Wednesday, June 07, 2006

10 Yrs. Ago: The Zephyr Reading.

We have only one photo from this event. It's the bow at the end of the reading. I've included a photo (left) of Melrose Ave. (the location of The Zephyr) from our later "Big Voice" days here just to give you can see what it looks like.

I'm posting this diary entry from June 8, 1996 in its entirety. This was truly the reading that started everything for us in terms of getting The Last Session up and on its feet. When I reread it this morning, I was instantly propelled back to that day when my ear was clogged up, my arm was hurting from the IV, I was frantic that the keyboard had not arrived, we had cast members driving all the way from Palm Springs, and we had no idea if anyone was going to show up for a 10 o'clock Saturday morning staged reading on two days notice.

But as you will see, everything began to fall together. The room was packed to the rafters. The keyboard arrived five minutes before curtain. And though we barely had time for a run-through, the entire performance was electrified.

The best news about my health was still two days away. So at this point, I had high hopes that I was going to survive. But I was still very much prepared to face bad news if it came. The following is the diary entry and exactly what happened that fateful morning. All the equipment for the reading was borrowed from about five different sources and all of them had to arrive that morning, some from people we didn't even know. And who knew, ironically, that it would be an AIDS Walk that would delay the arrival of our keyboard until five minutes before curtain? (And none of us with cell phones.)

Saturday, June 8, 1996
At last! The reading at The Zephyr.

I slept a bit restlessly last night. Up a few times 'cause Louie had me peeing a lot! Plus I was full of energy just knowing we were going to be doing the show that day. Well, I woke up finally about 5. Rolled around a lot pretending like I would be able to go back to sleep. About 5:45 I capitulated and came into the living room and sat down at the computer to idle my hours away.

That's when I noticed that my ear was very blocked up. Shit. I was so hoping that after a long sleep, I'd be okay. I felt so much anxiety. Would I remember the songs? Would Yve be able to drive from the desert? Would the music stands show up? Did they have chairs for us to sit in? Would anyone show up to be in the audience? And if so, would they sit there looking at wondering what the fuck we were doing singing about AIDS in a musical? I was a wreck.

The first thing I saw when I sat down at the computer was a "computer stickie" on the screen telling me to wake Jim up by 8. I took my first Crixivan (on an empty stomach) and soon I heard Jim stirring upstairs. He's been sleeping on a futon in the loft because of his back -- and also because Louie whirrs too loudly for him to sleep in the same room with it.

So, he finally got up and both of us were shaking like leaves in a twister. We both kind of wandered around like lost children looking for their parents in a department store. What am I supposed to doing now? I kept asking myself. Also, I was waiting for Louie to finish feeding me so I could disconnect and go take a shower.

Finally, I got some tape and wrapped my arm in the long plastic glove which protects my PICC line insertion point, got in the shower and prayed for the steam to help my ears. It didn't. It also didn't relieve the knot in my stomach.

I sat down with the script to tape the pages of lyrics together so I wouldn't be flipping pages while trying to play when I realized that one of the songs was only half printed. So I ran to the computer...

...the clock is ticking...

..and printed out the new pages, cobbling them together and yelling at Jim to make more pages for the other actors. Finally, we grabbed the few props we wanted and raced to the car. On the way we went over Laurel Canyon Blvd. and my ear opened just a bit. I was so elated and I kept working it.

We got to the theater and, glory of glories, the girl I spoke to last night was there with the music stands, out front looking for us. We pulled up and -- well, one problem solved. Then Yve pulled up. Ah, next anxiety relieved. She gave me some Chinese balls as a gift and told me to roll them around in my hand. I did.

Then we went into the neon shop and rehearsed the new part of her song at the old out of tune upright they had there in the shop. Marjorie and Steve showed up and we did some more rehearsing and line changing, etc. We needed to do more but time was awasting!

David Robyn showed up with the PA system and we were all set to go except for one thing.

No keyboard.

We hurriedly called Terence, who was supposed to have brought one, but we only got a message machine.

10:55 am. Five minutes to go.

Well, someone said to take a credit card go buy one, and then return it. We all looked at him like he was nuts, but there went Yve running out the door with her card! I stopped her and told her, No. Thanks, but no time. No time. I'm totally out of my mind by now. I'm pacing outside in front. The room is full of people. When finally. FINALLY, Terence shows up apologizing profusely. We throw the keyboard together, take our places and start at last. (Ironically, we found out he had been held up because Santa Monica Blvd. had been closed off for the AIDS Bike Ride fundraiser from San Francisco.}

By now my ear was gone again. I couldn't hear at all out of my left ear, and my right ear was not 100%. By the time I got into the first song, Save Me A Seat, my mind was a million miles away. I knew people were there looking at me and I was singing a song, but it occurred to me that it might be rude to be having an ongoing conversation in your head while supposedly singing to these folks out there. And we had a house full.

So, I thought, how am I gonna force myself to settle down and concentrate? Then I suddenly remembered something. I was singing a song at this moment. I was about halfway through this song when I began to "listen" to the words coming out of my mouth.

The song is about my memorial service. The scenario has a church full of my friends "memorializing" me while I, in spirit form, am across the street at a bar, playing the piano, drinking a beer and singing about my life. At the end of the song "I" feel a bit guilty that I've left everyone alone over at the service, so I wander into the sanctuary and sit down. Then it occurs to me that, since I am a spirit, I can "go home" with each of my friends when it's all over.

If they think of me, I can be with them always, especially if they're feeling a bit lonely and just need a friend. The end of the lyric goes:

Then on a day when you feel lost or hurt
Go to the kitchen and get some dessert
Then sit at the table and eat
Just remember to save me a seat.

Please remember to save me a seat.

It was as if I could smell my all my friends' kitchens and see their drooping shoulders. In a flash I saw my friends laughing with me, crying with me, remembering me--and when that happened, I completely melted into the play.

It was the weirdest feeling. It's not like I was faking it or "trying to act." After all, I've never "acted" before! Well, once. Twice. I was in the Junior and Senior plays at Buna High School in Buna, Texas. There was no drama department. Once a year, the English teacher (very small school) would pick a silly comedy from Sam French play publishers and cast the show by just picking people to be in it. But I'd hardly call that "training" or "experience." But, on that stage in Hollywood on Melrose Ave. at approximately 11:15 a.m., I felt this weird change in my body and in my mind. As if Gideon descended from heaven and began to inhabit me -- as if he cast a spell over me. I could feel his depression. His fear. And I could feel how badly he wanted somebody to talk him out of committing suicide, despite his loud protests to the contrary. I just... well, just became Gideon.

I could feel his desperation to get these songs recorded while he still could.

It surprised me that the spell was not broken when the audience tried to interrupt the show with this most incredible, extended applause. And this spell continued through the entire reading. Oh, I felt rocky in a couple places and god knows I have a lot to learn. But they're mostly nice things, such as... What do you do when audience completely stops the show?

The first time it happened was at the end of The Group.

(I keep trying to describe The Group to people who haven't heard it. You can get a feel for it by reading the lyrics but you really have to hear it with the music in the context of the show).

So I get to the end of this rather elegiac indescribable song, the applause started -- so far, so good. But they wouldn't let me go onto the next scene. They just kept applauding. I didn't know what to do! Should I look at them? No! They don't exist.

Do I find some "spot" to look at? The booth? Hell, do I stand up and take a bow? (NEVER NEVER NEVER).

Then they did it again after Going It Alone.

And on and on it went. When we got to the new fight scene between Vicki and Gideon, Marjorie-the-actress-doing-Vicki broke down completely and almost didn't get through the scene.

I was afraid to look at the audience by then. I was trying to control myself. And of course Yve, playing Trish, was on her fifth Kleenex. The audience was sniffling a bit too. But we made it through and we survived to the end. And we endured all that "horrible" applause keeping us from getting home.

Afterward, everyone came up and hugged us all and told us all how wonderful we were. Yve and Marjorie were in tears. The audience was in tears. Jerry Gaither, a new friend I met through the computer, brought up flowers AND A CRUTCH (as in "break a leg").

Afterward, Gary and Linda, who run the theater, said we could have whatever we want as far as they were concerned. In fact, they said that some producers had come in and offered The Zephyr a big check to bring another show in. Sure money for them! But that they would actually forgo that money in favor of letting us do a mainstage run.

But after much talk and consideration, we decided that we would prefer to let them make their money with the other show -- it frankly took a lot of pressure off of us -- and, instead of trying to put a full production up in four weeks, do a "showcase" run first. That would be two shows a week. No reviews. A good chance to nurture the show and make changes between every performance bringing it to perfection.

And to add to that, they called Irene Oppenheim, told them all about what we wanted to do and she pledged some grant money right there on the phone!

And now, my head is spinning. It's about 5pm on Saturday as I write this and I am ready to just pass out. But I wanted to tell you all everything that happened. And I'll probably think of more later, but to say the least, we know now that we are on our way. We will develop this show. We will nurture this show, and we will build word of mouth until we have people clamoring to get in! (Or clamoring to get out!)

Either way, we are blessed and we are happy that we can share it all with you.

(Steve Schalchlin, Yve Evans, Marjorie Grau & Steven Wilde.)

A final note. One of my favorite moments happened in the courtyard of The Zephyr after all the audience went home and we were sitting with Gary and Linda discussing the future of the show. Gary looked at us and asked, "So, what you guys want to do with the show?"

I looked up at him, and sounding like a naïve Rube, said "Why, I want to go to New York!"

Years later, he recalled that moment. He said, "Here I was looking at this guy who seemed like he was five minutes from death, and he was looking up at me telling me that he was going to take a show to New York. I just shook my head and thought, inside, 'This guy isn't going last that long.'"

Gary, I'm sure you weren't the only one thinking that. Someone later said to me something that has stayed with me over the years -- and it was something I hadn't really thought about.

He said, "You gave people a chance to sit and stare at a person with AIDS."

He saw the puzzlement in my face and explained, "I don't mean that in a weird way. But think about it. In public, people aren't not really allowed to stare at people who are sick or disabled. You don't want to embarrass them or yourself. You don't want to be rude. Consequently, most people never really LOOK at people in that kind of condition, and by not looking, they can't really get emotionally involved. By getting on that stage, you gave us permission to look at AIDS, to see it in your eyes, to experience it in real time."

I hadn't thought about it that way but it made sense. I bet some people were really creeped out, in fact. I mean, I could not have looked worse. My eyes were sunk in, my arm was in a bandage, my arms were pencil thin, my face skeletal.

He continued. "What made it so affecting was that, whether it was you or not, the character of Gideon is someone we really like. We want him to live. You humanized AIDS for me and it made me want to do something about it. Every newscast about AIDS will now, for me, have your face attached to it. I won't be able to turn away."

It's saddens me to think that my friends and family were living so constantly with the fear that I might die any moment. That's why I wrote Going It Alone; as a love letter to them.

The question I had in my mind, though, was, "Would The Last Session work without this dying AIDS guy playing the lead role? Would it still be as powerful it was 'merely' an actor pretending to be a person with AIDS?" That's something we would have to wait to find out.

EDIT: Yve Evans, who played Tryshia is a world renowned jazz pianist and singer, composer, actress. Her website is


Dogtags said...

After having the honor of being there in NYC on the opening weekend and seeing your work burst onto the stage, ... I can truly say, it worked.

(AND at the 5 year anniv. in Cincinnatti! It's not TLS unless you get to see YOU play the role of Gideon)

Just so you know... It's still working.


Steve Schalchlin said...

That's very kind of you. But, for me, Bob Stillman will always be the definitive Gideon. He took it and made it his own.

Bev Sykes said...

That's a pretty amazing entry to read, 10 years and thousands of performances say nothing of the fact that you're here to relive it.

Steve Schalchlin said...

I just love that it was an AIDS Walk that was keeping us from getting our keyboard. He couldn't get across the street because it was blocked off. He was literally only two blocks away!

Walk With Me 07 22 21 The Pond at Central Park

After meeting Gavin Gold the other day, it was so beautiful outdoors, I kept walking over to the east side of the park in order to find &quo...