I used to be an actor. Not a particularly good one. Compared to the high standard of professional players I’m lucky enough to review weekly here in the valley, I’d say I was mediocre at best. But I acted. And I had produced, wrote, and directed. I even had two plays published and received payment, though I never saw the checks.
It was after emigrating from England to the United States in ‘82 that the plays were performed by groups in England, a few in Australia, and one somewhere here in America. The royalties, I later discovered, went to my parents’ home in England. That was where my mother somehow put them in her checking account then used the money to buy family Christmas gifts with tags attached that said they were from me. Evidently, I was quite generous. But I knew nothing about it until some years later when the payments eventually stopped and my dad sent a list of cities where the plays were performed. The point is, I used to work in the theatre.
So when I received an email dated September 10 from artistic director of Stray Cat Theatre, Ron May asking if I’d consider being in the company’s next production The Cake, it didn’t take long to send a response. The email was titled Odd Question. It said that The Cake required a voice for a host of a TV show. A British voice. Usually, when someone requests something British they really mean English. If it was Welsh, Scottish, or Irish, they’d be specific. But I got the idea.
So, it was a voice, an English one, and it needed to sound like a TV announcer. Probably something like that one they have on Dancing With the Stars with that certain emphasis and the odd inflection. “Welcome to Dancing… WITH the Stars!” Something like that. Plus, Ron pointed out that if I was to accept, the company wouldn’t need to hire a dialect coach. Other than being required for the initial first group reading and a couple of rehearsals, the lines would be recorded. Oh, and it would be directed by Katie McFadzen. Would I be interested?
I gave it some thought, then half a second later, typed a response. I’d be thrilled, I wrote. After all, what could be better for an ex-actor plagued by stage fright and the fear of forgetting his lines who had long desired to be involved in a production in one way or another once again? It meant no blocking, no memorizing dialog, and no need to turn up on the night; the whole thing would be in the can before opening. All I had to do was read and be English. A done deal. Plus, the thought of actually being in a Stray Cat production and getting to work with Katie at the same time was just too much. Pinch me, I thought, I must be dreaming. But I wasn’t.
The Cake is written by Bekah Brunstetter. Here’s the setup. A woman from North Carolina called Della (Jodie Weiss) runs a bakery and makes legendary cakes. The young daughter of Della’s late best friend Jen (Megan Holcomb) is getting married and she wants Della to bake the wedding cake. Della, of course, is overjoyed. She’s known Jen for a long time and now that the young woman is about to tie the knot, Della is thrilled to be asked. At first. Then she makes a discovery. The wedding won’t be having a groom. Just a bride, and another bride, Macy (Racquel McKenzie). All of a sudden, Della’s sense of duty becomes conflicted with her sense of faith. She’s forced to re-examine some deeply-held beliefs. Plus, Della’s husband Tim (Christopher Haines) is not too keen on the situation, either.
But where, you may ask, does the Voice come into things? Here’s where. Della has won a spot on TV’s The Great American Baking Show. From time to time she fantasizes having conversations with the English host. That’s me, the disembodied fantasy figure. You won’t see me. But I’ll be heard. And there were a lot more pages for The Voice than I realized. But that was fine. Still no memorizing and no blocking. Still the perfect role.
Stray Cat Theatre rehearses at Childsplay on South Mitchell Drive in Tempe, Classroom 9 where the pipes in the wall knock and sound as though permanently based gremlins are on the other side banging holes for the fun of it. That’s where I went to meet the cast and to get together with everyone for the first reading. The others had to be measured for costumes and go through some general information about schedules. All I had to do was sit there at the table and watch. And all of a sudden, I panicked. There was I, a local film and theatre critic, suddenly about to work among a group of actors all of whom had been in plays I’d previously reviewed. Had I ever said anything negative about them?
I knew I was safe with the director, Katie. Both she and Production Stage Manager, Amanda Keegan had already said they were ‘stoked’ that I’d agree to be in the play, so I figured I was okay there. But Jodie? She had played Nurse to a Juliet whose teens were several miles back in the rear-view mirror in a January production of Southwest Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet, but the only grudge she could potentially hold was that I typed her name in the review without the ‘E.’ I wasn’t worried. And she’s very nice. Plus, I’d only just reviewed iTheatre Collaborative’s September production of White Guy On The Bus that Christopher Haines had directed, and the review was positive, so I felt good about Chris not wanting to pick a fight. But Megan? I’d only just seen her a few weeks earlier in Space 55’s production of The First Annual Book Burners Convention. Megan played an oddball character called Mr. Cold, and this is how I described her. “…Sounding like one of those aliens from Galaxy Quest and looking like an androgynous Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks…” Megan hasn’t said anything to me yet, but I guess there’s still time.
One of the nice touches all the performers were given at that first reading in addition to the scripts were notebooks for remarks, pens, pencils, post-its, erasers, and magic-markers, and they all came in a handy-dandy plastic zip-lock bag. I had never performed with a company that supplied that kind of material before. They were like gifts. “Did you get that at Space 55?” I asked Megan. She politely laughed and said, “No,” but it sounded as if she really meant, are you kidding? I’m beginning to think she never read my review.
Ron May turned up and gave everyone a short speech about why the play was chosen, some personal thoughts, and concluded by pointing out that everyone cast was doing their Stray Cat debut. The only person needed that wasn’t there that evening was Racquel McKenzie. Unfortunately, Racquel was stricken with strep throat, but with the help of a carefully angled laptop, a camera, and WiFi, she was still a part of the evening’s first reading. The only player not in her monitor’s range of vision at her end was me. I was seated slightly off-camera. When you think of it, playing the part of a character that can only be heard not seen, it worked out fine for Racquel. Plus, it was a great first reading. The only comment director Katie had for me at the end of the night was that I needed to be more English. I’ll work on it, I thought.
At this point, several weeks and a few rehearsals later, and with my voice already in the can, all that’s left is Tech Week at Tempe Center for the Arts, then the opening this Friday, November 9th at 8 pm. And me? All I have left to do is to record the opening announcement, the one that a) asks everyone to turn off their cells; b) if you’ve brought any hard candy, to unwrap it now (why that line still gets a laugh is beyond me); and c) to ask all friends in the audience who know the actors on a personal level to stop whooping, laughing, cheering, and clapping louder than they normally would just because they know someone on stage. Actually, I just added that last one myself. It won’t be on the recording, but you have to admit, it’s kind of annoying.
For obvious reasons, I won’t be reviewing the play. But I can ask that you, please, come see The Cake at Tempe Center for the Arts. It continues until November 24th. There’s free parking and a bar. To find out more CLICK HERE for Stray Cat Theatre’s website. And when you turn up, don’t forget. If you really do have any hard candy, please, for the love of God, unwrap the damn stuff now. You’re at a theatre, for crying out loud, not hanging out in your living room watching the telly.