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The theater is still magical, even when things go horribly wrong.
By Hannah Wallace
Ma’s Winter’s Tale of disaster on Monday got me thinking about all the Asolo stories we heard from my parents and other theater folk growing up. Heck, my sisters and I were first-hand witnesses (and occasionally even participants) in some. I think the mystique and glory of a career in the theater is amplified when you consider that sometimes things go horribly awry—and when they don’t, bored actors and stagehands will find ways to stir the pot.
For starters, I was in the audience for what my mother says is still the worst missed entrance she’s ever seen in her 40-plus-year career. Sockdology, 2001: At the end of the play, with virtually the entire cast on stage, the investigator (played by my father) brings out a surprise prisoner who is entirely responsible for the denouement. Dad was in the middle of interrogating Tessie Hogan, and suddenly I got a sinking feeling in my stomach—all but confirmed when Dad said something to the tune of, “Just you wait; you’ll see!” Hysterically, John Arnold shouted “I’ll go look for him!” and promptly exited the stage.
The saviors turned out to be two conservatory students who played prison guards. They bravely marched onstage sans costar, announcing, “The prisoner’s escaped!” then ran off looking for him, the whole time shouting a narrated struggle just offstage to keep the action going, as my mother’s stage management intern scrambled around the building looking for the lost actor.
He finally arrived, a little over a minute later (a 10-second missed entrance is a lifetime; I was in the process of melding myself to the bottom of my chair). My father threw the kid into the interrogation chair and seemed to be taking his character’s intensity to heart. I began to fear for the young actor’s wellbeing—more so after the show, as I wandered backstage in time to catch my mother charging down the corridor toward the kid’s dressing room. He unwisely argued that he’d been out of earshot of the monitors, studying lines for another show. He was never heard from again.
Because every blog entry needs a picture of Cliff Roles (with my dad), and because I could find no applicable photos for this entry.
Another famous missed entrance occurred during the Asolo’s 1970 production of A Flea in Her Ear. When a key character didn’t show up for his first entrance—a vital plot point in the French farce—two men were left hanging on stage, and actresses Sharon Spelman and Barbara Redmond came to the rescue. Well, sort of. The women made an unscheduled entrance, and the men immediately improvised, “Have you seen a man named Tournel?” The women answered in unison, “No,” and turned around and left.
At a dinner party at my parents’ house, longtime Asolo actor and director Eb Thomas (who has a whole subcategory of Asolo stories all to himself) accidentally set himself on fire. Fact.
Onstage pranks during 1940s Radio Hour (1994) got so bad Mom nearly had to put an end to them—plastic cockroaches in cocktails, nudie pictures in sheet music, sandbags in winter coats and double-sided tape in the trumpet player’s military cap. They even rigged a pouch of fake snow to explode (noiselessly, of course) the moment the target character was out of view of the audience.
Thing 1 played Belinda Cratchit in A Christmas Carol (1985-86). She and Mrs. Cratchit were charged with carrying Tiny Tim off stage. Unfortunately, one night Mrs. Cratchit tripped and Thing 1 dropped Tim on his head. Which explains the crutch and all.
Walter Rhodes, another tale-making early Asoloite, used to comically torture onetime artistic director Bob Strane. A local critic once wrote about one of Walter’s performances, “We haven’t seen a part this over-acted since Robert Strane played” so-and-so…. Walter didn’t flinch. He took the article to Bob, saying, “Look at that, Bob, you got a bad review and you’re not even in the play.”
Thing 1, Thing 2, Stage Manager J, Ma—favorites to add?