Today is “off-book” day, and I still haven’t memorized my lines.
And while it is way too early to panic, I do have a sense of urgency and realize I better take my director’s advice to buckle down and seriously study my part.
I have been cast in the role of Shakespeare in a new production by playwright and director Joe Whit Ozier. Joe has left several voicemails today reminding me of what I need to do.
What he is urging me to concentrate on is a new play he has written entitled “Shakespeare’s Hotel.” It is what Joe calls “a tongue-in-cheek Shakespearean romp.” The play will premiere on November 20 at the Warnors Theatre as a fund-raising event for United Way’s Toys for Tots program for Fresno County, which means, at this writing, I have roughly less than a month to prepare. And being a bit green thespian-wise, and given that I am portraying the Bard himself, I’d better work hard on nailing it.
Joe, as director, has had to deal with cast members like me not making rehearsals. In my case, I’m in Seattle and won’t be back for several weeks. In the meantime, Ozier and most of the cast are diligently working hard making his script come alive. Joe recently moved back to Fresno after having lived in Florida for a decade. He returned to help take care of his ailing mother, which he did for more than two years until her needs outweighed his ability to care for her. Since then, he has been concentrating his efforts back on himself, developing and producing his original plays.
He wrote his first Shakespeare inspired stage play, entitled “Corin’s Concoction” for the 2010 Rogue Festival. For that production, he had Sue Smilie Janecek as manager. It was Janecek who later asked Ozier to write an original play to help her raise funds for the “Toys for Tots” project in which she has been either on the board or steering committee for the past six years. As Ozier puts it, “It was quite a challenge for me to write a new play without having thought about it or having been inspired. I quickly began roaming around that creative center in my head looking for seeds of ideas and slowly I started seeing bits and pieces of funny things relating to Shakespeare characters.”
He goes on to explain his own personal writing process. “Playwriting for me is a way to express my comedic tendencies while at the same time exploring the themes and challenges of my life, either at the present time or in my past. Like Shakespeare, I am drawn to both comedy and tragedy.”
His latest attempt both mocks Shakespeare and admonishes his greatness. “I can say with some certainty that it is as absurd as it is poignant,” he says. As tragically twisted as it is humorous, and can be interesting and lighthearted right up to the point of haunting madness.” He said.
Personally, I can relate to the “madness” part. Myself, having not been involved in a theatrical production since the early 1990s, I find this current experience daunting if not downright frightening. Somehow I must find the confidence within myself I will need to make a convincing bard. This is where the talents of Ozier as director/playwright come in. As he says, “I have always felt drawn as a writer to make sure the characters I have written are portrayed by the actors as I see it, so it’s only natural I develop as a director as well.” He explains, “In my opinion, who actually is better than the writer to make sure what is written is being translated to the actors accurately?”
Besides the responsibility of being in charge of what goes on the stage, there is plenty behind the scenes to deal with as well during a production like “Shakespeare’s Hotel.” Ozier relies heavily on Janecek’s ability as a manager and producer. “Her connections into the community to get things done as well as her master’s degree in theater management make her truly invaluable in knowing how to accomplish those things I know very little about.”
While Joe is leaving voicemails reminding me to study my lines, Sue is texting me my costume is ready and waiting to be fitted when I return. I can only hope the seams can be let out if need be. It is areas of a theatrical production like costumes, as well as set designs, staging, lighting and even marketing, where Janecek is responsible.
According to Ozier, the casting of a play can be quite an endeavor. As Ozier puts it, “Sometimes you get people who are really good at auditions but can’t act their way out of a wet paper sack. Then there is the reverse of that — those who can’t audition or who are really nervous and don’t realize their potential in the audition. This is where a good director comes in.” He goes on to explain, “They can see through the nervousness and see what the green inexperienced actors don’t see in themselves. These are the diamonds in the rough, and we have four of them in this show.”
I wonder to myself where I fit in this description. I can only hope I’m not the wet paper sack. “Sometimes, especially with large casts, and we have 21 actors in this show, there are conflicts interrupting rehearsals, like family trips, health issues, personal issues and even deaths.” Here, I’m clearly the one with the vacation conflict, but also his make-up artist Annie Seide passed away a week after having committed to the play and another actor, who had three roles in the production, had to be replaced for personal reasons. It was Janacek’s job to find a replacement, which she did within 20 hours.
How does Ozier describe the plot of his play? “Imagine a place in the mountains of Denmark, where for over 400 years, Shakespeare still puts on his plays and his characters still act out their most famous lines. A place where the great door to Shakespeare’s Hotel appears for only a few hours each and every year on Universal Children’s Day,” he elaborated.
Ozier considers the actual location for the premiere of his play, the Warnors Theater, the best venue available in a 200-mile radius. “Sue and I decided to just go after the best. To me, the Warnors is the holy grail of Fresno venues. Sue inquired to Linda Dippel of United Way about asking for the Warnors, and as it turned out, Linda is very good friends with Sally Caglia, who is the executor of the Warnors Theater for the Performing Arts. Sally thought it was a great idea and presented the idea to her Board of Directors to give us the use of the theater for free as a fund-raiser for the Toys for Tots campaign. The board agreed with Sally and the date of November 20 was established. In my opinion, being able to perform on this stage is probably the most coveted prize any local actor could receive!” Ozier said.
Okay, I get it! That’s just one more way of Ozier telling me I better not screw up. I don’t need any more of this urgency pressed upon me. So enough of this. . . It’s time I studied my lines.
“Shakespeare’s Hotel” will be performed at the Warnors in Fresno on November 20 starting at 7 p.m. For more information or tickets, contact Stephanie Pitzer at the United Way of Fresno at 559-243-3675.