"Hold Please." This is polite theater jargon. It’s used when the director wants all the actors on stage to stop cold but remain in character. I guess the police would yell “freeze!” but I think “Hold Please” is less intimidating.
I have written before about theater, especially community theater. This time around I want to get into the inner workings of putting a show together. Since I have been doing theater for fifty-seven plus years I think I’m qualified to comment on the process.
Community theater means actors and technical people from the community are used and that there is no compensation paid them. Every now and then you may find an Equity actor involved, but very few theaters have the funds to hire them. These are so called “working” or “professional” actors. In other words, they do this for a living while the rest of us keep our daytime jobs. Every now and then you will be offered a “gasoline stipend” when your venue is a more distant one. In this world of outrageous gasoline prices such a stipend is much appreciated. When I first began in theater in Galveston in the late Forties television had not yet ruined the cultural life of our country and community theater was more highly regarded than it is today.
The first thing worth noting about the process is the length of time committed to being in a show on either side of the curtain. The one I’m going to deal with specifically, required two audition evenings on 26 and 27 August of last year. We then had a “read through” on 12 September in the evening. This means the cast ,as selected, sits around a table with the director and the stage manager and “reads through” the show. After that, rehearsals began in earnest five nights a week from 17 September right up to opening night on Thursday 25 October. At that point, time committed was to performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with a Sunday matinee until Sunday 18 November, when the show closed. And, the cast had the privilege of helping strike the set so the next one could be put up as quickly as possible. The whole thing adds up to something over a two month commitment. As for hours, rehearsals were from seven to ten in the evenings and performances from eight to ten, but everyone was required to be in the theater an hour before curtain. You have to love this kind of thing to do it.
Now, as someone once said, let’s begin at the beginning. Audition notices are sent out in advance to all the actors on the mailing list. One of the unspoken promises of community theater is that shows are not precast, as this would discourage people from auditioning. Some theaters do precast and it’s a very, very bad idea unless you state up front that a certain part in a show is already cast.
Since I am writing about a show that I did at Arena Theatre at College of the Mainland this past year, all my narrative will take place in that venue unless I note otherwise. One of the great attractions for actors who work there is that Arena has full time directors, costume designer, set builders, sound and light people and an invaluable lady named Susan Gilbert who is the Box Office Manager and a sort of “den mother” to the cast and crew.
You have received your audition notice with the name of the show, description of the parts, dates of rehearsals and performances. Auditions at COM (shorthand for the Arena Theatre and College of the Mainland) are held on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. This is to bring in as many people as possible to participate and allow for a “call-back” if the director wants to look at an actor a second time or, perhaps, in tandem with another auditioner. Actors will bring with them their “head shots” which are black and white photos used for auditioning purposes. Generally, one’s theatrical resume is typed up and stapled to the back of the head shot. Forms are filled out with vital statistics including any conflicts a prospective cast member might have with the rehearsal schedule. Of course, there cannot be conflicts with performance dates.
Everyone is handed a script and a rehearsal and performance schedule. The director may have an assistant with him and that will generally be the Production Stage Manager. The director will examine the head shots and bios and then ask that those whose names he calls will go to the front of the room. The director then tells the actors which parts they are to read and at what place in the script. This is usually done with the actors standing in a crescent pattern at the front of the room. No physical movement is required of the actors. This is what is called a “cold” reading. That means no one has rehearsed anything. However, there is no law prohibiting an aspiring actor from having obtained a copy of the script at the library and read through the entire show or at least the scenes in which he would appear if cast in a role. Frequently the director will ask a number of people to read the same part, sometimes the same person to read a part several times in conjunction with other actors. Both the director and the production manager will be taking notes furiously during this process. There may be a “potty break” and one can expect to spend as much as two hours at one of theses auditions. At the end of the audition, the director will tell the assembled actors that he will be calling those chosen by Wednesday of the following week. The same process that takes place on Sunday night will be repeated on Monday night. Some directors prefer all aspirants to audition both nights, others feel one night is sufficient.
As luck would have it, after following through on the above procedure, I got a call from Mark Adams, Executive Artistic Director of COM, letting me know I had gotten the part of St. Clair Byfield.
The show is called “Glorious” and was written by Peter Quilter. Some of you may recall him from “The Canterville Ghost.” The story of “Glorious” is that of a lady named Florence Foster Jenkins. She really did exist and lived in Manhattan from the early part of the last century until 1944. Ms. Jenkins inherited a good deal of money from her father. This enabled her to live quite a comfortable life, take care of those in her retinue and "hire the halls". The last is really significant. Florence believed she had a fine singing voice. Others may have differed on that point. But with her money, Florence could hire hotel ballrooms and other venues to stage her recitals. Not only was her voice not a fine one, it was quite simply awful. However, she became a cult figure in her day. That terminology did not exist at the time. As the years went on, Florence attracted a following which included Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Tallulah Bankhead as well as other prominent New Yorkers not actively engaged in the performing arts.
As written by Peter Quilter, “Glorious” takes us through the most important phase of Florence’s life which culminates in her being invited to “finance” her own performance at Carnegie Hall with most incredible results. About one month later, Florence died. My character, St. Clair Byfield, was Florence’s very close companion and her lover. Byfield purports to be English though some have found information indicating he was an American. He is as poor an actor as Florence is a singer but they had one hell of a good time together. And, to his credit, St. Clair was a loyal friend and lover.
The rest of the cast are as follows. Forence Foster Jenkins---Zona Jane Meyer, Cosme’ McMoon---Christ Pool, Maria---Shirley Wettling, Dorothy---Carolyn Ortiz and Mrs. Verrinder Gedge---Julie Owen. In sum, this is as delightful and fine a cast as I have ever been a part. Cosme’ is Florence’s accompanist on the piano. He comes in doubtful, then cynical and eventually one of Florence’s most loyal friends. He underplays his character so successfully the audience is unaware he is doing so. Maria is a Spanish maid who speaks no English. Shirley Wettling, a great character actress, drew belly-laughs doing the highly profane Spanish that none of the rest of us were supposed to understand at all. Carolyn Ortiz is another fine character actress. She is a ditzy but loyal friend to Florence and a good organizer of the concerts and balls that Florence loves to give. Julie Owen as Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge manages to incorporate just about the entire lexicon of negative comments about a New York socialite of her---or any other---day. If Mrs. V-G had been put in a zoo the sign would have read “Bitch---Raving Variety” (Having some talent in this direction myself I’m sure readers will understand that I adore Julie and her character). Mrs. V-G is dedicated to the proposition that God has ordained her to stop Florence from performing as a singer. Yes, I did leave Zona Jane Meyer to the last in this little description. But only because she is a pure treat as Florence Foster Jenkins. The most important thing about her is that in order to make the character of Florence sing horribly one has to be able to sing very well. Zona can do that and did. Her screeching and sliding up and down scales would bring down the house every night. I will add about my own part of St. Clair that he has an English accent. I have done English accents before but this time it had to be “plummy” a sort of indefinable overdone that sounds as though you are gargling oatmeal while speaking. Just as Zona had to be able to sing well to sing badly, I first had to do the accent as I would normally and then take it up to plummy. Bit of an assignment, but “pip-pip”, I got it done.
Now comes something very important. A fine cast has been assembled for a well written show. The venue is Class A and the people you never see or hear about (but will later in this piece) are all there to make things work. What else is needed?
No show is going anywhere, not even to tryouts before Broadway without a first rate director. We have one at COM. Mark Adams, Executive Artistic Director, henceforth known as director is, in my not very humble opinion, one of the best to come down the pike. And I’ve been directed by a few in fifty-seven years. Mark is also an Equity actor and has a number of film credits. He teaches at COM in the daytime. Mark, along with Jack Weston, helped to build COM into what it is today---one of the finest community theaters in the country and one with a huge subscription list.
I have now been directed by Mark in a number of shows. At my age, I don’t usually take kindly to someone younger telling me much of anything, mainly because they do it in a way that rubs me wrong. Mark has a gift that enables him to go in the other direction. I also will freely admit that as I am no small item physically, little people can make me very nervous if they try to tell me what to do. Mark would make two of me and that gives me a nice comfort zone. I am extremely prejudiced in Mark’s favor and would not attempt to make any secret of that.
Here is where Mark is so superior to most directors whether in community theater or on the Great White Way. He never belittles or demeans you. He comes to each character at the end of an act and privately gives his comments and suggestions as to how something ought to be done. If the change is major, he will go to the character who gets the cue from you and tell him or her about the change. He will never give a “line reading” though he will happily discuss character development with you. “Line reading” occurs when a director will speak the line to you as he wants it to sound. This can be deadly for character development. When necessary, Mark will spring to the stage from his perch in the audience and physically demonstrate a move with which you might be having trouble but always leaving room for you to “make it original.” Finally, there is another gift Mark possesses and that is the ability to make the actor show to best advantage. Not every director can do this or is especially interested in doing so. Some are more concerned with the overall aspect of the show. Mark understands how important it is to an actor to feel “at one’s best.” I got annoyed with Mark when we first met because he would not permit me even to read for a part I thought I would do wonderfully well in----and I would not have. Mark knew where I belonged in that show. He skillfully paired me with the other actor to make a perfect couple; showing both our characters' and our own traits to the very best advantage. To “show best” is important to all actors but especially to us amateurs. An audience would brag about having seen Katherine Hepburn or Jack Lemmon on an “off” night. But people like Victor Lang are not accorded that luxury. We must try to be at the top of our forms every performance.
Ta-Da! We are now ready to begin rehearsals. Seven P. M. means there and ready to begin work not just arriving and visiting. Mark is very firm about getting us out on time but that means we begin on time.
Scripts in hand, we make notes as Mark gives us blocking for a scene. Then we get on our feet and, using chairs and tables as mock sets, go through the blocking while reading the lines. When we have covered the entire script in this fashion we usually move from a rehearsal room to the actual set. It may be that portions of the set are still being built or will be revised in some fashion----a chair too low or too high will be replaced with one that is correct for the job. The always just right designs of Tom King, Technical Director, will be falling into place and we can begin serious rehearsals. Not to forget that while this is going on Amanda Bezemek (Costume Designer) will have been eyeing and measuring us for our stage duds, Kelly Babb (Lighting Designer) will have been working out the lighting for various scenes and Craig Seanor (Sound and Visual Effects Designer) will have been working on getting all the needed sound and visual effects in order. All of this work is absolutely critical and will result in untold hours of work on the part of the talented individuals whom you will never see when you are a member of the audience. In charge of getting all the actors doing things when they are supposed to and still having a good time, will be Production Stage Manager Chelsea McGee and her two crew assistants for the show, Katie Osle’ and Nick Patterson.
At designated times in the rehearsal schedule the cast will be prepared to go “off book.” That means have the lines for that portion of the show memorized and no longer hold the script in hand as a crutch while rehearsing. That also means work can begin in earnest on gestures and using props. Finally, will come the night when we begin doing “run throughs” of a complete act and we will be off book while doing so. Mark will give notes individually following each scene, as a general rule.
There will be photo calls prior to rehearsal for publicity photos---and we will have been given an order of the shooting along with instructions as to which costumes we should be wearing for what shot.
Sound and Visual Effects will be added, sometimes altering some of the directions we have been following up to that time. However, a good director like Mark will have envisioned the whole show to such an extent that there will be very, very few changes made at this point.
For once we are at this point we will rapidly enter a rehearsal period when we may no longer say “line” when our memories falter and expect to hear the beginning to the line given by Chelsea from the audience. And before one knows it, we will be performing before an audience. There are several audiences before that crucial night called Dress Rehearsal. All past COM performers are invited, students may come and there is a night for a Senior Citizen group. The Actors relish this as it lets us begin to perfect our timing, especially where laughter is concerned. Prior to having an audience we will have gotten the “order of appearance” for curtain call. Marks likes the entrances for these to be almost at a jog, certainly a trot. Once in place he does not like the bow to be rushed. Then move to one side and finally an ensemble bow and off we go to collapse backstage.
A good Stage Manager like Chelsea will start a routine of asking all the actors before the “house is open” if they have checked their props. While props are supposed to be in place on and off stage it is still the ultimate responsibility of the actor to assure this is so. That pertains especially to props one might have on his person such as a cigarette case, lighter, envelope or suchlike. I always develop a kind of routine about this and repeat it exactly the same way prior to each performance. When the “house is open” means the audience can begin to come in and be seated. It would no longer be possible for an actor to go on stage and check props at that time.
A word about timing. It is important beyond description. Full running time is important and is clocked each performance and reported to everyone on the bulletin board where one signs in each evening upon arrival. Timing where laughter is involved (never the same time or place during any given performance) is meant to “ride” the laugh. This means that when the laughter starts and builds, the performer needs to train himself to judge where the point just before the laughter starts to subside is. That is when one begins to speak again. Generally, authors place unimportant words in such positions so nothing is lost if the audience does not hear the first words. A cardinal sin would be an actor standing on stage and delivering a (hopefully) laugh line, then waiting for the audience to laugh. The feeling that ensues if there is no laughter is tantamount to that dream about being downtown in your city with no clothes on. This is a tricky one to get right and some actors never really do. With others it is instinctive and the ability to “ride a laugh” is looked upon as one of God’s gifts to an actor.
On the subject of comedy onstage in general, I must recount something from my boyhood in High School. I was always being cast by our Speech and Drama Coach, the late Arthur Graham, in comedic roles. One day I bitched to him that I was tired of this and could not understand why I did not get cast as a romantic lead. (Well, had I really looked in the mirror I would have known). Arthur (later one of my greatest friends and mentors) turned on me and said “Any fool can play a dying queen, comedy requires a sense of timing.” This was not original with Arthur but he loved using it. He was telling me, in a nice way, to shut up and be grateful that I had a bit of innate understanding of how comedy was to be played. He was also making the point that while not all actors have this, most all of them can handle a “serious” role.
As to the business of makeup---less is better. I am grateful to have a nice, whiskey flush which makes it unnecessary for me to wear makeup. Since I sweat profusely, this is a double blessing as I would be forever patting myself dry when off stage. If you do wear it, you will probably have to put it on yourself as I don’t know of any community theater that has someone doing makeup for actors. And for God’s sake, if you are wearing it, remove it before you go out front to visit your admiring friends after the show. It is rankly unprofessional to appear in makeup and/or costume in public after a show. I learned this one the hard way years ago in Galveston Little Theatre days. A group of us were hot to get to the Turf Grill downtown for coffee and something to eat after a show and we left on our makeup. As we entered the Turf, there was a drunk sitting at the counter who could see our reflections in the mirror and he said quite loudly “I always did think circus people were the most interesting people in the world.” That did it for me.
Some words about memorizing lines would be in order. The most desirable ability for an actor is to be able to memorize every single line of his part precisely as written by the author of the play. When you are not doing this once the cast is “off book” you will be told about it by the Stage Manager after rehearsal. The most critical place to be verbatim is anytime you are giving a cue to another player. Your fellow actor is entitled to hear the same words in the same order every night when a cue is involved and you will expect the same done for you. I assure you this is by no means as easy as it might seem.
As to the general memorizing of lines, every actor has a different system. I will tell you about mine. In the old days, before cassette recorders, I would stand in the kitchen, covering portions of my script with my palm. I’d read off a cue line with my response covered, give the response, uncover and check for accuracy. This was time consuming and very boring to say the least. Using the recorder makes it much easier to handle this very necessary chore.
First I record the cue line to be given me by another member of the cast and usually do so in a monotone. Then I record my line exactly as I will deliver it on stage. Then the next cue line and response and so on down the line. The great advantage to this system is that I can then rewind the whole thing and run through all my lines with the appropriate vocal variety and emphasis each afternoon before I go to rehearsal. Later, I run through the entire show each afternoon before going to the theater for a performance. The system almost guarantees that I will speak each line verbatim as written by the author. The importance of all the players doing exactly this cannot be exaggerated.
On the spur of the moment, I was offered a “walk-on with line” part in a production of “The Producers” by Mel Brooks which played our Grand 1894 Opera House Saturday 1 March.
I accepted with glee and had a wonderful time. Celia Davis, Steve Salch and Avis Patrick also had cameos. Steve and Avis were Saturday night and Celia and I were the Saturday matinee’ “stars.” Maureen Patton, the Executive Director of the Grand saw to it that we were treated as though we were semi-National Treasures. We were seated in a box near the stage door and provided with a bottle of very good champagne (which we did not touch until after our appearances).
We were told to report at 2:00 P. M. for our instructions. The matinee’ began at 3:00 P. M. We were able to sit comfortably in our box until we were needed at the beginning of Act II and were escorted backstage at that time. After our appearances, we were escorted back to our box to view the rest of the hilarious comedy. We then made short work of the champagne. Celia had brought Phyllis “Tudy” Fundling as her guest but mine could not come at the last minute so Tudy held the fort for us when we went onstage and saw to it that no one swiped the bubbly from our box.
At 2:00 P. M. we met the Stage Manager, Suzanne Apicella, whose photo you will see between me and Celia in the snaps of this essay. She is a delightful and extremely talented young lady but also unfailingly polite as were all members of the cast and crew. It was a genuine pleasure to be with all of them and I only wish the experience could have lasted longer. Let me detail my part in this in view of the things I’ve had to say in the earlier parts of this essay.
Suzanne took me through the marks and moves backstage. She reassured me that there would be someone with me at all times to see that I was comfortable and that I did not trip over any of the miles of cable and wiring backstage. We rehearsed my line (like any good director, she did not tell me how to say it) and we went through where I would stand before I appeared and where I would be when appearing. That was followed by my directions to go downstage left and exit the scene.
As the foreman of a jury reporting to a judge my line was “We find the defendant incredibly guilty.” I won’t go into what makes this funny but be sure and see the show if you ever have a chance. (Both the matinee’ and the evening performance at the Grand were SRO---for you novices that’s Standing Room Only).
When I went backstage prior to appearing I stood by Suzanne who was at an amazing set of controls and videos which showed what was happening onstage, backstage, in the wings, etc. While giving cues to everyone concerned, Suzanne still managed to chat with me, asking if I was feeling fine and introducing me to the young man who would “mike” me. After that, the lead in the show, Jason Simon, whom I was going to find “incredibly guilty” stopped by to introduce himself and say “I hear you’re going to put me away.” I allowed as how that was what I had been told to do. Matthew Wade, the Judge, came up, introduced himself and took me by the hand to lead me to my mark behind scenes. He asked if I would say my line and I did. He found it to be just right. Then Matthew said “The tricky part to this is that when you finish your line there will be nothing else going on and you have to exit the stage---are you comfortable with that?” I said I could do it.
I said my line, with a group of “little old ladies” hissing me from the sidelines and moved downstage left to exit. I passed Jason who said, audibly, “Thanks, Vic” in a very sarcastic tone of voice and that made the day for me.
A few words about after the show should be added as I was able to somewhat repay the company for its kindness and thoughtfulness to me. No one knew that I had been doing theater for over fifty years and that there would be nothing about the experience to throw a curve at me. They very properly treated me as nice old man who might never have been on a stage before and I thought it was wonderful. No smart remarks, no jargon----just simple, old-fashioned good manners and kindness.
Now then, for after the show. I managed to find Jason Simon, the lead. These young men and women had about an hour and a half between very demanding performances and were being fed by Saltwater Grill so they could sustain the pace.
I told Jason that I had known Zero Mostel and had seen him in the first movie of “The Producers.” I also told him that I had seen Mr. Mostel open “Fiddler on the Roof” at the National Theater in Washington, D. C. What I wanted Jason to hear was that while Mr. Mostel was an extremely talented performer, he had grown somewhat stuck on himself through the years. This is not uncommon with people who become stars. I told Jason that I thought he was every bit as good as Mr. Mostel in the title role but better in another way. The point I wanted to make was that while Jason Simon was a splendid performer he had not lost the nice touch of concern for others and good manners. I told him I hoped he would be increasingly successful in his acting career but that he would retain his even better traits. He liked that just fine and said he hoped he would do just that.
If you have never auditioned for any community theater, I urge you to do so. The acting pools for each venue need constantly to be replenished. You will be welcomed and encouraged by the director and other players. It is hard work but can be one of the most rewarding efforts you’ll ever make. And, I think the line was Anthony Newley’s in “Stop the World”---“The smell of greasepaint, the roar of the crowd.” Once you do it, you’ll be hooked. Also remember that people to work behind the scenes are also much sought after and valued in community theater.
Give it a try on either side of the curtain and if you do, let me know about your experience.
Until next time----the show must go on!