Story and Photograph by Neville Cole
Here’s a snarky little snippet I wrote many years ago after appearing in an amateur play with a scene-stealing, bit-part player with a single line of dialogue and some baffling concepts of stage blocking who succeeded in his quest to be the most memorable part of the production.
I don’t mean to belittle Mr. Olivier; but widespread praise of his accomplishments should be tempered with the realization that… he was given all the great roles. I should have liked to have seen Olivier tackle some less than perfect material. Frankly put, I should have liked to have seen what he would’ve made of some of the roles I’ve had to contend with!
For example, when I first arrived in this country I took on a minor role in an entirely forgettable play by one of your more mediocre local talents. A role, I might add, that had but a single line of dialogue. Yet, I was able to draw so much from my character that my performance was pivotal to the arc of the rest of the play.
I remember as if it were just yesterday; the tidal wave of anticipation that washed across the audience as I made my entrance, throwing open the door of the diner with an almighty shove of my crutch, striding downstage center with crutch in hand and chilies aloft to mysteriously announce: “I’ve got the chilies for the Chili Special.” I tell you the whole theater was transfixed. Even my fellow thespians could not help but take full stock.
I must note here that it was my choice to play my character as a cripple. No such direction had been written into the rather vague description of my role. Still, I am utterly convinced the moment absolutely made the play…and to think now of the torment I had to endure to ensure that it happened at all!
I had to battle the director tooth and nail throughout the entire rehearsal process. From the first table read I was convinced that the cook was clearly an emotionally crippled individual – what else could explain someone who hangs around on stage for so long and yet has so very little to say? I proposed on a daily basis that this inner subtext cried out for physical representation.
The director did allow me to “try” my ideas during rehearsal but, at the last hour, he tried to sabotage all my creative endeavours. I shudder to think that the whole performance could have been for naught simply because an inexperienced director was unable to understand some very basic blocking concepts. He claimed to have never heard of the “upstage” rule. I literally spent several hours trying to explain to him that in the theater a cripple always drags his upstage leg. Eventually, when it became clear that I was never going educate this neophyte with mere words, I “agreed” to “do it his way.”
Thankfully for all concerned I had a change of heart moments before I hit the stage on opening night.
Needless to say, my bold choice absolutely made the play. The critics could talk of little else. In fairness, I must say that it was clear from many of the comments that few in attendance that night seemed able to conceptually grasp exactly what they had witnessed; but aren’t all truly great performances just a little ahead of their time?
Looking back, I do view that role, and specifically that particular moment, as my finest hour for the simple reason that against such unfathomable odds I was able to dive deep into my own soul and pull out a moment of pure theater magic.
It is what all true artist live for and, quite frankly, I don’t believe Mr. Olivier could have done any better. Beside, did you ever notice? He has very cold eyes.