“You’ll never eat cake in this town again!”

Confessions of a theatrical interloper.

My humblest apologies for the lateness of this post. I haven’t written in some time due to a variety of situations. New job, new routes to learn, new synapses firing, and a fickle laptop that as of this writing has gone to Heaven. Praise Buddha for workplace PC’s. I’d also like to preface this story by saying it’s not my desire to name names and bury any hatchets in particular. Its generally not my way. However, I simply feel, as a writer and an observant human, that some stories must be told.

Its September in Las Vegas. The citizens of the city of Sin breathe a sigh of relief as temps drop to a positively chilling 99 degrees, as we wait with baited breath for pumpkin spice anything to ease our taste buds after the scourge of another summer. Contrary to popular belief, this city does have some modicum of culture. One of which is our Super Summer Theater. Located in Spring Mountain Ranch, 45 minutes away from the hub of the city, it’s a great place to take a date, sip some wine, nibble hummus and crackers and spread on fold out chairs watching any number of productions from local theater acts. Last night was one such night. I attended a production of “Noises off”.

The play within a play, is a farcical situation comedy of errors about a motely theater company putting on a production of a bawdy British comedy. If one was to take a drink every time the word “sardines” is mentioned, they’d have alcohol poisoning before the 2nd act. One of my closest friends was in a lead role. I must say, its always a surreal feeling being friends with an actor. The curtain parting, the lights dimming and you see people donning skins that aren’t their own. No longer the people you know and encompassing a variety of situations, from humor to wit to farce to horror and all of the above. Watching everyone on stage engaged in all sorts of farce and frolic, dashing here and rampaging there, I realized how much work goes into theater acting.

Hitting marks, turning this way, then quickly turning that way, then back again. Running here and there, grab this prop, then that one, engage with this actor and that actor and hope to god that that person doesn’t drop his or her line, in which case the whole thing topples like a house of cards, assuming of course, your casemates aren’t there to pick up the pieces. I’ve definently done a few plays in my time, and it’s simultaneously liberating, jarring, restrictive, tense and arduous all at once. It’s a mixed bag I have to say. Lengthy rehearsals are easily one of the most boring situations person can be placed in. The director gives their command. Then the actor does it. Then the director changes his mind. Or does marking. From every fathomable angle. Before you know it, its damn near midnight, you have work the next day, eyes are bloodshot, and you know your cast mates lines better than they do. But hey, art, right?

Like I said before, I’ve dipped my toe in the theatrical pool more than a few times. Id like to share that story. A few years back, after the local poetry scene dissolved into a deluge of PC culture and poorly masked virtue signaling instead of white-hot passion, I lingered in my apartment feeling agitated, disenchanted and left out. I wasn’t one of the cool kids.

It seemed that the noisiest among us had won the day. I still felt the need to exercise a creative impulse. So what if it wasn’t at a poetic mic? I saw an ad for an upcoming play, “Marie Antoinette” put on by the Majestic Repertory Theater. I didn’t know these guys from Adam, but it was a topic I could relate to. Being a student of history and admitted Francophile, I auditioned for the role of Marie’s lover, Axel Von Freson. Nervous as though I was, if it was worth doing it was worth at least trying. Failing all else, it would make for an interesting story. The day of the audition arrived. I had it in mind to do the monologue from “The Libertine” with Johnny Depp, as the unapologetic Count of Rochester proudly proclaiming his sexual prose with a heated defiance. However, I couldn’t internalize the thing to save my life, so I ended up using an old spoken word piece from the poetry days instead. I just lied and said it was from a play. I’m a fatalist and felt if it was meant to be- it would. I met the director; an unassuming man, somewhat cordial, heavyset man named Troy, and did my piece. Then I was given a call back date a few days later. Standing outside I saw the other potential actors gather. They all seemed to know one another. Then me. The interloper.

We were all herded into the theater and assigned a partner. It was interminable. I had no idea about queu s or blocking. In poetry you create your own ambiance by way of your words and cause a ripple that the audience either gauges or just watches by way of verbal hula-hoops. In theater, you have to follow someone else and it not always easy. We were all called up in rows. I felt like I was a slave on the auction block or some prize piece of meat being sized up by a discerning john for the weekend. Fairly dehumanizing, but art, right? You could smell the flop sweat. “This row step back- Troy bellowed. “Everyone else go home”.

That was it. Anticlimatic. I felt down but at least I tried. I snuck into the place around the corner for a consolation coffee and wondered why the hell I even bothered. Two weeks later, I was at my job and got an email. “Chris, I’d like to offer you the role of Fersen in Marie Antoinette. If you accept, please reply- Troy Heard.” Had I not been in a small cubicle, I would have lept up and down in sheer joy. It was the last thing I expected. I got the part! I hastily accepted and proceeded to tell everyone in shouting distance for the next two weeks. I think I even told the waitress at Macaroni Grill. Forget modesty.

Since I lived around the corner, I was the first to the read through. This was going to be a big production, all the bells and whistles, a seasoned cast (everyone there has a list of credentials longer then my forearm) as well as a former costumer for Cirque de Solie. A big deal in Vegas Town. Initially, I felt welcomed into this new fold. We gave our read through, discussed the script, exchanged watered down jokes, sipped bottled waters and handed out the rehearsal schedule. Walking out of the theater after, I talked to one of the other actors, a decidedly nuanced and characteristically lethargic actor named Richie about the script.

I was eager to break bread and get to know these people, since the next two and a half months of my life would be revolving, pay free mind you, around them. I peppered him with inquiries, asking what he thought of the script, what sort of productions he’d done, testing the waters. His response was decidedly lackluster and he approached the forthcoming play with all the enthusiasm of a root canal. Nobody seemed alive with the passion of storytelling to be honest. Maybe it was just me. My character was supposed to be heartthrob, respectively. My costume was a strange hybrid of Don Juan meets Lost Boys, meets club going euro trash. Some sort of trench coat mafia style leather jacket that only a young Kiefer Southerland could have pulled off, striped slim pants, leather boots (of which I had to subsidize from my own pocket) a shiny Gucci style woven, all topped off with a huge red bow worthy of a Rankin Bass Christmas character.

I nearly ruined my hair by straightening it nightly and thickened my eyebrows Rudolph Valentino style with some Mac eyeliner I bummed from my mother. I liked the script. I enjoyed my look, and the solid character I was privileged to play. He lived a storied life, his affair with Queen Marie but a blip on the radar. But eventually his charms ran out and he became the victim of political intrigue and ended up beaten to death by a mob in Sweden in his 40’s.

Oh, Politics.

As rehearsal waned on however, I began to feel more and more like the odd duck in the room. A feeling only helped by Troy’s more and more obvious disdain for me not being one of his lemmings. Troy favored the other actors blatantly and this became more and more obvious as time went by. I began to dread going to rehearsal after a few weeks. He called me out at the drop of a dime. “I know you used to be a poet Chris but Fersen isn’t a poet- get it together!” One night after giving what I felt was a great monologue in front of all the cast he roared, “its obvious you haven’t done this have you?” Other conflicts arose with my cast mate Josh. I can say in all honesty, this guy was one of the most thoroughly unpleasant, petty people I’ve dealt with in my life. He was crude, vindictive and went out of his way to make me feel unwelcome, talking about me behind my back to Richie, and not exactly inconspicuously.

I heard every word. Little things after a while added up. “You want too much to be liked, Chris”, Troy said. Had I been the person I normally was, I would have told him, “No I just want simple respect”. I should have said something but I wanted the role so bad. I lived in fear that I would be recast and all the sleepless night and lengthy rehearsals would be for nothing. The whole thing tapped into my lifelong fears of rejection. I knew too well what it was like to be the last picked for a sport. I knew too much of how it was to not even have the Dungeons and Dragons nerds want to talk to you. To be the last in the pecking order.

To be ostracized- for simply existing. Josh, Troy Richie. They manifested themselves as my childhood antagonists come alive. The schoolyard bullies. Only I was in my thirties. In a full time job. With bills to pay, a passport, published works- life accomplishments. This wasn’t supposed to happen anymore. It always astounds me how we feel we’ve elevated ourselves to a higher, stronger mind and have become more seasoned by life, something happens we meet that person who knows just the right words to cut us down and in no time flat we become vulnerable, isolated children again- in the fetal position wanting for our mothers.

“It will be worth it”. I told myself. “It will be worth it- and it’s all in my head I love this. I want this”. I had to say something. I reluctantly called Troy to the side one day. My gut told me it was a fools errand, but I was teetering on not doing the role. As it was, I wasn’t getting a check and it wasn’t exactly benefiting my frame of mind. You could call it overthink, but for better or worse, I’m a feeler- Troy was a see-er. A natural inborn conflict of personality from which he was the nucleus. I breathed, tried to relax but got waylaid by bouts of panic attacks. He turned the corner and met me in the dressing room. I realized there was something very unsettling about him. His face was brooding, and lacking anything in the way of emotional intelligence.

He had an oafish, hostile, immeasurably dark quality about him that was powerfully off-putting, coupled with a childish, petulant aspect. Like the lumbering, overgrown schoolyard bully who stomped on sand castles, pushed kids in the mud and flew into hissy fits just for kicks and attention. Now, he bullied the passionate and aspiring into subservience- beating them down and building them up into a contorted version of what he alone deemed artistically acceptable- and those around him just went with it- because they knew he held the purse strings to what may or may not be their big break. I think in his heart, Troy knew that I was aware what kind of person he was- and for this he singled me out for his vitriol and abuse.

Unsurprisingly, the talk went no where, with Troy brushing my concerns and doubts off and saying ” get out of your head- because you think to much”. That may have been true- because at that moment, all I was thinking was how I saw him for exactly what he was.

The two months were interminable. I arose at 3. Caught a bus at 430. Got to work at 630. Left at 2. Home. Food. Shower. Hair straightened. Brows thickened. Base applied. At the theater by 5pm. Navigate the minefield of Troy and the others.

Home. Collapse. Repeat. This I did 4 days a week. For free. As the rehearsals dragged on, people got surlier. Huddling in corners together while I sat on the opposite side, exchanging secret, inside jokes with a sod off arrogance that sickened me. I wanted so bad to tell them all to fuck off. I could have. It would be so simple. Two words and out the door. End of play. But I wouldn’t. I wanted this too bad. I strived too much and not everyone was so horrible. The few that were though- Jesus. Opening night arrived. I paced nervously in my “Trenchcoat Don Juan “ensemble. Pacing nervously. The press would be there. Local news. Reviewers. Even typing this, I channel my anxiety that night. I counted down the seconds till my scene. Boom. There it was.

The light was blinding. I saw all the people there. Loads of them. They stood in silhouette like arcane judges. Watching. Seeing. I can say in all modesty that I never flubbed a line, nor missed a mark. Fear is a hell of a motivator- and I was terrified. I channeled the solider spirit of Fersen to see me through. I hoped I would do him well. At the end of the third act and the final scene, Axel appears from a screen of smoke like something out of a Ridley Scott fever dream and comforts Marie in her last minutes alive as she lay in the unbecoming squalor of a prison cell. Her once elegant hair crudely hacked off, her family gone and those she loved either sent into exile or abandoning her. After some consolation and a tragic dance together with Fersen, the man she truly loved, Marie is placed on the guillotine , basket at the ready, as I re appear this time in the guise of the executioner, a black sheet over my head, containing the empathy of devil while the blade is lowered and the room flashes blood red. End scene.

So, as I took the stage every night, all the cast would hold hands and we would take our bow. However, I stood next to Josh who would refuse to hold my hand for the bow. Just to get that last jab in for the night, I suppose, like a petulant dog marking its territory, while staring you in the face. This happened every night. It seemed wrong to me. I wanted so much to ask him what his issue was? I’m not in your clique, I get it, but he had no desire to tell me. It was so petty, especially at the end of the show when we should all be at our zenith.

One thing I felt particularly put off by was Richie’s snobbishness in regards to seeing the audience after. I asked him if he would go out and say hi to the assembled. “I don’t give a fuck about that shit, man- I’ve done my work, fuck those people”.

My jaw hit the concrete floor. Really? These people bought the tickets, paid money (28 per person, a heady fee for local theater if I do say so myself) and supported you-and you’re ultimately here because of them. I couldn’t for the life of me wrap my head around such off handed arrogance.

The play went on. Teeth gritted, Sweat dripping, pacing commencing. One whole month. Many glasses of wine were consumed. During my half hour between arriving home every day from work and my trudge around the corner to the theater, I’d lay on the floor of my apartment and wonder why I was doing this at all. I mean, I put myself in this situation. Nothing was forced upon me. Ultimately, it fell upon my feet. I wanted a new creative experience and I got one.

Why wasn’t I happy? Maybe it was me. Maybe I was just reflecting my insecurities, my inherent imposter syndrome, on my perceived aggressors. Id like to say that I truly loved the play, and was proud to be a part of it, I just wasn’t happy and I had brought this on myself. King Midas Syndrome, I call it. Wanting for something you think you want, only to discover it comes with a burden basket you can hardly believe and never thought of prior. The last night of the play seemed a long time coming. I remember it distinctly. I was a matinee show. I sat backstage and gazed into the mirror, noting the changing around me. Marie Antoinette was already yesterday’s news. Troy, always one to aspire to the cool kid’s club and virtue signal at any cost, chose the socially charged Animal Farm by George Orwell and the avante garde garb backstage reflected this change. The whole thing was very ugly to me and seemed to encapsulate my feelings about this show ending. The juxtaposition of color and beauty of Marie and the grotesque caricature of humanity that was Animal Farm. I looked in the mirror, my costume hanging behind me, already losing its luster.

I wasn’t without some gratitude though. I had seen all of my friends and family come to support me, and for this I was grateful. I was grateful for our lead, for she truly shined and deserved the role. Grateful for the crowds that came every night. Some who I didn’t yet know, but soon would. Five minutes. Places. We went out. “When I rule the world”, blasting into the theater. Harpsichords fluttering. Guitars rocking. Teacups clanking. Screams echoing. Hands slapping faces. Hands parting away one last time. Blades dascending. Red lighting. We took our final bow. It was done. As we all headed behind the curtain, I took one last glimpse at the theater, knowing, good or bad, I’d made it to this moment.

 Two friends had come to see me, and I look forward to seeing them after. I also received a message from my friend and champion, Tonya. I would be giving a reading from a book I had published earlier in the year the next day. I was elated. From one project right into another. I wiped my face, slapped on a v -neck and jeans, did a quick once over and bolted. Apparently, the bar is popular with the local theater crowd, and after some time the rest of the cast slipped in, hanging in their corners like high school cafeteria. I sat, with the shield of my friends and enjoyed a shot on the house- a nice perk.

However, Josh lumbered in and  wasn’t done. He looked me over and said smugly “you know Chris, we generally help take down the set after the last show”, with the inbred smugness I’d endured over the last two months and had come to utterly despise. I grit my teeth and stared him straight in the eye, thinking how easily one well placed kick could knock him off his barstool and right onto the floor. It would be appropriate. He was used to being on bar floors anyway. “Great to know”, I retorted, defying him. He turned his back to me.

I gave myself a mental pat on the back. I bid my friends goodbye, and walked home briskly. “it’s done”, I told myself. “it’s finally fucking done”. I hitched a ride to the coffee house the next day, a charming place on the outskirts of town. It was my element. Espresso and Perrier. Shelves chocked with old tomes of all sorts. The lingering miasma of both conversations and caffeine, all to the tune of twenties jazz and rustling newspapers.

I brought a hefty stack of my books, ample change and my card. I was ready for business. The other writers gathered. An impressive litany of wordsmiths with years of training and experience behind them. One woman had written an account about a journey to Beethoven’s home, another about the struggles of going blind yet still perusing words. My editor and friend Isabelle, a beautiful soul from Marseilles, came and supported me as well as an acquaintance from Seattle. I was announced, and called up. I stood at the mic, the smell of coffee brewing in the background, all eyes on me, book in hand, telling a story, words I had written, hewn from years of experience and observation. I knew this feeling. The very one that once felt boring. I noted, as I read, how strong my voice felt. The joy in my heart. I looked at the crowd. All people, old and young, rapt.

I was happy. Signing my books and shaking hands- was joyous. I realized then, it was a perfect “Pilgrim’s Progress” moment. I had looked within myself, found emptiness and discontent, sought something new and exciting and had an experience Only to arrive at a point I once felt tired of. Instead of feeling upset, I felt rewarded. Good or bad, it emboldened me, and gave me a story to tell. When it was over, I took a picture with the other authors filled with genuine joy. Full circle. A friend of mine has always said “what we really need in this world is never that hard to find”. That’s what I took from this journey.

Perhaps, if the Wizard of Oz has taught me anything, its that we sometimes need to go on a bit of a sojourn to appreciate what is standing in front of us all along. Emerging again, with a richer appreciation. Of course, I plan to act again, but this was a special story that noted telling- and made me realize my true love is this just that- stories, writing words, and giving them back to the world.

because hey- art- you know?

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