At the San Diego Theater Critics Awards ceremony, Claudio Raygoza, artistic director of Ion Theatre, filled what looked to be a black hole with style and ease.
Brian Mackey was to receive the "Actor of the Year" award for an outstanding body of work in 2011. But he was home with the flu. How to fill a highlight of the evening, in front of the year's most sophisticated theater audience?
Someone suggested that Claudio, who had directed him in several shows, should accept the award and call him on a cell phone. This was 10 minutes before the ceremony began.
But no one behind the scenes knew that Claudio had already phoned Brian, told him about the award, and Brian begged Claudio not to make the call.
Brian said he was too sick and wouldn't have a clue what to say about such an incredible honor. "You know my work," he said, "you know who to thank. Can you just do that for me? I'm grateful, but I've got to go to bed."
At the podium, Jim Hebert, theater critic for the Union, announced the award. As Claudio rose to accept, Herbert added that Claudio would call Brian on a cell phone.
Claudio gives two versions of what followed.
"The Actors Version - or, How I Wish I Would Have Done It: walk to the stage smiling, breathing slowly, staying focused in the moment - and no one sees me sweat." He makes the call, as if pre-arranged, and bada-bing: Brian answers and 500 people roar.
The Other Version. "I was nervous. My number one fear, believe it or not, is public speaking, followed by drowning and being buried alive. I thought I would just say thanks on his behalf, and that would be enough.
"Or maybe some background - how he started his San Diego career with us? Or how each year we watch in amazement as he evolves? Or is that TMI? AH! I HATE speeches!
"So I'm walking down the aisle, not knowing what to say, and Jim announces that I'm going to call Brian. Jim didn't know, and I couldn't find the ceremony's stage manager to tell her it was not happening!"
On his way up the stairs, Claudio punched the power button on his cell phone, praying it would come on by the time he reached the podium.
He missed the button. "Nerves!" And hit it again.
"I'm peddling second-rate filler at the podium while my hand is shaking, waiting for the phone to light up. IT FINALLY DOES!"
Claudio dials. Brian answers - "and he's charming. His speech is a gem. Then it's done. I'm alive and would rather be dragged naked over broken glass than go up there again."
But everyone in the house seats will swear they saw Version #1.