Shakespeare Under the Stars

A very strange interlude in the life of Sidewalks Theater, Theater Musings
by Gary Beck

Gary Beck
Sidewalks Theater was in the middle of a cycle of Aristophanes plays and a core group of the company had been together for a while. We had just finished workshop productions and a six week run of The Birds, to appreciative audiences and even fair reviews. Although I was reminded by a noted critic that ‘I wasn’t Zero Mostel’. I didn’t bother telling him that I never thought I was, preferring dignified silence to a disclaimer of a delusional disorder.

We usually spent the summer touring, or doing programs for underserved and neglected audiences. The previous summer, for example, we toured Aristophanes ‘The Women in Assembly’ to 25 public housing developments in all 5 boroughs of New York City, as well as other public service and college performances. Audiences of every type and age level loved the show. A number of actors had left us when we ended the run. Rather then recast, I opted for a change in the regular production schedule. I decided it was time to do a Shakespeare play.

I couldn’t conceive of doing Hamlet without a complete cast of talented and skilled actors, way beyond our budget. However, the core group was talented and capable, so I chose one of the most accessible comedies for those with limited resources, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’.
We couldn’t afford a nice venue, so I arranged to do the show with an erratic, slightly disreputable theater manager. He had various theater spaces in an old courthouse building in Manhattan’s West 50’s. They were all dirty, decrepit and decayed, but we would be using an outdoor courtyard, which we assumed a brief cleaning would suffice to make it presentable.

An educational digression. We had done shows at different Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theaters when we didn’t have our own theater. In virtually every instance, the space was filthy, unmaintained and required repairs of stage and seating to preserve the safety of the audience and actors. In one noted Off-Broadway house there were big holes in the walls on street level for people to peer through from outside. Their lighting instruments, some of which weighed 20 – 25 pounds, were barely secured by string, the same type string used in a bakery to tie your box of cookies, hanging dangerously over the audience as well as the stage.

In another well known Off-Broadway theater, the seats weren’t attached to the floor, the emergency exits were blocked with piles of lumber. I could go on about how some diminutive theater mentalities seemed to think it was normal and acceptable to operate a dangerous pig-sty. We were always hated for daring to clean, make repairs, and paint before starting rehearsals and tech. I believe a theater should always be clean, comfortable and up to fire code for the pleasure and safety of the audience. They don’t teach these values in college drama departments. I leave it to the reader to try to understand why so many middle-class offspring are so dedicated to creating filthy theater spaces.

The outdoor courtyard, where I had arranged to perform ‘All’s Well’, hadn’t been cleaned in years. The light board had been left uncovered, in the open, through at least one winter and had a 2” layer of pigeon shit. It required major overhaul. There were only 2 lighting instruments, elderly fresnels, that had to be taken apart and cleaned and we had to bring in our own lights and cables. The stage, four rickety, collapsing 4’x8’ platforms, came with a collection of bottles and jars containing urine and feces that belonged to a homeless man living under the platforms in a nest of cardboard. Another man lived under the fire escape stairs that led from the building to the courtyard, except his was he was neat as a pin, with bookshelves and a reading light on an extension cord and cans of bugspray and Lysol. Each evening while we were there, his bed was vacant and the curtain hiding it was closed. The stench under the platforms made chemical warfare envious. It took our tech crew hours and hours of unpleasant labor to clean, then disinfect the area with ammonia, instead of their starting to take down the useless set.

My regular designer had made other commitments, assuming we would tour The Birds, so I was compelled to hire a costume and set designer. We had a limited budget, which invariably allows for limited talent. The exception this time was the set designer, a talented young woman who came up with a multi-level platform that could have come out of a textbook of classical design. Every rose has its you know whats. She brought her boyfriend to assist her, a moderately competent, but obnoxious oaf, oblivious to all the other work going on, including rehearsals.

I was not so lucky with the costume designer. She was typical of the Off-Off Broadway breed with questionable talent and minimal skills. A sad commentary. She was the best I could find for a small fee. She was scrupulously obliging at the beginning of the project, until I requested preliminary sketches and fabric samples. She thought this was unreasonable. A bad sign. Then she smiled gamely and said all will be well. She had five weeks to make 14 costumes, most of them fairly simple. This seemed easily achievable.

I had started casting five weeks before we moved into the space, where we would have two weeks to work before opening night. The core group had already learned their lines and were building their characters, thus setting an example to newcomers. I prefer working with actors who I worked with before, not always feasible Off-Off Broadway.  In the first part of auditions, I had 20 actors assemble in a rehearsal studio and I gave them an overview of my work process. I stressed that I worked with life and death like intensity to create a living fabric onstage, not a museum piece.

One girl was troubled by what she considered my harsh method of approaching a revered classic. She stood up and whimpered about ‘how Shakespeare should be performed with delicacy and sensitivity’. She had realized she had fallen into the hands of theater barbarians. Before I could cut her off and thank her for coming, Autry, a capable, talented actor, who had been with us for a full production cycle of ‘The Birds’, stood up, turned to her and said: “F**k that shit.” He happened to be very big, very black, and scared her into abrupt flight, thus saving me the chore. I ended up casting six newcomers, five men and a woman. All the men had at least several years minimum of experience and had gone through a demanding audition cycle. They were eager, cooperative, and happy to be doing a Shakespeare play. Considering the generally meager talent Off-Off-Broadway, they were an acceptable lot.

We started rehearsals in an indoor space in the complex (after a thorough sweep and mop). The newcomers fit right in with the core group and were working well. It took two weeks of prodding, but the costumer produced a few sketches, promising more in a few days. Then she finally measured the actors. The first night we were to work in the outdoor space, the manager couldn’t be found. A bad sign. Several of us climbed a 10 foot courtyard wall, then jimmied the door open to let everyone in. The manager showed up later and was outraged that we climbed the wall. By the time we got into the outdoor space, with two weeks to go before opening night, the costumer had stopped returning phone calls. She finally told our production manager, Robert, that she’d bring half the costumes in a few days. She temporarily reassured him, so I concentrated on other problems.

At this time I was the artistic director and executive director of Sidewalks of New York Productions, that included Sidewalks Theater, a video production company and outreach programs in a Bronx public housing development and a boy’s prison facility. There was endless writing of grant proposals and administrative work, not including my own work as a playwright and translator of the next Greek comedy we would produce, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. The only way I could direct ‘All’s Well’, and keep up all my other chores, was to set up a work table in the rehearsal area and work there from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., only getting up to go to the bathroom, or stretch.

The oaf boyfriend assisting the set designer became a constant annoyance. He deliberately walked through the actors while we were rehearsing, made as much noise as possible whenever he was near me, and left tools, scrap wood and other debris in the rehearsal area. He sulked when I asked him to move things, then mumbled resentfully. By the third day he was becoming a menace to safety and I decided to have a talk with him and try to improve his attitude. Before I could do this he laid cable for the lighting instruments, not his job, that wasn’t supposed to be done for several days, including through our rehearsal area. I asked him to gaffer tape the cable so no one would trip on it and he freaked out, screaming: “You sit around all day telling everyone what to do, while we’re all working.” Then he started towards me threateningly. Work stopped. Robert moved behind him, ready to knock him down if he attacked me, but I stared him down. Then I told him he was fired. He grabbed his personal things and left cursing all of us.

The designer, his girl friend, came up to me and said she wouldn’t work without him and was quitting. I described some of the things he had been doing, but she didn’t care and prepared to leave. I then told her pleasantly that if she quit I’d make sure she’d never design a legitimate theater production again, which scared her. She caved, went back to work, hating me, another dramatic episode in a small theater company. But I got rid of the oaf and if I handled her carefully I’d get a good set.

So on we worked and waited for the light, which was still in question due to the decrepit condition of the lightboard. During the pre-production period, the theater manager, rather then helping us in any way, complained bitterly that we didn’t have the right to build a set, paint the peeling walls, repair the seats, etc. But rehearsal was going well and with a week to go the play was shaping up satisfactorily. Then the next costume crisis. After fervent promises, we still hadn’t gotten any costumes. There was no time to hire another costumer and truth be known I might not have done much better. If lighting designers were 80% competent Off-Off Broadway, set designers 60%, costumers were between 35% and 40%. A sad reality in a mostly self-indulgent environment.

We were faced with the dread alternatives of costuming the actors in black leotards and tights, a dreary expectation at best. Robert, the long suffering production manager, with his eight year old son, Daemon, who had been an assistant stage manager at our theater for years, went to the costumer’s apartment. At first she wouldn’t answer the bell, or their knock. Then Daemon sweet-talked her and she promised to bring the costumes to the theater in two days. Daemon, already a bit cynical about erratic costumers, told me it was the best they could do. On Sunday, two days before dress rehearsal, when she didn’t show up, they went to her house again. She wouldn’t open the door, but told them she’d bring the costumes Tuesday morning. When again she didn’t appear, they went to her house, pounded on the door until she opened it under threat of their bringing the police. She gave them whatever she had. All the principal’s costumes were  half finished, the others all needed major work. It was a mess.

Dress rehearsal Tuesday night was in street clothes and everyone worked well. The show ran about 2 ½ hours, with one 10 minute intermission. When we finished, I praised the actors and the techs and told them our costume problem. All the core group actors volunteered to sew costumes. The newcomers followed suit. Despite the objection of the theater manager, we took over an empty space in the building and sewed away until four in the morning. Everyone seemed to have a fun, social time, however unexpected the demand. The costumes weren’t great, but everyone had a period costume and they were presentable, although some of them were pinned or hot glue gunned together. Another minor theater miracle. Most of the actors had to work on opening day. They weren’t the bartender class actors, who made good money dispensing booze, and really didn’t want to perform, just audition once in a while to retain the illusion of being an actor.

The cast assembled at 6:00 p.m. for the regular pre-rehearsal warm-up. We had set up tarped areas in a backstage space for dressing. The show began a little later then 8:00 p.m., due to last minute costume adjustments. All the new men, who had been macho and articulate throughout rehearsals and dress rehearsal, suddenly tumbled out of the closet and presented the gay follies. Their physical and vocal mannerisms that made a travesty of the work we had done. The rest of us were horrified, but to the credit of the core group, they did their jobs properly and well, despite the grotesqueries going on around them. I tried talking to the suddenly demented dolts at intermission, but they were unresponsive. Autry and some of the core group men wanted to beat them, but I stopped that. The bitterest pill that night was the audience didn’t seem to notice the difference between two different types of performance.

My choice was simple. Close the show, which meant that we would have wasted our time, money and creative effort, or live with the offensive outbreak. I decided to continue, but we divided into two groups, one doing serious Shakespeare, the other doing high camp. We set up a separate dressing area for the newcomers and left them to their own devices. The core group of 6 men, three of whom were gay, performed with passion and integrity, gradually overcoming the silly antics of the others who lost stage credibility and became almost invisible. We actually managed, despite the negative factors, to do a good show.

We did 6 shows a week for 6 weeks, and somehow, in an incredibly rainy summer, the rain always held off until the final curtain. The performances were frequently accompanied by dramatic thunder and lightning courtesy of Mother Nature, which would have been ideal if we were doing Macbeth.  Of course there were always ongoing problems. How else could it be in the not-for-profit theater world? But we overcame them and the show always went on, something I always prided myself about. The worst disruption on opening night was by the idiot theater manager. He had stipulated the show had to end by 11:00 p.m. It was scheduled to end between 10:44 and 10:45, but ran late due to a late start. The dolt shut off the building’s power, which included our theater lighting, at 11:00, with five minutes to go, without bothering to check if the show was still on. Robert flew up five flights of stairs to his office and promised to fracture his skull if he didn’t put on the power. Robert demonstrated Einstein’s Lesser Theory of Relativity in his time shattering flight.

A few days after the production closed, while I was still enjoying the pleasure of not seeing the childish, stupid actors again, I found myself idly wondering if sewing costumes the night before opened some sort of gay portal that transferred onto the stage. Then again, the core group’s gay actors weren’t infected by the sewing virus. So it became one more weird occurrence in the strange life of an ongoing theater company.