Let me make an analogy. When I was hired as an actor by the White Barn Theater, it was like a baseball player being promoted from Class D to Class C. The ballplayer still has a long way to go to get to the majors, and I was nowhere near Broadway, but it was a definite step up.
Then, within a week after I arrived at the Barn, I wanted to chuck it all and go home.
I’d been acting in our local community theaters for several years, everything from "Here’s your package, sir" to leads. I’d been paid a few compliments, but the White Barn actually paid its actors in real money. Not much, but a little. And when, through the intersession of a friend, I was hired for the summer as the theater’s regular "character actor," it meant I’d receive a weekly paycheck. As a West Virginia high school teacher, I was paid only ten months, so that paycheck – tiny though it might be -- was important. But most important was the ego-boost of actually being paid to act. I was a professional!
I arrived at the Barn on Friday evening and went into rehearsal the next day. Except for me, our cast was made up of amateur actors who had real jobs in the real world. Community theaters usually rehearse over a six-week span. The summer playhouse follows a shorter schedule. The cast first meets on Saturday, rehearses ten times -- usually three-hour sessions at night until the show opens Tuesday-a-week.
This was the first play I’d ever done at a summer theater with its short rehearsal schedule. Still, I was a professional. I could handle it. I was supposed to play this little character role of a doctor. Two scenes and a curtain call. Nice. School was out. Instead of teaching, I could devote all my time to learning my lines.
Four days into rehearsals our lead handed in his script. Tommy, our director, explained, "He said he couldn’t do it in the time he had." The part had been written for Henry Fonda. He had every other line. He was always on stage and everyone talked to him. Worse, he answered them. Some of his answers went on and on for half a page. The man never shut up!
"Nice of him to figure that out after wasting four precious rehearsals!," I harumphed. I tossed my script on the table by Tommy. "I guess this means no show."
"Au contraire, Meester Pussy Cat," Tommy explained in her best Mel Blanc impression. "We just recast."
I laughed. Where would she find a genius who could learn this monster role in half the time? Despite my anger, I could well understand why our former lead went former. And then I wondered why she was smiling at me.
For the next six days, I learned lines. From the time I woke up in the morning the only moment I didn’t have the script in my hand was at rehearsal when I was fumbling to get through a scene without it. My fellow cast members were encouraging, but they seldom looked me in the eye when they said it would be fine by opening night. By Saturday, there were still large chunks of verbiage I couldn’t navigate without some cues from offstage. Sunday was technical rehearsal, and with the constant start and stop for lighting and sound, everyone was missing lines.
Dress rehearsal was Monday. I got through it by being cued only twice. My confidence was growing. I spent the whole of Tuesday going over lines. About half an hour before curtain, I went to the dressing room for make-up. Several actors were already there.
"Well," the actor playing my son-in-law said, "Tommy told me they almost never review a White Barn show this early in the season."
"Then why is he reviewing tonight?" the stage manager asked.
I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly I knew I’d forget every line. My mistakes would be trumpeted to all the world. I could see the review: "Tonight the White Barn audience was treated to long minutes of silence while the lead actor struggled to remember his lines."
A few minutes later, the stage manager looked at his watch. "It’s magic time!" he said. We made our way to the stage. I hoped I wouldn’t throw up when the lights came on.
Amazingly, the whole show went smoothly. I did’t miss a single line. I was perfect! It was almost disappointing it was so easy. An actor would speak to me, and I wouldn’t even have to think about it. The line came tumbling out of my mouth. The letter-perfect line.
The next day I raced to the theater. The newspaper had already arrived. I tore the paper apart getting to the review.
The headline told little more than there had been a play performed at the White Barn. The first paragraph was devoted to the girl who played my daughter. That was okay. She really was very good. She deserved all the praise the reviewer lavished on her.
The second paragraph gave a nearly equal rave to the actor who played my son-in-law. Wait a minute, I thought. The son-in-law was a much smaller part. And he wasn’t that good. What about ME? I was the one who carried the show. I was the one who learned all those lines and SAVED the show! I was Henry Fonda!
The next couple of paragraphs dealt with telling the story so readers could skip attending. The reviewer revealed two of the funniest lines in the show.
I read the reviw to the bottom, and there I was. "Also in the cast were . . . ." He named four actors. I was the third.