July 3, 2007

The hardest working performers in show biz

Hubby and I went away for a few days to celebrate his big 4-0, and during our trip, we attended a performance at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano, CA. Oceano is a town of roughly 7,000 people, and the theater seats just 250 people, but professional actors come from all over to perform in classic melodramas and comedies where booing the villain and cheering the hero are encouraged.

I noticed upon entering that some of the ushers were in costume, and I thought it was a nice touch. One of the actors introduced the show and gave the house rules. He also mentioned that there would be two intermissions. We all sang the Davy Crockett song, and the play began.

"Davy Crockett," an authentic 19th-century melodrama, was funny and entertaining, and the actors were clearly seasoned professionals - this was no small town community theater production. The space on and around the tiny stage was used creatively, with a set that changed seemingly effortlessly from a two-room log cabin in the woods to a fine mansion in the city. The actors performed all the set changes themselves.

At the first intermission, I noticed that the actors, in costume, were clearing tables and picking up glasses and trash - the same people who had been ushers at the beginning of the night. On my way to the restroom, I peeked into the snack bar, and there were the rest of the cast, pouring drinks and serving popcorn!

The play ended at about 9:40 p.m., and I wondered where the second intermission had gone. The actor who opened the show again came out and announced that, after the intermission (intermission at the end of the play?), the vaudeville would begin. How had I missed this detail?

During the break, the actor led the crowd in a round of "Happy Birthday" after going around the room and having each celebrant say her/his name and age. After that, we sang the anniversary song for everyone who had announced an anniversary!

By then, the cast from the play (minus the 9-year-old boy) had changed out of their 19th-century backwoods gear and returned to the stage for the musical revue "Life's a Beach."

For another 30 minutes or so, they sang and danced their way through several scenes of a day at the beach, complete with a trio of singing "seagulls", an entire dialogue spoken in tongue twisters, and a hilarious yet bittersweet number called "Seniors in the Night" performed with walkers.

Starting July 12, this same cast will add an additional play and musical revue to be performed on alternate evenings for the rest of the summer. I was astounded by the level of commitment, talent and sheer backbreaking labor this cast demonstrated. Have I mentioned that tickets are only $16 or $19? Or that all the music is provided by one piano player?

I've been out of the theater for a long time, and part of the reason I decided not to pursue a career in the theater was that I didn't appreciate the competitive nature of the auditioning process or desire to take part in the struggle to build a career as an actor or costume designer.

This company reminded me of everything I loved about theater: the magic of suspended disbelief; tight teamwork; being totally in sync with an audience; the joy of entertaining; doing something for the love of it, not the money; giving my heart and soul to an audience; getting laughs at all the right moments. I got a little emotional, I must say, remembering how much I had loved doing exactly what these performers were doing.

It's a lot like public speaking, as a matter of fact, especially the relationship with the audience, but also the hard work. It reminded me how important it is to love my work, and to be willing to bust my you-know-what to succeed.

If you're ever on the central coast of California, The Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville is about a twenty-minute drive south of San Luis Obispo. You will not be disappointed!

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