It looked so easy.
That's what I had always thought, lost in the comforting darkness with the rest of the audience, gazing at the stage of the Kavinoky Theater, or the Ujima Theater, or Studio Arena. The actors' moves seemed second nature. They made dancing, singing and emoting seem like . . . well, like fun.
Which is why, when the Kavinoky invited me to take a tiny walk-on part during the first scene of Thursday's opening-night production of "Guys and Dolls," it seemed like a good idea. I, who had been relegated to the mere role of pianist during our high school production of "Mame," could occupy the stage at a professional theater. Not to mention a historic theater (the rococo building dates to 1908). Plus, I had the chance to work with one of those distinguished people with hyphenated names (in this case, director Lynn Kurdziel-Formato). My boyfriend would be impressed. So would my mother.
I'd be playing a hooker. That was funny in itself. To sweeten the deal, also on stage would be Irv Weinstein, playing a newspaper seller. Me and Irv, on stage at the Kavinoky. This was right. This was as things should be.
I took a deep breath. "I'll do it," I said.
My first problem was, I couldn't find the rehearsal.
I was told it was at the theater. Easy, right? I walked in and . . . nobody. The set -- a bar strip, circa 1930 -- was bare.
Confused, I wandered the halls. Only when I ran into a lighting crew member, who showed me to the green room, did I learn the lesson that real actors learn in kindergarten: Every theater has, duh, a downstairs. That's where I was supposed to go.
The "green room" in the bowels of the Kavinoky is huge -- a suite, really, of large rooms. At a long makeup table, actresses were curling their hair -- just like in the movies -- and piling on rouge as bright as Naomi Judd's. People were running around in their underwear. (Theater people are not modest.)
The hair curlers made me nervous. I can barely blow-dry my hair, and anything fancy is out of the question. Luckily Syndi Starr, a blue-eyed blond sitting nearby, offered assistance. "I'll help you on Thursday," she said. "Bring some bobby pins."
"Thanks," I said. Then I stopped. Starr's features were rearranging themselves, subtly, into someone I'd seen before. It was like the Magic Eye.
"I know you," I said, stupidly. "I've seen you. You were in that Kurt Weill production last year at the Kavinoky . . . "
She nodded. " 'From Berlin to Broadway.' "
"Yeah," I said. "And you were in 'Wings' at Summerfare Theater. You were the nurse. . . . I've seen you a thousand times."
She nodded indulgently. But to me, it was new and amazing. How could I not have recognized her? And the actor John Fredo, whom I adore, whose career I've followed the way my mom follows the careers of actors in "Masterpiece Theatre" -- I didn't immediately recognize him, either. Close up, these people look different.
Susan Biesinger, who plays Sarah, and Mary McMahon, who plays Adelaide, gave me lots of encouragement. McMahon's advice on my role? "Have fun," she said.
The 21 flashy gambler zoot suits required by "Guys and Dolls," costumer Dorothy Collins explained, are rented from a New York City firm that rents to Broadway productions. The rest of the costumes are sewn by Ms. Collins. "Seventy costumes in all," she sighed. "A big, big deal."
When it came time to don my hooker outfit, I was sort of disappointed when Ms. Collins ushered me to the ladies' room. Didn't I get to run around the green room in my underwear with everyone else? But even in a D'Youville College bathroom, the getup looked great -- a black dress with a black lace shawl.
Ms. Collins asked me to bring old-fashioned clip-on earrings (which, because I don't have pierced ears, I actually have), fishnet stockings if I can find them (sheer black if I can't) and a black lace bra.
She was still discussing these intimate matters when we returned to the green room and I bumped into John Fredo. Just my luck: For years I've been wanting to meet him, and when I finally do, people are discussing my underwear. Well, that's show business.
I don't want to frighten anyone away from a theater career, but here's what I have to do.
As the musical opens, I have to strike a pose with my hand on the shoulder of Marty Nagel, a dancer playing a sailor. On Nagel's other side is Rachel Barth, a tall, smiling University at Buffalo theater student from Long Island. Barth also plays a hooker. She is the alpha hooker. I was told, for most of my five-minute part, "Follow Rachel."
Barth, Nagel and I hold that pose for a few moments before the two of them start a suggestive dance, and I kind of sway to the music. When they start really bumping and grinding, I step behind them, face the audience and swish my hips. (As the descendant of rigid Germans, this isn't easy for me. Why couldn't my ancestors have been Polynesian?)
A cop breaks up the action between Nagel and Barth, and they flee. Now's my big moment: I sashay over to the cop and flick him in the face with my diaphanous lace scarf as if to say, "You don't scare me." Then I slink offstage.
A suspenseful few minutes follow during which I wait in the dark wings for Barth to reappear. (The backstage hallways are black and narrow, like a funhouse.) When she does, we stride out on stage together, grabbing onto the arms of another actor. There's a big fight, and we watch, startled. Then we run. Barth, my role model, runs, and I follow her. Around the stage, offstage (where we scramble through those funhouse corridors), onto the stage again, across the back and out.
How do theater people memorize hours of this stuff?
Rehearsing my scene took all my concentration. Later, I realized that I'd missed Irv Weinstein completely. Apparently he had been in the corner, quietly selling his newspapers. Now he was gone, and I had been so wrapped up I hadn't noticed him.
What makes my task easier is the warmth of the cast and the crew.
"Theater is a really close-knit group," Nagel told me after we'd run through our scene. Born in Buffalo, he graduated from UB in 1992 and has lived since then in Chicago. "Especially in Buffalo, it's like a family," Nagel said. From the friendliness shown me as we rehearsed, I believe him.
Director Lynn Kurdziel-Formato was equally comforting.
A lithe, capable woman, she is brisk and exacting. While tenor Norm Sham, playing Nicely Nicely Johnson in a screaming orange zoot suit, led the cast in a wild "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat," she watched intently. What was she watching for? I asked her.
"I look for character and energy," she said. "In that song, I'm watching the gamblers, how they respond to Nicely. Characters respond in different ways.
"Most audiences watch faces," she added. "If you captivate them, that's what matters, more than how high you kick your leg. That certain quality, that spirit, that presence -- that's what makes true stars."
Her words were giving me the shivers. I asked Ms. Kurdziel-Formato if she had any advice for me.
"Go out and research your character," she said with a smile. "Rent 'Pretty Woman.' "
From what I've gathered, a touch of stage fright is natural. Even Norm Sham, the picture of confidence in that orange suit, admits to a little adrenaline. "I'm always keyed up," he said.
Luckily, by the third and final time I went through my paces, I felt more comfortable. During the overture, as I waited in the wings with Barth and Nagel, I felt -- well, almost confident.
Confident enough that as they enthusiastically discussed other Buffalo theaters' Curtain Up! productions, I could join in. I love how they toss around theater names. "BUA" is Buffalo United Artists. "Irish" is the Irish Classical Theatre.
Confident enough that when John Fredo appeared in a black pin-striped zoot suit, I could kid him about how snazzy it looked.
Confident enough so that I could ask, "You guys going to the cast party?"
To be honest, though, my couple of moments on stage affected me more than I had thought they would. It's a thrill to go out on stage among such professionals, to be given a responsibility, however flimsy. And Ms. Kurdziel-Formato makes the experience sound like something sacred.
"Don't ever censure yourself," she advised me, as, she says, she advises everybody. "In live theater, you can never repeat the moment. You never know when you'll get the opportunity again. Give it your all."
Once I find those fishnet stockings, I'll be ready to do just that.