Steven Sabel's Twist on the Trade: To have seen what I have seen…


Steven Sabel

Steven Sabel

Writer


Last month I briefly mentioned some of the outlandish experiences I have had as a producer/director and actor. As I consistently hold true, I never say I have seen it all, because that is the best way to have the theatre Fates send you something new and beyond belief. However, my column last month left readers asking for some specific awkward events of craziness, ridiculous bouts of ego, stunning unprofessional behavior, and unheard of incidents hard to believe, but nonetheless true.

I hesitate to refer to the following tales as “my favorites,' for some of them still make me shudder to retell. Some have become nothing more than humorous anecdotes – as time has a way of turning dramatic incidents into comedic episodes, especially in our industry. I will start by stating that all names have been redacted, and some details left out in order to protect the guilty.

My tales begin with triplets. Many moons ago, I was directing a production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” The actress cast as the lead, Beatrice, told us she was shooting a commercial in a European country for the first week of the 8-week rehearsal process. We worked around her until she returned. Three weeks before opening, she came to ask that all of her blocking be changed and her costumes altered to adjust for her pregnancy with triplets. It turned out that she hadn't actually been shooting a commercial, but was instead at a fertility clinic the week she was gone. She told us she accepted the role knowing she was going to be inseminated that week. In case the pregnancy didn't take, she said, she would have the role of Beatrice to work on to ease her disappointment. Despite the very high-risk nature of her now revealed triple pregnancy, and doctor's orders to stick to strict bed rest to insure the success of all three children, this actress insisted she wanted to continue in the role. Huge risk. Giant liability. Complete insanity. I replaced her.

“Postmortem,” by Ken Ludwig, is a favorite play of mine. I have done the show several times, but the first time was decades ago when I was playing the role of Bobby. Throughout the rehearsal process, we had some troubles with our leading man. Nobody was quite sure what was going on with him – hot and cold from night to night with regards to lines and blocking. On the final Friday performance of a four weekend run, I arrived to the theatre to be taken aside by the director who informed me that she thought the leading man “might have been drinking.”

He was plastered! He could barely speak coherently. He was staggering around backstage, and hugging everyone. A call to the president of the theatre organization resulted in a “show must go on” response. The stage manager brewed some strong coffee, and somebody had a box of See's Candy that they started force-feeding him to get his blood sugar up. It was a disaster. He missed his first entrance, leaving us stuck on stage to adlib. When his lines did come out, they were barely understandable. A special intermission had to be called after the first scene. He started getting angry. He accused us all of sabotaging his performance, before we realized that in his drunken mind, he was doing and saying everything perfectly…. I laugh about it now, but it was a nightmare when it happened.

Alcohol has been a culprit in a few instances in my book of tales. Once I had two actresses leave the theatre in the middle of the performance to go to the bar next door to tie one on together. They came back tipsy and sloppy, and then caused another actor to miss his entrance due to their distracting antics back stage. It is never a good idea to leave the theater in the middle of a performance, even if your scenes are all completed or your character is dead. “I'll come back in time for curtain call” can be famous last words. I once had an actor find himself locked out of the building. He had to wave through the door to catch the attention of actors on the stage to send someone around to unlock the door for him.

Then there was that time an actress actually left mid-performance to finish a phone call that had made her nearly an hour late to call time in the first place. Apparently a guy who knew a guy who worked with a guy who knew a guy who once saw Steven Spielberg in a crowded room wanted to introduce her to the guy who knew this guy. She directly told her fellow actors they would have to take over her lines in the further scenes of the play, and out the door she went to take advantage of this “tremendous opportunity.” No word on her upcoming roles in any Spielberg films….

Another locked door in a nontraditional venue once caused one of my actors to have to run around the entire building to the other side to make his entrance. He came on anxious and out of breath, and it was beautiful to see how realistic the response was from the other actors when he arrived in this condition from the wrong side of the stage. It reminds me of that episode of “Slings and Arrows.”

I once had an actor wear a baseball cap onto the stage during the final dress rehearsal of a classical production at an outdoor venue, because he “was cold” and couldn't find the actual hat he had been given to wear by the costume team. Another time, an actor misplaced his boots, and wore his tennis shoes on stage for an actual performance.

I've seen costume failures galore. Falling dresses and skirts, flying wigs, blown out boot heels, split trousers (it's happened twice to me on stage), uncooperative coats, capes, and cloaks – the list is long. Yet my favorite costume fail of all time is from a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” when the two leads found their costumes literally linked together after the final kiss of the balcony scene. Parting was no sweet sorrow. They couldn't part at all - completely unable to pull themselves apart when his doublet clasp hooked on the laces of her bodice, it seemed to take forever for them to get unhinged. We all came unhinged watching it unfold before us! Hysterical.

From costumes to props. This leads to another classic Sabelism: Props Hate People!

I've worked with some props: A full size guillotine for a production of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” real cars and motorcycles driven onto the stage for various productions, swords and weapons of a wide variety, food of many types, and a giant life-sized trolley for “Meet Me In St. Louis.” Rubber tires were a bad idea. They became a terrible idea when one burst on the stage directly in front of a floor mic, that was a giant boom, and then trolley had to be dragged off the stage by the cast and crew.

I've had blood effects spray the crowd when we didn't want them to. I've had black powder flash pots smoke and smolder, and clear the entire audience in coughing fits. I've had guns that wouldn't fire, and swords broken at the hilt. There have been doors that refused to open, doors that wouldn't stay shut, pictures that have fallen off of walls, and walls that have fallen down. Once I had two actors get so into a combat sequence, one of them literally put a hole in the back wall of the theater with his rump.

Through 128 productions and more than 25 years as a producer/director, I have worked with more than 2,000 actors – technically a small sampling, when you consider you can throw a baseball in this town and easily hit 2,000 actors in one shot. This is why I know I have yet to see it all, but I sure have seen a lot. This is just a scratch on the surface of the tales of what I have seen. Stay tuned for next month's column: “To See What I have Seen: The Auditions.” I think I'll lead with the guy with the banana…..

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