A Playwright’s Nightmare: The First Time...I Had to Go on in One of My Plays

This story was originally written for and published in the September/October 2003 edition of The Dramatist.

A watercolor illustration of a tall, very thin, 50-year-old, white woman with short, shoulder-length hair reading a script on a theatre set that looks like a beach
Illustration rendered with Adobe Firefly

The call came around 5:00 p.m. It was Carole Rothman, the director of my play Coastal Disturbances.

“Rosemary Murphy has suddenly taken ill, so you’re going to have to go on tonight,” she said.

We were in the final weeks of our run at the 108-seat Second Stage Theater and didn’t have understudies.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I’m a playwright, not an actress!

“Just wear something beachy and be at the theatre at half hour,” she said.

“You’ve lost your mind!” I replied. “The audience will storm the box office, demanding their money back!

“On the contrary,” she said. “If you don’t go on, we’ll lose $2,500 at the box office!” 

“$2,500?” I gasped. 

“$2,500!” she repeated, loud and clear. There was a long silence. 

“But Carole,” I pleaded, “I don’t know the lines! I'll be a laughing stock!

“You'll carry the script.

“I'll carry the script?

This was starting to sound like a novelty act! 

“It’s an old tradition from the nineteenth century,” she said. “If an actor suddenly falls ill, the playwright goes on.

I remembered Joe Papp feeding me a similar line when he was trying to get me to read my play The Art of Dining to him at his summerhouse in Katonah, NY.

“It’s an old tradition from the nineteenth century,” he said. “The playwright reads the play to the company on the first day of rehearsal."

“But this isn't the first day of rehearsal,” I said, “and you’re not a company but a producer!

“All the more reason why you should read it to me now,” he said.

“But I’m a terrible actress!” I said. 

My husband quickly pulled me aside and whispered, “If you don't read it now, he’ll never produce it, so you have no choice!

Needless to say, it was one of the most harrowing moments of my life. I really am a terrible actress, but I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I had to step up to the plate! In an effort to take the pressure off, my husband started pour­ing me glasses of champagne. You can imagine the rest.

Whenever I came to Elizabeth’s scenes (which were clearly about me), I’d start to cry. What enables playwrights to be so free with our words is the fact that other people say them. So, to haul us up onstage is to shatter our invisibility. It wasn’t my bad acting that undid me but my sudden exposure. The line between writing and performing had been erased. I suddenly was my character—desperate and naked with no place to hide.

Joe, of course, loved it, because here was this very tall, WASPy woman sobbing all over his furniture. My husband started feeding me bananas to sober me up, but the damage was done. I wept my way through the entire play ... which was a comedy! Joe was so taken by my sodden performance he decided to produce the play on the spot! So, visions of that nightmare afternoon swarmed back as Carole kept twisting my arm. There I’d be—in front of 108 people this time—tall, awk­ward Tina, playing one of her desperate characters. I could feel the tears of embarrassment starting to fall. 

“Have pity on me, Carole,” I begged. “I’ll disgrace you, myself, and the entire cast!

But she wouldn't take no for an answer, so I walked the two blocks to the theatre with a beachy dress over my arm and joined the actors in their communal dressing room at half ­hour. Like my husband with the champagne, they said I’d be great, that we'd have a blast and that the audience would be in raptures at the novelty of the situation.

I don’t remember how I got onto the stage. I was focused on one thing and one thing only: I mustn’t try to act! I was an understudy. My job was to mimic Rosemary’s performance, nothing more and nothing less. Once I got into it, I almost enjoyed it and even had moments of thinking I was quite good.

I never actually looked at the other actors, mind you, but kept my eyes glued to the script. I only glanced up once to see what was going on. Tim Daly was rushing after Annette Bening, sobbing for her to come back. I had no idea what being onstage with actors was like. They weren’t pretending! It was real! Tim was in tears! I almost grabbed his arm and whispered, “Take it easy, Tim, it’s just a play!” I was so shat­tered by his anguish I dove back into my script and never raised my head again.

My other revelation had to do with backstage attire. When actors aren’t onstage, they walk around in their underwear! I never knew that Jockey briefs came in colors or that they could be so skimpily cut. When I saw Tim and Ron Guttman playing chess in their extraordinarily revealing black and midnight blue bikinis, I didn't know which way to look and dove back into my script for fear my astonished gaze would leave a stain.

At intermission, someone made the mistake of telling me that Sidney Lumet, the film director, was in the audience. I don’t know what was going through my head, but when I returned to the stage for the second act, I became fixated on showing off my profile. Salvador Dalí once told me how fasci­nating it was, so I began having images of Mr. Lumet casting me in a movie. It was utter folly, since my face was buried in the script the entire evening, but the siren song of show business had been sounded. Maybe I was an enchanting actress after all!

When we were taking our curtain call, the cast presented me with an enormous bouquet of flowers. I was so carried away, I recall actually blowing kisses! I remember search­ing the audience for Mr. Lumet, whom I wouldn’t have known anyway, but as I clutched beautiful Annette’s hand, I was convinced he only had eyes for me. The ultimate trans­formation had occurred. I was alone onstage, and I was a goddess! 

Tina Howe
Tina Howe

(born Mabel Davis Howe; November 21, 1937 – August 28, 2023) was an American playwright. In a career that spanned more than four decades, Howe's best-known works include Museum, Painting ChurchesThe Art of Dining, Costal Disturbancesand Pride’s Crossing, among others. Among her many accolades, she won the 1993 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature; 1998 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play; 2015 PEN/Laura Pels Theater Award, Master American Dramatist; the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lillys; inducted into the 2017 American Theatre Hall of Fame; and 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatists Guild.