I went to the theater recently with a group of writer friends. A mutual friend was performing in a new play at the Annex Theatre. As the lights dimmed, I gave myself over to that mystical experience and entered the land of make-believe.
There is something quite wonderful that happens in live theater. Movies are entertaining and safe. The makeup and costumes will be just right, every hair in place, each article of clothing just right, all frozen on the screen for all time. (It took a zillion “takes” to be sure that is so.) However, in the theater you never know. These are real people in a real setting and for me, a sense of adventure takes over as the lights dim. Maybe tonight something will happen, something beyond the control of the director or actors. Perhaps there will be some new insight, new interpretation. So when an actor speaks and moves the magic begins.
I did a lot of theater when I was young. In high school I got to play the ingénue, the sweet young thing. Not much talent required doing that for I was sweet and young. My first two years in college, I did theater as well. Got to play some leads. My favorite was in the play Ladies in Retirement. This was the role of an older woman. I got to wear a great wig and have lots of makeup. In one scene, I was required to scream. The problem was that I couldn’t. Scream, that is. I know, all women are expected to be able to make loud shrieking noises. I couldn’t, can't. Not exactly sure why (although I do have my theories: my quiet family upbringing, the need to completely let go, weird vocal chords, who knows). I was told I either screamed or the stand-in would take over. I wanted that role, and so I enlisted the help of Alberta. She was on the technical crew and had a scream that could wake the dead. I arranged with her that the lighting on me would be dim as I appeared on the landing, looked below, and raised my hands to my face. At that moment, Alberta let go with a hair-raising scream. It worked, and the director never learned the truth.
My junior year in college, my family moved to Minneapolis, and I was able to enroll in the University of Minnesota. Bit of a shock. In Eau Claire, I’d been a big frog in a little-bitty puddle. But here I was, a junior at this enormous University. No orientation for me, and no way to meet people as I lived at home. For two weeks I wandered about and spoke to no one and no one spoke to me. It was dreadful. Every morning, my father said, “Aren’t you the luckiest girl in the world!” I never told him how unhappy I was and every evening I cried myself to sleep. But I knew I had to do something. Sink or swim.
One evening as I crossed the Mall, I noticed the lights in the basement of the music building. That’s where the theater was. I walked inside and asked who was in charge. Someone directed me down the hall to an office. I opened the door and saw a bald man with the biggest, darkest, kindest eyes I’d ever seen; Doc Whiting, the head of the theater department. He invited me in. “What can I do for you?” he asked, and the next thing I knew I was babbling away, telling him all about it. He took my hand and walked me backstage. “Put her to work,” he said. They did. Saved my life. The theater wasn’t even a minor for me, and most of my professors did not approve of the time I spent doing plays. But I loved it. I was never given any leading parts—I wasn’t even in the same league as the people who were playing major roles –but I got walk-ons and minor roles and lots of technical jobs. One of my favorites was King Lear. I was a sound technician. My friend Helen was lights. By the time we were giving performances, we’d memorized the play. Some evenings, she’s say all the men’s roles, I’d do women’s. then we’d reverse. Another fun play was Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. I had a non-speaking part--a walk-on--and a marvelous costume. It was a pale rose color and had panniers –bustle-like pads at the hips. I was having a fun flirtation with a fellow who was doing lights, an added bonus. In one scene, I was seated on a big pouffy seat on the far right of the stage, my gown spread out at my feet. Suddenly, I had the eerie feeling that the audience was moving. I glanced over to the wings and there was my flirtatious friend with a grip on the hem of my gown, slowly pulling me offstage. I planted my feet firmly to grip the floor and leaned forward. It didn’t help and before I knew it, I was in the wings and in his arms. Fortunately, it was a high school student matinee and no one seemed to notice. Such is the fate of walk-ons.
My most momentous moment on stage was for a senior recital play. Theater majors were required to give a senior recital. This meant they were to pick a one-act play, produce and direct it. A woman I barely knew asked if I’d perform the lead in her senior recital. My ego leaped in and I accepted. A lead! For the male lead, she chose a handsome fellow she was dating. (I’ll call him Hal.) Hal had no theater experience, but he was handsome. We began rehearsals. It was a drama, and in one scene, Hal pulls out a pistol, threatens me, and then fires the gun. (He misses me, tosses the gun, and rushes off stage.) We used a toy gun during rehearsals with Hal promising he knew all about pistols. The evening of the performance arrived and we were ready. Everyone knew their lines and their places. Costumes were great, even makeup. Hal was provided with a pistol. He fitted it with blanks and fired several shots into a large barrel. We were ready.
The play was going well—no missed cues, the audience fully engaged and then we had the gun scene. Hal looked perfect, hair messed, face enraged when he pulled out the pistol. I felt the audience tense. He threatened me, raised the pistol and pulled the trigger. You could hear the click in the quiet room. Nothing happened. A look of panic filled Hal’s face. He pulled again. Another click and silelnce. The quiet of the room now had weight. Hal's hand shook as he again raised the pistol. He squeezed the trigger and a loud click reverberated through the silent room. Suddenly, a voice hollered, “Bang!” The audience roared with laughter. Hal ran off stage. I said my lines and ended the play.
I wanted to die I was so embarrassed. I raced down to the dressing room intending to hide until everyone had gone. But the door opened and Doc Whiting walked in. “You were good, Ruth. Congratuations.” he said.
“What idiot hollered ‘bang?'” I asked.
He smiled. “I did. The audience needed some relief. And you never got out of character. I mean it when I said you were good.” He patted my shoulder. “Now go out and greet your fans. Go on. You’ll survive.” And I did.
My happiest, most amazing experience was a tour. The Department of Arts and Lectures at the University wanted to try an experiment. (This was 1946.) The play was “Blythe Spirit” by Noel Coward. I played the role of the maid who happened to be a “familiar.” Got to sing “I’ll Be Loving You Always” with a Cockney accent. I was also in charge of properties—we all had dual roles. The sets were piled into a big truck, the six actors in one car, and off we went for our one-night stands, to small towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. My per diem was $5/day. At the end of the tour I had to borrow money to get home. We were a success, so much so that they still do tours, only now they do the Mediterranean, Japan, and Europe. Born thirty years too soon, the story of my life.
My last theater adventure was Little Theater my first year out of college. I was teaching in a small town in Wisconsin and joined the theater to give me something to do with my evenings and to make friends. The play was "Claudia" and I played lead role of Claudia, a young bride. In the play, she smokes a cigarette and flirts with a fellow, even allows him to kiss her. The play went well and we received rave reviews in the local paper. The following week, I was called into the Superintendent's office. I could tell I was in trouble the minute I saw his face. He didn't even ask me to sit down, but shook the folded newspaper in my face. He was outraged. Here I was, a teacher, a role model to the children, a woman who should have been a paragon of virtue, and I had sullied my reputation by being in a play!
I could feel tears wanting desperately to fall, but I thought about my father and wondered what he'd do. He wouldn't lose his cool, of that I was sure, so I gritted my teeth. I asked if the Superintendent was familiar with Shakespeare. He was. Did he think those plays were worth doing? He did. Even Edmund's soliloquey in "King Lear?" He agreed. I raised my fist. "Now, gods stand up for bastards!" His mouth dropped open. I turned and left his office. I cried all the way home, sure I'd lost my job. But the following day there was a phone call for me. It was the Superintendent. He apologized. It seems the gods can stand up for teachers as well.