By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I got a call last month from a public-relations exec, pleading on behalf of some producers who wanted, or thought they wanted, some press for their show — a guest production at the Matrix Theatre. I jogged into the lobby at 8:03 for the 8 p.m. show, greeted by a friendly “Welcome, and thanks for coming tonight” — a line that was repeated to other audience members still drifting in. This show wasn’t going to start for another 15 minutes at least. A guy I figured for the producer paced nervously, checking his watch, while I waited at the box office inside the lobby, behind a customer who was taking forever to sort out his change from $30. Finally, when I reached the window, the box-office manager gave an explanation in honeyed tones that one of the lead actors was not present, because he didn’t realize there was a show tonight. Last they heard, he was in Vegas.
“Unfortunately, the understudy is also not available,” he added, “so one of the other actors in the company will be doing the role on book. He’s about 40 years too old for the part, but he’s a good actor.”
Responding to my dumbfounded expression, he remarked, “What can I say, it’s theater.”
As it turned out, the actor on book was great — completely committed, with an energy heightened by the tension of his perching on the precipice between triumph and disaster. In the lobby after the show, one of the other actors congratulated him for being so poised after having only 15 minutes to prepare. The evening’s hero shrugged, saying, “It’s nothing. It’s what we do.”
What follows is a series of stories told by local theater owners, actors, playwrights, directors and producers about the trials and triumphs of “what we do.”
Employee of the Month
In the summer of 1996 at Moving Arts’ Silver Lake venue, playwright Trey Nichols was on the frontlines, by himself, in his first assignment as box-office/house manager. The audience was due to start arriving in minutes. After using the theater’s one lobby toilet, Nichols observed to his dismay that a blockage by his own fecal matter threatened an immediate overflow after a weak flush. With little time for rumination, Nichols was faced with one of two difficult choices: to walk away and deny all knowledge of what he had done, or to take corrective action. This was just between Nichols and his conscience. Our protagonist explains what happened next:
“I grabbed a big handful of my own excrement to clear the blockage. I had seconds to act, and it was the only thing I could do. The performance proceeded without a hitch, though I didn’t shake any hands that night.”
Nichols has been too modest to speak of his heroism until now. If the Weekly had been aware of his actions in 1996, he surely would have received one of this publication’s Special Recognition awards. The play, by the way, was a work by Nat Colley, aptly named A Sensitive Man.
I Just Want to Start a Flame in Your Heart
A longtime member of Open Fist Theatre, Arizona Brooks was performing in a play by Anne Devlin, After Easter, an Irish work marbled in religious images — crucifixes, Virgin Mary, death — that was staged at the company’s former La Brea Avenue venue in 1997. Brooks recalls director Martha Demson’s attempts to finesse the stage ? effect of a 6-foot pillar of fire, with live flames.
“When it worked, it was really impressive,” Brooks recalls. “It looked like a flamethrower, set on a large platform. It was fueled by propane and cleared by the Fire Department on the condition that nobody was allowed on the stage when the thing lit up. So I’d be waiting in the wings with Nichole Pelerine. Our cue was the pillar of fire. We were supposed to start the final scene on seeing the flames.”
Through tech rehearsals, the timing never worked. “There would be a click, another click, and nothing. On our final rehearsal, there was an audience. If the effect didn’t work on this night, we were going to strike it,” she says.
However, Brooks, Demson and the company weren’t aware that night of a hairline crack in the gas line that had been slowly saturating the entire platform in propane.
“So we’re standing in the wings rolling our eyes because, once again, nothing is happening,” Brooks explains. “We hear the beginnings of the click — then BOOM!!! I honestly thought the roof of the theater had blown off. There was this horrific screeching from the platform being blown off its hinges. Everybody thought the theater was on fire. The actors in the dressing rooms fled the building. The audience was peppered with wood and the backs of nails. The only thing that stayed attached was one metal plate. The entire platform wrenched up and toppled over sideways, leaving this gash of broken staples and wood. We found out that we were spared a fire because the explosive force was so powerful it blew out all the flames. Luckily, it was a friendly audience.”
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