Stage frights and podcasts

As the theater world goes dark, actors' tales of real-life stage disasters as told on "The Actor's Nightmare" seem a perfect antidote

From Portland to Paris, Ashland to Ankara, Beaverton to Beijing, theaters around the world are shut down. One of the longest-lived forms of social mingling and creative contact has met its match in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is keeping this most gregarious form of art from expressing itself.

In the meantime, film – that is, already recorded and edited film – and television are surging in popularity as people stay at home with their screens and live their lives virtually, binge-watching everything from The Americans to the complete British and American versions of The Office. Occasional filmed theater productions help fill the gap, too: The National Theatre’s streamed “At Home” series, including the recent Frankenstein with Danny Boyle and Benedict Cumberbatch, has drawn a global audience of more than 9.3 million views.

Ah, but what about the real thing? Anyone who’s ever hung around a backstage, or dropped in on a bar where theater people congregate after a show, knows that in theater circles a lot of the after-the-fact pleasure comes from regaling other insiders with disastrous tales of what went wrong, whether the audience ever realized it or not. In a way this swapping of stories is a kind of theater of its own.

“The Actor’s Nightmare” host Louanne Moldovan, caffeined up and ready to roll.

A while back, Portland actor, director, producer, and playwright Louanne Moldovan realized the potential of this form of storytelling and decided to take it beyond the bars and theater parties. This kind of tale would be ideal for podcasting, she thought: Invite some actors, interview them, let them spin their stories, record and edit and release. And so, The Actor’s Nightmare was born – or, as the series is subtitled on its Web site, “REAL HORROR stories from THE STAGE.” (The Actor’s Nightmare also has a Facebook page.)

A few days ago I interviewed Moldovan in Officially Sanctioned Covid-19 Socially Distancing Format: I emailed her a few questions, and she emailed back her replies. Sit back and enjoy the transcript below – and when you’ve finished reading, go to the Actor’s Nightmare Web site and listen to a podcast or four yourself:

How did you get started doing The Actor’s Nightmare? It’s an interview show with a twist: part profile, part backstage storytelling; a real inside look at what goes right and what can go wrong in the theater.

I was doing a lot of theater while living in Los Angeles, and I used to love the after-show banter over a cocktail, especially when something had gone terribly wrong.  Only in hindsight was laughter appropriate.  These instances sparked other stories and soon enough, we’d be swapping actor nightmare tales between heaving hilarity and dizzying disbelief.  I was so entranced by these stories I was going to compile a book.  Time passed, and I realized it would make a great documentary.  We shot a promo reel, more time passed.  And I decided to launch a podcast by way of collecting as many stories as possible while generating interest and attention.  When momentum builds, the documentary will follow!

And of course, I have been there – caught onstage with my 18th Century frock slipping down off me, bodice included.  Or thrust so forcefully on a faux bed the base of which was two-by-fours only to have the wind knocked out of me, rendering me unable to speak my lines.  Or, being momentarily upstaged by an oversized cockroach and making the swift decision to squash it before the aghast audience.  In each instant, I was petrified.   And that instant felt like an eternity. 

“The Actor’s Nightmare” producer and “creative partner-in-crime,” Adam Klugman.

I was hanging out with my old friend, Adam Klugman (Jack’s son), happened to mention the podcast idea to him, and he really sparked to it. We were sitting in the recording studio he manages – The Studio at North Rim in Portland – it was kismet! He came on board as the podcast producer which has been terrifically helpful to have a savvy, creative partner-in-crime. As a creative director, former actor, and editor, he brings a valuable, kindred sensibility and until we find one, he’s been editing each episode with his great skill.

I never wanted this to just be the actors regaling me with their stories, but an opportunity to find out about them as people and artists – by way of a conversation. I am genuinely curious about their path to their art. I think there is so much of interest and delight to gain from learning the context for the stories they will tell. You could say I am driven by equal parts curiosity and fallibility. I seem to tread a wayward path in life, learning by mistakes, embarrassment and passion – not the keenest of bedfellows. I want to share these stories that reside in a little corner of surprise and error and to remind us no one escapes imperfection, to convey nothing is sacred, and to elicit that much-needed medicine for the soul – laughter.

I recently heard Ira Glass explain they were re-playing the most popular episode of the entire This American Life series. The theme was fiascos, and the story was about a community theater production of Peter Pan where everything that could go wrong, went colossally wrong. It got more hilarious by the minute. I felt somehow legitimized – The Actor’s Nightmare podcast is in good company!

Did you name the series after the Christopher Durang play that’s often paired with his Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You?

I actually didn’t, though I know the play, of course. And for awhile I would explain this is not the “real” actor’s nightmare – when you have a terrible dream where it’s opening night and you are naked and cannot remember any of your lines. This is, crudely, bloopers for the stage.  “Actor’s nightmare” is an apt description for the experience of being caught in a sudden, looming disaster – when someone skips five pages of critical dialogue, or breaks a crucial prop, or runs on stage as the Earl of Northumberland, a character you should not even be meeting in this scene, and proclaims, Is not Gaunt dead, and doth not Hereford live? when he does not die for two more acts. That’s pretty much a nightmare for everyone on stage.

Actor Andrea White spinning her story on “The Actor’s Nightmare.”

This is your second season, right? So The Actor’s Nightmare wasn’t conceived as a response to Covid-19. But it seems like a pretty interesting way of doing theater during a lockdown, doesn’t it?

Yes, we are in the middle of our second season, and thinking about guests for Season 3! It does feel like a viable tonic for the current state of paralysis in live theater. For me, it hearkens back to the heyday of radio, when people gathered ’round to listen to great comedic and dramatic radio plays, mysteries and music – that sublime act of listening has certainly been revived in the plethora of podcasts out there now. Currently, without the ability to go out and see entertainment, I like to think of people lying on their sofas or out pedaling on a bicycle or sitting with a partner at the kitchen table and being regaled by our stories.

How many episodes have you done so far, and how have you got the word out that the series exists? Do you have some favorite moments that have emerged?

We are about to release our 17th episode. We plaster Facebook and tell our friends and I mention it to people waiting in line to buy TP at the grocery store. Just kidding. But you know when people ask what you’re up to and you say oh work… blah blah blah and the family blah blah blah. Now I can add, oh hey, I launched a podcast! In addition to these no-tech, old-school approaches, we hired a social media guru. But we need to get sponsors or we won’t be able to pay her! Ugh, I better not go down that worrying path of survival.

I always have a little chat with the guest before they’re on the show, so I have an idea of their story. The delight is in the details, and I’ve had many favorite moments. Luisa Sermol’s husband, Tom Gough, imitating a passel of panicked, pimply-faced Jesus substitutes; Sharonlee McLean giving the most tortured, twisted, sotto voce groans in response to unexpected images of pornography on set; Duffy Epstein made my jaw hurt watching him imitate his sudden attack of lockjaw. And we did a remote taping of Dan Lauria whose re-telling of doing The Price with Jack Klugman at a dinner theater in Florida left me in tears, I laughed so hard.

You said your next episode takes the series into some new and serious territory. Can you tell me a little about that? – who’s involved, what subjects it takes on, when it’s going to be available?

Adam and I talk about reinventing the wheel when we feel a story warrants treading into new territory. We create the rules; the rules change. We are not beholden to a structure but rather to honoring that unique moment in the life of the theater when the unexpected makes an outstanding appearance and the actors, true wizards of the trade, accommodate, adjust and create something new by the skin of their teeth. And sometimes, not. Sometimes, that world of the play stops and then shifts. This story, told by James Dixon, delves into the issue of race in the theater. While James was appearing in a Portland production of The Dutchman, he was interrupted in the middle of a performance by an impassioned cast member who organized a protest against the production for its excessively racist language. Both James and the protesting actor are African American, which complicates the weave of painful themes and split loyalties running through this episode. We have also acquired the audio from the protest, filmed by the demonstrators themselves, which we will play in its entirety. We release episodes every Wednesday, usually with a teaser coming out on Monday or Tuesday.

Actor Tom Gough, in the pre-pandemic studio with a guffawing Moldovan, stretching his story.

What sort of future do you see for podcasting as an art form? Are there things it offers that more traditional forms don’t?

We are the stories we tell, as Joyce Carol Oates once wrote. Podcasting has certainly exploded and with everyone virtually wired to something nearly all the time, product is at a premium. I think podcasts in particular thrive due to the ancient, undeniable, and infinite gratification of storytelling. The Actor’s Nightmare is a compendium of stories, told by the preeminent storytellers – actors.  We need to tell stories to understand the world, especially now. To witness it and make sense of it and to participate in it. A delightful story is more than simple entertainment. It’s a way to learn something, to feel something, to connect.

Can I give a shout-out to actors, comedians, musicians, singers? I’d love to hear your stories! Email me at: actorsnightmarepodcast@gmail.com

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