I work with a massage therapist named Stan. Stan, like many who toil in the service industries of New York, is also an actor. Stan is one of my favorite coworkers and not just because the competition is weak. When it’s time to collect our first clients he’ll dramatically proclaim, “Let us go forth now and practice the healing arts.” When management suggested we were requesting too many (unpaid) days off, Stan replied diplomatically, “Well, yes. Shift flexibility is the small pittance we enjoy in lieu of health insurance, sick days, or 401k.” I like a person with well-articulated pique toward superiors and a tendency for breaking into song.
I used to work with another actor, one I felt far less enthusiastic about. Jake would interrupt if you introduced him as a massage therapist and an actor, correcting with, “I am first an actor.” His argument might have held more weight were he not brandishing a bottle of grapeseed oil, and a copy of the night’s schedule. I think Jake resented having to work and, as such, he rarely did. If a client booked a sixty-minute session, he’d deign to give them maybe forty minutes of actual massage. I suppose it depended on the situation. Were the client in the midst of chemo, perhaps he’d manage a generous forty-two minutes. Were they an agent or a casting director, they’d get sixty-five and an updated copy of his resume.
My former roommate, Lauren, came to Manhattan to tread the boards as well. She helped me appreciate plays. Not because she was in good ones, but because plays have limited budgets and, therefore, brief engagements. They might steal two to three hours of your weekend, but they’d ultimately close and leave you alone. Difficult to mount and impossible to fund, plays came and went with bearable infrequency. When Lauren joined an improvisational comedy troupe, I understood what a harmless villain the theatre really is. Improv never stops and will ruin your life. With no costumes, sets or royalties to pay, sketch comedy requires only a small clearing in a bar and a dream. Well, that and a weekly audience of your friends. After a few months, our other roommate, Katie, began attending mass on Saturday nights. I don’t know if she drew closer to Christ, but she eased right out of watching improv, and that was enough to charm me on Catholicism and seriously consider converting. Possessing a natural talent for comedy, Lauren eventually landed a job with Second City on another coast. I was almost as happy for her as I was for myself.
Because Stan got a part in a play, I recently spent an unsatisfying evening on the fourth floor of a multi-tiered performance space on West 36th Street.
From ticket-taker to usher, pretty much everyone in the theatre makes me cringe and that night was no exception. I love the cast and crew “bio’s” section of the program because each blurb is actually written by the subject—him or herself—in the third person. I was there with my friend, Lynn, and as we waited in line, I imagined how everyone’s bio might read. A frazzled actress scurried past, mumbling something about woodchucks and yellow leather. She, I decided, had been…
Born into a family of gypsy performers and felt most at home on the road with a show!
An upbeat chubby girl ran around in a headset and shushed everyone with an entirely unwarranted sense of urgency. Every production has this girl. A comedy/tragedy mask can always be found dangling from a chain around her neck. She would be…
In the final year of her B.F.A, where she’d taken on the challenging role of Sissy in The Room. On the other side of the foot lights tonight, she is assistant stage manager and felt blessed to be in such a supportive and talented group of artists!
The writer came over and introduced himself as such. When Lynn mentioned we knew Stan, it became apparent that the playwright wanted to sleep with him. No stranger to the stage, I wrote…
He’d wowed audiences from Provincetown to San Francisco with his first play I’m Here! You’re Used to It! and thanked the entire New York community for creating a safe space that includes everyone!"
I could have simply opened the thin booklet in my hands and read the real bios, but I like to save those for especially boring stretches of the performance. If things haven’t picked up by that point, I’ll usually try to nap or think of ways I can improve myself.
Once admitted, Lynn and I found seats on the aisle and prepared to suffer. The play was set in the home of a wealthy older woman; the stately mother of a U.S. Senator who’d just been caught in a gay affair with his best friend. The ensemble was comprised of the mother, senator, lover, wife, various political cronies, and the requisite upstart housekeeper who ruffled everyone’s feathers by speaking uncomfortable truths. The characters were trapped inside the house due to the insinuated media circus off stage, and the drama began with everyone trying to figure out how to salvage the Senator’s career.
Stan was cast in the role of the closeted politician and—while the production was uniformly awful—I was relieved to discover he was quite good, easily the best thing up there. Perhaps he was a little overly mannered, but I don’t think that was a character choice, I think it’s a personality choice. He’s like that all the time.
Watching Stan, I was struck by his handsomeness and whispered to Lynn that I found it odd he wasn’t on TV. She replied that she felt fairly certain he had appeared on a soap opera for a few years. I recalled that Jake had a long running soap gig, too. I wondered if there wasn’t something to that. An acquaintance of mine lost her executive job last September, and part of her severance package included career coaching. It’s possible that happens in the industry of daytime drama as well. After falling down an elevator shaft or not surviving a brain transplant, the actor meets with a human resources rep who steers him toward independent films or massage school.
The entrance of the wronged wife was worth the price of admission alone. She strode onto stage wearing a slinky cocktail dress made entirely of blood red silk, approached Stan seductively and—as she brushed past him—purred, “Remember this dress? You bought it for me ten years ago in Puerta Vallarta and it still fits like a glove.” Looking back at him over her bare shoulder, she held the Senator’s gaze and awaited his certain return to heterosexuality. The actress playing the role of the wife was built like a linebacker. She didn’t have breasts so much as bulging pectoral muscles with areolas and nipples, and her waist measured wider than her shoulders. The frock was ill fitting from its best angle, and from its worst, it actually distracted from the dialogue.
Lynn and I would bicker the whole way home about whether the dress was meant to fit poorly or not. She thought there was intended irony in the costume being awkward and the character believing she looked good. I thought it was just another rich example of theatre people having zero self-awareness and even less taste. We went back and forth, mounting our opposing defenses, for the better part of ten city blocks. Ultimately, we agreed it was a hilarious moment, but she was giving author credit to the writer, I was giving it to God. My imaginary bio for the playwright floated back up and I added a new line…
His goal with this piece was to provoke the debate and start the conversation.
I know a woman who teaches high school theatre in the suburbs of New Jersey. I know her from Texas, which is where she taught me high school theater. Every now and then she’ll direct a play, not for the school, but for the community. It’s usually a benefit of some sort and never fails to rally everyone into participation. Her first production, years ago, was a massive undertaking. She directed The Music Man as a fundraiser for the town’s library. Her suburb is a sleepy bedroom community for Wall Streeter’s—lawyers and stock analysts made up the bulk of her casting pool. After months of rehearsing, and just shy of the curtain rising on opening night, everyone gathered backstage into a big circle and spoke to the experience. Wharton MBA’s stood next to Harvard CEO’s—costumed and covered in pancake make-up—and choked back tears as they shared stories of practicing tap steps under their desks, or rushing through Investor meetings to get to rehearsals on time. For some the joy of creative expression had been reawakened, for other’s it had been born. Had they not already applied three coats of mascara, these men would have cried like little girls.
Round about dead middle of every bad performance I’ve ever endured—I swear it will be the last. I promise myself I’ll stick to television, which almost never disappoints. Once
the misery the play had ended, I feel obliged to wait around and say “hi” to whichever friend I’m there pretending to support. By the time the thespians finally change into their street clothes and tumble through the stage door, I’ve mostly stopped wishing them harm. They always emerge so exuberant and giddy, so punch-drunk and proud. It’s incredibly sweet, no matter how unfounded that pride may be. And it is always unfounded.
After introductions are made and insincere compliments are dispensed, someone will graciously invite me to join the cast for a drink. I always decline. The only fate worse than watching actors practice their craft is listening to them talk about it. But I invariably find myself glad I showed up and willing to do so again. It’s similar to seeing a client at the end of an exhausting massage; they look so irrationally happy, it’s hard to stay angry over what they put you through.
(The same cannot be said of improv. Improv should be illegal.)