Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Show Always Goes On (feature article)

In the early 1980s, the local 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. Rapper kept the story's plot 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, the company had no tree, so Paul was placed in one of the doors that opens out over the stage of the Veterans' Memorial Theater, some 10 to 15 feet above the stage.

Paul came down with the stomach flu the day of the performance, and had no understudy. Without him, the show would have been canceled. Paul thought he could soldier on, despite his illness. People stood in the wings, in case he had to make a quick exit; all the young actors knew they might have to cover for him.

We - his parents - worried most about that perch so high above the stage, when he already was feeling queasy.

One of the other theater fathers, who happened to be a doctor, climbed up the ladder behind Paul, 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 grand old theater tradition that 'the show must go on,' a phrase coined by Noel Coward in 1950, while writing a song by the same title.

Paul would have to go on again, several years later, while lead singer for Lawsuit, a 10-piece band that 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 performance, at Sudwerk, after the death of our son David, a couple of weeks earlier.

The song 'Funny,' which contained the lyric 'there's a broken soldier who's going home,' included an instrumental break. During that vocal pause, Paul leaped off the stage and rushed over to sob on my shoulder. He then climbed back up on stage and finished the song.

Theater people - all performers - cope in the most horrendous of situations, because the show must go on. An audience has paid good money to be entertained, and the patrons don't care what's going on in your personal life.

William S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, 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 production of 'Man with a Load of Mischief.' Her husband, Gordon, who was suffering from Parkinson's disease, had been in steady decline for some time.

At the champagne gala performance, as Amy circulated among the crowd, serving appetizers from a tray, people asked how Gordon was doing.

'About the same,' she replied.

Only later did everyone learn that Gordon had died that weekend. Jim Hutchinson, with whom she shared most of her scenes, was the only one she told prior to that performance; she trusted him to help her, if she suddenly got lost in the script.

'I didn't want to bring the show down,' she later explained. '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 Sacramento's California Stage. Just before opening night, her 26-year-old brother died. The actress decided to do the performance anyway. She had the play's final lines: the 'all the world's a stage' piece that enumerates the seven stages of man.

'When she got to that speech, something came over her, and she just stared off into space,' Tatar said. 'The audience waited for a couple of minutes ... that's a long time, in a show that moves at a pretty steadfast clip. The theater was quiet. 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 UC Davis in the mid-1970s. Peithman played the villain, Dr. Carrasco ('The Knight of the Mirrors'), and none of the parts had understudies.

'When my mother called to tell me that my sister had died, after a sudden and virulent recurrence of cancer,' Peithman recalled, 'she told me not to worry about leaving the show. In fact, the first words she said, after 'Your sister died this afternoon,' were '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. 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.'

Sometimes incidents happen on stage, forcing actors to cope then and there. Actress Deborah Hammond knows this very well.

As Patty in a production of 'You're a Good Man Charlie Brown,' Hammond and another actor were fighting over a pencil in a scene. The oversized pencil was made from a large dowel. As the scene was blocked, Hammond was to snatch the pencil from the other actor's hand. But on stage, the other actor held it too tight; when he released it, the pencil gashed Hammond in the eyebrow.

She finished the show before heading to the hospital.

While playing Muzzy Van Hossmere in a Runaway Stage production of 'Thoroughly Modern Millie,' Hammond left the stage for a quick costume change. She fell, head first, down a small flight of stairs to the dressing room. Other actors tried to sit her down and examine her, but - feeling the responsibility - she made her change and returned to the stage.

The other actress, upon entering the scene, was thrown a bit by the blood trickling down the side of Hammond's face.

Even so, she completed the performance and the run of the show.

In a third situation, while playing 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 then went straight from the theater into emergency surgery, to have her gallbladder removed.

That time, Hammond wasn't able to finish the run.

Patrick Van was set to appear in the Davis Musical Theatre Company's recent production of 'Kiss Me Kate.' The week before the show opened, he was hospitalized with suspected H1N1 (which turned out to be the regular flu). Van was released from the hospital late in the afternoon of opening night. He went home to shower, then reported to the theater.

'I asked the director if any of my blocking had changed,' Van said, '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 the next day.'

Jennifer Teal remembers tearing her anterior cruciate ligament during ski camp a week before the Acme Theatre Company production of 'Time and the Conways.'

'As long as I didn't straighten my leg, I still could walk on it,' she said.

Van, also in that show, remembers that 'she'd walk around the stage and stand behind a couch, so she could support herself. Her knee would pop out every once in awhile.'

'We postponed surgery until the week after the show,' Teal said. 'It was a valuable experience, in terms of keeping commitments.'

Local singer/actress Lenore Heinson - back 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 evening 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 had begun to show; the costumers had to find ways to expand her costume, to keep up with her expanding girth. Heinson was double-cast in the role, and eventually had to leave the final 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 knows this one from personal experience:

'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 got no sleep that night!'

In 1993, Adam Wright, playing Orlando in an Acme Theatre Company production of 'As You Like It' came down with pneumonia during tech week. 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 opened. 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 emergency room with a case of food poisoning. Myrna was part of a quintet.

'Sandra Silva sang Myrna's lyrics,' Peithman recalls, 'and everyone else just did what was needed to make the new configuration workable.'

The story's the same, time and time again: Theater people pull together at moments 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; when the tech crew started to put everything together, they discovered that a crucial piece - one that held everything together - had been left behind in Sacramento.

One technician told another to hold the set upright, while he went to find something to make it all work. He wound up driving all the way back to Sacramento - an hour's trip - to retrieve the missing piece, leaving the other technician to hold the set upright for 40 minutes ... while the first act went on!

At intermission, something was found backstage to support the set for the remainder of the performance.

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 p.m. in order to get ready for the 4 p.m. matinee ... only to find an inch of water on the stage, and two inches in the orchestra pit.

The drain outside the theater had backed up, causing the water to come in under the door, across the stage and into the pit.

'The pit water wasn't only messy; it was dangerous, because of the electrical necessities,' recalls Nancianne Pfister. 'Our gallant technical crew spent the nearly two hours quite literally bailing us out.

'The show opened only 12 minutes late.'

In case you're wondering, directors aren't immune to such things.

'I had emergency heart surgery on the eve of tech week of 'The Water Children,' ' Burmester said. 'My son Tom 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,' I told him.

'His response: 'That's okay. You'll be able to see the show.'

'And I did. Before that, though, after the opening night performance, the entire 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.'

'When I was producing and directing 'Nutcracker' somewhere about 1981 or '82,' Bob Bowen remembers, '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 may be strange creatures, but they're very aware of their commitment to the audience: to give patrons 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 come up - you get such an adrenaline rush,' Van said. 'Your body forgets that your head hurts, or that you have a sore throat.'

The show must go on, because no other options exist. Theater folks are masters of improvisation and last-minuteness: They dream the impossible dream. All the time.

And so the show goes on.

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