Friday, May 7, 2010

Theater By The Sea (Summer: 1992)

So after nine months of drinking, smoking, baguettes and butter, I stumble onto a plane in Paris which is almost completely empty and fall asleep on a middle aisle. I am going back to America.

I have no plan. I have no money. I have not thought past the next cup of coffee. I've been having so much fun drowning my sorrows that I'm not really sure what my sorrows are anymore. I've made such great friends in France that I am already crushed with grief at the thought that our bizarre expatriate gang will no longer convene on a daily basis.

I'd had some dim fantasy of going to France and doing a play with the University of Orleans theater company. But as it turned out, the University doesn't even offer theater CLASSES. At URI if you wanted to do theater you could. Here? If you wanted to do theater you had to declare that to be your profession of choice and go to a school specifically designed for that purpose, a private school. Them Socialists don't want to pay for Arts programs any more than us Capitalists do.

My host family found some strange theater company for teenagers that met weekly in Orleans proper. I went to a "rehearsal" which consisted of improv/theater games. After watching a pimply nerd terrorize a girl with a blindfold who was "blind" I realized how lucky I'd been with the training I'd received. It was the first moment that I realized I might already be a pro.

The long and short of it? The nine months I spent in France is the longest I've ever gone in my life since before high school without being involved in some sort of theatrical endeavor. And you know what? I NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT ACTING WHILE I WAS THERE.

In any case, when I returned I was truly lost. I'd needed nine credits to graduate, the equivalent of three classes. I normally took five per semester, or thirty credits a year. The classes I took in France added up to thirty credits total. All I needed was nine and I'd be done. I got eight.

Eight out of thirty. I'd not done much studying. In spite of this I think I learned a lot more French than most of the foreign exchange students who spent all of their time with each other speaking English. I was with French people the majority of the time and became very fluent.

This meant that I'd have to take one more English class to graduate. Which meant that my college career would stretch through the fifth year and into the sixth. I'd not even thought of moving to New York, moving to Los Angeles. It was as if my vision of being an actor began and ended in Will Theater.

But then Judith Swift probably saved my life.

She was directing "South Pacific" at Theater-By-The-Sea in Matunuck, RI. Now, Theater-By-The-Sea is a kind of magical place for me. I grew up going to see musicals there with my family and feeling so grown up and special when I ate a hamburger and had a Shirley Temple in the restaurant before the show. Theater-By-The-Sea is one of those perfect summer stock theaters that become a part of the landscape of a town.

Judith cast me as "The Professor", a kind of sidekick to Luther, a GI who is trying to make a buck off the war.

So. Instead of driving a van for Belmont Fruit again, instead of going back to work at the group homes, instead of waiting tables at the Seahorse Grill (the restaurant next to the Theater) I was REHEARSING. With professional actors from NYC.

Now, let's get straight. I wasn't Equity so they didn't have to pay me much. But I didn't care. I'd have done it for free. Hell, I'm still doing it for free almost twenty years later.

I began dating the Phillipino girl who was playing Liat, the island goddess. She was a RISD art student who'd never acted before in her life. Which was fine since all she had to do was walk onstage in a bikini and sarong and look gorgeous. The producer of the play had not found anyone who could play the part until one night he was eating out in Providence with his boyfriend. Marissa was their waitress and he asked her if she wanted to be in a play.

Marissa was a tough smart cookie from Baltimore. She thought this whole theater thing was kind of dumb but she needed the money and it was better than waiting tables. Our relationship during the summer was contained in the cast so it was a kind of perfection. At the end of the run when our de-facto family dispersed, the truth started to become more apparent.

The show itself was a blast. A fine group of actors, a couple of whom I've remained friends with to this day. Dante and Chris. I remember a couple of hilarious moments from that show, one where Dante had some piece of cotton stuck to his face during a scene and Chris and I just couldn't get over it. We were laughing so hard we could barely do the scenes. Also once while sitting on stage during one of Judith's patented freezes, I had to sit in silence while a giant spider crawled up my arm.

The cast party took over the whole compound. The cabaret after the show was always a raucous affair with people singing standards and bawdy comic songs on a small stage with an accompanist. Marissa and I were sort of overcome with an emotional response to the closing of the show and we were both crying like crazy. The seasoned NY actors were sweet about it but you could tell they were sort of like, "Another opening, another show."

For us it was like the cocoon was bursting.

I was offered a role in the touring production of "The Music Man" that the company was organizing. Instead I took over for my friend Mitchell in the children's theater company based in Providence called "Looking Glass Theater".

This decision was ostensibly because I'd get to live in Providence and continue to date Marissa. This was the end of July. Within two weeks of the closing of the play we were fighting like cats and dogs. We continued to fight all the way through til Christmas when we would finally break up when she went to London.

By then I'd have done two more plays, one at URI and one at Perishable Theater. At Perishable I would meet Maria and my life would change forever.

But first, "On The Verge". My last ever college acting gig.

The biggest thing that I take away from all of this? I have been so consistently lucky throughout my acting life. When I think back to being a little kid in the seats of that old barn, when I fast forward to the moment I stepped on that same stage as an actor, right there I know that it was all worth it. I'd already come full circle even before I'd even gotten started.

Oh, and did I mention that Marlon Brando acted there? Yeah. I walked the same stage as the greatest of all time. And I even spent a night in his room with a beautiful girl. By then it was a falling down shack, but still...

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