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Nathan Thomas
Tour Tales
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April 2012

Just now I have word from a student that he's going on the road.  Instantly my envy starts to rise.  At this point in my life, I'm far too sedentary and settled to toddle off and bumble about the country.  Touring is a young person's game.  That being said, I miss the game.  There is nothing better than rolling into a new town no matter how big nor how small with no other business than making a show.  The sweetness comes in the moving along.  Never staying in one place too long. 

There was a time in my life when being in a single town even a day was possibly too long a stay.

I was fortunate to work with a touring repertory company in what now is become the "Old Days" during the late 1980s and early 90s. As a repertory company, we performed differing plays on successive nights as we rolled through the towns and cities of America.  Having performed in all but two of the continental 48 states, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to meet a wide variety of people.  Here are a couple of them.

An early experience, starting out, was playing Peroria, Illinois.  The show business question in the USA has always been, "How will it play in Peoria?"  Well, we played there early in the tour (and went over pretty well, by the way). After the show, members of the audience greeted us, gave us congratulations, and asked the usual questions ("How do you remember all those lines?," "Are any of you really married?," and my fave, "What do you really do for a living?").  As we chatted, a short, older man approached me.  He shook my hand and said, "You don't know me, and I don't know you; but I know what it's like.  Just make sure you folks get a good meal tonight."  This anonymous 'angel' had left a crisp $50 bill in my hand.  An offering from a trouper of the past helping a new tour get off on the right foot.

A show can affect people differently.  One of the shows in the rep was Neil Simon's "Chapter Two," a story about two newly single folks getting together and overcoming the obstacles of working through their old relationships in the midst of their new relationship.  The man is newly single because of the recent decease of his wife by cancer.  We played that show in Grand Rapids, MI.  A woman came up after the show and asked us where we were from.  We mentioned that our home office and the tours originated from a town in Texas. This woman mentioned she knew the town, because the previous year her husband had insisted in stopping a vacation in that same town to get off the road to watch the Super Bowl.  At that, the woman started to cry softly.  Her own husband had recently died from cancer. She said that seeing this play had given her the hope that she, too, would find a way to get on with her life. She said that how she saw the play differed from that of the people around her.  Some of the dramatic parts she found funny, and some of the funny parts she found quite sad, because of her situation.  On the road, as anywhere else, you never know what the audience will bring to a show.

Being a trouper gives the travelling performer entrance into the "club" of all who have toured.  We heard stories from several retired big band players talking about their life on the road just before, during and after WW II.  But the best show business connection came from a man in Birmingham, AL.  After the show, a tall, elegant gentle fellow approached us and asked in a sweet, thin voice, "Can I be your properties boy?"  We found that this man had worked props and had been a general backstage hand in his brother's vaudeville house in Ohio early in the century.  It was a small town without a real hotel and a restaurant that closed early in the evening.  Consequently a number of the vaudeville acts either ate at the house, or occasionally stayed over.  This man had watched Harry Houdini do tricks with the table salt after a late dinner.  He'd seen the Marx Brothers perform in the early days.  He'd met folks like W.C. Fields, Fred and Adele Astaire, Jack Benny - all of the great performers from the early 20th century who'd spent some time performing on the vaudeville circuit.  This man was a living connection to the past we inherited as touring performers.

America, like every country, is filled with many interesting people.  I haven't mentioned the man who told us about playing golf naked or the woman who said, "I bet you've never seen a grandmother do a cartwheel" and proceeded to remove one more item from the "Never Seen" list. 

There was a point in my career when I ran a touring company and had the pleasure of hiring the young folks to send them on the road.  Oddly, as often as not I'd run into young actors who'd talk about wanting to start their careers by moving somewhere and putting down roots.  Oh, what a mistake, I thought.  Go see the world.  Once you'd put down roots, you'd be planted and move little.

See the world when you can.  Get out.  Stretch your arms.  And if someone gives you the chance to do so – tour.

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©2012 Nathan Thomas
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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April 2012

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