Opening night in less than 48 stomach-fluttering hours and the rehearsal for Sweetwater Community Players’ new production had come unglued. Set in an ancient Rome ruled by the gods of Farce and Slapstick, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum presented difficulties that were, our director said, “legion.” Chief among them was Kayla Burch, the high school senior playing Philia, the romantic lead.
She kept stepping on the lines of the lead actor, who hoped his Pseudolus would brighten his star in the University of Texas Theater Department and had invited people up from Austin for opening night.
The other actors complained she stood behind them fussing with a prop or shuffling her feet, anxious sounds as distracting as mice scrabbling in the walls. She’d sneak friends backstage. She’d break character and laugh. Amos Franks, our director, got good use out of his lecture on professionalism.
New to this small Texas town, I’d volunteered to stage-manage, thinking I’d meet some interesting people. Possibly Amos took me on in case my job as a reporter for the Sweetwater Register would generate extra publicity. Or soften the coverage when the Baptists inevitably protested. Courtesans and cross-dressing were sure to set someone off.
I scheduled rehearsals, arranged costume fittings, and managed our move from the Presbyterian church basement to the Texas Theater for dress rehearsals. Today, I spray-painted walnut-sized wooden rings for three cast members to wear. Seven geese waddled around their carved rims.
Kayla was supposed to wear her ring on a leather thong around her neck, but she was constitutionally incapable of just going along. So here we were, long after the dinner break, and the loose ring on her tiny hand clearly bothered her. I made a note. Amos wouldn’t want her fidgeting.
The rehearsal dragged toward an end. The next line was Kayla’s.
“How many geese in a giggle?” she asked in her twangy little-girl voice.
“That’s ‘gaggle,’ ” I corrected from my second-row seat. We’d run the scene seven times already, and she tripped over that line every time.
“Giggle is funnier,” she said.
Amos strode up onto the stage, the sound of his boot heels reverberating through the empty theater. “Philia, honey, your father, Erronius there, has been talking about the rings he gave his missing children, the rings with the gaggle of geese on them. Miles, here, is studying his ring. You’re looking at yours.” He moved close beside her. “Unless all of y’all describe the rings exactly the same way, honey, unless you all three say ‘gaggle of geese,’ our audience will be confused.” He bent at the waist to bring his face to hers. “Your line’s the key to this whole damn play, sweetheart. On your line, everything changes. It is not the time to sow confusion.”
Kayla looked to be tearing up or getting mad, hard to say. Not knowing her lines was bad enough, but that night she was so low-energy, she wasn’t giving her young lover, Hero—played by her real-life boyfriend Dylan Tower—anything to react to.
The curtain rose on that romantic drama a few weeks before, after Kayla dropped her long-time boyfriend, Lawton Higham. In case she changed her mind, Lawton spent his evenings sitting in his truck outside our rehearsals, listening to country music, revving his engine, and smoking cigarettes.
“Now what’s the line? Brianna?” Amos snapped the question at me.
“How many geese in a gaggle,” I said.
“Got it, sugar?”
“How many geese in a gaggle,” Kayla whispered.
“Fine.” The corners of Amos’s mouth rose, but he wasn’t smiling. He returned to sit beside me.
“I still say giggle is funnier,” Kayla said.
“Almighty God,” Amos muttered. To her, he said, “I’ll sure tell Sondheim, Shevelove, and Gelbart when I see them. Let me think, how many Tonys has this musical won?”
“Seven,” I said. “Thirteen, counting revivals.”
“Why I keep you around, Yamato,” Amos said.
“What kind of crazy word is ‘gaggle’ anyway?” Kayla twisted the ring.
“Collective noun,” I said. “Specific to each animal.”