Monday, April 20, 2009

Stage Stories: I Cut My Finger Off


Saturday, I went and saw the musical Hair on Broadway. I toyed with doing a review, but ultimately decided against it. I think something like that, where it's more a psychadelic series of songs and other musical performances held loosely together by plot isn't the kind of thing I want to pass judgment on or dissect. Suffice to say I enjoyed it immensely and will make the following quick statements on it:

1. The energy of the cast was incredible and, more impressively, seemed 100% legitimate. Obviously actors can fake enthusiasm (as can TJ), but these dudes and ladies seemed truly amped to be performing. It was nice to see, but also made me curious if they have some sort of wonder drug (or, y'know, normal drug) to stay so up for multiple shows a day.

2. While I dug the show as pure entertainment, reading up on it and what a social impact it had back when it first came out at the height of Vietnam, I can't help but feel like I missed or didn't synch up with any deeper messages about war, etc. All I really came away with was that it was crazy to be 19 in 1967 (much like it was apparently crazy to be 19--or there about--in 1987; 2001 felt pretty standard to me aside from the stuff that made it crazy to be any age).

2a. A large part of feeling like I missed something was not understanding why the main character, Claude, was conflicted between going to war and burning his draft card. Given the larger message of the show, it seemed to me like he'd obviously be 100% anti-war. However, talking to my mom, who saw the show during its original run, she explained to me how in those days with World War II still fresher in people's minds as a war everybody wanted to fight in and Vietnam really being the first time young people expressed anti-war sentiments, it was easier to put yourself in Claude's shoes. These days, as young people, we're used to having the choice to not serve and don't get that inner conflict as much. Makes sense to me.

3. I was quite taken aback with and impressed with the level of physical comfort the cast members had with one another. There was a lot of making out and groping amongst not only whoever was delivering lines, but everybody in the background as well, and partners were switched pretty readily, leading me to assume most of that was improv and thus every single person had to be comfortable with being extremely physical with any other member of the cast at any given time and not ruin the moment, which they didn't; it was something.

And that's pretty much all I have to say about Hair, other than that you should check it out if you have the opportunity. What I would like to discuss further is my own checkered past in the theater.

Indeed beginning in high school and on into college, I fancied myself an actor of some degree. In fact, I was initially a dual major in Theater and English at Connecticut College until during my sophomore year, my wise theater professor told me, "Ben, it's hard enough to make it in acting or writing with a full degree in either; if you have half a degree in both, you're going to have trouble," and I opted to ditch my Hollywood/Broadway dreams; I think it worked out for the best.

There are a lot of former/current actor types in the comic book industry, which isn't all that surprising given that we're a group enamored with larger-than-life stories who also in many cases crave attention and spotlight (well I do at least). Why, on this very blog, you've got a trained Shakespearean thespian in one Rickey Purdin, who also almost went the theater major route and was actually an instructor at summer camps that focused on acting for a time. I believe Kiel also has a history in the performance arts and I know my fiancee, Megan, an actress herself, has long enjoyed his work on Saturday Night Live and in various films under his pseudonym of "Bill Hader." Also, one of my very favorite fun facts about Marvel: Spider-Man editor Steve Wacker was an extra in The American President (unless he has been lying to me for years, which...wouldn't surprise me).

So whenever I see a great show on or off Broadway, I gotta admit there's a little twinge of jealousy and regret over the career I never got to have. Hey, I'm thrilled with what I do now, but I'm a natural spotlight-craver and the times I spent on stage were some of the best I ever had. There's also frustration as the health problems I described the other day forced me to drop out of my final college show prematurely and pretty much derailed any shot at me ever pursuing acting as even a hobby in the future.

However, why focus on the negative when there's plenty of positive to share, right? For instance, there's the time I got part of my finger chopped off by a real sword...

At my high school there was definitely a pretty apparent clique system when it came to after school activities, at least for your first two-three years. For the two relevant examples, "jocks" did not generally interact with "theater kids" and vice versa. Being a member of the wrestling team who also did plays during the off-season, I was a bit of anomaly, and kinda loved it. As we hit junior/senior year, those cliques began to break down as we all realized we wouldn't be together much longer and quite a few of my "jock" friends gave acting a try, leading to some of the most fun I had in high school.

Before that all went down, however, some of my theater-inclined friends convinced me during my junior year that I should try out for the annual Shakespeare production, which that year was going to be Richard III. The Shakespeare show was a big deal because it was a co-production between my school--Newton South--and our crosstown counterpart Newton North. It ran two weekends as opposed to the usual one and generally had a huge cast. It happened to fall just after wrestling season ended, so I was game, if a bit nervous since I hadn't done nearly as much acting as the hardcores who got the plum gigs in these shows and didn't want to humiliate myself against kids from another school.

Nonetheless, I pumped myself up Ultimate Warrior-style and headed into the audition. The director was some muckity muck who all my friends were gaga over, but I didn't know the dude from Adam. He had me fill out some typical audition forms where I listed conflicts, special skills, etc. Under "special skills" I always mentioned that I wrestled, less because I thought it was of any practical use, more because I wanted to write something there. Well this director's ears perked up when he saw that I wrestled.

"You wrestle?"


"That's great! We need guys like you to be soldiers for the fight scenes!"

"Uh, cool...can I audition for an actual speaking part?"

"What? Oh...yeah, I guess so."

I then went ahead to do the monologue I had spent days memorizing while he completely ignored me and read over the next guy's info sheet. When I was done, he looked up after a pause and said, "Oh, nice yeah, we'll definitely need you as a soldier."

Anybody who has ever met me can attest that there is actually very little about me that screams "Badass jock," so to be treated thusly was, like, a bit flattering, but mostly just annoying and frustrating. I guess I was glad I got to be in the show, but more than a little annoyed that I was being made the equivalent of a stunt guy without a chance to prove myself. Ironically, one of the captains of North's wrestling team got to be one of the leads, but he was also really good (and maybe didn't put down "wrestling" under special skills).

Regardless, I got over it pretty quickly and really enjoyed working on the show as it felt like I was part of something bigger and more special than I was used to and I got to meet some really cool folks (many of whom initially treated me the same way as the director, before realizing I am a huge pussy and couldn't kick anybody's ass, at which point they welcomed me with open arms). My lame non-speaking role kinda sucked and any hopes of getting a dope costume disappeared once I learned we were doing a "modern interpretation" of the show, and thus I got to wear a white t-shirt and cargo pants (apparently soldiers in this director's world enlisted in the Old Navy--hi-yoo!), but I dug the camraderie chiefly anyhow.

Also, they gave me an axe.

Y'see, the same visionary director who thought it would be cool to dress his military like refugees from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue also felt he needed the true authenticity in his fight scenes that could only come from putting actual real weapons in the hands of high school students. We were for real given full-on metal swords and, in my case, a fucking battle axe, to use in the climactic 20-second battle tableaus that we were all essentially in the play for. There were, I believe, three of us on the side of Richmond (we were the good guys) who got paired off with the three folks playing for the evil Team Richard. A cool-as-shit fight coordinator was brought in to choreograph with us a trio of quick battles that would serve as the immediate prelude to the end of the show.

It was actually pretty dope.

I got matched up with I believe the only girl in the soldiers group, presumably because I am a tiny man and me even holding my own against another man is inconceivable in the context of a show where fucking ghosts play a role in the penultimate scene. As a Richmond guy, I got a little wooden shield, while my partner got a big ol' sharp-edged metal shield (this will be important in a moment). We staged a decent little fracas where she tried to hit me broadside with her sword and I kept deflecting it with my shield, then knocked her shield out of her hands with a couple mighty swings of my axe, casuing her to flee and putting another one on the scoreboard for the good guys. We practiced time and again and I was pretty proud in thinking ours was the best fight of the bunch.

Opening weekend came and our battle was a real crowd-pleaser. This was helped by the fact that pretty much every student taking third year English had to attend the play and write a mandatory essay on this four-hour epic, and since I was pretty much the only person in the show any of my rowdy jock buddies knew, me getting my axe on was their first excuse to cheer all night.

The next weekend, we switched over to North territory...and things went horribly wrong.

In the final peformance, everything was going like it always went. I did notice that my sparring partner seemed a bit jumpy, but chalked it up to her being sad to see the show come to an end (I certainly was). I asked if she was cool as we prepared to bring that mother home, and she assured me she was, so it was go time.

We ran out on stage and I got my little wooden shield up just in time, because I swear to God she almost took my head off. I caught the swing, but was struck both by the fact that clearly this girl's nerves had gotten the better of her as she was waaaay off-cue, and also that this girl was fucking strong! I didn't have much time to mull over these discoveries, as swing number two came and went, leaving my right arm with a pleasant numbness. My inner wrestler must have kicked in, because when she laid in with that final sword-shot, I didn't just block, I took my shield and swung it back so hard that I knocked the damn thing right out of her hand and across the stage!

(NOTE: That last part may not have actually happened)

I was running on adrenaline, the crowd was roaring and this girl was freaking out. Trying to get the situation under control, I brought my axe down with slightly less force than usual, because I didn't want anybody to get hurt, and that was that.

Why was that that when I was supposed to do two axe-shots? Because the girl freaked out and brought her shield up way too early with extreme velocity, in the process slicing open my hand and cutting off the end of my thumb.

The audience, thinking this was all part of the show, erupted. We got the fuck offstage.

That was not the end, however, as, of course, after three and a half hours of not being in the show at all, I was in every scene from here on out. I frantically wrapped my hand in my white t-shirt, which turned red pretty damn quick. Some girls I knew came over to say I'd done a nice job and immediately recoiled from the gusher I had going.

But the show must go on.

I shambled back onstage (my dad later told me everybody around them was impressed by the "realistic-looking blood" smeared on my shirt) and helped carry (SPOILER ALERT) Richard's corpse off to be buried hopefully without bleeding all over the poor guy in the process. I then went back out to stand dutifully while Richmond delivered the final monologue, holding my hand behind my back, then took my curtain call--I did not hold hands with the person next to me.

Ultimately, the wound was not as bad as I thought it was in the heat of the moment (big ass cut, but really just the slightest tip of finger loss), but the fight coordinator could not apologize enough if he bandaged me up, noting "This seriously never happens."

The next year, I opted not to do Shakespeare, choosing instead to star in a show I had helped to write. I was told the director actually asked for me by name and was disappointed I didn't audition. Presumably he wanted to get my whole hand sliced off that year.

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