Saturday, June 7, 2008

Secret Boyfriend

A lot of my fellow bloggers post about their ideal romantic male fixations - or Secret Boyfriends as they're called.

As a woman who's been married over 20 years to a very fine man, I have almost outgrown any yearning for Strange. a purely intellectual exercise, I am willing to speculate.

My candidate for Secret Boyfriend is this guy:
At one time in my life, I hid inconspicuously in the shadows, night after night, for hours at a time, and watched his every move. I learned the way he moved, how he spoke, his gestures. I knew exactly what he would do and say next. From my hiding place, I watched him woo a lover, play with his baby, and plan his future. I watched him battle with injustice, suffer loss, and rise up in anger. And I watched him die horribly in a hail of bullets.

Eight times a week.

When I first came to Los Angeles I got work out of Local #33 IATSE - International Alliance of Theatrical State Employes. I was a journeyman member of Local #15 of Seattle - and Locals grant fraternal courtesy towards fellow members by adding out-of-towners to the local dispatch list.

My first job was at the Pantages Theatre, where the House Electrician* was someone I knew - show biz being a small world. I ran a spotlight for the L.A. premiere of "Riverdance", and soon people knew there was this person from Seattle in town who could run a followspot.

Which is how I got a call to cover for a guy going on vacation from his regular gig at the Shubert in Century City running spotlight - also called "frontlight" - for the pre-Broadway run of "Ragtime." After that first cover, I was called back for other vacation covers. I ran the show for about two months, and helped load it out when it left for Vancouver.

But - wait - this isn't about me, is it? This is about My Secret Boyfriend.

Brian Stokes Mitchell played Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the lead in "Ragtime." For 2 hours and forty-five minutes, 8 times a week, I sat strapped into a chair suspended from the ceiling over the audience, wearing a fall-arrest harness, dressed in black, embracing a burning hot HMI lamp, directing its beam on him as he performed on stage.

Most people in theatre do shows that don't last long. A couple performances, maybe a week. There's the adrenaline rush of finally stepping onstage after all the hard work of rehearsing. The applause excites. The emotional arc between opening night and closing cast party is steep and short.

Working a long-running show is different. It's boring. You sit around a lot. People watch TV, read, knit, play cards. Ideally, the show itself will be exactly the same night after night - that's what the producers are selling.

On a long running show, most actors and workers never see the show itself. You can't sit in the audience. You can't hang in the wings - you're in the way. You often work where you can't see the stage - in the basement, up in the air, or behind some scenery. After your last cue, you can go home - sometimes right after the intermission set change.

Spotlight operators, on the other hand, have to watch every minute of the show. No books, TV, card games. Night after night, eight times a week. You can get to know a show pretty well, and you get to know the actors' movements. You know when he's going to step and turn. You know when she's going to shrug. You're almost organically connected to him as you make that circle of light stay focused on his body as he walks - or dances - across the stage.

On shows, the only other crew members who know actors better than frontlight operators know them are sound people - They tuck wireless microphone battery packs into actors' underwear; they overhear backstage conversations while actors are wired up; they visit the dressing rooms.

I loved watching Stokes play Coalhouse. He'd play up, toward my light, dramatically. It felt like he was playing right toward me. Every night, when he sang "Sarah, come down to me-e-e-e!" he made me thrill just like he did all the people in the audience.

Now here's the odd thing about it. Despite the fact that I worked maybe 50 shows with him, I've never met Stokes. He's never met me. Spotlight operators are the most unknown people in the company. By the time "places" are called, we're up in the ceiling where no one can see us. We can't come downstairs until the final bows are over and everyone's gone.

I travelled as a frontlight operator with a show for five years. Three months after I started the tour, I ran into a chorus girl in a hotel coffee shop and said "hi." She said to me, "You look familiar. Weren't you in the last town, too?" She didn't even know I was on the tour.

Stokes went on to premiere the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. on Broadway, and then perform in "Kiss Me, Kate!", "Man of La Mancha," with Reba McIntire in "South Pacific", I can only think of one other guy who sang "Some Enchanted Evening" as well as he does. Here he is performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic a couple years ago singing the standard "Laura".

His amazing voice still thrills me. Maybe someday I'll actually meet him.
*He could have been a candidate for my Secret Boyfriend, too, but he was 100% completely Janine's Real Boyfriend. Rest gently, Jeff.


KathyR said...

I went right to the Pinza video. Shivers, I tell ya.

Your secret boyfriend is pretty darn cute.

BOSSY said...

So. Cute.