My friend leaned over the back of the church pew and asked me, “Why don’t you do this?”
“I used to,” I said. “I don’t know. It just doesn’t speak to me anymore.”
We were sitting at the front of the Universalist Church, immediately across the border in Derby Line, Vt. Around us were a handful of adults and children, all auditioning for roles in next season’s plays at the Haskell Opera House, or in my case chauffeuring a thespian aspirant. (“Take two thespian aspirants and curtain-call me in the morning.”) Abby had tried out the weekend before and had received a call-back for a part in Oliver!
I was excited about her audition because when I was her age I had been in Oliver! Oh, let’s not be coy; I was Oliver! Exclamation mark and all! I was double-cast with my best friend David Smith. He would play Oliver one night and I the next. On the off nights we were orphans and pickpockets. Being in that first major production taught me a lot about the alchemy of theatre. In addition, it taught me the word “pathos,” which, according to the theatre critic in The Antigonish Casket, I sorely lacked in comparison to David. It also taught me that theatre critics are big, mean jerks.
Despite this harsh lesson, which someday I may get over (though at this point I doubt it), I continued acting. In fact, I considered acting as a career until I realized I’d have to spend a lot of time around actors. That’s not as mean as it sounds. I was and am an introvert at heart. For actors, everything is huge and broad and arms in the air. I discovered I couldn’t pull that off for long periods. I also discovered that there were other ways to get girls, so naturally I put acting aside.
My last real play was in 1988, not counting the occasional skit or that time I improvised French blues lyrics at a newspaper convention (where I killed, by the way, or quite possibly made a fool of myself; alcohol may have played a factor). The play was Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepherd and Patti Smith. I played Lobster Man. I wore a lobster suit. Curiously, in this case, alcohol did not play a factor.
“I haven’t acted for 25 years,” I explained to my friend. That was when one of the directors walked up to us and said, “Hi, Ross. I wonder if you would consider reading for the part of Harry Roat in Wait Until Dark.”
If I had had time to walk away and think about it, I probably would have rationalized myself out of the situation, as we tend to do in life – no time, I’ll lose my evenings and weekends, I’ll have to hang out with actors. But here I was, stuck in a church. Who knows? Maybe God wanted me to read for the part. Oh wait, this was a Unitarian-Universalist church; maybe a spiritual web of existence wanted me to read for the part.
Sitting there, I thought, how often does a person get to be a manipulating, sinister bad guy? I mean outside of the house? Why not revisit this creative side, see if there’s still something there inside me? Why not once again be huge and broad and hands in the air? After requisite stretching, of course. And followed by a gentle nap.
So I read. I got the part. My friend is in the play with me, and Abby is an orphan/pickpocket in Oliver!
I’m excited about taking this risk and, more to the point, being mean and evil. Totally against type, right kids? Right? Hello…?
The production isn’t until October, so I have lots of time to figure out my character. For instance, am I a true psychopath or merely a sociopath? Just what kind of path am I? Given the flimsy state of my body 25 years since I last acted, I’m probably the path of least resistance.