Friday, September 1, 2017

Front Centre Stage by Don Herald

Out of the blue, Don Herald's character decides to turn his hand to acting. How hard can it be?

My wife peered over the rim of her morning coffee. "But you've never acted before. Ever."

"How hard can it really be?" I replied. "I'm going to audition this coming Sunday for a part in that upcoming community theatre production. I think it's called 'Crystal Palace' or whatever."

She set down her mug, smiled a bit like the Mona Lisa and went out to the kitchen to feed the dog.

We never talked about it again.

On Sunday afternoon, I turned up at the audition with other aspiring actors - two teens and thirteen adults of all ages. There was an anticipatory buzz of energy flitting unseen about the room.

At a long, bare table set up in the middle of the room, sat four very serious looking characters. I quickly figured out they were the business end of the production. David the Director, Angie his assistant, Devo the stage manager and an unnamed fellow who appeared to have something to do with making the set. Him-Without-A-Name didn't say a word through the entire audition but kept up a steady, terribly annoying 'click, click' of his ball point pen when he wasn't doodling circles and squiggly lines on the back of a torn paper napkin from a nearby sub shop.

On David's command, each of us stood up and read a few pages of what appeared to be a script. Angie took one of the parts, leaving the other character to us. I thought I did my lines pretty well. But some of the others seemed more experienced and comfortable with such things. The teenagers rarely glanced at their lines while adding in some appropriate gestures and emotions. I have to admit they were impressive.

After each of us did our lines, the folks at the table would quietly confer, jot down some notes then stare stonily at the next candidate. Him-Without-A-Name continued to click and doodle.

After about two hours, David declared a short break and offered us cold coffee, weak tea and not enough Oreos. He and the team withdrew to another room to decide our fates. We all waited nervously, making the silly chatter one always does in such socially uncomfortable situations.

Upon their return, David solemnly announced that some individuals could go home, adding in a decidedly theatrical voice, "Please accept our sincere thanks for coming." He didn't mean one word of it.

Six remained. Unbelievably, I was one of them.

Without explanation, Angie lined us up about ten feet in front of the table. Tallest to shortest, left to right.

David walked stiffly along in front of us. It felt as if he was royalty inspecting the assembled honour guard. He stopped in front of each of us, staring intently. Head to toe, then back up again. He'd silently nod, then move on.

Stepping back from his inspection, David announced in a too loud, theatrical voice, "Congratulations. You're all in the cast. Angie will assign your role and give you a script. Our rehearsals begin back here next Sunday afternoon. Promptly at two. Make sure you start learning your lines now. For the next three weeks, you can use the script. But after that, it's 'no book'."

Driving home, my mind raced with the infinite possibilities surely lying before me. Stratford, maybe the Shaw, or dare I even hope, Hollywood.

My wife seemed shocked when I told her the news. After a short, but too loud gasp, she recovered skillfully with a heartfelt hug and a whispered, "That's wonderful dear. You'll be great. I just know it."

I began reading the script every chance I got. I liked the idea that I had more lines than most of the other actors. Reading my lines aloud and alone in our downstairs laundry room was giving me some confidence. By the time Sunday's rehearsal came, I was pretty familiar with the general intent of my lines.

From my perspective, the first rehearsal went quite well.

I read my lines flawlessly. My exchanges with the other actors seemed effortless. David smiled, laughed, cajoled and sometimes prompted all of us. Several times, he repeated, 'Remember everyone. In two weeks you'll not be using the book. So make damn sure you know your lines.'

Weeks two and three passed easily for me. I was really enjoying the wordplay back and forth with my fellow actors. Reading lines seemed natural to me. I noticed all of the others hardly ever used their scripts now. It was only me still using the book. Of course, each rehearsal always ended with David's 'no book' warning. It really didn't make any impression on me.

Week four. It's our first 'no book' rehearsal.

I had a mild twinge of panic as I stood behind the closed set door awaiting my first stage entrance midway through the first Act.

'Not to worry,' I comforted myself. 'As long as I know the general gist of my lines, I'll be alright. Besides, if I can improve on the playwright's words, why not do it?'

I heard my entry cue. A deep breath and out the door toward Jonas who played the far too handsome murder investigator.

What can I tell you? My mind went blank. There was no script in my right hand.

Jonas said his next line, 'And where were you, Senator Enright, at the time of her murder?' Suddenly, I remembered not the exact words from the script but other ones that seemed pretty darn close to the original. Relieved, I spat these out. Jonas looked taken aback. Desperately he glanced toward David sitting down front, then back to me. He repeated his line, 'And where were you, Senator Enright, at the time of her murder?'

At that precise instant, I realized I was in big trouble.

After what seemed like minutes of dead air, David shouted angrily.

"What the hell's going on here? Angie give him his damn line!"

She did. I repeated it but in my growing panic, got it wrong.

Frustrated, David very reluctantly came to my rescue, calmly telling me I could use the book just for this one rehearsal. But never again.

That night, upon hearing the heavily edited report on my first 'no book' rehearsal, my wife somewhat gleefully mimicked those six words that still haunt me to this very day.

"How hard can it really be?"

She was enjoying this whole situation far too much for my liking.

Quite frankly, I think she put just a bit too much dramatic flair into both her tone and her facial expression - all at my expense, of course. But I decided to let it pass.

"Ok, old man. The fun's finally over. It's time you got serious about this acting thing," waving her hand in the air with a flourish. A bit too much flourish it seemed to me. She smiled.

"From this point on, every night after work and all weekend long you and I will rehearse until you've got the entire script down cold. Out of the blue, I'll throw you a cue line and expect to hear your correct lines. If you're in the shower, expect a line. In bed at night, expect some lines. Or maybe we're waiting in the Tim's drive-through, expect another bunch of cue lines. For damn sure, you'll be ready by next Sunday. Or I'll suffer a nervous meltdown trying!"

Next Sunday arrived. I wasn't ready. David and Angie appeared on the verge of their own nervous breakdowns judging by the threats they yelled at me. The other actors now expected me to mess up. They wouldn't hang out with me during the breaks. It seemed as if proximity to me might infect them with my no-word virus.

In desperation, David assigned Hamud, one of the set painters, to stand beside me and prompt me with the correct lines. Every line had to be said exactly as it was written in the script. None of the much better word riffs I offered up was appreciated.

I felt terrible. I began to imagine creative ways I could fall deathly sick and have to drop out of the play. Opening night was only four weeks away and we had an eight evening run.

It was impossible for me to get my lines right.

Over those weeks, my wife gave it everything she had and then some. It didn't help my self-confidence that she'd quickly learned every character's lines and could correctly give lines without using the script.

My stress was unbelievable. I rarely slept. At crosswalks, I started entering late on the yellow as if I was daring the rushing cars to end my misery. I secretly prayed that David would call, fire me and ask my wife to take on the part at the eleventh hour.

But then something unexpected began to happen in rehearsals. I started getting more and more lines right. The other actors started to visibly relax when I came on stage. I even glued my entry lines behind each of the three entry doors onto the set. I would stand there - unmoving - before going on, poring over each word, each stage movement instruction that I'd scribbled in with a dark Sharpie beside my lines.

Ten days before opening night. It was our first full dress rehearsal. Everyone was feeling the pressure. I was still making small, silly mistakes that threw off the other actors. David and Angie looked like they both could use permanent IV drips.

Dress rehearsal started. Magically, my words came out with no stumbles. No errors. I could do no wrong, say nothing wrong. I think psychologists call it a 'peak performance' moment. Whatever it's called, I was joyously riding the flow.

At the end of the last Act, as I stood at front centre stage and delivered my final lines, the crew and cast all burst into applause and shouts of 'bravo'.

A standing ovation for me! It could never feel better than this!

Our run sold out and received rave reviews.

But I never acted again.

Many years later, I am often asked by family and close friends if I'll ever be returning to the stage. I must admit I sometimes still get a tingly feeling deep in my gut urging me to take another audition.

After all, I tell myself, how hard could it really be?

2 comments:

  1. Delightful - I really enjoyed this. I felt every knot in the protagonist's stomach, every tremor in his limbs and each blank in his memory! A great 'face the fear and do it anyway' story, Thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I have myself been an amateur actor. Don Herald perfectly describes the emotions, humiliations, and, if we're lucky, eventual triumph. It is not often I am both anxious and laughing simultaneously. Great story, well told.

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