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Performance Anxiety

Backstage in the No-Pay, Low-Glory World of Community Theater

Photos by Michelle Gienow
HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU, KID: Das Elkin spends part of her time onstage as the title character of Eyes For Consuela dangling a bouquet of ping-pong ball eyeballs from her skirt.
AN ACTOR PREPARES: Rodney Atkins studies notes he's made regarding his role as Henry.
DETAILS, DETAILS: (from left) Rick Stover and Susan Justice discuss proper eyeball placement.
MAKEUP!: Das Elkin gets fitted for a belt of dangling fake eyeballs.
NOSE IN A BOOK: Richard Peck studies his lines during a break in rehearsal.
(from left) Michael Harris and Rodney Atkins

By John Barry | Posted 1/26/2005

Eyes For Consuela

At Fell's Point Corner Theatre

The cast for Fells Point Corner Theatre’s first production of 2005 meets one late November 2004 evening for the first read-through, and there’s already a problem. Sam Shepard, author of Eyes for Consuela, has decided that three out of four of the characters in his play are heavy smokers. The Baltimore City Fire Department thinks not. The four cast members sit at the long, battered conference table on the theater’s second floor discussing the legal and health ramifications of smoking onstage. Director Rick Stover, dressed casually in jeans and sneakers, listens patiently while stage manager Peggy Friedman hands out schedules.

“OK,” Stover says, taking advantage of a lull in the debate. “We all have day jobs. There are 27 rehearsals. They’re from 7:30 to 10, Monday through Thursday. Everyone’s going to miss one or two practices. This is a pretty straightforward play. Not a lot of laughs. Not a lot of shtick. It’s short.”

But somehow the conversation keeps gravitating to cigarettes. One cast member notes that the royalties for Eyes for Consuela run about $60 per performance, and that’s on the legal condition that FPCT adheres to the specifications, including onstage nicotine use. Rodney Atkins, for one, wonders if it isn’t a First Amendment issue. Not that he’s a smoker himself, but he says that if it’s in the play they should have the right to smoke.

Stover says—provisionally—that he’s going ahead with the cigarettes. But FPCT is located in an old firehouse leased from the city, so the Fire Department is probably going to have the last word on this one.

The players officially introduce themselves, although most of them already know each other. Das Elkin, who plays Consuela, is a junior at Beth Tfiloh High School and already performing in FPCT’s musical production of Cinderella, now being rehearsed in the main theater downstairs. Mike Harris, 30, the only newcomer to FPCT for this show, is playing hot-headed Amado, one of the two principal characters. At the moment he’s also working a temp job as an actor in a suicide prevention video being put out by the FBI. Richard Peck, 45, serves on FPCT’s board of directors when he’s not working as a legal advocate for prisoners’ rights; he plays Viejo, an old Mexican, and is going to spend most of the play in a rocking chair sucking silently at a jug of tequila. And Atkins, 37, plays Henry, a middle-aged American. He’s
a copy editor for Cadmus Professional Communications and an FPCT veteran.

There’s a loud thumping bass riff booming up from the first-floor theater—it’s from the score to Cinderella, which is being directed by Lynda McClary, Stover’s wife of three years. “Yeah,” he says, “I met her in this building. We actually got married on the second-floor stage.”

Cast and crew members from Cinderella occasionally overflow the first-floor stage area. A young woman dressed up as a punk/goth Little Bo Peep runs through the lobby with a shepherd’s crook. Students from Barry Feinstein’s acting class—one of the $50, six-week classes that keeps the place in business—keep sticking their heads in the conference-room door asking where he is, and Feinstein wanders around asking where they are.

At one point, Bev Sokal, whose title in the play’s contact sheet is “angel,” rushes into the room—short, seventysomething, brimming with energy, with a waft of white hair parted in the middle. A painted portrait of her done in florescent colors leans against a nearby wall; yellow lettering underneath reads “Our Guardian Angel—Bev Sokal: In Honor of the 10th Anniversary of Fells Point Corner Theatre 1997.” She formally introduces me and tells the rest of the cast that I’ll be following them around for the next two months. “Now a reviewer’s going to have a chance to see what goes into making a play,” she says before she disappears downstairs.

There’s a little pause, as if what Sokal just told them seems like a better idea to her than it does to them.

The read-through begins. Everybody pulls out their scripts.

The truth be told, Sam Shepard probably doesn’t much care whether or not the actors smoke inside Fells Point Corner Theatre, as long as he gets the $900 royalty (about half of the production’s $2,000 budget). Shepard has said in interviews that he isn’t much of a theatergoer to begin with, and Eyes for Consuela wasn’t a major hit for him—at least not on the level of Buried Child or Fool for Love or True West. When it premiered in 1998 at the Manhattan Theatre in New York, the reviews were mixed. Ben Brantley of The New York Times thought that, after a 10-year period of relative inactivity, Shepard wasn’t really in top form: “Eyes for Consuela is unusually clear and even literal minded by Shepard’s standards. It’s also unusually torpid.” Fintan O’Toole, of the New York Daily News, disagreed: “The writing has the kind of effortless boldness that reminds you that you are in the presence of one of the greatest living playwrights.” That’s the quote you’ll find on the FPCT production’s poster.

Flipping through the script, what appears most likely to divide critics and audience members is the story line. Henry comes to the Mexican jungle to meditate over his disintegrating marriage. He arrives at a hotel and finds an old Mexican, Viejo, sitting in a rocking chair, with a patch over one eye. Then Henry feels a dagger pointed in his back. Amado, a younger, dark-eyed Mexican hombre has been prowling around, cutting the eyes out of strangers for his lover, Consuela—as a penance for accidentally shooting out the eye of her father. But Viejo is her father, and Consuela is dead. Most of the story takes place in Henry’s apartment, where he and Amado engage in physical and philosophical sparring. Consuela hovers in the background. Viejo smokes his pipe.

Ask the cast what the play is about, or why they think Shepard wrote it, and you get answers ranging from surreal to religious. Stover says that the play is “full of metaphors.” Atkins says, among other things, that the play may have something to do with Shepard’s father, “because most of Shepard’s plays deal with his father.” Harris, who has done some acting in a Christian group, chooses a vaguely religious interpretation.

“Love demands a sacrifice,” he says. “Before you have love, there must be a sacrifice. When you’re using a grandiose religious vision, you can point to the cross as the ultimate expression of sacrifice. But it’s also true in personal relationships, [and] that’s what drew me in. Amado is a miserable junkie, but he doesn’t want anyone else to be where he is.”

 

A few days later, the first staged rehearsal takes place in FPCT’s tiny upper-story mini-theater. Atkins is the only primary cast member present. Harris is still finishing up a job outside Baltimore—he’s working on a short film about industrial handicapped food preparation sensitivity training.

“After that [is done] we’re on track,” Stover says. “I don’t blame Mike, but my pet peeve is wasting time.”

Peck reads Harris’ lines as Atkins goes through the first act. Without props, he mimes the movements: Henry waking up in a hammock, checking his boots for scorpions, washing himself, and going outside to take a look around. In his opening monologue, he meditates aloud to his absent, alienated wife.

Stover tells him to ratchet it up a bit, to inject more passion. Atkins says that he’s more interested in a slow buildup—“I don’t want to spend all my time ranting,” he says.

“But you’re mad,” Stover says. “You should be ranting a little. This Amado is trying to take your eyes out.”

There’s no open dispute, but it’s going to be a source of gentlemanly disagreement. Each seems to think the other is wrong but wants to break the news slowly.

Little Bo Peep breaks the monotony from time to time as she runs across the stage, en route to the backstage below. Occasionally she’s trailed by Groucho Marx, a prince, a transvestite wicked stepmother, a bear, and other assorted characters from the musical below. A phone is ringing, but no one knows where it’s coming from. It’s getting on Atkins’ nerves. Stover sends Peggy Friedman out to find where it is and answer it, but she has no luck.

 

Sitting in the conference room, waiting for another evening’s rehearsal to begin, Atkins says that he’s easily rattled by things like ringing phones or whispering audience members, although he says he’s a little easier to deal with at 37 than he was a decade ago. While he’s a veteran of more than 50 local productions, it’s been almost 10 years since he last performed at Fells Point Corner Theatre.

“There was a time in the early ’90s when I did three or four plays a year,” he says. “I did three here from ’94 to ’96. Did one in ’99, and one in 2000, then skipped for three years. Then I did another that made me want to skip another three years.”

He pauses, smiles: “I’m sorry, I didn’t say that. Anyway, this just fell into my lap. All the usual suspects had turned it down, so I guess it’s sort of accidental. That’s fine, it’s a huge challenge.”

Atkins graduated Towson University 15 years ago with a degree in acting. Careerwise, he admits, it wasn’t much use. While a number of his classmates went professional, he explains with a hint of pride that he never blended in easily with the theater establishment.

“I’ve always been something of a loner, I guess,” he says. “I was always a little weird, even among theater people. I guess that’s why I haven’t done a show here in a while. I think the complaint was that I was a pain in the ass.”

In fact, Atkins describes his position in Baltimore’s theater landscape as a sort of no-man’s land between the amateur and professional worlds. “For a lot of people involved in community theater, it’s a hobby, something to do to pass the time, and socialize and meet new people,” he says. “I have a degree in theater and I always took it seriously.”

He seems unsure whether or not he might be taking it a little too seriously at times, but when asked why he devotes such long hours for no pay and minor glory, Atkins’ response is definite.

“I think theater has a greater purpose,” he says. “And this is going to sound pretentious, but it has the power to change lives. We’re trying to show the audience what it is to be human, and maybe there’s one person in the audience who’ll realize something they’ve forgotten.”

Mid-December finds Sokal and Stover sitting onstage sifting through a pile of publicity photos that were taken a few days before and will be stapled to the bulletin boards in the lobby and inserted into press kits for The Sun, City Paper, Patuxent Publishing’s suburban papers, and other local publications. Each photo features a scene from the play: Harris, bug-eyed, pointing a knife at Atkins’ back; Das Elkin swirling around in a dress with plastic eyeballs dangling from her belt; Peck slouched in a rocking chair. It looks like they’re all performing in silent movies, broad and arch, perhaps because the actors don’t even know their lines yet.

“That was a ribald review,” Sokal says by way of greeting as she shuffles through the photos. She’s referring to my City Paper critique of Cinderella (Stage, Dec. 15, 2004), which opened the weekend before, perhaps annoyed with the prominent mention of the prurient overtones in a production of a story that was, after all, originally meant for an under-12 audience. Later I spot the review taped to the wall across from the rest room, which usually means that it’s considered favorable.

Prodded about press coverage, Atkins remarks that film reviewers and art reviewers are one thing, but he wonders if
most local theater reviewers really know anything about theater in the first place. He tries to couch his criticism as politely
as possible.

“I read the reviewers in The New York Times,” he says, “and you know those guys are professionals.”

“Yeah. I see theater productions in New York,” I respond. “And I know those guys are professionals.”

“It’s a vicious circle,” he says with a smile.

When asked about local reviews, Stover laughs it off. After 18 years of working at FPCT, he says he’s suffered his own slings and arrows. Every once in a while, he acknowledges, he’s been on a losing streak—two or three bad reviews in a row—“but those pass, and what the hell, bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. Some actors choose not to read it until the production’s over. But if they can’t take it, they’re in the wrong business.”

“If it’s too painful,” Sokal says, “I read it and throw it away, because I have to keep going. I encourage actors to take from it what they can. Sometimes criticism is so bad for some of the audience that they will write [the newspaper], and they have recently. . . . It’s like everything else in life—you do what you can. You want it to be good, and when there’s no satisfaction in it you suffer.”

There’s one thing Baltimore’s
unpaid actors seem to have in common with its unpaid writers. There’s hometown spirit, but it usually stops short of actually paying to support the work of artists who are doing better than you. And community theater . . . well, that depends what you mean by community.

“I’m not a big fan of Center Stage for political reasons,” Atkins says. Then again, he’s not a big fan of the pre-eminent local professional company’s productions for aesthetic reasons, either: “Last thing I saw there was Macbeth a couple of years ago, and it was so bad I haven’t set foot [inside] since.”

Closer to home and heart is Everyman Theatre, which came to Baltimore in the late ’80s and scrimped and saved until the company was able to fill director Vincent Lancisi’s mission to provide “affordable, professional” theater. Atkins says he “likes what he’s seen” there, but hasn’t seen anything recently. That seems to be the case with most of the actors at FPCT—although, to be fair, four-hour rehearsals on top of 9-to-5 jobs probably doesn’t leave much time for taking in a show.

“I like what they do,” Sokal says of Everyman, “but I don’t go there often. It’s not because I don’t want to, but I don’t go to too many theaters and I’m really wrong for that. Many times my husband goes with me to the Vagabond if he knows the person who’s directing, or if he likes the play.”

Stover also says he likes Everyman: “They’re probably between us and Center Stage, Center Stage being a much more professional theater which casts in the New York area.” But when asked if he’s seen anything he likes recently, his answer is vague. “There’s lots of theater in Washington, and it’s much more professional,” he says, before adding, “I haven’t seen anything down there in the last year because I’ve been so busy up here. . . . I have gone to Everyman. They did a couple of nice plays in the past.”

The only person working on Eyes for Consuela who’s seen the latest Everyman production, The Drawer Boy, is teenage Das Elkin, who says her family takes her there regularly.

Atkins suggests that there may be a little sibling rivalry to blame as well: “I mean, 10 years ago Everyman came to town and did what FPCT wanted to do then. They turned professional.”

Richard Peck says that there is,
in fact, one professional actor in Baltimore with experience at FPCT: Bruce Nelson, a local performer who works at Everyman and Columbia’s Rep Stage. Eight years ago he acted in an FPCT version of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, playing a role that he would reprise later at Rep Stage. But Nelson doesn’t see community theater as a formative experience in his career.

“I spent a while touring with the National Players, which became Olney Theatre. Then I ended up in FPCT, doing Arcadia,” he recalls. “I was lured into that, I guess, by friends who were in the show. It was for the most part a good experience. Pros tend to think [community theater] is a step back, but I’m a whore for being onstage.”

Baltimore’s a small town, Nelson acknowledges, and the theater community even smaller. But, even so, there’s a “bit of a divide” between the small professional theaters and the community theaters. The difference, not to put too fine a point on it, has to do with quality.

While he says he’s “never walked out on anything” he’s seen in a local community theater, Nelson notes, “I have writhed in my seat wondering who in the hell directed this and wondering why didn’t they take more time and care and effort and sensitivity. But it wasn’t so much the actor not being able to act as the director not being able to direct. I don’t know where you draw the line between letting people do their thing and using a firm hand to tell them that this will not do. Should you raise the bar on theater locally or let it go through attrition?”

Six days before Christmas, Cinderella has eloped with the prince for the last time. That means that the first-floor stage is free and set construction can begin, which introduces a whole new set of complications. Stover leads a personal tour of the stage, which seems to be divided by an extended crack in the light-green plywood about two feet from the front of the stage. When I walk across it, the plywood starts to creak. “Don’t get me started on the subject of the stage,” Stover says.

“The first stage was designed several feet off the ground, but that meant that the front-row audience was staring at the actors’ feet. So then the stage was lowered to its current level, about six inches. Then someone else”—he declines to name who—“suggested creating a wheelchair ramp and cutting two feet off the front of the stage to accommodate that. After building the $8,000 ramp, they realized that the stage was [now] too small to act on. So they covered the ramp with plywood. And that’s why the front of the stage creaks and the rear is as hollow as a rock.”

The basic layout of the set for the upcoming show is Shepard’s, but FPCT has had to adapt it to its small size. For instance, most of the action in Eyes for Consuela takes place in an second-floor hotel room, which is elevated above stage left. But how does one construct a two-story stage in an intimate theater with a capacity of 70. And most of the play occurs about 10 to 15 feet from the back of the stage.

“It’d be nice if the top floor was a little bigger,” Mike Harris says later. “What’s really going to be telling is how the audience responds to having to look up into that corner. We’ll see.”

As the set begins to take shape, the actors do a complete run-through “off book”—without scripts. The characters are beginning to take shape, but they’re still pretty formulaic ethnic types. Atkins’ middle-American Henry is turning into a whimpering gringo; Harris’ Amado is more of a bullying south-of-the-border caricature. That dynamic loses steam quickly onstage, and Atkins’ responses to Harris are a little hesitant.

Stover stops the action, telling both actors to try “bigger.” Atkins says that he’s using the “fear” motive; Stover responds that there should be a little anger in there, too. After all, Harris is threatening him with eye extraction, and he seems to be looking at it as an annoyance.

At the end, Stover gets up from his place in the middle of the house and walks up onstage. The recommendations are fast and simple, in the form of general impressions.

“Your characters are growing, which is a good sign.

“Mike, you could be bigger, although you’re doing quite well. There are points where you can get more animated or intense, although this will happen as the play progresses.

“Rodney, you can get bigger as a character. I’d like it to be more organic from the character’s perspective.

“You’re getting there. . . .You can be more on edge, but by opening night you’re going to know the characters better than I could.”

 

Mike Harris is the one cast member who seems to have defined acting at FPCT as part of a career track. He lives in Easton, where he and his wife moved to from St. Augustine, Fla., about six months ago so she could study for a license in physical therapy. They’ve made a deal of sorts: He works full-time to get her through school, and when she gets her license, he acts full time to get his Actor’s Equity card, the equivalent of union membership for theater performers. Meanwhile, he’s working in community theater to stay in shape.

Harris could pass for Mexican—physically, he’s dark-eyed, dark-haired, short, and stocky. “Well, I’m pure German-Irish,” he says, “but I guess I got the accent down because I went to high school in Lubbock, Texas. The high school was 70 percent Latino, and I speak fair-to-middling Spanish.

“Three out of four characters in the play are supposed to be Latino,” he says. “But there were no Latinos at the audition. It’s great to reach out with a [Latino-oriented] play, but I can understand Latinos coming and wondering why white people are playing these roles. Hopefully it’ll change.”

Though there are no Latino actors in Eyes for Consuela, bringing theater to increasingly Latino-dominated Fells Point is part of FPCT’s mission. At the same time, FPCT faces the same crucial dilemma as theaters large and small, professional and amateur all over the country: In an era of shrinking arts attendance and increased entertainment options, how do you get people of any ethnic background to come to the theater? Harris has obviously been thinking about this question.

“First, cut ticket prices—whether that means more grants, or 25-cent previews, where you only charge a quarter for dress rehearsals,” he says. “No one’s going to pay $14 to see me and Rodney and Rich and Das [act] when you can pay $8 to see Brad Pitt.

“There are a lot of people in theater who think the audiences owe it to us to come. We’ve got to give them a reason to come. I’d be reticent to pay full price if I didn’t know what the quality was. So we should be more aggressive. We could go to drama teachers and offer group rates.

“I don’t know,” he says at last. “Maybe live theater is on the way to becoming opera. Maybe it’s an obsolete art form. I don’t think so.”

But after working with FPCT for 29 years—unpaid—Sokal offers a more sanguine perspective: “If you’re complaining now, it’s because you didn’t see it before.

“Regional theater hasn’t been around for all that long,” she continues. “When I was a kid in Kansas City, Missouri, I remember working with the very beginnings of community theater. Before World War II, there wasn’t all that much outside of Broadway.” Locally, she enumerates, “Vagabond’s is 80, the oldest in the country, Spotlighters is 50, and Arena Players is the oldest black theater in the country. In my lifetime I’ve seen a lot of these things grow.”

Concerns and complaints that, like the symphony and the opera, theater is losing the younger clientele and relying on the diminishing returns of an aging audience to continue don’t seem to bother Sokal, either.

“They say there are a lot more old people,” she says. “But, hey, there are more of us around, we pay for the seats, what the hell.”

Christmas is over and props sprout around the first-floor stage: a plastic knife, a tequila bottle, a Coleman lantern, a bicycle with a banana seat, a table, shoes, and a hammock. Several potted palms have been placed along stage right, lining a black canvas cyclorama, in an attempt to create a jungle. And there’s a little more urgency. When Stover claps his hands, the actors are all ready and the scene is set.

“Places!”

There’s a long pause. Stage left, Atkins lifts his large frame gently out of the hammock—which hangs precariously by upright wooden 2x4s—and moves toward a nearby chair. He’s wearing only pants, as one might in a hotel room in the steaming jungle. At least that’s where he’s supposed to be. There’s a metal bowl full of water sitting on the chair, and he grabs a towel, soaks it in the water, and wipes his face and chest.

Out of nowhere, Sokal wanders onstage from behind the curtain and fixes Atkins with an odd look before speaking: “So, you’re washing yourself off in the middle of the stage?”

Atkins looks up. “It’s part of the play,” he says.

“Oh, Christ, I’m sorry,” she blurts, and disappears behind the cyclorama.

The first act limps along. The Christmas break may have something to do with the low energy. Stover stands up at the end of the first act, trying to pump things up a little. “Try again,” he says. “You’re babbling. He’s got you pressed against the wall. He’s asking for your eyes. You should explode. Pow! That sort of thing!” He calls a 15-minute break and the actors walk outside or make phone calls.

The second act proceeds a little more smoothly. Atkins’ character is a little more intense, the atmosphere of panic and claustrophobia makes a little more sense, and it becomes clear what he wants to do at this point: escape from the jungle. Harris’ character is becoming less aggressive and more curious—the bombastic machismo of his earlier readings is becoming more subtle. Like Atkins’ character, he seems trapped.

“That was much better,” Stover says at the end of the second run-through. “Now it’s 10. Let’s boogie.”

But before they go, Stover brings up the question of burnout—he says that he’s worried about overworking the material before the opening-night curtain even goes up. But Harris and Atkins want to go ahead with rehearsals the next day.

“It’s not like we’re that great, considering this is the closest we’ve come,” Atkins says.

“There are lots of engines going,” Stover says. “You can feel it. It’s really rolling. I’ve never been in this situation before—where everyone knows their lines halfway through rehearsals.”

Atkins remains unmoved. “It’s moving along,” he says later. “If I was to put it on a scale of 1 to 10, I guess I’d put it at 4.”

It’s settled: There’s a run-through Thursday for Harris and Atkins. The blocking and props seem to be finished. What’s left is confidence building.

Barbara Gehring, the choreogra-
pher, has to give Elkin her dance steps. Stover explains the situation to her: Consuela is basically a beautiful dead young woman, a few years under the age of consent, who floats across the stage, reappearing at intervals. Gehring writes a few notes down in her book and measures the length and width of the stage.

Gehring was the choreographer for the previous FPCT production, Cinderella, and does work for other local theaters, including the Vagabond Theatre. But her primary loyalties remain with Fells Point. “The FPCT takes more chances,” she says. “I mean, when I heard that Vagabond had spent two years waiting to put on Gigi, I went, ‘Blahh!’ I wanted to do Assassins.”

Vagabond, in fact, has just had a bad weekend. On Saturday night of Gigi’s opening weekend, the piano player for the production reportedly fell asleep at home and the audience was given refunds. The evening would’ve been an utter disaster if a volunteer from the audience hadn’t taken over the vacant piano bench and played a few of the show’s tunes.

Pulling small victories from the jaws of defeat is a point of pride in the world of community theater. “We’ve had some bad things happen at FPCT,” Stover acknowledges, but the show has always gone on. He mentions the theater’s 1998 mounting of Don Juan in Chicago, during which a key member of the production quit a few days before the opening. “And then there was the time my first wife walked out on me,” he says.

“It was in the middle of tech week. I’d expected it to happen sometime, but not right then. . . .”

Stover was acting, not directing, and that proved his temporary salvation. “I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I went through with the play,” he says. “It wasn’t that bad—I mean, where in life do you have the opportunity do just get out there and let it all out? Of course, an hour after the production, everything was awful again.”

“Monday of tech week is always the worst,” warns lighting designer Bob Dover on the evening of Jan. 17. “They’re not used to their light cues, they’re dealing with the soundtracks, they don’t know where everything is anymore.”

He rushes around with his ladder, climbing up to focus stage lights in different directions, slide plastic light filters over the beams, test them, and then move back behind the scrim, where a small room contains a mass of black cords wiggling out of the wall. His challenge: to create a jungle atmosphere, complete with starry sky, without having the actors’ heads block the small beams that create the stars. Asked what he does during the day, he mumbles that he’s a geologist.

Susan Justice, who describes herself as a producer, sprinkles mulch around the edges of the stage and twines fake ivy across the set. The stage platform has been painted, and, though it doesn’t look exactly like white plaster, it’ll do.

Stover is in the lighting booth upstairs, looking down at the stage, earphones on, hands on the light meters, following directions worked out by Dover. Stover says he’ll be in the audience during the performances, but for the moment they’re still looking for a gaffer to run the lights. “No one really wants to do this job,” he says. “No one ever sees you, you don’t get any of the glory, you don’t get paid.”

In fact, when Stover chose Eyes, it was because he was drawn to Henry’s character. “I really wanted to get back onstage, get into the role, and see what I could do with it,” he says, “but they said I should be the one who directs it, because I was the one who brought it up.” Stuck behind the booth’s Plexiglas window, he’s left to groan and shake his head whenever actors miss their cues—which they do a lot today.

But there is little room for barked orders or directorial tirades in community theater. “I don’t think any director would want to do a theater production without leaving his fingerprints on the play,” he says, but in this business, you need a light touch. “You can’t forget that these people are doing it for free. You have to stand back and let them feel out their parts.

“But I’m a frustrated actor,” he adds. “I really like being onstage and I know that opening night I’ll be wishing I could be up there with them.”

“Shepard’s the main reason I’m in theater myself,” Stover says. “I was a young guy in the Navy, from 1976 to 1982. I didn’t have a lot of direction at that time, but I was a voracious reader. I read everything on the boat, and then finally there was one book in the ship’s library I hadn’t read—it was Seven Plays by Sam Shepard. It opened up a world to me. I still have the book with the stamp.

“And it was Sam Shepard who got me into this building,” he muses. “I came to see Fool for Love in the ’80s here, when I was 29, and I haven’t left the building since.”

Stover sounds like an addict describing his first hit, and it seems like all FPCT veterans have a moment like that. Richard Peck, who plays Viejo, remembers walking by the building in 1997 and noticing an audition call taped to the front door. Atkins describes his own years in community theater as a search for the “pure drug.” Das Elkin is only 17 but seems to be in the early stages: She’s acted in two FPCT productions in as many months.

So, after the more than 100 unpaid hours of work the actors put into a show, is it worth the two free tickets each cast member gets? Two minutes before their first tech run-through—three days before opening night—the unspoken answer seems clear: You won’t understand until you’ve tried it yourself.

In the booth Stover slowly fades down the lights, and stars begin to wink on the scrim. Shadows of trees loom up all around the stage—potted palms and tamarinds, purchased in slightly damaged condition from Home Depot for $72. Plastic vines hang from the ceiling and snake around the platform—$1 per string. (Rocks and some other plants came from Sokal’s garden.) Atkins’ outline is barely visible, rocking in the hammock, as he waits to get up and give his opening monologue.

A guitar strums, in the Mexican corrido ballad style, slow and haunting. Blue light begins to flood the background, as stars and a silver moon silhouette a lush jungle.

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The Black Box (6/16/2010)
Baltimore's African-American indie filmmakers search for an audience

Role Model (5/26/2010)
In his new book, John Waters writes about amateur pornographers, lesbian strippers, and Clarabell the Clown and reveals . . . himself

Transmodern Festival 2010 (4/14/2010)
Introduction and Schedule of Events

More from John Barry

Creative Proof (7/14/2010)
Documentarian Steven Fischer pushes artists to talk about what makes them make art

Green Machine (7/7/2010)
The Charm City Circulator is more than a cool free bus--it's part of a hopefully sustainable relationship

Drama Splice (5/20/2010)
Recent Towson University theatrical conference wants to break contemporary Russian playwrights onto American stages

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