Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review Club: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

(This is the December 2011 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list, click the icon at the bottom of this review.)

If I had to sum up my thoughts and feelings about Anthony Horowitz’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, it would be this: if you close your eyes and just listen to the audio book, you would think you were listening to a story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. That, and a little A. A. Milne thrown in for good measure.

The spirit of Doyle is alive and well in this new Holmes novel, as well it should. In the decades since Doyle died, this is the first officially commissioned and recognized by the late author’s estate. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that The House of Silk is now the 61st story in the canon.

And with whom did the descendants entrust Holmes and Watson? The man behind the Alex Rider young adult series and one of my all-time favorite TV series, “Foyle’s War,” was an excellent choice to write this book. Horowitz is a professed amateur Sherlockian himself, and his prose stylings are just as if John Watson himself wrote the novel.

When tasked with the job of writing this book, I imagine one of Horowitz’s favorite jobs was to make The List. What list is that you say? This would be the list of all the things that he would want to have in a Sherlock Holmes story. Think about: 56 short stories and four novels from which to draw all your favorite characters, scenes, and events to put into your own book with your own spin. Sherlockian’s everywhere will smile and nod as they see Horowitz’s grace notes as he writes this compelling novel. Lestrade is here, as are the Baker Street Irregulars, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, other little nuggets for you to find, and a certain unnamed character who, in fact, needs no name for the reader to know exactly who his is. In fact, it’s almost like Sherlock Holmes’s Greatest Hits.

Edmund Carstairs calls upon Holmes and Watson with a typical story: a man in a flat cap is stalking Mr. Carstairs, an art dealer. This flat cap chap is, presumably, a member of an Irish gang out to take revenge on Carstairs for a botched train robbery. For the next few chapters, Horowitz basically delivers a nice Holmes novella. It is only at the end of this little sub-section where things take a more drastic and sinister turn. A brutal murder—intended as a message to any who might tread on this case—move this case from mere dread to one of a more dire nature. It is here where the modern storyteller Horowitz turns up the heat on our Victorian heroes and leads them to place that Doyle would never have gone.


The pacing is good through the novel. An avid Sherlockian myself, I was never bored and often raced back to my iPod to listen to the next chapter. By the way, if you are an audio fan, the book is narrated by none other than Derek Jacobi, and I highly recommend this recording. The events had a modern way of piling on our heroes, so much so that, even though you knew certain things would happen, you just didn’t know how.


Horowitz just plain had fun writing this story. If you know the original canon well, you will note the nice little echoes and homages thrown in. For example, at one point, Watson is conveyed by carriage to a secret place. The windows of the carriage are draped—almost exactly like another carriage ride in “The Greek Interpreter” short story by Doyle—so as to prevent Watson from knowing where he’s going. Another point has Watson hunting down a clue and ends up asking a rather out-of-left field question to another person. When asked how the question pertains to the case, Watson, tongue firmly in cheek, gets to reply “I have my methods.”


If you know your other Holmes stories written by a myriad of other authors, you know all the places Holmes has traveled and the people he’s met. One rather famous example are the stories written by Laurie King, which has the old detective still alive and well during World War I. This story, now being officially canon, jettisons those other stories as non-canon. It’s as if George Lucas decided to make new Star Wars movies set after Return of the Jedi. As soon as that celluloid hits the screen, all the Extended Universe stories are moot. Thus, when Watson—ostensibly writing during 1911—comments that Holmes has already died, it didn’t jive with the other stories’ timelines. I kept having to adjust.


Now, you may be wondering why I namedropped A. A. Milne at the first of this review. It’s simple: Milne and Horowitz nailed the melancholic wistfulness of days past. Remember the ending of the original Winnie the Pooh movie and the part where Christopher Robin and Pooh are talking. Christopher knows that he has to go off to school and learn things. He also knows that everything is going to change and that he’ll never again be that carefree little boy. He longs for his past and promises Pooh to always be there for him. That’s how Watson is portrayed in this novel. Watson aches for his friendship with Holmes and the good doctor clearly knows his days are numbered. More than once, he comments that, by his writing of this last case, he has been in the presence of his good friend again. It’s a remarkable book that can both excite the senses and, yet, bring on the longing to such an extent that one might get that lump in your throat. That’s what this book did for me. I absolutely loved this book and hope Horowitz gets the invitation to write another. If not, the next author has some tall shoes to fill.




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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Forgotten Music: Chicago 25

(Note: Chicago has released its third Chiristmas CD, O Chirstmas Three, this year. Look for that review in the coming weeks.)

Back in 1998, Christmas arrived in August. Well, it did if you were a Chicago fan, that is. You see, it was in that month, the hottest down in here in Texas, when the then-thirty-year-old band released their first ever Christmas CD. And wouldn’t you know it was numbered twenty-five?

When you stop to think about it, you had to wonder why one of America’s most successful rock acts never recorded even one Christmas song. Peter Cetera did a one-off, semi-countrified version of “Silent Night” and Robert Lamm recorded “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” but that was it. The closest the band ever got to a winter song was “Song of the Evergreens” off of Chicago VII.

Chicago 25, coming three years after Night and Day, Chicago’s CD of newly-arranged big band standards, the expectations among the Chicago fan base was quite high for the Christmas CD. What songs would they select? How would the band stamp their indelible sound on time-honored classics? And, honestly, how could they add anything new to the endless steam of Christmas music we hear year after year. And would any of these versions become definitive?

I could certainly give a track-by-track run down of Chicago 25 (and I have, to many friends and fellow Chicago fans) but I’ll point out a few high points of this CD. As I have mentioned before in previous reviews of Chicago records, the sheer number of instruments and vocalists in the band brings a multitude of possibilities to any one song. These seven musicians are professionals who can evoke any number of nuances from their instruments. Walt Parazaider brings all of his saxophones and his flute is featured on many songs. Robert Lamm’s piano playing, including electric piano, is a joy to hear throughout the fourteen songs of Chicago 25 but especially “The Christmas Song”. Bill Champlin’s vocal arrangements (“What Child is This?”) can give boy bands like N*Sync a run for their money to say nothing of his tickling the keys of his B3 organ. Keith Howland’s guitar embellishments interspersed in the songs evoke a jazz feel more than a rock sensibility. Back in 1998, trumpeter Lee Loughnane was undergoing a renaissance in the band as his trumpet playing markedly improved in the concerts and showed up on Chicago 25.

All the songs selected and arranged got the typical Chicago treatment. Some of the tunes are better for it. A few surprises do pop up. “Feliz Navidad,” originially sung by Jose Feliciano, is one of the happiest Christmas songs out there. I dare you not to tap your toe when this song starts its inexorable march in your brain. Under Lamm’s reading, the song is a slow, moderately-paced song of beauty. In a nice touch, Lamm adds some xylophone and marimbas. It’s one of the unexpected yet understated songs on this record.

You can’t say Champlin’s bluesy “Santa Clause is Comin' to Town” is unexpected, however. To say that Champlin is soulful is to understate the obvious. But the rest of the band—especially Jason Scheff’s bass playing—really gets into the act. This is one of the funkiest cuts in Chicago’s catalogue and it gives the horns a chance to stand and just wail. What makes this rendition so much fun is Champlin’s lyrical riffs. “You better be cool\y’all gotta chill\you gotta behave\you all know the drill.” And the B3 just weaves in and out of this track. A highlight if you like your carols just a little bit dirty.

“Christmas Time is Here” is the Vince Guaraldi song from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Lamm acknowledges his appreciation to Guaraldi with a delicate version of this newer classic. The horn arrangement is quite good as is Howland’s guitar licks. You'll love Lamm’s electric piano. He noodles in and out of the melody and his own vocals. Loughnane’s muted trumpet ends the piece, setting a lovely mood that can sweep you away back to your childhood.

The next track, however, will wake you up. Chicago’s secret weapon in 1998 was Lee Loughnane’s vocals. Yes, the trumpeter sang a few songs back in the 1970s (on Chicago VII, X, and XI) but had not stepped behind the mic since. So “Let it Snow” was a wonderful treat. In a version that would be at home down in New Orleans, Loughnane’s pulls a Louis Armstrong, singing and playing. This song proved so popular in 1998 that the band recorded a version in Spanish. “Let it Snow” even found its way into the summer tour set list. It was a little weird hearing this song in the heat but the feel of the song will melt snow or your margarita.

As good as these renditions are—Feliz Navidad” is a nice change and other songs, like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" are my preferred versions—most of these songs don’t quite reach the level of definitive. One exception exists. Chicago’s reading of “Little Drummer Boy” puts all the other versions—and, yeah, that includes the Bowie/Crosby version—to the back of the line for me. The song itself, while nice, never had the heft of other Christmas songs, secular or sacred. Chicago changes the equation. In a fade-in, the drums kick up a shuffle beat, not fast, not slow, but just enough to get your toe tapping and to make you realize this is something different. As Bill Champlin’s soulful voice begins to sing the first verse, producer Roy Bittan’s (E Street Band) accordion colors the feel of the song, giving the song an acoustic quality underneath the main beat. Champlin makes it through the entire first verse with only the horns offering the answering counter melody. As you first listen to this version of the song, you’ll probably think “Okay, this is a great song and the horns are wonderful and discreet.” Then the chorus kicks in. And, in a first for Chicago, there is a choir: twelve additional singers to go with the three main Chicago vocalists. The result is somewhere between magical and sublime. Verse two brings in Jason Scheff’s high tenor, floating above Champlin and the choir. During this vocal onslaught, the horns continue to wail away and the accordion drones on and on. The horn charts are so stamped in my head that I hear them even when listening to another rendition. I consider this song one of the best songs in Chicago’s entire catalogue and a definitive version of "Little Drummer Boy."

Five years after Chicago 25, Rhino updated the disc with six additional songs and renamed the collection Chicago Christmas: What’s it Gonne Be Santa? It’s a testament to a band with vocalists growing out of the woodwork that five of the six new songs showcase a different lead singer. Again, the newer songs give that distinctive Chicago stamp on old classics. Lamm’s “Winter Wonderland” is pure Chicago circa 1973. In retrospect, “Winter Wonderland” provides a nice clue to the types of songs Lamm would release a year later on his excellent “Subtlety + Passion” disc. “This Christmas” has Scheff in full R&B mode while the acoustic “Bethlehem,” an original tune, provides a nice, acoustic glimpse of the three kings.

Just as “Little Drummer Boy” stood head and shoulders above the other tracks on Chicago 25, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” is the best song from the extra tracks. Simply put, this is one of the flat-out most fun songs Chicago has ever recorded. The newest—and youngest—member of the band, guitarist Keith Howland, arranged this song and sings lead. It’s a fast, up-tempo song that brings to mind “When is This World Comin’ To?” off Chicago VI. The horn charts are fantastic and, as is my wont, the bari sax all but blats its way out of your speakers. In the original lyric, the final verse lists the various toys that kids want. Howland tailors the final verse to instruments for his band mates. At the end, after he’s questioned Santa on what treat will be left for him, Howland shouts out “How ‘bout a shiny electric guitar?” and lets rip a guitar riff and solo that would have made Chuck Berry proud. It’s an exuberant ending to an exuberant song. It’ll leave you smiling and tapping your foot long after the song fades away.

Christmas is all about memories, usually from childhood. At times, it’s even about memories you never had but a nostalgia induced by music. Nat King Cole’s reading of “The Christmas Song” is definitive and no Christmas would be complete without hearing it at least one (fifty?) time. Ditto for Crosby’s “White Christmas.” But if you want something fun, occasionally different, but altogether satisfying, you can’t go wrong with inviting Chicago into your house for Christmas.

Forgotten Music: November 2011

It's Thanksgiving Day here in America. I'm on the hook for homemade cranberry sauce. I'll pick up any newcomers later today with the summary. But, for now, here are the regulars.

Sean Coleman

Bill Crider

Eric (Iren)

Jerry House

Randy Johnson

George Kelley

Todd Mason

Charlie Ricci

Monday, November 7, 2011

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 8 vs. Cleveland Browns

It's good not to fret.
It's good to beat lesser teams.
It's good to dream now.

T'was only last year
When the defense was a sieve
Now, it is a wall.*

Winning without 'Dre.
When he returns, look out, man!
We could be scary.

Cleveland Browns - 12
Houston Texans - 30

Record - 6-3 (1st in AFC South)

*Thanks Wade Phillips!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

How I Wrote My Novel

If you've ever wanted to know how I went about the process of writing my Harry Truman novel, head on over to my column at Do Some Damage today. All of us at DSD spent the week writing about how we write novels. We'll have a new theme for next week, starting with Joelle Charbonneau tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review Club: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

(This is the November 2011 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click on the icon after this review.)

What would Harry Potter have been like in Magic College? What would happen if you had a bunch of magicians and no bad guy? What would happen if you wrote a book and the plot never arrived? What if the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.") were expanded into a full-length book with a little bit of magic and nothing else.

Those are some of the thoughts I had when trying to come up with a banging opening sentence for my review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians. None really had the oomph I wanted, so I threw them all in that first paragraph in a vain attempt to be witty and wow you readers into thinking I had something to say. Which is, now that I think about it, a little like Grossman did for his book.

I'm in a science fiction book club and this was the October selection. I didn't choose it, but the premise--older teenagers go to a magical college--was promising. The dust jacket was interesting. But the execution was just wrong. When the four members of my club gather, we each give the book in question a letter grade (I picked "C" because it was exactly in the middle; others included a C-, a B, and an A). This is the first time in which I preferred that Agree/Disagree spectrum because it had that one place, right in the middle, where you can say "I have no opinion one way or the other." It was just a few hundred pages of "meh."

The novel centers on Quentin Coldwater, a seventeen-year-old New Yorker who is a morose teenager. He's the third wheel with his two other friends and his parents are all but apathetic to his presence. Thus, when he learns there is a magical college, he accepts. Now, anyone who has been exposed to the Harry Potter universe will have fun comparing Hogwarts with Breakbills College for Magical Pedagogy. Honestly, that was the most tolerable part of the book because I didn't really expect anything to happen other than school stuff. It was a nice change to have magical students drink and have sex since I'm accustomed to the Hogwarts version of things where the worse thing those teenagers did was snog.

The biggest problem with the rest of the book is that stuff never happened. The most interesting scene during the school years sequence was when a creature appears. Ooh, I thought, now we're getting somewhere. Then the creature left, admittedly after doing a horrible thing, and nothing much happened. Ever.

If you read the hard copy of the book, you will see the map of Fillory--the stand-in for Narnia in Grossman's universe--so you know it occupies a huge portion of the mind's of the characters. In fact, Quentin is a Fillory fanboy, the only one who still reads the books while at Breakbills. It's not a spoiler--why else would the map be in the inside cover?--to say that Fillory makes an appearance and Quentin and his friends go there. Give you one guess what "happens."

Among the four members of my book club, two finished the book last week while I finished the book and am writing this review on the same day. The Last-Weekers say that the book has stayed with them, and that they are liking it more and more because they keep thinking about it. One member even went so far as to say that Quentin is the most complex character we've ever read in our nearly two years doing this book club. That may be so, but he's still a whiner to me. Yes, says my friend, but he's true to himself no matter what happens.

After I finished the book, I read some reviews and learned many readers appreciate that Grossman tried to turn the conventional quest/fantasy novel on its head, to write a mainstream fiction novel with some fantasy elements. Notably, other readers took note of Grossman's nuanced, post-modern take on the aspects of fantasy literature. I'll grant him that, and agree with them.

But I still want a story, a plot, or some sort of device that moves the action. I still want something that propels me forward other than a desire to finish the book because I was in a book club.

A member of my club said that The Magicians might be a book he'd give to a person unfamiliar with science fiction/fantasy as an introduction to the genre. I don't think that's a good idea. But if you're steeped in the genre and want to see how a non-genre-ian, but admitted geek, takes on all the tropes of fantasy literature, The Magicians might be a good choice for you. There's a new sequel (The Magician King) with a premise that sounds mildly more interesting than this book, but I'll be content to read the plot summary on Wikipedia. I want to know what happens to these characters, but not enough to read another book.




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Monday, October 31, 2011

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 8 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars

Played down, yet again.
But the vic'try was hard won.
Still too soon to dream?

We have a defense!
Offense good. Now, hone the brains.
Complete team, are we?

Jacksonville Jaguars - 14
Houston Texans - 24

Record: 5-3 (1st in AFC South)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Forgotten Music: October 2011

Welcome to the October 2011 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. As always, if I missed someone (or if someone joins in for the first time), I'll add you to the summary.

Enjoy.

Sean Coleman
Bill Crider
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Todd Mason
Charlie Ricci
Perplexio

Forgotten Music October 2011: Chiller by Erich Kunzel

Mozart never made a concept record.

No, I don’t count opera. It wasn’t until the 1800s that instrumental music made a natural progression and created pieces that evoked a sonic landscape with a unified story or theme. A concept record before there were even records.

What am I getting at? Program music—-that is, music with the intended purpose of creating images in a listener’s mind—-didn’t flourish until the Romantic Period in the 1800s. And it wasn’t long before music evoking a pastoral landscape gave way to things that scared us: demons, witches, and death. Often referred to as tone poems, some of the best are collected in the 1989 CD “Chiller,” by the late Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

Kunzel made a niche market of popular movie music being recorded and packaged together to go with a common theme. “Round-Up” features western music, “Star Tracks II” showcases some great themes from science fiction films, while “William Tell and Other Favorite Overtures” shore up the usual pops orchestra material. So it was natural that they tackled the music of the macabre.

One of the fun things on a Kunzel CD is the sound effects. “Round-Up” begins with sounds around a campfire. The CD that includes music from “Jurassic Park” starts off with the sounds of a T-Rex stomping through the forest. So, as you can expect, “Chiller” starts off with a scream. A very loud scream. You hear thunder and rain, a mewing cat, and footfalls running up some wooden steps. Three knocks of the door knocker boom and the door creaks open. The woman, so happy that some is home, turns to look at...the thing in the doorway. She screams. The thing screams back. The short piece ends with the door slamming shut and immediately, the opening to the Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Phantom of the Opera” kicks in, the pipe organ played to full volume. It's fantastic.

After the Phantom has left the stage, the remainder of the CD’s first half (time wise; these are long pieces) meanders through the great supernaturally-themed orchestral pieces from the 19th Century. All the great ones are here save one. “Night on Bald Mountain” blows through your speakers with its accustomed ferocity. You hear the intense string line flurrying around and, then, suddenly, the thunder of the low brass bolts from the sky. Having played this piece before, it never gets old.

My personal favorite supernatural piece of music is Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre.” Musically, you hear night fall and the ghosts rise, led by Death sawing through his violin concerto as the dead dance. Kunzel and the orchestra nail this reading of the piece, bringing forth all the innuendos of the instruments: xylophone as dancing bones, harps tolling midnight, the oboe as rooster, among others. This piece just floats along and, man, you can just see the skeletons and ghouls prancing in the graveyard and over the tombstones. It all climaxes in a fantastic melding of two scales, one ascending and one descending, being played over each other. Just like when you turn up the volume on your car radio when you hear “Hotel California,” I always crank up the volume when these scales do their thing. And then it all ends at dawn.

The rest of the classical music includes two pieces from Berlioz (“March to the Scaffold” and “Pandemonium”) and Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt, a piece that can always leave you panting. The one piece whose inclusion would have made this CD perfect is Paul Dukas’s “The Sorcerer's Apprentice.” You’ll have to get it elsewhere. “Classics from the Crypt” includes it as a few other pieces not on this CD. I have both and pretty well have all the great supernatural orchestral pieces out there.

The second half of “Chiller” is a let-down after the spectacular music from the 19th Century. It’s film music from the 20th Century. None of it is bad, it just suffers when compared to the older music. Moreover, the carefully-crafted mood evoked by the classical music is broken with happier-sounding material like the overture to the movie “Sleuth” or the theme to the movie “Without a Clue.” If I had selected the music for this disc, I would have included more pieces like the Herrmann music from “Psycho,” complete with the exact sound effect you’d expect from the famous murder scene. The theme from “The Bride of Frankenstein” does its job well, bringing to mind all the fantastic images from that horror film of that era.

The fact that there are images associated with the film music is why I enjoy the older tone poems better: they were intended to stir up, in the listener, images of their own imagination. Film music, by its very nature, compliments eerie pictures on a silver screen. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some great music is out there to correspond to some great horror films: the theme to the movie “Halloween,” for example, or the music from “Silence of the Lambs.” But so much horror film music is best experienced within the context of the film. The classical music on “Chiller” is of itself and the images are entirely yours. Yeah, I’ll admit that I can’t listen to “Night on Bald Mountain” and not think of the demon from “Fantasia” but that’s the exception (and, oh boy, what an exception!).

What made these concept classical pieces of the 19th Century so compelling was that we, as humans, didn’t know as much as we 21st Century citizens know. With our ultra modern lifestyle, we can keep the supernatural at bay more easily than we used to. Heck, we keep nature at bay. To some extent, with greater scientific knowledge comes with it a greater understanding that supernatural things our ancestors were scared of are merely figments of our collective imaginations. Death doesn’t rise from the grave and play a violin. There is no supernatural witches’ sabbath. With nature largely conquered in the western world, the things that scare us are falling stocks, serial killers, terrorism, or bio-warfare, things all man-made. We don’t get scared at the supernatural anymore.

Which is why “Chiller” is such a wonderful CD. With the classical pieces included here, you can get a sense of the frightening wonderment audiences experienced two centuries ago in the concert halls. After an 1870s concert featuring “Danse Macabre,” I can imagine a few folks looking around shadowed corners as they walked home or rode in carriages. Horror films do the trick for us nowadays, but there’s a part of you that knows, logically, that the amputated leg is fake, that the demons in a film use fake blood, or that it all is created on a computer.

Not so with this music. It’s all in your head. Which is why I would have loved to experience a demonic piece by Mozart. With his brilliant orchestral work, can you imagine how messed up and scared the citizens of Vienna would have been if Mozart trotted out a “Danse Macabre” or “Night on Bald Mountain”? I know your smiling one of your devilish smiles at that delicious thought. I am, too.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thoughts on Acting: Part II

Dress Rehearsal

As I wrote yesterday, I recently participated in my first play as an actor. Writer that I am, I am putting my experiences in words.

I left off at the dress rehearsal where we actors would have to perform for an audience of ten that included our senior minister, and where I’d chosen to perform on stage by myself since one of my two co-stars had obligations that prevented her from attending. Now, the real shame of my fellow actress missing dress rehearsal is that the audience did not get to see her perform her monologue. I know she was disappointed to miss the rehearsal, and the audience definitely missed her presence on stage.

So did I. I’ve made no secret that I was extremely happy to have been paired with other actors rather than be given a monologue. Had I been assigned a scene in which I was the only person on stage, my worry level would have risen quite a bit more than it did. For one thing, having another person on stage means that the audience is only looking at you half the time. Whew! More importantly, however, we can help each other. Forget a line, the other person can finagle something to prompt you back on track. I needed the practice on stage with mics, even if that meant reciting both sets of dialogue.

I spoke both parts. It was weird, talking to a person who wasn’t there. I rushed through the lines, but did a passable impression of a dialogue. My “woman” voice—the slightly whisphery lilt I gave myself when I recorded that MP3 to help me learn my lines—rapidly decayed into my own voice for both male and female. Frankly, I think I confused the new audience members, but I got in the practice.

The rest of the dress rehearsal went well. Me and my other co-star—also a rookie in this acting business—performed well together in our skit (the driving one). We stage hands honed our prop moving abilities and our camaraderie backstage, and the entire cast did great. Driving home Thursday night, I was excited. I couldn’t wait until 3pm the next day when I’d leave my office and prepare for my first time under the lights. I felt good. All was well. Until 3pm on Friday.

Worry About the First Performance

When 3pm rolled around, I left my office and the butterflies swarmed into my stomach. You know that feeling you get on a roller coaster when you drop on that first, huge hill? Yeah, well, multiply that by ten. A great big ball of stress descended upon my shoulders and just hung there. Walking down the five flights of stairs from my office to the parking garage, I felt lightheaded. When I got to my car, I did the one thing I knew to do that would help: prayed. I prayed to God to help me and everyone involved to do their best, to help me remember my lines, and to calm my nerves. And, literally in the span of a minute, most of the stress and butterflies vanished. There were still a few, stray butterflies, but that was to be expected. I’ve read from just about every actor or singer who goes on stage that if you don’t have any nervous energy, you’ll likely do less than your best. As I drove home, windows open, classic Chicago blasting out of the speakers, my good feelings returned.

Backstage

We all arrived 75 minutes before show time to get our makeup applied. Now, I don’t wear makeup and I had already made arrangements to have one of the ladies pretty me up. I watch “Project Runway” every week and there’s always the shot of the models getting their look applied. The auditorium where we performed isn’t huge—approximately 200 seats—so it surprised me and a fellow male rookie actor that we’d have to wear makeup. But, from the images I’ve see taken from the vantage point of the audience, it does help show off the face and lips. My markup artist did a great job on me and, naturally, some of the girls promptly informed me, upon my transformation, that I looked like a girl. Examining myself in the mirror, with foundation, a spot of rouge, eye liner, and mascara, yup, they were right.

My fellow co-star, the one who had missed the dress rehearsal, and I ran through our scene a couple of times. Interestingly, there’s a bit of dialogue where she corners me, and she told me she was going to hold her intense stare while I gave my weak rejoiner, and then flip her hair and stalk across the stage. My writerly instincts were amazed again. Here we were, backstage, less than an hour before going on stage, and we were changing things up. It made the scene funnier, but, darn, I’d have to remember one more thing.

As I said, the best part of my two scenes was that I had another person on stage with me. The second best part is that the eye-wandering husband scene was the first overall scene. When the lights dimmed and the opening monologue started, we were on deck. We were first! It’s wasn’t going to be a situation where I’d go on after a half dozen scenes were in the can—where I could hear how the audience reacted to things, where those butterflies might return in earnest—my co-star and I went in cold. To be honest, just writing this and remembering that feeling, a few of those butterflies have found their way back to my stomach. The seconds slowed down, the butterflies fluttered, I could feel the sweat trickle down my back and in between my fingers as I held the shopping bags that formed the basis of the scene, the house lights dimmed, the opening voice over started, and then it stopped, and then it was time to go on stage.

First Performance

And everything changed.

Think of any movie in which a character has one of those moments of clarity and the special effects wizards dampen the sound down to almost nothing. In the movie, all you can hear, maybe, is the character’s heart beating, all the other people in the scene are talking as if they were underwater. That’s how it felt going up on stage Friday night for the first time.

I said the opening bit of dialogue (“Come on, honey.”) to which my co-star replied, “Don’t ‘ah honey’ me, you know you did it.” She then proceeded to drop her bags on my foot, spilling the contents on the floor. That didn’t happen in rehearsal, but it worked because it allowed me a few extra seconds to say my next line as I cleaned up the mess. What happened next surprised me and proved one of the key factors that helped me during that first performance.

After my co-star’s next line (“Then explain why you tripped over the bench and fell into the planter.”), the audience laughed. To date, no one had ever laughed at that line. Like you see the actor’s do in sitcoms that were filmed in front of a live, studio audience, I had to wait to deliver my comeback or else have the line be drowned out. Those few seconds reminded me that there was another component in the mix heretofore absent: the audience. After all, this entire performance was for them, right? It’s why we rehearsed and practiced. Now, the audience was present. And they were laughing, at the moments I expected laughter and those I did not. Organic is an overused word to describe the delicate interaction of performer and audience, but it’s a cliché that’s true. For the rest of that scene with my co-star, we finally were not just two people reading lines and walking across the stage. We were actors, conveying a story, for a receptive audience. And it was magical.

Another thing helped me through that first, crucial performance: my co-star. She has experience on stage and it showed. Immediately. For all of the rehearsals, I thought that the audience was just going to watch a domestic scene and find a few chuckles. I never knew we were supposed to engage them in the conversation. She taught me—without words, there on stage, live, on the fly—what it was like to act on stage with an audience. There is an ebb and flow to all scenes performed in this production. With one line, one character gets a laugh, the next, the other character gets the laughs. It was like that throughout all 28 skits, and all of us learned to adapt. Some of us rookies learned under the lights which, frankly, might be the best possible way.

The rest of the Friday performance went amazingly well. By the time it came to my second scene, I had already done the first one and I had moved props on and off the stage as a stage hand. Interestingly, the mere presence of being on stage even in the dark carrying something helped to ease the nerves. My second co-star, also a rookie like me, cut her teeth in her Act I monologue. For all the nervousness I had of being on stage with another person, she went up there by herself and nailed it. Our scene together went fantastic and, seeing as the subject of the vignette was a man and a woman in a car, driving, the laughs came naturally. So did our interaction between each other. The lights helped, too, as they blinded us and we literally could not see the audience. For all intents and purposes, the world came down to just the two of us.

The first night rocked, and all of us actors, transformed in our costumes, aced our scenes. I drove home on a high I’ve literally never felt before. Finally, after months of preparation, I knew I could perform on stage. Now, there was only one more hurdle to leap: perform in front of my family.

Second Performance

For whatever reason, all during my preparation, I learned my lines without my family seeing or hearing any of the dialogue. Once, my son heard me rehearse the driving scene with my co-star and his only verdict was “There’s a lot of sass going on.” I’m not some Brando type who only wanted to rehearse with my co-stars, but that’s ultimately what happened. It worked out well, and it allowed my wife, son, friend, and parents to see the entire thing on stage and it be fresh.

Unconsciously or not, in the minutes before the second curtain, I located my family in the audience and took note of where they sat. And promptly made a decision not to look their way. Not that I could see their faces in the dark, but, with only one performance under my belt, I didn’t want a stray glance from them to throw me off.

Joelle Charbonneau, a fellow writer over at Do Some Damage, has performed many times on stage. I had emailed her after the first performance about my experiences. She gave me two great pieces of advice that late Friday evening. One, audiences are all different, especially second ones, so be prepared to adjust. Two, go to sleep and get some rest. I did, but I kept turning over in my mind the things on which I could improve.

And improve I did. The second night’s audience was different. The laughs came at different times or not at all when compared to the first night. Having learned about interacting with the audience on Night #1, I tried to do a few things differently on Night #2. A fast talker normally, you get any sort of nerves in me and I speed up. The director called me on it a couple of times and I slowed down my delivery. I didn’t succeed as well as I would have liked to, but I did learn. Above all, I just had fun. We all did.

Afterglow

I’ll admit something: as soon as the house lights came up after the second performance, I already started missing the experience. For weeks, this play and my part in it occupied a lot of my waking moments. And, just as easily as the house lights came on, it was gone. Truth be told, after my second scene on Night #2, some of that wistfulness left. As I told many of my fellow actors, I would have loved a third performance, a matinee, to top off the entire experience.

Alas, we only got two. But those two nights of theater arts ministry were pure magic.

I’ve experienced what it’s like to graduate from a school, say “I do” to the woman I love, hold my newborn baby after delivering him myself, finish a novel, see something I wrote published, and many more things. Each are special and without equal in their own way. They cannot be compared and I don’t even try. But, after this past weekend, I can happily add one more thing to the incomparable list: performing on stage.

I’ve performed on stages countless times with a saxophone in my hands, but never like this. To date, I’ve enjoyed entertaining people with my written words or my saxophone. With my horn, I don’t necessarily tell a story. With acting and writing, I do. My God-given storytelling instincts took over during this entire acting experience, widening not only my part in the blessing that is the theater arts ministry at my church, but also my outlook on my writing. Even in these early days after this first acting involvement, I can tell that my approach to writing has changed. How and in what form, I don’t know yet, but I just know.

There is also the high of knowing that I can do anything I set my mind to do. Back in June, acting was a whim. Sure, why not, let’s give it a try. As the date got closer, the ominous nature of it, the knowledge that I’ve never done any acting and who knows if I can or should, slowly slithered into my thoughts. With enough practice and preparation, however, I overcame those doubts, and was rewarded more than I’d ever would have imagined. This kind of dedication—to the rehearsals, to the learning of lines, to the interaction with other actors, to accepting constructive criticism from the director—is addictive. I plan to parlay these good thoughts first, to my writing life and later, to my next acting work.

Finally, there are the people with whom I shared this remarkable time together. Shared experiences bring people together. Some experiences are dreadful—war, disaster, unforeseen events—while some, like this production, are much happier. A bond formed between all of us in this group—the actors, the directors, the sound folks, and the stage hands. In a big church like mine, we formed a little mini family brought together for a common cause: to share the talent which God gave each of us. To laugh, and to cry. And, most of all, to share in the telling of stories. Those of us in this production gave of ourselves and we got back blessings that cannot be counted. They can only be cherished.

And cherish them we will, when we see each other in church hallways, the pew rows, or happenstance at the grocery store. With each glance and a smile, we’ll remember this wonderful time we had together. With good fortune, we’ll all return, together again, for another production and another set of memories.

As for me, I’ve had a mountaintop experience, one that I’ll be talking about for a long time. It changed me. A new part of me I didn’t know existed is now open. I’m thankful for it, I thank God for the talent he gave me, and I want to continue to share it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Thoughts on Acting: Part I

It's a rare day when I can surprise myself.

I am a writer. It's what I do. I am always thinking about ways to say things, to communicate an idea, a feeling, or, as in my day job, a product. Most of the time, the words flow pretty well for me. It makes my day job as a technical writer working on the account for an oilfield services company somewhat easier. It can also make my fiction writing go a tad easier too, although that can be tougher, oddly enough.

At age 42, I'm relatively set in the things I know about myself. I know what kinds of TV shows I like to watch, what kinds of books give me the most pleasure, and how best to drive my car in Houston traffic. My daily routines are just that: routines. A friend of mine asked me once if I like structure. I said no right off the bat, thought about it for a few more seconds, then conceded the point. My wife thinks I'm high maintenance and she's right. But, unlike Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally...", I'm a high maintenance person who knows he's high maintenance, but occasionally does low maintenance things.

When it comes to things that surprise me, music and food provide the most variety nowadays as I'm always got my ear listening for something new and different, and my palate seeks out new, unexplored tastes. I know myself pretty well and, if I get off course, my wife's there to help me back on the right road. So it was with unexpected pleasure that I discovered something about myself this past week: I like acting.

Why Acting?

Looking back now, I can’t say for sure why it was that I wanted to read for a part in my church play. I had never done anything like it before. I play saxophone and the closest I’d ever been to participating in a play was as a member of the orchestra in my high school’s production of “The Music Man.” Frankly, I was content to be a musician and continue to enjoy my time in my church’s jazz band and orchestra.

Nonetheless, back in June, I went to the reading. The few of us that were there that day read through some sample scripts. This new production was a collection of vignettes about family life, church life, and the humor and sadness that comes in both. I had fun, and ended up reading a script with a lady I would eventually co-star with on stage. Now, “co-star” is a weird word, but it’s one I’m going with. There were over thirty actors involved in 28 scenes, and, for my first time doing this, was fortunate enough to act opposite two ladies, one in each of my two scenes. Other actors had monologues while some scripts had as many as five parts to them. Thankfully for me, I wound up on stage with someone else so, if I faltered, I’d have some much needed back up.

The Scripts

We got our scripts mailed to us in August. I was to play two different types of husbands. The first scene, “An Innocent Look,” was a humorous and poignant scene of a young couple. The wife and husband have returned from shopping at the mall and she’s furious with him for looking at another woman. He is wearing glasses and, yet, tells her the reason she “thought” she saw him looking at another woman was because his contact was out of place. The scene has funny moments, somber moments, and ends on a high. My second scene, “Circle of Love,” was of another married couple and their exploits driving in a car. Naturally, he thinks he knows where he’s going, she wants to stop for directions, and, well, the scene pretty much writes itself. It closes on a nice note as both of them realize that they’ve been focused not on each other, but on stuff that just doesn’t matter.

Practices and Rehearsals

Late in August, the rehearsals started. The show was schedule for 21 and 22 October and, from the vantage point of pre-Labor Day, October was a long, long time away. But, darn, you had to memorize the scripts. Well, duh! The first few rehearsals were easier, with scripts in hand, and in front of the director and her husband. Each of my two co-stars had monologues so my rehearsals with them were sandwiched in between their monologue rehearsals. Thus, at most, the audience was three. With the driving scene, my co-star and I sat in chairs, so it was quite easy to hold my script and treat it like the steering wheel. The “An Innocent Look” scene had me puppy-dogging my co-star as her character’s anger would not let her stand still. It was a little more difficult to hold the paper and look at her, but we managed. Our director kept saying the same thing: once you get out of your scripts, the character nuances will emerge and you’ll be much more free to, well, act (as opposed to read).

Boy, was she ever right—about this and everything else. I don’t know how others memorized their scripts, but I did a very 21st-Century thing: I recorded myself reading both parts of my two scripts. Then, I loaded them onto my iPod and was able to do anything—run, bike, weed the garden—and listen and learn my lines. Granted, more than a few people probably thought I was crazy as I walked to my boy’s school talking to myself, but, hey, we actors are weird, huh? But, it did the trick. Once I had the lines in my head—and knew the cue words from the ladies’ lines—I was ready to rehearse without scripts.

As a writer, I’m accustomed to creating everything for all my characters: backstories, motivations, looks, traits, dialogue, etc. It’s one of the best things about writing. With these scripts, the motivations and the dialogue were already there. The only thing left was to inhabit the words, and here’s where the fun began. For both scenes, my co-stars and I could try different things: change the intonation of voices, build the anger, make one of my characters more cocky, and other things. I found it remarkable how much I enjoyed the process. When I’m writing, this is all in my own head. Being able to work with others in a collaborative project and get “it” out of my head is quite liberating. Above all, the experimentation was the key takeaway from this acting gig to my writing life. To date, I’ve become so set in how my written characters Must Behave that I don’t let them be themselves. After this acting experience, I’m going to give my written characters room to breathe and tell me exactly how they’d react given a certain situation and give myself the leeway to change something that I thought was set.

Stage and Microphone Rehearsals

A week ago, we had our first rehearsals on stage with microphones. My church has these small mics that go around your ear and have the pick-up just near your mouth. A lot like what you see Peter Gabriel or Lady Gaga wear on stage. Needless to say, it’s a strange thing to hear your voice booming out of the loudspeakers, and it caused me to adjust how I spoke.

Now, up until our first stage rehearsal, we’ve been rehearsing on the floor of another room. Getting up on stage, with the set in place, the tape marks on the floor, a whole new world opened. We actors now had to be aware that we could literally walk out of the light. We had to make sure our shoes didn’t clog around on the wooden stage. Out went my original idea of footwear for my eye-wandering husband, in came my Doc Martens. Those quiet shoes came in handy, too, since I and another actor also took our turns as stage hands, getting props on and off stage with precision.

As I’ve said, up until these stage rehearsals, the audiences have consisted of the same 2 to 4 people. With 28 scenes, no one other than the directors had watched all the vignettes. I was looking forward to seeing what my fellow actors had been doing since August. This troup—come on, since I’m waxing on about this acting thing, allow me an actor’s trope—is a diverse group, ranging in age from ten to the golden years. The level of talent for this production was fantastic. We had folks who have acted on and off their entire lives mixed in with folks like me who decided, on a lark, to give it a go and see what happens. We actors performed some over-the-top funny scenes in which I laughed each and every time I saw them, some scenes that made me nod with commiseration, and a few that were heart-wrenching. Heck, in one rehearsal, I shed a tear or two. All in all, I could not have asked for a better group of people with whom to share my first acting experience.

Then came dress rehearsal last Thursday. For me, I considered dress rehearsal to consist of two things: you dress in whatever clothes you’ve decided to wear and you perform in front of new people. I was looking forward to it as the final time to get everything correct—and, believe me, I needed the reps—until I learned two crucial facts. One, our senior minister was going to attend as he would be unavailable on Friday or Saturday. A jovial, warm man as friendly as can be, he’s still the senior minister. I always had expected him to be one among many in the audience of a hundred or more. Nope. He was one of ten. Lovely. The second problem I personally had to face was to perform without one of my co-stars. She had another commitment that she had to do and could not attend our dress rehearsal. Lovely, again. So, not only would we be rehearsing in front of a smaller-than-anticipated crowd that included the senior minister, I chose to read both parts to a scene (the eye-wandering husband one) in which I would have no one opposite me.

Gulp.

Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you how it all turned out.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 7 at Tennessee Titans

Yes! A statement game!
Texans played all four quarters.
Take lead in the South.

Houston Texans - 41
Tennessee Titans - 7

Record: 4-3

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 6 at Baltimore Ravens

My dream Texans' team:
Last year's offense, new defense.
The corner's not turned.

Fourth quarter play calls.
Four-yard dinky throws. The hell?
We needed long bombs.

Houston Texans - 14
Baltimore Ravens - 29

Record: 3-3

Pardon me while I go bang my head on something hard...

Monday, October 10, 2011

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 5 vs. Oakland Raiders

As always, words fail.
Schizophrenic Texans team
Found a way to lose.

Note:
As heartbreaking as it is as a Texans fan, I can imagine that this game will live long in Raider lore. Thrilling win. In this age where corporate types handle things with kid gloves, Al Davis was an old-school throwback. He told it like he saw it and if you didn't like it, tough. That kind of spark is often missing nowadays, in sports as well as the rest of our culture. Mr. Davis: you shall be missed.

Oakland Raiders - 25
Houston Texans - 20

Record: 3-2, tied for 1st in AFC South