Published December 31, 2010
by Norman Scott
What I Learned From Theater 101
For the past four years I have watched in wonder videotaping one wonderful production after another of the Rockaway Theatre Company as the acting, singing and dancing wowed audiences. I was so awed by the talent I often couldn't separate the performances from the real people. The very idea of me performing was frightening. Then for a lark, I started taking Frank Caiati's acting classes at the RTC. Last year when he had us perform monologues in front of a live audience and I did a section from Eric Bogosian's "Radio Days." I lost some of my stage fright. But a monologue is easy compared to interacting with other actors.
Well, I did make it through my acting debut in the Rockaway Theatre Company's presentation this past month of "The Odd Couple," playing Vinnie, the whinny hen-pecked husband (I get a lot of practice at home). I considered this challenge one of the bigger ones I have undertaken, maybe even bigger than taking Calculus in high school. What a relief it's over and I'm no longer sleeping with the script.
"What's the big deal," I was asked? "You stood in front of children for 30 years. Teaching is a form of performing." Sure, but I didn't actually have to memorize lines or be prepared to come in on cue or actually have to remember to put out a prop or go to a specific spot on stage (I never knew that was called "blocking") while trying to say a line. "Was it fun," I was asked repeatedly? If not for the nerves associated with the fear of not hitting my line of cue, it was. But that's like saying jumping out of a plane is fun as long as you stop worrying about the chute opening. On opening night I would have taken the plane.
But it all seemed to work out. By the final weekend I was pretty comfortable. People laughed, no one said I sucked and the experienced directors, Peggy Page and Michael Wotypka, seemed very satisfied with everyone's work, even saying they would consider me for another part at some point. Working with Mike and Peggy was an enlightening experience as they both have a deep understanding of the theater, the script and how to make it all come together from the initial readings to opening night. They stressed that the script was the thing - a playwright like Neil Simon agonizes over every word and actors are not free to re-interpret. I was told I would feel the energy of the audience but in fact barely noticed them, though it was fascinating how different audiences laughed (or didn't) at different lines. Basically, I was too focused on what the other actors were saying and doing on stage and trying to make sure I didn't miss my cues.
I never felt I was actually acting. Vinnie has the fewest lines and Mike and Peggy knew what they were doing when they cast me – and the rest of the cast, most of whom are experienced actors. Bernard Bosio as Oscar (he did a wonderful job as Senor Sanchez in "Cactus Flower") and David Risley as Felix could not have been more perfect. David has done one top notch performance after another at RTC for eight years, especially his noteworthy Hysterium in this past summer's "A Funny Thing Happened..."
Susan Corning and Kim Simek were perfectly Pigeon, with their high-pitched giggling and crying and "ta-ta's." Susan's acting has blown me away since she starred in "Steel Magnolias" and finding myself in the same production was a treat. In addition, Susan seems to do just about everything that needs doing around RTC and has become an essential part of the company. I first saw Kim as the only girl protean in "A Funny Thing..." and I'm sure we'll see her more often at RTC. (One of my young cousins came to the show and liked Kim enough to consider taking up acting so he could meet pretty girls.) And I just loved working with a young, idealistic teacher who spent almost every minute backstage doing schoolwork.
My fellow card players were the guys I got to hang out with the most and they treated the newcomer with advice and support. Founding RTC member Joe Canizio played the cantankerous Speed to perfection, refusing to blow his cigar smoke towards New Jersey and harassing me (Vinnie) throughout the play. Frank Freeman as Roy the accountant was so believable I was going to ask him to do my taxes. Frank has been in numerous productions and was the consummate amateur/pro. Jose Velez, as far from type casting as possible as Murray the cop, was a revelation in his first performance in a non-musical. Jose kept getting better and better with each rehearsal and performance. I would have thought he was doing this stuff forever.
But it was working with the behind the scenes people that I learned what makes live theater work. I never knew how important a role the Stage Manager plays as the mother hen of the production. I've been up in the booth with Nora Coughlin for numerous shows and finally saw how crucial she was to the operation up close and personal. She was tender and tough when she had to be and in many ways I learned the most about the world of the theater from the way she did her job. The wonderful actress, singer and music teacher Jodee Timpone (who wowed us as the female lead in "Cactus Flower") assisted her, and along with the Prop Mistress Naomi Seitz, these two ladies were backstage with us providing support and encouragement - and bringing us snacks and coffee. And thanks to Naomi, I often got to eat a real bacon and tomato sandwich during the performance. As usual, master set designer and carpenter Tony Homsey put together a fabulous set, Robert Press and Andrew Woolbridge (another teacher) made the place light up to perfection, and Rich Louis-Pierre, John Henshon and Cat McEntee made the sound - which seems so complicated - work without a hitch. And behind the scenes, Producer (And retired teacher) Susan Jasper was there to make sure it all worked.
I was interested in all of it and that was perhaps my biggest lesson. I may have learned a bit about acting but I truly learned what the theater is all about - and yes, the play's the thing. Would I do it again? Considering the vast amount of time acting in a play takes up, I'm ambivalent. I probably would and also want to get more involved in RTC backstage work.
My education/political pals came to one of the performances and one of them told me I was forbidden to do this again as the growing anti-(Cathie) Black and Bloom movement needs me to chronicle their efforts. I went up to Albany on Dec. 23 to cover the Norman Siegel lawsuit challenging the Cathie Black nomination as chancellor (see accompanying story). If they don't win the case, Black will become chancellor on Jan. 3. Then you will see true acting as Black puts on the performance of her life trying to play someone who has a clue about education.
When Norm is not trying to be Laurence Olivier, he blogs at http://ednotesonline.blogspot.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.