Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Brief Acting Career

When I was little (and not so little), I used to squint my eyes at the end of movies and imagine I could read my name in the credits. When I watched the Oscars and other award shows, I used to think about what I would wear when I went up on stage to accept my statue for Best Actress. I was particularly concerned about footwear since there were always so many steps and I was 40 years old before I mastered heels. When Cybill Shepherd wore Reebok high tops with an evening gown to the Emmys one year, I breathed a sigh of relief.

In college, I changed my major MANY times, especially during my never-ending first-semester junior year between Hartford College for Women and UMass. I was a student at Central Connecticut State University but, since I never received a degree from there, I don't really count that year as part of my college career. Basically, I was taking classes willy nilly, working as a waitress, and trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was a relief when I decided to move to Boston to live with my now ex-husband.

I was either an English or an Education major when my friend Rachel tricked me into auditioning for a play. I thought I was there just to keep her company, until I was called to the front of the room to audition. Apparently, Rachel had filled out an audition slip with my information. I was too embarrassed to make a scene, so I went to the front of the room with a few other young women and vowed to get back at Rachel later. We were asked to say the alphabet in a ghostly voice. I thought it was hysterical and I loved making Rachel laugh, so I really hammed it up. Next, we were asked to say the alphabet in a sexy voice. Rachel and I played off each other and it was like that diner scene in When Harry Met Sally where Sally throws her head back and fakes an orgasm. By the time we got to S, Rachel and I were moaning and thrashing. When the audition ended, Rachel and I left laughing and I thought that was the end of it.

A day or two later, I came home to find a message on my answering machine, asking why I didn't show up for call-backs. I didn't even know what a call-back was. (People who make the first cut have their names posted on a board and they come back for a second audition.) I thought, "Oh well, I wasn't really planning to audition anyway. No biggy." But, then, the next message, said, "Congratulations! You have a part in the play."

Rachel and I went to the Theatre department bulletin board the next day where I saw my name listed next to the words, "Neighbor Woman." "Great," I thought. "If she doesn't even have a name, my character must be minor." Not so. In Francesco Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, most characters are called by their role and not by a name. The Neighbor Woman was actually a principal role. Rachel also got a the chorus.

So, there began my love of acting. After my critically-acclaimed performance in Blood Wedding (my friends and my godmother raved), I switched majors again and joined the Theatre department. I got a few leads, read a lot of plays, learned how to talk with Irish and Southern accents, and was humiliated by a director named Thad when he told me in front of the entire cast that I should never, ever sing in public. But I loved acting. I loved becoming someone else, I loved the limelight, and I loved the applause. I was not, however, willing to starve and give up everything else I cared about. I didn't have the money or the parental support to get a summer stock theatre camp placement and not work for three months. I also felt ostracized by the black-clad theatre majors who resented my "luck" at getting lead roles when I was up against "real" Theatre majors. Finally, when I looked to the future of auditioning and auditioning and waitressing and waitressing, I thought, "Naaa."

When I followed my ex to Boston, I didn't totally give up acting. While I worked at BU in a secretarial job, I actually had a freelance gig acting for real money (I think it was $10 per hour) at the BU Playwrights Theatre. Playwrighting students hired actors to present their plays to the Director of the department, Nobel Prize-winning poet/playwright, Derek Walcott. I worked with a student in the program who was a friend and often pictured me when she created certain characters. Wendy was an interesting woman--a talented writer with the messiest apartment I have ever seen...yes...even worse than my college apartment in Hartford.

It was very intimidating to be on stage in front of Derek Walcott. In his 60s when I met him, Derek Walcott is of West Indian decent and speaks with what is not so much an accent as extremely proper English, that makes everyone else sound unsophisticated in comparison. He sat smoking in the front row of the theatre, wearing a worn blazer with corduroy elbow patches, surrounded by attractive, fawning female students.

Although he was supposed to be critiquing his playwrighting students' work, he sometimes gave feedback to actors, too. Professor Walcott always gave me suggestion and they were often outside my skill set or just bizarre. In one scene, he suggested that I use a French accent which I couldn't do. I made "je" noises, looked apologetically at my playwright, and blushed. After what felt like forever, Professor Walcott (I never thought of him as Derek) let me off the hook with a wave of his hand and a "Never mind."

Another time, when Wendy presented a scene where she told me I was a very proper, middle-aged, snooty artist's agent, coming on to a young man in his dirty artist's loft, Derek stopped the action to suggest that I play the scene crawling across the floor. Wendy had directed me to dress in my best business attire, so I had on a pair of white silk slacks, a blouse and a blazer. When he interrupted the scene, I faced Professor Walcott, still in character, and said, "I would never, ever, crawl across a dirty floor in white, silk trousers."

Unfortunately, Professor Walcott misunderstood my comment. He thought I was objecting as an actor and that I was worried about getting my pants dirty. "Actors must do what needs to be done," he said flatly.

I got out of character for a moment to respond, "No, you don't understand," I stuttered, mortified that he thought I was too prissy to crawl if the part called for it. "My character would never crawl across the dirty floor of the artist's loft with paint and mess. I'm not saying that I would not crawl across the stage floor...." I trailed off as I saw Professor Walcott start whispering to one of the young women seated next to him.

Believe it or not, I continued to act. I had parts in a few student films and I recorded a PSA about recycling that aired in the middle of the night on cable channels. When I returned to college at UMass Boston, I had the lead role in a student play that was performed at the Black Box Theatre in the South End. I played a woman who. like me, was living in sin. During one scene I had to make out with my boyfriend (while my actual boyfriend watched from the audience). It was a little weird. Also, while I was kissing my pretend boyfriend, he was only wearing a towel and he had the largest nipples I had ever seen. I'm not positive, but I think that was my final role performance in a play.

I don't blame the nipples for my ultimate departure from the theatre. And, I don't really think of it as a departure so much as a hiatus. When I'm retired and wearing purple every day, I will become one of those quirky women who gets every old lady role in community theatre productions and hosts sushi and sorbet parties for the cast. Play your cards right and you could get invited to opening night.

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