Theatre Thursday: The ghost light is still burning

I haven’t performed on a stage in public for one year, three months, a week, and a day now and at this point I don’t know when I will again. Except for the main company, the rest of the improv troupes that used to be part of the whole have disbanded and although our Monday night Rec League group has met and practiced via Zoom the whole time, it’s just not the same.

As I see live theatre start to sneak back into reality, it just reminds me of how much I miss the experience of performing — and the great irony of that is that I never set out to be an actor or improviser in the first place. My goal was always to be a writer. I just fell into the acting accidentally.

Like probably everyone, I’d done a couple of elementary school plays, but didn’t really think of those as acting. In my first, I was one out of six lumberjacks with construction paper axes and no, I have no idea what the play was, except that I don’t think it was Little Red Riding Hood but it was staged right in the classroom.

In my last year of elementary school, we did do a production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin and we did it on the actual stage in the auditorium. I actually had a fairly featured part — a young boy named Obi. Since he was lame, he wasn’t able to follow the piper with the rest of the children, so he was the only one who knew what could happen and was able to tell the adults.

I had a big speech and everything, although we had a glitch. There was a student who transferred to the school a fairly short time before the performance but, in the interest of having everyone participate, the teacher cast him in a speaking part. Not having had enough time to prepare and rehearse, he totally forgot his lines — which were all in the same scene that was my big one.

Since none of us were particularly good at ad-libbing, the production sort of slid off the rails until someone finally ran on and handed him the book — although he did wind up repeating the speech that was my cue, which got awkward, since the only thing I knew to do was to repeat my scene as well.

When I did get into drama class in middle school, I really sucked at it, so that made me performance shy except for playing piano and keyboards for a couple of musicals. In college, I had no intention of pursuing theatre, except that the music thing came up to lure me back in.

One of the theatre professors heard from one of my friends that I owned a synthesizer, so she contacted me to ask if I wanted to play in the combo for the musical she was directing that fall, which was my first semester of freshman year.

It sounded like fun, so I figured, “Okay, what the hell,” and did it, and it was a game-changer. There were four of us in the combo — piano, bass, drums, and synth. The musical was an odd little show called Philemon, originally produced off-Broadway in 1975, although it never really went on to become a hit, more on why in a moment.

What’s most notable about it, though is that it was created by the same team that had created The Fantasticks fifteen years earlier, and that show still holds the record for longest continuous run of any show in the U.S. The off-Broadway premiere was in 1960 and it didn’t close until 2002.

It could be argued that San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon had a longer run, premiering in 1974 and not closing until 2020. However, it did change venues and it was also a very topical review, so the numbers, performers, subject matter, and lyrics were changing constantly, so it could just as rightly be argued that it wasn’t really the same show or in the same category.

But I was talking about meeee! Back to Philemon: It’s actually a very dark show. Set in third century C.E. Antioch during the Roman occupation, the premise is simple. The location is a Roman prison (concentration camp, perhaps?) holding arrested dissidents, Christians among them.

The rumor is that a famous Christian leader, Philemon, is coming to liberate them. The Romans would really like to figure out who the Christians are but in order to do it, they need a fake Philemon. It just so happens that an amoral street performer and clown, Cockian, has just been arrested, but the head of the camp has an offer for him.

You’ve probably figured out that the offer is to pretend to be Philemon and flush out the Christians, and the story goes from there. The songs were actually surprisingly good and fun to play, and since we were sitting behind the set which was covered with scrims, we could see everything onstage while the audience could not see us — at least not until our curtain call moment, when a change of lighting revealed us.

One of my favorite stories from that play involves a number in which I played a single note as undertone during a monologue, slowly bending the pitch down. I quickly figured out the trick of putting a pencil under the key so I could just focus on the pitch bend, but noticed something else during the course of the run.

This monologue was a speech given by a character who had been discovered to be Christian and sentenced to be flogged to death, and the actor in the role convinced the director to let him do the scene nude — which actually made sense in context. Of course, they kept it tasteful for the audience and most of the rest of the cast was sitting under the upper level of the set at that time, so they couldn’t see anything.

The band, however, had front row seats for Liam’s backstage entrance and butt-ass naked climb up the ladder to that platform, so we got to see everything. But that’s not the interesting part.

No — it’s that I started to time how long I had to play that single note while we were in dress rehearsals, and it started out at about two and a half minutes. But then, once the audience came in, Liam’s performance got more and more dramatic and emotional every night. By the time we closed, that note was almost six and a half minutes.

That’s called milking it.

The next semester, my friends from Philemon talked me into going to the theatre department’s first meeting, then egged me into auditioning for the next play. Figuring that there’d be no way in hell I’d get cast, since I wasn’t even a theatre major, I auditioned — and got cast in a fairly prominent speaking role.

Well, damn. And then I became a theatre minor, did a bunch of shows in college with both the theatre department and the school’s student drama club, and enjoyed it all immensely. But after graduation, I hung up my performing hats for a while and just focused on writing.

I think, by that point, I’d taken to just performing in real life, so didn’t really need an artificial stage. Plus the format of the writing workshop I belonged to consisted of all the writers getting together weekly and then doing dramatic reads of each other’s pages, and I got quite a lot of practice at cold reading and acting, not to mention a chance to perform. I was involved with various groups like that for years, right up until I made the switch to improv.

Of course, writing would eventually bring me back to performing, and this happened after I had joined the writing arm of a theatre company that was on the verge of collapsing. That would have been Actors Alley at the El Portal Theatre, and once it did blow up, somebody else created The Company Rep from its ashes.

At first, I just stuck with the writing group, but after they had moved to a larger theater and announced that they were doing Camino Real, I just had to jump back in again, and so I did. I auditioned, got a really great part that was mostly non-speaking, so very physical, and although I’m sure that show was sheer torture for the audience, it popped me right back on that performing horse again.

The Company Rep didn’t last too long, but I did manage a few really fun roles as well as tech gigs during that time. And then, the biggest irony was that when I got into improv, it was with the company that occupied exactly the same 99-seat space within the El Portal Theatre that Actors Alley had died in and The Company Rep had been born in.

Full circle, then, when the improv company shut down in 2020.

“We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people!” That’s perhaps my favorite line from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is a wonderfully loopy meta take on Hamlet. Indeed, the whole Stoppard masterpiece is just one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays as seen from the POV of two minor characters who are summarily dispatched by the melancholy Dane when he turns the tables and alters a letter.

But it’s true. It’s probably the case for a lot of actors, but when we’re not onstage, we can be introverted, awkward, and shy. Throw us on stage, though, with or without a script, and that’s when we’re given permission to come alive.

If only theatre weren’t still dead right now. But, as I said in the title, the ghost light is still burning, so there is still hope that we’ll be back, bigger and better than ever. Hey — a little plague couldn’t stop Shakespeare, right? It’s not going to stop us.

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