Laughter From The Trenches - An Understudy, a 6-Year-Old & a Playwright

Art Shulman


This column features true and humorous stories occurring in theater, and I'm looking for theater-folk to contact me with their stories. They can do this by calling me at 818-782-4252 and telling me about the event, or emailing me.
David Bickford, a company member of Theatre of NOTE for over 20 years, recalls his very first main stage appearance there as the Banquo understudy in NOTE's production of…. well, Shakespeare's “Scottish Play.”  He was very new to the company and the actor playing Banquo suddenly got a paying gig. Bickford was called to go on without any rehearsal with the main cast, just a walk through with the stage manager.
By coincidence, the fabric used to make the original Banquo costume kept needing repair, so the costume designer finally decided to make a whole new, much fancier costume using different fabric.  It looked nothing like the original costume.  The cast was not told about the different costume.
At his first entrance Bickford ran onstage and hit the mark the stage manager had taught.  He looked at the actor playing the lead and noticed, admiringly, a powerful wildness and madness in his eyes.  It was truly intense.
Bickford found out later that the wild look wasn't acting.  The lead actor was staring at a strange person, new to the company, who he'd never rehearsed with, wearing a costume he'd never seen, and was thinking, “WHO THE HELL IS THIS??!!”
When my stepson John was 6 years old, a novice actor in his first production, he had a scene with a seasoned veteran playing the role of his father. It was a staged reading, and my precocious stepson was a very capable reader. In the middle of the scene in front of a large audience the ‘father' delivered a line, which caused John to break character. He said to his stage father aloud, “You weren't supposed to say that.”
He then raised his script, held it up to his stage father, pointed to a place on the page and in very clear terms admonished the veteran, “You were supposed to say this”.
His ‘father', probably pretending he wasn't embarrassed, then said the line John pointed to, and the two continued the scene.
But that wasn't the end of it for John. At the end of the scene he was supposed to exit the room through the front door. But when John tried to exit the door wouldn't open. It was stuck. My stepson tried again, then again, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not open the door. Most audience eyes were now sympathetically on John and his predicament, not paying any attention whatsoever to the remainder of the scene being played on the other side of the stage.
John finally looked at the audience, shrugged, stepped off the stage into the aisle, and walked off to an ovation from the audience.
Successful and much produced playwright Phil Olson also acts occasionally, and a few years ago he played a detective in my one-act comedy, PIGEONS. During one rehearsal his detective character looked into the distance offstage right, noticing a hypothetical person in the park. Just by coincidence another actor, an older gentleman wearing a light blue jacket and running shoes, had wandered into the theater and right into Olson's sightline.
Olson didn't skip a beat. He delivered his line perfectly, which was, “Look at that guy. In the light blue jacket. Wearing those new running shoes. He seems to me like he might be a purse snatcher. A lowlife if I ever saw one.”
Fortunately, the actor in the light blue jacket and running shoes was virtually deaf, or who knows what type of argument, and perhaps battle, might have ensued.
OK, you waggish theater-folk out there, I'm done for now. But shortly I need to hear from you with your true and funny stories: 818-782-4252, or email me.

Art Shulman is a playwright who also sometimes directs and acts. Most of his acting is in his own plays, but the directors swear it’s because he acts good, and not because the director is told that if he or she wants to be hired that Art is attached as an actor. Art has written many full-length plays – comedies, dramas, and dramedies -- and asserts that he has had more new original full-length plays produced in the LA area over the past decade than any other playwright. (Of course, he may be exaggerating or lying, but so far no one has shown up to prove him wrong.) In addition to plays, Art has written a self-help book on relationships, a western novel set in the 1820’s, a children’s book, and a musical. He stopped writing graffiti just after his bar mitzvah.

When not involved in the theater world Art is a professor at California State University, Northridge.