I’ve always been a spotlight whore. Performing never scared me. Having an audience didn’t scare me. But there always was one underlying condition: I had to have some control of the situation. And since I usually worked alone, that condition usually was met. But my recent forays into acting and live theater have challenged my need to and ability to control my performances.
My need to perform first came to light, I suppose as a child. I had no qualms about dressing up for Halloween. In fact, I suspect I enjoyed it more than most of the other boys, perhaps because it seemed, from what I remember, that I made more of a production out of the tradition than my 1950s elementary school peers.
But by the time I reached high school, I had expanded my moments in the spotlight beyond Halloween. I ran for offices, and won, as a sophomore and junior. As a senior, since I was more a joke than a jock, I became a yell leader and was considered, I believe, the leader among the four of us. I’ve always said being part of a cheer squad was my way of participating in sports. But it really was an opportunity to perform. I didn’t, however, participate in the school’s drama program. I’ve always regretted that. But because I was active in other school activities and understood that theater productions required dedication and a time commitment I didn’t think I could provide, I opted against drama class. Besides, boys in theater were suspected to be gay. And God forbid anyone were to think I was…you know…like that. So, I became a yell leader. That would surely throw off suspicious minds. Covered my ass really well. That was a wise choice. Or so I thought until decades later when I learned yell leaders had become known as cheer queers.
When I did come out, I was fascinated with performing drag queens, not because I had a desire to wear female attire, but because I enjoyed the talented one’s performances. I admired their ability to become someone else and linked their created personas to theater. Curious how it would feel both mentally and physically, I decided to perform in a Sunday amateur drag night, lip synching to songs by Cher and Barbra Streisand.
I was received well. Regular performers in the audience applauded and cheered. Their faces expressed surprise that an inexperienced slab of masculinity like myself could transform so successfully. I could have been a star! But I never performed in serious drag again. Oh, I’ve had other costumes that would be considered drag, but they were comic, gender-fuck concepts. A tutu with a moustache. A negligee with a beard. An open woman’s blazer without a blouse, exposing my chest and its 19 hairs.
Whenever a call was put out for volunteers to participate in a show of some sort, I would volunteer. I’ve been a male dancer in a patriotic, gay bar Fourth of July production. I’ve ridden floats in major parades. I’ve marched with the Seattle School District contingent at numerous Pride Parades. I didn’t avoid being seen or having a spotlight shine on me.
I competed in several beefcake contests, winning a few. I appeared on a TV game show, winning, among other things, a trip to San Francisco. How ironic is that?
As a high school staff member, I always participated in staff skits and/or dances for student assemblies, while most other teachers stood on the sideline, like insecure pretty girls watching a beauty pageant on TV. When a drama teacher asked staff volunteers to fill out Bye Bye, Birdie crowd scenes, I was the only one to step forward.
And that brings me to my more recent attempts at performing. I have, in Ajijic, performed in three lip sync shows, as 1940s-’50s Hollywood musical regular Howard Keel, Bruce Springsteen, and folksinger Tom Rush. The response I received from theater veterans gave me the confidence to attempt musical theater. The perfect opportunity arose when a casting call was posted for a local production of My Fair Lady.
Clearly lacking in singing skills, particularly those needed to warble specific notes, I scanned the roles searching for a small non-singing one. Enter Zoltan Karpathy, Hungarian linguist whose purpose is to expose flower girl-turned “Lady” Eliza Dolittle as a fraud. “Ah, this might be the role,” I thought. “I can do an Eastern European accent.” But, I wondered, if I could memorize the 130+ words of dialogue?
Even though I was inexperienced in theater, I got the part. Perhaps it was because I was the only reader for the role. Or, perhaps, because the exuberant lunacy I gave the character matched the vision of the director. I wasn’t, however, only cast as Karpathy; I also landed a role in the chorus, dancing and doing my atonal version of singing, in many of the musical numbers. How that happened remains a mystery to me, like the success of The Dukes of Hazzard, Sarah Palin, and Taco Bell.
Within moments of arriving at the first rehearsal, I realized the director had a lot of power. I thought he’d be limited to saying things like, “Stress the word ‘damn.'” or “Say ‘shoehorn’ with more pathos.” Or “This time try walking around the actress instead of knocking her on her ass.” But he made decisions about my appearance, too. I didn’t have control of the situation. Theater, I discovered, is a collaborative effort. Who knew?
I managed to learn my lines, but, as I’d never had to memorize that much before, it wasn’t easy. Luckily, the exchange was with one other character in one short sequence. Nothing complicated.
When the My Fair Lady run ended, I thought, “I’d like to try a small role in a drama or comedy.” The 130+ words I had to memorize as Karpathy, however, appeared to be near my max. Could I go much beyond that?
Then COVID-19 hit and theaters worldwide went dark and that became a moot question.
A year and a half later, however, I saw a casting call for a local production of an Edward Albee adaption. Albee, possessor of several Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and Tony Awards, has been described as “the foremost American playwright of his generation.” I thought, “OMG! I could be in an Albee play.” The call asked for three men who may have had little or no theater experience and would like to attempt theater. The roles would be small.
“Maybe there’s a bartender who listens to customers and nods a lot,” I thought. “Or a deliveryman who gets shot in the back waiting for someone to answer the doorbell.” I requested a copy of the script. To my surprise, the three “small” roles each had between 50-65 lines and physical cues. “I’m not sure I can handle that,” I thought.
But I auditioned anyway. And got cast.
There was a pesky director again. This time it was a woman with a different vision and style than my previous helmsmen. Again, my control was limited. In the end, I believe I bit off more than I could chew in my second attempt at theater. Learning my lines was about all I could handle. But as an untrained actor, I learned I was using my voice incorrectly. I also discovered the importance of breathing prior to uttering a line. I’m supposed to relearn those basics now? I thought. This can’t be done quickly. After all, I’m old, somewhere between Social Security and Betty White.
I had good nights during the run. But I also had bad ones. Forgotten lines, sputtered ones, and missed cues were more common than Meryl Streep Oscar nominations. It was embarrassing and I felt bad that my lapses reflected on the director and rest of the cast. Early in the run, I realized that perhaps my brain and memory had passed its peak or that this form of entertaining did not fit my skill set.
Will I try to grab the spotlight again? Who knows? But I’ll keep all doors op…Excuse me. “What? Alright, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.”