Saturday Morning Post #84: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 1)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer.

Opening night and the play was working like a charm. Near the end of the first act, Bill knew he had a success on his hands. He’d cast the leads perfectly, and their big emotional scene was dynamite onstage. They had achieved something beyond chemistry, and the entire audience was riveted in dead silence. That was always the measure of the success of a piece — the cough ‘n shuffle factor, Bill called it. Make an audience stop doing both of those things, and you knew you had them in the palm of your hand.

When the moment finally came, the big moment, when Mark and Loretta suddenly expressed their forbidden love and kissed for the first time, the audience gasped. In the world of Bill’s play, the priest and the nun had just crossed a line, broken taboos, connected… And Bill could see from his vantage point in the booth that these two weren’t just stage kissing. As the fade out on the first act came, Bill smiled to himself. Everything he’d just seen onstage was incredibly real.

As the play ended and the audience applauded the curtain-call, Bill left the booth and went down the dark, warm, narrow hallway, down the hollow-thudding stairs and opened the lobby doors. It was a small place but all his, one of hundreds of small theatres scattered all over Los Angeles. He’d been smart enough to pick a place near the great off-white way in Hollywood, along with all the other small theatres, near a subway station. It was named the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre, in honor of his mother. He wasn’t in this business for fame and riches.

The usher opened the theatre door behind him and the flood of houselights poured forth. The small audience snaked out, cigarettes deploying among the few who smoked as soon as they hit the sidewalk. Bill went back into the theatre where some of the cast were already wandering among the seats, ready to party. “Good show, everyone,” he called out. “Excellent work.”

“Author, author!” someone yelled back. It was Andy, the stage manager.

“What’s next, Little Billy?” That was PJ, one of the actors. Everyone called Bill “Little Billy” because he was six-foot-five.

“Oh, you’ll see,” he said with his best enigmatic grin. He did have a very specific part in mind for PJ, and thought he was ready to tackle it. Bill just hadn’t fine-tuned it all yet, so he didn’t want to tip his hand.

The party was as much of a success as the show, with everyone in a great mood. Somebody took over the sound system and kept an endless techno-beat going, and the company were dancing on the stage or schmoozing in the aisles. Bill looked around the room proudly. There were fifty people in the company, and he felt like they were all his children, even though he was only forty and, while most of them were in their twenties and thirties, there were a number of members older than Bill. Of course, the company felt like a family and quite a lot of them literally became family. They’d had eight marriages, all of them still together; half a dozen gay and two lesbian couples that had met here; and one very Bohemian ménage between two straight actors and a goth actress named Brigid. Yes, the place was incestuous, but in a good way.

Then Bill noticed Mark and Loretta, off in a corner together, his arm around her. It looked like the ninth marriage might be on the way. If not now, then definitely by the end of the run. It always amazed Bill how the veneer created by acting could make two people incredibly intimate insanely quickly. That was the truth highlighted by falsehood, the freedom of disguise. It was the secret of all great acting and all great art — revealing everything while appearing to conceal it.

He spotted PJ, sitting by himself on the edge of the stage, watching the dancers. He was an interesting kid, with a lot of raw talent, recently arrived from one of those flat, green midwestern states. But there was something holding him back so far, a certain timidity whenever parts got too intense, especially if they involved any degree of sexual tension. Bill had no idea what the wall was. Maybe it was just the insecurity of youth. But he was determined to crack it and make PJ a great actor.

Insecurity. That was the word for Donna. She was a walking neurosis machine, and she was off in her own corner, too. Bill didn’t even have to follow her eyeline to know that she was staring at Vince, resident young male romantic lead in the traditional mode. Donna was always staring at Vince when she wasn’t asking anybody she could buttonhole, “Do you think… does Vince like me?” It was as annoying as hell, but Bill knew better than to tell her the obvious because she’d crack like an egg. He’d seen the result once when Loretta had finally snapped at Donna.

“Why don’t you just fucking ask him instead of all of us?”

Donna fled the theatre in tears that time. She was a champion at fleeing in tears. Bill would have to write that into a play soon.

He really wanted to do something to help her, but he knew that telling Vince about her obsession would be risky. Then again, how could he not know about it? Everyone knew everything here. Or most everything. But Donna had reached the point in her delusion that she was saying things like, “He’s a Libra and I’m a Cancer. That’s a good match.”

But how would she ever know…?

Maybe that was the problem. People never wanted to know the answers to their most burning questions. Certainty would leave an unfillable vacuum behind, and fire can’t burn in a vacuum. Bill knew that every question answered always led to more, and those often led to interesting adventures, but that was a lesson he preferred not to force on people. Such things were always better discovered than revealed.

But Donna had spotted him and swooped, and now she was standing there, eyes darting to the floor when they weren’t staring at him with bothersome intensity. There was chit chat, mixed with random compliments, then the inevitable Vince question. “Do you think he’d go out with me?”

“Donna,” Bill gave her his most encouraging smile, “Why wouldn’t he? Have you asked him out?”

“Oh, he doesn’t know I exist.” She said more, she always did, but Bill wasn’t listening. He was already working on the next play in his head.

Bill’s eyes wandered and he saw PJ, who had been cornered by Natalie. She was talking and he was mostly listening, often gazing past her at the dance floor, at nothing in particular. But no, Bill knew, it was someone in particular. He could just never figure out whom. PJ was very sly about that — it was impossible to tell which company member had caught his eye, and he was as reluctant to approach as Donna.

Well, at least he didn’t talk about it. But Bill was going to figure it out. And he’d figure out a way to solve that acting problem, too.

But he had half of his next play cast already.

* * *

Gloria O’Ferral was Irish as far back as anyone knew. Her great-grandfather and his brother had arrived in the nineteenth century, via Ellis island. The name had originally been Farrelly, but underwent an immediate metamorphosis upon arrival.

Contrary to popular myth, though, the names were not changed by disinterested employees on Ellis island. Rather, the immigrants self-reported and, depending on circumstances, that could lead to big changes right there. Some were illiterate and couldn’t even spell their names, so you might wind up with Connelly, Conelly, Connelloy, Conley, Coneley, and so on in the same family.

Others wanted to sound less foreign, so a name like Schmidt might become Smith. Still others were proud of their heritage, and that was the case with Gloria’s ancestor, who proudly added the O’ prefix that his family did not have, then simplified the rest. Farrelly became O’Ferral.

Meanwhile, his brother couldn’t spell the name in Gaelic, where it had about four hundred letters, half of them “H,” so he just simplified it and scrawled it out the way he thought it was spelled in English, so he became a Fearl. Of course, they were both dead now…

As was Gloria O’Ferral. That had been thanks to a little sloppiness at the dialysis center she’d been going to, and their failure to completely purge the cleaning fluid out of a machine before jacking it into her. Ironically, she died half an hour before her pager went off announcing a kidney had been found. Bill, only child, widowed, orphaned, had finally been encouraged by his friends to pursue a lawsuit, and the payoff (after attorneys and taxes) had still been like winning the lottery.

He bought his dream, the theatre, and his other dream, a house, and still had enough left in the bank to live like a corporate executive on investment interest alone for the rest of his life. It had driven the dialysis center into bankruptcy, which was only the cherry on top of a sundae whose sweetness could never make up for the bitter dish in which it was served. But Bill could make up for it and would make up for it. His theatre was more than a hobby or a vanity project. It was a mission.

When his attorney had handed him the check and Bill counted the zeroes, an amazing thing happened. All of Bill’s fear and doubt vaporized. He didn’t have to do it anymore, didn’t have to justify himself to the world. He didn’t have to need or want, he didn’t have to kiss someone else’s ass. There was only one thing to do with that kind of windfall. Share it.

He invited his five closest friends to dinner a week after he got the payoff, and under their dessert plates, each of them found a check for two hundred thousand dollars. Two months later, he was showing off his new house and three months after that, was giving a tour of the theatre just before it opened. They were not a huge commercial success at first, but word of mouth started to spread, and eventually they were selling out. The location didn’t hurt, either. It became easy to get actors to join the company. Then again, it was always easy. Bill didn’t charge any dues, and the word “free” was thespian catnip.

And in two years, they had a thriving, happy company and the theatre critics only had to say “at the O’Ferral,” and everybody knew where that was.

Another show over, and Bill was spending his days writing the next one. That was how he liked to work. Concentrate on one project from beginning to end, then let it go after opening night and dive into the next one. He’d have a good first draft finished by the time this six-week run was over, or extend the run if he wasn’t ready yet. Then, he’d work it with the actors for two or three weeks, polish it up and start rehearsal. There would always be another play running during this process, but Bill left those to Andy to choose and direct, reserving only the right of casting approval for himself.

That was the key to it all for him — casting. He’d actually postponed plays if a particular actor wasn’t available. He was always very specific in his writing.

The next play was a romantic comedy. That was also in keeping with his pattern, since the previous play had been a tragedy. It was going to be something of a bedroom farce, involving three couples, lots of entrances and exits and missed cues and misunderstandings, with everything resolving itself at the end. Vince was a natural for the lead, and so was Donna. Anyway, Bill was always encouraging her to do comedy, and this was the perfect chance.

PJ had the doe-eyed innocence that made ribald situations even more amusing. Maybe Mark and Loretta would want to play the other couple. That just left one part open, the role that would be paired ultimately with PJ’s character. At the moment, Bill didn’t have a clue who to pick. He didn’t know enough about how this play would end, and that often dictated a character more than anything else.

He was still wondering about it a week later when they had a reading in the theatre of one of the plays Andy wanted to do. PJ was in the audience and Bill mentioned the role for him at intermission. PJ was excited about it, wondering who he’d be playing with. Bill told him he wasn’t sure yet, asked if PJ had anybody he wanted to work with.

“What about Brigid?” he asked.

“Hm…” Bill pretended to think about it, but Brigid was all wrong. A goth was already comic enough and he was doing farce, not satire. Besides, he was waiting until he could cast her as Lord Byron’s doomed sister, Augusta.

It was after the show, during the milling around time, that Bill noticed PJ off talking to Max. That’s when it hit him, and the play solved itself before his very eyes. Of course. If he matched up two actors as the third couple, then the comic implications multiplied. Suddenly, anybody could be suspect with anybody else. It was perfect. As he wove the knots in his mind, they all collided to form the tapestry with the answer. Yes. Start out with the male couple not knowing they’re gay, and using that complication to drive the other two couples together, apart and back together again.

He rushed out of the party and upstairs to his office, where he locked the door, turned on the coffee pot and started his frantic typing.

* * *

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