Not Quite Ready: A Boston Story
NOT QUITE READY: A BOSTON STORY
A short story of youthful dreaming
By Jerry Bisantz
I must start with this confession: I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. You know Buffalo, right? Butt of a million and a half jokes. Here’s my favorite about my favorite football team, the Bills. Do you know what “B I L L S “stands for: ? No? OK, it stands for “Boy I Love Losing Super Bowls.” FOUR IN A ROW! We know real pain in that city, believe me.
I got hooked on acting in high school… mostly musicals. Boy, did I ever love singing and acting on stage. It was the closest to orgasm I ever felt. With my poor luck with the women at that time, it certainly felt like it. I did a bunch of shows in Buffalo, community theater. Then, I took an optical job (I am a licensed optician, I went to school for that) and moved to the beautiful city of Rochester, NY. Rochester must be one of the dullest towns on God’s Green Earth. Bowling, golf, watering lawns and kneeling at the altar of Eastman Kodak. Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Did some theater there, again, mostly musicals… then I played George in “Our Town,” for me, a big break. I LOVED the stage! The camaraderie, the work, the cast parties! But Rochester?? Seriously? This was 1975, baby! I was hungry for a bigger pond.
I had a buddy doing theater in Boston and I took a week off, spent that time walking the city. I fell in love with it, “Dirty Old Boston.” So exciting in those days when punk and disco was just starting to emerge. When you could spend an entire day seeing street musicians, wandering through the North End, even buying a reasonably priced ticket to a Sox game. I went back to work in Rochester and immediately gave my two weeks’ notice. I left that hick town faster than you could sing the closing lines of Thunder Road “It’s a town for losers, I’m pulling out of here a winner.” Beantown, look out, here I come!
I Actually moved there on a train, can ya believe it? What did I know? Had $500 saved up and was staying at my buddy’s apartment. That lasted exactly one week when he informed me that he and his girlfriend were moving to Florida. So, he left, and I stayed.
Now, the world was a little bit more forgiving in those days. Boston in 1976 was not yet the city of high-tech yuppies and 1.5-million-dollar condos. I found a weekly rental in Back Bay ($45 bucks a week, I kid you not!) one room, a bed, and a hot plate. Shared the bathroom down the hall with a hooker with terrible teeth and a drug dealer and his girlfriend from Seattle. I took the subway to South Station every day to work at Manpower in the mornings. Got paid $50 a day cash for 8 hrs of work on any manual labor job that they could give me. I had to show up at 5:30 AM to line up for work… all sorts of jobs… my all time favorite? Stuffing asbestos into plastic bags. In a room with no ventilation. But every other day, I went looking for a job. Dropping off my optical resume I mean, I had a New York State optical license, the toughest license to attain. Six days of testing… certainly, that would impress these Massachusetts’ folks. I was prime, baby… but the economy sucked. Jimmy Carter days. They actually had a “Misery Index” listed every day in the newspaper. And every week I scanned the Real Paper and Phoenix, weekly newspapers, looking for auditions.
One night I ran into a very lovely girl and her boyfriend at a local bar called “Fathers TOO.” She said she was an actress and told me about this teacher that was changing the way she looked at theater, a real Svengali, a man who had created an awareness that she never felt before. I should check him out. His name was David… something or other. I scribbled this man’s info on a card and slipped it in my wallet. Wow! A Real acting teacher! I never took classes before, I was all this raw, silly bundle of talent. Oh, I could sing alright, that was my safe spot, but REAL acting! The classics!!! Russian playwrights, Eugene O’Neil, and Shakespeare, and maybe, just maybe, the dude even understood “Waiting for Godot.”
I WILL DO THIS!! I WILL CALL HIM! I WILL BECOME… A REAL ACTOR!!!
So, that night I went to a pay phone… (I know, an actual payphone…) and called up David…. “Hello, is this David?” Long pause. “Who is this?” “Uh, my name is Jerry.” Another long pause. “Jerry with a J or Jerry with a G?” “Uh… a J…” “Yes, Jerry with a J,” he said, “please enunciate.” This is how my conversation started with him. I told him I had met Melanie and I asked if he had openings in his class. He had a slight accent… couldn’t quite make it out. British? Irish? “Theater-ish”? Not quite sure. “What have you done, Jerry?”. I told him the roles I had played. Brief resume … all lead roles, mind you. He paused. LOOOONG pause. Then, after taking a deep breath he said “a musical actor, eh? My fee is $150, we have a lot of work to do before you can ever call yourself an actor. First class begins next Wednesday at my studio on Huntington Avenue. Be there at 7:00 sharp. I do NOT allow anyone who is tardy to attend.” CLICK
Wow! $150 bucks? I was down to $325 in my little bank account… was living on hot dogs at the Father’s Too bar down the street. Oh, and muffins. Lots of muffins. Who cares? I am in! On the day of my first class, I didn’t even work Manpower, I had to clear my head, had to be ready. Walked to the docks near Faneuil Hall… picked up a copy of “An Actor Prepares”… sat and read what Mr. Stanislavski had to say. Nervous but excited. I am gonna show this dude what I got! Can’t wait to do scenes, test myself against some of Boston’s best!
That night I took the train to the studio, near Symphony Hall. Walked up a narrow flight of stairs to his studio, rapped on the door ten minutes early, mind you. Someone opened the door, and I was immediately hit by the heat of the room and the smell of sweat. It smelled like a locker room after an intense basketball game. Melanie was there, conversing in the corner with a man with a slight ponytail, wearing all black and high-top sneakers. She pointed at me, and the man walked across the room and said “Ah, Jerry with a “J”, so you showed up.” Please go over to that corner and warm up.” Warm up?
O… K…I didn’t know what to say. About twenty other people were already in the class, the room looked like a dance studio. So, I walked to the corner and “warmed” up… I watched what the others were doing and copied them. what the hell?
He clapped his hands, and said “class, please welcome Jerry, he is a musical theater person” I heard an audible groan. “But we will fix that, won’t we”? Applause. “OK, time for warmups!”
So, for a half hour we did an assortment of stretches “feel the nape of your neck, be aware of your space…” Then he told us about a production of “Three Sisters” he had been in and THEN he paired two actors across from each other and had them play a game where they spoke nonsense words back and forth for five solid minutes. Then we did an exercise where we all had to fall backwards and get caught before we hit the floor. This was meant to make us aware of our fellow actor… the entire class was a bunch of acting exercises and games. Then David said that he wanted us to channel all that inner anger we had towards our parents and let it out in a primal scream. The whole class started holding the sides of their faces and screaming. Hmmm… a little problem here: I really like my parents. Does that mean I can’t be an actor? I was wondering if maybe I was over my head here. I just wanted to act, fer cryin out loud! But, a look at David’s credits assured me that I must be in very good hands. I just couldn’t wait to get to doing some scene work. Give me a shot at some Tennessee Williams, some Mamet, see what I am made of.
After class, he put his arm around me and told me that I needed a lot of work. He rubbed my neck, told me that I was tense, and he gave me a small book that had a series of yoga poses and exercises that he told me I must do before the next class. I asked him when we would do scene work and he assured me that we would but that I was nowhere ready for that yet.
In the meantime, I continued to study the Real Paper and the Phoenix for auditions and I finally landed a lead role in a play called “Fishing” to be done at the BCA, in the days when the South End was a sewer, (we actually had live rats in the dressing rooms in those days, running right over my shoes backstage, but I digress). The play was by Michael Weller, author of a popular play called “Moonchildren.” Much to my delight, Melanie was cast opposite me, and a guy named Duane from my class, too! Wow! Psyched! Couldn’t wait to tell our teacher that I was cast in a play in downtown Boston with two of his students.
The next Wednesday, before class, I informed him of my great news. He was silent. He stared at me for quite a while. He stated simply: “I don’t think you are quite ready yet, but as long as you don’t miss any of my classes that will be fine.” Since three of the
actors in the play were taking his classes our director arranged to have Wednesdays off from rehearsals. That SAME week I got an actual paying job in the optical field at a hoity toity optical firm in downtown Boston. Whew!!! ON a roll, baby! I was down to $76 in my bank account and in risk of diabetes and diarrhea from my diet… I was saved.
The next four weeks was a blur of rehearsals and classes and work at my new job. I literally crashed into my mattress every night. I had started to develop a little crush on Melanie, and we had a love scene where the kiss lasted just a bit longer every night. Basically, I was in heaven.
The show opened to “not so rave” reviews. In fact, we were killed by the Phoenix and the Herald newspaper. The Globe didn’t even bother showing up. Our audiences got smaller and smaller with every performance. But I was proud of our work, and I thought that Melanie and I were very believable in our roles, and our director assured us that was the case. “Don’t pay attention to the so-so reviews,” he said. But… where was David? Where was our teacher? He didn’t come opening weekend, or the second weekend. With one weekend to go, I asked Melanie if he would come. I was hoping he would want to see his students onstage. Melanie appeared a bit hurt but pushed it aside saying, “he is a very busy man”. But I could see in her eyes that she was disappointed.
Thursday night, closing weekend… an audience of 16 people in a small black box theater that seated 50. I peek through the curtains before the show. YES! He is here! With an entourage of six people! They are all seated across the back row of chairs. Wow. I tell Melanie and Duane that he is here. I am psyched! Gonna show him what I got! Melanie visibly tenses up. Duane just gets quiet and walks into a corner, takes his script out and begins to study it. I figured, if he doesn’t know his lines by now, we are all in trouble, but I realize he is as nervous as Melanie.
Curtain Speech, opening music, blackout, we hit the stage. Small house tonight, but I don’t care. They broke their ass to get there, find parking, all that stuff… they deserve my one hundred percent effort. I feel good, the lines flowing freely, my muscle memory kicking in, staying involved in every moment, Melanie even seems to loosen up and our love scene is tender and feels very real. Suddenly we hear a creaking noise. A lot of movement from the back of the house. I am in mid sentence as I see, from the corner of my eye, David stands up with his entire entourage and WALKS OUT OF THE THEATER.
I am stymied. Why would he do that? Was something wrong? I momentarily blank. I look in Melanie’s eyes. A light seemed to dim immediately. She lost focus. Blew a line. I picked up for her and we got back on track. Then, I forget my next line. It may have been only twenty seconds or so, but I stumbled about the stage, making up words, trying desperately to stay in character. To find my way back. My brain was desperately trying to focus on the play, to stay “in the moment;” but all the time the other side of my brain is thinking “why did he walk out on us?” I somehow stumble through the rest of the play, even as I see tears forming in Melanie’s eyes onstage. I don’t know how we got through it, but we manage to finish the performance.
After our curtain call in front of nine people, I run backstage and hug Melanie. She is a mess. I am confused. Did something happen? Were we that bad? Was the show so terrible that he couldn’t watch any more? Was there some kind of an emergency and
He had to leave? I went back to my one room dump after drinking one too many beers at the local bar. My head was spinning. I kept trying to think of reasons that our teacher would walk out on us. I mean, I know the show wasn’t great, but it had its moments, and was I a fool for feeling proud of my performance? Am I kidding myself?
Wednesday. I will talk to him on Wednesday. Maybe he can tell me why he left. Maybe he can give me some tips. Or, worse yet, maybe he is right. Maybe I am not ready yet. A musical theater guy trying REAL drama? In a real big city like Boston? Who the hell did I think I was? Who was I kidding?
Wednesday seemed to take forever to come. We had a full class that night. When I walked in the studio, I saw Melanie talking in a corner with David. He had his arm around her, in a very deep conversation. Maybe he will take me aside later? Give me some suggestions?
The class started. We did our usual warmups. Then, David ushered us to the middle of the room. The room was quiet. He looked us up and down before he spoke. “I was going to start scene work tonight,” he said, “but, after last weekend, I feel that some of us are not… quite… ready yet. So, back to our theater exercises.” I felt my face redden. I knew he was talking about us. About me.
For some strange reason, I suddenly found myself standing up. I felt like I had seashells over my ears. Nausea hit me momentarily. I felt unsteady. But I couldn’t help myself.
The room was quiet. I turned to David. “Why did you walk out on us?” It just came out of me; I couldn’t stop myself. The question just hung in the air. The students all looked at me, then looked at David. He was taken aback, but quickly recovered. I saw a slight smile, and then, he nodded to Melanie. Melanie stood up. “It was a horrible production, Jerry, and we just were just not good enough to warrant his time. He saw enough to know.” Duane stood up “He did us a favor. You should know how bad it was.”
All eyes went to me. What can I say? Was I kidding myself? Was it REALLY THAT bad? Was I really that bad? Did David do us a favor? My head was spinning. Maybe they were right. I mean, the teacher has New York credits, a degree from Yale Drama School… studied in London. Who the hell am I? Some cheap song and dance man. Harold Hill in “The Music Man” in High School? Captain Big Jim Warrenton in “Little Mary Sunshine”? The class stared at me. The silence was palpable. David folded his arms. He just looked at me. Maybe I should just sit back down. My head was spinning. I thought to myself, “I can learn a lot from this guy. He has so much to teach me.” And you know, I did learn. I learned so much from David.
A most valuable lesson.
I walked out that door.
And I never looked back as I ventured into my 35 years of working in theater.
Jerry is the Artistic Director of Image Theater in Lowell. He is a published playwright, a director, producer, actor, and singer, and filmmaker, and has served on the Board of Directors of Playwrights’ Platform of Boston, The Hovey Players, and he serves on the Lowell Cultural Council. He can be found at https//:www.Jerrybisantz.com
2 Responses to Not Quite Ready: A Boston Story
You done come up the hard way, boy! Sink or swim in the big city. Glad you were unsinkable and you brought great theater to Lowell. Thoroughly enjoyed the piece of Bisantz memoir.
I love this piece!!