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Trek Expo 2001

Tulsa, Oklahoma Convention Center
June 23, 2001

reports by Marguerite Krause and Christine M. Bichler

Marguerite

The Tulsa Trek Expo was a three-day convention that included a huge dealer's room, question-and-answer sessions with actors and other creative people from a variety of SF media (including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Andromeda, and Farscape), autograph sessions, and special events in the evenings: RenÚ and Armin's "Theatrical Jazz" on Friday night and a "Barbeque with the Stars" dinner and charity fundraiser on Saturday night.

My husband Mike and I were only able to be at the convention on Friday, the day of RenÚ's appearance, so that's what I'll talk about in this report.

The convention was held at the Tulsa Expo Center. The building is a huge, cement-floored place that reminded me of an airplane hanger, with metal beams and rafters high overhead, the size of several football/soccer fields.... big enough to hold a monster truck rally or an entire 4-H club horse exhibition or a trade show for manufacturers of gigantic farm equipment.... in other words, it was huge. If you ever have problems with claustrophobia, or don't like being bumped and jostled in crowds, you would have had no problems here. The con occupied perhaps a third of the floor space available-the building staff created a dealer's "room" with rows and aisles using cloth curtain dividers on metal frameworks about eight feet tall. Behind the dealer's area was the "auditorium", another huge space marked off with these cloth and metal "walls" and surrounded on three sides by metal bleachers. Imagine a "cavernous" space and you'll have a good idea of what the Expo Center was like.

Mike and I arrived with all the photos and fan club materials for the ORACLE table right around 8:00 a.m. on Friday, and managed to meet the gentleman organizing things, who told us where we were supposed to set up. Turned out we were way on the very end of one of the rows in the dealer's room, next to the Klingons (local club providing security for the con) and a couple of other groups, one promoting a local SF con, the other the local Scottish Club! Right in front of our table was a booth from a radio station, but instead of playing loud music all day, they had several computers set up so people could play the Tomb Raiders computer game and pick up coupons for a free ticket to that movie. Across the aisle from us were some tables for gamers, next to them was a Dippin' Dots stand and some other food, and right behind all that stuff was the bathrooms. So, we were kind of off in a corner, but it was a pleasant corner.

It was really well-lit and actually pretty well air-conditioned in the building (at least on Friday), so in that way it was a comfortable setting for a convention. However, the "auditorium" area was so large and echoing that, from the general admission seats in the back bleachers, the people on stage looked so small they were featureless. The con organizers had set up a camera system and projection screen to stage left, but the camera operators (when I was watching) never seemed to do close-ups of the speakers' faces, so the images on the screen were only a little bit larger than life size - not much help if you like to see people's expressions as they talk. The sound system seemed okay to me - you got a bit of an echo effect, but the times I was in there I didn't have trouble understanding the speaker. However, since I only ducked into the auditorium a couple of times during the day to listen for a minute or two, my impression of that part of the con was pretty limited.

Mike and I arrived and got the table set up, and Talia arrived shortly after we did, bearing donuts, which were much appreciated. Her mom works at the Expo Center, so Talia knew how to get in without having to go past the Klingons. Talia, her sister Sandie, and Lindsay, all Oklahoma residents, did a fantastic job of providing hospitality for our ORACLE and RAFL members. With Talia's help, we got the photos and fanzines all laid out, and became acquainted with the Klingons, who were actually very nice and helpful all day. So were the other staff/security people connected with the convention, who came by several times to see that we had water to drink and generally make us feel welcome.

The doors opened at 11:00, and over the next couple of hours most of our ORACLE/RAFL folks managed to find us and say hello, and find out the time and place for the evening room party. Talia introduced me and Mike to Dippin' Dots - very tasty, teeny-tiny balls of ice cream. Yum! At some point around noon, Armin came down and checked out our location, but none of us saw him - we only found out because one of the Scottish club people came over and mentioned it about half-an-hour later! We must have been selling photos to fans at the time, and I guess he didn't want to get pulled into any conversations right then.

The dealer's room, by the way, had the usual extensive displays of Trek and other SF memorabilia and also a lot of actors and I think even a couple of writers-eight or ten people, perhaps-who were signing and selling photos at tables around the room, including France Nuyen from Original Trek, Adam West ("holy publicity opportunity, Batman!"), and Judson Scott. Another guest was James Doohan, whose table was right around the corner from ours, which made some traffic problems for us, because his autograph line tended to snake right across our aisle, so if you didn't know we were down that way, you'd just see the crowd and not realize there was anything beyond them. 

Armin visiting René at the table -- photo by Mike

I think it was about 1:00 p.m. or so when RenÚ came down to join us at the table. He told us later that he left home in LA about 4:30 in the morning to go to the airport to come to Tulsa, after doing some cartoon voice recording Thursday. He was brought from the airport straight to the convention center, where they probably expected him to hang out in the green room (actors' lounge) before his first scheduled appearance but instead, he came and sat at the ORACLE table. For over three hours, he signed photos and drew cartoons for people, and shook hands and listened to fans tell him how much they liked Odo or The Patriot or whatever they wanted to talk about. 

Marguerite, René and Talia at the ORACLE table -- photo by Mike

Because we were kind of tucked in a corner, RenÚ never did attract a huge crowd, which made things pretty relaxed and fun (though a little more activity would have been better for the charity fund). The first thing RenÚ did when he arrived was sign a stack of 500 photos for the con promoter, and Talia and Sandie helped with that-which is a challenge, because RenÚ signs FAST and the person helping has to quickly pull the top photo off the pile as soon as he signs it, so he can sign the next one. I just watched and heckled from the sidelines.

I think every one of our ORACLE and RAFL members came by and hung around the table at one point or another, in between when they were shopping the dealer's room or listening to the various Q&A sessions. One of the things I liked to watch was when a fan would bring his or her young children up to meet RenÚ. There were several little kids who were either Odo fans or fans of The Little Mermaid, and the parents would explain to them who RenÚ was, and then buy them one of RenÚ's "Odo's Bucket" cartoons. RenÚ would invite the kid to stand right in front of him at the table, and then explain what he was doing as he drew the cartoon: "This is the top of the bucket, and these are the sides. This is the floor the bucket is sitting on, and this is the handle...." and so on, until he would get to the part where he draws the little thought bubble coming out of the bucket, and he would put the child's name in the bubble, with a heart, and explain, "and Odo is sleeping in his bucket, and he's dreaming of you."

At 3:30, Armin did his Q&A session, and then RenÚ went on at 4:30.

Notes on RenÚ's Question & Answer Session
by Chris

Note: Questions and answers are paraphrased (hence the use of third person) from the notes that I took, which were transcribed onto my laptop moments after the session took place. However, there was a lag of several months between my taking those notes and "polishing up" the final version you see here. Items that appear in quotation marks are actual quotes, to the best of my memory and note-taking ability. Any errors or inaccuracies are my own fault (as are my parenthetical comments)

This Q&A was preceded by the spectacle of RenÚ climbing onto stage from the front, rather than taking the stairs around backstage. This resulted in a moment of comedic flailing around and grabbing at Armin's legs.

Armin: "RenÚ! Not in front of all these people!"

Question: What are your memories of being in the musical Coco?

Answer: It was RenÚ's first Broadway show that ran for any significant length of time. His main memory was getting to know star Katharine Hepburn. RenÚ described her as "having the capacity to project her real personality" to the audience. Thus "you know her as well as I do" from her work. He recalled instances of sometimes sitting in KH's kitchen after the show (she couldn't eat before a performance and so would have a big meal afterward. RenÚ spoke of joining her for apple pie on occasion.) He described working on Coco as "a great experience."

Q: Your take on Benson (the character) versus Sisko?

A: RenÚ described himself as "great friends" with Robert Guillaume, and said it was harder to work on one-hour drama than half-hour sitcom. Benson's relationship with Clayton, according to RenÚ, is more like Odo's with Quark than Odo's with Sisko. There followed a whole digression here to talk about the latex "baby's butt" makeup that Armin had to wear on his head as Quark.

Q: About your role in The Patriot - did you go to them or did they come looking for you?

A: RenÚ's agent took a request from the film's producer. The casting sheet for the film said that the creators were looking for a "Father Mulcahy-type." RenÚ described both characters as "sweet, bumbling [and] well-meaning" - however, he noted that his character in The Patriot dies in "S-L-O-O-O-W M-O-T-I-O-N" (pronounced very slowly, while also miming the fall of the character).

Q: How can you learn enough about a character beforehand to know if its going to be worth investing seven years of your time in?

A: You don't. Odo didn't have a whole lot to do in "Emissary." RenÚ described waiting around to audition for the part. Before he went in he was told that "nobody's been grouchy enough" so far - so this was a hint that he used in his reading for the role. (The audition involved some sort of insult directed at Quark.) RenÚ noted that Michael Piller's original idea for Odo was along the lines of a "young John Wayne" but RenÚ was able to "sell" Piller a different idea for the character. RenÚ used the metaphor of a musical instrument to describe how actors develop characters-at first you're just playing someone else's music, but eventually, once writers recognize the actor's strengths, they start writing to those assets-writing FOR the actor.

Q: How did you get started? What advice would you give to young actors? 

René on stage in Tulsa -- photo by Jo Beth

A: RenÚ described being six years old in Paris, in a strange school, and a children's concert in which he got to "conduct" his classmates in a rendition of "Do You Know the Muffin Man." When the audience applauded, young RenÚ took a bow and decided "Hey - this is pretty good." He told his parents point blank on the way home that he wanted to become an actor, and never changed his mind. RenÚ then outlined some of his early experiences acting - with neighborhood kids, in college. In his words. "I acted wherever anyone would let me act." His advice was "work anywhere you can."

Q: You did voice work in The Last Unicorn. How did that come about?

A: RenÚ does lots of voice work for cartoons, is currently working on Max Steele and Disney's The Legend of Tarzan. He says he enjoys the work because it requires no makeup. "I can walk in in my shorts and sneakers." He speculated that Odo's voice was perhaps an offshoot of his work in cartoon voices, and subsequent willingness to try to "create" a new voice.

Q: How did your association with director Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, etc.) come about?

A: RenÚ's agent sent him to audition. It was very informal, according to him. RenÚ based the priest character in M*A*S*H on a friend who was also a priest. He described his character in Brewster McCloud, a professor who gradually mutates into a bird, and gave a brief listing of his Altman films. Altman was a great friend, he says, and an important influence on his work. There was a segue from here into some conversation about John Shuck-who was also in the M*A*S*H, film, and who also worked on DS9, but RenÚ didn't work that day so didn't see him. Did get to hang out with him while shooting Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, however. He noted: "Acting is a very small world. You run into the same people over and over."

Q: Are you sorry that you weren't in the TV series M*A*S*H?

A: Father Mulcahy, RenÚ noted, was not even in the show's first season. He said he wasn't interested in doing such a TV series so early in his career, and felt that at that stage it would have limited his work at a time when he was interested in doing lots of different things.

Q: (Still on TV M*A*S*H) What was it like to watch someone else play the character you created?

A: RenÚ noted that the panama hat was a character "signature" that he came up with. He also felt that William Christopher was handsomer than he was.

Q: What did you think of Odo's development from alienated and grumpy to someone much more in touch with his "human" attributes?

A: RenÚ noted an early conversation with Rick Berman in which Berman said "I think of Odo as Pinocchio." [transcriber unable to resist comment here: obviously Mr. Berman has this character confused with Data. Also note: there exists, somewhere in the Trek world, an interview with Ira Behr describing Odo as "Pinocchio in reverse" that is, wanting to be a "better wooden boy" (shapeshifter) as opposed to human.] RenÚ thinks the observation was true in this sense: Odo moves from being alienated/separated from those around him and slowly learns to relate to humanoids. He thought that given the character's line of development-having been sent out by the Founders-the writers would either have to kill Odo, which they came close to doing, or send him back to his people. This, in RenÚ's view, is the most logical ending-that Odo comes back to reconcile his people with humanoids.

Q: Is Odo's voice hard on the vocal chords?

A: RenÚ: "Don't try this at home." Odo's voice is not one that RenÚ would use on stage. But film and TV are filmed in small increments of time. RenÚ then related a story about recent work on a CD ROM project that required him to do the voice of an "elder vampire" for rather long stretches. He was additionally asked to do a second voice-the voice of a demon- "I had to do this "RRRraarraaarrrggghhhrraaaarrrgh" [approximation of sound] voice and when I left the studio I felt like Donald Duck." Afterwards, while hiking with his dogs, RenÚ had to stop his dog Cleo from chasing a skunk and screamed at her, wrecking his voice for a week. He warned that actors should be careful with their "instrument" (voice).

Q: Will you be doing the audiobook for the next sequel to Willow? Is it out yet?

A: RenÚ did not realize the book was out. The fan questioner said that yes, it was out in hardback, but no audio yet, and he was hoping for the audiobook. The questioner further asked whether is was difficult to get into that line of work (audiobooks) - RenÚ responded that yes, it is very competitive. His stage work at the Mark Taper Forum brought him into contact with Gordon Hunt, who went into cartoon work and called him in to create a character voice.

Q: Will you be on Frasier again?

A: RenÚ encouraged fans to write in and say they wanted to see the character back. The show's producers were very happy with the first show he shot, which was rather serious. The second show seemed to indicate that the character would be back, and RenÚ would very much like to play the character again.

Q: What drew you to the musical City of Angels?

A: "I've done a number of musicals. It's weird, because I can't sing." (The questioner noted that this never stopped Rex Harrison.) RenÚ then related an anecdote about babysitting Alan J. Lerner's kids one summer as a teenager and taking coffee and cantaloupe to Lerner while he and his partner were writing the songs for My Fair Lady. Coco was also written by Lerner. RenÚ only reminded him after he had snagged the role that he once babysat the writer's kids. He welcomed City of Angels as a chance to work in another musical.

Q: Would you like to do another TV series?

A: RenÚ: "Getting a TV series is like winning the lottery." He pointed out that being on two successful series is pretty rare for any actor. He admitted that he'd like to do another series, but he noted that TV is changing - "a lot of talented actors never get a chance to play in a TV series." Given a choice, though, he'd like to do "some flat-out comedy."

Q: What's it like to play a changeling?

A: RenÚ: "I like to hide inside the characters I play." He explained that he thought a changeling was a wonderful metaphor for actors, and added that he wished Odo had been allowed by the writers to mimic or become other humanoid characters, rather than animals or objects. He liked the concept of a character actor playing a shapeshifter. (At this point there were some jokes about how he should have changed into Quark to make Armin work twice as hard.) An anecdote followed about "A Man Alone." During the scene in which Kira asks if Odo has an alibi for his whereabouts during a murder, Odo responds that he was regenerating "in a pail at the back of my office." Being so focused on the character, RenÚ delivered the line with perfect seriousness, but the bucket idea apparently struck the crew and Nana and everyone else around as very funny and they all started laughing.

Q: Discuss friendships formed while working on DS9. 

René and Armin at Q and A -- photo by Jo Beth

A: Armin is RenÚ's best friend from the show. RenÚ and his wife, Judith, often have dinner with Armin and his wife, Kitty. Armin was the only member of the cast that RenÚ had known before, they had similar theatre backgrounds and work-styles. RenÚ and Armin tend to memorize their lines, whereas actors like Sid and Colm don't. RenÚ theorizes that this is because Sid's and Colm's characters are closer to their own personalities. Also, "working through makeup" is a challenge.

Q: You are a phenomenal actor.

A: RenÚ pretended not to hear, and asked questioner to repeat himself.

Q: You are a phenomenal actor.

A: Huh?

Soon the audience was roaring with laughter, applauding in agreement with questioner's statement. RenÚ began making "conducting" gestures with his hands, which can best be described as "working" the audience for applause - and then he made a "cut" motion to get us all to shut up. The questioner picked up the thread by asking whether RenÚ worked for money or "because the roles choose you."

A: RenÚ: "Yes." He talked about the fact that there are many reasons for acting, sometimes one may outweigh others. "I'm a working stiff of an actor," he admitted. "When I work, I roll up my sleeves and do my work the best I can."

Q: How did you get into directing?

A: Jonathan Frakes convinced RenÚ to try it out while directing "The Search." RenÚ talked about the training process for directors and said the favorite episodes he had directed were "The Quickening" and "Waltz." (Audience had to remind him of the titles. RenÚ's lack of hearing led to a hilarious "old man" act in which he played a bent-over old guy who couldn't recall if he'd been on Star Trek or Star Wars. This broke the audience up.)

Q: What charities do you support?

A: RenÚ said he supports Doctors Without Borders, and expressed great admiration for their work.

Marguerite

At 5:30, RenÚ and Armin did the official convention autograph line (guaranteed for reserved seating fans) along with Tony Todd (the adult Jake from "The Visitor"). Whenever I've seen RenÚ at conventions, he's always one of the fastest autograph signers there, and when he and Armin sit next to each other, RenÚ often teases Armin and tells him to hurry up, because he's holding up the line. This time, it was Tony Todd who was the slowest signer! RenÚ and Armin wanted to move right along, because they were scheduled to do their play at 8:30. Eventually the con staff started a separate line for Tony, so people could move pretty quickly past RenÚ and Armin, and then go stand in a separate spot to wait for Tony.

RenÚ and Armin finally finished about 7:45, and were driven to their hotel (RenÚ's first chance to go there!), where, RenÚ told us later, he had time to lie down for about two minutes, then change clothes and come right back for "Theatrical Jazz," which I think they started around 8:45. The first thing RenÚ and Armin did was have the whole audience move close to the stage, instead of being scattered all over the huge open space and bleachers, which was better for everyone - the audience and the actors. They did a fair amount of anecdote telling in between each of their readings, which was a lot of fun. At one point, Armin for some reason asked RenÚ how many times he'd been in a play on Broadway, and RenÚ started counting on his fingers, but then lost track - I think he named eight or nine shows before he stopped counting. 

René and Armin, Theatrical Jazz

The readings they did this time, if I remember them all, were from Good Evening, the Duke and King scene from Huck Finn, an excerpt from Galileo, and then Armin did a mesmerizing rendition of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" which was especially wonderful considering the horrible performance space - but the audience was dead quiet the whole time, really focused on him. After that, RenÚ did his solo piece, the Russian composer's song from the film Lady in the Dark that made Danny Kaye famous. It's mostly a list of composers' names, sung very fast, such as "Borodin" and "Shostakovich" and "Rimsky-Korsakov" and a bunch more I can't remember.

The funny thing about that piece was that, the whole day, all the events on stage were interpreted by a sign language interpreter. She was there for "Theatrical Jazz," too. I couldn't see her well from my seat (near the back of the crowd) but whenever I glanced in her direction, she seemed to be doing a great job. However, after RenÚ finished his song, Armin came back on stage (he went and sat in the front row of the audience to watch RenÚ) and said something to RenÚ about how the interpreter had really had a struggle with the song. Then she asked them to pass her the mic, and said, so the audience could hear, something about how she's been doing sign interpreting for years, and RenÚ is the first person who has ever stumped her! 

Fast-talking René -- photo by Jo Beth

I can believe it, too. Sign language mostly consists of single gestures that represent entire words or phrases. That's why a sign interpreter generally has no trouble keeping up when they're translating for a speaking person. However, when it comes to a proper name, the only way to sign it the first time it's used in a particular speech is to spell it out (although if the same name is used a lot, the signer will make up a shorthand symbol for it).

So, there was RenÚ, rattling off names like "Shostakovich" and "Rimsky-Korsakov" as fast as he could spit them out, while the poor interpreter was having to fingerspell "S-H-O-S-T-A-K-O -"!

What else did they do? The "lunch argument" piece from The Good Doctor was great, and then they did the scene from "Civil Defense" of Quark and Odo trapped in Odo's office. That was fun for several reasons, one of which is that they messed up once and had to stop and start over. Armin made his arms like a clapboard and yelled "Cut!" and said something like, "See? This is just what it was like during filming" and then they started at the top. The second time they got farther, but toward the end they were saying their lines and looking at each other, and I don't know which of them started it, but they started to crack up laughing for some reason, and both paused and kind of looked away from each other, trying to get back on track...and then RenÚ just passed his hand over his face, from his forehead downward, and as his hand passed he regained his serious Odo expression, and they continued. Fascinating - and fun - to watch! They concluded with "The Great Train Robbery," which was a perfect, silly way to end the evening.

Photos by Jo Beth Taylor and Mike Krause

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