I like the theater.
I first got involved with theater when I was a sophomore in high school. My best friend told me that he was going to try out for a play after class, and asked me to go with him. Having nothing better to do, I went. The play was Man in the Bowler Hat by A. A. Milne. There are three male parts in this play, but only two guys had showed up to try out. The director noticed me sitting in the audience ignoring the entire process, so he stood in front of me and demanded to know what grade I was in. When I told him I was a sophomore, he said “Great. You're in.” That's how I got the part of the Hero, and by performing in that show I got the theater bug big-time.
I did a lot more shows in high school, and enjoyed every moment. I was able to do a passable English accent, and so I was always cast as The Englishman. I also had a knack for comedy, and that became my passion.
When I enrolled at Boston University, I declared that theater would be my major—but one play cured me of that notion. Theater people are nuts; I say that with love, but they are. Let me give you just two examples:
My first year at Boston University, I was in a musical, the name of which I can’t remember. I do remember closing night though. After the show, the entire cast went over to the director’s house for a party. When I walked into the dining room, there on the dining room table were three very large bowls. One bowl was filled with marijuana, one bowl was filled with about a pound of cocaine, and the third bowl was filled with peanut M & M’s. I love peanut M & M’s! Theater people know how to party.
The second example demonstrates something about actors: they don’t know when to quit. After rehearsal, we would often stop at the local watering hole across the street, and the rehearsal would continue in the bar. You haven’t lived until you’ve been with a bunch of actors pretending to be someone else while they compete to see who can get the drunkest the fastest. It wasn’t long before we had chased out the other customers and had the joint to ourselves.
With this partying, I realized that a life in the theater would kill me. Thinking about it now, however, I realize I probably should have stayed a theater major: I was one of only two straight men studying theater … and there were lots and lots of women. Oh, the things we'd do differently if we'd only known.
Back in the 1980s, I ran into my old high-school director on the street. He rolled down the window of his car and drove up alongside me. Once he had my attention, he said, “Deadwood Dick. Barnstable Comedy Club. Wednesday. Seven o'clock. Be there.” We had done this show in high school, so I knew it well, and once more I played Wild Bill Hickok in one of the funniest plays I have ever seen. I played Wild Bill three different times, and if Jim were to call me today to say he was doing it again, I'd be there. I may be too old now to play the hero, but I could play Old Judge Nix—the hanging judge.
I did a lot more at the Comedy Club. I was Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace. That's the part played by Cary Grant in the movie, and while I'm no Cary Grant, I think I did it justice. Anything Goes, Once Upon a Mattress. Alice in Wonderland, Space Pandas, and The Murder Room quickly followed. The Murder Room was interesting. I played an English gentleman whose wife attempts to murder him but fails. He develops amnesia and comes back as a police inspector to investigate his own disappearance. Gotta love the English!
Back in the 1990s I lived in London. Right outside my offices in the West End was a booth that sold discount theater tickets. My wife had sent me chocolate chip cookies, and sharing them with the ticket touts made me their newest best friend. Every day, if they had tickets they couldn't sell, they would give them to me, and I was able to see all the best shows in London for free. I saw Les Mis eleven times, and Phantom of the Opera seven times. There’s no better place in the world than London for someone who loves theater.
The first time I saw Phantom of the Opera, my seat was in the third balcony, near the roof of the theater. At the time, I thought it strange that there was an enormous chandelier hanging from the ceiling over the third balcony. What made it strange was that the chandelier wasn't hanging straight—it was crooked, and it was right above my head. At one point during the show a chandelier is supposed to crash onto the stage; I didn't know it, but this was that chandelier. When it suddenly began to vibrate, it caught my attention. As I looked up, it started to fall toward the stage. Not knowing it was part of the show, I screamed “Watch out, the chandelier!” Imagine my embarrassment when I realized it was part of the show. I remained very quiet after that.
I must have seen close to a hundred shows that winter in London, and all of them were free. If you're headed to London and plan on going to the theater, I strongly recommend that you bring with you a batch of chocolate chip cookies.