Saturday, May 2, 2009

Scott Hermes Part Two

Scott Auditions for Too Much Light

SH: I went to school with Phil, and the Theater School’s very small. Phil was an undergraduate when I was in graduate school, and my wife was an undergraduate. So I saw Phil in a couple shows, thought he was great, and then there was a big lounge, we’d hang out, smoke, eat lunch, and so you met everybody, everybody knew everybody in that school, it’s a very small school. Phil and I got along great. [laughing slightly] Me and Phil and this other guy Ted Rubenstien went off on a camping trip out in Wildcat Mountain in Wisconsin. Where, I don’t know why, but I decided that we should all run naked through the woods. [both laugh] So Phil took a Polaroid picture of me naked standing by the fire, luckily he sent it back to me. [JP laughs] So, yeah, good times with Phil. After Phil got out of college he started doing Too Much Light and he told me about it. [I laughed because this also reminded me of a story I heard about Phil. One night after the show, late, Phil said, "Let's go to Wisconsin." The gang thought he was joking, but he wasn't. They got in the car and drove to Wisconsin, bought some alcohol. And at one point, Phil jumped out of the car, I think while it was moving, and ran to hide. Moments later he was naked running on the side of the road. Eventually they caught up to him and took him home. But now it turns out after talking to Phil again, that I might be combing two stories and embellishing on the facts. Perhaps he stripped in New Orleans or perhaps he didn't get naked at all. I imagine such a story could have happened sometime during a late night escapade. So I will leave it's mention here, and now it is true, because it's in print. ]
Greggie K and I went together to see Too Much Light. In the early days of the Stage Left space, Mike [Tricoli] used to sit in the window, he was really fantastic. He would do basic mime work, but he was really good at it, sitting really still in the window, and suddenly moving. It was compelling, letting a cigarette burn and then suddenly he would move and scare the hell out of people. [JP laughs] Or Greg [Allen] would be out on the sidewalk, just basically asking people to come to see the show, trying to get people in. That space was very very very small and this tiny tiny lobby, so we’d spill out onto the street so it had this real air of excitement. I remember the first time I saw Lisa [Buscani], and just being blown away by her... I’d never seen a poetry slam or knew anything about that scene, and she’s just one of the most amazing performers I’ve ever seen in my life. Karen Christopher and the way that she did movement pieces, she really made the abstract accessible. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I didn’t care.

JP: You saw the show originally at Stage Left and then later you auditioned for the show at Live Bait but you never performed at Live Bait.

SH: No I never performed at Live Bait. At Live Bait Greggie K and I auditioned but he got in and I didn't. At the next set of auditions, when they were at their own space (The Neo-Futurarium), then I auditioned again and got cast. (September 25th 1992) I was told they were very interested in putting me in at the same time as Greggie K but they didn’t want to bring two big character-y people in at the same time. I was in the show ‘til the end of ’95, when I finally dropped out. My oldest daughter Nina was born January 31st, 1995. I tried to stick in the show for about a year, but it was really just too hard for me to perform in the show, work full-time and try to be a dad. I just couldn’t do it.


JP: Can you talk a little bit about your process from working predominantly with big characters in Cardiff Giant into the non-illusory aesthetic of Too Much Light?

SH: In Cardiff Giant we would spend months creating these larger than life, almost clown style Commedia, characters that we would try to make as real as possible, and everyone totally bought into the situation around them. So it was very different from the open simplicity of the Neo-Futurists.

JP: What aspects of the Neo-Futurists' aesthetic most interested you?

SH: The rawness, the immediacy of it. And again I would have to say Buscani is one of my favorite all-time Too Much Light performers. Her openness about whatever her mind was on was so real, the deep pain that she suffered in her life. We all have pain in our lives, so whatever things I’d suffered up to that point I kept inside me. Turning pain into theater and not into therapy, that really was a very strong draw for me. You could be very open about who you were and what you were feeling, what you were going through, and not have it be... icky. "Here’s what happened to me and it was a crappy thing, but here I am, so deal with it."
I think it was Greggie K, who said we started this stuff before the Internet was big, right? So, Too Much Light was the Internet of the times. "Here's what happened in the news. Here’s our spin on it." Now we blog about it, but during that time we would write a play about it.

JP: I have never been much of a reader of current news, but while I am in the show, I do feel that I am more aware of what is going on politically, my newsreel is Tuesday night rehearsal.

SH: Cardiff Giant did two shows at Cafe Voltaire called “Some Candy and Some Mo’ Candy” We initially started off as a living newspaper. We had set characters, but we’d take something from the news. We’d throw out ideas to the people in the audience, and say, "Pick something out of the newspaper, and grab the Sun Times or the Tribune, hand it out, pick something out, and then we’d just run with that. We tried to put some more immediacy into what we were performing. It was part of the tension of the group too, one of the reasons why it split up. Even though we were commenting indirectly on what was happening through our parallel world, they wanted something that was more immediate. I think I probably felt that too. That was one of the things I enjoyed doing in the Neo-Futurists, ripping stuff out of the headlines. I would save news up that I’d read all week, and then I would just write for three hours on Tuesday morning. ‘Cause we would come in Tuesday night to lay down what we were going to do that weekend. My goal, even from my first time walkin’ in, was I would always have a minimum of three completed plays to propose every Tuesday. Then I read an interview with Ralph Covert, he was the leader of The Bad Examples. [He now records children records: Ralph's World] In the interview he challenged himself to write a hundred songs in one year. I think he made 99 by New Year’s Eve. So after being in Too Much Light for about three months, I gave myself the goal of trying to get a hundred plays on stage in a year. I think I got 95. At one point, in the summer, I think... at least half the show was my material.

JP: Many Neo-Futurists believed that you raised the bar as to quality and quantity of plays brought in. Many of them believe, including Diana Slickman and Dave Awl, that their push to be better was initiated by your commitment. Do you think any of this external affect was intentional?

SH: I didn’t consider it that way, I just made it an unspoken goal. I didn’t start telling anybody that I’m trying to set rules for myself. I would never... campaign for my play for the sake of my play, I would always try to write to the weaknesses of the show. The show varies widely from week to week. Sometimes it’s all monologues and sometimes there would be too many scenes. So I would look at what the current show was, and I would try to find what’s missing. Looking at what the show needed would give me ideas for writing. I really just thought of it as a stimulus, a way to make me write, ‘cause I have a very competitive edge to me that I need. If I don’t have a specific goal or a deadline, I’m not going to do anything. And that is one of the great things about Too Much Light. I’d never really written anything before, everything I’d done prior was done collaboratively through Cardiff Giant using improvisation. I never really sat down by myself and written anything. When I had to write an audition piece for Too Much Light I was very anxious about my ability to generate that material. I was worried that I wouldn’t have it. And in fact I went from working full time to working part-time just to devote myself to writing for the show. So I didn’t really think of it in terms of other people, I wrote a lot of material because I didn’t want to just argue for my play because of it being my play. If I was going to make an argument for my play I would make it for the sake of balance for the show.

JP: You say you were influenced by Lisa, and you had somewhat of a crash course in staging the simplicity of honesty, but you didn't just drop the character work that you nurtured with Cardiff Giant, if anything I think you and Greg K may have altered the show a bit by incorporating large gestures and helping to ad to the idea that pretend can still be in the bounds of non-illusory. It's ultimately about all these people writing in all different styles. It wasn’t just people telling the truth on stage, it was still performance, it was still larger than life in some ways. The style and games that Cardiff Giant played like finding different ways to kill each other with imaginary objects affected the show and even broke the tension that occurs in long drawn out ensemble meetings.

SH: We always raised stakes up high in Cardiff Giant we always killed each other at the end. Greggie K and John Hildreth were sort of the people who were best at it. And I’d trip them up, [Scot grabs nothing from thin air, twists it into a small weapon and whips it at an imaginary person at the table. Being an improviser myself I wonder if he had thrown it at me, if I would have reacted, spasm to my own death in this Thai restaurant, or would I just take on the role of journalist and just look at him and say "Uh huh." I did not have to make this choice. He chose to kill an unarmed invisible man instead.] We just created more and more exciting ways to kill one another. I think we probably looked for ways to bring that in. Another guy who influenced me was Gregg Reynolds. He was in an improv show with me called Naughty Monkey [Pups] that we did before Avant Garfielde. He was always great because he’s somewhat of a contrarian. He was the guy who drove me to the idea of looking at what’s there and looking at what’s not there, to try to find the thing that’s missing. Like you said, if it’s all about people talking about themselves and their feelings, what are we missing? Something loud and obnoxious. The big thing that I got from Gregg Reynolds was audience “penetration,” he called it. Whenever I’d look at the show [Too Much Light] I’d say, "How are we making the audience drive this show? How are we... even involving the audience as props or something." One of the most important things in Too Much Light is the dissipation of the fourth wall. We also did this in Cardiff Giant and Avant Garfielde. We would still be in our world, but the stage would always extend beyond the proscenium. We would go in amongst the audience all the time ‘cause it’s very exciting to an audience when the performers suddenly show up amongst them. It raises the energy in the room.

JP: That’s one of my favorite things about intimate theater in general is that all the action is write up in your face.

SH: They’re right up on you, yeah. Well I remember from Revenger’s Tragedy...

[SH and then JP laugh]

[Scott is referencing the first show I ever saw at the Neo-Futurarium. In this show Scott climbed into the audience and on to me. He didn't know me at the time. I was also lucky enough to be at the performance where one of the "dead" bodies on stage farted, and caused a laughing dead domino effect. This is talked about in detail in Greg Kotis' interview which will be out in a couple months.]

SH: I was up on top of you there.

JP: I hadn’t even seen Too Much Light before I auditioned. The Neo-Futurists' version of The Revenger's Tragedy is what made me want to audition for the company. I specifically liked the way you, and Greg K and a few others were able to maintain a character and then all of a sudden turn to face the audience, or even physically step out of character and direct your attention to the audience. It allowed me as an audience member to experience a duality of believability of character but also that these are actors who can acknowledge me at any moment. Those moments of stepping out of character with big specific gestures really impressed me. [This piece we refer to was directed by Greg Allen. Just recently he directed Strange Interlude, a six hour play by Eugene O'Neil. This play gave me the same giddy, theoretical feel I got twelve years earlier.]

SH: That’s something I got out of the Theater School, making those specific transitions, those specific choices. One of the great bits of feedback I got was from an acting teacher at the Theater School who said that when I didn't know what I was doing, when I was lost on stage, my hands would go berserk. So when I’m physically involved in what’s happening on stage, I have an activity, but when I'm not involved my hands are doing some weird thing, they start twisting off by themselves.

JP: One of the key techniques that I feel is often ignored in improv training is grabbing and holding objects, and how this can lead to creating your whole environment, instead of talking yourself into a word plagued non-space. If you are lost in a scene it can help just to reach out and grab an object. That’s what worked for me at Jimmy’s a lot. "I don’t have time to try to think of something smart I just have to reach out and grab something."

SH: Yup. And that was the basis of a lot of what we did. You can work off the environment. You don’t have to worry about being clever. That was the biggest lesson out of the improv experience from Avant Garfielde and Cardiff Giant, that if you immerse yourself in the activity, if you immerse yourself in the relationship and the environment, stuff will come to you, and you have to trust that.


SH: The ability to write in a lot of different styles, the ability to be immediate with the audience, I just connected to that a lot. And I think that if you have improv background you’re very comfortable with the chaos

JP: It is interesting to be accepting of the chaos but also one who helps to control the confusion. Many Neo-Futursits who worked with you have said that your intros to the show were some of the best, that you could give information, make it interesting, and keep it succinct. The intro is very important, there is information that needs to be imparted, but also the potential to drain or increase the energy heavily weighs on how one handles these first few minutes in the theater.

SH: That's one of my pet peeves, man.

JP: What was your approach?

SH: At Jimmy’s we would rotate off doing the introductions. You’re seeing tons of theater and people are giving curtain speeches, you know. I think I know what makes a good opener and what doesn’t. The problem with the Too Much Light opener is that thirty, forty percent of the audience has been there before, but the other sixty or seventy percent is completely clueless. So you have two challenges: one is to convey the necessary information so that people who’ve never been there before understand... maybe not completely, but a good enough understanding of what their role is, and also to do it in a new way every night so that the thirty percent of the audience who’s seen it before is not going to see you saying the same thing you said before. And also to try to do that in a economical fashion.


JP: I was surprised to find out that Too Much Light had gone to the HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen Colorado. I have come to know this show as the theater experience purely made for theater, and that it would be hard to grow it into something larger, perhaps for TV, the Movies, or large capacity stadiums. But there must have been an inkling of stardom that ran through those days of "No one can stop us."

SH: [The HBO Comedy Festival] was my first exposure to the beast, to the entertainment beast. We’re doing this little show, at that time it was a dollar plus the roll of a die. We’re an under $10 show, and suddenly we’re thrust into the corporate arena, and even though they’re supposed to be offbeat, still it’s HBO that’s there. This is a lot of people’s meal tickets. People there who were hungry and desperate to get in on it or were on their way out. Remember Short Attention Span Theater, on MTV, Mark Maron? His show had just been canceled, so he was one of the guys who had sort of lucked into the meal ticket, and now was on the outside and hoping to get back in. Bill Maher was there, and also: Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac, Mr. Show, Tenacious D, and Kathy Griffin. All these people who were fightin’ to get on the air... all talented people. I just never had been around that sort of scene, and it was very interesting because there was a meeting where we decided our set (TML) before we went out, and there was a meeting where someone said “I don’t feel I’m represented enough in this show, and I want to put one of my solo pieces in. It doesn’t show me enough, that’s what I feel..” We never had that really happen before. We were a collective, right? So we had to say, "Okay." We didn’t have to but that’s what we said. "If you feel strongly about this, then let’s take out one of the pieces and put one of yours in." I don’t know if that made any difference, in their career or not. It was just that first look of... whoa, we’re not... just all friends having a good time together. There’s a career arc here. Even through the Tuesday selection process sometimes someone says, I don’t feel my voice is represented in this show, right, and that’s a valid thing to say. "Get it in here." But this, it was clearly because of the commercial pressure. "There may be someone in this audience who’s looking for someone like me and I want to show them my best me." That had never happened before. We all write for the show. The show is supposed to reflect the whole, and if there’s not enough of my written work in the show, it was a valid way to get a piece in the show to say, I have one piece in here now. I know this is not the strongest piece that came up this week but it’s mine, and I would like it to go in the show. And you can say yeah, let’s put it in. ‘Cause this show’s supposed to be a variety of ideas.

JP: No matter how much we might want it, the show is not a vehicle to stardom. Of course you can get recognition and it opens opportunities that you have to work HARD for, but the show works best once the performers put their effort into the collective. I sometimes feel much of the stress and hard feelings that can occur would not exist to the extent that they often do if our own egos and need for the spotlight didn't get in the way. There is plenty to learn in the show that you CAN use to help in a career.

SH: The important thing is it teaches you to try to find your voice, to try to find out, to experiment with who you are as a writer. You try on different skins very quickly, and, and the penalty for failure is negligible. Right, ‘cause if it’s not any good it either won’t get in the show, or if people say let’s give this a shot, put it up, then the worst thing is that people don’t like it. And it’s done.


SH: When I graduated from theater school in ’89, the theater school sent us to New York City to audition. A week before that I auditioned for a company called Looking Glass Theatre, they were just a small theater company then. They were doing Of One Blood. I got a callback from them. They were a local company just like any other storefront theater at the time. We were doing this thing called TLC, Theater Link Chicago, where everybody from this graduating class was gonna go out to New York City. "We’re gonna do our monologues, man, in New York City! We’re gonna be in front of the agents and stuff!" So I blew off the local guys and went with DePaul Theatre School out to New York. I did my audition bit, and out of the group of around forty students, there were about two or three of us that didn’t get a single callback, and I was one of those. I was devastated. So I didn't get a callback I went out to Long Island and visited some friends of mine. They had just had their first kid, one of the first people I knew that had a baby. And so I saw them hanging out, living their lives, being them, with their baby, and that planted that seed. At some point I knew I wanted to have kids, and then I hung out with another friend who was my age, and she’d had her first son, and I was able to see, "Oh yeah, I think I could do this." Wendy and I decided, we’re gonna have kids no matter what. "Let’s just do it, and, you know, if it means I have to give up theater to be a good parent, then I will." And eventually that’s what it had to be. I couldn’t juggle them both. I couldn’t, I couldn’t do those two things.


The last TML play I performed on the Neo-Futurist stage was This Play Can Only Be Performed On a Sunday. I had to amend it later to a Sunday Evening, because somebody called it on Saturday night after midnight. [both laugh]. Unless you want me to go home and wake up my daughter [JP laughs], this show ain’t gonna happen. I talked about why I was leaving the show, how much great fun I had, and then I would bring Nina out. So at eleven months old she had her first performance. I’d bring her out on stage and I’d play with her, show the audience. "This is why I’m leaving. I can’t do both. I can’t, I can’t stay up ‘til three in the morning, and then be woken up at six a.m. I can’t do it." ... Yeah. So that’s why I left it.

[I tried to write a sentence here about the flood of emotions that last paragraph made me feel, but no words could express the complexity of how I felt about his choices and commitment, except this very reaction you are reading right now.]

JP: But you've still been writing. You still do the occasional solo show.

SH: Yeah, It’s difficult. When I’ve gotten older, it’s harder to write, harder to focus. My kids still... you saw, I got texted while we were having this interview about ‘where’s the firewire cable?’ [JP laughs] so that she could transfer her video onto her Mac. Um. It’s difficult. All that time away is time away from my kids. Nina will be fourteen at the end of this month. So in four years she’s gone. And she’s one of those... there’s different kinds of kids, some kids want to stay home, she’s not that, she wants to leave now. [JP laughs] I know I’m not going to see much of her after she leaves. Any time I spend away from her is sad to me. On the other hand, I still have this great desire to do stuff. I have been able to do some performing, but I was kind of in a funk after leaving Too Much Light. I wrote but I couldn’t get anything together. I hadn’t written anything before Too Much Light, and I didn’t write anything after for a long time that I was able to complete because I didn’t have that deadline, that real deadline. So finally, what happened in 2001, the company I was working for was bought out by GE, and I got a six-month severance package. Full salary. So that was sweet. John Hildreth did an adaptation of Cat's Cradle, so I tried out for that and did Cat’s Cradle at Lifeline Theatre and Phil was in it as well. And then I tried out for Jeopardy, and made it. I kept a journal of my experiences of going on Jeopardy, ‘cause I’m a big game show fan and loved Jeopardy as a kid. So I go on Jeopardy and I [laughs a little], I don’t come in first on Jeopardy, and it’s devastating to me again. Then a while after that Dave Awl contacts me, he’s doing the Partly Dave Show, and he wanted me to do something. And so again, I have a deadline, right, so I have to do something for each show. It was supposed to be a ten minute piece. I was a poor judge of timing. I thought I had ten minutes, and I had twenty-five pages, so it’s like twenty-five minutes worth of material. People were just dying, they were dying [Dying from laughter, of course.] It was a big hit. So then I turned it into an hour and fifteen minute performance and did it at Live Bait. Now I’m working on a variation of Little Red Riding Hood, called “Cry Wolf”. And that’s just a real pisser, I’m having trouble getting an ending on it. It’s, you know, again, there’s no deadline, right?

[I am happy to say that Scott had a stage reading of this script recently at the Neo-Futurarium, and from what I heard, it received quite a bit of praise. So keep your eye out for it.]

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