Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Don Bluth and The Front Row Theatre

The man met us on the porch in front of his house.  He was lanky, compact; his thin silver hair skimming far above a vast expanse of forehead, a matching silver moustache lying pencil-straight across his upper lip, and clear blue eyes that regarded us warmly as we advanced up the gravel driveway.  His face broke into a broad, embracing smile.  Somehow, it was the smile that convinced me that I knew who he was, for we had never met before.  As Elizabeth and I reached the landing, I leaned forward eagerly and extended my hand.  “You must be Don Bluth,” I said, smiling myself.  We shook hands.  “Yes, that’s me,” he said, nodding as if sheepishly admitting his culpability in doing a good deed.  Then he ushered us into his house. 

Just like that, I had met one of the great artists and most respected names in the history of animated movies. 

Two weeks before, I had no idea he even lived in the Valley, let alone was opening his home on a regular basis to complete strangers.  What an act of faith, I thought as we stood in the entry hall, next to a temporarily abandoned table.  After welcoming us, Mr. Bluth asked us to wait in the foyer while he attended to some last-minute details.  A woman soon stepped out from behind a curtained archway, and pleasantly welcomed us again.  She asked us for our names, checking them against a list, while a tall man who appeared at almost the same time affably accepted our $40 donation, and handed us two folded pieces of paper in return.  The pleasant woman then guided us through the hall to the living room, and delivered us to our seats.

We had arrived at The Front Row Theatre. 

The Front Row Theatre is an aptly named place.  The seating consists of one full row of chairs which corrals, on three sides, a very modest, two-tiered stage in the center of the room.  There is a partial second row of chairs, except on one side of the room where a wet bar has been converted into an audio/visual control booth.  There are about forty seats altogether.  We were sitting in the front row, seats 4 and 5, just to the left of center.  The edge of the stage was not three feet away. 

The show that night was “Barefoot in the Park,” the Neil Simon comedy about two young newlyweds, Paul and Corie, who move into their first place together in NYC, only to discover that the differences between them are underscored and exacerbated by the challenging conditions of the apartment they find themselves in.  Much conflict and comedy ensue before a happy ending.  The 1967 movie, with Robert Redford as Paul and Jane Fonda as Corie, has long been one of Elizabeth’s favorites.  It’s a movie she introduced me to when we were dating twenty-however-many years ago. 

Primarily for this reason, I wanted our destination to be a surprise for Elizabeth.  Leaving the house, all she had known about the night ahead of her was that I was taking her “to a show.”  When we pulled into a residential neighborhood off of Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale filled with capacious, stately homes on large, professionally landscaped lots, she was instantly suspicious.  “Where are you going?” she kept repeating.  “We don’t know anyone who lives in this area.”  When we pulled up in front of Mr. Bluth’s house, she was tilting dangerously toward ill-humor.  “Who lives here?  I thought you said you were taking me to a show.”  Then she noticed the cars parked along the street and in the driveway, and gave me a barely restrained glare.  “Who’s house is this?  Are we crashing someone’s party?” I feigned as much stupidity as I dared for as long as I dared, but was finally forced to confess that ‘the show’ we had to come to see was going to take place inside this particular house.  It was the only way I could get her to leave the car.

Now that she knew why we were there, and what ‘the show’ was, she virtually bubbled with excitement and enthusiasm.  While we waited for the remaining guests to arrive, I explained to her how I had seen a recent feature in the Arizona Republic about Don Bluth, and the theater he had started seven years ago in his Scottsdale abode.  It had started as an annual children’s production, but had expanded since to include adult shows like the one we were there to see.  However, this was going to be one of the last productions to be held in his actual residence because they were moving into a commercial theater space.  Upon learning that, I secured reservations almost immediately.  I wanted to be one of those people who could say they saw a show in Don Bluth’s house.  I went on to tell her how the paper made reference to his LDS background, and how several of his comments, combined with a quick Wikipedia review of his career, had started me thinking about how he might make a great subject for a “Leaps of Faith” interview.  I admitted that, while I was definitely looking forward to the play, I was concurrently trying to work up the courage to ask Mr. Bluth if he would be willing to allow me to interview him for the blog. 

Then the show got underway.  It was easily one of the most unusual theater experiences I’ve ever had, mostly due to sheer proximity.  Imagine placing a chair onstage and watching a whole show that way; that’s what it was like.  Several times during the performance I had to resist the urge to stand up, apologize, and scoot my chair back, except there was nowhere to scoot to.  Actors would enter and exit the main stage using the aisles formed by the breaks on either side of our center section.   Some of the action would take place in the aisles themselves, and since I was sitting right on one, there were several times when I found myself watching the play’s progress from eighteen inches away.  That was a strange feeling; it was like walking up to some unfamiliar party’s table in a restaurant, pulling up a chair, and then leaning all the way forward on your elbows and staring intently at each person as they talked.  I know it’s a show, and they expect you to watch, but I couldn’t do it.  When the actors got that close, I found myself looking away, especially when it was a woman.  There was one particularly memorable moment when, had I been so inclined, I could have easily tickled Corie’s cleavage with my nose.  I spent several minutes inspecting the carpet instead, and the professional-looking lighting rig above the stage (I thought it looked familiar; then I realized it might have been the same one Van Halen used the last time they were in town). 
Larry David

I was also very conscious of my feet throughout the show.  I tried to remember to make sure they were pulled all the way in, and kept still and sharply angled like a pair of inert windshield wipers, because the actors would frequently traverse the narrow walkway in front of our seats, and the last thing I wanted to do was pull a Larry David and trip one of the performers.   I could just imagine some poor actor being carried by on a stretcher, blood flowing from a career-ending gash on his face, all the while Elizabeth is nudging me and whispering, “I don’t remember that happening in the movie…”   

The show itself was expertly done, and highly entertaining, in spite of my few personal inconveniences.  The set design was minimal, but appropriate (not just because of the size of the stage; ask any young couple just starting out in the world), and effective.  As someone who once sought to become a comic strip artist, and thus spent many hours drawing objects repetitively, I have developed an appreciation for distilling things to their essentials.  Nothing was onstage which was not absolutely necessary.  I also had to admire the efficiency and skill in utilizing every inch of available space (including the aisles and the floor in front of our seats); it kept the production from possibly feeling claustrophobic, and clever choreography allowed the actors the room they required to bring the kind of frantic, frenzied energy Barefoot in the Park needs to be funny, and successful.

And speaking of actors, they were terrific.  For one thing, I don’t know how anybody can move around so energetically in such a small area, crowded on every side by not only the feet, but also knees, bodies, elbows and heads of the audience.  Yet I didn’t notice any of the actors so much as darting a glance down to make sure they weren’t about to break their ankle, or looking ahead to make sure they would be able to hit their next mark in spite of the elderly woman with the oxygen tank parked by her seat.  They performed as though there were no audience there at all, and gave themselves completely over to their characters.  It was a pleasure to watch at such close range (when it wasn’t too close).  While I’m not a savvy enough student of acting to give detailed critiques of individual performances, I can say that each one of the five talented performers seemed to flourish in the role they were given to play.  As a cast, they were a treat to watch.

In fact, everything about the production was polished and professional.  Elizabeth and I aren’t hardened theater-going cases by any stretch, but we’ve seen enough to sort out the solid from the unsteady.  Even we had no trouble seeing that this was a theater group ready for a bigger stage. 

Meanwhile, in the back of my head was the persistently gnawing anxiety over if, when and how to approach Mr. Bluth about my interview request.  How do I convey my love of films, my love of animation, and the overwhelming desire to converse with someone who has accomplished so much in both arenas without sounding like a gushing nut?   My God, this is a man who worked for Walt Disney himself as an in-betweener on Sleeping Beauty, and rose through the ranks to Animating Director for the studio in the 70’s.  This is a man who worked with Steven Spielberg on An American Tail and The Land Before Time.  

He helped spearhead the drive to revitalize feature-length animation in the 80’s when it appeared that even Disney was ready to give up the ghost.  He had a vision for restoring the glory of hand-drawn animation, and had the courage to set out with a few fellow animators to try and reverse the sinking fortunes of the entire industry.  Talk about a leap of faith.  I believe he helped to precipitate the renaissance of Disney animation in the 90’s.  

On top of all that, he created the game-changing (pun intended) look of Dragon’s Lair, which caused my generation to see a whole new world of possibility for video games, and which is one of only three arcade games on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution.  I had to find a way to let him know I sincerely appreciated all these things, but that I wasn’t some bug-eyed fan who would, if given even the slightest bit of encouragement, proceed to show up on his porch every morning, holding his newspaper and standing in a puddle of my own drool. 

And as much as I would love to talk his ear off about animated movies, how do I communicate that the real questions I wanted to ask had to do with courage, and faith, and trust, and the core beliefs that animate (no pun intended this time) those qualities?  I really wanted to ask him what it was like to step off a cliff, and about everything that happens while you’re in the air.    

Of course, even a normal person might be intimidated by the prospect of soliciting an interview from a legend, and I’m still working to overcome a whole lifetime of fear-based decision making, which tends to flare up suddenly in moments like this.  Move your feet, I kept telling myself.  Just be willing to move your feet.  This has become something of a mantra for me recently, a way of reminding myself that changing your perspective on life is great, but it doesn’t mean much if you’re not willing to act on it.  And that wanting to change your life, however deeply you feel it, means nothing if you see opportunities and then choose to do nothing with them. 

In the end, I rejected the ceaseless churning of doubt and uncertainty, and approached Mr. Bluth as he stood in the hallway by the door, biding goodbye to his guests.  I suspect I sounded a lot like a gushing nut.  I don’t remember much of what I said, but I think I crammed in a lot, probably way too much.  Mr. Bluth listened amiably, and even let me give him one of my cards with thunderstrokes’ address, on the back of which I had hand-written the title of the first Leaps of Faith interview I had done with Dorina Groves.   In the precious minute or two that followed, I think I may have explained more about her than I did about me.  He made a few cordial attempts to thank me and said he would consider my request for an interview.  I think it was after the third time he said it that I realized that he really wanted me to be on my way, and I was horrified to think that I might be turning into one of those people who won’t shut up.  I aborted all plans to continue, and took my leave by simply thanking him once again, and shaking his hand for probably the fourth time in three minutes. 

On the way home, I couldn’t help but wonder what I looked like to Mr. Bluth:  raving lunatic, or simply thick-headed boob?  I had to console myself with that least satisfying of all platitudes:  Well, at least you tried.  I had moved my feet, alright, and possibly shuffled myself right off the stage.

Now it’s a few weeks later, and I’m preparing to send Mr. Bluth an email telling him how much Elizabeth and I enjoyed his production of Barefoot in the Park, and letting him know that, despite any reservations he may have, that I would still love to do an interview.  Who knows, maybe Mr. Bluth isn’t one of those people who goes strictly by first impressions.  I’m trying to think of just the right thing to say that will convince him to ignore my initial nervous blather, and reassure him that giving this small-time writer a shot won’t be a waste of his time. 

But I don’t know what the perfect thing is to say.  I’ll just have to settle for my usual imperfection, put it out there as best I can, and see what happens.  If something’s supposed to come of it, it will. 

And if not, an evening of fine entertainment and the opportunity to shake hands with one of the greats isn’t exactly a lousy consolation prize.

If you would like to know more about The Front Row Theatre, here’s the link to their website.  Barefoot in the Park continues until September 29th, 2012, and some seats are still available.  After that, they are doing the annual children’s show, which this year is The Wizard of Oz (sold out), followed by a young adult’s production of the same play in December (tickets available).  It is my understanding that both of these productions will take place in Don Bluth’s house.  If you go, I can’t imagine you would be disappointed.

If you want to know more about Don Bluth’s career as an animator and director, here’s a link to his profile page on imdb which provides a concise overview.  For a more personal look, here’s a link to a biographical page from Don Bluth Animation, a website that primarily sells access to instructional materials for people wishing to learn animation.  For more, just google him; there’s a wide variety of enlightening articles and interviews available online.

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