Ryan Rilette, producing director of Round House Theatre, was casually checking his e-mail late Saturday night when he saw a message from his stage manager with what looked like dynamite in a subject line: “Confidential.”
“I thought, ‘Oh, [expletive],’” Rilette recalled. But he opened the message and was somewhat pleasantly shocked by its bombshell contents. Bekah Wachenfeld, the stage manager for Round House’s production of “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” explained that actor Eddie Ray Jackson, who was starring as Muhammad Ali, wanted to ask actress Katherine Renee Turner, who plays his wife, to marry him. And he wanted to do it onstage after the final show.
“Wait. Propose!?!” was Rilette’s reaction. “I barely had a suspicion that they were dating.”
But he said yes to Jackson’s scheme and told Wachenfeld to make sure someone took pictures. He got a breathless voicemail from the actor Sunday morning, who thanked him and said he was sweating a lot and really, really nervous.
And then Rilette, who already was sweating because he was in Florida directing a reading, started to get really nervous, too. “I hoped she was going to say yes,” he said. “If she didn’t, that would be a really awkward to end what’s been a really good run of this show.”
With Rilette’s approval, Wachenfeld instructed the cast to remain onstage after taking their bows at Sunday’s matinee. Sponsors were going to be in the audience and the plan was for Jackson to thank them for their generous gifts that made the show possible — yadda, yadda, yadda. When it came time to give the speech, Jackson started rambling and saying things such as when a special cast comes together, they become a family — and if they are really lucky, they stay in touch beyond the final curtain call.
Turner wasn’t very moved. Actually, she was kind of annoyed. She had more than a dozen friends and family in the audience and she wanted to go take her wig, makeup and costume off and go hug them. But then Jackson, still wearing his “Muhammad Ali” robe, bent down on his left knee and proposed.
“I had no idea,” Turner said. But she told Jackson yes. Immediately, “the whole theater was uproarious.”
Some 850 miles away, Rilette was clutching his phone, waiting to get a “yea” or “nay” text message. He had never before allowed a proposal in one of his theaters, and that is in part because he doesn’t approve of inter-cast relationships. “I’ll tell actors that their personal lives are their personal lives, but don’t ruin my play,” he said. “If things don’t go well, it can interfere with their onstage chemistry, so I ask them to put things on hold until the show is over.”
But Jackson and Turner were discreet. They had never met before rehearsals began for this co-production between Round House and Marin Theatre Company. Jackson was one of two West Coast actors in the cast, while Turner and Jefferson Russell represented Washington. Turner got her big break locally two years ago when director Ethan McSweeny cast her as a saucy vaudeville fairy in his “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Shakespeare Theatre. Roles at Imagination Stage and Signature Theatre followed, and McSweeny also cast her in the ensemble of his upcoming production of “The Tempest.”
Less than 48 hours after getting engaged at Round House, Turner was rehearsing a shipwreck. No bad omens there, but she and Jackson haven’t had a chance to set a date. “I have really been blessed with my round of work this season,” Turner said.
After Christmas, both actors head back to the Bay Area, she to do another show at Marin and he to Berkeley Repertory. She also has committed to do a spring play at Theater Alliance in D.C.
“I really hope they both come back here,” Rilette said. “I loved working with them both.”
Poetry slams are run-of-the-mill weeknight entertainment at Busboys and Poets, the District-based chain of activist eateries. But the Nov. 10 “Puppet Slam” — an open-mic session for marionettes, anthropomorphized socks and talking lobsters — will be a first. “Welcome to Mars: A D.C. Puppet Slam,” is set for Monday night at Busboy’s Fifth Street NW location and will feature eight area ensembles and puppeteers. Coordinating the Puppet Slam is an arts organization not normally associated with sock puppets: Washington Performing Arts.
Lex Davis, technical director of Pointless Theatre, said the troupe was thrilled but a little surprised to get the call.
“I don’t want to say puppetry is making a comeback, but there really is a growing community here,” Davis said. “More people are hearing and seeing puppets, and it’s really wonderful that an established arts organization like Washington Performing Arts recognizes that.”
The Busboys Puppet Slam is one in a series of WPA-sponsored events that culminates with a Nov. 11 Kennedy Center recital featuring pianist Orion Weiss and the Salzburg Marionettes, a century-old ensemble that provided the lonely goat, the Alpine shepherd, the ingenue milkmaid, etc. for the “Sound of Music” film. The performance follows in the spirit of the 2012 Basil Twist Festival, which featured music-and-puppetry performances across Washington. More puppets come to D.C. in December, when Woolly Mammoth Theatre welcomes Calgary, Alberta’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop for a four-week holiday run. Next spring, “Hand to God,” a raunchy sock-puppet comedy, is set to open on Broadway. But there also are homegrown puppeteers such as Pointless, a collective run by 16 University of Maryland alumni who are proud to share an alma mater with Muppets mastermind Jim Henson.
“Puppet Slams” are an actual thing, Davis said, not a pun on poetry slams. The Busboys event has a schedule and will be emceed by local spoken-word impresario Regie Cabico. Pointless will perform twice, at 7 and 9 p.m., with four puppets and five puppeteers on what Davis described as a too-small, 10-foot stage. They’ll be reprising “Nom Noms,” a comedy about cooking starring a lobster, a salad, a piece of toast and a surprise dessert. All four were created at the Pointless studio in Petworth, where the troupe is constructing costumes and puppets for a holiday show. “Nom Noms” — so named because what else would a puppet say while eating? — was devised over the summer, directed by Davis and performed last month at the University of Maryland-sponsored NextLOOK series at Joe’s Movement Emporium.
Performing at a restaurant, however, will be a first for Pointless, and the stage has been set for some rather meta-puns. “If one of our foods doesn’t lean over someone’s plate and say, ‘That looks good,’ I’d be very surprised,” Davis said.
Catholic University’s musical theater program has been sending performers to D.C. stages in droves lately, with five alumni featured in Signature Theatre’s production of “Elmer Gantry.” But the school also offers a master of fine arts degree in playwriting, and Wednesday that program will host a meet-and-greet with playwright Robert Freedman, who took home the 2014 Tony Award for best book of a new musical. The discussion will include video clips from Freedman’s show, “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” as well as some of his films, followed by a Q&A. The free event is set for 7:30 p.m. in the Hartke Theatre on campus
Ritzel is a freelance writer.