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.
After three weeks of performances, the Guys & Dolls cast got a week off to celebrate Christmas, with the expectation that we would return for a final weekend for back-to-back New Year’s Eve performances and a New Year’s Day matinee.
Nobody was happy with the show. All the actors were already thinking about their next big role. Joan didn’t communicate with the cast anymore, and many of the show’s nasty reviews attacked her personally, calling her “disorganized,” “unprofessional,” and “a joke.”
The other actors and I read these reviews with delight, because they said everything we were thinking but were too afraid to say to Joan’s face. It’s even possible that some of the anonymous reviewers weren’t actually audience members, but rather actors in the show who needed to vent. I worried Joan might think I was the one writing the nasty reviews, so I wrote a reply comment to one of them using my own name:
“Because I am in the show, I will not speak about my own performance, but I will say that the personal attacks on Ms. Rudofsky are completely unnecessary. Also, I wonder how many of you anonymous reviewers actually saw our show, and how many of you are just bitter members of the theatre community, using this website to settle old scores with SYCE. If you actually sat through our three-hour show, you’ve paid your dues and have the right to express your opinion, but if you didn’t see the show, or if your judgments about the show are clouded by personal vendettas, you have no leg to stand on.”
The site posted the review, signed “Shiela Schlecht.”
When I reported to pick-up rehearsal the Thursday after Christmas, I was the only person who arrived at the theatre on time. Joan & Stu stood in the lobby, glaring at me from afar, and then retreated into the box office to have a “private” conversation. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I knew it was about me. They sounded angry. What did they have to be angry about? And at me, of all people? Everyone else was late to pick-up rehearsal, wasting Joan & Stu’s time as well as my own, but here I was, being antagonized by the people I’d been a servant of for all of my twenties.
I couldn’t wait to get out of this theatre and start performances of Chicago with the Del Paso Players. Yes, I only had a cameo role, but I was understudy for the lead, and every though Jenni and I both knew nothing would happen to her, it still meant I would finally get to put a lead role on my resume. Even if I was never going to perform as Roxie, I’d still memorized all the lines, all the lyrics, all the harmonies, and all the choreography. Lora trusted my talent and my work ethic. She didn’t cast me in a lead role, but she knew I could handle a lead role, which would help me get cast in lead roles in the future.
Joan & Stu never had that respect for me. I couldn’t wait to be rid of them. I didn’t wish them any ill will, but I didn’t enjoy working with them, and after this show was over, I would have no reason to feel “stuck” working at their theatre.
After five minutes of neurotic yelling coming from behind the box office door, Stu walked out, head bowed, and walked over to me.
“Joan was very upset last night,” he explained.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied. “What happened?”
“The reviews of the show are really getting to her. She won’t admit it, but they are. So please stop adding fuel to the fire.”
“Adding fuel to the fire?”
“Your comment was completely unnecessary.”
“I was sticking up for you.”
“Bull, Shiela,” he said, now making strong eye contact, although I couldn’t help staring at the ashy wrinkles in his forehead. “You didn’t say anything to defend the show or to defend Joan. You just said ‘personal attacks are unnecessary.’ Shiela, me & Joan have been running this theatre for thirty years. This theatre is our life. When you attack our shows, it is personal. We could not care less what people say about our hair or our weight. We care about the integrity of our theatre, and you undermined it by going on a website, acting like you were speaking for the theatre without consulting us first.”
“OK, Stu, I’m going to have to stop you there. Call time was when? 6:30? And it’s now 6:40? That means I’m the only person who showed up on time, and for what? To get lectured by y—”
“This coming the girl we had to hold the curtain for on opening night because she was two hours late!”
“I wasn’t two hours late.”
“Well, seeing as how you claim this show is three hours, I guess you have a warped perception of time.”
What a smug prick.
“I’m not dealing with this,” I said, walking away. As I headed through the lobby corridor that led backstage, I saw Joan, still peering out the box office window, glaring at me. Had I done something wrong? Did I overstep the boundary by writing on the website?
No. @#$! that, Shiela. When are Joan & Stu ever going to feel guilty about everything they’ve done to you.
I always thought anonymous reviewers were cowards who couldn’t handle taking accountability for their words. Yet here I was, taking accountability for my words, which were meant to defend Joan & Stu, and I was being attacked for it…by Joan & Stu. No wonder everyone used an anonymous online platform to trash them. It was the only way to communicate any negative feedback about the theatre without being bullied or ostracized.
When I got to the dressing room, several chorus girls were already back there, getting into costume, but Roxanna was nowhere to be found, and the men’s dressing room was wide open and empty.
This show was a joke to everybody, to the point that half of them had bailed on pick-up rehearsal and were going to show up on New Year’s Eve, probably drunk, to perform a show on two weeks’ rest.
“Everybody onstage, please!” I heard Joan’s voice yell from outside the dressing room. Then came a knock. She peered in and repeated, “You hear that? Everybody onstage. NOW.”
We all walked out to the stage, partially in costume, partially in make-up, completely dreading the next four hours of our lives.
“OK,” Joan announced. “As you can see, some of the cast is still on their way, and they’re not going to have time to do make-up when they get here. So I’m going to say don’t worry about it. It’s just a pick-up rehearsal. Let’s run the show now and Jessica will be on book, reading for the actors that aren’t here.”
The other women all looked at me, like it was my job to say something.
“Is that OK, Shiela?” Stu asked, also sitting out in the audience.
“Stu, you’re in the show!”
“No @#$%, Sherlock.”
“So why aren’t you up here onstage with the rest of the actors.”
“Because I’m the music director and I need to hear you sing.”
“That’s crap. Joan, make your husband get up here and—”
“BENJAMIN, FROM THE TOP!” Stu yelled across the stage at the pianist, and the piano overture began promptly thereafter. Of course the rest of the orchestra had ditched pick-up rehearsal. So now we were about to run the show with only half the cast and only a piano accompanying us.
The first musical number of Guys & Dolls is sung by the three gangsters, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny South-Street, and Rusty Charlie, played in our production by Harold Haverford, Toby LaConte (Roxanna’s husband), and Julio Becerra, respectively. Since all three men had ditched, we skipped their number and went straight to my opening number, “Follow the Fold.”
As I was singing, I watched Joan & Stu whispering back and forth to each other in the front row.
Then the dialogue in our scene began, and I could make out what they were saying to each other.
“Every time, I hope he’s gonna hit the note. And he never does.”
“I told you we shouldn’t have cast him,” Stu replied.
“But you know how June gets. I told her I couldn’t cast Sofie anymore after that board meeting, but she would never forgive us if we didn’t cast Beck.”
I tried to put the pieces together in my head. She was saying Beck couldn’t hit the notes during his big song, and she was right. He did have trouble hitting the high notes. And seeing as how I was the character he sang to every night, it bothered me especially. But for the whole rehearsal process, Joan & Stu had said nothing. They just said, “Sounds good, Beck. Let’s move on.” He never got any notes from either of them, and now they were bad-mouthing their own actor behind his back (but right in front of me and the other actors).
But what was the ‘after the board meeting’ comment all about? Did someone call them out for casting nepotism? It’s true that Sofie always got cast as the lead thanks to her mom’s dedication to the theatre, but if the board wants to call out the theatre’s nepotism, shouldn’t they call out Joan & Stu for taking turns casting each other in every show?
“Sarah, are you going to say your line?”
“Sarah Brown! Hey, flamingo, wake up!”
Oh, right, I’m Sarah.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
And for me, that was it. After nine years, I decided that was the last time I would ever be called “flamingo,” the last time I would ever be their “Gehenna Girl,” the last time I would ever let myself be controlled by my pity and fear of Joan & Stu Rudofsky.
“Stu, we can all hear you up here.”
“You’re talking $@#& about your own actors! Right in front of us.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” called out Terri Rimmel, Joan & Stu’s number one brown-noser.
“Shiela,” said Stu. “Just shut up and say your @#%$ing lines.”
“How can I shut up and say my @#%$ing lines, Stu?”
He froze. He stood up and walked to the corner of the stage, his gaze never leaving mine, and beckoned me with his entire flabby arm.
“Come over here, Schlecht,” he growled.
“No! I’m not coming over there. If you’ve got something to say, say it in front of everybody. Stop pulling the women in your shows aside so you can make creepy comments about our breasts.”
“That’s not what thi—”
“Or maybe you want to tell me how I misheard you just now, when you & Joan were complaining about how Beck can’t hit the notes, and how you had to cast him because you couldn’t cast Sofie?”
“Say what?” Beck emerged from the wings, quizzically.
“Stay out of this!” Stu was now red-faced. “You know what? We should have cast Sofie in this role. I don’t even care if we look like we’re playing favorites. We like working with Sofie, and you’ve been nothing but a pain in the ass since we cast you. I told Joan there was a reason we put you in Gehenna.”
“I’m so lost,” I heard Beck whisper behind me.
“Allow me to fill you in,” I announced to him and the rest of the cast. “These two have a secret blacklist they put actresses on. Actresses only, because they know they know no male talent would ever put up with this crap. But they put you on a list where they refuse to cast you in anything but the chorus, even if you’re the best person, just to punish you for some mistake you made years ago.”
“Some mistake like making us cancel a full weekend of performances so you could go to Vegas?”
“I went to Vegas because my husband was having an affair!”
“That’s TMI? What about when you told Roxanna not to worry about her breasts getting smaller if she lost weight?”
Joan perked up on that one.
“Did you just make that up?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied, turning to her husband. “Did I make that up, Stu? Well, did I?”
I was starting to sound like a cowboy caricature from the Charles Bronson films my dad used to watch. It was embarrassing.
“I’m leaving.” I began my march toward the exit door. “This whole rehearsal is pointless.”
“Shiela, if you walk out that door, you’re fired.”
“Right, you’re going to fire me, and not the 11 cast members who straight-up ditched this rehearsal.”
“Aaaaaaaaaaaand you’re fired!”
That was all I needed to hear. I had no other parting words for anyone there. I already had my phone in hand, texting Jenni as I walked out of Joan & Stu’s theatre for the last time. This toxic chapter of my theatre career–and my life–was finally over.
“Jenni call me NOW” I wrote.
“cant call. whats up?”
“we need to get a drink. I just quit the theatre for good”
“what theatre? you mean you quit Chicago?”
“No! Joan & Stu’s theatre. I told them I was done”
“oh yeah, it happened. i need a drink now lol”
“I have a show! I’ll be out at 10:30”
“thats in 3 hours”
“maybe text Roxanna”
Ugh. I was still a little annoyed at Roxanna for ditching pick-up rehearsal, but I figured she would be able to empathize, so I took my phone out to text her.
“where were you tonight?” I asked her.
Then I watched the bubble telling me she was writing a message. I was sitting in my car crying at this point. I couldn’t believe it was finally over between me and this theatre. I know I always said I hated it and couldn’t wait to get out, but it was the only theatre I’d worked in since college. It was where things all started for me. It was where I met my husband, even if now he was my ex. Now I would never darken their doors again. Now I had two permanent enemies in the theatre community. Everyone knows Joan & Stu will never let go of a grudge. That’s why I wanted to talk to Jenni.
“I can’t believe you told people about me & Stu!” Roxanna wrote back.
“I mean his comment about my boobs. i told that to you in confidence!”
“So then he said, ‘Sheila, you walk out that door, you’re fired.’ And I said, ‘Listen here you fat, bald-headed piece of–‘ “
“Stop,” Jenni cut in. “Did you really say that?”
“OK, I didn’t call him anything, but he knew I was thinking it.”
“We’re all thinking it, and he always knows. That’s why he always flexes his muscle around the young actresses like Roxanna.”
We were at my apartment. All the artwork was taken down and the living room floor was covered in moving boxes, but we still had a couch, and we were drinking wine out of coffee mugs since I had already packed all the glassware in tight bubble wrap. I had been drinking for three hours as I waited for Jenni. Roxanna wasn’t responding to my texts, and despite the hundreds of superficial friendships I’d developed over ten years in community theatre, I really didn’t have anyone else I could call for an impromptu wine-and-venting session on a Friday.
In hindsight, I should just have gone to a bar.
“I’m so glad we’re here and not at a bar,” Jenni laughed. “You’re a mess right now. The juggalos would be all over you.”
Juggalos are the white-trash clientele that dominate the greater-Sacramento-area bar scene. They’re usually married with kids, but they leave their kids with a sitter or their grandparents so they can drink Jager and Fireball whiskey until they’re smashed. And for some reason, they love me, even the married couples. Nay, especially the married couples.
“You’re a juggalo!” I yelled.
Wow Shiela, you are drunk.
“Look,” Jenni said. “All I’m going to say is this: you couldn’t have gotten out of that theatre soon enough. I knew this would happen one day, and I’m just glad it finally did happen. I’m glad we’re finally in a show together again, and at a theatre where your contributions are finally valued.”
“Contributions are valued! Bull@$#*, Jenni! All I do is shadow you and then stand in for you at the rehearsals you have to miss because you’re a big professional actress.”
“Wow. Not cool.”
“I mean, why did they even cast you if you couldn’t make half of the rehearsals?”
“Shiela, you sound petty right no—“
“And if you’re going to miss half of rehearsals, couldn’t you at least have the courtesy to miss a performance so I can play Roxie once.”
Jenni rolled her eyes. My eyes were rolling too, but not voluntarily.
“Jenni, you know that was my dream role, and you’ve played it already. Couldn’t you just let me have this one!”
“That’s not how theatre works, Shiela. Nobody ever ‘gets their turn.’ They cast the person they think is best for the role, not the person who wants it more, not the person they like better. Maybe one day you’ll beat me out for a role, but it won’t be because I ‘let you have it.’ You’re just going to have to fight harder.”
“But you’re my friend. I don’t want to fight you,” I laughed, realizing how ridiculous I was sounding.
“God, you’re so drunk right now, Shiela. I didn’t mean fight me; I meant fight for the role. Fight harder than me for the same role. Don’t be like Sofie, wishing something awful would happen to a rival actress just so you can step in and assume a role you didn’t earn.”
“I would never wish that on you.”
“I know, but don’t wish it on anyone.”
“OK, Jenni, I won’t wish that any leading lady will die just so I can play her role.”
“…except Sofie Nolan.”
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t even know.”
We laughed for a little while, and then I started to doze off. I heard Jenni kicking boxes around the floor as she looked for her purse and coat in the dark.
“I told you we should have turned on a light!” I yelled, triumphantly.
“Go back to bed, Shiela. You’re drunk.”
“I had two glasses of wine. The rest of the three empty bottles I just tripped over? That was all you, Shiela.”
Three empty bottles?
“Jenni, you can crash here, you know. I’ll stay out here on the couch, and you can stay in my bedroom. It’s a mess, but there’s a bed. You won’t have to drive in the rain.”
“I’ll be fine, Shiela,” she said, her voice now coming from the kitchen. I heard her rinsing out the coffee mugs and then heard water continue to pour. Then she walked back over to me, handed me a mug full of water, and told me to get hydrated before I fell asleep.
When Jenni forced me to sit up and drink the water, I suddenly felt wide awake again. Still drunk, but now wide awake. When I heard Jenni closing the door on me, I yelled after her, telling her to stick around, but she either ignored me or couldn’t hear me thanks to the pouring rain outside.
That’s when I texted Roxanna again:
“look i’m sorry I told everyone about what Stu said to you but you should hear the @#$* he said to ME”
Immediately, I got a reply:
“sorry for getting so mad about that. i honestly just had a knee-jerk reaction because Stu was so mad about it. but you know what? @#$& him. he said something that was totally professional and uncalled for, and i forgave him for it, but that doesnt make it ok, and he probably will do it again so good for u for speaking up.”
“did you hear about my night?”
“i heard you quit the show”
“he fired me”
“thats not what hes saying, he’s saying you threw a huge ‘hissy fit’ and stormed out of the theatre crying”
“are you coming back tomorrow night?”
“but then whos gonna play Sarah?”
“Let Sofie do it. im sick of that theatre and those @#$)ing people”
“Shiela you CANT, Sofie and mama june are at disney for NYE”
“Disney land or disney WORLD?”
“are they in la or florida?”
“but Beck was there tonight!!!”
“i know. they went just mother and daughter, she left her husband”
“SHE LEFT HER HUSBAND???”
“no no I just mean she went to Florida alone and let her husband stay in Sac”
“what a horrible wife”
“u think he wants to go to Disney with his wife and mother-in-law?”
“maybe you should be Sarah AND Adelaide”
“that’s a terrible idea, Shiela”
“they do it in Evil Dead”
“Guys and Dolls is NOT Evil Dead, Shiela!!!”
“well you could play opposite Beck whos more age-appropriate for you than Stu”
“ew, I know. what was i thinking?”
“was? like you’re done with him?”
“oh ive BEEN done with him! im just scared to officially break it off until the show is over”
“EW. Roxanna, stop letting that bald lump of coal control your life”
“lump of coal?”
“doesnt he kind of remind you of the Grinch”
“lol imagine a woman his age getting cast as lead roles in ANYTHING”
“imagine a bald woman getting cast as a lead role…and not having to wear a wig”
“you should be that woman Shiela LOL”
“shave your head. i dare you”
“haha dont actually shave your head”
That was the last thing I remember about that night, reading a text specifically telling me not to shave my head, joking that I had done it (but of course it was just a joke), and then being called “crazy.”
If only she had known.
The first thing I heard was the phone vibrating. More accurately, it was the clattering of the phone’s vibrations against the bathtub. Why was I in the bathtub? I wondered the same thing.
As I opened my eyes to reach for the phone, I saw the bloody mess of blond hair. Nothing snaps you out of a hangover like realizing you’re covered in blood and hair. It was pretty easy to figure out that the hair was mine, which meant the blood had to be mine, too. And from there, it was easy to figure out the rest. Next to my phone, I saw a Venus razor filled with long blood-covered strands of hair.
The phone was no longer vibrating, but I reached for it. There was a single missed call from Jenni around midnight, shortly after she left, and five missed calls from Roxanna.
I called her back.
“You’re alive,” she immediately answered.
“What happened last night? The last thing I remember was us joking about shaving my head, then I woke up covered in bloody blonde hair. I don’t even want to look in the mirror right now.”
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry. I wish I had come over. Maybe I could have stopped you.”
“Did I think it was funny?”
“I mean, it is kind of funny.”
“Ok, ok, anyway, I don’t think anyone else knows yet.”
“How did you know? Did I text you about it?”
She said nothing.
“Roxanna, how would anyone know about this!?”
“Shiela, you posted a photo of your bald head on Facebook.”
“Don’t worry, I got it taken down.”
“Never mind. It’s not up there anymore and hopefully nobody else saw it.”
I heard a beep letting me know someone was on the other line. It was Lora, the director of DPP’s Chicago, the show I was in rehearsals for.
Crap. I’m going to get fired from that show now, too. I’ll probably never work in theatre again. Even when my hair grows back, I’ll forever be the girl who shaved her head on New Year’s Eve…forever.
“Roxanna, Lora Shaughnessy is on the other line.”
“Do you think she saw the photos?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do you think she’s going to fire me?”
“Just tell her they’re old photos you posted as a joke.”
“I think she’ll figure it out when I show up at rehearsal with my bald, sliced-up head!”
“No, listen to me, Shiela. Drink some water, a lot of water, and then we’re spending the day going wig-shopping.”
“And what? I’ll wear a wig for the next two years of my life while I wait for my hair to grow back!?”
“It’s either that, or you get black-listed from the entire theatre community forever.”
“OK, OK, I’m going to see what Lora wants. I’ll be ready in like an hour and a half. Can you pick me up?”
“Duh. I’m not letting you drive, crazy bitch.”
“I love you too, Roxanna.”
I switched phone conversations.
“Look, Lora, if this is about the photos, I just want to let you kno—”
“We don’t have time for that! Shiela, we need to talk about what happened with Jenni Sinclair.”
“What happened with Jenni Sinclair?”
“She got a DUI last night. She posted a live Facebook video of the cops arresting her.”
“That’s impossible. I was with her last night. She wasn’t drunk. She had like two glasses of wine.”
“That’s above the legal limit, Shiela.”
“So what’s the bail amount? Like $5000?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Shiela. This is Jenni’s fourth DUI. Even if she only had two glasses of wine, it’s a felony.”
How did I not know that?
“So she’s going to jail.”
“…for a long time.”
“So look, I need to know by tomorrow’s rehearsal who’s going to be my Roxy.”
“And because I’m the understudy…”
“Normally I would still go find someone else, someone with more experience, and let you remain their understudy. But I’ve really been impressed with the way you stepped up in this show. You’ve gone so far beyond what was required of you, standing in for Jenni at every rehearsal even knowing that unless something horrible happened, you were never actually going to get a shot at taking her place. I know I thank you for it all the time, but I still feel like I can’t thank you enough.”
What’s that? A community theatre producer who appreciates all the extra work I put in? Take note, Joan & Stu…
“So Shiela,” she switched to a more official voice. “The Del Paso Players would like to offer you the role of Roxie in our upcoming produ—”
“I’ll do it!”
“Oh God,” Roxanna reacted as I opened the front door. “You look horrible.”
“I still haven’t looked at mirror.”
“You still shouldn’t.”
“I checked online: there are five costume shops in Sacramento. I called all of them, and they all say they have blonde wigs with bangs.”
“Have you gone on their websites to see if the wigs are any good?” she asked.
“Yes, they all look decent, but I still need your opinion after you see what they look like on my head.”
“Sounds good. Can you wear a stocking cap or something?”
“I do, but everything’s in moving boxes.”
“I have a head scarf in my car. Here, I’ll go get it.”
As I waited for Roxanna to return with the head scarf, I heard the phone ring again. It was Joan this time.
What does she want?
I wanted to ignore it. I wanted to ignore her and her husband for the rest of my life. I figured she had seen the photos and was calling to gloat, and I decided to pick up the phone to defend my integrity. Just like with everyone, I was going to assure her that the photos weren’t actually from last night, and that I still had a head full of blond hair.
“Is this about what I think it’s about?”
“I’m afraid it is.”
“Well, you should know that those pictures were taken a long time ago, as a joke.”
“Wait, why are you calling me?”
“I had some words with Stu last night after you left. He told me it was true, that he made a crude comment to Roxanna, and that he was sorry about it and would never do it again.”
“So if he’s sorry, is he going to apologize to her?”
“Honestly, I’d prefer that not happen. I know this sounds crazy, but between me & you, Roxanna flirts with him. He flirts with my husband, who’s old enough to be her father, in my theatre. That’s why he thought it was OK to say that.”
“You believe that?”
“It’s not important. Look, Shiela, the fact is it’s New Year’s Eve, we have a sold-out house of 300 patrons at $60 a ticket, and people are already asking for their money back because of all the bad reviews. If we don’t have a Sarah Brown, we have to cancel the show.”
So now you need me?
“Shiela, nobody fired you last night. This is my show. I’m the director. My husband doesn’t have the authority to fire you. He was just throwing a tantrum. Come back tonight.”
“You’re right, Joan. You didn’t fire me, but you stood back and let your husband berate me in front of everyone. And you didn’t try to stop me when I walked out.”
“He’s my husband. We’ve run this theatre together for 30 years. When someone picks a fight with him, I have to have his back.”
“But he’s a bully, especially with younger actresses like me. He picks the fights with us.”
“Look, just tell me: are you coming back tonight, or do I have to cancel the show?”
“I will come back on one condition: I will enter through the back, enter the women’s dressing room, and then leave through the back. Aside from our scenes together, Stu is not to speak to me. Not today, not tomorrow, not even when we strike the set. Understood?”
“Shiela, why are you so afraid of m—“
“AM I UNDERSTOOD?”
“OK, OK. Just be there today at call time.”
“See you tonight, then.”
“Oh, and Shiela?”
“Good luck finding a wig by then.”