My experience at the Coronado Playhouse started off like any good horror movie; everything was pleasant enough. Most of the cast became friends, and the theater’s administrator promised a working set within a few weeks. We didn’t sing “Kumbah-Yah” around a campfire, but one day we rehearsed outside, sang show tunes, and traded jokes. That’s the sort of giddy thing actors do when they’re happy.
The director worked us for hours each day, which caused the cast and crew to come together quickly. This director was a stickler for detail, and he wouldn’t tolerate the slightest change in his direction. He taught us movement, voice, and posture. Once he said, “It takes 30 shows to be considered an actor; until then you are just an apprentice.” The show came together, and by opening night we were ready.
But opening night was almost closing night for this show. The director got so drunk he spoiled the first performance for cast, crew, and audience. We should have known something was wrong when he staggered backstage before the show. With the nub of an unlit cigar resting between his dry lips, he came into the dressing room and tried to give us a slurred pep talk. His nose was as red as the rouge on the leading lady’s cheeks. I don’t remember the point of his story, but it had something to do with John Wayne and a wolf. “John Wayne wazs a great actorrr. If youu haad haff the talent he did....” He paused and looked around at the dumbfounded cast. “Well, thatzs not important. The wolf!” he exclaimed, “iszz the true identity of the actor. Rememberber thattt!” While he was in the middle of his speech, one of the actresses came in and asked the director how her costume looked. In his John Wayne voice, he snapped, “Whell, pihlgrim, you alwayzzs look ugly.” He thought it was funny. She began to cry. He made his exit while we prepared for our entrances.
Friends and family in the audience told me later that the director (whom I had previously respected) was muttering under his breath at the top of the show. “Yur sszuposzed to be down right when yu szay that. Don’t turn around! We can’t zsee you!” His stage directions were so intrusive, they were impossible to tune out. Any hope of getting a laugh was ruined by his shrill remarks. Every time anything remotely funny happened onstage. he slapped his knees and bellowed, “Laugh, you asswipesz! That wazs funny!”
People fidgeted with their programs and turned to look at the man making all the noise. Several audience members chided him with harsh whispers and reproachful glances. It became impossible for us to carry on with the show.
At intermission the director was escorted outside and asked to leave. Someone must have taken him home that night, but no one in the cast ever saw him again. He was banned from the theater, and we finished the four-week run without a director.
Whenever I think of funny stories actors have told me, I am reminded of Michael Frayn’s play Noises Off, a farcical illustration of what can happen to an actor onstage and backstage. In the show, actors compete for the director’s attention; they jump in the sack with other cast members; they sabotage props and costumes; they whine like three-year-olds. A play about the theater without these developments would be like a fraternity without pranks. It’s rare that an audience member disrupts the action, but as Connie Whitt-Lambert told me, “when they do, it can get pretty hilarious.”
Connie was doing a melodrama in Ft. Worth, Texas, about ten years ago. Audience members were encouraged to throw popcorn at the Bad Guy, sigh when the Heroine came onstage, applaud the Good Guy, and so forth. Sometime during Act Two, one of the audience’s best gigglers started wailing with laughter. Connie described her as “a woman in her mid-30s weighing close to 300 pounds.” The leading man had just delivered one of the funniest lines in the show, and this woman, as Connie put it, “couldn’t stop laughing."
Actors hold for laughter and won’t deliver their next line until the laughter has peaked and started to decline. Connie told me this woman laughed so hard and so long that the actors remained frozen for some time. “It reached such a point,” Connie explained, “that the rest of the audience began laughing at her. She continued laughing until she fell out of her seat.” The sight of this hysterical woman sprawled out on the floor was too much for the audience, and “she brought the house down.”
I asked Connie how they got out of the situation. “Well, the leading man, Jim, went over to the lady — he was the Good Guy so it was appropriate for him to help her — and extended his hand to help her up, but she said, ‘I can’t.’ My first thought was that she had hurt herself, and we would have to stop the show, but Jim remained in character and asked her, ‘Can I help?’ When she said, ‘You don’t understand,’ we all got real quiet. Then she blurted out, ‘I can’t because I’ve wet myself.’ Well, we all broke character then and just died laughing with her.”
They got the woman cleaned up and back in her seat. She even came back for several more performances. The cast presented her with an honorary seat, complete with rubber cushion.
Can We Talk?
A couple of years ago there was a Joan Rivers look-alike contest in L.A. The job guaranteed a spot on a TV show and several hundred dollars. My friend Susan put on her best evening dress and went with ten other Joans on the trek north. The Joans sat together on a public bus and traded quips, fingernail polish, and lipstick. “The best Joans,” Susan told me, “were the drag queens. I felt a little intimidated because there were several men who looked more like Joan than I did.”
A couple of seats behind the Rivers clique sat three Middle Eastern businessmen. “I’m not sure what they were doing on the bus,” Susan explained, “but they were very intrigued by us ‘girls.’ ” It wasn’t long before one of the men, Gus, approached the Joans and asked where they were all headed. Susan told me Gus couldn’t speak English very well and that he had no idea who Joan Rivers was. Then, she said, the most aggressive he-Joan of the bunch began flirting with Gus. “This poor guy,” Susan continued, “thought he was doing very well and he had no clue he was flirting with a man.” The rest of the Joans began clamoring to each other, “Ohhh, girl, can we talk?” The attention only heightened Gus’s amorous intentions, and soon he found himself closer to Joan than he’d expected. With he-Joan on his lap, the other look-alikes began running their fingers through Gus’s hair. Gus smiled from ear to ear.
When the bus arrived at the station, Gus and he-Joan traded phone numbers and a kiss. Susan isn’t sure if he-Joan ever met up with Gus, but it was, she said, “one of the best ways to get into character that I ever saw.”
Performing a theatrical show in Hollywood can be equated with doing off, off, off, off-Broadway. The pay usually stinks, if there’s any pay at all. Crime is so prevalent in Hollywood that actors fear for their lives. And the fame once associated with Hollywood has been replaced by rip-off artists, beggars, and prostitutes. Centuries ago, actors were regarded beneath bums and ladies of the evening, so I guess it’s appropriate that Hollywood has sunk so low.
Santa Monica Boulevard has several small theaters where actors compete for a shrinking market of theatergoers. Last year, one of my friends, Pat Hume, was performing in a show called Head Shop. Pat’s character, Dr. Sam, had just bid farewell to another character, Willy. Dr. Sam began doing some “business” downstage. (“Business" can mean dialogue, pantomime, movement, a joke, anything... including doing nothing at all.) The lead actress was late — very late — for her entrance, and Dr. Sam was running out of things to keep him busy. As Dr. Sam piddled with props and murmured to the audience, Pat the actor contemplated what he’d do to this actress he thought was undermining his performance.
Pat finally realized that perhaps the delay was not the actress’s fault. Willy was supposed to have made his exit, scurried down the alley, and helped the actress with a quick change. When the actress came onstage half dressed, with one breast exposed, Dr. Sam was certain Willy was responsible. Or was he? Willy should have been onstage by this point, and now he was more than ten minutes late. Dr. Sam and the actress couldn’t hang out indefinitely, so the actress left the stage in search of Willy, while Dr. Sam tried to keep up the charade of a professional show.
Pat skipped several pages of dialogue and did what any good actor would do under the circumstance: he tried to bullshit his way out. Just as he was about to get the show back on track, the actress returned to the stage and blurted out, “They’re arresting Willy!!!”
Once someone onstage admits to the audience that things aren’t running as planned, it’s futile to continue the performance. Dr. Sam delivered the show’s prognosis: “Er, uh, er, um — excuse us.” Then he ran offstage and hurried to the loading dock of the theater, where two LA. police officers were questioning a bewildered Willy.
“What in the hell is going on here?” Dr. Sam demanded. One of the cops, a rotund man in his 40s, explained the situation to the cast, now joined by the director. “We got a call in this area about a peeping Tom. Looks like your friend here matches that description.”
“This guy!” the director screamed at the cops, “is an actor! He is in the middle of a show. There is no way....”
“Wait a minute,” cop number two interrupted. “We got a call about a guy dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt carrying a blue shirt in his hand. This guy fits that description, so we’re gonna have to take him downtown....” At this point, Pat tells me, the entire cast began beseeching the officers to release Willy, but the cops wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t imagine why they wouldn’t listen to Willy’s defense until Pat explained to me, “Hey, man, this is Hollywood we’re talking about.” Police in this area get an earful from actors, both real and imagined.
It looked as though Willy was going downtown when Pat, with the voice of a great moderator, started negotiating with the officers. He explained that the show began at 8:00 p.m. and that he, the cast, and the audience could vouch for Willy’s whereabouts. Luckily for Willy, the peeping Tom call had come into the station at 8:37 p.m. Unfortunately for the cast, the cops had no sense of urgency. They wanted to take statements from everyone, radio the station for instructions, and run Willy’s driver’s license through the computer.
“What in the hell do you hope to accomplish by checking his ‘priors’?” the director screamed.
“Oh, maybe nothing,” cop number one responded. “You don’t think he has anything to hide, do you?”
“That’s not the point,” Pat interjected, “the point is that a mistake was made and we would be happy to help you with this after the show.”
The cop scratched his head and said, “You mean you’re doing a show right now?”
“Yes!” the whole cast responded in unison. A beat later, Pat continued, “...And it’s still going on right now...er...should be.”
The cops did let Willy go, and he’s now free of embarrassing peeping Tom charges. I asked Pat if the cops’ exit was jovial — after all, it was a mistake.
“We didn’t walk away thinking, ‘Oh, they were cool,’ ” Pat told me. “They thought they were doin’ us a favor by letting us go. In fact, their last words were, ‘You were lucky we didn’t take you downtown.’ We walked away thinking they were power-trippin’ dicks.”
After Willy was released on his own recognizance, the cast went back into the theater and explained to the seven die-hard audience members what had happened. The audience thought it was funny, and the cast picked up where they’d left off.
I was sipping my drink of choice. Crown Royal on the rocks, and chatting backstage with Sandra Ellis Troy. As she poured herself another cup of coffee, we discussed the South. Sandra has lived in San Diego for many years, but she got her start in “Bible-Belt Central,” as she calls it. San Diego hasn’t killed her Southern hospitality, however. “Don’t you want to put some water or 7UP in that drink?” she asked.
“God no!” I replied. “If they wanted it to taste like that, they would’ve put it in there to begin with!”
She laughed and started to take her costume off. (You lose all modesty when you enter the acting profession. Working in small quarters, there’s no room for self-consciousness.) My back was turned, but I could hear the rustling of clothes as Sandra began her story. “It was in the mid-’70s at Central State University,” she said, stressing the location with a Southern belle drawl, “in Edmond, Oklahoma!” She continued in her regular voice, but she spoke to me as a mother would speak to her child. I heard her foot slide into her shoe, and I was reminded of my own childhood, when I sat in the bathroom listening to my mother tell me about her past.
“I already had kids, my husband had been to Vietnam, but in the eyes of my father, I was still ‘Daddy’s little girl.’ I decided to go back to school and study acting.”
She was performing Orpheus Descending, by Tennessee Williams. Even though the play was written in 1957, it was still considered progressive in the ’70s when Sandra performed it in Oklahoma. (It can take the South a good 30 years to catch up with the rest of the country.)
In the play, Sandra’s character, Carol Cutrere, describes herself as a “lewd vagrant.” Tennessee Williams considered this work “the tale of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop.” Sandra’s performance achieved similar results in her own community.
Stage directions indicated her character’s face and lips be powdered white, her eyes outlined and exaggerated with black pencil, her eyelids tinted blue. Carol Cutrere is flirtatious; she likes “to drink and drive and then stop and dance a little to a jukebox and then drink a little more and drive a little more.” Sandra said it was challenging to take this role. She was proud of her work and of herself for going back to school.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Toward the beginning of the show, I flirt with one of the male characters, Val. Val and Carol are having a discussion onstage. I come onstage and Val says to me....”
Val: You told the lady I work for that you had a message for me. Is that right. Miss? Have you got a message for me?
Carol: [ Rises, moves a few steps toward him. Val whistles, plucks guitar string.] You’ve spilt some ashes on your new blue suit.
Val: Is that the message?
Carol: No. No, that was just an excuse to touch you. The message is.... [sits in front of Val, staring at his crotch]
Carol: I’d love to hold something the way you hold your guitar, that’s how I’d love to hold something, with such tender protection! I’d love to hold you that way, with that same...tender protection! [Her hand has fallen onto his thigh] Because you hang the moon for me!
Poor Val never had a chance to deliver his next line because Sandra’s father, who was seated in the front row, jumped to his feet. “I didn’t pay good money to watch this smut!” He crumpled his program and huffed his way up the aisle to the lobby. Silence saturated
the auditorium. “We kept going, but I don’t think anyone paid any attention to us for the next 15 minutes.”
I told Sandra a similar story I heard from another actress. This woman was in the middle of her show, and another actor was hitting her with a hairbrush. The woman’s mother, who was in the audience, screamed out, “I’ve been wanting to do that to her for years!”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” Sandra said, “I laugh about it now. But I could’ve strangled my father that night.” Then she asked me, “Are you ready to leave?”
"Yeah,” I answered.
"You’re not driving, are you?”
As we walked out the door I replied, “No, I’m not — Mom!”
Ann Richards — not the former governor of Texas — is a very fine actress. Recently we were on the phone discussing an experience she had at 20th Century Fox Little Theatre, “on the lot earlier this century.” Her voice was up-beat; I could hear her enthusiasm for acting in every correctly pronounced syllable. “I was taught in the old school of acting. My teachers, such as Agnes Moorehead, believed that actors should know how to sing, fence, use proper posture, know many dialects, and construct dialogue with correct diction.”
Everyone else I interviewed for this story gave me their recollections piecemeal — I had to dig for information. Ann Richards didn’t want to discuss anything until she’d had time to prepare. When I first called her, she said she would “think about it and get back to me.”
She called me back the next day with a prepared statement. “Okay. Jot this down,” she instructed me.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“Well, I have your story,” she said, chuckling as she began to recite a short paragraph. “Agnes Moorehead to Ann Richards after first viewing of....” “Wait—” I interrupted. “Agnes Moorehead? Wasn’t she the mother on Bewitched?”
“Yes, honey, among many other things. She was a great actress.”
“What else did she do?” I asked, but there was no stopping Ann Richards’s flow of thought. She wanted to finish her statement.
“Let me give you the rest, and then I’ll tell you.” She started her story from the beginning.
“Agnes Moorehead to Ann Richards after first viewing of assigned scene for Miss Moorehead’s class at 20th Century Fox Little Theatre: ‘Miss Wilson....’ ” She stopped dictating and asked me, “Do you think the readers will understand that Wilson was my maiden name?”
“Yes, I believe so,” I replied.
" 'Miss Wilson...you really come alive onstage. You lift and light it up. I am so impressed because offstage you’re nothing.’ ”
My Three Angels
Unfortunately, actors don’t get time-outs. What about intermission? Intermission doesn’t count because it’s the same thing as halftime. In football the object is to score points. In the theater the object is to make the audience laugh, cry, or understand the theme. Wouldn’t it be great to do what professional athletes do when things aren’t going right? Hold on a second, guys; the audience looks pretty bored. Let's call a 40-second time-out.
What can actors do when a player becomes sick or injured onstage? Understudies are a myth; they’re for shows with big budgets. I’ve been acting for 15 years, and I’ve only been in one show with an understudy. Even when shows have reserve actors, they’re seldom backstage. It’s impossible to have an extra person handy to make an entrance for every scene — that would be a costumer and stage manager’s nightmare.
In January of 1994, North Coast Repertory Theatre performed My Three Angels, a Christmas tale about three lovable convicts who use murder and coercion to bring happiness to a shopkeeper and his family on Christmas Eve. The cast should have called a “time-out” before the show began, because the shopkeeper’s wife, played by Pat DiMeo, was feeling ill. Although she looked peaked, Pat insisted she was well enough to perform, so she suited up.
“Is she gonna be all right?" cast members asked. The stage manager assured them, “Pat’s got a little stomach virus, but I think she will be okay.” (Stage managers are not physicians.)
“I’m all right! I’m all right!” Pat told everyone. “Let’s start the show.” Places. House lights down. Fade house music. Stage lights up. Action.
In the play, the convicts have been imprisoned in French Guyana for various crimes. Part of their retribution to society includes mending roofs for wealthy shopkeepers. Jim Johnston played the part of Joseph, the ringleader of the convicts. An embezzler and a smooth talker, Joseph can sell anything to anyone. It will soon fall on Jim Johnston’s shoulders to sell a sinking ship to the audience.
Fifteen pages into the script, turmoil met Pat’s stomach virus. Sandra Ellis Troy was backstage at the time. “Pat came running off the stage. She exploded in nine different directions.” Not to belittle Pat’s illness, but her condition was the least of the actors’ worries. John Guth, the theater’s box office manager, was onstage as Jules when the virus kicked in full throttle.
Pat’s character was supposed to make change out of 100 francs for Joseph, who needed the change because he’d just sold a painting. Then the two characters would go into dialogue explaining Joseph’s embezzling nature. Pat crossed over to the bureau where the money was located, but instead of returning with the appropriate change, she said, “I...I...I...think I have some more money in...my [she covers her mouth]...room. I’ll go get it!”
“We never saw her again,” John told me. “She just...left.”
When I spoke with her later, Pat maintained she thought she was all right. “I had been feeling a little under the weather before the show. When I got out there under those hot lights, it hit me.”
In football terms, her sudden exit was like punting on the first down.
Meanwhile, back on the sinking ship, Jim Johnston (Joseph) was thinking to himself, “Oh, this is just great! Cover. Cover. Cover. Vamp. Vamp. Vamp. Until you can get to a place where the script can kick in!” He and the other two convicts knew the script well and tried to get the show back on track. The two other convicts — Jules and Alfred — started pumping Jim with lines that they hoped would carry the show to the next scene. During this panicked delivery, the actors realized...Pat was in the next scene too!
“What I remember most about our dialogue,” John says, “was that every line we delivered ended with a nervous laugh. Like, ‘Last year we worked in the jungle...(huh-huh-huh).' ”
And then there were two.... I’m sure John Guth had some notion of saving the show when he jumped ship, but it didn’t look that way when he left.
“Umm. Well...[puts his hand to his ear as if he hears something offstage] What?! I think I hear Madame! I’ll go check on her!” And with that, John just...left. Jim and the remaining convict, Alfred, were alone on the stage for several moments. Pages of dialogue raced through their minds as they imagined more tragedies befalling the production.
It was Alfred who struck the next blow. He put his hand to his ear and said, “I think I hear Madame’s daughter [huh-huh-huh]. What is she doing down by the river?!” He exited, leaving Jim to go down with the ship alone.
Although the audience had no idea what was going on, the cast was huddled offstage, on the other side of a screen door, watching Jim try to explain away the confusion. If he could make sense out of what was going on, the cast was ready to throw him a life preserver.
At this point, the third convict, Alfred, had Madame’s daughter offstage in his arms. He was waiting for Jim to cue his entrance. If Jim could get the play to that point, he could save the show.
“How I got it there,” Jim recalls, “had to be one of the most comical things I’ve ever done onstage." Looking out the screen door, Jim acted as if he saw something in the distance. He rattled off plot points that had been left out due to Pat’s sudden exit. It was as though he was reciting a play-by-play, with the racehorses coming down the final stretch:
“Yes. I see them. They are...they are arguing.... Oh! Now she is slapping him...and he’s throwing her on his shoulder. But wait. She’s putting up a struggle...and now he has her.... Oh, I think she was trying to kill herself— that must have been what Alfred heard earlier when he left. I don’t see Jules — I guess he is somewhere with Madame...and here they come.” The actors found Jim’s monologue hilarious; they couldn’t help smiling every time he opened the door. The show was buoyant after all.
When the house lights came up at intermission, the shopkeeper informed the audience of the situation. In a somber voice he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that Pat DiMeo, my wife in the show, has become violently ill and has been taken away.” A huge gasp came from the audience. How could they not know something was amiss? Maybe they were just being kind. But there were no complaints; no one walked out and no one demanded a refund.
After intermission, the cast regrouped and went on with the show. “These people had paid money to see the show,” Jim told me, “even if it was a little weird.” Not only did Sandra Ellis Troy mop up Pat’s mess, she also assumed Pat’s role in the play and played her own part, Madame Parole, the penny-pinching busybody. She wore a wig when she was Madame Parole and carried a script when she was the shopkeeper’s wife.
Pat lived. Another actress, Christina Courtenay, came in the next day and did an outstanding job as the shopkeeper’s wife. When Pat got well she came back and rejoined the cast. Even with the odds against them, the cast never used a time-out. But they all wished for an instant replay.
Stray Cat Strut
The Old Globe is the big enchilada. If you’re an actor and you’re fortunate enough to grace this stage, you are cool. You’re not too concerned about acting lessons or becoming an extra in a movie because you probably have several agents vying for your attention. If you show up at arty community theater for an audition with “I performed at the Old Globe” on your acting résumé, you’ll stand out like a fifth of bourbon at an AA meeting.
But you could spend your whole career just trying to be a spear-carrier in an Old Globe production of Hamlet. So I found it amusing when I heard about Carter. To appreciate Carter’s story, let’s go back to 1982, the year Carter made his debut at the Old Globe in a production of The Tempest.
Ken Novice, the Old Globe’s public relations manager, tells me that Carter was “one cool cat.” No one remembers who started feeding the stray animal. “He just sort of showed up one day,” Novice recalls, “and the actors and staff adopted him.” He hung out with the actors, rubbed elbows and shins, but pretty much kept to himself. During one performance, in front of a full house. Carter sauntered onstage, purred a little, let out a little “meow,” took his bow, and strolled offstage. No one thought much about the incident, but remedies had to be taken to prevent an encore.
Performing at the Old Globe doesn’t automatically elevate you to “cool status,” however. Consider Hal Holbrook. In 1993 he was performing King Lear in the title role. Tom Hall, a San Diego actor, likes to tell the story about Hal Holbrook’s onstage goof. Hal came on too soon and started a completely different scene. When he noticed another character, played by Bill Anton, onstage, Hal realized he was in the wrong scene. He blurted out, “Oops, excuse me." In the next scene he got a standing ovation. Only Hal Holbrook could elicit such a response.
Leap ahead two years. It’s 1984. Ronald Reagan is president and the musical Cats is gaining in popularity. (Remember those black sweatshirts everyone used to wear with the eyes in the back?) An Old Globe audience is watching Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage. (A short anecdote: Oscar Wilde died in poverty in France. On his deathbed, in a room somewhat unfamiliar to him, he uttered his last words: “Either the wallpaper goes...or I go." Wilde had a cynical sense of humor, so I don’t think he’d care that a cat interrupted a performance of his play.)
The audience heard some prowling coming from the rafters, then they saw a cat dangling from the catwalk. Carter hit the stage with a thud, screeched “MeeeOOWWW” (the kind of meow you only hear at 3:00 a.m.), took his bow, and raced offstage.
After that performance he was awarded “Best Animal Performance in a Comedic Production” and was dubbed Carter, after the stage by the same name.
No one is certain where Carter is now. Some say he’s living as a recluse in a New York apartment. Others believe he’s producing Feed the Cats videos with Sally Struthers. I tried to track him down, but he’s too cool. His agent wouldn’t return my calls.