I went off to college to study Pre-Law and Psychology and that went fairly well, until that fateful day when I noticed an audition call on the board at the Student Union. Although, I had done high-school drama, I had never considered myself an actor or artist, but a buddy talked me into going with him and I ended up getting the part. A couple of years later I found myself with several shows under my belt making a living in professional theatre as an actor and designer. A few years later and I was doing design work for big clients and making a living as an “artist”, still doing some acting, but mostly designing. Fast forward ten years, when my sister-in-law points out an item in the local paper that a new theatre group is having auditions for Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and I suddenly realize I haven’t trod the boards in a very long time…
Two weeks later, I am on the poster and deep into rehearsals to play the part I have always loved, The Stage Manager.
I always had a secret desire to play the Stage Manager, but had never had the opportunity. Well, that is not quite true, I directed this show at Martin Methodist College in 1993. Directed is generous, I actually attempted to micro-manage every detail of this show, what can I say, I was young and learning. Anyway, as much as I wanted to play the SM I made the surprisingly (for me) mature decision to not take on such a challenging role in a show I was directing, I instead opted to play Doc Gibbs’, a character with his own challenges. The ’93 production turned out to be a great success, not because of anything I did as a fledgling director, but because I was surrounded by a great group of actors and techs who went well beyond the call of duty to make me look much better than I deserved.
So there I was 15 years later, ready to walk into my first rehearsal in over a decade, trying to balance on the fine line between the confidence that training and experience should bring and the mind-numbing terror of realizing you are walking back into the arena with decidedly rusty armor. This is the blissful playground of self-doubt on steroids. Even though, I have faced huge audiences hundreds of times in the past without the slightest stage fright, suddenly I found myself gripped with fear, facing twenty peers. What if I am not good enough? What if I was never any good? What if all of those audiences from the past were just being polite with their applause? What if my friends and colleagues were just catering to my ego? What if this cast sees I am just a hack actor? What if they see how afraid I am? What if they don’t like me? What if, what if, what if?
As I walked through the door to the auditorium, I heard Butch in the back of my mind, like my own personal Yoda, saying, “What if, you just get in there and do the damn job and quit all this prima donna BS?”. So that is what I did, and what an incredibly gratifying experience it was. I found myself in the middle of a group of people who loved the opportunity to perform, and who reminded me of what it was like back when I started and what a privilege it is to get to step out into the lights and entertain. For all of the things that community theatre sometimes gets wrong, this is the thing it gets very right, the actors and techs are really there for the experience, not for a check, or to further their career or build their resumes. They were there for the pure love of performance. It was really refreshing to get back to the love and respect of theatre that we all start with, and to experience the journey from a group of individuals to a cohesive cast. It was made all the better that many of these folks were walking that road for the first time.
Along the way I reconnected with many of my old “theatre people” friends and I was very gratified when many of them showed up during the run of the show. It seemed like half of the cast from my ’93 production showed up to watch me take my turn as the Stage Manager. Seeing them all just reinforced how different it is to do this show at 36 than it was at 20. Not only are lines much harder to learn these days, and as a friend pointed out, I can no longer blow off a class to rest before rehearsal, but as much as I hate to admit that I am growing up, an additional 16 years of experience at living makes a big difference in how you approach the characters and this show. As the old joke says, I was amazed at how much better that story had gotten, I am quite sure that if I were to tackle this one again at 60 I would be surprised at how much the story had changed. I guess that is the mark of great literature and drama, that it speaks to you know matter what you bring to it and that it grows with you as you grow.
By the time the curtain went up, all the drama of putting the show together was forgotten and everyone stepped up and did a great job. It was a fine and fitting launch for the Unionville Community Playhouse. The show played to full houses and was well received by the audience and critics. In fact, Mary Reeves of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, made this interesting comment in her review, “Simmons larger than life stage presence is balanced by his easy, conversational tone that puts both the audience and actors at ease”. I guess that is a good review. Easy is good, conversational is good, at least after all these years, I am still larger than life.