Sometimes Things Just Don’t Work Out The Way You’d Planned
I don’t think my life has been all that unique or special compared to the other people seated around the table with me. Sure, the details may vary, but I think we’ve all faced similar challenges, had similar goals and disappointments. We are all children of parents who lived through the Great Depression and World War Two. Those events forged them and their lives just as Viet Nam and the Prosperous 1950s have done with us. We are the products of our times. We are who we are, both alike and different at the same time.
I have always been shy. Not introverted, no – being shy is different. Shy must have a cause, but I sure don’t know what it is. Is being shy a learned behavior? No, I don’t think so, that would be introverted again. Shyness is a state, not a behavior. I have noticed that many, if not most, of the actors, comedians, and other performers I’ve known, have been shy. Why else would we sweat or vomit before going onstage? We know that the odds of actually being physically harmed by an audience are relatively small. The danger is all of our own creation. Although there have been a few times when I thought I was on the wrong side of those odds. When you are performing and you are separated from the audience by a chicken-wire barrier you know that it must be there for a reason, and it ain’t to protect you from the thorns on the bouquets of roses the crowd will toss your way.
Strangely enough, the shy person is most comfortable onstage. It is up there that they are totally in control of their lives. It may be a 10 minute stand up set or a two hour play, but during that time the rest of the world is on the other side of that fourth wall. The audience has no say-so about what you do or what words you unleash. The person on stage is insulated and safe from the rest of the world.
It is sort of a “Deus Ex Machina” time where the shy person on the stage is like the Greek gods on high who manipulates the world below. As far as most audiences are concerned you, the performer, aren’t real anyway. They look at you as if you were just a flickering image on the television or movie screen. I think that is why people the audiences feel no compunction about talking out loud while you are performing. I have been onstage and clearly heard people say things like, “I wonder where he got those shoes?” or, “I didn’t think that was funny. What about you?” It’s like they don’t realize that we can hear them. My best example of this “4th wall phenomena” came during a production of “Hamlet” while still in school at Baldwin-Wallace College, near Cleveland, Ohio. The play was staged so that much of the action took place on the floor with the audience arranged in what I would call “bleacher seating.” The front row was on the floor with us with nothing in between us but air.
I was playing Polonius and doing a scene with King Claudius. We were no more than a foot away from the front row of spectators. Directly in front of me was a woman sitting there with her legs crossed and her foot sticking out. For reasons known but to God I said my line, “I will find the truth indeed, though it were hid within the center!” and on the last word I tapped the toe of the woman’s shoe for emphasis. Big mistake. I had violated that 4th wall and crossed into her world. When I tapped her shoe she screamed like I had come at her with an axe. Claudius and I both jumped back a few feet and the audience, who could see everything, erupted in laughter. Not exactly what one would expect in Hamlet. I never did that again.
Although there have been other times when came in direct contact with the audience. There was the night, during a production of “Man of La Mancha,” playing the part of Sancho,that I zigged when I should have zagged during a choreographed fight scene, and I ended up in the third row. I flew off the apron of the stage and into some poor woman’s lap. I apologized and crawled back onstage and carried on. It was not my best moment.
That entire production was rough for me.. Underneath my costume I wore basketball knee and elbow pads for protection. I suffered a few cut knees before I wised up and bought the padding.
My biggest hurdle in that show was the staircase leading down into the prison set. Needless to say I had to remove my glasses and fly blind. I didn’t have any 15th century bifocals handy. The set construction didn’t help. The director wanted Quixote and Sancho to enter down a 15 foot wooden staircase. The crew that built it tried to save itself some work by stitching together two shorter sets of stairs. A noble idea except – the steps were a uniform six inches down – until halfway when they abruptly changed to a uniform eight inches down. Every night before the curtain went up I would spend about ten minutes going up and down the stairs to get acclimatized to them, as it were. Fortunately, I survived the run without falling, but a number of actors stumbled at the change on their way up the stairs.
Another time when I got myself into trouble onstage was during a production of a couple of Woody Allen one-acts.
According to Woody, my character was described as “The Audiencewright.” My job was, as written in the script, to go onstage and ad lib for five minutes with the audience and explain that they didn’t really exist outside of the play. I know, not Woody’s best idea. The show was done in a three-quarter round with the seating going up from the stage floor.
Part of my schtick every night was that I would accost the person sitting a particular seat and play with them. Again, the complication in this plan was that I had chosen to do this role without wearing my glasses because of light glare.
The night in question I went onstage and blathered about for two minutes or so and then moved to the target seat to begin my business. It was a man, I could tell that much. I grabbed his hands and tried to pull him up to his feet. He pulled back. I put more into it, really yanked and got him up out of his seat. I put my arm around his shoulder and said something about how I planned to write into the play that he was going to be accosting a woman seated on the other side of the stage. I then spun him around and pushed him back into his chair.
When I finished my bit and exited the stage I was met by a crowd of actors and the stage manager.
“What were you doing? Couldn’t you see? Are you insane?”
It seems that the one detail I had missed while onstage was that resting under the chair where the man was seated – were his crutches. Apparently, the man was unable to walk without them. That certainly explained to me why he was so difficult to get upright. After the show I sought him out (he was easy enough to catch) and apologized profusely. Luckily, he thought it was all very funny and assured me that he was fine. We were all safe from lawsuits.
One last theatrical misadventure then I’ll become introspective, I promise.
I was doing a Summer Theater production of “Death of a Salesman” in an outdoor theater inside a city park. It was a lovely setting, but it created the need for some minor changes in the staging.
I was off stage left waiting for my cue to enter. I was technically outside of the theater on a tree lined park lane busy with people strolling by enjoying the evening. On my cue I was to enter up a ramp that went from outside directly onstage and into the action.
My cue was coming up in moments. While waiting and listening, a man who was walking by came up to me and asked what was going on inside the theater. I pointed at the stage and said, “Death of a Salesman.” Before I could do or say more the stranger walked right past me and up the ramp. The Tech People heard footsteps on the ramp and assumed it was me. As the fellow reached the top of the ramp they hit the lights and Willy Loman found himself sharing the stage with a complete stranger.
Well, the new cast member panicked and ran back down the ramp and off into the night. The audience howled and I ran up the ramp and tried to pretend that I had no idea what was going on.
It was several years before I worked for that theater again.