Theatre in L.A. is sort of a strange beast. When I first arrived here to seek my fortune as a screenwriter, I was floored by the number of small theatres just in Hollywood alone. It seemed like there was one on every corner. I initially found this very comforting since I'd just immigrated from New York after a 13-year career as a stage actor and playwright. How great, I thought, that there is so much creativity bursting forth all over town. Then I started attending a few of the shows and discovered that the majority of them were produced by actors in the hope of landing an agent. Often, the quality of the work wasn't so hot and things like scenery and lighting design seemed to be sort of low on the priority list.
Even so, occasionally I'd see something I liked and feel genuinely homesick for the experience of being on stage. My first job in show business was in the chorus of a summer stock musical and I still remember that as being one of the best summers of my life. During my time in New York, I'd always enjoyed the camaraderie of being part of a company and the intimacy of live performance. Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided on a whim to cast my bread upon the waters.
I dropped a note to the Colony Theatre; a small professional theatre that I knew had a solid reputation. Not wanting to oversell myself, I kept my letter light and jaunty; telling them a little about my background and offering my services as a quirky character man should they ever need one. The next day, my phone rang and I was invited to audition for a new play the Colony was producing called "Better Angels."
Unlike the rapid fire nature of TV auditions, theatre auditions are quite civilized. A lot of care is taken to make actors feel comfortable and welcome. And usually you get to read a couple of meaty scenes in front of some very attentive people. My audition went well and I even managed to land a couple of cheap laughs (which is sort of my specialty). Two weeks later, I was back reading opposite some other actors in contention. By 5:00 pm, I'd gotten the call. The role of "John Hay" was mine.
The play centers on a little known incident in the life of Abraham Lincoln and is narrated by Hay who was Lincoln's personal secretary. Since the play was not long and only had three characters, the director generously encouraged us to do lots of exploring. It was fun to dig in and mine the material for as much depth as possible; a luxury most film and TV sets can't allow. Much of the text had been taken directly from the letters and diaries of the actual people; and although the language was beautiful, it didn't exactly come trippingly off the tongue. Just saying it was challenging enough, memorizing it proved even harder.
I soon began to realize that returning to the stage after a 15-year break wasn't exactly going to be like riding a bike. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm not quite as young or energetic as I used to be. There was a time when I could juggle ten things, have an affair and still show up for rehearsal with my lines learned. Although my capacity to analyze and reason is probably the best it's ever been, my short term memory ain't what it used to be. Adding to the problem, my character, who narrates the play, was required to spout quite a few historical facts and figures. I began to detect a bit of concern in the faces of the director and playwright as we careened into week three of rehearsal and I still had a script in my hand. Finally, I hired a couple of my students to drill me on my lines for two hours a day. Things began to improve. I started taking Ginkoba and hoped for the best.
Eventually, we moved from the rehearsal hall and onto the set and began running through the play on the actual stage. There is something kind of magical about theatres. I, who mostly feel miserably self-conscious in life, have always felt strangely free on stage. Plus, after three weeks in a florescent-lit, carpeted rehearsal hall, just hearing your voice bounce back to you was sort of thrilling.
As you might have guessed, working in non-profit theatre isn't a great money-making proposition. I don't remember the last time I worked this hard for this little dough, but theatre is never about the cash; it's about the experience itself. For the last 15 years, the only acting I've done has been in the rather cushy world of TV. At most, you're only required to concentrate for three-to-four minutes at a time while the camera is rolling. Plus, even if you stink, they can always fix it in the editing room. Theatre however requires an actor to take complete responsibility for his or her performance. Once the curtain goes up, there's no stopping. No starting over. As we began previews this week, I was reminded of how much of a roller coaster that experience can be. How quickly elation can turn into terror when shit inevitably goes wrong. Lines get blown. Costumes snag on furniture. Props fall over. Yet the show goes on. It's a team sport and there is no greater thrill than catching a ball that has been dropped and no greater sense of relief than when your fellow actor steps in and saves your ass.
Then there is that most unpredictable factor of all: the audience. For reasons no one will ever understand, sometimes they laugh, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they love you, sometimes not so much. They will cough right in the middle of your line. Candy gets unwrapped. Cell phones go off. During one of our previews this week, one patron opted to remove her 3-strap, Velcro leg brace during one of the play's more intimate scenes.
Tonight we open. Opening nights are always exciting. The house is packed with friends, family members and others, who for whatever reason, are likely to be on your side. They can be counted on to laugh or cry when you need them to and will probably even give you a standing ovation whether you deserve it or not. It's a remarkable act of generosity; a genuine acknowledgement of the amount of backbreaking labor that's gone into creating this little piece of entertainment. I'm always grateful for that support, particularly since seeded in among tonight's cheering throng will be a few theatre critics who couldn't care less what your fans think. Back in the day, I used to have pretty good luck with these folks, although I do remember one critic in Philadelphia writing in her review that she had not enjoyed my performance because of my "repeated use of foul language." She made it sound like I suffered from Tourette's Syndrome when in fact, I was only saying my lines as written.
Luckily for us, the Colony has a very loyal subscription audience, so even if we are tarred-and-feathered in the press, there will still be a sea of smiling faces out there every time we mount the stage. I'm very glad I got this chance to perform live again. It's definitely had its challenges, but so far, nothing we as a company haven't been able to surmount. Maybe it's just me, but almost everything I do these days seems to carry a lesson with it and "Better Angels" has been a great reminder of the value of being present; of realizing that this particular performance will never happen again. It will vanish the second after the words are spoken and there is something oddly perfect about that. It's one of great mysteries of the arts; how a play or a piece of music can unfold in front of a roomful of strangers and draw virtually everyone present into a collective and very personal moment of understanding. Just being present to witness that always erases any doubts I have about my chosen profession. Performing is quite a cool job and I'm very grateful to have it.
So, if you find yourself in the Los Angeles area anytime between now and November 22nd, stop by and see us. If not, I hope the next time you spot an ad for any kind of live performance you'll think about attending. Considering how awful TV seems to be getting, it might be well worth your time. Who knows? You might enjoy yourself, but whatever your experience turns out to be, keep in mind that the performance you are watching was not shot on a sound stage six months ago. It wasn't recorded in a studio halfway around the world. Somebody showed up, put on their costume, picked up their instrument and created it right before your eyes. Just for you.
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 www.partsandlabor.tv
"Better Angels" runs through November 22nd at the Colony Theatre. Tickets and info at http://www.colonytheatre.org/