Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Proud Of My Profession

It seems theatres in both DC and NY are feeling the spirit of giving this holiday season. That's not always the case, so it's nice to see.

Theatres in the District usually do their best to accommodate schedule conflicts with each other. Usually. If a stage actor is having a particularly buoyant period in his career here, he is likely to have gigs lined up back-to-back. (I don't include myself in that group: my career is rarely buoyant; like the S.S. Poseidon, I am more likely in need of extra ballast. But that's not what this entry is about.) It is not unusual for an actor's gigs to overlap a bit. The last week or so of his current performances may very well overlap with the first week or so of rehearsals for his next gig. Theatres in the area, particularly the small and mid-level ones, do their best to accommodate such conflicts. There is nothing more frustrating for an actor than finding that he must decline 6-8 weeks of employment due to a possible 1-2 week extension of a show which has yet to open. (I'm sad to report that that instance has happened more than once around here, but again, that's not what this entry is about).

Much more frequently, theatres in the region try to work these schedule glitches out, in order to keep the talent they want. Several years ago, I encountered such a glitch. In fact, the actual runs of the two shows in question coincided, but it took only a little maneuvering to keep me in both productions. I was in the Spring Company of Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center, a gig I have done more than once and very much enjoy. Shear is extremely popular with the tourist trade, and during the spring months, demand for tickets is so great that the producers hire a full second company to handle the overflow. The Second Company generally works four days a week (Mon-Thurs), with the curtain going up at 5 PM and coming down at 7. The Madness folks consider this a part-time gig, as indeed it is, so they are prepared to work around the schedules of the actors involved, as much as possible.

In this instance, I was also contracted to appear in Opus at the Washington Stage Guild, in performances which ran simultaneously with Shear. Luckily, Opus ran Thursday - Sunday, so the only problem spot was Thursday. I commend both theatre companies for doing their best for me, so I could do both shows. The folks at Shear even went so far as to offer to have a taxi waiting for me at the front of the Kennedy Center, ready to whisk me to the Stage Guild downtown (it turned out it was quicker for me to just leap into my own car and drive like a maniac). So, on Thursdays, I would finish the Madness a few minutes before 7:00, dash downstairs to the garage (I received special dispensation from Shear to leave the theatre in costume on Thursdays, so I would not waste time changing clothes), and head across town to the 7:30 performance of Opus. I was never late for the curtain, and the gang at the Stage Guild yielded the union requirement that I arrive at the theatre half an hour before the curtain went up. Thanks to both Shear Madness and the Washington Stage Guild, I was able to do both shows.

This memory popped into my head recently as I heard about other concessionary tales of late. When Arena Stage's Oklahoma lost their leading lady only a few days before opening night, they turned to local dynamo Eleasha Gamble to step in. Eleasha was due to begin rehearsals at Fords Theatre for their perennial A Christmas Carol, but the Powers at Fords generously released their award-winning actress from her commitment (Eleasha won the Helen Hayes award for her performance in Fords's The Civil War, below) so she could head west in that surrey with the fringe on top.

Oklahoma was already generating national attention, as it was the premiere production in the newly renovated Arena, and this last-minute swap added to the excitement. The reviews have been stellar, New York producers have been down to determine if a Broadway transfer is possible, and our local gal Gamble has offered even more proof that the DC talent pool stands up to national scrutiny. (This is not the first time Arena Stage, or other DC theatres for that matter, has hired a New York actor, only to have to scramble to replace that actor when she bales. The DC replacement shines, pointedly proving that local theatres, even the big ones, should be casting local talent in the first place. Oops, this is not what this entry is about, either...)

I may have, in journalistic parlance, "buried the lead" here, as the following story was the inspiration for this blog entry. Did you hear about it? Sara Jean Ford, who is currently playing the female lead in Broadway's Phantom of the Opera, was spending the day at jury duty when she got the phone call which ignited more excitement than sitting in the holding box. The call was from her manager, who reported that over at Broadway's A Little Night Music, they were having a very bad day.

The actresses playing Anne (the ingenue) and Petra (the maid) were both out ill, and the female swing had taken a personal day off. Someone thought of tracking down Ford to see if she could help. Ford had been in A Little Night Music over the summer, playing one of those nosey quintet of singers who comment on the action and who, at least in this production, understudy the stars. Ford had understudied the role of Petra, but had never gone on.

Here's the part of the story which warms my heart, and makes me glad to be spending my life in the theatre, around people like this. Sara Jean was willing to help, but of course, she was expected onstage in Phantom that night. The management at Phantom, in a pretty swell spirit of Good Samaritanism, released Ford and allowed her standby to go on in her place (this is not all that alarming, as the women who play Christine in Phantom only do 6 shows a week, with their standby performing the other 2. We really should call her the alternate, rather than the standby. Ford's replacement was already doing performance duty in the role.) Nevertheless, the folks at Phantom had every right in the world to expect their star to perform as scheduled. Instead, they extended a helping hand to their competitors down the street.

Ford had to finish her jury duty commitment, so she had less than two hours to dash over to Night Music, run through a few little bits, and hit the stage as Petra. That role is one of the smaller ones in the show, but sings "The Miller's Son" near the end of act two, a number which is well-known and is always highly anticipated. You might call it the 11:00 number, if that pesky "Send in the Clowns" thing weren't there.

And in an instance like this, when the replacement went on without warning, Ford was of course expected to sing the song in the standard key (if you've ever heard "The Miller's Son," you know it is octaves lower than anything the soprano Christine sings in Phantom. This gal must have some pipes!)

The performance went off without a hitch, and in fact, Sara Jean played in Night Music the following day as well (which was a two-show Wednesday). Her alternate continued playing Christine down the street. The more I think about the generosity of spirit which this situation reveals, the more tingly I get. Here was Ford, playing the leading role in Broadway's longest running show, feeling a sense of altruism toward a former employer, and helping them out by playing three performances of a much smaller role. (And the fact that she had no rehearsal before leaping into the fray? That's the Actors' Nightmare.)

So, kudos all around, to Sara Jean Ford, to the Powers at Phantom and at Night Music, to everybody involved in making this switcheroo work so both shows could go on. It makes me proud to be in the theatre.