Friday, March 27, 2015

We Don't Want This Moment to Die

It's been a very long road for me from seeing the audition notice for Jerry Springer the Opera on New Line's Web site, preparing for the audition and getting up the courage to do it, rehearsing, and performing it these past few weekends with such an incredibly talented, uninhibited, and brave cast and crew.  I'll be honest:

It's exhausting.

And I'm spent!
  • It's trying to everyone's voice - the ranges for all vocal parts run the gamut, it's nonstop singing for the audience members, and characters belt, sing in falsetto and shout.

  • It's mentally taxing - several of us in the "audience" are on stage nearly the entire time.  When I'm not on, I'm doing a quick change and a change back.

  • I have a semi-permanent red patch on my scalp from my ill-conceived plan to make myself look a little edgier by streaking my hair with crimson temporary hair color spray. All my stuff and my boyfriend's stuff is also pink as a result.
I was going for "Demonic."
  ...And it's absolutely wonderful and a delight each and every time. I don't want it to be over.

I haven't been doing theater very long, and I hope to continue doing it, but I can honestly say that I probably won't ever again be doing anything quite as naughty, as bold, clever or controversial as this.  It's an honor to say all those F-bombs, to pretend to gag at a man relieving his bowels onstage, to choke on my disintegrating glittery lips and do hideously lascivious and suggestive things just a spitting distance away from our audience members.

Working with the fellow actors and crew at New Line is always a joy - an absolute clinic for me - as I marvel at their talent and consummate professionalism - but not ever at the expense of fun and creativity.  Just total competence.

Not to tempt fate, but I'm somewhat pleased that whatever protestations this production received were nearly limited to feeble, mostly copied letters from a group who had clearly never seen the opera, and one or two "walkouts," which we expected.  I'm so incredibly proud of the St. Louis theater-going community of which I am a member.  It's evident in the wonderful engagement we have in the performing arts in St. Louis that my hometown, albeit humbled and troubled, is special.  It's great to put something totally insane and offensive out there and to be fully embraced.

So as we close the doors on Jerry, his guests, his audience, and wave goodbye to him one last time, I'm very grateful to have been part of this filthy, wild, bizarre, operatic moment.  If you'll excuse me, I think the lesbians will see me now.

...No, I cannot.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hot Enough For Ya?

As we enter "hell week," which may be especially appropriately named given the plot of Jerry Springer: The Opera, New Line Theatre has been getting some very good attention from the local press, such as our NPR affiliate KWMU, as well as the flagship newspaper, the Post-Dispatch.  With that, it means we're also attracting the attention of a few folks who are already upset this is being staged.  A couple of letters of complaint to our director call the choice to stage the show "gauche" (a word that I feel better describes wearing jeans to a wedding, not the damnation-worthy acts the letter-writer describes), while another self-professed Catholic says it offends God and his faith.  I get it - there's plenty for my fellow cast members, crew, audience and I to be a bit appalled by, but there are things like tone, context and satire that the complainers don't know about.

"Jerry Springer" and "offensive" go together like Klan members and well-timed bitch slaps.
Upon seeing these letters, I say, okay, well - I think the entire cast and crew expected ruffled feathers - that's what the point is, in a way, but not at the encouragement of censorship.  However, like the anticipation of an orchard after you plant the seeds, until our little ribald and satirical production-tree has started to bear the fruit of not only ticket sales, but angry, offended Christians, we weren't sure - and still aren't certain how crazy things might get.

In light of these letters, the cast has been sharing more (amongst our group) about their own feelings surrounding this opera.  For my part, I'm an agnosticized (I just made that word up, do you like it?) protestant, a Baptist who grew up in a very liberal church that accepts openly gay couples, transgender people, and welcomes questions of belief and faith.  Having said that, I still have a tight relationship with its religious community. I'm the granddaughter of a minister.  I went to Sunday School weekly growing up.  I have been taking voice lessons from the insanely talented Cecelia Stearman, our pastor's wife, for several years, and have a great relationship with our (now former) pastor, Scott Stearman.  I volunteer with the church regularly to do hands-on community events, went to Serbia with the group and even on a few youth group missions as a chaperone, sang in choir for years, and often perform solo works during worship services - it's still my church.

I have had to pick and choose who to "invite" to the production, and even beg some well-meaning, dear friends not to go - TRUST ME.  People will laugh and ask how bad it could be, and only when I recite the line, "raped by an angel" do they begin to believe me.  Our director Scott Miller's mother is sitting this one out, in fact.  Even my boyfriend, a non-practicing reform Jew with far less of a frame of reference for this stuff, winced a bit at the 'rape' line.  It's hard to know how open to be about it, and you have to pick and choose which of your friends and family can handle it, and who can't.  I can promote the show only by being open and honest with disclaimers about just how offensive the show can be for those who take their faith seriously.

...And their partying seriously.
The sense of walking on eggshells is even more so for many of my cast-mates whose families work, volunteer and/or school their children in religiously affiliated institutions every day.  I want everyone to know we're people who are also steeped in faith, but we're also able to step outside of that and create art - in this case, art that is dirty, profane, blasphemous even, and in doing so, portray religious icons as individuals with feelings - feelings that the Bible never explored.  For that, it's been fascinating and eye-opening.  Of course Eve and Adam would have questions for the deity that gave them a life of "grief and misery" for eating "one little apple," of course Mary would want to know where not only her God was but her son when she needed him (as many people do), of course Satan would want forgiveness and redemption - the redemption Jesus seems to offer everyone BUT him.

"Well, that sucked."

This is all wonderfully acted and set to amazing music.  This is really brilliant and brave stuff, people!  But the fact that it is still considered so "edgy" to portray religious figures this way tells us a bit about how easily some people take offense rather than seek to understand, or at least come along on a journey that the art is taking them on.  A month from now, after we've closed our season, I'm sure we'll have offended a few more people, some who have actually seen part of the show, and some who have just read or heard a bit about it.  My hope is that even deeply offended folks stick around long enough to hear what "Jerry" has to say about the sacred in this world, even in a show with so much profanity. 

If anything is sacred, it's definitely Batman.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Is that supposed to be me?

Among the profanity and often nasty spectacle in Jerry Springer: the Opera are many moments of surprising, haunting beauty.  One such moment occurs when the character of Baby Jane, played by the extraordinarily talented Taylor Pietz, sings about the rank nastiness of the world in an attempt to prove a point. "Society has an ugly face," say the lyrics. "...Jerry did not make it so; he merely holds a mirror to it," she pleads to Satan to be merciful to Jerry for seemingly making hay (and making light of) human misery, absurdity and ignorance. Seriously, when she sings - quite beautifully - about the common man, the people Jerry features - being "smeared with shit," you don't know whether to laugh or to cry.  The audience on the live performance recording, for their part, do not venture a giggle.

Society's face also has mashed potatoes on it.
Maybe it's true that Jerry Springer held a mirror up to the grossness of human beings, but one of the things I find striking about this work is not only its cleverness (please read some of my fellow JS blogger's posts on the matter), nor its hilarity, but the fact that it was written by Brits looking at us, Americans on the other side of the pond.  Jerry Springer, and our love for it, seemed to them fertile ground for growing some fine art, and they weren't wrong.  It should be noted that one of the writers, Richard Thomas, also wrote the libretto for the Anna Nicole opera, so the lowbrow (and classically American) drama-meets-highbrow-art-form-idea is probably appealing to him.

So, maybe it's not Jerry, but Brits looking at Americans using Jerry Springer, or rather, 'Muricans.  There are points at which the British-ness comes through in the lyrics: for example, when Satan offers Jesus "a little biscuit" (what we'd probably call a cookie), as a sarcastic token of reward, or when Satan says Jesus is "banging on" about something (going on and on) and Jesus tells the others they "didn't give a toss" (but hey, that rhymes with cross)!  Most of the time, however, they're pretty much spot-on with plain-old, ill-bred American dialects...those filthy, filthy dialects.  But go one layer deeper, and you're looking at some even more - I might argue affectionately drawn - outrageous, unhinged American stereotypes that were Jerry's regulars: cheating partners, aspiring poledancers, transgender people, and of course, diaper fetishists.  In America, such people are stars!

There's definitely a diaper in the onesie somewhere.  Also, good luck sleeping soundly tonight.

The most telling part of this "Brits'-eye view" for me comes with the sung "ads" during the opera as the first act unfolds much like the eponymous show.  Some are utterly ridiculous - ads for Novocaine or intestinal parasites, but some - like ads for health insurance, finding Jesus, plastic surgery or guns...are completely on the nose and hilarious.  The audience that The Jerry Springer Show was aimed at would have very likely been shown ads for supplemental health insurance and for joining a church/proselytizing, and though firearms advertising laws vary from state to state, no country loves its guns more than America - I mean, 'Murica. 

Ads for Viagra, Prozac, etc., round out the selection - common fare here, but we have to keep in mind that in other countries, direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising is considered profiteering on illness and is banned, as are most privately-owned firearms in general, and our healthcare system appears shockingly misguided, dysfunctional, expensive and just immoral to other countries who see it as a right. Not to get all political, I love many, many things about this country, but no wonder we're such easy targets.  

Am I the only one particularly insulted that this dude wore a Cardinals shirt?
So maybe we do sometimes have a collectively ugly, shit-smeared face.  Thank goodness for art, particularly satire and humor, to hold a mirror to it.  I see this opera both celebrating and condemning the sometimes ridiculous circus of humanity - especially America - and then leaving us with an admonition to "take care of yourselves...and each other."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jer-nalism in the new Millennium

Jer-ry! Jer-ry! We just finished the first rehearsal for Jerry Springer: The Opera. My stomach was in knots, my head felt like I was underwater, but dang - it's going to be awesome.  What a cast - every single voice is on-point, and I have my work cut out for me.  Still, it's surreal and amazing.  I remember reading about the show when it came out in London over 10 years ago.  Dad, knowing I loved musical theater, brought the New York Times over to me in the kitchen and pointed out and article about this opera - not musical theater but actual opera - of the lowest-brow entertainment available at the time, short of donkey shows.  Brilliant! 

It's been awhile, and we've had time to reflect on the Jerry Springer show.  All throughout the first rehearsal, as these gorgeous voices of Luke, Zak, Taylor, Lindsay and the cast, all saying gloriously dirty things, I kept having flashbacks to being in middle and high school. It was 1995 again, and I was checking out the latest redneck fight on Jerry as I finished some homework.  While I wasn't a dedicated watcher, my favorite episodes were the ones with the Klan, though.  I mean, at least I could pity the trashy cheaters, the purported white supremacists, however?  Delicious disdain - and even if you changed the channel, you could STILL feel superior as you sighed and rolled your eyes at the modern-day freak show.  It was before many folks had taken their kinks and niche interests to the Internet, and before the age of the "reality TV" show.  So really, a simpler time.  A time when we had a live studio audience to hoot at the Mama Junes and Honey Boo Boos of the world.

Remember her name.

Honestly, though - if you think about it, all throughout recorded history, literature and entertainment, we've enjoyed the schadenfreude (yeah, thanks, auto correct, you had my back just now) of watching people we consider weird, outlandish, exotic, just freaks, strange acts, odd bodies, faces, lifestyles, interests...far-out stuff.  That was one of my favorite numbers we rehearsed yesterday - "bring on the losers!" As much as we like to pretend we don't go for stuff like that, never underestimate the power of prurient interest and morbid curiosity to grab the imagination of the masses.  The tradition of the palace fool or jester, the fascination with extremes - dwarfs, giants, etc., the raucous and bloody circus of Roman times, the freak show or side show, talk shows, and now...TLC?

The L stands for Learning.  LEARNING.
I'm not saying without Jerry, there wouldn't be reality TV today, in its endless spinoffs and countless varieties, but there has always been an appetite for this, and Jerry just mainstreamed it quite a bit more, and real or fake, gave it the subtle yet critical spin of these losers WANT this fame - some have always needed the money or means, no matter how dehumanizing things like traveling freak shows have beenThat one element alone has been huge in popularizing shows like Jersey Shore or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo

Now, there's also the idea of inviting the viewer into this world.  By giving us the studio audience and inviting freaks and weirdos on as "guests," Jerry seems to have filled our historic void for gazing at odd stuff (while patting ourselves on the back for our normalcy) and embraced and celebrated fully the wacky spectacle of it all.  Now we have Twitter and such to boo and jeer at society's out-there types - but Jerry did it first, and you can't throw a chair on the Web.