Advertisement
Entertainment & Arts

Waiting in the wings and practicing a role of patience

The office buildings of downtown Los Angeles shield the sun as Christopher Fairbanks whips his ’97 BMW through traffic. He’s spent the afternoon with his drama students and has no time to waste if he hopes to get to the Geffen Playhouse a half-hour before curtain.

As he swings north onto the Hollywood Freeway, he starts working his lines, an opening monologue with a touch of Southern drawl. His character, a dentist, is on the phone to mother, soon having to explain why he’s not working.

Hello, Mama.....We’re doing fine. How’re you? ...Not a thing to worry about. It’s a lull, a lull is circular, it’s round, in the end it’s not a lull...

He draws out the vowels and lets the beats fall between the lines. He’s recited this speech over and over and relishes its rhythm and language.

Advertisement

I don’t know, it could be people are taking better care of their teeth, fluoride, dental floss. It’s never one thing; it’s an amalgam, to use a dental analogy.....

Fairbanks doesn’t expect anyone will see his performance. He’s an understudy for “The Jacksonian,” and for the last seven weeks, neither Bill Pullman nor Ed Harris — whose roles he has studied — have missed a show.

If Fairbanks gets to Westwood early, he’ll pick up some takeout. The play runs 90 minutes, enough time for him to eat in the green room, where the play is broadcast on a closed-circuit monitor, prepare for tomorrow’s class and be home before 10.

Uh huh I know....The fact is, unfortunately, we can’t come Christmas Day....Susan doesn’t want to make the drive. She wants to stay home. Have Christmas at home....

Advertisement

“The Jacksonian” by Beth Henley is a portrait of a failing marriage darkened by the violence during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer in 1964. For almost two months, Fairbanks has studied, practiced and rehearsed and is ready to slip back in time as bartender Fred Weber or dentist Bill Perch, should the need arise.

But he is just as content to stay offstage. He knows ticket holders would be disappointed not to see the leads.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I love having an audience. I want the recognition as an actor — and I’m confident of my performance — but as an understudy, I don’t want to deprive the audience of the work of these actors and the chemistry they have developed with one another.”

Fairbanks has worked as an actor in this city for 14 years and has been cast as an understudy for six previous productions at the Geffen. He appreciates the paycheck and counts in his repertoire the ability to play this invisible role, a job he takes as seriously as if he were in front of a full house every night.

Fairbanks was living the life of an actor in Los Angeles — “driving and auditioning and hoping and praying” — when he pulled into the Arco station near his house and got a call from his agent almost two months ago.

The Geffen wanted him, no audition needed. Phyllis Schuringa, casting director, had consulted with the director Robert Falls and thought he’d be perfect. All Fairbanks remembers is saying yes. Yes to a play by Henley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Yes to a play directed by Falls, a Tony Award winner. Yes to being an understudy for Harris and Pullman.

Schuringa remembered Fairbanks’ audition to be an understudy for the 2008 production of Donald Margulies’ “Shipwrecked!” and admired his imaginative, playful and realistic interpretations of Louis de Rougemont, the comedy’s spirited fabulist.

She also knew that he had the temperament for the work. Not all actors, she says, can be understudies.

Advertisement

“They wake up in the morning, and it’s a slow walk to curtain, hoping and not knowing if they will get called,” she says. “They’re always on edge, uncertain what will happen during the day. It takes unclouded joy to do this every night.”

Fairbanks, 45, is accustomed to the routine. He can live with the uncertainty and harbors no scheme for his gain. This isn’t “All About Eve,” the 1950 film that famously depicted an understudy as a novice willing to do anything for fame and renown.

Success and discovery are rare, even if they are notable: Shirley MacLaine playing for Carol Haney in “The Pajama Game”; Anthony Hopkins playing for Laurence Olivier in “The Dance of Death.”

More common are the times the audience reacts with disappointment when it is announced that the star will be absent. In such instances, Fairbanks reminds himself that the story is more important than the celebrity and audiences will eventually warm to performances, no matter who is on stage.

He has been called up six times at the Geffen and had two false starts. Once an actor threw a footstool at a production assistant during intermission but calmed down in time for the second act. On another occasion, one of the principals complained of chest pains and was taken to the hospital but returned in time for the evening performance.

Fairbanks best remembers the 1998 run of August Strindberg’s “The Father” when the actor playing the pastor became ill. It was his first performance as an understudy, and he was terrified, but once on stage opposite Frank Langella, he fell into the character’s words and actions, navigating the cues and blocking without a slip.

At curtain call, Langella kissed him on the lips in appreciation of his performance.

At 7:30 p.m., Fairbanks arrives at the Geffen and heads upstairs. He has spent enough time in the green room to know the best sofa for lounging and the most out-of-the-way corner for practicing yoga. He greets his boss, stage manager Young Ji.

Advertisement

With five principal roles, “The Jacksonian” has three understudies: Fairbanks, Rebecca Jordan and Jeanne Syquia. They are required to stay at the theater until the last entrance of the actor they have studied.

Tall and lanky with a shaved head and an expressive brow, Fairbanks started acting in the late 1980s. He studied at New York University and then at UCLA. Since 1998, he has been in 10 theatrical productions, landed 20 film and television roles and numerous commercials. He has directed seven plays for the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts, where he works part time.

He draws no distinction between the understudies’ work and the principals’ performances. They are all, he argues, indispensable to the production, and the Geffen pays them the same: $566 a week, the amount established for this stage, the smaller of the two at the playhouse.

“Even if I don’t have an audience,” he says, “I’m getting paid to work with this beautiful language and storytelling. It keeps my love of acting alive.”

In a profession in which public approval is often the measure of an actor’s worth, Fairbanks learned a long time ago not to put too high a value on the opinions of others. It is a lesson that he and his wife, Elisa Surmont, also an actor, try to impart to their 11-year-old son, Russell.

“We all struggle to define ourselves, but we rarely use our own terms,” he says. “It’s often news to think of yourself as having worth independent of what others might say.”

Fairbanks received Henley’s script a few days after accepting the offer and immediately connected to the story. His life —parents divorcing when he was 8 — meshed with the drama, especially the moments when the dentist’s daughter tries to adjust to her parents’ separation.

He joined Jordan and Syquia at the Geffen four weeks after the principal actors had begun their rehearsals. Only Jordan rehearsed with the leads when a family emergency kept one actor away for a matinee and evening performance.

For two weeks, the understudies sat in the back of the theater and watched the rehearsals and previews. Once the play began its run, Ji, the stage manager, read lines with them and guided their portrayals. Fairbanks practiced and memorized the movements, manners and gestures established for his two characters by the playwright, the director and the lead actors.

When Pullman as the bartender overhears Perch’s wife tell the dentist not to come home, he pops the cork from a Scotch bottle, foreshadowing Perch’s descent into alcohol and drugs. When Harris as the dentist picks up a glass of Scotch, he swirls it while talking about his prowess with anesthesia.

Fairbanks admired these choices and incorporated them into his portrayals, but that doesn’t mean his creativity was stifled. He was able to explore his interpretations of the characters.

After he absorbed the subtleties of Pullman’s bartender, he wondered if he should imitate the bottled-up and constricted voice.

Practicing with Ji, Fairbanks developed a more melodious tone, closer to his own way of speaking, and, he felt, equally true for the character who had robbed a Texaco station, shot the cashier and was letting a “colored man” take the fall.

On a late afternoon two days later, the theater is empty. House lights wash the stage in a bright monochrome, and the understudies are rehearsing for the last time. “The Jacksonian” will end Sunday.

Fairbanks stands beside an empty bed, clipping his fingernails and brushing them off the bedspread. He picks up a telephone, places it in front of him and begins to dial. He shoots out his right wrist to show off his cuff as he brings the receiver to his ear.

Hello, Mama.....We’re doing fine. How’re you? ...Not a thing to worry about. It’s a lull, a lull is circular, it’s round, in the end it’s not a lull...

Jordan and Syquia move in the shadows backstage, ready for their scenes. The stage manager listens with the script in his hands as Fairbanks runs through his monologue, setting up his character for the singing and boasting, the raging and killing that lie ahead.

thomas.curwen@latimes.com


Newsletter
Get our daily Entertainment newsletter

Get the day's top stories on Hollywood, film, television, music, arts, culture and more.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Advertisement