Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Personal Nightmare: The Monkey's Paw

My trailer for October Kill Fest ends its list of upcoming features with "and a personal nightmare just for you." Well, here it is. It's a true story, every word of it. I wish it wasn't.

Most Cinema Styles regulars know that I attended Catholic University and studied theatre. I had many rewarding experiences on the stage while there, some not so rewarding but ultimately enjoyable, some bad and one nightmare. One big nightmare. One that stands apart. One that puts every other bad theatre experience of mine to shame. One I can never forget. The Monkey's Paw.

When I hear that title, even on an old rerun of one of The Simpson's Halloween Specials, I get a chill. And the memories flood back in. Allow me to explain.

It was my sophomore year and I went to a cattle call for the Directing MFA projects. For the non-theatre folks reading this, that means the students getting their Masters in Theatre, with the concentration on directing, held a massive audition, or cattle call, in which no one is auditioning for a specific part but for any number of parts in any number of shows. Three directors chose me for their projects (there were seven of them) all to be juggled schedule wise throughout the semester. The one that has forever stayed with me is The Monkey's Paw.

It was to be directed by Amy (Last name withheld) for the first part of her Masters Thesis ( a one act in the first semester followed by a full length play in the second). Why she chose this particular clunky one act for her thesis I have no idea but can tell you from my experience with her during the show that forethought and common sense were not among her strong points. The Monkey's Paw would play in October and I believe she was attempting "get into the spirit" of the month much like we do around the blogs this time of year.

The Monkey's Paw tells the tale of a Sergeant Major who has come into possession of a monkey's paw that will grant three wishes to the holder but beware, each wish could lead to misery. He gives the paw to the Whites and Mrs White wishes for 200 pounds to pay off debt. Her son is then killed in machinery at his factory and Mr. and Mrs. White are compensated with 200 pounds. Then they wish for him to come back and his unseen corpse is heard outside the door pounding away until Mr. White wishes for something unspecified in the play to himself and the pounding stops. The end. I played Mr. White.

The rehearsals started as all rehearsals do: Introductions all around, a read-through of the script and the director enthusiastically telling the cast how wonderful it's all going to be. Amy told us one of her objectives was to really spook the audience. Having just read through this poorly written one-act I had to stifle my laughter at this notion but gave her the benefit of the doubt. In the hands of a well-prepared director anything is possible. So we left the first rehearsal with optimism and good cheer.

And then? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Amy cancelled one rehearsal after another because she had new ideas for what was going to happen that she needed to work on. When she was there she did homework, prepared for tests and wrote papers. It was clear these rehearsals were at the bottom of her list of priorities. Eventually the four of us in the cast started to complain. The show was quickly approaching and we had no costumes, no props, no set and without that we had no blocking. Blocking is your map of movement so to speak. It's where you walk and move around on the stage during the play. Without knowing where any of the furniture would be we couldn't map out our movements on the stage. Amy assured us this would all be taken care of in time. It wasn't.

The four of us bitched to each other daily about the rehearsals and what was going to happen. Then, two days before the opening - Two Days! - Amy brought in furniture for the set and decided on costumes. As for the set, still nothing. Sound and lighting? Nothing. Final rehearsal? Cancelled. Too much for her to do and she had confidence we all knew our parts well enough anyway. Then came opening night. What follows is my description of that opening night taken from my direct experience as well as what was going on offstage that I was told later by the parties involved when the show was over. Here goes.

My fellow actors and I arrived at the theatre only an hour before the show because Amy had asked us to show up then and no earlier. When we arrived we were horrified to discover that Amy and the Directing Program T.A. were assembling and painting the set. And it was only happening because the T. A. had been sent by Dr. James Waring, head of the Directing Program, to get it done. He was furious it had not happened sooner. At the scheduled time for the show to start the theatre doors were still locked. The four of us were getting in costume and trying to desperately work out our blocking while Amy and the T.A. were still painting. We asked about make-up. Amy said she had some grey hair spray paint and told Mrs White and I to spray our heads with it. She threw me some prop glasses as well. "Wear these!" Finally, Waring ordered the doors opened. We went backstage to prepare for our moment of truth.

This stage was a small one. The theatre held about 75 people and the backstage area was a small hallway running along the back of the set. I mention this because it occurred to us as the lights went down that Amy had not set up any lights backstage. When the lights went down it was dark. Pitch black dark. We couldn't find the prop table. We bumped into each other. We made lots and lots and lots of noise. And everyone could hear us. We finally figured out how to get to our positions in the dark and the lights came up. Something else came up too - the sound! You see, Amy had decided that the first scene should take place with a raging storm outside for atmosphere. She had never told us about this nor anyone else. She was in the soundbooth running this herself. The effect was overwhelming, in a bad way. It was loud. Beyond loud. It was Who concert loud. We, nor anyone in the audience, could hear a word we were saying. My fellow actors and I were not yelling our lines, we were screaming them. We were attempting to read each others' lips to know when it was our cue. Somewhere in all of this, I noticed that Mrs. White and I had grey hair paint all over our costumes from our mad dash to "apply our makeup." And the Sergeant Major had set paint on his costume from coming in contact with the freshly painted flats. Things were not looking up.

After what felt like an eternity but was probably only one or two minutes at most, Dr. Waring turned to his T.A. (again this was related to me after the fact) and said, "You get up there right now and turn that GODDAMN SOUND DOWN!" The T.A. made his way to the sound booth to tell Amy about the problem. The volume was too high. And what did Amy do? Do I really have to tell you? Don't you just know what Amy did? She turned it off. Not down. Off. Abruptly. Who was screaming their lines onstage at that very moment. Me. Do you know how awkward an adjustment it is to go from screaming to normal conversational tone without warning? No? You don't want to know. I felt like an idiot and wanted that monkey's paw to be real so I could wish for all of it to be over. The first scene mercifully ended and the lights went down.

And now the fumbling about backstage happened again. We couldn't find anything and were each tripping over furniture onstage. Again, Waring told his T.A. to go up to the booth and tell Amy to stop lowering the lights. Just leave them on between scenes. The lights came up and we could finally see but now it was even stranger for the audience. The lights were up but no one was onstage. And when Mrs. White and myself walked onto the stage it was uncomfortable at best. We had to walk onstage in full view of the audience and then start the scene as if we'd been in that room the whole time. My humiliation was quickly turning to rage until I noticed Mrs. White's lips quivering because she was attempting to suppress laughter. What was so funny I wondered. Well, as it turns out, a combination of sweat and grey paint had created an abstract dripping design across my forehead, which when viewed in the mirror after the show was quite a sight to see. It was embarrassing but that wasn't the main problem. The main problem was that I was now improvising because Mrs. White could not speak her lines because she was trying too hard not to laugh. So I was doing the lines for both of us. Oh joy. Then the news comes that the son is dead and Mrs. White breaks into hysterics which finally allowed her to laugh out loud and pretend it was sobbing. End scene.

Now we're at the end where the son's mutilated corpse returns knocking at the door. Fortunately this is only implied and not shown in the play because I imagine Amy's makeup idea would have been to throw spaghetti on his head and have him wear a skeleton Halloween costume. Or maybe just the spaghetti. So we're at the end. The son's at the door. And you know what makes a dead son at the door even more chilling? That's right, a storm! It was clear at this point that Amy was not in possession of even the most rudimentary learning skills. Yes, it was loud. Again. This time, Waring did nothing. I honestly believe he was in shock. I think we all were. And so the screaming began again, our costumes were now practically covered in paint from fumbling around in the dark and interacting with the set, a Jackson Pollock painting covered my forehead, I had long since lost the glasses, Mrs. White was now a casualty of the production leaving me to wrap up the plot by myself and Dr. Waring looked like a ghost. My character makes his final wish, the knocking stops, the storm once again abruptly cuts off and we exit the stage. What followed was the saddest curtain call I have ever been a part of.

The four of us walked onstage, our heads held low. We did not look forward as is customary with a curtain call but down. And then there was the applause... of five people. Maybe it was more but it sure didn't sound like it. I'd say it was around five people. When I did look up I noticed the theatre, all 75 seats filled when the show began, had about twenty remaining members, all students in the department. We had made so much noise backstage in between scenes I hadn't noticed the sound of hordes of theatre goers fleeing for the exit. Then we went to the dressing rooms to take off our costumes. Amy told us it was a great show. At this point, I honestly felt sorry for her. "You're kidding right?" Those were my words to her in the dressing room. She said, no, we were all great and everything went off without a hitch. We just stared at her, numb. And then we left.

There was supposed to be three performances but Dr. Waring nixed that and the premiere was all there ever was. As I headed out of the theatre I received the strangest accolades I have ever received after a show. The theatre students I encountered said things like, "Hey listen... um... I'm really sorry. If there's anything I can do. I mean, really, you weren't bad considering, you know, everything. Again, I'm really, really sorry." It was depressing. Years later, new students would be told the story of The Monkey's Paw as it morphed into a bizarre cattle call cautionary tale. I would get reactions of "You were in that? That was you? Oh man I wish I could've seen it!" Amy never did that second semester three act play as she was booted out of the program. And I fortunately went on to much better productions and enjoyed many great successes while there. But that night has always stayed with me, sometimes making me laugh, sometimes sending chills down my spine.

That night as I walked into my dorm room depressed and dejected, Joe from across the hall saw me and let out an audible gasp.

"What the hell happened?" he said looking at my gray hair and head.

"I did a play tonight," I said.

"Oh," he said, "for a minute I thought it was one of those freak occurrences where someone has a traumatic experience and their hair turns white."

I stared at Joe and said, "Actually that may have happened. I won't know until I wash my hair."