Yes, live theatre is the place where miracles can happen. And, for that possibility - the joy and pleasure of bringing a play to life and bringing an audience to their feet - the risk of public humiliation is always worth it. But the risk is real. Forget a line and had to improvise? Missed a cue and forced the entire cast to improvise? Your skirt fell down!?! I've seen it all. But I’ve also seen a struggling actor “click” with the character on opening night and bring down the house. Worth it. So what do we do about those nerves? For me, they show up in nightmares - the one where your history professor is performing your wedding ceremony and you realize you're dressed in pajamas. Nightmares involving public humiliation are the worst, and that's why I consider actors the bravest of the brave. When the army is forming a front line to charge the enemy on the battlefield, bring up the actors. Just tell them that beyond that row of critics holding semi-automatics there’s an eager audience waiting, and off they’ll go. And in community theatre, they don’t even get paid to run that gauntlet. Many, many years ago, I became a volunteer in the acting army when I joined the cast of the former Growing Stage's production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
I hadn’t been in a stage play since college where I was cast as Angel #2 in Medieval Plays for Christmas at William and Mary. I had one line. What I learned from that experience? When the moment arrives to speak one line you’ve practiced four thousand times, it's impossible to make that line sound normal.
Next, I tried live radio theatre here in Loudoun County, Virginia. Radio Theatre is the LAZ-E Boy Recliner of theatre experience: no memorization, very little rehearsal, and no costumes, set, publicity or lighting. Go ahead and wear those polka-dot pajamas! Huge plus. But it has no audience, and that's a big, fat negative. So, after all those years I dared to "tread the boards" again and auditioned for a local production of Taming of the Shrew. I'd been hooked on Shakespeare ever since my third grade teacher, Mrs. Romito, cast me as "Lady Capulet" in Romeo and Juliet and explained to me and my best friends (who played Juliet and Nurse) what all the dirty jokes Nurse was telling Juliet meant.
But in the modern day, after being Angel #2, I was hoping for at least two lines... while terrified to have too many. Respectful of my wishes, Director Tim Jon gave me a few lines… in four different roles.
We began rehearsals that July with a cast from every conceivable walk of life who all had one important thing in common: no free time. Planning a rehearsal schedule takes the skill of an airline pilot (Coincidence our co-Producer and fellow actor, Stokes Tomlin, was a retired airline pilot?).
Tough as scheduling turned out to be, the real "fly" in our ointment was a missing actor: our original "Hortensio" bowed out due to illness. But Tim Jon soldiered on, and we moved forward with no Hortensio at all. If you’re not familiar with Taming of the Shrew, Hortensio is a rather large role. He's the guy that winds up marrying The Widow. Did I mention one of my roles was The Widow?
Soon it was six weeks from Opening Night and still no Hortensio. The cast and crew had called every actor we knew that fit the director’s description, which had by now narrowed to “Breathing" and "Possibly male”. Days ticked by. The Widow began having nightmares about history professors and polka-dot pajamas. Rehearsals were surreal, as half the time I was reading for Hortensio, too. You can sprain a muscle doing that. And that is why four weeks before opening night, I came to rehearsal deeply depressed. But acting is an amazing art: once practice begins, you somehow come to believe that everything will turn out. I easily lost myself in the beauty and humor of Shakespeare again, the movement and characterizations, and the overall thrill that is live theatre performance. Not to mention getting to work with great people like Tim Jon, who is one of my favorite directors, actors and mentors.
Speaking of great directing, I’ll bet most folks think of acting as speaking lines. A good director will help you understand that acting consists of listening and reacting to each other’s lines. A great director will have you doing that every second you’re on stage, which pleases the audience no end. But you still have to be ready to save the day. So, when an actor forgets a line, you might be the very one needed to bring the scene back on track or, when a piece of the set falls down, help everyone stay in character - little things like that.
In short, you hang together or die alone.
As a result, you make friends for life with some of the most caring, intelligent, creative and generous people you’ll ever meet. And when you get together, you share stories like old war veterans... which brings us back to our missing Hortensio - and the theatre miracle.
It was a lovely August night, and we were practicing our lines in the center of our soon-to-be-public-stage, the courtyard of Leesburg, Virginia’s Market Station - a cozy Globe Theatre-like space surrounded by excellent restaurants.
At some point, a very tall, mustachioed fellow in a three-piece suit stepped out onto the balcony from The Tuscarora Mill Restaurant above us. Now, we were used to people watching rehearsals, so we proceeded show business as usual until he called down in a friendly tone. “So, what are you doing?”
“Shakespeare!” we called up in unison.
“Taming of the Shrew,” our Director, called up.
The fellow nodded, stepped up to the railing and loudly, clearly and with great humor said, "You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate and Bonnie Kate and sometimes Kate, the Cursed! But take this of me, Kate of my consolation, hearing thy mildness praised in every town, thy virtue spoke of, and thy beauty sounded (though not so deeply as for thee belongs), I am moved to take thee as my wife!"
We were dumbstruck at first, but as the man continued quoting lines from our play, we began to nod and smile among ourselves, and our Director - who looked as though he’d eaten the proverbial canary with cage - said, “And there’s our Hortensio".
When the fellow was done, we applauded loudly and asked for more. He laughed and shook his head. “Funny. That’s not the response I usually get.” Then he said something about loving Shakespeare and launched into Hamlet’s soliloquy.
So Tim offered him Hortensio on the spot, and, God bless him, he took it.
Four weeks later we opened the show, and I’m pleased to say we sold out every night, few lines were muffed, no sets fell - nor any rain, nor any costumes - and Shawn Malone (who was co-manager of The Tuscarora Mill Restaurant back then), had a blast playing Hortensio and the audience loved him. Many years later Shawn confessed he'd come out to speak to us, because restaurant guests had complained about the noise. Well, God bless them, too.
Shawn is a fabulous actor who, I’m happy to say, has been in many, many performances since. My personal favorite is Ghost of Christmas Past in Once Upon A Christmas Carol (see 2018 pic below where he’s scaring the daylights out of Ebeneezer Scrooge).
The other night, Shawn ran across a pic of Hortensio and The Widow at right and sent it over. He reminded me about the article I'd written so long ago, so I thought it was time to update and re-post here (The piece first appeared in my "Good Neighbor" column in Gale Waldron’s former Loudoun ART Magazine).
In summary, if Shakespeare was correct and "All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players", theatre must be the best of all possible worlds. So, give it a try sometime. And be sure to look for me: I'll be the Director in the polka-dot pajamas.
Once Upon A CHRISTMAS (above) is the award-winning musical adaptation of Dickens' classic tale: Music by Diane El-Shafey, Accompaniment by Carma Jones and Book Adaptation by Meredith Bean McMath.