Theater Thursday, Featured

Theater Thursday: Bill W. and Dr. Bob

Acting hasn't been a part of my life for too long, but in the last few years it has been incredibly influential and undeniably eye-opening. As I wrap up my eleventh production in almost five years, the conversations I've had and the memories I've shared with my theater family have made me realize I don't remember all of my previous productions as well as I had thought. So this blog series seeks to delve deep into the experiences I've had thus far, as few as they may be when compared to many people I've acted beside.

Some time passed after my last show, and when I heard that friend and director Erik Steen would be directing Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the dromedy about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I had seen the show years prior when Brainerd Community Theater had hosted a traveling theater company, and I knew it would be a good stretch in both my comedic and dramatic capabilities.

Casting Complications

The number of other actors at auditions was not an inspiring amount, as was occasionally the case with Brainerd Community Theater productions. It was one of three theater companies all within the Brainerd Lakes Area, and while we benefited from having three distinct venues each with their own flavor (Pequot Lakes specialized in well-known musicals, Stage North was known for putting its own spin on popular classics, and BCT brought a variety of recognizable productions mixed with a fair few lesser-known shows), it sort of felt that the venue that held auditions after the other two seemed to be scraping the barrel for actors. Bill W. & Dr. Bob was a show with a relatively small cast - it called for six actors, three male and three female - and while that normally wouldn't be difficult to fill, I remember running into issues as early as the second night of auditions.

I found out later, in talking with Erik and Patrick, that of the few people who did audition, the only veteran males were myself and Marc Oliphant. We are of generally similar ages, which was a problem, as the two lead male roles are not - one in his thirties or early forties, the other in his fifties or early sixties. And - from what I heard - while there was some talent in the non-veteran actors who came out simply because they were familiar with the production, Erik was concerned at their ability to carry such a meaty performance as either Bill or Bob. And so he and Patrick discussed their options. They both wanted the show to go on. Bill W. & Dr. Bob was extremely well-received when it toured through Brainerd years ago, and Patrick had already taken calls from local clinics and groups inquiring about sponsoring the show and reserving tickets. It was a show that would sell in this area, there was no doubt about that.

And so they resolved to play the roles themselves. Erik Steen took on the role of Bill W., Patrick Spradlin performed as Dr. Bob. As for Marc and myself, they cast me as Man - the third male actor who would fill the shoes of several additional characters - and Marc accepted the responsibility of stage managing the show.

It was both disappointing and exciting to be cast in the way I was. On the one hand, I had gone into auditions expecting to get the role of Bill W. While I was not yet 30, I believed I could have acted in that role well enough, portrayed the energetic, idealistic, smooth-talking alcoholic in a way that would've done the role justice. On the other hand, now I got the opportunity to play many characters, some in very quick succession. From the loveable sidekick of Bill W., to the oafish lost cause, to the first real convert to their shocking new theory, I was met with the task of bringing a unique voice and behavior to each of these characters, something that was challenging and fun, and something I'd love to try my hand at again in the future.

 Sadly, this is the only photo I have from this production.

Sadly, this is the only photo I have from this production.

We Laughed, We Cried

Calling Bill W. & Dr. Bob a drama is only half-true. It certainly deals with very real, very heavy emotions that these men and their wives - and the people they invariably interacted with - went through as they tried to help others through their substance abuse while also dealing with their own addictions. But between the tears and the desperate moments were plenty of jokes - moments of brevity that allowed the two hours of show time to pass in what felt like minutes. It carried a realism and a wonder with it that is indicative of the theatrical presentation of real life, and it resonated with our community in ways that no other show could.

In addition to everything the play threw at us, the production itself was mired with it's own moments for the cast and crew. One of the worst first tech rehearsals I've ever had took place behind the set of Bill W. & Dr. Bob, as did one of the worst stage kisses endured by an actress friend of mine. Also, the fact that backstage during production would be nearly pitch black wasn't communicated entirely between cast, director, and crew, for during one of our first tech rehearsals we realized that some of the cast had great difficulty maneuvering between the clothing racks and the back of the set.

After each performance, the cast remained on stage for a brief discussion with the audience. As the show dealt with subject matter as is a very real part of many people's lives, having a discussion afterward served as a sort of a impromptu, cathartic support group. I will admit that I, as well as the rest of the cast, felt under-qualified to deal with some of the discussions that were brought up - we heard everything from the audience's own stories of dealing with addiction to one couple who actually asked us advice on how to help their own suffering family. There was very little in the way of asking about the production itself - most people who stayed after simply shared their own experiences, and marveled at the accuracy with which the play captured the same feelings of desperation, and loss.

Patrick has spoken to me multiple times since this production about turning into a semi-regular show that we would do every couple of years, preferably with as close to the original cast as possible. I agreed that it would be a good idea, but that was three years ago, and as of yet it hasn't come back for more performances. With Erik Steen moving down to the Twin Cities a less than a year later, it raised the entire casting question again, and even if this show sells, there are other productions that Patrick wanted to produce.

I may be getting my order of shows mixed up a bit, as I don't think I acted in two shows directed by Erik Steen back to back, but regardless, next week we will be discussing my experience on the set of Relatively Speaking...