"Get that thing away !" squeals Judith Goldstein, a freelance editor who plops into a chair to escape an imaginary mouse.
"Blub, blub, blub," says Jane Eldridge, 20, a legal secretary in gray sweat pants and jogging shoes. She flaps her arms like a swan in slow motion.
"Bless them," chants Jonathan Daniel Reaves, 40, a former FTC attorney now in private practice. He raises his hands and makes the sign of the cross.
"You're all psychological deviants," shrieks Mark Morris, an EPA bureaucrat-turned-carpenter.
I am taking notes on these loonies when someone snatches my pad. No longer can I remain a professional voyeur. I scream "You can't have that!" and wade into the madness to yank it back.
They shake off inhibition, improvise, play off the moods and postures of one another. They are learning to act. In Washington, everyone wants to be a star.
Some are dreamers with more chutzpah than talent-determined to act themselves all the way to the bright lights of Hollywood and New York. Others say the drama bug bit them in high school or college and they have yet to shake the fever. A few are professionals-artists ever perfecting their craft.
Then there are the gray-flannel Don Quixotes who feel captive inside the concrete honeycombs abuzz with fellow government drones; they act as a way to stay loose in an uptight town, to retread their tired souls. The world of the theater, say those whose private lies revolve around endless auditions all over town, provides the magic frequently lacking from 9 to 5.
Spontaneity and craziness, after all, can be hard to find in a town whose citizens wax their teeth and smile hard to cover up their real emotions. So they retire to stages like this - an upstairs room full of junk furniture in Georgetown's Old Trinity Theater where emoting is considered normal behavior - and try to realize their improbable dreams.
"Don't censor yourself!" yells Charlotte Tighe. "You're really cooking." "I have to go to the baaaaaaaaathroom!" whines Reaves, who really doesn't. "Cut !" says Charlotte, and everyone collapses, exhausted. It's just one of the many scenes played out regularly all over Washington, a thriving theater town where drama buffs salivate for the next performance, even as they pack available workshops and schools, sign up for private lessons, audition for the dozens of community theater productions or act off-hours simply to enrich their lives.
"IT'S VALID to pursue the training simply because you enjoy it. i'd recommend it for anyone and everyone," says Bob Schulte, literary manager for New Playwright' Theater, which offers workshops in acting and playwriting. "We play tennis, even though we don't expect to be playing Borg next summer."
Volunteers can usually find a spot on- or offstage in some capacity around town, he says. "You can always find work in the theater, though you might not always be paid."
When Kennedy Center puts out a casting call for supernumeraries - or "supers" - to fill up crowd scenes during ballets and operas, it's deluged. The New York City Ballet announced a need for 24 little girls; 300 showed up. And an opera's cry for a face in the crowd always bring a quick response from opera lovers like Ed Mulrenin, 34, assistant secretary of the Federal Reserve Board, who lives and breathes to stand in the shadow of Beverly Sills.
His walls are covered with photographs of himself in costume. Offstage, he courts women after the fashion of opera heroes: He sends roses. Opera "permeates my life," he says.
On stage, he has yet to warble a note, or utter a word. But in Bellini's "I Capuleti e I Montecchi" at Kennedy Center, he played five title roles, sometimes as a Capulet, sometimes as a Montague. With sword in hand, he has commanded soldiers. In "Tosca," he loosened up the evil policeman with a glass of wine; Scarpia needed some loosening up - he yearned to have an affair with the heroine. In "Carmen," he strutted about as a pimp and a monk. Alone on stage at Kennedy Center, he has basked before the glitterati of black ties and evening gowns.
But that's nothing, he says. Last summer a fellow super got to strangle the Duchess of Malfi with a rope. What more can a man want? he sighs. Supers have killed for less, such is their passion.
"We tell them, 'If you're not chosen, it's no reflection on your quality as a human being,'" says Chris Van Scott, manager of Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, who has watched more than one rejected grown-up throw a tantrum. "Supers have limited aspirations. The fact they they were on stage with the Stuttgart Ballet or the Paris Opera is gratifying enough for most of them."
So they stand like sides of beef posing for the meat inspector. No acting experience necessary. The only requirement: you've got to fit the costume. "All you can do [to get picked] is smile nicely and look eager," says Van Scott.
FOR BEGINNERS in search of a plot of stage, Catholic University Drama Department chairman Bill Graham recommends skipping often-expensive studio work for a plunge into a local theater group, "no matter how small the part."
Among the dozens of community theater groups who use amateur talent: the Little Theater of Alexandria, the Foundry Players who work out of the Foundry United Methodist Church, the Chevy Chase Players, the Silver Spring Stage, the Bridge Street Players of the Georgetown Presbyterian Church, the Mount Vernon Players, the Montgomery Players, the Rockville Little Theater, REP, Inc., a black acting troupe that works out ofa theater on Georgia Avenue, ad infinitum .
"This is one of the most active theater towns in the country," says Graham.
Dinner theaters hold open auditions, too, but a role usually means waiting on tables. And in the early fall, some amateurs dare to be great at the Folger and Arena Stage, where anyone can try out a prepared, two-minute scene at their annual open auditions.
"A lot of people say, 'But I want to study it first so I can be ready,'" says Graham. "Most of them never tend to be ready. You can't learn to swim by looking at the water."
Even a small walk-on part in Upper Marlboro can mean a foot in the door.
"NO ONE can teach you how to act," agrees Charlotte Tighe, who does just that. "But I can create an environment that will let you learn to trust your own impulse, where you don't start thinking, 'Is Charlotte going to approve?' or 'Do I measure up?'
"Unless you're willing to explore, you're stuck. But if you make yourself vulnerable, you discover you have all kinds of choices. The goal here is to be free - not to be afraid to make an ass of yourself."
Well, yes, that's one way to describe what a dozen adults have paid $120 for the privilege of doing one night a week for 12 weeks at the Old Trinity as they engage in some rather dramatic calisthenics to limber up and let the spirit move them.
They are lawyers and secretaries, bartenders and bureaucrats, salesmen and students, housewives and hairdressers who have enrolled in Tighe's acting workshop as aspiring Brandos and Bacalls, or simply as ingenues who have come to discover - and revel in - their very own ounce of ham.
"I just wanted something to get me out of my head," says Judith Goldstein, a "head person" who makes her living in a world of words and concepts, "rather than feelings. Acting relaxes me and makes it easier to have fun. it's therapeutic."
"A lot of them are bored to death with what they do during the day," says Tighe, who calls acting "terrific for people whose jobs are not very creative."
"You could people HEW with the number of upper-level bureaucrats who calls me," says Joy Zinoman, whose acting school at 1443 Rhode Island avenue NW leans toward career-minded actors. "They all pour out the same story: They wanted to be artists when they were young, but they were children of the '50s and chose the straight path. They say they're not expressing themselves, except by spending our money.
"I'm generally not interested in retreading bureaucrats" in the throes of mid-life crises. "Nor am I into young people who are lost and want the community support theater can provide." Still, she says, "there are places where they can have fun."
Like the assorted workshops at Arena Stage, or the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, or REP, Inc., to name just a few offering summer programs.
"It's one way to lick the shyness problem," says Gary Young, 33, producing director for Archaesus Productions, a grant-subsidized studio that conducts workshops for beginners.
But, he adds, aspiring superstars should be wary in choosing a teacher or a school. Students should insist on a free look at a class in session before signing on the dotted line and realize that their teachers teach how they were taught, or some hybrid technique.
Some acting schools suggest that completing the high-priced curriculim will mean paying roles in their acting troupes. But "Any acting school that promises you a job upon graduation is full of kaka," says Nancy Wheeler, whose Stanislavsky-oriented Acting Stage Studio at 1643 Connecticut Avenue trains "serious" students for $885 per semester.
Offstage, students are likely to find a lot of petty sniping and paranoia. Many acting teachers regard rival disciplines with the fondness that children bring to a plate of raw liver.
Take Jill Halloran, who gives classes in voice and acting out of her three story brick house in Alexandra. She calls the Uta Hagne-Lee Strasberg notion of bringing emotional memories to bear on present roles a "schizophrenic" approach to the craft. "Let's say you're playing a love scene with someone and thinking about a man you were with ten years ago. One has little to do with the other . . .
"Marilyn Monroe started working with Lee Strasberg several months before she committed suicide," she adds.
But one Strasberg- or Method-trained devotee dismisses rival workshop approaches to acting as nothing more than "creative dramatics for adults." So it goes.
Then there's the studio that trains insurancce salesmen to hid telltale body language when they pitch their policies.
Stanley Anderson, a resident actor with Arena Stage who teaches a private summer workshop with Arena actors Mark Hammer and Halo Wines, requires all his teachers to be working in the profession. "The danger is getting a dissatisfied actor who couldn't make it," he says, a problem that can be aggravated by students who regard their acting teachers as therapists.
"You're dealing with dangerous, combustible material: sensitivity, emotionality, sexuality, physicality. We're concerned with the use of the self, but we're not going to rummage through emotional memory to find it.An unskilled teacher can open up wounds that haven't had time to heal, that were closed off for very real reasons. You're always being asked to expose yourself, but to be humiliated for it can be terribly embarrassing.
"You should look for someone who will guide you. I don't know what the signpost should be, but I'd worry about any acting teacher who said, 'Take off your clothes,' or, 'Strip yourself bare and tell me everything about you.'"
"Acting techniques can be misused by unscrupulous teachers as therapy," says Halloran. "Some teachers make a lot of money off the screwballs; what they wind up doing is practicing therapy without a license."
BUT WASHINGTON is, after all, a city full of image-conscious players and camera-posing fury where visibility - and success - often depend on how well one cats about on the stage of life. Perhaps more than any other city in the world, Washington has a social scene that revolves around roles. You don't toddle over to The Ayatolla's as Yourself; you go as The Ambassador from Lower Slobbovia. And when you lose your part, you're not invited back.
Everyone is conscious of representing something, no matter how small. At parties, it can be entertaining to watch little tornadoes kicked up on the orientals as Talkers discover that Talkees are of small import and do an about-face. That's where those able to puff up and face The Moment with bluff and bluster have an advantage over the rest. In a town full of actors, beginners can always stand a few lessons from a pro.
CHARLOTTE TIGHE nudges and cajoles. She matches students with a play she feels will flex their self-awareness. For Jane Eldridge, who dropped out of college in upstate New York to learn how to act, she picked Ophelia's mad scene in "Hamlet": It's full of old folk songs. Eldridge wants to be a singer.
Understanding a role requires honesty and openness, says Tighe. And the harder they work, the more honest and open they are likely to become. But on this evening Eldridge seems petulant, moody, resistant.
"What's behind it?" asks Charlotte.
"I have a headache. I've tried Valium, aspirin, nothing works. It's my job, I guess, being a legal secretary."
"You had a block last week. Why don't you talk about it?"
"If I talk about it, I'll cry and cry and cry."
"That's all right," says Charlotte. "Tommy cried last week."
For Tighe, acting has always been a way to climb out of emotional quicksand. She felt like a "weirdo" growing up in Salem, Massachusetts. She hated parties - walking into a roomful of people made her sweat. An allgirls parochial school harped on the darker side of God and men. "They were something to be feared." She buried herself in books. Then a nun pushed her into drama festivals and she began to win.
Overnight, she says, "The weirdo who ate lunch by herself had something to offer. I felt I was important."
She eked out an A.B. from Trinity College, taught high-school English for a spell, snared a master's in drama from California State in Sacramento, returned to Washington as Cordelia in "King Lear" for Catholic University's touring company, married, divorced, studied at Shakespeare festivals in England and Connecticut and co-produced a children's drama festival at Wolf Trap.
In 1974, a friend enlisted her to help teach an acting workshop. When the friend left, students asked her to keep it up. She favors blue jeans, lives modestly in a one-room efficiency she bought for $5,000 six years ago, does an occasional commercial to stay solvent and gives private acting lessons for $30 an hour. Savings go toward a summer playhouse in Nantucket.
Workshop aulmni frequently perform in her Georgetown Ensemble Company. Tenacious students with supreme stage lust sometimes manage to land parts around town. Jonathan Reaves, a silver-haired attorney with a pronounced drawl who took his first class with tighe three years ago, has been dreaming of his name in lights ever since Texas author Larry King spotted him at the Nantucket Theater Festival, Charlotte's summer workshop. He's now working on the part of Huey Long in a one-act play King has co-written about the Kingsfish.
Others send back dispatches of struggle from Broadway and Hollywood. Two years ago, Bob Puryear, 30, quit a 9-to-5 desk job with a Washington export-import firm, to hit the Big Apple. He's gotten raves as the stuffed mechanical bear in an Off-off-Broadway play by Israel Horowitz.
"There's no glamor in this life," says Tighe. "I try to impress that on them. In New York, thousands try out for five roles. Eighty-five percent of Actors' Equity members are out of work. Less than one percent earn a living wage. And out of those who do work, only a handful make it big."
And if they don't listen? "I try to support them in whatever they want to do," she says. "But first, they have to find out what it is they want. That's why we sit around the first night and talk about what each person's dream is."
FOR LINDA ROACH, a Herndon housewife who works as a secretary, the dream was acting. But her only heavy tie to the theater before Charlotte had been warming an orchestra seat. She'd just turned 30. She felt comatose.
"I'd done all the things I was supposed to do: gotten married, quit work, had two children. So I asked myself, 'When I'm 50, what's the one thing I wish I'd done?'"
One year ago, she cut out a newspaper ad for an Alexandria drama lab, stared at it for two weeks and begged her husband, who sells word-processors, to dial the number. "I didn't have the nerve," she says.
Last September, Roach saw another ad and signed up with Charlotte. She felt over the hill. She was almost 31. She read "An Actor Prepares" as background on the Stanislavsky Method, prepared monologues, practiced sensory-awareness exercises. She began to lose her reserve.
Roach auditioned for New Playwrights' fall season. Rejected, she found work as an extra in "The Matching of Sally," a 15-minute Red Cross film about a woman who is hit by a car and needs blood. She got a free lunch and $20. "I'm a Scot and it was Christmas." She was elated.
Her 12-year-old son saw her at a workshop and squirmed in his seat. Her husband started bragging to friends. He took on the ironing.
By January she was restless. Ralph Waldo Emerson spurred her on: "Hitch your wagon to a star." She read it over and over. She carried plays to work, to lunch, to the bus stop, to the bathtub, to bed. She auditioned for the Folger. The director thanked her for dropping by in words "just above a whisper."
She read for a part in "Born Yesterday" at the Colony 7 Dinner Theater. "Thanks, honey, but I don't think you've got enough experience," said the director.
Crushed, she raced over to Mr. Henry's Dinner Theater in Waldorf to try out for "Last of the Red-Hot Lovers." It was Neil Simon. She knew him by heart. The director asked her to play Jeanette, one of the leads - and she wouldn't have to wait on tables. It meant a one-hour commute home and $15 a night. She opened April 19. It's still running.
"I started out scared to death. And now-wow!"
Tonight Waldorf, tomorrow the world.