Big Breaks

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

The first week of November 2015, two nearly unimaginable things happened in my life.

First, late on a Saturday afternoon I got a phone call from a woman I’d become friendly with when we both were both cast members in a community-theater revue a couple of years before. She’s a serious actress, and I’m a writer who has always wanted to act but lacked the chutzpah; I joined that cast through the back door, by having one of my prose poems accepted for the revue. I got to do a couple of short monologues and a comic scene. I caught the bug, hard.

She told me she was up for a part in a play that she couldn’t take because she had paying work in an industrial film. You can totally do this, Michele, she said. Call the director; I’ve worked with him before and he’s a nice guy.

So I called the director, who assured me I could totally do it. He gave me a sketchy overview of the situation. As part of an all-female cast with a lot of drag, I would play Walter Winchell, the proto-gossip columnist, in a new musical about Mae West’s arrest on obscenity charges in 1927. The production was already deep into rehearsals. The informal run would be Sunday matinees for two months, starting in two weeks.

It’s easy, he said. You’re playing a radio reporter—you can be on book. I had picked up enough theater lingo to know this meant I didn’t have to memorize my lines. Come in tomorrow for rehearsal and to meet the girls, he added, and we’ll figure it out from there. I also knew just enough theater-talk to understand that “girls” might not be quite as creepily sexist as it sounded.

It appeared the role was mine if I wanted it. What was less clear was whether my friend had talked me up or whether his last Winchell, and maybe the one before that, had bailed and they would be grateful for any warm body. So the next day, Sunday, wanting the part very much but terrified at the prospect of having it, I reported to the address on West 43rd Street, which turned out to be a crummy old building with a subterranean warren of poorly lit performance spaces.

The “girls,” six 20-somethings, trickled in before the director. They had that ramrod actress posture from years of Alexander Technique, toes turned out from years of ballet. They carried big satchels full of whatever actresses cart around all day, occasionally broke into a snippet of song, compared notes about their boyfriends, talked in shorthand about scenes and costume changes, and pulled their long hair into ponytails.

I was 58 with a salt-and-pepper pixie and two grown sons. I have no formal acting training, can’t carry a tune and last took a dance class in fourth grade.

The girls introduced themselves in passing and then went about their business. One seemed to go by two different nicknames, and two others had almost the same name. I struggled to get them right, which meant I kept getting them wrong. I was handed a script, but a script is a static document while a play is a living organism; characters’ names had been changed, lines had been excised, songs replaced or moved elsewhere. I would have to be brought up to speed on dozens of changes. The script was missing the page with the character list. Being a sex farce, actors played several characters and sometimes one character impersonated another. In some cases, a girl played a man pretending to be a girl. I was tempted to walk out and never look back.

The director, when he finally appeared, was a little strange himself. He insisted he was only the assistant producer and that the girls were co-directing, which might have had something to do with skirting union rules. He kept sprinkling his speech with the words “sugar honey iced tea” and I began to wonder if he was a lunatic until I realized he was trying to avoid saying “shit” because the girls kept teasing him about his dirty mouth. He was an old hippie; we forged the smallest bond because we were the only two on the set who didn’t have to be told who Mae West and Walter Winchell were. He told me he strongly believed the show could be a hit because it appealed to two huge demographic groups: AARP members and the trans crowd. It seemed like a plausible theory, but I had no idea if he had any box-office savvy.

The girls kept coming and going, stepping out for coffee or ordering in pizza. When they actually did get around to rehearsing a scene, they were very accomplished. They sang like angels. At one point I was whisked to the shallow backstage area, lit only with a couple of small red bulbs and filled with huge plastic bags of wrinkled garments, to try on Walter’s pleated trousers. They fit perfectly. The question was: was this a fluke or a sign? An accompanist appeared and I was brought to the keyboard to practice a song. I stood between two of the girls hoping no one would notice if I mouthed the words.

~

A glutton—for punishment? experience? glory?—I cleared my calendar and went back for more on Monday. The plot thickened considerably, or at least its real contours came into view when I talked to the girls. It turned out I really did have to be off-book and learn the complicated blocking for several scenes in which I was a participant and not just the narrator. It turned out that I had to sing an entire song by myself. The songs were all parody lyrics to old standards, most of them very clever. I knew all the tunes except mine, a Victor Herbert chestnut from 1906 called “The Streets of Old New York.” This one had clunky, hard-to-sing lyrics. Oh, and I would have to learn a dance routine.

The “assistant producer” called me aside and said something born of either wisdom or desperation; I’m still not sure. It was certainly more useful than sugar honey iced tea. He said, I just want you to go out there and have fun. It will be fine.

I decided he was right. He was giving me the chance to fulfill a dream I’d been toting around since grade school, and I was going to give it my all.

If I was a girl, then all day Tuesday, a day off from rehearsals, I felt as if the boy I secretly liked might like me too. I had a part in a play! A big, pivotal one. I studied Walter on YouTube. He began every broadcast the same way: Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. He talked exceedingly fast into the microphone while occasionally pressing a fake teletype machine to simulate a busy news room. His accent was thick as New York cheesecake: dese and dem and moidah. He wore shirtsleeves and a tie and a homburg like any old reporter, even though he was arguably the most powerful and influential of them all.

~

I knew from years of writing and teaching fiction that persona is key. Persona is magic. Find a persona that fits and you can be free from all your own perceived limitations and inhibitions. You can tap into a deeper self you didn’t even know was in there, seize hold of your own best energy and imagination. The trick is that you never know which persona will unlock these forces until you’re willing to make an ass of yourself trying them on.

I got lucky: the persona of Walter fit me as well as the pants. I’m a quiet writer and Walter was an egotistical sensationalizer of the news, but I knew I could be him. I intuitively knew how to pace the stage and cock my head and spew Brooklynese as fast as my tongue could form his goofy gossip-columnist lingo.

Lacking acting chops, I called on everything I did have. I had years of reading chapter books to my kids at bedtime, racing to pack in as much story as possible; I had the echo of the gritty voice of my grandpa, a New Yorker who actually said “Toity-toid Street”; I had a streak of perfectionism that means I’m happy to keep practicing as long as it takes to get a detail right.

But the singing. All my life I had cringed with embarrassment and cried with frustration at even the simplest singing challenge—singing Happy Birthday in a small group, trying to hum a tune to remind my husband of how a song goes. Persona was key again. I noticed that if I sang in Walter’s voice I didn’t feel quite so naked or tone deaf. I realized that all my life I have constrained my voice out of fear and I really had no idea what its actual qualities were. Once I started putting some faith and diaphragm into it, it seemed to know exactly what to do. It was time to give up this old wives’ tale about myself. I walked the dog belting “Streets of Old New York.” I came up with little Waltery soft-shoe moves to keep the monologues lively. I decided I was past jinxing myself and emailed my friend to thank her for passing the role on to me.

Tuesday I got an email from Alice, the head girl. We had started to forge a relationship, just a little; I could see she was smart and talented, and she also seemed generous and kind, not at all the cliquey mean girl I had first taken her for. She seemed pleased at all the thought I was putting into making Walter more than a parody. She had arranged for a special rehearsal on Wednesday to get me up to speed on my blocking and the dance sequence.

~

Tuesday night the phone rang again. I was already in bed. My husband picked up in the living room. For long stretches he said nothing or repeated a phrase. I heard “pulse,” I heard “long time,” I heard “oh no.” I put on my robe and went to the living room. He waved me in but told me nothing, just kept nodding with a hand over his mouth. I waited for the long, muted call to end.

My brother-in-law, my husband’s perfectly healthy big brother in Atlanta, age 63, had suffered a major heart attack after work, gone into cardiac arrest in the ambulance, and was lying in the hospital in a coma.

His wife, our beloved sister-in-law, said they were going to cool his body down gradually to stabilize him, one of those procedures we had all vaguely heard of on TV. This would take a few days. Then they would do an MRI to assess his brain function. They were already splitting Cliff into two separate entities: a body and a brain.

This brain they were discussing was no ordinary brain, although I suppose no brain is. Cliff was the kind of guy whose knowledge was described as encyclopedic. He was a professor of American history at Georgia State, head of the national Oral History Association, and carried around more information about Atlanta’s past than perhaps anyone anywhere.

My father-in-law had died at age 89 just the year before. Before he died, he had bounced back miraculously from near death by heart problems at least half a dozen times. Cliff was only 63 and an avid bicyclist. Of course he would recover.

~

Even people who know nothing about show business know rule one: the show must go on. I went to the special rehearsal on Wednesday. I had never shaken anyone’s hand and said, “I’ll take the part,” but by continuing to show up I had implicitly committed. Riding up the elevator with one of the girls, I told her what had happened, but then tried to put it out of my mind.

This time we were in a well-lit practice room with mirrors and a barre. They taught me a Charleston number with some complicated spins and dips. In high school, around the time the “That’s Entertainment” movies came out, my friends and I went through a brief ballroom-dancing phase. I called on that. I didn’t disgrace myself. I thought we had a great session, me and the other girls. They seemed pleased with my enthusiasm and commitment and memory.

But the part had grown yet another notch. Now it seems I had four songs to learn. My big number was at the top of the show—just me on an empty stage singing “Streets of Old New York.” I was still game to go out there and have fun. What’s more, I really believed I could pull this off. I was ready to step onto the stage and belt.

I went home. Alice called; she had heard the news. She said that I should be with my family. She said they could manage without me and that they totally understood. The workings of this show had been mysterious from the start. I wasn’t sure if she was being genuinely kind or if she was grateful to have an excuse to get rid of the old rube with delusions of grandeur. I said, no, no, my brother-in-law is going to pull through. I said, I committed to doing this and I’ll make it work. By this point I adored Alice and the others, who weren’t flaky at all, it turned out. I adored Walter and Mae, I knew “The Streets of Old New York” cold, I had highlighted all my lines and begun memorizing them.

Then my husband came in the door after work. His face was gray and he was barely holding back tears. I could see that he didn’t believe his brother was going to pull through. For the first time he uttered a word that my sister-in-law had apparently used on the phone: Cliff had flat-lined in the ambulance. His brain had been deprived of oxygen, quite possibly for a few seconds too many. I knew it was bad but now I began to understand just how bad.

I had to let my big break go. I called Alice back immediately and said that she was right; I needed to be there for my family. The results of the MRI were decisive: no brain function detected.

Cliff died peacefully that Sunday, with all of us family gathered around him. My husband and I stayed in Atlanta most of that week, keeping ourselves as busy as possible, weeding the yard, making the coffee, greeting the well-wishers, not fully absorbing the reason why we were doing these things.

~

In November 2015, I was given the chance to play a lead role in a musical and my brother-in-law died. If I could rewind and undo both, of course I would in a heartbeat. But as we said to my 89-year-old mother-in-law who kept insisting it was her turn, not his: we don’t get to choose. My brother-in-law will remain dead, and we will all have to keep adjusting to this Cliff-sized hole in the world; for something that’s supposed to be so decisive and final, death sure persists.

None of us comes out of this life unscathed. That’s an expression I learned somewhere down the line, probably from the Buddhists; the Buddhists are so wise on the inevitability of change in this life. My poor husband, my poor sister-in-law, my poor nephews, my poor mother-in-law. The yearning will never end. Memories of the old, intact family will yank with the pain and force of angina. I loved my brother-in-law too. I’m starting to feel the dull, chronic ache of missing him. He had a funny plosive way of laughing out the side of his mouth, and I can hear it loud and clear, but I know that one day it will be as dim as my grandpa’s toity-toids. He used to call every couple of months, always with the same greeting: Hi from Atlanta. He used to come visit three or four times a year. I’ll bet he knew a lot about Walter Winchell.

Beginnings or endings: you never know which one you’ll get when you pick up the phone. There’s such a thin line between all the opposites: comedy and tragedy, a full life and a sudden death, triumph and humiliation, fear and fearlessness.

A few months later, the director who put me in the community-theater revue—a man who runs a nice tight ship and always makes his expectations clear—cast me as Pearl, one of the tarts in “The Iceman Cometh.” I did the math: Pearl would have been born at around the same time as Walter, in the same city. I couldn’t have felt more ready.

Our cast was a magical, perfect mix of seasoned pros and amateurs like me. We gave it our all and were proud of the world we created there in Harry’s bar. I didn’t sing a solo but I did get to taunt my snooty fellow tart; pick a big, noisy fight with my pimp, and make a drunken entrance, all in an accent very much like Walter’s. The first time I saw the director after the run, he got a dreamy smile on his face and said, simply, “ah, Iceman”; the production was a high point of his long career.

~

When a member of your family dies, you can’t even count the number of perfectly healthy things that get yanked out by the roots: the friendships, the career, the marriage, the status of the siblings, the visits and the comfortably meandering phone calls that were so much a part of the rhythm of our lives. You look for consolation wherever you can find it, and sometimes there isn’t any to be had. I had a piece of good luck during that unlucky week; I got a new start. My brother-in-law died and while he lay dying I sang with abandon for the first time in my life. My brother-in-law died, and I got to throw myself the deepest I’ve ever been inside the mysteries of living.

 

by Michele Herman

 

michele herman.JPGMichele Herman’s stories, poems, essays and articles have appeared in dozens of publications including The New York Times, The Sun, Lilith and Diagram. She teaches at The Writers Studio, and works as a developmental editor and private writing coach. She is recipient of the 2018 Best Column award from the New York Press Association and a two-time winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and was a semifinalist for the 2016 Raymond Carver prize. She is also a long-time columnist for The Villager, and often performs her own work in cabaret and theatrical settings around New York City.

About the Artwork

The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.

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