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Charles Edward Pogue
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR TRAINING? (OR: IS THE HEAD MIC YOU'RE WEARING AFFECTING YOUR MENTAL ABILITY TO WRITE A PROPER PROFESSIONAL PROGRAMME BIO?)
I suppose I sound like most old codgers railing against the diminishing standards of one thing or another and how it was better in my day. Well, sorry -- it was!
The source of my irritation this time round? Actors whose voices can no longer hit the back wall of a theatre without electronic aid and who are incapable of writing a bloody professional bio.
Back in 1980, I worked the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in a Sherlock Holmes play, THE CRUCIFER OF BLOOD, with Charlton Heston as Holmes and Jeremy Brett as Watson (and he was just as brilliant as Watson as he was later as Holmes). The Ahmanson is a barn. About two thousand seats. Not an intimate space compared to, say, the neighbouring Mark Taper Forum in the same complex which has only 750 seats.
When I played the Ahmanson, there were strategically placed support mics hanging from the grid and discreetly positioned on the apron, as I recall…mostly there to enhance stage dead spots and give a slight boost to the sound of the natural voice.
But none of the actors wore a body mic of any kind! Let me repeat that. NONE OF THE ACTORS WORE A BODY MIC OF ANY KIND!
More importantly, none of them NEEDED a mic. They had all been trained to project. They all knew how to support their voices, project, and hit the back wall of theatre and the upper reaches of the furthermost balcony. If one had not learned this simple skill, their likelihood of a career in the theatre was probably dicey. In my time, the ability was regarded as a minimal requirement to be an employable actor.
I’m not sure where and when all this microphoning of actors began. I suspect it started in the musical theatre, however. And probably as early as the 60’s. During a Fantastick Evening, a celebration of the songs of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, at the Pasadena Playhouse a few years back, Jones told a anecdote about their production of 110 IN THE SHADE, where producer David Merrick wanted terrific actress Inga Swenson, playing Lizzie, to wear a microphone. Swenson flat out refused, telling Merrick, “If the audience can’t hear me, then you can mike me, but I want to control my own performance!”
Brave words and a great lesson for any actor. “I want to control my own performance.”
But as mics have become more pervasive…first in musicals, now more and more in straight shows…do actors control as much of their performances as they once did? We’ve all heard body mics scrunch under clothing or pick up belches or tummy rumblings. We’ve all heard how they can often make a voice hollow, tinny, and false. We’ve all heard the balance of sound often get thrown out of whack or elicit the occasional ear-splitting whine or malfunction to the point where it’s not functioning at all. We’ve all seen little nub-ends of mics sticking out of wigs and tell-tale cords snaking down the backs of costumes.
Of course, these little distractions to our willing suspension of disbelief have now been abandoned altogether for the dreaded visible head mic that loops around an actor’s ear and slashes across his jaw, utterly destroying any illusion of reality anymore. Who thought this bright idea an improvement? It’s the single worst introduction into the theatre ever. It is always there assaulting you and violating any sense of belief, time, or atmosphere the play is trying to create. It is the Anti-Christ of theatre performance.
I once saw a musical done with head mics in a hundred seat theatre where you could walk from the front to the back in less than ten steps. If it had been any more intimate, the audience would have been sitting in the actors’ laps. Now, granted, it was a student production, but I don’t care. I could stand on that stage and talk in a normal voice and be heard in every seat in the house. Hell, I could whisper and be heard in every seat. How lazy do your actors have to be? And, since it is a school production, shouldn’t we be teaching students basic disciplines like projection and vocal production? How to breathe and speak so you can be heard distinctly?
The local summer Shakespeare festival has also succumbed to head-mics. To hear Shakespeare’s language and poetry filtered through electronic devices is bad enough, but to see the intrusive, ugly head mics twined around Anthony and Cleopatra’s profiles or Falstaff’s jowls defies good taste. Of course, the venue it is done in…a large field…doesn’t at all serve Shakespeare, the actor, or the audience anyway, but here’s a clue: If your actors can’t hit the back wall with their natural voice or because there is no back wall, then your venue’s too big!
I’ve seen plenty of outdoor Shakespeare where the size and shape of venue is controlled and contained…notably the Southbank’s Globe…but also in parks and outdoor theatres that accommodate the actor and the performance and where the actors didn’t need mics…headsets or otherwise…to be heard and where the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief was not challenged or nose-thumbed.
If singers or some theatres really must have mics, can we go back to those hidden in hairpieces and that occasionally rustle under clothing. But, please, let’s at least abolish the horrid head mic. It’s just too Vegas and what happens in Vegas must stay in Vegas.
Oddly enough, the wife and I came across a natural amphitheatre in our perambulations the other day where one, speaking in a normal voice while standing down in the flat performance area, could be heard by one at the back of the rise. We’re not telling anyone about this discovery, but keeping it to ourselves, plotting a performance of some kind there some day…
I realize there is a prevalent philosophy in America that everything must not only make a profit, but must make a HUGE profit, so we want to pack as many bodies as we can into something approximating an airplane hanger…or The Louisiana Purchase. But that kind of greed is rather self-defeating where theatre is concerned.
I really think, in future, performance spaces must be designed with performance in mind, not maximum capacity…it will certainly serve the audience better as well as the properly-trained actor who has mastered the simple tricks of projection and can easily hit the back wall without sacrificing the nuance of his performance.
And while we are training our young and upcoming actors to project, can we also teach them how to write a professional programme bio?
The facts found in programme bios are beginning to resemble the self-absorbed indulgences of a Facebook or Myspace page. They are far too disclosive and intimate, giving an audience member reading such confessional paragraphs far more information than they need or want.
Here’s a tip for actors writing your bios. If I’m in the audience, it’s unlikely that I’m your personal friend. It’s unlikely that I am one of the eight hundred of your nearest, dearest bosom confreres on your social networking site. I’m not coming over for dinner, I’m not preparing your taxes, I’m not arresting you. I don’t need to know your personal information. I just want to know what you’ve done. Tell me your credits. Maybe I’ve seen you in a film or TV show or even on stage before. That’s all I want to know about you.
I’m tired of actors writing bios that sound more like acceptance speeches for awards they haven’t won. Save your Tony/Oscar/Emmy speech for when you actually win that Tony/Oscar/Emmy. Or worse, they use their bio as a platform to brown-nose and suck-up to the directors and producers who’ve cast them, in hopes of future gigs.
You know what I mean: “Arnold is so honoured and humbled to share the stage with this talented cast and crew and to be working with such a distinguished director as Joe Blow in this historic theatre. He wants to thank his lovely wife/life-partner/children/mother/father/pets/God for their love and support and dedicates his performance to his wife/life-partner/children/mother/father/pets/God.”
If you were good enough to get cast, don’t go publicly currying favour with those who cast you. Be grateful on your own time. Otherwise, it smacks of desperation. A professional shouldn’t go Uriah Heeping around for being talented enough to get hired. I’m sure you weren’t cast out of any altruistic sentiments of charity or pity.
And what is this whole thing about dedicating one’s performance? What if one’s performance is lousy or critically-lambasted? What kind of honour is that dedication bestowing on the recipient? And are we talking about every performance or just one specific one? The ones where you missed entrances, or fluffed lines, or daydreamed about getting Chinese food after the show?
I’m convinced a lot of actors invoke their wife and children in their bios just to let the audience know that, despite being in the theatre, they are a card-carrying heterosexuals. And, vice versa, those who dedicate their performance to their same-sex partner want to proudly proclaim their gayness. All I care about is whether you can act or not, not who you sleep with.
If your partner is someone of note or in the business I don’t mind a simple, “Arnold lives in Brooklyn with his wife, a stage designer, and their three children.” But please do avoid cutesy crap like: “But Arnold’s proudest production is little Megan, his two-year old daughter with his wife, Mary Louise.” Great, you’re fertile! But you’re not there to spread your seed on the stage. Puh-leeze, don’t make me want to slap you before ever make your first entrance.
The less I know personally about an actor, the less baggage I bring to the role he is performing. He more easily assimilates the character for me. If I’m thinking, “gee, he plays a straight guy pretty good for a gay guy or he plays a gay guy pretty good for a straight guy”, I’m being taken out of the play.
Be a professional, give me your credits. If you’re young and don’t have a lot of credits yet, then your bio should be short. Don’t pad it with gibberish. Don’t inflict your personal life and views on me. The only way I want to know you is as an actor.
My favourite bio of all time is the one Diana Rigg wrote for the National Theatre production of HUMBLE BOY a few years back in which she co-starred with Simon Russell Beale and long time colleague, Denis Quilley. Here it is: “Diana Rigg has been around a very long time and this is the sixth time she has coupled with Denis Quilley.”
Sunday, August 2, 2009
But, in fact, they were immensely popular and the launching pad for many a fine writer and popular novelist such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rafael Sabatini, Cornell Woolrich, even Tennessee Williams.
I don’t really collect Pulps….despite their obvious attractions -- great yarns and wonderfully evocative illustrated covers. But between my lack of storage space, my lack of time to read their wonderful contents, and pragmatic concerns like their fragile condition and brittle paper, I’ve only ever just cracked the lid of this Pandora’s Box and reached in to pull out a few desired treasures before slamming it firmly back down lest temptation get the better of me.
Whatever forays I have ever made into Pulp collecting have been because I collect authors. So occasionally if I’ve found a Burroughs tale in Amazing Stories or a reprint of a Rider Haggard novel in Famous Fantastic Mysteries or an excerpt of a Talbot Mundy serial in Adventure and the price is right, I’ll make the leap. Once fifteen years ago, at a book fair in California, a dealer sold all his Weird Tales for ten and fifteen bucks. For that ridiculously low bargain price, I managed to pick up several issues containing Conan stories by Robert E. Howard and Jules De Grandin tales by Seabury Quinn; and, perhaps more importantly, adorned with the provocative cover paintings of Margaret Brundage (below).
Anyway, I love exploring the world and a chance to gaze into its wonders for a weekend appealed to me. I also knew there would be book dealers, movie posters, artwork, and other such peripheral wares that I occasionally dabble in on display.
After having been based for years in Dayton, Ohio, the venue moved to Columbus this year…but it was still roughly only a three hour drive from my old Kentucky home. I tried to entice pal, Roger Leasor in going up with me and making it a collecting- guy’s weekend, as he has more than a passing interest in this stuff as well. And, though enticed he was, work kept him pinned down.
So I soloed it with my usual off-the-cuff planning…which meant a couple hours on the internet, printing off maps of the Hotel and surrounding hotels and a few bookstores that piqued my interest and might require visitation, should the Pulpfest turn out a dud. I didn’t even make a reservation anywhere, though I priced a couple of places. Also having lived in Columbus when I was a wee sprig of a twig of a lad until midway through the second grade (the earliest memories I consciously retain are from my days there), I mulled a vague idea about visiting the old haunts.
Thus armed, I started out a little after noon on Friday, figuring to get there before rush hour. Though rain had been predicted, I encountered none and had sunshine all the way. As I crossed the Kentucky border and tooled up Interstate 71 through Cincinnati, I realized I had forgotten all my printed internet maps. This was hardly dire, because I had studied the info carefully the previous night and knew that, if I stayed on 71 north of Columbus, the Ramada Inn venue was right off the freeway. I even remembered the street.
Nonetheless, I figured I’d better purchase a map just to confirm my memory and to locate those other bookshops. After another hour driving through non-descript scenery at a sedate 65mph…the speed limit in Ohio…I stopped on the outskirts of the oddly named Washington Courthouse. I had forgotten how rural Ohio is…really nothing between Cincy and Columbus but farmland. Which made it even more odd, when going into a travel center to pick up my map, I noticed down the road, THE LION’S DEN, an adult sex shop—apparently part of a rather large franchise in Ohio. Guess those farmers no longer have rendezvous with their sheep.
Anyway, the map confirmed my memory and I arrived in Columbus without incident, found the Ramada Inn where Pulpfest was located and booked myself a room across the street at something called the American Best Value Inn.
I enjoy luxury as well as the next fellow, but when traveling alone, I can occasionally rough it – which for me means no mint on my pillow. Since I knew I’d only be in the room to sleep, my only requirements were a bathroom and a bed and both be clean. While the furniture was knocked about a bit, it met my requirements and, with my AAA discount, only cost me 47 dollars. I called The Lovely Wife to inform her I had arrived and of my thrifty room rate to which her only reply was, “I hope you didn’t get one of those places where bed-bugs are running rampant.” I assured her I hadn’t…but, of course, now that she had planted the idea, it made me suspicious of any little itch I had and probably made me imagine far more than I actually had. I mean it wasn’t glamourous -- no hair dryer, six channels on the TV (one WAS HBO) -- but it was hardly the Bates Motel…or if it was, I wasn’t in room one and my tits weren’t as lush as Janet Leigh’s.
Divesting myself of such speculation for the nonce, I strolled over to the Ramada to get the skinny on the Dealer Room -- the primary reason I had come. They were just closing it up for the night and wouldn’t open until ten tomorrow…which was fine with me and had been anticipated. I had plan to spring for my $15 dollar day pass on Saturday when I’d have all day to browse, if necessary. But I had wanted to scope out everything and see if anyone I possibly knew was hanging around. Collecting is a small world.
Since there was no one, I took off to find a Half-Price Books nearby. Enroute, I came across two better used bookstores -- the good old musty kind of shops that bespeak of forgotten treasures. Alas, it was near closing time for both, so I had to sleuth the stacks against the clock. But I swept up a few goodies -- collection of plays by Bjornstjerne Bjornson who I believe was an inspiration to and a rival of Ibsen’s, a play (originally a radio play) of Tom Stoppard’s I’ve never heard of called ALBERT’S BRIDGE, a nice hardbound copy in dj of SOLDIERS, a controversial play be Rolf Hochhuth that was banned by the Lord Chamberlain in Britain, and a Classics Illustrated adaptation of KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES, which it turned out I already had, but for the three bucks it cost, why not another? In fact, all the books were a bargain and very cheap.
After this delightful detour, I located the Half-Price Books which was a bit of a let-down, compared to others. I remember Half-Price before it became a nationwide chain -- one store in Dallas on McKinny Avenue around the corner from where I lived. The store in Dallas (no longer on McKinny) is still a impressive and certainly the crown in the chain, but even it has lost the charm of the original, where I spent many happy hours.
I left Half-Price empty-handed, ate dinner at a Chinese Buffet, returned to my minimalist hotel room, watched Bill Maher, turned out the lights, imagined bed-bugs and had my nodding off disrupted by about five trains (the hotel abutted the tracks), but finally drifted off to a sound sleep.
I awoke too early on Saturday, checked out, ate breakfast at the Ramada buffet, then took a drive to kill time until ten. I scraped the idea of visiting my old neighbourhood, as it was off the beaten path and I suspected that after over fifty years nothing looked the same or remained anyway. Nor do I confess any overwhelming nostalgia for the place.
Returning to the Ramada, I purchased my day pass and entered into wonderland. It was like the California Book Fairs of old before they became affairs where the same old tired stuff was trotted out, usually grotesquely overpriced, only for dealers to buy off other dealers, nothing for the general punter.
Here we had wonderful, fresh-in-its-antiquity stuff to look at. Now maybe it was not so for everyone, but I was a Pulpfest virgin and most of this was stuff I had never seen or hadn’t seen in years.
At one of the first booths I stopped at, I was recognized by my name tag…by one Bill Maynard, author of the new estate-authorized Fu Manchu pastiche. He knew me by my Conan/Kull script (not the disastrous movie made from it) and was a fan. We had a nice chat about our mutual work, our mutual interests, and mutual friends. I bought his book and he graciously inscribed it, “To Charles Edward Pogue, an inspiration and kindred spirit, Best Wishes, William Maynard”.
I think it’s one of the reasons I came; I don’t know how many more years this sort of cultural diversion has to thrive. I looked around the room at the greying heads, mostly male, and wondered where the new blood was coming from…or if there was going to be any? I kept seeing my father’s generation, but then realized most of these folks were my age, ten years either side…and, man, was that scary! I don’t see myself as that old. But then I don’t characterize myself with the few younger folk that attended either…most of that geeky variety you envision dissecting the minutia of every STAR TREK episode, the type of guy to whom you want to say, “Get a life!” I somehow…very snottily, no doubt…assume I am more well-rounded than the very folk I am jostling out of the way to get a closer look at some obscure 1933 edition of WEIRD TALES.
Actually, as much as I would have loved to have plopped down and spent the day going through various boxes of plastic-sealed pulps, I pretty much stuck to books. There are several specialty publishers, like Black Dog Books and Girasol collectables that are printing up rare and, in some cases, never collected pulp materials by a lot of my favourite authors. I picked up THE SKULL OF SHIRZADAD MIR by Harold Lamb and IN A RIGHTEOUS CAUSE by Talbot Mundy in handsome quality paperback editions by Black Dog. I also paid a buck for a little magazine called SCREEN FACTS, half of which featured an article on the 1935 movie SHE and the other half on Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors, a favourite from THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Oddly enough, it is autographed by her. I suspect it’s authentic because there is also an autographed inscription in the same pen, but different hand by the editor of the magazine.
Speaking of SHE, I saw a poster of the 1935 movie for $130 and figured I had to have it …but, as the dealer brought it over for my closer inspection, I realized I had missed a zero – it was $1300. Probably well worth it, linen-backed too. I was also tempted by a more reasonably-priced small poster of Kirk Douglas’ THE VIKINGS. But I already have three variant editions of this poster on the wall of my TV room…An American, an Italian, and a Polish. So I passed.
It is amazing how much of this merchandise has increased in value over the years have increased in value. I saw some WEIRD TALES and SHADOWS going for $300 or more. There were also plenty of reasonably priced pulps…I saw several ADVENTURES going for 20-25 bucks with stories and serials by authors I collect like Mundy and Sabatini. But, frankly, I just don’t have the room or the inclination to jump at this stuff…besides which, I usually have it in book form.
(a pulp I do own)
Finally my eyes blurred and crossed at all this overwhelming stimuli and I staggered out at about one in the afternoon, hitting the road for an uneventful trip home.
POGUE’S MEDIA CHECK
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) …Charles Laughton gives one of his greatest performances with a terrific ensemble cast (Edmond O’Brien in a romantic lead before he got paunchy a few short years later) in the best version of the story. A wonderful film with lots of layers, about the Dark Ages stumbling into the Rennaisance.
ENGAGED…W.S. Gilbert’s (of “& Sullivan” fame) play that was a precursor to Wilde’s IMPORTANCE OF BEINNG EARNEST. Amusingly and ably performed by the tight ensemble of The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
PLATONOV…a BBC televised Chekov play with Rex Harrison, Sian Phillips, and Clive Revill. This was an early play of Chekov, which, if uncut, would run six hours. This one ran a sensible two. Michael Frayn did a translation of it called WILD HONEY which played quite successfully with Ian McKellen back in the eighties, which I saw at the Ahmanson in LA.
THE TERROR OF FU MANCHU…William Maynard’s Sax Rohmer pastiche. Just started it, but so far he seems to have captured the style and essence of the original novels.
THE WEEK…the best news weekly around. We finally renewed our subscription.
POGUE’S LISTENING TO:
AL HIBBLER…and his unique vocal stylings…
LA THEATREWORKS…radio versions of classical and contemporary plays. In the last couple of weeks have listened to ORSON’S SHADOW and LA BETE.