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A Working Actor: Performing In 2 Different Plays On The Same Day


Two shows a day, matinee and evening - that's standard for a stage actor. At least it's the same show. But imagine performing two different plays in the same day. That's what a repertory company does. For our Backstage Pass series, Jeff Lunden followed one actor during a grueling but satisfying day with the Soulpepper Theatre Company.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: First up is a musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology." Gregory Prest arrives backstage at 3:15 for a 4 p.m. show. He signs in.

GREGORY PREST: Sign in here, my initials.

LUNDEN: He goes behind the stage to check a rack of costumes...

PREST: Pretty sure everything is here - and it is. OK...

LUNDEN: ...And warms up on his trombone.


LUNDEN: Then, Prest goes to his dressing room, which he shares with some of the 65 members of Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company, who've come to New York to play 11 shows in rep. They all get in costume, put on their microphones while talking and schmoozing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: My first time doing...

LUNDEN: And a little after 4 p.m., they're called onstage to play a variety of inhabitants of the cemetery in Spoon River, Ill.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing, as characters) One of us passed in a fever. One was burned in a mine. One was killed in a brawl.

LUNDEN: There are 19 actor-musicians in "Spoon River."

PREST: I love being in the band. I play the piano for most of it. It's all about being in the center of the support system that's supporting the main singers.

LUNDEN: The show runs a brisk 90 minutes. And after the curtain call, Gregory Prest runs off stage.

PREST: They were so generous and so warm. They're so warm but also had a hard candy addiction - lots of crinkly candies. They were full of love but (laughter) had a desire to unwrap those candies.

LUNDEN: He only has an hour to grab dinner before he prepares for his second show. It's an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage." In this show, the 11 other actors support him. Prest plays the lead character, Philip Carey, in this English coming-of-age story as he goes through a series of romantic and personal disasters. For two and a half hours, he never leaves the stage. During intermission, Prest is curled up in a fetal position in full view of the audience.

PREST: I love being onstage for the intermission because it is so lonely. And I don't get that release of, you know - hey, how did you think it was going? - you know, with my friends backstage. It's really useful for the character.

LUNDEN: And did I mention his character has a club foot, so he walks with a limp for the whole show? It's intense. So he does some mental prep. Before the show, he and actress Michelle Monteith pick angel cards. Each card has one word on it, and each actor picks a card and keeps that word in the back of their mind as they do the show.

MICHELLE MONTEITH: Do you want to do yours now?

PREST: I do, if you don't mind.


PREST: Release.


PREST: That's a good one.

LUNDEN: And not long after, these two actors are releasing their emotions onstage.


PREST: (As Philip) I'm sick of being treated like a fool. You're jolly well coming to Paris with me tomorrow, or you can take the consequences.

MONTEITH: (As Mildred) I always hated it when you kissed me.

LUNDEN: Ninety-nine percent of the time, the show goes off without a hitch. This is the 1 percent when it doesn't. At a crucial moment in the second act, the lights fail, and all the actors have to go backstage while the computer is reset.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We're just taking some time to reboot the system, and we hope that that will get everything back on track.

LUNDEN: After a 10-minute delay, the play resumes and finishes to more tumultuous applause than usual.


LUNDEN: As he comes off stage, Gregory Prest looks spent.

PREST: Yeah. Well, my angel card was release. And now I know why that was. Release it. Release it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And calls for tomorrow, Sunday...

LUNDEN: And as he and the actors release after a two-show day, I ask him what his plans are for the rest of the evening. A shower and a glass of wine, he says.

PREST: Early night. We've got two shows tomorrow.

LUNDEN: There's no rest in repertory theater. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.