Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Beautiful Weapons of Happiness

Last week, I got cast in an actual, honest-to-God, Equity stage production here in Los Angeles. Professional theatre work in L.A. is (as my mother used to say) about as “rare as hen’s teeth.” When the show opens in October, it will mark the first time I’ve been on stage in 15 years. Needless to say, I’m both excited and a little nervous about it. The whole process of getting cast reminded me how much I have missed the gentle and courteous way in which casting is handled in the theatre.

First, you are usually given a generous number of pages to read (as opposed to the five or six lines you usually have to prove yourself in television). Then there’s the whole “audition-callback” arrangement that gives you that all-important second chance to nail your character. And then there is the kind and respectful manner in which the craft of acting is treated by your potential employers. Between you and me, it will be sort of thrilling to blow the dust off my “Actors Equity” card. It was the first union I ever joined and I can still remember how excited I was to become a member of what I, at the time, believed to be a very exclusive club.

A Manhattan skyscraper now stands on the corner of West 54th and 8th Avenue where the old “Showcase Studios” once stood. I was nervous when I entered the creaky old rehearsal hall for my first real “Equity” audition. The casting director had seen me in a showcase and introduced me to an agent, who in turn, had submitted me back to the casting director for this play, so he had little choice but to see me. It was a regional theatre production of a perfectly horrible British play called “The Weapons of Happiness.” I was asked to read a monologue in a cockney accent and when I finished the director, who was British, yelled “Brilliant.” Being twenty-two at the time, I thought that meant he'd found my acting "brilliant." I didn’t know that was just something British people said when they wanted to move things along. I came back a week later, read a second time and the job was mine.

Three weeks later, I was in freezing Buffalo, New York, rooming with another young actor in the cast, Evan Handler (who would later go on to play Charlotte’s husband on “Sex in the City” and can now be seen on “Californication”). Evan (who was extremely nice) had already been in a couple of movies, so I was incredibly intimidated by him. Not wanting him to know I had just been brought up from the minor leagues, I didn’t mention that this was my first professional gig.

The play was an extremely ambitious project for a regional theatre. In addition to its lefty, pro-Communist leanings, it required a huge cast, plus expensive scenic elements like fog machines, hydraulic lifts and rotating turntables. The director had opted to cast a number of American actors who had studied in London. Outside the rehearsal hall, this crew seemed perfectly normal, but once they came into the presence of the director, they suddenly morphed into Sir Ralph Richardson and Dame May Whitty. The play was hard to “act” since all any of us ever did was spout angry political diatribes. It also had two interweaving (and equally confusing) plots. The first was about a strike in potato chip factory led by a bunch of young, working-class hotheads. The second involved the lead character (an older Czech man) having hallucinatory memories (part flash-back, part fantasy) about his experiences in the Stalinist purges of the early 1950s.

Frequently, the older character would deliver long, rambling monologues to the audience which none of us (including him) understood a word of. One of these speeches ended with the question “And what are the beautiful weapons of happiness?” Several of us were, at that point, standing in the wings, waiting to make our next entrance. On hearing this question, I remember Evan and I would always turn to each other and shrug our shoulders. Who the fuck knew?

The reviews were scathing, but they didn’t hold a candle to the frosty reception the audiences gave us. The play (written in 1977) may have had some relevance to British theatergoers, but in 1983 Buffalo, it went over like a lead balloon. Bethlehem Steel had just closed its doors, and those who could still afford a night out, didn’t much care to be preached to by a bunch of pinko Commie sympathizers. Plus, it didn’t help that the playwright had made a point of having something hugely offensive happen in almost every scene (torture, a hanging, a teenage girl giving the lead character a blow-job). Audience members walked out in droves; sometimes not even waiting for intermission to do so. Soon, the cast created a pool backstage. At the start of each performance, everyone put in two bucks and guessed the number of walkouts for the night. Whoever got the closest to the actual number (verified by the house manager) won the pot for the night. I hit the lucky number twice.

The whole enterprise seemed cursed. The massive machinery required to move the scenery, frequently broke down. One night, the fog machine went berserk and the entire company disappeared in a cloud of mist. There was also lots of backstage drama. Our leading man, a middle-aged, recovering alcoholic, fell off the wagon and started showing up drunk for performances. This proved especially challenging for me since I had to do a little “stage combat” with him. One night, he was so loaded, I literally had to grab his fist and ram it into my own stomach; then collapse to the stage as if he’d actually hit me. Unfortunately, the guy was so trashed, he lost his balance and fell on top of me.

I knew the show was sort of disaster, but I didn’t care. I was delighted beyond words just to be “a professional.” Every night, I was stretching my artistic wings, while learning a few life lessons along the way. When the playwright came from London to see the show, Evan and I threw a party in his honor and invited all the “party-hardy” Buffalo locals who played the “angry mob” in the show. Being twenty-two year-olds, it never occurred to either of us to provide any food, so everybody got utterly hammered in pretty short order. When the gentlemanly playwright arrived bearing an expensive bottle of Glenfiddich, I slammed it down on the card table / bar next to the cheap shit the rest of us were drinking. Never having tasted Scotch in my life, I knocked back three or four shots on top of the five beers I’d already had. When the room started to spin, I excused myself and vomited out my second-story bedroom window before rejoining the party. Despite a massive hangover, I managed to get through the matinee the next day. Barely.

Although playwrights, directors and designers bring invaluable contributions to the theatre, it is, in the end, an actor’s medium. Eight times a week, you are the channel through which the whole play is transmitted to the minds and hearts of the audience. There is no stopping. There are no second takes. It’s live. And it’s scary. But when you manage to connect with that room full of strangers out there in the dark, it’s totally thrilling. So, if you find yourself in the L.A. area anytime from October 21st to November 22th, I hope you’ll come see me and my fellow cast members appearing in a much better play than “The Weapons of Happiness.” It’s been a while since I worked without a net, but maybe I’ll pull it off; actually, telling a story to a group of real people. In real time. In a real theatre. I can’t wait.

"BETTER ANGELS" at the Colony Theatre Company in Burbank, CA. October 21 to November 22, 2009. Tickets: (818) 558-7000 or visit http://www.colonytheatre.org

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Look for me on the front row on Friday the 13th! Break a leg!!!!
Love,

Karen H