Get Me Aboard, Call Out My Name! I Must Get Off That Ship!

5 Jul

In the summer of 2003, I booked a summer stock job at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. BCP had, at one time, been a theatre where many Broadway shows were tried out, including Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. Dick Van Dyke, Liza Minnelli, Tyne Daly, Grace Kelly, Walter Mathau and Angela Lansbury had all performed there. Audra McDonald had played Aldonza in Man of La Mancha there. It had been a big deal.

By the time I was hired to work there, it was a non-Equity theatre that did summer stock. It was owned and operated by a man named Ralph Miller, who also owned three other theatres – The Falmouth Playhouse in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the Pocono Playhouse in Mountainhome, PA, and the Woodstock Playhouse in Woodstock, NY. The Woodstock Playhouse mysteriously burned to the ground in 1988 and the Falmouth Playhouse, which had been insured at $1.5 million, also burned to the ground in 1994. See a pattern?

I had been hired to do Maury Yeston’s Titanic and Frank Wildhorn’s The Scarlet Pimpernel at both the Bucks County Playhouse and the Pocono Playhouse. There was another group of actors – the Dancer Company, we called them – who would perform Fiddler on the Roof and Lil Abner (I think) – in one theatre while we were in the other and then we’d switch. And the Singer Company would have a three week hiatus mid-season, so I could go home to New York for a bit. That also meant I wouldn’t be able to sublet my apartment. I had to pay rent. I don’t remember how much I was being paid – $250 a week, maybe? That sounds a little high… My rent at the time was $550 a month for one room with no kitchen and a shared bathroom in the hallway. Needless to say, I wasn’t making any money off this gig.

I had to take a bus out to Mountainhome to start rehearsals at the Pocono Playhouse. Our stage manager, Grey, picked me up and drove me to our company housing, which turned out to be an old, run-down summer camp – very Camp Crystal Lake. The rooms stunk of mildew, the mattresses were about 3/4” thick and there were mushrooms growing out of the floor in the bathroom. The dorm buildings were situated about a quarter mile back from the main road down a dirt road that cut through the woods with no lighting whatsoever. There was a rec room/commons building on the corner of the main road, which is where the TV and kitchen were. And a chipmunk that lived in the garbage can. It would jump out at you like that squirrel in the Christmas tree in “Christmas Vacation.” I was terrified to go in there. There was a bathroom in the commons building, too, but someone pooped in there before realizing the toilet didn’t flush. That turd, which stuck around for weeks, should have been a warning…a sign of things to come.

The next day, we all went to the Pocono Playhouse to start rehearsals for Titanic. I was so excited to do that show – it was one of my favorite scores, and I had always had a strange connection to the story of the Titanic’s sinking. It fascinated and horrified me. I looked forward to getting to wear fantastic costumes and I was really, really curious to know what the sets were going to look like.

The first few days of rehearsal were just about learning the music. That score is tough. It’s practically an opera. It sits high in the voice and there’s a lot of it. The harmonies are very tight. And did I mention there’s a lot of it? Our cast was comprised of a lot of folks with varying levels of musical knowledge. A few of us had degrees in voice, some had acting degrees, some were just folks who dabbled in community theatre. It was a challenge even for those of us who could read music and had a good ear. But we sounded good! I was very excited to see where this was going to go.

Once we got the show on its feet, I started putting a few things together that didn’t quite add up. Our stage manager was also playing Mr. Strauss. How was he going to call the show and work the fly rail and move set pieces and then come out and sing a love song to his wife? Where was the tech crew? And where was the orchestra? Surely they must be rehearsing off-site somewhere and we’d have a sitzprobe later… Right?

The set was a huge, billion-pound mass of 2×4’s and plywood. We had huge ramps that would serve as the loading ramp for the passengers at the top of the show and, when flipped around the other direction, would be the sinking ship, and then there were a bunch of other platforms that would serve as other acting spaces. As it turned out, we – the actors – were also the crew and we had to move those giant pieces while Grey would run around in his tailcoat and heavily drawn-on age lines, flying in drops and then sprinting back out to do his scenes. During one of our last rehearsals before opening, it still hadn’t been decided how, exactly, we were going to hit an iceberg, and it became clear that there was to be no orchestra. We were going to be singing to a track, and it sounded like it had been recorded on one of those tiny Casio keyboards from the early 90’s. *plink plink…plink plink…plink plink…plink plink…* It was horrible.

I don’t remember if it was final tech or opening night – I’ll call it opening night for dramatic effect – but I remember standing in the wings just before curtain. The lights went down and suddenly this glorious, huge orchestral overture started. Had Ralph spent the money to have the tracks recorded with an orchestra?! Our answer came about 2 minutes into the overture, when the track switched back to the *plink plink…plink plink* of the Casio. Ralph hadn’t paid for new tracks – he’d just taken the overture from the Original Broadway Cast Recording and tacked it onto the beginning of our show! Surely that wasn’t legal, not to mention how deceiving it would be for the audience. My friends Matt and Don (who had to come out and sing the first song over that awful track) and I couldn’t believe it. It was just so…wrong. Still, the show must go on.

I got through my first scene as Mr. Pitman (“First class passengers, proceed at once to the gangway!”) and had a 30-second costume change to Mr. Henry Etches before I had to run up the steps to the top platform for my next scene. We didn’t have dressers, so I had pre-set my Etches jacket and vest, draped over a support beam of one of the giant ramps upstage right. As I was making my change, I felt as if I were stepping on something, but I wasn’t sure what it was because it was completely dark back there. I made the change, got up the stairs (barely) and served Captain Smith his coffee. A few minutes later I was onstage for something else and I started noticing silver splotches on the black floor. Then I noticed them on my tux pants. I had no clue what it was until I noticed my suede-soled Capezio character shoes were sticking to the floor. I had stepped in a puddle of silver paint that had been spilled right where my quick change was. Rather than clean it up, someone had just thrown some newspaper over it and left it there. By the end of that performance, there was silver paint everywhere and my $200 character shoes were ruined. I was never reimbursed for those…

By the end of the first act, the actors in the show still weren’t sure how we were going to hit an iceberg. The scene involves lots of vignettes of various passengers interacting with one another, so we were staged in couples and groups and we were awash in a pale blue light. We heard, “Iceberg! Right ahead!” and suddenly a white scrim – a piece of fabric which is opaque when lit from the front and transparent when lit from behind – flew in downstage and we saw a beautiful video of the Titanic sailing along the Atlantic and suddenly hitting an iceberg…while a tiny computer-generated Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio dodged falling pieces of ice. Now, I knew this was illegal – we’d just used part of James Cameron’s multiple Oscar-winning film as part of our show. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could anyone else.

We opened Titanic at the Bucks County Playhouse and played there for three weeks. During the third week of the run, we started rehearsals for The Scarlet Pimpernel. We were so happy to be working on new material that few of us seemed to notice how exhausted we actually were. We learned that show in a week. For this show, we had wigs and tights and gigantic period costumes made out of upholstery fabric you would typically use to cover a large sofa. By this time, it was late June and it was hot in Pennsylvania, even with the air conditioning running in the theatre. We didn’t have air conditioning at the cast house in New Hope, which was a large farm house out in the middle of nowhere, where we had three or four people to a room. I was so looking forward to going home to my dumpy apartment in New York. I couldn’t wait.

Pimpernel ran for two weeks at Bucks County and then we had a three week hiatus before we opened at the Poconos Playhouse, where we had rehearsed Titanic earlier in the summer. We got to the theatre after our break to find out that we would be doing two weeks of Pimpernel and one week of Titanic in the Poconos, which was flipped from what we’d been told we would be doing when we signed our contracts. We only had three weeks to go, and it wasn’t as if they were canceling anything, so it wasn’t a big deal.

What was a big deal, however, was our first brush-up rehearsal before opening night. When we arrived at the theatre, we were told to search through the various big black garbage bags in the dressing rooms for our costume pieces. I assumed the costumes had been dry cleaned and put into the bags for storage, but no…they had been taken off the hangers and shoved into the bags – wigs and all – soaking wet with sweat, and sent up to the Poconos to stew for three weeks in tied up garbage bags. They smelled terrible and they were still wet with month-old sweat, and we were being asked to put them on and do our show. Bottles of Febreeze had been provided in each dressing room to help with the smell, but we were told that there wasn’t enough money in the costume budget to get the sofa coats cleaned. And we were told that there was no air conditioning in the Poconos Playhouse – onstage or off. Two weeks later we found our Titanic costumes in a similar condition, having steamed in our various juices for over six weeks in those big black bags. The life vests seemed to smell the worst, but nothing there smelled good.

I have kept in touch with many of my cast mates from that season. They’re scattered all over the world doing all sorts of amazing things. I’m incredibly proud of all of them. As miserable as parts of that summer were, I remember standing next to Liz Asti during the finale of Titanic and just sobbing – both of us. But I was also ready to be done with that experience. It wasn’t for me.

Image

The Pocono Playhouse after the fire in 2009.

In 2009, several of my BCP friends sent me messages on Facebook to let me know that the Pocono Playhouse had “mysteriously” burnt down. None of us were terribly shocked and we all came to the same conclusion as to who was responsible. Bucks County Playhouse was bought in 2010 by several big New York theatre people and it’s been revamped into a legitimate Equity house again. But I will never, ever forget that summer of 2003, wearing a wet, limp wig on my head, a soggy sofa on my back and silver character shoes with some of the coolest kids I’d ever met. Gosh, I wish I’d taken some pictures…

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2 Responses to “Get Me Aboard, Call Out My Name! I Must Get Off That Ship!”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Lizzie Borden Took An Axe | Confessions of a Merch Whore - August 4, 2013

    […] the theater at one point because I thought I was going to throw up. To have the opportunity to do Titanic: The Musical was almost too much for my brain to process. The Salem witch trials are another source of wonder […]

  2. Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life | Confessions of a Merch Whore - September 11, 2013

    […] far as I’m concerned, as much my cousin as Derek. They drove up to Pennsylvania to see me in The Scarlet Pimpernel with their friends Nicole, Brian and Andy, who, along with their former roommate, Josh, have all […]

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