Friday, September 22, 2006

The curse of Steve

Tonight, along with our friends Stephanie and Amy, we saw the latest show at the Everyman Theater. It was a delightful surprise to open the program and see that an old friend of mine was in the cast (and he did an excellent job with a difficult part.)

We had met doing summer theater in Montana back in 1990. That was my first season as music director -- I went back to that same theater for many summers throughout the 90s, and still have many friends from those summers. Karl, my friend from the Everyman show, was a stalwart member of the company - a very facile actor and an excellent musician. He could always be relied upon - a real pillar of the company.

This particular theater did four shows in rep ("stock" means a different show every two weeks, or in particularly hellish theaters, every week. Once you close a show, it's done. Rep is, of course, rotating performances.) We would rehearse two shows for three weeks, open them, rehearse a third show for two weeks and add it to the mix, and then rehearse a fourth. You had no days off for the first seven weeks, but then for the rest of the summer, you had your days free and only performed at night. Sweet, for a non-union job.

One summer, we were doing Man of La Mancha - a show that I must confess I hate. I think the other shows were Where's Charley?, Babes in Arms, and My One and Only. The company was very young - given that the pay was so low, this theater usually wound up hiring people right out of college or who were still in college. The guy playing Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha was 21, I believe - but a glorious full baritone voice. Unfortunately, we soon found out that he was a raging alcoholic.

Now, in summer theater, everyone drinks, especially in the little town we were in. Days are long and stressful - and when I started working there, shots of vodka at the dive bar were a dollar, and beers were 75 cents. But when you're young and resilient, you can get trashed and still be up to begin rehearsal at nine a.m.

This guy wasn't just out getting wasted - he had a fifth of vodka by his bed. We started noticing there was a problem when he would disappear during the day - if you weren't rehearsing a scene, they had you working in the scene shop or the costume shop. And one night, when he was drunker than usual, he sleepwalked and mistook the closet in his room for a bathroom. Ooops.

And during the day, you could smell the alcohol coming off him. He had so much alcohol in his system that it was affecting his voice - he was losing control of his soft palate, which was hanging down like a wet blanket, making him go flat. I started taping him singing so he could hear how off-pitch he was, and spent my lunch hours working with him on his voice.

The producers of the theater were a husband and wife team, and unlike many owners of non-Equity theaters, they really cared about the people they hired. So "D.T.", as he was known, a big bear-ish fatherly sort, had a conversation with the actor. They were concerned. They wanted to help. But they gave him an ultimatum - no more drinking, or you're out.

Now, in the years I had worked there, I had never seen them fire anyone. I had never even heard of them firing anyone in the past. I didn't think it would happen. But, the guy couldn't overcome the urge (of course), and pissed in his room again.

As it happens, the girl playing Aldonza opposite this guy came from the same school as our drunken Don Quixote. She confessed to us privately that she almost didn't take the job when she heard he was in the company - he had been doing this same sort of thing at school. She had kept it to herself because she didn't want to prejudice anyone against him.

We were one day away from opening My One and Only, the fourth show of the season. We weighed the consequences of firing Don Q. - already his fellow cast members were having to cover for his erratic behavior on stage. His part in My One and Only was small, but tricky to cover - he was part of a jazz-singing trio. The big question was, who could learn Don Quixote - we had three days until La Mancha played again. The directors asked Karl if he could do it - Karl, being a smart cookie, had already been taking a look at the role. He knew which way the wind was blowing.

I always used to make "hit by a bus" lists - all twenty of the cast members were in all four shows, but the leads were distributed so that if you were a lead in one show, you'd have chorus roles or mid-size parts in the others. I would make lists of who would replace who, if someone were to be hit by a bus (not that there were buses around, but you know what I mean.) I only had to make use of the list twice, and this was one of those times.

The decision was made. We went looking for the guy - he was nowhere to be found. We finally found him asleep in the costume storage - a quiet, dimly lit place where you could burrow under racks and racks of old costumes and stay hidden.

The rest of the company had thought they were being given the night off - a rare treat, but one that happened occasionally right before the fourth show was about to open. We told them that instead, there would be an emergency company meeting, and they were all to gather at the theater. This did not go over well - everyone had plans to drive over to the closest town, forty minutes away, and see a movie, or just get the hell away from each other for one night.

We wanted them all in one place, because we were going to have the fired actor pack up his stuff and clear out that very night, and we didn't want him to have to do it in front of everyone else. We sat in a room with him, and explained why this decision was being made. We were worried about him. We got his parents on the phone, so they knew he was coming home. The producers took him to Whitefish, a town about an hour away where the Amtrak station was. He would spend the night there, and when the daily train came the next morning, he would head back to the midwest from whence he came.

The company, grumpy at having their night off cancelled, reacted admirably when they heard Don Q had been fired. Their first question was, was he all right? Was someone with him tonight? The next was, what we will do about the shows? We announced who would be stepping into Don Q's roles in all the shows. We started rehearsing the changes for My One and Only - which opened the next night.

The opening went without a hitch; ordinarily the company would have their days free, but of course we had to keep rehearsing, in order to work in the replacements. Karl stepped into Man of La Mancha with ease - he was almost word-perfect at his first rehearsal. Although he is a tenor and thus not naturally suited to the role vocally (which is usually played by a booming baritone), he acted the hell out of it. He has a naturally angular face, which lent itself well to the part. People loved him.

What was interesting is how much the company pulled together once the old Don Q was gone. So much energy had been spent dealing with "the problem" that people couldn't focus on their own work. It taught me that when you have someone causing a problem like this, it's better to fire them if you can. Everyone is so concerned with smoothing it over, or "dealing with it" or minimizing the issue - but you really just need to get rid of the person. There have been times when I wanted to fire someone from a show, but couldn't (if it wasn't within my authority to do so.) And there are times I could fire someone, and did.

And within a week, he was a distant memory. I hope he got help - he was so young to have such a severe drinking problem.

What was funny is that the theater had had bad luck with a few employees in the past with this guy's same first name - let's say "Steve"' [not his real name]. They had noticed it when they cast him - but figured, oh, "The Curse of Steve" can't be an actual thing, can it?

Oh yes, my children. Yes, it can. I don't think they've hired a "Steve" since.

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