The fog rolls through the streets of London's infamous district Whitechapel, which has come to life on the stage at the Golden Chain Theatre.
Standing backstage, about to go on in front of more than 150 people, my stomach was turning somersaults. Lyric Piccolotti (The maid in the play) turned to me and said in a lilting whisper, using her practiced British accent, "I'm so sorry I called you Peter Pan earlier." She had been making fun of my hair. I am playing an older gentleman and I have to color my hair to make it silver. The silver coloring often falls in flakes, covering my shoulders with a glittering dust. They call it my fairy dandruff. She smiled puckishly at me.
"I shouldn't have said that," she said to me. "I should have said you remind me of Tinkerbell," laughing softly.
"Funny kid," I thought. How much funnier would it be if I tossed my lunch in her wig right before I went on stage? I heard our cue to enter and thought to myself, how in the world did I get here? I stepped out into the blinding lights and found myself in a 19th Century study facing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (played magnificently by Peter Clarke). Praying I would remember all my lines, I began to speak.
When I was working in Hollywood, I heard an old producer tell a young actor, "If you want to be happy as an actor, go join a community theater in any city but Los Angeles. If you want to be miserable as an actor, keep trying to make it in Hollywood."
Now, I wasn't an actor, I was a writer and producer, but I have to say, if my brief experience at the Golden Chain Theatre is any guide, it's filled with happy actors. And I am thrilled to be counted in their number in their latest production, the dark period thriller, "Jack the Ripper."
I never intended to audition for Jack the Ripper. I thought I'd glance at the script, shake a few hands, meet some like-minded souls and sit in the back of the room. This plan was thwarted by Jason Turner, the director. Within minutes of walking in, Jason had me up on stage reading through multiple parts. Even after the audition was over, I made sure to tell Jason I would love to help in any other way than acting. He did not listen to me.
Katee Sutch (playing R. J. Lees), also new to the Mountain Area, came to that first audition just as I did.
"Everyone was so welcoming," Sutch said. "It's been great to perform with new people and get to make new friends. I look forward to continuing to perform at the Golden Chain."
Her experience was the same as mine and she is already rehearsing for the next show, "The Ladies of Tin Pan Alley," the musical revue that will open Nov. 8.
A wonderful little journey began for us all when we sat down for the first read-through of "Jack the Ripper." For Katee and I, this was our introduction to the play, but for the rest of the company, this was a project they had been looking forward to doing for months.
What Katee and I didn't realize at first is that this was a radical departure for the local theater. The Golden Chain made their reputation doing classic, mustache-twirling melodramas. These much beloved period comedies are a tourist-attracting mainstay of the theatre, giving international travelers as well as area residents, a taste of the old west.
"We're trying to give audiences something different in the off-season, showcasing the talent in the area and offering more challenging material than what's been offered in the past, while still preserving the summer melodramas," said Turner, who is also a board member of the theatre.
"Jack the Ripper," chosen specifically to coincide with the October Halloween season, was one of the first steps in that direction.
A dark and scary step it is indeed. The story focuses on the lives and struggles of the "unfortunate" class of victims Jack the Ripper preyed upon. Tony Beguez (playing the poor, streetwise Stubbs) is planning to head to Los Angeles shortly to pursue a professional acting career.
"This is the first real drama I've been in and playing Stubbs, capturing his sweet nature, his fragility and his heart have pushed me as an actor," Beguez said. "Seeing the audience response to Stubbs has been truly gratifying."
Beguez said he has closely watched each of the actresses playing Jack's victims (Jenny Turner as Polly Nichols, Jennifer Piccolotti as Liz Stride and Tawni Jackson as Mary Kelly) push themselves to find the humanity in characters that could easily be just caricatures.
"I've been impressed as they have poured their hearts into this difficult and emotional work," Beguez said. "Seeing the audience moved by their performance makes all the long hours and effort put in, worth it."
And this theater company put in long hours to bring "Jack the Ripper" to life. Almost everyone involved works full-time and then comes in their free time to work even harder bringing this thriller to the stage.
Behind the scenes, building sets, creating costumes, setting up the lights and music, creating the hellish ambience of 19th Century London, is a team of dedicated volunteers who love what they do and it shows. They will be bringing this passion to their upcoming projects as well, which will include the classic "The Miracle Worker" about Helen Keller. "We are always in the market for new recruits," said director Turner.
As the Golden Chain Theatre moves forward, I am proud to be a part of it. Even as the butterflies do flip-flops in my gut and I fear the next line I need to say won't be at the tip of my tongue, I have to admit, I am having fun. It's great to be a part of a cast and crew that are clearly having fun as well.
Scary, shrieking, stabby fun, is "Jack the Ripper" indeed. Come and see where the Golden Chain is going if you dare.
Showtimes are 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday Oct. 18,19, 25, and 26; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20 and 27.
Details: (559) 683-7112, goldenchaintheatre.org.