Saturday, December 16, 2017

All I Love and All I Hate

The theatre was freezing. I hadn’t thought about that possibility when I agreed to remount Building the Wall, a play Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Alan Schenkkan had written in response to Trump’s election. I’d thought I was done with acting when I relocated to San Miguel. The plays they were mounting didn’t interest me, didn’t ignite a burning desire to be on stage again. But Schenkkan’s play was different. It would allow me to participate in the resistance to Trump’s presidency, in Mexico, via one of the things I love most, theatre. And it was a happening. Several theatre companies in major US cities, including Austin, Denver, NYC, LA, Tucson, Chicago, and Louisville, mounted the show in this year.

Rehearsals, maybe the part of this process I love most, started in May. Director Alan Jordan reminded me of one of my favorite directors in the States, Ernie McClintock. Both were consumed by theatre and filled with innovative ideas—try this, try that. And David Galitzky, my partner in this two-character play, was a joy to work with. He absorbed Alan’s direction like a sponge. 

Unfortunately, my 67-year-old mind was having trouble learning lines. I hadn’t expected this. Learning lines had been a breeze for me before. Most of my lines had no narrative arch—I was the interviewer—and I found these more difficult to learn than those that told a story. A host of friends came over to run lines with me but they weren’t sticking. Two rehearsals before opening I was still blowing some but the theatre fairy waved her magic wand and on opening night I was fine. I’m sure I paraphrased a few, which drove Alan crazy, but I was cool with that. Some of my lines were awkward; their cadences didn’t reflect African American speech patterns.

By the second performance, we were sold out for the run, a rarity in San Miguel. Rather than extend the play, Alan decided to re-mount it late November when our town would have a different group of tourist. This November was colder than most. The Shelter Theatre, like most buildings in San Miguel, has no central heat and it’s a black box, no windows. No sunlight to warm the building during the heat of the day.

When I got home, I immediately lit the fireplace and warmed myself in bed under the electric blanket until the fireplace heated the living room. As I warmed up in bed, I remembered a similar situation. In my 30s, when I was working with Ernie’s 127th Street Repertory Theatre, the furnace died. It was the middle of winter; my costume was a thin cotton dress and because it was the 60s only two inches below my butt. That night when I wasn’t onstage, I was bundled up backstage in my thrift shop fur and long woolen scarf. The forecast for the following day was low teens so the cast and crew decided that the show would be cancelled the next day if they couldn’t get the furnace running. No one had called to tell me not to come to the theatre so I assumed the furnace had been repaired. It hadn’t. The building was freezing when I arrived at half hour. Ernie had talked with the other cast members and convinced to do the play in the freezing cold theatre. I refused. And because I didn’t have an understudy they had to cancel the show.

I was livid on the cab ride home. Why did directors expect actors to perform under hideous condition? Didn’t they respect us? Did they think we didn’t respect ourselves? And what about the audience? How could you ask them to pay money to watch a play in a building with no heat?

When I got to the Shelter Theatre the next day and nothing had been done to make me more comfortable, I was tempted to walk out. But I sucked it up. This might me the last time I was onstage and I didn’t want walking out to be my swan song. By the third rehearsal, our assistant director, David Johanssen, had brought in a powerful gas heater that we used on stage for the balance of the rehearsals. Performance days it heated my dressing room. The Shelter Theatre is small so once the audience got in the theatre it was warm enough.

Alan wasn’t around when I left the dressing room after each performance. He never said thanks, didn’t speak to me after the last show. Was this arrogance or just bad home training? I laughed and sloughed it off. I’d worked with directors like him before.

I was glad I did these last five shows. People I knew who couldn’t get tickets before got to see the show. And I had a better understanding of the character. My performance was stronger, more nuanced.

After a twelve-year absence from the stage, this production of Building the Wall reminded me of everything I loved and everything I hated about theatre.

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