Tuesday, August 2, 2011

“Our Town” An Actor’s Experience

Community Theater is an odd bird. Some people don’t consider it “real theater” because it’s not performed on one of the big-name stages. The productions are often found in high school auditoriums or back-rooms that you could walk right by if you weren’t looking for them . This production of “Our Town” was at SummerStage, an outdoor theater in the middle of Lapham Peak State Park, about 30 minutes outside of the Milwaukee area. It’s a lovely theater, but it’s definitely in an odd location off the beaten path.

Even though I’m over 50, I’m still relatively new to acting. So when a
director casts me I experience a flurry of emotions. I’m initially
flattered since the director is essentially trusting me with the
production. In my short tenure, I’ve seen firsthand how one actor can
jeopardize an entire production. This memory helps the flattery to
fade and I turn my attentions to my next emotion: worry. Can I
actually do it? Can I memorize my lines? Can I really BE this other

Underneath all these questions is the reality that I’m putting much of
the rest of my life on hold during weeks of rehearsal and, finally,
the play’s run. For the next two months or so, many evenings and
weekends revolve around the stage. Actors spend less time with
friends and family; even their careers can get upstaged. Will this
decision affect their long term relationships? My wife wasn’t all
that happy when I took this role because she felt that summer is such
a long-awaited time in Wisconsin and we’d miss out on activities we’d
normally do together. Luckily, after she observed me falling in love
with this play, she became more understanding and supportive.

Of all the plays I’ve acted in, none have made me think more about
being human than Our Town. It’s rather amazing, considering that
during the read through I thought it came off as corny and dated. But
the more I rehearsed and saw my fellow actors assuming their roles,
the more I realized that the play is timeless. Sure, some of the
words we spoke may have been from the early 1900’s but the thoughts
that they expressed still ring true today. How do you feel about a
newborn baby? Or when you discover that the person you love actually
loves you back? How would you feel if both your children died before
you did?

Connie Gehl, the actress who played my wife in “Our Town,” needed to
cry during the performance. Her sorrow was so convincing that I, as
her husband, was compelled to comfort her so she was not alone in her
grief. Her performance pulled me in and, I believe, helped me truly
embody my part as Charles Webb. It was just one of the wonderful
aspects of this production.

I’d like to share two more wonderful memories of this show. I was
moving furniture from the stage to another building. One of the
younger actresses stopped me and we chatted pleasantly for a moment.
She said that she just loved interacting with all these creative
people and she obviously was including me. Still feeling like a
newcomer to the theater, I was inwardly surprised and flattered. Am I
actually an actor? I guess I am.

The other moment occurred during the wedding scene. I play the father
of Emily, the hesitant bride. At the beginning of the scene, she’s
scared and looks to her father for reassurance. After a little
father-daughter chat, I kiss her forehead, drape her veil over her
head and walk her down the aisle. Well, I walked my own daughter
down the wedding aisle about three years ago. This is a privilege
that fathers of girls have enjoyed for centuries and it may be the
only time I ever do that in real life. But because of this play, I
was able to relive the experience during every performance. And my
“real” daughter saw the show, too.

When a show ends, I experience more emotions. Sorrow that the
production is finished. Perhaps, relief too. I commuted about 40
minutes to the venue, but the majority of the actors live out in the
Delafield area so I may never work with or even see many of them
again. I’m wistful when I realize that these people have passed
through a brief part of my life.

Although I do feel sorrow, gratitude is the emotion that over rides
all the others. I’m grateful that Diane Powell cast me in this play.
I’m grateful that I was able to work with Ethan, Mason, Amanda,
Connie and Lance as well as the rest of the cast and crew. I’m
grateful that we had good weather for all of our production dates.
I’m grateful to the audience who usually laughed at the right times.
I’m grateful to my body and brain for hanging in there and allowing me
to physically and mentally handle the part. I’m grateful to my wife,
Brooke, for supporting me in a very personal endeavor. I’m grateful
to Facebook because it allows me to know some new friends even if they
turn out to be temporary.

Well, on to the next audition. I’ve just been cast in a new one act
play, but I’m confident that this production of “Our Town” will stay
with me until I play in my own real life funeral scene.

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