Monday, July 31, 2006

10 Yrs. Ago: Breaking Free

Me with Chip Esten doing "Friendly Fire."

Ten years ago, if you'll recall from our last update, I had just been implanted with a PICC line. Each day, I was hooked up to a feedbag of fluid intravenously for 14 hours a day because my digestive system had stopped working. The new drug, Crixivan, had just arrived in the mail, and the Zephyr Theatre had given us a go-ahead to put up a workshop of our little musical about AIDS called "The Last Session."
Marjory Graue enters as Vicki.

Since that update, we had cast the show, rehearsed it and were now performing it.

Gideon: Me
Buddy: Charles Esten
Vicki: Marjory Graue
Tryshia: Francesca P. Roberts
Jim: Doug Tracht

Each day, I would rehearse the show, go home, hook myself up to the feedbag (which I named "Louie"), try to sleep, wake up, unhook from the bag, race down to the theatre, rehearse, take my pills, go home, hook back up, sleep, etc. There was an entry port on my arm for the bag which had to be protected when I showered (which was a real pain). A nurse would come by every few days to check on the port, make sure all was going well, and then, everyday, we would start over again.


Francesca P. Roberts as Tryshia.

I, who had never written a musical and never acted on a stage (except once in high school but that was kind of a joke) was starring in the musical. Everything was happening so quickly, I could barely keep up. But I did keep this diary going. I wrote about everything. About what a terrible actor I was. About how difficult I found it to learn lines. About how amazing the other actors were. About how I was still gaining weight. I was even eating food again!


Doug Tracht as Jim.


Finally, we had a dress rehearsal, ticket sales were astonishing -- we sold out our opening weekend, and we had our opening night.

Playing "Buddy" in this production was a guy who would go on to quite a bit of TV fame here in the US. His name is Chip Esten and he was frequently in the USA version of an improv show called "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" Just last night I was reading that he was being added to the cast of NBC's "The Office." (YAY, Chip!)

Chip and I shared a dressing room. From the diary:
Chip gave me some encouragement, too. He knows -- they all know -- I have no experience acting and as we were just running over a few lines and checking with each other about some things, he noticed I "read" a line a certain way -- the way I usually did, and he reminded me of something he had told me before. He said I should not try to do it the same way everytime. It was a scene where I was finally giving Buddy a break and trying to loosen him up. Chip said if you feel sorry for me, then do it that way. If you feel like you need to make me laugh, then do that. Just let the moment happen.

I don't know what it was about that instruction, but it just released me. Suddenly I realized that now that we had the words down, the rest was just playing the scenes "in reality." Letting our emotions change depending upon how each of us feels or plays the scene. Like kids, really. Just being there in the moment, one hundred percent and following along, but never truly repeating yourself.
All the actors in the cast knew I felt really insecure about doing this. But they made me feel like they were right there with me, and that I should just relax and enjoy the show. But, actually, I was scared out of my mind. I felt so lost on that stage, so vulnerable. But then, so did Gideon. It all worked.

Our opening night was one of the greatest nights of my life. Everyone laughed. Everyone cried. We received an immediate standing ovation. I remembered my lines. And it's funny reading back about it because, in the diary, I am describing lines of dialogue -- even whole scenes -- which Jim eventually cut. For instance, there was a this long scene with Gideon and Jim that opened the show before I ever sang the first note.

As the weekend progressed, I remembered when we got a call to the box office from some stranger, a "Beverly Hills-sounding" lady, "Is this the show everyone is talking about?"

On July 24, there was another landmark day. My PICC line failed. Nothing we could do would unclog it. I had one week's worth of TPN to go. The choice I had was to go back to the hospital and have it re-inserted for the final week, or just pull it out of my arm, cross my fingers and see if my digestive system had started working again.
I called Lifeline and they said there was some kind of super unclogging solution they could try, so they sent the nurse who did everything but send a Roto Rooter up me, and nothing worked. She declared the line officially blocked and with one smooth motion, pulled the entire catheter right out of the hole in my arm. (It wasn't painful, just weird feeling.) Then she put a little gauze and band-aid on the site and it was over.

The first thing I did after the nurse left was something I haven't been able to do the whole time I had the PICC line in. I took a long hot bath. With a catheter in your vein, you can't get the site wet or expose it to steam for any prolonged period. So it was always a quick shower wearing a long plastic glove to cover up my whole right arm. But not today. I got in the bathtub and just luxuriated. I even found some of the fancy bath stuff my Aunt Freida gave me. It was absolutely heavenly.

On the 25th, Chip was cast in an episode of Star Trek, so an actor named Steve Prince came in a substituted for him, doing a spectacular job. It was my first time to work with an understudy!

On July 29th, I was given the first vivid illustration of how this show was going to begin changing people and lives -- people from totally different walks of life. There were two stories in this entry. Here's what I wrote:
Julie Horton and her 13 year old son came to one of our performances last week. Julie is this incredibly beautiful woman who used to work at ASCAP. She left there a couple years ago, though, when her husband developed cancer and subsequently died. Gaylon Horton, her husband, was one of the most beloved figures in the music industry in Los Angeles. He was a man with no enemies and he was very close to Kim and Ronda at Bob-A-Lew who are involved in The Last Session.

Part of Gaylon's "therapy" was to undergo radical radiation treatments which destroyed his immune system and for the last months of his life, he virtually lived in the AIDS ward in one of the hospitals here in the Valley. This was all happening around the same time that I was having my first opportunistic infections with AIDS, so Julie always tried to keep up with how I was doing also.

Eventually, Gaylon died and they had a wonderful memorial service (which I was too sick to go to at the time) and Kim and Ronda helped set up a fund for both Julie and her son.

Julie wasn't sure if she and her kid could "handle" our show because she knew it would bring up a lot of memories they had put behind them, but they came anyway and sat right on the front row. I haven't spoken to Julie, myself, but Ronda said Julie told her a couple of things. The first was that they did do their share of crying and remembering -- but that they felt it was good for them to do so. But then she told Ronda this:

Her boy (whose name is Adam) and his 13 year old friends had taken, recently, to calling each other -- and everyone else they see -- "fags." Julie had heard them and was wanting to say something, but she hadn't done so yet. Well, after coming to see our show, Adam was very excited to come up afterwards and meet me. Ronda brought him up. Apparently, he really was moved by the whole thing.

The next day, Julie was driving her son and his friends around when one of them called the other a "fag." Adam immediately said, "We're not going to use that word anymore." The others taunted him, asking, "What are you, a fag lover?" He drew himself up and said quietly, "One of my friends is gay and has AIDS and has written a show about it and we're not going to use that word anymore."

And that was that.

Story number two: The Street Kids & The Sunglasses

On Saturday night, we had a group of runaways from the Covenant House as guests in the audience. They were very street tough kids, covered in tatoos and attitude...

Over on stage left, there were two of the toughest sitting kind of apart from everyone else. One had dark sunglasses on and they were more or less sprawled all over the seats. Toward the end of the show (and I didn't see this, but both Chip and Ronda did), the one without the sunglasses began to get kind of emotional. He was starting to well up and cry.

Without blinking an eye, the one with the sunglasses slipped them off and handed them to his friend who quickly put them on so no one could see his tears.

And we had one more weekend to go.


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