Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Show Must Go On

I was sitting at my desk in customer service when Nancy called my cell. She had been calling with regular updates on Mom. I stepped into a storage room a few feet away and took the call.

Earlier that morning, Mom had another stroke, this one massive, and she wasn't going to wake up again. It was just a matter of time before "the body catches up with the soul", as she said one doctor put it. Everybody should get there as soon as possible to say goodbye.

I  left work immediately to go make arrangements to get to the hospital in southern Indiana.

It was the beginning of March. Just a month shy of the sixth anniversary of Dad's passing.

My first call on the Brown Line train to Lakeview was not to an airline or to Amtrak. It was to the director of the show I was in. It was a Friday. I had a show that night.

I told the director the situation. I needed to leave town right away to go be with my family. He asked me to give him a few minutes while he made a call to the artistic director of the company. He called back just a few minutes later. Unfortunately, he said, they had to ask me to stay that night and do the performance, and they could find a replacement for me for Saturday.

I said okay.

That night on stage, I had simulated sex with two drag queens, bared my ass wearing a hospital gown, and was told I had herpes in a scene that may have garnered a snicker or two out of the twenty audience members in attendance.


In the five years since, I've told myself at various times I agreed to stay that night as a coping mechanism, or more accurate, an out. That I hoped Mom would pass away before I got there, because I had stood at Dad's bedside and watched him pass, and I didn't want to go through that again.

That's what I've said at times, but I don't think it's the truth. I think the more pathetic truth is my sense of theater professionalism was so strong, I thought it was my job to stay in town and do a show despite my family's tragic circumstances.

My pay for this "job" I stayed for was more or less the standard for a small, storefront theater production in Chicago: A $75 stipend for a six week rehearsal process and a four week run.


My mom passed, we put her in the ground, I came back to Chicago, and the show went on. At the conclusion of the run, I was the only non-company member to help with strike. A few months later, they asked me to join the company, which I did.


The situation with my mom's passing wound up being moot, in a way: She held on for several days longer than the doctors thought, and my sisters and I were sleeping at her bedside when she passed. But years later, it's hard to wrap my head around how I handled the situation. If, God forbid, something tragic happened now while I was in a show, there would be no discussion with anyone about whether or not I could leave town, I would just leave.

My sense of what theater professionalism means, at least in regards to non-paying storefront, has changed. Yes, of course, treat the work and your colleagues with respect and dignity. But real life comes first. 

I am no longer with that company. For the last few shows I was with them, I did not show up for strike because they were always on Sunday, which I worked, and I couldn't justify sacrificing a day's pay for such, particularly at a time when money was tight. There were other factors in why the company and I needed to part ways, but I sensed this was a point of resentment towards me from some. 


A show I was in closed yesterday. Set strike followed immediately after, and the entire cast and crew chipped in to help. I stayed for about a half hour, and then I took my leave. My reason was simply no more than this: Betsy had been out of town all weekend, I work seven days a week, and our time spent together is usually a stolen hour or two at the end of the day. So I wanted to get home before she did and have dinner waiting for her. I loved this show I just finished. The group of people I worked with were amazing to play with, and I felt a twinge of guilt as I left them still working. 


One of the things I love about Betsy is that she is not involved at all in the theater scene. A couple of her best friends, as well as me, are heavily entrenched in it, so she knows how it goes. She's supportive of what I do, but simply being with her - living with her, being engaged to her - I see the storefront actor lifestyle through her eyes, and I find myself becoming more and more discretionary in how much time I give.

I know this tends to be the natural progression, the way things go. Maybe it has a lot to do with working on one show or another since last March, while also working seven days a week much of that time. And most of the performances of these shows were for audiences of ten or fifteen people at a time. 

The reality of the Chicago storefront theater scene is that it's not only a question of how much talent you have, but how much time and willingness do you have to give that talent away for practically free. 

Right now, I'm not sure how much more of that I have. 

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