The play I’m in, “The Good Faith,” opened November 20th at La MaMa ETC in the East Village. This is about that.
11/20 - The other six guy actors, plus the two musicians, D.D. the choreographer, and Harold the director, are all trying to use the bathroom in our basement dressing room, and they’re all trying to use it now. (The women have their own facilities, and much more mirror time, upstairs on the first floor.) Peeing before the show is a sensible thing, more often a matter of comfort than necessity. In a dozen years of acting I think I only ever had the urge on stage once, and that in a distant and detached way. But it’s good, when nervous energy is in the air, to have a brief quiet moment with Little Marat and his hydrotherapy. Just in case.
George Orwell wrote that the secret ingredient of a successful steak restaurant is sharp knives. Thalians take note: for a better opening night, try more bathrooms. Just a thought.
The audience is filling up with defrocked Jehovah’s Witnesses and unconditional friends and family who totally love us but think it would be pretty funny, in a laughing-with-you way, if we messed up some. (“And then all of a sudden, his pants fell off! Oh, that sure was a funny one … wait, where are you going?”) Everyone loves life without a safety net, except maybe the Wallendas. I’m staring at myself in the mirror, and my wig will not stay set. There are twenty bobby pins stuck up in there already and I think I’m making it worse. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that no one ever told me how to keep a wig on with bobby pins? I can see arguments on both sides.
We know we know this show; we’ve been rehearsing for five weeks. But we’ve got the jitters. We had our dress rehearsal, sort of, and for some unaccountable reason it came before the tech-through. For you Peppers who stay sensibly in the front of the house, the tech-through is when we run the play for the lighting and sound folks, so they can see what they are supposed to be doing while we actors, whom techies mostly regard as a cross between underdone calamari and mental patients, are busy messing up their nice light cues. The tech-through comes before the dress rehearsal, and it is a Very Bad Idea to reverse this order. Oh well. It would have been nice to do dress rehearsal with the piano player, but no such luck. The music cues will be an adventure. Elsewhere I have mentioned the untried props and the unfamiliar costumes and, well, we’re nervous, all right?
For comparison purposes: techies (left) and underdone calamari
don’t actually have much in common.
Nervous things I say and do before shows:
- Sing “Doves Cry” while facing wall and making odd concentrating hand gestures to draw my breathing to chest.
- Say: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
- Say, in Russian accent: “I am never forget the day when I first meet the great Lobachevsky. In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics: ‘plagiarize.’”
- Sing “What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?” repeatedly, with feeling.
- Spout random lines of Shakespeare, like: “Here feel we but the penalty of Adam, the season’s difference as an icy fang, the churlish chiding of the winter wind which, as it bites and blows upon my body even til I shrink with cold, I smile and say, this is no flattery - these are counselors, who feelingly persuade me what I am,” and so forth, while striding authoritatively around in circles.
- Yawn repeatedly to make my soft palate roll and trill, making a “Ngaaaaaah” sound as I do so.
- Stick another dozen bobby pins in my head until I look like a special effect from Hellraiser.
Nobody actually calls places and whoops, suddenly we’ve started. “We’ve started, we’ve started, aren’t you supposed to be on stage?” You’d be surprised how informal, not to say slapdash, a show is backstage. You’re sitting around minding your own business and then you’re supposed to be out front doing your thing, which seemed very easy when you were sitting around minding your own business backstage but leaps directly out of your brain when you cross out from behind the curtains. If you’re doing well, the stuff trickles back in about when you’re supposed to be saying it, which makes it look like you’re just thinking of it right at that moment. Sometimes, and this can be scary, you are.
I had an acting teacher once who told us to imagine a golden wire that ran down from our brains into our chests, then up our throats and out of our mouths. That, she said, is dialogue, and that’s the path you have to draw it through. Brain to heart to mouth. You don’t recite, she said, you don’t extemporize; you realize and then vocalize.
My first speech is a call to war in a New England accent. I knew it would be rough to drop directly into accent the first time through, and it is. I’m sweaty and dry and, rats, my carefully tended soft palate is sticky and clinging. A rush of blood to the head, tension pools in my legs where it likes to go at times like this. The lights go down to black. I head for my spike (where I’m supposed to go) marked in glow tape and - whack! - I collide with someone coming off stage in the same direction I’m going on. And then the light thickens to white, and I’m in it, and off we go. It’s showtime.
You can read about “The Good Faith” by following the hyperlinks in this entry; in brief, it’s the story of Richard and Frances Rawe of Soap Lake, Washington, a pair of devoutly faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses who were repeatedly tossed out of their chapter by scheming, corrupt Elders (Brothers Reap and Sow in our production, and I play the latter). The show is based on their true story, one that resonates deeply in the JW community. We have odd audiences. Harold Dean James, the author and director, was a Witness and ultimately left the organization (I was tickled to meet his brother Jesse later on in the evening, think about it). In essence, the Rawes said what needed to be said at a time when it needed saying, which made them folk heroes for a certain set. As is true for most folk heroes, life has not been easy for them since. The Rawes were hoping to come see the show, but health did not allow.
At the party that night on Ludlow Street we’re surrounded by lapsed Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nearly all of them were disfellowshipped in dubious circumstances for reasons that never became clear; one woman tells me that when she was banned from her group the Elders wouldn’t tell her why, and when she was disfellowshipped for her second time it was for “the same reason as before.” Everyone is dressed very nicely and it seems like they talk normally but no one curses, and there’s a friendly reserve, a slight distance … or am I imagining that? The bar is doing a swimming business in water. Katarina our beauteous stage manager is briefly resplendent in a startling gold ruckus of a belt and a slinky black thing before she sneaks off to other pastures.
“You were the Elder,” one woman says to me. I nod, unaware as yet that the triangular puff-pastry spinach treats - I’m starving - are leaving huge puff-pastry speckles all down my shirt. “You’re a very good Elder,” she says. “The first time I was disfellowshipped, it was just like that.” She leans forward, conspiratorial. “You were never a Witness, were you, dear.”
I shake my head. No, I was never a Witness.
“The Good Faith,” by Harold Dean James, runs Thu - Sun through December 7th. Despite our nerves and the usual grustlings and intimations of doom, the show is going very well. It runs just over an hour, has some good tunes, and costs $15. Reservations are the way to go. La MaMa: 74A East 4th St. (between Second and Third Aves.), (212) 475-7710.