An Amazing Weekend
by Marguerite Krause
We arrived in Champaign on Friday evening, and went to the home of Diane, a member of RAIL and RAFL (the René Auberjonois Internest List and Fan-fiction List, respectively), to join the party already in progress there. Diane welcomed about half-a-dozen out-of-state René fans to stay at her house for the weekend, and even those of us who were staying at the hotel enjoyed hanging out in her living room to watch videotapes of DS9 and other shows that René has appeared in, eat, and generally get all psyched up for the coming two days of fun. As we left, a nice little mini-snowstorm was in progress, which seemed to entertain several of the fans visiting from California and other southern states; one woman mentioned that this was only the third time in her life that she had actually been able to stand outside and have snowflakes fall from the sky onto her face! I took this as a promising sign that we were all in for a unique, magical experience.
The week before this convention took place, René was in Montreal to film a guest appearance in a new TV show (the title is something like "The New Adventures of Jules Verne"), and that his reservations for the flight from Montreal to Champaign were on American Airlines! This is relevant as soon as you remember that during the week of February 8-12, the AA pilots were engaging in a work slowdown, and as the week went on, AA was having to cancel more and more flights. By the time Friday rolled around, I believe they cancelled over 1,000 flights for that day! So, on Friday evening at Diane's house there was a lot of nervous anticipation in the air: would René physically be able to get from Montreal to Champaign, or would he end up stranded in an airport somewhere with thousands of other unhappy American Airlines customers?
Saturday, February 13
The convention officially started at 10:00 a.m., with the opening of the dealers' room and some sci-fi blooper reels in the main ballroom. In general, this was a pretty nice Star Trek convention. In addition to René, the scheduled guests were Nana Visitor, Grace Lee Whitney, and Annie Lockhart (Annie played Lt. Sheeba on Battlestar Galactica and is the daughter of June Lockhart, who played one of the Dr. Robinsons on the 60s Lost in Space TV show -- so Annie is a second-generation science fiction star).The dealers' room -- the "danger room," as people called it, because of the serious threat it posed to anyone carrying a check book or charge card -- had a nice variety of collectibles, photos, videos, and even a huge table of sharp, pointy objects: swords, knives, and quite vicious-looking, full-size bat'leths! (There were also teeny, tiny bat'leths, which we took to calling "The Letter Opener of Kahless," and which of course got all of us Dr. Who fans reminicsing about "The Sash of Rassilon" and "The Toaster of Rassilon," and coming up with new ideas that people could market to Star Trek fans, like "The Butter Knife of Kahless" or "The CD Collection of Kor.")
The layout of the convention worked well. The registration table -- and a little concession stand selling pop and hot dogs -- was at the main door. From there, you walked to your right down a long hallway, and on your left found the dealers' room. If you continued down the hallway, you came to a corner lobby with a nice set of floor-to-ceiling windows. That's where the con organizers, Dave and Janette Scott, provided tables for the fan clubs. There were two fan organizations present; our contingent of René fans, and the local East Central Illinois Star Trek & Sci-Fi Club, the U.S.S. Bortas. (Several members of Nana's fan club were also at the con, but they didn't set up a table). From this corner lobby, you turned left and entered a short hall leading to the main ballroom, where all of the videos and guest appearances took place.
So, we set up our ORACLE table right there at the intersection, where everyone at the convention had to walk past us many times each day! It was an ideal place to get lots of attention, and I suspect that just about every one of the hundreds of people who attended the con each day took a look at our 'zines and autographed photos at least once over the course of the weekend. The ORACLE table also became the central meeting place for our group, and a spot to just relax and socialize between visits to the dealers' room, or while waiting for René or Nana to take the stage.
Several of the guests arrived safely in Champaign on Friday night. René had to work late in Montreal on Friday, but on Saturday he made it to Champaign before noon (by way of Detroit!), which was a huge relief to all of us who had come to see him (not to mention to Dave the con producer, who certainly didn't want to face the riot that might have ensued if he had had to tell people that one of his headliner stars wasn't going to be able to make it!).
The early events on Saturday at the convention proceeded as scheduled. In addition to assorted blooper reels, the main ballroom held appearances by Grace Lee Whitney, Annie Lockhart, and an excellent stunt team called "Crossed Swords," who demonstrated stage and film fighting techniques (with, I believe, bare hands, swords, and bat'leths, though I can't swear to the details because I never caught their whole show).
A few minutes before 3:00 we closed down the ORACLE table and all went in to hear René. We caught the last moments of Nana's talk: someone brought up the subject of how Kira seems to always be attracted to men in positions of power, like prominent religious leaders, heads of government, and chiefs of security.... and René took that as his cue and joined Nana on stage. The audience applauded wildly and Nana grinned at him with delight (she has an absolutely gorgeous smile, wide and bright as a spotlight). She was holding the only microphone, but we were sitting in about the sixth row, so we could hear him, too. She introduced him ("Ladies and gentlemen, René Auberjonois!") and then he said, "I'm here to spell you."
Nana immediately looked confused -- and slightly suspicious. "Spell me? What does that mean, spell me?"
René looked astonished. "You know, spell you -- give you a break. Don't tell me you've never heard that expression before?"
"No! You're making it up. Has anyone here ever heard of that -- spell you?"
Of course, almost the entire audience affirmed that they had heard the expression before, and René did a "See? I told you so!" expression, and Nana continued to look doubtful, and it was all very funny. Dave the con organizer at this point told the audience to say goodbye to Nana and that we'd see her later, and everyone applauded her off the stage. When she was gone, René said something like, "She wouldn't have had to leave right away, but there's only the one mic and I'm not going to share it!" which of course got more laughs. He then continued, saying something like, "I can't believe she never heard that expression. She acted like I was suggesting something dirty!" And then he dropped into a low, suggestive voice and crooned, "I'm hear to spell you -- N - A -N- A!" accompanied by suitable body language, and the audience roared.
I can't repeat the whole Q & A session here, but it was great -- René was witty and funny part of the time, intense and sincere at other times, and the audience was in the palm of his hand the entire hour. Among the things René talked about were his mixed feelings at the approaching end of DS9. He'll be relieved to be finished with the 4:30 a.m. make-up calls and long days of sitting around in that uncomfortable mask and the demands made on your personal life when you're in the cast of an hour-long drama. The shooting schedule is never the same from week to week, and if a certain episode runs into snags, you never know when some assistant director is going to call you at midnight to tell you to be in at 5:00 the next morning -- or not until 7:00 the next evening. However, he is going to miss seeing his good friends every day -- and he mentioned not just the cast members, but people we in the audience never get to know, like the costumer who helps him in and out of his costume all day. He then described -- miming quite a bit of the action as he went -- how the costumes aren't particularly comfortable, and everyone in the cast has their own way of coping. Nana takes off her jacket, then has someone unzip the back of her her blouse, "and walks around flashing her bra strap at the rest of us." René takes off his jacket, which has a very high collar, and then when it's time to shoot the next scene, this particular costumer is always the one who helps him pull on the jacket, and adjust the shoulder pads, which look ridiculous if they're in the wrong place, and then fastens the buttons right below René's chin.... and half the time René is getting impatient at this point, and he mimed how he taps his foot and stares up toward the ceiling muttering "Come on, come on!" as the poor costumer fumbles to try to get the tight collar fastened! René went on to say that after seven years there's a true sense of family among the cast and crew on a show like DS9, and he will miss the regular opportunity to be with everyone. He also will miss having steady work, because he's always been the kind of actor who likes to work, and he will miss playing Odo, who has continued to grow and change as a character and therefore stayed interesting for René.
After his talk (he ran a little past 4:00 p.m.), René left the stage and Dave told people how the autograph sessions would work. We slipped out and opened up the ORACLE table again. To our delight, we found that Nana was set up to sign her autographs at a table right outside the dealer room, after which the line came down the hall toward our lobby -- and René would be autographing at a table set up at the end of the hall, right in front of us! One of the other con staff people even came over and had us angle our table a little bit, so as soon as people finished getting their autograph with René, they almost had to see our table, and many stopped to talk and buy things. We had photos that weren't available in the dealers' room, all autographed -- which wasn't so important for the ones of Kira and Odo, but we also had photos of other characters, too, such as shots of Bashir & Garak, Bashir & Leeta, and Bashir by himself in various scenes.
The autograph line finally trickled to a halt a little after 6:00 p.m. René and Nana went back to their rooms to prepare for the play -- and we closed down the ORACLE table, carried everything back to our room, and got dressed for dinner.
The Saturday night dinner in the ballroom started close its scheduled time of 7:00 p.m. The capacity of the room was about 250 people, and it was very close to a full house. The round tables seated 10 people each, and there were cash bars set up on either side of the room. The stage was the same one that had been used all afternoon, but it was dressed now for the play with two desks, chairs, desk lamps, and a couple of potted plants that clearly deliniated two separate rooms, one masculine, one feminine.
I give credit to the con organizer again, because he had arranged that dinner was entirely served, and cleared, and the bars closed before it was time to start the play. While the last plates and glasses were being removed from the tables, Dave sat on stage and answered a few questions about the next day's events, and then he asked for a show of hands of how many people in the audience had never been to a live theatrical performance before. Not many raised their hands, but a few did, so he gave a succinct (and tactful) overview of theater etiquette -- basically, that this was not like one of the Q & A sessions, where people often wander in and out, or talk among themselves, while the actors are onstage. Then he introduced the play, and René and Nana entered from the doors immediately to the right and left of the stage, took their places, and began.
The play.... I can't do it justice in a description. It was fantastic! The audience was totally caught up in it from the moment René opened his mouth to Nana's final word. I had been a little leery about the setting: it was a huge ballroom, there was no theatrical lighting -- just bright lights over the stage area, and during the play they dimmed the lights in the rest of the room -- and I wasn't sure what to expect from the audience. But the play, W. H. Aubrey's Love Letters, was perfect for the venue. I've already described the entire set -- there were no scene changes, no lighting changes, no special effects. Just the two characters, Andrew (Andy) Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa, seated at their desks, reading aloud the letters they write to one another over the course of about 60 years. Andy reads the first letter: a note accepting an invitation to a birthday party for Melissa. Melissa's first letter to Andy is a thank you for the present he brought. René and Nana were fantastic -- so professional, so subtle, yet so powerful, working almost entirely with their voices and faces, though both made occasional, perfect-for-that-moment gestures with their hands. The audience was totally responsive: stone silent where appropriate, then erupting in laughter at all the right places. The letters covered the whole range of experiences and reactions two people might encounter in their lives; sometimes Andy and Melissa are happy, sometimes they're furious with one another, sometimes they fall almost totally out of touch, only to connect again. It was fascinating!
As the play opens, Andy is about 8 and Melissa, 6. Both René and Nana used subtly child-like voices for the early letters, matched by a certain innocence in their facial expressions. As the characters aged, we could hear and see the gradual changes. However, the text of the play was admirable, too -- the style of the letters changed perfectly to match the maturity of the characters as they moved from grade school, to boarding school, to college, to adulthood. There was no exposition, no blatant explanation of who these people were -- it was all there in the letters or, on a few significant occasions, in the silences between the lines, waiting for the audience to fill in the implications. Although the play is about Andy and Melissa's relationship through the years, it is also about writing -- Melissa complains, more than once during their lives, that she hates writing letters and she hates reading letters and why doesn't Andy just phone her? -- but Andy loves everything about writing, from the feel of the pen and paper in his hands to the beauty of words, and he has one especially impassioned speech about how important it is that he express his thoughts to her on paper. It was marvelous.
After the play, René and Nana took their bows and left the stage, and a DJ who was set up in a corner of the ballroom started his set for the dance that was next on the schedule. He quite sensibly started with some soft, slow love songs, and a bunch of people moved to the dance floor for some Valentine's Eve bonding. René and Nana came out to "mingle" with the crowd, and many people stopped and expressed their thanks for the marvelous performance.
The members of RAIL/RAFL/ORACLE wanted to thank René and Nana for how generously they share their time and energy with the fans. However, René doesn't like to receive material "stuff" -- that is, unless it's something creatively hand-made by the giver. So, for this convention, we gave little gift boxes -- one to René and one to Nana -- stuffed with our best wishes: messages of "thanks" or inspirational thoughts or poems or whatever, written on little strips of paper by all of the members of ORACLE, RAIL, RAFL, and the Nanites who were at the convention. So, while the dance was going on, paper strips were made available to everyone who wanted to participate in this little project.
Sunday, February 14
Around 8:45 a.m., the René fans started gathering at our ORACLE table in the corner lobby. The convention itself wasn't opening until 10:00, but that was okay -- we were making our own entertainment. Cristal and Carolyn had brought the two gift boxes for René and Nana, and some ribbon, and as members of our group arrived with their written wishes, we rolled them up into little cylinders and tied them with the ribbon. The Nanites took charge of Nana's box, and Cristal filled René's.
At 10:00, members of the fans clubs gathered in a private dining room to have brunch with René. (Nana had also been invited, but was unable to attend.) In all, we had 29 people at the breakfast; quite a crowd! The two doors to the room were open to the hallway for part of the morning, but a couple of people glanced in at one point, apparently wondering what was going on (and if they could join us), so about halfway through the morning we closed the doors. Toward the end of the brunch the room was getting a bit stuffy, at which point we opened a window, and that made it okay again.
Everyone spent the first ten minutes or so just eating and talking to the people nearest them, but as soon as René finished his meal, he leaned his elbows on the table and looked around at us and said, "So, who came the farthest to be here?" That was a great conversation opener, and an easy question to answer, because one of the Nanites was visiting from Cologne, Germany! After that, the conversation meandered all over the place -- and it was a conversation. Although René did much of the talking, it wasn't just another Q & A session; people jumped in with comments and opinions, and we talked to one another as well, not just to René. There was some talk of DS9, of course, but we also talked about the previous evening's Love Letters performance, which led into conversation about live theater in general. René was quite eloquent in expressing his love for that particular art form. It was obvious that he had quite enjoyed the experience of performing live theatre for a Star Trek crowd.
Regarding Love Letters, someone asked René how he and Nana had prepared for the play, and he explained that it is designed to be "reader's theatre." He bought a copy of the script a couple of weeks before the convention, and about one week before the convention he and Nana did a read-through of it in her trailer at Paramount during their lunch break. René said that the author has a note at the beginning, instructing the actors not to look at one another during the course of the play, and that was one of the most difficult things about it, especially because each of them was trying to "play" to the entire ballroom. René was seated stage right, facing slightly right of center, and Nana was seated stage left, facing slightly left of center, so they didn't exactly have their backs to one another -- and when René wanted to face the audience on his left (or Nana the audience to her right) it was quite a trick to avoid seeing the other actor! The fact that they didn't rehearse the piece meant that they were reading -- and experiencing -- the "letters" as if they were hearing the words for the first time, which René said helped add emotional honesty to their performances. He also said that even if he and Nana perform the play at other conventions (something that is starting to happen!) they will never rehearse it; they'll just perform it for the new audience, and always try to keep it as "fresh" as possible.
One of the many other subjects that came up at the brunch on Sunday morning was a running joke that's been going on between René and some of his fans for many conventions now. It began at a convention when René greeted his fan club (at a Q & A session or a luncheon or something), and the fans in attendance all stood up and bowed deeply, over and over, chanting "We are not worthy! We are not worthy!" (a gag from the movie Wayne's World.) René at various times has acted either appalled and embarrassed at these shenanigans, or as if he relishes the homage and groveling as only his due. On Sunday, Carolyn expressed disappointment that he hadn't acknowledged his fan club during the Q & A on Saturday, because the whole group had been ready and waiting to stand up and do their "We are not worthy!" routine. He laughed, and expressed relief that he'd escaped being subjected to such a spectacle.
At the end of the brunch, Carolyn presented René with his gifts, and thanked him for his part in the wonderful weekend we were all enjoying, and for spending time with us. René in turn thanked all of us for our support and enthusiasm, and said a few more words about how much he had enjoyed doing live theatre for us -- how all of us had been part of something unique on Saturday night, and how that particular give and take, between him and Nana and between both of them and our specific audience, will never happen quite that way again, and is therefore something precious, a one-of-a-kind, mutual gift shared between audience and performers. (He said it more eloquently than that, but that's the general idea.)
The final event on the convention schedule was a Q & A session with René and Nana together on stage, which began at 2:30 Sunday afternoon. After the general applause died down, one of the first things Nana said was how touched she was by the gift she had received from the fan clubs. She told us she had read all of the well-wishes and was so grateful for our kind words and support. Before the moment could get too serious or sentimental, however, René spoke up in the background, to point out that this very nice gift came from his fans. Immediately one of the Nanites in the front row said, "It was their idea, but we tied all of the little bows in your box, Nana!" René and Nana continued to joke around in this vein for a while -- Nana pretending to be unconcerned about the small number of people in attendance from her club, René saying, "No, don't let her fool you, this is a big area of competition, whenever any of us come back from conventions it's always, 'So, how many people were there to see you?' " and then Nana brushing his teasing aside, only to turn back to the people in the front row and ask, all worried, "But you did tie the bows, right?"
And then René gestured to us (most of the ORACLE/RAIL/RAFL people were sitting in the same few rows) and said, "Come on, all of you, stand up so we can see you," which caught more than a few members of our group by surprise -- after what he'd said at brunch, we hadn't expected him to give us a chance to do our "We are not worthy" schtick. We all stood, and as Nana was thanking us, René said, "Well? Aren't you going to do it?" which banished any lingering doubts anyone might have had, so we proceeded to pay homage, which Nana (and the rest of the audience) found highly amusing.
This was the first time that René and Nana had shared a stage for a Q & A session, and it went beautifully. They seemed to get about an equal number of individual questions, and many that were directed at both of them, which was nice. It was also fascinating to watch how closely each of them paid attention while the other was talking -- it seemed as if they were as interested in listening to each other as we were!
One question had to do with whether Sid had any problem with the love relationship -- and loving scenes -- between Odo and Kira. René and Nana talked about how there's absolutely nothing romantic about filming kisses or intimate moments for a TV show or movie; it's like trying to make love in a construction zone. Technicians are all over the place, eating donuts and talking among themselves; the sound engineer is pushing a mic to within a centimeter of your nose; and as actors you're trying to think of a million things at once, not just your lines but where you have to walk, where you turn, when you do this or that bit of blocking.
Then Nana said, "Besides, Sid is a living, breathing example of the stiff-upper-lip, nothing fazes him British gentlemen. If he watched a scene, he'd say 'Well done, very nice,' and that would be it." As she described Sid's total calm, she dropped into a British accent and adopted some of his manerisms, which was really cute. She then said, "I'll give you an example. When this happened, Sid asked me not to tell anyone, so this will just be between us," which made everyone laugh, and René in the background was shaking his head, because he commented more than once over the course of the weekend how he and the rest of the cast are well aware of, and more than a little in awe of, the far-reaching fandom network, and that anything they say gets out on the Internet within a matter of hours.
According to Nana, Sid was in the process of redecorating their kitchen -- doing all of the carpentry on new cabinets and everything, because he loves working with his hands on projects like that, and doing a very nice job. One day he was in there, cutting wood with a table saw, and then she heard the saw stop and he said something like, "Oh, dear." Then she didn't hear anything for a few minutes, and when she went to see what was going on, he had gone into the bathroom for some band-aids, because he had cut his finger. Turned out that he hadn't just "cut" his finger -- he had sliced it down the entire length, almost to the bone! Nana right away insisted he had to go to the emergency he room, and he kept saying, "No, no, it's just a scratch," (delivered in Nana's low-key, utterly proper British accent). She finally convinced him to go, and he got stitches and everything was fine, and when he came back he insisted on going right back to work where he'd left off! Nana said she kept telling him to take the rest of the day off, to go lie down and recuperate, and he kept being cool and calm and unconcerned. Only once that afternoon did he even acknowledge that his finger hurt, and that was merely to comment at one point, "Ah. I felt that." So that was Nana, telling tales on Sid.
René and Nana were onstage from 2:30 to 4:00, and every minute was interesting and entertaining. At 4:00, the schedule called for another autograph session, so René and Nana went to their tables in the corridor, the same arrangement that had been used on Saturday.
All in all, it was a fantastic weekend -- great fans, great guests, and the highlight of the event, the play performance on Saturday night.
One last, important note: when all of the accounting was done, the autographed photos and other items our group sold at the ORACLE table over the course of the weekend raised a total of $1,512, which will be donated to Doctors Without Borders, one of the charities René supports.
The generosity of the Star Trek actors, and their fans, is an amazing thing.