Monday, August 09, 2004

Cue the Monkey

There are only a few things, that I know, that are absolute certainties when I evaluate myself. Here’s one of them.

I can’t act my way out of a wet paper bag. Not that acting is a skill that would allow you to actually work your way out of a wet paper bag. Simply moving would probably suffice if you were to be “captured” in some sort of saturated, human-sized, grocery bag, but you get the point.

In 1993, I was given a small part in a production of Inherit the Wind when I was visiting my sister in Connecticut. As a favor to my sibling, the director cast me in the role of a man in an ape costume. The role was basically a gift, as the director had been playing the part for all of the previous shows, but I was in town for the week and it gave him a chance to focus on the actual production of the play, rather having to waddle around in a huge costume.

Ok, maybe a gorilla would be a more accurate description of the role I was playing, as the costume was roughly the same one that Clarence Beaks was wearing in Trading Places; but for the purposes of Inherit the Wind, I was an ape. I really thought that this role was going to be my path to greatness. A small town kid from Wisconsin would walk onto the stage and steal the show.

People would talk for years about how they saw Glen in his first acting performance and would rummage through their homes looking for the torn ticket stub that would indicate that they were at Sir Glen Haag’s first performance. (Hell, if I was going to have a great career, I might as well be knighted for it eventually.)

It’s a great thought and although it was possible that it could have happened, the odds would have been greatly in my favor if I weren’t the person in that suit.

Basically, all I had to do was to walk out on the stage and pretend to collect money from the local citizens. For each person that “gave” me money, they got themselves a valuable gift. A lollypop.

If you asked me why I was collecting money while walking around in a giant monkey costume, I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer for the simple reason that there isn’t one.

Thinking back on it now, there is a pretty good reason that a person dressed up as a monkey hadn’t appeared in any of the film or stage versions of Inherit the Wind to that point. Quite simply, it just doesn’t make any sense. If you were a person that is against the teaching of evolution and does not believe that man evolved from apes, why in the hell would you have a human being walking around pretending to be an ape and trying to raise money for your cause?

Well, the whole thing was lost on me at the time as I was caught up in the glamour of being a 19 year old in an incredibly heavy ape outfit.

My part was simple, walk out, shake my money can, and if someone put some change in the can, give him or her a sucker. Really, it was a quite simple role.

The production began and the first act went off without a hitch, and during the first intermission I went and put on my costume.

Let me tell you one thing, you never want to wear all black when you’re on stage. Especially if you’re doing a production, that from what I can tell, was being lit up by 4 aircraft searchlights. Personally, I think the director had a friend at a local car dealership that had sold enough Hyundai’s for the day, and decided to stop distracting incoming planes for a few hours and let him borrow those lighting monstrosities for his small theater group.

So, beyond the fact that I was sweating like Roger Ebert, another benefit to wearing an ape costume is that you have absolutely no peripheral vision. You’re looking out your eye slots, and that’s it. You’re as blind as a monkey with, um, well. Well, you’re as blind as a monkey with ½ inch eye slots.

So there you have it. All I have to do is to walk out on stage, walk towards the actors that are going to give me some money, and then walk out of their way, and then go off stage. “The whole thing should take you about 10 to 15 seconds,” they said.

Well, one of the things that I excel at in life is the fact that I can take an ordinary or simple task and make it an incredibly more complex one.

The curtain went up, and all of the actors that were playing the roles of the local residents milled about on stage and pretended to be protesting out in front of the courthouse. The first line wouldn’t be spoken until I was done with my little part on the stage, so it was important that I complete it quickly. Remember, they said that it “should” take me about 10 to 15 seconds to complete my little part in the production.

I ambled out onto the stage, and went into full Glen mode.

One reason that I should never have been put out on the stage is for the simple reason that I love to be the center of attention. It doesn’t matter if the type of attention that I get is either good or bad, as long as people are looking at me. If you put me in a room where no one is talking, I’m usually the first to do something to try and get everyone to laugh. Sometimes it works, and sometimes I get a very cold stare from Sarah. The latter happens quite a bit more often than the former.

When I walked out onto the stage, a heard a few people chuckle from the audience. It was the sort of polite laughter that happens when people are trying to throw the director a bone, and give them the little laugh that they were expecting. A person in an ape costume walks out on stage, cue Happy Days laugh track #72.

So, I decided to ham it up a bit and pretended to be an ape. I did all of the ape clichés. (I think I found a new name for my column. Ape Cliché.) I made big swinging arm movements. I pretended to scratch myself. Basically, I created another 15 to 20 seconds of “acting” silence before I even started what I was supposed to do out there.

There is a pretty good reason for a script in most plays. It keeps the action moving. It’s not as easy to get bored when people are actually “performing.” No one came to this show to watch me hop about for a minute. They wanted to hear an actor pretend to be Clarence Darrow, and watch him articulate why evolution should be taught in our public schools, not watch Glen Haag pretend to be a monkey. But for the next 30 seconds that’s what they got. So, after I tried to get a few cheap laughs in my faux primate routine, I went out and did what I was supposed to while on stage. I should say at this point, that I tried to do what I was supposed to while out on stage.

Getting the change from the actual actors on stage wasn’t much of a problem, but the issue was removing the lollypops from the container that they were in. They were inserted into tiny holes cut into the top of a plastic coffee can lid and were a bit difficult to remove from their homes. A bit difficult might be a bit of an understatement.

The last actress that I was to get change from seemed to already be agitated when I walked over to her. Apparently my monkey-boy act was lost on her, and her grandiose thespian moment of putting a quarter into a tin can was stolen from her by some Glen-come-lately.

There are some images that are just burned into your brain, and the mental picture I have of her face as I was struggling to remove the hard candy from it’s container is one that will be stuck in my mind forever. I don’t ever think I’ve seen a person so angry with me. Her face seemed to be trying to convey one thought to me, “Give me my lollypop and get off the fucking stage!”

Eventually the candy came loose, I handed it to her, and walked off of the stage. At that time I thought I had done a terrific job, and thought that acting would be a great career choice for me. I was floundering in college, had no real career path to speak of, and had just recently discovered the drunken bliss of the cast party. So, getting a few elderly people in a small town in New England to laugh at my actions seemed to indicate that acting was the career that I should be focusing on.

Of course, now I’m a bit wiser. I know that I don’t need a costume to get people to stare at me, all the while sitting in complete silence. I just write to get that same sort of reaction now.


At 1:23 AM, Blogger Julia said...

Great story! You've got some cool stories on this blog. Glad I stumbled on it from the blogger homepage. I'll check back!


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