06 December 2010

Short Takes: Theater War Stories

Anyone who’s been in the theater for any length of time has “war stories,” those tales of mishaps, odd occurrences, or touching moments that happen while a show is in rehearsals or performance. Some are familiar—because they happen in some form or another to so many actors—and some are unique, even incredible. I didn’t have a long or successful career on the stage, but between my amateur days and the short professional period I managed, I gathered a baker’s dozen or so tales of the weird and bizarre. I hope you find them amusing, or at least interesting. So, here goes . . . .

MARAT/SADE AND HOW THE ASYLUM TOOK OVER THE INMATES

When I was in college, the Washington and Lee University theater staged a production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. I believe there are many stories from actors who performed in this play around the world, especially those of us who played the asylum inmates and had to feign mental illnesses for the length of the rehearsals and the run. I know that castmates of mine recounted some difficulties adjusting to the real world; I had two.

It was tradition at W&L to have the cast party opening night after the performance. Usually, the director of the university theater, who also staged most of the plays, hosted the party at his house, but the cast party for Marat/Sade was at the apartment of the student actor who had designed the set. Now, a little personal background is necessary here, so bear with me. This play was produced in my sophomore year, as I recall. I had finished high school in Switzerland where we’d spoken mostly French outside our classes themselves, so when I arrived at college back in the states, I was fairly fluent in French. Though there wasn’t much need for this skill, I discovered that when I got really drunk, I started speaking French. (I can only assume that this was so; I didn’t remember it afterwards, but friends, roommates, and frat brothers all told me that that’s what happened. They could never tell me what I had said, however, because I was speaking colloquial French!) Now, at the cast party, I had had several drinks, of course—isn’t that what a college theater party’s for?—and I decided that I’d reached my limit. I would finish the drink I had in my hand and that would be it for the night, I told myself. What I hadn’t realized apparently was that the drink on which I was sucking put me over the edge, and the last thing I remember is putting on my coat to leave. According to accounts from others, I never got out the door. I stayed around and recited the entire play in French! Now, the second factoid you need to understand is that the previous year, I’d read the play for a class, in anticipation of the staging which had been announced. The class was German, however, so we read the text in Weiss’s original version. (Okay, yes, I studied French, German, and even Russian in college. I also took a non-credit course in Italian one of my profs offered on the side.) I’d never read nor even seen the French translation of the play, so I must have just translated it on the spot, though how I knew all the lines, not just my own, is beyond me. People at the party were apparently impressed, though.

As amusing as that tale is in retrospect, the other residual problem I had from working on Marat/Sade was less funny. The play had already closed by this time and our lives had all gone back to our usual college routines. A week or so after the show closed, I was eating breakfast in the fraternity dining room and I was pouring myself a glass of milk from a half-gallon carton on the table. My roommate was sitting next to me and he decided it would be funny to put his finger on the bottom edge of the carton to keep me from tipping it up far enough to pour the milk. He was being playful, just kidding around, but I flew into a rage and went absolutely nuts. I quickly realized what I was doing, going off on my friend for no reason, and stopped myself, but everyone there, including me, was shaken at my almost-violent response to such a minuscule provocation. It never happened again, thank goodness, but I decided that the exaggerated response was some delayed reaction to the weeks and weeks of work I’d done on a character who went apoplectic whenever someone touched me. One exercise in rehearsal involved each of us alone on stage while the director triggered our chosen phobia. I was crawling around on the set, cringing and writhing as the director shouted “Touch! Touch! Touch!” from the house. That’s how I was supposed to respond whenever another cast member came into physical contact with me, even by accident, during rehearsal or performance. Of course, it was all supposed to be acting, artificial behavior . . . but shit happens. You know?

THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES AND THE CHINESE INVASION

I took part in a lot of theater at college, and in the spring of my senior year, the wife of the university theater director and another faculty wife put together a performance for children that was to tour Rockbridge County, performing in elementary schools and local libraries. The production, The Emperor's New Clothes, was sponsored by Washington and Lee and our neighboring school, VMI. Aside from the two directors, W&L’s contribution was the use of the theater and its facilities (shop, make-up, costumes); VMI principally donated the use of an army deuce-and-a-half with driver to transport our set and props around the rural county. The cast and crew were open to anyone from the Lexington community, students and townies alike, and we got a lot of support, moral and material, from the town. Among these were some truly gorgeous authentic Chinese robes and gowns provided by a local minister who’d done some missionary work in China. You see, our version of ENC was set in China (and yes, I admit we did do yellowface—we were still naïve about political correctness back in the ‘60s), so the costumes were most appreciated—and truly stupendous to see!

Once we started touring the show, our routine was pretty regular. We changed into and out of our performance kit at the W&L theater as there were usually no facilities at the schools and libraries where we performed. We then drove to our bookings in a convoy of cars behind the VMI army truck. After one gig, I was driving back with our stage manger in his car, following the army truck with our sets and props, and the car broke down on the road. The convoy stopped and we all got out along the side of the road, still dressed in our Chinese costumes and wearing our yellowface make-up. The truck driver, who by regulation had to be dressed in uniform, was also on the roadside. A few cars on their way to Lexington passed us as we were standing around, and one had apparently rushed back into town and reported that the Chinese had invaded Rockbridge County. It must be "official," the messenger insisted, because there was an army truck and a soldier in the invading forces! We found out about this when we finally got back to Lexington an hour or so after the story started to spread around. What a hoot! (This being the late ‘60s, some Lexingtonians never did believe it wasn’t so.)

KIDS SAY THE DARNEDEST THINGS!

After I graduated from college, I had several months to wait before reporting for active military duty. The university theater director offered me a short-time job working in the theater shop until I had to leave, so I was back in Lexington for most of the fall term the next year. When the two women who’d produced ENC the previous spring proposed a children’s acting workshop, I asked my boss (who’s wife was one of the project’s initiators) if I could be relieved of some of my hours to participate. He readily agreed, not surprisingly, and I took over a third-grade class. Among my students were the sons of two professors I knew, one was one of my German profs and the other an English prof who was a supporter of the theater (and whose wife was the other instigator of the children’s workshop). The program lasted several weeks and though I’d never taught any theater or acting before this, much less a class for children, I figured out a pretty successful scheme of games and exercises, culminating in a final project for the last day. I had to experiment a little with my nascent teaching method, and the nine-year-olds and I got to know each other a little along the way. They all knew, for instance, that I was going into the army soon after the workshop was over and they were old enough to be aware of the Vietnam war looming beyond the cocoon of the college town. Some, I recall, had older brothers who were either in the service or waiting to get their draft notices. On the last day of the workshop, when we were all saying goodbye, the English prof’s boy came to me and, in all sincerity and well-meaningness, said, “I hope you don’t have to go to Vietnam and get killed.” At the time, of course, I had no idea where my impending military service might take me, but I’ve never forgotten those words from a little nine-year-old boy. (I didn’t go to ‘Nam. As readers of ROT will know, I fought the Cold War in Berlin, not the hot one in Southeast Asia. Maybe a little boy’s wishes were heard somewhere where fate is determined.)

AMATEURS!

I didn’t do any theater in the army until I reached Berlin. A group of GI’s eventually started our own theater troupe, but the official outfit, run by the the Special Services section, was the Berlin Entertainment Center on the headquarters compound. I did several productions with the BEC, including the Stephen Sondheim musical Company!, but the first show I did there was Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. I was originally cast as the doctor, but for reasons irrelevant here, I ended up playing Chance Wayne. (It wasn’t often that I got to play parts originated by the likes of Paul Newman, so believe me, I was thrilled, even in an army amateur production!) We weren’t very far into rehearsals when I noticed that the actress doing Princess Kosmonopolis didn’t seem to like her lines because she began dropping them a few at a time. Why the director didn’t notice this or, if she did, put a stop to it, I don’t know; I never thought to ask at the time. I didn’t say anything, either, and because so many of the Princess’s early lines have important exposition in them—between her and Chance, most of the backstory is revealed in the first scene, for instance—I started picking up her lines and adding them to my own. By the time we got to opening, I was practically doing a monologue with the Princess as an audience—and, as far as I know, no one noticed.

One night shortly after we opened, I got word through the backstage grapevine that the assistant director had decided to go on as an unannounced extra in the bar scene in Act II. I was livid. You just don’t do something like that! I said that if I found the guy on stage, I’d kill him with my bare hands. The word had apparently gotten back to the AD and someone told me he was hiding from me upstairs in the Special Services offices. I went to look for him between the acts to warn him not to pull a stunt like he planned. Well, I found him on the second floor and I think he would have shit his pants if I hadn’t calmed him down. Remember, I was a military intelligence officer and a lot of people had an inflated idea what we could and might do—James Bond, Derek Flynt, and Napoleon Solo were all still popular heroes at the time—and I never disabused any of my acquaintances of their fantasies. I just allowed the guy to believe that he might very well die if he appeared on stage that night. As Bill Cosby once said, “A lie’s as good as the truth if you can get somebody to believe it.”

On another evening, the first scene was ending. It’s a two-hander with the Princess and me in the hotel bedroom and it ends with the lights coming down as we’re returning to bed after smoking a little hash. The curtain falls as we get back in bed. But that night, it didn’t. The scene was coming to an end, we’re making our way to the bed, the lights are dimming, dimming, dimming . . . and there’s no curtain! The Princess and I, by now in bed and under the covers, are whispering to each other, “What should we do?” “Should we wait until someone notices the problem?” “Should we just get up and walk off stage in the dark?” But no one seemed to notice that the curtain hadn’t closed and that two actors were stuck on stage. Finally, we had no choice. We got up and quietly walked off stage in the semi-darkness with as much dignity as we could muster . . . and I exploded as soon as we were clear of the wings! Where was the curtain-puller? How could no one see that she hadn’t shown up? How could the stage manager not notice that the curtain stayed open? I eventually calmed down, of course, and the show went on (doesn’t it always?) and finished without further incident. No one from the audience ever said anything to me about the strange way the first scene ended that night.

In a later play at the BEC, I served as production manager for Allen Boretz and John Murray’s Room Service, a farce about theater itself. One night, the actor who played the doctor wandered back onto the stage after he’d exited to the off-stage “bathroom,” staring at his finger, because he said he’d gotten a splinter! We were dumbstruck. Even if he had gotten a splinter, why in hell come back on stage? Go backstage and get first aid if necessary—what were we going to do for him? Amateurs!

A HATFUL OF RAIN AND THE DISASTERS THAT ALMOST WERE

After Room Service, a small group of us decided we’d like some continuity of contact from show to show, so we formed a theater group independent of the BEC. One of our members was an air force tech sergeant and he got the Tempelhof NCO club to sponsor us. We got a large meeting room for our home, both for getting together between productions for exercises, discussion, or scenes and monologues, and as a performance space, with the addition of a portable stage platform (intended really for lectures and recitals). The tech sergeant’s wife was a former Brit, so we formed a sibling relationship with the British military theater group, the British Amateur Theatre Society. (‘Amateur’ doesn’t have the same derogatory connotation in England as it does here. It just means people who do something purely for the love if it.) Taking BATS as our model, we decided to call ourselves the Tempelhof American Theatre, or TAT, and set about selecting and mounting our first production. We chose a children’s play and it was a great success with audiences from the U.S. military community in Berlin, even landing us on a local AFRTS children’s show to tape a cutting from the play for broadcast. After a 1967 adult farce and a bill of one-acts, we were ready to take on heavier fare and we selected Michael V. Gazzo’s A Hatful of Rain. The 1955 script is about the effects of the drug addiction of a young man on his family and it’s a pretty rough, naturalistic melodrama. (Think The Man with the Golden Arm without Sinatra and the horn.) I played Mother, the dealer who supplied Johnny with his drugs, a very nasty guy. One afternoon during the run of the show I was out on my usual gig, doing background interviews or other rounds in the military community. In my job, we wore civvies, so unless you knew us or were part of our unit, there was no way to know that I was an officer. I had just gotten out of my car, an unmarked station vehicle with the green license plates of a private automobile rather than yellow staff-car plates, and was approaching a building not far from the headquarters compound. An air force NCO who’d obviously seen Hatful stepped between me and the entrance. He told me in very precise terms that if he met me in a dark alley, he’d kill me because I was such a bastard in the show. He was neither joking nor being ironic—he really thought I was Mother, the dope dealer who kept Johnny hooked. The guy was bigger than I am, so I didn’t want to tangle with him even if I thought that would be a good idea, so I did the only thing I could do. “I’m a lieutenant, sergeant,” I said in my most authoritative voice. “You don’t want to be held for threatening an officer, so back off!” He did . . . but I decided then wasn’t the time to give him a lesson in suspending disbelief and stage fiction versus reality. (I did take it as a compliment to my acting, though. I’ve always been pretty good at playing pricks.)

Hatful was also TAT’s entry in the annual USAFE play contest; the CO of Tempelhof had specifically requested we represent the air base in the competition. We won the best play award and had to take the production to Ramstein Air Base to perform before the chief of staff of USAFE. Now, we hadn’t planned the show to travel, so the sets weren’t designed for transport. Instead of muslin flats, for instance, we had made our walls of homosote. Nonetheless, we disassembled everything and prepared it for shipment by plane from Tempelhof to Ramstein—a benefit, we thought, of being an air force group. At the very last minute, our set was bumped for a helicopter tail section and we had to scramble to find other means to get the set to Ramstein. We were traveling on the military train to Frankfurt, and we got the set on the train, too, and arranged for a truck to meet us to drive the set to Ramstein, about an hour away from Frankfurt. Everything was fine, we figured—except that when we got to Frankfurt, it was drizzling and the truck was open with only a tarp to cover the set pieces. We got to Ramstein in the afternoon, examined the set, and found that it had survived intact, except for some missing paint here and there on the pea-green walls. By the time we got the set reassembled for that evening’s performance—we needed a quick rehearsal on the new stage—most BX facilities were closed and we couldn’t get any paint to touch up the marred walls. I pointed out that the color was awfully close to pea soup, and that the deli, the small convenience store on a military base, was still open. So that’s what we did—repaired the damaged paint with Campbell’s condensed green pea soup! As the TD at my college used to like to say, “Necessity is a mother . . . .”

We didn’t get our full run-through, but we tested the new stage with a few spot scenes just for the sake of movement, crosses, entrances, and exits. What we—or, more precisely, I—didn’t realize was that the actor playing Johnny, the junkie hero, had caught a stomach flu sometime before we arrived and he was ill. He wasn’t sick enough that he couldn’t perform one show, so he went on like a trouper, but he was so weak (and we hadn’t rehearsed the move earlier) that when I shoved him during our confrontation scene, he reeled downstage and nearly fell off the set! Guess who was sitting right down front center. Yup—the event’s host, the USAFE chief of staff, right in whose lap Johnny would have landed had he not managed to stop himself in time!

It didn’t help matters that the stage at the Ramstein theater was steeply raked, something we were in no way used to or prepared for. I’d never played on a raked stage (and never have since, either), and they look deceptively easy if you’ve never encountered one before. So the stage sloped down to the proscenium—what real difference does that make? Well, Johnny’s near mishap was one thing that could have happened—and here’s another unanticipated consequence of a raked stage. In one scene, after I’d been smoking a cigarette in Johnny’s apartment, I toss the butt on his floor and stomp it out as a show of disrespect and power. Well, I did all that—and, before I could step on it, the cigarette rolled down the raked stage, which was covered with a rope-like carpet I assume was potentially flammable. The butt simply got away from me and rolled toward the apron and the front row where the one-star general was seated. And I’m “casually” trying to reach my foot farther and farther down the stage to stop it and put it out. I know that lit butt is going to set the floor cover on fire and the performance and the theater will go up in flames and smoke, sending the general fleeing out into the late-December night. I think we all—or at least I—froze and watched for what seemed like minutes as the glowing cigarette made its way toward the general, his aide, and his staff. That’s the closest I’d ever come at that point in my life to a heart attack.

ROMEO AND JEANNETTE AND THE SCENE ANOUILH NEVER WROTE

When I returned to the states, I had decided to go to grad school in theater. I got into an MFA program in acting and I was cast in one of my directing classmates’ thesis production, Jean Anouilh’s Romeo and Jeannette. This is a family play, and one scene is getting ready for a meal and then sitting down to eat it. Part way into the scene one of the characters is supposed to enter. The problem was that there are two very similar moments—the character has two exits but only returns from one of them—and the actress got them confused and missed her entrance, leaving us all stranded on stage; she wasn't even in the wings. So the rest of us just improvised an entire little domestic scene about preparing to sit down to dinner that Anouilh never wrote—until the stage manger could find the actress and get her on stage and we simply picked up the scripted dialogue. Apparently, except for the director (who had conniptions—a director friend says that's why they die young), no one had any idea we were making up a scene as we went along. I recall it being several minutes, but it must have been much less in reality. In any case, the audience—some of whom were our acting and directing classmates—just thought it was a slow moment in the script until after the show and we copped to the improv. (One of my castmates was one of my own undergrad acting students, and others were in the audience; they were mightily impressed!)

DEVIL TAKE THE HINDMOST AND THE SPECTATOR WHO WASN’T RUDE

Over the years, I’ve witnessed a few occasions when an actor had to address someone in the audience outside the performance. I was at a performance of Little Foxes when Elizabeth Taylor stopped in mid-speech to admonish someone up in the balcony who was taking flash photos. (Taylor said she wouldn’t continue until the photographer stopped or left the theater.) In another instance, in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea at Circle in the Square uptown with Vanessa Redgrave, John Heffernan, on stage right by the railing that separated the audience from the performance area in that peculiarly shaped theater, paused in a line and looked at a couple of women right down front and said to them, "Are you through?" Clearly they’d been chatting while he was acting! Well, when I was doing my own thesis performance (in Bill Mastrosimone’s thesis play, Devil Take the Hindmost), I had one scene right down front in a tavern set. I was at a table with a camp-follower character I had picked up. At one point, I heard snoring. It persisted, and I thought it was someone in the front of the house who'd fallen asleep and was being rude and inattentive. I was just about to say something, remembering Heffernan's actions . . . when I realized it was my camp follower, who was acting having gotten drunk and passing out at the table next to me! I almost embarrassed myself. (I’d never noticed her doing that before—I think the actress had embellished the bit without telling me.)

OOOoops!

MISALLIANCE: BLACKOUTS AND HEATWAVES

After my second year in grad school, the theater department mounted a summer rep season with imported pros from New York City mixed in with the graduate actors. I was cast as Gunner in Shaw’s Misalliance so I continued to commute out to New Jersey every day for rehearsals and performances. This was the summer of 1977 and while we were in rehearsal on the evening of Wednesday, 13 July, we got the word that there’d been a massive power outage in the city. I drove back into Manhattan afterwards—I was also chauffeuring some of the New York actors—and the streets were in chaos, without street lights or traffic signals. It was also eerily dark in a city where you can ordinarily read a newspaper on a street corner at midnight. The next morning, I packed up my dog and moved in with two classmates who had an apartment in town. The power began to be restored in New York the next day, but my dog and I camped with my classmates—I think I bought food as rent—for a few additional days because it was easier at the end of the rehearsal period; I went to rehearsals and performances (which started a week later) as before, but for a brief time, I was a local. One benefit: since I wasn't home to open and close the fridge door all the time, everything in it, including the freezer, survived.

Misalliance was just at the mercy of the elements that summer (which, irrelevant to this tale of woe, was also the Summer of Sam). Right after the blackout, caused by a lightning strike, we went through one of those periodic heat waves we used to get here regularly once or twice a summer—90+/100° temperatures. It was bad enough under stage lights with just the normal heat of summer, even though the theater was air-conditioned; I tend to sweat easily and profusely anyway, but Gunner starts out the play hiding in a "Turkish bath," which was a wooden box on our set. Then that heat wave hit, and the a/c went out. I wore a gray Glen-plaid suit in the play, but when I came off stage at the end of the first act, it looked black! (The professional actor playing John Tarleton had the same problem I did. We'd compare costumes backstage to see how bad it was going to be out there for us.) I stood on stage (after climbing out of the Turkish bath) with sweat literally dripping off my face. Besides the fact that it stung if it dripped into my eyes—that's distracting—I also knew how disgusting it must look to the spectators near the front, all that sweat flowing off of me. I think that was one of the most physically uncomfortable performances I ever had to endure. The severe heat lasted from 13 to 21 July—nine days.

My college theater director used to tell us, "Suffer for your art." Do you suppose this is what he had in mind?

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST AND THE BIG BLUFF

When I first started studying theater, which was in college where I took a single semester each of acting and directing (the only offerings then available at W&L), I thought I’d decided pretty definitively that I’d never again direct a play. The directing class required a one-act as the final exam and I told myself (and anyone else who wanted to know) that I didn’t think I was smart enough or stupid enough to do that again. I wasn’t smart enough to be able to coordinate all the things that a director has to do and know to be good, and I wasn’t stupid enough to get myself into that situation again, having experienced it once. In grad school, I was required to direct one-acts each of my first two semesters and I chose plays that were as easy to stage as I could find. I was determined that those would be my last directorial efforts.

Well, the best laid plans and all . . . . After I finished the MFA and set about to find work as an actor on New York stages, I found myself accumulating stage experiences I wanted to apply on the other side of the footlights. I’d been directed, for good and ill, by so many different kinds of directors, I was formulating ideas about how to work with actors and I wanted to try them. I’d been working for an Off-Off-Broadway company for about a year or so, doing mostly classics and a few original scripts, and I eventually asked the artistic director to let me direct something there. He agreed in principal; it was just a matter of finding an appropriate script and a slot. One evening when I was at home, however, he called me. The cast of The Importance of Being Earnest, a couple of weeks into rehearsals, had fired its own director! They’d become frustrated with his work because he hadn’t blocked the show, hadn’t given them any character notes, and, despite fervent requests, hadn’t made any cuts in the script. The artistic director asked if I would consider taking over the production. I watched a rehearsal—the cast was working on its own for the time being—and agreed to accept the job. So, except for three school one-acts, this was my first directing gig, and my first ever with a professional cast. In addition to not wanting to upset the cast any more—they were floundering and had acknowledged that to me when I watched the rehearsal—and not wanting them to see that I didn’t know what I was doing, I consciously chose actions to appear more secure and authoritative than I really was. It was a deliberate strategy, because I didn't want the cast to feel they had just jumped from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. I decided, first, not to tell them that I'd never directed pros before, then to make very specific decisions about text cuts (that was the straw that caused the rebellion) and tell them exactly what was in, what was out, and what we could discuss. I made some specific directing notes, mostly blocking, and worked out some physical business to insert, and I made some very specific character notes—all pretty arbitrary and basic stuff, but I deliberately selected these actions so that I'd seem to be in charge and on top of the situation (even though I wasn't—I was just SWAGging). It was all a choreographed act I figured would carry us into the rehearsals far enough until the work itself became a focus. One thing that worked in my favor, of course, that I couldn't have known about was that the cast was so desperate for some guidance and real direction that they glommed onto my efforts like Velcro! The bluff worked, but mostly because the cast was really ready for it. (After the play opened, and we had our opening night party, several of the cast, drunk by then, very forcefully said they'd work with me anytime again and that I was a real "actors' director." That's when I told them that this had been my first professional gig. They were shocked—and I was delighted!)

ALADDIN AND THE REALLY UN-MAGIC MOMENT

Not all theater war stories are amusing; some are quite frightening. Shortly after I began working in New York as an actor, I joined a group that was working out of the historic Provincetown Playhouse near Washington Square. An actor with whom I’d worked at the theater where I directed my first play asked me to join the American Theatre Arts Project, which he’d helped start. The opportunity to work in the theater where Eugene O’Neill had gotten his New York start (there was still a permanent cyc on the stage which he’d helped build and which bore his initials!) was nearly irresistible, so I joined the company. I talked to some of the ATAP leaders about starting a children’s theater program and they were receptive. It was almost Halloween, so we decided to test the idea, to see if there was enough interest and audience for a regular program, by staging a Halloween show. The performances were a success (aside from having scared the crap out of some poor little boy sitting down center), so we went ahead with a full-length children’s play. I chose Aladdin, a version of the famous fantasy by my friend Kirk Woodward, and, because the shows were in the daytime, the company’s actors weren’t all available; I had to break one of my own rules and take a part in the play as well as directing the production. As a result, I was on stage when a near-disaster struck during one performance. In the middle of a scene, when one actress, an older woman, was supposed to make an entrance and carry on an important prop, she went up. She went up so badly that she not only couldn’t remember her lines, but she couldn’t remember anything about the play or the story. The stage manager threw on a few costume bits and made a quick (and unexplained) entrance on the fly to bring on the necessary prop, and as soon as I got off stage, I went downstairs to find the actress and see what had happened. She was understandably distressed, and we were all anxious, too, not knowing what was happening to her. We managed to finish the performance and, as far as I ever knew, no one in the audience felt anything was amiss. But the actress went right to her doctor as soon as she could and learned that she’d suffered a mini-stroke in the middle of performance. The memory loss was temporary, thank God, but she was advised to quit the business because the emotional pressure that goes with acting could trigger a more severe stroke and endanger her life. She was a lovely woman, very nice and even-tempered at all times, but her stage career was over, she said. As relieved as we all were that she’d gotten through the episode, we were all still shaken by the experience. (This was over 30 years ago now, and considering her age at the time, I’m sure the actress has died since then. I don’t know if she ever went back on the stage; I assume she didn’t.)

ROMEO AND JULIET ARE LOVERS: SOMETIMES, YOU JUST DON’T SEE THE FUNNY

While I was trying to make a career as an actor, I reconnected with a friend from my teens, a young woman who was trying to break into producing. She put together an unstaged reading of a play, Romeo and Juliet Are Lovers by Jules Tasca, so that a composer and his agent could hear it because the composer was considering turning it into a musical. My friend asked me to take a part in the one-night event and, of course, I agreed. (We always supported each other’s work, but besides wanting to help her out, a reading for a playwright, a composer, and their agents might mean other pros would attend, too, and it was a chance to be seen by people who influenced casting and hiring. Enlightened self-interest, as it were.) I picked up a copy of the script and decided to take a long weekend at my parents’ vacation home on Cape Cod with just me and my dog in the late fall off-season. I hung around the house, sat on the deck wrapped in a blanket like old scenes aboard ocean liners, and walked along the beach with the dog. And read the play. Romeo and Juliet Are Lovers is a farce that posits that the two Shakespearean lovers didn’t die at the end of the original play, but married and lived on into middle age. Tasca’s play is about Romeo and Juliet’s life as Romeo experiences his mid-life crisis and the two see their daughter fall into the pattern of young love that had so dramatically affected their lives as teenagers. I read through the play several times, and the faux-Elizabethan speech and the silly situations and jokes just didn’t seem funny to me. I was sure the whole thing would lay an egg at the reading; I couldn’t see why the composer (I never learned his name) would want to musicalize it. But, I’d made a commitment to my friend, and it was only for one evening. We were supposed to get together at the Vandam Theatre in SoHo for an hour or so before the reading and run through the script, get any necessary pointers from my friend, the director, and Tasca—not really a rehearsal, just a familiarization. Well, we met as scheduled, and started to read the play. It was absolutely hilarious. We were almost literally rolling on the floor! We couldn’t get through more than a sentence or two without breaking up and interrupting the dialogue. The parody of Shakespearean language was so outrageous when spoken that it transcended the silliness I thought I’d seen when I read the text to myself.

Of course, we calmed down by the time we had to read the play in front of the invited audience. (They did the laughing then.) Unfortunately, the composer decided not to do the musicalization and the collaboration never happened. (The play’s been published since then—1984, Aran Press—but I’ve never heard of a production anywhere.) But I learned a powerful lesson that evening. Plays, especially comedies, can often play far better with live actors than they read on the page.

THERE ARE AGENTS . . . AND AGENTS

A funny exchange took place on an episode of the late TV series Numb3rs, the show with the math genius and his FBI-agent brother. The crime under investigation had taken place at the house of a movie star where a lot of hangers-on and wannabes are always hanging out. The FBI agents arrive and encounter a couple of would-be actors out front. The G-men introduce themselves as Agent So-and-So and Agent So-and-So, and the actors immediately try to give them their headshots and flyers for a showcase. The actors ask them what agency they’re with, and even when the agents tell them, “The FBI,” the actors continue to think they're talent agents. The same thing happened to me years ago, but in reverse. When I was doing showcases and OOB productions in New York, I had an acquaintance and castmate in a production of Much Ado About Nothing who was a retired FBI agent. I knew that, and, of course, he knew I’d been an MI Special Agent myself in the army only a few years earlier at this time. (We're all "Special Agents," regardless of the federal agency—except the Marshals Service, who are . . . well, “Marshals.”) So one day when my actor-friend introduced me to a companion who'd come to see Much Ado, he called him "My friend, the agent." I assumed he was also a former fed, and I asked him if he and my castmate had worked together somewhere—and other agent-type insider chit-chat. He wasn't that kind of agent, though. He was a talent agent doing his due diligence by seeing his friend in a showcase. When I saw this scenario playing out backwards on Numb3rs, I couldn't help chuckling all through the scene. I'm sure no one else in the entire country thought it was that funny! Humor, like beauty, is in the eye (or, perhaps, psyche) of the beholder.

BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE AND THE MOTHER OF ALL SNOWSTORMS

Weather once again raised its beady, little head in 1983. I was directing John van Druten’s Bell, Book, and Candle in Jersey City for a March run and I traveled by PATH train from New York City and then local bus to the church where the theater company had its home. It was a Friday, 11 February, and we were rehearsing in the daytime, all day. It began to snow that morning sometime, but I arrived in Jersey City before the snow started accumulating, so everything was okay getting to the church. We worked all afternoon, uninterrupted and without paying any attention to what was happening elsewhere in the world. By the time we finished in the evening, however, it had been snowing all day long, a major blizzard, and the streets were calf-deep in fresh snow and the busses either weren't running or were all jammed up somewhere down the line. I had to walk all the way back to Journal Square, the PATH station, down the middle of the street because that was the only area that was packed enough to traverse. I don't know how long the walk was—a mile or two, I'd guess—but it was a loooong, cold walk! I was fortunate that the PATH trains were running without serious problems or I'd have been stuck in New Jersey with no way to get home and nowhere to stay the night.

3 comments:

  1. So, anyway, I was Googling theTemplehof American Theater, and this site came up. After reading the story about "A Hatful of Rain", It immediately dawned on me who Rick really is. Well, Rick, You may or may not remember me. My name is Dave, and I designed and built the pea green set for "A Hatful of Rain". Great to see that you're still doing what you did so well a hundred years a go! I remember Ramstein very, very well. The reason Johnny was so sick (and so was most of the castr and crew) was because Ramstein recently had gotten their flu shots. The bugs were everywhere.

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    1. Dave--

      Of course I remember you (and that set construction)! I also recall driving out to visit you after we both got out of the service. I was in DC visiting my folks and you lived in Maryland. What an amazing coincidence! How the hell are you?

      If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to look my accounts of some of the other events of the time we were in Berlin: "Berlin Station," 19 & 22 July 2009; "The Berlin Wall," 29 November 2009; and "Berlin Stories: Three SNAFU’s," 18 August 2012. (There's also "An American Teen In Germany," 9 & 12 March 2013, about my life in West Germany in the '60s.)

      I won't post my private e-mail here, but if you want to (I'll delete it right away), I'll contact you on a more individual basis and we can try to catch up some.

      ~(Former Special Agent, Lt.) Rick

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  2. Dave (Comment above, dated 19 November) did send me his e-mail address (which I deleted as promised) and I contacted him immediately. We’ve been catching up a little, but Dave’s first message included some additional details about that troubled performance of ‘A Hatful of Rain,’ so I decided to add this Comment to finish up the saga from Dave’s perspective.

    Dave, who was an Air Force NCO at the time we formed TAT and produced ‘Hatful,’ told me that he’d come across an old file that contained information about his set design for the show. That inspired him to Google TAT and the only hit he got was my blog item above. “I brought up the reference,” Dave wrote, “and the title of your blog was the first inkling I had that maybe Capt. K***** may be behind it. [I was actually only a first lieutenant as that time.] When I read the ‘Hatful’ war story, I didn’t need to read that you had played Mother; I already knew.” He went on to tell me things that I either never knew (such as the account of how the set ended up) or had forgotten (it was over 40 years ago, you understand).

    I’ve excerpted the relevant parts of Dave’s e-mail, which he sent me on 22 November:

    “By the way, the ‘Hatful’ war story was great, but you didn’t finish it. Well, I’m sure you finished that part of it directly involving you. But there actually is much more to the story. You weren’t with me when I had to meet the train on which the set came back to Berlin. I knew something was wrong when they opened the boxcar door. You could smell it! I don’t remember why they couldn’t send the set back with us on the train when we returned to Berlin, but it stayed in Ramstein about three more days. I think they left it outside the theater. Anyway, when I got a call to pick it up at the train station, there was stuff growing out of it. Yes, your suggestion to paint it with split green-pea soup did the trick for the performance; it also was organic enough to mold and mildew the entire set piece. I told the folks at the station just to throw the whole set out.

    “Indeed, there was even more to the story during the performance. The young man who played Mother’s henchman (his name was Mike S*****) got terribly ill, and Bruce tapped me to play the part (fortunately he only had one or two lines). So I spent a while in the afternoon going thru his lines with you and the cast. As it turned out, Mike was the real trouper, he went on in his role. Meanwhile I was up in the projection booth, almost falling asleep between the two arc projectors, running lights for the show.

    “Then there was the greenroom mess. Many of the cast members were sick with the flu, such that, between stage entrances, they would go back to the greenroom and lie down on coats and clothes and anything that would afford a comfortable sick bed. It looked like a wartime hospital back there.

    “Then there was the T[echnical] D[irector] for the venue (or whatever she was called) that insisted we put green foliage on the set above the ‘street entrance’ (Where you and Mike would enter the stage) because it was stark and unappealing. It [was] supposed to be stark and unappealing. It was a seedy part of NYC, if I recall. It made the set look like a garden apartment that was below ground. I think that person outranked me or something because I didn’t fight her on it.”

    ~Rick

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