Summer Stock Theater
by Michael Kroth
July 3rd, Deep Creek Lake, Oakland Maryland, 1974.
The 20th season of the Garrett County Playhouse opens with seven shows. Lovers and Other Strangers kicks it off and yeah, it’s summer stock theater and I’m in all those shows. Just a college kid. One show is on stage, another in rehearsal. Every week until the last patron leaves the last show and we pack up to go home.
That summer I almost became an alcoholic drinking Johnnie Walker Red, or sometimes Black, on the boat every night out on the lake, listening to Maria Muldaur singing Midnight at the Oasis, Neil Diamond, how he could sing. This guy from town would take us out after the show and we would drink and drink and talk and talk and think about boys and girls and hopes and dreams and acting and becoming famous and heading to New York (the best) or Los Angeles (selling out for money). I thought I was an alcoholic but as soon as we jumped in the van to head home to Albuquerque at the end of the run I didn’t drink the Johnny anymore.
The huge daddy long legs are on all the walls all the time in our dorms. It is wet constantly in the forest of western Maryland and the dorm, cool enough, feels like a backwoods cabin with damp, slippery walls and the whiff of leaves and forestalia all around. Which is what it is, one boondock dorm, surrounded by trees and moss and other growing plants, drizzling rain most days and nights, with insects through all your stuff and no Saturday football game to liven up the week like you’d have for most dorm-i-tor-y situations. Just a crowd of a hundred people or more in from the lake and their fishin’ to get a little cultchuh, a bit of entertainment after running around in swimsuits and fishing gear all week.
That’s where we, the itinerant wannabe actors shipped in for the summer, stay. There were several of us from Albuquerque and the UNM theater department but I was pretty darn lonely and could have used a hug I know that. From anyone. Heck even a hug from my mom would have been so nice, though I would never have admitted it then.
Have you ever been just-so-lonely in a crowd of people? I remember being a conference with thousands of attendees, feeling like I was adrift by myself in a desolate ocean.
The pace is so fast and so furious in summer stock that if you aren’t careful you might end up with a shoe to shoot with instead of a gun. Which is what happens to me one night, in one of the “who done it” farces that the resort audience loves but has about as much artistic merit as a daddy long legs. They roar. Maybe, heck probably, they are well into the Johnny by then too. Either I didn’t check my props – the unbreakable rule that must never be broken but which I might have broken that night – or someone moved the damn gun. Anyway, I run offstage – no gun in sight – look all around, I’m pretty freakin’ desperate, and with the pressure of an immediate stage entrance building up like a hot air balloon that’s about to pop instead grab a shoe, run back on stage, and yell “bang, bang”.
It was a farce so it was plausible, but barely. The audience thinks it’s part of the show. I mean, really, don’t people run out of buildings all the time with a Dorothy-red high heeled shoe in their hand blasting away? I think maybe they buy it because of the audience on JWR, or maybe a few PBRs too many. Maybe.
That’s what you get sometimes with summer stock theater. As I said, you are onstage in front of people at night and trying feverishly to memorize your lines, staging, during the day. Sometimes the two get mixed up. Sometime the words just don’t have time to get set in your brain.
I remember that, in order not to go totally crazy, I gave up my obsession about memorizing lines. I used to memorize my lines and everyone else’s – just plain, rote, memorization. Just for fear of dropping lines, coming up empty on stage which hundreds of eyes staring at you and not knowing what’s next. But that is only possible during a luxurious rehearsal schedule of a month, impossible in a week with another play running at night. At least for me.
So instead of thinking in my head what the next line would be, I just let it come out spontaneously. Which is what you are supposed to do anyway as an actor. If you are in character. In that sense summer stock was so, so freeing. I could just be the character onstage, not a robot regurgitating words out of a script. I could have finally have fun doing what I loved. Acting. Puttin’ on a show.
Maybe, thinking back, that was something a bit more significant. It was, perhaps, an early lesson about the importance of living completely, fully, and richly “in the present moment”, and not being worried about the next line, or the next anything. I wish I had learned that lesson better.
And in the larger sense that summer I was freed be more of me. Less bound by the script of life and more open to some improvisation, some spontaneity. Even within the strict structure of seven plays in seven weeks.
That was my first, last, and only “professional” acting gig. As an undergraduate theater student, recruited to spend the summer doing theatuh. The pay was peanuts. I didn’t care.
I was doin’ summer stock.
Garrett County Playhouse
Deep Creek Lake
20th Season 1974 Opens Weds, July 3rd
Spoon River Anthology
Lovers and Other Strangers
Spider’s Web – Agatha Christie
Let Sleeping Wives Lie
Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves
Evening of One Act Plays