Tovarich was literally the hottest show in New Jersey this summer. I mean it. Spectacular reviews, rapturous audiences and an air conditioning system that collapsed due to the invasion of a chipmunk.
The run was extended by one week, but even with all the enthusiasm, business did not justify the full eight shows that is the normal weekly quota so we were slated to play just five including a Saturday matinee. On Thursday evening the company reconvened after three days off (unusual in live theatre), and we got the bad news about the A.C. It would have seemed graceless to resist doing the show (that thing that must go on), given that the extended run and the slimmed down workload meant a week’s extra pay and another one of those crucial medical insurance qualifying weeks (USA only).
So we went on.
My role in this production amounted to a small vignette in act one, and another telling cameo appearance in act three (of four). How bad could it be? I asked myself. Act one was set in a Paris attic in November. Cold. Accordingly my character, a prosperous banker, arrived in a full three piece suit as pictured above, but also with a heavy overcoat, hat and gloves. As soon as I went through the pass door into the backstage, I knew the answer to my question: pretty bad.
Stages get hot anyway with all those lights. My costume suddenly felt like mediaeval armor and I perspired so much that I couldn’t see my fellow actors. It was like driving at night in a thunderstorm without windshield wipers. But the irony came into its own when in my second appearance clad merely in full dinner dress, my line of greeting was, “It’s turning rather cold.”
It was tough enough for me, but exactly how those playing featured roles, to say nothing of the two leads who were on stage the entire time, got through it, was puzzling. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was as hot as a Bikram yoga class. Bananas, water and salted potato chips were supplied at first by one of our more sensible cast members, and then by the company.
The Saturday matinee was cancelled, which was an essential move. So we ended up doing just four shows in these sauna conditions. By the end the wilted company’s goodwill was wearing thin, and if this disaster had happened in the middle of the run, there would have been protest and maybe mutiny.
Bonnie our director, and as the artistic director of the company the one upon whose shoulders sits the six figure problem that is a new air conditioning system, came through in big style. After the final show she took the entire company to a sit down four course dinner with an open bar. It was a meal that could have happened in pre-revolution Ukraine.
Leaving aside the swelter-skelter of our final week, Tovarich as produced by The New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre 2013 has shown that this semi-lost play can be revived and once more taken to the world.
Meanwhile, in another part of the entertainment forest, I spent a single sweltering night somewhere beneath the 495 freeway on an indie film set. My character was a disheveled newsman come to investigate a crime scene.
It’s hoped that the piece will go to Sundance. There was some surreal-absurdist dialogue.
In my time as an actor I’ve done three night shoots in the semi-surreal world of astonishingly well-resourced commercial television—Alleyn Mysteries, Zero Hour, & Pan-Am—for any archivists reading. This set staffed by passionate shoot-on-a-shoestring inventiveness was no different in terms of the timing. By which I mean that as dawn rose and bounced off the distant Manhattan skyline, the director was composing his final shot having left exhaustion behind some hours previously. The grainy eyed cast mustered their energy one more time and tried once more to give their best work in the early morning light.
The giant steel supports holding up the 495 were a translucent lime under the night time film lights, as dawn came up they lost their glamor though, and a stream of big semi-trailers rolled past our location sending ripples of traffic thunder into our dialogue. The last of the coffee was burnt and bitter, and the remains of the midnight luncheon of veggie wraps and lemon chicken lurked unheeded in an improvised mess as dawn broke over Brooklyn.
A theatrical company becomes a family within three days, geography has a lot to do with it, working as you often are a long way from home. Intimate strangers do plays all over the world. Not so in film. A film shoot seldom gathers the entire cast, as only those actors in the scenes to be shot are needed at any one time. Strangers in the night exchanging glances sums it up.
As I’ve said in these pages before, being an actor takes you through many landscapes. Some are bucolic like the parkland in which NJ Shakes has its home, some are post-industrial bleak and stark, like the indie film set. Each is fun in some variation.
Put it another way, if there’s one thing that beats acting for not a lot of money on stage, it’s acting for no money at all on film.