Monday, September 14, 2015

Blithe Spirit

 Mr. Vivian was looking for a play for the Spring of 1973 at Anderson College and found "Blithe Spirit" by Noel Coward.  It required everyone to speak with a British accent.  He told me early on that I would be cast in the lead role of "Charles".  It was the first three-act play, where I had the lead, at least that I knew in advance.  I began to prepare.  I studied British accents for a couple of months.  I listened to recordings of accents and came up with one.  It was actually a cross of George Harrison and Margaret Rutherford.  Don't ask me why.  I found it quite natural.
 Sandra and Talula were cast as my wives.  We had very good chemistry going into the play, as we were the best of friends.  Mary, also my friend, was cast as the psychic.  Jimmy and Gila were cast in supporting roles.  Mr. Vivian rounded out the cast with two others, including his granddaughter.  We worked on the play for a couple of months.  There were some things we needed to work out that included special effects.
 One was the bookcase.  There needed to be books flying off the shelves to suggest the house being haunted.  That required a hole being drilled into a bookcase, large enough for a broom handle to push a book from behind.  There was a wire that stretched across the stage from the top, where a small sheet would be dragged across as if it was a ghost.  The hardest thing was the movement of a table during the séance scene.  We got a lightweight card table and put a tablecloth over it.  The cloth had to be long enough for the audience not to see that my knees were moving the table.  That was hard to work out, because I couldn't show my body moving.  Sandra, Talula, and the little girl had to be made up with white makeup.  It was a little hard on the skin.
 I tried to get into character during rehearsals.  There was one scene, where I got mad at Sandra, who was playing one of my wives, and I actually threw some water in her face.  She didn't like that, and I never did it again.  The play called for liquor to be served in some scenes.  Anderson College was a Baptist school, and references to liquor were out of the question, so we had to rewrite the liquor scenes with serving tea instead.  A couple of the lines had to be rewritten, because it didn't make sense that "Charles" got drunk with tea.  After all of these things, we were ready for opening night, or so we thought.
 There was one major problem with opening night.  We had not had time to rehearse the third act.  Mr. Vivian had to ask us to memorize the lines and go for it.  At the opening of the third act, the scene is of the psychic and me talking about what has happened with two wives dying.  She and I were sitting there in the center of the stage around a small table with tea.  Mary and I were both experienced in acting, but not so much in improvisation.  We learned something that night.  As we were talking, I said a line which wasn't in the script.  Mary's eyes got big, but she knew she had to carry on, so we made up ten minutes of the play.  Nothing that was in the script.  We drank a lot of tea, and we talked about a lot of stuff including the weather and the other characters.  There was no way we could get back on track.  It was terrifying.  Off stage, we could hear a lot of commotion.  Mr. Vivian was whispering "Where are they?".  After a while, Gila, playing the maid, was pushed out onto the stage to tell me I was wanted in the other room.  I went off stage, and Mr. Vivian showed me where I needed to be.  I went back out, and we got back to the real play.  The audience never knew the difference.  If anyone saw the second night of our performance, they would have seen a different third act.  I share this story to anyone who gets flustered when performing.  As long as you stay in character, you too can carry on.  After all, the audience doesn't have the script in front of them.  Good thing.
 We got a lot of positive reactions to the play.  I used my accent in stores in small towns.  I always got service in the stores, because they had never heard anyone use that accent before.  Sandra, Talula, and I even performed a scene from the play in the Frankfort, Germany airport three months later to the pleasure of the crowds.  I learned a lot about the Theatre from that play.  I do not recommend anyone making up lines, but you have to carry on no matter what happens.

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