Monday, May 10, 2010

"Don't Margo worry."


A couple of thoughts here. The oblique reference in the title refers to the art of making a mistake in performance. This one being radio, but also true of live theatre.

In 1970 I worked in a production of "Marat/Sade" at Cal State Fullerton. This play by Peter Weiss happens to be my favourite written play of the 20th century. The production I was in is likewise my favourite show, even though my part in it was minor. This production was brilliant, performed at a time of great student unrest. It was chaos and art molded together. The stage filled with actors who were supposed to be lunatics at the French asylum of Charenton, outbursts of violence and frenzy were often in performance. This would cause unexpected accidents in which some members of cast and crew were often quite injured. The director, Kirk Mee, when asked what to do when accidents happen replied with something that I have never forgotten. He said "Whatever happens on stage, use it." And I realised from that point on that if you did something wrong, turn it into something right. And on live radio, that was often. My favourite director, Max Whittaker of Santa Barbara City College, later expanded on a similar theme when he said "if you make a mistake on stage and point it out, you've made the mistake twice." This sealed my attitude towards improvisational theatre and spontaneity: if it doesn't go to plan, make the plan do something that works. Even if you crash and burn, with a smile and a song.

If you're unfortunate enough to hear some of the recordings that were done live on Space Pirate Radio, you can hear some of those moments that went left of center. On my record album during a satire of Clint Eastwood's "Play Misty For Me," while making fun of Clint's laid-back character acting like an announcer who's suddenly gone narcoleptic, I lean back away from the microphone to create a sound effect that actually causes the chair I'm in to crack and break its spring, which is quite audibly heard. In character I say, "oh, I broke the chair," or words to that effect. It all happened in a flash, officer.

At Santa Barbara City College in the early '70s before Space Pirate Radio began, I enrolled in a class called Radio Drama. It was taught by Jim Williams, an old school radio announcer who worked for the college as director of publicity and public affairs. He was a nice enough gentleman who worked with me on publicity and media on most of the theatrical productions I was associated with. The other instructor for the Radio Drama class was Bill McAdams who was set designer for theatre productions in the early '70s.

Since I was fooling around with new ideas for radio, I felt I should probably check out the class. Despite good intentions on the instructors' part, the class tended to focus on techniques and styles of the Golden Age of Radio. Now, believe me kiddies, nobody loves the Golden Age of Radio more than me. Radio drama, yesiree. The Shadow, Harry Lime, Inner Sanctum, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Nightbeat, I Love A Mystery, Lights Out, Black Museum, etc., etc., etc. Nothing cooler than radio drama from the '30s until the '50s. Dig it. But, cats and kittens, this is the early '70s and I want to experiment with what the Goon Show in the '50s, the Beatles in the '60s, and the Firesign Theatre up to the present were doing with sound experimentation. So alas, alack...this Radio Drama class somehow did not work for me. So I dropped out. Even missing the exciting class appearance of famed voice expert Don Messick, Mr. Hanna-Barbera. A Santa Barbara resident and friend of Jim Williams, he would drop in on the class to give tips on voice work. I'm sorry I missed that. In retrospect, I would have loved to have spoken to him (my wife is a big Jonny Quest fan and I would love to sit casually in present time and say, "oh yes, my afternoon with Benton Quest"). But I digress.

So I dropped out of the class. There were two separate Radio Drama classes and in the other one, another student dropped out. His name was Mark Ward. Ultimately, he would go to work at KTYD as well.


Garrison Keillor speaking on the late Robert Altman said that Altman's one major problem was that he was a bit of a smart ass. I have Altman's disease. Fast forward to 1974. Santa Barbara City College Drama Department is throwing its annual awards ceremony. I am now working for KTYD radio. Actors, artists and technicians are being honored for their work in 1973, which as it happens was a very active year for yours truly. They kindly give me some recognition for my performance in "Abelard And Eloise." So in true Altman form, I accept the award and say "I want to thank Jim Williams and Bill McAdams for this award. If I hadn't dropped out of their Radio Drama class, I wouldn't be working in professional radio today." Oh, how everybody laughed. Now under normal circumstances, I would never be invited back. But thanks to dear old Max Whittaker, there were even more fun filled theatrical frontiers to cross. So now I understand why Mel Gibson is still working. Ah, showbiz!