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The Unexpected Liveliness of Live Theater

<i> Ziaya is a frequent contributor to Valley Calendar. </i>

The blonde woman stood in the rear of the Group Repertory Theater in Burbank. Her fur coat didn’t strike Lonny Chapman as unusual on a chilly Southern California night.

For a brief moment, Chapman gazed at the woman, then his thoughts turned to the play on the stage. It was one of his own works, “Go Hang the Moon.”

The performance was going quite well and, as artistic director, Chapman felt a sense of pride.

But as the curtain call began, the woman dashed in front of the cast, pulled off her coat and revealed her nude body.

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The audience let out a gasp. The woman raced offstage and disappeared.

It was one of those unforgettable nights in the theater.

The woman, it turned out, had auditioned for the play and wasn’t given a role. “Maybe she was getting back at me for not casting her,” Chapman said. “I don’t know.”

In any case, no artistic director enjoys such surprises. But often it is the unrehearsed event--starring audiences, animals and actors--that people remember most.

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Managing director Mike Monahan will never forget a performance of the Showboat Dinner Theater’s production of “Cabaret” in Woodland Hills. In the love story set in Berlin, Ernst becomes a Nazi, and his villainous deeds add much to the drama. But when actor Stephen Hough took his bow, there was no applause for a job well done as Ernst.

Instead, the audience began throwing food at him.

“The audience was pretty irate. They were upset by what the character stood for,” Monahan said. “I guess they just couldn’t control themselves.

“The actor felt pretty good about it, though. He knew, through his acting, he had really touched something in them.”

Sylvia Walden, artistic director at Room for Theater, which was in Studio City for several years before closing this fall, explained that because of the intimate nature of that theater, patrons often felt very much at home. This sense of familiarity, however, had on occasion become too close for comfort.

Several years ago, in the midst of a performance of “Dulcy,” actress Delores Mann discovered that the footstool that she needed as a prop was being used to prop up an audience member’s feet. An embarrassed Mann had to ask for her stool back.

On another occasion, during “The Butter and Egg Man,” theatergoers had no qualms about walking onto the stage and helping themselves to a drink of water from the old-fashioned water cooler. Fortunately, it was not while the show was in progress, but it did come as a surprise, Mann said.

Animals have caused their share of chagrin at Theater Exchange, Burbank Little Theater and Gnu Theater.

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About eight years ago, Matthew Faison, Theater Exchange’s artistic director, was acting in “Indulgences in a Louieville Harem.” As part of his act, Faison had to sing.

One night, in the middle of his song, he heard people whispering the name Sam. As Faison looked up, he spotted his black Labrador retriever puppy heading toward him.

Earlier in the evening, Faison had taken precautions by locking Sam in a room, but somehow the 3-month-old pup had escaped to make his stage debut at the North Hollywood theater. Sam walked straight up to his master and plopped down beside him.

“He must have heard me singing and thought I was howling,” Faison said. “There was nothing I could do but surrender to it. Luckily, the audience thought it was funny.”

Two years ago, a cat named Burbank decided to make her stage debut. And since she had already made her home under the Burbank Little Theater, arriving on time for her performance was no problem.

During “Gate 11,” the hefty white cat simply strolled on stage, said Bernardo Rosa, managing director of the theater. The production had been staged to make audience members feel like airline passengers. So when Jill Owens, who played a stewardess, noticed the cat, she ad-libbed, “Did anybody leave their cat carrier open?”

Recently, at the Gnu Theater in North Hollywood, artistic director Jeff Seymour had a not-so-amusing experience with the iguana in the theater’s production of “El Salvador.”

During previews, actor Mike Michaud, who is in charge of handling the 4-foot-long tropical lizard, was routinely taking the animal from a terrarium. Just minutes before the show was to start, the iguana locked onto Michaud’s finger.

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Iguanas, although not carnivorous, do have razor-sharp teeth, Seymour said, and it was up to him to pry open the animal’s mouth. As restless audience members shifted in their seats, Seymour spent nearly 10 minutes backstage struggling. Finally, Michaud’s finger was freed.

“There were a couple of drops of blood around the iguana’s mouth that appeared like lipstick,” Seymour said. “But I wasn’t about to wipe it off.”

Human actors have also given artistic directors cause for worry--and created more than a few momentous evenings.

During a performance of “Vaguely Vegas,” presented by the Sherman Oaks improvisational troupe at Actors Alley, former artistic director Jordan Charney had one of his most memorable experiences. As part of the show, actor Mark Measures did one of his usual comic falls, only this time he hit his head. No one paid much attention to the incident, Charney said.

But when Measures got up and started working on an improvisation, there were problems.

“He was a little incoherent and was not funny at all,” Charney said. “People kept saying, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? This isn’t funny.’ ”

After leaving the stage, Measures passed out. “It was nothing serious, but it did cause a scare,” Charney said.

Then there are the stories of actors who not only miss their cues, they miss their performances. Such was the case about three years ago during the show “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . .” at the Back Alley Theater in Van Nuys.

Thalmus Rasulala, who had been cast as Paul Robeson, was on a movie shoot on the day in question. Confident that he would arrive at the theater in time to give his performance, Rasulala kept calling to reassure co-producing director Allan Miller. Until the very last minute, Miller believed him.

But when Rasulala’s cue came, it was a hesitant director who made his way on stage and delivered Robeson’s final testimony. “Sure, I was nervous,” Miller said. “But what could I do?”

Other stories of blackouts and electrical blowouts, leaking roofs and forgotten lines abound, but as all in the theater will affirm, “the show must go on.”

According to Laura Zucker, co-producing director of Back Alley Theater: “That’s what’s so special about live theater.”


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