I heard about the play from a friend. I had done some acting before, but I was no professional. This was amateur theater. You didn't get paid. Everyone volunteered. It was a lot of fun, though, and you sometimes even got to work with people who really had talent.
I drove downtown to the theater one evening. It was a small theater, an old bank building, I think. It was square and built of tan brick, with white globe lights on either side of the entrance. The sign for the production hadn't been painted yet. When it was ready, the sign would stand on the front porch.
The front porch lights were on and the door was open, but I didn't see anyone else around. Inside the theater, stairs led to the left and right into the theater. I could hear people talking; there were people already here.
The director and producer were looking over papers in seats near the front of the theater. The rest of the occupied seats were taken up by people like me, hoping to get a part. I was given a form to fill out by the producer. I took a seat and looked over the form. It was the usual stuff: name, address, list of experience, whether I could commit to the necessary time, what part I was trying out for. I filled out the form and returned it.
It was after I handed in the form and picked up a copy of the script that I finally looked around at the other people there. They were doing the same thing I was doing – waiting nervously for a chance to perform. Then we would all go home and wait for the phone call. Waiting for that phone call was the worst part. Even if you didn't get the part, it felt good to finally get the call and get the waiting over with.
I looked over the others. I didn't know anyone there. If I got a part, I'd get to know some of these people really well. We'd practically live together for two months, spending all of our free time at the theater either in rehearsal or performances. Everybody was a range of ages, some younger than me and some older. I wondered who would get picked and who would get rejected. I wanted to be a part of this. I really wanted to get a part.
The theater was small, intimate even. The stage extended right up to the first row of seats. The audience sitting in the first row had their feet on the stage. Dark curtains hung over the building's original windows. The only decorations were the signs from past productions which were hung on the walls.
The director stood up and walked to the stage. Facing us, he introduced himself and the producer. He explained about the play and what he expected from the cast. I had heard this before but I tried to pay attention, tried to judge what working for him would be like.
Next was what we had come for. We were called to the stage in groups of two or three to read parts. As I waited patiently for my turn, I enjoyed watching the others perform. I enjoyed theater, whether performing or attending a performance. In time, my name was called.
The main reason was to see how we handled ourselves on the stage, what we looked like, what we sounded like. We didn't necessarily read the parts we hoped to get. In my case, I was known for playing foreigners and my reputation must have preceded me. I was asked to read the part of the Italian. I went for broke and did my best accent. I didn't just speak the part; I became the character. My hand motions, my movements, my facial expressions all matched the character I was portraying. I didn't play the part. I was the character.
When I finished and walked off stage, I noticed that everyone was watching me. I had really made an impression. I hoped I had made as much of an impression on the director.
I was called later to read again. I took it as a good sign that I was asked to read the same part. When it was all over, we were told to expect calls later that night and then we were dismissed. It was late so everybody left pretty quickly. There were definitely a few women I'd like to get to know. I hoped I'd get to work with some of them.
I had given up waiting and was getting ready for bed when my phone rang. My heart leapt when I recognized the booming voice on the line as belonging to the director. He was giving me the part of the foreigner. I was ecstatic. The rest of the call was about the rehearsal schedule.
Two nights later, I was back at the theater. I filed in and took a seat, looking around to see who else had made the cut. I was delighted to see that the young brunette (one of the women who had caught my eye at tryouts) was also there. Before I had a chance to talk to her, the director, George, walked onto the stage.
First, George called each of us by name, telling the others which part each of us was playing. Next scripts were handed out and we sat in chairs on the stage. We read through the play, from beginning to end, just to get familiar with it. I was the only one really in character at that point. The others were just reading. This was normal for an initial read, for most of the actors. When I did a foreign accent, I found it worked best to always think of the play in those terms. I was always in character when I was at the theater.
It took the entire evening to read through the play once. When we had finished, it was time to go home. Walking out, I chatted with my fellow performers. I learned that the brunette who had caught my eye was named Jill. I didn't get to learn much more than that the first night.
We started blocking out the play the next night, actually standing on the part of the stage where the scene would be acted out. Sets weren't constructed yet so we used our imagination. The play was set in an English manor house which had been converted into a small hotel. Jill was the innkeeper's wife and my character was somewhat of a scoundrel.
Jill and I quickly became friends, closer than either of us was to the other performers. That is not to say that we weren't all friends. There was just something more between Jill and me, something magical. Rehearsals continued and we were spending almost all of our free time together at the theater. Between scenes, I learned that Jill was trying to get enough experience to pursue theater professionally. She had graduated from a community college in theater a few years before and she was still hoping for her big break. Sometimes after rehearsal, we would go out to a bar near the theater or find a restaurant still open late for a snack. Many times, those outings ending up with Jill and I talking late into the night.
I found I was looking forward to seeing Jill more than I was looking forward to the theater work. Unfortunately, Jill's passion was the theater. She was sweet and friendly, but it was apparent her one true love was acting. When she performed, she put everything she had into it. The emotions she conveyed with her voice, her expressions, even the way she carried herself, spoke volumes. I found myself watching her not just because I was so infatuated with her but also because of how well she played her part. I was fooling around with acting. It was a hobby for me. For Jill, it really was a passion. She was good – good enough to turn professional.
As our rehearsals progressed and opening night approached (though still a few weeks away), the sets came together. What had been a big grey space was turning into a living room, complete with furniture, a fireplace and a bay window. Doors led off down hallways to what was supposed to be other rooms but which were actually just passageways to the backstage area.
What the audience sees of the stage always looks grand, like this is some great and elegant palace. What the audience doesn't see is the backstage area which is something quite … less. It is small, cramped, usually littered with old props or furniture and not always well lighted. The set gets built and the actors have to deal with whatever is left. Especially in small theaters like this one, a lot of the backstage area is improvised. There was a kind of sitting area with old discarded furniture. A large mirror, too large for the room, leaned against a wall. It was a good place to practice because the mirror was large enough that you could see yourself as the audience would see you. I loved to sit on one of the old sofas and watch Jill practicing while we were both offstage. When she finished, she often caught me watching her and gifted me with an impish smile. When she was practicing, though, she was serious. It was fascinating to watch her perfect her character.
When the set was finished being built, it took up a lot more space than usual. Because the backstage area was already so small, there wasn't room left downstairs for the usual dressing rooms. A compromise was worked out, though. The upstairs area of the stage wasn't being used for this play so makeshift dressing rooms were set up. Perhaps 'dressing rooms' is not the best term. You are probably imagining well-lit counters with chairs and mirrors, a tiled floor and lots of assistants to help the performers get ready. Right.
What we had were two booths, really - one for the men and another for the women. The walls were plywood with black curtains for doors. Nails on the bare studs served as racks for hanging clothes and accessories. Two bare light bulbs in each booth rounded out the features. When we were getting ready before a performance, we would all be talking animatedly. Cries of, "Where's the murder weapon?" or "Has anyone seen my dustpan?" or even "Cigar! I need my cigar!" were so common that we hardly noticed them anymore. Changing costumes during the production was different, though. Because we were separated from the audience by only a thin wall, we had to be very quiet. It was probably fortunate that rarely were more than two or three changing at one time during the show. It gave us more room to move and less opportunity to make noise.
The play opened to great reviews as we began our two week run. It was on maybe the third night's performance that I made a touching discovery. I would have to wait in one of the hallways for my cue to come onstage. Jill was having an argument with the actor playing her husband. I was always impressed by how she could sound so upset when she was playing that scene. It even sounded like she was crying. One night, I slipped in there to await my cue to walk in on the two of them when I discovered I could slip into a tiny alcove behind what was the fireplace. It was the perfect place because the audience couldn't see me, or even my shadow, as I stood there. Looking across the passageway, I discovered that Jill's face was perfectly reflected in the glass of a portrait that hung in the hall. I could stand there and watch her as she acted. I had never seen her do this scene before because I was always backstage until the argument was over.
The two of them got to the most heated point of their argument. I had heard them act it out so many times that I knew their lines, their heated words, by heart. I watched as Jill reached the part where she always sounded like she was crying. There, reflected in the glass, I could see that there were actually tears running out of her eyes. She wasn't acting, she wasn't disguising her voice. She was really making herself cry. I knew I was in the presence of a great actress. She did it so well that I was almost brought to the point of tears in sympathy for her suffering. I was so struck that I almost missed my cue.
I came onstage and played my part, but I found myself looking at Jill with wonder, never having seen her in this way before. After this scene, she and I had to do a costume change while all the other performers were onstage. It was always just the two of us backstage at that time. The first time or two, we gave each other a quick smile before she went behind her curtain and I went behind mine. Separated by only a thin sheet of plywood, I couldn't help noticing the sounds as she changed her clothes. I found myself imagining what she looked like as she undressed. I wondered if she ever thought about me that way.
We sometimes exchanged a comment or two as we changed. It was strange to be changing my clothes and talking in whispers to Jill at the same time. I voiced that comment one night and she told me just to enjoy the experience. We both chuckled as quietly as we could.
This continued the run of the play. One night, the two of us were almost finished changing when I heard Jill softly call out, "Oh, shit."
"What's the matter?" I asked through the sheet of plywood.
"My zipper is stuck. I can't get it up."
I thought about the situation. We had to get back onstage, there was just the two of us up there. It would take too long to get a stagehand from downstairs to help her. There was just one alternative.
"Do you want me to help?" I asked. There was a pause as she worked through the same scenarios in her mind.
"I think so. I'm not fully dressed, though."
"I don't mind," I whispered.
The smile on my face must have carried through the whisper because Jill's response was, "I'm sure you don't." Then I heard her sigh. "Come on over," she said.
My heart beating wildly, I stepped out of my curtain and through hers. There was my lovely friend, her dress at her waist. She looked at me and smiled helplessly. "Enjoy the view, just get my zipper unstuck. We're running out of time."
I went right to work but it took time. Eventually, I worked the zipper free of the bunched up material. She finished dressing quickly while I stood there. I guess she realized there wasn't much point in my stepping outside. I had already seen as much as I was going to see. She looked magnificent in that low cut bra. When she was ready, she looked right into my eyes.
"Let's keep this our little secret, OK? No one else has to know we did this."
"It will be our secret," I agreed. Then I added in a very low whisper, "And in my fantasies."
Jill shocked me with what she did next. She leaned forward. As she brushed my cheek with a kiss, she whispered, "And in mine." Then we scurried downstairs, arriving just as we heard her cue. I followed minutes later, my breathing having calmed down from the dash down the stairs.
It was hard not to smile when I looked at her onstage. I had to really concentrate on my lines because the image of her clad in only her bra kept leaping into my mind. It looked like she was trying not to think of something as well.
After that night's performance, the entire cast was changing back into our street clothes. I was one of the last ones to leave the dressing room. As I was walking out, I heard Jill call my name. I turned around to see that we were the last two there.
"Want to get a drink before you go home?" she asked.
"I'd really like that," I said, even though I had just been thinking about going home to sleep because we both had work the next day.
As we were walking out of the theater, one of the other actors asked where we were going.
"We're going across the street to get a drink," Jill told him. I was hoping he wouldn't want to come along but I did my very best to not show my disappointment when he asked if we minded him joining us. Jill looked at me when she said, "No, not at all." I could see the apology in her eyes. I gave a slight nod, enough for her to see but not enough to call attention.
Greg, the other actor, was talking animatedly about the night's performance. It was apparent that Jill and I wanted to talk about what had happened in the dressing room but that would have to wait. We managed to have a good time anyway, though our thoughts were elsewhere.
After that one drink, Jill and I left. Greg decided to stay, which delighted me because I would have a chance to talk to Jill alone. On the walk across the street and to the back of the theater where we had parked, we did talk.
"Thanks for helping with my costume," Jill told me when we were away from the bar. The street was just about deserted, the traffic lights acting as lonely sentinels as they went through their automated paces. I turned to face Jill as we crossed the street. Her face was lit in green, then amber and finally red as the light changed for the nonexistent traffic.
"Thank you for letting me. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy seeing you like that."
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it, either," Jill added. Her facial expression, colored by the traffic signal, was still apparent.
We were now walking down the alley between the theater and the store next door. I stopped and pulled her to face me. "I've thought about you every time we were changing up there, alone." Jill just smiled. I took a deep breath as I decided to go with the urge. "Jill, are you seeing anyone right now?"
Jill's expression fell. She looked down at the gravel below our feet. When she spoke, it was so quiet that I could barely make out the words. "I don't have time right now for a relationship."
My heart fell like her face did. I tried to reason out what she really meant. Was it me? She must have sensed my concern because she quickly explained.
"My first love is the theater. I want this so badly I can taste it. If I could, I'd do this twenty-four seven." She paused and breathed in loudly. "I keep hoping to get discovered, to get a chance to go professional."
I was looking at her. When she said the last sentence, she looked up at me, our eyes locked together. The emotion in her voice spoke of the love, the passion, the desire she held for acting. I could feel in my body what she must feel, the unfulfilled desire. I took her in my arms.
"You're good. You're really good. The rest of us are just playing along. I've watched you. You can do this. You will get your shot – someday."
I was holding her in my arms. She looked at me with a smile. It was a pained smile, but I could see that she understood. She understood that I knew what she was feeling. I wanted to kiss her at that moment, but I wasn't sure she wanted it. Instead, I asked the question that had been burning inside me ever since I first saw her tears reflected in the picture.
"Jill, when you cry onstage, you really cry. You're so good at it. You're not acting. You are crying. I've seen you. What do you think of to make yourself do that?"
Jill looked away to the back corner of the building, in the direction where our cars were parked. "I have to go. It's late and I have to be at work early tomorrow morning." She pulled her shoulders free of my hands.
"Jill, what is it?"
"I had a nice time, Richard," she said as she started to walk away.
"Jill, what makes you so sad?" I called out to her.
She didn't answer. The only sound was the crunch of the gravel under her feet. I walked after her. I caught up to her as she got to her car. She turned to me.
"Please don't ask me that, Richard. Ask anything but that."
I didn't know what I had done to upset her. I didn't want to hurt her.
"Did someone hurt you," I asked Jill, suddenly feeling protective.
Jill unlocked the car door, ignoring my question. "Goodnight, Richard. See you tomorrow night." She opened the door and got in. The engine started as I stood there, realizing how she had avoided my question. The implication hung there as she backed out and drove away, leaving me standing there. Her taillights illuminated the ground in a red glow. Then she rounded the building and I was alone in the darkness and silence.
I walked to my car, the crunch of gravel beneath my shoes the only sound. I kept running through Jill's words in my head, wondering what her mystery was. We seemed to be getting so close, but then I pushed her away. By caring? That didn't make any sense. When I finally got into bed that night, I lay awake for a long time, thinking about Jill.
I walked into the theater the next night with some trepidation. I wondered how things would be between Jill and me. I needn't have worried. She greeted me with the warmest smile ever. I hadn't driven her away after all. I still couldn't make sense of what had happened, though.