Friday, April 21, 2006

Six Years and Counting

6 years ago tonight was my very first opening night as an actor. (Not counting school pageants as a child and such.) It even falls on a Friday again. So I thought I would share some memories from that first production, and the things leading up to it. Indulge me if you will, blog readers.

My very first production was called "Sorry, Wrong Number", by Lucille Fletcher. It's a murder/suspense story about a bedridden woman who thinks she is about to be killed, and the people who offer her no help or comfort as she tries to convince people of her plight through the only means available to her; the telephone next to her bed.

I played Sergeant Duffy, of the local police department. Duffy was one of the many who ignore the woman's pleas for help, dismissing them as ravings of a half crazy person.

The director of this one act play, (originally written as a radio play) was a fellow student in my acting class. I confess that her and I had not always gotten along throughout the year. But that was all behind us by the time she pleaded with me for days to try out for her show. From the moment I was cast, we got along in a most excellent, professional manner.

Indeed the way she handled the production, and me as a first time "real" actor deserves a moment of recognition here in this blog. I say that because I know that if my first experience on stage had been awful, I would not have auditioned for anything else. Yet this director's patient style, clear instructions, and cast bonding games, (such as the ever popular photo scavenger hunt) all conspired to make that first play an enjoyable experience for me. It is not absurd to think my continuation in college theatre was due in large part to the way she undertook her duties.

At first the rehearsal process did not feel all that different than rehearsing for class scenes throughout the year. It wasn't until tech week that greater anticipation (and nerves) set in. In fact, all through the day on opening night I would be hit with the sudden realization that I was going to perform for the first time in just a matter of hours. I would not call these feelings fear, nor I would not use the term, "undiluted joy". It was sort of an all or nothing feeling. I was either going to get the job done, or not.

This feeling translated into a touch of panic only once, I am proud to say. About 20 minutes before we went on, I suppose it was clear how concerned I was. The aforementioned director advised me to remember that I was "Duffy", and that nothing else mattered for the next hour or so. Furthermore she reminded me I already knew everything I needed to do to get everything right. This relaxed me, and panic left, though nervousness remained.

The structure of the play was unique, and it worked to my advantage somewhat. Instead of us walking around the stage, all characters were pretty much in the same positions throughout the play, from the start. 90% of the play's script consisted of phone conversations, so little blocking was required. When each character was "called" by the lead character, a light would shine above them, and the scene would proceed. I had the advantage of getting used to being out in front of an audience for a good 15 minutes before I even could be seen by them. Years later the director regretted her choice of script, and the nature of said blocking, but at the time, I enjoyed it.

As soon as the lights came up during the "ringing" of the phone on my desk, I felt any remaining nervousness vanish. I knew that I knew. This sudden realization that I had it is hard to describe. A lifting fog, perhaps, or a light bulb coming on in the dark. (Literally in this case.) Either way, the difference between how I felt before, and after I went "on" was instant and significant.

The show proceeded without any flaws. Before I knew it, it was over. Back in the green room, congratulations abounded from and to everyone. I had the notion, perhaps without reason, that I had been doing such things as performing plays, for years. It was one of the first times in my life where I insisted on generating confidence within me, and succeeded in doing so. (With help from my cast, and director.)

That night our director gave each of us a cast photograph that had been taken two weeks before, at a picnic we all attended. Each photo was attached to a piece of felt with "Sorry, Wrong Number", the date, director's initials, and a felt telephone attached to it. It hangs on a wall 4 feet behind me to this very day.

The phrase "you never forget your first time" was coined to refer to something else. Yet it applies in equal fashion to one's first experience on stage. Whether one continues to act, as I have, or if one never again does so, there is something unforgettable about that first walk across the stage, that first sense of a sea of faces watching everything you do, that first opening night jitter attack. The first cast bonding and the first sense of accomplishment when you realize you have told a story that people enjoyed being told.

When that first time is a good one like it was for me, it stays with you on an even deeper level. I confess that though I do not know where any of those people are anymore, I cannot help but think of each of them for a few fleeting moments when I am in a new show. I cannot help but be reminded of how different and yet how exactly the same the crazy world of being in a show is for me today as compared with 6 years ago today.

I even sometimes wonder, for a second or two, what my very first director would think if she could see the stuff I do now. That is the impact left by my first ever show. It may not be on my mind most of the time, but the fact that 6 years later it still makes it to my consciousness as often as it does says volumes.

In a sum, "Sorry, Wrong Number" was in fact just the right thing for me, at just the right time.

So, 6 years later, here's to the first domino in the effect that is my career; here's to my first cast, and director, wherever you are.

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