Sunday, December 6, 2009

Theatah Stories - Act II

As I've mentioned, my stage debut in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat didn't go smoothly. The stakes are pretty low in community theatre, though, and tall, left-footed men trying to step-ball-change and sashay are catnip to local stage-groupies (75 year old women), so I had fun.

My big moment came in the second act. In some performances, I'd said my line--"Napthali"--at the proper time and at others I hadn't; either way, the success of my night always depended on that second act chance.

Having betrayed Joseph, the eleven brothers are wandering through the desert, starved. It was my job to stagger toward the front of the stage--famished, fainting--and fall in a crowd-pleasing heap.

Now, the pratfall is a subtle art and the master of it must proceed placidly and with empty-mind. In preparation, I studied the great tumblers--Chaplin, Van Dyke, Ritter.

(John Ritter as Jack, ahem, Tripper)

Their gracelessness had such a grace!

I considered the Buckle-knee fall, the Damsel-in-Distress, the Banana Slip, the Face-Plant, and the Kansas City Kollapse.

Technically, a pratfall should include falling on the arse since 'prat' means 'buttock.' (See 17th Century British Poet Thomas Dekker's line: "by the Salamon, No Gentry Mort hath Prats like thine.").

'Prat' can also mean 'fool,' though, as in British playwright Melvyn Bragg's line: "He had been looking for the exact word to describe David and now he found it: prat."

Whether mine was an idiot fall or a butt fall, I knew it needed to be a great fall. On the last night of the show, I went for it, spinning on one foot before landing square on my back--a direct hit from noggin to coccyx.

Napthali advances downstage right. He looks very hungry. Lights up on Napthali. He rolls his eyes back in his head and collapses. Actor playing Napthali knocks himself temporarily unconscious. Exit (temporarily) actor playing Natphali.

Lights out.

I imagine my fall got a response, but I'd muddled my hearing, blurred my vision, and lost my wind with the effort. It was an ecstatic feeling, though. And probably the only time I actually did the Method Acting thing, embodying what my character was supposed to feel.

I survived and made it out for my final bow. At the cast party, the guy who played Joseph told me I had quite a stage presence. That was almost definitely a back-handed compliment seeing as how I'd drawn some unwanted attention with my errors, but I took it at face-value and felt my first post-show-glow. I'd made it! I was praiseworthy!


One of the strange things about performance--even on a small-scale--is that people tend to judge your actual character while they're watching you. If I'm a bad painter, it stops at that--I don't have the gift. Bad actors, though, are often considered faulty people somehow, people with little access to truth and humanity.

Think of your response to a terrible high school basketball player versus your response to a terrible high school actor. In the first, there's a head-shake and a smile probably. He's gangly; he can't help it.

In the second, I'll bet you feel some kind of shame (and some kind of anger that this gangly kid has made you feel that way). You may criticize him afterwards. While you'd never say, "What makes that guy think he can hit a free throw?" you might very well say, "What makes him think he can act?"

Sensing that pressure, I'd always been frightened of going onstage. But since I liked my second act moment so much I knew I had to confront the fear. After Joseph I became a double-major in college: Theatre because I'd knocked myself out that one time; English because I'd been head-over-heels for Sally. Both cosmic pratfalls, really.

When I began sophomore year at Holy Cross, though, I was still caught up in community theatre instead of my new acting classes. I'd been cast as a cowboy in a production of Bus Stop, a play about travelers converging during a snowy Kansas night. At the time, the role seemed big enough to warrant a commute from college back home--a 90-minute drive.

(I rehearsed in this get-up in various church basements and sometimes had to lower my voice during the nightly rosary)

My small-potatoes stage "success" also gave me misplaced confidence; I started dating a friend of mine, Margaret, assuming that with enough rehearsal our relationship would be a hit. Though we had some good scenes, that assumption was hasty. Regardless of our future second act problems, though, Margaret and I were off to a solid start that Fall of 2001.

Trouble was, my cowboy character in Bus Stop, Beau Dekker (no relation to British poet Thomas Dekker), had to plant a huge kiss on a chanteuse named Cherry. In the film version of the play from the 50s, Cherry was played by Marilyn Monroe. I couldn't get over the fact that I'd be smooching a proxy-Monroe! I worried that this was cheating, though, finally figuring it wasn't as long as I didn't enjoy the lip-wranglin'.

My co-star Josie, a pretty young mother, said I was doing alright with the kiss but that maybe I could use a little more practicing. She was aware of my new quarter-girlfriend and said this with a wink, but I was shaken. So, I tried to use the logic on Margaret.

"I don't want Josie to be the person I've kissed last," I said to her. "Plus, I need to rehearse." (I puckered). This wasn't a smooth way to upgrade from hand-holding and I didn't get the run-through I was looking for.

But I needed to do something.

So, on my highway journeys home to Josie "Marilyn Monroe" Collins--in the empty-sky days following September 11th--I'd try out different lip configurations, desperate for a little practice any way I could get it.

By the time the show went on, I was run-down by national trauma and by the juggling of two women; for a time, I thought I actually was a cowboy. I remember pacing around backstage talking to myself about chuck wagons and cattle drives. I was going a little bit crazy. But I was glad to be able to act out, to have the chance to kiss the woman I liked (sorta), and at a peaceful middle-American bus stop.

It was good, old-fashioned escapism. Plus, I got to fall again when a drunken sheriff flattened me with a right hook to the pretend jaw. I went with the Face-Plant.


Megan said...

Nobody falls like John Ritter. The man is a gravitational genius.

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