Unscripted 'Forum' plays for effect

Margie Boule, The Oregonian * Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The actor's nightmares: Forgetting a line onstage. Missing an entrance. Standing on stage and having no idea what scene you're in.

Imagine combining all these nightmares, adding quite a few others and then volunteering to experience them -- without being paid to do so.

That's what happened last week, when Anonymous Theatre Company and Theatre Vertigo once again produced a theater piece guaranteed to drive actors crazy and amuse the heck out of the paying audience.

It was a huge success on both counts.

Last week's production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" put onstage a group of actors who never had rehearsed with each other for even a moment, accompanied by an orchestra the actors had never heard before.

That's the point of the annual production -- all actors are anonymous until the moment they have to speak their first line, when they rise from the audience and walk to the stage. Even the actors don't know who will be playing the other parts.

Last week a delighted audience watched actors sweat, swear, forget, improvise dance steps, miss entrances, pick up each other's props and turn in all the wrong directions. It was a thoroughly entertaining evening.

But what was it like for the actors on the stage? The performers who turned white or turned red or turned tail and sprinted from the stage in desperate exits?

"It was a rush," says Jeff Gorham, who played Marcus Lycus, owner of a house of courtesans. "It was like jumping out of an airplane without a chute."

"It was really, really, really exciting," says Bruce Blanchard, who took on the part of the wondrous Miles Gloriosis.

And Julianna Jaffe, in the leading role of the slave Pseudolus (a part usually played by a man with the stature of, say, Zero Mostel), found the experience "exhilarating."

Confidentiality was a concern even at auditions, held several weeks before the production. "It was orchestrated so you wouldn't run into anybody else," Jeff says. "As you went in, someone else was escorted out another door."

After the parts had been cast, the actors were given strict instructions: They could tell only a single person (a spouse or roommate, perhaps, who could help the actor memorize lines) that they were in the show.

Director Jim Crino e-mailed all stage directions to cast members, then met with each once or twice for individual rehearsals. "It was like having a secret affair with 20 people at the same time," Jim says.

Aside from the brief private coaching sessions, the actors were on their own.

Julianna, who had by far the most lines to memorize, says she "sat alone for a good month and a half," late nights, lunch hours, early mornings, memorizing. "I was actually pretty scared."

Before the show last week the actors were nervous, but they had to hide their fears so no one would suspect they were in the cast. Bruce admits he was shaking. Julianna suddenly couldn't remember any of her many lines. Jeff sat in his seat thinking, "What have I got myself into?"

Then one by one the actors rose from their seats in the audience and took the stage, in most cases joining complete strangers.

"What was going on backstage?" says Julianna, with a laugh. "A lot of introductions. I only knew one person in that whole cast."

There was a lot of high-energy teamwork going on backstage, the actors say. "It reminded me of when I used to be a waiter," Jeff says, when he'd be calm in front of customers and frenetic in the kitchen.

Actors handed each other props and ran to catch falling sets. Several studied scripts, frantically looking for their next entrances. Once, an actor realized someone standing nearby was supposed to be on stage and rather assertively pushed him in the right direction.

Onstage, whenever an actor forgot a line, he or she would say, "Line?" and a prompter in the front row would supply the missing words. Of course, that didn't help much when the cast skipped two entire pages.

They went back and fixed the error.

No one in the audience minded. Neither did the actors.

Many admit they auditioned for this production to face their own acting nightmares: of improv, of forgetting lines, of being under-rehearsed.

It worked. "This is the greatest way to discover and live through my fears," Julianna says. Bruce and Jeff agree.

Bruce, whose sword fell apart every time he unsheathed it, is no longer afraid of being underprepared on stage. Jeff, who got huge laughs when he was least sure of what came next, is less afraid of improv.

In the end, the advice director Jim Crino gave his actors in his first e-mail proved true: "Remember," he said, "the point of this is not the exuberance of perfection, it's the excitement of trying to get it right."