Extra Extra 4: Hot Under The Collar

Vincent Truman in The Exorcist

Vincent Truman in The Exorcist, Season 1, Episode 10

Throughout September, October, November and December of 2016, I whiled away a sizable chunk of time indulging my interest in being an extra, or as some kinder behind-the-scenes wranglers call us, background actors.

In that time, I have played a wide variety of amazingly inconsequential roles, all of which pay more than amazingly consequential roles in Chicago theater: I’ve been a doctor on Chicago Med, a protester on Chicago Fire, a news reporter on Chicago PD, a mayoral benefactor on Empire, and a coroner and juror for two shows that won’t premiere until 2017. And, for these programs and more, I also played the coveted Pedestrian With Auto role, thanks in no small part to my fiancee allowing me to drive her car to set. Thanks, honey. However, there has been no other role like playing a Fallen Priest on The Exorcist.

There’s one thing I should point out first: the folks who cast extras always make it a point to say that we should not approach the talent while on set. That’s never a problem with me for two reasons: (1) it just makes sense and (2) I don’t watch TV so I could only differentiate the talent from everyone else by their haircuts (cut, combed and styled, very obviously, in the hours before filming began = real actors). I have witnessed some yokels walking up to the talent, having a brief chat, and then being escorted off-set, never to be seen again.

But back to The Exorcist. For the role of a Fallen Priest on our first day, we filmed in the cold and unfinished basement of Trump Tower in Chicago – a fitting enough place for demonic clergy to hang out. Most of the time, there was a dozen of us regulated to some folding chairs hidden in the shadows while the amazing crew machine rushed around carrying equipment, lights, makeup bags and an assortment of other goodies. Eventually, the wrangler told us we were required on set. Twelve of us were lined up, complete with our dog collars, black suits and knee pads, and the cast began rehearsing. That’s when I noticed Geena Davis walk in and expertly deliver her lines. Wow, I thought, someone I actually recognize. I later recognized Francis Guinan, who played our evil bad priest boss Brother Simon, as a Chicago actor from “The Magic Play” at Steppenwolf (among many other things), but, hell’s bells, I was not there to stargaze. I was there to look foreboding, then, on cue from Ms. Davis, drop to my knees and slap my face on the concrete floor. The filming went on for most of the day, with the increasingly dirty (and dusty) dozen falling repeatedly to the ground. I was happy that one shot was specially set up to film my new friend Nick and I eat some Trump Tower concrete.

A couple of weeks later, the casting folks tried to pull the dirty, dusty dozen back for not one, not two, but three extra days. Seven of the background celebrities, as one director called us (a bit over the top there, I think), could not commit to that, so it was left to a mere five of us – Henry, Joe, Jim, Nick and me – to carry the proverbial cross. The five of us became fast friends for many reasons, not the least of which was we were stuck with each other for a few dozen hours sitting in the dark and eating the pretty good food Crafts and Services foisted upon us at random. When full-on meals weren’t served, we were given a selection of overly-healthy snacks and coffee, the former of which I stuffed into a pocket or two. They remain uneaten in my kitchen.

On Day Two, we shot a boatload of hours in an alley after dark, during which you can see one or two of us for a second. On Day Three, we shot an incredibly long day in Grant Park for a papal parade sequence. I must say, it was an absolute hoot hanging out on the street wearing priest garb – and not just priest garb, but prosthetic boils and cysts running up the side of our faces to signify possession or really bad acne – as people walked by en route to their jobs. Most were kind, many were deferential, some were utterly confused, and a smaller percentage were utterly dismayed to see a pox-ridden priest smoking a cigarette. I did thoroughly enjoy that day’s shooting, as I was given a lovely closeup or two, as were my fellow fallen angels, as our characters conspired to make peoples’ ears and eyes bleed in order to have our big bad boss bad priest go after the pope.

On Day Four, we shot in a warehouse, again for an amazing amount of hours. Extras are hired on a fixed fee basis of $84 for 8 hours, so the best days are those that are only three hours, for which you are paid $84 no matter what, and those that last well after ten hours, because you get a respectable $16 an hour for basically sitting in a chair and occasionally looking foreboding.

Back to Day Four. For other background artists, one can definitely see fatigue on some of our faces during some of the aired footage, as we were made to do a couple of scenes repeatedly for well over twelve hours. However, in that time, I got to watch Ben Daniels deliver a blistering speech along the lines of “I’m not dying for the bloody Church… I’m dying for Him!” I had to watch him deliver the speech a few times from my vantage point as a wicked vicar, and, after one tear-streamed take, he and I made eye contact. I could only think of doing what any other actor would do to another: I smiled and nodded with a “you nailed it” approval. He smiled back. Good lad.

I have to admit that I loved every second of it. The other four guys could not have been more different. Henry, the doctor. Jim, the rock star. Joe, the Indiana working stiff. Nick, the affable nice guy/actor. And me, the guy who was fired and was struggling to rediscover my footing in this crazy world. Despite or perhaps because of our differences, we all bonded strongly and instantly friended up on Facebook (it’s not official until it’s Facebook official).

Watching Episodes 9 and 10 of The Exorcist and remembering the work that went into it (and the friends that resulted) is a thrill for me. In a year with so few wins on so many levels, this was one of my favorites. Joy doesn’t often just show up at your door; sometimes you have to go and find the stuff.  And it was found here.

Thank you Henry, Jim, Joe and Nick for being the best bunch of guys one could be stuck in the dark with. Here’s to lighter days ahead.

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Extra Extra 3: That Guy

Vincent Truman

Vincent Truman

As anyone who has worked as extra will attest, the main thrust of the job is waiting. In the couple of months I have worked on a handful of TV shows – and even spotted myself once for a blistering one and one-half second on broadcast television – I have carried a notebook around with me, sketching various ideas and concepts. Since about my tenth go-around wearing scrubs, police uniform or just my standard blazer-and-jeans combo for which I am famous in real life, I’ve given up the notebook and instead have engaged with the varied folks with whom I share the waiting process.

This guy today was amazing. Seriously amazing. If anyone said anything, he would chime in on what he’s done in show business over the last forty years. It was incredible.

Someone: I love the older movies, like the original of The Poseidon Adventure.

Guy: I was a stunt double for Ernest Borgnine. Ernie was a great guy. His wife sold cosmetics. They earned $16 million in the first year. That was more than Ernie earned in his first twenty years in show biz.

Someone: This is fun.

Guy: I had fun when I was on Chicago Hope, which was cancelled. I got killed a lot. Cut throat, naked in the shower.

Someone: I wonder if I could really break into the biz by being an extra.

Guy: I keep getting offers to be in porn. Of course, I had open heart surgery a few years ago, so I don’t think I could. But they always send me pictures of the girls.

Someone: How long have we been waiting?

Guy: I once waited for sixteen hours to be an extra on The Untouchables. Kevin Costner. Great guy.

Someone: Christmas is coming up. I love carols.

Guy: I worked with Carroll O’Connor once. Great guy. It was before All In The Family. Great actor. He died. I had open heart surgery.

Someone: I don’t know anyone in this show. But I’ve never watched it. I’m a little green.

Guy: Loren Greene was a great guy. Did Alpo ads.

Someone: This work takes a lot of passion.

Guy: I had heart surgery.

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Extra Extra 2: Games For Background Artists

Vincent Truman

Vincent Truman on set

I am certainly enjoying living out a bit of a personal fantasy by being an extra a/k/a background artist, as it is a kick to be on set and watch the well-oiled machine of directors, assistant directors, associate producers, technicians, camera folks, people wranglers, food prep artists and even actors as they do their respective things.  It’s so exciting that I occasionally roam the job listings for production assistants and the like, as I’d love to be part of that machine. On the other hand, as an extra, there is a lot of waiting and watching.

The other day, my entire eight hours was spent on an interior lot, sitting in the dark with forty other extras between a constructed mini-building and a large painting of a cityscape. Having nothing to do and a lot of time in which to perfect it, I jotted down some fun games that I played, as well as instructions:

1. The Water Game! Drink some.
2. Eyecross Mania!  Find two similar objects near each other (a window, a stack of cups) and cross your eyes until they become one.
3. Flashback! Stare at an object until one begins to naturally hallucinate (recommended for former LSD users)
4. There’s a Donut! Eat it.
5. Hey, a Tamale!  Eat it.
6. Skyline Census! Look at a painted skyline of a city and see if you can find any actual people in the windows.
7. Bathroom Break! Take one. This will usually be the time a people wrangler will show up and ask for extras, so don’t drag this one out!
8. Smirk Attack! Make eye contact with someone and smirk. Bonus points for nodding.
9. Watch Watch! Look at the time and figure out to the second how much you’re earning.
10. iWait! Look at your iPhone and wait for a notification from any of your apps to show up. This is a complex game, as you have to keep preventing your phone from going to sleep.

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Extra, Extra

Vincent Truman on set

Vincent Truman: first day on set

Performing as an extra in a TV show is very much like taking a flight to anywhere: there is much emphasis on “hurry up”, “get there on time”, “stand in this line” and “stand in that line”, but the overall order one has to comply with is “wait.”

I’ve done a couple of TV shows in a little under a week, and it’s been a cautiously exhilarating experience: it is exhilarating because it’s just fun to be on a closed set and watch the director, talent and crew scurry around; it is cautiously so because such an experience could easily not be so exhilarating if one was an extra more than a couple of times in a little under a week. The pay encourages such thinking; I figured I could earn a living as an extra if only there were sixty to seventy days in a month.

To be candid, I confess I know nothing about these TV shows, so when my extra manager urged me not to approach or engage with the talent, I was very confident in my response of “no problem.” I couldn’t recognize these folks for anything. I only knew talent was on set because they were the ones who tended to be doing things, but without headsets or untidy hair.

I could give you an itinerary of the day, but that wouldn’t really demonstrate what the experience of being an extra is all about. So what is it like?

Being an extra is like being flung back through time to the fourth grade. There we are, all restless and anxious, with various teachers (associate producers, mainly) coming in at random and saying, “listen up, people…”, “quiet please!” and “quiet please!!” The class, shushed into silence, immediately breaks into the well-worn factions we all knew and loved back in the day.

The troublemaker: “This is BULLshit. Treating artists this way. Total waste of time.”

The suck-up: this person mainly talks about every show they’ve been in since “Dragnet” and how they talked to Vince Vaughan once on Michigan Avenue. This person also calls all of the crew by name and, when the associate producer begins a “listen up, people” speech, they snap at all the others to pay attention and then turns to the associate producer. “Go ahead, Jeremy.” (insert big smile here)

The nerd: the moment this person is seated after checking in, they’re deep into reading “Life The Universe and Everything” by Douglas Adams.

The mentor: this person can spot a newbie and advises on things to avoid (on the first day on set, I was advised to avoid “pink chicken” and “anything with mayonnaise”).

The rebel: this person, despite all warnings, walks right up to the talent and requests an autograph or selfie. Moments later, they are escorted off-set and “blacklisted” from the production.

The fearful: this person darts his/her head around frantically for the duration of the day looking for a friendly face.

The boring twat: this person recounts how much he/she would be earning if he/she wasn’t stuck here all day, even though he/she is there by choice.

However, like any group of fourth-graders stuck in detention for an especially long time, the categories above begin to blur around Hour Five and the majority of people can be seen staring into space with dulled eyes and expressions, like color representations of family portraits taken in the mid-19th century.

On set, things are a bit more lively, if a bit silly. In my two shows, I’ve (a) stood, (b) stood, (c) walked, (d) stood, (e) pretended to drink campaign and (f) stood.  Still, it is pretty exciting to watch everything come together, and it makes me think, “oh, I could do any of these jobs.”  Hopefully, that bit will come to some fruition.

At the end of the day, it feels like a fairly uninteresting LSD trip. You feel like you’ve been someplace forever, and you can’t remember the beginning of it.  But it was still cool.

 

 

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“Mine” Field (Reflections on a Play)

Vincent Truman in "Mine"

Vincent Truman in “Mine”

“You need a win,” my fiancee Sarah observed. And, like on so many situations, she was right. Yet for a long time, it didn’t look like that would be probable.

“Mine”, my play about the life of a woman following an assault, originally came to life as part of a improvisational show in 1995 called “Razor Spirits” (there was a brief dalliance with dramatic improvisation in Chicago that year). It was a short scene I had devised, and the actors at the time grappled with the subject matter but it never really took off. It was perhaps too heavy. I was somewhat saddened by that, as I thought the idea was a worthy one.

My 2015 play, “Bully”, collapsed under its own weight – despite taking great steps to make the show unique by having two casts (one black, one white) and permitting the actors to play with the language and action to reflect their experiences/cultures, the show devolved into a series of ever-shifting alliances and factions which I couldn’t control (one actor wrote me, saying “fuck them” about the other cast, and then within weeks, shifted to saying “fuck you” to me along with the other cast; another called me racist and then sent me pictures of her tits). This led to folks showing up late for shows, sometimes not showing up at all, skipping pages of dialogue during the shows, etc. Even during the run of the show, there were angry Facebook tirades from a few of the actors, followed by blocks and deletions. I am still struggling with what went so wrong.

So when 2016 came along, I really wanted to write and perform something solid and good. I had thought about the improv scene from 1995 for years; early versions of “Mine” were written in 2013 and 2014. Knowing that at least the concept was solid and good, I focused on this script over a few months and had a workshop in the spring. It didn’t look good. In the 2016 early draft, the lead character Amber got over her assault by use of therapy, reconnecting with a loved one, and re-establishing a relationship with a guy she had a date with early in the play. One participant accused me of some form of misogyny by having a woman’s life improved by a man, and she promptly defriended me on Facebook. And I thought, fuck, I’m not going to be able to get out of this failure cycle.

I did take her – and everyone’s – thoughts on board and reworked the script so there were a few less happy endings but a lot more exploration of psychology, ultimately the core of the piece. I removed any pat explanations and other bits of tidy writing, and just let the characters bash into each other. And then it worked.

My first two executive decisions were to cast Kimmy Higginbotham in the lead role as Amber, as I needed someone I could trust in that role, and to cast myself as the voice in her head, as she needed someone she could trust in that role.

Auditions went smoothly – which made me suspicious, as I was expecting the experience to run as shakily as my last year’s experiences. Then, when the cast and I sat down, it was discovered that we were all writer/actor/directors and the show became a thinktank. Everyone chimed in with observations and criticisms, and everything was taken onboard. We all suggested edits and additions, emphasis and subtle brushstrokes. It was a goddamned team.

Suddenly (nearly), the show grew its own momentum and everyone gave their all for six intense weeks of rehearsal. And suddenly (not nearly), we were performing at the Chicago Fringe Festival and every single person we spoke to had complex things to say – there was no “way to go” or “I enjoyed it” but long paragraphs starting with “I think…”. It was beautiful! We received one review – 4 out of 5 stars – and many big houses. I got my win. And, I hope, so did everyone who saw “Mine.”

I want to thank the cast of the show for helping me – and all of us – get this win. Elliot Lerner, standup comic/charming guy/actor. Kathleen Urbanski, director/actor. Athanasia Jennifer Sawicz, dancer/actor. Mark A. Child, storyteller/actor. Kimmy Higginbotham, director/actor. If you’re in theater or film, you should find these people and find a way to work with them. Thank you, guys.

And, last but by no means least, thanks to the Chicago Fringe Festival for bringing me back to life, for helping me get to a place where I can proudly say, my name is Vincent Truman and this story is Mine.

 

Script: http://www.lulu.com/shop/vincent-truman/mine-a-play-in-one-act-2016/paperback/product-22830310.html

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“Mine”: A Few More Thousand Words

Kimmy Higginbotham in "Mine"

Kimmy Higginbotham in “Mine”

As we lurch towards our last of nine performances at the Chicago Fringe Festival 2016 (4pm on Sunday, September 11), I thought I would share a second collection of stills, all courtesy of my favorite cinematographer, Richard Smith. If you’re in the Chicagoland area and haven’t seen this play yet, please do. The most common comment we’ve received about “Mine”, which is all centered on surviving sexual assault, has been “important.” That means the world to me.

The show will be performed at the CCJP Meeting Hall, 5320 W Giddings, Chicago, IL 60630 (steps from Lawrence/Milwaukee and the Jefferson Park Metra and CTA Blue Line Stop) at 4pm on Sunday, September 11, 2016. Tickets are $10 with a one-time $5 festival button.

Join me, Kimmy Higginbotham, Kathleen Urbanski, Athanasia Jennifer Sawicz, Mark A. Child and Elliot Lerner for our final performance in this run.  I do hope to see you.

 

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Vincent Truman and Elliot Lerner

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Mark A. Child and Athanasia Jennifer Sawicz

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-1-49-11-am

Kimmy Higginbotham

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Vincent Truman and Kimmy Higginbotham

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Vincent Truman and Kimmy Higginbotham

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Mark A. Child, Athanasia Jennifer Sawicz and Vincent Truman

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Kathleen Urbanski and Kimmy Higginbotham

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Kathleen Urbanski and Vincent Truman

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Kimmy Higginbotham

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Kimmy Higginbotham and Elliot Lerner

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Kimmy Higginbotham and Elliot Lerner

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“Mine”: Thousands of Words

Vincent Truman in "Mine"

Vincent Truman in “Mine”

These are a selection of production stills made by my good friend and brilliant photographer/cinematographer/mad genius, Richard Smith, during one of the early performances of “Mine” at the Chicago Fringe Festival 2016.

“Mine” tracks an assault survivor (Kimmy Higginbotham) as she attempts to get on with her life, all the while haunted and hunted by the memory of her assailant (Vincent Truman).

I love these photographs because a lot of them have little to love about them. As I glance through them, I keep thinking to myself, “this is not theater… this is life.”

Shows to go: Saturday, 9/10 at 5:30pm and 8:30pm, Sunday, 9/11 at 4:00pm.
Location: CCJP Meeting Hall, 5320 W Giddings, Chicago, IL 60630
Direct ticket link: https://dime.io/events/mine/
Web page: http://vincenttruman.net/mine/mine101.htm

"Mine": Silencing The Voice

“Mine”: Silencing The Voice

"Mine": Passing Thoughts

“Mine”: Passing Thoughts

"Mine": Pride Comes Before

“Mine”: Pride Comes Before

"Mine": Dark Heart

“Mine”: Dark Heart

"Mine": The War Within

“Mine”: The War Within

"Mine": Control Takes Time

“Mine”: Control Takes Time

"Mine": Even Memories Have Secrets

“Mine”: Even Memories Have Secrets

"Mine" Curtain Call

“Mine” Curtain Call

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