Sunday, January 30, 2011

Closing Night

Closing night of a play moves actors deeply, since they are all about emotions in the first place. "It's been glorious." "Will we see each other again soon?" "This has inspired me to do greater things." Truly. Be an actor once, just so you can experience it.

Tonight, friends, is one of those nights. Expressing Motherhood, the show featuring monologues about women raising children, the show I got cast in playing the husband of a woman rapping about motherhood, will turn its lights out tonight. It is going to be stirring and profound and touching and sweet and wonderful.

And I won't be there.

In the days leading up to the show, Susanna, the singer/writer/star of the song/scene, kept making adjustments to the song. Certain lyrics, the actual playback to which we would be singing, a bit of stage business she and I had.... Not many things, but she was having a spot of trouble getting it to a point where she was happy with it. Perfectly understandable. And last Friday night when the show opened, the aforementioned rap song went over like Lenny Bruce in rural Kansas. Susanna missed a couple of lines. And she and her microphone weren't loud enough. And we kinda screwed up the part where she was supposed to kick me in the goodies. I reacted too soon and it looked like she pantomimed kicking me in the chest. And we went first, so maybe the audience wasn't ready.

So that night and well into the next day, Susanna made a brutally honest assessment of what was wrong with the scene and shrewdly decided that the whole husband part wasn't working at all. She called me up at about 4:00 Saturday afternoon, just a few hours before I was supposed to be at the theatre, and gently broke the news to me that my services were no longer needed. I took it well, wished her luck, got off the phone with her, and laughed a little of my ass off.

This means that MY closing night was the night before: last Friday, which was also opening night, which made it economical if nothing else. My experience leading up the moving goodbyes -- after the song tanked -- was as follows. I got off stage and crammed myself into a little L-shaped dressing room with about a dozen other women. The way the theatre is laid out, there wasn't any place else for us to go. And the audience could hear us if we spoke above a whisper, so we had to be very quiet the whole time. For nearly two hours, I had polite, quiet conversations with a few of the mothers in the show. Some of them kept showing each other pictures of their children and complimenting each other on their shoes, while I read in whatever empty chair I could find. At intermission, I thoughtfully sat in one of the far corners of the L with my back to everyone so one of the mothers could pump breast milk.

After the show was over, there was no place for me to change into my street clothes, so I left my black suit on. The moving goodbyes were a couple of "See you tomorrows" and included me verifying the call time for Saturday's show. I waded through lingering audience members, none of whom gave me an obligatory "Nice job." I walked out the front door and went down the street to my car. It was at that moment that I realized I still had my cup on over my privates. I was about to reach in and take it out, but two women were walking down the sidewalk, headed my way. The last thing they needed to see was some guy in the dark on a street in Hollywood cramming his hand down his trousers. So I drove home in my black suit with my cup on.

The next day, after I got relieved of my duties, I emailed the producer to say farewell. She emailed back her thanks for my efforts and informed me that the show had been promoted in one of the community newspapers. Its website had this picture:

You'll notice that in the caption, I'm listed as W. Joe Dungan. The reporter and photographer covered the story during a tech rehearsal. I guess these things happen when you take notes in the dark. (As I write this, on closing night, the paper's website still has this story up -- with this picture and this caption.)

No W. Joe Dungan in the show. No Joe Dungan either. And tonight, during their closing night, they'll be bonding and having emotional episodes. I'll be having grilled cheese sandwiches and soup at a grilled cheese sandwiches and soup party, where I won't get written out after the first course and I won't get kicked in the cubes. But it will still be, in its own way, meaningful.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Kind of an Acting Gig for Kind of an Actor

You've really got to love acting if you're willing to endure its drawbacks, which is why I quit acting permanently (the first time) when I was 27. I had felt like all my self-promotion efforts were descending into expensive drudgery. And back then, most of the plays I ended up in were turkeys anyway. Plus, the discouragement got to me. There is no shortage of people in Los Angeles to tell actors, tacitly or otherwise, that their acting talents mean nothing to them. Another reason I quit was because I thought I was a writer, although there have been no shortage of people who've tried to discourage me of that, either.

And so it is in Los Angeles that if you have any kind of a reputation as an actor -- or even if you don't -- you get offers to act in people's projects. Now, it's one thing if they're making a short film. People making short films need all the help they can get, particularly if they need people to fill the background. In fact, it's kind of what we do out here. In some parts of the country, people help people raise barns. In L.A., people help people make short films.

But appearing in a stage show is something else. It's not an assignment that's handed out lightly.


This Friday, and running for two weekends, a show called Expressing Motherhood opens at a theater in Hollywood. It's a series of scenes and monologues about, well, motherhood. A talented stage veteran named Susanna Brisk is doing a scene in it, and she approached a friend of mine to costar with her. My friend couldn't do it, but for some odd reason, he suggested casting me, and for some odder reason, she did. She'd never seen me perform before, but based on my picture, my friend's recommendation, and my writing, she decided I was perfect for it.

I'm not sure I agree. You see, I'm helping her sing a rap song.

Now, my friend who referred me did not do so by chance; he once wrote and directed a one-man show for me in which I, among other things, sang a rap song. A cappella. But that was different. It had a meter that was easily recognizable even to a musical short-busser like me. This song, this one that I'm learning for the show that opens in just a few days, is a droll parody of an Eminem song that has a rhythm that can't be explained.

During rehearsal on Saturday, Susanna recognized my musical handicap, further divining that I can't even walk like a rapper. So she mercifully cut down my part to include as little singing and walking as necessary. I will spend a lot of the time on stage doing nothing but keeping one hand on my crotch. Anyone who's read my book probably figures I've had plenty of practice at that, but apparently, I still need to work on it.

An assignment taken must be honored, so I've been doing my part. I've been listening to the song repeatedly and have been practicing walking and standing still as if my junk weighed five pounds. I bought a suit -- actually, a black jacket and black pants that sort of match if you're not looking closely -- at a thrift store for ten bucks. And since the scene may involve me getting kicked in the dick, I spent sixteen bucks on a cup and jock strap. I'm not a total idiot.

All told, this should be a good show, and my modest role in it should be fun once I figure out the beat of this song for the four seconds I'm actually singing some of it. Plus, during rehearsal on Saturday, Susanna kept telling me I was perfect for this, despite the fact that I can't do half of what she initially asked for. On the one hand, I'm a damn funny guy. There are only a small minority of people who can do things like walk on stage with their hand over their crotch and get laughs on purpose, and I'm one of those people. On the other hand, Susanna may have just been blowing smoke up my ass. To many actors, getting smoke blown up one's ass is one of the joys of acting, even if some of them won't admit it -- to themselves or anyone else.

As for me, I hadn't had smoke blown up my ass about my acting abilities in a while, and I realized I didn't miss the feeling. Since my early retirement from acting, I have slowly developed a little thing called security. Plus, acting does not make my heart sing anyway, although it does make my heart hum once in a while, so I'm looking forward to this.

Now, if I could only get more people to blow smoke up my ass about my writing.