Sunday, July 31, 2011
Me, 1997, in a performance of Christopher Durang's "The Actor's Nightmare."
I'd only acted once before--a rather snooty butler in Lord Dunsunay's "The Jest of Hahalaba," directed by concerned TVB reader God Is My Codependent--and got the lead in this sort of as a fluke. I was thrilled--it's a very funny one-act comedy, usually performed as half of a double bill with Durang's "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You"--but as opening night grew closer, there was one problem. Memorizing dialogue I didn't find very hard. But a 6-minute monologue consisting mostly of non sequiturs? Hard, and I do mean hard.
The setup of the play: The lead character finds himself in a theater, not knowing how he got there. He's pushed on stage, unfamiliar with any lines he supposedly has, and tries to fake his way through. The play he's the star of starts out as a Noel Coward takeoff, then, just when the character starts to get comfortable, turns into Shakespeare. Then he finds himself totally alone and has to make do by reciting bits and pieces of classic theater that he only half remembers, plus fragments from his biography, until another character turns up. This happens after 6 excruciating minutes. After that, the play takes a turn toward Samuel Beckett, then "A Man for All Seasons." And--SPOILER ALERT!!!--he ends up executed. (Wacky high jinks!)
Anyway, a few days before opening night, I still hadn't nailed that monologue. I guess it was two days before opening that I finally made it through the rehearsal without blanking on that speech or skipping parts of it. It just clicked, and I thought, hey, maybe I can actually do this.
A couple of hours before going out on stage on the opening night of my first (and, as it turns out, only) Big! Lead! Role!, I called my parents from the office. I don't want to get overly personal here, so let's just say I got some bad news. I spent the next 20 minutes or so weeping uncontrollably. By that I mean: I could not stop crying and had trouble breathing successfully.
And, after that, I had to dry my eyes and drive to the theater. I sort of got myself together and prepared to be pushed out in front of the audience.
Then, problem No. 2: In the opening scene, the actress playing the stage manager skipped, oh, about a page of dialogue.
I stood there, surrounded on three sides by the audience--we acted this part of the play sort of in the round, before the action moved to the stage--not knowing what to do. At all. This was not only the first time I had a lead role, it was also only the second time I had acted, and I had never taken an acting lesson. Do I give the cue to her again? Proceed with my line as if nothing had happened? Skip ahead to where she'd skipped? I didn't know, so I just stood there. I entertained the idea of saying, "Um, can we start over?" and prayed for the floor to open up. After a good long time, the actress remembered where we were, came up with the right line, and we continued. I somehow got through the rest of the show, including that monologue, hopped in my car, drove back to my apartment, closed the door, and proceeded to pick where I had left off on weeping.
The next night's show went better, if not brilliantly. We did six shows all told, and I'd say one was transcendently amazing, one excellent, two middlin' (the video above is from one of the middlin' ones--the only tape I have), and two horrible.
About the transcendent one: One of the most amazing moments of my life. Everything went perfectly, and the audience totally got every single joke--and some of them are pretty obscure gags that depend on a knowledge of theater. I have never felt so high in my life.
About the other terrible one: It was the night after the amazing show. I think everyone in the cast gave pretty much the exact same performance--but the audience would not laugh. Absolutely refused. In the second scene, where we had gotten the previous night's first big laugh, we were greeted not with a small laugh, but none whatsoever. I looked over at the actress on stage with me, and her eyes got really big, and I knew she was thinking exactly what I was thinking: Uh oh. It went on that way for the play's duration, about 35 minutes or so. As soon as I could, I fled.
And as I left the theater, I overheard two old ladies discussing what they had just seen. One of them glanced down at the playbill, saw the play's title as if for the first time, and said to her companion: "Oooooh. It was an actor's nightmare."
Yup, pretty much.
(Many thanks to my friend Carl for posting this clip to YouTube.)