Treading the boards
People hate speaking in public; it is often listed as the No. 1 fear — a nightmare of anxiety. It is a fear I never felt. I love speaking to an audience. Whether it is giving a lecture, sitting on a panel discussion or moderating an after-movie discussion, I am in my element. Over the years, I’ve spoken in public hundreds of times. It is exhilarating and leaves me pumped with energy.
Yet, that comfort does not extend to acting. I cannot act my way out of a second-grade pageant (when I had my first onstage experience as a daisy in an Easter program.) The problem is two-fold. First, I have difficulty learning lines. I can’t memorize them. I can paraphrase them, extemporize them, but not repeat them word-for-word. In most plays, that is a problem.
Second, I am so firmly constructed of my own idiosyncratic personality — that ego is so well defined — that I can never leave it behind to assume the mask or persona of a distinct separate character. I am stuck with myself.
Yet, there were two times over the years that I have trodden the boards. There is a theme to the twain.
In high school, I took a speech and drama elective. As part of the class, the final was an assembly program in which we put on a series of one-act plays or skits. We were each required either to act in them or to write the scenes. I did not want to play-act on stage, so, I opted to write a play.
Three of us did that. One student was a natural for the stage, and he wrote a gripping dramatic scene built on the Kitty Genovese story. The second was an incredibly dumb James Bond parody. And mine was unbearably pretentious and literary. I had just read John Updike’s The Centaur and thought I might update, in like fashion, the Seven Against Thebes myth and set it in a modern high school.
We were well into rehearsals when our principal, having been made aware that my play featured a suicide (Oh! The teenage angst!), outright banned the performance, which I was both miffed at and also puffed with pride over — I was banned! Just like Henry Miller or James Joyce. A point of pride.
As a result of my cancellation, I was then coopted into acting in the James Bond parody. I was made an English bobby, shot in the first moments by the lead character, James Bomb. I was to remain motionless on the stage, an inert corpse, for the rest of the play. I had one line and then — bang-bang and then falls bobbie.
The moment I died, James Bomb was supposed to realize his mistake (he shot me thinking I was the villain), and he walked cross-stage to me, grabbed a glass of water from a handy nearby table and splash it in my face to try to revive me. Well, I was wearing this heavy woolen bobby costume and in rehearsal, the wet wool stunk and irritated my skin horribly. I had to lie there for the rest of the play, stewing in the wet clothes.
So, on performance day, just before the curtain rose, as we were all standing on our marks, I reached for the glass and drank the water. I was so clever. And as the scene played on and James Bomb came over to splash me, and finding no water in the glass, he improvised. I had failed to take account of the full pitcher sitting next to the empty glass on the table. Our hero then ignored the glass and poured the entire pitcher of water on me.
As if that were not humiliation enough, imagine me splayed out in my soup on the stage floor, my bladder slowly filling to the uncomfortable water-balloon phase, having to hold it all in till the curtain finally came down, went up again for the curtain call, down again and I could finally run down the hall to the boys’ room and pee “for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only seven minutes.”
(I can’t take credit for that line: It was written my my friend, Doug Nufer of Seattle.)
My next appearance, not an Equity production, came in 2005 in Phoenix, Ariz., as a bit of stunt casting in a play about a notorious local restaurateur.
If you are not from that city, you may not have heard about Jack Durant, who opened the smoky eatery, Durant’s, in 1950. Decorated in whore-house chic, it became the meeting place of politicians, lawyers, and visiting Hollywood celebrities. Everyone who was anyone met at Durant’s. There was an in-the-know air about the place. No one who was a regular ever came in the front door. If you had your wits about you, you came in through the kitchen. Many customers had regular tables. Many a legislative deal was cut in the dark corners of the place.
Durant, himself, was more of a personality than any of his celebrity guests. A former colleague of Bugsy Siegel, reputed to have once bumped off a mob rival, married three or five times — the stories varied — Durant was ringmaster at his restaurant.
Such a colorful character made for many stories, some of them true. Durant died in 1987, leaving his house and an annual allowance of $50,000 to his dog, Humble. The restaurant is still there, running on the ghost of its founder. It is still dark; people still enter through the kitchen, and deals are still negotiated over a great big porterhouse steak.
In 2005, playwright Terry Earp did the inevitable, and created a play about Durant, called In My Humble Opinion, ironically because Durant was never humble — only his dog was.
The play was set in the restaurant after closing, a year after Durant’s death. The man’s ghost sits at a table, recounting his life to a passed-out drunk at the bar. The drunk was played by a different local “celebrity” each night. I was one of them — the local art critic, and rather low down on the celebrity list, but of course, the play went on for a month, so they had to scrape the barrel-bottom at times. Others who played the role included former Phoenix Suns center Alvin Adams, local TV star Bill Thompson and rocker Alice Cooper.
My part had no lines. It also had no motion. I was to sit there, head in my arms flat on the bar for the full hour of the play. Not twitching a muscle.
I don’t know if you have ever had to do that — like you are playing dead during a bear attack — but it is not easy. Muscles begin to scream at you: “Twitch. Twitch, damn you. Shake a leg. stretch your fingers.” But, no, you have to pretend you are carved from marble.
I managed it, but then came the curtain call. I had to unlimber my limbs and stand up from the barstool to acknowledge the acclaim of the audience. My joints had become riveted in their static positions and to stand up required a full course of physical therapy. I wobbled. I nearly fell over. I was half asleep from meditating quietly for the hour. I tried to smile for the crowd, but I’m pretty sure I could only manage a silly grin. I must have looked like the drunk I played.
And thus, my life as a thespian came to its rightful conclusion. Two motionless parts, lying still for the duration. And I never got my Equity card.