I feel special. Forgive me. Last night my wife and I went up to Sundance to the premier of The Fantasticks, a play that means a lot to both of us. (She once played the Mute, and I once played the storytelling bandit. We were in different productions-hers was first by a few years. She came to my production often, because she was in love with the piano player. When the piano player ran off with the harpist, who was left? Well, the bandit.) Before the show, the general manager, a kind of Robert Redford look-alike (which may actually be required in the Sundance General Manager job description) asked everybody in the audience who had acted at Sundance to stand and get clapped at. Three or four did. Stood, I mean, not clapped. That was special. After the show, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and approached his managerial eminence to lend a humble word of encouragement to the future of theatre at Sundance. He looked at me carefully, shouted my name, and said that on his first date after his mission he came to The Fantasticks, with me in it. Dude. I have an exciting life. That’s what this column is about: The Exciting Life.
This month’s Backstage Graffiti actually goes backstage again. There’s been a lot of Excitement since last we met here. I’ve been a 16th-Century Spanish translator of the Bible, a legion of evil spirits cast into a herd of swine (I have decades of experience in cross-species roles), and a member of the Mormon Battalion (as a human).
You can learn things, acting. In the first gig, I learned that whereas we (English speakers, that is-the meridian editors have assured me that the international and inter-galactic host that comprises the readership of Backstage Graffiti can all speak English) have the King James Version, Spanish speakers have the Reina- Valera Version. (I was Reina.) Although I imagine that if the Spanish-speaking readers of Reina-Valera clicked on the following link, they would immediately comprehend English and obviate the need for anything but the King James Version-sort of a Tower-of-Babel-in-Reverse.
In the second gig, I learned how exciting it can be to be lots and lots of people all at once, even if they’re bad, and how easily actors playing apostles can be frightened.
In the third gig, I learned a ton about the Mormon Battalion. And I learned again how exciting it is to have fifty crew members intensely focused on making you look good (or, in the case of my particular character, bad-see below).
But a better lesson came through, one that I’ll try to share in two bits of writing. The first bit is a journal entry, the second is an article for the ward newsletter. (My apologies to the two members of my ward who read Backstage Graffiti ((in English, of course, though one of them can also read Spanish. (((Heavens, I can read Spanish-I just don’t have a clue what it means))) )).)
BIT #1, JOURNAL ENTRY (with parenthetical clarifications and elaborations)
27 July 2009
Up at 4:30 for an early call in the hills west of Camp Williams (across from the Point of the Mountain, Utah County)-the Mormon Battalion film. Spent the morning on horseback somewhere in New Mexico. After lunch (which lasted, cinematically, for about a month), we arrived at the Pacific, very much the worse for wear-I don’t even look like the same guy (the horse is immediately identifiable as the same horse, though, because he’s not much of an actor-also, he has a brand). The guy is Dr. George B. Sanderson, army physician from Missouri who the battalion members called “Dr. Death.” He treated every complaint with a dose of calomel (a mercury-based powder) and arsenic. It was standard army procedure. (Also he came from among the mobs in Missouri, so even if he’d handed out fudgesicles, they’d have been suspicious.) He didn’t exactly return the battalion’s hatred, but he was not blessed with a cheery bedside manner. His recently-unearthed journal, in both language and penmanship, is proof of his high level of education and sophistication. Nearly all that’s known to history of this man is in connection with his service to the battalion, which was, statistically and for the period, excellent-contrary to the prevailing opinion among tellers of the battalion story.
(Christy Summerhays, another player in this film, has suggested to me that the Lord may have had some influence in the health of the battalion. She’s kind of spiritual.)
The dirt smudged at the top of the previous page is not real. It came from a supply the wardrobe crew keeps in plastic bags before applying it to our costumes. (One of the service missionaries working with the crew is named Elder Zamora. He comes to the set wearing dark pants and a white shirt, as a good missionary should. After applying fuller’s earth to about fifty battalion members, perhaps unwisely standing downwind of them during the process, he looked, when smiling, exactly like Al Jolson.)
Dirt applied to our actual persons comes from containers brought by the makeup crew.
The perspiration on my shirt is coffee. The perspiration on my horse is real, as is the black slobber in its mouth from the loco weed he’s been eating (the wranglers didn’t see it until a good bit had been consumed). We’re crossing our fingers while holding tight to the reins.
The brownies we’ve been served by folks in black slacks and crisp white jackets are a wonder to be remembered. (They feed you really well on film shoots. The worst conditions I ever worked under were as a marcher with Zion’s Camp ((a member of the First Presidency (((!))) another of my human roles)) in Oklahoma. A hundred and twelve degrees and humidity in the nineties. People were dropping like flies. The daily call sheet contained a tally of how many had collapsed the previous day and how many had been hospitalized. But at mealtimes, a tent was erected over ground littered with stubborn weeds and dried cow pats, and we were served the absolute best food I’ve ever had in my life.)
Before we began work out here this morning, a real-life sergeant who was so effectively camouflaged that we could hardly see him gave us all a safety and protocol speech in which he warned us not to pick up anything off the ground and take it home, because it will probably explode.
BIT #2, FIRST WARD NEWSLETTER (goes out once a month)
On Tuesday evening I got home from work on a film about the Mormon Battalion. That day I had braved the wilds of New Mexico and then, after lunch, magically appeared over a rise to get my first view of the Pacific Ocean.
Because I was an officer, I was on horseback the whole time, so the work wasn’t all that hard. But the makeup department made us all look like we’d just completed one of the longest marches in military history, as the real battalion actually did. The modern U.S. Army has not yet built sufficient shower facilities in the hills west of Camp Williams, where we shot, so I brought home all that trail dirt (Kansas to California) on my self. Before I hosed off, I walked up the street to fetch the mail. Lynn Broadbent pulled his truck over to say hi and I was very quick to declare that it was all fake dirt from a film shoot, both because I was embarrassed to appear so dirty and scruffy and because I wanted him to think my life is exciting (as an actor-he doesn’t know I’m also an inter-galactic columnist).
Then he whipped out a couple of fresh photos to show me-one of him free-falling through the sky after having jumped from an airplane, and the other of Merle doing the same. (For those who are new to the ward, this beloved couple is white-haired, multi-missioned, much templed, and “rich in years.”) I immediately dropped the subject of how exciting my life is.
[Here imagine that you are members of my ward to whom I am semiannually assigned to preach-you’d be totally welcome, regardless of your planetary origin.]
How exciting is your life? Have you fallen through bright sky? In an ancient Greek story a young man makes for himself wings of wax and feathers. Then he flies too close to the sun, the wax melts, and he falls away to the earth and his death. But the old storytellers didn’t know that if you really fly close enough to the sun to be threatened by its heat, you will fall not away from it, but into it.
Our Father in Heaven wants us to fly-fly close enough to the awesome light and glory of His Son that any trace of earth is melted away and we fall away from the darkness below us and into the beauty above us.
I once read that the secret of flying is to throw yourself at the ground and somehow miss. Sounds hard. The real secret is easy-and exciting. Be kind. Forgive. Believe. Pray. Repent. Lift. Listen.Then feel the warmth and wind. And don’t crash into the Broadbents.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)