The Online Journal for Center Stage Playhouse
by Ed Friedman…
As I approached the auditorium it struck me that 30 was a little old to have my first stage experience. But my friend Shelly and I were going to give it a try. Two of the shyest people ever to walk the earth were going to audition for a community theater production of Gypsy. Armed only with a six week adult education acting course and a trunk full of fear, we approached the auditorium. The only other encouragement we had came from Marie, the leader of this company who happened to live with her family above my father’s candy store. She had invited me to attend some of their performances. I did and was mesmerized. “So you liked it?” Marie asked, taking the change for her Juicy Fruit.
“Yes, it was terrific”. And it was. To me, the typists, teachers, and bus drivers I saw were like Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier, and Jason Robards — none of whom I had heard of at that time. My only theatrical experience was taking a girlfriend to dinner and the theater in Manhattan for a special occasion. We saw Jesus Christ Superstar, and another occasion when we saw a revival of Streetcar Named Desire. The second was more memorable as James Farentino spilled beer on me, and Rosemary Harris gave an amazing performance. I somehow knew it was great, but at the time I couldn’t tell you why with a gun to my head.
“Ya know,” Marie said, an idea popping up, “You should try out for the next show.”
“But I’ve never done anything like this,” I protested, hoping she’d find a way to talk me into this.
“Oh, don’t worry, there’s a lot of small parts and you can always help backstage.” And she did manage to convince me. Now what was I going to do? I called Shelly to see if she could talk me out of this.
“That sounds great,” she offered. No such luck.
“Why don’t you do it with me? If you go, I’ll go.” Braveheart I’m not.
“C’mon, we took the class together, come with me.”
“Is this crazy?” she asked. It might not seem very impetuous, but for two friends mired at the low end of the food chain at the Social Security Administration, who tended to be risk averse, this was pretty big.
“A little,” I answered, “but worst case, we’ll go down together and forget the whole thing.”
So Shelly and I approached the auditorium. Let me be more precise here. What we approached was the building that housed the auditorium. The building itself was located on the grounds of a sprawling state mental hospital. Yes, that’s right, a state mental hospital. The Bronx Psychiatric Center sits across the street from the subway rail yards in the East Bronx. A four lane street, Waters Place, separates the rail yards from the Psychiatric Center. And there’s nothing else there. So anyone who turns on to Waters Place either works at the rail yards or what we used to call “Bronx State.”
None of this mattered to me and Shelly, that September evening. We walked into the lobby of a building with the title “Rehabilitation Center,” but we were too nervous to question what went on there. We were determined to go through with this. A number of people were in the lobby practicing a dance routine on a tiled floor. Looking like we just got off the boat at Ellis Island, someone asked us if we were there for the auditions. We nodded as if we had no command of English and followed the head nod into the auditorium. I looked for Marie as if she’d be some kind of life raft. The reason, I found out later, that the theater group used this space was that Marie’s father was a sergeant of security. The group needed free space and since the auditorium was almost never used at night, the theater company was welcomed to use it. I spotted her at the front of the theater amidst a flurry of activity. She was talking animatedly to a tall bearded man (the director), but she was clearly in charge. I was too nervous to interrupt, but placed myself in her line of vision. She looked up.
“Oh, how great, you’re here. Ya gonna audition?”
“Great, here, fill this out and give it to the girl up front and you’ll be called.” She acknowledged Shelly standing mute next to me. “You too?” Shelly didn’t answer, but she was handed an audition application too. Marie resumed talking to five people at once. Shelly and I retreated to seats in the rear of the auditorium to fill out our audition sheets.
The auditorium at the Rehab Center was not built for use as a theater. It was built for the doctors to receive lectures, meet for grand rounds, and see films. Consequently the “theater” had no wing space except for a closet at either side of the stage; no fly space, and the only storage space was accessible by a twelve foot ladder built into the cinder block of which the theater (and the whole building) is built. To be fair, there was a lighting/sound booth one flight up at the rear of the theater. While the booth was fully equipped, I’m fairly certain the equipment was donated by D.W. Griffith. All the seats (about 250) were plastic, secured into the floor and had those Dickensian flat surfaces that are pulled up and over so students can take notes or carve their initials. After looking over the form in question, Shelly and I realized we had very little to write as we had never been close to the stage before (not including being part of Mr. Farentino’s housekeeping faux pas). When I finished filling out the form, Shelly was still staring at her sheet as if it was an entrée she wanted to send back. I went to the front of the auditorium to hand in my sheet.
“You left out what song you’re gonna sing,” a young voice said without looking up from my sheet.
“I’m not going to sing,” I replied fearfully.
“You know this is a musical, don’t you?” (Of course I heard “you idiot.”)
“Is there a part that doesn’t require singing?”
“Hang on.” She goes over to the bearded man with my audition sheet and they briefly converse, with the bearded man looking up to see the dolt in question. He strides over to where I’m patiently awaiting my fate.
“You sure you don’t want to sing?”
“Oh yeah,” I replied. “Listen if there’s only singing parts, that’s okay, maybe some other time.” I was off the hook.
“Wait a minute,” the bearded man stopped my attempted exit from this foolishness. He returned to a table at the edge of the stage and pulled out a few pages stapled together. “Here, look at the part of Cigar, and we’ll call you in a few minutes. No singing, okay?” I nodded mutely and walked back to where Shelly was sitting. She was no longer staring at her audition sheet, but had enough nervous energy to levitate. I started to tell her about the part of the script I’d been given.
“I can’t do this,” she blurted out.
“What are you talking about? They gave me a part to read. Didn’t you give them your sheet?”
“I really can’t. I’m too nervous.”
“What am I supposed to do?” I felt abandoned, but I couldn’t make Shelly feel worse than she already did. While she was relieved at not going through with this, a part of her would regret this decision.
“Do the audition,” she volunteered, “I’ll wait for you.” I read the section of the script given to me. Apparently the character of Cigar is the owner of a seedy strip joint in 1940’s Kansas City. I read the section to myself over and over again until I heard the chilling call of my name. The last time I was that frightened waiting for my name to be called, I was waiting for my physical when I’d been drafted. I marched up to the stage where the director stood with an actress also auditioning. As we listened to his instructions, I was trying to remember everything he said, while the actress in the scene with me rolled her eyes. She had clearly not only done this before, but also decided she had no need of the director’s advice. The scene involved me having an argument with this past-her-prime stripper. My only public speaking experience to that time existed in school where the emphasis was on diction and enunciation. On the director’s cue I began. I have no idea if my body moved, the hand that wasn’t holding the script moved, or if I made eye contact with the other actor. Five lines in, however, the director yelled, “Stop.” He climbed up onto the stage, put his arm around me and ushered me off to the side.
“Ed, this guy never made it past the sixth grade. You’re reading this like he’s a college professor. Just relax and try it again. You’ll be fine.” So I did.
“Great,” said the director, “We’ll call you.” I was yet to find out how often directors said that.
As I left the theater I took another look at all these regular people all pulling together for this group goal. I was scared but I was sure I wanted to get that call and even if I didn’t, I knew I’d be back to somehow be involved. Two days later I got a phone call telling me I had gotten the part, and could I also help out as the third assistant to the stage manager. I dutifully attended each rehearsal and watched the more experienced actors go through their scenes with an ease to which I could only aspire. Although I looked forward to rehearsals, which had the double benefit of relief from the tedium of the Social Security office, going to a state mental hospital voluntarily felt a little weird at first. I quickly became accustomed to this journey off the beaten path, but would be reminded of the incongruity when I told people of my activity.
“Are the patients putting on the show?” I’d be asked.
“No, we are,” I replied “People from the community.”
“Aren’t you creeped out being there, especially at night?”
“It’s really no big deal,” I’d say, very happy with how daring I sounded.
While I became used to the geographic isolation and the occasional patient who had wandered off his floor in search of a cigarette, for the large majority of the community who had never stepped onto the campus, Bronx State took on the mythic stature of Boo Radley’s house. This fear escalated off the charts for a time when the “Son of Sam” murders were taking place. Since a number of the killings were a short distance from the hospital, rumors flew around that the killer had escaped “Bronx State.”
None of this had any effect on the cast and crew. Almost every night of the week, you could go to the theater and something was happening. Scenes were being rehearsed, sets were being built and painted, lights were being focused, dances were being rehearsed — sometimes simultaneously, with opening night as a kind of deadline. As someone new to this experience, I had no knowledge of protocols or politics, but was gradually embraced by the group. While previously my conversation with Marie consisted of asking her if she wanted a straw with her soda, she now would pause for some brief conversation and offer some encouragement. I had little to offer as to how the show was coming in that I had no frame of reference. But like everyone else I was necessary to complete the final picture — a prime example of “there are no small parts…”
As we moved closer to the opening, the work intensified. During the last ten days, I rarely got home before one in the morning. I became aware of competing agendas, and a rising tension level. Arguments ensued over costumes, lighting, and choreography. People yelled at each other and apologized later. Some just yelled. Everyone was on edge and I wondered why I had been drawn to this. At the intermission of the last dress rehearsal, what would seem to be the breaking point was reached. The lead actress refused to wear her second act costume. The director (male) was summoned. With the entire cast looking on, it sounded like this:
Director: “What’s going on?”
Actress: “I’m not wearing this costume. It’s awful.”
Director: “It’s period and it fits you.”
Actress: “It’s still awful and I’m not wearing it.”
Director: “Either you put that on or I will and I’ll go on in Act 2.”
The director walked out, the actress grabbed the costume and not another word (out loud) was said. Puzzled, I asked a cast member, “How could he go on in her place?”
“Are you kidding?” was the reply. “He’d throw on a wig and get up there in a New York minute and she knows it.” So began my education in the fluidity of gender roles.
On opening night, I stood in the wings silently repeating my first line (a tip from a cast member) and listening to the overture. The anticipation was like nothing I’d ever felt. I remember asking one of the more veteran cast members, “When do you stop being nervous on opening night”?
She answered, “You don’t.”
I managed to get through my few lines of dialogue without any obvious mistakes, though I won’t vouch for the quality of my performance. At the time I was just happy to get through it. What was most striking to me was the euphoria that followed opening night. All the recriminations, bitterness, and fatigue were washed away in seas of applause and post show congratulations. After the relief of the opening had passed then came the build toward the closing which would be in two weeks. Confidence replaced tension and performances actually improved. By the time the last performance was given, cast members were telling each other how much they would miss doing the show. At my first cast party I witnessed tearful appreciation from people who were barely speaking to each other three weeks prior.
This was all very strange to me, but what was undeniable was the feeling that collectively we achieved something and that it took the effort of every person involved to get there.
It’s been over thirty years and though its not one of my favorite plays, I can’t hear the overture from Gypsy without getting a charge from that electric anticipation of my first show.