One for the Road By Patrick Ritter

One for the Road
By Patrick Ritter

Sonya’s young face was an odd mixture of compassion and formality. “Are you dissatisfied with life them, Astrov?” she asked across the small table set for tea. Putting down his cup, Astrov replied pensively, his beard bobbing as he spoke, “I love life as such, but our life in everyday provincial Russia, I can’t endure.” His old face sagged and his hands weaved slightly as if sailing on air. He stared over the tea table into the empty San Francisco theatre. The stage was rural Russia about 1910. He was performing Chekhov’s classic, Uncle Vanya, to an empty audience — or nearly empty.

Several people sat in the third row. One of them was Sal Morino, the play’s producer. He was a big man with a wide forehead and tired eyes, and an unlit cigar perched between his lips. Sal nudged an actor sitting next to him, Blake Morrisey, who had played the part of Astrov so many times it was a natural for him.

“You’re looking great right there Blake. Those little gestures really evoke Astrov.”

Onstage, the Astrov character continued. “You know, when you walk through a forest on a dark night, and a light gleams in the distance, you do not notice your weariness.” Astrov paused, folding his arms across his wide-sleeved shirt. “Nor the darkness.” Another pause, slightly longer. “Nor the sharp twigs that lash you–”

Suddenly Astrov’s voice stopped midsentence, as did his body. The other characters onstage also suddenly froze, motionless. Their bodies shimmered faintly, edged with a bluish corona, then blinked out, along with the entire set, leaving only a bare floor and a grid of wires above, and hundreds of suspended speakers. Across the front of the stage the holographic screen faded from silver to grey like a silicon ghost.

A piercing nasal voice boomed over the theatre’s public address system. “Too slow Sal, way too slow.”

Oh for crying out loud, Sal thought. He bit down on his cigar. Blake Morrisey, who had been playing Astrov so brilliantly, shook his head in disgust. Sal craned around in his seat, calling up to the control room at the rear of the theatre, “Now what?”

From the control room the director of the holoplay, Ritchie Brandt, leaned out, microphone and virtual editing screens floating in front of him. Brandt sported a buzz top hairdo and the look of a thirty-something techie who always got his way. As the hottest whiz kid in the holos, he usually did. Although thirty years younger, Brandt spoke to Sal as if reprimanding a child. “No, you’re just not getting it, Sal, the pauses have to go. I want more snap and go in this play. Move, move, move. That’s what they want. You should know that by now.” Sal winced but said nothing. “So I’m taking all the pauses out. And those little hand jives too. Nobody wants that stuff anymore.”

Sal stared at Brandt. Snap and go? How does that fit with Chekhov’s slow sweep of human endurance? Sal wondered if Brandt had even seen a Chekhov original. The guy knew virtually nothing about acting. But he was now the guy. Brandt had solved the holo refresh rate puzzle and was now the acknowledged genious of holo theatre. Based on the success of Brandt’s recent holo in Santa Clara, the theatre’s financial backers had unanimously voted to hire him. They hoped the holo format would rescue the failing San Francisco company. And if Sal was to get his contract renewed he had to end the season with a winner. So he had to watch the brat from Silicon Valley butcher a Chekhov classic and hope for the best. Sal said, “Movement? That’s not really Chekhov, Richie.”

But Brandt was already editing the holo track, using a virtual playback screen that hung in the air in front of him. “You need to expand your bandwidth, Sal,” he said glibly. “I’m going to make it really pop. You’ll see.” He reached out and entered DELETE, DELETE, REFORM, REPLAY, and then yelled to his holo illusionist, “Ok go!”

The stage glowed back into three dimensional life again. The character Blake was playing, Astrov, said quickly, “I work, as you know, harder than anyone in the district, and fate is forever lashing at me.” The pitch of his voice was intact although the speed of delivery had been changed by Brandt. With the subtle movements cut out, he looked like a fast-talking robo.

Sal sagged in his seat and looked at the floor. Once, he would have fired someone like Brandt on the spot. Now the only game in town was holo-theatre, where the stars weren’t onstage but up above in cool grey control rooms, created and shaped by the electronic puppeteers. Live theatre was still Sal’s lifeblood. If only there were something still live about it.

As the play continued, Sal turned slightly and said in a low voice, “My hands are tied here Blake, I’m sorry. It’s a great scene, we both know it. But I’ve got to produce a huge box office on this one, and the big boys downtown want to go with Brandt all the way.”

“I know Sal,” Blake said, “It’s not your doing.” He gazed up at the ornate ceiling, still preserved from the turn of the century Victorian era of San Francisco. “And I’m an old horse who can’t complain too loudly either.”

“Well, you’re the best I’ve worked with and I’d give you free run if it were up to me,” Sal replied.

Blake watched himself move across the stage, or trot across it now as Brandt bumped up the speed another notch. “I know, Sal, I know.”

The holo-play ran on for another hour in electronic stops and starts, with Brandt periodically cutting into the program to change the timing, or the light, or the voice modulation. He even erased one character entirely from the play. “Not really needed,” he snapped.” Anton Chekhov must be rolling in his grave Sal thought dejectedly.

As they walked out of the theatre, Sal put his hand on Blake’s shoulder and said, “Oh Blake, I forgot to tell you, but we’re doing one last take tomorrow with full makeup. Blake’s expression brightened as he considered being onstage again. With holo-theatre, there were precious few times he was actually onstage, and no live performances at all. After a few dress rehearsals the holo directors usually had enough tracks to compile, edit down, modify, and put back together into a finished digital product. The polished masterpiece played the same every night, consistently and predictably, which gave the financial backers great comfort. Sal continued, “Brandt says he wants to do some kind of visual matchup or something tomorrow. I didn’t understand it really, but he needs you on it.”

“Of course. Maybe we can salvage this one yet Sal,” he said getting up and heading out of the theatre.

Sal sat for a moment in the quiet theatre. Damn if that wasn’t a great bit of acting Brandt had cut out, he thought glumly. He remembered some of the magnificent performances Blake had put on over the years. He deserved better than this, he thought. The incredible subtly of his acting now lay on the electronic cutting floor. Sal walked out onto a foggy Geary Street and headed for his apartment. A deeper fog settled over him.

The next morning Sal walked briskly up Leavenworth and made the turn onto Geary Street, and headed for the Majestic Theatre. The Victorian facades of most of the other theatres along the street had all but been obliterated by hologram screens announcing upcoming shows. He stopped at the entrance to the Majestic and glanced up at the holo marquee, a scene from Uncle Vanya, so lifelike the characters seemed as if they might jump off the screen, or start to speak, as they did on some of the holo-marquees. They left nothing to the imagination, Sal thought — no mystery, or subtle hint and tease. Not like the old days. Hell, the old days weren’t that long ago. Only fifteen years ago it was still all live. Sal sighed and went into the lobby.

The actors were already in the theatre. Blake was standing rigidly to one side as the technicians adjusted the motion capture suit beneath his Russian costume. In the middle of the stage, lit by the lower stage lights, two tripod holo-recorders were set up. Brandt was hunched over a virtual screen while motioning to the actors assembled onstage. Blake noticed Sal coming down the aisle. Rolling his eyes his expression said, you aren’t going to believe this.

“Sal,” Brandt snapped, “we need to interface. Everyone else, just stay put, we’ll be doing it again, in say, ten minutes.” He trotted down the stairs to meet Sal in the audience. Sal knew Brandt was onto something. He was moving even faster than his usual light speed.

“Sit down, Sal,” Brandt said excitedly. I’m going to upload you on the next big thing, something that’s going to make you the best-known producer on the circuit.”

Known for what? Sal thought. As the one who produced the season’s most sensational flop? Brandt looked intense. “Sal, what’s the only problem with holo-theatre today?”

“The only problem?” Sal said surprised. “Aside from no integrity or real acting?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Brandt responded. “I know you’re hung up on the authenticity thing. Forget that. We’re talking about selling a product here, plain and simple. The problem has always been control, right?”

Sal squinted as Brandt continued. “Once we get the dress rehearsals on the cloud we can manipulate and edit the scenes to get a final product. But to get there, we’ve got to use union actors. See, right there, no control. Let’s say somebody has a sore throat that day. That’s a day wasted. Maybe their dog died and they’re having an off day, whatever. The holo-take is mostly worthless. Plus, we’ve got to pay them union salaries right?”

“So what are you getting at?” Sal said. “You want to hire high school kids?”

“Not exactly,” Brandt responded, “although that’s not too far off, Sal. Good outside-the-box thinking. Look, you understand the basics in holo-theatre, right?”

“Yeah, of course. Well, pretty much so.” Sal said slowly. He had always resisted learning all the technical jargon he admitted to himself.

“Pretty much?” Brandt shot back. “Producing first run holo-plays and you pretty much understand?” The insult hit Sal squarely and he bit down into his cigar. This guy was a thistle scratching him from the inside.

Brandt went on. “Look, producing the holographic images is no big deal anymore, right? We split a light beam into two coherent beams, each one exactly in phase. One beam shines directly onto a reference plate. The other beam bounces off an object and then onto the reference plate. Now, the two beams aren’t in phase anymore, and they create an interference pattern, like waves on a pond. Shine light through it –whit-boom– you’ve got a 3-D image. You with me?”

Sal nodded silently.

“They used to use photographic plates to record the interference pattern. Then they went to magnetizable films. All we have here,” he swept his arm toward the front of the stage, “is an electro-magnetic curtain, if you will, across the stage, as our reference plate. Light reflecting from the actors interferes with the curtain and changes it. We simply record those changes in time on the computer. We’ve got each actor’s holo track recorded as a subroutine. That’s how I can edit the raw material. Then we recreate the patterns with a backdrop of primary color lights, and the audience sees, voila, the real thing.”

“Right, right,” Sal interjected. “I see all that. But get to the point.”

Brandt’s eyebrows drew close together, his dark eyes like anthracite. “Hey, you need a big season finale, right? And the financial boys need me to develop it because I’m the best. Well, I’m going to encode some serious buzz into this play with a brand new technique in holos that will revolutionize this industry. You’re quite lucky to be in on it at the start, you know what I’m sayin? This is going to be mega, Sal, mega.”

Brandt waved his hand toward the tripod onstage. “With that transposer, I can record the basic motion and sound coming from the actor’s motion sensor suits, like a template. Then, automagically, I am going to simply overlay the polish — the voice, inflections, makeup, even the physical features beneath the makeup. I will have complete control over the product by that time. And here’s the beauty. The person onstage doesn’t have to have any real acting talent! I add everything from stored memory overlays. With the downturn in live theatre I’ve been able to purchase the rights to a gigaload of great plays, and now I have everything I need. I can even use the voice of famous greats if I want. They’re only a frequency mix, really, with a little inflection thrown in.”

Sal looked dumbstruck. “So the actor appearing onstage could be anybody, as long as they move in the right positions and say the lines at the right times.”

“You got it. Anybody. Just as long as I have some real performance to transpose onto it. Kind of like the old karaoke craze. How about that for cost effective? Even some patron from the audience could see themselves give a masterpiece performance they fantasized about, maybe the part they’ve always identified with. Can you imagine what a tidy extra fee that could bring in?”

“You have to be kidding,” Sal muttered in disbelief. “This isn’t karaoke, this is theatre.”

But Brandt didn’t even hear him. “Now take Blake there. I’ve found a face that will be absolutely perfect for Astrov, the real thing actually. I just ordered him online from a casting outfit in the East Bay. Ok let’s get going,” he yelled to his chief holo-illusionist. “Get Dmitry.”

A stocky man walked stiffly onto the stage, middle aged, bearded, with a strong Russian face. He wore the same costume Blake had on the day before with adjustments for his frame.

“Gentlemen, meet Dmitry, crane operator at the Port of Oakland. But for our purposes the perfect face and frame for the character of Astrov. Now, Dmitry, if you’ll stand right there, we can get the simultaneous images of both of you.” Brandt motioned for Blake to move over next to him.

The holo-illusionist reached out to adjust a monitor hanging in the air. Brandt suddenly yelled at him, “You moron. You can’t compress the form factor without rebooting the optical TR interface!”
The holo-illusionist quickly scrambled to correct the images.

Brandt nodded. “Ok, that should do it.”

Sal Morino hardly heard him. Replace Blake’s face with someone else’s? Then what, his voice? What’s left? Not much of a curtain call for him he thought, after forty good years on stage. Then a worse thought struck him. How much longer would Blake be needed at all? How long would it be before there were only generic actors, with faces and voices, moves and technique dubbed in later? A great actor like Blake Avery and now it had come to an electromagnetic theft of his own image. But he couldn’t stop it now.

“Alright, done with Astrov,” Brandt yelled. “Let’s move on.”

Blake walked off-stage and headed toward his dressing room. Sal got up and called after him, but he was already gone. Sal heard the backstage dressing room door close with an echoing thump.

Sal spent most of the next morning pouring over new scripts. Usually he dreaded the chore, only one in twenty even interested him. But today he wanted to escape into reading. Perhaps that would make the faint tugging at his conscience leave him alone. It didn’t. By mid-morning it was more than a tug. It was a full-scale pull.

What the hell am I doing in this holo business? he wondered, his forehead pressed into his hands. Then he remembered his last meeting with the financial backers — young bandits in pinstripes who made it resoundingly clear what they wanted for their money. They wanted state of the art. They wanted buzz. Most of all they wanted return on investment. Sal was getting a headache. His videophone suddenly beeped and a screen glowed to life in front of him.

“Hello, Sal? Its Mark Bolan again, Performance Guild, Remember?” He looked as cheery as Sal was glum.

“Yeah, sure I remember,” Sal said. “You’re still doing actual live theatre, right?”

“Yep, live as you and me. Hey, Sal, I wanted to reach out to you one last time about producing for the Guild next year. We’ve got nearly a full cast now and at least six great plays lined up for next year, including Hamlet. I know you’d like to do that one live. I thought before you signed up for another year with the holos, you might consider us again.”

Sal took a deep breath. Real theatre again. It would be fantastic, but would come with a hefty pay cut. He thought about his huge mortgage and the college tuition for his two daughters.

“I really wish I could Mark, but I just have to say no,” Sal said bleakly.

“Ok, Sal. But if you do change your mind give me a call. And best of luck to you.”

Sal disconnected and the picture went dark. Now he felt even worse. The Performance Guild was tossing him a life buoy and he couldn’t even take it. A loud knock on the door startled him.

Without waiting for a response, Brandt barged in. “Sal, I have to talk to you, a-sap,” he said in his usual demanding tone. But there was a hint of tension in his voice too.

“Yeah, what’s up?” Sal responded with a drained sigh.

“A bit of a problem with the new character transpose we’re doing.”

“What? You told me this thing was all beta-tested,” Sal said quickly.

“No, the transpose technology is solid. That’s not the problem. There was an `edge in his voice on the word problem.

Brandt bit on his lower lip. If his brows were furrowed any deeper he wouldn’t be able to see. “I temporarily moved all of the Astrov scenes from the main files. Then I switched in the new image, you know, Dmitry’s. We played it back onstage and it was terrific, really mega. New face and body but same acting performance. So far so good.” Brandt looked annoyed. “Then I merged the altered Astrov subroutine with the master program. At least I thought I did.” He pursed his lips. “But the file just crashed.”

Sal felt vindicated. “So just forget about all this business of switching faces and just use the old take of Blake.” As Brandt shook his head and stared into space, Sal felt a momentary spike of fear. “You don’t mean the entire file for Blake is…”

“Gone, all gone.”

“Gone? How can it be gone?”

“I don’t know. I tried bypassing the auxiliary XXU matrix, even parsed the virtual optics circuit, but couldn’t get it back.”

“Yeah, whatever. So now what?”

“Blake will have to do it over, is all.”

“Do it over?” Sal glanced at his virtual calendar. “We only have five days to opening night.”
Brandt tried to sound optimistic. “Right, but we can do this. Just get him synched in to do it again is all.”

“I’ll tell you this, Brandt. There can’t be any more problems. None. Not this season.” He just stared at him.

“Hey, don’t look at me like that, man. I just worked all night on this and I’m cached out. And if you aren’t happy with the arrangement, I’ll be out of here in five minutes.”

“Like hell you will. You’re on contract, bud, just like me, to come up with a winner. We’re both on the line. Just get the play — excuse me, the holo — back together and be ready for Saturday night. And no more experimentation. He air-phoned for his secretary.

“Yeah, contact Blake Morrisey for me.”

Her voice was hesitant. “Mr. Morrisey? Why, he left word here this morning he was taking a couple weeks off on vacation.”

Sal looked pale. “What? A couple weeks? Where?”

“I don’t know Mr. Morino. He didn’t leave word.”

Sal and Brandt exchanged a look of panic. It was the first authentic feeling they had experienced in common since meeting five months before. Sal said hesitantly, “If we can’t get Blake, you do have another version of the Astrov character that you can transpose in, right? From one of your holo-library purchases? Tell me you do have that.”

Brandt stared at the floor shaking his head, and said quietly, “Actually no, I don’t have any other versions to use.”

Tuesday afternoon was not a good one. Blake hadn’t left word with any of the other cast where he was going. His wife had died a few years before and no one knew where his sister now lived. “Cancel everything,” Sal told his secretary. “Until we find him everything’s on hold.” By the end of the day Sal was making calls himself. On Wednesday Sal had exceeded his daily cigar quota by a good margin, and it wasn’t even noon. Only four days until opening night. Still no Blake.

By early afternoon Sal realized that Blake was probably out of the picture, as he scrolled down his contacts screen, looking for another actor who had done Astrov’s role several years ago in New York. The number had been changed. He finally tracked it down and punched it up. The holo screen above his desk glowed to life, a face appeared on it, and then a voice said, “Hello.” Pause, big fake smile. “I’m out of the country right now.” Pause, exaggerated shrug. “But please –” Sal switched off the recording. “Damn!” The holo went black.

He set search terms to match someone who would have the talent and experience to play Astrov, or at least memorize a few lines at a time so Brandt could dub in the missing part. By four that afternoon, with no luck finding an experienced actor, Sal knew he would have to resort to the holo guild for a replacement. He hated to do it but he had no choice. They were a bunch of fourth-rate actors with holo-scale fees and even larger egos. He doubted they had even heard of Chekhov. But he was desperate. If Brandt could put together a plausible take of the Astrov character, they could at least get through opening night. It might not be a first rate performance, like Blake’s had been, but enough to at least open. Any delay would drive the financial backers scurrying into the boardroom to discuss the continued viability of Morino Productions.

The holo guild actor arrived by mid-morning and was rehearsing lines by that afternoon. It would have to be taped in tiny segments, because the guy couldn’t memorize more than a few lines at a time. Even Brandt looked disgusted. By Friday afternoon, most of Astrov’s scenes had been taped. The rest would have to be finished first thing Saturday morning. Brandt would merge it with the master and have it all ready to run by eight o’clock Saturday night, hopefully.

Late Friday night Sal sat alone in the third row of the theatre, arms slumped onto the seat in front of him. He had been watching the new takes of Astrov using the holo guild actor. It was utter trash for a performance, if it could even be called a performance. The actor had butchered the role even before Brandt edited it. The final product was fast-paced dribble, more like bad high school stuff. Sal knew that if he opened tomorrow Astrov’s performance would be the piece of meat the critics would feast on. But then, if he didn’t open on schedule, the backers would take it out of his hide. Either way, it would be a disaster.

Sal thought he heard footsteps coming down the aisle. He turned around and gasped.

“Blake! Man, am I glad to see you.” Blake Morrisey was wrapped in a long overcoat, wool scarf trailing down one side. He looked rested, his face oddly serene. “Hello Sal,” he said. “Your secretary said you’d be down here. You needed to talk to me?”

“Yes, sit down, buddy.” Sal grabbed Blake’s hand and pumped it. “We thought you would be on vacation all week.”

“Yeah, so did I,” Blake said. “I really needed some time away to sort things out, especially after this play. So I went up to an old friend’s place in Mendocino and unplugged. I guess I did all the thinking I needed to by last night.” He looked up at the dark stage. “And old habits don’t die easily. I haven’t missed an opening night in forty years, holo or live. I couldn’t miss tomorrow, even if I will only be watching myself from the wings.”

“Blake, listen, about tomorrow.” Sal winced.

“No need to explain, Sal. I know what you have to put up with to stay afloat in the holos. I guess it took a week for that to finally sink in.”

“Blake, if there was anything I could do about it, you know I would.”

“Sure, I know,” Blake said. “You’re like me, old chum, one of the last of the old school. I’m an actor, Sal. I can’t be otherwise. I need the lights, and the sound of a real audience. I even need the butterflies right before show time. I realized that holo acting is slowly replacing the pleasant memories I do have of my career. And with this new transposition technology coming up, let’s face it, there’s not much more left for an old horse like me.”

“Blake, wait a second,” Sal interrupted.

“No, I’ve quite made up my mind. I’ve done my last holo play, Sal, even if it isn’t live. Despite what Brandt’s done to it, I think it’s a pretty decent performance, so I’m going out on it. It’s an immense relief, really, and the best I’ve felt all year.”

Sal was quiet for a moment. Blake really did look relieved. “I’m glad for you, buddy. And I can’t say I disagree with you. I wish I had the nerve to do it myself.” He took a deep breath. “Which is why this is difficult for me to say. You see, the reason I wanted to talk to you is about that holo track of your performance, which was really sensational by the way. But it’s been totally erased somehow. I don’t think even Brandt knows why. It happened when he tried to switch in Dmitry’s face for yours on the track. Your entire performance has, well vanished. It just isn’t there, or anywhere.”

A look of astonishment swept over Blake’s face, unfolding into a bemused smile. “So the whiz kid ain’t all he’s cracked up to be, eh?”

“Yeah, and I never should have let him fiddle around in the first place.”

Then Blake turned serious. “But how can you open tomorrow night without Astrov’s part?”

“I tried for two days to reach you. And no one else who’s done Astrov’s part before is available.” Sal lowered his eyes. “So I went to the holo guild for a substitute. And before you say anything, I already know. It turned out to be pure trash. But listen. We’ve still got tomorrow to re-tape your performance.”

“Re-tape it? I don’t know,6 Sal.”

“You can still go out strong. You know Astrov’s part in your sleep.”

“Yeah, but I finally made the break from all this nonsense with the holos. To go back into the studio with Brandt, and bail him out to boot, I don’t know.”

Sal said, “I found out today that the Holo Arts Review is sending their big name national blogger to review our opening night. The way it is now, they’ll chew it up and spit it out for Sunday breakfast. He paused for effect, and then pulled out the stops. “Even if Brandt deserves such a fate, Chekhov certainly doesn’t.”

Blake was thoughtful and then finally said, “Alright, I’ll do it, Sal. I don’t think I could really bear to see poor old Astrov’s role mangled by the holo guild. But only under one condition…”

&&&

“Are you out of your mind?” Brandt yelled, leaning over Sal’s desk, his face the color of an early nectarine just starting to turn to scarlet. “I don’t care how well Blake thinks he knows the part, he can’t do it live.”

“That’s his only deal and I’m taking it, Brandt.”

“The public is coming to see holo and we’ve got to give them a holo,” Brandt argued.

“They’re coming to see a play,” Sal countered.

“Blake’s under contract to do a holo, not a live performance.”

” Nope,” Sal responded leaning back. “Blake’s scope ended with your last holo take last week. Look it up. He’s a free agent now. Look, it’s a one-time shot for Saturday night only. Then you can make another holo track from Blake’s performance so we’ll have something to use for the rest of the run. It’s either that or use that miserable performance I looked at last night. You think your reputation is going anywhere with that? Look, no one will be the wiser. I get a class production. Your holo-directing skin is saved, and Blake gets to do one last show. He told me he’s retiring after this one you know.”

“Oh, that’s great, just great,” Brandt said. “We simply go back to the dark ages. Real progress I’d say. Instead of taping it properly, we run the holo with a blank space for Astrov, and then somehow sneak Blake onstage to play it. And what the hell for? Some has-been who thinks he can –“

“Listen to me, you ignorant son of a bitch.” Sal jumped to his feet, pointing at Brandt, his cigar billowing smoke like a smoking pistol. “Blake Morrisey was winning awards onstage ten years before you were in diapers. And he knows Astrov’s part better than you’ll ever begin to grasp up in your editing room.”

Brandt was momentarily stunned. Grabbing the moment, Sal pushed on. “I’m still producing this show and I believe we still have a contract that takes us to the end of the season. And it’s going to end up a great season too. So I’ll be damned if I’m going to put that drivel the holo guild mistakenly calls acting onto my stage.”

Brandt said in a calculating tone, “What makes you think Blake can do it without other actors and actresses onstage? He’ll be out there all alone, watching piped-in holo images, with only the geo-sensors to guide him into position.”

“He can do it because when he walks onstage and he is Astrov, from the inside out, living and breathing Astrov’s character. You don’t realize that do you? When you become the character onstage, you will do as the character would. An amazing skill really. It’s called acting.”

Brandt sulked silently as Sal drove on. “This doesn’t go beyond us and your technicians. If you’re the best holo man in the field, find a way to make it happen. I know Blake can do his part. All he wants is one last live show.”

Finally Brandt said grudgingly, “Ok, I think I can make it happen. His ego had come to the rescue. But if this blows up, it’s your funeral, not mine. Your decision, not mine.”

“Agreed.” As Brandt started out of the office Sal said, “Oh, there’s one other thing. Blake says he will give you the rights to his holo performance for this show, but he wants the archival holo rights to it. He looks at it as his legacy I guess.”
“Fine, fine, work it up with legal. I’ve had it with this whole Chekhov business anyway,” Brandt said rushing out.

Brandt finished the set-up by mid-afternoon. Blake would get his bearings from a grid of geopositioning marks they had laid out on the stage, with the geo-sensors and motion pulsors under his clothes to guide him. Chairs and other propos were positioned onstage and synched to the holo tape that would be used. Three hours to show time, Sal went to the dressing rooms to check on Blake and wish him luck. Sal had gone through many second thoughts about the scheme, finally coming to the realization that even if the play wasn’t perfect, it would still be better than the previous version. He knocked twice and went in.

Blake was in front of the mirror, dabbing something around his eyes. Astrov’s character was about halfway there. Sal could see that Blake was in top form, his face beaming and not only due to the lights. He was brimming with confidence and he was humming.

“Hello Sal,” he said enthusiastically.

Sal nodded. “Blake, you really are going to bring the house down, aren’t you?”

“Da,” Blake said in character, and then with thick Russian accent, “The show must go on.”

The holo-curtain rose precisely at 8 o’clock. Next to him in the first row balcony, Sal’s wife squeezed his arm to congratulate him. He had told her little except that he was under great pressure to open the play. Astrov would come onstage in about ten minutes. When the cue came, Sal held his breath. Finally, Blake walked onto the stage. He looked convincing, moving across the set with Astrov’s brusque step. Sal looked carefully for things that would give away the scheme. But there were none. The performance was masterful. During the intermission, a line of people came up to tell him how fantastic the play was.

By the middle of the second act Sal stopped looking for errors. In fact, he forgot about the whole scam altogether and simply watched. The play was perfect and Blake was spellbinding as Astrov. He did what a great actor can. He made Sal forget he was attending the theatre; he was in 1910 Russia.

During the final act, Astrov picked up a set of paints and drawing materials from a table that had been precisely placed on the set, and said “How quiet it is. The pens scratch and the cricket churrs.” He paused for effect. “I don’t want to go.” The sound of hoofs came from an offstage speaker.

“There are my horses,” he said, looking offstage. “There is nothing left for me but to say goodbye to you, my friends, to say goodbye to my table, and be off.” Then he walked off the stage.

Sal wiped away a solitary tear that had made it half way down the side of his nose. The play had ended without a fault, and Sal was jolted back to the present by the thunder of applause around him. The standing ovation went on for several minutes, and demanded a curtain call. How could Brandt manage that? The entire holo-recorded cast came onstage. There was a noticeable blank spot in the line where the holo track had erased Astrov. Then, Blake squeezed in between. The decibel level rose even louder. Sal’s hands were getting tired. Still the applause went on. Sal noticed that Blake didn’t quite fit into the holo curtain call. One of his arms seemed to disappear behind the actress next to him. But at this point, who cares? Sal certainly didn’t, and no seemed to notice.

Sal waded through the crowd to get back stage. There weren’t any post-production crowds back there, or actors and actresses still in costume. There no sounds of Champaign corks being popped, like the old opening nights. In holo-theatre, performance nights backstage were as empty as the far side of the moon. Except tonight Blake was back there getting undressed, in hiding, which was certainly unfitting for the performance he had just given. Despite the chance of being seen, Sal wanted to congratulate him. He deserved that much.

Sal reached the dressing room and knocked quietly. No answer. He knocked again and went in. “Blake?” The room was flooded with light coming from a dressing table mirror. A smell of makeup powder hung in the air. Blake came out from behind a curtain. They just looked at each other for along moment, grinning. Finally Sal said, “Yes, you really did it, Blake. That was the performance of your life, my friend.”

Sunday morning the Holo Review streamed online at exactly 10 AM. It was possibly the highest praise Sal had ever seen for a play, holo or real, in over fifteen years. The review concluded: “This magnificent performance evoked Astrov in ways not seen in over a hundred years, and will set the mark for years to come.”

On Monday afternoon, Brandt came roaring into Sal’s office. “Did you see the reviews? We really pulled it off. This play is going to go mega, Sal, with full houses all year. And can you imagine the holo-residuals? Everyone will want to use Blake’s stuff, on all kinds of projects, and they’ll need me to help them do it. I’ve got my agent reaching out to the other holo directors right now. We’re even talking virtual dome production. This is huge, Sal, huge.”

“Yeah, well about that, Ritchie,” Sal said leaning back and smiling. “We have to go one step at a time. You see, we have Blake’s holo performance rights for last night only. But not going forward.”

“What are you talking about? I made that play happen.”

“That may be true, but if Blake’s holo image is used again, this season or next year, or ever, he gets the royalties.”

“That can’t be.”

“Yeah it be, Ritchie. Blake insisted on a holo archival license, remember? And you agreed to it.”

“Archival license? That’s, that’s –”

“That’s the law, Ritchie. All you have is the right to the basic play only with that great big hole in it for the Astrov character, the one you lost, remember? Now, you can always put in one of the holo guild guys, or your blue collar guy. But they will have to do all of their own acting. The holo can’t use any of Blake’s images without paying him royalties.”

The wheels were spinning in Brandt’s head. “So how much does he want?” he said quietly.

“Oh, he’s not going to put it on the holo market at all. He and I talked to the financial backers this morning actually. After the rave reviews, they are most eager to use Blake’s holo for the season, and will pay him. Blake has agreed to give up his holo rights for the season if his entire share of the profits is put into the Performance Guild for live acting.

“What?”

“Yeah,” Sal continued, “the guys in the suits weren’t real pleased with it either, but decided they had to do it to save their reps in the holo business. As you would say, it would encode some real bad buzz if a major holo folded after only one night. I must say though, they did have some serious concerns about you losing the holo track in the first place, and then giving up the archival license to Blake so quickly. Quite surprised actually. They said something about calling you in tomorrow to talk about it. But I’m sure that’s nothing to worry about, Ritchie. You can boot up some sort of performance for them, right?”

Brandt’s jaw hung open, vibrating slightly. “I will finish you in this business, Morino.”

“Oh no need for that Ritchie. This is going to be my last season in the holos anyway. Blake has hired me to produce the new Performance Guild live productions, and with this year’s profits, I’ll be set for quite a while.”

“This industry will leave you in the dust, Morino.”

“That may be true,” Sal replied. “The holos are here to stay, I can’t stop that. And they’re brilliant illusions, too, unquestionably. I can’t really compete with that either. But I’ve decided to stop living an illusion myself. So I’m going back to the real thing: producing plays with actual live acting. As a famous playwright once said, To thine own self be true.”

“Yeah, yeah” Brandt said glumly, “another of your Chekhov quotes, right?”

“No, Ritchie. It’s from a play you probably aren’t too familiar with, called Hamlet. It was written by a real old school guy by the name of William Shakespeare.”

* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Patrick Ritter 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *