All performers have the same nightmare — they’re walking onstage with no idea what their lines are or what they’re supposed to do. And just before spring break, third-year Professional Actor Training Program actress Jenny Mercein found herself in exactly that spot — only it wasn’t a dream.
Mercein had innocently walked into the School of Drama’s production office on a Wednesday afternoon after returning from a short out-of-town trip. Her purpose was to pick up a schedule of rehearsals for a play that was going into rehearsal in five days.
“Anne Stewart, our production manager had a panicked look in her eye and she asked me, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ ” Mercein recalled.
Stewart explained that there had been an emergency. A lead actress in the then-running production of Goodnight Children Everywhere had had to drop out for personal reasons, and a replacement was needed for the remaining five days of the run. Could Mercein fill in?
“My first gut feeling was of course, we’re all on the same team here,” Mercein said. She quickly rescheduled her commitments for the upcoming days and within 10 minutes was on her way to the costume shop.
“Jenny is 4 to 6 inches taller than the actress she was replacing, so adjustments had to be made,” said Mark Zufelt, the show’s director. He and his stage manager, meanwhile, were gathering the rest of the cast for a special run-through at 4 p.m.; a show was scheduled for that night at 7.
“The costumers walked me down to the theater and told me the story of the play on the way,” Mercein said. “I’d never read it or seen it and didn’t know anything about it.”
Zufelt and company then went through the script, which deals with a group of London siblings returning to the city after being evacuated during the blitz. They showed Mercein where she had to be when, explaining her relationships to the other actors.
“We were so lucky that Jenny already knew how to do British English,” said Lathrop Walker, the male lead in the play. “Her training and experience helped make it all work.”
While the actors frantically rehearsed, the publicity crew created inserts explaining what had happened and stuffed them in the programs. House management and box office staff were alerted to the situation. They held the curtain for 30 minutes and sent audience members to nearby coffee shops.
As Shakespeare said, all’s well that ends well, and in this case it did. Though she carried a script, Mercein slipped into the part well enough that audience members reported during a post-play discussion that they forgot the script after a while.
“It was our biggest audience of the run up that point, and I think they felt part of the process because of what was happening,” Zufelt said. “They ‘got’ the play more than others had.”
As for the actors, they found it all exciting. Both Walker and Mercein reported that the situation forced them to do well what every actor is coached to do — really listen to the other actors on stage.
“When we did the rehearsal,” Mercein said, “we only did the parts that I was in, so I still didn’t know the whole play. It really forces you to listen when you don’t know what’s happening next!”