Monday, April 16, 2012

Waiver Games, Finale: Acting A Lot, Or Something.

My career working in Waiver Theatre in Los Angeles came to an ignominious end with my final appearance in a Waiver show. Out of the six shows in which I appeared, working under the code, I was most excited to have snagged this one.  While I was performing in The Puritan, a casting call came out for another show from roughly the same period, Machiavelli's Mandragola. Machiavelli, of course, is best remembered for his cynical political treatise The Prince, but he was also a playwright, with Mandragola (often translated into English as The Mandrake) being his most memorable stage piece.

Boy, this production was memorable, but not in a good way.  As I said, I was very excited to have landed in Mandragola, as it was the largest role I was to have in my Waiver career.  Because I earned the part through a cold audition, from total strangers, I was even more full of myself.  The role, Lygurio, was the antagonist of the piece, the villain as it were, and was substantial.  He was really the catalyst of the plot. 
Our director was never without a
hat or cap.

This was a role, I was sure, which could attract some attention, and perhaps shove my career upwards.  I became even more full of myself when the director informed me that, though all the other roles were to be understudied, mine was not.  She simply could not find another actor of my talent to play the role, so she urged me to take my vitamin C and never get sick.

The fact that this show was to have understudies was pretty unusual, as Waiver shows go;  it certainly never happened in any of my five previous experiences under the code. 
This kid understudied our leading man, and was far superior.

Our understudies were guaranteed one show a week during our 4 week run, and they received substantial rehearsal.  I was called, then, to every rehearsal, as I was to play Lygurio with both casts.  Another oddity here was the fact that, with only one exception, the understudy cast was better than the principal cast.  I never quite figured this out;  I could understand the director making a false choice in one instance, but in FIVE?

Well, I knew almost immediately, once rehearsals began, why one of our actors was in the show. 
Steve, our leading man, had the looks but not the chops.
A Google search reveals he now directs soft-core gay porn
for the internet.

Our director was in love with her leading man.  Our leader was a woman named Helen, and she hailed from Long Beach or Redondo Beach or someplace like that.  She ran a group called Eccos Players, which had had some success in her hometown.  With Mandragola, she hoped to introduce herself, and her company, to L.A. proper. 
Helen has always had an ongoing career as a jazz radio DJ.
She also currently runs an amateur Shakespeare group
in Long Beach, CA.

For her company's Big Time Debut, she rented a newly refurbished little jewel of a theatre called the Off-Ramp.  It was so named because it was located right off the Hollywood Freeway, at the base of the Hollywood Hills.  The theatre really was a charmer, with new seats and equipment and tight but comfy dressing rooms above the stage.  Having appeared in a couple of real rat trap theatres in my Waiver career, the Off-Ramp was a real dream.
Stairs from the lobby rose to the dressing rooms. The Off-Ramp Theatre was cozy, well-equipped, and didn't stand a chance against Mandragola. It ceased operations soon after our production.

The rest of the show, sadly, was a nightmare, beginning with the script.  Helen fancied herself an exceptional dramaturg (she wasn't), and she adapted Machiavelli's text by interpolating several different translations and some updated language. 
Our costumes were elaborate by Waiver standards.

The result was a mash-up of various styles which simply did not play.  Helen also fancied herself a strong director (she wasn't), and her staging was dull and uninspired.  I could tell immediately that the comedy in the piece was going to fall resoundingly flat, but being the accommodating actor which I always try to be, I never made waves.  But Helen's biggest problems were in her casting. 
The kid playing the comic servant was the
lone bright spot in an otherwise lousy cast.

As the romantic leading man, she cast her best friend, a tall, blond, good-looking guy who couldn't act his way out of a paper bag.  It was pretty clear that Helen, who was not a physically attractive woman, had a substantial crush on Steve, who was at the time a big ol' closet case.  I had most of my scenes with Steve, who was a very nice guy but had no sense of style or comedic timing, so I became increasingly frustrated.

The Eccos Players premiere production in Hollywood was to be their only production in town, as far as I know, and I think the whole organization folded as a result of the dismal reception Mandragola received.  The Off-Ramp theatre, being newly refurbished, was pretty expensive to rent, and our houses were very small; I have no doubt the producers lost a buttload of money. 
Wayne played the cuckolded
husband. He was the best known
of our cast: he spent years as the
Sparklett's Man.

I came to be thankful for the small houses; the fewer people who saw me in this thing, the better.  My opinion of the show was reinforced by several friends who, bless 'em, came to support my work.  My high school friend Kathy tried to be supportive, but in the end, blurted out that she could not stand the thing.  She wondered why I hadn't dropped out of the show as soon as I saw what a disaster it was going to be.  Well, I had made a commitment to Mandragola, and I have never been, nor will never be, someone who bolts from a project when there is trouble.  It never even occurred to me to quit the show.

When my acting coach and great friend Bobbi attended, all she asked was, "Are you having fun? Because that's all that matters..."  Bless Bobbi, she and I both knew that is NOT all that matters, but she knew that trashing the show while I was still in it was not appropriate nor professional.  I have to admit, though, that I was embarrassed when my friends came to see the show.
This review tore
us to shreds.

Thankfully, we dodged a bullet when the L.A. Times, considered the money review in town, declined to review us, but we did receive a visit from a critic from one of the local trade papers.  His scathing review was so hysterically negative that I kept it.  It's since been laminated and resides on my refrigerator, where it has lived for the past 25 years.  This guy singled out each and every actor for target practice, and hit the bullseye on most of us.  Even if that review weren't on my fridge, I would remember his mention of me:

"R. Scott Williams, as Lygurio, acts a lot, or something."

I laugh and cringe when I think of that production of Mandragola.  It was to be my final appearance on any Waiver stage.  Several years later, I left L.A. for grad school, and was taken out of reach of the Waiver code. 

I was inpired to write this series of entries a couple of weeks before I began work on my most recent project, Taming of the Shrew, which was presented in New York City under the Showcase Code.  The Showcase and the Waiver Codes have some similarities, as they were created by Actors Equity at the provocation of its own members, as a way to allow union actors to appear without payment in productions in New York and Los Angeles.  The obvious purpose is to give actors a cheap way to display their talents to others who might be able to actually hire them.  During my years appearing in Waiver productions in L.A., I never heard of anyone actually being "discovered" in one, though I imagine it must have happened.  Perhaps it happens in NY's Showcase productions, too, but I suspect not very often. 

While I was working in Waiver, I was also appearing in various community theatres, dinner theatres, and the like, so this series of blogs certainly does not cover my entire theatrical output during the 80s.  But I consider the six productions in which I worked under the Waiver code to be important steps in my career and in my life.
America, Hurrah, my first Waiver show,
made an unexpected appearance on Mad Men
this season, when Don was dragged to its
original 60s production by his actress wife.

My first Waiver show was the first time I auditioned in the "real world:" America, Hurrah! happened while I was still in college (that story is here).  Poof! was my first gig after college, and afforded me a great part, a showstopping number, and most importantly, the chance to know one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known (that story is here).  The Time of Your Life was a rocky production in which a group of college buddies clashed with some Hollywood types, that story is here.  I will never regret my decision to do The Hostage, under the direction of my coach, mentor, and great friend  Bobbi Holtzman (that story is here), and I'm quite proud of landing a gig at perhaps the most prestigious Waiver house of the period, in The Puritan at the Globe Playhouse (that story is here).

(You can reach the full six-part series here)
As for Mandragola, well, if anyone ever asked me which of my stage experiences I would consider the most disastrous, it would be at #2.  Maybe one day I'll write about #1.