Notes from the Empathy Gym – April 2021

Notes from the Empathy Gym – April 2021

We are fanatical storytellers. Everyone in the theatre, from set designers to automation techs, from actors to general managers, are magnetized by the lure of storytelling. We work in a profession that almost never pays comparable salaries to those in other industries with similar skills and training. Most theatre artists make a spoken or unspoken vow of poverty, forswearing material wealth and security in dedication to the live storytelling art that struggles to stay afloat even in the best of times. Even through the last year of pandemic, our storytelling teams’ dedication including marketers, fundraisers, accountants and stage managers, actors, safety coordinators, stagehands and camera ops, to keeping theatrical stories alive has if anything intensified to meet what we all feel is a desperate need meeting impossible obstacles. Given the challenges of a life in the theatre, those who make it a career are some of the most dedicated humans on the planet. There are a thousand examples to illustrate the bottomless dedication, the endless endurance, the heroic heart of theatre workers. Here are three of my favorites.

Back in our 6-year tenure at 533 Sutter St, we were pioneering the chamber musical and one of our favorites was Man of La Mancha, set in a not-too-distant future inquisition. Yours truly, in his swan song as a musical theatre star played Cervantes/Quixote and the inimitable Louis Parnell served as his faithful servant, Sancho. We were about to make our first entrance in a sold-out performance, when I accidentally shut a door on his foot and a rough edge of corrugated steel siding cut deeply into his heel, barely nicking the Achilles tendon, but leaving a big gash. Louis tried to shrug it off, but when I looked closely at it, it was immediately clear that he could not possibly go on with the performance. I conferred with the stage manager and went out on the stage to let the audience know we would have to cancel the performance. This was a special audience, a hundred guests, assembled by one of our board members to help build subscribers and donors. He and many of the guests, being quite disappointed, asked if we could just sing some songs from the show. So, while three of the doctors in the house ministered to Louis, we started going thru a few of the songs. Just as we were finishing up, Susi ran out on stage and whispered in my ear that Louis wanted to sing a Sancho song. And in just another moment, with some crutches borrowed from props and temporarily bandaged up by the doctors, literally dripping blood on the stage, Louis hobbled to center stage to sing “I Like Him,” to thunderous applause and an instant standing ovation, before he shuffled off to the hospital for 50 stitches. The heart of a lion.

Understudy miracles are the source of theatre legend. My favorite comes from our production of Christmas Story, the Musical. We cast a really gifted and very experienced 12-year old in the role of Ralphie, a huge part for a kid, around which the whole story revolves, who sings five big numbers and is onstage almost the entire show. He was an AEA member and had worked in NY. A safe bet, we thought. Problem was, we cast him in May and by November his voice had started to change. He was being a trouper and eking out the boy soprano high notes, but it was a strain and immediately after opening night, he lost his voice. We had a sold-out matinee the next day, and since we start training understudies after opening, we had little expectation that the Ralphie understudy could stand any chance of going on. BUT, when called, the much less experienced 11-year old, who had not seemed to be the quickest of the kids to pick up blocking and choreography, said thru his Mom that he was ready to go on. He showed up at 12:00 that day, and the stage manager started running him thru the numbers and scenes. Mind you, there had been no run-thru or any rehearsal dedicated to understudies. They had been learning merely from watching the leads go thru the work, while playing a smaller part themselves. This young man had gone home and between school, homework and rehearsals learned absolutely every note, word and step. And by the time the curtain went up, it was impossible to to tell that he was not originally cast in the role. He performed Ralphie for two weeks until the regular actor’s voice healed. To this day, I am still aghast at the level of dedication this 11-year old brought to his work, all on his own, without any help from the production. Unfathomable that he had attacked his responsibility with such mind-boggling focus and dedication.

My friend and colleague Margarett Perry, who directed Seared, and Born in East Berlin for us, tells a story of an actor who got a kidney stone during previews for a play at The Kitchen Theatre. It was so painful they admitted him to the hospital but had to tell him there was little they could do except provide pain medication. The assistant director, who had driven him to the hospital, informed the theatre they would have to cancel the performance. As she was driving him home around 6:45, he proclaimed that he was going be ready for curtain at 8:00. They had to pull over for him to vomit, but he kept insisting, so she drove him to the theatre. With cloudy brain and high on meds, he went on stage in cast of four, where he was on stage the entire play. The other actors, inspired by his courage brought the fiercest focus of their lives to the moment, and the show absolutely soared. As Margarett put it, “I cherished that moment and was thrilled to be in the audience to witness it. The team effort and the determination to get through it together made magic. It’s in moments like these when actors reveal themselves.”

We all know stories like this, from wartimes and times of rescue and especially during the pandemic; the most worst of times when the ordinary heroes amongst us, emergency workers, mail deliverers, grocery clerks, nurses, access their highest power to do what needed to be done. It is reassuring to be near that kind of dedication and courage. It restores our faith in humanity and gives us hope. And if we are lucky enough, we occasionally get to witness it in the theater.

Please write me at arti[email protected] to share any thoughts you may have.

In gratitude,
Bill English, Artistic Director

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Bill English is Artistic Director and Co-Founder of San Francisco Playhouse, and in twenty years with Susi Damilano, has guided its growth from a bare-bones storefront to the second-largest theater in San Francisco.

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