You know this one? The dream where you’re being married to someone you don’t like – by your history professor – while standing in your pajamas? Yeah. That one. Nightmares involving public humiliation are the worst: Didn’t study for the test? Don’t know where you are? Forgot to put on clothes!?!
This is why actors amaze me. For the joy of bringing a play to life and a chance to bring an audience to their feet, they are willing to face the possibility of public humiliation. Forgot a line? Missed your cue? Your skirt fell down!?! Yep.
Actors are the bravest of the brave. When the army is forming a front line to charge the enemy on the battlefield, bring up the actors. Tell them just beyond that row of critics holding semi-automatics there’s an 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 a Growing Stage 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 No. 2 in Medieval Plays for Christmas. I had one line. What I learned from that experience is that when the moment arrives to speak that one line, and you’ve practiced that one line four thousand times, it is virtually impossible to make that line sound normal. After college, I did live radio theatre - the Laz-E Boy Recliner of theatrical effort: no memorization, very little rehearsal, and no costumes, sets or lighting. You can wear your polka-dot pajamas, if you like - a definite plus. But there's no audience — a large drawback.
And so, I dared "tread the boards" again in a Shakespeare production. I was hoping for at least two lines in Taming of the Shrew but was scared to have too many. Highly respectful of my wishes, Tim Jon, the Director, gave me very few lines — and four different roles.
We began rehearsals with a cast from every conceivable walk of life - all with one very important thing in common: no free time.
Planning a rehearsal schedule in which everyone is there for certain scenes takes the skill of an airline pilot (But I swear it was pure coincidence our co-Producer and fellow actor, Stokes Tomlin, was a retired pilot). Tough as that scheduling turned out to be, the real fly in our ointment was a missing actor: we had no Hortensio, because the original cast member bowed out due to illness.
If you’re not familiar with Taming of the Shrew, Hortensio is the one who winds up marrying The Widow (Did I mention one of my roles was as The Widow?). Oh, fine, there’s a little more to Hortensio than just the marriage. In fact, he plays a huge, very integral part of the play — and it was six weeks from Opening Night.
All of us called every actor we knew that fit the director’s description, which by that time had narrowed to “Breathing — possibly male”. I had no luck at all: one guy was gone in August; another had a lead in a different Shakespeare play; another was called out west to fight forest fires for the National Park Service (the nerve...).
Days ticked by. The Widow began having nightmares about history professors and polka-dot pajamas.Practices were unsettling: half the time I was reading for Hortensio, and you can sprain a muscle doing that.
Then it was four weeks before opening night, and I came to rehearsal depressed. But acting is an amazing thing: once practice begins, you somehow come to believe that everything will turn out right. I easily lost myself in the beauty and the humor of Shakespeare, the blocking of the movement in scenes, the characterizations, the thrill that is live theatre. Not to mention getting to work with the best of people.
I’ll bet most folks think of acting as speaking lines, but acting is mostly listening: it's reacting to each other’s lines, working together when someone drops a line to bring a scene back on track, helping everyone stay in character when the set falls down. 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 war stories like old veterans.
However, in order to bond properly, you also need a full cast — which brings us back to our missing Hortensio.
There we were on a lovely August night, practicing our lines in the courtyard of Leesburg’s Market Station (A very cozy Globe Theatre-like space, as it happens). Lots of diners had been watching us rehearse from the window of Tuscarora Mill Restaurant above, and we were ignoring them - show business as usual - when we heard a voice call down to us in a friendly tone, “So, what are you doing?”
“Shakespeare!” we called up in unison (without prompting, mind you), and we looked up to find a very tall, mustachioed fellow in a three-piece looking down at us from the stairwell balcony.
“Which play?” he asked.
“Taming of the Shrew,” our Director, replied.
The fellow nodded, stepped up to the railing and began quoting from the play. Our play. This play.
We were dumbstruck. But when he kept right on quoting, we began nodding and smiling among ourselves, and our Director - who looked as though he’d eaten the proverbial canary cage and all - said, “Well, there’s our Hortensio.”
When the fellow was done, we applauded loudly and asked for more. He laughed. “Funny. That’s not the response I usually get!” Then he said something about loving Shakespeare and launched right into Hamlet’s soliloquy.
When he was done, Tim offered him Hortensio on the spot. And he was wonderful enough to take 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, (now the former co-manager of The Tuscarora Mill Restaurant), had a blast playing Hortensio.
And, of course, the cast bonded, just as it should.
And this is why, if Shakespeare was correct and all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players, I am certain theatre is the best of all possible worlds.
Give it a try sometime. And be sure to look for me... I’m the Director in the polka-dot pajamas.
Article first appeared in McMath’s "Good Neighbor Column" in the former Loudoun ART Magazine, published by Gale Waldron. Although she is no longer with us, her work and inspiration live on, and this is updated and posted in Gale Waldron's honor.
Meredith Bean McMath is the Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc., a prize-winning playwright, award-winning historian and a critically acclaimed stage director.