All posts by Alexis Bell

A Child of the Theatre Part IX: Comedy is Hard

There’s a old adage in the theatre: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. That’s probably why I remember so clearly my first comic bit. It was in The Imaginary Invalid. I played Louison the youngest daughter of Argan the invalid.

Characters (Alexis Bell, Other) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Argan (David Brigham), Louison (Alexis Bell) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)

My one scene was rather simple. Argan wants to find out from Louison about the man her older sister is in love with. When Louison won’t tell him, he tries to beat it out of her, but she outsmarts him, by instantly playing dead, until he repents having killed his daughter.

We played this scene by having me run behind a large wooden chair. David Brigham, the actor playing Argan, would strike the back of the chair with his stick well above my head, and then I made a comic scream and played dead.

One day in rehearsal I had an idea, and I shyly approached the director and asked if when David hit the chair, I could throw the small stuffed clown I was carrying up into the air. The director approved, and so night after night I would run behind the chair and when David struck it, the clown would go sailing comically high into the air, and the audience would laugh.

Nine years old and I was already a comedic genius.

A Child of the Theatre Part VIII: Children Are There to Die

Chekhov’s gun is a famous rule of the theatre.

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

-Anton Chekhov

A similar rule might be, if there’s a child in a show that isn’t a comedy, they are there to die. Okay maybe not always, in The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, the kid lives but the rest of his family and just about everyone else is dead.

Mollser Gogan (Alexis Bell) in The Plough and the Stars (1987
Mollser Gogan (Alexis Bell) in The Plough and the Stars (1987)

So I died a lot in my early years of acting. The Plough in the Stars by Sean O’Casey was the second show I did with The Upstart Crow, and just like in my very first play, I died. Not only did I die, but a child sized coffin comes on for the last act, and the other characters play poker on it.

The Plough and the Stars (1987)
The Plough and the Stars (1987)

The truth is, I didn’t quite fit in the coffin (no I never had to be inside of it, it was nailed shut). It was exactly my height, so with the thickness of the wood, I wouldn’t have fit. We kept that coffin for years. Or rather two members of the company Jim and Geni kept it in their barn. They found it rather amusing when they had guests who saw it, and wondered why a child’s coffin was being stored. We did eventually use the coffin again when we did the show a second time. It didn’t fit that actress either.

A Child of the Theatre VII: Greek Tragedy

My dad [Richard Bell] likes to talk about The Oresteia as a noble failure, as the reason we don’t cut plays, and also point out that my mother costumed him in beads and a mask. I don’t care. It was one of my favorite plays.

The Oresteia (1986)
The Oresteia (1986)

It would be easy to think that it was only a favorite because of the spectacle, and it did have that. The masks the costumes. the 18 foot doors. All of that was cool. But actually one of my favorite books as a kid was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I read it over and over so I was very well acquainted with the characters in The Oresteia.

The Oresteia (1986)
The Oresteia (1986)

In fact, once the play closed, I got a copy of the script from my parents, and had my My Little Ponies act out the show.

A Child of the Theatre Part VI: The Guild Theatre

Rawhide Court may have been the first theatre The Upstart Crow built, but The Guild Theatre was the one I helped build, and I miss it.

Characters (Richard Bell, Dan McNellan) in King Lear (1986) at The Guild Theatre
Characters (Richard Bell, Dan McNellan) in King Lear (1986) at The Guild Theatre

The Guild was different from Rawhide Court, in that we had two theatre, well, us and the rest of The Guild did. Because of this it needed sound proofing on the wall that would be next to the lobby. We had gotten some sort of tiling to cover the wall with, and tile by tile we put glue on the back and covered the entire eighteen foot tall or so wall. I did the bottom. I remember this because I loved it and was sorry when it was done.

Character (Dan McNellan, Others) in King Lear (1986) at The Guild Theatre
Character (Dan McNellan, Others) in King Lear (1986) at The Guild Theatre

Over the years we worked at The Guild I would help with other improvements. When Macky Auditorium got new seats for their space, they donated the old ones to us, and we had to assemble them and stand them up. In later years I would help paint the lobby, and even learn how to drywall during one remodel.

Characters (Dan McNellan, Others) in King Lear (1986) at The Guild Theatre
Characters (Dan McNellan, Others) in King Lear (1986) at The Guild Theatre

But the main reason I miss The Guild is for all the other things I learned there (not that drywall isn’t important). The Guild is where I really learned to act, to use power tools, to sew. And I also learned to ride my bike in it’s parking lot.

A Child Of The Theatre Part V: Misalliance and Shaw

Last night we opened Misalliance. Which is why we’ve been too busy to post about past productions. Anyway I recently realized how many Shaw plays I’ve been in. Interestingly, only one of them, like Misalliance, was set in Shaw’s own time.

Joey Percival (Stephen Krusoe), Hypatia Tarleton (Alexis Bell) in Shaw’ Misalliance (2015)

The first one was in 1992 and the show was The Apple Cart, which is set in some time in the future. I was Princess Alice.

Princess Alice (Alexis Bell) in Shaw’s The Apple Cart (1992)

Then in 2005 I played Joan of Arc in St. Joan.

Joan of Arc (Alexis Bell) in Shaw’s St. Joan (2004)

Then in 2011 I was in The Philanderer, along with Louis Clark and Joe Illingworth who are also in Misalliance.

Julia Craven (Alexis Bell), Cuthburtson (Louis Clark), Leonard Charteris (Joe Illingworth), Col. Craven (Richard Bell) in The Philanderer (2011)

And most recently I played Cleopatra in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, with John Taylor, who also, is in Misalliance.

Rufio (John Taylor), Cleopatra (Alexis Bell) in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (2013)

A Child of the Theatre Part IV: Rawhide Court

It seems strange that we were only at Rawhide Court for four shows, but then a year is a very long time to a child. I have so many memories of that theatre, and yet, very few of them are theatre memories.

Characters in Under Milk Wood (1985) at Rawhide Court

I do remember that when I decided to set up a lemonade stand, as any proper American child should, I did it in the box office of the theatre. Since I only had a dozen or so customers (the actors building the set and costumes) I didn’t do very well.

Characters in Touch of The Poet (1985) at Rawhide Court

I also remember being in the theatre and trying to write a play about my favorite cartoon Voltron.

Characters in The Miser (1985) at Rawhide Court

But mostly what I remember, is the field outside the theatre where I looked for horny toads, and was terrified when I looked down into a prairie dog’s hole, and saw the prairie dog coming up. I remember that there were birds who built mud nests under the eaves of the theatre, but kept knocking their eggs out of the nests. I would search all over the parking lot, trying to find an unbroken egg. And I remember an August evening when the company got together at the theatre, away from the city lights, and watched the Perseid meteor shower.

A Child of the Theatre Part III: For Mature Audiences Only

Anyone who’s been around young children, knows how much they like to watch the same thing over and over. So I was never bored seeing plays over and over again as a young child, and I often knew many of the lines from the plays. I got to see every single play, until The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by Peter Weiss, or Marat/Sade for short.

You see after The Playboy of The Western World by John Millington Synge, I got up on a pew in church one Sunday, and very loudly proclaimed, “Glory be to God, I’m crazy again!” One of my father’s line’s from that play.

Characters in Playboy of the Western World(1983)

So my parents decided that perhaps Marat/Sade was not a good play for me to see at 6 years old.

My older sister Vivian was in Marat/Sade, and sang several of the songs in the play. She didn’t think twice about practicing her lines and songs around my niece (who is three years younger than me) until one day in the grocery store my niece began to sing, “What’s the use of a revolution without general, general, general copulation.”

Characters (Dan McNellan, Vivian Bell Sutherland, John Stadler and others) in Marat/Sade(1984)

Maturity is after all, about knowing what you shouldn’t sing or shout in public.

A Child of the Theatre Part II: Blackout

I learned the importance of knowing your cue, at a young age.

The show was Howard Richardson & William Berney’s Dark of the Moon. My mother was the stage manager, and as the show got close to opening, I would watch rehearsals with her every night. At the end of the first half she would call out, “Blackout!” to signal the actors that in a performance the lights would go out. Being a kid, I thought this was great fun, and I started shouting it with her every night.

Cast members (Richard Bell and others) in Dark of the Moon (1983)

Opening night I was in the audience, and when the first act ended, I yelled “Blackout!”

Barbara Allen (Katherine Dubois Reed) and others in Dark of the Moon (1983)

The lights were late.

A Child of the Theatre Part I

For the record, I never chose to be an actor. I was three years old, it was The Upstart Crow’s second season, and they needed a kid for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I was the only kid anyone in the company knew and so I started doing Shakespeare at age three.

Leontes (John Stadler) and Mamilius (Alexis Bell) in The Winter’s Tale (1982)

33 years, and 46 roles later, I guess, I have to admit, I like being an actor. In fact the last large role I did was in Frederico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding, another show we did in the second season.

The Neighbor, The Mother (Mary Bell), The Servant (Kathy Dubois Reed), The Bride (Lorree True) in Blood Wedding (1981)
The Bride (Alexis Bell), The Neighbor (Felicia Tuttle), The Mother (Katherine Dubois Reed) in Blood Wedding (2014)

Of course if you notice, Kathy Dubois Reed was in both those productions. And although that was my last large role, my next one will be in our first show of our 36th Season, Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw. In fact, Kathy’s going to be in it as well.

In the mean time, people love to ask me what it was like growing up in the theatre. I sometimes say, “I don’t know. It’s the only way I ever grew up.” But as we go through the history of the company, I’ll try to answer that question with a few more details.

Which brings us back to The Winter’s Tale and the bear. No not the famous stage direction for the play ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ but the small stuffed bear I was given to play with on stage. My parents idea was to give me a toy I was only allowed to play with during the play, to keep me from getting bored. It was the adults they didn’t take into account. One night one of the actors thought it would be fun to put a string on the bear. That night while Leontes was holding me giving a heart breaking speech, I kept hitting him in the face with the bear on a string.

I assure you, I have grown as an actor since then.