Emily Mills and Nick Drake
I'm not exactly an expert when it comes to stage combat, but it's definitely one of my favorite things to do and not easy to find roles as a woman that include this.
Every year, Blitz Smackdown was born. Last year, six authors gathered for a no-holds-bar thrown down -- mano a mano, playwright vs. playwright -- to spend 24 hours determining who would win the right to claim the title of champion. Rising to the top of the heap was local playwright Doug Reed, and this year, with the second round of the Smackdown, he would have to defend that title against Rob Matsushita, Phil Heckman, Betty Diamond, Christian Neuhaus, and Lisa Konoplisky.
My role in the mayhem began last Monday night, when I stepped into the Bartell Theatre and auditioned. By Wednesday night, I learned that I'd be one of dozens of actors who would be sacrificing their Saturday in order to memorize and rehearse the plays cooked up by sleep-deprived contenders the night before.
Normally, actors don't find out which director and what play they'll be working with until they show up Saturday morning. By the miracle of text messaging, however, my exuberant soon-to-be director, Pete Rydberg, informed me that we would be working together on a play written by Rob Matsushita. I've been in a series of Rob's plays and short films, so I had a good idea of what I'd be getting into. There'd probably be guns. And fighting. And dark humor. I was right about all three, but just to keep things interesting, he also threw in someone getting disemboweled.
I walked into the theatre at 9:40 a.m. on Saturday, February 16, and took my place sitting in the audience with the rest of the actors. For theatre folk, we were all remarkably awake and abuzz with excitement for so early on a weekend morning. And after catching up with old friends and meeting a few new people, Bonnie Balke, one of the producers, took the stage to get things started. We were introduced and assigned to our directors and then sent off to start our nine hour rehearsal.
Here is my story, minute-by-minute, at the second annual Blitz Smackdown.
Saturday, Feb. 16
10:14 a.m. -- Our director leads us down into the front lobby, our assigned practice space for the day, and introductions are made all around. There's me, Brian, John, Jennifer and Michelle. Michelle, through a friendship with (arch nemesis for the day) Doug Reed, had come all the way from Indiana to take part in the Blitz. Our play is called From a Distance, and it is, in fact, a reference to the Bette Midler song. But as with all Blitz's, each play title is part of a larger theme assigned to the playwright the night before, and not the author's choice.
Also included in our little rag-tag group is Will Gartside, creator of the recently released film Massacre: The Musical, a good friend of mine, and a gore FX mastermind. He'd be responsible for creating and setting up the aforementioned intestines and disemboweling.
10:20 a.m. -- We sit down and have our first read-through of the play. There's a lot of laughing, as both those who are familiar and totally new to Rob's brand of humor make their way through the script. Not to be outdone by anyone, he has also included what will surely be the greatest line of the night, at least to those people at all familiar with recent Bartell Theatre scandals. John, playing the role of serial killer Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, will get to yell "Get the fuck out of MY theatre!" We're feeling real good about our chances of winning this thing.
11:00 a.m. -- We're taking a fifteen minute break to work on our lines. I'm hungry but energized. Through sheer force of will and a seemingly endless supply of energy, Pete has walked us through the blocking (movement) for the entire show. I'm pretty sure this is a record for any Blitz performance I've been part of before. Pete is a pro, though, having participated in many past Blitz's and knowing how to get things done in the truncated time frame.
We've also done the basic blocking for a fight scene between my character, a tough but somewhat clueless cop, and Jennifer's, a friendly-until-you-cross-her waitress. This is something that wasn't written in the script but we're sure will please the writer. Plus, who doesn't love a random fight scene? I'm not exactly an expert when it comes to stage combat, but it's definitely one of my favorite things to do and not easy to find roles as a woman that include this.
1:30 p.m. -- We've just finished our first run-thru of the play up on the actual stage. Each play is allotted 25 minutes to do this, and it's key to be ready when you get there. Thankfully, our director is on the ball and we're prepared for our time. The run goes remarkably well, but there are definitely still a lot of very rough patches where we all need to work on our lines. I'm starting to get a little worried about my dialogue in the second half of the show, which, so far, is the spottiest.
Happily, however, the folks running the technical side of the Blitz are on the ball. Both lights and sound seem to be coming together extremely well. They've had just as little time to prepare, too, so this is no small accomplishment.
2:05 p.m. -- We break for lunch, and I head around the corner to Café Soleil for some much-needed face-stuffing. Their Farmer John's Provolone sandwich is just the thing to bring my energy levels back up to full, and I bring Michelle along since she's unfamiliar with the area.
3:48 p.m. -- Pete has to make a run to pick up some costume pieces and leaves us to practice our lines on our own. Costumes seem to be the one kink in activities, as the original costumer bowed out just one hour into the day. Directors and casts have been left to fend for themselves. Thankfully, our show is light on crazy costuming, but we hear that one of the other plays involves two actors dressed as pandas and another as a fish. We don't envy them, but hey, in this dog-eat-dog world of competitive theatre, we figure it's just another leg up for us.
We run just our lines three times through and I'm starting to feel better about my memorization. By the time we're done, Pete has returned and has us run the thing with blocking.
4:18 p.m. -- The run goes well and the show is really starting to take shape now. Pete takes us into the men's bathroom and gives us notes. I'm not sure why that's necessary, but it's a cozy space.
5:24 p.m. -- Rob shows up to watch our final run in the lobby. He seems pleased with what we've done to his play, even the extra bits that have been added, and we're all feeling a bit more confident. We'll be heading back upstairs into the theatre soon, unable to use the lobby anymore since there's another show running and it'll be open to their audience in a short while.
6:10 p.m. -- We're released for a short break. At this point, I'm focused almost exclusively on making sure I've got my lines memorized. My other main concern is with making my character cockier. Pete's direction is to "act like you've got a big belly, a Boss Hog sort of egotism." Right. OK. I can totally do that.
7:16 p.m. -- Our cast and director meet next door at the Mercury Lounge for our final notes and words of encouragement. Pete seems excited about what we've been able to accomplish. I'm happy but nervous, and starting to hit the slump in energy that, for me, always comes before performances. For the pretty much the first time all day, I'm actually starting to see and talk to actors from other shows. Everyone's exhausted but bouncy, running on pure adrenaline as show time approaches.
8:00 p.m. -- From our vantage point in the green room backstage, we watch a blurry monitor displaying the madness happening on stage. Bonnie and fellow producer Kirk are riling up the crowd, introducing the writers and directors, and explaining the rules of the Smackdown. The six plays will run, and then the audience will cheer for their favorites. The top two will then go on to compete for the championship, using one page scripts that the writer's also had to pen the night before.
Then the Smackdown begins. I wish I could review all of the plays for you, but my point of view basically consisted of the backstage area. Our cast ran lines together, I sat in a corner and tried to clear my head, I chatted with my fellow actors, caught glimpses of the other shows in the monitors, checked to make sure I had all of my props, used the bathroom an inordinate number of times, and generally tried not to panic.
9:00 p.m.-ish -- Our show From a Distance takes the stage. Despite one dropped line and one missed move in the fight scene, everything goes remarkably well.
The action is split between either side of the stage. On one side is my character in the middle of a date (with Michelle's character), and on the other is my partner, played by Brian, being tortured and disemboweled by a serial killer (John) that we've been tracking for ages. The storylines overlap when John wanders into the restaurant where we're having our date and has the waitress, Jennifer, send me a clue.
In the end, it's revealed that 1) my cop isn't terribly bright, 2) the woman I'm on a date with is in cahoots with the serial killer, 3) Brian's cop is amazingly resilient for a guy with his intestines hanging out and 4) we may be slow, but we still manage to triumph in the end. But not before John gets to holler out that iconic line, eliciting an uproariously appreciative and very lengthy applause from the audience.
We leave the stage feeling absolutely pumped and confident that our play will be one of the two finalists.
10:00 p.m.-ish -- All six plays are done, and now it's time for the audience to have their say. Through wild cheering and the use of a rather suspect decibel meter, it's determined that there is one clear frontrunner and two plays tied for second place. Bonnie and Kirk bring the casts from those shows, one of which is ours, out onto stage for a tie-breaker. I put my game face on; I'm ready to do whatever it takes to secure our rightful place in the final smackdown.
But the decibel meter is in someone's pocket during our cheers, only to be taken out in time for the other show's moment in the sun. They win. We're stunned, but in the interest of not coming off like a sore loser -- even though I absolutely am -- I keep my mouth shut about it.
We go backstage, a little shocked, but still feeling good about the day overall.
There's no time to dwell on what might have been, however, because most of us are quickly rounded up for use in the final one page plays. I end up in Lisa Konoplisky's play, pitted against Doug Reed once again. I should mention that in last year's Smackdown, I was also in Matsushita's play. We faced off against Reed's and lost, so I was feeling a little extra competitive for this round.
Our very short play basically involved a school of trout swimming upstream to mate, only to be stopped by a quizzical tuna that wants to know what we're up to. Our chants of "Mate and die! Mate and die!" pretty much sum things up and we're on our way. Simple and to the point.
And somehow, some way, Lisa ends up with the title of champion. Doug is woeful but gracious in defeat and hands off the Smackdown championship belt to its new owner.
10:58 p.m. -- Aaaaand scene. We're done.
Theater is, by its very nature, an impermanent art form. You work long, often difficult hours to breathe life into a script, spend weeks performing it for audiences of varying size, only to have the little family unit that usually develops between cast and crew dissolve after the final bow. It's not uncommon to feel both relief and sadness at the end of a run.
Imagine all of that in the span of just one day -- all the ups, downs, and in-betweens, compacted into one manic push. Sure, we're all probably a little masochistic for putting ourselves through that sort of thing, but the rewards are almost always far greater. I mean, how many people can say they memorized 12-15 pages of dialogue (and a fight scene) in the span of nine hours?
With every Blitz and Blitz Smackdown, that number grows ever larger.