Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Show Must Go On

In the early 1980s, the Sunshine Children’s Theater was presenting an original musical called “Go-Go the Blue Gorilla.”  My 12 year old son Paul had the role of Rapper, the Parrot, the interlocutor of the piece.  It was Rapper who kept the plot of the story rolling along.. At one point he was supposed to deliver his lines from the branch of a “tree.”  Budgets being what they were for children’s theater, they had no tree, but they placed him in one of the doors that opens out over the stage of the Veterans Memorial Theater, some 10-15 feet above the stage.

Paul came down with the stomach flu the day of the performance and had no understudy. If he didn’t go on, they would have had to cancel the show.  Paul thought he could do the show, despite his illness. People stood in the wings in case he had to make a quick exit and all the young actors knew they might have to cover for him -- but we worried most about his perch so high above the stage, when he was already feeling queasy. One of the dads (who happened to be a doctor) climbed up the ladder behind him, to watch closely and grab him if he looked unsteady.

Paul got through the show, except for having to rush off stage right before the final scene. His sister delivered his final line for him.

This was our first experience with the theater tradition of “the show must go on” (a phrase coined by Noel Coward in 1950 when he was writing a song by the same name).

Paul would have to go on again several years later, when he was the lead singer for the band Lawsuit, a 10 piece band which also included his brother Ned, sister Jeri and sister-in-law Marta.  To this day I don’t know how they got through the first show, at Sudwerk, after the death of our son David, who had died a couple of weeks before.  During the song “Funny,” which contained the lyric “there’s a broken soldier who’s going home...,” there was an instrumental break during which Paul leaped off the stage and came to sob on my shoulder, and then climb back up on stage again and finish the song.

Theater people cope in the most horrendous of situations because the show must go on.  There is an audience which has paid good money to be entertained and doesn’t care what is going on in your personal life. 

William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) addressed that very issue in the operetta, “Yeomen of the Guard.”

Though your wife ran away with a soldier that day,
took with her your trifle of money;
Bless your heart, they don't mind - they're exceedingly kind -
They don't blame you - as long as you're funny!

In the fall of 1984, the late Amy Patten was playing an important role in the Davis Comic Opera Company’s (DCOC) production of "Man With a Load of Mischief."  Her husband, Gordon, who suffered from Parkinsons, had been in steady decline for some time. At the Champagne Gala performance, as Amy circulated among the crowd, serving hors d’oeuvres from a tray, people asked her how Gordon was doing.  "About the same," she replied.  It was only later that everyone learned that Gordon had died that weekend.  Only Jim Hutchinson, with whom she shared most of her scenes, knew of Gordon’s death.  She trusted him to help her if she suddenly got lost in the script. She explained later, “I didn’t want to bring the show down.  I didn’t want the show to suffer because of me.”

Director Ray Tatar recalls an actress who was doing a production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” at California Stage.  Just before opening night, her 26 year old brother died.  The actress made the decision to do the performance anyway.  She had the final lines of the play, the “all the world’s a stage” piece, enumerating the 7 stages of man.  “When she got to that speech something came over her and she just started staring off into space,” said Tatar. “The audience waited for a couple of minutes– that’s a long time in a show that moves at a pretty steadfast clip.  It was quiet in the theater.  The audience was reading the reality of her expression.  She finally just fired her way through it to the end.  The audience roared approval as the other actors carried her off.” She finished the run of the play without further problem.

Actor Stephen Peithman’s sister, Ann, died the week before the opening of "Man of La Mancha," produced at UCD in the mid-1970s.  Peithman  played the villain, Dr. Carrasco ("The Knight of the Mirrors") and there were no understudies for any of the parts.

“When my mother called me to tell me that my sister had died after a sudden and virulent recurrence of cancer, she told me not to worry about leaving the show.  In fact, the first words she said, after ‘Your sister died this afternoon’ was ‘And you know she would have wanted you to stay in the show.’

“Actor David de Berry, playing Cervantes, gave me a hug before the show on opening night, and I remember thinking as the opening music began, ‘This is so unreal.’ 

“The show went beautifully, and to this day, I can't listen to the overture from ‘Man of La Mancha’ without thinking first of Ann,” says Peithman.

Sometimes incidents happen on stage and actors have to cope.  Actress Deborah Hammond knows this very well. 

As Patty in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” Hammond and another actor were fighting over a pencil in a scene.  The pencil was oversized, made from a large dowel.  Hammond’s blocking was to snatch the pencil from the other actor’s hand, the other actor still had quite a grip on it and when he released it the pencil  jabbed her in the eyebrow and caused a gash.  She finished the show before heading to the hospital.

In another situation, while in the role of Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” Hammond flung herself backwards, as directed, and experienced stabbing pain in her abdomen.  She completed the final act and went straight from the theater into emergency surgery to have her gallbladder removed.  (Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to finish the run.)

While playing Muzzy Van Hossmere in Runaway Stage’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Hammond left the stage to complete a quick costume change.  She ended up falling down a small flight of stairs, head first, to the dressing room.  Other actors tried to sit her down and examine her; but she made her change and returned to the stage.  When the other actress entered the scene she was thrown a bit by the blood trickling down the side of Hammond’s face.  She managed to complete the performance and the run of the show

Patrick Van was set to appear in Davis Musical Theater Company’s recent “Kiss Me Kate,” when the week before the show opened he was hospitalized with suspected H1N1 (it turned out just to be the regular flu).  Van was released from the hospital in the late afternoon of opening night, went home to shower, and went to the theater. “I asked the director if any of my blocking had changed and asked my fellow cast members to nudge me if I looked confused. I knew that I just needed to pull things together for three hours and then I could sleep all the next day.”

Jennifer Teal remembers tearing her anterior cruciate ligament during ski camp a week before Acme’s “Time and the Conways.” “As long as I didn’t straighten my leg, I could still walk on it,” she says. Patrick Van remembers that “she would walk around the stage and stand behind a couch so she could support herself.  Her knee would pop out every once in awhile.” Teal adds, “We postponed surgery until the week after the show.  It was a valuable experience in terms of keeping commitments.”

Local singer/actress Lenore Heinson (in the days when she was Lenore Turner) didn’t let a little thing like pregnancy keep her from performing the title role in “Countess Maritza,” with San Francisco’s Lamplighters.  She was in her first trimester of pregnancy during rehearsals and was sleepy most of the time.  Someone drove her from Davis to San Francisco each night so she could sleep in the car, get out, sparkle during rehearsal and then sleep all the way back to Davis again.

By the time the show opened, the pregnancy started to show and the costumers had to find ways to expand her costume to keep up with her expanding girth.  She was double-cast in the role, and eventually had to leave the last two weekends to the other Maritza when it became impossible to hide the pregnancy any longer.

Sometimes an actor simply can’t perform and others are grabbed at the last minute to fill in, with little or no rehearsal.  Jason Hammond recalls, “One year, at Christmas time, I got a call to fill in for an actor who had been cast in a movie and had to go into production immediately.  The director asked me to learn the role of Tom Jenkins in “Scrooge the Musical,” to be performed the next evening…so I began memorizing.  Several hours later, the director called again and informed me that he had been mistaken -- it wasn’t the actor playing Tom Jenkins who was leaving the cast, but his twin brother who played the role of Harry, Scrooge’s nephew.  Needless to say, I had no sleep that night!”

In 1993, Adam Wright, playing Orlando, in Acme Theater Company’s production of  “As You Like It” came down with pneumonia during tech week. The Stage Manager, Andrew Hendrix, stepped in and played the role for three of the four performances. Andrew was off book by the second night.

In 1997, Qasim Shah, cast in Acme’s “Emma's Child,” took his own life only weeks before the show was to open. Evan Drane stepped in and did a remarkable job, as did the entire cast, considering the circumstances. “It was one of the most difficult moments of my life,” remembers director Dave Burmester.

During the Davis Comic Opera Company’s first production of “A Little Night Music,” Myrna Woodhead missed the second act because she went to the ER with food poisoning. Myrna was part of the quintet. "Sandra Silva sang Myrna's lyrics, and everyone else just did what was needed to make the new configuration workable," says Stephen Peithman.

Theater people pull together during times of crisis and accomplish amazing things.

California Stage was doing an out of town production of “Real Women have Curves.”  The set consisted of a number of flats but when the tech crew went to put the set together, they discovered they had left the crucial piece that holds it all together back in Sacramento.  One technician told another to hold the set upright while he went to find something to make it all work.  It turns out he drove an hour back to Sacramento to get the missing piece, leaving the original technician holding the set upright for 40 minutes while the first act went on.  (At intermission they found something backstage that would support the set.)

During the run of the Davis Comic Opera Company’s 10th anniversary show, the tech crew arrived at the Veterans Memorial Theater at 2:30 in order to get ready for the 4:00 matinee, only to find an inch of water on the stage and two inches in the pit. (The drain outside had backed up causing the water to come in under the door, across the stage and into the pit) “The pit water was not only messy; it was dangerous because of the electrical necessities there,” recalls Nancianne Pfister.  “Our gallant technical crew spent the next hours quite literally bailing us out.  The show opened only 12 minutes late.”

Directors aren’t immune either. “I had emergency heart surgery on the eve of tech week of ‘The Water Children,’” explains Burmester.  “Tom (Burmester) and Emily (Henderson) shepherded the show through dress rehearsals. I remember telling the doctor that I couldn't have surgery. ‘I have a show opening in nine days.’ His response: ‘That's okay. You'll be able to see the show.’ And I did. Before that, though, on opening night after the show, the whole cast came over to our house to give us a blow-by-blow of a great first night. I had just gotten out of the hospital, and it was one of the best nights of my whole life.”

Bob Bowen remembers “When I was producing and directing Nutcracker somewhere about 1981 or 1982, I got the flu. I was really ill and also lost my voice. Instead of staying home and resting, I strapped on a portable P.A. speaker and dragged myself down to the theater to make sure the show went on.”

Theater people are strange creatures, but they are very aware of their commitment to the audience, to give them the best possible performance–no matter what. “Even if you’re injured, once you’re in that zone of being in a show when the lights are on, you get such an adrenalin rush Your body forgets that your head hurts or you have a sore throat,” says Patrick Van.

The show must go on because there are no other options.  Theater folks are masters at improvisation and last-minuteness, They dream the impossible dream, so the show goes on.

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