Tuesday, July 31st, 2012
2

Roughing It On An Indie Theater Tour

The conclusion of a month-long series on terrible trips, great journeys and getting lost.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was 1996, and I was still imagining myself to be some sort of actor. I had acted in a play written by a charismatic young playwright and directed by my best friend and roommate the summer previous, a four-hander, as they say. The playwright, also the star of the piece, decided that he was going to take the show on the road. For three weeks. And, on top of that, one of the roles would be recast with my girlfriend at the time, "Erin." Was I down with coming along?

Was I? Was I ever. My day job was fully amendable to me disappearing for close to a month, and I had a bit of money saved. What better way to launch a promising career than taking the show on the road, acting for a living? It would be just like being in a rock band, touring the country, but with acting.

And that was exactly how it was, sadly, which reveals how much can change in seventeen years, concerning one's opinion of the life of a touring rock band.

***

We were a motley caravan: the five of us, me, Erin, my roommate, the playwright and the playwright's girlfriend, a magazine editor who was rounding out the cast. We were all friends, and we were all interested in acting/directing/playwrighting. We had a box truck, a motorcycle and my car, a 1987 Subaru Justy, which it the model that they rolled out to compete with the Hyundai, a two-door hatchback with a three cylinder engine, seemingly light enough that you could portage it across shallow rivers. The motorcycle was also a set piece, along with a ten-foot canted platform that was taken apart and kept after the last show, which was why we needed the box truck. We drove the first leg in the middle of a freezing March Friday night, driving straight through from Brooklyn to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where the playwright had booked a tune-up show at a coffee shop. We made it before dawn. We were excited.

The reason that we could all afford to do this is because the playwright had arranged lodging for us for the length of the tour. So he said. In Harrisonburg, we stayed at what could most easily be referred to as some sort of commune. It was a nice, clean place up in the hills with maybe ten or fifteen people living together. A bit awkward as we arrived, them just getting up and drinking coffee, showing us to a room with a swept-dirt floor on which we could unroll the sleeping bags and catch a few hours' sleep. And when we awoke, we were treated to an oddly formal meal. The hospitality was palpable, and we were presented with a vegan meal that, well, tasted like how vegan food tasted in 1996: Gritty. But we weren’t imposing on them, somehow, and we were out of New York, doing a play. And sleep-deprived. It was a little dizzying. I don’t think any of us thought that we were going to land an agent or get booked for a legit show off of this, but we were "working."

We did the show (like I said, in a coffee shop), which was packed (for a coffee shop). The audience hung around after, wanting to chat and shake hands. Neat. The next morning, the second day out, and we’re already on our way to Louisville, Kentucky, where the rest of our tour would be perpetrated.

***

The theater was a beautiful little place, in which Muhammad Ali had fought or some such back when he was a teen-aged Cassius Clay. It had ninety-nine seats or so and an actual lighting booth. And Louisville was also a beautiful little place, not too big and citied-up, but not without its urban charm. The weather had warmed up and the sky was clear when we drove in. We were very clearly not in New York, not working our shitty jobs, making art out in places were your audiences weren't peopled only with other people you'd done plays with.

Here’s what it’s like to be in a three-week run of a play in a town you are not from, FWIW. You go through the motions of rehearsing early in the week—everyone knows what they’re doing—and then the days you run, Wednesday through Saturday in this case, you settle down into a routine. What time to show up, how long you can goof off, what time you change into the costume and check props. When to swing by the booth, check out the audience. It becomes rote very quickly.

Of course, the actual being in front of people charges things up. There is adrenaline involved in that, even aside from “acting” (something I think is about the most boring and precious thing to talk about in the world, no offense to the forests of trees that gave up their lives for the discussion of the same). But you hit your marks, say your words and there’s a curtain call before you know it.

Not that there were always many of those people in the audience. Objectively, the play was not a success. And by that I mean only that we did not put so many butts in seats. That was not for lack of trying. The playwright arranged the obligatory local press—the piece in the free weekly, the spot on the local NPR station, appearances at local colleges. I was somehow designated the body man for him at these appearances. Technically I was as much a guest as he was, but it was his show. He had the tendency to get strident in his politics and social theories, and was prone to speaking in all-caps harangues that referenced Marxism (and presumed a cadre-level, fellow-traveling intimacy with Marxism that was maybe ambitious to expect) so it was my job to follow up with, "So come see the show, folks!"

And there was the moment at the college, when a student asked during the (laughable) Q&A, "What's it like being a professional actor?" I answered that it was pretty great. This is only uncomfortable in retrospect, as what I should have answered that I was no more a professional actor than I was a professional wrestler, that I was a phony, that I was just fooling around. I was 25.

Much of the trip is a blur (it was a long time ago), and maybe the oddest blank space in the memory is the everyday details. How did we get money? How did we coordinate anything without cellular telephony, or the internet? ATMs? What did we do with all that time? We were only on stage four nights a week, and we didn't spend so much time rehearsing. That leaves an awful lot of hours that I cannot account for. Maybe that's just how memory works, but, say, the summer vacations we took when I was a kid, or the summer as an exchange student in Germany, I have a pretty good recall of the mundane.

What I do remember are the vivid parts, the parts when everyone in our group was having fun and seemed generally happy to be around each other. We did habituate a diner, the name of which is gone to me, and we ate many a breakfast there. It was near to a used bookstore and a comic book shop, so we did bum around those. And driving down Bardstown Road, there was a drug store with a decades-old sign on the roof that if read literally said "PRESCRIPTION JONES," which then became the name of the character of the film noir mash-up play that I never wrote.

Not all of us stuck around Louisville for the entire span. My roommate and the playwright's girlfriend had to get back to NY for work on off days, so they were basically flying back after a weekend and returning in the middle of the week. So it was the playwright, Erin and me that were left. And the overriding issue was the housing. I actually cannot remember all the places that we stayed. Thing was, when the playwright had said that he had arranged for places to stay, he was exaggerating. He had a few places lined up, and he was certainly not going to let us sleep on the street, but he didn't necessarily know where we were sleeping tomorrow. There might have been a night or two that we splurged for a hotel. Erin and I did scoot down to Nashville for two days as a break, but we were stuck in a freak snowstorm and didn't see much of the city. Mostly we were happy to have a bed to sleep in, cheap-ass hotel bed that it was. We crashed at people's houses. Ultimately, the final week and change we stayed in an apartment that was kept by a regional director of a national chain. We did this without the knowledge of the chain or of the regional director. The playwright was a longtime employee of the place, which was where you worked if you were not working at a bookstore those days, post-college in the 90s. It was a nice pad, but we were in constant fear that we'd be discovered. And, looking back, it was a clear-cut case of any number of crimes, so luck was certainly with us.

It was exhilarating and it was terrible. And no, it wasn’t really a tour. It was a bunch of weeks in Louisville. And towards the end it became exhausting. I didn’t miss Brooklyn or the job I had, but I was tired. It was a liminal existence, and while I had readily signed on for it I became acutely aware of a certain intangibility as the weeks whiled away.

And it was not exactly the highlight of the relationship I had with Erin. We fought. We were in different places. I was chasing some kind of dream. She was chasing some kind of different dream. When we finally left, on a Sunday to drive all the way back in one eighteen hour drive, we alternated arguing with bitter silences. All day long. It was no fun. But we made it back in one piece—or, two, rather.

***

It was not necessarily the Craziest Road Trip! or the Worst Time Ever! But here’s the thing. Before sitting down to conjure this up, I would have trotted the Louisville trip as a go-to Bad Travelling Anecdote at any party. In fact, that’s what led me into re-opening it up here. But in full retrospect, the trip was not bad or even not-fun. There was a certain amount of not-fun involved, of course, but that can be filed under “life”.

I figured out what poisoned my impression of this memory: me. I did that. It was a time of blind optimism and youthful enthusiasm, and whatever ring I was trying to grab at the time I did not grab. It wasn’t the last time on stage, or even the last time on stage on the road, but there’s some part of me that is experiencing unacknowledged regret.

It seemed like a good idea at the time? It was a good idea, and if anything I failed it and not the other way around.

Which brings us back to now: Erin and I are still friends. We broke up a year or two after the trip, but we've stayed close, we like each other's spouses, our dogs are friends. (She says, “Hi.”) And all other participants in the trip are still around, and I’m friendly, if not friends, with all of them. The platform that was the centerpiece of the set? The roommate repurposed that into a loft, which she left with me when she moved out to marry and make a couple of wonderful kids, which I sleep on to this day. And Prescription Jones? There ended up being one: a dog (breed: North Williamsburg Black & Tan) that my roommate adopted and named. Jones (for short) was awesome, and passed away just a few years ago. He was a good dog.


Previously in series: Portraits From A Cross-Country Road Trip, Fly Fishing The Universe, A Chat With A Person Who Has Been To Disney Parks 40 Times, Hiking The Grand Canyon In A Day, The 2006 World Cup With No Game Plan, The Castaway's Guide To Making A Home and The Slave Who Sailed Around The World


Brent Cox is all over the Internet. Photo by Todd Dailey.

2 Comments / Post A Comment

scrooge (#2,697)

Good story, but I'm not buying the regret part. Regretting Blind Optimism and Youthful Enthusiasm? No, BO and YE are things you look back on with fondness. As for the brass ring, well, it wasn't there to be grabbed, nothing to regret there. There's more to this than meets the ear, Watson.

jmatt70 (#235,487)

For some reason, this tale sort of reminds me of when I was in a shitty band in Boston in the early 90's and we were playing at the craphole above the Penalty Box next to the Garden, and for some reason there was some acting troupe from NYC booked before us. They sucked, and it was painful to watch—in the way bad acting/stand-up always is, but they acted as if they were so superior to everyone there and we were all lucky to have been graced with their big city NYC selves.

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