The Year in Theater

The best and worst of 150 nights spent in a dark room. Plus: Dramatic hypotheses, and thespians speak out.

 

Kari Margolis,
Margolis Brown Company

Once again Tony [Brown] and I set out to write a "small" show, one that would be easy to tour and could actually make some money! What started as a solo performance mushroomed to a show that pulled up to Red Eye with an 18-foot truck, a cast and crew of nine, and a miniature '57 Chevy that had to be taken apart to fit through the theater doors! Oh well, we never got into this for the money anyway.

 

Wendy Knox, artistic director,
Frank Theatre

One blizzardy evening last winter, amid a sparsely attended run of Naomi Wallace's The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, one of the actors called during the afternoon to say he was ill. Not knowing an actor who won't go onstage if given the chance, and not having the luxury of understudies, I assumed that this call was informational and that surely he would be onstage that night; in 11 years, only one obstacle, a plane that couldn't leave an airport, has prevented an actor from making a Frank curtain. This particular night, we had two large student groups who were required to see the show for course work. The under-the-weather actor refused to say definitively that he was too ill to go on. I picked him up, delivered him to the theater, and went about solving minor front-of-house crises, like how to get the coffeepot working.

At 7:45 I went backstage, only to see the actor, head in hands, not yet in costume. Finally, as the audience was filing in, I told him that only he could make the call: I would not cancel the show unless he told me that he couldn't do it. At which point, he finally said he didn't see how he could. After a 15-second flash of rage at allowing myself to have such short notice to solve this crisis, I took a moment to think about what my options were. We had a fairly full house of students who had to see the show. We had no understudies (we never need them). We've never canceled a show with people in the house. Did I have any alternative?

A moment of fantasy: If we had understudies, who would it have been? NICK! Nick O'Donnell, who had appeared in Frank's Threepenny Opera, had desperately wanted to be in the show. He had read the play many times, he was a good and game actor, he had been sorely disappointed at not being cast, and he had seen the show. I whipped out the cell phone and dialed his number. His girlfriend, my assistant, answered the phone.

"Hey, Syd, is Nick in?" She answered that he was but that she was on a long-distance call right now and could he call me back? I told her that it was kind of important (it was now 7:50) but it would be short. Nick came to the phone and I asked him, "Hey Nick, you wanna do a play?" He said sure. I asked him if he was busy tonight. He said no. I asked him if he could get down to the theater right away. He said sure, followed by a brief pause, then, "You're not serious." I told him I was dead serious, to which he responded, "I'll be right there."

An announcement was made to the audience, informing them that the show would be held about ten minutes, that an understudy was going on, and if they wanted a refund or a voucher to come back later, they were welcome to it. Nick was at the theater in seven minutes. A script was shoved in his hand, on which we had scrawled staging instructions, and actors were directed to push him in the direction he needed to go. Each of the other cast members added critical notes.

Then suddenly we remembered that the character needed to drop trou onstage. Would those white comfort-pouch undies work? With not a moment to spare, the show began, infused with an energy and a tension. Those in the audience who didn't have the jaded eyes of theater professionals were totally engaged in the act--not just in seeing a play, but in seeing the crisis solved, in seeing an actor, with script in hand, jump into the deep end of the pool. If anything, the added layer of real theater engaged them even more. For this act, a Frank Medal of Bravery was issued, a hot-glue-and-gold-spray-paint medallion of a hot dog, which now hangs on the wall of Nick's new home in Seattle.

 

Ari Hoptman, comic

In these, the last days of the year 2000, I am reminded of my first performance ever at a German cabaret, which took place in Berlin in February of this year. I had hurriedly but, I was hoping, accurately translated some of my sketches into German, and was also using some material I had actually written in the tongue of the Federal Republic. I was nervous about how I would be received in this strange country, but was more nervous that I would forget a line onstage and that the pressure of performing in another language would then throw me off to the extent that I would end up standing there in stunned silence, like a turtle, before I could get back on track--if back on track indeed I ever could get.

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