The Director Ate My Chicken
There was bitter disagreement about music for the show. We needed something to play at curtain call and scene changes. We finally agreed on Elton John's "Tiny Dancer". In retrospect, perhaps we should have chosen "Nearer, My God, to Thee".
"I Ought to be in Pictures" is one of Neil Simon's lesser-known comedies. I played Libby Tucker, the impetuous 19-year-old who hitchhikes from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to find the father who abandoned her when she was three. Her father, Herb, is a dried-up playwright who has become adept at avoiding creativity and any commitment to his beautiful girlfriend, Steffy - a make-up artist to the Hollywood stars.
Our director, Taylor, was inexperienced and not terribly subtle about his own desire to be in the spotlight. He was a likeable fellow who simply sought attention in embarrassingly self-aggrandizing and often juvenile ways.
This made our six weeks of rehearsal daunting. Our three-person cast was left to our own devices when it came to blocking and scene analysis, with Taylor mostly sitting on the sidelines and burping.
Indeed, Taylor had raised flatulence to something of its own art form. While we wrestled with characterization, Taylor sat in the middle of our set, eating chicken. Chicken gave him explosive gas, which he found riotously funny.
Even without the chicken, characterization was challenging. Libby is Brooklyn street-smart, yet emotionally needy. She seeks out her father under the pretense that she wants him to get her into "the business". Yet she has no talent and her flamboyant self-confidence is a sham. My greatest difficulty in playing Libby was two-fold. First, I was born and bred in northern Minnesota. Second, I have never been to Brooklyn. The result was an accent I can only describe as "Swedish Jew". The prototype perhaps for a new children's book: Ole and Lena Go to Yeshiva School. Oy vey!
In any case, Libby's vitality and vulnerable confidence bring out in Herb a fatherly affection and a capacity to commit to others. I fell a bit in love with Libby myself. She took risks I've always wanted to take - traveling the country, speaking her mind, meeting her father.
We were almost the full six weeks into production when three things happened all at once. We discovered that our flatulent director had not yet procured a set designer; we had not yet run through the entire show at once; and the newspaper was reviewing us on opening night.
We built the set ourselves. It was an odd color and listed to the right like a shopping cart with one bad wheel. But we had overcome the crisis and opening night was only two days away.
We stayed at the theatre late on our last rehearsal, running through the play's poignant climax. Libby has taken a job as a valet, parking the cars of such celebrities as Jack Nicholson and Suzanne Pleschette. She comes home in the wee hours of the morning, grabs a chicken leg out of the fridge, and settles down for a snack. Despite Steffy's reassurances ("She hiked over the Rocky Mountains in shorts, Herb. She can make it down Wilshire Boulevard in a Mustang."), Herb is worried sick. Herb and Libby argue and the scene ends with them admitting they need each other and Libby sobbing in Herb's arms.
The scene required a delicate balance. My crying had been sounding a bit nasal and petulant and I needed to perfect it. There is a fine line between touching your audience's hearts versus making them want to come up onstage and slap the shit out of you, just to make you stop whining.
Once the set was built, we hadn't worried too much about the reviews. This is a small-town theatre, which we figured the reviewer would approach with the same critical eye as a parent at a school Christmas pageant. So we were caught off-guard when four theatre critics arrived on opening night from as far away as Casper and Salt Lake City.
This was it! Our first dress rehearsal was also our opening night! The light crew was running through cues. There was shouting and clicking and stage lights flashing like a psychotic Christmas tree. Taylor was sitting in the wings, gnawing on a chicken leg. The past six weeks had been a wild ride and I didn't know yet if we were on the Apollo 13 or the Titanic. ("Houston, we have a BUUUURP!")
My nerves started jangling as the make-up artist set out to make me look ten years younger. She curled my entire head into a mane of ringlet curls. Then she applied an ivory cake base, flushed my cheeks to rosy apples, and added a defining mascara that made every eyelash visible at 500 yards. In normal lighting, I looked like a 12-year-old hooker.
The lights flashed one minute to curtain. The house lights went down, the footlights came up. "Blue jean baby…LA lady…seamstress for the band…"
The theatre is small enough that I could see the reviewers there in the front row. All so serious. One of them looked like she ought to be coaching volleyball.
I threw myself into the opening scene between Libby and Steffy. Libby has just arrived on the doorstep in all her bawdy glory and is alarming her father's girlfriend. The scene is rife with Neil Simon's brand of situational humor and I'm trying to play Libby as a dead ringer for Marlon Brando (that is, if Brando were a Swedish Jew with a Shirley Temple hairdo and highly visible eyelashes).
Not a chuckle from the front row. Not even the volleyball coach. So I threw myself into it harder, wondering if perhaps our small audience was actually flat lining… Unfortunately, it wasn't yet my scene to cry.
Then Steffy, in a sudden fit of stage fright, tripped while holding a coffeepot and slashed her inner arm almost to the elbow. The script makes no accommodations for glass shards, spurting arteries, or an actress who faints at the sight of her own blood. It was STILL NOT yet my scene to cry. We flubbed through the end of the scene and the lights went down.
"Pretty eyes…pirate's smile…you married a music man…"
By scene two, my father had broken out in a cold sweat, the crew was demanding that Taylor take Beano or there would be revolt backstage, and Steffy (who normally resembles Jennifer Aniston) was starting to look a lot more like Brad Pitt in "Interview with the Vampire".
When the lights came up, the audience (even the volleyball coach) looked scared shitless. As though for fear Neil Simon had written further blood loss into the script at a later point.
We rolled along until the climax scene before the real crisis struck. I raced to the men's dressing room and pounded on the door. Herb answered in an undershirt stained with cake makeup.
"Taylor ate my chicken!"
"The director ATE MY PROPS!"
My light and sound cue began. Herb pushed me towards the stage door. "There's some bones out there from rehearsal. Just chew on those! Go!"
"Ballerina…you must have seen her…dancing in the sand…"
When I stepped back onstage, an amazing thing happened. Everything disappeared - the volleyball coach, the flatulent director, the small-town theatre. It began to happen spontaneously. I was suddenly in the living room of my estranged father, seeking his love and approval and guidance. I became the insecure Brooklyn teenager when I reached for Herb and cried, "I just wanted to come out here. I just wanted to know what you were like. I just wanted someone in the family to hold me because it was me, Libby." I became Libby and, in some way, I became more myself. The part of me that dares to take risks, that reaches past my own defenses. At the final sound cue, that is the part of me that ran out for the curtain call to find the audience on their feet, applauding.
"Now she's in me…always with me…tiny dancer in my hand…"
:: top ::