This is my second post about the time I spent working at a murder mystery dinner theatre, and some of the amusing hijinks that made my time there memorable and the sometimes less-than-stellar working conditions worthwhile (the first one can be seen here). Prepare yourself for silliness!
A Family Company
Here’s what I’ll probably remember most about my stint with this company: at no other job have I had to work so hard to avoid making out with my sister. Laura, who is five years my junior, joined the company a year before I did, and it was she who invited me to come and audition. But instead of bringing us closer together, this company forced us to keep as far away from each other as possible. There wasn't a play we did where Laura and I weren't cast in roles that were romantically linked to each other, and while there were typically multiple actors assigned to each role, a fun little prank for the higher-ups was to schedule us for the same performances, and then watch as our eyes exploded and our brains tried to escape out our ears (true story).
I can’t speak for Laura, but my biggest concern wasn’t so much that it would be gross to snog my own sister. What really concerned me was the possibility that I might kiss her and then find out that I liked it. Seriously, what do I do then? I have a hard enough time picking up women without discovering that my mother’s daughter is the only one who does it for me.
Ultimately, we always managed to switch roles with other actors or otherwise avoid any performances that might make Christmas a little more awkward, though the powers that be seemed hellbent on seeing us swap saliva. Normally, I get really, really angry with actors who make demands about who they will and will not perform with—in fact, I think it’s one of the hackiest things an actor can do. And yet, I still refused to play in a romantic role opposite my own flesh and blood. I guess I’m the biggest hack of all.
In one of our productions, after my final exit (in which I would, after confessing to all the murders, guzzle down poison and retreat offstage to a noisy but unseen demise), I’d usually sit in the bar and wait for the show to end. During a private party one night, as I sat there, the party organizer came into the bar to close out his tab. Immediately, I threw myself to the floor and laid there until he finally left. Where’s my Tony Award?
Old People Are Hilarious
Really, this is more Steve Biggs’s story than anyone else’s.
Steve Biggs. American hero.
But here it is from my point of view:
We had a large party of elderly patrons from a retirement home one evening. After they’d been seated for a bit, one of the gentlemen came to us and asked if he could have a table separate from the rest, as he found his group to be “too depressing.” We obliged him, and sat him at a small table that was unoccupied. Before the show began, the young woman chaperoning the group asked if we’d be sure to keep an eye on the loner, as he had a tendency to wander off. “If he leaves the restaurant,” she informed us, “he may not be able to find his way back.” Oh joy, we thought.
Instead of wander way, the old man dozed off for most of the show, waking up just in time for Mr. Biggs’s dramatic speech at the climax of the show. Orienting himself to his surroundings, the gentlemen glanced over and noticed a whole table full of his fellow retirees. Hey, I know those people, he thought, and as Mr. Biggs monologued, the man shuffled over to the table of his peers and began to converse with one of them as though they hadn’t seen each other in ages.
“I haven’t seen you since the time we went to that dinner show!”
Finally, near the end of Biggs’s speech, the elderly gentleman wished his friend well and began to waddle back to his seat. Despite a few sideways glances at the octogenarian, Biggs plowed forward with his monologue. “How can I forgive that which is unforgivable?” he recited. “Unbridled ego, flagrant mediocrity…..people walking around during my speech!” Everyone laughed except the senile audience member, who remained oblivious to the performance going on around him—even when Mr. Biggs rushed past him to commit (fake) suicide offstage. He may not have realized it, but for about a minute, that old geezer was the star of the show.
The Worst Scene Stealer Ever
I’ve worked with some pretty bad scene-stealers in my day, but possibly none as bad as a two foot tall blow-up sex doll that was given out as a prize amongst the patrons of a particularly lively private corporate party (seriously, when co-workers get together anyplace outside the office, especially when there's booze, they go fucking insane).
The “prize” was awarded during the dinner break, and when the show resumed, half the room’s attention was still on the provocative plastic midget, folks taking pictures with her and generally ignoring the live show taking place mere inches from them. I tried to assure the patrons that she would still be available for photos after the performance, but to no avail. I just couldn’t compete with the allure of a plastic doll that you can put your penis into.
Thanks, acting classes, for nothing.
Oh, Why Not?
We were often hired out to do “away shows,” private performances (usually for corporate groups) at locations outside our normal venues. As often as not, these shows were an exercise in futility, as they were often in gigantic rooms loaded with people who wanted to eat, drink, talk, and pay no attention to us. So we often had to make our own fun.
I did one such show at the Dana Point Marriott, playing the role of fifth-rate crook Cairo. As I listened from offstage, Lisa Enochs (as femme fatale Sheila Wonderly) finished singing “Why Don’t You Do Right” and fellow performer Bob May announced, “I always liked the way you sing that song, Ms. Wonderly.” This was a minor mistake. The line wasn’t meant to be said until after Sheila’s next song, and would cue the entrance of another actor, Chuck Abernathy, with a knife in his back.
I mentioned this to my fellow offstage actors, and we discussed possible solutions. It wasn’t a particularly difficult problem: Bob could just say the line again at the end of the correct song; another character could say it; or we could just skip the line and Chuck could enter right after the song. While this last suggestion was by far the easiest and probably the most sound, I requested that I be allowed to say the line. No one objected.
So, as Lisa sang her second number, I entered the large ballroom and perched myself on the end of a buffet table. When the song concluded, I crossed one leg over the other, leaned back like a pinup girl, and said, as seductively as I could in my squeaky Hungarian accent, “I always liked the way you sing that song, Ms. Wonderly,” and batted my eyes coquettishly. At this, Chuck came stumbling in and collapsed onto me, causing me to scream, “Get him off me! Get him off me!”
Was any of this necessary? Absolutely not. But it’s these little deviations that help a person stay sane.
Lisa and I.
Guns and Bread Rolls
It was realized part way through a performance of one show that the prop gun integral to the show's climax had not been set in the wine bucket for Beth Lindsey, the actress playing my wife, to pull on me. So, during dessert service, the stage manager tried “inconspicuously” to set it. Right beside the wine bucket was a particularly obnoxious group. Earlier in the evening, they decided it would be hysterical to start playing dodge ball with the bread rolls, and even slam dunked one into my water pitcher as I was refilling their glasses.
Well, somehow, the stage manager’s ninja-like skills were no match for the perceptive powers of these fun-loving patrons, and once she’d left, they peeked into the bucket and discovered our gun. Apparently, they thought that they were supposed to find it, and decided to continue their gut-busting bread roll running gag by replacing the gun for one. So, at the show’s climax, my panicked wife pulled a bread roll on me. There was nothing false about the surprise on my face.
She was supposed to shoot at me, missing but causing me to have a heart attack. Not entirely sure what to do, Beth merely threw the roll at me. This, somehow, still caused me to have a heart attack.
After the show, the practical jokesters took pictures with us and laughed about the whole thing, thinking we’d found the gag as hilarious as they had. Needless to say, I hope they were all run over by a prison bus.
One more to come! (Probably)