It was opening night.
I stood in the dark stairwell leading to the outside from the backstage area and composed my thoughts. I was already in full make-up and costume, even though my scene was not until the end of the play. I wanted to be prepared and in character for my debut. It was not much of a debut, what with only having the one line, but then, it was not much of a play. Off-off-off-Broadway was not even an adequate way of describing it.
I had big aspirations upon arriving in New York six months ago. I tried out for nearly everything, from leads in great musicals to playing one of the fruits in those underwear commercials. I landed exactly one part: this one. It was a retrospective on the great writers in history. I had tried out for two different parts, Dante and Homer, but in the end did not get either. Then at the last minute, the call had come in. One of the actors was sick. I was to fill the role of…William Shakespeare!
I was in heaven! Not only was I in the play, but to have the part of the Bard himself? What an honor! I mean, it WAS only one line, but most of the other parts were not much larger; only a few, in fact, and this was the Conqueror of Stratford on Avon. I was going to make that one line the most memorable line in the play. It was a magnanimous line, filled with energy and fire and I was going to make it mine.
I had rehearsed for weeks. Standing in front of a mirror, in the shower, and even while I was out shopping. I was sure the entire town thought I was crazy, wandering through the park or sitting in the Laundromat spouting off Shakespearian verbiage at the top of my lungs, but I did not care. This was it! My big break! There was no way I was not going to be ready for this.
Time passed and from where I now stood, I could see the rest of the cast, rushing around, getting in their places for the next scene, the final scene. My scene! The director passed by in front of me, a small balding man with a loud voice and many ideas, some of them good. He stopped and looked up to where I stood and frowned.
“Everything all right, Bill? You ready to go?”
“Better believe it, Doug,” I said, excitement creeping into my voice. “I got this stuff down.”
“Line,” he said.
“Hark,” I came back, instantly in character. “I thought I heard a pistol shot. Arise from the may with hope in your soul, and I will snatch you away in the night. Shakespeare.”
“Excellent,” he said. “Stand ready.”
I beamed with pride. I was going to blow them away with this line. I moved to a position in the left wings and started mumbling my line to myself, over and over, saying it fast to ensure I would not slip, even a little.
“Hark I thought I heard a pistol shot arise from the may with hope in your soul and I’ll snatch you away in the night. Shakespeare. Shakespeare. Got it.”
Several of the other actors stared at me as they passed by, but I did not care. They were nothing, simple hacks trying to earn easy money. They had no concern for the craft of acting. I was in character, focused and loose. They were amateurs, rank amateurs.
I smiled to myself and warmed up, getting my body as loose as my mind. Did not want to fall going out there, God forbid and knock on wood. The time was almost here; only a few more minutes. Doug tapped me on the shoulder and gave me the thumbs up sign and I responded in kind. I was on next.
I heard the actor on stage stumble over a line and could not help laughing lightly. He was supposed to be Charles Dickens and was sounding more like Charles Manson. I took another breath and exhaled. Another thirty seconds. The line kept repeating in my head. The lights had dimmed slightly. Everything was suddenly in slow motion.
Charles Dickens moved off stage right and the spotlight caught me as I entered from the left, moving downstage to stand near the proscenium. I looked out onto that sea of faces, the line hanging on the tip of my tongue, allowing me to savor the expectant looks in the audience. I saw my family, my friends, my peers, and other guests. I opened my mouth to allow the line to slide out and then realized that nothing was happening.
The slow motion was gone and the lights seemed excessively hot. The air in the theatre was positively oppressive. I willed the air conditioner to high, but it ignored my pleas. My throat worked, and in my mind, I heard the line, but nothing came out of my mouth. The lights were also excessively bright and I was having trouble seeing. Everything was beginning to blur. My knees started to buckle.
From behind me, I heard the voice of the director, faint at first, then more insistent, barking out one single word. Hark.
The word sliced through the darkness and set my mouth free, albeit unencumbered of my brain.
“Hark; I thought I heard an Apostle shit. Arise from the maid with soap in her hole, and I will snitch your snatch all night. Shicksneere. Snakeshit. Aw, fuck it. I wanted to be a writer anyway.”