My Life In Community Theater, or The Great Strangulation
Domenick Scudera has a regular Festival Blog column about his experiences in the performing arts. He is a longtime theater artist and is the chair of the theater and dance department at Ursinus College.
Community theater is a curious thing. It is a place that attracts all the theater wannabes in a community, throws them together, and allows them to live out their performance fantasies for friends and family. The bank teller, the salesgirl, the local beautician, all with a secret desire to be the next Blanche Dubois or Auntie Mame, they all flock to these little havens. It is the high school drama club for grown-ups. You can pour all your energy into memorizing lines, painting sets, singing The Impossible Dream. You are not the bank teller or waitress anymore; you are a Star, albeit for a week and for a select audience. But the people in the audience adore you because watching Uncle Joe on stage is the funniest, most enchanting experience they have had in months. The productions are shoestring and terrible, but no one on stage or in the audience notices or even cares. Everyone is having a grand time, even if Thornton Wilder is turning over in his grave. It is not great art but, for the participants, it is a helluva good time.
In my first year out of college, I started my new life in a fresh location with no friends or contacts. What to do? Like a magnet, I was pulled to the local community theater. And after a few rehearsals of my first show, I had an instant pack of friends. I warmed in the glow of creativity once again. We all ignored the fact that we were totally wrong for the parts we were playing and that we were not overly skilled or talented.
Before long I was cast in The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. I believe that, at one time or another, every community theater performer winds up performing The Mousetrap. The cast for this particular production was not particularly strong and the director barely registered a heartbeat, but we all reveled in the idea of creating an evening of fantastic mystery and intrigue for our audiences. As if no one had ever read or seen The Mousetrap before, we imagined gasps of horror as the shocking true murderer was revealed.
One night, the mystery became even more intriguing for the audience.
A little background: early in the play, one of the characters is left alone on stage. The lights suddenly go out. The murderer has cut the power. The woman, left in the dark, fiddles with a lamp next to the couch and realizes there is no electricity. The murderer enters the room. She hears his footsteps. He moves toward her. She senses danger. She says something like “What are you doing here? Please, no no NOOOO!” She gasps, struggles, and is strangled to death. The murderer leaves the scene. The lights come back on. The strangled woman is revealed to the audience, collapsed on the couch.
The director, who did not give much direction during rehearsals, had made one bold decision. He feared that the audience’s eyes might adjust to the darkness and would recognize the actor playing the murderer, so he had the sound effect of footsteps played during this scene to simulate the entrance of the murderer. The woman on stage was told to pretend that there was a murderer and to make all the requisite gargling noises when she was supposed to be strangled. This had gone off without a hitch on most nights and audiences were “left in the dark,” so to speak, about the identity of the murderer.
The woman who played the murder victim was a real community theater grande dame named Nina (pronounced Nine-a, not Neena). Nina was onstage as usual when the stage lights went out. Myself, and the rest of the cast, were huddled backstage waiting for the scene to end so that we could make our entrances, discover the body, resume the mystery, etc. But when the stage lights went out on this night, the stage did not go dark. Something was wrong. We crowded around the crack in the door to peak onto the stage to see what was going on. We could see everything – and probably the audience could see every one of us.
Nina reacted as she always did to the lights going out, but she too noticed quickly that something was wrong. The stage lights above had gone out, yes, but the lamp next to the couch was still on. In theater terms, this lamp is a practical, a light that is also a set piece. The practical had been left burning and the audience could still see Nina and the entire stage.
Nina had a decision to make. She could turn off the practical somehow and play the scene like she always had. Or she could just throw caution to the wind and leave the lamp on and let the audience witness the scene. She chose the latter.
She went to the lamp and fiddled with it, because she always went to the lamp and fiddled with it. She even had a line to that effect: “What is wrong with the lights?” But there was nothing wrong with the lights from the audience’s point of view, so it was rather odd that the character was touching a perfectly-functioning light and questioning its functionality.
The stage manager took his cue from Nina. Since she was playing the scene as usual, he did too. He cued the footsteps sound cue. She looked to the door as if someone had just entered. “What are you doing here?” But no one was there. The audience watched what appeared to be a crazy woman talking to herself in an empty room. More footstep noises. Nina shrieked, “No . . . no . . . NOOOOO!”
She then proceeded to strangle herself. She grabbed her own neck. She struggled with herself. She gasped, groaned, gnashed. The victim, strangled by an invisible murderer, knew she was in full view of the audience and she was going to make a grand show of it. This was the greatest death by self-strangulation ever seen. It seemed to last an eternity, as Nina gave it all she got. Finally, she heaved her last breath. She collapsed on the couch with a flourish. Sarah Bernhardt could not have given a more tragic performance. She was dead. Very dead. But was it Murder? Suicide? Huh?
Backstage, we were horrified. Why had she failed to turn off the practical when she was fiddling with it? What did the audience think just happened? Do we really have to go on stage and pretend that there is a mad murderer amongst us when, really, people are just strangling themselves? Even by community theater standards, this was bad.
There was a long pause before anything else happened. The rest of us were backstage debating whether we would actually continue or not. A few actors refused to be part of this fiasco, but eventually someone was pushed through the door and onto the stage. The show must go on.
The audience was totally baffled. To compound the confusion, this happened to be a performance for nursing home residents. Very elderly. Wheelchairs, life support, the whole nine yards. Prior to this moment, they had had trouble hearing and were questioning the plot from the get go. Then, to their amazement, they witnessed a woman strangle herself, followed by the entrances of a series of very uncomfortable actors. This mystery was really mysterious. And there was a full hour-and-a-half to go! By the time the true murderer was actually revealed later, the senior citizens were shouting to one another, “Whaaa?” “Hunh?” “Agnes, what just happened?”
The humiliation of being a participant in such a sinking ship did not phase any of us in the least. We all signed up to audition for Dames at Sea as soon as the notice was posted.
Find more articles by Domenick here.