Monday. It’s my first day of work, and just ten days from opening. Tonight I meet Todd Jefferson Moore, the man playing Thom Pain. It’s clear the role is in capable hands. At first glance, Todd is an unassuming human creature. Crumbling into middle age, he is slender with the rough bronze patina of a Rodin sculpture. There is an underlying gentleness to him, in the measured lilt of his talk, and his barefoot loping to and fro across the stage. All this subtlety disarms any notion that he contains the oceanic undercurrent of rage that Jerry is determined to tap for this production.
After our initial introduction, Jerry dives back into his work. Lighting cues are still being fussed over, blocking isn’t solid, and Todd’s modish suit hasn’t been wrinkled correctly. Jerry sends his stage manager, Amy, to speak to the costume department. “I want crumpled trousers,” he clarifies. “Crumpled but not violently creased.”
When Amy returns, she ticks something off on her clipboard and scans the room. Upon finding me she screws her face into a smirk.
“Well, well. Who’s the strange man?” she asks, offering her palm.
“I’m the Supplemental Extra,” I admit.
She shakes her head as we shake hands.
“Not around here,” she says. “As far as we’re concerned, you’re just a strange man wandering around backstage. You’re not even on our call sheet, see?”
She shows me the call sheet tucked into her clipboard, but there’s nothing to look for.
“Jerry wants as few people to know about you as possible, so word doesn’t get out. You’ll have your own dressing room, but that’s a secret too. No placard.”
This is a pleasant surprise. Fair compensation for my forced anonymity. I want to inquire further, but at that moment we’re called up. Jerry beckons me to the foot of the stage. He introduces me to the rest of his crew and I make a nervous crack about not having learned my lines. It hits the floor, bereft of life.
“So,” Jerry says, “you’ll be sitting right here.”
He walks to the spot and points.
“Dead center, second row. B9.”
I sit in the assigned seat, testing it.
“Does Todd see me when I me leave?” I ask.
“He bee-lines right for you.” Jerry marches to the front edge of the stage. “And when you’re nearly out the door he opens both barrels….” He points at the rear door and screams the line. “Au revoir, CUNT!” he grins. “Can we try it?”
We run the scene a few times, each trial feeling exactly like the run before it. I rise methodically when I hear my cue and shuffle to the end of the row with a deliberate lag to simulate the presence of an uncooperative crowd. On the fourth or fifth run I get it right, or near enough, and I am dismissed. I slip backstage and find Amy alone in the greenroom pouring herself a cup of coffee. Seizing this free minute she escorts me to my dressing room, rattling off the ground-rules as we go: don’t touch any of the boxes, they’re full of costumes; if your outfit isn’t here each night when you arrive, talk to wardrobe; and don’t ever bother Todd in his adjacent dressing room, he’ll most likely be meditating.
Amy skips off, leaving me to fend for myself. I investigate my cluttered cubby and plunk down in front of the wide vanity mirror, shaded grey in the half-light. The light-bulbs screwed into the perimeter of the mirror glint darkly, and I don’t bother looking for the switch. I don’t want to see myself dressed like this, in an outfit that feels exactly the opposite of a costume. It’s a uniform. Cute. Thoughts of revolt, ineptitude, and idleness consume me. But my dilemma is a vain one, pathetic but potent. I’m a stubborn man with artistic ambitions the size of ocean, and all I’ve been offered is a glass of water.
But it’s not long before the amorphous ideas sloshing around in my head begins to take a solid shape. Its genesis is swift and follows a clear line: I recall reading one of Brendan Behan’s childhood anecdotes, about the dozen Hollywood-style inflections he tested while rehearsing his only line of dialog in a school play. First he recited it plainly—“Water, is it?”—but that felt flat. So he put a snarky spin on it, then got earnest, followed by cautious, and sped on through a spectrum until he was conjuring James Cagney—all for the sake of one dubious moment in the spotlight. When his show finally opened, young Behan was so well prepared for his fifteen seconds of fame that he delivered the line three times in a row, each with a different read, just to show off his range.
With Behan’s gusto in mind, my own predicament becomes a sudden advantage. I have been given the leeway most actors crave. My costume has been selected to evoke a personality, but not a motive, and I am free to flavor my inner turmoil with all the spices I choose. Why would a man such as myself exit a play so dispassionately and so early? The answer is up for grabs. What I need is an arsenal of back-stories appropriate to my character; a bandolier of tales from which I can select any number of excuses, chosen based on the mood of the moment. In a just few minutes, I conjure a rough list:
The “Lost phone” gambit.
Or the “Lost Wallet”.
The “Falling suddenly ill” ploy.
The “I Walked into the Wrong Play” charade (Plausible, for this theater has two stages.)
The “Mild Disgust” ruse. (Religious? Aesthetic?)
A combination of these?
Later that evening, sitting in an whining empty bus, I run through these scenarios, silently testing the physical manifestations of each—pulling a pained grimace to simulate nausea, or hastily patting myself down, or perusing an incorrect playbill, befuddled as I search for names and faces that will not be appearing on this stage. By the time I am home I have conjured and perfected five or six different characters. The sheer variety delights me....
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