GOD AND ROCHESTER (Part One, the stories)
[The script for
Steve Schalchlin's Cabaret act in Rochester, Feb. 2002
written at 3am one Wednesday morning.

Photos by Bev Sykes]

Part One (the stories) | Part Two (the songs)

Before we start I want to say that I'm not wearing my eye patch because I have to read some things. And eye patch plus eyeglasses is too much hardware on the face. I wear the patch because I have Graves Disease and this eye is messed up. I wear this prism on my right lens so I don't see double. In other words, the eye patch I wear in the show is not part of Gideon's costume. It's part of mine.

This is a cabaret show about Rochester and God.

You see, in Rochester I found God.

Okay, not exactly God.

But what I did find were people of faith. People who believed in me. Three people actually. A minister in Irondequoit named Jerry who read an internet diary about a guy dying of AIDS who had stopped believing in God. Two others named Chris and Ann Marie who ran a theatre and who read a newspaper account of a guy who, with his partner, wrote a musical about AIDS.

Jerry the minister said to guy dying of AIDS, "Come and sing in my church. I'll give you the entire Sunday evening service."

"But Bro. Jerry," I said to him. "I don't believe in God anymore."

And Bro. Jerry looked at the guy who had the AIDS and he said, "Yes you do. Now stop being silly and come sing at my church." So I did.

Chris, the fella that ran the theatre said to me, "While you're in Rochester come and sing a cabaret act."

"But Chris," I said. "I don't believe in cabaret acts."

And Chris looked at me and said, "Yes you do. Just sing your songs and tell stories."

So, this might be the weirdest "cabaret" act you'll ever see.


Here's a story. A true one. On the first day I arrived here in Rochester to do this production I asked this girl to drive me to the grocery store. We got in the car and the first thing she said to me was, "Are you with this Last Session?"

"Yes, I am," I responded smiling, waiting for her to tell me how wonderful it was.

"I don't think they should be doing shows like this," she said.


"No.I mean a musical about AIDS? It just seems creepy. I'd never go to anything like that."

"Oh," I said. "And what do you do at the theatre?"

She said, "Publicity."


Meanwhile, back at the house, Amy is really unhappy because the place we're staying in is an old house they've just refurbished. One of our housemates tells us that it's on a street where someone blew up a car bomb, the furniture in her tiny room is lawn furniture, there's plastic over the windows so she can't see out, her bed is a mattress on the floor and her room is ice cold.

Turns out they hadn't opened a vent in the basement leading to the upstairs. It finally got opened and Amy got warm. Meanwhile, over in my room, I also have lawn furniture so I'm grousing about the fact that I can't find a comfortable place to just sit and be. The only comfortable chair is down in the living room in front of a battered TV set that has no antenna -- so we're watching three channels of snow.

Snow on the ground outside. Snow on the TV set inside.

But we do have a dog that belongs to Sue, one of the kids who works at the theatre. I notice that Ginger has to stay in her room all day while Sue works so I say, "Why can't I let Ginger out to be with me during the day?"

And she looks up into the eyes of this stranger she's only met one day before and says, "You want me to give you the key to my room?"

"Yeah," I said as if it were the most natural thing in the world.


First day of rehearsal we're driving back to the cast house. Chris says to me, "I'm kind of intimidated about directing you."

I looked at him and said, "That's okay. I'm kind of intimidated about acting in this play. I'm not an actor and the only time I actually played the role, in Cincinnati, the critic went out of her way three times to say how 'lousy' I was.

During that first week, I began writing in my internet diary about my experience here in Rochester. I had woken up from this dream about Roy Rogers which made me think about my dad and his church, and I thought about how much my Jimmy always refers to theatre being like church -- the lights, the laughter, the tears, the costumes! -- so I wrote this whole diary entry praising Chris Kawolsky, comparing him to a pastor and the Downstairs Cabaret to a church. And I was so proud of it.

Then as I was basking in the glow of having made this comparison and so proud of myself for writing about someone other than me in my diary, I'm standing in the lobby with Chris and Ann Marie just beaming, you know, proud of my fabulous generosity when Ann Marie turns to me and says, her face red with embarrassment, like when you don't want to tell someone their fly is open -- "You spelled his name wrong."

Chris gives one of those famous Chris laughs -- which I can only describe as a river of unfettered chuckles -- and says, "Yeah, everybody does it."

And I said, "Well, I'm VERY used to people misspelling my last name so there ya are. I guess we have a lot in common." I was absolutely mortified. The great thing about an internet diary is you can go back and change it. His name is now spelled correctly. It's not like a book where what you write is permanent.

Amy and I were involved in a terrible car accident here. I was driving. I could have killed both of us. And when I related this incident in my diary -- standing in the street offering the other driver tickets to my show -- my brother who's a lawyer posts in my discussion board, "As your lawyer, I recommend you take down all references to your guilt."


Real world.

You have to understand something about me. I don't live in the real world. I have never lived in the real world. I can't live in the real world. The real world scares me. I have accidents in the real world.

I have an unnatural fear of accountants.

And lawyers, insurance salesmen, government people, the IRS, anything like that.

In the real world I have AIDS.

I like this. I like sitting in a theatre making music... And acting, believe it or not.

When Jimmy writes emails from California where he is alone with our two cats and a stack of bills, he refers to me as "a regular Lawrence Olivier." He thinks it's funny that I'm acting. He has seen me act. I've always been a terrible actor.

But something funny happened here. Well, not funny. What happened is I got to Rochester with a bad throat. A cough. I had had bronchitis for the entire month of December and the remnants of it was lingering. I couldn't speak loudly. I had to do everything in a very measured way in order to not cough.

So at rehearsals I was speaking the dialogue in a very natural tone of voice rather than the usual projectile voice I had been using in Cincinnati, Omaha and Baltimore. (In Baltimore and Omaha I had only done one night each). And something strange happened. Amy came up to me after rehearsal and said, "When did you take acting lessons? You're really good."

"But Amy," I said. "I'm NOT acting."

She looked at me and said, "Exactly."


So my acting is an accident. A fluke. Just like the hug line after the show. After our second performance, I felt a need to give a curtain speech. I wanted to announce our CDs in the lobby, remind people of our cabaret acts, etc. and at the end of the first speech I said, "And by the way, we're giving away free hugs if you want one."

Now, I hadn't exactly consulted the rest of the cast or Chris or anybody else that we were going to have a hug line in the lobby. (Just so you know, this is not normally done in professional theatre. Reception lines are for amateur theatre. Shows with off-Broadway actors, professional actors, are traditionally supposed to go to their dressing rooms after a show and hide or something.

But I guess I needed a hug.

You see, there was something more going on here than just doing a show. We were having "church." I have a story about that but I'll save it for later.


Do you know how many years I have dreamed and fantasized being able to do this Last Session with Amy Coleman?

(Amy was in the audience for this cabaret so I invited her
onstage to sing "Beyond The Light" at the end).

All during the runs in New York and L.A. I watched her do this with Bob Stillman. And I was jealous. As Buddy would say, "I admit it. I did it." Green. Seething. Stomach churning jealous.

Bob was up there and I wasn't. It wasn't that Bob wasn't great. In Los Angeles he was nominated for an Ovation Award, the LA. equivalent of the Tony. In New York last year he actually WAS nominated for a Tony Award for a Broadway show, "Dirty Blond."

I didn't care. It wouldn't have mattered to me if he was Tom Hanks, Paul McCartney, Sting and Russell Crowe all wrapped up in one person.

I was jealous. Those are my songs. I was married to a girl named Vicki who drank too much. My mom and dad are the preacher and the nurse, my engineer back home is named Jim, I know the woman Yve Evans who Jimmy based Tryshia on. Jimmy saw her in a recording studio, heard her say something and boom, the diva was born. What we didn't know about Yve was that her husband died of AIDS. In fact, she told me AFTER the first staged reading that her husband wanted to commit suicide but Yve said to him, "What am I gonna tell your daughter when she's facing a terrible thing and wants to give up?"

Jimmy and I took those AIDS tests together. When I tested positive and he didn't, he walked on that sidewalk for a half hour waiting for ME. The longest half hour of his life. We went through hell and friendly fire together. He learned to run I.V.'s, he drove me to the doctor -- hell, I have an I.V. tree named Louis. Louis who gives me life. (She became Louise when we dressed her in drag).

And it's not just what you see on stage.
Because all during the creation of this musical, not only was I dying, but I was keeping an internet diary. One of the first ones. I'm actually historical. In fact, I'm an official Yahoo Geocities Landmark internet site.
One reader called it an autobiography in progress. Another, Sarah a social worker from Columbus, said it was a living novel. I would write about the people I met off-Broadway, and she would print out the entries and read them to her dialysis patients who were tired of the fight and wanted to give up. When she finally visited the production in New York she said it was like walking into a living novel.

But, like Buddy, I had to do it. I had to cross over. I had to play Gideon for an extended run, not just for a few nights. Somewhere. Seriously.

And I guess Chris saw it, too, because he refused to do the show with anyone BUT me in the role. He waited four years. He kept writing me emails, "We just have to find the right cast. We just have to find the right cast. We just have to find the right cast..."


The last time I was in Rochester, my friend Dickie had just died. AIDS. Liver failure. He got sick when I was on the road and when into a death coma but I got to see him one last day -- he woke up asking for Popsicles. So we fed him Popsicles and I rubbed his feet. He died the next morning.

Two weeks later I was in Rochester standing in the doorway of the Downstairs Cabaret. It was early evening. The sky was gray and overcast. The wind was icy cold. There was snow piled up on the sidewalks and I had this overwhelming feeling that Dickie was there with me. I could feel his presence.

And I looked up in the sky and said to him helplessly, "Please. I just want you here. I want you to come back."

That night, at my cabaret, we had a spooky, metaphysical occurrence. Two of my teenage fans wrote to the TLS list -- separately -- that they had seen something on one side of the stage moving, like a curtain, a transparent curtain. And they felt they "saw" a figure moving from the curtain to the curiously empty table in the front row.

That happened in Rochester.

What is it about this place? Who are you people? Is this like a Stephen King novel? Do you all grow fangs in the next act?

Here's another spooky story. In dressing this set, Sue and Jason went all over Rochester to these music stores looking for posters. See this one? The one they put dead center over Jim's booth?

Just above my arm is the blue and white
Dan Bern poster though you can't see it clearly.

It says "Dan Bern." Any one of you ever heard of Dan Bern? When I saw the poster up there at rehearsal, I just about fainted.

He was a talent I helped discover in Los Angeles, awarding him the title, Acoustic Artist of the Year. Of all the millions of artists who have posters out there... Dan Bern sat in the front row at the first staged reading of The Last Session. He's not that famous yet, but he will be.

And now here he is center stage, blessing this production like a Madonna watching over us; which would amuse him given the fact that he's Jewish.


Okay, enough.

it's time for some music. (On to Part Two -- The Songs)