When director David Rose asked me to perform Steven Tomlinson’s one-man, autobiographical American Fiesta, I was thrilled. This would be my seventh production with the Colony Theatre, a space I’ve always loved. Over the years, it has come to feel like home. What Barbara Beckley has accomplished in some 35 years as artistic director has been nothing short of astounding. The walls vibrate with her passion, creative vision, and determination to keep Los Angeles theater alive, relevant, and growing.
I had worked with David only once, in the Colony’s 2006 production of the musical biography Billy Bishop Goes to War. While it wasn’t quite a one-man show (I was fortunate to have the amazing Jeffrey Rockwell on stage with me as my accompanist and co-conspirator), it was the closest I had come to carrying an entire production. When I first heard about it, I was terrified.
As soon as I learned that I had been cast as Billy, I took a two-hour walk around the neighborhood, reading the script aloud, just to familiarize myself with the feeling of talking on my feet for that long. Next came the memorizing (I always try to have my lines down prior to rehearsals), followed by script analysis, staging, and character development. Ultimately, I would be required to play some 20 or so different roles, each of which needed to be not only clearly distinguishable from the others, but drilled well enough into my muscle memory to allow for seamless transitions. It was a terrific challenge and a lot of work. But with David as our guide and Jeffrey at my side, we managed to piece together what turned out to be a very satisfying production.
Needless to say, the solo play presents distinctive challenges along with significant rewards. On the plus side, it’s just you, which fits nicely into the “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, MY line” way of thinking we actors all tend to suffer from on occasion. On the minus side, it’s just you, meaning if you go up on your lines, there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. If you’re sick or just not quite up to snuff, no one’s there to pick up the slack — on stage or otherwise. The Colony doesn’t use understudies.
I recall that during one particular matinee of Billy Bishop, I lost my voice in the middle of the first act. Not just hoarse, not raspy…..but GONE. After weeks of rehearsal and performance I’d hit my vocal limit, and in the middle of a sentence the play suddenly became a pantomime. I remember looking back at Jeffrey, shrugging my shoulders, him shrugging back, and soldiering on. All I could think was, try to relax, think positive, and pray. And somehow, a few miraculous sentences later, I managed to get back in gear. Ah, the blind panics and miracles of live theater.
But the benefits far outweigh the risks. For me, it all begins with the material, which in the case of Billy Bishop was drawn from historical events, making it all the more rich and meaningful. Billy is a roguish young Canadian drawn, like so many others, into World War I by the promise of adventure and heroism. He comes to see the harsh truth of combat and in the process becomes a hero, a leader, and a man. Taking on a character is like inhabiting a life, if only for a moment. In the case of Billy, traveling for those several weeks with him and the many individuals he encountered left an indelible mark on my soul. I consider it a privilege to have helped share his story.
But where Billy’s tale was grand in scope, encompassing entire continents, bloody battlefields, and shattered lives, Steven Tomlinson’s autobiographical American Fiesta considers the human condition on a much more personal scale. When Steven announces his intention to marry the love of his life, Leon, his parents’ unsympathetic response sets him on a quest for vintage Fiesta — the colorful Depression-era ceramic plates, cups, and bowls he grew up around — in hopes they might help him reconcile his past with the present and ultimately achieve emotional balance in his life. And while simpler by design, Steven’s struggles are just as poignant as Billy’s, and certainly as wonderfully challenging to convey.
Ultimately, the best-drawn characters ask the questions we all ask ourselves. “Why am I here? What is my purpose? Where am I going, and how do I move forward honestly, ethically, and with strength in the face of seemingly impossible odds?” The answers revealed by a well-written piece can benefit us all, audience and performer alike.
This time, the challenges remain the same. I cannot overemphasize the importance I place on first closely studying the text and learning my lines. I have a tremendous respect for writers and the written word and feel it my duty to commit to the language of a given piece as a primary step toward understanding the author’s message. Put another way, plays are proof positive that you can indeed read another man’s mind.
In 1984, George Orwell discusses the creation of a new language, Newspeak, which is distinguished by its drastically reduced vocabulary. The Thought Police, in their effort to make man less capable of free and independent thought, have discovered that by limiting the tools (or words) by which man communicates, they can in fact make him more ignorant, less insightful, and ultimately more obedient. The Thought Police already control the streets, but have yet to seize complete control of the human mind. Words are thus revealed to be man’s last remaining defense against tyranny.Â And so, I study.
Next, I begin to explore the individual characters (again around 20) I’m to portray. I experiment with voices, physicalizations, attitudes, then begin the tricky process of having them interact. It’s an odd endeavor, finding the chemistry between them even as I refine their timing, phrasing, and staging. During one particular rehearsal, David and I had to laugh upon discovering that one of my characters was actively working to upstage the other. Yes, even in a one-man show there will occasionally be friction between the actors.
And so the process continues. By now American Fiesta is well into previews.Â As with Billy Bishop, telling Steven’s story has been an honor and a privilege, and the experience has once again confirmed why I entered this business to begin with. Feeling the characters of his life become a part of me, discovering their myriad subtleties, reaching an ever-deepening understanding of the piece, has been like raising a son. After all, in reality there’s only so much one can do, what remains is beyond our control. And at the end of the day, we can only wonder at the miracle of it all. And so, I act.
American Fiesta, Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank 91502. Opens Saturday. Thu-Fri 8 pm; Sat 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through October 21.Â Tickets: $20- 42. www.ColonyTheatre.org. 818-558-7000 ext. 15.
***All American Fiesta production photos by Michael Lamont
Larry Cedar continues to work with David Rose developing his one-man piece based on the works of George Orwell entitled, “Orwellian: Rants, Recollections, and Cautionary Tales From the Works of Eric Arthur Blair.”