BRIEF BLOG INTRO:
I'm a man on a mission. A mission to convince everyone I meet that life is worth living, no matter how many obstacles are placed in your way.

I'm a singer/songwriter and actor from Texas "Living in the Bonus Round" in New York City. That is my way of describing how I feel having cheated death. (In a game show, the Bonus Round is where time speeds up and the prizes are better.) Accepting my death changed me. Now, I'm consuming life as quickly and as fully as I can, while still taking time to breathe and appreciate every single day as an utter miracle.

Last year, I turned 60 and I had a set of goals, all of which came true, including composing -- and performing in -- a Mass, recording a solo album (selling 10s of copies), headlining to a sold out house at a major night club in New York City and played the lead role in a staged reading of a play not written by myself. I update a few times a month these days, and I don't spam. So it's easier to keep up with me by following by Email. When this blog began, it was to track my death. I'm told it was the first AIDS blog. You can start at the gruesome beginning if you want. Or just jump in and maybe we can learn some life lessons together. Welcome to the Bonus Round. I'm Steve [SHACK-lin].

Saturday, September 29, 2012

My Birthday Is Coming Up.

But I already have the greatest gift of all.

It's happening 8 times a week in London.

Very few writers get this chance, this opportunity. We write alone and suffer over every word and note. We try to get readings. We try to get investors. We try to get attention from ticket buyers. We try to convince the media that's something real is there, and that it's something worth writing about.

So, the road is long and hard. And you have to take responsibility for making things happen. (That's two jobs: creating and producing/promoting).

So, when someone comes out of the blue and says that something you wrote fifteen years ago had such a profound effect on him, he wants to just take it and do it. Do all that. It's the ultimate gift.

I remember when Rob Harris and I first communicated last year. He asked, "What kind of production would you like to see in London?"

I said, "I don't care if you do it on a street corner with a banjo. I'm just so happy you want to do it."

And we were on the same page. Keep costs at a minimum and get the best talent in London.

And that's exactly what they did. I'm going to write more about the performers and the creative team, and the time we had together. But for now, I'm just feeling really, really thankful to Rob Harris for putting together this greatest birthday gift imaginable.

Without him, it wouldn't have happened. That's what a great producer does. They make things happen, and if they're really good, they surround themselves with the very best. And that's exactly what he did.

Press Night.

"We don't really have opening nights like you have in America. We have what's called press night."

It was very low key.

In fact, there was no photographers present at all.

Darren Day as Gideon from The Last Session.
Photo by Robert Workman.


We all quietly arrived. Everyone was escorted in. Everyone terrified by the presence of critics.

They actually matter here. I think. I'm learning.

A.J. Dean as Buddy in The Last Session.
Photo by Robert Workman.
After it was over, a smaller group of both friends and family in the same building, next door -- The Actor's Center -- and drank a few brews together. No big toast or cake. 

We did exchange "opening night" gifts, however. I handmade mine and handed them out. They had cuttings from the original "old red plaid bathrobe" mentioned in the script.

During the show, I couldn't enjoy it as I had the first public performance the day before. Then, I was awash in tears. I was reliving the songs and totally involved in the acting and singing. 

A.J. Dean and Simone Craddock from The Last Session.
Photo by Robert Workman.
But press night, my stomach was in an uproar. Something that got a laugh last night didn't get one tonight. Are they responding? Is it too hot in here? (It was, but they fixed it later). Are they getting it? Do they hate it?

And I was told London audiences do NOT do standing ovations. They are reserved people. (We actually did get one that night. From about four rows back and up.)

Finally, I stood on a little landing, just as Rob and Simon were about to take me back to their home, and I said, "I just wanted to say how much this night means to me. It was just a couple of weeks ago, when I was writhing in pain, sick of fighting and fighting, that I had reached the same point, emotionally, where I was when I wrote these songs. Like Buddy says in Friendly Fire, 'You don't know if you're gonna live, but most of all, you don't know if you want to.'"

Simone Craddock and Darren Day in The Last Session.
Photo by Robert Workman.
I spoke about each of them. How proud I was of their work. How it was the best production imaginable, beyond my wildest fantasies.

I could feel tears coming to my eyes. I wished Jim had been there to rescue me with a punch line. 

Instead, Darren Day walked over and put his arm around me. He said he's never been in a show, before, that had no 'filler' songs. That they were proud to take our baby and protect it.

Emotional outpourings are not the British way. And I get that. I tried to respect that. I really did. I could see so much in his eyes that didn't need to be said out loud. It's there in his voice when he sings. It's in all their voices. 

Lucy Vandi and Darren Day in The Last Session.
Photo by Robert Workman.
I fell so in love with them all. I just wanted it to go on and on, and never stop. And Darren is a genuinely kind person. He wasn't neurotic at all about this being his "comeback." He just quietly does his job. And he's soulful and appreciative of his own bonus round. Maybe that's why we connect.

Everyone applauded and we all quietly hugged and left. Walked down to the train station, and right there, I had the best thing of all. Something I had wanted from the beginning, but never got around to: A genuine Cornwall Pasty. A chicken meat pie. The crust was so hot and flaky.

I fell asleep on the train home. They woke me up and we drove home. I woke up early and played with their dog.

Had a slight panic on the train to the airport. Couldn't remember where my passport was. Found it. 

10 hours later I was on my couch with Jim and Steinbeck, which is the best place of all.

Thinking back, the purity of the moment we had there at the end, after the show, would have been spoiled by photographers snapping all around us. It was a genuinely felt moment. One I will treasure for the rest of my life. 

BTW, even though the Time Out review said I was the star of this show, Jim says it's okay. He's the star of Zero Hour and Character Man. I should get at least one show, right? (We split Big Voice: God or Merman? down the middle).

No, the real stars are on that stage for the next month. 

Reader, I do hope you get to see and hear them.


And So It Starts.

It opened. The house was packed. I sat in the back. 

My eyes were red from crying. 

And I was crying from the first note. Darren Day is a great singer. He's comfortable in his shoes. It's clear and beautiful. But you can also hear the pain just around the edges. When he sings Gideon, it's from the heart. And rooted in a very jarring bright-eyed world-weariness. An innocence corrupted and lost. And now surrendered.

In this Time Out review, they note "Save Me A Seat." But it's his rendition that's so touching. 

Will Londoners be curious? 

Will American tourists want to see something American in London?

I mean, I wouldn't. I would want to do British-y things. 

However, now just being fair, I might want to see how well the British are "doing" American.

I will be happy to be back in the choir on Sunday. It's the best mediation in the world. And because our choir is good enough, we meet for an hour, learn all the songs, and then perform them. I like being the tenor in the back row. 

Physically, I'm exhausted and I am experiencing pain. So, I'm trying not to do too much. Just rest and drink a lot of water and wait for the British media to come knocking at our door. 

Shall we enter the British tabloids? I confess that I did hang out with all the actors in their dressing rooms. All the time. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Quick post from London

The dress rehearsal went over like gangbusters. Opening night is tonight.

Will write more after I get home tomorrow.

But this is the most amazing cast I have ever seen in any show anywhere. And Guy Retallack has directed a new version -- along with a new script from Jim -- that has exceeded all my fantasies.

Sounds like I'm exaggerating? I'm not.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I will be at the opening of TLS in London.

Despite everything, I will most definitely be at the opening this coming week of The Last Session in London. If you are a reader and you live in London, find me! I'll be at the Tristan Bates Theater on Monday for tech, then Tuesday afternoon for the dress, Tuesday night for the first preview and Wednesday night for the press night.

My phone doesn't work there, so I can't give you a phone number.

The reason I'm able to go is due to the generosity of Fr. Jeff Hamblin and the members of the congregation of Christ Church Bay Ridge, who pitched in to buy me a plane ticket. And to the producer Rob Harris for giving me his couch to sleep on.

Let me just say, here, how much I love that little congregation in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. They are the kindest people I've ever met, and it's a privilege to donate my services as composer there. Thanks to my mentor, Mark Janas, I've been furiously engaged in composing a Mass in Latin, which we will debut at some point. It's a project I never thought I'd have the capacity to do. But with their encouragement and love, it is happening.

To say that this production in London is beyond my wildest dreams doesn't even begin to state how grateful and proud and honored I feel. I honestly thought our little show was dead, that its time had passed and that nobody cared anymore.

But if you're in London and you see it, you will be absolutely stunned at the brilliance of this cast, director and creative team. These five actors are as good as, if not better, than any cast that has ever done this show -- and we have had some ridiculously great casts. When I saw them earlier this month, I was completely blown away by their commitment to the piece, and by their extraordinary talent.

They GET it.

So, this is a little thank you to my friends who are sending me, and to this cast who is about to explode onto London's theater scene.

BTW, there have been some interviews here and there, and it's clear that nobody in the London media knows the show or has ever heard of it. For them, it's like a brand new show.

As for me, with all my difficulties lately, I need this. I am looking forward to be renewed in mind, body and spirit. Those songs are as personal and as intense as anything I've ever written in my life. And to know they're in such safe hands is the icing on the cake.

And I get to be there. It will be better than any medication and any hospital. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Throwing Stones. Firing Bullets.

"It may be -- forgive me for saying it -- that it's just the aging process and your body is prone to kidney stones."

That was my doc yesterday. I had barged my way in without an appointment because the night before, I was up at 1am with agonizing, intense pain from a stone that had hit me the week before, but seemed to pass. At that time, we were still traveling from London and had hit 30 foot seas. (Jim was, once again, working a cruise).

Since we met on a ship and are veteran sailors, going through rough waters doesn't bother us. But being thrown up and down while doubled over in pain? Not fun. Luckily, my doctor had previously supplied me with some strong pain meds after the nightmare of last month's visit to an ER with another stone. 

Seemingly, the "ship stone" had passed, but it left me really, really weak. Walking like an old, old man. And while there was some residual pain, I thought it had passed. I was wrong.

Feeling beaten up and beaten down, my doctor let me in and gave me a little once-over. I was feeling stronger, though. I didn't actually feel the stone pass, but my body didn't have that same weakness I had been feeling. So, I don't know where we stand with it. I'm still sore. Is it the stone still sticking around?

I asked him, "What about the scan we did just before we left on our trip?"

He said, "Nothing. There was no trace of any stone on the scan. So, this new stone formed very quickly."

Arggh.
I remember the day before, I was sitting in a room with a group of HIV-positive older gay men. We were gathered to discuss our various issues. At one point, I actually broke down crying. I said to them, "Sometimes I just get so weary of the fight. I feel like an old tire that they keep re-inflating, but is still full of holes. The battle to stay alive and out of pain is so relentless, that I just get tired of it all. Just so very tired."

And that, of course, made me think of Gideon's speech in The Last Session, where he explains to Vicki about being tired of the fight. I have probably been here before in this, but it never really hit home as much as it did this day -- at least that I remember. 

I said, "No matter how hard I fight, these hits feel like bullets being shot at me. Bam! Bam! Bam! And I take the bullet and stagger on. And stagger on. And stagger on. And I just get so tired of it all."

I was relating this to my doc, tears in my eyes, and he said, "Well, let's get rid of this one pill, and I'm going to refer you to a kidney specialist. He's like a detective. We will get to the bottom of this."

I do hope so. I really do.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

TLS-London Will Be Fantastic.

Guy Retallack.
Jim and I were able to attend a couple of rehearsals for The Last Session-London and I can tell you now, without hesitation that the show is in safe hands. Guy Retallack, the director, understands the humor and the passion, inside and out. The cast is absolutely first rate. Beyond first rate, in fact.

I sat next to him as he staged the opening sequences. Longtime readers of this blog know that I've actually stepped in and taken over productions where I felt they missed what was supposed to be going on. I literally sat there, needing to say nothing. And when he asked me for input, all I could do was shrug and say, "You nailed it."

I cannot tell you how relieved I am to know the show is in such safe hands.

With Darren Day, we have a genuine rock star in the role of Gideon. He had a huge career in England, faced some personal difficulties, fell out of the public eye and has, in recent years, has been making his way back onto the stage.

Steve Schalchlin with Darren Day.
IOW, he isn't just "playing" Gideon (also a "former rock star"). He is Gideon. His singing is so rich and soulful, he brings a completely authentic dimension to the performance. He's not an actor pretending to be a rock star. He simply is a rock star. His fans are going to be thrilled to see him back and in such great form. And, btw, he's a lovely person.

For the rest of the roles, Lucy Vandi as Tryshia has all the dignity and sass you ever want in a Tryshia -- and man, can she sing. When they were rehearsing "Preacher," I thought the roof was going to come off. Simone Craddock has knowing twinkle in her eye that makes you laugh even when she's just standing there. And her entrance as Vicki is hilarious and LOUD. The phrase that kept coming to me was that she, even this early in the process, was playing it "balls out."
Lucy Vandi is adorable. 

Darren Day with Simone Craddock.
Ron Emslie, as Jim, has just the right gravitas and deadpan humor to be the exactly the annoyance Gideon needs, keeping him honest.

Ron Emslie is Jim.
And, last but not least, there's Buddy. In many ways, he can be the most difficult role to cast because, as Gideon's antagonist, not only does his character move through a dozen emotional states through the play, but he's got to have a perfect Southern/Texas accent or nobody will believe him. I was crossing my fingers on this. I've seen more than a few actors miss it entirely by being too much of a hick -- or come off as stupid.

Perhaps it's because, like Darren, A. J. Dean has experience as a rock and roll singer in bands -- he is currently putting together a rockabilly band -- but when he entered as Buddy, I thought I was back home in Texas. He nailed the accent PERFECTLY. And he has just the right mix of innocence and aggression that Buddy needs. I get chills just writing this.

Steve Schalchlin with A. J. Dean all done up in his usual rockabilly attire.
Jim Brochu mugging with A. J. Dean and Lucy Vandi out on the town.
I suppose, when producer Rob Harris first approached us about doing TLS, I had as much trepidation as excitement about the prospect of a London cast. Would they "get" the American accents? Would they understand the humor? Would they know how to direct it?

All I can say -- and I mean this honestly -- is that I'm breathing easily. The show is not merely in safe hands. This may equal or even better the original NY and LA productions. Seriously. More than I ever dreamed possible.

Just before we left the rehearsal, I gathered the cast around and told them how honestly moved I was by their talent, their commitment and their passion.

I said I feared The Last Session had run its course and was 'dead.' That its time had passed and that no one cared anymore. But just as I had come back to life -- and this is where I started crying -- it was deeply, deeply moving to me to see the show coming back to life in the hands of such a capable, talented and loving cast and creative team.

This initial run, with its modest budget, will only be about a month long. So, people who want to see it need to get to London soon. It opens on September 25. But if it hits, who knows what could happen? Maybe a full scale resurrection will happen. Maybe it will be a sweet moment in time.

But no matter what happens, no one associated with this production will ever be the same. Back in 1997, The Last Session was overwhelmed in the tsunami that was Rent.

What's amazing, as everyone told me, is how much TLS seems to be so relevant to today. It definitely holds up after all these years. Just like me!

Thank you, Rob Harris. Thank you for remembering our little show. Thank you for assembling this brilliant cast and creative team. Thank you for everything.