Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Time I Was In An Off-Broadway Play

My senior year in college, I got a call from the head of my university's theater department, Mr. Herman, who asked me if I would be interested in performing in a visiting play called "Johnny Got His Gun", based on the book by Dalton Trumbo.  The cast was largely made up of alumni visiting from NYC; the person playing my character could not make the trip.  The play would run for 3 performances.

I was a bit astounded by the request.  I was an English major in college.  And while all of my friends were in the theater program (I dated a music theater major) and I had been cast in a few productions, I was somewhat shocked that Mr. Herman was bypassing ALL of his theater students to pluck me for the role.  I could only figure that all the other students who could play this part were actually busy in other productions and either didn't have the time or couldn't be spared.  Nevertheless, I said yes.  These were the days when I was young and brave and would try just about anything.  Ah, youth.

When the time came, I met the cast and had just three days to learn my part.  The entire cast had to relearn the staging since we were performing the production in the studio theater, a black-box theater much smaller than where the play was performed in NYC.  My part was simple enough (about 20 lines throughout the course of the play) but was physically challenging.  Set during World War I, the play was narrated by a soldier horribly disfigured during battle.  My character was a dual role, "Sergeant/Jesus".  I opened the play by carrying a practically dead soldier (both of us in full, authentic WW1 war gear) up a flight of 10 or 11 steps, pause for dramatic effect while bombs exploded behind me (silhouetted for dramatic effect), then traverse around several obstacles on varying levels of risers to the other side of the stage where I then lay the body down on an wooden "army cot".

My costume.
Carrying the man (who was about 5'10", 170) in my arms across stage was one thing; carrying him as dead weight while he was in full fatigues and covered in a heavy wool blanket (and I was in full uniform and wearing a heavy wool coat) was quite another.  During the 6th rehearsal of the opening scene, my legs turned to jello.  As I moved to lay the soldier in the cot, I lost my balance and basically just dropped him onto it, practically falling on him in the process.  The director loved the look of that so much, he told me to keep it in for the performances.  (Whaddya know, I'm a 'method actor'.)

I don't remember any of my lines except for one:  every time a bell rang I was to place my hand on a specific soldier and firmly but compassionately say, "It's time." (that was the Jesus side of my character).  Just two words, but they were the hardest to say.  I couldn't get the emotion correct.  The director tried several line readings with me and I just could not emote what needed to be conveyed.  I either underplayed it or over-emoted.  At one point following me saying "it's time", he looked at me and drolly said, "That was more William Shatner than Jesus."  Oof.

I said the line differently in all 3 performances.  Sorry, but this is what you get when you go outside the theater department for actors.  I was not an actor.  I sucked and I knew it.  And all of my theater friends who came to see 1 of the 3 performances knew it too.  I wanted to be SO GOOD, but/and I knew I wasn't.  However, my mom and my sister, who came to see the final performance and thought I was amazing (that's what moms and sisters do, right?).  But I carried the hell out of that soldier across stage.

A few months later, I auditioned for Mr. Herman for the upcoming summer stock shows.  And although he cast me the year before, he didn't this time.  Can't say I blame him.  Still, it was an overall great experience.  And if i were to undertake such a task today, I'm sure I could do a better job.  But being in that scenario, surrounded by the most talented people I knew and being judged by their criteria, I choked.  My friends were kind and sweet, but we all knew.

This essentially ended my theater career.  And I thank God for it.