Molecular Badness

Someone asked a question about actors reading reviews in the post below this one. I said that in general I try not to read reviews – at least until the show has closed. It can only confuse the issue and it is so damn hard to remind yourself, in the middle of a run, when you might be feeling vulnerable ANYway, that it is just one person’s opinion.

However: sometimes you don’t NEED the reviewer to tell you a piece of work stinks up the joint. You KNOW it. You KNOW IT IN YOUR DNA. BECAUSE BADNESS LIKE THAT IS MOLECULAR.

So in light of all of that – thought I’d re-post this. I know I wrote it and all, but it still makes me laugh.

Bombs I have been in

I have been in my share of bombs. Plays which made me question whether or not I was doing the right thing with my life. Plays which being a part of made me hate the whole world. Plays through which I understood, on a deeper and more visceral level, just what the word “embarrassment” really means. My long-time dear friend Jackie (she of the brown wool leg-wraps) has labeled the kind of embarrassment you experience when you are up onstage in a HEINOUS piece of theatre as “white-hot shame”. That about sums it up. Embarrassment like that is not an emotion. It is a full-body sensation.

The only thing to do when you are in such a cataclysmic bomb is bond ferociously with your fellow cast members about how terrible the play is (hopefully they feel the same way … If they do not, if they think the play is good, then you are completely screwed … you will realize what it means to be truly alone) – and have absolutely rocking cast parties where the bacchanals you create will drown out the memory of the SHITE you have just inflicted on an unsuspecting audience.

Some of the best parties I have ever been to, parties that will live on in infamy, were cast parties for some horrific play I was doing. Being in a BAD play is much more condusive to making life-long friends. Because you must cling to one another in agony and white-hot shame.

Bomb #1
I was in a production of Lysistrata in college. Anyone who was unfortunate enough to see it, 15 years ago, continues to use it as a gauge by which to judge other terrible plays. As in: “I saw a TERRIBLE play the other night. It wasn’t as bad as that Lysistrata you were in, but it came close.”

First of all, the director thought it would be cool (and please, do not ask me why), to call HIS version of the play “Ly-SIS-trata” … as opposed to the normal pronunciation, which everybody knows is: “Lysis-TRA-ta.”

So we, as cast members, were forced, against our will, to participate in this idiocy. He forced us to be accomplices.

Conversations with outsiders would go like this:

“So what play are you working on now, Sheila?”


“Uh � I think you mean Lysis-TRA-ta.” (with a tone of: Wow. You just mispronounced that word, and you’re a theatre major!)

“No, no, I know … but this director wants to call it Ly-SIS-trata.”


“Uh … well…I think he thinks that maybe the audience will … uh… he wants to show that the play has relevance in today’s….Oh, Jesus Christ, I have no idea.”

I had countless conversations like that, and I resented it.

3,000 years of Lysis-TRA-ta needed to be upended. For what purpose? If the play had come off brilliantly, then of course the director would be forgiven everything, because it is all about the result. You can be as pretentious and as pompous as you want, as long as the end-result is something to be proud of. That’s the deal with the entertainment business. It attracts massive egos. And that’s fine. But if you have a massive ego, then you BETTER deliver the goods. Nothing worse than a grandiose personality, filled with dreams of glory, pumped up with a sense of grandeur and originality, who does crap work.

We, as cast members, were held hostage by our own director. He forced us to do things onstage which we found supremely embarrassing and stupid. At one point, I lost it, and pleaded with him, “Oh, come on, you aren’t serious, are you?”

I remember one night, as we all were preparing to enter for the first time, I started crying. I just could not go on. I could not subject myself to that meat-grinder of white-hot shame. I wept to my friend Mitchell, as we stood in the wings, “I just don’t want to go out there! I feel sick! I don’t want to do it! It’s so awful!” Meanwhile, of course, we are in our GOOFBALL Roman-toga costumes, talking to each other seriously, having nervous breakdowns at the same moment. The situation was bleak.

Actor-friends would come to see Ly-SIS-trata and not even hold back their contempt and scorn. Normally, when you are in something that is clearly bad, and other actor-friends come to see it, they usually say one of these comments:

“Congratulations!” (complete avoidance of the awful-ness)

“So how did you feel?” (that is my least favorite one)

“Great energy up there!” (subtext: You put all your energy into that???)

“So what’s next for you?” (subtext: You need to move on from this nightmare as quickly as possible.)

All of this is code for: “Wow. That was absolutely god-awful.”

Well, actor-friends came to see Ly-SIS-trata and couldn’t even hide behind any of those stock phrases, they could not lie. To lie about a play that was that offensively bad goes against the grain of human morality. I would come out afterwards, having changed into civilian clothes, washed off the stage makeup, and one of my friends who had come to see it would immediately exclaim, “Oh my GOD, you were NOT KIDDING when you said this was a piece of shit.” Or, in the case of my boyfriend at the time: “That was absolutely fucking terrible.”

One friend actually recoiled from my hug. As though my even being associated with such an awful production meant that somehow … my soul was corrupt, or I was a bad person.

The play wasn’t just bad. The play was so bad that it made people angry.

Bomb #2
Another TERRIBLE play I was in (and I’ve been pretty fortunate … haven’t done too many white-hot-shame plays) was a musical version of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. I did it in Philadelphia.

I knew from the first rehearsal, when I met the Anglophile playwright, that I was in trouble. The only way to save myself was to treat the entire process as one long extended GOOF, which did not endear me to said playwright, who thought that Three Men in a Boat was on par with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

A couple of very good friends (Mitchell, Jackie, and Steven) drove down for opening night, to participate in my goofing on the production.

There was an opening night gala afterwards, where I could not contain my apathy for the playwright.

She kept trying to take my picture, for her photo album. I did not want to be in her photo album. By this point, I hated her, because she had wrote the piece of shit that gave me so much white-hot shame. I don’t mind if you write something bad. It’s hard to write something good. But if you write something bad, and your level of self-awareness is so low that you cannot at all see that you still have work to do – then you have earned my scorn. I can’t stand lack of self-awareness and blithe assumptions of perfection. This chick thought what we did was great. She didn’t feel the badness in the molecules. So she would aim her camera at me and I would protest. Openly. Not even trying to be polite. “I told you not to take my picture, okay?”

I wanted no evidence that I had ever been involved with this production. But she trapped me a couple of times, taking candid shots of me, her lead actress, swilling back free wine like a free-loader, drowning my sorrows and white-hot shame, whispering with my friends like a conspiring Roman senator, not being enthusiastic at all. All 4 of us guffawing with irreverent laughter.

My friend Mitchell took one look at the playwright, saw which way the wind was blowing, and murmured to me, “She looks like a retired racehorse.” Which was so true, and so spot-on, that the ENTIRE terrible experience was redeemed for me, in that moment. I feel like I did Three Men in a Boat in order for Mitchell to be able to make that frighteningly apt observation.

But the crowning glory was the review. It is, by far, the worst review I have ever received. Actually, I escaped comment. All of the actors did. The full brunt of blame for the debacle was placed on the retired racehorse. As it should have been. I even kept the review. I still have it somewhere.

I don’t remember anything but the first sentence:

“Not since the Titanic has there been such a nautical disaster.”

Even though there was definitely shame involved in being a part of that “nautical disaster”, I also admit that I felt tiny pricks of weird pride at being involved with something so monumentally bad. It wasn’t just a bad show, a take-it-or-leave-it show. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill bad show. It was HISTORICALLY bad.

Bomb #3
The final terrible show I must inflict on you all is: the half-hour version of Macbeth I was unlucky enough to get roped into.

At grad school, we had a season of thesis productions. Each one had to be half an hour long. So the actors would have half-hour scenes, whatever the playwrights wrote for their thesis projects had to be half-hour…you get the picture.

Well, there was a director in our program who (for some unknown STUPID reason) wanted to somehow do the entirety of Macbeth in half an hour. Why his thesis project was approved, I have no clue.

I’m still angry that it was.

Angry because I was playing one of the five witches.

(“Hold on a second,” you might be thinking, “five witches? Aren’t there only three witches in Macbeth?”)

You may be thinking that but that is only because you are an intelligent person, with a sense of dignity and logic, which clearly was lacking in the mind of the director.

He made there be FIVE witches.

There are too many problems to even discuss … because it is hard to get past the wrong-headed-ness of the entire idea of the project to begin with.

People were racing around, murdering each other, casting spells, having duels, seeing blood on their hands … all in half an hour’s time.

The man who played Macbeth had an accent – but … when he played Macbeth his accent became incomprehensible. So the line: “Have we eaten the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?” consistently came out as: “Have we et the insane RUHT that takes the reason prisoner??” RUHT. And he would emphasize that word. It got worse and worse. I think he thought it sounded good, because he started to draw out the R. Have we et the insane rrrrrrrUHT that takes the reason prisoner? It was heinous.

Every time he would say it, every time he was even close to approaching saying it, the five witches (who all had to be onstage at all times, terrible luck, we could never escape to lick our wounds of white-hot-shame) would put our heads down, as we were casting our spooky spells on the five corners of the stage (not the four corners, the five corners), and shake with laughter.

Finally, the director said tentatively, “Uh … yeah … could you please say ‘root’ and not ‘ruht’?”

Macbeth said, “I am saying ‘ruht’.”

Two or three of the witches burst into inappropriate laughter.

The director, trying to hold us all together, and keep us from spiralling out of control, said, tentatively again: “Actually … you just did it again. The word is ‘root’. With an ‘oo’ sound. If you say ‘ruht’, then the meaning of the line is lost.”

I held myself back from saying, “If you attempt to do Macbeth in half an hour’s time, then the meaning of the ENTIRE PLAY is lost.”

At one point, I had to run onstage (the five witches, even worse luck, had to double as other characters in this misbegotten piece of shite) – and announce to Macbeth: “The Queen, my lord, is dead!” Once, during rehearsal, things were getting so out of control, and the witches were reaching such a state of frenzied hysteria – that I raced onstage – shouted – “The Queen – ” took a deep breath – and then burst into hysterical guffaws, laughing my way through the rest of the line like some kind of jibbering loony-tunes who thought it was a LAUGH RIOT that the Queen was dead! The energy in the rehearsal room was so irreverent that Queen Macbeth, sitting over on the sidelines, now that she was “dead”, said, sarcastically, “Thanks a lot.” I was pretty much done for the day. I couldn’t get through the line without laughing from there on out.

Boom boom boom, scenes came fast and furious. Boom: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conspire. Boom: Murder and carnage. Boom: The witches race into place and cackle gleefully. Boom: Lady Macbeth staggers on, shrieking “Out damn’d spot” … and then just as quickly staggers off. Boom: There is a very quick sword fight. Who knows why. People just had duels back then, I guess. Boom: Everybody dies. Except for the five witches. Who live on, eternally. Exeunt

Actors have different ways of surviving terrible shows. The five witches survived this nightmare by literally becoming ONE. We were a five-some. We shared one brain. The normal backstage competition thing that normally goes on, especially among actresses, was non-existent. We bonded into one amorphous being. We completely separated ourselves from the poor stars of this stupid production, who still were trying to actually do Macbeth. The five witches realized very early on that Macbeth could not be done properly in half an hour, so we refused to take anything seriously. Anything. Anything.

Nobody had told us what our makeup should be like, as witches, so the five of us designed our own looks. Our makeup and hair got more and more elaborate and out of control with every performance. We had to arrive at the theatre earlier and earlier in order to complete our transformations in time for curtain. Our faces were literally caked with Kabuki-mask makeup. The more grotesque the better. It was like we were a KISS cover band.

At one point, Eileen, a beautiful girl, turned from the mirror, to display her horrific makeup job … red circles around her eyes, red wrinkle lines radiating from her mouth, caved-in cheeks, and said to all of us, brightly, “Do I look really gross?”

We validated her. “Yup. Very gross.”

My costume, unfortunately, made me look like the chair of a women’s studies department at a small college in Vermont. We would all be sitting at our makeup mirrors, and I would suddenly start to pontificate about the evils of the patriarchy, or about holding focus groups to show women their cervixes, and the rest of the witches, slathering on their own makeup, would be cackling with glee about it. I was also in the midst of reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at the time, so there are a couple of pictures of me, backstage, in my “wymyn’s studies” Wiccan outfit, twigs sticking out of my hair, big brownish-purple circles around my eyes, seriously reading my book.

Jen, my roommate, with her long mane of curly hair, made her hair bigger and bigger and bigger every night. That became her main goal. To make her hair as large as possible, so that it would completely shield her face. Also, every time she had a line, Jen disguised her voice. Sometimes it was gruff, and manly. Other times whispery and feeble. Regardless: the point was: it was NOT HER VOICE.

The five witches were so taken up by our stupid costumes and makeup that we would hang out in the backstage hallway before entering, taking pictures of ourselves.

Pictures of all the witches peeking their crazy heads around the corner.

Pictures of all the witches making their way down the stairs, like some demented version of the Von Trapp family singers.

Please realize that these were taken probably 30 seconds before we had to go onstage. Literally. Stage managers were looking for us while these photos were being taken. Obviously we had our priorities straight.

We were collectively late for our entrance one night because we were too busy taking pictures of ourselves. We resented the actual SHOW we were doing, for taking away from our time taking pictures of ourselves in costume.

Each witch had to carry a big gnarled stick. The first witch-scene began with us doing what was supposed to be a Celtic dance, I suppose. Or something randomly pagan. Or randomly Druid-like. Lots of drum-beats, and moving in circles, and banging the sticks on the floor. It was interminably stupid, and horrifically embarrassing to execute.

We had to enter, as one, holding up our sticks in front of our grotesque faces, moving as slowly as glaciers. The effect was supposed to be scary and ominous, I guess, but a couple of nights I heard someone in the audience burst into laughter at the first sight of us. I don’t blame them.

And occasionally, as we moved on like that, with our sticks, I would hear either Eileen or Jen or Kimberly start to giggle …and try to choke it down … but laughter like that catches on like wildfire. Once it begins, it is nearly impossible to stop. So there we all were, supposed to be the scary 5 witches, moving onto the stage, holding up our sticks, shaking silently with laughter.

Jen made a big announcement backstage to the rest of the witches, on the night of our dress reherarsal.

“I have decided … that when we come on with our sticks—-” Long pause. We all waited, breathlessly, hoping that she might actually have an IDEA about how we could make it all better. But then she concluded, finishing her thought, “We look like assholes.”

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24 Responses to Molecular Badness

  1. Emily says:

    This is one of my favorite posts of yours.

  2. red says:

    I still laugh about that poor man trying to get out of the theatre. hahahahahahahahaha

    It was an AWFUL experience for me in the moment – I mean, he was YELLING at us – but in retrospect? So glad it happened because it is so damn funny.

  3. Emily says:

    I can’t even imagine how you could keep your focus during something like that.

  4. red says:

    Sheer WILLPOWER.

  5. Cullen says:

    That was awesome. I have read it, going through your Popular Posts, but I absolutely love it.

  6. red says:

    Well, we’ve all had moments of annoyance at someone else’s rudeness or selfishness. But shouting at actors while they are performing a play is completely different.

  7. Emily says:

    It’s not JUST will power…I think it has a lot to do with true talent as an actor. Okay, so I’m a total snob that thinks that theater acting is a TON harder than film acting. I’d really love it if you would write a post about those moments – the ones where you can’t say “okay, can we have another take?” and talk about REAL live acting. In the moment. Everyone I know that has done it describes it as a rush of some kind. I tried it in an acting class, but gave up after the first session because of external factors. Becoming another person isn’t easy; it’s actually quite madening.

    I love your insights.

  8. Ann Marie says:

    Love that post. My favorite part is Jen’s line at the end: “I have decided… that we look like assholes.” Bwahahahahaha.

    It reminds me of the classic Mitchell line, on the day you moved from the apartment on Ashland. Remember that? We were at, um, Cafe Avanti, because the backwards-wearing-cap guys who were leaving the house you were moving into decided NOT TO PACK until that morning. So there were all these delays, etc. And we’re fuming about it, waiting around for them to clear their crap out of the house and just generally ranting. And then Mitchell announces, “Here’s the THING.” And we all stop and look at him because we know he’s going to really sum it all up for us. “I’m aaaannnngrrry.” Ok. Yes.

  9. Emily says:

    Though I’m pretty sure ‘madening’ is not a word and will look it up in the morning to verify.

  10. tracey says:

    This is literally the most HYSTERICAL thing I’ve ever read.

    I’m choking. Can’t stop. If I die, it’s all your fault.

  11. Nightfly says:

    You’re right, Emily. I was in dramatic pairs for our debate team in HS. Rehearsed and rehearsed our scene from “Prisoner of Second Avenue” – the opening, where the slowly cracking husband rants about the city and winds up commanding his wife to get into a wall-pounding contest with the stewardesses next door.

    We weren’t bad. (Or, she wasn’t bad and I was a huge 16-year old hunk-o-ham.) Then we got in front of a classroom full of fellow competitors and started off; I reached the line, “Oh, I don’t know… It’s the apartment, it’s the city… It’s everything.” Of course I remember it NOW, dammit, but then I got as far as “I don’t know,” and realized that it was true. The rest of the line was gone. Should have skipped ahead but I was 16, and I sucked, so…

    We were not judged well. My poor acting partner cried in the girls’ room for fifteen minutes and our team captain hollered at me – me, in my stupid homemade “costume” (slippers, ratty bathrobe, t-shirt, pajama bottoms), her in her Sunday best.

    Nothin’s quite like dying in person.

  12. Alex says:

    Sweet roller skating Christ.

    The pictures.

    You’re a blithering Genius.

  13. red says:

    ann – hahahahahahaha

    Totally – like we thought he actually had an IDEA when all he was doing was expressing his emotions.

    and remember we all just LAUGHED IN HIS FACE

  14. red says:

    Nightfly – oh no!!! That is the worst feeling in the world!

    That opening scene of that play is absolutely hilarious. He is LOSING IT!

  15. red says:

    Emily – I think it’s true. It’s said over and over again that film is a director’s medium and theatre is the actor’s medium. I mean, you have directors in theatre – but once you’re out there, it is up to the actor to save a situation, or make it work. A director can edit the shit out of a badly acted scene and make it look pretty okay! But theatre – if you’re bad?? Then shrieking winds of badness hurtle towards you from the audience and no one will bail you out. You had BETTER have your shit together when you go out there!!

  16. red says:

    tracey – don’t die!! hahahahaha It’s just bad theatre!

  17. David says:

    I just got a sensoral flash back of seeing your face below me, in what was supposed to be the throes of ecstasy, but in reality completely annoyed with all this synthetic hair in your mouth. I laugh out loud remembering that.

  18. red says:


    There’s so much more to talk about with Sitcom … uhm Juggs? Lightbulb?? Member playing Uno backstage? Like we cared more about our Uno game than the actual SHOW.

  19. Ken says:

    Three years from now, assuming I can wait that long, I’m going to use the phrases “et the insane RUHT” and Rise and Decline of the Third Witch in a comment here. Sometimes what looks like a feat of memory involves a lot of advance planning.

  20. red says:

    Oh my God, I already can’t wait.

  21. Mr. Lion says:

    I would see such pain, panic, and shame in his eyes that occasionally I would burst out laughing. Onstage.

    What I wouldn’t have paid to have seen that. Classic.

    At least you haven’t had to deal with the torture devices occasionally referred to as “costumes”, at least to my knowledge. I’ve been in a few bombs that had crap right out of … well, hell, I don’t KNOW where else you’d stuff a 20 pound block of painted foamcore on someone and call it a costume, but I doubt it’s a unique concept.

    Shudder. Reading about someone else’s white hot shame moments always brings back your own.

  22. red says:

    Lion – white-hot-shame is DEFINITELY a thing to be shared!! one must not endure it alone!!

  23. Timmer says:

    I may have you beat…the Loyola Production of Macbeth, Fall 1983. Macbeth as Conan the Barbarian. (More affectionately known to the female members of the department as, “YUM. Macbootie!”) All the guys in *short* kilts and lots of leather, myself playing a combined character of Donalbain and Young Seward. (Donalbain coming back for the crown…sigh…seen it.)

    Macbeth played by an anorexic speed freak the director found “naturally interestingly insane.” One problem with that was by the first Sunday Matinee, he had *no* energy left because he’d decided to end a five day speed-run so he could get some sleep before a Monday exam. I was literally honestly blocking his stage-prop but still heavy and deadly broadsword during the first sword fight because he’d completely either forgotten or just decided to ignore the choreography. As I was carried off-stage all I had time to tell the guy playing Macduff was, “He’s lost it, en guarde.” Which I thought was pretty clever considering Macbootie had almost taken my head off. Luckily Macduff was not a theater major and had no compulsion to actually try to match the sword blows to the music or even wait for the music to finish before he disarmed and beheaded Macbootie. He walked out, double-timed the dialouge barely waiting for Macbootie to answer, bellowed an “untimely rrrrrrrrrrrrrrripped,” and beat the sword out of Macbootie’s hand.

    My favorite night was student night when we decided, “Fine, he wants short kilts, he’s gonna get short kilts…and all that goes with it.” Somehow we all managed to “forget” our black spandex short-shorts we were supposed to wear.

    I got five phone numbers that night…four of them from girls.

  24. mitchell says:

    i was in two of those bombs! remember the NU paper(the playwrights lamamater no less) it Shitcom!!!???? I was in a show in Chicago after u left taht was an adaptation of a very swet novel called The Planets..i will never forget the last line of the Trib review…”Tip for theater companies: when you have a show as bad as this one..the only honorable thing to do is close it.” ouch!!! oh it was bad and over 3 mother humping hours long!!!! I played a arthritic dalmation…i kid u not..Louise was my owner. It was pure shame every night..we did close early..mercifully! oh and David..i told someone about the “lighbulb in the ass backstage at Sitcom” story…ive been dining out on that puppy for years!!! I love u!!!!

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