Monday, November 1, 2010

Post-Mortem on a Ghost Gig

This weekend I concluded one of the weirder acting jobs I'll ever have, playing a role in the Simi Valley Ghost Tour, an historical re-enactment-cum-haunted house at a park just 3 miles north of the Regan Library.

The Robert P. Strathearn Historic Park boasts a plethora of buildings and artifacts from Simi Valley's past, most of them transplanted from their original locations. For the tour, many of these locations were populated by actors portraying ghosts of the original inhabitants (the ghost of General Store owner, for example, or the ghost of Crash Corrigan) and the rest of the ghosts were liberally sprinkled about wherever they could set up lighting. The tour would stop, the actors would perform a 3 page scene about their life and times

My station was a gazebo. The original concept called for me to play a parrot with Captain Juan Bautista De Anza, who led the expedition that brought Santiago DeLaCruz Pico to California. DeAnza is trying to convince the audience that he's a sea captain, which he believes is a better story than the truth, which is that the expedition traveled 1,000 miles on foot. A friend of mine recommend me for the gig because I had done the voice of a parrot in Light Up the Sky earlier this year when I wasn't onstage playing a human. They had a parrot suit ready for me and everything!

The week before we began our 3 weekend run, it was finally determined that the guy playing DeAnza just wasn't going to show up, and there was no time to find another actor because all the available local talent was gearing up for a production of Annie. So I was cajoled into playing both parts with the aid of a hand puppet, which was obtained from e-Bay cheaply and quickly. No dialog had to be changed, though I added a line at the end:

PARROT: You're nothing without me!

DE ANZA: Nonsense.

PARROT: At least when you talk, my lips don't move!

If the applause didn't kick in at that point, I had "You don't even HAVE lips" waiting as a backup.

So in practice, the gig was like this: A tour is admitted into the park. At this point, I wait because as station 11 I was at least an hour away from my first performance. Eventually the crowd would arrive at the barn across from my gazebo, which still meant 20 more minutes, and from then on I could watch Krishnaventa, the crazed cult leader to see how the crowd might be for my scene. On a typical night I would do the scene 8-15 times to groups of varying enthusiasm.

It occurred to me that the gig kind of approximates the experience of being an actual ghost: stuck in the same place, forced to perform the same actions for what seems like an eternity.

I haven't had to do a dual act by myself since high school, and you know what? It gets lonely up there. If I forget my lines I got no one to prompt me. Periodically I would make a mistake and have the parrot correct me, or the other way around. After a while I relished those kinds of errors because it livened up the scene for me. I never made them on purpose though because people can tell.

It wasn't all isolation though; each scene was introduced by a local junior high school kid, and they hung out with me at the gazebo between scenes unless they hung our somewhere else. They were like a pack of energy-drink-fueled wolves, roaming around the park. I learned probably a little more about 13-year-olds than I really wanted to know. For one thing, all the girls like Philip* but they don't LIKE him.

I'm pleased to report that it was a paying gig and I did get paid. Not only that, but... well, at some point one of the other actors suggested I should get twice the pay because I was playing two parts. I laughed it off but in fact, they did give me a bonus. It wasn't twice, but it wasn't nothin' either. And next year the organizers tell me they are going to keep the concept of a ventriloquist act for that scene, because I guess it worked. Kudos to me for not ruining Juan Bautista De Anza's (and Pequito's) big night!

*name changed to protect "Philip"


  1. Sounds like an interesting gig! Hey, I looked up Juan Bautista De Anza on Wikipedia: at no point does it mention that De Anza owned, or traveled in the company of, parrots. Was your shoulder buddy dramatic license, or is it the usual Wikipedia incompleteness?

  2. In this case, wild dramatic license. De Anza's story ("I walked a thousand miles so someone else could get a land grant") was deemed insufficiently interesting for a 3 minute scene. Therefore, our De Anza tries to convince his audience that he's a dashing sea captain with a parrot.

    Kinda made me wish I was playing Krishnaventa, but he wasn't especially funny.

  3. Still, I read the link. It's got everything, including explosions. Who owns the movie rights to this?