I make my entrance, offstage

All the world's not a stage, and all the men and women aren't players.

Quite a select segment of humanity are players. An even-more-select segment are amateur players. And since I've joined The Players as an "acting member," no more than 10 actors have actually appeared onstage, in "The Importance of Being Earnest." And one of the 10 wasn't really a part at all: a walk-on, nonspeaking maid.

The small lady who played the part was actually doing props. Her "Maid" was an extra, not one of Oscar Wilde's inventions.

This did not mean she took her thespian responsibilities lightly. With costume crisply starched, solemn features secured, decorum complete, she lifted her immaculate tea tray and made her entrance.

No sooner was she offstage after her 30-second performance than she looked for someone - anyone (well, me, in fact, playing the Eighth Scene Shifter) - to ask: "Did you see me tonight? How was I?"

"Marvelous!" said I. "The way you placed the tray on the table, Stanislavsky would have clapped." Everyone else agreed: "Brilliant! Tonight's was your best rendering yet - though of course you are absolutely tremendous every night!"

"But what did you really think?" she whispered pressingly.

Her satire of the self-conscious vanity that performers possess but some of us pretend to hide was itself a fine performance. Congratulation is food to the amateur actor's system. So, as the fans rushed around after the final curtain to tell the leading lights how dazzling they were, the half-minute maid piped up: "But what about my performance? Tell me honestly. Did I hit just the right note tonight?"

"Take no notice," her husband (one of the fans) laughed. "It's gone to her head!"

The long-experienced actress playing Miss Prism, the governess, told me that in the old days (meaning the 1960s), new members would join The Players as backstage support and then work their way into acting. Today, acting members not in a production help out front or backstage. Some of them want you to know this is not their primary function. One of my fellow scene-shifters said he'd been in the last five productions and was "resting" - not exactly the word I would have chosen as we heaved flats.

I enjoyed my role. The darkness in the wings is as authentically dramatic as the action out in the magic lights. Since I was a child I've loved the backstage secrecy, its support of stage effects, its feeling of invisible indispensableness.

I remember the great time I had in Yorkshire during the final moments of "Barefoot in the Park," being in charge of snowfall. Up there, above the skylight, I fluttered snowflakes, hoping for a convincing New York blizzard. Our small budget meant I had to sweep up the soap flakes each night and recycle them the next. As the week progressed, the snow grew grubbier.

One backstage job is basic drudgery. I overheard someone observe the same point. "Prompt," Lane said, "is the job no one wants." In the Yorkshire club, though, we had a sterling lady who did want to be prompt. But it is (or should be) a redundant job - except on the immensely rare occasions when it becomes screamingly vital, and then the burden is probably more than one poor person can reasonably bear.

I mention this because, now that "The Importance of Being Earnest" is over, and rehearsals for "The Odd Couple" are under way, I have landed my first big role.

As the Pr.... OK, you guessed it.

*A weekly series

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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