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The Reality of Illusion

After many months, the Writers Guild and SAG AFTRA strikes have ended, and many of us are heading back to work. Perhaps genetically encoded in my DNA, performing isn’t something I selected. Ever since being cast as the ringmaster for our kindergarten circus play, spliced throughout my life since my earliest recollections, being center stage is central to who I am.

Exhilarated by performance of any kind, I love the sense of community and being part of an ensemble production: a special place where time and place are melded into a universal, other-worldly state of bliss and illusion and reality converge. I am be smitten by an audience and love the symbiotic creative exchange of energy. I need to perform.

Early on, I was often selected to be the lead dancer in musicals and in junior high, I started performing in community, regional, and dinner theater. By my 20s, I was in rehearsals with Brain Dennehy for an off- Broadway production of The Lion in Winter. Later on, after teaching for several years, and beyond my biggest dreams, I hosted a TV talk show and worked with hundreds of readily recognizable faces including Bryan Cranston, Ryan Seacrest, Martina Navratilova, Rita Moreno, and more.

But nothing could compete with a bucket list item, a moment where anonymity and performance delicately collided. In retirement, I missed the lights-camera-action rhythm of my working years and applied for background work. I had always dreamed of being in the movies, and still rehearsed my Academy Awards acceptance speech - just in case.

Cloaked in camaraderie, wrapped in mink stoles and swing coats, drenched in Revlon’s bright red Fire and Ice lipstick, three of us were stranded in Times Square. The air was unbearably hot on Broadway at 3am on August 5, 2019; we had no place to go.

It was without a doubt one of the best 20 days of my life.

It looked like a scene from Back to the Future; an impeccable, authentic recreation of an evening at the theater circa 1958 for a shoot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Essential and invisible, as background actors, we had worked together for 16 hours but I only knew their first names, Deb and Faith; Faith was the feistiest. The three of us were standing in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis, each holding a small clear plastic bag and nothing else.

I was too embarrassed to ask if they rent rooms by the hour, but Faith stepped right up to the desk to inquire. She had just removed and stuffed her girdle into her small plastic bag, I had three half smoked herbal-laced Parliaments in my plastic bag and had slipped my feet out of my pointy-toed pumps after deciding to walk barefoot down Broadway in my stocking feet - the perils less daunting than the pain emanating from my still bleeding toes.

We had spent hours walking up and down 47th Street, back and forth in front of the Barrymore Theater, lighting fake cigarettes. Exhausted and desperate, we had no way to get home.

Production wrapped and all the vintage vehicles, Ford Thunderbirds, ’57 Chevy Belairs, and Buick Bonnevilles were long gone, flat bedded back to a warehouse in Brooklyn. But the three of us, all out-of-town day workers, were stuck. Grand Central and Penn Station were closed; there were no trains available until late the next afternoon.

Background acting isn’t for everyone. Like hiking in flip flops, the experiences and views are unforgettable but the discomfort significant and searing. Like breadcrumbs in Nana’s meatballs, you may not see us, but you would notice if we were not there - imagine a café without patrons, NYC sidewalks without pedestrians, a battlefield without soldiers, nightclub reverie without patrons. Indispensable and disposable, background actors make it possible to believe in make-believe.

Often tedious, tiresome, and repetitious, creating reality can be grueling. Calls to report to set often come in after 11pm the night before a shoot and may require traveling in the middle of the night. Background actors spend hours in hair and makeup, then sit on folding chairs in “holding” for many hours and sometimes never make it to set. Long days and idle hours spliced with intermittent food and bathroom breaks beget scores of scenes left on the cutting room floor.

Personal belongings and cell phones are banned on sets – photos of costumes, celebs, or sets, forbidden under penalty of death or worse. Working background is sort of like being wallpaper, or a table (with an appetite) – we’re an integral part of the set, but an accoutrement.

But honestly, it feels like heaven on earth. Working with scores of people who excel at their craft, famous faces sitting at the next table waiting for a plate at luscious midnight buffets, storytellers reconstructing reality under the most bizarre circumstances….watching how magic happens.

At 2am, a middle-aged woman on 47th Street begged for my autograph. “I LOVE you!" she proclaimed. "I watch you every week!” She asked for a photo, and rather than reveal that I was just an anonymous background actor, I obliged.

I wondered if this is how it feels to be famous…

For me, the most extraordinary part is being a part of the process and watching the reality of creating illusion. I would have gladly purchased a ticket just to sit and watch the intricacies of the production unfold as Steven Spielberg and Bradley Cooper collaborated on a musical scene for Maestro.

Few on set recognized Spielberg, a co-producer, who looked like somebody’s schleppy grandfather in a dowdy baseball cap and dilapidated bomber jacket. Being on set is not quite like the red carpet: the most famous actors, directors and cinematographers look like someone you wouldn’t sit next to on a bus. We are there to work not to gawk, and those who imagine us posing for selfies with celebs would be better off on a tour of celebrity homes in LA.

Almost 76, I’m still mesmerized by being immersed in the creation of a revised reality on the other side of the red velvet ropes. Now I automatically scan the background when I’m watching a TV series or movie instead of focusing on the primary actors.

As unlikely as a mega lottery win, I made the trailer for The Good Mother, and last month, in a local theater in Albany NY there I was on the big screen, immortalized for five full seconds of fame in a scene with Hilary Swank. Heaven. On. Earth. (Almost) all of it, just perfect in every way…

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