(Vol. 95) COMPLETELY EFFING CRAZY! (ch. 25) “Adventures Beyond The Phantom Tollbooth”

Effing Crazy KPK

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LAST TIME:

Kevin had a Wild Rumpus WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.

THIS TIME:

Once more, into the fray- Kevin has:

ADVENTURES BEYOND THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

ADVENTURES BEYOND THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

> I have this problem confining my imagination to the stage. I love the theatre, but I probabally would have been better off as a screenwriter or film director. These days, with modern movie magic, you can put anything on film that you can imagine- but it’s another question working in real time, within the constrainst of budgets and pesky things like physics. It’s quite difficult.

. I’ve always had this problem. I have these unique little creative inspirations that begin humbly, but before long, I torture these ideas into big, unwieldy extravaganzas. Something simple snowballs, morphing into this huge to-do, and it’s no longer just me- oh no! Now there are dozens of people involved, costing hundreds of dollars and taking months or years on end.

. I have a problem with that, and I’ve never had more of a problem with that, than the third time I produced Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. It was the second, and unfortunately last play I produced in my position as Director of the San Lorenzo Valley Young People’s Reperatory Theatre, in Ben Lomond, California, back in 1981. It’s a children’s book, but I tell you- if there’s any child left in you at all it’s a great read from 9 years old to 99.

. A classic fable in the vein of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, it’s the story of a bored little boy named “Milo” who has lost touch with how blue the sky is, and how sweet an orange tastes. He comes home from school one day to find a mysterious tollbooth erected in his bedroom! So he hops in his little electric car and drives through, suddenly finding himself in an alien place called “The Lands Beyond”, where he meets all kinds of inspired characters, and hooks up with “Tock the Watchdog” and the blustering “Humbug”. And before he knows it, they are on a quest to rescue the twin princesses Rhyme & Reason. Long ago, the warring brother kings- “AZAZ the Unabridged” and “The Mathemagician”, put the question to the wise princesses: “Which is more important- words or numbers?” Being great diplomats, the princesses replied that: “In the kingdom of knowledge, words and numbers are of equal value.” Naturally, this infuraited the bickering siblings, and together, they banished the princesses to the Castle-in-the-Air! The only problem: in order to to rescue them, our intrepid trio will have to confront the terrible Demons of Ignorance.

. It’s a great book- really meaningful to me, and I was determined to get this third attempt right. So pulled out my well-worn copy, and for an entire month I earned my paycheck by staying at home, pounding away on the keys of the typewriter, eventually producing an 80 page script that came in at three hours long! (About two hours longer than any children’s play has any business being!) And it was a multi-media event, containing complex lighting designs and sound effects and explosive pyrotechnics! 19 settings! Tons of props and costumes! Big action sequences! 46 speaking parts! What the hell was I thinking?!

. One of the major technical issues involved a demon called “The Gelananous Giant”, a mountain who comes to life, lifts Milo off the ground and threatens to eat him. So I thought- what if we make the whole set a giant foam puppet that you can’t identify as anything other than a mountainside, until the lights rake across it and the features start to move, the eyes opening up? We placed his giant rocky hand on a fulcrum, like a seasaw protruding behind the set. As soon as Milo stepped on it, a group of kids sat on the back end, raising Milo into the air as the puppeteers opened that giant mouth to great effect.

. Then I got to thinking: How was I going to manage 19 scenes? What if I got my artist friends to paint small little pictures and then take slides of them and use a giant rear-projection screen? We did this- but the problem with this approach was that we couldn’t use the stage for the performance. We needed that space to throw the image. So we had to build a stage in front of the stage for the first two acts. The third act we removed the screen to reveal the Mountains of Ignorance set behind it. The final act was also different in that it was written as story-theatre. Normal plays have text that only includes dialogue, but in story theatre the characters speak their lines, but also speak their inner monologues, sort of like a book coming to life. This way, you can hear what they really mean- not just what they say.

. The Watchdog was played by one little girl named “Karen” who was totally awesome. She was among the best of the lot. Karen was just exceptional. But I made a big mistake. When giving notes one day, I said: “Karen! You’re wonderful! Every time you take the stage, things brighten up. You are just a godsend for this production and I just love you girl…” Whoops! My little comment was taken completely out of context. All the kids pointed and laughted and taunted: “Kevin loves Karen! Kevin loves Karen!” Naturally, she was mortified. She grew pale, then flushed deep red. I spoke from my heart, without letting that inner censor stop me, but sadly, after my innocent little slip of the tongue, our relationship was never the same.

. After one rehearsal, I asked the kids to give me annonymous report cards, to measure my performance. Most of the replies said: “You’re wonderful!” and “I’m having a great time!” and “You’re a great director!”, but some of the kids were more forthcoming, saying things like: “You’re pretty scary!” and “Sometimes, you’re really mean!” This really shook me up, because I knew this to be true. I had little experience working with youngsters and I was often impatient with them. I had unrealistic expectations that I could make little professionals out of them, not fully understanding that children are more than just little adults. After all, it isn’t about producing the quintessential PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, it’s about the kids having a great experience, learning how to cooperate, increasing their self esteem, and doing something memorable with their summer.

. And because I was more used to working with adults, I occasionally let little bombs leak out of my mouth like the F-word. This got back to the parents, which got back to my boss, Nancy and caused some friction. Although I had done a great job for her, producing my previous play WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, Nancy was beginning to doubt me. I seemed to have overreached my capabilities, and I seemed to be more than a little crazy. And she was right on both counts. I had overreached, and I was more than a little crazy. Fortunately, we managed to smooth things out.

. Although there was another incident with one little girl named “Sally”. She was kind of simple, and sweet, and utterly talentless, but she loved being there. She had a minor part. I had given then some direction, but Sally seemed to be the only child who understod it and followed direction. At the end of the rehearsal I said: “Sally is the only one doing what I asked you to do!” It was a compliment. But the next day- her big, macho father hulks in ready to punch me out! He is seething with anger, saying: “HOW DARE YOU SINGLE MY DAUGHTER OUT FOR ABUSE?!” I explained the misunderstanding, but no matter what I said, he just didn’t seem to believe me. It was rediculous! I remember getting a little angry about it. It was not my fault if his kid was too stupid to understand a compliment when she hears one! Obviously, when working with children, one must be very careful about what leaves one’s lips.

. Come the performance, things went like clockwork. What had been total chaos had become artful performance. But come the second act the inevitable backstage drama erupted. I couldn’t be backstage with the kids because I had to be on the headset running the cues from the back of the house, which shocked them to no end because they took it for granted that I would be there.

. My mantra was: “I’m not your dad, I’m not your babysitter, I’m your director. If you have conflicts, you’ll have to work them out yourself.” (Which some of them were very capable of and some were not.)

. I was in communication with my excellent, on-the-ball the manager Suzy, on the headset. As the curtain was about to rise, she hailed me with the news: “Kevin, we have a problem with Scott.” Well, that didn’t surprise me in the least. Scott was a pissy little snot, who was really full of himself. God’s gift to all little girls, he had had lots of acting experience, so he was supposed to be the one I least needed to worry about. But Scott was flatly refusing to go on. Nope! He was immobilized with fear and refused to budge. Then came the transmission: “Scott just puked all over the men’s dressing room!”

. I told her I was sorry to hear about this, but not being his daddy… Sorry, they just needed to figure out how deal with it. “But Kevin, “ Suzy continued, “he really won’t budge!” I told her that in that case, the cast would just need to improvise around it. Suzy decided to send someone into the audience to alert his mom, who went backstage, and bounced the poor boy off the walls, beating the crap out of him! After this, Scott got into costume, went onstage and gave a better performance than I ever considered him capable of! Apparently, this was a ritual for Scott: freezing with fear backstage throwing up, receiving a motherly beating, and then going on to give a good performance! (Might have been nice if someone had warned me!)

. During the rather amazing third act, Nancy sat in the back of the theatre shaking her head in disbelief. She really didn’t think I was going to pull it off, but she was glad to be wrong about this, telling me it was the greatest production she’d ever been a part of, and apologizing for having ever doubted me. It was official: THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH was a triumph!

. All this time, unbeknownst to me, my home life was falling apart. Dissillusioned with the state of things, my housemate gave notice to our landlord, without consulting or informing me. I was told I had to be out mere days before opening night. Forced out, three days before the show I put everything I owned into storage, and for the next month, I lived backstage in that men’s dressing room. Unfortunately, from that day forward, the room always smelled a little of Scott.

Unfortunately, as a footnote of history- that job only lasted seven months, because newly-elected Ronald Rayguns, (Fuck his poisoned heart!), took the helm, and the first piece of paper he signed was the “Get Rid Of Kevin Keelan’s Best Job Ever Act”. In his infinite ignorance, with the stroke of a criminal pen, he eliminated C.E.T.A.: the “Comprehensive Education and Training Act”. It had been the mechanism by which the federal government provided a bottom wrung up the ladder of employment, subsidizing human services like the children’s programs of the Youth Council I worked for. When the funding was suddenly yanked, so were our jobs- and we were all sent packing. The haters who promulgated this misguided policy, reassured us that the ‘private sector’ would, of course, do the right thing, stepping up to keep the program running. And they did… some six years later! It took over half a decade for their consciences to awaken and re-fund what had been a really great program for the children we served. For six years, as a result of this typical conservative short-sightedness, the kids in the San Lorenzo Valley just had nowhere but the streets to turn to after school… Good thinking!

. And now, not only had I lost the best job I ever had, but I was homeless, wandering the streets of Santa Cruz and wondering how the fuck I was going to manage my life…

> But that’s a story for a different time.

NEXT TIME:

The final chapter in my theatrical memoir COMPLETELY EFFING CRAZY: See a hippie cut off all his hair, in: “A Man Needs a Wake”!

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© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About KPKeelan

Fool, Philosopher, Lover & Dreamer, Benign TROUBLEMAKER, King and Jester of KPKworld, an online portal to visual and linguistic mystery, befuddlement and delight.
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