Monday, November 22, 2010

This is who it's for

This weekend was great reminder of one of my favorite things about being an actor. It's not quite on stage.

Almost four years ago, I was in a show called "Carthaginians" with University Theater. My character, Hark, spent a good amount of time downstage left, a foot or so from the front row seats. Our third performance, I crossed to the space and immediately recognized who was sitting in the two closest seats. I couldn't look at the faces, but I recognized the shoes. Sitting in front of me in the audience, near enough to reach out and touch, were one of my best friends in University Theater, and my girlfriend who had flown to Chicago from Seattle to see me. I teased them about being a distraction later, but I kind of loved it.

Just this last summer, at ReAct Theater in Seattle, my first professional gig, I was running late to one of my shows. I ran through the lobby about half an hour later than I should have been, and almost shot right past one of my mother's best friends from college. He was one of a huge gang of family friends there, and he told me that they had the entire third row. I didn't look directly, but I knew their laughs, and I could occasionally sneak in a glance. Just for kicks.

Then this last Saturday was the big night. I knew I had a couple people coming. But when I hit the stage, I immediately realized that the entire front row was filled with some of my best friends. From one of my college roommates, another two college friends, one of which I acted with twice and even traveled through a chunk of Europe with, to two of my best friends in New York in the CouchSurfing community, to one of my castmates from back on out reality show with NBC about studying abroad with his girlfriend.

Maybe someday, if I'm incredibly lucky, I'll be playing to big audiences in Broadway theaters or in a major motion picture. But even then, when I know that I've got friends and family in the audience, that will be more of a joy than the fame ever could be. Performing for the ones who really know me, and then getting to meet them after the show.

And this time, Saturday, I could look them right in the face.

You see, this wasn't quite like any show I'd ever done before. This had no respect for the fourth wall. This was laughing by audience interaction. It wasn't just sketch comedy, it was clowning. That meant that sometimes we picked people in the audience and picked on them until they and everyone around them laughed. It was... something outrageous.

What kind of outrageous? Well, aside from a lot of small roles in sketches, I had two major parts, both monologues, directed straight at the audience. Now, I don't get type cast much, luckily, but if I ever am wedged to a type, it's usually the brainy, slightly neurotic, lovable nerd. I've occasionally played tougher, more serious roles. An ex IRA terrorist/freedom fighter, for example. But I knew I was in for something different when, on the first day of rehearsal, I was one of the very few people immediately assigned a role and a script. The script began as follows:

"I've been a whore, gigolo, prostitute, whatever you want to call it for so long it seems to be the only thing I've ever been good at. My first client was one of my mother's friend's. I was 14. My mother was having a big dinner party, and Mrs McKenzie, the pastor's wife asked me to go down with her to the wine cellar. She said she needed some help from a strong, young man..."

That was the tame monologue. The other one starts out with me, surrounded by four dancing girls, declaring to the audience: "I love it when my girlfriend has an orgasm! Especially when I caused it!" You don't get away with saying that kind of anywhere but onstage. Especially when it evolves into playing yourself up as the famous superhero, Orgasm Man (flying from house to house, rescuing women from their mundane sex lives!).

I got to do four shows this last weekend. Two of them had big audiences. One of them was the first show on Saturday, when I had the most parts and when all my friends came this time. Easily my favorite show of the run. There's nothing quite like having all so many of your friends from completely different parts of your life come up after the show to laugh and congratulate you. Even after, or maybe especially after, you've just spent a good chunk of their time telling them all about how you've been a whore.


  1. I remember you in Carthaginians, Joel -- you were something of a standout, actually, even with friends of mine in the performance (I didn't know you well at that point).

    Keep it up, O-Man!

  2. Gosh, thanks! Nobody had ever told me that before for that show. It was one of my favorites, too. Who else did you know in it?

  3. I definitely remember Mark Holum (who was well casted for the part), and I *think* I remember Tricky, but perhaps my mind deceives me. There were others, but the faces elude me.