That refrain is a testament of our dedication as performers. We’ve all known someone (or been someone) who got up out of a sick bed with a temperature of 104 and gave a show stopping performance. Or did West Side Story on a broken ankle.
But what about the flip side of the coin? What if you’ve accepted a role in a show and then discovered you had made a colossal mistake. Would you stick with it and die a thousand tiny deaths at each performance or would you screw up your courage and get out?
That’s a choice I was faced with several years ago.
Here’s what happened: I’m living in LA. I’m in the middle of a nasty divorce. I’m sleeping on a friend’s couch and trying to pull my life back together. I’m also in the midst of changing agents – another divorce of sorts – and I am feeling extremely vulnerable. I think, “If I can just get into a show, any show, and have something to wrap my mind around I’ll feel better.”
I audition for a few things and get cast in a showcase. I’m not going to mention the name of the piece or where it played because it was fairly notorious production and I like to protect the names, and the reputations, of the innocents.
Let’s just say I audition and get cast in play XYZ. The auditions are strange; the only material we have to read are a few short monologues and after we read those the director has us do some improvs. But I know a couple other people who have been cast and I think, “They’re good actors, so what the heck? I wanted to do a show and here’s a show.” It doesn’t pay anything but the writer, who is also the producer, has booked us into a reputable theatre, one that casting directors and agents will attend.
There are ten roles and the director has double cast each role. There is Cast A and Cast B. Cast A (my cast) will perform all the shows except for two nights and Cast B will perform those. And if anybody in either cast gets more remunerative employment on a day they’re supposed to perform the appropriate member from the other cast will take over. Sounds like a good plan to me. I just need to let the agents/casting directors know what nights I’m on.
At the first rehearsal we discover there’s no script. All we have are the monologues we read at the audition. Each cast member reads his or her monologue several times and then the director has us improv different scenarios. This goes on for a couple of weeks with the writer cobbling together scenes based on the improv sessions.
There is a lot of grumbling both at rehearsals and in the bars afterward. But with the true cocked-eyed optimistic spirit that only performers seem to have, we soldier on. “This will all come together, I know it will,” is said more than once. (God, I love actors if for no other reason than this. There is no other group of people anywhere more hopeful than we are.)
Rehearsals continue and yes, there are several neon signs flashing, telling me, “This is not right,” but my judgment is impaired. I’m spending my days dealing with lawyers; it seems as if every day I’m losing something: my house, my dog, most of my money. I don’t want to look at how badly things are going. I just want to go somewhere at night where I can forget all the bullshit in my life. Go somewhere and do the one thing I know I’m good at because during the day I’m getting the crap beat out of me.
Rehearsals slog on, both casts grumbling about the arrogance of the director, the ineptitude of the writer but we hang in. “The show must go on…”
We move into the theatre and things get worse. Instead of the writer and the director incorporating our suggestions, mostly about ways to improve the story, to firm up the characters (and admittedly I’m suggesting more than the others) they issue an ultimatum, “Our way or the highway.” All the actors, including me, blink. We all, for our own reasons, need the play. (If I could change one thing about our culture this would be it: far too many of us are so desperate to work we’re afraid to stand up for ourselves.)
Again, because of my impaired judgment, I can’t tell if what we’re doing is brilliant or if it’s shit. Yes, others are grumbling but that’s what casts do – no matter how good a play is something could always be better. The show plods on, with both casts rehearsing until finally we arrive at our first invited dress. I ask three friends – an actor, a producer and a writer – to come and give me their opinion. I tell them my big moment is a monologue (surprise, surprise) at the end of Act I.
We do the show and when it’s over I go out front. Several members of the audience are milling around lobby waiting to say hello to their friends in the show but my friends aren’t there. And the lobby is very subdued. No, “Oh, my god you were great.” No, “That was terrific.” Not even the “I hated the play but let me say something that sounds polite,” like, “Wow, that was something.” Or, “Oh, oh, you were up there all right.” Nothing.
After a few minutes the lobby clears out and still no sign of my friends – this is before texting, before everyone has a cell phone – so I wait. The stage manager leaves. The house manager tells me I have to go, she has to lock up. Still no friends. All three assured me they are coming so it’s hard to believe all three would have to cancel at the last minute. I leave the theatre, the door clicks shut behind me and I’m standing outside alone. I wait a few minutes and as I turn to walk to my car I hear voices in the distance. As they get louder I realize it’s my friends. And they’re drunk – staggering into each other drunk.
When they’re about twenty feet away they see me and they shout, in unison, “Get out! Get out now.” They drag me back to the bar where they had been drinking and they say, “That is the worst show ever. It was so bad we left after the first act. We’re not drunk because we want to be, we’re drunk because we have to be.”
Later, trying to sleep on my friend Tommy’s couch, I toss and turn all night. I’m not a quitter. I’ve never left a show before. In the morning I call two of the other actors that went on last night. Their friends feel pretty much the same as mine.
I stew some more. Who will suffer if I leave? How will it affect the show? I finally come to the conclusion that tormenting like this isn’t worth it. I call the director and tell him I’m leaving. He blows up. “I knew I shouldn’t have hired you in the first place. I knew you’d pull some shit like this.” He goes on for several minutes and the whole time I’m thinking, “Geez, if you felt that way you could’ve saved us both a lot of trouble.”
When he finally settles down I remind him the show doesn’t open for four more days, there are two casts and the guy covering me can take over. The director starts yelling again and he actually says to me, “You will never work in this town again!” I mean, this guy doesn’t know his ass from his elbow and the only reason he’s directing the play is because he’s screwing the writer/producer. And the only reason she’s able to produce the play is because of the trust fund her granddaddy set up for her. The director is still ranting when I hang up.
That night, after the second dress, my friends in the show call and tell me what the director told the rest of the cast about my decision. It’s all unflattering, mostly about how unprofessional I am, how I left them in a lurch. He told them one more thing. “Don’t worry, he said, and according to my friends he said this with unabashed glee. “I made sure the son-of-a-bitch’s name got taken out of the program.”
The whole time they’re telling me this they’re complaining, saying they want to get out too. They don’t. They stick it out. The show opens three days later to the worst reviews a showcase has ever received in LA. No, not kidding, the worst. Three of the reviewers are smart enough to know where the blame belongs and don’t rake the actors over the coals but they do rip the director and the writer a new one.
The show completed its run. I was still sleeping on my friend’s couch and my career was still stalled but at least I wasn’t getting beat up while doing something I loved.
Could I have hung in there and done the show? Sure but sticking up for myself, at least in this case, proved to be the better choice. As difficult as it was to leave, taking charge of my life boosted my confidence and even though it took me a while to get my life (and my career) back on track it was the step I needed to take.
SIDEBAR – a few months later I signed with top LA agent. During the interview process he mentioned he had seen play XYZ. He joked about how horrible it was and asked if I had ever seen it. “No,” I said. “Never did.” I didn’t tell him I was almost in it.