The Trouper

How to win over critics and lose money, sleep, and ambition: A life in local theater

Just prior to opening their production of Joe Orton's vitriolic comedy Loot, currently playing at the Cedar Riverside People's Center, director Matt Sciple and producer Zach Curtis were still missing one of the show's characters. Because the character is in almost every scene, this presented quite a problem. So the pair called over to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where Loot last played almost two decades ago.

"There's a certain character in the play..." Curtis began.

"Yes, Mrs. McLeavy," he was told. "We still have her."

Playwright, director, dramaturg, actor...and waiter, Matt Sciple
Geoffrey P. Kroll
Playwright, director, dramaturg, actor...and waiter, Matt Sciple

"Can we borrow her?" Curtis asked.

In the prop room at the dinner theater was a box with "Mrs. McLeavy" written on it. Inside the box was a body, and on that body was a head with a mane of luxurious, neatly cut blond hair. In the years since Mrs. McLeavy had been onstage some decomposition had inevitably set in. Gravity had pulled on her legs, and, because they were fashioned from stockings, they had stretched to an alarming length. Curtis, who was responsible for the play's props, would have to build a new body.

Mrs. McLeavy begins the play in a coffin, newly dead. Since this is Orton's anarchic parody of a classic farce, all of the characters would, at one time or another, rush through doors and hide in dressers, often dragging the dead Mrs. McLeavy with them. They strip her of her clothes. They pull her false teeth from her mouth. They move her so forcefully that she loses a glass eye. Since McLeavy was to get around so much, and have so much done to her, Sciple decided to be finicky: "When you see a body onstage, it usually moves wrong. It seems too soft, it bends wrong--its elbows bend backwards. I wanted Mrs. McLeavy to move like a real body."

So Curtis built a skeleton for Mrs. McLeavy out of cardboard tubes and placed the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' well-coifed dummy head atop it. He dressed it in bandages, which would be the character's costume for most of the show. The two examined Mrs. McLeavy; she looked unnervingly like a real corpse. They then placed her in a coffin, one of two that Curtis had built for the play, and there was a problem: Mrs. McLeavy was too big. They removed her and cut her in half to make her fit. Then they realized they hadn't tried her in the other coffin before bisecting her. Inside the second coffin, she fit perfectly.

Besides producing Loot and providing the props for the show, Curtis was also rehearsing a play at the Illusion Theater, as well as acting as the artistic head for the new Directors Theater at the Acadia Café and Cabaret, which is currently rehearsing a new show. Sciple works four days a week at a restaurant in the Mall of America and also runs his own stage company, called Bald Alice. Preparing Loot, the duo frequently went without sleep: Curtis spent one 48-hour period racing between the Illusion in downtown Minneapolis and the People's Center on the West Bank. When he returned home after this extended period of sleeplessness, he found his apartment a ruin, the floor covered with a disorderly pile of books and papers. Curtis spent a few awful moments panicking, thinking he had been robbed. Then he realized that he was responsible for the mess. Needing a bookshelf for Loot, he had seized one of his own. In his hurry, he'd simply flung its contents to the ground; in his exhaustion, he'd forgotten having done it.

Sciple and Curtis are very much opposite physical types. Sciple is slight, with quick, pointed mannerisms and features and with more hair in his stubbly red beard than on his head. Curtis is a tower of a man with thick features, a deliberateness of manner, and a shock of thick hair that hangs in tousled bangs across his forehead. As a performer, Sciple is often called upon to play quickwitted character roles: He played a half-dozen such parts in a single show last year, The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol. Curtis, in the meanwhile, has just come off a string of roles as thugs and dullards in plays such as The Leitmotif and Waiting for Godot, which Sciple directed. At the time of Godot, Curtis was also directing Glengarry Glenn Ross for the Acadia and appearing as St. Peter in Gospel of the Messiah Widow for Bald Alice.

So when does Curtis sleep? "Firstly, you should know that Zach doesn't expect to live to 40," Sciple answers. "Secondly, he sleeps onstage."

And it's true. During one scene in Godot, Lucky is flung to the ground and lies motionless for much of the first act of the play. On cue, Curtis would flop forward gracelessly. After a minute, he would begin to snore loudly.

All this exertion makes Sciple and Curtis something like long-haul truck drivers--but in this case, the exact destination remains elusive. Sciple and Curtis represent a certain type of theater professional, and they work in a peculiar kind of theatrical limbo of unpaid or low-paying work. It is common to labor in this limbo for years, shifting chores from one production to another, developing a small audience, producing distinctive, well-made plays that generally earn good notices, but never managing to make a living doing it. There is some irony in the fact that this pair, who are staging some of the more rousing theater in the Twin Cities, should essentially have to sleepwalk through their lives to do it.

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