Wednesday, April 14, 2010

3/29/10 - 3/31/10 – The Final Adventure…Memphis, TN

Aaah, Memphis, TN - the final destination in our Strega Nona touring adventure! Located in southwest Tennessee on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, Memphis is the largest city in Tennessee and the third largest city in the Southeastern U.S., with a population of 670,100. Founded in 1819, Memphis is named after the ancient capital of Egypt, and was settled first by the Mississippian culture and then the Chicasaw Indian tribe. Because of its flood-free location high above the Mississippi River, Memphis was a major transportation center and also a major slave market. Many renowned musicians grew up in and around Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, such as: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, B.B. King and Justin Timberlake. It is the home of playwright Tennessee Williams, the home of nine Fortune 500 companies, and the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 (at the Lorraine Motel). Several movies have been filmed in Memphis, including: The Firm, Cast Away, Walk the Line and The Blind Side.

Our first evening in Memphis was spent on lively Beale Street, the downtown center of the city that features bars, clubs, restaurants and other tourist sites. We enjoyed some great Memphis BBQ ribs and live music at the Blues City CafĂ©, located within walking distance from our lodging at the Hampton Inn. The weather throughout our Memphian stay was beautiful – warm with lots of sunshine!

The next morning, before our final load-in, I visited Graceland with three of my castmates. Located at 3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard, 12 miles from downtown Memphis, Graceland is the large, white-columned mansion and 13.8 acre estate that was home to Elvis Presley. It is the second most visited private home in America (the first being the White House), receiving 600,000+ visitors per year. As I walked throughout Graceland, I could not help but feel a little teary-eyed: the place elicits nostalgia for The King of Rock and Roll and all that he accomplished throughout his lifetime.

Following our short Graceland visit, we headed to our final venue – the famed Orpheum Theatre. Called the “South’s Finest Theatre”, the Orpheum is a gorgeous, opulent, 2400-seat theatre, filled with tasseled brocade draperies, crystal chandeliers and gilded mouldings. It originally started out in 1890 as the Grand Opera House and was billed as the classiest theatre outside of New York City. In 1907, it was renamed the Orpheum when it became part of the Orpheum circuit of vaudeville shows. According to legend, the theatre has been home for the past 80 years to a ghost named Mary, a little girl in an ethereal white dress and pigtails who sits in Box 5, seat C-5 and watches performances with a blank stare. I constantly searched the Orpheum house for Mary, but was not graced with a sighting of her.

Our new technical director/sound operator, Chris Strange, joined us in Memphis for our final two performances. We were all a bit apprehensive about having a new sound op, but we made it through both shows with only a few hiccups. To make things easier for Chris, Daniel – our tour manager – pressed the buttons to fire the sound cues since he was more familiar with the show, while Chris monitored levels, balance and mutes. Our final evening in Memphis was spent reminiscing over a fantastic dinner of fried chicken, fried green tomatoes and fried pickles at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. This restaurant hotspot comes highly recommended by all of the locals, and it most definitely does not disappoint.

We played two great final performances in Memphis – one public evening show with an audience of around 400 and one sold-out school show with an audience of 2000+. Throughout our last show, I found myself getting a little choked up and misty-eyed, once I realized that this was the end to this crazy adventure. Our final show was bittersweet, and before we knew it, we had packed up our set for the final time and headed off to the airport, homeward bound for the Bay Area.

Although I am more than ready to return to the comforts of my home and the arms of my loved ones, I realize just how much I will miss everything and everyone involved: my Strega Nona “family”, our daily adventures, our show on which we worked so hard, our memories – both good and bad – created in this journey that will last us a lifetime, and most of all, the lovely little character into which I poured my heart and soul for 145 performances.

Who knows where the next adventure will be for me? The sky is the limit, blog reader, and I am wearing my airplane wings!

Until the next adventure…


3/28/10 – 3/29/10 - The Gateway to the South and More Actor Musings…Louisville, KY

Well, here we are blog readers…our final long van drive. =) We have two full and rainy days of driving ahead of us before we arrive in Memphis. Since R.J. has left the tour, we have one less person in the van, so we are able to sit two to a row and be comfortable. Throughout the entire tour, we typically have had to transport nine people in the van, which meant that two people sat up front in the driver and passenger seats, while the remaining seven of us battled it out for the three rows of seating in the back. With seven people and only three rows, three of us would inevitably be squished into one row with the other four evenly coupled in the other two rows. Getting premium seating in the van became a game of “the early bird gets the worm”, with actors arriving early to van call in order to reserve a spot in one of the coveted two-person rows. We were all happy to be able to spread ourselves out a bit for our final long-distance van drive.

After one day of driving, we made a brief stopover in Louisville, KY, the largest city in Kentucky. Named for King Louis XVI of France, who aided the Americans during the Revolutionary War, Louisville is located in north central Kentucky, on the Ohio River. It is called “The Gateway to the South” and is often referred to as the northernmost Southern city or southernmost Northern city. This internal shipping port was one of the largest slave trading cities in the U.S. With its close proximity to the free state of Indiana to the North, Louisville was a major stop on the Underground Railroad and was often a point of escape for slaves to the North. Louisville is most well known for being the home of the Kentucky Derby (the 1st race of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing), the supplier of one-third of all bourbon whiskey, and the site of the Humana Festival of New American Plays (a six-week long, internationally acclaimed new play festival at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville). Of course, as with most of our prior stops, we were not able to do any sightseeing in Louisville, but it was still fun to be able to research this location for my blog.

I have been doing some weighty contemplation about my acting performance and career during our long drives. At this point in the tour, I am so tired that I feel like my performance has degenerated. As much as I try to fight it, I am finding myself “unplugging” during the show and operating on automaton mode because I simply do not have any energy to create a brilliant performance. I am also at another crossroads, constantly wondering and worrying what project is next for me, yet so physically and mentally exhausted and uninspired to come up with any rational solutions. It is amazing to me how exhaustion and lack of rest can skew one’s perspective on so many things and cloud one’s vision! I am hopeful that some well-deserved rest and decompression after the tour will help to allay these worries and concerns.

Next stop – the Orpheum in Memphis, TN. Until the next adventure…


3/22/10 – 3/27/10 – More Michigan Madness: A Random Act of Kindness, Home Again and Mom…Traverse City, East Lansing and Clinton Township, MI

After a long two-day drive, we arrived back to the Eastern Time Zone and at the first of one of several Michigan locations we would visit this week, Traverse City. Like with my earlier Wisconsin visits, I have decided to combine my Michigan adventures into one blog. Each Michigan stop was memorable in its own unique way, but ultimately, the overall week was just our usual old routine.

Stop # 1 – 3/22/10 – 3/24/10: Traverse City, MI, A Random Act of Kindness. The first destination in our week of Michigan madness was Traverse City. The largest city in Northern Michigan, Traverse City is a major commercial nexus for a seven county area. The city is named after the Grand Traverse Bay, where it sits at the head: the Bay earned its name from 18th century French voyagers who made “la grande traverse” or “the long crossing” across the mouth of the Bay. Producing 360 million pounds of cherries per year, Traverse City is renowned as “the cherry capital of the world”, although it also produces grapes and wine. Each year, the city hosts the Traverse City Film Festival, an event spearheaded by director Michael Moore.

Upon our arrival to Traverse City, Jessica and I ventured to a local nail shop, in search of relaxing pedicures after two painful days of uncomfortable van travel. After a precarious mile-long walk in the bitterly cold Michigan weather, on a road without any sidewalks, we arrived at our nail spa. Our pallid complexions and dark undereye circles, the results of the touring lifestyle, immediately prompted the shop manager to ask us if we were sick, which instantly elicited giggles from the two of us. Who knew that spending hour after hour in the theatre doing what we love, away from the sunlight and fresh air, would make us look like we were on the verge of death? The manager felt so bad for us, with our sickly appearances, that he offered us a discount on our pedicures. He also noticed that we had not driven to the shop, and offered us a ride back to our hotel. How refreshing it was to encounter this genuine random act of kindness in a city with which we had never been acquainted! We graciously accepted his kind offer and happily returned to our hotel, fresh pedicures and all.

Our performance venue was located a little bit outside of Traverse City, at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Nestled in the woods of Northern Michigan, this educational institution houses four performance spaces and has played host to hundreds of top caliber performers. Past alumni of Interlochen include singers Josh Groban and Norah Jones; actors Anthony Rapp, Felicity Huffman and Tom Hulce; and dancer/choreographer Mia Michaels. While our theatre, the Corson Auditorium, normally seats 952 people, our one evening performance at Interlochen was poorly attended, with a little over 100 people in attendance. Throughout the tour, it has seemed that most of our weekday evening performances (Mon.-Thurs.) have not been well attended: our 7pm curtain time is too late for our target audience member and too close to children’s early bedtimes. However, despite our small audience, we had a good performance at Interlochen and enjoyed one of the most delicious catered dinners, courtesy of our gracious Interlochen hosts.

Stop # 2 – 3/25/10 – 3/26/10: East Lansing, MI, Home Again. We drove immediately after our evening Interlochen performance to our next Michigan city – East Lansing, a stop we had visited a few weeks earlier. It was nice to return to our venue-provided apartments with separate bedrooms, our substitute homes away from home. We performed four successful shows over two days at the 600-seat Pasant Theatre at the Wharton Center. As before, performing on the ¾ thrust stage at the Pasant was exhausting as we constantly had to modify our blocking to accommodate the odd sightlines created by this strange stage configuration. And, because we only had a handful of hours of sleep upon our arrival to East Lansing, our first two performances there were particularly grueling. Fortunately, however, we made it through in our typical road warrior fashion and emerged from the experience stronger, yet more fatigued, individuals. Again, thank goodness for our comfy apartment-like housing, which provided us with some quality hours of sleep!

Stop # 3 – 3/27/10: Clinton Township, MI, Mom. From Traverse City, we journeyed toward our last Michigan stop, Clinton Township, and our final shows with our current technical director. Part of the Metropolitan Detroit area, with a population of 46,000, Clinton Township is the 8th largest community in Michigan. It is named for Dewitt Clinton, the popular New York governor from 1817-1823 who was largely responsible for the building of the Erie Canal, which enabled many settlers to come to Michigan. All in all, Clinton Township is like many metropolitan suburbs – a collection of indistinct strip malls, shopping malls, hotels and chain restaurants.

We performed one show at the Macomb Center, a beautiful 1271-seat theatre that opened in 1982 on the campus of Macomb Community College. The Macomb Center has hosted many famous headliners, such as Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Johnny Mathis, Ben Vereen and Harry Blackstone. Decorating the backstage ceilings of the Macomb stage are many collages commemorating past productions. Check out this Hairspray tribute that dangled from the ceiling:

The absolute highlight of our Macomb visit, however, was “Mom” – a colorful and lively septuagenarian (or possibly octogenarian) volunteer who has been taking care of visitors at the Macomb Center for the past 24 years. Marlene Visconti or “Mom”, as she prefers to be called, provides hospitality and delicious home-cooked meals to all of the Macomb visitors. She is always ready to entertain you with a dirty joke or flip you the bird, and she lovingly refers to the local crew as her “little bastards”. “Mom” supplied us with plenty of laughs and an ample dose of Midwestern hospitality.

Our Macomb show was a strong performance, with a full orchestra section with 700 to 800 in attendance. Following the show, we packed up our set and bid farewell to our technical director/sound operator, R.J., who had to leave the tour to return home for the birth of his first baby. Thank you for all of your help R.J. – you will be missed!

Upon our return to the hotel, a few of us visited a psychic fair that was being hosted in one of the hotel conference rooms by local psychic, Coyote Sue. While waiting outside of the fair, we met a few kids who had just attended our show. They could not contain their excitement once they realized who we were. Who knew that we would be the highlight of the psychic fair in Clinton Township? With our identities revealed, we slipped away from the fair without any psychic consultations and retired to the comfort of our rooms.

Well, blog readers…the end is in sight! Two more days of driving to our final destination in Memphis, TN, and two final shows with a new technical director/sound operator. What a long and rewarding journey this has been!

Next stop – Louisville, KY. Until the next adventure…


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

3/21/10 – Once More Unto the Badger State, Dear Friends…La Crosse, WI

Immediately following our Skokie shows, we braved the elements and started our long, wet, snowy drive back to America’s Dairyland, to the city of La Crosse, WI. Seated on the banks of the Mississippi River, La Crosse was settled in the late 17th century by French fur traders travelling the river. The city’s name originated in 1805, when a lieutenant on an expedition up the Mississippi River saw the Native Americans playing a game with sticks that resembled a bishop’s crozier or “la crosse” in French. La Crosse is the largest city on Wisconsin’s western border and has served as a center for the lumber industry, the brewing industry and education. There are three regional universities in La Crosse: the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse; Western Technical College; and the Roman Catholic Viterbo University.

Viterbo University housed our performance venue - an 1100-seat, three-tier theatre. We performed one show to a half-full, appreciative audience. Although our performance was strong, I am still recovering from my cold and have started to lose my voice. Thank goodness we have a few days off before our next performance! Following the show, I spent the evening at the hotel, trying to catch up on rest, while the majority of the cast went out to enjoy the assorted watering holes and nightlife of this college town.

We now have a two-day journey ahead of us before we arrive at our next destination of Traverse City, Michigan.

Next stop – the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Traverse City, MI. Until the next adventure…


3/19/10 – 3/20/10 – The Land of Lincoln and Tyler Dean…Skokie, IL

From the warm weather in Wisconsin, we journeyed back to Cook County, Illinois, to the village of Skokie. With a population of around 67,000, this Chicago suburb is located 16 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. Its name is derived from variant Algonquin words for “fire” as the Skokie marshlands were burned over by the Native Americans to flush out game. In 2003, Skokie was named by Money magazine as being one of the 80 fastest growing suburbs in the US. It is the home of Rand McNally, and several films have been photographed in Skokie including: Risky Business, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and The Blues Brothers.

Our performance venue in Skokie was located at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Established in 1996, this center has three resident companies and houses two state-of-the-art theatres: the 867-seat Centre East (our theatre) and the 342-seat Northlight Theatre. During our Skokie stay, several of us were fortunate enough to get industry tickets to see the play that was showing in our neighboring Northlight Theatre, A Life by Hugh Leonard. Featuring John Mahoney, a Steppenwolf ensemble member who is best known for his role as the father on the sitcom Frasier, A Life is an evocative and bittersweet memory play about the evolution of friendships in a small Irish town. The production was wonderful and endearing, and it was exciting to see two generations of actors play each of the show’s four characters. As the show had just commenced previews, there was an audience talkback following the performance to determine what the audience liked and didn’t like so that the production could be refined. It was refreshing to hear the actors discuss how they approached the play and their characters – what a fun evening!

Our performance day in Skokie - the first day of Spring - was a very snowy and wet day. We wondered if anyone would come out to see our show, given the weather conditions. Yet, despite the bad weather, we had two fairly full audiences with filled orchestra sections, and we performed two solid shows. The staff at the North Shore Center is one of the nicest crews that we have encountered. They treated us like royalty and were exceptionally vocal in their praise of our production. It is always such a pleasure to perform at a venue where they go out of their way to make us feel appreciated.

In the audience of our first Skokie performance were two friends from my University of Nevada, Reno days – my dear friend, Tyler Dean, who I had visited earlier on our Chicago break, and another Chicago transplant from Nevada Rep, Lucinda Alipio. It was so nice to have two familiar, supportive faces in the audience! Tyler is one of my dearest, best friends - in addition to performing together in Reno, Tyler and I also lived in the same apartment complex and worked for the same company. He now resides with his husband Mike in Chicago, where he acts, performs sketch improv at Second City and writes plays. Check out this picture from when Tyler and I performed in Return to the Forbidden Planet with Nevada Repertory Company:

Next stop – Viterbo University in La Crosse, WI. Until the next adventure…


Friday, March 19, 2010

3/15/10 – 3/18/10 – My Wisconsin Whirlwind…Hartford, Eau Claire and Wausau, WI

After a lovely three days off in Chicago, we returned back to the tour, with a little more than two weeks left in this final leg. We were headed to the great state of Wisconsin - the Badger State, America’s Dairyland and land of cheese. Having never been to Wisconsin, I was excited to experience this state and all that it had to offer.

Rather than to create separate blogs for each of our three Wisconsin stops from this week, I have decided to combine them all into one blog. While each destination of our Wisconsin tour was unique in its own way, the overall visit ultimately was not very eventful or exciting – pretty much our same routine of travel, loading in, performing two shows, loading out and driving to our next venue.

Stop # 1 – 3/16/10: Hartford, WI. The first city in our Wisconsin week was Hartford. Located 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee, in southeast Wisconsin, Hartford has a population of 11,000 people and was an early car manufacturing center. Two of the first things I noticed upon entering Wisconsin were the generous spirit of the locals and their delightful accents. The people from Wisconsin are extremely approachable and hospitable. This area seems to be very community- and family-oriented, and it is apparent in the Wisconsinites’ pleasant, helpful demeanors. And then there is that wonderful, almost lyrical accent…how could one not smile after hearing conversations peppered with “you betcha” and “don’tcha know”?

Our Hartford performance venue was in the Knoll Theatre at the Schauer Arts Center. Originally a canning factory from 1918, the center was renovated in 2001. Our theatre had 571 seats and was very cute and rustic, complete with wooden beams. As we were all well-rested, our two sold-out performances in Hartford were solid and strong.

Stop # 2 – 3/17/10: Eau Claire, WI. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! The next point in our Wisconsin journey was Eau Claire. The city, whose French name means “clear water”, was named for the Eau Claire River. According to local legend, early French explorers who had been journeying down the rain-muddied Chippewa River exclaimed, “Voici l’eau claire!” [‘Here is clear water!’] when they arrived upon the Eau Claire River. Nestled in the west central part of Wisconsin, 90 miles east of Minneapolis/St. Paul, the city’s growth was driven for many years by the lumber industry. Its recent economy, however, has been shaped by the opening of a number of plants that manufacture computer hardware. Two famous Eau Claire residents were the advice columnists/twin sisters Abigail van Buren (of Dear Abby fame) and Ann Landers.

We performed two fairly full shows at the State Theatre, an 1117-seat theatre that originally was a vaudeville stage and then a movie house. Built in 1926, the theatre was closed and renovated in 1982, and finally reopened in 1986. Although the State Theatre has a great local crew, this theatre is currently run down and in a dismal state internally. This venue was so sad, dirty and dilapidated that it was very difficult to enjoy my brief time there. Plus, I am sure that the fact that I have now caught another cold and that my bedbug bites have still not healed did not help to improve my Eau Claire encounter. On a brighter note, I was able to savor some great Wisconsin cheese in Eau Claire. Hooray for yummy, fried cheese curds!

Stop # 3 – 3/18/10: Wausau, WI. There are only 13 shows left and 13 days left on tour! The last stop in our Wisconsin week was Wausau, located in the central portion of the state and divided by the Wisconsin River. Settlers were drawn to the area in the mid-1800s and the city derived its name from the Ojibwe language, meaning “a faraway place” or “a place which can be seen from faraway”. As with many Wisconsin cities, Wausau was built around the lumber industry, but is now known for its ginseng cultivation and red granite.

Our performance venue in Wausau was the best of our Wisconsin venues: the Grand Theater, a building of architectural grandeur, elegant surroundings, massive arches and fluted columns accented with gold. Built in 1927, this 1214-seat, three-tier venue features state-of-the-art technology and wonderful acoustics. We ended our Wisconsin whirlwind with two great, filled-to-capacity performances. Following our shows, several of us started to prepare for our return home after six months on the road and shipped some belongings home so as not to be over the airline maximums. Throughout our Wisconsin sojourn, we were fortunate enough to have nice, Spring-like weather and temperatures. Sadly, it looks like this weather trend was short-lived as more snow and rain are in the forecast for the Midwest.

Next stop – Centre East at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, IL. Until the next adventure…


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

3/12/10 – 3/14/10 – Like a Shiny Toy…Chicago, IL

As the famous song goes, Chicago is my kind of town. The third largest city in the United States, this Windy City is the home to many wonderful theatres, cultural and sporting events, neighborhoods, eateries and attractions. We spent three lovely, carefree days in Chicago. While most of my tourmates were M.I.A., opting to spend their time off with friends/family or in their comfy hotel rooms or at the swanky movie theatre across the street from the hotel, I decided to spend as much of my time as possible absorbing and experiencing the wonderful Chicagoan ambience.

Here is a brief recap of my Chicago adventures:

  1. I enjoyed some yummy Chicago deep dish pizza.
  2. I saw the St. Patrick’s Day parade revelers as they wandered intoxicated about the city and in Millennium Park. In typical St. Patty’s Day fashion, the Chicago River was dyed green.
  3. I spent one rainy afternoon inside at The Art Institute of Chicago, viewing many Impressionist works (e.g. Seurat, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh), Surrealist pieces (e.g. Picasso, Dali, Lam, Miro) and Modernist installations (e.g. Pollack, Mondrian). If you are an avid art enthusiast, this museum is the perfect place to pass the time.

  4. Over the course of three days, I saw five shows. The Brother/Sister Plays, a three-play cycle at the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre; Killer Joe at Profiles Theatre; and an improv showcase at Second City.

  5. Steppenwolf Theatre is a world class, Tony-award winning ensemble theatre company based in Chicago. Founded in 1974 by Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry in the basement of a church in Highland Park, IL, this company takes its name from the novel by Herman Hesse. Many of Steppenwolf’s shows often travel to New York City, including a pivotal True West production starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, and the recent dramatic success by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County. Steppenwolf has launched the careers of a number of well-known American actors such as Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Joan Allen, John Mahoney, Martha Plimpton, Gary Cole and Laurie Metcalf.

    The Brother/Sister Plays, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Tina Landau, is a series of three plays: In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. This play cycle is one of the best theatrical productions that I have ever experienced, incorporating narrative storytelling, music, movement and African tradition. Steppenwolf is truly one of the best ensembles in the theatre world and I hope that perhaps, with work and persistence, I, too, can be one of their members. Truly amazing!

    Killer Joe, written by Tracy Letts and directed by Rick Snyder (both Steppenwolf ensemble members), was a wonderfully dark and disturbing production. This tale is about one of the most dysfunctional families you will ever see and Profiles Theatre’s intimate setting suits the play well. The production features a talented cast of five actors. The show has been so well received that not only has the play been extended, but it will also move to another venue following its extension.

    Second City is a top comedy club and training center that has cultivated many of the nation’s finest and best known comics, such as Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris and Jon Favreau, among others. Located in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, Second City opened in 1959 and now has branches in Los Angeles and Toronto. This long-running improve comedy enterprise is known for its format of semi-improvised, scripted scenes that are created based on audience suggestions. The improv showcase that I attended on my last night in Chicago was fun and wildly witty, and featured a performer that I knew personally – my friend from Reno and college, Tyler Dean.

  6. Not only did I get the chance to see my friend perform, but I also had the opportunity to visit with Tyler and his husband, Mike, two of my dear friends from my Reno days. It was so nice to be able to reconnect with them. One of these days, I hope to return and visit them again as our time together was way too short-lived.
I had so much fun during my three days in Chicago that I almost forgot about the change to Daylight Savings Time. My time in Chicago was just what I needed: three days to rest, recharge and renew my exhausted road-weary self.

Next stop –the Schauer Center in Hartford, WI. Until the next adventure…