Life During Wartime
Volume 2 Book 9 Part 7 of "Living In The Bonus Round"
The Online Diary of Steve Schalchlin

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January 2002.
Rochester, NY.

Steve taking center stage at sound check.

January 17-19, 2002.
The Circle Widens.
Last night I felt like I was being welcomed back into the arms of a long lost lover. It was the opening night of The Last Session in Rochester and it was a family reunion. Here are just a few of the faces I saw.
The last time I was here, they all took me out to dinner in a  Italian restaurant -- 30 of us laughing and carrying on. I had my video camera with me cuz I was making one of my "Hello, Jim" video documentaries (in which I got people saying hello to Jimmy from the road which we would then watch together).

And even though I hadn't watched that video in a long time I remembered those faces and those voices. When I saw them and heard them last night at the aftershow party, they felt like old friends.

The night began, of course, with the show itself which was sensational. The laughs shook the walls, the sobs were loud and unembarrassed and they gifted us with a standing ovation, after which we exited through the middle of the audience and into the lobby. Then, like the tide suddenly flowing back to shore, the energy that we had been pouring out from the stage, came rushing through the curtains right back at us in the form of a teary-eyed, smiling, exhausted audience.

One silver-haired lady (who was so emotionally drained you'd think she had just run a marathon) looked up at me and said, "This must really take a lot out of you. You must be exhausted."

"Nope," I answered. "I've never felt more energized in my life. This doesn't take life OUT of me. It's puts energy IN."

Theatre Angel Julie receives a special gift from Chris K.

The day started with a snowfall. Huge fluffy flakes blowing down; a Winter Wonderland fury of white. But it only lasted about two hours, then the clouds cleared, and by late afternoon the sun was shining brightly and the sky was a light, light, bright shade of Caribbean reef blue. The snow melted off the streets but stayed carpeted on the ground.

We went down to the theatre and upstairs in what can only be charitably called a dressing room -- and Amy was shivering because one of the space heaters wasn't working. They fixed it immediately and I have to say, for a theatre with no staff, they've been taking very, very good care of us.

Amy Coleman in the dressing room dressed as Vicki.

Danette Sheppard in her bright red "Tryshia" costume.

Anyway, Sue (Ginger's "mom" and stage manager) came to the door and announced, "Half hour." By now, Jay has noticed that the ironing board and iron are not in place and he's slightly panicking because he wants to iron his "Buddy shirt."

("Buddy shirts" are light yellow. They are bought at JCPenney and Buddy wears Wrangler jeans stretched tightly over his Buddy butt.) Buddy also wears cowboy boots and a big buckle on his belt. Stephen Bienskie used to make a ritual of "the ironing of Buddy's shirt" before the show each night. It was a zen exercise, allowing him to think about this preacher boy who has left the mama he loves and is out in a strange land about to meet his childhood idol.

(Jay got his ironing board. Someone ran over to the other "main building" to get it. Downstairs Cabaret Theatre has a main space and a satellite -- we're in the satellite space called "DCT 2" about several miles from "DCT 1".)

I was with the boys (Jay Falzone and Chris Burley) in the outer room. Danette Sheppard and Amy Coleman were in the more private room. I had my script in one hand and last night's notes from our director, Chris Kawolsky in the other.

Oh wait. I have to tell a funny Steve the Actor story. The other day at "notes," Chris was trying to describe what he was looking for in a particular scene. It was in some kind of technical actor term. Puzzled, I looked at him and said, "I don't think I understand." Without missing a beat, Jay looks over at me and says, "Louder, slower." So I said to Chris, "Yes. I only know four directions: louder, softer, faster slower."

We were up in our perch just before the show when I had a perfect bonus round moment. Chris Burley (Jim) came to work dressed in his Jim Outfit, which consists of jeans, t-shirt, funky vest and dangling gray metal globe around neck (He's got the world on a string). Jay was standing there ironing. I was in a chair facing the open doorway of Amy and Danette's room and we were all talking, giggling, gossiping and laughing -- and I suddenly had this feeling of absolute contentment. I know a big smile crept over my face because I marked the moment in my mind. A moment no one can ever take away from me.

Sue comes up and calls, "Places." So we walk down the freakily cold stairway and one by one, enter through the back of the lobby. Then we stood holding the black velvet curtain apart to hear Chris' curtain speech (and special guest, a local weatherman who also spoke and announced that the Rochester TV station was going to be giving them some promotional sponsorship). The audience of 40 was sitting in front of them.

Then the house lights went to half, a dim blue wash came up onto the stage and Chris B./Jim entered the room through the center of the tables and chairs crowding the stage. Then the house lights went down and I entered, sat at the stage piano and started playing the spooky opening chords of The Last Session.

"Hey, Jack. It's me. Gideon."

The thing that was so much fun about the show tonight was the fact that now that Jay, Danette and Chris B. had done it once in front of an audience, they had a better understanding of where the laughs are in this play. But even more exciting, their natural instincts took over and where they might have gotten two laughs in a sequence at the preview, last night they corraled five or six.

Oh, and last night I got *MY* silent moment. It happened at the end of "Connected." (Chris K. added a very intense effect into the staging of the song that I don't want to give away yet. You'll have to just come and see it.) I got to the end of the song, sang the last notes looking up at God and the audience was absolutely still. No one wanted to break the spell.

The only problem with this was that, because "'Connected" happens after "Friendly Fire," the rest of the cast is offstage getting out of their soldier uniforms. They were directed to enter during the applause on "Connected," which would give them time enough to get into place before the lights come back up. Well, no applause! I don't know if the lights caught them sneaking back onto the stage or not.

But what a moment. And of course, the next thing that happens is... well, I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen the show yet. Let's just say that the ensuing drama scenes... um... worked.

At curtain, after singing "When You Care," I stopped the standing ovation and gave a short curtain speech thanking Chris Kawolsky, Ann Marie Saunders (who everyone including Chris says is the REAL power and brains behind the throne) and the theatre "angels" who keep something like this alive. And that's when we exited to the lobby and experienced the audience pouring back out to us.

Chris K. then handed out gifts and talked about how much TLS has meant to him. "This year is our 10 year anniversary, but I knew we'd never be complete until we finally produced The Last Session. I just wanted to wait until we had the perfect cast."

Ann Marie reads my tribute to Chris

The nicest part of the evening, though, happened at the end when Ann Marie (who never takes center stage) read yesterday's diary entry praising Chris Kawolsky. Honestly, there wasn't a dry eye in the entire room. And THAT was a tribute, not just to Chris and Ann Marie, but to the theatre members and supporters in Rochester New York who banded together on his cold winter night to believe in themselves and each other.

Two days later, the Rochester Democrat Chronicle came in with their review of TLS and it's an unqualified rave. Not a single negative word. I'll type in part of it for you. Notice my last name is misspelled. LOL.

The headline is 'Last Session' sings from writer's heart.

by Mark Liu
They don't come much more heartfelt than The Last Session, the off-Broadway musical that the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre opened last night. And lead actors don't come much more qualified than Steve Schlachlin [sic]... who wrote the music and lyrics...

The Last Session combines biting humor and heart-tugging pathos, a tricky feat this production pull off handily...

(Then there's a description of the plot).

...The women trade insults while the recording engineer (Chris Burley) adds sardonic commentary from the booth.

The fourth musician is a stranger, Buddy, played in funny, young Republican fasion by Jay Falzone...

...(Amy) Coleman is reprising her off-Broadway role as Vicki, and it shows. She completely inhabits the part. Every line she speaks is effective, and usually horribly funny.

The edgy humor is the ideal balance to the often wrenching music. Schlachlin is like an essayist in his writing... As an actor, Schlachlin as the advantage of having lived the material, not just learned it. He's not an actor by trade, but he has a presence that connects.

And his music gets the royal treatment here. Coleman and (Danette) Sheppard don't just sing their songs. They grab hold of them, wrap themselves around them, and pour them out -- growling, cooing and roaring along the way.

There's a fair amount of wishful thinking in The Last Session. The kind of thinking that, along with sharp humor and deeply felt emotions, gets a person through impossible times. For an audience, it makes for a full and moving experience.

This last comment is interesting because yesterday's headlines in the Democrat Chronicle spoke of the highest unemployment rate in this area in decades. The downtown, though clean and lovely with old buildings, is also filled with empty storefronts and "Going Out Of Business" signs.

Perhaps TLS, with its hopeful message and, yes, "wishful thinking" is exactly the kind of thing to inspire the people in a town that truly feels down on its luck.

January 24-25, 2002.
A New Review & Some Pain.

We opened up the other influential paper in town this past week to see another rave review for our production. It was especially heartening to see Chris K. and Jay get the well deserved attention that was missing from the first review. And the last sentence of his review is a knock-out.

by David Raymond
in CITY, Rochester's Alternative News weekly

Good musicals often spring from unlikely sources: a mass murdering barber in Victorian London, for example, or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. There wouldn't seem to be much music to be found in the AIDS epidemic, let alone a thoughtful, funny and life affirming musical, but songwriter Steve Schalchlin found it. The result is The Last Session, which against the odds, is a warm, involving show that appeals to a very wide audience. It was successful Off-Broadway and in California, and it should be a hit at the Downstairs Cabaret, too, where it started last week and runs until February 17, with Schalchlin in the cast.

When Schalchlin found out he had AIDS, his response was creative: a collection of songs cataloguing his response to his illness and the changes it brought to his life. Schalchlin and his partner Jim Brochu turned the songs into a musical about Gideon, a gospel-pop songwriter with AIDS (played by Schalchlin himself) who decides to record one last album before killing himself. he enlists his longtime friend and producer (Chris Burley), and a couple of experienced backup singers (Danette E. Sheppard, Amy Coleman).

Buddy (Jay Falzone), a young, ambitious gospel singer who has admired Gideon since his days as "the Baptist Barry Manilow," sneaks into the session, hoping to get Gideon to sing one of his songs, but is shocked to discover his musical idol not only has AIDS, but is unrepentantly gay. Without spoiling the story, which contains a couple of surprises along the way, we can say that The Last Session ends on an upbeat.

The plot has serious potential to be self-indulgent and sentimental, but The Last Session is tough and funny rather than a tear-jerker. The show doesn't hesitate to go for the heart, but Brochu's dialogue is peppered with wisecracks, and Schalchlin's lyrics often take a sardonic look at life with AIDS; the medicines and miracle cures, the support groups, the double-talking doctors, the loneliness and despair -- all aspects of "a club nobody wants to be a member of," in Schalchlin's words.

Director Chris Kawolsky has put together a fast-moving show, but one that also hits all the emotional buttons. The cast is uniformly excellent. Not surprisingly, Schalchlin knows his role and his songs inside and out, and his lack of acting polish is more than made up for by his appealing, quietly authoritative stage presence. Coleman, who plays a martini-packing backup singer, was in The Last Session off-Broadway; Danette E. Sheppard, whose character is simply called "The Diva," is new to the show, but sounds like she's been with it forever. Playing two women show can't stand each other, they work extremely well together on stage. Coleman and Sheppard are also powerhouse singers, who give everything they've got to Schalchlin's pop-gospel music.

As the mostly unseen recording producer, Burley gets a lot of the show's best zingers, all the funnier for being delivered in a dry, offhand style. As the naive, Bible-toting Baptist who learns a lesson about tolerance, Falzone might seem miscast, but he's terrific. This is probably the most difficult role in the show, but Falzone manages to make the character funny without falling into caricature. His anger and anguish at finding out his musical idol is gay, his "theological chess games" with Gideon, and his struggle to change his attitudes, are dead serious, however, and dramatically convincing.

The show's heart is mostly in its music, and these five performers put their hearts into it. When they all join in one of Schalchlin's gospel anthems like "The Preacher and the Nurse" or "When You Care," the Downstairs Cabaret ceiling stays put, but I don't know how.

-- end of review --

Unfortunately, I've been nursing some back pain that struck me like a knife in shoulder blade on Thursday night during the show. I could barely take a full breath to sing a note. I think part of it comes from sitting on the piano bench playing and part of it is a left-over from when I was coughing so much and sitting up in bed at a bad angle.

At intermission, I was in such pain I could barely function. So Jay gave me a backrub, pushing on the tender spots and Danette gave me some Advil and I made it through. Today, Friday, I went to the drug store and got a heating pad which I've been using all day so it's much better. But it's still there. (Amy keeps telling me to "keep it in" cuz it makes Gideon look sicker and makes me look like a better actor. I hate Amy.)

Speaking of acting, a cool moment happened at the end of the show last night. I was doing the last few lines, where Gideon is speaking to Jack about how "God sent an angel to me" and I started to choke up. It wasn't like I set out to TRY to choke up. It just happened. When I spoke of it to some of the other actors in the house here, they all said those are the most honest and most affecting moments: where you're just saying your lines and suddenly these emotions just creep up out of nowhere and take you by surprise.

Tell you the truth, now when I direct my lines at "Jack," I always think of how much I love Jimmy. I've been missing him so much. Oh, and tonight is the two year anniversary of Dickie's death. I miss him too. I've been doing some site maintenance consistent with changing my email address and ran across the page where Dickie died. It was like reliving it all over again. First his death coma, then his coming back to life for one more day, saying "Goodbye," him eating popsicles and then finally dying.

Still, it's all life. Living and dying. Gaining and losing. All we can do is be thankful for what we have and keep on rolling. I miss you Dickie. I miss you too, Jimmy. So tonight, in honor of both of you -- the dead and the living -- we are going see if we can't lift that roof and send it flying right into the clouds.

[ Diary Index ]
[ Book 8 ] -- [ Pt 1 ] [ Pt2 ] [ Pt 3 ] [ Pt 4 ] [ Pt 5 ]
[ Pt 6 ] [ Pt 7 ] [ Pt 8 ] [ Pt 9 ] [ Pt 10 ] [ Pt 11 ]

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© 2002 by Steve Schalchlin.
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