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SPARK » Jonathan Ottke and Jewel Beth Davis

Jonathan Ottke and Jewel Beth Davis

Jonathan Ottke
“Banana and Two Nectarines on a Plate”

Brush Markers on Paper
Response

 

First Stop
By
Jewel Beth Davis
Inspiration piece

Our first tour date is in a tiny town in the middle of England. The theatre is a small gem. About 100 to 150 seats, built in the fifties. A tiny working lighting booth perches in the back. The stage is proscenium and about half the width of a Broadway stage. An old red velvet curtain opens in the middle. It looks worn and well loved with a few threadbare spots. Spacious wings connect to stairs down to a dressing room and green room. The entire place is comfortable and welcoming.

1972. Our touring theatre company, New England College Theatre in England is made up of actors from the theatre departments of both University of New Hampshire and New England College. It is the company’s maiden tour and the future depends on how well we are received in the small towns and large cities of Great Britain, Wales, and Scotland.

Once we’ve settled in, our director, Wheel, asks the actors to move backstage to prepare for a tech rehearsal of three of the American one-acts in our repertoire: It’s Called the Sugar Plum, Cop-Out, and Next. Wheel is balding though he is only twenty-three, with longish wavy hair. He’s also my boyfriend. He is a trained mime, a gifted character actor, and has a mobile face and body. He can sometimes be mercurial but is a sweet, kind man by nature, which makes him a great choice for tour director.

Zeke is running lights and directing the set placement of the minimalist scenery we have transported in the van. As always, he has made the performance all about lights and scenery and is driving Wheel mad with his demands.

“Zeke,” Wheel says, “I understand this is your priority but we have to start running the show. We only have a limited amount of time.”

“Well, it should be your priority too if you don’t want our first performance to look like some kind of schlock community theatre piece,” Zeke says. He is tall and swarthy and the previous summer, he amputated two of his fingers on a band saw in the UNH shop. He barely seemed to notice when it occurred and was back in the shop in twenty-four hours.

The four of us wait backstage. Besides me, there is Bean, who is my best friend and college roommate, Lanny, a handsome teddy bear from Connecticut, and lovable Chip, who makes a habit of getting himself in trouble with his loose cannon mouth and behavior. His father is a big deal purveyor of real estate in NY City and Chip has never had to worry about practical things like rent or food. We’ve set up our props on the prop table; checked out the dressing room and green room; and hung up our costumes downstairs and backstage. We are fast running out of things to do so we listen at the curtain to Wheel and Zeke bickering, with Gustave, the props master, mediating in a half-hearted effort. Gustave does not like conflict. Zeke has the spotlight aimed at center stage and Wheel wants it blacked out so we can begin the rehearsal.

Chip takes a hank of blond hair and tucks it behind his ear. Immediately, it falls back into his face.

“Hey, did I ever tell you about the time my father brought me to his exclusive club for lunch in New York City,” Chip says. “I ordered a tuna sandwich and they brought me a piece of bread, a piece of lettuce, and the entire can of tuna, without the can.”

“Yeah,” Lanny says. “You told us, only about ten times.” Lanny’s family owns a chocolate factory in Connecticut that’s known for its chocolate Easter bunnies.

Chip laughs and his laugh sounds slightly pornographic.

“I have an idea.” Three pairs of brown eyes meet then shift to Chip’s blue eyes. “It’ll break up the monotony,” he says.

“What is it?” Bean says. She is not one for risk-taking without knowing what she’ll be doing and the consequences.

“You’ll see,” Chip says. “It’s funny. When I give you the signal, you and Jewel pull each side of the curtain open so the spotlight hits me.”

“But what is it? I’m not doing it unless you tell me what it is,” insists Bean.

“Okay, okay, I’ll tell you. It’s called fruit salad. Do you know what that is?”

Lanny collapses into paroxysms of belly laughs. Bean and I are flummoxed. We look at each other with scrunched eyebrows and questioning glances.

“No,” I say. “Never heard of it.” Lanny’s laughter is verging on the hysterical.

“But what the hell,” I say. “I am so bored.”

“We’d better not get in trouble for this,” Bean says.

“I’m the only one who could get in trouble but I won’t. You’ll see. It’s just fun,” says Chip.

It is a real sign of our nerves that Bean or I would agree to do something without knowing what it is. But here we are, in a new country at the outset of a great adventure. So we position ourselves on either side of the curtain opening, placing our fingers near the split in preparation. It is now pitch black backstage and we can make out that Chip is moving around between us but we can’t tell what he is doing.

“Quit giggling,” Chip tells Lanny. “You’ll wreck the whole thing.” Lanny shuts up and moves to the side of the stage where he won’t be seen.

“Okay,” Chip whispers. “Now!”

Bean and I move the curtains to the side and then we see. Chip has dropped his jeans and his boxers to the floor and is completely naked from the waist down. He is skewered in the spotlight. His back is to the audience and he has pushed all his male parts through his legs to the back.

“FRUIT SALAD!” he says.

Bean gasps. I am shocked into silence. Lanny is laughing uncontrollably. Both Zeke and Gustave are shouting and laughing. It is very telling that the guys are laughing and the women are not.. Wheel, however, is not laughing. His face resembles the Old Man in the Mountain in New Hampshire, very near to where he’s from. His amber eyes look like they’re burning. He is absolutely still, like a leopard ready to pounce. Then, in an instant, he leaps up onto the stage, spins Chip around, grabs him by his shirt collar with one hand, and shakes him violently.

“Are you out of your effin’ mind?” Shake, shake, shake.

I can’t peel my eyes off the appendages swaying back and forth.

“Do you know what you’ve done?” Shake, shake, shake. “Do you know what would have happened if one of our hosts walked in here right now?” Shake, shake. Chip giggles, from nerves, I think.

“We would have been done before we even started. We would have completely humiliated Rich and Cope.” He is referring to our theatre professors who put the tour together. He continues to shake Chip until I think I can hear marbles in Chip’s brain rolling around and smacking into each other. “If you ever pull something like this again, you’ll be catapulted onto the next plane back to the states. Do you hear me? Now pull up your pants and get backstage, you disgusting piece of sh-t.” Wheel runs his hand through his hair. His face is streaked with angry color.

In all the years I’ve been with Wheel, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him angry like this. I don’t think I’ve seen him angry at all. Chip disappears backstage faster than I thought possible, hopping and jumping in the process of pulling up his pants and boxers. Lanny has also made himself invisible. Then Wheel turns the full force of his anger like a tractor beam onto Bean and me. We are pulled into the force of his eyes boring into us.

“I cannot believe the two of you would sanction such irresponsible behavior. And not only sanction it but take part in this fiasco. I’m really disappointed.”

“But we didn’t know what…” I try to tell him. He holds up one hand, turns his back on us, walks into the audience, and orders Zeke to start the black out. Zeke complies without argument.

We have no words. I feel terribly guilty to the point of nausea. My eyes meet Bean’s and she looks like she will cry at any moment. We move backstage, our heads down. I am so angry at Chip I don’t speak to him for the next twenty-four hours. Wheel had never criticized either Bean or me before. Especially about our work ethic. After this experience, there was a new sense of professionalism in the tour. We fooled around, we had fun, but we never crossed that line again. I wouldn’t say Chip became a model of good behavior; he wouldn’t have been Chip, but he never did anything to jeopardize the tour again. I imagine it took some time for Wheel to regain his trust in us but he never mentioned the occurrence again, which says a lot about him. And the England tour continued on successfully with other troupes for another twenty-five years. No one knew how close we came to failure at the first stop.

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