When a Show Starts to Really Work After Performances Begin

When a Show Starts to Really Work After Performances Begin

So we’re backstage at the conclusion of performance #10 in a 12-show run of Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, produced by Big Dawg Productions at the Cape Fear Playhouse down here in Wilmington, NC. We’re in the single, narrow dressing room that accommodates all five of us and our two-person backstage crew, changing back into street clothes.

J. Robert Raines, who plays Doctor Watson, is in the midst of changing his shirt, with a broad smile on his face.

“That,” he says, “was just so much fun!!”

Amidst murmurs of agreement all around, acknowledging that it had taken us a while to reach a performance level that was “fun” for all of us, we stumble across one of the harsh realities of community theater; that by the time everybody literally gets their act together, the run is over.

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A Community Theater Board of Directors' Letter to Santa...

A Community Theater Board of Directors' Letter to Santa...

Dear Santa,

We, the Board of Directors of Anywhere, USA's Players' Club Community Theater would like, this year, to make something of a special request. We've been quite happy over the past few years to have a few of our technical requests granted. The digital light board is working fine, and those new fixtures (I think the 'techies' call them 'instruments') just make everything on stage look great. I'm not sure our patrons are noticing, but we are.

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50 Years Later - My Life in Theatre

Skip Maloney 

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Still shaking, internally and externally, from a near-death experience, I was escorted into the producer's office at the Weathervane Theater's cast house in Whitefield, NH. The first thing that the producer (his name was Gibbs Murray) did was to hand me a glass, with a good-sized shot of what I'm pretty sure was my first taste of unadulterated-by-so-much-as-ice Scotch whiskey, which I downed in a single gulp, and took a long breath.

I related the story of our trip to the swimming hole, which I'm pretty sure came out more than just a little disjointed and more than just a little influenced by my own attempts to process the tale myself. My recollection of the time frames of this remain a little hazy, but I remember thinking at one point that all of us, myself included, had to get ready for an opening night performance, now without a drummer. I even remember standing up, and saying something about this, at which point, Murray informed me that I wasn't going anywhere.

The thought that literally every person in that house was about to leave and head off to a performance, at which I was expected to be absent, horrified me. With so many other things roaring through my head, the idea that I was going to miss my first performance on a summer stock stage never occurred to me. What did occur to me was that I had absolutely no desire to spend the rest of the evening in a sprawling, empty cast house, alone. Murray assured me that an actress, recently arrived to rehearse for an upcoming production, would be staying with me. He refilled the glass with more Scotch, letting me know without actually saying so, that he'd entertain no arguments about his decision, and watched as I downed my second shot of Scotch.

 And so, I was introduced to the actress, and left behind, my first performance on a summer stock stage delayed. Just once, as it turned out. She was older than I was, by a number of years, and I don't remember exactly how that evening proceeded for us, but she was instrumental in assisting me with the process of returning to some kind of normalcy. In the shadow of a death, she brought me out of the shock, confusion, and lingering traces of fear to a place where I was able to affirm life again. She maintains my eternal gratitude for every aspect of that single night of my life. I am convinced that without her dogged determination to help me, it would have taken me significantly longer to recover, with now, only traces of those moments sitting crystal clear in my memory.

And the summer moved on. I made that first appearance. Shortly after Camelot, I was introduced to the experience of performing in a second production of a play. Normally, that experience is about performing in a well-known play or musical for the second time, like Camelot, The Sound of Music, or Oklahoma. My second appearance was in S.J. Perelman's The Beauty Part, in which I had appeared while with the Quannapowitt Players in Reading, MA. I was struck by the stylistic differences between the two productions in which I had been involved. With the Quannapowitt Players, the director had gone for something of a straightforward production of the comedy which, when it had opened on Broadway, years before, had featured the talents of Bert Lahr, playing seven roles, including a woman. The Weathervane Theater production took more of a whimsical, wild-eyed view of things. In Reading, MA, a tennis racquet prop was just that - an actual tennis racquet. In Whitefield, NH, that tennis racket was created out of painted cardboard, with the strings represented by multiple colors. It was my first introduction to the very idea that a particular play or musical could be interpreted in any number of ways.

During a subsequent production of The Sound of Music, I was made aware of how extraordinarily transportive certain performances could be. The first time I heard the woman cast as Maria's Mother Superior sing "Climb Every Mountain," I was transported to a place in my heart and mind that thrilled me more than any performance had before, or has done since. We were in a barn, literally, and while the producers were invested in professionalism, the settings, costumes and bare bones music were a far cry from the lavish productions I would eventually see in the theatrical future ahead of me. Yet through the meager trappings, this woman belted out a song that every night, throughout the repertory weeks that it was performed, held me spellbound. It crystallized the "problem of Maria" for me in a way that the spoken words of the script did not, and made me aware, for the first time, of the inherent power of a strong musical performance, articulating the thoughts and emotions of the people on-stage, as well as those of all of who bore witness.

Prior to that summer, I'd have described my interest in theater as mild, more along the lines of "Oh boy, this is fun," than any solid commitment to pursue it long-term. I knew, all summer long, that short-term, my next step was training, and ultimately, an assignment as a soldier in the United States Army. I couldn't really envision much beyond that. But that summer stock experience, unbeknownst to me at that time, had solidified what would become a life-long interest in theater, which, thankfully, continues to this day.

They landed on the moon that summer, and I watched it on a small, black and white television, while conversing with my parents, by phone. Some members of the theater company, not involved with a production on a specific weekend, travelled to attend the Woodstock festival. At a post-performance party, held at the cast house, I watched people drift behind closed doors, and upon examination of this phenomenon, discovered marijuana, and the odd (to me) practice of sharing a joint.

In September of that year, I reported for duty with the US Army, and was bussed to Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training. On leave for the first time, I boarded my first plane for the quick trip to Boston, and later, back. After basic training, I was bussed to Fort Jackson, in Columbia, SC for AIT (Advanced Individual Training), where I was trained as a Clerk Typist ("Skippy," my Mom had advised me, "Learn something you can use later in life."). AIT took a little longer than was strictly necessary, and I was back in Boston, on leave again, for Christmas, boarding my third and fourth planes in the to-and-fro process. The fifth plane I ever boarded was a huge C-130 transport plane, and on a chilly February morning in Fort Benning, GA, at about 3,000 feet, I jumped out of it, becoming, officially, an airborne Clerk Typist.

In March, I was assigned for duty at Fort Clayton in the Panama Canal Zone, where thanks to a little 'clerk-typist' gaming of the assignment system, I would spend the rest of my short Army career. I was there for exactly two years, which embraced celebration of my 22nd birthday, and later, something of a 'shotgun wedding.' It also entailed appearances in 12 theatrical productions, beginning with an audition I attended on the night I landed in Panama.

Becoming Part of the Process

Skip Maloney

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

I have been told that I have a bad habit (or two). One of them, particularly irksome to my grown daughter, is the way I express my surprise that an individual with whom I am speaking has not seen a particular play or musical that has come up in a conversation. I don't just raise an eyebrow, nod, say "Oh well" and move on. I make a point, which, according to my daughter, is usually expressed with more drama than I intend.

"What??!!" I'll say, as if not having seen a professional production of Sweeney Todd, or Equus, or some other play or musical were an affront to civilized society. As if it were some sort of crime. But more importantly, expressed with an attitude articulating visible disdain for someone's apparent failure to have availed themselves of such an experience.

"What," says my tone of voice, "is the matter with you?"

The strongest and hardest reaction for me to effectively curtail is my reaction to a discovery that a person with whom I am speaking, has never seen any sort of live theater performance.

This absolutely astounds me. I don't think that I'll ever be able to respond casually to that. What is even more astonishing to me is the number of people who don't find such a thing to be at all unusual. Given the size of audiences, compared to population (they'll say), you'd have to know that there are a lot of people in any given community that do not attend live theater. You're bound to run into a few of them when you're out and about.

So what's the big deal? Why the surprise, over-exaggerated or not?

Those of us in the theater community, in whatever capacity, be it professional, semi-professional (which usually means paid, but not much), or amateur theatrics, try to reach these people who don't attend our shows, and to a certain extent, I think, we're losing the battle. Not just to movies, video games and reality shows, all of which we can combat with good productions of our own, but to an education system, particularly in the lower grades, that undervalues theater's contributions to our lives.

Not universally, but seriously enough for me, at least, to note the increasing number of 20-to-40-year-olds who not only do not attend live theater, but find the idea just a little quaint, old-fashioned.          

No interest.

How do we get to these people?

In Wilmington, NC, where a healthy local theater community is very active in promoting and supporting youth theater, the pre-teens and teens we're watching down here right now will carry the torch just fine into their 20-to-40s. You can see it in their eyes. They're excited about theater, the way we here in the choir are.

Our next responsibility, beyond education, is to give these people, when they do come, a reason to buy tickets for the next show. We need to tell them a good story. We need to make that story sing with energy, sometimes literally, and we need to be meticulous in our adherence to certain theatrical principles of good story telling. It is not enough, we must come to realize, to entertain people. We need to excite them.
             
I would argue that the most important people in any theatrical company are the ones who choose the scripts. There is no more sure-fire way to keep people away than to produce inappropriate material. I was witness to this when a theater company in Plymouth, Massachusetts chose to produce The Prodigal, by Jack Richardson. Based on the Greek legend of Orestes, it was, according to the description of it by Dramatists Play Service," an attack on the senselessness of war." It was also a painful demonstration of what not to do.

In February. In Plymouth.

There was a night when there more people on stage (15, and I was one of them) than people in the audience.

Before a play is chosen, it will generally go through a process of variably random selection.

Everybody and his brother will have suggestions for a theater company's next season and winnowing that initial field of 'appropriate' material might, or might not, entail an established process. It's at a different level with the 'pros,' of course, but in some ways, it's very similar.

Pick a play, or a bunch of them.

At the community theater level, this process will most often engage people to read the plays that have made it to a final selection phase. These readers, along with the people who make the final decision (sometimes the same, sometimes not), are the real secret to a local company's ability to recruit converts to the wonderful world of theater. 

It helps if these readers and decision makers are acutely aware of their group's abilities, and financial constraints, but more importantly, they need to know their audience. And they need to know them well.  Well enough to give them what they know from attendance the audience wants, and once in a while, well enough to challenge their own basic assumptions about what's 'appropriate' and take a risk.

There is a tendency, variable from community to community, toward selecting the familiar.

There was a time, back in the 20th century, when you couldn't spit without hitting the production of a Neil Simon play. And right now, as we converse here, there are likely multiple productions of musicals like Annie, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver, Grease, and Bye, Bye Birdie being mounted all over the country. Anthony J. Piccione wrote an essay for this site in June, suggesting 10 musicals that, according to the headline, "community theaters should just stop producing." Piccione was not judging the musicals in terms of their quality, merely pointing out his contention that "there is such a thing as too much of a good thing."

But what's a local theater company to do? They have an obligation to select plays and musicals that will effectively put fannies into seats, and history has told them that the standards are the ones most likely to accomplish that objective. There is no easy answer to the question, but communities interested in maintaining a lively theatrical presence within their community should take note of any opportunities to become involved in the play selection for a company's season and participate in that process.

Playing the Part - A distinction between discovery and memory

Skip Maloney

OnStage North Carolina Columnist

~~~~~~

As an actor, you hear it all the time. You come off stage after two hours of performing your butt off, and someone in a gathered crowd of well-wishers says, "Oh My God, how did you ever learn all those lines?"

They mean well, of course, but there's something about the question that tells me the person asking it has missed the point.  As an actor myself, I can't imagine asking another actor that question, because I'm acutely aware that the lines, in any portrayal, are the least of one's problems.  The only time I ever understood why someone asked that question was when I portrayed Salieri in a production of Amadeus. The man steps on stage when the curtain goes up (well, actually rolls on stage in his wheelchair) and talks for 45 minutes. It was the only time I've heard the question after a performance and experienced it as a compliment, because otherwise I'm thinking "This person doesn't really understand what we do." Normally, it's best to stay polite or if the conversation continues,  mention what you assume is the questioner's ability to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, even if they haven't done so in 20 years, noting that if you repeat anything enough times, it just sinks in.

Sometimes, actors on stage don't understand what they're doing either and perhaps, for the same reason; a failure to understand the essence of a stage portrayal, which is not about memorization (words and movements) but about discovery.

They're two separate things. which, in the real world, generally occur in a discovery, then memory sequence. Something really cool happens to you and you remember it. If you remember something later, it isn't a discovery. On stage, that process is reversed. You need to do the memorization, first, and get it out the way before you can begin to discover the character you're attempting to portray. Un-memorized lines are annoying to an actor. They interrupt the flow of what he or she is out there trying to do.

Oftentimes, the discovery doesn't come about until an actor has put the performance in front of an audience. Happens all the time in comedies when a performer says a line that he's been saying in rehearsal for weeks and in front of an audience, gets a laugh for the first time. Changes things a bit, that discovery, even though one has to guard against 'playing for that laugh' in subsequent performances; anticipating and more often than not, as a result, failing to get that laugh.

Sometimes, actors never get it. I think back to Quentin Tarantino's Broadway performance in Wait Until Dark. He had the lines down perfectly (although, to be honest, I wasn't 'on book' to verify this) and didn't bump into any furniture, but he just never got it. Without really understanding it at the time, on an intellectual (discussion) level, I experienced a performance that lacked that critical element of discovery.

It's not really something that can be taught. It transcends the memorization factors involved and can only be realized with your lines out of the way. It can occur at moments when you least expect it.

More often than not, it comes in reactive moments, which, when you think about it, is pretty much all the time on stage. An actor, like most people, is constantly acting in response to what's going on around him or her.  So someone says something to you or does something on stage and you react instinctively. You make a move or gesture that wasn't part of the portrayal before.  Hopefully, you've got a director watching to assure that this reaction is appropriate within the context of the play. You can't go out there and on instinct, give a fellow performer the finger just because you've discovered that what he said was annoying.

It's a very subtle thing. You're not likely to find anyone after a performance who'll come up and compliment you on that spontaneous, instinctive gesture you made in Act Two. They're experiencing the discovery that you've made without any conscious awareness of its significance.

Someone (and I really wish I could remember who) once told me that an actor has two things to think about when he's portraying a character. 1) Bringing something new to his or her performance every night and 2) making sure the director doesn't catch him at it.

During an audition process recently, I watched three actors answer a scripted, rhetorical question - What would Thanksgiving Day be without Macy's parade? Each of them responded with their own question - What? Each asked the question, as if they hadn't heard the original question, the instinctive reaction to which is to repeat the question.  In fact, in the context of the play, "What?" is a set-up question for a comic answer, so it needs to be spoken in a way suggesting that the man really wants an answer.

It was an audition, and I have no doubt that the three who were trying out would pick up on that in the course of rehearsing, as a part of the discovery process.

The subject bleeds into the age-old, line reading issue. If, as a director, you see an actor or actress missing the point of a given line and making it obvious by putting the em-PHAS-is on the wrong sy-LAB-ble, then you step in. There is a directorial temptation to just read the line aloud in the way a director believes it needs to be read. Like in the example above, demonstrating for an actor, the proper inflection for "What?" Many times, such a demonstration will solve the problem immediately. The director has just jump-started the discovery.

Sometimes, though, and you get this a lot when you're mounting something like Shakespeare, there are very subtle differences in conversational nuance. A director isn't seeing/hearing what he/she expects out of a given line reading and wants to make the adjustment. He reads the line the way he wants it read, and the actor disagrees for any number of varied reasons. I had a college professor (director, lighting designer, all-around great guy) with whom I shared a running battle. We must have done six or seven shows together, including work as director-performer in a touring children's theater company up in Massachusetts. And we developed a system. He and I would go back and forth about something, allowing each other to articulate our vision for a given line, or stage moment. By mutual agreement, the debate ceased when, and only when he said, "Because I said so." At which point, I would adjust in the way he'd asked and life would go on.

The discovery process doesn't begin at the first rehearsal. For the director, it begins months, sometimes as much as a year before the first rehearsal. You discover you're directing something and start to gather material, thoughts included. The actor, desirous of a role in an upcoming production, begins the process when (and only if) he gets a copy of the script before an audition; 'sides' don't count, they're cropped images of a much larger photo, and as an actor, especially for an audition, you want to look at the whole picture, if you can. Of course, sometimes you can't. Your familiarity with the discovery process will have a discernible effect on your success at an audition, especially in the 'speed' department. Combined with a knack for reading from a script as if it weren't there, any early discoveries you can make about the character from your limited exposure to the script, puts you in the driver's seat.

The director's out in that audition chair of his or hers looking for evidence of that discovery process. He or she will most likely offer the role(s) to auditioners who have instinctively created the type of person he or she believes that character to be. Not always, though. Sometimes directors can be influenced by auditions in a way that makes them re-think the character in some way. Doesn't happen often, in my experience (no figures or anything to back that up), but it happens.

The discovery process on both sides of the proscenium arch (for the director, production staff, performer and audience) is the heart and soul of live theater, because it mirrors the discovery paradigm in our own lives. Like the day we discovered at nine-months-old that if you hit one little plastic button on a toy, lights would start flashing and you'd hear music, or a present-day, real-life discovery, like learning to program your IPhone. Sometimes, you get disappointed (dead battery), or frustrated (with the IPhone). Sometimes things turn out okay.

So the next time someone asks you how you managed to learn all those lines, continue to employ the same polite, respectful response, appropriate to a person's compliment, and perhaps make mention of the fact that it's all part of the much larger and more significant discovery process.

Photo: David Tennant directed by Gregory Doran in the RSC's production of Hamlet in 2008 Photo: RSC

Bad Guys - Looking for opposites to the obvious

Skip Maloney

OnStage Columnist

~~~~~~

For a while there, I had some concerns about continually being cast as a production's resident dickhead. From Lewis, a sort of mild-mannered, middle-aged dickhead dating a child, in a production of Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, through Bob Ewell, the child-molesting, racist charmer in To Kill A Mockingbird, and the completely off-the-charts Pap, Huck Finn's father, in Big River, who spends all of 15 minutes and a song, without demonstration of a single redeeming quality.

Beyond invoking a tendency to look for elder dickhead parts in upcoming productions, this gauntlet of roles (added to others in my past) has taught me a few things about bad guys, and a little bit about playing them. Still a lot to learn, I'd say, because like any role, good guy or bad guy, each character has nuances unique to the context in which he or she is placed.

Bad guys are not always easily identifiable. Is Salieri the bad guy in Amadeus the way that Bob Ewell is in To Kill a Mockingbird? While the book for Sweeney Todd most definitely makes Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford bad guys, could it not be argued that, murdering bastard that he is, Sweeney Todd himself is a bad guy?

Bad guys - the Bob Ewell, Judge Turpin kind of bad guys - have a few things in common. They're almost forced, by design, to be unsympathetic. Totally oblivious to the concerns of the people around them, which sets them apart from everybody else on stage, unless there's like a bad guy sidekick. We, as audience, sympathize with the good guys, precisely because we experience the effect of a bad guy's behavior. If I can jump off stage for a moment, I think of Carl Bruner in the 1990 film, Ghost. Over 25 years ago, and I still cringe whenever I think of Bruner (played extraordinarily well, I thought, by Tony Goldwyn) spills his coffee as a means of removing his shirt, in an attempt to seduce Molly, while the ghost of Sam Wheat looks on. You mutter under your breath or even sometimes out loud about these kinds of guys.

"What an asshole," or more likely, an even more descriptive phrase.

When you play a bad guy, you are somewhat hemmed in by this fact. Almost forced into caricature by the conventions of a given script. This, to my mind, has always engendered a stubborn determination to steer clear of that caricature and discover something that even if only for myself, assures that the character is as human as anyone else. Maybe stretched to behavioral excess by pharmaceutical or personal issues. Maybe so wrapped up clinging to destructive impulses that to everybody on stage, there is no room for sympathy. But, for an audience, and sometimes frighteningly so, all too human. I think this is what I liked about Tony Goldwyn's performance in Ghost. As I was cringing at Bruner's behavior around Molly, I recognized the terror at the heart of his behavior. There was some panic in his eyes as he went through the coffee spilling routine. It didn't make his attempted seduction of Molly any more palatable, but that glimpse of panic humanized him.

It's that sort of connection that actors look for in a bad guy role, or actresses look for in a bad gal role. As a male human being, you, personally, might find beating your own child to be a definite dickhead move (Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird is clearly, if not explicitly guilty of this).  But you, as a performer, are likely to know that a man like that is burying some deep-seated guilt and shame. You might not understand the child beating, but I can't think of anyone who wouldn't understand the nature of guilt and shame. So you bring that on stage with you, as a primary tool, and see what those attitudes do to the articulation of the words you speak and the way you behave. In playing Ewell, I noticed almost immediately that I wasn't inclined to look anybody in the eye for very long. Anger came flaring out of me in that courtroom scene, and I'd sneak a look over at whoever I was yelling at, but quickly direct my attention elsewhere. It wasn't something I'd decided to do. It's what happened to me as I kept thoughts of Ewell's buried guilt and shame out in front of the words he was speaking, lying through his teeth to everyone on stage.   

If an audience doesn't see the human being beneath all the scripted and obvious imperfections of the bad guy character, then somewhere along the line, you, as a performer, have missed the boat.

In watching a lot of bad guys over the years, I find them to be at their best, when they're talking sense. Like a terrorist trying to justify his murderous ways by explaining the exploitation of his kind (whatever that kind might be). These kinds of bad guys bristle with indignation, but they bring to life a certain passion for a cause, as wrong-headed as their methodology might be (offering the protagonist something to struggle against). So, like guilt and shame, pretty much everybody can understand passion for a cause. You keep thoughts of that passion up front, and really let it come out during whatever rationalization speeches you make, and the character can be experienced as human, instead of some stock caricature pulled off a dramatic shelf.

Bad guys, of course, aren't always strictly unlikeable. Miss Hannigan and her brother, "Rooster" Hannigan in Annie come to mind. As does Lewis in Dividing the Estate. The Hannigans' bad guy tendencies are funny, in a sitcom kind of way, and it'd be hard to resist a touch of caricature in maximizing the humor. In this case, the performer might look for humanizing qualities like frustration with children, in general. You bring the worst, most frustrating day you've ever had with your child with you, on stage, as a background thought, and when Hannigan rants and raves, it'll be funny and human. Lewis is just something of a goofball, a middle-aged class clown, who, much, I presume, to the surprise of an audience, weeps openly at the death of his mother. The crying touch to the class clown canvas humanizes him.

The key to playing bad guys, and the creation of an audience's perception of them, is related to the juxtaposition of good and bad. Looking for and finding opposites to the obvious. You create it as a performer. You experience it as an audience.

A lot of this is applicable to good guy portrayals, as well. In many ways, they're as hemmed in by the goody-two-shoes side of their characterizations as the bad guys are by their tendency to be dickheads.  The search for opposites to the obvious is a productive exercise for them, as well. Generally speaking, though, you're not likely to go looking for any bad thoughts to bring with you on stage as you play King Arthur in Camelot. Some jealousy, maybe. A little too much pride, perhaps.

Bad guys are at the root of our experience with a given dramatic situation. Without them, we wouldn't be drawn to the plight of the hero, and engaged in his or her redemption. There are theatrical presentations without them, of course, but I can't think of one that has engaged me as well as presentations that have strong ones.

Face it. Bad guys rule.

50 Years Later - My Life In Theatre

Skip Maloney

Part 1

I don't know what got into me.

I didn't grow up idolizing any particular movie stars of my day; the tail end of John Wayne's career, Clint Eastwood coming up and a bunch of former stage personalities graduated to film - Karl Malden, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Paul Newman. Shirley Maclaine, Debbie Reynolds, and Doris Day were among the most popular women, although later reflection would lead me to Ingrid Bergman, and Joanne Woodward. And I can't say I was captivated by any particular stage performances, although there are dim memories of a sort of magic about puppet shows my mother took me to see.

But perform?

'Why?' I ask myself 50 years later.

 'Whatever possessed you to try out for the senior class play?' especially since it was entitled Our Hearts were Young and Gay (although 'gay' had nowhere near the sexual identity character it bears today).

What was I going to tell my parents? My father wanted a clarinetist, not an actor. Kept prodding me towards the first clarinet chair in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which, at the time, was occupied by my private teacher. I was pretty sure my Mom was going to be okay with it, but in something of a general reverse of common wisdom, when Daddy wasn't happy in the house, weren't nobody happy. Still, they adapted well, I thought.

The director was an English teacher, whose name I have forgotten. We called him Froggy. He had a bulbous face that seemed to sit atop a very fleshy neck, and a low, sort of vibrating baritone of voice. And to the best of my recollection, he turned out to be a good director.

He cast me in the role of Tom, I believe it was; one of a pair of ocean travelers, who run into Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough on a cross-Atlantic voyage aboard the good ship Montcalm. It was originally a book by the two women (Skinner, an actress and Kimbrough, a journalist), who avowed that the stories were not fiction. So, as adapted to the stage by Jean Kerr a few years later, two boys meet two girls on a cruise. Complications ensue, guaranteed to resolve by the end of Act Two.

I don't retain a lot of memories regarding the specifics of plot about this experience, but I do remember the sense of camaraderie, the shared purpose of a crowd of people, rather than one's every day circle of friends with whom you just . . hung out. And I remember, too, how the individual personalities of the four of us in the roles of the young lovers matched perfectly.

Two of us were a little staid and shy, while the other two were more openly boisterous and fun-loving. The couples were a mixed bag. Wild and crazy (in real life) Sheila got paired with bookish, spectacled, school scientist Craig, while I ended up with Deidre Tinker, a rather angular, bony sort of girl, who had a reputation for being what we didn't know at the time, was a geek. She'd have been bullied if she'd gone to high school in the 21st century. As it was, and for specific reasons I don't recall and am not necessarily proud of, I was horrified, especially when I learned that in the last moments of our mutual time on stage, we were supposed to kiss.

Well, that wasn't going to happen.

Through the entire rehearsal schedule, whenever we got to that final scene, we'd just skip right over it. I said my goodbyes, grabbed two suitcases and walked off the stage. Nobody said a word. Not me, not Deidre, not Froggy, not anybody. We all decided without a word spoken, that Deidre and I were not going to kiss.

So, opening night.

Early on, I repeated a line I'd said a hundred times in rehearsals and private line memorization, but this time, it got a laugh that just for a moment, halted me in my tracks. It was like a jolt of electricity in me; a sense of surging power, discovered in the written words and their articulation in front of an audience.

So I found ways, with the author assistance of Skinner and Kimbrough, to do it again, and again, and again, and by the end of Act Two, I was having such a great time that I didn't want to leave the stage. 

Along comes the final scene and I'm thinking 'Oh no, I can't make 'em laugh any more.' The thought that I'd be doing it again the next night never occurred to me. We were into the play's final moments. I said my goodbyes, grabbed the two suitcases and headed for the door.

And then stopped.

I dropped the two suitcases, simultaneously and forcefully, facing away from the others, and took just a second or two before I turned. When I did, every one of my fellow performers had their mouth open. Only Deidre was terrified.

I stepped past the dropped bags, and took about six steps to reach her. I grabbed her by the arms, dipped her almost to the floor and kissed the girl. I returned her to her feet, smiled at the evidence of astonishment and made my first, final exit before an audience.

I would like to have seen the look on Froggy's face.

Oddly enough, I don't remember if we did it again in any subsequent performances. I think that by (again) mutual, silent consent, we returned to the way it had been done in rehearsals. It wouldn't have been the same anyway. If anything, it would have been more awkward. I'm relatively certain that neither Sheila, Craig nor (especially) Deidre was ever quite sure, though. That scene rolled around and while I was grabbing the suitcases to leave, they were wondering.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is how it all got started.

Is The Theater Really Dead?

Skip Maloney

“Is the theater really dead?” – Paul Simon

When Paul Simon posed that rhetorical question in the lyrics of his song, The Dangling Conversation, in 1966, a ticket to see Mame or Cabaret, on Broadway, cost somewhere in the vicinity of $15. Today, getting a really good seat to see Kinky Boots, the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, or any of the other nominated 2013 musicals, is likely to cost you in the vicinity of $115, and only if you shop around. 

The League of American Theaters and Producers notes that “the average (Broadway) theater attendee belongs to a household with more than $80,000 in annual income.” That’s $1,500 a week, roughly. A quick glance at a statistical abstract of household incomes from the US Census Bureau (by decade, from 1980 to 2007) will tell you that barely one in 10 households reach that figure. You have to wonder, too, how many of them actually in that bracket are willing to spend 10% of their weekly income on a single ticket to a Broadway show. Factoring in the baby sitters, gas to get there, the parking fees and the $10 they’ll charge you for an eye-dropper glass of wine at intermission, and it's likely to be more than 10%. Forget bringing the family these days, unless you have money to throw around, which is becoming an increasingly difficult phenomenon to encounter, although less so, one would assume, for those $1,500 a week folk.

All this said, we return to Simon’s question, which, by the way, in case you’d forgotten, was preceded by the line, “Can analysis be worthwhile?”

Theater isn’t dead, but it is definitely in need of a check-up and more than likely going to need some form of long-term treatment to revive it to the point of relevance in our American way of life. And it’s not just the outrageous cost to see it on Broadway that’s at issue. Community theaters offer far less expensive alternatives. It’s also about what the theater is offering us in terms of entertainment that brings the ‘dead’ question up for discussion time and again.

It’s not just difficult to compete with the breathtaking technology available to viewers of something like the latest Iron Man film, it is next to impossible. Aside from the fact that a ticket to see Iron Man 3, at its most expensive, was a lot less than half of a live (Broadway) theater ticket (or roughly equal to the amount of money necessary to see a live, community theater production) Iron Man 3 was visually mesmerizing. 

Theater needs to rediscover its unique ability to mesmerize. And it needs to do so in ways that are markedly different from the way they do things in Hollywood. A film doesn’t need you. It will perform its Iron Man wizardry without any cooperation or assistance from you. While your ringing cell phone is going to annoy your neighbor in the movie theatre, Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark isn’t going to miss a beat.

Theater is different precisely because the audience is an integral component of the experience and it’s this feedback loop between spectator and performer that is at the heart of theater magic. It is also, at least in part, what has been lost in recent years. Cats, originally produced in 1982 on Broadway (a year earlier in London), strikes me as the first indication that theater, as defined by the producers in its Broadway mecca, was losing sight of something essential. It was, in my opinion, the first Broadway musical which skewed the balance between pomp and circumstance; opting to, if you’ll excuse the expression, baffle its audience with bullshit, when it couldn’t dazzle them with brilliance.

Brilliance, in this context, is not characterized by a production's bells and whistles, which Cats and a variety of musical offerings since, has offered in spades, but a brilliance of the mind, which engages an audience, first and foremost in the performance of a compelling tale; what William Faulkner in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech called a tale of “universal truths, lacking which, any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."

"Without these," Faulkner went on to say, the writer "labors under a curse. He writes not of love, but lust. .  He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

It's this kind of brilliance that needs to be nurtured in the theater to stave off the sounds of its death knell. It is not enough these days to merely entertain an audience, because they can get that in front of their flat screen. You have to literally excite them. Stir their souls with a tale well told.

It should be noted that there is indeed brilliant theater out there. Memphis, being a case in point. Revivals are not something to necessarily gripe about, but I don't remember the Broadway of my youth doing quite so many revivals. There certainly wasn't a category for it at the Tony Awards. The Revival categories (play and musical) didn't get rolling until the 1990s. The revivals appeal, primarily, to a group of people who've seen a show umpteen times and can't wait to see it again. Or maybe missed it when it was around. A sort of guaranteed audience for the familiar. There's a good side to that coin. I'll go back to see a professional Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd any time. You'd have to catch me on a good day to get me back to see Death of a Salesman, although it's something everybody should do at least once.

We'll get them back, that vast segment of the population that used to attend theater regularly, say the producers, although it doesn't acknowledge the significantly larger crowd of people who express no basic interest, or worse, have never, and I mean never, seen a play or musical on stage, let alone a Broadway production. 

These people (Exhibit A that some sense of relevance is deteriorating), are the people the theater needs to attract, and in many cases, the burden of doing so falls on the back of community theaters, whose skill at a high level of theatrical brilliance can vary widely.

Engage us, we ask. Don’t just entertain us with extravagant, eye-popping productions, but excite us, we ask. Build us this kind of theater and even at $115 a pop, on considerably less than $80,000 per year, we’ll come.