“We’re actors,” Tom Stoppard wrote in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. “We’re the opposite of people.” Over the course of my theatrical career, I have experienced the truth of this statement firsthand. Theater people, as a general rule, are walking caricatures of themselves, complete with foibles and idiosyncrasies that would put an Oscar Wilde character to shame. If, as Hemingway once observed, “happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know,” realness in theater people is the second rarest. Perhaps eight percent of those you will encounter in community theater are Real People of the sort worth befriending; the other 92 percent are arrogant two-faced backbiters who would sell their own mother’s funeral plot — with her buried in it — for a decent role or a pack of Marlboro Lights. But what do you expect from a group of people who lie for a living – or, as is the case in community theater, lie just for the fun of it? If you wanted to meet good people, you should have tried another branch of volunteerism. Maybe soup kitchens. Or convent bake sales. Here are ten of the people you will encounter time and time again:
1. The Figurehead Chair
The Chairman of the Board occasionally goes by the title “Artistic Director” or some similar title invoking his totally unmerited authority. Whatever the case, this is the Head Honcho, the Big Cheese, the one who (theoretically) oversees the inner workings of the operation and (theoretically) ensures all runs smoothly. The problem with the Figurehead Chair is that he typically has no artistic ability of his own and instead lives vicariously through the talent of others, siphoning it leech-like from his underlings and bleeding them dry in the process. He is not above taking credit for other people’s achievements, and indiscriminately blackballs anyone seen as not taking his Authority seriously enough. Virtually useless yet drunk on power (an unhappy combination), the Figurehead Chair is a deadly force to be reckoned with. When the Chair insists on directing, the resultant show will always be a Neil Simon play, some pedestrian drawing-room comedy, or worse, The Mousetrap.
2. The Diva Ingenue
The Diva Ingenue views the world as her oyster and herself as its pearl, the crowning achievement of the evolutionary process. Samuel Johnson once observed, “Almost every man wastes part of his life in attempts to display qualities which he does not possess, and to gain applause which he cannot keep” — words tailor-made to describe the Diva Ingenue. She fancies herself the next Idina Menzel and is ruthless, catty, conniving, morally bankrupt, and lacking in original thought. On any given production she has banged her leading man, the director, the music director, and the entire pit orchestra with the exception of the second strings. She has never once broken a nail at a set build, the words “supporting role” are not in her vocabulary, and God help the lighting designer who fails to spot her properly. If the Diva Ingenue ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Her natural enemy is the Talented Lackey (see #6), whom she sees as her personal clotheshorse and punching bag. The Talented Lackey, in turn, often fantasizes about spike-taping her to death and stashing the body in the props room, but would never dare; she’s too f-cking talented to replace.
3. The Lackluster Leading Lady
The Lackluster Leading Lady is the Diva Ingenue’s classier but less talented cousin. Her acting ability is serviceable and entirely unworthy of remark; she won’t be attending the Tonys anytime soon, but the likelihood of the audience clawing their eyes out in despair while watching her perform is minimal. One of community theater’s greatest mysteries is why the Lackluster Leading Lady is cast with such alarming frequency; she is pretty but not beautiful, watchable but not mesmerizing, and overall a vapid, dull, and uninspiring human being. No one dislikes the Lackluster Leading Lady, but no one remembers to invite her to the cast party either. She has an unfortunate tendency to crush on #4, the Brooding Artiste, who enjoys the worshipful adoration and will passionately pursue her… until he finds out she thinks Shakespeare wrote The Seagull and that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is about animal cruelty.
4. The Brooding Artiste
The Brooding Artiste is smack-dab in the middle of what Orson Welles once called “that period which is almost a full stop in the involved sentence of a man’s life, when every man’s universe has growing pains and every man is his own Hamlet.” He is generally an actor, occasionally a director or playwright, and never a techie. Too young to retire and too old to run away to Broadway and 42nd Street to pursue the stage, the Brooding Artiste is afflicted with a bad case of the betwixt-and-between, which he feels keenly. Plagued by existential angst, the Brooding Artiste has a hyper-romantic view of the cosmos and a palpable weakness for Lackluster Leading Ladies and Diva Ingenues. He has been known to sabotage his interpersonal relationships because he can’t reconcile his romanticized notions of how things ought to be with the prosaic reality of dealing with another deeply flawed human being. Although the Brooding Artiste tends to drink too much and write poetry alone in his room to still the raging maelstrom of his thoughts, he is one of the most intelligent, compassionate, well-intentioned, and trustworthy people you will encounter in community theater. His natural ally is the Talented Lackey; he is her listening ear and keeper of her sanity, while she calls him out on his bullsh-t and extricates his head from up his ass as needed. The two may collectively form one of the most functionally symbiotic relationships possible in the theater when he can overcome his yen for his leading ladies.
5. The Charming Sociopath
The Charming Sociopath’s twin goals in life are to get ahead and to get laid. If he can do both simultaneously, so much the better. He is remorseless in his seduction methods: Facebook-friending 17-year-old stagehands, spouting bullsh-t about Brecht and Ionesco that he just looked up on Wikipedia that morning, and serenading young and susceptible ensemble members with romantic ballads at three a.m. (it’s a good rule of thumb that if any man in the theater sings you a love song that lyrically involves baking you into a pie, run). His eyes are bloodshot from excessive weed use and he has elevated the one-night stand to an art form. If meaningless sex were the Dallas Cowboys, this guy would be decked out in a #8 jersey with his face painted blue-and-white clutching a star-spangled foam finger. The Charming Sociopath is often found showmancing the Diva Ingenue; she is the flint to his steel and the resultant conflagration could burn down the Ardennes. They are two peas in a twin pod of F-cked-Up: emotional castrati who live for the sound of applause and who love nothing in the world so much as their own reflection. It is of such people that Kerouac once wrote: “So therefore I dedicate myself to myself, to my art, my sleep, my dreams, my labors, my suffrances, my loneliness, my unique madness, my endless absorption and hunger — because I cannot dedicate myself to any fellow being.”
6. The Talented Lackey
The Talented Lackey is every theater’s best-kept secret: the transcender of the bullsh-t, the voice of theatrical reason, and the gaff tape that holds the joint together. She tends to have more talent, education, and experience than her colleagues, yet is saddled with the thankless tasks and mundane administrivia no one else wants to dignify with their attention. Too talented for her own or anyone else’s good, the Talented Lackey is either unaware of her own abilities or too nice a person to use them to anyone else’s disadvantage. Her relationship with the powers-that-be is fraught with tension; she is the Winston Smith to their Oceania and the Katniss Everdeen to their Capitol, a perceived challenge to the status quo and a threat to the Old Guard. While the Talented Lackey is a gifted actor, director, and/or playwright, she is shafted on fulfilling projects and instead reduced to mopping up sewage leaks when the plumbing fails, painting sets at two a.m. while the cast gets their beauty sleep, rescuing incompetent actors from their equally incompetent directors, and generally going unwept, unhonored, and unsung. She is the perpetual backstage cheerleader, bolstering fragile actor egos upon receipt of a harsh director’s note or critical review. She eschews political suckuppery and has a high tolerance threshold for bullsh-t, but every good sport has a flashpoint and one of these days the Talented Lackey will autoignite and start screaming “Macbeth” at the top her lungs in the theater. Fortunately, in life as in art, the underdog gets the last laugh; Orson Welles and Bernadette Peters were Talented Lackeys once. It’s a safe bet the Talented Lackey will be headlining on Broadway while her community theater counterparts are still stuck in Blaine, Missouri bickering about fundraising strategies at their Saturday morning Board meeting.
7. The Gay Best Friend
The Gay Best Friend is the greatest man you will ever meet. He is kind, sympathetic, gracious under duress, and generous to a fault. Brilliant enough to illumine a black hole and sexy enough to make a hypothermic sweat, the Gay Best Friend is, in a stroke of cosmic injustice, the single most eligible bachelor in community theater, which explains why most of his heterosexual female friends secretly long to make Übermenschen babies with him. He is often found in positions of power yet always wields it fairly, humbly, and competently. Observant and astute, the Gay Best Friend’s instincts about art and humanity are typically spot-on, and he is able to unpack nuances others are too straight-edged to notice. As one of the few people in community theater who prefers to solve problems rather than create them, he is both personally and professionally an invaluable asset.
8. The Aging Ingenue
The Aging Ingenue is a character out of your nightmares, a rouged and terrifying hybrid of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Mommie Dearest with a hideous moue permanently affixed to her hideous maw . She will see your “artistic temperament” and raise it fourteen histrionic diva tantrums and seven idle threats that you’ll “never work in this town again”. In her halcyon youth, the Aging Ingenue starred opposite Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier if her stories are to be believed. She is now a washed-up holy terror who holds those around her in bondage and in thrall as she relives her glory days and mourns her faded star. She laments her descent into insignificance; what she doesn’t realize is that she was already insignificant then. Her mortal enemy is the Diva Ingenue, whom despises with every fiber of her smudgy-liquid-eyelinered being, yet she relieves her desiccated-spinster angst by tormenting the ever-loving sh-t out of the Talented Lackey. When such a fracas erupts, the Aging Ingenue, never content merely to hurl invective, proceeds to hurl her not-inconsiderably-high costume heels in the general direction of the Talented Lackey’s head. “I have been doing this for 37 years!” this theriocephalic Gorgon shrieks, frothing at the mouth, to which the Talented Lackey ought to (but never will) respond, extricating said stiletto from the green room wall in which it has become embedded: “If you’d been doing this for 37 years and were any good, you’d be doing it professionally.” The one great tragedy of the Aging Ingenue’s life is that it hasn’t been nearly as tragic as she thinks.
9. The Talentless Wonder
No community theater is complete without a Talentless Wonder (or three). This is the actor so God-awfully awful it would make Keanu Reeves cringe, the actor whose exits are the high point of his performance, the actor for whom the most glowing possible review is that s/he “wasn’t the worst thing about the show” (although s/he usually was). Yet the Talentless Wonder regularly scores major leading roles despite what some might perceive as the slight handicap of not being able to act. Although demonstrating the emotional range of a crustacean on sedatives, the Talentless Wonder is convinced in the teeth of the evidence (scathing reviews, fusillades of rotting produce, etc.) that s/he is the Meryl Streep/Marlon Brando of the community theater stage and is perpetually ready for her close-up, Mr. De Mille. These actors are a scourge on the institution of live theater and deserve to be hauled off, locked in a dark room, and forced to watch tapes of their own performances until they cry “uncle” and promise to remain in the wings where they belong. The Talentless Wonder has such an overinflated ego that no one has the heart to break it to him/her that whenever s/he steps onstage s/he makes Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III look Oscar-worthy by comparison. No one in the theater can tolerate the Talentless Wonder, although for some inexplicable reason s/he throws the best cast parties (perhaps compensating for something?). On an ancillary note, watch out: when the Talentless Wonder is also an Aging Ingenue, her drama-queen antics would drive Mahatma Gandhi into a towering homicidal rage.
10. The Class Act
The Class Act is a performer as talented as he is humble and an endangered species amongst actors; you are more likely to encounter a unicorn grazing in the green room than a Class Act. The Class Act is both extraordinarily gifted as an artist and extraordinarily likable as a human being. Sincere and grounded (what is he doing in this business, you might ask), he has a natural affinity for the Brooding Artiste, the Talented Lackey, and the Gay Best Friend, whose varying degrees of authenticity mirror his own. The Class Act is that mythical creature who learns his lines, takes his notes without complaint, hangs up his costumes, thanks his stage manager, never misses a cue, and brings the seven-layer dip and the good wine to the cast party. He has no idea how spectacular he really is — he considers himself an average actor and puzzles over his wall full of awards and accolades, feeling in no way deserving of any of them. Moreover, he maintains a healthy sense of perspective and has an appropriate sense of his priorities. The single most trustworthy and admirable figure in community theater, the Class Act somehow manages to hold down a full-time job, maintain a stable family life, accumulate numerous acting awards, maintain emotional equilibrium, and still find time to play therapist to his more f-cked-up theater friends.*
*Some sociologists theorize the Class Act is already extinct; field research is currently being conducted to determine the veracity of this claim.