Community Theater tends to be one of those things people sort of fit into life. It also tends to be one of those things that draws other distractions our way, ensuring either a high level of commitment or none at all. Those of us involved with the local Dionysus theater group got lucky.
All the actors in our recent production of AR Gurney’s Sylvia managed to juggle work and personal commitments to participate. When an actor couldn’t make it to rehearsal we practiced the parts they weren’t in. Our production crew members were also fun to work with. I’ve heard of productions that were derailed by the ego of one or more of the people involved. Instead we got to know each other a bit and eventually parted as friends with good memories.
My particular involvement was the Tom/Phyllis/Leslie role. The play was written to have one actor portray those three characters. Tom appears in two scenes. While Phyllis is definitely a female role, Leslie tends to be excessively in touch with her masculine side. She also counsels in a manner that would have a real therapist thrown out of the position, possibly with an injunction to never practice again.
I think that’s what attracted me to the role. In fiction you can do things you’d never get away with in real life. The humor was irrepressible.
I consider it a huge compliment that audience members said they were asking themselves whether it was the same actor or not, playing those three roles. Apparently I had given entirely different mannerisms and voices to all three, something I had only given passing thought to. My own way of distinguishing the three roles was more through the jewelry–a plain wedding ring and huge watch for Tom, a flashy wedding ring, necklaces, brooches and a delicate watch for Phyllis, a leather tie and medium sized black watch for Leslie, worn on the opposite wrist.
Of course Tom wore baseball caps and hoodies, Phyllis had dressy clothing and Leslie’s shirt was buttoned up to the top with a masculine looking vest and leather tie. For the ease of costume changes, Phyllis and Leslie wore the same slacks and boots. An appearance by Tom in between helped to put space between them.
Somewhere along the line it dawned on me that we would actually be performing Sylvia in the TheatreBC festival in Fort St. John. They said it at the start but it took a while to sink in. Fortunately my role required fewer lines to memorize but it still took a while.
What I really needed was to record them, then listen to them repeatedly. Unfortunately I’m not comfortable with using the computer that way and my tape recorder has been put away in a safe place—safe from me, as it turns out. Since I had very little extra time to be alone anywhere I ended up ‘rehearsing’ mostly inside my own head. This left very little opportunity for reflecting on the roles and developing ideas for interaction. One particular movement the audience loved—spurning the dog hair covered couch in favor of the chair—came to me during the first performance.
People seemed surprised by how easily I switched personalities. As an author I’m constantly shifting viewpoints as I write dialogue between characters. If I don’t keep them separate the reader will be confused, a disaster for the novel.
What was difficult was learning how to smoke or how to appear to smoke for Tom’s character. I’ve always been a non-smoker and never realized how challenging the whole thing can be. Not only do you have to hold the cigarette in the right spot it’s tricky to hang onto when you put it between your lips. In addition I wasn’t even allowed to activate the lighter, only to open and close it. After weeks of rehearsal that thing was looking pretty limp and they had to give me a new pack since I’d crushed the first two. Nasty habit.
It seemed I was the newcomer. Everyone else had previously been involved in Community Theater in some way. My experience was limited to school and church plays, where one of my most notable memories was falling down a set of church stairs because of the length of my dress as the archangel. I might have been about six. To this day it’s rare that I’ll even consider wearing a dress. Once a fallen angel…
The adjudicator at the festival was kind to my Leslie and Phyllis characters. I would have loved to have been at the discussion on Sunday but an urgent family matter intervened. However, our main actress, Amanda O’Leary, won Best Supporting Actress! I thought she’d win an award, although I wasn’t sure which one.
It didn’t end there. We performed Sylvia twice more on the following weekend, to standing ovations. Part of the proceeds went towards the SPCA. It is a play about a dog, after all.
(The local performing arts center has a much smaller stage and one has to be careful not to accidentally appear in the background. If you’re building a theater remember to put an accessible wall and hallway behind the full length of the back curtain. Everyone from the actors to the stage crew will thank you for it.)
Out of the three performances Friday night was my favorite. At the point where Phyllis finishes her Scotch and is about to get up to leave I managed to choke on the ‘Scotch’ (iced tea.) My fellow actor said my eyes glazed over and iced tea was coming out my nose and mouth as I sputtered. Although somewhat annoyed with myself, I decided this fit right in and continued with my actions and lines.
Later he told me he was wondering how to get me off the stage without ruining the play. I assured him I was never in any real danger; as someone who plays flute and sax I can hold my breath for quite a while.
The next night I messed up Tom’s lines so badly I wondered if someone slipped me artificial sweetener. (It’s highly toxic, at least to me.) Fortunately we all thought on our feet and managed to make the unexpected ‘revisions’ fit right in. I don’t think the audience suspected a thing. One thing our director had always been pleased with was the way we all coped with unexpected moments and wove them into what we were doing. Perhaps it’s part of the play taking on a life of its own.
So now it’s over for a while. I did catch myself rehearsing a few days later. And I hear someone may want to produce another play with Dionysus later this year. They have my number.
Was it worth the effort and inconvenience? Definitely! I’ve been self-published three times, picked up by a smaller publisher in Arizona, and expect screenplay writing to be the next step in my literary career. I know writing for theater and film are different but I see involvement in local theater as an intermediary step. I’m also something of an opportunist, and the script reading series at the college (which led to being in the play) was within my current budget: free.