Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Houston Gets Some Hed, Part 6: Suddenly, I'm This Punk-Rock Star Of Stage & Screen

It was the night before our "press preview" night, when we would unveil the show to Houston's media. Jef had, wisely, given us the night off. For two weeks straight, we had rehearsed non-stop on the stage upstairs at Fitzgerald's. Our pleas to be allowed to practice on the actual stage we were assigned to had fallen on deaf ears. We just couldn't get the staff to understand that we weren't just like any other band. Concepts like blocking were foreign to them, as they'd never dealt with a play before. I cannot say that they weren't supportive, as they provided us with our own storage closet, and rigged us a "backstage" area to change in. They just didn't grasp the needs that a production like this required. As I lie in bed, on the eve of us playing to a live audience, a sense of nervous apprehension crept in.
Our press night was on a Thursday, just prior to our official opening night. I left work, hurried to Towhee's to get my makeup done, and then rushed to the venue. This would become my regular Friday night ritual, with work and Houston traffic causing the whole affair to be frantic. Towhee, I found to be a quite pleasant person. She was a college student, and quite good with the makeup. I enjoyed listening to her tales of college life and clubbing while she painted my face in glittery swaths of color that would make Ziggy Stardust jealous. Driving to the venue was always amusing, as I got very interesting looks from folks. Most men would quickly look away when I made eye contact, young women would smile and wave, and old ladies would stare in disgust. Obviously gay men would cheer and blow kisses. The guys at the convenience store across from Fitz just asked me if I was playing with a band, acting like they'd pretty much seen it all. Back stage, the mood was one of pure angst. We all felt we needed about a week more to rehearse, but we were simply out of time. The press awaited us! I entered the room to the sound of Eric's guitar shredding out a Hendrix-esque "Star Spangled Banner", with me draped in the American flag. In the film and original stage production, Hedwig opens the cape to reveal the words "Yankee go home...With Me!" We changed this to be more fitting of our locale, with the interior now reading "Ride ME, Cowboy". This got a chuckle from the audience... and then the clasp for the cape promptly got snagged in my wig. Lynda had to rush over and unhook the cape, which was now hanging off my wig as I frantically held it onto my head. Things only got worse from there. Our blocking was way off, the band was out of sync, and we were plagued by sound problems. The unfamiliarity with the stage really took its toll, as we were in a much smaller space than before. We had to adjust all of our blocking to fit the stage, which wasn't easy to do while trying to retain composure in front of a live audience. The band couldn't hear each-other, thanks to the fact that our audio mix was completely screwed up. This led to people playing out of sync with one another, basically making us sound like we didn't know what the hell we were doing. Lighting cues were missed, and our video didn't come on when prompted. The sad thing was, we had put in so much hard work over so many months, and here we were coming across as rank amateurs in front of Houston's journalists. Amazingly, we got very little in the way of negative press coverage. In fact, the gay publications were actually quite complimentary. Opening night went far smoother, with many of the technical difficulties being ironed out. Lynda and I had adjusted our blocking accordingly, and the sound guy seemed to work out the kinks in that department. Jef took over the lighting, which greatly improved this aspect of the show. The band, fueled by a desire to make up for the previous night (even though they were hardly to blame), came on with a vengeance. If only the press had seen us this night instead!
One curious thing I noticed about myself is that, as I entered makeup and costume, I got more and more Hedwig-like as curtain got closer. It was almost as if I gradually sank into the character, with her taking me over by show-time. More than one person noted that I became a real bitch in the thirty minutes or so before heading on stage. One night, I ripped Tiny a new one for moving my duct-tape without informing me. The previous night I had almost missed an entrance thanks to one of my props being in the wrong place, so I was overly sensitive about this issue. I was later told that the whole time I was tearing into Tiny, I'd been doing so with my "Hedwig voice". I was berating him in character! We had an amazing team working with us on this show. Tiny's girlfriend (now wife), Mary-Ellen, was backstage to lend a helping hand on most nights. Alongside her was a friend of Lynda & Jef's, who went by the name of Jeff (the second "f" was the distinction). Both would help with costuming, with Mary-Ellen aiding the wigs, and Jeff doing make-up touch-ups. Without the two of them, I honestly don't think the show would have gone as well as it did.
Mid-way through our run, we headed to the River Oaks Theater, for a special cross-promotion set up by Rob. He had booked the film version, and asked us to come in and do a special "pre-show" performance to plug our play. For Lynda, Jef, Tiny and me, it was a strange sense of deja-vu, as the River Oaks is one of the theaters we had performed in the Rocky Horror shadow cast, all those years ago. Here we were, performing at a midnight showing, with me dressed in drag! Thing was, this promo performance was just a few hours after our regular show that night, so Jeff had to completely re-apply all my make-up. It was his first time to do the full make-up, but he did a wonderful job. We performed three songs, "Sugar Daddy", "Origin of Love" and "Angry Inch", from a stage set up in front of a movie screen. The audience seemed to enjoy this rather bizarre form of "pre-show" entertainment. It seemed a success for both the River Oaks and us, as we definitely saw some of the same faces at later performances. Later that night, a few of us went out in costume to various gay clubs to promote the show. The reaction at these venues was incredible, as I was treated like some sort of rock star when I entered!
The show got better with each performance, as the band got tighter and Lynda & I grew more and more into our roles. We noticed that we had very few folks at our Friday and Sunday performances, and packed houses on Saturdays. The 7:00 show-time only seemed to work on Saturdays, as folks were still trying to get home from work on Fridays, and were too dog-tired on Sundays. Still, we put everything we had into each night's production, and we received overwhelming praise from our audience. One Sunday night, I had lost my voice, and Jef had to step into his role as understudy. He did a fantastic job covering for me, and I just want his performance noted here. It was the only time he was able to play the role, but it would later open other doors for him.
Just prior to our closing weekend, tragedy struck when Lynda & Jef's friend, Kat, lost her battle with cancer. Lynda took this especially hard, as Kat was like a sister to her. Lynda wanted to go to her funeral, but was loyal to the show, thus putting her in a rather bad position. I understood her plight completely, so I made a quick phone call to Elaine, and she ditched work that Saturday to cover for Lynda. Elaine arrived Saturday morning, and drilled with me all day on our blocking. By the time she took the stage that night, she performed as if she'd been in the show from the get-go. She stunned everyone with her amazing take on Yitzak.
Our closing night was the Sunday before Memorial Day. We played to our biggest audience yet, with several of our closest friends amongst the crowd. We dedicated this performance to Kat, and Lynda's grief just seemed to fuel her performance. The band never sounded better, with all these weeks finely honing them into one hell of a great rock group. In the front row was Kat's boyfriend, and he seemed to be emotionally swept up in the show. During "Midnight Radio" I made eye contact with him, and the emotion in his face just touched me on such a deep level. Here was someone who had lost the person he was closest to, and here I was singing about loss and new beginnings. I can honestly say that his being there just lit a flame in me that night, and I'll never forget it.
Every night of the show was incredibly emotional, especially throughout "Midnight Radio". In many ways, it was one of the most therapeutic experiences of my life. I had been through a divorce, as well as an up and down relationship with another girl since moving back to Houston, and every night I felt those emotions rise to the top as I took the stage. My emotions were purged through Hedwig, and by the end of the run I felt relieved of many of the pains in my heart. It was a transformative, cathartic experience that words just don't do justice to.
Everyone involved in the show became very dear to my heart. Now, years later, I look back on this production as the best I was ever involved in. The fact that this rag-tag group managed to pull it off is actually quite amazing, and a testament to the power of human willpower. Recently, I've been discussing a possible revival with most of the principal folks. Some folks may not be able to be involved but their spirits will still be a part of this show, even if they aren't physically present. I have no idea when we'll get the show back up and running, but it WILL happen sometime in the future.
The cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, clockwise from left: Eric Allen as Krystoff, Tiny Flowers as Shlatko, Dave Gill as Hedwig, Lynda Self as Yitzak, Louis Weyrich as Skszp, Jef Withonef as Tommy Gnosis, Jenny as Jacek
Much love to EVERYONE who helped make this show happen!
Photos in this series were taken by Jordan Chan and Ishmael Lerma.

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