech, the stage manager, and yours truly, the lighting tech, worked behind glass in a very dimly lit booth beyond the back row of the balcony. The cast could see us but it was hard for the audience to see us. And the glass prevented the sound our cues being called, our talking back and forth, and our laughter.

Back in the day, Lance was a favorite of the Guthrie audiences and the Guthrie family. Eventually he left to spread his wings, tried New York, tried film and TV, and finally decided to go back to his love of acting on stage in classic theater. But times had changed, there was no more getting hired by the season, just being hired by the run of a play. Even the Guthrie dropped it’s repertoire concept of presenting plays and went along with doing a play for a run and then another play for a run. Such a shame.

So Lance and his wife, Mary, founded their own theater, The Parson’s Nose, in Pasadena. It’s motto: ‘Introducing Classic Theater’. Season after season, it receives rave reviews.

Lance was also responsible for one of the greatest adlibs I ever heard.

Lance LANCE BACK IN THE DAY

            It was during a performance of Peter Nichols play, THE NATIONAL HEALTH, directed by Michael Langham and with the playwright, Peter Nichols, coming from England to assist Michael. The play is credited with waking up the English government to the fact that if they wanted their new national health system to succeed, they couldn’t do it unless they were willing to spend the necessary money, and not do it on the cheap. They did and today their national health care system is one of the best.

It is a dark comedy about the crowded and inferior conditions in a national hospital. There is also a play within the play, a soap opera set in a hospital. It used a lot of old music hall schtick to get laughs.

Lance wore many hats, an evil orderly in the realistic scenes, a doctor/emcee in the soap opera scenes. As the emcee he carried on a battle with Keane, the cantankerous spot operator who kept the light moving off Lance when Lance tried to talk. An old routine that never failed to get laughs.

The play used music to introduce the scenes. Loud martial music would introduce the realistic scenes. Soft soapy music introduced the soap opera scenes.

Now during this time, Scott the sound tech was having women problems, which for Scott was nothing unusual. But this time it was serious. The current love of Scott’s life, Judith, had left him a note saying she was leaving him to join the hippie commune, the Hog Farm, out in California. It broke Scott up and caused him to screw up badly. Over several performances of NATIONAL HEALTH he played the wrong scene lead in music at times. Sometimes the soapy music would introduce a realistic scene. Sometimes vice versa.

This time, as Lance was going downstage to emcee a soap opera scene, the military music blasted out and Lance stopped and looked up to the booth. Scott realized what he had done and tried to rectify it by playing the soft music on top of the wrong music. A real mess.

When the noise was over, Lance pointed up to the booth and yelled, ‘Alice! You wouldn’t make a sound man for Theater of the Deaf.’

The audience laughed. They thought it was another bit like the wandering spot light. But the cast and the crew knew better.

Two of us in the booth howled. The third person, Scott, didn’t think it was funny at all.

The next morning he thought it even less funny when he got a phone call from Guthrie management. They informed him that in light of his many mistakes recently, they had decided that the next time Scott ever attended a play at the Guthrie, he would need a ticket to get in.

He was devastated. He went to Kaplan’s, bought himself a pair of work gloves and a straw hat. Then he contacted Judith to tell her he was on his way to join her at the Hog Farm. Judith asked him just what part of her leaving him didn’t he understand.

In answer to the question about being bored, no, I never got bored working live entertainment of any genre. Now working on a movie, that was real boredom – well, some of the time. But of all the various jobs I had in my life, being a stage hand those 45 years was the best I could ever have hoped for.

And that’s a wrap.

the ghost light

Well just a couple things:

If you want to know more about THE PARSON’S NOSE, the web page is www.parsonsnose.com. You can follow it on Facebook also. Lance makes certain that he not only informs, he entertains in both.  And if you get a chance to see a play there, be sure and do it. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed in Lance & Company, and the sound cues will be perfect.

Also if you want to know more about the elderly man asking the actors to help him find his seat, the story is in my blog post:ARSENIC AND OLD PEOPLE