“I must have been out of my mind. Why did I ever agree to do this?”
That's the thought I found racing around in my head earlier this month, in the agonizingly long moments just before stepping onto a stage for the first time in 34 years as an actor.
Stage fright is one thing. Performing in front of the very people you've been critiquing in the state's largest newspaper for the past 16 years is another.
The event was called “Write-Off,” the result of a fundraising auction held last summer for the Shelterbelt Theatre. The Shelterbelt stages original scripts. For “Write-Off,” six local playwrights each agreed to write a monologue for the highest bidder.
The bid winner got to name the person for whom the monologue was to be written — and who would perform it before an audience.
Nobody told me about the auction.
But Ellen Struve won the bid to hire playwright Daena Schweiger to write a piece ... for me.
That's the Ellen Struve who wrote “Recommended Reading for Girls,” a show staged at the Omaha Community Playhouse last May. My review referred to “a talky second act (that) could use some tightening.”
And that's the Daena Schweiger whose “Love Is Strange” played 11 years ago on the very stage I am about to occupy. In that review I praised an actress for “making dialogue that is sometimes preachy ... work better than it should.”
I've written many glowing compliments about both these women, whose work in theater I deeply respect. Trust me, those are not the words actors, directors and writers absorb into the marrow of their bones. I know firsthand.
Which is why I always try to write a balanced critique in the first place. I have tons of respect for the creators of theater, having walked a few miles in their shoes.
But that's ancient history. And right now my torso is sweating in a tux while my mouth has gone completely dry and my mind can't remember my first line. Legs, don't you fail me too. This piece has a dance segment ...
So really — why did I say I'd do this when they sheepishly asked last fall?
Well, it only seemed fair, after so many years of being judge and jury. I should be a good sport. They said I could read from the script, didn't need to memorize. Fundraiser. And the coup de grace: just one performance in the smallest theater in town. How small would I feel if I said no?
So I gave my editors the chance to say it. Conflict of interest, maybe? Need to preserve objectivity? Instead, they thought I might get a nice story out of it.
Schweiger generously asked to meet in September to kick around ideas before she wrote. Did I prefer comedy or drama? Comedy for sure. Maybe we could have fun lampooning the critic's role? Feel free to poke fun at absolutely everything you know about me, Daena.
I got the script in early January. Cleared it with my editors. Tweaked it with Schweiger. Started to memorize immediately. Yeah, I know they said I didn't have to. But actors have egos, and I'm no exception.
Learning lines was a snap in my college days. Now I might not remember the name of a film star I've admired all my life. The script was a string of one-liners, and often the next line had nothing to do with the one before.
The author said I could use a wine glass and a cigarette while suavely addressing the audience from my chair. Tempting. But playing with props while remembering lines is like patting your head while rubbing your tummy in circles. Out went the cigarette and wine glass. Keep it simple. Doesn't get much simpler than sitting in a chair and playing yourself.
Repetition and focus are the actor's refuge. Make it reflex, lest you become a deer in the headlights. I might bomb as a comedian, but the one thing I knew I couldn't do was forget my lines. I had daily rehearsal in my living room. Six, eight, 10 repeats. Said the lines while exercising, driving, showering, falling asleep, waking up. Hey, I got this.
Then, a week before showtime, I met Schweiger at the theater. She also was to perform a monologue. We practiced for each other.
I settled into the chair, said my first line. Blanked on the second. Forgot the third.
If I'm this rattled with an audience of one, what hope? But she gave me tips to improve the performance. And graciously forgot a line herself.
I doubled down on rehearsing. I also wrote cues in my reviewer's notebook, which would be in my lap during performance. Not above cheating, no sir.
A tech rehearsal ratcheted up the anxiety. The other monologues were being performed by five Theatre Arts Guild award winners and one fine actress barely out of college — Barb Ross, Steve Krambeck, Laura Leininger, Schweiger and Kaitlyn McClincy. Writers Nick Zadina, Beaufield Berry, Scott Working, Joe Basque, Struve and Schweiger are also all TAG winners or nominees.
What am I doing here? What was I thinking?
But they were kind and supportive, even when they teased. They let me go first to minimize the agony. They laughed at punch lines and said good job. I forgot how generous theater people can be with each other.
The performance is a free add-on to a Sunday matinee. I think I'm saved, since Sunday matinees are usually half-empty. But when I arrive at the theater near the end of the regular matinee, the lobby is filling with people who came just for the monologues — more award winners I've been hero-worshiping for years, here to see their friends. And me, more's the pity. Pretty sure I'm visibly shrinking.
Don't ask me how it went. I'm like newlyweds you talk to afterward who can't remember their wedding. Once onstage, it went fast. At one point my mouth was so dry, I was sure the crowd could see my lips sticking to my teeth. Mercifully, I couldn't see them, past the front row.
But I could feel them. Positive energy filled the room. They laughed more than I expected at jokes about being overweight, bald, fatheaded and none too bright. I dropped one line, which they wouldn't have missed. I got through it. Even the lameness of the dance break was a minor hit. No rotten vegetables or catcalls.
Then I watched as Ross evoked laughter and sweet sadness as a matured Eve in the Garden of Eden, waxing wise. And Krambeck played a guy-next-door porn star, crude but lovable and screamingly hilarious. Schweiger's character study of a middle-aged divorcee preparing for a blind date was spot-on, witty, moving. McClincy broke hearts as a young mom back from war in the Middle East who's having a hard time fitting in with the PTA. Leininger played a frazzled pregnant woman looking back on her life choices, and played it to laugh-tripping perfection.
Uniformly strong writing, a wonderful range of pieces, terrific acting — and one ringer whistling in the dark.
I didn't expect the gift I got: a renewed appreciation for just how gutsy — and hard — it is to get up on a stage in front of a crowd and roll with it.
I still get paid to go to the theater and write about it. But I can't believe, for one hour, I was on the same bill as all that writing and performing talent.
The memory is worth every hour of sleep I lost.