A Night in the Theater
It was my first job as a stage manager in New York and I was high off the energy, honing craft by day, sleeping in the dressing room at night. Then the reviews came in.
The night has many secrets. It means us no harm, yet we are cautious and deliberate, lest we disturb it. We proceed slowly, taking small steps so as not to stumble and trip. Sometimes we jump in and find out there was no danger at all. The night can provide a new idea, acceptance of a path we missed or perhaps a vision of the future. Sometimes it takes a long time to accept and understand what the night has revealed. As I write this, I am thinking of one particular night long ago. The prelude is my first job as a stage manager in New York, in the late 1960s.
I had grown up in New York, but never really had any interest in the theater. It was at college in Oklahoma, of all places, that I came to it. The other New Yorkers I met there were in the theater department. I followed suit. I also got married in college, and after moved with my wife to Los Angeles, where she was from. I heard a local playhouse was auditioning for the role created by Martin Sheen in “The Subject Was Roses.” I got the role and was received quite well in the local press. I followed up with an acting class, which led to a stage managing gig for the class’s teacher, which in turn led to a summer stock production with a new play being tried out for a possible run in New York. A week in Westport, one in East Hampton, one in Philadelphia, etc…But things did not go well. After four stops there was a week break during which the lead actress and the director were replaced. It didn’t make any difference and after another four weeks it was over. The play would not make it to New York. But, as things weren’t going well with the marriage, I headed back there myself.
We were boarding the train for the ride back to Manhattan from Philadelphia when Michael, one of the actors, sat down next to me and asked if I had anything lined up. I explained I wasn’t even sure where I would be crashing when the train got in. Michael began talking about a project he and his friend, a young actor named Al Pacino, were planning to do Off-Broadway. He said they had convinced a very successful Broadway director to come on board, and asked if I would be interested in stage managing.
Of course I was interested. Aside from the fact that I had nothing else to do, I had previously seen Pacino in a moving Broadway performance, which netted him a Tony for what one critic called “the choreography of a hood with a poetic soul,” and recognition as the “most promising young actor on Broadway.”
A day later there was a meeting at the theater in the West Village, off Sheridan Square. That part of the village was already chic and emerging as a hotbed of theater. I couldn’t have been in a better spot—never having done a show in New York before, landing this gig, and even getting paid for it. I met with the producer and director, who introduced me to the theater owner and asked her to give me a set of keys to facilitate meetings and rehearsals. The others left, leaving me alone with the theater owner. We talked for a while as she showed me around, chatting about the upcoming play and the actors in it.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“Well, I just got back and crashed last night with a friend up on Sixty-Eighth Street.”
“I wonder…” she thought out loud. “I have some work that needs to be done around here; nothing big and it would be good to have someone keeping an eye on the place. The boiler man and others need to have access, so if you’re interested you could take one of the dressing rooms, set it up as you wish and stay as long as the show is here.”
I had never heard of anything like this before and wondered if she was setting me up for something, but she seemed sincere about her business and it was the best option I had, so I agreed. She gave me the keys, said she’d stop by the next day with a list of what needed to be done. At first it was kind of spooky, alone in a dark theater at night. But I got used to it. I thought being alone in this haunted house might even be a bit of fun.
The first day of rehearsal was everything I had imagined the theater could be. We sat in a circle: me, the director and the four actors, slowly, methodically exploring and listening to each word, each combination of words, observing the affect on each other and ourselves; stopping, asking questions and going back over it again. The play was about two working-class guys who, somewhat inexplicably, go out and brutalize more successful folks. The writer gave no reason for their acts of violence, nor did he leave any hints. For actors it was ideal. No preconceptions about who your character might turn out to be and certainly no opportunity to prejudge him.
In the coming days it continued like this, each actor trying to find where the truth of the character lay within himself, revealing elements of their own personality they perhaps didn’t know until then. The pace began to quicken as we moved toward the opening. All were satisfied and content that we were on track. Tensions rose, not against each other but characters in conflict tearing down preferences not easy to let go of. We knew the play was going to be a hit.
Word had gotten around. The opening night was all theater pros and they were excited. All went very well and the evening finished with standing curtain calls, after which we went to the local watering hole across Seventh Avenue to wait for the reviews and party. In those days the producer sent friends or aides to each of the dailies to pick up copies of each morning paper with the first reviews and bring them to where we were celebrating.
The wait was long and for the first time in six weeks I sensed something was wrong. They were taking too long to get back. When they did start coming in each one went straight to the producer with their papers, handing him the bad news. There was a hush in the room; all could see from the producer’s response the news was not good. Euphoria subsided, replaced by angry emotions.
The director went from table to table. It seemed as if he was trying to convince himself that these lesser critics meant nothing. “The Times hasn’t come in yet and it’s the only one that counts,” he said. “They sent their top gun tonight, who only does Broadway; never comes downtown. Surely he saw more than these others.”
This was not to be. The number one theater critic in New York began by facetiously thrashing the writer: “It is a half-interesting play, far more remarkable for what it promises then for anything it delivers…Seeing this play we can note something of its violence but we learn nothing of the people.”
He went after Pacino too: “I would like to see what else (he) can do in this world besides scaring babies, old women and me.”
After reading that, the director stormed out. The producer huddled with his partners before saying goodnight, probably resigned to sleep before deciding on the production’s future. Others started to drift out, leaving just a few true believers.
It was nearing midnight. I thought it was all over, but then I looked up and saw Michael standing in front of me. He asked if I still had keys to the theater. I told him I did. He said he and Al had been throwing some ideas around with their friend Jon (whom I had recognized earlier at their table as Jon Voight) and were wondering if they could go over and try them out in the theater. So off we went.
I turned on the stage lights. They talked for a few minutes, then got up on their feet and worked, running through scenes with determination. They couldn’t rewrite without the playwright or make any real changes, but with Voight—who had just finished filming “Midnight Cowboy,” which was destined to garner many awards later that year and make him a big Hollywood star—now guiding them, their enthusiasm was back. He had rekindled the confidence in their talents that had been pouring out of them just hours before.
They worked till three. After they took off I laid down in my makeshift bedroom for hours, thinking, wondering if it would make a difference. Voight had a lot going for him; he was doing interviews every day and had many new connections that might be able to help us out. I also wondered why the critics were so hard on what appeared, at least to me, to be a spectacular work of art. Were they just scared off by the violence? They seemed particularly upset that the violence had no explanation. But does it ever? Experiences, especially recent ones, have shown us that violence can be a force of nature often beyond our ability to comprehend. I went to bed with those thoughts in my head, excited about the new life being breathed into the play.
I fell asleep around six. I was pissed off when the backstage phone rang at ten. It was the director. He was short and to the point. There was going to be a meeting in the theater at four. I needed to be there. The producer is contacting the others, he said.
The meeting began friendly enough, with the director taking the lead, praising everyone for their hard work and personal commitment to truthful standards of creative achievement, and attacking the ignorance of the critics. But one could quickly sense for him it was more a wake than a revival.
My late-night colleagues took over and put forward that they could get commitments that could keep us going as word-of-mouth built and the negative responses of the critics were overcome. The director countered with age and experience. It was like the play coming to life. The emotional, uncontrollable, sometimes very violent young men challenging the established, successful adult.
The producer then stood and announced he and his partners had decided to call it a day. One of the other actors followed suit and said, “I would do anything if I could change the outcome of what has happened here but it is over. I’m going to pack my things.” He headed backstage and all was silent. A few minutes later he emerged, wished everybody the best and took off.
One by one the others picked up their gear, took one last look at the set and disappeared.
Larry Spiegel was born in the Bronx and presently lives in Manhattan. He spent the first half of his adult life in the theater and the second half teaching and coaching four- to nine-year-olds in New York City public schools.