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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Douglas Whaley, Actor

Growing up, through all grades including high school and college, I did a great deal of acting. I even wrote plays and musicals, and they were pretty dreadful. I found a box of them recently, and shuddered as I glanced through them. But I suppose they were good training for learning to write, and prepared me for writing the comic songs I am proud of and that were later collected into an album called “Strange Songs” (about which more in a future post, though readers interested in exploring that madness can download a copy for $9 at

When I was in college I gave serious thought to going into the theater as a career, but decided on law both for practical reasons (say, money) and because I thought I could make a difference in that field that would be more important than just entertaining others. So I gave up acting except for the occasional law school production. Gilbert and Sullivan (see “A Fanatic’s Tale (This Isn’t Pretty),” April 11, 2010) wrote a one act comic opera called “Trial By Jury,” in which the plaintiff (still in her bridal gown) comes into court suing the dastardly defendant for breach of promise to marry, only to end up snagging the judge instead. The show is only a half hour in length, and, due to its many legal jokes, is perfectly suited for a law school production. In my 40 year teaching career I directed TBJ eight times at two different schools, frequently, but not always, playing the part of The Learned Judge (see photo below).

The Plaintiff reads the Judge's mashnote.
On retiring in 2004 I went back to playing tournament bridge (which my wife Charleyne and I used to do in the 1970s), writing novels (see “Imaginary Friend,” June 22, 2010), and getting back into show business. I first tried out for and received the part of Uncle Stanley in the Kaufman and Hart play “George Washington Slept Here,” at the Little Theatre Off Broadway in Grove City (a suburb of Columbus). Interestingly, my father when he was still in his twenties had played the same role in a community theater production in Pensacola, Florida, in 1947. It was great fun, and I was back!

Since then I’ve acted in seven shows, and directed three others (“The Curious Savage,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Closure,” a new play—see the post “Directing ‘Closure,’” June 5, 2010), and have been enjoyed it all. I’ve played many types of roles, and had the lead in three plays: “Deathtrap,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” and, incredibly, “King Lear.”

In “Deathtrap” I played the aging dramatist who’s willing to kill to create another hit play (see above photo), and the nine year-old boy that lives deep inside me was thrilled by all the action the play requires. I participated in five murders onstage and died twice myself, plus getting to use a garrote that squirted blood as it was wrapped around the victim’s neck (that’s what’s going on in the photo), shoot a gun, and even fire a crossbow!

In “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” another famous Kaufman and Hart comedy, I played the insufferable Sheridan Whiteside, a radio personality of the 1930s who slips on the ice when visiting an Ohio home during a book tour of the country, and is trapped there for weeks, so he brings the whole world into the household, driving the family who lives there into the madness that’s his usual life. I was in an antique wheelchair during almost all of the show (and onstage constantly), and since Whiteside is a control freak, my friends will all tell you it’s a role I was born for.

“King Lear” was the best, however. I’d played Brutus in high school, and Leonato in a local production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” so I knew the joy of performing Shakespeare, but nothing is as enriching as taking the stage as this doomed monarch. When rehearsing and acting Shakespeare’s lines one is constantly amazed at how rich they are, how beautifully phrased, how perfect, and—startlingly—how new meanings come to the forefront no matter how much you thought you understood the words when you first read them. I found myself slapping my head over and over with new insights into Shakespeare’s genius. In college I had two courses on Shakespeare, and have always been in awe of him. When my heart behaved so terrifyingly in 2005 (see “The First Time I Almost Died,” August 3, 2010), I began thinking about what I hadn’t accomplished in life, and I realized that I’d read or seen all of Shakespeare’s plays except six: the three parts of “Henry VI,” “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” and “Two Noble Kinsmen.” So, sick as I was, I promptly ordered DVDs of each of the first five, and found an audio recording of the last play.

With close friends after the show---note the beard.
I performed Lear at a Rosebriar Shakespeare Company production in Groveport (another Columbus suburb) in late 2008 (it was directed beautifully by my good friend, Manny Flowers and had a wonderful cast). I was in bad physical shape then of course, but the show must go on. (I did have a guard carrying on my poor Cordelia’s body in the last scene, instead of doing that myself, as is traditional). At one point in the play, Lear clutches his chest and says “My heart!” and that terrified any number of my friends who were in the audience, including Charleyne who told me later she thought about jumping on the stage to see if she could help. But the only mishap that occurred was in one performance where Goneril, one of the king’s daughters, failed to make her entrance, and the other two actors on stage and I were involved in the nerve-wracking business of extemporizing Shakespeare (!) for over a minute until she finally hurried onstage (and, terrific actress that she is, was in tears backstage afterwards, apologizing again and again). But our improvisations must have been pretty good. I later asked a number of friends who were in the audience, and none of them had noticed anything wrong!

I’m next scheduled to play a British police inspector in a January 2011 production of the thriller “Night Must Fall,” and I can’t wait. There are few things in life as much fun as standing backstage opening night waiting for the show to start, your heart in your throat, worried about missing lines, wondering if you can get through it all not only without error, but performing well.

And then the curtain rises and you’re on.

Related Posts:
"Directing 'Closure'," June 5, 2010
"I Am an 89 Year-Old Jew," January 13, 2011
"Another Opening, Another Show: Doug is in Hamlet'," April 29, 2011

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