The lobby of The American Theatre of Actors has the dimensions of a good-sized loft. The walls are lined with rows of old theater seating, about half the seats functional, others semi-functional, propped up with wood, or hanging low. Several are covered, permanently out of commission. There’s the box-office. Double doors open on the theater. Facing away from the theater, the door on the right leads to the dressing room. The one on the left leads to the Artistic Director’s office. A staircase leads nowhere. It’s like “The Twilight Zone,” where a small glitch reveals that this is not earth, but an alternative universe.
A lot happens in the lobby of ATA. Most obviously, the sale of tickets. Business is also conducted. A casting agent looks through the press packet. The publicist schmoozes the critic from Backstage. But, primarily, it’s where theatergoers congregate. Being Off-off Broadway, most in attendance are friends and family. Hence, every night is like a social event. A wedding, on a good night. On not such a good night: a wake. There’s hugging, and handshaking. Some crying. Phone numbers are exchanged.
Before the crowds, the lobby belongs to the company. Actors stretch, and do their vocal exercises. Meetings occur spontaneously between producers and directors and writers and actors. There’s the occasional tantrum. But mostly, time is killed until the audience starts arriving. The newspaper is read. A Diet Coke sipped. Artists just sit. Undoubtedly, a lot of dreaming takes place. And, I’m sure, more than a few reach the conclusion that a life in the theater is not for them after all.
It’s a Sunday matinee of my play Asterisk when Dave, our production manager and regular box-office attendant, can’t make it. As playwright, and person with the least to do, nothing to do, actually, I volunteer. Running the box office is more complicated than I’d imagined. It’s not just taking tickets. People have questions. “Where’s the bathroom?” is probably the most common. Followed by, “Where can I smoke?” and “Where can I get coffee?” A number of people are lost, and need redirecting to the Off-Broadway Chernuchin Theater on the floor below. You also have to review the Smarttix list, for those who have purchased their tickets in advance. It’s a short list, on a long piece of paper. Then there’s the audience extras. Audience extras are affiliated with an organization called Audience Extras that arranges for people to see shows for free, providing a service to a production by filling empty seats. Certainly, I don’t begrudge anyone who wishes to attend my play, I’m grateful, believe me, but there’s a small part of me that feels they’re getting over. I hope I didn’t give any attitude. I get into an argument with an older gentleman over the fact that we don’t have any tickets. Meaning, not that the show is sold out, but we literally don’t have any tickets. He won’t accept this fact, and debates it till his voice starts to rise, satisfied only when I suggest he present his playbill as ticket; though I purposely don’t ask to see it when he enters.
There’s also the matter of comp tickets. It seems Dean, the producer, comps all his relatives, while adamant about friends paying. Lou, an actor, on the other hand, feels all his friends and relatives should be comped. Dean and Lou, who are friends, have gotten into a couple fights over this. Jason, the director, takes a unique approach to getting his guests in free, introducing them all as potential investors. He goes out of his way to introduce them. Presenting them by their full name. Like you should recognize it. “Tom, I’d like you to meet John Doe.” He creates detailed bios, including histories of shows they’ve produced in New York and London, at this theater and that, occasionally dropping in something like, “Dinner with the Nederlanders,” as they stand by silently. When their backs are turned, he gives you a conspiratorial nod, like he’s got a big fish on the hook. No one invested. They weren’t investors. Just for the record, I made all my people pay, with the exception of one good friend, a fellow writer, who’s in the middle of writing a novel, and not working, but came out to support the show. My motivation was partly selfish, in that I wanted to ensure he had money so we could hang out afterward. The most controversial moment involving comp tickets comes when an actor’s mother enters in the company of two other relatives, stopping long enough to introduce me as the playwright, but not to pay. Perhaps I failed as ticket taker, but I didn’t want to embarrass her, or myself. At that point, I wasn’t sure who was supposed to pay. When I tell Dean about this, he gives me a look of disappointment, and launches into a tirade about how, if he ever produces another play, “Fucking every-fucking-one’s fucking paying!” My riposte was to suggest that next time, maybe he should supply tickets.»
The take that day is eighty dollars. I count it once the audience is seated. I’m still manning the box-office, in the event of any latecomers, when the lights go down and, from behind the doors, the pre-show music fades. There’s a palpable energy, like that between the lightning and the thunder, before the first lines of dialogue. Head bowed, I listen to the play. When my eyes adjust, I realize I’m not alone. Two of the actors, Lou and Artie, are also in the lobby. Of course, I knew they started the play off-stage. And, of course, I knew they made their entrance via the lobby door. But I’d never known what they did while waiting. Certainly, I never envisioned them in the deserted lobby. But there they are, not really Lou and Artie, more Sykes and Ralph, the characters I’d written, pacing as they await their entrance to the world. I watch as their shadows dance. Then Lou moves into place by the door. He gets his cue and enters. Part of it now. Artie, or, rather, Ralph, paces more vigorously. He’s mumbling. I assume he’s running lines, but as I listen more closely I realize it’s not my dialogue, but Ralph thinking aloud. “I haven’t seen the guys in so long,” he says, in regard to how Ralph has distanced himself from his old friends. “Try to have fun tonight,” he says. Ralph is struggling to overcome the death of his father, and hoping that a weekend with the boys will, at least, provide a respite. Then he says, “He should have been there.” This leaves a lump in my throat. In the play, one of the characters, Phil, who’s somewhat of a pariah, is not told of the funeral, thereby a no-show. I never really considered how Ralph felt about it. Now I knew. Artie gets his cue, and enters. But he’s already given, what is for me, the most memorable performance of the production. To quote Rod Serling, “In a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”