An Actor’s Nightmare? // By Jay Russell
Actor Jay Russell takes the stage under exhilarating, terrifying circumstances.
It was on a late Thursday afternoon in 2018 that Jack Cummings called me—not a usual occurrence. I was in Montgomery, Alabama in the final weekend of a run of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night playing Malvolio (my second time playing it).
In 2017, I had the good fortune to be a part of Come Back, Little Sheba, one of the William Inge plays that Transport Group had produced that year in rotating repertory with Picnic. I played the small role of Doc’s AA sponsor, who enters in the final act of the play to take Doc off to dry out when he has fallen off the wagon and almost killed his wife in a drunken fit. The production was quite intimate with the audience, at times, inches away from us; I loved it! Heather MacRae, who played Lola, wrote a beautiful essay about that experience just a few weeks ago.
Now, Jack was calling with a dilemma and an offer. Transport Group and Classic Stage Company were doing a co-production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke and the actor, T. Ryder Smith, who was playing the Reverend Winemiller, had booked a big film and might have to miss a few performances. Would I be willing to learn the role and come in and stand by for him for two weeks, with a strong possibility that I would go on? AND, this was all going to happen in a few days?
I explained that I was in Alabama and wouldn’t be back in the city until Sunday evening. He had hoped I could come in over the weekend and watch the performances, as I could possibly go on as early as Wednesday, but that was out of the question—the earliest I could be there would be Tuesday.
I am a huge fan of Williams’ plays (I had played Gooper in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof twice before and The Glass Menagerie is, perhaps, my favorite play) but Summer and Smoke was actually one I didn’t know. I asked Jack how big the role was; he replied it was not big. But it was also not small. The character of Reverend Winemiller was in five scenes.
I asked if he could send me the play to read and if I could let him know in the morning if I felt that I could learn it. I have always been a pretty quick study and have, on more than a few occasions, understudied multiple roles and in each case gone on for them, including my Broadway debut.
I was fortunate to understudy The Stage Manager in the acclaimed Off-Broadway Barrow Street production of Our Town (as well as play Joe Stoddard, The Undertaker) and that character literally never stops talking. It was a beast to learn but, in the year plus I was in the show, I ended up playing the role about 50 times.
Back to Summer and Smoke. It’s a beautiful, lyrical play about a high-strung minister’s daughter and the spiritual and sexual romance between her and the wild, undisciplined young local doctor. I would be playing the minister. My wife would be played by the spectacular Barbara Walsh, the doctor played by the dynamic Nathan Darrow, and my daughter, Alma, played by the incomparable Marin Ireland. Plus, a supporting cast of incredible actors—some veterans, some newcomers.
I read the play—I loved it! I was terrified but I told Jack, yes, I could learn it.
My favorite sort of acting jobs are the ones that both excite me and terrify me, so I got to work. I played the last few performances as Malvolio and ran the Reverend’s lines in every other waking moment.
I flew home on Sunday and showed up at CSC on Tuesday afternoon to rehearse with Marin and Nathan and Barbara, as well as get the blocking, get fitted for a costume, sign the contract, and then see the play that night. T. Ryder Smith was kind enough to come in, as well, and walk me through it, step by step, which was a great help. It was, needless to say, a whirlwind but I tried to keep breathing and doing the ultimate job of the actor which is to be “in the moment.”
Everyone was so incredibly kind, generous, and welcoming to me. Because theatre companies like Transport Group and CSC usually cannot afford understudies, the only options they have are to cancel the performance or find someone to step in so the curtain could go up. This company loved doing this play and so they were happy that the show would go on.
I watched the play that night. The staging was quite intimate, with the audience on three sides. I never felt more than a few feet from the actors and the action. To say I was moved by the production would be putting it mildly. I was staggered and by the end, my eyes were full of tears.
I watched Marin as Alma sobbing and pleading to her father and mother (the minister and his wife). I saw Nathan as John, emotionally distraught as his father died in the next room. I watched all of this as an audience member, moved by the acting and the story. But there was a small part of my brain that was also thinking… “That might be me up there tomorrow night.” Jack had said I could go on carrying the book if I needed to but after seeing the minimalistic production, I knew that would take the audience out of the play.
I went home and made a silent prayer to The Gods of Theatre to give me one more night before I had to go on. I knew I could do it but just would feel so much better if I had one more performance to watch.
T. Ryder wasn’t sure if he would be there Wednesday night, as he was shooting the film during the day and wouldn’t know if he would be released in time for curtain. So, I had to act as if I was going on.
The onstage aspects of the role had its challenges, but truly the scariest part of this whole thing was the offstage business. Jack had staged the play in 3/4, with the audience on three sides. Under and behind the audience on all sides were dark, skinny caves where the actors would move silently, pick up and drop off the few props used, and set themselves up for their entrances and exits. It all was choreographed within an inch of its life, and any noise at all would be heard by the audience. This aspect of the performance was probably the most terrifying for me.
I made out index card cheat sheets that told me where to stand, which chair to pick up, when to hug the wall, when to sit, when to stand, etc. All of it in total silence! T. Ryder told me, for example, “This is where Marin comes offstage weeping and she only has three seconds to take a drink of water, wipe her eyes, blow her nose, put on a shawl and go back onstage so ideally you should face the wall quietly and give her space to cross and move.”
I mean, I freaking adore Marin Ireland and had loved her for years since I first saw her in Reasons to be Pretty. She was breathtaking as Alma, gutsy and full of emotion and passion and the last thing I wanted to do, as the understudy, was mess her up or take her out of the play.
So long story longer. Late Wednesday afternoon, T. Ryder called stage management and said he would be back in time to do the show that night. Thank you, Gods of Theatre! So, I got another night in the audience to watch and quietly and secretly take notes. I was, yet again, blown away by the production and the performances. By the end of the evening, I thought to myself, “I can do this.” Well, that was lucky as T. Ryder found out that he would be shooting late on Thursday, so I was on! I clutched my cheat sheets in my breast pocket; the other company members were so lovely as to gently nudge me here and there when needed.
This is the part that really inspired me to even attempt to write this essay. And it’s a story I occasionally share with the acting students I teach in class. To be sitting in the audience one night watching these beautiful performances, and then 24 hours later to be up there “watching” them onstage, but through the eyes of one of the characters…? Well, it was indescribable. It felt both comforting and right, and also very out of body and surreal. I had watched T. Ryder play the Reverend twice (and beautifully I might add) and now I was the Reverend. Marin was MY daughter. Barbara was MY wife. I was IN the scene with these amazing actors looking to me as their counterpart. These actors had weeks of rehearsal and numerous performances digging deep to understand their characters and flesh out their relationships, and I just stepped out onto the stage after less than 48 hours. It was both a dream and the ultimate Actor’s Nightmare. I loved every second of it and I have no idea what happened.
I was thrilled that no one died or combusted and I didn’t burn down the theatre. It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to invite my agent or any friends to the performance. Plus, I was too nervous. They put a little insert in the program and there I was. One night only. Well…two nights. I did it Friday night too. And that was that. I was on call the following week, but T. Ryder’s shoots all ended with plenty of time for him to make curtain.
It ends up on Thursday night that the cast had pre-planned to go out for drinks and that was my “debut” so they asked me to join. They kindly raised a glass to me, and I did the same to all of them. I had met a few of them before but most of them were new faces to me. But they welcomed and embraced me with such open arms. For two nights, and two nights only, I was part of that family and that company. And then I went off into the night never to be heard from again…well, I mean…not literally, but you know what I mean.
Not many people really know this even happened in my career. I posted something about it after the fact on social media, but it all happened so fast that only one friend (a friend of Nathan’s who had already planned on seeing the show Thursday) even saw me do it.
Right now, when so many of us are hungering to be onstage, to be a part of an acting company, to hear the laughter and tears of an audience, I think back on that experience and truly treasure it. As I get older, I always worry when the day will come when the lines won’t come so easily. I feel proud that I learned it so fast and the show went on. I am so thankful to Jack and everyone onstage and off who treated me with such generosity.
I am longing to get back onstage. I am longing to be back in the audience. I am longing to feel like an actor again. I want a role to call my own again, no matter what the size. But after almost 18 months, I would happily even borrow someone’s role for a day or two. So…T. Ryder…if you book another film…give me a ring.
About the author:
Jay Russell has been seen on Broadway in End of the Rainbow and The Play What I Wrote. Off-Broadway work includes Our Town (Barrow Street), Travels with my Aunt (Keen Company), Around the World in 80 Days (Irish Rep), Come Back, Little Sheba (Transport Group), & The Normal Heart (The Public). National tours include Wicked and Beauty & the Beast. Internationally he was seen in Fully Committed (English Theatre of Vienna), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (English Theatre of Frankfurt). Jay has had leading roles at The Guthrie, Arena Stage, Long Wharf, Paper Mill, Westport Country Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Baltimore Center Stage, Cincinnati Playhouse, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Goodspeed Opera House, Pioneer Playhouse, & both the Alabama & Utah Shakespeare Festivals. Jay most recently won the Carbonell Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Indecent at Palm Beach DramaWorks. His television and film work includes Gotham, Louie, Boardwalk Empire, Ugly Betty, The Sopranos, Seven Seconds, Bored to Death, Law & Order, Morning Glory, Ride, In Lieu of Flowers, All in Time. Jay wrote, directed and produced the short film, RUOK, which has played at film festivals and won numerous awards around the world. www.jay-russell.com