The ad touting a Dancing Dog in the annual Community Variety Show Extravaganza was misleading. Charlotte the Wonder Dog was only going to sing. No dancing. Early on I had discovered that she had two left feet. Actually, she was only cast in the first place for her looks, and she also slept with the producing director (me).
Now the three mayors of the country, they were a different story! Lined up abreast, torsos lifted, heads erect – their posture shouted. Gotta dance! I scribbled notes: Three tuxedos, canes and top hats. "We can’t dance." Modestly. Keen intuition is the hallmark of auditions.
Scratch the word "audition." It’s a non-threatening "Sign-Up Day." You seek the innocents bearing timid poems, whistling jugs, and perhaps even the elusive xylophone.
Here’s how to get them there: ads and flyers like confetti sprinkled all over the county; letters to any source of warm bodies, from 4-H to VFW; and pleading calls to those you know who can enter and exit stage without falling off. Locate a pianist; techie types who use words like "amps," and "par lens" and naïve friends for Production Team – "Oh, it will be fun!"
And here come the wannabees:
"Today I will be reading my poem, "Scabs and the Rape of Love."
"Our band is '4 Felons Plus One'. We’ll need handcuffs and a fire permit."
"My song is Patsy Cline’s 'Crazy'. Friends say I sound like her." (Yes).
"I’m going to do an aria from Carmen. I don’t have any formal training. (Yes).
A grande dame enters, suited and gloved, and speaks firmly, "I am 88 years old. My story is about two grizzled gold miners with a dying mule. I’ll be reading all three parts – did I mention the mule could talk?"
A clown arrives, fresh from a show at Tastee Freeze. Two policemen send word they will appear. The clown, police and dog are to be the glue that holds the "variety" together: a dancing Pooh, a kazoo duet, orations. Recurring crossovers to assure the audience continuity – maybe. Anyway, what better lead-in for any act than two policemen with a pooper-scooper chasing a dog across stage?
An older gentleman, urged on by his children, has arrived to sing, "I Did It My Way." It brings tears to your eyes – it was that bad. But he was that good trying. He will have a place in the show, and a song in his range. It will require the precision of the surgeon’s scalpel to delicately pare him away from the Sinatra fantasy without damaging the fragile ego beneath, and to move our genteel lady from way out West to her own back yard of beauty.
We see an inspiring one-armed guitar player. Twin boys with a magic act. A juggler. A Minnie Pearl., Elvis, Ed Sullivan and a husband wife team as Mae West and W.C. Fields. A female trio from the First Baptist Church Choir and parishioners from Zion Episcopal to back up their Sunday School teachers, who are…Johnny Cash and June Carter. Four firemen are the Barbershop Quartet. We also see four Celines, five Brittanys and a parrot.
A second-grade class sings "Row, Row, Row Your Boat". A little row of firecrackers waiting to explode backstage during the National Anthem, I’m thinking.
The clock ticks. The ancient upright piano waits stolidly in the corner as the parade of CDs and DVDs passes by. The production team fidgets, sends out for wine, and we all extol the stage. We speak of theater angels who show up the eve of the opening nights to finish painting the drops, hem the doubtlets and locate the moose-head prop. We raise our Styrofoam cups to the dreamy, cocky, wary, frightened, brave humans who this very day present themselves for judgment. Ah, the world is a stage, and what a show we will…
"Are you the director?" One of the second graders re-enters, tugs on my sleeve. "Last time I was in a show I threw up all over the stage."
There’s no business like show business.
If you are Stage Left when the show opens – that’s SL in your script – come to this side of the stage. Which is left. Everybody who is Stage Right , go…
"Is that SR in the script?" Yes.
You must be at all six rehearsals. With the exception of illness we cannot…
"Excuse me! Thursday night all the Teen Tones have to sell sandwiches for a fundraiser."
"Choir rehearsal on the Monday is one I can’t miss." (The pianist).
"I have a wedding rehearsal Friday." (Elvis, uh, minister).
Some of you are assigned special parts in America’s Story. At the bottom of the page…
"Who is Amelia Earhart and what did she sing?"
O.K., we’ve run the show, sort of, from Founding Fathers to Vaudville to Space and beyond. The show, as presently paced, will run six hours and twenty minutes. New scripts tomorrow.
Those of you who are reading "The Bill of Rights, line up, in order, backstage. As Mrs. Coyne is reading, "Give me you tired, your poor…," the Wagon Wheel and the Cactus must be off the stage because the State of Liberty is entering SR, along with the immigrants. Mrs. Grant, I believe the sea-green sheets are working well with Lady Liberty, but when the torch is up, we are seeing inspection tags. Everyone, no more candles for the finale. The curtain was only singed, but I think we’ll all agree that flashlights will be better for the "This Little Light of Mine" circle.
Teen Tones, please rehearse the Brittany number. Everyone – Revolutionary Period – page 3. Your cue to throw your teabags from the wings is: "…threw the teabags overboard in Boston." Do not hurl them all over the stage as Mr. Atkins is reading "Ode to a New Land!" Whoever threw the whole Lipton Tea Box out? That worked!
Mrs. Atkins, when you do the Chicken in Every Pot stage-cross (Depression Era) let’s try a rubber chicken rather than the Perdue Frozen Chicken Breasts.
Teresa Brewer, on the Sullivan show, you can’t wear bluejeans.
"I still don’t know who she is!"
Ask your Mother.
Pages 3 and 14 are missing.
The Barbershop Quarter has dropped out, the Opera Singe has laryngitis, and The Felons are no-shows. We have simplified the sets. For some there will be, say, a chair and a potted plant. The new scripts have been Xeroxed and given out. I have opened an account at the Copy Center.
The prop table is seriously diminished. The cast, like strangers in a strange land who keep checking to see if their passport is safe, decide to keep their props with them. A kind of mass hysteria spreads and results in every person vaguely attached to the show being interrogated: Do you have Will Roger’s rope? Who’s got the rubber chicken?
Still, fewer cast members arrive panting in the balcony to ask me, "Am I in the scene?" Backstage I watched them warm up their voices and hopes. The mother/daughter Kazoo duet huddle frozen with fear behind a sliver of curtain, seconds and inches from visibility. They move into the light. One step for the performers, one giant step for the show.
The dawn has come. Out front will be Mom. Out front will be Sis. Out front will be co-workers. Out front will be…"Omigod! I’m in a show!" I love when this happens. It is the transition in community theater from amateurish shyness to good solid terror. The opportunity is ripe to turn plain old hog calling into Swiss yodeling. It’s all coming together now.
"Did you know page seven of the script is missing?"
The mayors, as it turned out, aren’t lying. They can’t dance. Their posture is excellent, however. I begin the notes, to groans:
Those of you working backstage with Charlotte the Wonder Dog must remember to get the "Dogs in History" costumes in order. No Snoopy Goggles when Annie is singing "Tomorrow" to Sandy. When Logan is reading "Dick and Jane" and Spot crosses the stage, say "See Spot Run." In unison! Spots’ Velcro black spots must not fall off as she is halfway across. Martha Graham had one stuck to her foot as she twirled. And remember, "Alexander’s Ragtime Band" is a happy number!
Before the mirror, little girls flurry, doubly flushed from the rouge and the excitement of wearing it. Women in black dresses gather like a coven in the corner, chanting lyrics. Teenagers maintain a semblance of sullenness, but the eyes dance, and men in powdered wigs attempt nonchalance. I love them all. How daring for them to have ventured here, to care so much. A red-striped jacket, a feather boa, makeup. Such are the magic beans of theatre. Once upon a time. Watch a show grow.
Minnie the Pearl had a double mastectomy last year. Our Sinatra wannabe is recently widowed. Patsy Cline is the mother of seven. One of our "Celines" is missing the prom at her boyfriend’s school to be in the show. Our grande dame has kept a poetry journal for years, but this is her first reading.
We bring it home under two hours. Nine people are in step for Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The spotlight hits the right performers. The finale chaos in the darkness with the flashlights has, at last, become a Circle of Light. The piano is in tune. We’ve done all we can.
The energy is palpable. The space, heretofore all our own, is saturated with the heat of bodies and breathing and ushers with playbills and the Guild arriving with cookies and liters of Coke for intermission. Like touching the cat after you’ve shuffled across the carpet in winter, the view through the lobby windows is electrifying: People are buying tickets, for our show!
In the rehearsal hall the adrenalin is high. Pooh is fixing a mayor’s bow tie, Mae West is helping lady Liberty with her sheets, the Teen Tones are braiding some second-graders’ hair.
We form our pre-show circle. Mayors, ministers, salesmen, students and the elderly join hands. We share the joy and fear, the sweaty palms. We all hug. A show of community.
O.K., folks. It’s Show Time!
Our nine-year-old soloist heads backstage, wearing a lacy white dress and a bowed hairdo. The remaining cast creeps, without mishap, to the lobby and backstage. All is silent. Then, a single spotlight, SL.
The soloist raises the mike and sings shyly, "Another opening, another show…" The voice is pure, grows stronger. "From Philadelphia to Baltimo.." Curtain Up! Aisle doors open! The cast storms the stage singing! The cowboys, the dog, the poets and singers, Pooh. The community has a show. It’s working! Things couldn’t be going better.
"Pop." Whimpering from the lighting booth on my left. Then bad language from the sound booth on my right. The Founding Fathers are singing largely in darkness, with no music. They soldier bravely on, a capella.
Time for the Gettysburg Address. Yes, the Gettysburg Address. The curtain is down for the oration. A spotlight hits SR. Nothing. The crickets begin. The audience volunteers a few coughs. Suddenly the curtain jerks up to reveal W.C. Fields setting up a cactus and four second graders watching. From the wings gallop the "I’ve Been Working on the Railroad" singers. The pianist catches up with them by the last chorus. Curtain down. Curtain up, surprising two prairie women dragging out rocking chairs. The cast straggles in and a hoedown sputters to life. The teletype operators arrive, one in a gay-nineties straw hat. Doris Day sings "I’m All Yours in Button and Bows" and the cactus falls into the orchestra pit. Applause!
Scene IV. The dog has escaped into the audience only twice, where she has now chosen to stay, running up and down the aisles singing "arroo." Abe Lincoln, who had chosen an inappropriate bathroom moment, has been chosen, inappropriately to come get her.
At intermission, the cast is ebullient. They have tasted the wine – applause.
I return to my balcony seat. Then it comes. That moment the theater gods are so stingy to bestow. It’s the Starlight Ballroom scene. My 74-year-old big band singer, Cassie, grew up singing gospel on the radio. Now she is recalling for the audience her husband leaving for World War II, the landing at Normandy, how they had always loved to dance to Glenn Miller. She signs their favorite, "Serenade in Blue."
The stars pinned to the back curtain are no longer plastic; the fake flowers on the ballroom bridge tables blossom. It is the 1940s and a young wife dances with her husband, and we are with them. Cassie lowers the microphone. The audience holds its collective breath, and, in the safe darkness, perhaps the masks can slip a bit as feelings are freed by a courageous performer who has bared her heart. The applause washes over us all, on both sides of the footlights, and the theater gods smile.
The elderly poet speaks of her bluebirds and robins returning in spring. The old words flutter and land gently on an audience touched by simple truths.
The cow suit comes apart and two little half-cows, half-boys exit; our retired gentleman as Rudy Vallee is a hit. The cast, well fed by the audience, performs the sixties dances with gusto, lumbago notwithstanding for some. By the finale, the audience is standing and clapping, united with the cast in singing, "This Little Light of Mine; I’m Gonna Let It Shine". No one ever did actually learn the verses, but the enthusiasm was high on the chorus. Yes, let it shine.
And, I think in the end, the dog did dance.