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My First Bad Show

December 27, 2012

My first year as an actor has been filled with remarkably good experiences. Even the auditions that did not yield a role were positive experiences where I received helpful feedback and left feeling that I had accomplished something in my acting journey. But I did have one bad experience this year, one so comically bad that I cannot even look back on it with anger. Rather, it was an unintentional farce.

After two small roles last summer, I wanted to broaden my scope a bit with a larger part. I saw an online ad for roles in a one-act play festival, with the possibility of a major role in the company’s next big production if successful. I thought a one-act would be a good next step, so I contacted the company.

I had some hesitation about writing here about a bad experience, since I do not want to get a reputation as a complainer, but absolutely everybody in the D.C. theater community who I’ve discussed this company with had bad things to say, so I feel I am burning no bridges. For the sake of this piece, I’ll call the company Lightningbolt Productions.

The artistic director, producer, and all-around poobah of Lightningbolt turned out to be a 60-ish accountant who has been running the company for years but who has next to no interaction with the broader theater community. It took me a while to reach him, since Lightningbolt has a 1998-era website, no Facebook presence, and no Twitter feed. The contact number is his accounting firm, and he has an old answering machine, not voicemail.

Once I did reach this guy — I’ll call him Mel — he immediately offered me the lead in one of the three one-act plays to be put up. This seemed very strange. I told him I had very little experience, and that I was just calling to arrange an audition, but he said he did not believe in auditions and just liked to pick people after talking with them. I protested that I was not necessarily the best bet for a lead, and he said the other men who had contacted him had even less experience.

All of these were warning signs, but I was naïve and eager to get more experience, so I said I would take the part. Within a couple of days, before we had even had a rehearsal, I was getting emails from him with the header “Call Me!!!” and no other information. It turns out this is just his way of leaving a message; none of these were desperate. The first one assumed that I would also take a major part in a second one-act, and the next that I was certain to sign on with the next major production. I made it clear to him that I was committing only to one one-act, and that I would only reply to his e-mails if they said what it was he wanted to discuss.

Mel had no role in the three one-acts. Mine was directed by a first-time director who had appeared in his last show, and the other two by two of his protégés. The three would be performed and judged by a panel of three — of which Mel would be one — and the winner would advance to a regional competition.

The rehearsals took place in the director’s living room, with her parents sitting in the next room and a big dog wandering through every so often. The director hesitated to make any real decisions and tended to leave everything up to consensus. The other male actor in the show — who never got off-book and who was using index cards with his lines until tech — would offer advice and criticism of other performers. He wasn’t a bad guy; he just did not know any better. But the director did nothing to stop him.

We lost the lead female actor halfway through rehearsals. Mel had invited her to a meeting of the Lightningbolt board to discuss future projects, then ambushed her by announcing her as a “new member of the board” and assigning her projects. She got up, walked out the door, and severed all ties with the company. (This, I learned from others, was pretty standard Mel behavior. At one wrap party, he singled out everyone for thanks except his producer — whose house the party was at. He actually skipped over her while going around the room. Another female actor advised me, “Don’t leave your female friends alone with him.”)

The role, intended for a woman in her 30s and originally cast with an actor in her mid-40s, was recast with a very talented high school student. (There were actually a few talented people in the cast, like me working with Mel for the first time.)

About two weeks before the show, Mel dropped by for what was promised to be a 10-minute preview of what to expect on the nights of the show. I had told my director that I needed to leave by 8:00, and Mel got there at 7:40. He talked for the better part of an hour, again making all sorts of assumptions about everyone carrying on beyond the show. He made it all sound like a horrible chore — he had a way of making theater utterly joyless. He declined to shake my hand and never addressed me directly, and never did after that — I assume because I had made it clear I was not interested in becoming a Lightningbolt regular. If not for my personal sense of commitment and my respect for my fellow actors, I would have quit on the spot.

Mercifully, the show itself was only set to run for two nights — it was about all the company could afford. Outreach efforts were absurd — Xeroxed posters hung up in grocery stores and Laundromats, inviting people to pay $17 a ticket for three short plays they had never heard of, performed by strangers. I asked my director if a Facebook event had been created, and she said no, and asked me if I could make one. I did, and sent the link to Mel and everyone else involved. He refused to use it, and no one else did either, not even adding themselves. I was the only “yes” on the thing for a week, and after that, I decided I did not really want my friends and peers to see this disaster in the making, so I just deleted it. No one noticed.

(This was not the only odd Facebook episode related to this show. About midway through the rehearsal process, I sent my director a friend request. She accepted it, then unfriended me about five minutes later, apparently unaware that I would be able to see that she had done that. My name is not a common one, so she knew who I was. It made rehearsals even more awkward.)

We had one night of tech in our performance space, and most of that time was spent rigging up an odd curtain apparatus that Mel had designed that cut off about half the useful play space and concealed very little. It was held in place by bricks and free weights that we all had to haul in. We finally convinced him to abandon the thing, which was about the only concession he ever made.

The night of the first show was chaotic. The producer was another Mel protégé who had actually written one of the three plays — a 10-minute sketch as compared to ours and the third, which each ran about 45 minutes — and she failed to make any decisions, going through the set-up in panic mode and fussing with lights and wiring. The cast of our show and some of the others were helping, though two women from one production refused to lend a hand, with one saying, “I don’t DO wires.”

But time was running short, and as we stood around offering ideas and suggestions, important tasks were not getting done. Whenever anyone would ask the producer for a decision, she’d say, “I don’t know!” as if it were not her job. Finally, I, seething, raised my voice among all the chatter and said, “I think someone in a position of authority needs to make a decision and then we should all do what that person says.” There was silence, and then the chaos resumed. (Mel, meanwhile, was only interested in setting up a concession stand to sell fruit punch and chips at a dollar a pop.)

The third show had been abandoned. The young director — another person Mel had anointed without any sort of vetting — had held two or three rehearsals each week, but had failed to get his cast or himself off-book. One actor was actually show-ready; the other four were about as far along as most actors after a week of rehearsal. It was done as a staged reading, but was pulled from the competition. (The director of that show spent all his time backstage making jokes and acting goofy, even though the “wall” was a curtain and the audience — what there was of one — could hear it all.)

But here comes the bright side. After all of this mayhem, and with the lack of clear direction, four of the five people in our cast went out and did a good show, and the fifth — index-card guy — was pulled along by the rest of us without major incident. I remembered all my lines, hit my marks, did a bit of physical comedy, and essentially achieved the goals I would have set for my first lead role in a short play. We did two good nights under extremely trying circumstances.

Our 45-minute show was easily the favorite of the audience, but none of us were too surprised when the 10-minute sketch by the producer of the festival was awarded the win. Mel sent an e-mail around offering special praise to everyone who had appeared in it — some of them for two minutes — while ignoring everyone in our show, except the young woman who had agreed to work with him again.

I hit “delete” and went on to my next role.

Peter Sig

4 Comments leave one →
  1. The Reflective Artist permalink
    December 27, 2012 9:39 am

    I have to say, this was a great read, and not only because so much of what you experienced was farce-like. It was also great because it reminded me of all of the theatre I have done that has smacked of this in one way or another, and reminded me to be thankful for the time I’ve spent in the trenches, because now that I’ve done it: I’ll never do it again. I’m happy to see you can laugh at this situation, rather than wallow in bitterness about the experience.

  2. December 27, 2012 6:59 pm

    I, too, have been in the trenches on productions like this. Your attitude about it is the most important part, I love how you continued to act like a professional no matter what was thrown at you. Now you know what red flags to look for in the future! We all have to do it at some point.

  3. Stratyllis permalink
    January 2, 2013 8:44 pm

    Wow, you’re so much more patient than I would have been. If you’d like to hear it, I also have a story about this company (I think I cracked your code).

  4. Rachel permalink
    January 7, 2013 7:50 pm

    Speaking as someone who knows of what you speak… kudos on your interpretation. 🙂

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