While recently making my daily visit to one of Milwaukee’s 463 great coffee shops, I bumped into a friend who happens to be the guy responsible for hiring performers at a local theater. My actor’s need to talk louder, smile wider and flirt harder so everyone’s attention turns to me instead of any other bald guy in the room kicked in. This, thought I, was the perfect opening for us to talk about all the plays he planned to cast me in.
We made some chitchat, but my face started to twist into a question mark when nothing was said of what roles I would be playing and when. I started to inquire, but he stopped me short before I could: “Save it. I’ve crossed you off the list.”
The hammer landed kerplunk, and I felt it hit my thick skull square and hard. I’m finished! Kaput!!
I’ve long feared being written off. I was sure it would happen when the choreographer of a production of Guys and Dolls I was in realized it would be easier for me to perform my own appendectomy than count to eight. There was the time, in a children’s theater version of the King Arthur tale, that my belt broke and my pants dropped in front of a full house of students. I was pretty sure my career was over.
Fortunately, I survived those incidents and more. But now, the end has come, and I must face my final curtain – in Milwaukee, at least. As I gear up for a move to New York City because of my wife’s great new job, I’m learning to accept that the words “You’ll never work in this town again!” may very well apply to me.
The last time I made a change like this was when I returned to the Midwest after finishing a fancy education out East. With diploma in hand, I felt I could easily rule the world, call my own shots and climb the heights in whatever creative pursuit tickled my fancy. I quickly realized I knew squat about how life really works. So I came back to this city, my hometown since I was six, and I got a job. I auditioned for and directed plays. I publicly shared words I wrote in private.
Now, some 25 years later, I’ve worked for every theater in town, and I’ve surely helped close a few. I led a company called Bialystock & Bloom and was regularly called a “bad boy” and “Milwaukee’s leading pornographer” because of a proclivity for plays that contain a dash of sex, swear words and nudity. I wore bow ties and suits as the Pfister Hotel’s in-house writer. I crafted jokes on the sly for CEOs and politicians. Each job helped to pay my mortgage. Those 109 performances of The Odd Couple paid for my two-car garage. And I found, much to my surprise and delight, that with a lot of Midwestern grit and a fair amount of luck, an artist can carve out a hell of a life here.
Some realities of my next chapter are quite easy to accept. Less frozen custard but more good bagels seems like a decent trade off. But realizing that my work here is done fills me with a touch of melancholy. It’s been fun playing and working in Milwaukee, and I’ve always had a tough time leaving any party before all the lights have been turned off.
As I prepare for my final goodbye, I hope I won’t be entirely forgotten. Maybe some of you reading this now might recall my performance as the sweaty nerd in the fat suit in The Food Chain who walked out of the bathroom oddly hitching up his pants. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Ah, yes! Now there’s a guy who could exit a bathroom with real gusto!” And if my friend does indeed keep a formal list of available actors and actresses, I’d like to believe he’s drawn the line through my name with a fine-point pen. I’d love it if, every so often, he glances down at his handiwork and thinks, “Oh, if only Jonathan West were available. He’d be perfect for this part!” ◆