Seeing pictures of Washington last week sparked a memory.
I played Abraham Lincoln on the Ford Theater stage in Washington, DC,
…at the age of 18,
…in an opera,
…with Mrs. Nixon, Mrs. Agnew, and Col. Sanders in the audience.
It gets better.
It was in the spring of 1970. I was in my freshman year at the University of Kentucky. My un-mown hair cascaded to between my shoulder blades. I wore moccasins, a poncho, army surplus shirts, and a poorly-stitched leather hat. I knew everything. “I was so much older then…”
Dr. Kenneth Wright of UK had written an opera about the insanity trial of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Ponder that for a moment while I digress.
You know, it’s my blog, and if you’ve spent any time at all here you know I don’t feel at all tethered to facts – actual or alternative. I agree with my friend Chuck Pogue; if you have to choose between the facts and tellin’ a story, you go with the story…every time. Hell, It’s not like I’m runnin’ fer president!
That said, everything I’ve written in this piece (thus far) is actually true. Dr. Wright wrote an opera about the insanity trial of Abraham Lincoln’s wife. What kind of mind would write an opera about that kind of mind? It’s a wunnerful world.
There was a historic preservation group in Washington, DC working on restoring the house across the street from the Ford Theater to which a wounded Lincoln was carried. It is the house in which President Lincoln actually died. As a part of their efforts to raise interest and funds for this restoration, the group commissioned UK to produce Dr. Wright’s opera; “Wing of Expectation” and perform it in the Ford Theater.
Ray Smith directed.
I could write a book about that last sentence……and may one day……, but I’ll try not to splinter in this narrative.
Ray decided he wanted me to be his stage manager.
God knows why.
I was a freshman. I had yet to take a single technical theater class. I was an actor/storyteller. Still am for that matter.
The technical staff and faculty at UK objected. For several of them, it was their first year at UK. They are to be forgiven for not knowing that objecting to Ray’s whims only transformed those whims into concrete ramparts. I certainly wasn’t gonna refuse the assignment – I knew everything, remember? Sing it with me; “I was so much older then…”
In addition to being the stage manager of the show, I also had to play the role of the Drunken Farmer in a second act number. It required me to stagger around the stage (poorly, as I recall), warble a couple of slurred lines, get picked up and tossed in the air (let’s sing again; “I was so much lighter then…”), and get carried off the stage.
Not to worry – hold my beer – I got this.
Those were my duties in the show…until we got to Washington.
When we got to Washington, the group that was picking up the tab for this fiasco finally had the epiphany that there was nothing in Dr. Wright’s opera that had anything to do with the house they were trying to save. They insisted on adding a silent scene, behind a scrim, depicting the carrying of Lincoln’s wounded body from the theatre on a stretcher from the theatre to the house in question.
OK, no big deal.
Wait! Not so fast.
Three professional singers had been hired for the leads in the show. The gentleman hired to play Lincoln decided that being carried on a stretcher was not in his original contract and was not a desirable way to extend his evenings in the show. After all, he had counted on bein’ shot and bein’ through for the night and settling in for some quality Green Room time (AKA: the dead people’s happy hour). Now, perhaps this was ungenerous on his part, but given the timbre of the reviews of the show, perhaps truncation of participation was a wise career choice.
What to do?
Opportunity beckoned and the Stage Manager/Drunken Farmer answered. Yes, I was supine on a stretcher, but who could pass up the chance to play Abraham Lincoln on the Ford Theater stage?
Certainly not this fool.
And before you ask, yes I did recreate Booth’s balcony-to-stage leap one afternoon after rehearsal. Those were looser times and stage managers (and drunken farmers…and former presidents I suppose) are allowed much latitude.