The summer is winding down now. Half the players have rejoined their lives in the 3rd dimension (I've come to believe Virginia City exists in its own dimension). Baby-faced cashiers have left summer jobs at the mercantile to return to their higher educations. Time has slowed even further to try to prolong the dog days, while confrontational cold fronts have begun to nudge their way into increasingly dreary mornings. So far though, time is defeating weather in its battle to postpone the end of the season. The days seem longer, but now they are damp and chilled as well. The transition to sweaters and long pants has put the weather at bay, but unfortunately, jeggings aren't nearly as effective in the struggle to evade time.
Luckily, the fresh void of college kids has left room for some time-passing grunt work opportunities. Some local actors have taken on second jobs as bartenders at the Pioneer or servers at the Wells Fargo Steak House. I've taken a position at the prestigious Cousin's Candy Store. The owner of the shop -- who bears a striking resemblance to President Snow of Panem -- needs help handing out free samples and packing up the licorice section for winter storage. I spent my first shift restocking various multi-colored baskets with mint humbugs, peanut butter bars, and coconut longboys to the tune of "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," the lesser known "Shut Up and Drive," and other modern country jems.
But the sexiest part of the job is definitely the taffy. It's made on the premises, on a machine that stands in the window, hypnotizing passersby. Watching the machine turn and turn as taffy stretches and fold and blends over it is probably more entertaining than the Virginia City Players. (And I had thought the sketch comedy group up the road was our main competition.) Once the taffy is finished (the corn syrup has to be kneaded until enough oxygen folds into it to turn it white) and the flavor is added, I mold the giant taffy lump into a snake and feed it into a gizmoesque manual crank that slices it into scores of bite-size pieces. The crank is the most fun part of the process. The fresh pieces then must be hand-wrapped in small wax-paper squares. If you twist the paper just right, it should form a lovely little tulip.
Now that I know the ropes and taffy tulip origami is second nature, I spend most of my shifts shooting the sugar with President Snow, who evidently abdicated his presidency to open a sweets store in an effort to compensate for his part in massacring children for 25 years (spoiler alert, Hunger Games fans). Ultimately, the quiet life calls out even to dystopian fascist dictators.
Of course, I still perform 8 shows a week at the Opera House, though our audiences have significantly decreased in number with the waning tourist season. From time to time, our stage manager, Stephen, will go from dressing room to dressing room calling, "Short show no bugs! Short show no bugs!", meaning the audience is so tiny and subdued we'll be cutting a couple of vaudeville numbers to match their energy (one of these numbers involves a diddy about boll weevils).
Even with the candy store and short show no bugs, however, the remaining Players and I still benefit from a lot more empty free time than usual. This portion of the summer is a lot like the long straightaway at the end of a marathon, and we're all starting to embody the urge to reach the finish line. Meanwhile, I shall try to attend the campfires that have become porch lights, watch the breathtaking sunsets that have become a peripheral backdrop, and stroll along the Old West boardwalk that has become mundanely modern. I won't be here for much longer, after all.
Creative challenges abound in the Virginia City Opera House. From otherworldly interruptions; to memorizing an entire new vaudeville show in a week while performing another vaudeville show; to me tripping over stuff; to creating and committing to strong character choices without rehearsal, these challenges can make a clumsy actress (not me) anxious as we transition from one play to the next. And because Phantom of the Opera has been our most dramatic and technically complex show of all, I especially needed an outlet for nerves, angst, and my ongoing need to be ridiculous. But what better way to stay fun and silly and uncluttered than to present my mind with a different kind of creative challenge?
On the opening night of Phantom of the Opera, we debuted our vaudeville costumes to one another. The first variety number -- an all-male quintet -- was to be performed in bright red-and-white-striped t-shirts and shorts. Now, while the photo below may not look too abrasive, up close these babies are a lot to force upon your retinae. As I glimpsed them for the first time (and subsequently sang my eyeballs a reassuring lullaby to get them to calm down), I wondered aloud -- charmingly and without judgment, of course -- why this outfit dared exist. Maybe it's supposed to blind and disable your enemies. Maybe it's a reassuring ensemble for those who live in constant fear that a plane is going to land on them. Maybe it's what Christmas lovers wear on hunting ground so they won't be shot.
As I continued to theorize about the potential reasons behind the invention of the dreaded red and white stripes, I could not resist the temptation to make this a daily feat. So, each and every performance, I challenged myself to create a new explanation for them. There were days I almost didn't make it, but here they all are. 32 performances, 32 possibilities. We may never know the true purpose of these "clothes." Of course, as I reluctantly conceded to the quintet, "it could just be a fun and flamboyant outfit you wear to initiate the audience into a colorful variety show...
* See left-most person in 1st picture for aforementioned ginger.
** Reference to the movie, Stepbrothers, in which Will Ferrell's favorite sauce, "Fancy Sauce," is a mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup.
The mid point of the summer is a lot like one giant, collective hump day. Hump week, really. This analogy has already taken a weird turn. Regardless, in the past couple of weeks I've experienced a phenomenon that seems unique to and inherent in an immersive experience like summerstock theater.
At the mid point of the summer, we in Virginia City realized that we had been cut off from the rest of the world for a couple of months, despite our continued Facebook statuses and groundbreaking blog posts. We let it sink in that apart from "Bad Blood" (because no one can escape the T-Swift), we hadn't heard any recent top 40. We hadn't seen any of the big blockbuster hits. We hadn't been there for the latest inside jokes, hashtags, and styles that had interwoven themselves into our friend group dynamics. Entire trends that in the future will echo in our peers' memories as staples of summer 2015, we discovered, evade the Virginia City Players -- and I suppose many summerstockians -- altogether. As this awareness of our sequestered lifestyle found us, the euphoric honeymoon period of escaping the real world waned. This new environment was now our normal, our new "real world." And as this truth became apparent in our bodies and minds, cabin fever set in.
The manifestation of this fever occurred symbolically, of course, in the theater itself. We spent a week churning out our final performances of a well-worn slapstick comedy while rehearsing for the opening performance of Phantom of the Opera, a gothic drama rife with miscommunication, mayhem, and murder. And while I've only killed 2 people here -- and those people may have been bugs -- we did meet a handful of challenges along the transition. Some cranky vocal cords, some technical malfunctions, some ghosts who tried to pit us against one another by turning off the coffee maker repeatedly and with malice.
Like a family of misfits who constantly experience everything together, we've been navigating through different stages of harmony and conflict, feeding off each other's energy. These stages ebb and flow, but because time moves differently in a ghost town, determining where one stage ends and another begins is tricky. Riding out the storm of this crossover hump week hence became a challenge. I'd created a system though: to mark each new turning point using our getaway field trips (fittingly designed to help us reconnect). Toward the beginning of the summer, Whitewater had marked the tentative establishment of a group dynamic. Lewis and Clark Caverns had solidified it. Yellowstone had signaled the end of our first theatrical experience together. And now, Canyon Ferry was set to usher us into a new show and the latter half of the summer.
At the end of the first week of Phantom performances, the actors took a trip to a large, clearwater lake called Canyon Ferry, where we rented a one-room cabin on an intimate, private beach (complete with fire pit, of course). We spent the afternoon swimming, skipping stones, burying Alex in the sand, and stealing each other's inner tubes. We cooked hot dogs over the fire pit as the daylight softened, drinking beers and giggling while our designated philosopher gleefully spouted his ideas about humans' disconnection from other living creatures. When the sky began to flirt with the idea of raining down on us, some retired to the cabin. Some laid out sleeping bags on the beach. One bold soul plopped an air mattress down in the center of the sand, tucking himself in with a pillow and blanket. I myself mooched the shelter of a tent that a more pragmatic friend had brought along. I fell asleep to the white noise of a light shower on the tarp above me and was glad for my choice of sleeping arrangement.
When I awoke in the morning, I unzipped the bedroom door to find a tiny, curious stranger before me. She stood there, fluffy and squat, only a foot away, and I was worried that she would be caught in the imminent dismantling of the tent. The destruction of a building -- even one made of tarp -- can be quite dangerous for a wee little bird. I encouraged her onto a stick and relocated her to a log out of harm's way, but she immediately and determinedly hopped back over to me, nestling between my knees this time. The juxtaposition of her blatant lack of fear and youthful fuzzy feathers perplexed me. I could not tell if she was a fallen baby bird who could not fly or a cocky adolescent who simply wanted to learn more of the peach-colored giant before her. Either way, she hopped into my hand without hesitation. But just then, a fellow Player enlightened me that if one touches a flightless baby bird, it will die. Shocked by this instantaneous, morbid certainty, I placed her gently back on the sand, devastatingly cognizant of my role as her own personal grim reaper. As everyone else headed up the gravel path to pack the cars, I continued to stare at my ill-fated little friend, racked with guilt and afraid to leave her to her slow demise. She of course had no inkling of what was to come. She continued to look at me, unruffled and content. I gave her space now, and my final blessing to roam the tent ground as she pleased. After a moment, she hopped her way to the base of the tent. She carefully inched her way up its wire hump to the point where it no longer curved. When she was comfortably perched two feet off the ground, she gave me a knowing last look. Then she flew away.
I've been feeling a bit cut off from the rest of the world, from my friends, from my life in New York. But only hours after a lakeside discussion with Logan le Philosophe about humanity's arguably disconnected approach to life and Earth's living things, I managed to befriend a scruffy, deceptively self-sufficient poof of feathers, even if only for the most ephemeral moment of solace. It isn't that I'm cut off from my world, but more that I'm being challenged to find new ways to connect with the world as she chooses to present herself to me. A tiny, spirit-guide-reminiscent bird ain't half bad. I've been Skyping friends more often as of late, but Poof gave me the gentle nudge over the hump. I'm happy on the other side with all my other scruffy misfits for now.
One of my new friends here in Virginia City -- who coincidentally belongs to my new best canine friend, Rosie -- is an intriguing character. A seasoned, second-year Player, he prefers to be completely removed from social media, so for his privacy's sake, we'll just call him "Alex." Alex's ability to exist off the radar already makes him unique in an era that continues to indulge this surely-on-its-way-out interweb fad. But it doesn't stop there. Alex has a VCR. And an entire multi-shelf collection of VHS tapes. That he watches. On a TV with 3 dimensions. He doesn't know his email address. He becomes enraged at the casual drop of the word "hashtag." His iPod and his phone are two separate devices. And when his iPod battery dies, he has three CDs to rotate through the car disc player on our sporadic but lengthy road trips: a Citizen Cope album; a Kings of Leon mix that skips on tracks 12 through 20; and a burned copy of Coolio's Gangsta Paradise, to which he knows all the words. All of them. Guys. All of them.
Apart from his charming disdain for the 21st century, Alex enjoys snowboarding, Cold Smoke, and long walks on the Montana. Indeed, he gives the impression of being a good ol' bro when you first meet him. His voice lends a resonant, rounded, baritonal character that can only be genuinely attained through growing up in the rural mountains of the West and beginning each day with a well-balanced breakfast of a beer and a cigarette (the balance is achieved in placing the beer in the left hand, the cigarette in the right). His signature ensembles range from grey t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops to blue t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops. He believes that if he can't fit all his belongings -- including Rosie -- into his car, then he needs to downsize. His dedication to starting, stoking, and smothering campfires is a calling, and almost every night he can be found standing atop one of the large stones that border the fire pit, spitting into the flames in true bro form. Sometimes he falls in.
Yet Alex is a sensitive actor who sings, giggles, and suggests vaudeville numbers that will allow him to dress up as a bikini-clad baleen whale. He has "Raggedy Andy on Ice" on his resume. He hates football. He names his dogs after flowers. He enjoys a good late-night chat and isn't too proud for a spontaneous group pillow fight. Not to mention he's an incredible authority on the wonders of Yellowstone National Park.
But alas, I continue to unlock the various colors and contradictions of Alex, and so I unfortunately have no proper ending for this post. For now, I shall leave you with this video of his very first tour-guide experience through one of Montana's most beloved parks.
We had our opening performance tonight and got some great feedback from the audience. A couple of hiccups here and there, but I was really happy with the energy and the response we received. Now that the first performance is under my belt, a little more detail about this particular show.
One of the many perks of the intimacy of summerstock -- sexual tension and castcest notwithstanding (incast? I swear there's a pun there. Damn it. People in the cast start hooking up. Whatever.) -- is that there's always something to do backstage during performance, especially the vaudeville show. So here is the complete, descriptive (ish. If you want more detail, then come see the show. JEEZ.) set list according to my performance duties in The Blundering Herd.
THE BLUNDERING HERD
The Long Horn Ranch is in trouble, and to save it, Peggy Houston is going to have to open it up to tourists as a corny, over-the-top dude ranch. But all her prideful cowboys have up and quit and headed to Hollywood for the Gold Rush! GASP! What, oh what, will she do?! I play, Ruth Bell, her cheeky, man-crazy, pistol-happy friend next door. Cuz duh.
THE VAUDEVILLE SHOW
Heigh Ho (I push the Go button on the light board for this one! THRICE!)
16 Tons (And this one!)
Mr. Sandman (I wear onesie jammies and do teddy bear choreography in this one!)
If You Only Have a Moustache (I have a quick change during this one!)
And the Great Big Saw Came Nearer and Nearer (I... I don't do anything in this one.)
Moonlight Becomes You (I pin the tail on the serenadee -- word? yes. -- in this one!)
Don't Take Advantage of My Good Nature (I SING THIS ONE!!!)
The Possible Song (Another quick change! Yay!)
Never Never Land (I giggle backstage in this one!)
Parting Glass (I sing bass and try to make people cry in this one!)
Tico Tico (More giggling!)
Confucius Say (I wait side stage for the next one!)
Shy (I hit on various audience members in this one!)
Ragtime Cowboy Joe (One more quick change to the beat of some cowboy tap dancing!)
Let's All Go Down to the Strand (I get a craving for a banana in this one! Shush your dirty mind, you.)
More to come, my pretties. More to come.
Just realized I haven't gone into a lot of detail about what exactly I'm doing this summer. I've answered the questions in a multitude of ways since I got the job, and it varies according to whether I'm talking to my high school drama teacher, fanny-pack-sporting tourists who wander into the Opera House lobby, fanny-pack-sporting tourists who have succumbed to our lobby chat and bought tickets, or a super chill whitewater rafting guide that I hope to meet again. So to be comprehensive, here they all are...
"I'm going to a preserved Old West town in Montana to do 19th century melodramas and vaudeville for 4 months. Virginia City. Southwest. About an hour and a half from Yellowstone according to Google. It doesn't feel real."
"Sure! We do a play that lasts about an hour. It's super slapstick and hilarious. Then there's a 15-minute intermission, and then we do another hour of super cool variety acts. It's super fun and family friendly. We're in the second half of the show right now, but there's another performance tonight at 7pm. Would you like to buy tickets?"
"Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. The show is about to begin. We've an hour-long performance of Box & Cox followed by our variedvigorousvagaryofvivaciousvaudevillevarietyvignettes!"
"We do plays and make enough money to finance our alcoholism and smoking habits."
Virginia City, Montana is known by many as the most haunted city in America.
Karen -- the wonderful mama of the Players who supplies us with everything from stage makeup and sheet music to character shoes and baklava -- has the most stories to tell. She never believed in ghosts at all until coming to Virginia City, where on her first night, she was offered the Players' guest room because her cabin was not ready yet. In the middle of the night as she lay in bed, the bedroom door swung open suddenly, tearing her from her sleep. As she tried to find her bearings and process what had happened, she felt something sit on her chest and pin her down. Hyperventilating and terrified, she started praying, pleading, saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers to no avail. Finally, she took a deep breath and whispered, "Please, I don't want to hurt you. I'm just trying to sleep here tonight." She felt the being stand up off her chest. The door closed. And it was silent again.
That room isn't used as a guest room anymore, but there are many other tales circulating about the hauntings of Virginia City. The little girl in the costume shop loves to mess with Karen. When Karen helps sew costumes, the little girl holds down the pedal of the sewing machine after Karen has lifted her foot from it. Even when Karen once tried switching machines with Laura, who does all the costumes, company dinners, and other mama-ing, the machine still kept going once she'd taken her foot off the pedal. Karen has seen the little girl several times. Apparently she likes to visit her from time to time. She stands about as tall as Bill's stomach. Bill has only seen the girl once, staring at him from behind a tree (on the far left) next to the shop. But he's heard her laugh 3 times. With a tone of reluctant respect in his voice as he tells me this, he endearingly calls her "a precocious little shit."
Personally, I have always wanted to see a ghost too much for it to happen, but while Karen, Jillian, Dani, and I (all the lady Players) were learning a song in the Rehearsal Hall, the door to the Hall swung open suddenly. Karen casually rolled her eyes with a knowing smile. "She wants to be with us." Then she called, "Please close the door, little girl. We're trying to rehearse." And the door closed.
For those of you who are like me and did not know, sump is a word. "A pit or hollow in which liquid collects." Thanks, Google. Just outside my cabin -- complete with mini-fridge, microwave, and a distorting full-length mirror that squishes my body into an esteem-boosting goblin shape -- rests such a pit or hollow. It's more of an extremely shallow pond, actually. Stupid Google. Furnished with the finest grass blades and weird gooky stuff, it is the permanent address of a large family of Canada geese, their ugly ducklings, and some elusive beavers. I shall see a beaver before the summer is through. No need to fret.
I haven't begun rehearsal for the Illustrious Virginia City Players yet, so I've been exploring the cabins and the gooky stuff. In doing so, I have quickly made a new best friend in a golden retriever named Rosie. One of my fellow Players has been her companion for the past 11 years. The white flecks around her red-brown eyes and hollowed cheeks give away her old age, but she otherwise maintains a sprightly, positive attitude and an inspiringly youthful outlook on life. My favorite thing about her, though, is that she disguises herself full-time as an Irish setter. She's a total ginger, and it's awesome. Humans are not welcome in the sump, but Rosie has a lovely time lapping water, submerging herself completely, and then expecting me to pet her. We have already struck a beautiful dynamic.
Next to the picnic table where I like to sit and watch Rosie yolo her way around the sump rests a firepit. The Players engage in nightly campfires here, which are quickly becoming my favorite part of the experience. We consume Angry Orchards and Mountain Light as the Players' resident bromancers Alex and Drew manstoke the manflames and mantalk about being manmen. Update on the boys' club: it is self-aware and lovably mockable. Phew.
I continue to be entranced by the endless stars in the sky every night. Maybe it's the herbal refreshments. Hot tea, I mean. The crackling of the campfire and the sounds of Montana accompanied by late-night icebreaking add to the vibe some kind of something I'm sure an ancient Viking culture managed to encapsulate in one word. I can't though, so I'll just end the entry on my personal new favorite: sump.
Arrived in Bozeman, Montana (which apparently exists and is an up-and-coming city. Who knew?) last night. The drive to Virginia City was about an hour and a half, and a complete lack of street lamps or civilization along the route meant I could only make out a vast, invisible expanse under approximately a gajillion stars. Some configurations I've never seen before. Ursas Major and Minor, Cassiopeia, Venus, and Jupiter (among others) all light up Montana's night sky.
I stayed the night in the home of one of the Opera House mothers (Further explanation to come in a later post.) It's cliché and haughtily monosyllabic, and it makes me throw up in my mouth a little, but "crisp" is the best word to describe the night air as I stepped out of the Subaru onto the gravel driveway of her charming cabin. Above in the distance, a distinct and sudden blackness just beneath what was otherwise an astronomer's wet dream (I mean, Orion? I'd totally tap that.) marked the border between sky and the many mountains that enclose/hug Virginia City. Typical mountain air makin' me whip out the word "crisp." Jerk. Inside the cabin, wooden walls practically papered with framed family photos and paraphernalia already gave me a glimpse of the town's dedication to preserving moments, stories, and a lifestyle that thrives on the echoes of another time.
This morning, I got my first real look at "the City" (of about 180 permanent residents, mind you). The view from the guest room window was so picturesque I suddenly craved some Anne of Green Gables role play (Anybody else obsessed with that movie as a kid? 2 VHS tapes! I digress...) I even downloaded Instagram so the world would know. And be jealous. Because what else is social media for?
I made my way to the Opera House, but not before sitting front-seat to a lovely one-Case tour of the Artisan's and Grower's Guild, the Creamery (homemade ice cream!), Cousin's Candy Shop (where they make their own salt-water taffy and fudge), and the Bale of Hay Saloon, a bar that is coincidentally and conveniently connected to the Virginia City Opera House. I met Karen, another mother and a Player (band name? I digress...), and her husband Ray. Also was introduced to the owners of the Bale of Hay, twins named Kay and Gay. Kay has kurly hair, Gay straight. Some of the other Players are Alex, Drew, Logan, Hugh, Alyssa, and Bill, who is the director. My only concern so far is the more seasoned Players' boys' club. Est. 1863.
I wonder what other preserved stuff waits to be discovered... (Hint: This place is haunted.)
About this blog...
19th century melodrama,
haunted costume shops,
my discovery that "sump" is a word...
Box and Cox, a satire about two English gents unwittingly renting the same flat.
Season complete. Bags packed.