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Each Night I Die

For an actor, anonymity is a fate worse than death.

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Do I need more sun?

Casting directors are looking at this face of mine and it is reminding them of nothing that has a pulse. "Chicago is a great city. You'll do well there," my friends in stage and screen had assured me while back when I pulled up stakes on the coast -- my wife's work was requiring us to move on. I had not become a big success in LA, but I did have a foot in the door there. Which might be better than two feet in the grave.

New to this city, I responded to a newspaper ad: "Must have dark hair, over 6 foot tall, and around 170 pounds." That was me, so I called the Body Politic and set up an appointment. I was studied, called back, and at last the part was mine! I was breaking into Chicago Equity theater at a hundred dollars a week.

Only now that the play is closed can I write about this.

The play was Corpse!, a very funny thriller-farce by Gerald Moon. John Reeger, the lead, who played twin brothers, displayed an incredible ability for making quick changes. But I assisted.

The hardest part of it wasn't popping through trapdoors, dying onstage, or playing dead. It wasn't sitting backstage (I finished several books on my reading list) The hard part was telling no one what I was doing, usually the first thing out of an actor's mouth. The audience never knew I existed.

I either actually died, or pretended to die, four times in Corpse! My job was to be onstage as one of the brothers, dead, so that Reeger could enter as the other brother an instant after the lights went down on me. I was the trick played on the audience. Director Joe Sadowski explained that I would get no curtain call. I was a nonperson. I experienced the actor's nightmare squared -- not his name misspelled in the program but no name at all.

Corpse! was a hit -- Jeff-recommended and extended. It would make a fine credit if there were a lick of proof I had anything to do with it. It is not easy to die so frequently without recognition. In the last scene, when one of the twins is shot and falls dramatically into the French windows, my assignment was to take his place, wrap myself in a curtain, and be pushed under the Christmas tree, to lie there dead in a tangle for the next 10 or 15 minutes until the lights went out. Then the others took their bows . . .

The curtain around me was very tight. One night I started hyperventilating and almost passed out. If I'd lain there unconscious through the curtain call perhaps I'd have got an ovation. If the corpse onstage had died they probably would have spelled my name right in the obituary.

Well, that was my Chicago debut in 1986. You would not expect anything in 1987 to top it. Another triumphant audition added me to the cast of the Alliance Theatre Company's Killing Game, an absurdist comedy by Eugene Ionesco. This is his piece about a town cursed by a mysterious epidemic. Fourteen actors played a variety of roles and scenes.

Let me think . . . All told, I died five times every performance in The Killing Game.

Now I'm with a group that performs murder mysteries at hotels and parties where the guests get to play detective. Everyone has a lot of fun. I was cast as the butler, and after dinner I get a knife in the back.

I die well. Everything I have learned in Chicago theater has prepared me for the moment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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