Friday, July 19, 2013

Death and Dry Spells

I got my first big acting break when someone died.

I was 21 and just out of college, doing an internship at a wonderful theater company near my hometown called The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.  The Taming of the Shrew was the first show of the season.  I was nervous.  I was excited.  I was playing...I don't even remember who.  I think just an ensemble member.  I don't even think my character had a name.  Not uncommon in Shakespeare to be cast simply as "ensemble."  Sort of like a musical.  The concept behind this production was that a woman would play Petruchio and a man would be Kate.  Lots of other characters were also cast cross gender.  How did it work?

It was a pretty brilliant production--I've never seen another one like it.  For you Shakespeare nerds, Christopher Sly passed out in the prologue after drunkenly throwing pewter beer mugs at the Hostess.  While he was sprawled on the tavern floor, the Lord and players arrived and decided to put on a show for him.  However, in this version, Sly was cast as the star.  When Sly came to, he was in a dress, a script in his hands, and playing the first scene as Kate, the Shrew.  The Hostess was his Petruchio.  As it happened, some of the most brilliant actors I have had the pleasure of working with were playing Kate and Petruchio.  And the adaptation worked beautifully.

An African American actress whose name I am embarrassed to say I have forgotten, was cast as the Lady of the Manner who would then go on to play Baptista, Kate and Bianca's father.   And then the tragedy.  That actress died.  Of sickle cell anemia.  And I was given the role of Baptista.

I was twenty one.  I was adequate, I suppose?  I remember feeling like every other character on the stage was absolutely hilarious and I was just...not funny at all.  And then my also very brilliant and quite hysterical friend David who was playing Hortensio gave me some advice.  He said something like, "Baptista is Newhart. He's not necessarily all that funny.  He's the sane guy surrounded by all the craziness, and all he can do is watch it all go on around him."  I was comforted.  I have a feeling a better actress...or anyway some chubby old guy...could make actually Baptista funny.  I didn't.  But I went on. 

My second big break happened when someone got deathly ill.

Almost ten years after that production of Shrew I again found myself doing Shakespeare.  Again playing an ensemble member without a name.  I call her Birdcage Girl.  It was a production of Hamlet and I was cast quite literally as a walking metaphor.  I followed Ophelia around, occasionally held her cloak when she doffed it, and carried an empty birdcage.  When she went cuckoo...I stumbled backward in a big sand pit and opened the birdcage door.   I also held ice cream cones and lusted after Horatio.  Did anyone notice I wonder...

The production was high profile and fraught with all kinds of personality conflicts and artistic indecision.  I watched it all go down from the sidelines, safe in my basically nonspeaking role.  I carried scenery and dressed the set...with myself.  The first preview was delayed a week, and we were panned in the press despite the fact that I think the dude who played Hamlet is brilliant.  A master with the language and the real deal.  An actor not just a star.

And then Gertude got sick.  First her voice started to go, and she did one whole performance with a body mike.  And then one night I got a call...from the Executive Director of the theater...telling me that yes indeed Gertrude is very sick and was I aware that I was her understudy?  I was not, in fact, aware of this.  She had heard I was a quick study and could I possibly go on tomorrow?  Less than 24 hours from then.  As Gertrude.  In Hamlet.  I remember just sitting down at my computer armoire in our studio apartment on 96th street and telling Doc Hubby that I had to learn the role of Gertrude that night so I could play it the next day in front of a paying audience.

As it happens, I am a quick study.  I had been hearing the play for weeks.  I had seen much of it.  But there were scenes I hadn't witnessed since the rehearsal room--including the notorious closet scene.  I remember that during the put-in rehearsal the next day, anytime we took a break I just went into the bathroom and cried.  I did the show that night.  Hamlet gave me flowers and champagne.  Claudius pulled me over before the show and said "Look if you're out there, and you need some help, just come on over to me...we'll have a little chat."  People were supportive and lovely.  I felt, while the show was going on, that I was running a marathon.  I would sit offstage and rub my quads and just keep my head in the game.  And I did it.  I made it.  I said all the lines and stood in the right places and died dramatically.

I went on to play Gertrude eight more times.  Never knowing any given day when I showed up at the theater if I was going to play Birdcage Girl or Gertrude.

I haven't been hired at that theater again.  Though the artistic director at the time did cast me in my second Broadway show.  We never talked about it.  I suppose he remembered...?  I feel like that was a bit of karma.

I have not had a theater job in 21 months.  I have auditioned quite a bit.  I have been called back consistently.  I have tried really really hard.  Really hard.  Really.

I am trying to make some sense of this...this..let's recall some of the names I have called my period of underemployment lately: dry spell, hiatus, sabbatical, batting slump.  I have been Kindergarten Room Mother (they call it Parents Association Rep now, but I prefer Room Mother) and tried to be very present for the beautiful small person who is in my charge.  I have written most of a screenplay and I have become something of an avid spinner and biker.

But still.  Mama wants a job.  I have thrown my hat in on a show that rehearses over Christmas.  This is just how much Mama wants a job.  I love Christmas.  This decision to be discussed later.

So my question today is: I wonder who will have to die in a car accident for me to get cast in a play again...?

1 comment:

K said...

Well, I still think that Downton Abbey would be blessed to have you! I did not realize about your stint in Hamlet (which happens to be one of my favorite plays of all time). Fascinating. If you ever need a novice to read your screenplay, I would much enjoy that. Looking forward to hearing about the end of your hiatus.