IS THERE A SUBTRACT LIB ?
I’m the anti-Bing. I ad lib as well as I do rocket science. If you need to mess up a scene in a play, just put me in a situation where I have to think on my feet.
I suppose the worst example was my first role at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Between various "little" and summer theaters, I’ve done over 100 roles. Although many of them were marred by my horrendous ad libs, the Playhouse was the most important theater I ever acted in, so ad libbing there counted more against me.
We were doing The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s classic drama about a selfish, post-Civil War family. I was playing Oscar, the second brother, a churlish, mean-spirited, wife-beating, cowardly creep. I loved the part.
Except for smacking Birdie.
Birdie was Oscar’s – my – wife. Early in the play, she said something that angered Oscar. As she started to walk past, I smacked her right in the face. Smacking her made me nervous.
The act of hitting Birdie was good for my character. It showed what a really nasty person Oscar was and set everyone in the audience against me. Which was fine. Of course, I wouldn’t really smack her, I’d slap her cheek with a cupped hand. She’d roll with the blow. We’d end up with a loud, vicious-looking smack that didn’t actually hurt a bit.
Unless I miscalculated and missed her cheek and slapped her in the ear. That, as she brightly informed me early in rehearsals, could blow out her eardrum. Thanks a lot, Birdie! That sure relaxed me! Each night, right from the first rehearsal, I worried about that slap until I got it out of the way.
The director had a clever way to open the show. When the audience came into the theater, they saw an empty living room. About half an hour before the show was scheduled to begin, they heard sounds of conversation from behind an upstage set of sliding doors. The idea was that the family was eating dinner behind those doors. To that end, the director had the cast assemble and ad lib a family dinner for thirty minutes. He believed that it put us into character.
When it was time for the play to begin, the lights came up on the stage. Addie, the maid, entered from a door downstage and closed a window. Then Cal, the butler, entered from the other side carrying a tray with glasses and a bottle of red wine. Addie took the tray from Cal and they exchanged a couple of lines before Birdie, my wife, came through the sliding doors upstage. She told Cal and Addie how wonderful everything looked, and then she was to give me my cue to enter.
So there I stood on opening night trembling behind those sliding doors awaiting my first entrance on the Pittsburgh Playhouse stage, when I heard a crash and some lines we’d never rehearsed. I peeked through the crack between the two sliding doors. Disaster! The tray, the wine bottle, and the glasses were strewn on the floor! All the cherry kool-aid that masqueraded as wine was soaking into the rug.
None of the plastic glasses had broken. Addie, Birdie, and Cal got busy gathering up the mess, re-filling the glasses, and ad libbing like mad. Where was my cue to enter! Twice I started to go through the doors only to realize they were not done cleaning up the mess. It seemed they went on forever, but at last the glasses were filled and Birdie emoted my cue. Desperately trying to look fierce, I slid the doors open, stepped through, and closed them behind my back.
And one of the doors fell off! It fell back into the set where it leaned against a wall. I couldn’t ignore it. When it fell, it pulled me back. It was time for one of my smooth ad libs.
I sidled over to the nearest actor and ordered, "Tell Cal to fix that." I cleverly jerked my thumb toward the fallen door.
Too late I realized that the actor to whom I had given my ad libbed order for Cal to "fix that" was indeed Cal himself. The actor looked at me as though I’d grown another head.
I struggled in the scene that was to conclude with the dreaded Birdie-smack. Cal was behind me tinkering with the wounded door. My mind was desperately groping with remembering my lines, worrying about the approaching assault on Birdie, and whether I had to go through those damned doors again. I survived, but it was not my finest fifteen minutes on stage.
The next day, the play was reviewed in the local press. Although generally favorable about the production, the reviewer noted that the actor playing Oscar "appeared nervous in his role."
Well, duh! I’d like to see that reviewer walk on stage to a tray-wreck, a broken door, and a prospective deafening of a fellow actor. I’ll bet that would have even thrown Bing.