PANCAKES! - Geeking Out About a Return to Acting

Photo: Detail of a photograph by P.T. Sullivan

As I pulled into Chuck’s driveway that evening, my heart was racing, my stomach churning. Even having secured the playwright’s blessing, I was still questioning my intention to both direct and act in this play. Yes, it was only ten minutes of stage time, and if I fucked up our show it wouldn’t be catastrophe in the grand scheme of things—it would be staged alongside eight other shows, after all, and surely they would pick up our slack. But this show mattered to me. It meant something to me. And I wanted it to be perfect.

I turned off the ignition and sighed. Two days before, I was just a director. I’d had all three parts cast, and I was beginning to feel confident that, even twelve years removed from my last directorial gig, I could handle this. But then an email came, a dropout. And then, no matter who I wrote to, they couldn’t do it. I still had a message out to someone on that Sunday evening I drove to Chuck’s for our first rehearsal, but it had been a while, and we couldn’t wait any longer. So, it seemed to me that this choice to take over the part myself wasn’t really a choice at all.

Pancakes is a play about a son returning to New Hampshire to spend two final minutes with a robotic approximation of his recently deceased father. The two men didn’t have a great relationship, and the son, Charlie, is confused about why his father has left him their old house in his will.

The first part I’d cast, on the suggestion of playwright John Herman, was the father, Mr. Roberts. Chuck Galle, a fine actor whose memoir Stories I Never Told My Daughter I had edited, was a natural choice.

David Kelley was another Herman suggestion, and had the perfect look for the robot’s attendant as I’d seen him in my mind.

So, those two parts had been a breeze to cast. But the role of Charlie, by contrast, had been a chore. I’d initially thought of an actor friend of mine who had father issues of his own, someone I thought would have the perfect combination of talent and background to draw upon. But the commute to the theater would have been murder for him, and he had a conflict on opening weekend.

John had several suggestions, one of whom eventually agreed to take the role. But, as you know by now, that didn’t work out. And the late notice of his dropout left me with few viable options, as other directors had snapped up the other available actors in the interim.

I arrived at myself as option only as a measure of last resort. I had acted, once upon a time, and I had been serviceable if not good. But the parts I’d played had all been comedic, and I wasn’t at all sure I could pull off the role of Charlie. Charlie is the linchpin. How his anger and resentment are played, and whether or not his few laugh lines actually get laughs, is everything. All three roles are crucial, but if you fuck Charlie up you might as well not even bother. And there were moments—not many and not for very long, but there just the same—that I wasn’t sure we should bother, that I was sure I would embarrass not just my castmates in Pancakes, but also the playwright, the actors in the other shows, the directors of the other shows, and pretty much everyone involved.

But here’s the thing: my lack of dramatic experience didn’t matter to Chuck and Dave. I was the guy playing the part, and I had their confidence and respect until I did something to lose it. That meant the world to me.

We read through the script once or twice on our asses, but we were on our feet pretty quickly. And while I got the directorial credit for the thing, the show came together in a very collaborative way. Chuck provided the experience, managing to help Dave and I fix our blocking even though he spends much of the play with his eyes closed, and managing to catch me and set me straight every time my nerves threatened to derail me. Dave, a recent graduate of John’s improv class, provided the inspiration to keep playing with it. We tried a whole bunch of stuff, some of which stuck, some of which didn’t, but all of which was valuable to learning about what this show was and was not. And me, the overthinker, I provided the analysis. I’d read this play a bunch, and I had plenty to say about what I saw was going on with each character during each moment.

I had a hell of a time learning my lines and getting off book, though. The other guys had at least a week of lead time on me, maybe two, but I was still struggling by the time we got to tech rehearsal, the Monday before the show. They were infinitely patient with me, Chuck recounting the story of how he’d learned lines quickly for a play he’d directed with prison inmates when the lead was flaking on him, and me listening to the master, doing exactly what he said, and recording all of their lines into my iPhone’s Recorder app so that I could have someone/thing to play against over and over again. But, even so, I was really glad we didn’t end up running the show in front of anyone until dress rehearsal. For tech, we got into places and set lights, but we didn’t utter a word aloud. That was great for me, because I was nowhere near ready.

But the truth is that you’re never really ready for something like this, and the very idea of “getting ready” can be more of a hindrance than anything. “Do or do not,” a wise Muppet once said. “There is no try.” And that’s really what happened, beginning with dress rehearsal.

I didn’t know the show as well as I’d have liked when we ran it that Thursday evening, and the quality of the shows that preceded ours was a bit intimidating, as was the position of our show as the first after intermission, but when it came time to do it, that’s just what we did. And here’s the thing: once we started doing it—off-book, in costume, and on stage, that is—we started getting good.

Listen: I grew up roaming the yard telling stories to myself, but it was only when I got long, uninterrupted periods, when I was allowed to become truly enveloped in the story, that the story got really good. Reciting lines in Chuck’s living room was one thing, but playing a scene under lights, with the Attendant tweaking an actual control panel instead of just miming it, and pulling an actual sheet off of the lifeless Mr. Roberts instead of us just talking about it—that changes everything.

I certainly got better as the run went on, but I felt a palpable change in my performance even on that first night. The costumes did it, the lights did it, and the props did it, but most of all it was Mr. Roberts under that sheet and the Attendant removing it. Those things got me out of my own head and back into this story that meant so much to me.

When Charlie walked onto the Players’ Ring stage each night to find his father reborn under that sheet, that was me, Chris, getting to play a game of wish fulfillment. I don’t believe in God, so John Herman’s technological “what if?” story provided me with an opportunity to explore what a younger, more naive and spiritual Chris had once hoped for: two more minutes with a loved one who’d left me behind.

Whether it was my grandfather’s face I projected onto Chuck’s or my father-in-law’s, the visage of my best friend’s dead dad or a horrible imagining of what it will be like to one day look down at my own dead father, Charlie’s anger, resentment, confusion, and sadness all came from a very deep and personal place. And though I felt awkward when castmates or audience members told me later that I’d made them cry, I also secretly kind of loved that feeling of making people feel what I was feeling, what Charlie was feeling. It was the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like a storyteller on stage.

Pancakes means so much to me because it is the type of science or speculative fiction that I long to write myself, and that I crave whenever I sit down to take in a geeky story. Beneath the fantastic premise is a very human core. Ultimately, none of the crazy ideas we come up with as storytellers really amount to much if there isn’t something relatable at the center.

And actually, that’s what makes me so proud of the entire evening of theater we put on each night for the past three weekends. Every show, no matter how bizarre, made me feel something deep and real. When I laughed, I laughed till my insides hurt. When a play got me thinking, it kept me thinking long afterward. And when a play broke my heart, it stayed broken until a bouquet of roses fell from the rafters and made everything better again.

But that’s a story for another time.

To be continued… next week