We’re All Like Actors–Looking for the Right Role
by Marvin Payne
This column has suddenly become quite literal. Tomorrow is the deadline for Backstage Graffiti, so I’m sitting (you guessed it) backstage, graffitiing. Actually understage, in the dressing room. The guy who makes up next to me, Dallyn Bayles, is impressed that I’m writing a column for a virtual magazine, with virtual readers like you–who are deeply virtual and, we assume, lovely and of good report as well.
Virtual readers should be impressed with Dallyn, actually. The only critic I’ve read says of his song, “He hits it out of the park.” The show is Funny Girl, based on the life of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, and the theatre is Sundance, the only theatre I’ve worked where there are aerobic benefits to be had in the process of merely getting here.
Virtual Reader Dean wrote me, “My kids listen to Scripture Scouts frequently when going to sleep–so I certainly know all about Boo–but perhaps you could give a few more details about some of the other characters you’ve played. Maybe some humans, for example?
Well, in this current show I play, quoting last month’s column, “a second-rate show business hustler who worries about nothing but ticket sales and gambles a lot.” (Dean, I’m not on stage long enough to gauge the sleep-inducing value of this role.) The character’s name is Tom Keeney, but the younger cast members have given him the nickname “Buck” Keeney (I’ve told them I prefer “Zeke”). It’s a beautiful show, beautifully designed, beautifully directed, beautifully costumed, although the point of it all, even after a couple dozen performances, continues to elude me.
From my journal, 10 June 2001:
“This morning I glued on a false beard and whited my hair and put on my J. Golden Kimball suit, varied by a black bow tie, a straw boater hat and a cane, and visited with the primary children as Joseph F. Smith. I realized afterward that playing a prophet for three-year-olds will turn out to have been more fulfilling than a full summer of theatrical splendor at Sundance.”
Doesn’t pay as much, but more fulfilling.
[Important Image Protecting Note: Lest you think I’m just bellyaching because my lines can all be written on an M&M, I suffered the same fulfillment dearth as the leading man Sky Masterson in Guys And Dolls on this same stage. Lots of fun, but low fulfillment–would have traded it for Joseph F. Smith. When I was fully half the cast in I Do! I Do! at Sundance, I had to find my fulfillment pretty much outside the show. When I was a big part of a small cast up here doing Side By Side By Sondheim, we prayed every night to find the light in the piece, and for help in blowing on the embers. I didn’t feel that way about Emile deBeque, a smaller part, because South Pacific delivers a pretty powerful message, consistent with the teachings of the Savior. Oddly, I didn’t feel that way about Pap Finn either, the murderous drunken father of Huck in Big River Don’t ask me why. (Or maybe ask me, and I’ll have to figure it out.) Way more oddly, I felt a lot of spiritual punch in the role of Sweeney Todd, a show that Sundance probably wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. That’s a column’s worth of discussion for another time.]
[Important Other Note That Might Be Considered Irreverent: Guess which other role I did more for the money than the fulfillment? You won’t guess it, so I’ll tell you: Bob Flinders, the dad in Saturday’s Warrior. I like the play, and very much like the guys who wrote it, but my fulfillment level was equal to, say, if I’d been cast in a production of Heaven Can Wait, which I think is a very similar show.]
But one of those three-year-olds in the junior primary audience was my daughter, Caitlin Willow, who came to Funny Girl and gave me at least one very good reason for delighting in my Sundance gig. She has a keen eye for magic, and this show, or the Funny Girl herself, must have some.
5 July 2001:
“From Fanny’s first song onward, Caitlin started saying to her mother, “I want to meet Fanny. Is the show over, can I meet Fanny now?” There is a strict rule against guests in the green room after the show, let alone in the dressing rooms, but Caitlin wanted so badly to meet Fanny that I
brought her in. Judy Blazer, our astounding leading lady (guest from Broadway–that would be the one in New York) asked Caitlin to come into her private dressing room, showed her all her mysterious makeup stuff and every glittering costume up close, asking Caitlin which one was her favorite, which one Caitlin would wear to meet the prince. Caitlin was enchanted. It was very kind of Judy.”
Pondering the reasons why we do things, I’m reminded of a tough question I faced back in 1987, the first time I was invited to perform at Sundance. The role was Daddy Warbucks, and the question was simply, “Is this fluff what I came to earth to do? Were my sacred, consecrated (not to say “totally sacrosanct”) talents entrusted to me so I could more effectively play an even balder guy from a comic strip?” (Hmm, another rich guy, too.) I put it to the Lord in prayer. I was pretty amazed to discover how much more serious I felt about it than He did. The answer came not in the earthquake, not in the whirlwind, but in the form of a simple question: “Would it be fun?” It hadn’t occurred to me that fun might be a divinely acceptable reason for doing something. (You might think I would have learned the summer before not to get so stressed about the application of my talents, when I was cast as Gloucester in a production of King Lear up in Park City. I thought then, even about the greatest play in the language, “What does this have to do with the latter-day work?”
In the eye of that little emotional hurricane, the folks at the church suddenly called up and asked me to be The Man Who Searches For Happiness. So I leapt to the conclusion that the Shakespearean training was to prepare me for the church’s film. Then I acted in the film, and realized that for all the acting involved, it could just as easily have been called “Mannequin’s Search For Happiness. In King Lear, on the other hand, I acted my head off, or at least my eyes out. Remember, Gloucester is the guy whose eyes are dug out by his wicked daughter. We knew it was successfully played, because that scene directly preceded intermission, and on the King Lear nights of the festival the sale of jelly doughnuts dropped off sharply.) In a second, the stage manager will call “places.” Should I tell her that I’m an actor still trying to figure out his place? Rushing to a conclusion (not the same as leaping, exactly) let’s go back to Judy Blazer’s dressing room just a few nights ago.
24 July 2001:
“After the show, Robert Redford (wonder of wonders!) came back to Judy’s dressing room and introduced many of his family and friends to her. That pleased me. Great honor, of course, but it also pleased me to imagine that Mr. Redford could not possibly have been treated with more grace and magic than was my little daughter Caitlin. Even a magician like Redford won’t have the capacity that Caitlin has, of course, and Judy knows it.
The next evening, as I sat writing the foregoing at a little picnic table that stands under the pines behind the stage, Judy hollered out from the green room door, “Hey, are you writing your life’s story?” I said, “Actually, I’m writing yours.” So I was obliged to read her what I’d written. She said, “Wow, it’s amazing to think some of us may be in other people’s journals.” (She writes three pages a day, rain or shine. I suddenly wonder, with fear and trembling, what she’s written about me.) Our relationship is not, at this point, on a theological level, so I didn’t make the observation that came springing into my mind, which is that the mysterious books out of which we will be judged may very well be other people’s journals. Literally.
Overture’s over, gotta go. P.S. It’s tomorrow now. My wife called an hour ago, announcing that she’s in a distant town with a flat tire on the pickup. Me and the old Samurai to the rescue. I have just walked into Champion Tires begging for a flat repair. They’re closing in five minutes, but because “Hey! You’re the guy in “Saturday’s Warrior!” they’re staying open another twenty minutes, and not charging me anything. Disregard “Important Other Note That Might Be Considered Irreverent.”
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.