I have a new appreciation for actors.
Not that I haven’t always appreciated them. How the best ones do what they do rises, in my opinion, to the level of high art.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were my “performances” in last week’s production of “The Music Man” for Boise Music Week.
This was Music’s Week’s hundredth anniversary. Boise’s 1918 Music Week was the first in the nation, and for a century our Music Week has relied on local talent.
“Talent,” in my case, being a bit of a stretch.
My first and until now only appearance in a play was in a high school production of a play whose name I’ve long since forgotten. I played the boatman who ferries dead people across the River Styx, a role which called for nothing more than dabbling a paddle in a sea of dry-ice fumes. Mercifully, no lines.
So it couldn’t have been more of a surprise when Allyn Krueger, “Music Man’s” director, emailed to ask whether I’d be interested in a bit part in “The Music Man.” Mayor Dave Bieter and I would be the production’s “celebrities,” each of us playing a train conductor at alternating performances.
Having been a bit of a train buff all my life, I enthusiastically accepted. The prospect of wearing a conductor’s uniform like the one John Irving wore in “The Cider House Rules” and shouting “All Aboard” from the stage of the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts was enormously appealing.
Only after a couple of rehearsals did I begin to have an idea of the challenges involved.
The things that actors say and do onstage? The ones they make look so natural and easy? They aren’t. I had six lines. And do you think I could remember all of them and say them at the right times?
Years ago, I memorized a considerable portion of Stephen Vincent Benet’s lengthy poem, “The Mountain Whippoorwill.” I’ve memorized the lyrics to scores of songs and sung them onstage without a hitch. But there’s something different about memorizing lines for a play. Whatever part of the brain it is that allows actors to do that I either don’t have or have in short supply.
On opening night, after diligently practicing them at home, I managed to say my first two lines without incident, but missed my queue for the third line. That left me standing onstage, as my mother used to say, “like two cents waiting for change.” As this was my last line in the scene, I was more or less hung out to dry, standing there like an inanimate prop before noticing people in the wings madly gesturing at me to get offstage. Happy to oblige, I lamely exited stage left.
In the second scene, I was supposed to walk across the stage and say, “River City! We’re across the state line into Iowa. River City, population 2,212!”
Except that I forgot to say the second “River City,” reducing Iowa’s 1912 population by roughly 99.9 percent.
Thinking about that while trying to fall asleep that night, alone in a darkened room, I felt myself blushing.
My second and last outing went much better. I said the right lines at the right times and even managed to get a few laughs at a line I tried to make funny.
Move over, Daniel Day Lewis.
If someone had told me a month ago I’d be onstage in a play at the Morrison Center, I wouldn’t have believed it. A career as a newspaper columnist brings a certain low-rent celebrity and some surprising opportunities, but a part in a play at the Morrison Center?
This is one of the highest rated venues of its kind in the nation. Tony Bennett, Neil Young, Carole King, Mikhail Baryshnikov, casts of Broadway plays … these are just a few of the great performers who have graced that marvelous (and intimidating) stage. If I’d thought about that while waiting in the wings, the power of speech would have left me.
This would have been especially inconvenient given the fact that I had the play’s opening line.
So next time you go to a play and see an actor falter or stumble, remember that it’s not anywhere near as easy as it looks. Good actors just make it look that way.
Thanks to Allyn for giving me an unexpected and wonderful opportunity, and to all the members of the cast and crew who were so patient and helpful with a bumbling journalist pretending to be John Irving.
Blown line aside, it was a lot of fun. If Music Week ever needs someone to ferry dead people across a river of dry ice without speaking a word, I’m their man.