A friend of mine is a non-performing member of a local theater company, which recently had a fundraiser. It was held at the Bridgeview Bank in Uptown, notable for its use as the setting in the trailer for Public Enemies. We were in the upper rotunda, which is the original banking area, a round vaulted marble room with teller windows and writing stations. It promised to be a swank event, and the organizer had arranged for her friend Olympia Dukakis to attend and participate. General tickets were $75; for a mere $125 you could also attend the VIP reception and meet the divine Ms. D.
Even while employed, I would have found this a bit hefty, so when my friend told me they needed volunteers to work the event, I jumped at the chance. I arrived and met my fellow volunteers, a bunch of very nice and funny women.
I ended up doing Door Duty with H---, a woman who had run tech at a one-off fundraising show in which I'd had an offstage speaking part. She was very nice, but a little door-matty. We got ourselves situated and prepared for the guests. We had a list and had been instructed to check people off when they came, and to take credit-card information if they wanted to bid at the auction.
Now, whenever I start to think it might be fun to get back into acting, all I need is an evening around Theater People to remember what I didn't like about the whole scene.
A man walked through the doors.
"Hi, can I take you name?" I smiled.
"I'm with the ensemble."
"Wonderful. And your name is?"
"Oh, I know him -- go ahead you're fine," H--- stammered.
The man went upstairs.
"He's an ensemble member, H-- said."
"And being an ensemble member means you forget your own name?" I asked. "I'm supposed to keep track of who's here."
A large, mannish older woman resembling nothing so much as a white-haired army tank -- an army tank that did not tell if you did not ask -- bellied up to the table and frowned at me.
"Hi," I smiled. "And your name please?" The woman glowered at me.
"OH! She's fine! " said H---, jumping up, and throwing her arms around the woman, who weakly returned the hug but not the smile. "Hell-O Greta! It's SO good to see you!! You go right on up," she said, in a voice so oily I could feel my face breaking out. "We know who YOU are."
"Is there an elevator?" Greta scowled.
"Oh, yes, of course!" and H--- led her away to it.
When she returned, she said in hushed tones, "Greta's an agent."
"And is she going to get me work? Is that why I'm supposed to care?" I asked, getting tired of the smell of ass on H--'s breath.
"She's a really big donor," H-- explained.
"Look," I said. "I'm here to help the theater company, and I'm going to be professional and sweet as pie to everyone who comes in, no matter what their delusions of grandeur. But I'm having trouble understanding how any of this justifies being an asshole."
I took a break and went upstairs, where I pounced on the passed trays of hors d'oeuvres and gazed furtively at Olympia Dukakis mingling and being extremely nice.
"Now, see," I said to one of the other volunteers, who'd also noticed some bad cases of Prima donna, "She is fabulous. She is amazing. And because she's fabulous and amazing, she does not have to impress anyone by being an insecure diva."
I should mention that there were a lot of very, very nice people there, too. Most of the ensemble members I've met have been fun people.
I went back to Door duty, where I resumed checking people in and taking credit-card information. Of course, there were people who got paranoid about this.
"So if I bid and don't win, you destroy this information, right?"
Good Lord. After hearing this a number of times, I was losing patience. So when a nervous-looking man asked, and H-- said, "Oh, of course, of course - we will destroy it completely," I said, "Speak for yourself; I'm going shopping."
The man looked at me. I smiled sweetly.
"It's just that I'm nervous about giving this information out," he said.
"How many baristas do you hand this card to every day?" I asked.
A couple came in. The woman looked familiar.
"You look familiar," she said.
"Same here," I replied. "But I don't know from where." Drawing on the only performance-related link I could think of, I said, "Second City?"
"Yes, I worked there with name name name name Tina Fey?"
"Um..I was actually just at the Training Center." This is like having a WWII vet ask, "Didn't I see you at the Battle of the Bulge?" and you reply, "I was actually in the Coast Guard."
We tried a few more ideas, came up with nothing, and left it at that. The thing is, people everywhere always think they know me from somewhere. They always think I'm someone famous or notable. It's nice, but also highly bizarre.
Olympia was about to do her reading, so I went back upstairs. She did a reading from Tennessee Williams' "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore." She simply stood in the middle of the room in a circle of light, and read into a microphone. She was perhaps twenty feet from me.
I've become so accustomed to mediocre acting that when I see something pure and genuine, it's almost physically overwhelming. I think I stopped breathing several times during the reading, I was so mesmerized. I had goosebumps. She became this complete character with nothing but herself and the script. It was wonderful.
Afterward, she was sitting at the side of the room, chatting with various people. My friend L. came up to me, and I said, "I'd so love to say hello to her but I don't want to be a jerk and butt into her conversations."
"No, it's fine," L said. "C'mon, I'll take your picture with her."
"Really? You think that would be OK?"
"Sure. I had mine taken with her earlier. It's a fundraiser. It's fine."
I walked over, my heart in my throat, put my hand on her arm, and apologized for interrupting her conversation, but could I be obnoxious and have my picture taken with her before I went back to door duty?
"I'm from Massachusetts also, so I've been a fan of the Dukakis family for a long time," I smiled. Of course, I was so nervous I'm pretty sure I rattled it all off so fast that she understood none of it, but she smiled and put her arm around me for the picture. Now in my elaborate fantasies leading up to this night, she'd sign my copy of Tales of the City, we'd chat about Michael's presidential run, and end the night at the Green Mill across the street, where, over drinks, she'd be wildly amused by my impressions of my mother. In reality, I got a smile, I got my picture (still to come from L), and the opportunity to tell her how much I enjoyed her performance. I was happy.
The thing is, watching her perform was more electrifying than anything else, and was worth the whole evening.
As the night wore down, a group of us older volunteers clustered and ganged up on the younger volunteers, who were passing the food.
"Over here, I want some more of those spinach things," called one volunteer whom I loved. She was about my age, had been with the Second City Touring Company, and was now a school teacher. We talked about the irony that so many performers who make so many people laugh are themselves insecure and humorless.
"See that woman over there?" the woman said, pointing across the rotunda at a 60-ish, taciturn dumpy woman. "She's one of the founders of Second City."
"A regular Little Miss Sunshine," I said. I watched as Greta joined her. It became clear that they were a couple, and I couldn't imagine a better match.