As the curtain rises.
In the fall of 1984 I was spinning a bit. I had filed for divorce, was living in a 56-year-old house with a 25-year-old furnace, 2 window air-conditioners, 3 shingle roofs on top of each other, a 30-year/1-year-old mortgage (at 18%) and a strange tortoise-shell cat. The math wasn’t favorable – the cat (Scandal) was desperately trying to pull me through.
My friends had divided themselves into two camps. Some became hard to reach – I understand that – ya got yer own lives to muddle through. Others made life better. They didn’t ask what they could do, they just did it. I will always hold a “reverse grudge” for those folks.
On stage, I was active but playing a lot of amputees and drunks; violent amputees and drunks…gay and violent amputees and drunks. It’s not an acting category for which you see much advertising frequently. Hey, it was acting/storytelling opportunities…great……but it didn’t have me “looking at the stars.”
Then Ray Smith offered me the lead in his February production of DIAL M FOR MURDER. I explained to Ray that I was going through a rough patch just now and maybe I should pass on this chance. He dismissed my misgivings; “All the more reason you should do it! It’ll do you good!!” Well…no…it would do Ray good. But the script was good, the cast was fine, and the character had a full inventory of limbs, wasn’t a drunk (though he did have excellent taste in Port), and got to wear a couple of nice suits. Hey, I’m easy and Scandal said; “Go ahead, but change my litter first, you lazy son-of-a-bitch.” Ya know…to be called pejoratively a son-of-a-bitch by a cat…it just makes ya go “Hm-m-m-m” on so many levels.
Historical (or hysterical) notes
Ray had directed me in BILLY BUDD my freshman year at UK. It occurred to me then that it was an odd choice to choose to do a show featuring a cast of 22 men and no women in a theatre department that featured 15 men and 80 women, but what did I know? I was a freshman and just happy to be there. <<Cue the big goofy grin at the camera>>
I also puzzled about the wisdom of having a tech rehearsal that began at 7pm Saturday and ended about 5pm Sunday. Is that really a good business plan? However, it did afford me the quality green room time necessary to learn the basics of bridge over the weekend.
But it seemed odd.
Later that year, I served as Ray’s stage manager for WING OF EXPECTATION, an opera based on the insanity trial of Mary Todd Lincoln. Ray discovered I was a mere freshman a few days before opening night of the show. He wasn’t happy about the newly discovered vulnerability of having his show (about to be produced at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC) running in the hands of a fellow who just twelve months ago was trying to score a date to his high school prom – go figger. He made my life a living hell from that moment through closing night.
I’ve written more about that episode. See “A Horizontal Lincoln at That” in the blog archives if you’re interested.
There was also the moment one night when leaving the Paddock Club (a legendary theatre-folk rendez-vous of burgers and cheap beer and dim lights and rugged pinball machines and blurry dissections of the New York theatre scene of which we knew nothing) at closing time when vague suggestions of an advancement of blurriness concerning the student/teacher relationship hovered in the air. The “no” was definite and un-blurry and graciously accepted as definitive and un-blurry and never spoken of again. Hell, I doubt he ever remembered it.
Mama never said there’d be days like this.
Well, those were hippie days, blessedly free and easy. There was often more than a bit of confusion about possibilities and desires. Clarity was a valuable commodity for all concerned but not always near-to-hand.
Ray and I had also acted together once in THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL. He played Ralph Waldo Emerson to my Henry David Thoreau. Ray was at a point where his grasp of his lines was acute but a bit exotic and his grip on his lines was fragile. One performance, Ray got a look on his face that clearly read; “Rodge, ol’ buddy, I haven’t a clue. You might wanna take it from here and save the women and children.”
I have since seen that look on other thespian faces and, thanks to Ray, it holds no terror for me. I seize upon it as an opportunity to practice survival skills or just chat for a while in front of a lot of captive people who paid to be there.
I liked Ray…a lot.
I considered him, as Kurt Vonnegut puts it; “another nice way for people to be.”
He added much to life in Lexington and subtracted little. I miss him. The math was good.
DIAL M FOR MURDER
All this is to say I knew what I was getting into with DIAL M. I hoped to entertain with our performance and I was anticipating that Ray would be entertaining along the way to opening night. I was not disappointed.
Our first rehearsal began 20 minutes late because Michael arrived 15 minutes late. Ray spent the other five minutes lecturing everyone on the infinite damage inflicted on rehearsals and the universe in general due to tardiness. Math was not Ray’s particular long suit but he performed some for us and demonstrated that Michael’s 15 minutes, when multiplied by the number of rehearsal participants affected, was actually 2 ½ hours. At this point I humbly asked if that meant every further minute of delay was actually ten minutes and Ray ordered the stage manager to commence the rehearsal toute suite.
But the damage had been done. I knew it. Nancy and Bob knew it. We had worked with Ray before.
Michael’s fate was sealed.
Ray had a habit of settling on one member of each cast to be the whipping boy. Michael’s initial tardiness promoted him into that position for DIAL M. Since we were all working for free, it was a brevet promotion; more grief – same pay.
Ray’s standard lecture on “magnetic toes” was demonstrated repeatedly and loudly on Michael’s feet. “Magnetic toes” was Ray’s metaphor for actors that habitually and artificially faced straight front. It was if they had magnets in their shoes that forced their shoes to turn straight front. It was a bizarre concept, but simple, and I kinda dug the sci-fi behind it…the first time I heard it. Michael heard it in at least 5-6 rehearsals. He was perplexed, not being a sci-fi kinda guy.
And then there was the pipe/line/ash-tray ballet.
Michael’s character held a pipe and an ash-tray and had to deliver a crucial line. Ray described what he wanted;
“Start the line…pause…tap the pipe three times on the ash-tray…say the next word…pause…tap twice…look at Roger…finish the line.”
Michael took the plunge;
Tap twice…say the line.
“No, no, no!” Ray restated the agenda; start, pause, three taps, word, pause, two taps, look, finish.
Michael winged it.
Start, tap twice, look, finish the line, look.
“No, no, no!!” Ray shook his head, took the props from Michael and demonstrated; start, pause, three taps, word, pause, two taps, look, finish.
Michael took a quick inventory of available exits from the theatre and tried again.
Start, pause, tap, word, look, three taps, finish.
“No, No, No!!!”
On about the tenth repetition of this morbidly entertaining cycle, Michael gave me a look – a desperate and silent plea for release from this mortal coil. I took that as an opportunity to check in visually with the other actors in the room. Nancy was reading a book, Bob was snickering in the corner, and Paul (who had never worked with Ray before) had assumed his now classic “What kind of mind……?” posture.
Well, it was never resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.
I felt bad for Michael, but damn, it was funny, and I’m glad it wasn’t me.
My favorite moment in the DIAL M experience actually happened at a different play. We were rehearsing and performing in a small theatre at UK, but the backstage area was connected through a scene construction shop to a larger stage where a production of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL was being rehearsed.
Our stage had virtually no backstage space. Thus, we lingered (and malingered) in the scene shop before our entrances. It was real good time – the only thing missing was a keg. I recall one evening when Bob and I recreated (to the soul-killing boredom of the rest of the cast) all of Robert Altman’s movie NASHVILLE – every word in every inane song. A recording should have been made…and immediately used as evidence for an ensuing prosecution.
The director of THE SEAGULL was not as charmed by our antics as we were (imagine that) and complained at a Theatre Department meeting that she was doing “goddam Chekov” and deserved a measure of respect. That only served to provide us with our mantra; “We’re doin’ goddam Frederick Knott!”
SEAGULL opened a week after our show. On their opening night Ray scheduled a line speed-through to prepare us for our second weekend. We started early and went really fast. We wanted to go the opening of SEAGULL. We finished and ran around to the audience entrance of the other stage. It was sold out and the only seats left when I arrived were on the very back row…except for one.
Ray, being on the faculty was allowed to cut through the scene shop and enter before the general audience. He took full advantage. When I walked into the in-the-round configured theatre I saw Ray on the front row, legs and arms tightly crossed, smoking a cigarette (ah, how times have changed). He had commandeered and defended the seat next to him and when he saw me he flung his cigarette hand in the air, raised his eyebrows to the approximate orbit of the moon, and gestured with a tilt of his head to the empty seat beside him.
I had a front row seat.
The configuration was in-the-round. I hate theatre in-the-round for two reasons;
- I paid for a show and I only get to see half the show. Half the time the actors are facing away from me and playing to the other side of the audience.
- I came to see the play, not the audience on the other side of the stage.
This was demonstrated immediately that night. I looked out over the set on the stage and in the ineffective darkness across the stage picked out several regular Lexington theatre-goers including Anna-Mae H–, a devoted attendee. She waved gaily.
The lights dimmed (except for Ray’s cigarette). Ray leaned over and murmured; “I understand there’s a lot of suffering in this play.”
The lights came up and one of my favorite actresses raced onto the stage and wailed; “I am suffering!”
I looked back at Ray and his eyebrows had achieved the approximate altitude of Saturn in an expression that wailed; “What did I tell you?”
I was painfully choking back the giggles at a play by goddam Chekhov.
Anna-Mae waved gaily.
I said that was my favorite DIAL M experience. Actually it was number two.
In the audience on the closing night of DIAL M FOR MURDER there was a cute little redhead. I was allowed to miss strike so I could take the cute little redhead out for a drink after the show. It was our first date.
Last year, we celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary.
Ray was right. Doing this show?
It did me good!