[Excerpt #2 from what I hope to be the upcoming book on The Quite Ordinary But Mildly Interesting Historical Adventures of The Actor Known to Many As Ralph Puke]
DON’T KISS ME, I’M DEAD
“I’ll come no more behind your scenes, David, for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses do make my genitals to quiver.” –Samuel Johnson to his friend and actor, David Garrick
When I stepped onstage at Long Prairie High School at the age of sixteen under a bank of lights in front of an audience of family, friends and neighbors, no part of the experience had anything to do with art.
Galloping adolescent hormones and the pleasant discovery that high school girls liked dressing up and doing plays drove my decision to audition for the spring production. A chance to hang with the ladies after school? Yes. Definitely yes. It didn’t hurt that my best friend Larry, the hard-nosed fullback on our football team, had the same idea. Who would question our choice to dabble in the “arts” if he was involved?
To my surprise I was cast as the city dad in a “farm life vs. city life” play, filled with standard gags about an urban family adapting to new lives on the farm. The play required actual baby pigs and chickens onstage. Lots of manure jokes. I had the lead male role and some of the best lines. Getting laughs from the generous audiences of parents and friends was like the Simpson’s episode where Barney guzzled his first beer with Homer: “Where has this been all my life?”
I hadn’t been in a play since a traumatic grade school appearance as one of the three kings in the Christmas pageant. The long terrifying entrance from the back of the classroom, down the long aisle to the stage, all eyes on me (or so I thought) as I tried desperately to quit tripping on my robe while I sang my solo– “Myrhh is mine its bitter perfume…” And as I handed her my gift, Mary threw up in the manger. Enough to permanently drive a boy away from the theater.
Over many years of watching late night TV, we’ve all seen and heard the stars tell their backstage stories: tales of missed entrances, falling sets, disappearing props, inebriated King Lears, guns that fail to fire, actors falling into the front row during blackouts, unforeseen disasters that at the moment may have seemed career-ending, but in the fullness of time are just amusing. This high school drama stuff was all new to me, the memorization, rehearsals, the sets and props, the costumes, the makeup. It seemed complicated, lots of moving parts. And since no one else in the cast had any theater experience, it was communal discovery at every step, so no one felt out of his depth. Our director, Bernie Peterson, a gentle and infinitely patient English teacher, made it fun and let us explore the process to come up with our own versions of these one dimensional characters. It was a grand time and we all dove right in.
I made a quick costume change one night as the city dad, running onstage to start the scene, and before I could say my first line, chuckles and laughs bubbled up from the crowd. Thought I: “You’re good at this acting thing—you’re funny before you even say a word.” Seeing Larry staring at me, I glanced down and saw that in the frenzy of the quick change backstage I had tucked my pantlegs into my socks, my fly was open, and I was now standing center stage making an unintended fashion statement. If I’d have known what a “dresser” was—besides the place in my bedroom where I stashed my socks and underwear—I’d have asked for one the next day.
By the time the senior play rolled around the following year, I saw myself as a veteran lead actor, and I went to auditions cocky and convinced I’d play the meaty male lead as the Inspector in the murder mystery Meet A Body. Instead I was cast as the unsympathetic rich guy who gets killed in the first act and spends the rest of the play in an open coffin. I was to be The Body. The good news: I got the title role. The bad news: I died at the end of act one. Other than remaining deathly still for the entirety of act two, my work was essentially done by intermission. I shrugged off my disappointment and decided to make this the most intriguing and memorable corpse anybody in that little town had ever encountered.
Rehearsals chugged along, by opening night I was comfortable in the role and at peace with my limited stage time. My coffin was actually fairly cozy, with a clean and firm pillow, and I was able to work on my shallow breathing and keep the corpse quite motionless and believably dead. At one point in the second act, my “wife,” who was being played by a classmate I barely knew and didn’t much like, is overcome with emotion and leans into the open casket to plant a farewell kiss on the cold remains of her beloved. According to Director Bernie it was to be a simple, mimed kiss that didn’t actually make contact, an agreeable solution to my reluctance at being involved in anything resembling necrophilia. My grieving wife was to be positioned upstage between the deceased and the audience, they couldn’t see the kiss, so there was never a need for anything physical.
On opening night the scene went grotesquely awry. My distraught wife, emitting howling, Shakespearean grief (far more than any of us had seen at any rehearsal), leaned over the casket and gave me a huge, open-mouthed lip-lock that seemed to go on for minutes. Her breath was broccoli-esque. I couldn’t breathe. Worse, I couldn’t protest without breaking character and coming back to life. So I let her have her way with me. My disgust was palpable, but my self-control and cadaver-like stony acceptance was the best acting I’d done in two years.
I learned something important about the theater that night, about the need to get to know your fellow actors and establish a level of trust, so if things get weird at least you’ll have a relationship with the person who’s trying to stick her tongue down your throat.
If I could time machine myself back to that night, knowing what I know now about improvisation, I would lurch upright in the coffin and scream “It’s ALIVE!” Then stalk off the stage and let the chips fall where they may. That little town on the Minnesota prairie would still be talking about it.