The Stony Lonesome: Under the Footlights

I'm not an actor but I do play one on TV. What I mean by that — and constant reader, forgive yourself for not divining it immediately for it is nonsense — is that I am not an actor per se. That is, I do not habitually tread the boards, learn lines or wax rhapsodic about craft and process. Certainly in my time of whatever the hell it is I do, there are elements of dramatic representation. Often times I am compelled to act like a human being in order to further my felonious ends. While my performances have been described as both transcendent and eerily convincing, they are also soundly and roundly panned by the critics and come awards time I am usually watching from behind several layers of concrete and electrified fencing.

However, I did have one brief shining moment under the footlights. In 2010 I was experiencing a period of sobriety and employment and so consorting with my sober friends, one of whom is local (Fort Bragg) man-about-town bon vivant and impresario Joseph Sverko. Joseph is the motivating force behind the annual Footlighters show and as such its writer, director, producer, costumer, and star. In addition to using an established group of amateur thesbians, he regularly enlists his friends to both act in and labor for the production although perhaps “enlists” does not really capture the spirit of force majeure that Joseph employs in his hyperzealous conscriptive efforts; “Shanghai” comes to mind, or maybe “press gang.” Through a campaign of systematic harassment and appeals to community spirit he generally manages to rope in all his acquaintances, a number of perfect strangers and a few who just stopped to ask for directions. As a director he is a martinet, as an actor a prima donna, but he loves what he does and it is highly doubtful that anyone else in the region could bring to bear the enthusiasm and vigor that Joseph musters every year. It is his raison d'etre and it shows; it may be the most amateur of amateur productions but invariably a good time is had by all, cast and crew alike.

So as a living, breathing, ambulatory human whose physical coordinates were known to Joseph, I was perfect fodder for the Footlighters machine. Plus, I had the power of speech (bonus: speaking role) and the physical strength to lift and carry heavy objects (bonus bonus: stagehand/crew). If I had owned a truck, I could have snagged top billing.

At the initial cast meeting and table read, it became apparent that I had some acting chops which surprised me as much as anyone. My last acting experience was a turn as the palace guard in an elementary school production of the Wizard of Oz. (Nobody sees the wizard! Not nobody, not no how!) And while I felt myself quite convincing in the role, it didn't impact my artistic leanings enough to seek out any further roles during my academic career. Most of my spare time was spent crafting nunchaku and weed pipes and yes, I did eventually make a pair of nunchaks you could smoke out of and yes they were completely bitchin'.

I nailed all the accents and drew laughter and applause from the assembled potential Footers for my reading. Having gained some approbation and acceptance from a group of nice, normal folks, an alarm was tripped and my hibernating inner imp was roused. By the time I got home that evening, he was fully up and waiting for me, tapping his foot impatiently. “Just what in the Sam Hill are you up to, mister?” he growled. He was a sight after that long nap, tousled, matted and grouchy as hell.

“Doing some community theater, you know, helping out a friend. No big whoop,” I said.

“Helping out a friend,” he repeated in a whiny, sarcastic tone. “Isn't that special. Well, I assume you plan on robbing these fools as soon as their backs are turned.”

“What are you, crazy?” I said. “I have no intention of robbing anyone. I think it will be fun and I'll be good at it.”

The imp glared at me from under a beetled brow and lit a smelly cigar. He stood and grabbed my shirt-front twisting it bully style and punctuating his next words with accompanying knuckle raps into my sternum. “Listen, you,” he snarled. “You've got no business consorting with these people. In fact this whole pretense of respectability has about run its course, don't you think? Let's get some chick-chicka-wow-wow and head back to the gutter where we belong.”

“I don't know, I was kind of enjoying being clean,” I said.

“Yeah, whatever, but listen, that's just how they get you. The more you achieve, the more you will be expected to achieve, the stiffer the competition you find yourself up against and the higher the stakes are and further you will fall when you do ultimately fail, which — c'mon now, look at me, you know it's true. You know you will. So let's just take the express route back to where you know you're going to end up anyway, save everyone a lot of pain and aggravation, Huh, champ?” He chucked me playfully under the chin. “Huh?”

“Fine, I will call the connect and get some of the old shoop-shoop-sha-boop,” I said resignedly.

I missed the first rehearsal, and the second, and made excuses for my absence, but after that I just stopped taking Joseph's calls. I was right back in the thrall of the old bebop-a-lula and shortly my job went the way of the buffalo, followed closely by my apartment. I was once again a semipro skulker, haunting the shadows and snaffling out anything that was not firmly nailed to the ground and a few things that were. Business, you might say, as usual. And Fort Bragg being a smallish town, it might not be considered odd if my nocturnal meanderings took me by the rehearsal space where through the windows I could hear the merry tinklings of whorehouse piano and Joseph's histrionics as he rendered the scenery into easily digestible chunks. There are only so many places you can be in the town of that size, am I right? And if I bided a while at the side of the building, it was only to rest in its lee and gain respect from the chill ocean breeze. Totally understandable.

When I first saw the notifications for the upcoming opening of the show, I fell into a depressive state completely disproportionate to the situation. After all, I hadn't really even been a part of the troupe and while some wistfulness at the lost opportunity might be expected, I was laid low and in the brownest of studies.

Then I got angry. Angry at myself for my weakness, at the imp for his irresistible influence on me, and at that stupid chemical for existing. Pile this on top of the general free-floating rage I habitually carry that makes me such a joy to watch TV with and you have one spleeny jamoke.

So I said to myself, Self, you will be attending the show and you will show your support for these people. And you will not be under the influence and you will be dressed appropriately. Are we clear, Selfie? At which point a certain subversive manifestation of my base desires poked his head up and said, “Wuzzat?” I cracked him smartly on the point of his warty chin and off he went to dreamland, circling cuckoos hooting merrily around his head. Sometimes my resolve can be quite firm.

Before the week was out I had divested myself of all drugs and paraphernalia, arranged for lodging and procured employment. The job came with an 11-mile commute each way which I accomplished on a one speed fixie bike, the return leg being in the dead of night. This put me back in fighting trim in short order. I went and made my peace with Joseph, outlined my intentions, and he put me on the guest list for an upcoming performance. I attended, had a wonderful time, and joined the cast for a post-performance repast at Denny's. Thus ended another chapter in the Stony Lonesome saga. Right?

Not so fast.

On the Wednesday prior to the penultimate performance weekend I got a breathless call from Joseph. One of his principal actors had left the show in a huff after being on the receiving end of some crude dressing room banter. I won't go into too much detail except to say that it referenced one man's generous allotment in the genitalia lottery and said winner of the johnson jackpot did not care for others noticing his prize. He quit, and Joseph was in a tizzy, and did I think I could learn the role in the next three days?

Hell, yes, I thought I could. The part was for a prospector and single father of three named Clete or Clem or something who strikes it rich, buys a mail-order bride but cruelly returns her when she is found to be in the family way. Clem or Clete had two scenes and several pages of dialogue, much of it going toe to toe with Joseph, a formidable task for any actor. He took melodrama to new and exciting levels, projecting to the rafters and beyond, attenuating words beyond the point of recognition, and gesticulating like a dervish.

The offended party, the former Clete or Clem, had been one of the few professional actors, or at least accomplished amateurs, in the troupe. I had some largish shoes to fill.

I got right to work studying the role, reading lines with my girlfriend, exploring Clem or Clete's nuances and motivations. I believed I had him sussed out pretty good when showtime rolled around.

That first performance is not terribly clear in my memory. Fear had a pretty good grip on me and I was a bit dazzled by the lights and the crowd. I did remember all my lines and queues, though, and delivered them to laughter and applause. I was roundly praised after the show although I suspect that was mostly relief at the last minute replacement coming in and not completely screwing everything up. Still, I was satisfied with my performance and very glad to be of service and a part of the whole Footlighters experience.

There was still one night left in the show's run, and this time I wanted them to remember Clete or Clem and by extension, me. Christine (my crazy girlfriend) and I rehearsed incessantly and I experimented with various fillips and embellishments I could tack onto my character. Clem or Clete was taking shape nicely as a real sumbitch, a moneygrubbing sexist hillbilly with pimpish overtones.

It was the final performance and there was a full house. The cast was in fine form and in a state of joyful exuberance, none more than I. I don't mind telling you, constant reader, that I shone. I mugged and strutted, wisecracked and improv-ed my way into the bosom of the audience and my heart swelled with every boo and hiss and laugh I garnered. It was a bit of a transformative moment and one that I wish had taken deeper root, but still — it's moments like this that keep me hanging on. Sometimes I tend to wallow in my failings and failures and think myself unfit for human company and then an experience like this comes along and reminds me how nice it can be engaged with people and being a part of something bright and cheerful.

It puts the shadows in the shade, as it were. It throws a light on my submerged humanity. I won't forget it and I damn sure hope there's a part in the 2018 production for a superannuated stud with a humility problem because I got that shit on lock.

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