Back in the 80’s I was part of a little off-off Broadway theatre company that managed to produce three whole plays before it went belly up. Our sophomore effort was Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of “Antigone” which we staged in a cramped little basement space in Hell’s Kitchen. Our director was a truly talented, but kind of tortured guy who had a big, multi-cultural vision for the show. He wanted to use a wildly diverse group of actors from every conceivable ethnic background. This proved hard to pull off and the resulting cast was sort of a hodgepodge of folks with varying degrees of talent and experience. He’d also decided to stage the play in the round with no intermission which meant that all the actors had to remain on stage for the entire two-hour running time. I played “The Messenger” (which was a much better part than it sounds). I came on at the end of the show and delivered this poetic, three-minute monologue about how (in true Greek fashion) everybody had stabbed out their eyes and killed themselves. The only problem was that I had to sit on stage for two hours each night before I got to say or do anything. Every night. Two hours. For three minutes of stage time.
The director and I were close friends and I respected how much he wanted to be a genuine artist. I sort of wanted to be an artist too, but I also wanted to make tons of money and be super-famous. His goal was to create an artistically pure theatre company like the Moscow Art Theatre or Steppenwolf; a place where artists could grow and mature together. Most of all, he wanted real commitment from his actors. This led to a fair amount of tension between him and the cast members. Oddly, he and I never fought. I was always very game to try whatever he wanted to do. I suspected that his desire to achieve a pure artistic environment was at least partly a reaction to the fact that he came from a family heavily steeped in the business. His mother was a TV executive (one of the first women to break the glass ceiling). One of his brothers was an up-and-coming film producer while the other was a Hollywood mega-agent who represented some of the biggest stars of the 1980s. I'm not sure if any of them got why the youngest son wanted to stage boring old plays in moldy basements.
Meanwhile, back in Hell’s Kitchen, disaster struck. The fiery actress playing “Antigone” dropped out and was replaced by a young woman fresh out of drama school. This would be her first show in New York. I still remember when she politely walked up and introduced herself to me at rehearsal. My heart sank. She was a lovely, but shy African-American girl with big glasses who would’ve been a great choice if we were casting “Marian, the Librarian,” but she hardly seemed like the type to play the warrior princess, Antigone. Because my role was so small I was excused from rehearsals for three weeks. When I returned I could barely believe the transformation. The meek little actress I’d met was suddenly projecting a character who was regal and powerful, vain and sensuous. Prowling the stage like a tigress, the actress now oozed passion, intellect and murderous rage. She was so good that she made the rest of the production look sort of shabby and ill-conceived by comparison. The show opened and as I sat on stage, forced to watch this damn play over and over, night after night, it was her riveting, nuanced performance that kept me from losing my mind.
Other than Antigone's performance, my friend the director was never very happy with the show and one night, I arrived at the theatre to find him wildly pacing the halls. His family was coming to the performance and he asked if I would be willing to go out with them afterward. I didn’t really want to, but I could see the guy desperately needed a buffer, so I said yes. Shortly before curtain, they arrived, perhaps a little overdressed for the occassion. Adding to the oddness, the agent brother had brought along one of his hottest clients, a gorgeous blonde movie star. Afterwards, we caught up with the clan at a pricey restaurant on the Upper East Side. I had met the family before and actually liked them, but they did intimidate me a little. I had never read a trade paper in my life and these were people whose names actually appeared in the articles. My friend didn't seem to want to talk about the show, so after a few perfunctory compliments, the conversation shifted away from Greek Tragedy and onto the bigger show business dramas of the day. It was a little awkward.
Finally, it was time to leave. Just as we were about to walk out the door, my friend ducked into the men’s room and left me standing in foyer with his brother the agent and the gorgeous movie star. I tried to think of something to say, but drew a blank. Finally, his brother leaned in and spoke to me in a strangely intimate tone of voice. “There were ‘people’ in the audience tonight,” he said with meaning. “Important people,” he continued. “You were noticed.” He lifted his eyebrows and gave me a tiny, almost imperceptible nod indicating that something of great import had apparently taken place without my knowing it. I sensed I should respond. “Great,” I said, smiling weakly. I was hugely relieved to see my friend emerging from the men’s room. His brother and the movie star slid into their waiting towncar. My friend and I opted to take the subway.
The play ran for a couple of more weeks. It rained. The basement leaked and became miserably cold. Nobody came, but at least I had Antigone to watch. I admired this girl. She worked hard and gave her all, even on the nights when we had maybe 10 people in the audience. I also began to feel sorry for her. Here she was -- talented, pretty, smart and a genuinely nice person to boot -- but I knew how tough it was for African-American actresses. There was virtually no work for them. When the show closed, I sensed I might never see her again. Then a year or so later, I ran into her at an audition where she informed me that she was moving to L.A. I smiled and said that sounded like a great idea. I was lying. At the time, I viewed L.A. as an artistic graveyard where the talented went to die. Not long after our theatre company folded, my friend the director took an acting class in an effort to learn how to better communicate with actors. He liked it so much he decided to become one and moved to L.A. There, he was cast in an iconic, long-running TV series, winning an Emmy or two along the way for his terrific work. Ironically, he probably became more successful (and certainly more famous) than any other member of his family. The blonde movie star that his brother brought to our show only did a few more so-so films before disappearing from view.
Success is a funny thing. It can visit you for a little while (like a quick sunny vacation) or it can stick to you like glue; making you into an enduring and bankable commodity. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, it’s a slow climb to the top. And sometimes, people just have an instinct about which road to go down. Antigone’s decision to move to L.A. turned out to be a pretty good one. She got small roles at first. But in the end, she didn’t do too badly for herself. Her name was Angela Bassett.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being amazingly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv