The late Spring/early Summer play would be An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. The Director had gotten the job by updating the setting from the Victorian Age to the early 1960’s a la Mad Men, and editing out some of the more sexist and misogynistic dialog. The Chairman of the Board tapped me to be the Producer, my first time in that role.
When the Mesquite Arts Theatre chooses a Director for a play, that play becomes the Director’s baby. The Theatre provides Playbills, posters and other printed materials; handles any social media marketing; makes sure there are concessions people available; and handles the Box Office, both online and in person. That’s it – everything else is handled by the Director: the Director runs the auditions; casts the actors; sets up the rehearsal schedule; secures the designers needed; brings in a Stage Manager; brings in an Assistant Director if need be; makes sure the cast is available to build the set; and finds any board ops people and stagehands. When the Director is someone who has worked with the theatre before and understands how all that works, the Producer’s job is almost ceremonial – the Producer is there on the first day of rehearsals to get contracts signed and welcome the actors; the Producer shows up at Strike to hand out checks to the Director, Designers, Stage Manager, and Asst. Director; and if the Producer is on their toes, they show up on Set Build, Dress Rehearsal, Opening Night, and maybe a few other times to show the cast they are appreciated. The by-laws state that only a Board Member can be a Producer… and a brand spanking new Producer should be given an Old Pro Director for their first production so they can ease their way into the job.
That isn’t what happened with me. My first time as Producer, I got the charming and talented Stacey, a Director who not only had never worked in Mesquite before, but was completely new to the DFW Metroplex so she had no contacts whatsoever when it came to her Designers, Stage Manager, Assistant Director, or Board Ops. Stacey had already met Emily, who had volunteered to be her Costumer… I would need to find everyone else… after I was done singing high notes while sick as a dog.
As soon as she got the gig, Stacey was already shaking things up: she wanted to move auditions up by a full month. That way, once she had her cast in place, they’d have four weeks to memorize all their lines and they could go immediately into character studies. This meant she’d be holding auditions not in the Black Box, but upstairs in the Library… while I was rehearsing the musical revue. Auditions are usually held by the Director, the Asst. Director, and the Stage Manager (unless the AD and the SM were one and the same) – Stacey didn’t have an AD/SM, so my first order of business would be to find her a Right Hand. I knew who I wanted, a theatre student about to complete his senior year up in Commerce, but he’d be busy trying to finish up college, plus he’d never been an AD/SM, much less worked at Mesquite before… so my first call was to the talented young man who’d been the AD for my stint in Tuna Does Vegas. No good – he was busy up in Allen. My second call was to the amazing young woman who had done such a wonderful job as AD on last year’s musical. Again, no good – she was tied up finishing with finals. On a whim, just knowing he’d turn me down, I contacted my first choice, my good friend and protege, Austin, and asked if he’d like to get his first credit as a theatre professional… and he said he’d love to. He did have some things he’d need to finish up the first week or so of rehearsals, but he was up to meeting with Stacey and he was up for auditions being so early in the process.
Stacey adored Austin, loved the fact she could groom him as an AD while he handled the SM chores. First hurdle down.
Victor knows the lighting system better than anyone alive. He claims he’s just a tech, but he creates wonderful lighting design. Most importantly, if he said something couldn’t be done, that meant it just plain could not be done… and Stacey would need exactly that kind of push back while getting to know the ins and outs of our Black Box. I begged Victor to take the gig for that reason – thankfully, he did.
Scott would have been my go to for Set Designer, but he was directing 100 Years, then would be directing The Elephant Man once my show was over – he needed the time off. Luckily, the Director for last year’s wonderful The Dixie Swim Club had also been the Set Designer – Kevin. Took a couple of frantic tries, but I managed to contact him and set up a meet with him and Stacey – he was in.
When Stacey found out I was the lead singer of a classic rock band as well as graphic designer and Board Member, she asked me to handle the Sound Design. I hadn’t considered it before, but if I handled finding the right mood music and songs, I wouldn’t have to go looking for someone else. I took the Sound Designer position.
Auditions were well attended. When I ran upstairs during rehearsal breaks, there were actors lined up to do their cold reads. After the second night, Stacey had enough people to cast the show… with just one problem. One of the Board members had given a great audition, but someone else had given a better audition, and Stacey was afraid the Board Member wouldn’t take a minor role, even if that role was pivotal. I told her to put the right person in the right role, and we’d worry about crossing that bridge when we came to it. Just as she predicted, the Board Member bowed out. I was irked, but what could I do? Actors at the Mesquite Arts Theatre are unpaid volunteers… if someone doesn’t feel like stepping up, you can’t force them to step up. I was an actor short. The cast I did have was wonderfully diverse; a couple of people making their professional acting debuts, a couple of long-time pros returning to the stage, one young woman technically still in her teens, three lovely women of color, and a full 90% of the cast had never acted in Mesquite before. Stacey had cast the play wonderfully.
Rehearsals began as the music revue was going on. One of the first questions I was asked by my cast was about comp tickets… mainly, would they be getting any? Half of the cast were young and broke… which meant their friends were young and broke. Comps would be the only way their friends could make the show. I mentioned the request to the Chairman while we were getting ready to perform, and our buddy Jimmy-Lee chimed in. “You’ve been having trouble getting people to show up for the Opening Night Friday Night, right? Comp them some tickets good only for Opening Night Friday Night.” Personally, I was kicking myself for not thinking of something so obviously brilliant myself. I tucked his idea in my back pocket as I was informed Stacey had found her last actor, a church friend of the older woman in the cast. He was thrilled to be participating, and with his lovely accent and fantastic cheekbones, he’d be perfect for the Viscount in Act One and Phipps in Act Three.
Being new, Stacey had a lot of questions; never having been a Producer before, I didn’t have a lot of answers. I bugged my fellow Board Members a lot, learning more and more about the unwritten rules of how the Black Box worked. The good news was, since I was a new Producer who didn’t know how things had been done in the past, every time Stacey suggested turning the theatre upside down, I said “You’re the Director – let’s make this happen.” Each act would begin and end with an old school spotlight tableau. The seats would be on three sides of the acting area, creating an immersive set. The set itself would be on the opposite wall from the doors leading to the dressing rooms and the shop… so the audience would enter and exit through the far side door, as the main doors would lead to the staging area for the set furniture. Since it was a three-sided immersive set, concessions would have to be outside in the hallway. Because the set was backwards. we lost fifteen seats… worse, if we oversold, chairs would have to go on the floor and be well within an arm’s reach of the performers. Never having been a Producer before, I wanted to make the best impression possible on all of the folks new to working in Mesquite – I was showing up once or twice a week to see how things were progressing, make sure the actors could see I was taking an interest in the production. I took photos of rehearsals. I printed out posters, flyers, and postcards to give the cast to put up at work and public areas. I made the executive decision to go ahead and give the cast two comps a piece for Opening Night after the entire cast made it to Set Build day.
I was making my presence known at rehearsals, but I hadn’t been staying. Rehearsals are the job of the Director, so once I made whatever announcement I needed to make or we got whatever photos we needed, I would head on back home. On late nights, instead of driving an hour to Commerce or almost an hour to Wills Point, Austin would crash on the futon in my and Kristi’s office instead. Austin is my Dude, so he’s got an open invitation to crash at my place anytime he needs. Just as the music revue was over and the Black Box was completely Stacey’s, Austin arrived at my place to crash. “Hey… I need to tell you something, something potentially problematic.”
I settled into my office chair. “Lay it on me.”
Austin frowned. “You know the actor that got the lead your Board Member buddy wanted? Well, he contacted me to say that the theatre might get some phone calls and emails about having him in the cast. Seems he’s… controversial.”
It was my turn to frown. “Explain ‘controversial.’”
It seemed that a couple of years ago, our new lead had made a name for himself interrupting a press conference and saying some off the wall things at a Dallas City Council open forum. He also had a history of expounding hard-core far-right political philosophies on certain Reedits and bulletin boards. All the news reports were from a couple of years ago, though, nothing recent was popping up, so it looked like he had either turned over a new lear or was endeavoring to clean up his reputation. I asked Austin if he’d informed Stacey. He had – Mr. Potentially Problematic knew all his script, was delivery great line readings, and was always the first to arrive at rehearsals – she was keeping him in place. I shrugged. “Casting is her job. If she’s good with him, I’ll back her call.”
During one of my weekly trips, Mr. Potentially Problematic asked how many people were coming to Opening Night. “I don’t know, I haven’t checked with Reservations, we’re still weeks out.” He said okay, and off he went. Every time he saw me after that, he asked a variation of that same question. How many were we expecting for Opening Night? Was I coming to Opening Night? Was I bringing my wife to Opening Night? Were Scott and Emily coming to Opening Night? What made the questioning even more odd was the fact I had gotten confirmation that a local reviewer would be coming the Saturday after Opening Night. Out of the two nights, how many people we were expecting for the Review Saturday was far more important than Opening Night… and yet, he only ever asked about Opening Night.
A little over a week before Tech Week was due to start, Austin came to crash. “Hey, I think you need to come to a full rehearsal.” Austin looked tired, so I first said “Sure, no problem.” Then I asked what was up. “Right now, rehearsals are routinely going late. Unless I’m wrong, as it stands right now, the play is running about three hours.” My eyes bulged. The usual older audience that came to the Mesquite productions would not sit for a three hour show. I came to the next night’s rehearsal and informed Stacey I needed to time the show, so she needed to just let the actors do their thing. Good news was I saw some flashes of total brilliance; bad news was the play was running two and a half hours, far too long; worse news was I could tell a couple of the actors had not used their free month, nor had they used the last month, to properly learn all their lines. I made the decision to come to each rehearsal thereafter.
It was after a rehearsal that a hint of trouble made its presence known. The rest of the cast had left, and Mr. Potentially Problematic was talking to Stacey. I walked up and heard him say “If you would just direct Mrs. Chevely to do the line this way… “
I immediately stopped and pointed at him. “That’s not your job. That’s her job, the Director’s job. Your job is to know your lines, interact with your fellow performers, and do what your director tells you. That’s all.”
Mr. Potentially Problematic blinked a few times and then muttered “You’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right,” before skulking off.
Tech Sunday arrived. Austin had said he’d always planned on being in the control booth, which Stacey and I took to mean he was planning on being Board Ops… come to find out, No… in Commerce, the Stage Manager calls out cues to Board Ops in the Control Room; in Mesquite, the Board Ops follow a script with the cues marked inside, while the Stage Manager is backstage making sure the actors are heading in the proper direction. So now Austin had three jobs: Asst. Director, Stage Manager, and Ops. No one had stepped up to be stage hands, so the cast would need to move their furniture between acts… which after watching them a few times, it was quickly evident to me that was what was going to need to happen all along. An Ideal Husband has four Acts, with an intermission between Act Two and Act Three. Act Two and Act Four are in the same location, so the two scene changes that would need to happen in the dark were with all the same furniture and props. The scene change from Act Two to Act Three would take place during Intermission, with all the lights on and nearly fifteen minutes to spend. Stacey was thinking out loud, deciding who should move what. It occurred to her that her lead would need to be changing clothes since he was at the top of Act Three, and so she didn’t give him any furniture or props to move.
Mr. Potentially Problematic wasn’t paying attention, didn’t hear anything Stacey was saying. All he knew was he had things to move, but his tall, good-looking co-star didn’t, and he was starting to stew. Stacey mentioned that the Intermission scene change was still a work and progress, and Mr. Potentially Problematic answered “I get that, but it needs to be fair. We all need to be helping.” He then pointed at his co-star. “What do you move during the intermission? Do you move anything the entire play?” When Stacey started to answer for Lord Goring, Mr. Potentially Problematic pointed at her. “I wasn’t ASKING YOU.” He then pointed at his co-star. “I WAS ASKING HIM.”
I lost it. I jumped to my feet. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! NO! We will have NONE of THAT! OUT! Get out of my theatre! NOW!”
Mr. Potentially Problematic blinked at me and stared. I was having none of it. “OUT! OUT OF MY THEATRE! NOW!” He turned and slunk away.
I made my way out of the audience section I’d set up camp and pointed at Stacey. “She’s your director, she’s the only person you take directions from, Period. Now… go back to rehearsing.” I went around the corner and Mr. Potentially Problematic was standing at the door leading to the shop. “I said OUT!” I scooted him out the door, passed the dressing rooms and into the shop… then out the far door into the back hallway. It was Sunday, so there were church people in the symphony rehearsal room down the hall, so I swept him with my hands through the side door and outside the building. By then, I had my temper under control, so I grabbed him by the upper arms and held him at arm’s reach. “WHAT is the PROBLEM?”
This tact wasn’t what he was expecting and caught him off guard. He blinked several times, then shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing is wrong.”
“Nope.” I shook my head. “That dog won’t hunt. What is the problem?”
Mr. Potentially Problematic wouldn’t look me in the eye. “It’s so close to Opening Night and we are just now getting around to blocking these scene changes and not everyone is doing there fair share. People don’t know their blocking, some of the cast are still forgetting their lines. I just got frustrated.”
“This is THEATER. This isn’t about what is or isn’t fair. It’s about what is most expedient. Had you been paying attention instead of being inside your own head getting your knickers all twisted, you would have heard Stacey say your buddy has to get changed into his next outfit for the start of Act Three, and that’s why he’s not moving anything thing. Once you’re done moving your last set piece, you have over twenty minutes before you need to be back on stage – your buddy has fifteen. THAT is why you are moving furniture during the intermission, and he isn’t.”
He stared at me, then looked away again. “Yes, that makes perfect sense.”
I kept at it. “You made two mistakes. Your first mistake was worrying about things that weren’t your concern. Who moves what and why is the director’s job. People getting their lines down, people getting their blocking down is the director’s job. I told you before, you just need to do your job… and your job is to know your lines, interact with your co-stars, and do what the director tells you. Everything else is not your circus and not your monkey.” He nodded his head.
“Your second mistake was raising your voice to your co-star and your director. There is never a reason for you to get so bunged up you don’t speak to your fellow performers and especially our director with anything other than the utmost of respect.”
He shifted on his feet. “Well, in my defense, that was the first time I ever lost my temper.”
“NO. It is NEVER okay to lose your temper, it is never okay to raise your voice to your cast and crew. The first time is still one time too many.”
Mr. Potentially Problematic muttered “You’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right.” I waited outside with him until I felt he had his act together, then I sent him back inside. I followed and called the cast to me. “Okay. We just had a bout of unpleasantness. It has been dealt with, so now we move on. If you are feeling stressed out, if you are feeling stretched so thin you are ready to break, come find me. Talk to me. Vent at me. You can’t hurt me, and you can’t intimidate me – I have had Scuds shot at me, none of you can even compare to that. So tell me when you’re fixing to blow, and we will deal with it together. Always, always, ALWAYS… treat your cast mates with respect and courtesy. THAT is how we do things here.”
I whispered in Stacey’s ear. “They’re all yours. I need to go somewhere and blow off some steam now.” She nodded, I kissed her hand like a gentlemen, and I got the hell out of there.
I went home and chugged a wine cooler. While I sipped a second cheerleader beer, I wrote the Board about what had just gone down with Mr. Potentially Problematic. If Dress Rehearsal hadn’t had been in four days, had he pulled this garbage a month earlier, I would have had Stacey fire Mr. Potentially Problematic on the spot… and while I wasn’t going to tell the Board what it could or could not do, I personally would never be a part of any production that had him in the cast or crew.
The next morning, I get a text from Mr. Potentially Problematic. “I need to see you immediately concerning a problem of some urgency.”
I texted back. “We can’t handle this over a phone call?”
“No. This needs to be handled in person.”
I drank my coffee. “Meet you at the Arts Center in 45 minutes.”
I woke up Austin, who was asleep on my futon. “I’m going to the Arts Center to meet with Mr. Potentially Problematic. He claims this is so pressing, it hast to be dealt with now and in person.” I put on my Desert Storm Veteran cap to cover up my bed head. “If he shoots me, be sure to tell the police it was Mr. Potentially Problematic that did it.”
Austin got up. “Wait. Wait. Wait.” He pulled on his socks. “He’s been texting me all morning, too. Says he has a issue of grave importance. We’ll both go. He can shoot us both.”
I shrugged. “Your funeral.” We headed up to the Arts Center, a whopping seven minutes from my house. Mr. Potentially Problematic was Mr. Punctual As Always, already there and creeping out the Assistant Director of the Center. I opened up the door to the shop. “Well?” I asked. “What is so important?”
Mr. Potentially Problematic swayed on his feet. “As you may or may not know, I am an amateur baseball player. And as an amateur baseball player, sometimes there are injuries that aren’t readily seen by the human eye.”
He was beating around the bush. I made a circular motion with my heads to signal him to hurry it up, get on with it.
He smiled. I looked. Then I stared. Then I saw.
“You lost a front tooth. You are missing a front tooth.”
I sat down on a nearby ice chest. “Geez Louise. Well, the good news is the play is set in the early 1960’s… Austin Powers has already taught us the British all had bad teeth back then. You will fit right in.”
Mr. Potentially Problematic laughed as if I was Gallagher and I had just sledge-o-maticked my first watermelon. We established he was heading to the dentist the next day, should have a prosthetic tooth by Dress Rehearsal. He had wanted to meet with me and Austin first… because he had no idea how Stacey would react to his disfigurement this close to show time, and he didn’t trust her to take it well.
Austin and I headed back to my house. Austin shook his head. “He couldn’t take a Selfie with his missing tooth, texted that to us? He had to meet with us in person to show off a missing tooth?”
I shrugged. “Got me, Young Squire. On the bright side, neither one of us got shot. I’m calling this a win.”
Austin agreed. We went to the Tech Rehearsal that night. There were still some minor gaffes here and there. Went to the last Tech Rehearsal, and again, there were still some minor gaffes here and there. Stacey had long ago decided that Wednesday before Dress Rehearsal, the cast would have the night off. Seemed crazy to me, but I was not the Director – rehearsal scheduling was her job, not mine. I spent that night off hoping that the flashes of brilliance I had seen would turn into beacons once the heat of an audience was in place… which would be at Dress Rehearsal. As part of its non-profit mission to benefit the community, the Mesquite Arts Theatre brings in residents from retirement and convalescent homes to watch Dress Rehearsal for free. The residents get a free show outside of the home, and the actors get to see how their choices play to an audience before things get real on Opening Night. The practice took me by surprise when I did my first show at the MAT, but now that I accustomed to it, I thought it’s a wonderful idea. I made sure I would be there in both my capacity as Producer and a representative of the Board… when the play started, I would be my responsibility to keep an eye on Concessions until Intermission.
Before I could go up to the Arts Center, my evening was already going downhill. One of the actresses asked me if she could have a couple of guests at Dress Rehearsal. They were friends from church, they couldn’t afford tickets, and she’d already given her two comps to two other family members. I replied I wasn’t going to throw little old ladies out of my Dress Rehearsal, but this was her one Get Out of Jail Free card. Then Mr. Potentially Problematic informed me he had two friends coming to the Dress Rehearsal.
“Why aren’t they using your comps for Friday night?”
“They will be in the Pacific Northwest on Friday. My father is coming Friday night.”
I told him his friends could come, but he, too, had used his one Get Out of Jail Free card. Then I went onto Facebook and reminded the rest of the cast that Dress Rehearsal was not a free show their friends could come to. It was a giveaway to the local retirement homes, and it was a Preview Night for Board Members if they chose to use it, but other than that, it was their final rehearsal before Opening Night. I then let Reservations know there would be some extra people at the performance.
I went to the Arts Center early, as I usually do. I don’t like rushing around at the last minute, I like to be able to take me time getting everything in order. Got Concessions set up, made sure the dressing rooms were open, unlocked the doors closest to the theatre, and waiting for the magic to happen. The retirees showed up early, a lovely way to start the evening. I made the opening remarks at 8 pm, closed the door behind me and waited for Intermission.
In Act Two, just before Intermission, is probably the most pivotal scene in the play. Gertrude has discovered that her husband, Sir Robert, is being blackmailed because of something he did at the start of his government career. She had been convinced that he was incapable of such an act, and discover otherwise was breaking her heart. Which is when Sir Robert begins his monolog about how that was her mistake, putting him up on a pedestal instead of loving him as he was, feet of clay and all. Love shouldn’t be given just to the morally upstanding, but to those with faults, because it is the faults that need love most of all. He then tells her that the blackmail offered him a way out of the shame of his youth… and because she had demanded he stay upright and reject the blackmail, she had destroyed him and his career. His love for her had now caused his complete downfall.
In the early days of rehearsal, Mr. Potentially Problematic had been playing that scene righteously indignant… which was coming across as enraged and uncharacteristically abusive. He was told this by Stacey, that his approach wasn’t reading from the audience, and they had spent weeks rehearsing that scene with him playing wounded and disappointed. He was specifically told not to yell at his “wife”… and not to point accusingly towards her. The scene was still not perfect by the time of the last rehearsal, but it was no longer creepy and icky.
It came time for that verbal exchange in the play… and Mr. Potentially Problematic went rogue. He ignored everything he had been told, he disregarded all the rehearsing they had done, and he did exactly what Stacey had told him not to do. He yelled. He screamed. He bellowed. He pointed accusingly at his co-star time and time again. He slammed his hands against the furniture as spittle flew from his lips. He caught his co-star completely off guard, shaking her out of character. He stormed off stage.
Scene Three, Mr. Potentially Problematic went rogue again, laying his hands on his co-star to move him out of his way while yelling at him, something they had not rehearsed.
By the time the play was over with and the retirees had gone back to their centers, steam was coming out of my ears. Mr. Potentially Problematic was the last to leave, which gave Stacey, Austin, and I a chance to talk about what he had pulled. I opened my mouth, but Stacey cut me off. “I got this.” I nodded and folded my arms… and then got madder and madder as I listened to Mr. Potentially Problematic pooh pooh everything Stacey tried to tell him. He was feeding off the energy of the audience, he was giving the audience what they wanted, he was following his inner muse… and why was she always harder on him than the rest of the cast? Why wasn’t anyone else getting a talking to for the lines they missed, the blocking they forgot? Stacey once again explained his take wasn’t reading to the audience – what he thought was righteous indignation was reading to the audience as abuse. She was the Director, she could see the play as a whole… he would just have to trust her on that.
Austin raised his hand. “If I could put in my two cents. Most of the time, directors are begging actors to give more; you, on the other hand, are already giving one hundred and ten percent. That’s great. That’s awesome. That means we now have enough to pull back and mold into what it is we want in the scene.”
Mr. Potentially Problematic shook his head. “I disagree with you, and I will tell you why.” I couldn’t help myself. “Oh, I want to hear this. Go ahead.”
Mr. Potentially Problematic narrowed his eyes. “You are the Stage Manager. I come to you when I don’t remember my lines or I don’t know what time rehearsal is going to be. I don’t come to you for acting tips. That is what Stacey is for. Stacey is the Director. How DARE YOU deign to give me advice on my acting! You’re job is to manage the stage, not tell ACTORS how to ACT!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I raised my hand and then pointed at Austin. “Assistant Director. He is… the Assistant Director.”
Stacey pointed at Austin. “He’s the Assistant Director. I’m training him to direct. This is completely his job.”
Mr. Potentially Problematic stared at us, then picked up a nearby Playbill and flipped it to the crew page. “Asst. Director/Stage Manager/Board Operations: Austin Roberts”
Mr. Potentially Problematic put the Playbill down. “I guess I was mistaken.” And then he left without offering a single apology to Austin or any indication he was going to follow Stacey’s instructions. I thought Austin was going to have a conniption fit, he was so enraged by what had transpired by the time we got back to my place.
Opening Night, and I have a Sold Out Show. Only I don’t now it: even though I reminded the cast to tell their friends and family using the comp tickets to call ahead, make reservations to we would have a proper head count, the majority of the comp tickets had not done so. Mr. Potentially Problematic’s father arrived with his comp ticket, then the friends who were supposed to be in the Pacific Northwest arrived, claiming they had forgotten the second comp ticket. Father had the second comp ticket, this I’d already handled. I went ahead and comped the girlfriend – I needed Mr. Potentially Problematic in a good place for the play, and having his friend text him the Board Member on Duty had called his buddy a liar would give Mr. Potentially Problematic just the excuse he’d need to go rogue a second time. A free ticket to hedge my bet seemed like a good swap.
I did the opening announcements, closed the doors and settled in to watch the concessions stand. I then did something I almost never do: I prayed. “Please… let me be wrong. For the cast, for Austin, for Stacey… just let me be wrong. Please. I’m asking.”
Mr. Potentially Problematic did the same scene the exact same way, only louder. Just before Intermission, the audience was laughing: half, because they thought this had to be a farce, he was so over the top; and half because he was making them so uncomfortable. He was yelling in Act Three. He was still yelling in Act Four.
When he came off stage after the final bows, he came into the shop and saw Stacey standing there. He threw open his arms and smiled from ear to ear. “Huh? Huh? What did you think about THAT?” He was obviously tickled with his performance. Diplomatically, Stacey answered “Well… the crowd seemed to like it.” Mr. Potentially Problematic then strode into the dressing room.
Stacey and I went to the back hallway. “I guess I could fire him.” Stacey shrugged. “I have pro friends. I could ask, see if anyone is available to take his place. They’d have to stand there, read from the script. I just don’t know how badly it would disrupt the rest of the cast.”
“If you want to fire him, I will back you all the way. It’s either risk disrupting the cast, or you have to understand: THAT is the performance he’s going to give the next three weekends. THAT is the performance the Reviewer is going to see.”
Stacey eyes didn’t just look tired… they looked defeated. I tried to get accustomed to the idea my first play as Producer would go down in Mesquite Theatre history as a complete dumpster fire. I went home and tried to get some sleep, I had a band rehearsal the next day.
I woke up, and as I always do, I immediately turned on my smart phone. It came on then dinged the Mesquite Arts Theatre had a private message sent to the Facebook page.
“My husband is being harassed by one of your actors and received this message. We will be reporting it to the police”
“Hey motherfucker. I appear as Sir Robert Chiltern in the Mesquite Arts Theatre production of ‘An Ideal Husband.’ Remember: you are a bitch. That’s all you’ll ever be.”
I stared at the private message. I re-read his words over and over again, feeling my jaws clench tighter and tighter. I wrote the wife back: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, we will be investigating immediately. By all means, contact the authorities.”
Then I smiled. Mr. Potentially Problematic had disrespected his cast, had disrespected Austin, had disrespected Stacey, had ignored weeks of rehearsals and the specific directions for the pivotal scene just as soon as he had an audience in place and no one could stop him, and then had done so not once, but TWICE… but all of that was still under the responsibility the Director. By using the theatre’s name to harass an outsider, he was now officially a Theatre problem… which meant he was now MY problem… and I’d had enough.
Fuck. This. Shit.
I contacted the Treasurer, asked if we had mechanisms in place to refund money if I had to shut down the rest of the weekend’s performances. I then told him about Mr. Potentially Problematic going rogue, then sending harassing emails – the Treasurer immediately agreed: Mr. Potentially Problematic had to go. I contacted Stacey and told her replacing Mr. Potentially Problematic was no longer an academic question – she needed to contact her friends immediately. I contacted the Chairman of the Board, filled him in – he, too, instantly agreed: Mr. Potentially Problematic had to go. When Austin woke up, I filled him in on what had gone down that morning – he began contacting his buddies from college looking for a replacement. As I got ready to go to band rehearsal, Austin let me know that Stacey’s husband, Craig, was fit to be tied – he wasn’t going to let her anywhere near the Theatre unless he had assurances she’d be safe, he was convinced Mr. Potentially Problematic was nutty buckets: he wanted the police involved. I’d need to contact Five-Oh before I made any phone calls to Mr. Potentially Problematic.
I headed to band rehearsal, doing my best not to text and drive, doing my best to pull over to answer my phone and field questions. I sat in my band leader’s driveway for over half an hour talking to the Chairman, then apologized to the guys for being so late. They heard the story and laughed – they didn’t know being a Theatre Nerd could be so… well… STUPID. At the end of the day, it’s just Community Theater, for fuck’s sake. We got down to business while I held my phone in my hand so I could feel the buzz if I got a phone call or text message.
I didn’t sing well, kept making goofy mistakes. I was obviously distracted. The guys didn’t pick on me, which was exceedingly nice of them. About an hour in, I got a call from the Chairman – he had a friend in the Mesquite Police Department, and he’d been filled in on the situation; he was going to take care of security. I thanked the Chairman – I no longer needed to make a stop at the Po Po.
Austin had found two replacements. I buzzed him, made sure he had his people in place – Austin was a Go. I buzzed Stacey, made sure she was ready for what was about to go down – as long as Five Oh was in place, she was a Go. I made the call to Mr. Potentially Problematic – no answer. No damn answer. I texted him: I need to talk to you immediately. I went back to rehearsing.
An hour later, the band took a break. I called again – no answer. I texted again: You need to call me… NOW. Twenty minutes later, my phone buzzed – it was him. I left the rehearsal garage and went out into the yard.
I didn’t waste any time. “Who is so and so?”
“You know him.”
“Oh. HIM. That so and so. Yes, I know him.”
“Did you text him first thing this morning or late last night?”
“It’s a Yes or No question, and I already know the answer. Did you text him?”
“Well… uh… here’s what you need to understand about that, Keith: he’s a little bitch who is jealous of my talent. So… Yes. I texted him.”
“Yeah. Okay. Did you yell and point at your co-star last night at the end of Act Two? And remember… I was in the hallway, I could hear you.”
“Did Stacey explain to you that wasn’t playing after you did the same thing at Dress Rehearsal? Did she give you explicit directions to pull that back so you wouldn’t come across as abusive? Remember, I was right there.”
“So after being told specifically not to yell and point at your co-star after Dress Rehearsal, you made the decision to disregard your director and weeks of rehearsal to yell and point at your co-star Opening Night?”
I smiled. “Okay then. As the Producer of An Ideal Husband, and as the Representative of the Board of Directors of the Mesquite Arts Theatre, it is my duty to inform you: your services are no longer required. You are FIRED. Do not come to the Theatre tonight, do not come to the Theatre tomorrow, and do not come to the Theatre the next two weekends.”
I could almost hear his jaw hit the ground over the phone. “I’m fired?”
“You are fired.”
“But… but… you never gave me any warning!”
“Stacey, Austin, and I stayed late Thursday night to tell you not to disregard your direction. I pulled you out of Tech Sunday to counsel you on not being disrespectful. I told you telling Stacey how to direct your co-stars wasn’t your job. You were warned three times.”
“But… you never told me I’d be fired!”
“You’re an actor who can’t follow direction! What did you think would happen?”
“But you never said I would be fired if I didn’t follow direction!”
“So you’re telling me the only way to get you to not disregard weeks of rehearsals and get you to follow the specific instructions of your director is to tell you you’re fired if you don’t?”
“Yes! I mean… No! I mean… ”
“You used the theater’s name to badmouth a former colleague. You disregarded your director not once, but twice.”
“I didn’t badmouth him – he’s a lying bitch.”
“You still disregarded your director even after you were counseled not to.”
“I did. But… I promise you, it won’t happen again.”
“It’s already happened twice – that’s two times too many. You’re fired.”
“But I didn’t promise YOU. I promise YOU it won’t happen again.”
“I AM NOT THE DIRECTOR!” I began yelling into my smart phone. “I told you… your job as the Actor was to know your lines, interact with your cast mates, and DO WHAT THE DIRECTOR TELLS YOU TO DO! YOU DID NOT DO THAT! Even after you were warned, YOU DID NOT DO THAT! I CAN’T USE AN ACTOR WHO CAN’T OR WON’T FOLLOW DIRECTIONS! YOU ARE FIRED!”
My band mates were loading up to return to their homes – I’d been on the phone with Mr. Potentially Problematic for a half-hour by now. I could see their eyes get wide as they looked my direction: this was a side of me they had never seen. In all honesty, this was a side of me no one outside of my lovely Lady Fair or my old Army unit had ever seen. This was Sergeant Craker… and the former NCO was pissed.
“Wait, wait, wait… just let me just ask this… you’re willing to bring in scabs rather than have me on stage? You would hurt the play that way?”
“You’re GOD DAMN RIGHT I’m willing to bring scabs in. And I would rather see the Theatre burn to the ground than put you back on my stage. Are you NOT LISTENING? YOU ARE FIRED!”
“Wait, wait, wait… you’re telling me you would throw away weeks of rehearsals and risk destroying the rest of the cast rather than keep me in the play?”
“Oh, don’t EVEN go there. You don’t give a single FUCK about the rest of the cast. If you cared the least little bit about the rest of the cast, you never would have gone rogue to begin with. YOU decided you would disregard weeks of rehearsals and the specific instructions of your director to play the scene as you wanted, with NO warning to the rest of the cast. When you did that, you put YOURSELF and your petty wants above everyone else, completely disrespecting everyone on the stage with you. So, to answer your question, YES… I would throw away weeks of rehearsal if it meant keeping your arrogant ass OFF MY STAGE!”
“Wait, wait, wait… just let me say this… “ Mr. Potentially Problematic was bound and determined not to be fired, and he was sure he could sweet talk me out of the decision. I got in my SUV and drove home, still arguing with Mr. Potentially Problematic. I pulled into my own driveway, still arguing with Mr. Potentially Problematic. I stood on my porch, hot, sweaty, angry as all get out, STILL arguing with Mr. Potentially Problematic.
“Oh, you just think you’re so cool, being the lead singer of a rock band. You think you’re so cool being a Board Member.”
“YOU BET YOUR ASS I DO.” I wiped the sweat out of my eyes. “I stand out in front of up to a thousand bikers, most of whom could grind me into paste with their thumbs, and I rock their asses off for hours at a time. I am a FUCKING ROCK STAR… and that doesn’t change the fact you disregarded your director not once, but TWICE, even after you’d been counseled not to after the first time. YOU ARE FIRED! Now, it’s been two hours, I am done fighting with you, I need a shower and to get cleaned up so I can go put on a play WITHOUT YOU IN IT. This conversation is OVER. Stay away from the Theatre – if you show up, the police will take you into custody.” I hung up.
I had been fighting with him for two hours. I shouldn’t have let it go on for more than fifteen minutes, half-hour tops… but Heaven help me, I was getting a huge thrill out of shooting down all of his excuses and rationales. Mr. Potentially Problematic was accustomed to being the smartest person in the room… he’d never had an argument with someone as intelligent as himself, especially when that person had the moral and ethical high ground. He used every trick he had, to no avail. Throwing the rest of the cast and crew under the bus doesn’t work when you’ve gone rogue. Appealing to the Male Ego by making promises directly to the Alpha Male doesn’t work when the Alpha Male is a loud and proud Feminist who takes pride in appearing like a Beta. Attempting reverse psychology doesn’t work when your opponent agrees wholeheartedly with your opinion, then reminds you his faults don’t change the fact you are a Bad Actor – what else to you call someone who ignores weeks of rehearsals, doesn’t follow directions, and puts themselves above the rest of the cast? YOU are a BAD ACTOR.
And that was what was truly galling him. He was prepared to fight he’d been fired because of his atrocious politics, he’d had his arguments ready to point out how I had discriminated against him… but we’d known about his politics for over a month, and we’d kept him in his role. He had raised his voice and disrespected his cast mate and his director, yet after a talking to, he still had a job. He had gone rogue once, and had been counseled, but not still not fired… we were giving him the benefit of the doubt that Dress Rehearsal had been a fluke, he was just riding high on the energy he was getting from the audience. All he had to do was follow his director’s instruction on Opening Night, and all would be forgiven. He’d been given second chance after second chance… and yet he still did what he wanted, up to and including sending a text basically saying “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah.” He wasn’t being fired for his far right wing politics, alt-right rhetoric or sexist attitude… he was being fired for being unprofessional. He was fired for being a Bad Actor.
I looked down at my phone, saw I had a text from the Chairman while I’d been standing on the porch yelling at Mr. Potentially Problematic. I called him back. “Craig heard from the Mesquite Police Lieutenant he’d been talking to that Mr. Potentially Problematic has a warrant for his arrest for assault. I am shutting down this weekend’s performances.”
When I had seen the text that morning, I’d been ready to shut down the show – finding replacements, going on with the show with a new actor holding a script and performing line readings had turned into an option later. I had absolutely no problem with the Chairman’s call. It did mean I no longer needed to get cleaned up to put on a performance. I jumped back into my SUV and drove up to the theatre to find Stacey and Austin.
All but a couple of cast members were already there, all wondering what the hell was going on. Usually I am at the Theatre in my good clothes – even if I’m in jeans, I am still wearing dress shoes and a sports jacket – today, however, I was in a tee shirt and sneakers, my hair completely disheveled and covered in sweat. I saw the shocked looks on their faces and pointed at myself. “This is what three hours in a hot garage rehearsing with a rock band looks like.” They giggled.
Austin stepped up. “Is it done?”
I nodded. “Took two hours, but yeah… it’s done. I took care of it.”
The cast cheered. Evidently, Mr. Potentially Problematic wasn’t as beloved as his arguments would’ve had me believe. Stacey hugged me, smelly, nasty, and all. “Thank you. Thank you for doing the ugly work.”
I hugged her back. “It was my job… but… you are welcome.” I walked over to Mr. Potentially Problematic’s co-star who had to catch the brunt of his tirade at the end of Act Two. “I’ve taken care of the problem, but I am so sorry I didn’t handle this sooner. I promised you a safe, creative environment at this theater, and I failed to provide that.” I gently took her hand. “From the bottom of my heart, I apologize.” I moved over to the nearest cast member, took their hand, and repeated my apology. I made my way around the room, apologizing to each person individually. Austin waited until I was done, then chimed in. “Two hours? Really?”
I smiled and nodded. “Oh yeah. He did not take well to being fired.” One of the cast asked what happened to spark all this off, so I told them about Stacey and I already being in a conversation about firing Mr. Potentially Problematic when he sent the text that broke the camel’s back. “If I had to do it all over again, I would have fired him Tech Sunday, saved this weekend.”
We made plans to rehearse the replacements the next day, then we’d open the Box Office back up the next weekend. Everyone made their way to the parking lot. As Stacey locked the door, her husband, Craig spoke up. “I’ve never interfered with Stacey’s affairs before… but I am thinking I will be at her next auditions. Because I could tell there was something off about that guy as soon as I saw him.”
I nodded in agreement. “And you’d have been right.” Craig kept going. “I don’t feel bad about putting my foot down. You don’t want to be the mayor who didn’t shut down the beach.”
“Hey, I don’t blame you in the least. If it had been my wife, I probably would have done the same thing. And you are exactly right: you DON’T want to be the mayor who didn’t shut down the beach. I was ready to shut down the entire show this morning when I saw that damn text. My first text was to the Treasurer to make sure we had the mechanisms in place for refunds, then we started in about replacements. I fully support the Chairman’s decision – I’d rather see the entire production crash and burn than risk a single member of my cast and crew.” This seemed to put Craig at ease. Stacey hugged and thanked me again, then she and her husband headed home. I got in my SUV and got the hell out of there. I needed a shower and maybe large amounts of alcohol.
My lovely Lady Fair was home. I took a shower, then explained the day’s events to her. She settled back on her sofa. “That’s why he kept asking about the numbers for Opening Night.”
I blinked a few times. “What. Do. You. Mean?”
She spread open her arms. “He knew weeks in… as soon as he had an audience in place, there was nothing you or the Director could do to stop him. He KNEW he was going to ignore the blocking and rehearsing a good month before he actually did it. That’s why he kept asking about Opening Night: he wanted as big an audience he could have when he pulled his move. He knew all along what he was going to do – Dress Rehearsal was just a bonus for him, a dry run as it were.” She stopped gesturing, folded her arms. “He just didn’t count on you firing him for it.”
I just stared at my wife as she sweetly smiled back at me. “I’ll be god damned… that is EXACTLY what he did. This was no spur of the moment, riding the energy of the crowd going rogue thing… he had this PLANNED all along. I will be god DAMNED.” I shook my head as that knowledge settled in. I then gave my wife the Big Eye in appreciation. “You are a sexy as HELL evil genius, do you know that?”
She grabbed her phone to play Wizards Unite, still smiling sweetly. “THAT is why you married me.”
I didn’t argue.
I arrived at the Theatre the next day and waited for my cast and crew to arrive. I met my replacement actors, then Stacey softly said “We’re ready to start. Why don’t you say something first?”
I nodded and walked to just off center of the stage. “Hey, can I get everyone’s attention for a moment?” The small talk died down and everyone faced me. “Thank you all for being here today, especially my two newbies – I cannot thank you enough for doing this. For those of you I didn’t apologize to personally yesterday… I am so sorry for what you’ve had to go through, and I am so sorry it took so long for me to deal with it.”
I took a big breath. “Since the news hit yesterday, Austin, Stacey, and I have been hearing your stories about dealing with Mr. Potentially Problematic off stage, the confrontations and behavior we didn’t see, and I just want to say… Thank You. Thank You for being professionals. Thank You for having that thick skin and letting that crap just roll off your shoulders. We’ve all had to deal with Artistic Temperament before, it’s what separates the Pros from the Amateurs.” I took a deep breath. “There is a fine line between Artistic Temperament and Douchebag, however.” Everyone laughed. I smiled. “Mr. Potentially Problematic crossed that line. The next time you’re in rehearsals and someone crosses that line, tell someone. Tell your Director, tell your Producer. There’s being a professional, and then there’s being abused… and y’all were abused… and y’all never have to put up with that. Never.”
I began to clap. “All right. Let’s make some magic happen!” The cast whooped and clapped and began setting the stage for Scene One. I left the Theatre and double-checked the doors – locked from the inside. You could leave, but the door would lock behind you.
Around 2 pm, some people arrive at the front door, looking very confused. Patrons with tickets… they hadn’t gotten the news the weekend’s performances were cancelled. I did my best to explain without going into too much detail, told everyone to contact Reservations about changing their dates or receiving a refund, and tried to be as empathetic and understanding as possible with angry guests who had driven far to arrive at a locked Theatre door.
I went back and checked in on the cast. They were going over their lines, helping the two replacements with blocking… and they were laughing, smiling, and clapping when someone did something clever. Stacey was smiling and laughing, too, applauding her actors with a joy I hadn’t seen since the second week. I quickly stepped back into the hallway as my eyes filled with tears. My cast had been miserable, and I didn’t know it. Stacey and I had fretted that losing Mr. Potentially Problematic would totally disrupt the cast… and come to find out, firing his arrogant ass was the best action I could have possibly taken.
I double-checked the locked doors. I scanned the parking lot for strange cars. I reminded myself Mr. Potentially Problematic had a history of showing up unannounced and skulking around backstage at other theaters after he’d been fired… and I would be DAMNED if that happened on my watch.
The decision was made just one of my replacements would take on the role, now that the Opening Weekend had been scuttled. He’d be back during the week to work on blocking, Stacey would stay backstage to make sure he came in and out of the proper entrances. He’d still need his script, but he could familiarize himself with the most important monologs, which Stacey was editing down to more manageable bites. Only problem was Sunday’s matinee – my new actor was teaching an acting camp up in Commerce, and the matinee was the same time as orientation. The other replacement was also teaching at the same camp, so he was automatically unavailable.
I couldn’t cancel another performance. Austin knew all the lines, but he was handling board ops. I could step up, do the line reading myself… or… we could reschedule the performance for Sunday evening. My new actor could be there by 5:30… we could do the show at 7. I did NOT want to do the line reading, and Stacey said the cast she had talked to were good with moving the show to the new time.
Auditions for the next production, The Elephant Man, were happening up at the Theatre Monday night. Fellow Board members Scott and Karen were the Director and Stage Manager, and Steven had expressed his desire to be in the show. I could wait to get email responses from the entire Board… or I could go up to the Theatre and talk to half the Board in person. I jumped in the SUV and headed to the Theatre.
Karen saw me walk in the door and immediately gave me a hug. “Bless you heart. You’ve had a rough weekend.” Emily, Scott both hugged me, Steven shook my hand. “Dude. Wow. So glad it was you in charge.” I chucked Steven on the the shoulder. “Thanks.” I pulled my fellow Board Members together and explained the situation. When I expressed that moving the time was the best of all the bad solutions, they agreed. With my vote, that was a majority. I thanked them, wished their auditions well, then headed home to start changing my show time.
My replacement actor came in Wednesday and Thursday to practice his blocking and give his co-stars a chance to rehearse with him. It quickly became evident that my new actor wasn’t just standing there giving a line reading while holding his script in his hand… he was actually ACTING. He was listening to his cast mates and reacting to their words, he was finding the reasons behind his blocking and adding that into his performance. As the minutes and hours went by, Stacey gave fewer and fewer notes… it soon became clear that the best way to get the performance she wanted was just to let her actors… ACT.
There wouldn’t be time for a full run-though of the play – Friday night would be the first time the cast would perform with the replacement; worse, Friday night would be the first time the cast would perform the play after having a week off. Friday arrived, and I did my Board Member on Duty chores, welcoming Reservations and Box Office to the Theatre. Then the ticket holders began to arrive… and arrive… and arrive. It didn’t take long to figure out my Friday night show was Sold Out… the question quickly became where was I going to put all these people? I went backstage and informed the cast there would be seats on the floor, so don’t trip over an audience member when entering in the dark… then I went looking for extra seats and places in the audience to sneak in a chair or two, take up an aisle space to keep people in the stands. Did the best I could, still had seven seats on the floor.
It was Showtime. I went onstage as Austin killed the background music I had picked out weeks before. I welcomed everyone to the show, asked them to turn off the phones and not to take pictures, informed then of the upcoming productions, explained the tip bucket for the cast… and then it was time to explain:
“This isn’t a movie or TV show – this is LIVE theatre, and sometimes things happen. Life happens. We had to find a new actor after Opening Night. The actor we found is wonderful, we love the performance he is going to give you, but… he’s only had a few days to prepare for this role, so… he will be carrying his script. We are confident he will do such a good job you will soon forget he his still carrying his book, but… that is what happened and that is what is happening tonight. We thank you so much for your patience and understanding. Now, please enjoy… An Ideal Husband.”
I left the stage and headed out into the main hall to watch over Concessions… and waited. When it came time for the Pivotal Scene at the end of Act Two, THAT SCENE, I pressed my ear to the door. Gertrude was doing her usual amazing job… and then I heard my replacement… and he was wounded and disappointed, bordering on devastated… he was loud enough to be heard and force his point, but he was not yelling or screaming… he was confessing… he was exposing his soul, and it was dramatic and powerful and totally heart-breaking. Gertrude called out to him as he left the stage, then crumbled to the ground crying in despair as the lights dissolved into a single spotlight illuminating her sobs… then a fade to black as the 60’s era instrumental music filled the theatre. The audience applauded.
I propped open the doors for the audience to make their way to the restrooms and grab more treats from Concessions. My smile was completely genuine. No matter what else happened, as far as I was concerned, that night was a success.
The lights went out on the final scene of Act Four, then came back up to show the entire cast gathered around the couch. They got up, took their bows, then headed out into the hallway to receive the audience as they left the theatre. I headed to the front door to both prop it open and keep an eye out for Mr. Potentially Problematic – it would be just my luck he’d show up to harass my patrons. With Intermission, the play was still running just under two and a half hours, long for a Mesquite production. As the audience members filed out, I thanked them for coming… and they responded with smiles and handshakes. “The play was fantastic! You were so right – after ten minutes or so, I just thought that script was a prop he was carrying! The entire cast was just amazing!” The accolades kept coming. I closed the front door, double-checked the lock, then went to work counting the tip bucket. The accolades had been met with corresponding action: with only ten more people in the audience, the tip amount was over double what it had been Opening Night with Mr. Potentially Problematic in the cast.
Saturday night and another sold out show, another round of rave reviews, and another tip bucket double the amount of Opening Night. I told Stacey all indications were she had a hit on her hands.
I was supposed to have Sunday off to spend with my band in an emergency rehearsal to make up for my blowing a good part of Saturday’s dealing with Mr. Potentially Problematic. That afternoon, I got a text from the Theatre maintenance staff: people were showing up for a matinee that wasn’t happening. I told Maintenance to inform the good people to either come back at 6 or contact our Reservation line, we would happily rebook them or refund their ticket purchase. I went back to singing with my band. I got a text from Austin around 5:15: the alarm was making way more noise than normal, was there a way to shut it off? I was texting back when he popped back up. “Never mind. We set off the alarm. The police are here.” My Board Member on Duty was still on the road, wasn’t due to be there for another half-hour. I told the band I had to go take care of business, and we closed up shop early. Twenty minutes later and covered in four hours of sweat and grime from being in a steaming hot garage all afternoon, I was at the Theatre setting up Concessions and answering questions. Turned out, that was the best thing I could have done: my Box Office person got the time wrong and didn’t show up until ten minutes before showtime. My BMOD handled Box Office while I took care of getting the house ready. When Box Office did arrive, I had him look after Concessions while my original BMOD handled the welcome announcements. I went home, grabbed a shower, then put on my Sunday best and went back up to the theatre to watch over my cast and crew. Another round of accolades. While we’d had just over half a house – a great showing considering we moved the matinee and lost part of our Sunday crowd regulars – the tip bucket still topped Opening Night.
I went home and wrote an email to my fellow Board Members, reminding them that experienced Directors meant BMODs could show up at the last minute and just need to worry about guests and small SNAFUs like no paper towels in the Ladies Room… but new Directors don’t know how things operate and don’t know how to deal with problems. My cast was ninety percent brand new, my AD/SM was brand new, and my Director was brand spanking new; the BMOD would need to be there an hour – ninety minutes early to make sure no goofs or gaffes occurred… such as SETTING OFF THE ALARM. I would not be at the Theatre AT ALL on Saturday, the band had our gig… so if something stupid happened, there was no way I could leave and head up to the Theatre like I had done that Sunday. Someone would have to be there to deal.
Stacey made the choice not to rehearse during the week. She’d have our fantastic replacement come in early Friday to run lines with her, but that was it. She wanted the cast to recover.
Friday came, and the audience was around two-thirds full. Fridays were usually the hardest nights to fill, and considering Opening Friday and last Friday had been sell outs, I was still happy. Another round of rave reviews, another tip bucket topping Opening Night. I barely slept that night, worrying about Saturday night, trying to concentrate on band business while fretting about my one time not being at my show. I forced myself not to go the theatre Saturday afternoon – I would trust my fellow Board Members to step up.
I was setting up for the my band gig when I got the first texts – my faith had been justified. Karen was there early, dressing rooms were open, Concessions was taken care of, and Steven was finding chairs to place on the floor, it was another sell out. The mighty East Texas Garage Band slayed at the bar gig that night, then I checked my text messages one last time. As Stage Manager, it was officially his job to look after the tip bucket even though I’d been handling that particular chore as over-protective Producer: triple what they had taken in Friday night. Over four times what they had taken in Opening Night with Mr. Potentially Problematic. I stared at the text and tried not to cry.
Final Sunday, back to being a matinee, and again, sold out and putting chairs on the floor. I’d had about four hours of sleep, but I didn’t care. I’d had coffee and an energy drink, it was time for my people to end strong. My replacement was comfortable with his blocking, so Stacey took a seat in the stands to watch her work. The cast was extraordinary, delivering their best performance. The play ended and the cast took their bows. Before they could head off stage, I shooed them back. “Stay there. Stay there. Don’t move.” I then walked out into the set area. “Austin! Turn off the music and bring up the house lights!” The music died down and the lights came up.
“Ladies and Gentlemen… this was the final performance of An Ideal Husband.” The audience and the cast applauded.
“This was an unusual production. We have an immersive set with everything turned around backwards. Ninety percent of the cast had never worked with the Mesquite Arts Theatre before. Got a brand new Stage Manager and Assistant Director fresh out of college, Mr. Austin Roberts.” The audience and cast applauded.
“We lost one of our leads after Opening Night, only the second time in Mesquite Arts Theatre history and the first time in over twenty years that had happened. Thankfully, the entire cast stepped up to keep the play going… and an amazing actor and fantastic person stepped in with no preparation at all and saved my bacon.” The audience and cast applauded as my replacement took a bow.
“Lastly, none of this could have been possible with the vision, hard work and dedication of our amazing director, Stacey Upton.” I pointed to her seat as the cast began applauding her wildly. “Stacey… come on down and join your cast, take a much deserved bow.” Stacey was wiping away tears as she smiled and stood in the middle of her cast, took her bow to the thunderous applause of the audience. “All right everybody – that’s all! Thank you for coming, now GO HOME! See you at The Elephant Man in August!” The audience cheered and clapped as they made their way out of the theatre.
I took the tip bucket upstairs – another fantastic showing, over twice Opening Night yet again. I counted out the entire take… then recounted the entire take… then recounted one more time. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I divided the take ten ways, giving the older cast members bigger bills thinking the younger cast members would appreciate the Ones and Fives a lot more. I put the money in envelopes and addressed each with a cast name… then headed downstairs to see how Strike was progressing.
“I bear gifts!” I called out, then began handing out the tips. “Gang, I had to count this three times to be sure I got this right… because I honestly could not believe my eyes. With only seven performances, you amazing people took in just under $1000 in the tip bucket. That is just incredible.” The cast cheered and pocketed their envelopes, went back to breaking down the set with noticeably more vim and vigor.
Stacey walked up to me, tears in her eyes. “I can’t believe you did that. As a Director, you never get to… I can’t begin to tell you… how much that meant… “
I cut her off. “I know.” I hugged her and didn’t let her go. “You did a fantastic job. The show was a certifiable hit. You deserved to take a bow with your cast… so I made sure you took a bow with your cast.”
She kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear. “Thank you.” I squeezed her and let her go. “You are very welcome.”
About three hours and a trip to Chili’s later, my job as Producer was done. Two of my Board Member buddies had already asked for contact info for the cast, they wanted to work with them as soon as feasible. Stacey was already pestering Austin about being her AD/SM for her next production out in Garland. One of the leads was already learning lines, having been cast as Merrick in The Elephant Man. Mr. Potentially Problematic had never shown up… although we did get reports he had shown up at other theaters he’d been banned from with a camera, demanding someone go on the record explaining why he wasn’t allowed on the premises.
I drove Austin back to my place, the caffeine having worn off and the exhaustion of the last three weeks settling in. “You know, there was a time during rehearsals, when Mr. Potentially Problematic was still on board, where I just couldn’t tell if we had the best dramatic show the Theatre had ever produced… or a complete dumpster fire.” I wiped my eyes. “I am so damn glad the cast got a Success, especially after all they went through.”
Austin grinned. “Well… if you don’t mind me saying so… I think you were correct weeks ago: this was both a big success and a dumpster fire. It was a success on stage and a dumpster fire backstage.”
I laughed hard. “I guess I need to be more specific next time.”
“Is there going to be a next time?”
“Oh, HELL NO!”
We laughed as we pulled into the driveway.
All Spring, the band had been hoping to get a call from our biker rally buddies who were now in charge of their own event… so I had no plans to audition for the Spring Musical. Musical Revue, actually: 100 Years of Broadway, fifty-five songs or song snippets from the last century, either performed solo or in up to six-part harmony. Then the band saw that the Louisiana Rumble had posted their band line up online… and I changed my mind. I was scheduled to see Hamilton with my lovely Lady Fair the opening weekend, but Mom graciously took my place.
The day after I auditioned, I got sick, and I spent the next week feverish and achy. I still had the hacking cough when rehearsals started, which made for an uncomfortable first week or so. The upside was the cast was amazing. Including me, there were five men and six women, and there wasn’t a weak voice in the bunch. Everyone was a great singer; a couple were amazing singers; and as much as we enjoyed our bucket list solos, coming together in some of the harmonies gave us all goosebumps. The chords our vocals were creating in our Black Box Theatre were just heavenly.
Best part was… we all got along fantastically. We all had egos – because you can’t sing that well without having confidence, it’s the confidence that allows you to sing that well – but no one was a Diva. No one thought they were better than anyone else, and everyone was a fan of everyone else. We would all listen to each other’s solos and just applaud, the positive vibes were in full effect. Without a doubt, it was the most enjoyable time I’ve ever had in a cast.
All the men chosen for the show were tenors. I had the biggest range, so I got tasked with learning the Bass-Baritone part. This would be difficult for me on a good day – I tend to listen for the high notes, go for the top or near-top harmonies – but the task was made even harder when I found my part had been written in the Bass Clef. I hadn’t sight read music in the Bass Clef in over thirty years, and yet… here I was. My new buddy and fellow now-a-baritone, Rob, was in the same boat, so I got to share my misery.
As written, 100 Years of Broadway only runs about forty-five minutes; to make the show run the hour and half our audiences were accustomed to, our Director, Scott, decided each cast member would do one song all the way through. My song would be Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. The song had been on my Bucket List for years – this would finally be my shot at not just singing it, but performing it in public in front of an audience. I said I had the biggest range out of all the men… on a good day, if I’m allowed to finesse my way into my head voice, I can sing a high A without going into my falsetto (in my falsetto, I can get up to a high E, but it’s a little shrill) – Music of the Night has TWO high A’s, the second at full voice. At the end of the song, there’s an F that you need to hold as long as you possibly can while the accompanist plays the final chord progressions – the longer the note, the more slowly the piano can play and more impressive the ending becomes.
Scott brought in a choreographer, Skylar, to help us not just stand around singing. Skylar was (is) fantastic – she gave us moves that the old, creaky members of the cast could actually perform while making us all look like long time pros. Janet the music director did her best to teach us all the various harmonies, but in a place or two we just sang the melody. Especially the men; the women included a few Music and Vocal Performance degrees, so they could handle all their harmonies. After weeks of rehearsals, everything was coming together and we were ready for an audience.
So, right on schedule, I got sick again. The night of Dress Rehearsal, I had a fever. I popped some aspirin, downed an antihistamine with an energy drink just in case, and got to work. I did the same thing Opening Night, Opening Saturday, and Opening Matinee Sunday. Saturday night, I delivered the best version of Music of the Night I had ever done. Monday, I cratered – my voice sounded like I had been gargling broken glass. I toughed it out a couple of days, then begged my Lady Fair to take me to the clinic for a Z Pak and a steroid shot. I also went to the local pharmacy and stocked up. I had been performing in a rock band for the last ten years – I knew what it took for the show to go on.
The steroid shot caused me to sweat out my fever, but my throat was still scratchy and raw, and something evil was living in both my sinuses and my chest. An hour or so before hitting the stage, I took my Rock Star Cocktail… antihistamine, decongestant, cough suppressant, bronchial dilator, nose spray, energy drink… and just before my solo, my secret weapon: Dr. Schulze’s Throat and Tonsil Spray… or, as I like to call it, my throat mace. Echinacea and essential oils to help combat your cold or flu, then essence of peppermint, garlic, and habanero pepper to obliterate whatever nasty crap is currently coating your throat and resting on your vocal chords. You spray it directly on the back of your throat because it will burn if you get it on your tongue… but afterwards, it will add half an octave back to your vocal range for at least a few minutes. I keep two small spray bottles of the stuff for emergencies.
I nailed my solos. Never did as well as that first Saturday, but considering I was sick as a dog, I did remarkably well all through the final six shows. At one point on another, half the cast was sick, so it was remarkable we all did so well through the run of the entire production. I made some new friends and solidified my friendship with former cast mates. I got to sing show tunes, something a Rock Star rarely gets to do.
I also increased the reach of my brand. The head of the Rockwall Summer Musicals came to one of the performances – after the show, she asked if I’d come to their next audition, they were still looking for a Daddy Warbucks for their production of Annie. I had to turn her down – the band was waiting on me – but I would consider auditioning next summer if my schedule allowed.
Just as my Spring was winding down, my Summer was kicking into high gear a month early.
To be continued.
2019 is off to one hell of a start.
Before anything else, I have to give huge credit to my lovely Lady Fair. From 2017 to the first half of 2018, in the span of just eighteen months, my beautiful wife lost her youngest uncle, her oldest uncle, her great-uncle, and her grandmother. Her mom’s side of the family has just been decimated, suffering loss after loss… and my Lady Fair kept soldiering on. This marked the first year we didn’t go to her grandmother’s for Thanksgiving or Christmas… and she felt the absence hard. Through the melancholy, he managed to stay strong, and she still manages to stay positive.
Last May, I wrote about how I finally had enough things going on in my personal life, I didn’t have to worry about saying anything about The East Texas Garage Band that might get me in trouble… well, that hasn’t changed – I still have a ton going on – but the biggest news in my life right now IS The East Texas Garage Band. So… yeah, it’s time to talk about the guys.
After six months of convalescing, JC came back to the band… and then promptly disappeared again. He could still drum, but it hurt. A lot. Screaming pain in his forearms after just half an hour or so. Doing a ninety minute set at a rally was out of the question, much less four hours at a bar on bike night. He left to heal up… which never really happened.
Paul brought in an old buddy from back in the day to do some drumming, Ernie, and bless his heart, he tried. He tried hard. Too many years out of practice meant he just couldn’t handle the harder syncopations of the songs we’d been performing with JC. Ernie got us through the one rally we’d promised the year before, then it was time to go hunting for a new drummer.
While JC had been healing up, the band was on hiatus… and then the band still wasn’t gigging while we tried to get Ernie up to speed… so we weren’t earning any money during the downtime. Add that to the fact he was driving an hour one way to rehearsals, throw in his daughter was getting ready to graduate high school and he wanted to spend more time closer to home, and Tim just plain got frustrated. He decided to join a band closer to his crib and extended family, gave us his notice at the rally. We hated to lose him – the band had never sounded better with his guitar and vocals in the mix – but we couldn’t blame him for being tired. He’d been a solid bandmate, a professional the entire time he was with us, so we had no hard feelings. I wished him well as he joined a four-piece doing southern rock and country.
So last year when I was writing about not wanting to discuss the band because it wasn’t just me, it was four other guys… well, that is what was going on. We had lost two of our five members, and I honestly didn’t know if I had a band anymore. Paul the band leader and Dave the bassist both confirmed they were committed to keeping ETGB going, so I crossed my fingers, and Paul started hunting for new players.
I started 2018 recovering from a bout of the flu while I was in rehearsals for a two-man show, the fourth of the Tuna plays, Tuna Does Vegas at the Mesquite Community Theatre. Eight characters with eleven different wardrobe changes, the hardest acting job I’d ever attempted. I also started 2018 as a member of the Board of Trustees for MCT because I decided if I was going to help make the world a more positive place, it was time to put my money where my mouth was. After a few months of meetings, I took on the advertising and social media marketing for MCT.
When school started back up in August, one of my fellow Vagabond Players, the drama teacher out in Wills Point, Jamie, asked me if I would drive out a couple of days a week and help voice coach her students for their fall musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. Jamie is a buddy, Vagabond Players are family, and in my humble opinion, there’s no job more important than helping kids understand and reach their potential. This was another chance for me to walk the walk, so I said “Yes.”
The mayor of Terrell came to see Ron and Gayle, the owners and operators of the Vagabond Players – he was hoping they would consider doing a Christmas play in the defunct Kaufman County Community Theater space in the old Terrell courthouse. Ron and Gayle agreed, and then started making phone calls to their Vagabond family. One of the phone calls was to me – would a take a part? I always say “Yes” when Ron calls, so I was now in the cast of A Christmas Carol. This particular version of the story takes place in Charles Dickens’ attic, with his dinner guests playing multiple roles. I would be playing Forster, a literary critic and best friend to Dickens; Forster would then play the ghost of Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and assorted other characters. This would be the second time I had been in the play – eight years ago, I played Stansfield, an artist friend of Dickens, who goes on to perform as Bob Cratchitt, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Undertaker, and few minor characters. A lot had changed in me personally in the time between my first time with the play and the second: back then, I had just started with the band and hadn’t been in a play in over twenty years; I was still deciding who I was as an artist. Playing the artistic Stansfield and the meek, but still optimistic Cratchitt felt right. Now it was almost a decade later, I’d gone from being just another voice to the frontman of the band, been in three musicals and one play performing the lead twice – I knew exactly who I was as an artist, and exactly what I would and would not stand for. Forster was the insufferable know-it-all that secretly possessed a playful spirit and bleeding heart politics… which meant I would be playing myself.
So from August until nearly Christmas, I would be volunteering for two community theaters and one high school drama department, all while the band was looking for not just a drummer, but also a guitarist with enough talent to play leads, but enough humility to do rhythm.
I should have been hip-deep into writing songs, too. Sharon’s job kept going berserk, keeping her at work fourteen-fifteen hours a day for weeks on end. When she wasn’t bogged down with her employment woes, there seemed to be family drama going on every weekend. I reminded her that I understood Life can get in the way, that I completely get that too much bad news in a row can destroy artistic confidence, and that I believe in her always. Her talent and skill not just humbled me, but inspired me to create even more… which was exactly what she needed to hear. The dark cloud over her head started clearing, and after some much needed good news on the family front, her personal skies were blue again.
Paul brought in a couple of guitarist to audition late Summer and early Fall – neither one worked out. Fantastic players, the both of them: one was mainly a blues guy accustomed to three pieces; the other a long-time classic rocker who didn’t show much interest in learning our harder songs. Paul did bring in a new drummer, Ryan, who fit like a glove right off the bat. Played for a local Indianapolis band that recorded a couple of albums in the early 90’s, then busted up after members had to find real jobs. Ryan hadn’t been in a band in a decade or so… but he’d been practicing every night on his electronic kit the entire time. He took to our songs and their oddball syncopation in nothing flat.
In December, Paul found Brett, a guitarist who’d been in a band with both my keyboardist, Sharon, and our buddy, Tim. Sharon and Tim both had nothing but great things to say about him, so Paul brought Brett in for a couple of meet and greets with me and Dave while Ryan was doing holiday stuff with the family. The meet and greets went just fine, but when we put Brett together with Ryan and we had all five of us together, it was as if they’d been playing together for years. And just like Ryan, it turned out the Brett was just a good guy. After eight very frustrating months, we were back to full strength. The East Texas Garage Band was back.
The Drowsy Chaperone was a big success for the Wills Point High students. A Christmas Carol sold out several times with rave reviews, another success. My social media marketing and press release push seemed make an impact, as the summer musical at MCT, Curtains, sold out seven out of nine performances, the most successful musical in MCT’s history. The last play of the year, The Curious Savage, also had multiple sold out shows, so even though the federal grant amounts had been cut in half, MCT still closed out the season in the black.
Which brings us to 2019.
Been back out to Sharon’s for our songwriting – mainly some logistics and planning, but some actual songwriting, as well. Hoping to record the cover of Bobby Goes here in the next few weeks, then dive into the first couple of original tunes.
The East Texas Garage Band has its first gig with the new line up February 9th. Hoping to get some concert footage videoed, but ETGB tends to be LOUD, which then tends to overwhelm the microphones on the video cameras. If we can get some decent sound, Paul wants to use that to go after the bike rally gigs we excel at. We’ve been rehearsing nearly every weekend since the start of the year, and except for a couple of songs the new guys don’t quite know how to end, we are ready. Missing Tim’s tenor vocals, but musically, we’re nearly as good as we’ve ever been, and we just keep on improving every week. Got a great feeling about this coming year on the road, especially if we get the right rallies.
Jamie appreciated all the hard work I volunteered, so she asked me to come back out to Wills Point, help with the One Act Play, Ghetto. It’s set in WWII, in the Jewish ghetto, with actors, singers, dancers, ventriloquists, and comedians performing for the amusing of a Nazi officer who will kill them for a bad show. It’s dark, it’s deep, it’s unsettling… and it has several songs Jamie would like me to help coach the kids.
I’ve got another year on my term with the Board at the Mesquite Community Theatre. One of the big decisions last year was to do a re-branding, try to lose the Community stigma so the theatre can go up against the bigger outfits in the surrounding cities. Most of the rebranding fell to me, the graphic/web designer and production artist. So this year, we are now The Mesquite Arts Theatre or MAT. New logo, new season passes, new complimentary tickets, and a brand new Patreon account for memberships to try and grab that crowdfunding money and monthly passive income. Looking to start printing t-shirts and other swag soon.
January was the annual awards ceremony and silent auction for MCT’s shows the preceding year. The Board gives out awards to Best Show, Best Director, Best Set Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Costumes, etc. I was up for Best Actor for Tuna Does Vegas, and honestly, knowing that I was up against OT Mitchell (my amazing co-star from Tuna) and Jimmy-Lee Beard (the break-out star of Curtains), I figured I didn’t stand a chance – I was wrong. I had tears in my eyes as I accepted the award, telling everyone in attendance the honor belonged as much to OT for being such an amazing cast mate;, and Julie Phillips, who did not get enough credit for directing a fantastic show. Julie had taken a big chance with me, since I didn’t originally audition for Tuna Does Vegas – I didn’t think I had the chops. But the Board Chairman, Dennis, asked me to give it a shot; Ron convinced me I could do it; and Julie decided she liked my take on the characters. Winning the award was as much a testament to her skills as a director as my hard work as a performer.
It’s going to be very hard to explain to folks I consider myself a singer who sometimes acts… now that I am officially an award-winning actor. I’m pretty sure I can find a way to bear that particular cross.
And so… here we are. Got a band again. Still volunteering for high school kids. Still volunteering at my local community theatre. Getting close to releasing that first single with my songwriting partner and composer.
In what’s becoming an annual tradition, I’ve recorded another Christmas song. Please enjoy, and I’ll have much more to say very soon.
Back in April of 2017, I wrote about how I didn’t know how to proceed with this blog when it meant not feeling comfortable discussing things that were coming up in ETGB, when ETGB isn’t just me, but four other guys, as well… well, at the moment, that isn’t a problem any more. I have plenty going on all by my lonesome.
It’s been an interested eighteen months or so.
Last thing first:
I’ve written thirteen songs so far. THIRTEEN. I am a little dumbfounded by this fact. Sharon, the lovely woman I met last year when ETGB stepped in at the last second to do music duties at the gig she’d booked is now my writing partner and composer. Sharon is freaking brilliant. She not only hears the chords, she not only hears the harmonies, but she hears layers of music. She’s almost too good – keeping her from writing entire symphonies based on my lyrics is my biggest challenge these days. The best part of her composing the music is the songs I felt may be too weak to put on an album are suddenly sounding like potential singles; so now, instead of being worried I didn’t have enough songs, I’m finding myself cutting songs. We can actually pick and choose. It’s an amazing turn of events from a couple of years ago when I kept asking folks for help, folks would say “Yes,” and then bail on me when it came time to get down to the doing – since we started collaborating, I finished a song I started but put on the back burner, and wrote another less than a week later. We’ve got all but one song charted, Sharon is talking to a rhythm section, and she may even have a line on both a rehearsal space and a recording studio.
It took until a couple of months ago to get really started on composing for the album because the holidays and last fall were horrible. My poor partner had just started a brand new day job when she lost her beloved mother out on the east coast. Even without all the time she spent flying back and forth for the illness, service, and family affairs, Sharon was too heartbroken to consider jumping into music. She needed months to heal. While she was dealing with all that, I was bedridden: first with a bad back; and then with not one, but two bouts of the flu, one case over Thanksgiving, the other over Christmas and New Year’s. While I was trying to get my voice back all January, I also started rehearsals for Tuna Does Vegas, a two-man show where I would play eight different characters with at least ten costume changes. The play and rehearsals would eat up all my free time from the second week of January until the start of the second week of March.
My back gave out because I had spent all summer being not just the music director and voice coach of the Terrell musical, The Addams Family, but the lead actor portraying Gomez Addams, as well… a task that actually started the second week of March, when I started giving voice lessons to the lovely young woman who wanted to play Wednesday. My voice lessons later expanded to the woman auditioning for Alice and the comedian/TV host we nabbed for Lurch. I learned all the songs to the musical, taught everyone the songs, voice directed as necessary, and then still managed to not make a complete fool out of myself playing the lead.
Before I was the lead in Addams Family, before I was giving voice lessons to the cast, I was the voice of Audrey Two in the Mesquite production of Little Shop of Horrors. The lead was out sick the first couple of weeks of rehearsal, so when I wasn’t singing my part, I as filling in as Seymour vocally so the rest of the cast could learn their singing parts. I was also behind the scenes, so I sang with the rest of the ensemble during the crowd numbers. All in all, it was a solid nine months of preparing for and performing musicals last year. I knew I was worn out, I knew what I really needed to do was make an appointment to see my chiropractor… but I kept putting it off. Finally, I put it off one day too many, and my lower back said “Screw this noise – I am taking a vacation.” It had been years since my back had just plain given out on me – usually, I have really good habits and I know when I’m pushing my luck – so I felt like a complete idiot when it happened… an idiot in agony, no less. Lesson learned just in time to come down with the flu.
I have done two singing gigs at the First Presbyterian Church out in Terrell. I have a voice made for hymns, it seems, and some of my best friends are usually in attendance there. Hoping I can do more church singing in the future.
I am still with ETGB, and that won’t change. Paul is my brother, and I will be his singer until he gets sick and tired of me. I do now have another couple of opportunities to get my Rock Star on without being dependent on ETGB, though… and that means guilt-free fodder for the blog.
Also means getting my weight down and instruments learned is back to being Priority Number One. So Operation: Rock Star is still a GO.