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“it’s What we Do”

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.”

 

After a brief pause in the action, as the dust cleared and the audience brushed wood chips off their jackets, Brooks heard the unflappable stage manager say from the booth, “Hold, please.”

After the hold, Brooks and Pelerine walked back onto the platform’s remains and finished the play.

We Will Not Be Moved

Bark: The Musical opened in September 2004, and ran for almost two years at the Coast Playhouse. Nonetheless, the show’s executive producer and composer, David Troy Francis, has few kind words for the actors’ union, Actors’ Equity Association, which, Francis says, has a byzantine set of contradictory rules and regulations that were applied to his show punitively when setting actors’ wages (after the then-80-performance small-theater contract expired) at $48 per week.

“Our union rep was a total prick, liar, asshole or piece of crap — take your pick,” Francis reflects. So I went over his head to [Equity’s Western Region director] John Holly (one person of two with whom I dealt at AEA who was intelligent and responsible), and we had a meeting where we reached a settlement, at $38.

Shortly after, the company was invited to perform at the Hotel Roosevelt as a charity for Best Friends animal sanctuary. Francis arranged for the sanctuary to pay the actors $100 each for the 10 minutes they would sing. But AEA insisted that its own contract, protecting the actors, was with Bark’s production company, not the sanctuary, and that Bark must pay the actors. Francis objected in vain that he could not afford the $125 in union benefits, taxes, etc., for a 10-minute charity event.

When Francis explained to Best Friends that the theatrical producers would have to pay the actors because of a union requirement, he says, they dropped Bark from their program, fearing they would have to utilize union crews, which they could not afford.

Laments Francis, “We were out of luck having the name of our musical included on 15,000 invitations to people who support dog organizations — our perfect market. Our actors were out of making $100 per person for a 10-minute gig. And the union got the satisfaction of showing us who was boss.”

That’s Why They’re Called Angels

After the 2001 Company of Angels run of her musical, Flirting With Morty, about a woman contemplating suicide, had plunged co-author/co-producer Paula Mitchell Manning into debt, she decided last year that she wanted to do the show again, this time on a larger stage, ACME Comedy Theater, and with stars, Dorian Harewood (Roots, Full Metal Jacket) and Little House on the Prairie’s Alison Arngrim. Largely on a charm campaign, Manning enticed three private funders, one of whom put down the nonrefundable deposit on the theater. After Arngrim had pushed back her start date for a film in France for the show (a rare kind of commitment by an actor to local stage), Manning got smacked by the reality that the money she’d been promised wasn’t going to come in. At about this time, an actress who had been replaced from the first production served Manning with legal papers, suing her for an amount that exceeded the entirety of the new production’s budget. (Manning says she eventually prevailed in court.) “We put up a set for zero dollars,” Manning says. “The costumer dressed 27 actors for $380. I even had doo-wop singers and dancers. It was supposed to be a full musical.”

Manning proceeded with a blind-faith mantra, “I’m doing this as if the money were there.”

As the next rent-deposit installment came due, one of her actors bought $500 worth of tickets. Then a Fox News reporter, who’d been doing a story with Arngrim on sexual abuse, bought $1,000 worth of tickets.

None of this was sufficient to meet the production costs, but it kept the show open, even as debts were mounting. That’s when an angel, a girlfriend of Manning, waltzed in, saw the show and left behind a donation of several thousand dollars.

“She didn’t even know the amount we needed, and her offering was to the dollar of our shortfall. It was amazing,” Manning says.

The Dirty Dozen

Sandy Nutt, lease holder of North Hollywood’s RipRap Studio and RipRap Entertainment TV, submitted the following guidelines for theater producers considering renting her facility. She says she keeps a copy on her office wall. They obviously reflect Nutt’s experiences.

1. Don’t call me if you haven’t produced a reviewed play.

2. Don’t ask me if you will have access to the roof.

 

3. Don’t inform me that you will need an electrical outlet onstage for your microwave, which I later learn is really a gas oven when your so-called “grip” is looking for the gas line.

4. Don’t pull my stage floor up so you can install a hose line to deliver massive pools of blood to the center of the stage.

5. Don’t tell me it’s a fake fireplace when it’s really a wood-burning stove with a pipe hooked up to my central air-conditioning vent.

6. Don’t book a reading for your play and let me find 10 actors, a crew of workers with four cameras, and you’re shooting in the street in front of my theater without permits.

7. Don’t build and use water slides in the theater.

8. Don’t ask me to cover your insurance.

9. Don’t hire strippers as actors.

10. Don’t tell me, “Susan said I could!”

11. Don’t call me “Susan.” My name is Sandy.

12. Don’t drop names. Everyone has a name. Even I have a name.

Acting Out

During a run of writer-director Rick Pagano’s My Italian Cafe at Whose Cafe (now Elephant Asylum), an overweight actor in the show was held at Cedars-Sinai hospital for observation after a scare of possible kidney failure. Such a minor inconvenience wasn’t going to keep this actor from the stage. Since the actor’s costume was locked inside his home — the keys to which were in the possession of the hospital — Pagano needed to find him a new costume. That’s what Goodwill Industries is for. No problem. Then came the tough part: the breakout. Pagano explains:

“We arranged in advance that at around 7:15, the actor would decide to ‘take a walk,’ complete with his IV and feeding bag. Somewhere between the nurses’ ? station and the front door, he bagged the IV stand (but, of course, had to keep his IV taped into his arm) and wandered to the front door, where I picked him up, got him over to the theater. I told my company that I’d found someone on the street to take the actor’s place, then brought him into the dressing room. Cheers and applause. Best performance of the run.”

Skipping the curtain call, Pagano shuttled the actor back to the hospital after his last scene. Security and the nurses were scrambling to find their lost patient, who walked in, nonchalant, telling them he “just wanted to take a walk.”

Bunny, Bunny, Quite Contrary

Last year, children’s author and West of Broadway Theater Company’s producer-director Diane Namm staged Red Chief (a play for young people based on O. Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief) at Santa Monica’s Promenade Playhouse. She faced a challenge from one actress, a former Playboy bunny from Eastern Europe who was now trying to make her mark in the American theater. Namm notes that during the opening preview, said actress proudly distributed copies of her nude magazine spread backstage among the male cast, which included two young boys. And though nudity is treated more openly in Europe than here, and though the boys, and others, were duly impressed, if not excited, to see their colleague in such a glossy context, Namm found the gesture to be a needless distraction from the loftier purpose of staging a knockout production of Red Chief.

Things got worse when Bunny’s very devoted husband attended the first performance and, reports Namm, “took notes on everything that was wrong with it: His wife needed more lines, and she needed to be more center stage. He stalked me at the opening-night party to try to give me his notes, culminating in his offer to simply take over directing the play entirely. I thanked him for his offer, and said I’d try to muddle through on my own.”

The next day, Bunny called Namm to berate her, saying she was psychologically disturbed and needed to see a therapist. Bunny was clearly a woman who needed attention, too much attention, and Namm suggested they part ways. “She was totally surprised and offended,” Namm says, “demanding her résumé and head shot back.” Namm obliged, and Bunny hopped off into the sunset. She may not have left her mark in the theater, but for some men and boys in the cast of Red Chief, her image remains enshrined in their hearts, and other places.

Send Out the Clowns

Things were getting ugly during Act 3 of A Thousand Clowns — a co-production of C.O.L.S.A.C. theater company and the Pilot Light Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Leaseholder Rico Simonini was playing Murray, a heroic, nonconformist kiddie-TV writer struggling to keep custody of his 11-year-old nephew, Nick, who’d been abandoned by his mother. Enter Leo, the TV show’s delusional star, played by one of the theater’s artistic directors. Simonini had repeatedly expressed his annoyance with what he claimed was financial mismanagement at the theater. Simonini describes what happened onstage:

 

“Leo entered to confront me as Murray, and embellished the dialogue to express his dissatisfaction with a true-to-life grievance letter I’d just written to the theater’s board of directors. It didn’t stop at words, but included coldcocks to the face and head, kicks, slaps and hair pulls — as Murray avoided Leo like never before, and the child actor playing Nick ran to protect Uncle Murray from the monster. Needless to say, the audience was riveted, as they had never seen a more alive, subtext-filled performance of Herb Gardner’s classic — as if Tennessee Williams had rewritten the scene.”

After the show, Simonini adds, the audience’s amazement turned to horror as Leo, offstage, screamed a torrent of curses before racing out wielding a baseball bat. The audience fled, along with Simonini, who says he never returned, even though he knew his performance was particularly strong that night.


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