Performing on a Different Stage
Normally, I use this space to talk politics with you. Today, I thought I’d veer radically off course and talk about community theater.
Yep, you heard right! Politics and public service aren’t my only muses. I have loved the craft of acting since I was a junior in high school.
It was that year that my church youth group took a small group of us to the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE, to see the national touring company production of Godspell.
To this day, I can recall vividly the images, sounds, and experience like I’m still there in the upper balcony of that wonderful theater.
My first hands-on experience with theater was serving as the stage manager for a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. If you were involved in both music and drama, you could audition for a role. If you were only a drama student, you were able to participate in the technical crew.
Even though I do a great Emile de Becques singing “Some Enchanted Evening” in the shower, I’m probably not ready for prime time. Being chosen as stage manager opened up another world of possibilities, though.
The drama and music teachers responsible for the production asked me what I wanted to do with the stage. Instead of answering that I had no idea (which would have been the truth), I suggested that it would be neat to do the set changes in blackout, with the curtain opened.
I certainly didn’t know how much work it was going to be for my crew. We had to design set pieces that could be spun on pivots to reduce the movement on and off stage. We had to practice the set changes for hours to get the timing down.
In the end, we functioned as well as any union stage crew, and the set changes were amazing to watch from the darkened theater, as black-clad stage hands rushed back and forth in the dark, shifting from the beaches of Bali Hai to the interior of the Navy staff office.
After two great high school productions in 1975 and 1976, I walked away from the performing arts until 1994. While working as City Administrator in Brunswick, I was issued a “dare” to audition for a part in Arsenic and Old Lace, being produced by the Brunswick Community Theater.
There are some interesting male parts in that show, but none as interesting as Teddy, the lovable lunatic who believes that he is Theodore Roosevelt. His two aunts have perfected the administration of arsenic in their homemade wine, quietly dispatching gentlemen callers with their potent poison.
Teddy buries the evidence in the basement, but not intentionally. In fact, he’s so busy digging the Panama Canal, he has no idea he’s also burying dead strangers. My favorite aspect of this character is his exit from every scene. I would blow a blast on a bugle, yell “Charge” at the top of my lungs, and proceed to run up San Juan Hill (which was really the stairs to Teddy’s bedroom)!
Since that return to the boards, I’ve been involved in a number of shows, mostly with the Brunswick Community Theater group, but also at the Old Opera House in Charlestown, WV, and at Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg, VA.
Auditions are very stressful, as you sit in a room with all of the other actors looking to get the same part you are. You can’t help but listen to them when they read the part, and only the most noble wouldn’t tend to analyze their strengths and weaknesses.
Some auditions add an unpredictable element when the director asks you to improvise a scene. I really hate this, although I understand why they do it.
Once you get through the trauma of auditions, you wait a few days while the director decides who will and won’t be a part of the show. The call to offer a part is celebrated enthusiastically until the newly cast actor realizes they’ve just given up the next two months.
Rehearsals consume major blocks of time, but every hour in rehearsal results in magical moments onstage. The first rehearsal is traditionally a read-through, with the actors assembled around a table, just reading their lines.
The next several weeks of rehearsal are dedicated to blocking, the movement of people in and out of scenes and around the set. Actors carefully record margin notes from the director, trying to get the stage directions aligned with the dialogue in the script.
These rehearsals typically focus on one or two scenes, later they can include a complete act. While memorizing lines, adding stage directions, and rounding up props and costumes, the director is trying to bring out the character of each part in the show.
The darkest day in the whole rehearsal is “off book” day, the date upon which there is no excuse if you have not memorized your lines. Depending on the director, this is typically later in the schedule, a few weeks before the show dates.
The next major event is Tech Week, the week when the entire show is rehearsed, and light and sound cues are added. Tension’s now building, especially if you’re not where you should be in memorization.
I recall a very bad experience while rehearsing Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. I had been given the lead, Charles Condimine, and along with the part came some 650 lines of dialogue.
I was really struggling with the memorization of those lines, especially the closing monologue. The character closes the show by speaking to the ghost of his two previous wives, who have conspired to make his life miserable.
The stage manager had me standing in a pool of light in front of the Brunswick City Park Building, literally YELLING my cue lines, awaiting my response. By opening night, I was ready.
After the trauma of Tech Week, dress rehearsal and the actual performances seem almost anti-climatic. Believe me, though, there is no feeling in the world like hearing people applaud you for your work. In a comedy, that laughter courses through you like fresh blood, filling you with an indescribable feeling.
I’ve been blessed to work with gifted and talented directors whose vision for a particular show made for a challenging task for actors, but also a great evening of theater for patrons.
Michael Saunders comes to mind as one of the most talented directors working in regional community theater. I’ve done several shows with him, and every one has been memorable for some aspect of the production.
In Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, the set projected out into the audience, drawing patrons directly into the action. In Dial M for Murder, the hired killer was a beautiful woman, adding a level of tension to her interaction with the husband who hires her to kill his wife. In On Golden Pond, we recreated the inside of a New England fishing cabin right down to the log walls. An amazing artist from West Virginia named Richard Ayers taught me replicate log bark, and we pulled it off. In Neil Simon’s classic comedy The Sunshine Boys, we worked in front of a black curtain, hung from PVC pipe to create a minimalist theater space.
The most amazing thing about theater people is that they pour every ounce of energy into obtaining a part, rehearsing, memorizing, and finally, performing. Several months of work is expressed through 5, 6, or maybe 7 performances.
Once that last Sunday matinee wraps, these same actors and actresses disassemble the sets within which they’ve just performed. Furniture is returned to stores and barns, cake makeup is packed away in Styrofoam cases, and chairs are folded and hung on chair racks.
As quickly as they were learned, dialogue and stage directions are forgotten. The memories are sweet, but they fade and diminish along with the posters and playbills.
Culture is a critical component of life. If you’ve never ventured out to see a show produced by one of Frederick County’s great community theater groups, you’re missing the chance to be swept away to some exotic place. You’re missing a spellbinding murder mystery, or a heartwarming romance.
Worst of all, you’re missing the chance to balance the ton of news, talking heads, and tired sitcoms you take in with the talents, vision, and passion of your neighbors.