Perhaps I shouldn’t have resigned.
Drama and my life have been a tight weave since words began to cascade from my imagination. I told stories with great flair - performing stream-of-consciousness sagas, updating the adventures of my characters-du-jour. They somersaulted when excited, stomped when frustrated, danced when amused, wailed when upset, shrieked when scared, and pouted when ignored, which was often, due to failure of the audience to remain as interested in my stories as I. Center stage. I thrived on center stage.
For years, my mother called me a pest. I heard it often in one guise or another. “Stop your blather.” - “Quit being a nuisance.” - “Be more like your brothers - they don’t annoy people.” Once she called me histrionic. I thought that was a compliment.
I was in my first play was when I was six, cast as an apple tree, draped in brown and green crepe paper with red felt dots. I stood erect under the August sun with my bent limbs held in position for the length of the play, which to me seemed like hours, sweat dripping down my tummy making me itch. I wanted to be Alice – the lead – but my friend Karen, Miss Alpha Pants, a doctor’s daughter who always got what she wanted, played that part. Besides, the show was in her back yard, and it was directed by her mother, who also made the white cupcakes with orange icing and pink lemonade. In time, I learned to accept that there are no small parts, just small actors. Often it’s the small role that’s noteworthy. Take Robert Duvall. He played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. All he did was stand behind a door. Mute. Like a tree.
In high school, I played Mammy – in blackface. Highly non-PC today, but at the time it wasn’t considered objectionable. There was one African American family in our town of 800, but even the eldest child wasn’t yet a Freshman, so he wouldn’t have qualified. No one would have asked him anyway because that would have been considered objectionable.
It was when I moved to Ohio that I became active in “living room” theater. Once a month our friends gathered in someone’s home and read a play, acting it out - complete with costumes and props. My first part with this ensemble was Margot Wendice in Dial M for Murder. I performed my role without a hitch, holding the script in my left hand and scissors in my right, so my character could cut coupons from a newspaper.
Our "troup" wasn't a group of aspiring actors - just people who loved theater. Poor Bill, who played Inspector Hubbard, was performance-challenged. He read his part in a monotone, pondering over each syllable as though it had some dramatic significance. But it was reading his own stage directions that threw Hitchcock into a graveyard tailspin. “So, Mrs. Wendice, exactly why did you stab Swann with the scissors? Parenthesis turns to Mrs. Wendice holding the scissors in his handkerchiefed hand parenthesis.”
Sandy, a member of our local community theater happened to be at that play reading. She said I was a natural and should check out the Mahoning Valley Community Theater.
I was somewhat familiar with MVCT. The building was beautiful and spacious and gracious: a large lobby with plush red carpet, mahogany paneled walls covered with photographs of past productions, and an easel holding headshots of the actors in the current play. The proscenium stage looked out onto a semi-circle of seating for over 1000 people. Backstage had rooms, nooks, and crannies designed specifically for props or costumes or rehearsals or carpentry. The separate dressing rooms for men and women had counters and seats for 10 actors each, with lighted mirrors for make-up and hair. This might have been small community theater, but the facility sent off a big-city theater vibe - and I wanted to be part of it.
Within the week, I was at the theater introducing myself and dropping Sandy’s name all over the place. Within two weeks, I had a foot in the door as an intermission hostess.
From the outside the theater seemed vigorous – a spirited force. It didn’t take long to feel the strong undertow eroding its soul.
MVCT at intermission was a performance in itself. The attempt at elegance resembled afternoon tea with the Duchess of Excess. Oak tables, red gilded table runners, tiered candelabras, ruffled paper tart-cups filled with shell-shaped shortbread cookies, towering brass pull-handle urns full of decaffeinated coffee, and heavy cut-glass punch bowls loaded with a sticky foam concoction of raspberry sherbet and Sprite, chilled by a Jello-mold ice ring. I swallowed my love of simplicity, ladled the garish goo into glass cups, and sachayed my way through the crowd with trays of cookies.
But I wanted the stage, and the lobby wasn’t the stage. So I played my role of hostess with enough syrupy sweetness to refill the punch bowls, hoping Important Theater People would notice my charm and enthusiasm. I wasn’t aware that I was breaking Rule #1.
To participate in any type of MVCT event, even serving cookies at intermission, a volunteer needed be a season ticket holder. And to be considered for an on-stage role, a volunteer also needed to be a graduate of Acting Forum I, the theater’s two-week September orientation and acting class, led by the director himself. Acting Forum II, held six months later, was not required, but it was encouraged, advocated, promoted, underscored, and expected, if the actor wanted credibility, respect, and first-name rapport with any of the Regulars.
It wasn’t until I returned a borrowed theater prop to a died-in-the-wool, rule-abiding, finger-shaking theater veteran that I learned of my major indiscretion. She padded to her front door.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Ellie - from the theater. I’m returning your vase.”
She straightened a bit. Her eyes burned into mine. “Hm! You Searl?”
Where was the thank you? The smile? This wasn’t what I expected. “Yes, Ellie Searl.”
“You don’t have a season ticket,” she croaked. “You’re not supposed to work at the theater until you have a season ticket.” She snatched the vase from my hand.
My throat slammed shut. I managed to choke a weak, “I . . . I’m just helping - with intermission – setting up - serving. Sandy is a friend of . . .”
“Doesn’t matter. You want to work at the theater, you get a ticket.” Her chin slumped into her chest as she shut the door, leaving me on her front porch like yesterday’s trash.
When I reported the incident to the volunteer supervisor, I expected to hear gossip-stories about the old bag - but I was chastised - again.
“What? You don’t have a season ticket? You’re not supposed to work at the theater until you have a season ticket. So until you get one, you can’t be a hostess.”
This was Serious Business. My desire to have an acting part overtook common sense. I bought a season ticket, signed up for Forum I, reserved a spot for Forum II, volunteered for the costume committee, and reinstated myself as intermission hostess, sticky punch notwithstanding. I figured I’d better do things according to protocol if I wanted that credibility, respect, and first-name rapport with any of the Regulars.
That’s when I discovered Rule #2. Parts for all play productions were invitation only. MVCT did not have auditions. Any actor aspiring to have an on-stage role - speaking, non-speaking, statue, sauce pan - was sent a letter that revealed the upcoming play and urged the recipient to participate. The letter did not tell the recipient what part he or she would have. It could be the maid. It could be the lead. It could be Boo Radley behind the door. These invitations came from the Script and Cast Council, the Supreme Court of MVCT - whose members continued serving until they died, moved away, or were sent to a home.
The anonymous members of the SCC evaluated prospective actors’ stage presence and acting ability by sneaking in on Forum I and Forum II sessions and taking notes. I could see them lurking in the shadows of the empty theater seats while the class worked on the techniques of voice projection and vowel pronunciation. They sat in the darkened corners of the top rows with their spiral notebooks, coils shimmering red and gold from Exit signs and stage lights. These mysterious creatures are my future in this theater, I thought. How do I appear from their vantage points? Is my voice strong enough? Are my a’s and o’s round enough? Will I ever be in a play? Will I ever receive THE LETTER?
During Forum I, I met some lovely people with whom I developed a comfortable relationship. Whenever I bumped into one of them, I felt welcomed. But the Regulars, I discovered, were a different breed altogether. Forget the credibility, respect, and first-name rapport. Getting recognition from the prima donnas of MVCT was like trying to toss water through a wall of glass. Those Experienced Actors fed each other’s egos and padded their own self-importance under the pretext of theater loyalty. During breaks in rehearsals they talked about the good-old-days when people, themselves included, of course, really understood what real theater was all about – when actors were “off book” before the third run-through, or when actors were so good they didn’t need voice lessons, or when cast parties were fun. “Not like today,” they’d say, “when everybody and his uncle wants to be on stage, but can’t act their way through a rat hole.” No, I wasn’t comfortable with the Regulars.
I repaired and pressed costumes, organized outfits on backstage racks, assisted with quick changes, and stayed late to clean up. But I was an underling and didn’t warrant recognition by the actors who had more important things to consider – like their write-ups in the playbook or their headshots on the lobby wall.
One afternoon, I received a letter from the SCC inviting me to play a role in Twelve Angry Women. Thrilled to be asked, I removed everything from my personal calendar that interfered with rehearsals six days a week for six weeks and three long weekends of production after that.
I loved everything about the on-stage portion of the production. I learned my part quickly, followed the directors’ instructions, and acted well, I thought. I thrived on playing someone else night after night, allowing my character to take charge of my life for a few hours, stepping into my character’s soul and letting it lead me through the imaginary world of the playwright until the curtain fell. What a charge it was being “other-personed.”
I had very few wrap-up notes from the director after rehearsals or performances. Every now and then he’d give me a suggestion. There were virtually no negative comments. And there were never positive comments. I asked a Regular why the director didn’t give much feedback about my on-stage performance.
She said, “If he doesn’t give you notes, he likes what you’re doing. Don’t look for compliments. You’ll get a big head.”
Droves of big heads roamed the theater. I wanted to answer, "Like you?" but didn't.
Despite joining the ranks of those who had received an on-stage role, backstage was as uncomfortable as ever. The Clique of Regulars held court, and the Others, like me, stayed in their corners waiting until approached to take part in conversation.
Once I volunteered to be a Director’s Assistant for Steve, one of the Regulars, who was invited by the SCC to direct a one-act play for the little theater-in-the-round. Steve was a terrible actor. I couldn’t imagine Mr. Wretched directing others and making it a decent production. My husband and I had seen Steve play the lead in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two. Stiff, robot-like gestures, monotone delivery – emoting less passion than a throw rug. Ed and I left at intermission while those who could stick it out elevated their sugar levels on liquid treacle.
For six weeks as Steve’s assistant, I sat beside him, followed the script, cued the actors, took notes, checked on props, and located costumes. I even prepared a dress rehearsal feast of bagels, veggie spreads, and coffee. “Good job, Ellie,” I congratulated myself after opening night.
A week later, Steve passed me in the hall, stopped, looked at me with a slight squint, and said, “Can I help you?” in a tone that really meant, “What the hell are you, a stranger, doing, running amok in my theater, where everyone else around here is a Regular, and you aren’t?”
“I’m Ellie – Ellie Searl.”
“I was your Director’s Assistant for last weekend’s production.”
“Oh. Right. Hi.” And off he went.
Had Steve not been such a terrible actor, I might have dissolved into the linoleum, but by then I had realized that the Clique of Regulars, those people I so envied and wanted to be like, consisted mainly of acting automatons, like Steve, who hadn’t learned their craft at all, or if they had, they had forgotten the main concepts of verisimilitude, voice control, natural stage gestures, pacing – all those skills that hold people in their seats beyond intermission. The Regulars flouted the notion of self-improvement. Repeating Forum I or II? Putting themselves under the scrutiny of the Script and Cast Council? Ridiculous. Those classes were for amateurs.
The director frequently gave notes to the Regulars during performance recaps. “Show more emotion.” - “I want to believe that you’re angry. - “Don’t sway when you speak. You’re not HOLDING A BABY!” I flashed my high school play when we sing-songed our way through the script, stomped for emphasis, and flailed our arms without purpose.
What I didn’t understand was how the Regulars continued, season after season, to buffalo the SCC into thinking they were still worthy of lead roles. Probably the director wished like hell he could hold auditions - cull the old-timers from the list.
MVCT was built on a foundation of antiquated tradition, which hadn’t been evaluated in decades. Loyalty to the theater’s dead founder was strong, and no one had the where-with-all to challenge her design. The theater was haunted by long- departed big-city theater wannabes: their footsteps creaking stage floorboards, their apparitions spewing tucked-in-the-attic-thinking.
Yes, the building was beautiful and spacious and gracious - and if used according to physical design, had great potential in developing a welcoming stage for the community. But as long as the Powers that Be held onto the old rituals and continued to dilute the spirit of new blood, the theater would be a shell - without heart and without passion. Eventually I came to accept that community wasn’t a priority and probably wouldn’t be for a very long time. So, after a five-year love-hate relationship, I severed ties with the Mahoning Valley Community Theater.
Sometimes I regret giving up that real-theater rush of on-stage performance. I continue with the occasional play readings in people’s homes. Just last September I played Sister Aloysius in Doubt. It was a hoot being an irate nun vying for the removal of Father Flynn, an alleged pedophile priest.
Every so often, when I return to Ohio for visits, I run into a Regular from the theater. We’re polite, but there is a lingering tension and a slight sting, the kind one feels when a small wound is exposed to the air.
I played a variety of roles at MVCT, both center and back stage. Some were big, some were small, and some were barely visible. I even stood behind the door.
In retrospect, I am glad to be out of the shadows. If you see Boo, tell him I said ‘Hey.’