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THEATER Being an extra in 'An Enemy of the People'
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-04-11

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Forty of us troop single file down the hallway and two flights of stairs. We pass the prop construction shop with a plaque quoting A Midsummer Night's Dream, several all-gender restrooms and bulletin boards with headshots and union notices pinned three deep.

As I wait with my back against the wall, I bat an origami crane, painted pink and dangling from the ceiling by a thin thread, out of my face and listen to the scene shop manager blast Darth Vader's theme song. At places, I carefully ascend the STEP marked in all caps with masking tape and navigate the dimly lit stage, finding tonight's designated spot among several rows of chairs.

"The troops are here!" actor Philip Earl Johnson whisper-yells, clapping his hands. I greet actor Allen Gilmore and he smiles warmly, saying "it's good to see your shining face again!" As the noise in the house dies and the lights go down, the curtain rises on An Enemy of the People's iconic town hall scene, which culminates in an angry mob yelling "lock him up!" in Goodman Theatre's 900-seat Albert space.

After years of working as a critic and avoiding the stage, I started auditioning again in 2017. When a friend told me that Robert Falls was hiring non-Equity actors to appear in his upcoming Enemy, I sent in my photo and resume, thinking I'd never hear back. One week later, I was hired for a minimum of ten performances. I would be reimbursed for transportation and awarded Equity points. All I had to do was attend two rehearsals and put together my own black-and-gray ensemble.

"Love your hat!" costume designer Ana Kuzmanic said to me at our first rehearsal, as she inspected almost 80 non-Equity actors. After a crew member snapped Polaroids, Falls, whose production of Henrik Ibsen's classic features an updated translation, came in to explain why we were there. Normally, the crowd scene, during which a crowd turns against Dr. Thomas Stockman ( Johnson ) for insisting the town's water is contaminated, only has a few actors. But in this production, "I don't have to have a crowd of six people onstage saying 'rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb'," Falls said. "You're all here as community members to find out what's going on. There's a journey from that to a near-riot." He encouraged us to find our own motivations: the town's contaminated water fuels the local spa, its main source of income. By proposing the spa close until the problem is resolved, Stockman is suggesting many citizens lose their jobs and all pay more taxes. "If you're just real," Falls said, looking like Santa Claus with a gentle but commanding presence, "it will feel great."

The extras' stage manager, Shannon Rourke, went through the ground rules. No swearing on stage. Absolutely no cell phones anywhere on your person. Don't sit in marked chairs, as they are for specific actors. Above all, listen, don't anticipate. ( She repeats this before each and every performance. ) Extras, as we are referred to, are called half an hour after curtain and released after our scene.

One 10-hour dress tech and several shows later, this whole experience is still sinking in for me. I'm adept at keeping cool under layers of dark wool, at "chairography" ( taking one chair after the curtain goes down and carefully stacking it backstage, all the while staying out of the way of two actors with quick changes ), at unbuttoning my overcoat as soon as the curtain goes up ( stage business, my old friend ). I'm still working on the mob mentality: screaming at and surging toward a character who's just trying to do the right thing. ( Once, I acted so hard my bootlace came untied; another night I was nearly trampled in the stampede. ) I'm constantly inspired by the principal cast's intelligent, impassioned performances. And I'll never forget the end of dress rehearsal, when Johnson, wearing only a nightshirt and loafers, looked out at 80 extras sitting in the house and yelled, "now that was f*ckin' awesome!"

Goodman Theatre's An Enemy of the People runs through April 15. For more information, visit goodmantheatre.org/enemy.


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