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Bakery Belies Fakery

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"On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the hardest things to do onstage, cooking an omelet in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was a seven," says veteran actor Will Marchetti. A few years ago I saw his brilliant portrayal of short-order cook Johnny in Terrence McNally's romantic two-hander at San Francisco's Magic Theatre. More recently I saw a production of Vincent in Brixton, in which entire meals were cooked, quite realistically. So I wondered how Marchetti and other actors who've cooked onstage handle that task.

It hinges upon adequate rehearsals and the complexity of the menu. It also helps if you're comfortable in the kitchen in real life. Marchetti, who whipped up a Denver omelet onstage every night, had cooked omelets before, but putting that together with dialogue and finessing the timing proved challenging. He chopped up lots of ingredients and then cooked the omelet on an upstage stove, his back to the audience. The director had him turn downstage occasionally, frying pan in hand, so the audience could see what he was doing, which added to the task's complexity.

The director was extremely precise about how the cooking and dialogue were integrated, rehearsing the cooking scene more than any other scene. Eggs had to be cracked on such-and-such a line, and so forth. Those rehearsals were tedious for Marchetti. He learned his lines first, so his hands would be free. And then, because Johnny is a cook, and because he was trying to impress Frankie, the actor had to learn professional flourishes such as cracking an egg with one hand, chopping very fast using a lot of wrist action—the tip of the blade staying on the block—and keeping his fingers tucked in so he wouldn't hack them off. He says these details took a hell of a long time to learn.

In Vincent in Brixton, a historical drama about the early life of Van Gogh, most of the cast at the Bay Area's TheatreWorks did some form of cooking, even if it was just boiling water, on a detailed, realistic period set. The script called for the actors to roast a leg of mutton, but lamb was chosen because the smell of mutton is too powerful—always a consideration in theatrical food choices. The lamb was cooked ahead of time, on a bed of carrots, beets, and potatoes.

But the actors cooked a number of things from scratch. The supposed fish cakes were potato cakes and were fried in Crisco. The actors also made parsley sauce and gravy.

Although no one in the cast was an accomplished cook, the learning curve was pretty simple, according to director Kent Nicholson. He brought in a local chef—and former stage manager—as a consultant. The play had already been roughly blocked when the chef arrived, but she suggested changes in the blocking. She was able to provide historical detail, necessary for this play, which was set in 19th century England, and she also helped the actors measure proportions for ingredients.

The first day of cooking, the cast cooked the food three times, using modern props; the stage stove had been outfitted with hot plates and brought to the rehearsal hall. When the period props arrived, the main difference was that things were heavier to carry; for instance a cast-iron pot needed to be held with two hands. Once the actors started rehearsing the cooking, they did so in every rehearsal.

Nicholson says playwright Nicholas Wright must have worked out the timing of the cooking very carefully, because it all fell into place and enhanced the scenes. There were scenes in which one character might have been focused on another, but instead was forced to deal with the boiling water, or the sauce that needed stirring—which added texture and conflict to the play. "You have this physical thing you have to deal with, real and alive, and you can't ignore it," explains Nicholson. "It changed the dynamics of the scene." For example, when one of the characters makes breakfast, the physical action gave her an eloquent place to put her frustration and anger.

It's important to remember, says Nicholson, that playwrights put food preparation and cooking into a script for a purpose. "There are British plays where people make tea incessantly," he says. "It's a diversionary tactic a playwright or director can use. The director or actor has to figure out why the writer is asking for it. If you don't, it will feel superfluous and therefore not real."

Dorothy Lyman knew exactly why her character was cooking in her one-woman show My Kitchen Wars, which played in Los Angeles in 2001 and in New York in 2004. The play is based on food writer Betty Fussell's book of the same name. "It's about her evolution as a cook and how food meant different things to her," says Lyman.

During the course of the 90-minute play, Lyman made a lobster salad, a lobster being the perfect metaphor for the show. "The lobster sheds its shell when it gets too tight; that's how it grows," she explains. "I felt Betty too had several shells."

Also on the menu were a bisque; a salad with avocado, jalapeno, and fresh mayonnaise with lime; and a Grand Marnier soufflé. An example of how the cooking blended with the text: The noise of the egg beater used to make the soufflé morphed into the sound of helicopters during the Vietnam War section of the play.

Lyman, who loves to cook, got her recipes from Julia Child's books and from Fussell, who is her longtime friend. Fussell came in and taught her how to make the bisque. Lyman had a working stove, an oven, running water, and a fake refrigerator. In the New York production, she eviscerated a steamed lobster, cracking the claws and digging out the meat. The director gave her precise instructions such as, "Break the eggs on that line." While things were simmering on the stove, Lyman sit down and sipped wine, talking to the audience.

She memorized the monologue first, and she then layered the cooking on top of that. It was important that she be efficient in the kitchen because that reveals a lot about her character. Fortunately she has no fear of knives, which she's used to handling, although she cut her finger a few times early on and learned to stash Band-Aids onstage.

Things have gone awry at times in another one-woman show, Heather Gold's interactive I Look Like an Egg, but I Identify As a Cookie. In it, Gold, who trained with The Groundings, delves deeper and deeper into explorations of gender identity and other personal experiences as she bakes a batch of fragrant chocolate-chip cookies, with a little chopping and mixing help from audience volunteers—the chopper is, wisely, an audience plant. "Baking is my punctuation," says Gold. "It provides a homey, comforting, central thing to come back to. But I have to deal with the fact that I have an audience who wants cookies. You'd better be as engaging as the cookie."

In the compact, low-budget show, Gold positions her premeasured ingredients on a cart and bakes them in a toaster oven. When the toaster oven goes "ding," she has to be at the finale. At the end, she also produces trays of prebaked cookies to feed the salivating audience.

"It anchors me in the piece," says Gold. "What am I doing? I'm baking. You have to be so precise in baking. I get my hands in the dough, I make a mess. How am I going to get [my hands] clean, will the cookies burn? Part of the challenge is to keep what I'm doing so engrossing that the audience won't be worrying about the cookies burning." The cookies also have to be solidly baked, because she nibbles on one at the end of the show. "My biggest fear is cutting myself," she says. So far, she's only cut the tablecloth, broken two spoons mixing the dough, burned the cookies, dropped the nuts on the floor, forgotten to provide the eggs, had a power outage, and once the crew poured salt instead of sugar into the premeasured cup. She estimates she's baked a total of 18,000 Toll House cookies during the show's extended San Francisco run and on tour.

Audiences love it when performers sweat over a hot stove. Lyman still remembers the sizzle and aroma when Olympia Dukakis fried bacon in Sam Shepard's The Curse of the Starving Class. It was years ago, but she's never forgotten it.

Lyman pinpoints the appeal, for actors and audiences, of this type of authentic activity onstage: "Actors spend a lot of time talking and staring into each other's eyes—whereas, in real life, we're constantly busy." Actors cooking, with real utensils and real sounds and real spilled flour, and real smells wafting out into the audience adds a verisimilitude that belies fakery. BSW

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