Thom Murray, Bill Dunnam. Woodhouse had invited Dunnam, already cast as Ross the carnival barker, to read with the three finalists.
Putting a theatrical production together is like trying to cook a twenty-course meal — with every dish timed to come out of the oven at the same moment.
Sam Woodhouse: “Casting flips me out more than opening night. It’s at least eighty percent of a production.:
On opening night, theater audiences witness the culmination of a process that began months before, that combined the skills of numerous, often unacknowledged participants, and that — in the case of the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s current production of The Elephant Man — is the result of more than 3000 hours of collective effort.
Skeletons of John Merrick, one of history’s most disfigured human beings
They are hours of both magic and mundanity, filled with decisions and choices, questions and answers. The San Diego Repertory Theatre began selecting this year’s season of shows in July of 1980. Artistic directors Sam Woodhouse and Doug Jacobs decided that, as a fitting conclusion to the season, the Rep would stage The Elephant Man, the award-winning drama by Bernard Pomerance.
Thom Murray as Merrick. “Hello, Thom? This is Sam. You’ve been cast. I think you’ll be great. You were right at the top the first time I saw you."
The play was still running on Broadway at the time, however, and this presented serious problems. At present the Rep is a “Class C’* theater, that is, it is not a member of Artist’s Equity Association, the union of actors and stage managers. And Equity, as it’s known, acknowledges only two types of theaters: “Class A” (full union houses) and “Class B“ (theaters that combine union and nonunion performers). Thus when Roberta Bentz, general manager of the Rep, wrote to McCann and Nugent, producers of the show on Broadway, for the rights to the play, she received a curt reply. In effect it read: you’re not Class A. Thank you for your interest, but no.
Michael Faw: “I’m schizophrenic and have two-thirds of an ulcer. Mostly I work and sleep.”
Bentz wrote back. She argued that the Rep, though nonunion, is in the process of setting up a letter of agreement with Equity. It intends, in 1982, to become reclassified as a “Class B“ theater and plans to combine union and nonunion performers. Bentz included a sheaf of local reviews and letters of recommendation from institutions such as the California Theatre Council, which praised the successes of the theater.
The next reply was curious, and a bit staggering. McCann said the Rep could have the rights if they would pay either $150 per performance or twenty percent of the gross ticket sales for the entire run of the show.
D'Ann Paton Peace, Susan Shepard, Mickey Mullaney. “Let your nerves relax,” Mullaney advises. “What nerves?” asks Shepard.
The price, to say the least, was off the graph. Bentz wrote back again. She calculated the number of seats in the theater, the prices charged for a seat, and submitted an estimated maximum attendance of twenty shows. Her figures showed that the McCann proposal was too high. McCann wrote back and lowered its numbers to $125 per night against fifteen percent of the gross. Still too much.
In the meantime, Nora Jane Slattery had a problem. Slattery, director of public relations for the theater, was busy on this season’s ticket-subscription campaign, which claimed that the final play of the season might be The Elephant Man — a current hit and, she admits candidly, a boost for season subscribers since it was the only widely recognized drama offered by the Rep. “Every two weeks for almost six months,’’ says Slattery, “I would ask if I should keep or drop the show from the brochure I was preparing for the upcoming season’’ (it was listed then as a “possible” production). Throughout this period, McCann was still replying with figures that made the show financially impossible to stage. “A lot of people subscribed to our season because we were going to do The Elephant Man," recalls Slattery, “and for a while there, we had a PR crisis on our hands.’’
In late November, Bentz wrote to Arden Heide, an agent for the Samuel French Agency, a veritable monopoly for theatrical rights and royalties in this country. This approach was, in effect, an end-run, since negotiations with McCann had stalled. “Heide said he would help us, and he did. He was able to get us the rights for either one hundred dollars a night or ten percent of the gross ticket sales,” Bentz says. Which was welcome news. Only there was a catch. Heide warned Bentz that if the agreement were enacted, the Samuel French Agency would never again grant the Rep “amateur rights” (roughly twenty-five dollars a night for plays within the public domain). Thus, securing the rights for The Elephant Man had lasting implications for the theater. It meant the Rep would become a “preferred client” with the agency. It meant, however, that the costs for all future rights would go up as a result.
This was last December. Sam Woodhouse, Doug Jacobs, and Roberta Bentz met many times that month, weighing the long-term effects of the proposed change, not only with Samuel French but also with Artist’s Equity. It was something they had discussed often in the previous year. The possible arrangements with the French Agency, and the new relationship that would be established, gave an urgency to the decision. In late December, they decided to make the move.
But there was another catch. The McCann company approved the contract but added what is called a “Broadway rider.’’ If the show were still playing on Broadway when the Rep produced it, Jack Hofsiss, the original director, would have two options: he could come to San Diego and direct the Rep’s production for a minimum fee of $1000 plus expenses, or he could choose not to, in which case he would receive one hundred dollars in royalties for every week the show ran.
By February the Rep still had not signed the contracts, and The Elephant Man was still playing to full houses on Broadway. Bentz got on the phone again. She called several contacts in New York to get their sense of how long the play would run. The replies were encouraging. She also called the Theatre Communications Group, a service organization for theaters in this country. They said, confidentially, that the show would not last the summer. In early March, confident that a “Broadway rider’’ would not come with the package, the Rep signed the contract with French and sent them a guarantee check of $2400 for twenty-four shows. The Elephant Man closed on Broadway in July.
Outside the glass doors of the Lyceum Theatre, at the comer of Third Avenue and F Street, a small group has gathered. It is 4:30 p.m., hot and muggy, on Friday, August 21. The group is the first wave of many actors who, for the next three days and nights, will audition for the eight roles in the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of The Elephant Man. The play has several complex, intriguing characters, not the least of whom is John Merrick, one of history’s most disfigured human beings — and, apparently, one of its more sensitive as well. Merrick’s compelling attempt to become normal in an abnormal world is also likely to be one of the last dramas performed at the sixty-nine-year-old Lyceum, which is scheduled to be torn down early next year.
As they wait for director Sam Woodhouse to arrive, ten of the actors read to themselves through portions of the script. Two others stare transfixed at a glass case outside the theater. Inside the case are cast photos of Working, a production by the Rep that is the second-longest-running show in San Diego history. The chance to perform one of the many challenging roles in The Elephant Man, the Rep’s success with Working, the opportunity to play in the Lyceum before it becomes a parking garage, or just the private terror of auditioning are sufficient reasons to explain why the group appears oblivious to the street folk flowing past the theater in varying stages of physical and emotional deshabille. Even the presence of these ambassadors from the Real World do not intrude upon the intense solitude of the actors who have assembled here for the chance, through art, to mirror life.
Out of the collage of humanity moving down the warm sidewalk, a tall man bounds toward the theater door, his head bobbing up and down with each large step he takes. His clothing — khaki shorts and a multicolored floral shirt — has an inelegant frump to it. If he ever combed his hair, shaved his thick, reddish-brown beard, and stuck a thin cheroot in his mouth, the man would pass for a riverboat gambler. Uncombed, however, he looks like a truck driver after a long haul.
“Sam Woodhouse? Remember me?” a young man with curly blond hair asks as Woodhouse fumbles for his keys to the door. “I almost did tech work for the Rep but it didn’t pay enough. Listen, are you going to direct The Elephant Man with an English accent?”
‘‘I won’t use one,” director Woodhouse replies without evoking even a smile from the questioner, “but the cast will — a San Diego version.” “Do you want the contortions?” “That what?”
‘‘Contortions for Merrick, the Elephant Man.”
As Woodhouse finds the right key and opens the door, he explains that the auditions are open to everyone in San Diego but that he will ask the actors to read for the parts they appear best suited for.
“Okay,” the young man replies, visibly discouraged that he may not be asked to try out for Merrick. "But I got the contortions if you need ’em.” John Merrick (1864-1890) suffered from a severe disorder called neurofibromatosis. According to Ashley Montagu, whose book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity was the inspiration for Pomerance’s play, this means ‘‘the tendency to develop tumors of fibrous and nervous tissues. In most cases the bones are not affected; in Merrick’s case, however, they were.” To this day the disorder, which is noncommunicable, is dimly understood. It occurs in all ethnic groups and in both sexes (during the initial run of the play on Broadway in 1979, two sisters came to the theater cloaked in veils. Both were, they said, “havers” of the disorder).
Several photos, drawings, and plaster models of Merrick exist. His body is deformed extremely; he seems to swirl out of the ground in a horrible spiral. His legs, though large, pulpy masses of layered tumors, appear no match for the weight above them — a dropsical bulk of tuberous lumps, like intestines, that expands upward to his head, itself the size of a man’s waist. Large protrusions in the forehead, which conceal half of the face, make him resemble the famous Bond Slave statue by Michelangelo, a half-completed sculpture with the anguished figure of a man striving to free himself from the block of marble encasing him. The photos storm at you from the past. Merrick looks half man, half lava bed. And it is almost impossible to believe that, near the end of his life, this pathetic creature could turn to Doctor Frederick Treves, his benefactor, and exclaim, “I am happy every hour of the day!”
Inside the Lyceum, Woodhouse begins his search for a theatrical facsimile of Merrick. He turns two cardboard boxes upside down on the backs of seats eight rows from the stage. As he erects his bivouac — arranging pencils, notepads, and a large cup of coffee from the nearby Jack-in-the-Box — he confesses his uneasiness to Beverly Swander, stage manager for the show. “Casting flips me out more than opening night. It’s at least eighty percent of a production. And since I never pre-cast, never have people in mind for a part, I haven’t a clue who’ll be Merrick. I wonder if that person I’ve never seen before will walk in, blow everyone off the stage, and I’ll say, ‘There’s our E-man!* That happens once every three or four years.” His working area now in readiness, Woodhouse addresses the first round of auditioners, all seated in the semidarkness behind him. “Welcome. I’m Sam. What we’re doing is reading for the eight roles in The Elephant Man. You won’t get or lose the part in one reading. Each of you will read at least three times in the next hour. And let’s see . . . what you need to know. I’ve read the play several times. First time it didn’t turn me on at all. I thought it was a dry but challenging intellectual piece. The second time I read it I began to see moral and ethical questions. Then I saw the movie — and liked it — and a production at the South Coast Repertory Theatre. Let’s see. I assume you’ve read the play. If it makes you feel any better, I have as bad a time as you probably do at auditions. So try to relax, and let’s have a go at it.”
In twenty-seven hours of auditions over the course of three days. Woodhouse gave that speech twenty-one times, to a total of 171 candidates. During all the auditions, he patiently watched each actor in at least three different scenes. Although he would acknowledge the conclusion of each scene with a “good” or a “thank you”— and would laugh loudly when something moved him — he was noncommittal to the performers. At the very end of the 171st audition, however, he allowed himself a moment of impatience. A man in his late thirties was trying out for the part of Ross, the carnival barker who exploited Merrick. After a stiff, nervous performance, the man asked Woodhouse if he could perform scene ten, in which Merrick meets the famous actress Mrs. Kendal. “Who would you play?” an obviously exhausted Woodhouse asked him.
“Merrick. Who else?”
“You’re not right for the part at all. Sorry. I’m just being out front with you,” Woodhouse replied abruptly.
“But, man, you don’t understand. It’s the story of my life!”
Many of the forty-odd actors who read for the part expressed a similar empathy, citing Merrick’s “beautiful spirit,” his “profound alienation,” the “hardships he had to endure.” One actor, however, confessed privately to a decidedly un-Merrick motive. “I’d kill for that damn role,” he said in the lobby after his audition. “Let’s face it, it’s the single hottest part for a male actor this year in San Diego theater.” The task of observing more than forty versions of John Merrick — a three-day surrealistic blur of twisted humans, the majority dressed in casual summer clothes, was enough to warp one’s sensibility. In the play, unlike the film version, the actor playing Merrick wears no make-up. He must re-create the image of deformity. Many of the auditioners’ imitations had been culled from John Hurt’s performance in the movie. Others were more unique, inventive, and alarming — public renderings of apparently private traumas. One actor groveled around the floor like a drooling psycho in a padded cell. Another was Mick Jagger hyperspaced on LSD. Another was so contorted one couldn’t hear a word he said; his screams of pain seemed real, and maybe were. The majority played Merrick as if he had fallen from normality — not as if he were trying to ascend to it — and this distinction became an evaluative key for Woodhouse. Of the fifty actors given “callback” notices for the eight roles in the play, Woodhouse listed nine candidates for Merrick. “We have a slight problem,” he told Beverly Swander in a deep, cracking voice as he rubbed three days of auditions from his red-veined eyes. “All nine are good.”
“A call-back is much tougher than an audition,” said Tom Sesma, one of the nine, the first night of call-backs. “You feel more desperate. You know you can’t blow it this time — and yet now you have to take risks and show the director more of what you can do. Also, in an audition, you don’t know who you’re reading against. In a callback, you do. Sometimes it can feel like a battle.”
By Wednesday, the third round of call-backs, Woodhouse had cast five of the eight roles. He had narrowed his list of candidates for Merrick from nine to three: Matthew Cubbito (“Makes great choices in scenes,” Woodhouse had noted), an angular actor-singer and one of the stars of Working; Thom Murray (“In many ways my top choice”), the youngest of the three, whose ballet-like grace, large, melancholy eyes and undeniable stage presence Woodhouse had never seen before; and Tom Sesma (“Consistently good readings”), a veteran actor who at the time was playing the lead in Flower Drum Song at the Starlight Bowl. Woodhouse had invited Bill Dunnam, already cast as Ross the carnival barker, to read with the three finalists. Woodhouse considered Dunnam’s reading for Ross to have been the best audition he’d seen.
“I have no idea who’ll get the part,” Dunnam said before the evening began. “Usually you can tell who’ll get it, but this thing is completely different. I’ve got the part so I’ll try to help the people I’m reading with — cooperate with them, give them a lot of eye contact. The thing is, everyone is doing a different Elephant Man. And they’re all hot.”
One by one, Cubbito, Murray, and Sesma would ascend to the Lyceum stage and work with Dunnam, the sympathetic bull. Each read scene fifteen twice. As one would perform, the other two would study their parts either in a seat behind Woodhouse or in the lobby. “I can’t look at Sam,” Sesma said as he paced in the lobby after his first reading. “You don’t want to assume any judgments from his expression. That would only encourage paranoia. And I can’t look at Murray either. I feel really threatened by Thom. He’s beaten me out of roles before. He’s so damn good — and he’s only twenty years old!”
During Cubbito’s second reading with Dunnam, a quirky, highly experimental effort that was not going well, Murray came to the lobby for a drink of water. He met with Sesma. Each was cordial and apparently sincere. “I feel so weak,” Murray said. “Haven’t eaten all day. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” When his turn came, Murray went back on stage and opened up his performance even more. His initial readings, all of which had impressed Woodhouse, had emphasized Merrick’s physical movements. This time, as if he had been saving it, Murray added a childlike vulnerability to his repertoire and responded to every cue with innocent awe. He added an element of manipulation to Merrick. The combination, a frail blend of strength and hurt, silenced the actors in the audience, who had been reading parts assigned to them in whispers that sounded like soft prayers. They stopped and watched.
“He’s great,’’ said Sesma, who had broken his pattern by watching the scene from the door of the lobby. “He’s smart and a very hard worker. Another thing: I might be a little too heavy-handed on technique. Thom just reminded me of that."
A short while later, Sesma returned to the stage and performed again with Dunnam. In the scene, Merrick rejects Ross, who has come to London Hospital once again to exploit him as a freak attraction. Sesma and Dunnam dueled each other, spontaneously, impulse to impulse. “It was there!" Sesma said with nervous pride after the scene. “In the auditions and the first call-back, I was cheating for presence. You do everything with your eyes, let people see them from the back row. This time I just played it straight. We were both in the scene. There was no one else in the room. When it was over, I wanted to shout, ‘Top that!' ”
Late that evening Woodhouse — looking much older than his thirty-one years — Beverly Swander, and Nora Jane Slattery sat on the blue-carpeted floor of the lobby, sipped white wine, and wavered back and forth. The choice was between Murray and Sesma.
“I know what I’ll do,’’ Woodhouse said facetiously. “Put pictures of Merrick on the stage. Whoever looks most like him by 10:00 p.m. on Friday gets the part."
“What are your guts telling you?” asked Swander, who had watched all thirty-seven hours of auditions and call-backs.
“That I should see a doctor. I’ve decided I don’t like this position,” Woodhouse said, this time less facetiously. “I don’t like to go into a piece with a lot of preconceptions, and this is the price I pay for it. Sesma’s been consistently good; he gives Merrick an inner mystery. Murray is more tabula rasa. It’s hard to tell what he’ll do. But he’s still first on my list. I can't remember when I’ve had this hard a time. Really can’t.”
On Friday Woodhouse had yet to decide. Shortly before a final round of call-backs had been scheduled, he got a phone call. Tom Sesma had been contacted by an agent to try out for a production of Flower Drum Song in Las Vegas. It was an eleven-week Actor’s Equity contract that paid $633 a week. (The role of Merrick, in contrast, would pay a total of only $350.) Sesma had auditioned that morning in Los Angeles and was offered the part, which he accepted. Woodhouse got on the phone to Murray. “Hello, Thom? This is Sam. You’ve been cast. I think you’ll be great. You were right at the top the first time I saw you. Now you can relax. Have a good time. Dance a lot. Get your tuxedo dirty.”
Woodhouse hung up the phone, smiled, and said, “The elephant man literally walked off the street. Others knew of Murray’s work and said he was hot, but I’d never seen him before. What’d I say? Once every three years?”
- No one with any history of back trouble should attempt the part of MERRICK as contorted. Anyone playing the part of MERRICK should be advised to consult a physician about the problems of sustaining any unnatural or twisted position.
- — Bernard Pomerance
Pomerance’s statement, which appears at the beginning of the playbook, reads like a surgeon general's warning, and after the first full rehearsal, Thom Murray discovered why. The part others would “kill” for could do the same to him.
“Thom must contort his body for two hours every night,” Sam Woodhouse told Kathie Grace, a physical therapist asked to oversee Murray’s preparation. “It has to be a visual deformity we can believe — but that won’t hurt Thom physically.”
Grace, a handsome woman who looks as if she just stepped out of an ad for megavitamins, took over. She inspected Murray’s slender torso with a cold, professional eye. “You involved in any exercise at all?” she asked Murray.
“Whoa!” she said in an elongated gasp as she continued her inspection. “Your body structure is slight. Someone with more bulk would have trouble shifting all that weight on the vertebrae. You'll still need a regimen of exercises, though.”
“David Bowie needed a masseuse for an hour and a half after every show when he played Merrick on Broadway,” said Woodhouse. “Standing up straight and playing this role is difficult enough. But Thom’s got to walk around, sleep on a bed, get knocked to the ground, and — maybe the most difficult — get out of an old sit-up bathtub.”
“Right,” the therapist replied, still regarding Murray’s physique.
“There’s another problem,” added Woodhouse. “The stage is raked, like a small hill that slopes down to the audience. It’s rough on the back of the legs.”
“Marvelous,” said Grace. “That’ll make your leaning easier and your walking harder. How much time do you have to get in shape for this?”
“Six? Okay, six. You’re going to be sore before you even start out.” She picked up a copy of Dr. Treve’s description of Merrick and read it slowly. Murray and Woodhouse watched her with trepidation. Then, as if Murray were a puppet being restrung, she would gently tap areas of Murray’s anatomy and would encourage him to move until they approximated Merrick’s form.
“Okay [tap], first put all your weight on your right leg. Raise your right hip and lower your left one. That’s it. Then [tap] pinch your right shoulder down to your right hip. More. More. There. That hurt?”
“A little,” Murray replied, “though it seems to hurt Sam much more.” Eyeing the procedure intently, Woodhouse would contort his face in sympathetic pain until it resembled a deflated football.
“Now [tap] keeping your right arm in place, push your right ribs forward. Now tilt your back forward from the hips. Okay. Now [tap] move your head to the left. Counterbalance the weight on your right side. Little more . . . there."
Murray was Merrick. “Now remember,” she said, “your right arm is useless. This’ll cut your circulation in a matter of minutes. You’ll have to shake it back to life between scenes.”
Murray held the position, in which Merrick lived for the majority of his life, for about five minutes. He began to feel pain in his lower back and the nape of his neck.
“Can I take a break?”
“Good. I thought I heard some bones snapping.”
During the thirty rehearsals for the show — one hundred hours over six weeks spent in a warehouse-like studio on Third Avenue around the comer from the Lyceum Theatre — a red-haired, bearded man wearing little more than cut-off corduroy shorts, boots, and socks that never matched, was a continual presence. Usually carrying a hammer, blueprints for the set, or a half-completed prop, Michael Faw would consult with Woodhouse, updating him on the progress of the multifaceted technical side of the production.
Faw calls it “the lyce.” To him the grand old Lyceum is little more than a morass of problems that must be solved before opening night. He has no time for sentiment, or much else. As the full-time technical director for the Rep, responsible for every physical object in the show, Faw works twelve hours a day, every day. His job includes keeping all the physical elements of the production — set, costumes, lighting, sound, props, and special effects — on schedule and within a fixed budget. “Mike’s a wiz,” says Beverly Swander. “He does twenty things at once and keeps everyone else moving.” “He’s the conscience of the crew,” adds Jim Denton, the theater manager. “I’m schizophrenic and have two-thirds of an ulcer,” says Faw in clipped tones. “Mostly I work and sleep.”
He’s only twenty-six, but for the gold ring he wears in his pierced left ear, he would not look out of place at the twenty-year reunion of a high school class. He says things, in an unadorned, blunt style, that few other people could get away with. Once when he was giving a guided tour of the Lyceum, he sat at the light board in the booth behind the balcony, fiddled with the twenty-four “dimmer” switches, and rinsed the stage in a changing sea of hues. “Theater,” he proclaimed proudly at the board, “it’s magic. It’s what I do.” When his co-workers — whose loyalty to Faw is ubiquitous — got word of this preposterous outpouring, they gave him a new nickname. From that day on he’s been called “the Magic Man.”
“I am the bottom line,” he said matter-of-factly as he roamed through the Lyceum one afternoon three weeks before opening night, looking for lighting circuits. “I’m the one who translates artistic designs into hours, dollars, bolts of fabric, and pieces of wood.” He makes “inflexible schedules,” he said, for everyone to work by — a skill he acquired, some say, from being the eldest of seven children. (“And he probably directed them, too,” suggested carpenter Chuck McCall.)
“The Rep is operating past its capacity right now,” he said, nearing the end of his inspection. “We would like to have twice the time to do the things we do. You have to work backward on two future productions while one is running currently.” For every hour of performance time per actor, Faw says that the technical crew will work a minimum of twelve hours of support time.
His check of the circuits revealed that the remaining, usable ones would require a new numbering system. When Walnut Properties, which owned the building, turned it over to the Centre City Development Corporation to be demolished, they pulled out many of the light switches. Thus the new system. The news did not please Faw. Mundanity first, magic later.
Faw made his way to the dimly lit stage, where he broke the news to Laurie Gunn, the assistant lighting designer who was on a ladder, twenty-five feet in the air, adjusting a light. On the stage, the half-erected set — a design by Bob Green based on the cast-iron, Victorian architecture of Covent Garden in England — was beginning to take shape. Green, who lives in Los Angeles and works as a scenic artist for CBS, has created the sets for five shows at the Rep this season. He was eager to design this one because it is the last new show at the Lyceum (the Rep’s annual production of A Christmas Carol is scheduled to close the theater after its December run); and, a rarity for theaters in this country, the proscenium is almost completely square — most are rectangular. “I wanted to work with a square space,” Green had told me earlier. ‘‘It’s a challenge few designers have in this country — starting out with a square canvas and then making a proportionate stage.” For the First time in his work with the Rep, Green did not oversee the construction of the set. He offered three reasons: ‘‘Sam's a creative director. He’s easy to work with and he lets you stretch as an artist. Chuck McCall, who is painting the set, is a former student of mine. And, of course, Michael. He’s a professional. I can be 125 miles away and not worry about it. I trust him. He holds everything together.”
After he had completed his discussion with Gunn, Faw did an uncharacteristic thing. He took a break. There was something he wanted to show me, he said. We went backstage, down a concrete stairway. As we walked down the stairs — on the right side from the audience’s point of view — Faw pointed to a profile of stairs painted on the brick wall. They led up to the second floor. ‘‘See that outline?” he asked. “Remember it. I’ll tell you about it in a minute.”
At the base of the stairs, underneath the stage, is a hallway, on the audience-side of which are Five numbered dressing rooms. On the door of number three, a sign reads, “Entering this area may be hazardous to your health.”
“Ghosts,” said Faw objectively, as if he were referring to mice or cockroaches. He unlocked the door of number three, peered into the darkness, and pointed to a dirty sink. “The water would go on, both taps, for no known reason. There is supposedly the ghost of an actress in here,” he said, reaching his hand into the small room. “Feel it? Cold in here, isn’t it?” (It was.) “It’s much colder than the other dressing rooms. A while back, actors stopped using this room. Things would happen. They don’t go in to the old star’s dressing room above stage left either. Legend has it that an actor or an usher — nobody’s sure which — hung himself, swung across the stage during a performance. The area up there has been haunted ever since. They tore down the stairs — remember the outline I showed you? — leading up to the star’s dressing room when an actress, possibly the ghost in number three, fell down them and died. Some say the ghost upstairs pushed her. C’mon. Let’s go up there.”
We went up to the balcony — one of us in a reticent low gear — and Faw unlocked the door to the old room. Inside was an air-conditioning system. Large metal boxes and cubist shadows, humming quietly. “Eerie, no?” (It was.) He locked the door and went to the edge of the balcony, where he rested his hands on the railing. As he gazed down on the stage, thin slants of dim light shrouded by penumbrae and darkness, he paused and said, “The theater is a haunted place. All those emotions. All that intensity. They do something to a building like this. Same to a church. Both places can get spooky.”
Faw had to get back to work at the studio around the comer from the Lyceum on Third Avenue. When we left the theater, our eyes blitzed by the brightness of the late afternoon sun, we passed two teen-age boys who were staring at the marquee of the Lyceum, on which Jim Denton was arranging the title of the play in large red letters. “I could do that part easy,” the taller of the two boys said. “A piece of cake.”
“Actors are a whole breed of people who like to be in front of people,” Faw grumbled as we headed up Third Avenue. “They also break things, things any sane person could use for years. In the course of a single evening, I’ve seen inch-and-a-half screws pulled out of solid-core doors. At home they’d never do it, but put them on a stage and they’ll bust anything they can get their hands on.”
The bottom floor of the three-story Knights of Pythias Building, which houses the studio and which is scheduled for demolition by the end of the year, contains three large rooms, each the size of a small gymnasium. All are stuffed with the props of productions past. In the first room, in which the cast rehearsed the play Five nights a week, half the area is open; the other half is stacked with “flats,” the imitation walls of previous sets. The second room, in the center of the building, is divided into another performing area and the costume shop, next to which is a large closet containing hundreds of shoes and articles of clothing. It looks like a mini-history of fashion. In the rear of the building, a large garage has been converted into the space where construction of the sets and props takes place.
Faw stopped by the costume shop and consulted with Sally Rosen-Thomas, who has designed the clothing for the last six shows at the Rep. For this production she is as much a collector as a designer, since her budget — $500 — does not allow her to “build” too many outfits. Rosen-Thomas works under a series of constraints. “You have a budget limit,” she had told me earlier, “plus you have to fit the different sizes of the cast and make the show look right — both rich and period. The Elephant Man is a costume show, which overemphasizes the designer. I prefer the costumes to be appropriate — in proportion to the rest of the show — and not overdone. This is what we’re trying to do with this show. The actors shouldn’t look like walking costumes.”
The production calls for thirty-one costumes and numerous other incidental items — corsets, capes, hats, gloves, ascots — and all must have the look of the late 1880s, in which the play is set. Rosen-Thomas and Ingrid Helton, the costumer, built only eight of the costumes, but most of the incidental items. To secure the rest, all of which needed alteration, they went to the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Orange County, to the Old Globe, UCSD, the San Diego High School for the Performing Arts, the Center Theatre Group in Glendale ("a large lending house that rents cheap”), and even to Faw Finery in northern California, where Michael’s mother runs a theatrical costume business in San Anselmo.
“How are we doing?” Faw asked Rosen-Thomas in the costume shop.
“Way behind schedule.”
‘‘You and me both. We’re still short all sorts of things — a slide projector, drops that fly in, a clock, the church model Merrick makes. These things don’t even exist yet. Also, the three portal units of the set are too large to fit through any door. Sam won’t be able to rehearse on stage because we need the floor space to erect the portals. And now we’ve got to renumber all the circuits in the lyce. We’ve got a long way to go.” Faw grabbed his hammer and disappeared into the garage at the rear of the building.
At 7:00 p.m. Thursday evening, October 15, house manager Don Adams flips a switch, and chaser lights, which move in rows of bright bubbles, illuminate the marquee outside the Lyceum. The old theater has housed sixty-nine years of entertainment and dramatic illusion, some of which is recorded on the brick walls, high above the stage, where a perilous wooden catwalk provides access to the lore of the building. Scrawled graffiti covers the dark walls. The crew of Sweet Charity, July 9, 1974, boasts that its production is a ‘‘smash hit.” Frank “Swede” Carlson inscribed his name here in “Season ’29,” as did Eddie Watson, “Age 20,” September 20, 1927. Off in a dusty corner, “W.E.M.” has painted a woman diving into water; she wears a black bathing suit and black, knee-length stockings. The painting is dated May 8, 1912, the year the theater was built. Outside, the marquee lights are on now.
Just inside the theatre, Roberta Bentz ushers Sabo (“It’s short for sabotage”), her five-year-old Irish setter, to a waiting car. For the last two hours, Sabo has patrolled the lobby, compulsively inspecting all passers-by. As Bentz opens the glass door, Sam Woodhouse enters. She barely recognizes him at first. He is decked out in brown sportcoat, slacks, and tie. His hair is cut (he looks more like an executive than a riverboat gambler), and he’s wearing anew pair of shoes. “Do I know you?” Bentz jests.
“Hey look at these!” Woodhouse beams, pointing at his feet. “Hot, huh? From five feet away, they look like real leather. All manmade material, though. Twenty bucks. I don’t know how long they’ll look like this.
Three bouquets of flowers arrive from well-wishers, also a telegram from Las Vegas: “Best wishes and break a leg’ ’ from Tom Sesma to Thom Murray. Wardrobe mistress Mary Weikum — who has just finished starching an apron and ironing shirts, slacks, and ascots — carries the flowers into the theater. “By tomorrow night,” she says, “the dressing rooms will look like a garden in bloom.”
Weikum enters a realm of hurried, last-minute preparation. In the booth above the balcony, light board operator Penni B. Austin checks each of the twenty-four dimmer switches to see if any lamps have burned out. The sound of a London foghorn emanates from loudspeakers as Lawrence Czoka, musical director for the show, adjusts the levels of taped effects.'Jim
Denton sweeps the stage. “If we ain’t ready now, we ain’t gonna be,” he tells Beverly Swander, the stage manager and sound board operator, who is completing her check of the ninety-seven props for the production.
The previous week did not go well, and it shows on Swander’s face. After five troubled days of trying, with varying success, to integrate the many elements of the production, the company performed three preview shows before audiences. The second preview night, on Tuesday, ended with the crowd on its feet, cheering during curtain calls. But last night was a carnival of calamities. Headphones were out of order, the slide projector wouldn’t start, several cues were missed, and parts of the set that fly down from above would sway hypnotically. The ghosts were on a lark.
“Flowers make me nervous,” Swander says as Weikum crosses the stage with the bouquet. “They’re the first real sign of opening night. When you see them, you know it doesn’t matter how many previews you’ve done; on opening night it’s as if you’ve never done the show before.”
The cast assembles on stage at 7:15. Led by Mickey Mullaney — an actress new to San Diego from Washington, D.C., who plays three small parts in the show — the cast forms a circle on the raked stage and begins its warm-up — toe touching, reaching for the rafters, and rotating the shoulders. The usually ebullient group is much quieter tonight. “Let your nerves relax,” Mullaney advises.
“What nerves?” asks actress Susan Shepard.
The physical stretching is followed by a series of vocal warm-ups and exercises in British dialects, a standard routine Mullaney established the first night of rehearsals. One of these, a sort of “Side by Side” for disbelievers, stresses the whispered “wh” sound in English: “Whether the weather be cold,/Whether the weather be hot,/ We’ll be together,/Whatever the weather,/Whether we like it or not.” The warm-ups completed, Sam Woodhouse addresses his actors. “I’m standing here remembering back to the auditions and the call-backs, to the whole process and all we’ve been through. People talk about all-star casts, and that’s what I think you are — a great cast. Know also that our opening night audiences are notoriously supportive. Always are.” “Except for the one hundred sixty odd actors who didn’t get cast,” adds Ric Barr, the comic of the company.
‘‘Listen and respond to each other on stage tonight,” Woodhouse continues. ‘‘And have a wonderful evening. You’ll be great.”
‘‘House open,” Laurie Gunn announces, opening the doors to the theater proper. ‘‘Thirty-minute call.”
At 7:30 the cast disperses, some to their dressing rooms, some to make sure their props are in order off-stage. In the lobby, the smell of fresh coffee mingles with scents of perfume as members of the audience begin to arrive.
In the wings, Thom Murray continues to warm up with the special exercises designed by Kathie Grace to prepare him for an evening as John Merrick. (When she came to see him on Tuesday night, the physical therapist was pleased with what she saw. ‘‘He moves on stage like someone who actually would have those problems,” she said. ‘‘It’s really something.”)
‘‘I’ve never played a role where I stood up straight,” Murray tells Ric Barr between stretches. ‘‘I guess I’m used to parts like this.”
Barr wishes Murray luck and heads downstairs, reciting his lines to himself. As he strolls down the hallway underneath the stage, he raps twice on the locked door of dressing room number three. ‘‘Anybody ’oam?” he asks, in a British accent, receiving no reply. ‘‘Something’s been bothering me,” he says to Bill Dunnam, who is already in costume for the opening bit they perform as janitors. ‘‘What’s going to happen to all the ghosts when they tear down the building?”
Michael Faw enters the theater at 7:45. He is wearing a gray, three-piece, pin-striped suit. In this handsome garb, the ‘‘magic man” easily blends in with the rest of the opening nighters come to see the show.
‘‘Five-minute call,” assistant stage manager Erik Hansen announces. Dressed in gray, pajama-like outfits. Bill Dunnam and Ric Barr climb the stairs and take their places. They open the show as porters who clean the floor of the hospital. As they wait for Hansen’s signal to go on, they stand quietly. Behind them, in the dressing rooms, costumes rustle and nervous voices wish each other luck. Outside, a police siren streams down F Street.
Hansen holds out his hand. ‘‘Stand by,” he says to Dunnam, the first to go on.
If all goes well this night, if all elements come together to create the illusory reality of theater, Dunnam will not be mopping the raked stage of the Lyceum. It will have become the floor of London Hospital, more than a hundred years ago.
“Go,” says Erik Hansen.
Dunnam grabs his mop and pail and walks into the light.