Panic! At the Theatre

It was an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s "The Double", written by David Escoffery, and the show was performed in The Pit. The Pit was an ugly little theatre, a moldering black-box with barely functional lights. In the house, no two chairs matched. The entrance to the theatre was also the entrance to the stage – only the house manager kept random strangers from walking right into a play in performance.

I loved performing here, because it was raw – I loved the piles of lumber in the back rooms, the tattered red curtains, the weird smells that pervaded. It was a great place for an actor to get his feet wet. And boy, did I get soaked.

During the second performance, which was played for audience of maybe 20 people, I was performing a “fantasy” scene, where Gary imagined romancing a beautiful woman. His hallucination became “real,” and the language became fairly raunchy. My co-star and I started screaming phrases like, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” and “Take me right here, on the table!”

And then the door opened. I realized, in that instant, that the house manager had probably left for the day, leaving the entrance unattended. In the doorway stood an enormous woman – easily 250 lbs., taller than most men I’d ever met. She wore a full-body track-suit, stained in places, and her hair was splayed in all directions. She glared at us, then scanned the audience.

Given the layout of our theatre, she was literally standing on stage. I didn’t know what to do – except not panic. After a few seconds of performing, screaming all kinds of erotic profanities, I just stopped, turned to the woman, and said:

"Excuse me, can I help you?”

The woman turned her head to me. Her expression was grim.

“I’m looking for Leroy,” she growled.

I looked around the audience. Most of the people there were friends or peers from the University of Pittsburgh Theatre Department. I didn’t know a Leroy.

“Is there a Leroy here?” I asked.

Nobody spoke. No one even stirred. Most of them were petrified by our grim new guest. Others thought perhaps this was part of the show – some kind of subversive non-sequitur.

“Well, it doesn’t look like he’s here,” I said quickly. “But if you’d like to join us, feel free to take a seat.”

The woman only grunted and turned around, then walked out of the theatre. A second later, I turned to the actress and started exactly where we’d left off: “That’s right, baby, I’m gonna blow your mind…”

Later, that same actress express fury over my decision. How could I interrupt a scene, ruin the flow of dialogue, because of one little interruption? Surely the woman would have figured out the situation and left of her own accord. Here we had a difference in opinion: Part of the joy of live theatre, in my opinion, is its unpredictability. There are so many stories of famous actors – on Broadway, no less – stopping the action to heckle a rowdy guest, or even to call “line.” (The latter is utterly unprofessional, but it’s happened).

The key is not to panic. Whatever one does as an actor, no matter how great or small the role, the key is to stay confident. At 19, I learned this lesson the goofy way. One way or another, the show must go on.

Robert Isenberg


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