The Trouper

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

But Sciple has continued to work in restaurants. "I needed the buffer, to make certain bills were paid," he says, particularly since his wife Carolyn Pool also wanted to devote herself full-time to acting. "This year is the first time we have had money in the bank," Sciple says. "Next year we might make half of our income from the business." When Sciple says "the business," he is referring to myriad jobs, including freelance directing, performing in plays, voice and print work, industrial work, and commercials. Most theater-training programs do not offer courses in this practical, day-to-day business of theater. Sciple's alma mater, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, offered such courses but discontinued them--just as Sciple entered the program--to focus on more theoretical and academic studies. It's a pity, because the economics of professional theater are bewildering, particularly for artists like Curtis and Sciple, who must juggle dozens of projects to make ends meet.

In fact, the transition into making a career in theater is, to quote Wendy Knox, "continual." Knox should know: The Frank Theatre produces only a handful of plays per year, presenting non-mainstream scripts that seem chosen primarily because they interest Knox, such as the recent production of Perfect Pie, a decidedly peculiar rural coming-of-age story that included a graphic recounting of the molestation of a 17-year-old girl. Tickets don't move from the Frank Theatre box office like they do at the Ordway, and as a result the theater relies heavily on grant money. "Without grants," Knox says soberly, "there would be no Frank Theatre." Asked about the process of developing a professional career in theater, Knox is characteristically blunt: "Fuck if I know--and you can put that in quotation marks.

"I worked as a bartender for seven or eight years," Knox elaborates. "I'm lucky now that, for the most part, I make a living doing what I love. I don't think there's any glory in it--I'm making a living, but it's barely that. I drive a shitty car, but it's okay. This is sort of the facts of my life as it's going to be. It's a precarious existence.

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

"Friends see my reviews and congratulate me on how well I'm doing," Knox continues. When she was hired to direct Lysistrata for the Guthrie Lab in 1998, she says, "People actually said, 'Wow, you've made it, you've really made it.'

"It's funny what people think of as 'making it,'" Knox sighs. "You hope for that day when you're not going to worry about rent, making your mortgage, driving a decent car..."

 

The opening of Joe Orton's Loot in 1964 was a famous disaster, as it is a notoriously difficult play to perform, coupling, in the words of Orton biographer John Lahr, "frivolity and ferociousness." Lahr quotes Orton as informing his producers that "Loot is a serious play. Unless Loot is directed and acted perfectly seriously, the play will fail."

The producers did not listen: After all, the play reads as a farce, so why shouldn't it be played as a farce? But Clive Barnes, writing for the New York Times, had this to say about the play: "Here Mr. Orton is like a little boy trying to shock his elders but--here's the rub--wielding, albeit clumsily, a real knife."

Even by contemporary standards, Orton's script seems a slightly blacker version of the sort of mannered, deliberately slight comedies Noel Coward wrote. Upon closer examination, the play shows itself to be hiding razors, and it is interesting that Sciple picked this script to direct. He began with a minuscule budget, somewhere in the area of $3,000, all out-of-pocket expenses from Curtis's Fifty Foot Penguin theater company, which has no support from any of the major arts grants. "We never spend more on a play than we can afford to lose," Sciple explains.

Sciple's cast is part of a large coterie of semiprofessional actors that fill the stage every time an independent theater company mounts a play, most of whom are in their late 20s or early 30s, and all of whom work day jobs that interfere with the rehearsal schedule. Sciple was forced to block much of Loot in bits and pieces, using a few actors at a time.

Sciple's direction, which was spare and serious, left the performers a little nervous. He encouraged dour, heartless performances that occasionally, unexpectedly, slip into insanity. As an example, there is Steven B. Young's performance as Hal, a grinning sociopath with an aversion to lying and a single, exaggerated gesture of vanity: He will, on occasion, turn to look in a mirror, and draw a comb through his hair with such a sudden, angular move that he seems to be verging on breaking into a rapid mambo. Hal takes a lot of abuse in the play. With a cohort, he has robbed a bank and hidden the money in his mother's coffin, and he takes the brunt of the abuse when a balmy, abusive detective named Truscott (played by Edwin Strout) comes sniffing about. In one famous scene, Truscott flings Hal to the floor, screaming at him, "Under any other political system I'd have you on the floor in tears!" Hal, weeping, looks up at the detective in astonishment. "You've got me on the floor in tears," he says.

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