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.

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

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

"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.

 

The Twin Cities are proud of their theatergoing audience. There is the oft-cited claim that Minneapolis and St. Paul are second only to Manhattan in the number of theater companies and in per-capita ticket sales, a factoid partly documented in a rosy overview of the local scene in the Star Tribune this February. That list begins, as it inevitably must, with the Guthrie Theater; it just doesn't get bigger than this, the largest regional theater in the nation. The Guthrie's recent production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf played to 96 percent capacity in the theater's 1,441-seat auditorium, finding an audience of 54,565 people over a five-week run.

Jealous comments about the Guthrie sometimes seem de rigueur in the local theater community, and no wonder. When the cast of the Pillsbury House Theatre's marvelous production of Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika looked out during a recent show and saw six people staring back at them--two fewer than were onstage--they must have wondered what has become of this vaunted community of theatergoers.

Certainly, they are at the Guthrie. Pass by the Orpheum and State theaters in downtown Minneapolis on a Friday evening and you'll see them again, stepping off tour buses, clutching their fur coats. There they are at the Hey City Theater as well: Smokey Joe's Café raked in a reported $500,000 in advance sales. Advance sales.

True, there are other local companies with permanent spaces and healthy budgets: Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Penumbra, Mixed Blood, the Jungle. But with these theaters the full-time staff is small, grant-reliant finances are usually tight, and a single flop can send an entire season into a tailspin. A six-member audience can put a deathly pallor over a production, each empty seat representing money that was not made and, frequently, debts that cannot be paid.

But at least these theaters have venues. Other Twin Cities groups compete for the dozen available stages; performance space is simultaneously almost nonexistent and expensive. While companies such as Eye of the Storm and Hidden Theatre plan their entire seasons around single locations (the Theatre Garage and the Old Arizona Studio, respectively), they often must rehearse elsewhere. Eye of the Storm spent a week preparing its newest play, Two Sisters and a Piano, in a children's classroom in a church located in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood, because the Theatre Garage was then occupied by 3 Legged Race's Hand Driven production.

And what of companies that have no regular location? Theater Mu. Pangea World Theater. Outward Spiral. The artistically redoubtable Frank Theatre produces one play each year at the Southern Theater but otherwise must constantly shift locations. (Their most recent production was mounted at Old Arizona; their next will appear at the tiny theater in the Playwrights' Center.)

Zach Curtis has booked the People's Center theater in advance for the next few years, even though it is a small performing space with a minimal lighting system and a shallow seating area that accommodates fewer than 100 people. Additionally, the theater is so obscure that audiences are often hard-pressed to locate it. Audiences of six or seven, far from being a worrisome anomaly, are common. But if Curtis doesn't book the space as far in advance as possible, it is snapped up by any of the dozens of upstart theater companies that are looking for an inexpensive performing venue.

"We're headed for some sort of crash," Frank Theatre artistic director Wendy Knox says. "I'm competing for space with theaters that are two or three years old." Many of these troupes are also competing for the same dwindling pot of grant money and the attention of the local media. Theatrical successes in the Twin Cities, despite this locale's reportedly active theatergoing population and favorable funding climate, are hard-won.

Midlevel actors and directors, such as Sciple and Curtis, have found that making the transition into earning a full-time living on local theater is virtually impossible. "I feel at 33 like I wish I was further along in whatever my career is going to become," Sciple admits wistfully. "But then, I've had a lot of fun."

Both Sciple and Curtis have worked in the Twin Cities theater scene for a decade, performing in dozens of plays, founding their own theater companies, writing original scripts (Sciple's most recent, The Great Americ'n Play, debuted at the People's Center a few months ago), and picking up freelance work as directors. In fact, it is common to see Sciple and Curtis taking tickets at the box office of each other's production.

"I agree with the Buddhist concept that we earn the work, but we don't earn the reward," Curtis says. "But, believe me, everything I have achieved, I have earned." Curtis worked as a temp until July of this past year, when he was hired as artistic director of the newly formed Director's Theater.

Sciple worked as the literary manager of the Park Square Theatre for five years, doubling the part-time job with long shifts as a waiter. A year ago he quit to devote himself to writing, directing, and acting. "I got close enough to the process to want more of it," Sciple says of his literary and dramaturgical work at the Park Square. "Sitting in rehearsals and biting my tongue was too hard."

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.

"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.

Sciple has directed this scene with Truscott's taste for violence. Hal is so roughly abused by Truscott that when he began to bleed profusely from the nose, I thought real blood had begun to flow. It was only later, reading through the script, that I discovered Hal's nosebleed is an explicit stage direction.

It is one of Truscott's lines that Sciple points to as his favorite: "What has just taken place is perfectly scandalous and had better go no farther than these three walls"--a line that is at once very simple and insistently theatrical. In the past few years, Sciple has regularly worked with Michelle Hensley of Ten Thousand Things, appearing as an actor in such plays as Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol and directing Godot for the company. According to Curtis, who has also worked with Hensley, she has an approach to theater that bleeds into the aesthetic of everyone who has collaborated with her.

"Her work is stripped-down and bare," Sciple says, also citing Hensley as an influence. "She tears theater down to its very essence. It was a way that I always thought about doing theater, but in Michelle I have found somebody who is very passionate about that, and who does it well." Because the plays produced by Ten Thousand Things travel to prisons and homeless shelters (aside from its social services value, this seems a novel way to locate performing spaces in this tight market), Hensley's direction necessarily requires few props and heightened theatricality. The actors must make full use of a bare stage, filling it with their performances.

Sciple's direction of Godot was likewise spare, the set consisting of three small, framed paintings of distant horizons, set up on three corners of the performing area, and a withered tree. Samuel Beckett's script calls for almost no set, and Sciple made do with even less. There were the actors, the text of the play, a hint of a set, and nothing else. By the end of the run, the actors were so focused on the scene at hand that when Curtis suddenly became nauseated during a performance and fled the set, the other actors did not notice, even though he was tied to one of them with a rope.

 

On the opening night of Loot, Richard S. Iglewski, a regular on the Guthrie stage, turned up in the audience. After the show, members of the cast crowded around him to greet him. "Has the Guthrie ever done this play?" one asked.

"Not that I know of," Iglewski answered. "It's a pity; it would be perfect for the Guthrie." But Orton is rarely performed in the Twin Cities, and Sciple chose to direct Loot for a simple reason: It appealed to him. "I don't usually like black comedy," he told me, "because black comedy usually deals with cannibalism, which I don't find very interesting. But I knew who I would have in the cast for this, and I knew what I could do with them, and I wasn't doing anything else."

This is an example of a madness that is particular to theater people, as common among them as complaints about the Guthrie. Without this curious affliction there would be scant theater in the Twin Cities--save, perhaps, the Guthrie. After all, what could possibly compel anybody to sacrifice financial security, sleep, and weekends to participate in creating something that climbs up onstage for a half-dozen audience members, makes noise for a while, and then disappears forever? Sciple and Curtis--is it possible?--find these sacrifices irresistible, and are part of a booming community that shares their compulsion.

Both Curtis and Sciple praise productions like Loot, which, considering their low budget and low visibility, seems to be neither a sound financial decision nor an advantageous career move for its participants. "I keep waiting for performers to say, 'I can't do this, I don't have the time and you're not paying me enough,'" Curtis says. "And I would say, 'Of course you don't and of course we aren't.' And we've had some actors say that, only to come back and say, 'What am I talking about? Of course I'll do this show. Where else am I going to be able to do it?'"

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