Monday, September 20, 2010

The Robots and Me

Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera
(Todd Machover, composer, Robert Pinsky, Libretto and Lyrics) has it's World Premiere on Thursday, September 24, in Monaco at L'Opera De Monaco)

It's the most technically complex music-theater piece I've ever been involved in.
Wait a minute: Opera? Technology? Me?

Appropriately enough, I first learned of the opportunity to participate through Twitter. A Twitter account I follow retweeted another Twitterer's tweet, responding to an ART post seeking volunteers to get involved in an ensemble rehearsal workshop. Directed by ART Artistic Director Diane Paulus, the ensemble would be choreographed by the great Karole Armitage (dubbed The Punk Ballerina in her early dance career).

Anyone who knows me knows my desire to revive my acting career, which began "post-academia" in 1976 (as I described in an earlier post. More info can be found at the Boston Irish Reporter , which featured a story in 2009 about my life in casting).
Having trained in Performance and Directing at Toronto's York University, I began a side career in directing in 1982 (the American premiere of Have by Hungarian playwright Julius Hay for Open Door Theater, the musical Boy Meets Boy for Boston's gay theater company, Triangle Theater, and a double bill of Trial By Jury and HMS Pinafore for Harvard's G&S Society at the Agassiz theater in Radcliffe Yard, which featured Broadway/TV/Film actor Craig Bierko, then a BU student, as Dick Deadeye). In 1995 I received Boston Magazine's Best Theatrical Director award (for the Boston premiere of Frank Galati's The Grapes of Wrath , outdoors for Open Door theater, and a revival of the children's musical Emil and The Detectives,, adapted by Andy Gaus and Karen MacDonald).
In 1994, while I was casting my 30+ member ensemble for The Grapes of Wrath, I began an association with Carolyn Pickman of CP Casting, who generouly allowed me to come in and use the company's actor headshots. Over two days I think I touched every headshot in those files. Carolyn stopped me one day and said, "What do you want to do, work here?". And so I did, until the end of 1997, when Boston actress/producer Christy Cashman offered to partner with me, and in 1998 we opened Kevin Fennessy Casting (the partnership dissolved in 2000, and I continued "on my own"). After surviving a devastating office fire in 2002, followed by a stress-induced heart attack, KFC ("We're Not Chicken") struggled on till the present. I still cast smaller projects and pursue other film casting jobs.

I jumped at the chance to work with Paulus and Armitage, albeit as a non-Equity volunteer. (I had forfeited my AEA card after performing with the New Repertory Theater in their 1994 production of Holiday Memories, as the Narrator, a Truman Capote stand-in, in this adaptation of two Capote stories, The Thanksgiving Visitor and A Christmas Memory. My last AEA, job as I chose to focus on casting).
Working with Karole brought me back to my ensemble-oriented university training. It was the mid-70's, when Canadian theater embraced an eclectic theatrical palate, especially anything that wasn't particularly British or American. After spending the previous year at the then rather traditional Boston Conservatory of Music, where acting classes meant a 45-minute scene and monologue class twice a week, the York theater program's 3 hour voice and movement workshops 3 times a week and the annual Student Project Week, when the department's facilities were turned over to the student body to experiment, perform, and empower us, was theatrical paradise. And I was the Rebel Yank, revelling in the experiences.

The opera tells the story of Simon Powers, his assistant, wife, and daughter. The set moves, illuminates, and supports projected images and people, and features a "chorus" of MIT designed and created Robots, all controlled by offstage technicians on a myriad of computers, laptops, and iPads. At one point in the midst of all this technology, a 30-member ensemble of "The Miseries of the World" storms the stage in a highly physical dance/movement piece.
For a week this summer at the end of June and another at the end of July, the ensemble met with Karole at MIT. Very quickly, Armitage assessed and learned the individual strengths of this volunteer ensemble, ranging in age from 12-65. In a pure and organic way, she exploited those strengths, a sculptor molding her human "clay".
As it evolved, I found I was one of the opening moments, hurling myself onstage from behind the set, landing on my knees, crawling and pleading for help, while lighting and sound supported the entrance of The Miseries.
Under the guidance of Broadway costume designer David Woolard, we created our own costumes. He described his vision of The Miseries as representative of all ethnicities, classes, and time periods. I decided my Misery would be a downsized 20th C. businessman, using components of a suit from 1979 (which, ahem, I could still fit into), distressing it with rips and tears with a razor and my hands, dipping the shirt and tie in double-strength coffee, rubbing in a paste of water and cigarette ash, burning holes and edges of shirtsleeves, tails, and cuffs with a lighter. On top of this, and as makeup, a pasty white pancake and spray creat the look of volcanic ash.
We toiled through technical rehearsals (I even volunteered to stand in for both soloists and robots during lighting sessions), and our work culminated in a full dress rehearsal on the stage of the beautifully restored Cutler Majestic Theater downtown. The enormous set was then disassembled to be shipped to Monaco for this week's premiere.
In Monaco, the company is putting together a local ensemble and teaching them the piece that the Boston ensemble created. But our Boston ensemble will perform in the American Premiere in the spring of 2011.

The decades between college and the physically taxing workshop, however, have taken their toll. The abandon with which I thrust myself into the experience resulted in increasing leg and knee pains: I exacerbated a condition I was completely unaware of. X-rays and orthopedics revealed to me and my doctors that I have acute arthritis in my right hip, it's cartilage eroded due to years of working on my feet in just about every job I've ever held, living most all of my life in third and fourth floor "walk-ups", genetics, and possibly from infant hip dysplasia (back in the mid-50's, when I was born, doctors weren't looking at such things). My left hip shows no arthritis, just minor signs of an active life well-lived, but my right hip is basically bone-on-bone. (I was told by my doctor that x-rays show I "have the knees of an 18 year old".)
In retrospect, this explains the minor aches and pains that have been coming on over the past few years. And so, on Wednesday Oct. 6, I'm undergoing total hip replacement surgery at New England Baptist Hospital, the best orthopedic facility in the region if not the country, with Dr. James Phillips , likewise one of the best in his field.

When I told a friend about my hip, he replied "Now you'll have the knees of an 18 year old and the hip of a Robot".
One of my goals in recovery is to be physically sound enough to perform with the opera in March at the Majestic.
I can't wait to work with my Robot brethren.
In costume for Dress Rehearsal in August



  1. Fabulous post, Kevin. Sounds like a fascinating, energy experience. As for your surgery: is it appropriate to say "break a leg"? :-)

  2. My son Max sang with a children's choir for one of Tod's pieces @ The Winter Garden a few years ago.
    It incorporated instruments that kids could play with no training. Great fun. Nice guy!