More scenery in my diet, or what I learned from community theatre

Props will let you down; your castmates won’t

In the final scene of Wait Until Dark, in which I played the psychopathic Roat, the tormented heroine Suzy turns the tables when she flings a vase full of ammonia into Roat’s face. This occurs after Roat puts his valise on the table and pulls out a gas can, which he uses to douse the stairs. There are a lot of fluids; it gets messy.

On this night, however, when I removed the gas can, my bag tipped over the vase and its contents. Gah! What to do! We can’t go on unless Suzy blinds me with… something. Could she blind me with science? No, not an option!

So, after I spread the gasoline (it’s all just water, folks, don’t worry), I plunked the gas can on the table so Suzy would have something to throw in my face, and really, when it comes to blinding with gasoline instead of ammonia, it’s really just splitting hairs.

I said my cue and expected Suzy to pick up the can. Instead – splash! – something else in my face! Where the hell did that come from?

It turns out that when my castmate Mary “heard” the vase tip over (because Suzy is blind, you see), she went to the sink and retrieved the bottle of “ammonia” while I was spreading the “gas,” and that’s a lot of “quotation marks” in one sentence.

My point is that Mary had my back, and I had hers, because we knew we couldn’t let each other down, and we couldn’t let the audience down either. There’s no rewind in live theatre. Or paper towels.

My friend Phil is a gadget god

Speaking of props, my character protects himself with a knife called “Geraldine.” On some nights, when I pulled this somewhat phallic looking ceramic figurine out of my pocket, some in the audience would chuckle. But when I touched a switch and a blade popped out, the audience would go “Ooooh!”

Ooooh is right. What they don’t know is that this piece of machinery was cobbled together by my talented friend Phil out of Dollar Store material, bits of cutlery, toilet hardware, screws and rubber bands.

He also created a replica Geraldine that popped out of the wall when Roat “throws” it at Suzy. The illusion worked thanks to some misdirection and a blackout, but it wouldn’t work at all without Phil’s ingenuity with statuettes, steak blades, drawer slides and more rubber bands. Thanks, Phil. Or should I say, “Ooooh!”

Smoking is the coolest

My character smoked. They were stage cigarettes but they made me feel edgy and sophisticated. Don’t listen to what they tell you, kids; cigarettes are cool beans. Oh, and wielding knives concealed in dildo-shaped statuettes – also the bee’s knees.

On the other hand…

Any coolness was undermined by my Lloyd Christmas haircut. And I don’t even want to talk about the wigs.

Is that knife buzzing or are you just glad to see me?  Photo/Tanya Mueller Photography

Is that knife buzzing or are you just glad to see me?
Photo/Tanya Mueller Photography

I’m all about the boos

Like I said, I was the villain, a sunglasses-wearing, turtleneck-sporting, monologuing, scenery-chewing baddie. So getting booed at the curtain call? Better than a standing ovation. Mind you, I think most of the booers were my friends, so I probably had it coming.

Actors speak in code

I don’t mean stage lingo like “stage left” or “front of house” or “has anyone seen my wig?” I mean catchphrases and lines only people in the play understand. At home, someone might say, “I don’t know,” and I’ll reply “I don’t know, I don’t know, over and over again. I’ve heard people say that before, only she was more stubborn…” and so on, and no one else in my family will have a clue what I’m talking about, although that’s not unusual. But my castmates would get it. And that’s a lot of horse.

I don’t know if we were any good, and that’s okay

When you’re in a play, you become so involved in the lines and blocking and interpreting the character that in the end it’s hard to tell whether the production is actually any good. People will tell you it was wonderful, but people are polite, aren’t they? Even the booers.

I think our show was good, and, no, I’m not fishing for compliments. Because it doesn’t matter whether we were good, so-so or I-want-my-money-back. We did our best. We did our best as a collection of theatre amateurs – “amateurs” meaning “lovers of.” Community theatre performers do it because they love stepping out of their Walter Mitty lives to become con men, policemen, blind women and psycho killers with atrocious haircuts. They love entertaining people, making them laugh, inching them to the edges of their seats, and by doing so taking them out of their own lives for a couple of hours.

I’ve discovered that I’m such an amateur myself. It’s been over two decades since I’ve acted and it turns out I’ve needed more chewed scenery in my diet. Oh, and there’s one more thing to love…

Play pals

Two months ago, I walked into a room full of strangers and near-strangers. Now, after a brief but intense time together, I have new friends. Normally, when it comes to making friends, I warn myself, “We have to slide into this very gently,” and then, too late.

But it’s amazing how quickly friendships form when you’re pretending to stab each other. Or when you’re sitting in a dressing room shooting the breeze for an hour before the show. Or when one of your castmates gives everyone personalized business cards based on their characters. Or when one of them really does spill blood after passing out during a rehearsal. (Note to self: work on “stitches/bonding” metaphor.)


How much fun it’s been to be so warmly welcomed by these lovers of theatre. How I’ve enjoyed spending this time with Mary, Nate, Brian, Mike, Eric, Jim, Judy, Susan-Lynn, Benjamin, Dennis, Lisa, and our 11-year-old part-time extortionist Tori ($1 per swear word), most of whom live in an entire other country, for God’s sake. How sad that I’m not likely to see them again.

At least not until next season…

small con artists

More photos at Tanya Mueller Photography and Newport Dispatch.

About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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35 Responses to More scenery in my diet, or what I learned from community theatre

  1. Bravo!

    How on earth did you have the presence of mind to come up with a Plan B when the vase tipped over? Both of you! I would have been done in. “Show’s over, folks. Thanks for coming.”

    Well done. You make me want to get involved in amateur theater again.

    Oops. No. The moment’s passed. I’ve come to my senses.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Ha. You made me laugh. What I don’t say is what a surprising amount of commitment it takes. Nights, walking around muttering to myself, neglecting other things. Madness.

  2. pinklightsabre says:

    Nicely done Ross, thanks for sharing.

  3. Ned's Blog says:

    If Roat was a Vulcan (an assumption based on the hair) I think a death grip might’ve sufficed. I understand, though; this is theater. And drama. Where phallic knives have more shock value. Well done, Ross. It’s easy to see how much you enjoyed this production. I really hope you got to keep the wig.

    (“…Blinded by science…” Hahaha! Sadly, there are only eight of us still alive who probably got that. And four of them are the band members.)

  4. ksbeth says:

    i love every word of this experience and judging by your pic, it’s a good thing you’re married, for roat would be such a hot property out on the market –

  5. markbialczak says:

    Well done, Ross. Cheers for the entire cast and crew, getting through spilled ammonia and building phallic knives and surviving triple-digit hours of rehearsal and bonding …

    Specifically, for you as Roat: I think if JC needs a stand-in for the next D&D sequel, they have found their man. You are not only a doppel, but a ganger, too, with that wig, sir.

  6. Paul says:

    Most excellent Sir Ross. Well done and even gaining critical acclaim from the news media. You really do look like a natural up there on stage. And Ned is right – your haircut is very Vulcan-ish. I dare say that your facial stricture and hair cut combined contain certain shades of Spock. Did your family get to see the production Ross? And what do they think?

    Congratulations on the success of the production. I wish you many more successes in the fuure.

  7. Carrie Rubin says:

    I love hearing about these behind-the-curtain stories. I suspect I’d suck at acting–my face isn’t very expressive. That’s a great way to avoid wrinkles, but it wouldn’t serve me too well on stage. Kristin Stewart is my case-in-point on that one… How cool that you can improvise on the spot. Also something I’m not good at. As for the cigarette plug? I’ll pretend I didn’t read that…

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Come on, kid, try it. Just once.
      They were weird electric things, really heavy, and produced a steam that was supposed to taste like “mint” but tasted like “rug.” Pretty realistic, I suspect.

  8. franhunne4u says:

    Hm, one is tempted to think you might have had a little bit of fun doing that …

  9. Lynn Leimer says:

    Ross, you are a GEM, not only on the stage, the internet, the board room, but in the universe. What a true joy to know you! Come “play” with QNEK again and it’s ABOOT time you got back on stage…..we’re much more than amateurs, ya know.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      I knew you’d bristle at that word. 🙂 But it gets a bad rap. It really does mean “lover of.” It’s French, and they know from love, oui?

      Arsenic and Old Lace sounds up my alley.

  10. Thank you for including me in the thankyous. As a “non-cast member” or “stage manager,” “prop mistress,” “set painter,” “wall painter” (enough quotation marks?) it was nice for ya’ll to accept me backstage because I just can’t stay away. On the other hand, it was excellent to be able to watch the performances from the audience side of things. The tipped vase reminded me of when we did the show Southern Belles. During one show, the wife of Dub, who was hiding her pregnancy announcement until the last line or so of the show, blurted it out WAY ahead of time. We had to NOT LAUGH and IGNORE what she said, because the show would have ended way early…luckily, enough of us had the wherewithal to improvise etc. etc. It’s what makes live theater truly magic. Thanks for all the kind words. I am really looking at the background boxes of beads and wondering where are they, I need some for my artwork!!! And Ross, Newport isn’t that far from Canada, I mean, I can run the distance and I’m old. Peace Out.

  11. Right as rain. I know the feeling all to well. And now it’s on to It’s a Wonderful Life, because, well, life is wonderful. Much better than the alternative you know.

  12. Susan-Lynn Johns says:

    Wow! What a great article, Ross. When I think of all the technical things that could have possibly gone wrong, I believe we were definitely under the watchful eye of Dionysus for most of the run. You were a joy to direct–as were the rest of the cast. I hope this marks a full return to the stage after too long an absence and I look forward to seeing you at auditions for Arsenic and Old Lace!

  13. Theater is a bonding experience in many ways. As you said, your cast mates have your back, and Mary also helped prompt me to remember a line when I was casting for one. I remember that first rehearsal & seeing my old friends/cast mates Judy & Mike, and looking forward to working with them again, but there was this new guy with a Scottish sounding name I hadn’t seen before as well as the fabulous Mary Hoadley and her husband Nate. I didn’t make the connection earlier, but my daughter Fiona McCrae, played the character July, opposite your Abby in last year’s production of Annie. You might remember I played a goofy laundry and radio guy in that show. I got to play the arch-villian Bill Sykes, in this year’s production of Oliver and I loved the boos too, but a (stage) villain’s work is never done. During Oliver, I was asked at the last minute to fill-in with a “small part” in “Wait Until Dark.” I didn’t even know what my part was when I turned up to that first rehearsal. It turned out to be another opportunity to play a bad-guy, but Carlino was able to get a few laughs at least! I enjoyed working with you Ross and hope we get an opportunity to do it again sometime.

  14. Letizia says:

    Thank goodness for Mary’s quick thinking- you must have been so surprised! I love your description of the camaraderie of the theatre life. And that hair cut is too cool for school!!

  15. I am happy to see this post. I’ve been waiting. Live theater is a razor’s edge, that’s for sure. The potential for humiliation is right there on the surface. But when it works, it WORKS. Re: Play Pals. Do you see how affairs develop so easily among actors? It’s no mystery why Hollywood marriages never last. The intimacies and options. What’s your next show? Ready for more?

    Sorry to hear the news. Be safe up there, pal.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      You’re partly the motivation for this post. I knew you’d be interest, and I appreciate the encouragement, Mark.

      And, yes, exactly! I was thinking the very thing.

      I feel for the family of the soldiers killed yesterday and in Quebec on Monday. We live in times of fanatics. Alas, some of the fanatics are in government who will use these events to worsen the situation.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      But thank you. The country needs a hug and U.S. was there.

      • Well, it’s all over the news here, just so you know. It’s all they’re talking about.

        …will use these events to worsen the situation.

        Taking a page from our politicians, I see. Your second tragedy in as many days.

  16. List of X says:

    I didn’t think you look like a Vulcan in that photo. I thought you looked like Jim Carrey. I don’t know if you consider that a compliment or not, but in some of his roles he also gave out the vibe of a creepy guy who needs ammonia thrown in his face.

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