30 November 2013

The Smell of the Greasepaint

When I was 14, I got bitten by the acting bug. I don’t even remember how it happened,  but I think it may have been that one of my mom’s colleagues had a son in a production of “A Christmas Carol” at Theatre in the Park, one of the two repertory companies in Raleigh.

Next thing I knew, a few of my eighth grade girlfriends and I  volunteered to help sew costumes for Theatre in the Park’s production of “Taming of the Shrew.” The smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd drew us in and we were cast as ladies in waiting in the next production, “Romeo & Juliet.” I also played a cookie seller, who carried around a wooden post with cookies on it, and my nickname became “Cookie” for the duration of the run. 

Our parents would drop us off at rehearsals and we’d enter this magical world. It was a wondrous time for a kid who felt like she’d never fit in anywhere. The theater is full of misfits and I loved being one of them. It was the first time growing up that I really felt like a part of something and that I was accepted for who I was. 

The cast was a mix of adults and children, but Ira David Wood, who ran the theater and still does, treated us all like adults. It was exhilarating. He was a great director, making Shakespeare’s words come alive for all of us. He had an intuitive way of bringing out the best in us, even though most of us extras had never acted before. He was encouraging, but he also was very professional. This wasn’t “Waiting for Guffman.” This was community theater on a very high level.  

We had a lot of drama in our production and it turned out we needed a little more adult supervision than we were originally getting. I remember making out with one of the stagehands at a party —he was 19, so that probably shouldn’t have happened—but it all felt really innocent. My memories of the production are golden.

North Carolina is a beehive of the arts and some of the folks in the play went on to act professionally, most notably, Terrence Mann, who played Tybalt. Shortly after our production, Mann moved to New York and has been a big Broadway star ever since. He’s been nominated for three Tonys: for “Les Miserables,” “Beauty & The Beast,” and this year for the role of Charlemagne in the 2013 revival of “Pippin.” 

Though he did a lot of professional acting and could have gone to Hollywood or to New York permanently, Ira David Wood stayed in Raleigh. He’s a huge local celebrity, more famous in Raleigh than his daughter, Evan Rachel Wood. 

I didn’t act again until my junior year of college when I studied abroad in Regensburg, Germany. There was an English theater group and lot of us kids from the U.S. and U.K. would play some of the parts, along with the German students who were majoring in English. I played Miss Prue in William Congreve’s restoration comedy, “Love for Love,” and Elvira in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” Though I loved performing in both of them, I was pretty sure that the only reason I got the roles was because of my English fluency. This was reinforced when the actor who played Madame Arcati, the medium who raises Elvira from the dead (the director decided to cast it as a man in drag), left his stage prop from the spell he casts during the seance lying around. Scrawled across the piece of paper were the words:  “Spell for bringing bad actresses back to life.” My hurt was compounded by the fact that he was my boyfriend at the time. However, I kind of knew he was right. After that I quit acting. I took improv classes at Second City in 2005 and that only reinforced that I am, despite what Stanislavsky said, a small actor.  

A few years ago, Ira David Wood and I got back in touch via Facebook. He swore he remembered me, but that seemed impossible- though our production, as I mentioned, had endured a fair amount of drama that probably made it more memorable than some others. 

When I came back to Raleigh a few years ago, my friends and I went to a production at Theatre in the Park and I got to see him. We had a really lovely chat and I got to tell him how much my experience at Theatre in the Park meant to me. Every kid should have someone believe in him or her like Ira David Wood believed in me. He knew I was never going to be a star and I imagine if I had pushed it, he may have had to sit me down, but instead, he nurtured my friends’ and my creativity and all these years later, I have nothing but wonderful memories of my time treading the boards. 

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