The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On Acting

I wish I could tell you what it’s like.

If you’ve never acted live onstage—if you’ve never felt that particular kind of adrenaline rush—it’s very, very hard to put it into words. I spent eight years of my life doing it, and I still can say with all honesty that the feeling I got when I was up there in front of a large, live audience was better than anything I’ve ever experienced. No drug, no food, no relationship could come close to it. This probably explains why I haven't had a date in seven years.

I started dabbling as young as six. Throughout elementary school, I would always find myself playing the lead role in school pageants, plays, and productions. The reasons for this were partly because I never shut up and absolutely loved being the center of attention, and also because I seemed to have no understanding of stage fright. I would do absolutely anything—sing, dance, fall down, whatever—as long as I had an audience.

I got serious when I was about fourteen and got accepted into an elite repertory group. The other actors in the group were really the first friends I ever had. I finally had met people who didn’t treat me as an outcast because of my intelligence and eccentricity, but instead embraced it and me. The experience I gained doing repertory shows in my early teens pretty much made the transition into the professional world a lot easier.

But it’s the repertory I really want to talk about, since they’re really responsible for my ensuing career, and I loved them so very much. I spent four years with them, and in that time I learned a lot about theatre and its bizarre customs.

Come, take my hand. Let me show you a little of that world.


The bathrobe tradition, I am told, was started by Rex Harrison in 1956 with My Fair Lady. Apparently, Rex, who was feuding with his wife at the time, would come to the theatre hours early in order to get away from her. He would then change into his bathrobe and wander around the theatre, bothering the technical people and the musicians.

In any case, my group embraced the bathrobe tradition wholeheartedly. The leads would arrive several hours before opening, put on our bathrobes, and generally make nuisances of ourselves until it was time to change into costume and go into makeup. The key thing was to always appear cool and unflappable, as if you did this sort of thing every day.


I can honestly say that in the four years I worked in repertory, I never had sex with anyone I was in a show with. Not that I wasn’t tempted, mind you—some of my leading men were almost unbelievably handsome and charming. I think what stopped me was—well, to be honest, what stopped me was that they didn’t seem to want to have sex with me, either.

I did, however, often come across other people having sex. The most common places for theatrical trysts were up in the flyspace (and God alone knows how they got up there with no ladders), the wardrobe room (usually using a pile of costumes for cushioning) and, weirdly, the hall. Eventually I got used to it. I would just storm right past the couple, eyes shielded, saying, “coming through, coming through…sorry, pardon me, sorry…” and let them go on with their snogging.

Purple Towels:

Michael Crawford is to blame for this one. In 1988, Michael gave an interview to New York Magazine in which he admitted that, in between acts of Phantom Of The Opera, he would actually take a nap with a purple towel. (“Ralph Lauren makes a lovely shade,” said Michael, “not too grape, not too mauve.”) There has been much discussion as to how Michael managed to actually fall asleep during the intermission (I, personally, always used the time to do vocal exercises), but the man did win a Tony Award, so I trust him. In any event, we often carted purple towels around with us backstage, in the hopes that we would also win a Tony.


While you’re walking around in your bathrobe with your towel, it’s a general practice to eat fruit. I always ate a nectarine. The logic here was that the acid in the fruit would break up any phlegm or mucus you might have in your throat that would impede your singing. If you didn’t like fruit, carrying around a mug of tea was equally acceptable.


The most common question I am asked about my theatre days is, “how on earth can you stand doing the exact same show every single night for months at a time?” I can completely understand this question. For most people who have normal jobs, the thought of having the exact same day over and over again—with identical dialogue and clothing—would make them take a header off the Chrysler Building.

But the thing with live theatre is, it’s actually different every night because the audience is different. It’s a completely different energy. After a while, you learn to “read” an audience and know what to expect. A Saturday night crowd, for example, is a lot different than a Friday night one (Friday night audiences have less energy). Matinee audiences sometimes drag. Around the holidays you get a lot of out-of-towners who are generally really enthusiastic.

The thing you have to watch out for, though, is to never lose your concentration. If your mind starts to wander, you face the very real danger of suddenly “waking up” in the middle of the show and having no idea where you are or which scene you’re in. This is especially terrifying if it’s in the middle of your big soliloquy.

Lead Disease:

Lead Disease is the term used when a lesser cast member, usually an extra or chorus person, develops powerful romantic feelings for the play’s leading lady and/or man, depending on their gender or sexual preference. It is a very private hell, and can lead to behavior such as gazing, twitching, vomiting, and staring at maps of their home towns until you get dizzy and pass out. Fortunately, Lead Disease usually goes away once you become a lead yourself and the position no longer awes you.

The polar opposite of Lead Disease is…

Intense Personal Hatred:

Like every other job in the world, theatre has its share of assholes. Chances are good you’ll be forced to act across from one. The best advice I can give here is to try like hell not to sock them in the jaw, and to invest in a dart-board on which you can put their head shot.

Opening Night Speeches:

This is when the leads, who have spent the last twelve weeks of rehearsal driving everyone crazy, give an enthusiastic pep-talk to the rest of the cast. Usually the director goes first (in which he thanks everyone), followed by the leading man (who makes a special point of thanking the director), then the leading lady. I was never able to make it through a single one without crying, which lead to the makeup people chasing me with eye-liner.

The First Nighter:

The opening night cast party, or “First Nighter,” is always held at a nearby hotel where there is plenty of dancing and drinking. If you’re a lead, you can show up either in street clothes or your bathrobe. Usually the director makes a toast, then gets completely bombed with the producer and choreographer. Cast members who have wanted to have sex since the first read-through go get rooms. At least one person ends up unconscious in the bathroom. Eventually, if you’re doing it right, someone will call the riot squad.

Do I miss it? Every day. I miss all my directors and my co-workers. I get excited when I see or hear that one of them has “made it.” And I wish like hell it had been me.

So, like I said…I wish I could tell you what it’s like.


  • At 9:38 AM, Blogger Aithne said…

    I *totally* understand the theatre experience. I haven't had a chance to be on stage for almost 3 years now, but I know what you mean. Sounds like you had a really great time with the group.

    Adictive, ain't it?

  • At 8:09 PM, Blogger Tamara said…

    Well, I have no idea what the theater world is like, but that's why I love your make everything so real!

    I'm glad that you finally got your computer back, but you realize that you now owe us *several* new entries!


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