Great Moments in Theatre – Part 1

I’m currently working on a production of Assassins at Signature. Since Signature’s management prefers that one doesn’t discuss their current productions on the internet, today I’m going to talk about the last time I did Assassins at Signature, in 1992.

As with the current production, I was cast as Sara Jane Moore, who made an attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life in San Francisco in 1975. In the photo, I’m just to Mr. Nixon’s right – a symphony in polyester. The others are, from left to right, Sean Baldwin, Wallace Acton, Joe Dodd, Richard Potter, Sherri Edelen, Gregg Glaviano, Buzz Mauro and Michael Sharp. It was a dynamite cast, a terrific production and very satisfying personally – although it was responsible for one of the most heart-stopping moments of my career.

A running gag in Assassins is that poor Sara Jane is so inept that she inadvertently shoots off her gun at any given moment. In one scene, I had to carry on my oversized leather handbag, a KFC bucket and two cans of Tab (which were filled with water rather than soda – cheaper and neater that way). As I entered, I had to “accidentally” shoot my gun inside my handbag and react accordingly. Always good for a laugh. The gun lived in its own little pocket inside the handbag, and it was loaded with blanks, so it was safe. However, unbeknownst to me, as the run of the show continued, the nightly explosion within the handbag was fraying the pocket’s acetate lining. One night the scene started as usual: I made my entrance, shot off the gun, met cast member Sherri Edelen at the park bench which formed the set for the scene, sat down, put the handbag containing the gun on the stage, handed Sherri one of the Tabs, and sat eating the chicken and drinking water out of the Tab can as Sherri launched into the first of several long monologues she had in the scene.

It wasn’t long before I smelled something odd. At first I thought something was wrong with one of the stage lights; perhaps a gel was melting. But that wasn’t it. As Sherri continued to speak, I glanced casually around the stage, trying to identify the source of the smell. My glance fell on the inside of the handbag at my feet, and to my horror, I saw it was glowing. Clearly sparks from the shot had ignited the gun-pocket’s lining.

I picked up the bag. Since it was shaped like a tote bag, it didn’t have a closure of any kind. I crossed my arms over it, still holding a chicken leg and the Tab can, and pressed it against my stomach, hoping to snuff the incipient fire. Sherri glanced at me (it was, after all, not what I normally did in the scene), then continued with her monologue. After a few seconds, I uncrossed my arms and looked into the bag. A wisp of smoke drifted up, and the interior of the pocket was still smoldering. Sherri glanced at me again, this time clearly smelling the smoke, but she didn’t miss a beat.

I knew that I had to put the fire out, not only for the scene’s sake but because my blank pistol was fully loaded (the end of the scene involved many more gunshots) and I was terrified that it would start to go off. There was only one thing to do. Casually, I emptied the Tab can into my purse.

Sherri’s eyes went huge with amazement. Somehow her mouth kept on with the monologue, although it was clear she thought I’d lost my mind. I glanced into the purse again. Success. The fire was out.

I don’t know how we got through the rest of the scene. When the end of the scene came and I had to fire the remaining blanks in my gun, I was sure that the ammo would be too wet to shoot, but the gun performed like a champ. Finally we made our exit downstage left into the wings. Sherri turned to me for an explanation but I had doubled over in that kind of silent, wheezing laughter that hurts. As the gun was snatched away, wiped down and reloaded, I told her in a kind of whispered scream what had happened. She went into her own silent hysterics. The reloaded gun was handed to me and I hurried around to stage right to enter for “The Gun Song,” where other cast members wanted to know why I’d put water in my handbag.

The weird thing is, I don’t know if the audience ever realized what was going on. I heard no gasps, no murmuring as the whole episode unfolded. I’d tried to be subtle when I emptied the Tab can into the handbag, so maybe they didn’t see it. Or maybe they had accepted that Sara Jane was such a flake that it was unremarkable. Or maybe they DID notice and were just too polite to snicker. Whatever the reason, it was simultaneously one of my Most Embarrassing Moments and A Great Moment In Theatre. More to come, as the mood strikes me.

One comment

  1. LuvDusty

    Donna! You are a true pro! Can’t wait to see you in this year’s version of Assassins! I have tickets for June 1st preview. Break a leg! Keep writing, your stories are wonderful! 🙂

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