It is 1982. I am in the dressing room of our ramshackle building at Florida Studio Theatre with another actress, Penny, getting ready for a performance of La Ronde. First staged in Berlin in 1920, the play was chosen by our young artistic director, Richard Hopkins, because its scrutiny of sexual mores and hypocrisy seemed relevant to our era. It’s our second year in Sarasota, and we’re planning a season of contemporary plays addressing issues such as homosexuality and disillusionment with American culture, many of them using profanity as part of their art. Such themes and language haven’t appeared on Sarasota stages before, and we’re apprehensive about whether we’ve gone too far, and even whether Sarasota is the right place for the theater we want to do. Le Ronde, despite its exploration of sexuality, is our “safe” choice for the season, a classic that’s stood the test of time.
Penny and I are applying our last touches of lipstick when she announces, “I want a realistic scream today. When the soldier pulls my character of the young maiden into the bushes, I want the audience to feel her full horror.”
She heads out for the first scene. I settle back and listen to the loudspeaker in the dressing room, waiting for my cue. I hear the beautiful opening classical music and the first few lines, and then something startling: the most bloodcurdling scream you can imagine. It seems to go on forever, a long, chilling shriek vibrating through the walls of the theater. And then there is an eerie silence.
A throaty, deep voice calls out, “Stop this filth!”
I freeze. These words are not in the play.
The voice gets louder and it repeats: “Stop this filth!” More voices join in, and what sounds like feet stomping on the hard floors. “Stop this filth! Stop this filth!”
I realize this horrific chant is coming from the audience.
The dressing room door peels opens and Penny says, “The play is over. Get out of your clothes. We’re going home!”
By now the voices have grown into a full-scale roar, and the pounding is incessant: “STOP THIS FILTH! STOP THIS FILTH!”
I creep out to the stage and pull the black curtains back to see what’s happening. The actor playing the soldier who had raped the maiden is brandishing his sword and yelling at the audience. “The Nazis banned this play! Leave! Go, then!”
I rush to the phone and call Hopkins. Within minutes, he zips over on a bicycle. In the meantime the show is halted. But after we allow those who want to leave—about a quarter of the 72 people who fill our small theater—to go, the play resumes. And we take our curtain calls to deafening applause.
The next day, the Herald-Tribune headlines read: “Audience Stops Show and WALKS OUT.”
For the next three weeks, the show sells out. We had learned who Sarasota was. In this idyllic little town, there were people who wanted invigorating theater and a company that was impassioned to create.
We had found our audience, and we were here to stay.
Kate Alexander is associate director of Florida Studio Theatre.