Sunday, January 13, 2019

Unforgettable

I was 22 when she kissed me for the first, and last, time. She was 39, maybe 40, gorgeous, a total stranger. 

This is a true story. 

I had just graduated college with a theatre degree and was spending six weeks at a prominent professional theatre which had a summer acting conservatory. (Folks, I could not GET enough theatre.) So each day I would drive most of an hour, don my tights and recite Shakespeare sonnets in the tiny black box theatre or from the rolling grass hillocks outside the complex.

One day a staffer I had never seen before poked her head in the rehearsal room and called me out of class. Twenty heads went up to watch me go. I did not know what was happening. A death in the family? Egads, and me in tights? 

She explained that actors were auditioning down on the mainstage for the upcoming season's Chekhov play and the guy who normally "read" scenes with the actors was unavailable, so Martin suggested they use me.

Martin.

He was one of the two co-founders of this famous theatre, and the year before he had actually come to my college a few miles up the road to direct us in a classic piece of Irish drama. Our professor and he were old pals. I played a great part, and got to work with this esteemed professional director.

He kicked our butts. Our young ivory tower-dwelling butts. 

"I didn't believe you. Start over" was something I had never heard before from a director. He made us better. Exponentially better. See above: butt-kicking.

"You're a good actor, George" he said to me once. I was 21, and coming from him, it was heady stuff. That sentence continued with a "but..." but there is no need to elaborate. You and I are busy people, dear reader.

So a year later in Martin's own theater, he had tapped me to help with auditions, something he knew I could learn from, something I would appreciate. Let's be clear—I wasn't auditioning for this professional show, just reading scenes with the "real" actors. 

I played a young man my own age. I acted one scene with ingenues my own age, vivacious and gushing. And I played another scene with middle-aged actresses, auditioning for the part of my mother.

That's when she walked in. I'll call her Emery. Emery Eldridge. Her name was all alliteration, and her long, wavy blonde hair framed a Hollywood-perfect face, which is why I never forgot either. 

It was a scene in which my hand is injured, and the mother is doting, cooing and leaning close and being over-attentive. I had played the scene a few times already. It was a little disturbing, kind of incestuous. Then Emery took it up a notch. She fawned on me, caressed my hand, then leaned in and kissed me right on the lips. Mama!

I was not expecting that.

The director was not expecting that.

I have to think she got the part right on the spot.

See, auditioning requires a different set of techniques than performing the final product. One key goal of an audition, when you are up against so many other talented, beautiful people, is to be memorable. You may do things in an audition you would never do in performance, just for effect. 

Emery had an effect.

My first thought was oh wow, I am getting kissed. She is kissing me. She is effing kissing me right here! This is a good kiss. 

My second thought was, oh crap, she's blocking my script. Do I have the next line? 

I hated to break the moment, but I wanted to be a pro. Didn't want to miss a cue. So I found my place and we finished the scene.

There was small talk between her and the director, the other founder of the theatre, who I had never met before. Another heady moment. Then I did it. I waited for a lull and then went for the laugh.

"Um," I said, "You know...that wasn't quite right for me. Could we do it again?"

I was 22. 

The balls. 

Cracked everybody up. Eventually I went back upstairs to my fellow students with quite a story to tell. Emery did get the part. I never saw the show, so I don't know if they used the kiss. I doubt it. It would have been a bit much, even for Chekhov.

I have thought about her over the years, her memorable name. A few days ago, I went a-googling. I was saddened to see she had died in her late 50s, about 20 years after our moment. No details were given, except that a few years after our scene she had left acting and become a humanitarian, working to help the underprivileged around the world, and the planet itself. Her obit said that her college major, at an Ivy League school, was a double—theatre, yes, but also political science. In the end, she wanted to make a difference.

I checked her acting credits on the Internet Movie Database, and she was in everything in the '70s and '80s, cop shows and mysteries and comedies, in shows which can still be found all over YouTube. 

I watched a scene or two. The writing was not exactly Chekhov. Nobody kissed anybody. Elegantly alliterative names were not noted by impressionable young actors. 

There is a theory of the universe that all things which have ever happened or will happen are still going on, just in a different dimension. That right now, somewhere, Emery is leaning in to kiss me. Right now she is kissing me. Right now her blonde hair is brushing my cheek. Right now I am never forgetting her name.


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