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With the Zig Zag (L), at a Red Bank, NJ dance studio.

Some of the weirdest food choices I’ve ever made were made while working a show. Any theatre person can attest to this: there’s something about the combination of a gnawing stomach and having worked your caboose off that steers a person, oddly, toward malnutrition. Counter-intuitive as it is, what’s chosen for a really-late-night dinner is often enough in the orange food group (the fried banana pepper rings with ranch dressing, the fried calamari with Thai chilies) and it’s about as useful for your body as drywall spackle.

Then again, starvation plus long hours occasionally steers a person toward something he or she would never so much as sniff otherwise. Sometimes that’s a good thing. I detested mushrooms up until one day in 1995, when I hadn’t had breakfast. It was 1 in the afternoon, my magic partner and I had been working for hours, and he ordered a Domino’s pizza with mushrooms. I took a bite and pronounced them Not That Bad. The frozen, synthetic crust was a different story, being Domino’s; but again, hunger won out. And now I love mushrooms—any kind at all. If Domino’s ever offers porcini as a topping, I’ll forgive them their crust.*

I worked with this magic troupe for a few years after college, moonlighting as a magician’s assistant. We’d get the gig and start planning immediately. Everything needed to be taken into consideration: the venue, the audience, the amount of set-up time and performance time, backstage space, and on and on. Many of the illusions we used were bought or rented, but a couple, like the Asrah and Sword Basket, were built by a theatre tech who was also a great carpenter. Those needed us for paint, bells and whistles. And for most of the gigs it was just the illusionist (Doug) and me, but occasionally we brought in a stage manager who would help us load in illusions, run sound and lights, help strike (break down the illusions and the set) and load everything out. Many’s the New Year’s Eve I’ve loaded out at midnight wearing sweats and sneakers over fishnets and sequined Lycra, still in stage makeup and fake eyelashes, and with my hair teased out to one of the more affluent Cleveland suburbs.

While magic was some of the best fun I ever had, it was also some of the dumbest food I ever ate. After days and nights spent like the above, we got hungry. REALLY bloody hungry. (And tired. I have memories of going to a restaurant, wordlessly plunking ourselves down into a booth, ordering our dinners, then sitting in silence for the rest of the meal. This is the standard definition of zonked.)

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During a strike.

One of my better memories of dumb food is of going to Ruby Tuesday’s with Doug and ordering a Tallcake. This was taken off the menu a while ago, sadly. Do you remember it? It was an oversize goblet filled with cut-up cake, ice cream, and a few toppings. Doug and I are chocolate people and loved the chocolate cake one that came with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and a crazy pile of whipped cream. It contained absolutely nothing even remotely healthy; I’m sure of it. Everything in that goblet came from a box or a squeeze bottle or a spray can, full of enough chemicals to melt an average-sized four-door Suburu. But (and this is coming from me, Miss Authentic Ingredients) that’s all right. Crap now and again is okay. It is.

We would easily destroy a Tallcake between the two of us after a show or a long day of sewing, painting, or building. Our most shameful hour—or finest, depending on your perspective—was the time we ate an entire Tallcake, then looked wide-eyed at each other across the table, and ordered and ate ANOTHER one.

The strawberry ones were pretty good, too.

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*That’s what it would take. Get on it, boys.

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I’ve mentioned that I volunteer as a theatre stage technician, which means I wear black shoes and clothes and move set pieces on and off the stage with other techies for local productions.

Right now I’m crewing My Fair Lady, and I’m also in charge of props. That’s all of the stuff that’s handled on stage, all of the envelopes and baskets of flowers and lace fans and five-pound notes that the actors use. I collect it, organize it, work with actors on how to use it, make repairs to it, and return all of the stuff to its original position on and under two long tables at the end of each performance.

Since this is My Fair Lady, which features three teatime scenes, two chocolate-eating scenes, and numerous port-drinking scenes, I also have to provide food and drink for the actors to eat and drink every night.
A word about my philosophy. I believe people see shows because they want to be put under a spell; they want it so much that they pay to be put under it. It’s our job as live storytellers to make sure what we give them—costumes, sets, dialects, props, everything—is as accurate as possible. Any discrepancy risks breaking the spell. The audience is counting on us to carry them along with us for the entire story. It’s an act of great trust. I don’t want to betray that.
On that note, I wanted the stage teatime to be as authentic as possible. The script calls for tea, plain cake, and strawberry tarts, so I made sure the actors were drinking real tea (iced, in this case), and eating plain cake (pound) and real tarts (mini raspberry, because I couldn’t find strawberry). I also added shortbread, ubiquitous at teatime. That’s the tea service for Henry Higgins’s tea above.*
Since we’re on a pretty tight budget, at first I bought cheaper milk chocolate for the actors to eat, but anything creamy gunks up their throats. Speaking like that is bad enough; singing is worse. So I gave the rest of the milk chocolate to an appreciative fellow techie and bought bittersweet chocolate, which is dairy free. No complaints.
The ‘port’ I provide is liberally drunk by Colonel Pickering throughout the show. When something good happens, he heads for the port. When something bad happens, he heads for the port. It’s really cran-apple juice, so I told the actor who plays Pickering that if he has a urinary tract infection, we’re about to clear it right up.

On to fake food, which matters just as much to me.

Lots of actors play vendors and sell goods onstage during the opening scene, and so I asked the director at what time of year the start of the show takes place. I learned it’s in early spring. Thanks to supermarkets, which offer every kind of produce on earth every day of the year, I know most people can no longer tell when a particular food is in season, when it is actually growing in our own regions, but I can. And in Edwardian London in early spring, poor produce sellers would only have access to what they had stored last fall. That meant I couldn’t use the fake summer peppers and zucchini I found in the prop room. Call me crazy to care (and you likely will), but to me it would look ludicrous. I did find lots of fake apples, pears, garlic, onions, cabbage and potatoes**, which were perfect. Then I went to Silverton Farms, bought old bushel baskets for a buck apiece, and loaded them up with the ‘produce’ (above).

The director wanted the kid who handles the garlic and onion basket to do something with them while he was onstage, to look busy with them. So I cut lengths of twine and showed him how to make garlands, explaining that that was what people used to do, and some still do, with alliums. He didn’t have great success making garlands and the director told him to ad lib something else.

So he did. Last night I watched him from the wings, rubbing onions on the front of his shirt the way you would apples, 100% poker faced. Just about killed me. After he crossed offstage, I walked up to him.

‘Saw you buffing the onions.’

‘Uh, yeah.’

‘Do you know what would happen if you buffed actual onions on your shirt?’

‘Uh, no.’

‘The skins would peel off all over the place.’

Silence.

‘Then I guess it’s a good thing they were fake, huh?’

This I was happy to let go, because I figure if it broke the spell for the audience, at least they’d enjoy it as much as I did.

*Why didn’t I fill the sugar bowl or creamer? Because the audience will never see inside them. If we were selling the balcony, I would have filled them.

**Some potatoes are made of painted Styro and some are Poly-fil stuffed in pantyhose. Now you know how to make fake potatoes. I know you’ll sleep easier.

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That’s Dana above, stirring onions for our spaghetti sauce.  She came over yesterday with my other friend Casey, just because we felt like cooking together.

Cooking with these two is new. But working with them isn’t. We’ve done lots of local theatre shows together—not as actors, mind you, but as crew. We’re stage technicians.

Many people aren’t sure what that means, so here you go: During a show, have you ever seen the lights onstage dim or go out entirely…and then you see faint shadows of people moving set pieces on and off stage…people rolling, pushing, lifting, spinning a bunch of things into place for a scene, usually within seconds? That’s us.

Working in close quarters backstage, having to whisper, feeling the pressure of having to get something right night after night in the dark, in a scant amount of time, trying to avoid injury to ourselves and to the actors who are trusting us, you can imagine it feels like a war zone at times.

But there are plusses inherent in this work, too: We become very, very good at reading each other from across the darkened wings, at knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we build trust whether we plan to or not. (Not surprisingly, it’s my theatre friends who gave exceptional, much-needed practical support and know-how when I’ve changed addresses, or when, say, when I’ve gotten into an accident.)

When the rapport’s not there, it will be a nightmare backstage, guaranteed. But when you click, and everything moves like a Rolex dipped in extra virgin olive oil, there’s no high like it. It’s GOLDEN.

In planning this lunch, I asked Casey to bring pasta and a colander and Dana to bring soda. I did not worry about them bringing the wrong thing or about forgetting entirely. And they did not.

So here we are in a kitchen. A real one for once, not a two-dimensional set.

Casey’s in his thirties and is comfortable in the kitchen; Dana’s a teenager and is not. Yesterday I taught her how to slice an onion, and she did it beautifully. Then we all went across the street to a patch of herbs I planted years ago and snipped off some thyme and oregano.

I made the sauce a few hours earlier from pureed fresh tomatoes that I bought at my favorite farm. Seemed incongruous to buy canned tomatoes in high summer. (Well, it is. Especially in New Jersey.) The tomatoes took a while to cook down, though, full of water as they were. I added a bit of tomato paste for its intense concentrated flavor.

Then we all tasted the sauce to see what it lacked, and Casey thought we should add a bit of sugar. I come from a family that would throw your clothes out onto the street at such a suggestion, but like I emphasized above, I trust this guy. So we put in a couple of pinches of brown sugar.

This is Dana and me above, pulling off bits of fresh herbs and dropping them into the simmering sauce.

While we waited for the pasta to come to a boil, I painted musical designs on Dana’s arms. (She’s a techie AND a singer.) As I painted, Case manned the pasta.

And this is the two of them tucking in.

Later we went to the beach, ate some junk food, played vintage video games and pinball, and then dropped Dana off to the show she was crewing in Red Bank. It was a good day.

P.S. The sauce was pretty good with the sugar.

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I’ve been doing a lot of observing lately. And not to go all Dragnet on you, but just the facts, as I’ve witnessed, are:

1) Kids today have never eaten a brownie made from scratch. This kind of freaks me out. Or a cookie, or a cupcake, for that matter. How can I make such an assertion? Well, I work with a lot of kids, of all ages, in theatre. During the run of every show I’ve done since 2009, I’ve treated the cast and crew to some sort of homemade sweet. And when they bite into whatever it is I made, their eyes go all saucery. They make loud, happy noises that invoke the names of traditional deities. Sometimes they jump up and down.

One kid shoved a cookie into his mouth and said, ‘Seven.’

‘A seven on a scale of one to ten?’ I asked.

‘No—this is my seventh one,’ he said.

It’s not that I’m some wild baking talent. I just use real ingredients, with no chemicals, and put them together. They simply aren’t used to it.

A couple of summers ago a teenager took a bite out of one of my Kahlua chocolate chip brownies and asked if there was fruit in it. There wasn’t, but I used organic chocolate, and the flavor was so pure, so undiluted, that he might well have been tasting the ambient flora and fauna from the tropics where it was grown. Who knows.

A few weeks ago I offered another young actor a chocolate brownie. He loved it, and I asked him if he had ever had one made from scratch. He looked at me quizzically, then asked, “Oh, you mean with like eggs and flour?” That’s the bad news—that he had to think about what ‘scratch’ meant. But the good news is now he can say he knows the difference between homemade and from a mix.

Which leads me to my second point:

2) People my age aren’t cooking.  When it comes to variety of ingredients and availability, and still more choices within those categories (including free range, organic, all natural, and so on), people today have the greatest food options the world has ever known. There are even several networks devoted entirely to food shows—how to cook it, how to plate it, how to eat it—and they’re making money spatula over fist. Someone‘s watching.

And yet, despite this abundance and our clear interest in food, why is it so many people, kids and adults alike, still think making something from scratch means starting with a box or a series of pouches and assembling? What gives?

Conversely, I’m noticing many people my parents’ age (born +/- 1940s) are cooking. Not all of them, mind you; people who were not inclined to cook in their youth probably aren’t going to want to spring for a Viking range in their later years. But the ones who have been cooking all of their lives, who you’d think would want to rip off their aprons forever and just sink into their goldenrod-colored recliners with an order from Quizno’s…aren’t.

My mom belongs to a garden club in the town where I grew up. Once a month, one of the ladies takes on the task of providing lunch and dessert for the 20 some-odd members. Mom was telling me all of the wonderful things a lunch hostess had brought recently. I asked where she had bought it.

She hadn’t. She made it: hearty sandwiches of chicken and curry, side dishes, and a homey apple-caramel cake. The ladies loved it—and thought nothing of the fact that their hostess didn’t have it catered. That really struck me, that someone would elect to cook for others, to have fun doing it, to take pride in doing it. It did not occur to her, or to the other members, otherwise.

After lunch, they all complimented the hostess and asked her to share her recipes. People used to do that, too.

I thought back to all of the gatherings I have been to in the past few years, all of the dinner parties, barbecues and celebrations given by friends and family my age or thereabouts. I can think of only a couple of instances in which the hosts prepared any part of it, and only one in which they prepared all of it. I can understand not wanting to cook for a huge crowd; you’d have to be a lunatic to work that hard. But some casual get-togethers included just five or so people total.

What happened? Did we take a wrong turn at Albuquerque or something and forget how to chop carrots? Or did we never learn?

Man alive, this is depressing.

The above photo cheers me up. It’s grape jelly made from scratch (for real), and it was made by my friend’s grandmother. I call the flavor ‘Granny grape.’ Granny is in her eighties and lives outside Pittsburgh in a house that’s blessed with a Concord grape vine growing out back. Every year in late summer she makes grape jelly, pours it into old Smucker’s jelly jars, and labels the flavor and the year with those little half-inch labels you get from the drugstore.

And this thought further cheers me up: I’m reading about dinner clubs that are springing up all over the country, with no goal loftier than cooking together and enjoying what you make. Maybe I’ll start one of my own. I think this is a step back in the right direction.

Granny would approve.

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