HALF-PAST 6 o'clock in the morning isn't a bad time of day if you haven't been to sleep. The dawn hour brings a pleasant exhaustion similar to the fatigue at the end of a good workout and a hunger for nourishing, healthy things like sausage, eggs and juice. However, if you wake out of a sound sleep, 6:30 a.m. is an awful time, and when you have to look good on short notice it is even worse. I recently found myself up at that terrible hour worrying about my appearance. I had a day's work on the TV soap opera "Ryan's Hope."
Some words of explanation: Several years ago, after spending half a decade in New York City as an actor, I moved to Washington to work as a writer. But in recent months I had been working at Arena Stage, and when my contract there was up I decided to go back to New York and look for work as a journalist and/or an actor, which in this economy is like setting forth to find the Northwest Passage.
My first day back in the city I dropped in on Meg Simon, who does casting for Arena and the soap. A couple of hours later I had a call asking if I would be interested in doing an "under-five" on "Ryan's Hope." An "under-five" (hereinafter referred to as U/5) is a part that has fewer than five lines of dialogue but requires direction. This distinguishes the actor from an extra (hereinafter referred to as an "atmosphere" person).
Ironically, when I lived in New York a friend of mine was a writer on the show, and from time to time I would get a call to come in and be atmosphere. Two and a half years out of the city and I get a promotion. That's show business.
The studio is located in the far West 50s of Manhattan. When I arrive the bleary-eyed principals, scripts in hand, are blocking, going through the first steps of their scenes. They look like ordinary working people, foggily beginning a routine day. Soap opera logistics may vary from show to show, but routine is what makes it possible to crank out five shows a week, 52 weeks a year. At "Ryan's Hope," read-through and blocking is at 7 a.m. in the upstairs rehearsal room. Around 9 the actors go to the set, where the director sets up the cameras. Lunch is at 11, and by 12:15 everyone is in costume for a run-through, then notes from the director on what she's seen, then dress rehearsal, then notes, then taping, followed by a wait to see if the tape has any glitches. Then, if all goes well, by 4 p.m. it's Miller time.
We begin blocking my scenes. Someone involved in the political story line has had a heart attack, and some reporters and a TV news crew are at the hospital to get the story. I am playing the minicam operator. Lela Swift, the director, is providing all the energy in the room. She bodily moves us around.
When we're finished blocking we sit on couches at the far end of the room near the nosh. A regular schmear, not as sumptuous as those you get on a commercial shoot, but adequate: bagels, muffins, cream cheese and fruit. Best of all, it is free. Actors are to free food what a school of piranha is to a floating cow.
I am not particularly hungry. Even though my face probably won't be seen for more than three-fifths of a second, I am convinced that the morning's bagel will be the afternoon's puffiness. In the years away from acting I didn't miss these paroxysms of vanity.
I bury my nose in the paper and begin practicing the various modes of thought control to combat the boredom that goes with U/5 territory. Another U/5 introduces himself. I'll be damned. It's George Hosmer, who married Barbara Lail, a classmate of mine in high school. I was there when they met.
An actor's life is often as formless and deadly as quicksand. But it is also full of these ironic reunions with bits of the past. Moments that hint that there is a larger plan to our lives that we can't quite see. We retire to our dressing room to gossip and catch up.
When called to the set, we go briskly through our scenes while stagehands scurry around putting colored bits of tape between our feet to mark our places for the camera. As an actor there is not much for a U/5 to do except exercise his professionalism. I enter the scene from an elevator. The minute I'm on the set I am in the hospital with a job to do.
Taping time arrives and we don't get one minute into our scene when there is a stagehand foul-up. Cut. We start over and this time an actor blows a line. Cut. "Well, now we're even," a stagehand mutters. We start again and this time there is a foul-up in the booth. Cut.
The fourth time through is no problem and Hosmer and I return to our dressing room to wait for the tape to clear. We continue to chat and I am reminded of a story George Hearn once told me. In the early '70s, completely disgruntled with his career--he seemed to be forever playing Horatio to somebody else's Hamlet--Hearn packed it in, moved to central Maine with a new wife and set up existence as a farmer. After a couple of disastrous years he was forced to go back to the theater.
Soon after his return to New York, he found himself in the Cedar Tavern, an actor's hangout in Greenwich Village. The conversation was the same, the faces the same. Someone remarked that he hadn't seen him for a while. Someone else said, "Yeah, George has been on the West Coast." Hearn could only smile. It was as if the two years away, the Maine winters, the personal failure had meant nothing. He was smack at the point from which he had made his exit.
The tape is cleared. Hosmer and I prepare to step into an unholy rain. It seems that all that has happened in 2 1/2 years has brought me back to my point of departure. With no script to follow it looks like I am going to have to improvise my next entrance.