My Life in the Theater
One of my earliest memories starts with an explosion in the wings of the old Asolo Theater. Almost immediately, my father races onstage—disheveled, wearing a toga and covered in soot. You Can’t Take It With You, 1984. I’m five years old, sitting in the front row and endlessly entertained.
When I was born in 1979, my parents, Brad and Marian Wallace, had already been with the Asolo Theatre Company for more than a decade. They’ve always been anomalies in the world of theater: steadily employed, staying put and raising three daughters in “relative normalcy,” as Mom likes to say—as if my older twin sisters and I were sure to be marred by our parents’ bohemian careers. Whatever the damage, we never knew any better. My father, taking a long-awaited sabbatical this season, has acted in more than 165 Asolo productions, playing everyone from Shylock to Lenin; my mother, a box office employee before becoming stage manager in 1968, is now in her 41st straight season with the Asolo.
They met in the ’60s while attending Ohio University. Dad, an Alabama boy with a pre-law degree and a powder-blue VW Beetle, was finishing his master’s in theater direction and had already spent four summers in Sarasota as an actor with the nascent Asolo Theatre Comedy Festival. Mom, a nice Catholic gal from outside of Toledo, was an undergraduate stagehand. She soon found herself laughing her way through their courtship. The consummate character actor even then, Dad used to pick her bouquets of violets—and then eat them.
They married and came to Sarasota in 1967, taking spots at the Asolo as it expanded from summer festival to a year-round performance schedule. Far from entertaining any grand plans for lives of high culture, they were 20-somethings, newlyweds and happy to live near the beach and work in their fields.
By the time I was born, the Asolo had become the state theater of Florida, and in our household, stage life was a well-worn routine.
As stage manager, my mother spent her time hidden in the wings, overseeing action both on and off the stage, like a guardian angel dressed in black, script and stopwatch at the ready. In a recording that predates my 10th birthday, hers is the soothing, disembodied voice heard moments before Asolo performances, telling everyone how to find assistance and where to go “in the unlikely event of an emergency”—essentially her role at home, too.
Dad’s job, so far as I could see, was to play dress-up. For having made such a thing his profession, he earned my undying admiration.
But I had trouble, at first, reconciling their careers with the rest of the world. When my kindergarten teacher at Abel Elementary asked students what their fathers did for a living, I answered hesitantly, “I think my daddy is an actress.” Daddy wore makeup, that I knew. I also knew that plays were performed in the “theatre”—until Mom visited my class and hurriedly changed my spelling to “theater” on the chalkboard. Though raised in the theatre, the Wallace children were not to have affectations.
For my part, I wanted people to think I came from a wonderfully eccentric family, both strange and revered, like circus freaks with graduate degrees. To my parents’ chagrin, it was easy to perpetuate this attitude.
For his very first role at the Asolo in 1961, Dad’s Southern accent had been deemed unintelligible, and he was asked to play his character, a stutterer in the script, as a mute instead. But by the time I was born, the dignified man my friends encountered at our house greeted them with such practiced pronunciation that they often asked if he were British. “Nope,” I’d grin. “He’s from Alabama.” My father would be mildly indignant at their mistake. “I have a standard American accent,” he’s always insisted, enunciating the R’s and A’s with superhuman clarity.
My parents walked a careful line, alternately encouraging their children to pursue the arts while discouraging us from grandstanding and elitism. Stereotypes be damned, Dad has always seemed most at home sipping a can of beer and serving his home-cooked barbecue while explaining in great detail why the Asolo’s 1967 touring production of Henry IV Part I was Shakespeare at its purest and best. As proud as they were to know the history, literature and inner workings of the theater, my parents never considered those topics matters for special attention. Culture and intellectualism were for everyday use, to be mixed in with mowing the lawn and trips to the beach.
Mostly, they wanted us to recognize the hard work that lay behind the theater’s mystique. Neither of them headed off to a 10-hour Sunday technical rehearsal singing the glories of show business.
I harbored no such professional obligations, however, and remained fascinated by the theater’s everyday realities—the costume fittings, understudy rehearsals and union rules that were discussed with delightful matter-of-factness over the dinner table. I was overjoyed to put on my mother’s headset and call a cue once or twice—she’d already called millions—and I readily devoted the occasional Saturday afternoon to helping Dad memorize his lines, an activity that was for me both excellent reading practice and, on more than one occasion, a scarring introduction to French sex farce.
At age six, I finally broke into the biz and got lines of my own to memorize. In the winters of ’85 and ’86, the Asolo’s productions of A Christmas Carol were Wallace family activities. Mom stage-managed, Dad played Bob Cratchit, and my sisters and I took roles like Scrooge’s sister Fan or Belinda Cratchit or any number of Dickensian urchins needed to fill out a scene. We went to work first in the Frankel Building, the old Asolo rehearsal hall that sits, now decrepit, behind the Sarasota/Bradenton Airport. Dress rehearsals and eventually performances brought us to the old Asolo Theater, then located behind the Ringling Museum. Both locales were filled with enough artificial artifacts to stage a history of the world, but thanks to Mom’s No. 1 rule—don’t touch the props—my self-restraint grew as much as my imagination.
While the production kept Mom and Dad preoccupied with their usual work, my sisters and I learned backstage mischief from the pros. Our crowning achievement occurred when the show’s small gang of child actors met just off stage left during a third-act scene that was always awash with dry-ice-generated fog. Just as the lights dimmed, on my oldest sister’s signal, we would exhale in unison, blowing the fog into a rolling, silent tidal wave that enveloped audience members sitting in the first two rows. On occasion we’d accidentally start early, before the lights had gone out entirely. Spotting the gust from her desk on the other side of the stage, my mother knew the cause, and she was not amused.
During curtain calls, the adult actors took their final bows, while upstage, under instructions from the director, we children attacked each other in frenzied, synthetic-snowball fights. Afterward, riding home with the rest of my family down the theater’s long driveway that wound past the museum, I’d stick my head out the car window to dislodge the last particles of plastic snow from my hair.
A Christmas Carol was the peak of my theatrical career. I’d later enjoy a couple of small roles in Conservatory productions, and even a stint as a backstage wardrobe assistant for the two-actor, eight-character The Mystery of Irma Vep (a job that primarily involved helping my father in and out of a big-bosomed French maid’s costume). But I never had any desire to join a school play or be an extra in a movie: I was a professional stage brat, permanently spoiled.
Besides, as nice as it was, I didn’t need the spotlight—and in my family, I didn’t have much of a shot at stealing it, anyway. I could find all the thrills I needed sitting in the darkness amid hundreds of silent people, watching my parents work.
At the beginning of human civilization, the world’s first actors told stories around the campfire—so says my father. After years on the stage, the art of storytelling had been perfected by the adults I knew growing up. At dinner parties and barbecues, the old-timers carried on conversations as if moving in and out of an imaginary spotlight. No one stumbled, interrupted or even raised his voice; stories of missed entrances and temperamental actors and malfunctioning props flowed from person to person as though they’d been scripted. And in fact, many of the stories had been told again and again, evolving in different manifestations from the mouths of different people—or the same person, but older—like our own little oral tradition.
I listened to every word and absorbed Asolo history: which actor stole a scene by inventing—and subsequently butchering—an imaginary fly; which one stayed in prim English character to address a restless audience but slipped into her natural Southern accent when she restarted the scene; which one rigged lingerie up his sleeve to give the illusion that he was undressing his costar (Walter Rhodes, Polly Holiday and my father, respectively). Many stories centered on the lengths to which actors will go to alleviate onstage boredom.
To this day, even the liveliest cocktail conversations quiet when my father silently asks for the spotlight. Sitting very still, smiling slightly and staring down toward the floor as if the memory were projected at his feet, he’ll let the room sit hushed a moment before he begins.
One of my favorite stories is his ode to my mother’s authority.
“It was 1972,” Dad starts. “We were doing a production of War and Peace, if you can picture that on that small Asolo stage. Of course, one of the key characters in that play is Napoleon Bonaparte, and we had an actor who was very much into the role. He studied the man, and with nose putty and makeup, made himself look like Napoleon as much as he could. He also drank prodigious amounts of Napoleon brandy to put him in the mood.
“Now, one of his props in the show was an antique telescope, and it was a beautiful thing but also had a tendency to fall apart.
“One day, he went into his scene to use the telescope and sure enough, it fell into pieces in his hands. Marian, who was very pregnant with the twins, was off stage right with a derringer in one hand and some other pistol in the other, concentrating intently to hear the upcoming sound cues. And Napoleon came offstage, with his hands full of this broken telescope, and started yelling at her—as much as you can yell backstage—but yelling at this very pregnant woman holding two hand guns. Marian, to her credit, brushed him off and proceeded with the sound effects. But when she was finished, she stormed off to his dressing room.”
At this point, my mother steps in to explain that despite her extreme frustration, all she’d said when she got to the dressing room was, “Listen, buster, don’t you dare distract me in the middle of a show.”
Dad pauses again, smiling, then finishes:
“Walter Rhodes was an actor in the company—mischievous, but a company man—and Walter had been privy to all that was going on. He was curious about the aftermath, so he went upstairs and looked in the dressing room. And there in the corner, by himself, sat Napoleon. And Napoleon was weeping.
“And Walter said, ‘My heavens, what happened?’ And Napoleon, with tears streaming down his face, said, ‘You can call me son of a bitch, and you can call me bastard, but nobody calls me buster.”
I can see now that much of Mom’s career boils down to 40 years of middle management, coordinating actors’ egos, directors’ God complexes and executives’ grand plans. And for many of those years she’d then come home to play peacekeeper between three excitable daughters and a man whose job required him to memorize a script every month.
This season, for the first time I can remember, I won’t see my father on stage at all. I’ll admit I’m a little heartbroken. But he’s been looking forward to retirement and wanted to test it out; despite his poise, he’s always had what I consider the typical actor’s unsteady relationship with attention. He’ll happily spend the year among his books and his cats, writing his one-man play about Thomas Merton and restoring the 1957 VW Beetle that first brought him to Sarasota. For this year, at least, he’ll get to be himself. Fortunately, I’ll still get to be his audience.