The Lesson

Night of the Iguana

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Emmett Robinson cast me to play the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon in Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana” at the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston in 1966. Being only vaguely familiar with the play (I had seen the Richard Burton film version when it was released), I was ready to take on the challenge of a lead role without giving it a second thought. Emmett said it was one of the rare occasions where he felt the film version was better than the stage play, so he combined the play script with the screenplay, taking the best parts of each to create the version he would present at the Dock Street.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but no actor had ever joined the Footlighters before and stepped into a lead role immediately on the Dock Street stage. Usually one would have to undertake a number of minor and supporting roles before becoming a headliner. It was the first time Emmett made an exception during his long tenure there.

Rehearsals were intense. Emmett was a perfectionist, demanding the utmost discipline from his cast and crew. Hours, sometimes entire rehearsals would be spent working a single scene over and over. He was methodical.

The first rehearsal was spent with the cast seated around a table on stage reading the script aloud. Norman, as stage manager, read the stage directions, which Emmett had mapped out before hand. He had built a scale model of the set in his workshop, complete with figurines reflecting each character, and line by line, moment by moment, had structured the blocking from the top of Act 1 right through the curtain call long before any cast member had set foot on stage for that first read through. The rest of that first week he drilled us step by step through his pre-established blocking.

Sometime during the second week of rehearsal, after acquiring a certain air of self-importance from this new-found status, I showed up late for rehearsal. All the attention I had received in recent months had begun to go to my head. I wasn’t concerned when I got caught up in traffic, refused to be rushed or try to find an alternate route, and just took my time, assuming since I was the star they would just wait until I was ready.

I wandered into the theatre several minutes after our call time. Emmett was sitting patiently centerstage, surrounded by the rest of the cast in a semicircle. Those steel gray eyes of his stopped me in my tracks. Then he glanced at his watch.

“Glad you could join us, Mr. McAllister. It is now nineteen minutes past the hour. By the time I finish what I have to say, it will be twenty past. There are 17 members of this cast and crew, including you. Eighteen when you consider me. And let’s do consider me. That is a combined total of six hours of creative time you have cost this company, which you will never be able to make up. I will not tolerate infringements on creative time. You are expected to be in the theatre, on stage, ready to work at your call time, not walking through the stage door. It will not happen again! Do I make myself clear?”

My whole body felt like mush.

“Crystal,” I answered meekly.

I would never be late for a call or a performance again throughout my entire career. And yes, all illusions of grandeur were erased forever.

 


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