Disclaimer: although written in the style of a memoir, the following story is a complete work of fiction, and any resemblance of the characters or situations in said story to any real individuals, famous or not famous, are purely coincidental.
I slept through that alarm and was awakened at 6:30 P.M., a half hour after call time, by a vibrating phone. I had already planned to roll out of bed, head straight to the theatre, and do my hair, make-up and costume in the two hours between call time and curtain.
Now I would have to do it all in one hour.
When I picked up the phone, I saw seven missed calls from Jessica, our stage manager…but now I was getting a call from Stu himself.
“Where are you?”
Leaping out of bed, feet landing directly into my slippers, I grabbed my tights, ballet flats, make-up bag, purse, and a handful of extra bobby pins.
“I’m on my way,” I lied. “My tire popped on the freeway and I didn’t have a spare so I had to call triple-A.”
“Next time that happens, please call Jessica. You know that!”
Then the exasperation vanished from Stu’s voice, and he became more affectionate.
“Glad you’re OK. Hope you get here soon. We still have to mic you.”
“I mean, I don’t plan to make a habit of this, but on the bright side, I’m not onstage until about 30 minutes into the show.”
“What are you talking about?” Stu was now panicking again.
“My first number is ‘A Bushel and a Peck,’ halfway through the first act.”
“Shiela, that’s Adelaide’s number. You’re playing Sarah Brown. We need you ready at the top of the show!”
Holy crap, he’s right. That’ll teach me to combine coffee and Nyquil right before a show opens…
“I was kidding.”
“I really not in the mood for kidding right now. Just tell me, do we have to hold the curtain?”
“No, no,” I lied. “Triple A just got here. They’re putting on the tire right now. I should be there in 20.”
“They got there while you were talking to me and just started putting the tire on without you saying anything to them?”
“You’re cutting out, Stu. I’ll see you at the theatre. Sorry about this! I promise it won’t happen again.”
I ran down the stairs, still in a grey tube top and maroon flannel sweatpants. My wig was sitting on a plaster bust at the theatre, so I didn’t need to worry about my hair, but in between traffic lights, I got a head start on pinning it up. That way, I would just throw the wig on as soon as I got to the theatre.
Now all I had to do was make sure I didn‘t actually pop a tire, because despite all the lies I had just told Stu, the part about me not having a spare tire was actually true.
SYCE didn’t have understudies for their shows. If you had to miss a performance, you wouldn’t be cast, and if you did miss a performance, you would be fired. “If we can do one show without you, we can do all the shows without you,” Stu used to say.
And when you beat the costumer’s daughter out for a lead role and end up playing opposite her husband, you’d really better make sure you don’t miss a performance.
When I got to the theatre, Sofie Nolan was the first person I saw, and she was just as terrified by the sight of me as I was by the sight of her. I was terrified because she was wearing my wig (OK, the wig her mother had lent to me, but still) and a costume identical to mine that her mother had undoubtedly made in a smaller size from the same fabric. They had planned this. They had planned, or at least hope, for something to happen to me at the last minute, so that Sofie could step up and be the hero who stepped into my role in an emergency.
I couldn’t hate her too much, though, because when I danced behind Sofie in the choruses of Oklahoma, Oliver, Kiss Me Kate, Seussical, and Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I learned all her lines, all her choreography, and all her blocking, secretly hoping that something would happen to her at the last minute.
When she saw me, she looked like she was holding back tears. She was so close to stepping into another leading role, but now came Shiela the flamingo to reclaim it from her.
She turned around and retreated into the costume shop. I went to find Jessica so I could get my mic checked.
“She’s here! She’s here!” I heard people shouting in the wings as I walked onto the stage. Patrons were out in the lobby already, but nobody was in the theatre. Jessica had kept the doors shut just so I could get ready onstage.
I ran a couple lines and the sound engineer (not the one I dated, mind you) adjusted my levels, but just as I was getting ready to head back to the dressing room and do my make-up, Joan waddled up to me with a scowl on her face. I thought I was going to get an earful about my lack of responsibility. I even thought there was a possibility she was mad enough to fire me from the show and have Sofie go onstage in my place, after all.
Instead, she leaned in, and I leaned down so I could be in earshot.
“Your husband is here,” she said.
For the last time, Joan, stop calling him my husband! We’ve been divorced for FOUR %@(#ing years!
“Todd?” I replied, still processing what I just heard, imagining him out in the lobby, mingling with our old friends as though nothing had happened. I pictured him looking through the program for my headshot and bio, and laughing that I had nobody from my personal like to thank except my mother and my pet Doberman, neither of whom had any intention of coming to see the show. He was the one who cheated, he was the one who ruined everything we had built together, and yet he was the one who remarried, living happily ever after with the woman he left me for. Was she with him? I don’t think I could do the show with both of them out in the audience together. Maybe Sophie should take the role for me. Maybe it would all be for the best…
“No,” Joan said, sarcastically. “Your other ex-husband.”
Thank you for saying “ex” that time.
“How do you know I don’t actually have another ex-husband?”
“I’ve known you since you were 19. You would’ve had to have married and divorced him in one year. And divorce takes time and money. Believe me, I know.”
“Do you want me to kick him out of here?” Stu asked, approaching us from behind.
Stu would kick a paying customer out of the theatre just because I didn’t like him?
“Sure,” I said. “Kick him out. But his new wife can stay if she likes.”
“Shiela,” he replied, raising an eyebrow. “He’s alone.”
“No wife. They’re not together anymore.”
“Haven’t you been following both of their epic Facebook meltdowns? I figured you of all people would be entertained.”
“I probably would, if I knew about it, but no, I don’t follow my ex-husband on Facebook. I’m not a masochist.”
“OK, Joan and I will refund his money, then. If he makes a scene, I’ll call the cops, and you can watch them drag him out of here in cuffs.”
Pondering it over for a second, now with the new information that he was alone, I told Stu not to bother.
“Let him stay,” I said. “I had a seat saved in the front row for a friend, but she won’t be coming. Get it from the box office and tell him he can have it. My treat.”
“You’re giving your ex-husband your comp ticket?”
“Hey!” I said, now gloating. “The guy’s paying for a divorce right now. Let’s go easy on him.”
When you watch professional theatre, you see actors completely immersed in the scene. You know there is no “fourth wall” between you and the actors, but you genuinely believe that the actors see a fourth wall. Even as they look in the direction of the audience, they don’t react to anyone they see. They see you, but you don’t see them seeing you. The fourth wall is an illusion for the audience, not for the actors.
Very few in community theatre have mastered this technique, especially when their ex-husband is sitting in the front row.
It wasn’t the husband I remembered. It wasn’t even the ex-husband I remembered. When I pictured him standing in the lobby, I pictured all the strong facial features, but when I came out onstage and saw him in the front row, I saw how his strength had melted away. Where had all his hair gone? Where did all that loose skin come from?
OK, I know where they came from, but when we were married, Todd aged in reverse. Every year of my early twenties, my forehead seemed to grow bigger, and I would cut my bangs longer and longer to distract from my receding hairline. But my husband’s hair seemed to grow thicker with age. He mocked my obsession with skin care products, dieting, and cardio, but my skin was always an unappetizing salmon pink, while his skin was always a thick caramel. I would spend hours at the gym every day and still be 10 pounds overweight, but Todd’s weekly basketball game was always enough to keep him slim.
The Todd sitting in front of me had the complexion of a slightly smoked marshmallow, and the flabby bubbles of sagging skin to match. His receding hairline couldn’t be mistaken for a “big forehead,” as mine could. No, my husband was bald.
Sorry, my ex-husband. Dammit, Joan…
I probably paused for a second and froze up onstage, but once I got back into character, I never looked out at the audience again.
In my romantic scene with Beck, I lost control. After dreading our kiss every night of rehearsals because I hated the way he would grab me, on opening night I went in and grabbed him. I held him in place, clutching his torso with my right hand hand and lightly massaging his back with my left. When our lips touched, it wasn’t just a peck. I had seen Sofie kiss Beck. She didn’t like to use tongue. She barely liked to use her lips. I didn’t mean to make her jealous; I didn’t even mean to make Todd jealous, but knowing Todd was right there changed the way I approached acting. Instead of crafting art or showcasing a talent, I was living an escapist fantasy.
This is some people’s main reason for doing community theatre, by the way. Not as a stepping stone to Broadway, but as a way of pretending to be someone else. That was Sofie and Beck’s motivation; they knew they were never going to go professional, but they still wanted to be onstage all the time. And they, like everyone who used community theatre as an escape, still wanted leading roles, because the leading characters are always the people it’s most fun to pretend to be.
In community theatre, actors usually stay in costume and greet the audience members immediately after bows. Todd took off running as soon as the house lights came on, but I snuck out the back of the theatre and waited for him by his red Volvo sedan.
He didn’t flinch when he saw me. He just yelled across the parking lot, “You know, if the genders were reversed in this situation, it would be considered stalking.”
“They are reversed, genius,” I replied. “You came to see my show.”
“Yeah, to support my friend Toby.”
My ex-husband is friends with Roxanna’s husband?
“But you still knew I was in it.”
“How would I have known you were in it? You think I keep up with what my ex-wife is doing?”
“You sat in the front row!”
“Not by choice! Stu came up to me in the box office, grabbed my ticket, ripped it up and handed me a new one for the front row. It was weird. He seemed angry about it. He just handed me the ticket and walked away.”
“So you had no idea I was in this show until I walked out onto the stage tonight?”
“None,” he said, now lighting up a cigarette.
“There’s a new one,” I laughed. “A dentist who smokes.”
“I’ve always smoked. I just never told you,” he said, exhaling after a long drag. “I mean, I know how much you hate everything that gives me joy.”
“Oh, shut UP already about me not wanting you to be happy!” I burst out. “It is so completely the other way around.”
“Yeah?” he challenged me. “What of the things you love do I hate?”
“Well, this theatre, for one. Theatre is my life, and I’ve always loved doing shows here, but you kept auditioning with me and getting better roles than me just because you have a penis!”
“You’re mad at me for having a penis?”
“I’m mad at you for doing shows here, playing lead roles you didn’t even deserve, and then complaining all the time that you weren’t treated fairly. You know how unfairly I’ve been treated by these people over the years?”
“Yes, I do. Because all you ever did for six years was complain about them. And all I ever did was try to protect you from them and encourage you to break away from their influence. I tried to protect you, support you, because that’s what husbands do.”
Wow. Gaslighting, much?
“Bull,” I replied. “You never said anything to encourage me. You only ever said things to disparage Joan & Stu, and the theatre community in general. If I had gone to SNC or any other theatre, you would have found some reason why I couldn’t work there, either.”
“You are nuts. Remember when I told you I would pay for you to go to acting school?”
“That was never a real offer. That was just your way of belittling my acting.”
“I was trying to help you follow your dream, Shiela!” he yelped, now forcing out fake tears. I hated his fake crying. I fell for it once upon a time, but now, as the tears rolled down his ashy face, I just laughed. As soon as he saw I wasn’t buying it, he toughened right back up.
“Look,” he continued. “You think this theatre is a stepping-stone to professional acting? This theatre is a pit that sucks actors in and keeps them from succeeding. Anyone here who has any success just gets shamed and bullied by Joan & Stu, who treat you like you’re betraying the theatre just for wanting to do shows elsewhere. You know, places that pay.”
“Jenni Sinclair use it as a stepping stone and she did just fine!”
“No, she didn’t,” he sighed. “Sheila, I know you think Jenni is your friend, but haven’t you ever wondered why that woman has been in back-to-back-to-back-to-back professional shows, and yet her only friend is amateur actress at a theatre that blacklisted her two years ago?”
“Oh, now you want to take Jenni from me, too? Why, Todd? So you can @#$^ her again!”
He jumped a little. I think I saw him bite his lip. He kept touching his face as the sweat dripped from his bald head into the stubble.
That’s right, you little @#$*. I know.
“Remember all those times we hung out just the three of us?” I said. “All those times you flirted with her, right in front of me. All those times you said, ‘When are you going to get a boyfriend, Jenni?’ or ‘When is Jenni going to have a plus one so we can double-date?’ and what you were really thinking all along was—“
“I can’t do this right now,” he mumbled at the ground, holding up a flaccid palm. Then he looked up at me and added, “Congrats on playing your first lead.”
He got into his car, turned the lights on, backed into a beige station wagon and sped off. I waited by the station wagon to tell what had happened, but when they didn’t show up for 15 minutes, I decided to just leave a note with Todd’s name and phone number on it. I know that isn’t much to work with, but I didn’t have his plate number or a current address. I wasn’t even sure if the phone number I had was still current.
As I walked back into the theatre to change out of my costume, I found Stu, now dressed in a red and lime-green Hawaiian shirt and Levi’s that reeked of sawdust and mildew.
I was never happier to see him.
“Thank you for handling the Todd situation,” I told him.
“Any time. We get stalker exes in here all the time. Joan and I just try to handle it discreetly.”
“I appreciate that.”
And to think, all this time I had viewed Joan & Stu as busybodies. I thought their interest in me was only about wanting gossip and that they had no regard for my safety or sanity. In every break-up I knew about, they always seemed to take the man’s side, as thought it was always the woman’s responsibility to hold the marriage together. If the wife cheated, it was her fault for betraying her husband; if the husband cheated, it was the wife’s fault for making him feel the need to cheat. But in the case of my divorce, they sided with me. They didn’t care that they lost male talent by losing Todd. Todd was a diva. Yes, men can be divas, too, and my ex-husband was a bigger diva than any actress I knew, Jenni included.
Stu reminded me, “We’re all going out to Saul’s diner to celebrate a great opening.”
“Thanks, but I need a drink.”
“Ok,” he said. “Let’s get a drink.”
“Very funny, Stu. I’ve known you for ten years. You don’t drink.”
“I don’t drink with the cast because Joan doesn’t like it, but tonight definitely calls for a drink.”
“And what? We just won’t tell your wife?”
“Everything in our house is ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ ”
“Thanks, Stu. But you should go be with your cast.”
“And what? You’ll go to a bar on a Friday night alone? Do you know how dangerous that is?”
“I’ll call one of my gay friends to join me. Have him pretend to be my boyfriend.”
“Goodnight!” I yelled from the dressing room door. I couldn’t wait to get out of this costume. It wasn’t until I saw myself in the mirror that I realized I was still wearing that stupid bonnet and red jacket for my entire exchange with Todd.
I wrote out a text for Jenni. It read: “Todd had the nerve to show up tonight. he even sat in the seat i reserved for you. then he tried to COMPARE me to you and lecture me about why i wasnt a professional actress and you were. can you believe that guy?”
Jenni texted back immediately: “o now your talking to me again?”
Me: “im still mad but yea of course im still talking to you, youre my best friend”
Jenni: “k wanna get a drink?”
Me: “thanks but im going out with the cast. rain check?”
Jenni: “im prepping all weekend for “Chicago” auditions on monday. maybe we can get a drink after?”
Me: “who’s doing chicago”
Jenni: “DPP lol”
Me: “DONT CALL THEM DPP! THAT SOUNDS SOOOOOOO WRONG”
Jenni: “k, del paso players. im only accepting roxie or velma”
Me: “roxie is my dream role of dream roles, hope u get it”
Jenni: “u should audition”
Me: “at dpp? now way, they pay actors there!”
Jenni: “so? isnt that your endgame”
Me: “yea but i figured i would get a few more leads under my belt at SYCE”
Jenni: “just audition with me! the worst that can happen is they say no”
Me: “ill think about it. g2g”
Jenni: “have fun with the cast!”
I didn’t really want to see Jenni, but I also didn’t really want to go to Saul’s with the rest of the cast. So I lied to everyone except my dog Cable, who accompanied me for the rest of the night as I went through a whole bottle of Clos Du Val by myself.
I also lied about not wanting to audition for Chicago. Hell yeah I was going to audition, and I was going to blow everyone out of the water, especially the fake friend who smiled in my face all those years and never told me she’d slept with my husband.