A Most Grand Idea
William Darrah Whitaker
George pressed the call button and said, "Mrs. Whitfield, you have a visitor."
A deep voice boomed from the darkness behind the lights. “Cut! Cut! Let’s set it up from the top one more time.”
A bell rang and, like ants escaping a damaged nest, people swarmed the set. One, a heavy blonde carrying a thick script, headed his way.
George took a deep breath and prepared for the worst.
The script hit the desk with a thud. “Okay, George, that takes care of all of them.”
“I’m sorry. All of them?”
“Yeah, all ten syllables of your line. Each take you’ve found a way to stress one in particular. You’ve done them all, and now you get one more chance to say your dialogue as it’s written. No emphasis anywhere. No special facial expressions. No creating the moment.” She added air quotes for good measure. “The director simply wants you to say the line.”
“It’s my fault. I know. It’s just that—”
“It’s just nothing but…Six. Lousy. Words. So say them and we can move on.”
“I really want this,” George said.
“Don’t we all.”
Another voice shouted over the activity. “Places everyone.”
“Last chance,” she said and picked up the script. “There is a limit to his patience.” She ticked her head behind her. “Just saying.”
As the area cleared, George repositioned a folder that already squared with the hard right angle of the corner of the desk and eyed the phone, judging the distance his hand needed to travel to hit its mark. The seven and a half weeks of advanced narrative-based training at Nick Knightly School of Improv had prepared him well, he reminded himself. He could do this.
“Quiet on the set,” someone yelled.
George’s heart raced. He pressed his hand to the desktop to keep it from shaking.
One more chance
, she said.
The deep voice boomed again from the darkness. “And…Action!”
George glanced at the man sitting across the room as he had the ten previous times and nodded. He lifted his hand, extended his index finger and pressed the call button. “Mrs. Whitfield, you have a visitor.”
And he waited…
One one thousand, two one thousand…
“Thank you, Stephen,” the voice of Mrs. Whitfield responded through the phone intercom. “Send him in.”
One one thousand, two one thousand… He closed his eyes and waited.
“Cut,” the deep voice said. “Let’s move on.”
George blinked, unsure if he had really done it. He shifted his chair back and let the tension release from his shoulders. Had he done it? The other extras seated in the faux waiting room didn’t register any outward concern. He wiped sweat beaded on his forehead as the ants swarmed the floor again.
The blonde approached. “Well, that was fun.”
“Did I do all right?”
“Oscar-worthy performance,” she answered as she flipped through index card-sized forms.
“You want me for more?”
“Take this to Dave.” She handed him one. “And good luck.” She latched onto a passing makeup artist and disappeared behind the set wall.
George lingered at his prop desk, aligning the prop pen along the edge of the already straightened prop folder. He almost picked up the prop phone to check for a non-existent dial tone, but resisted the temptation. He tilted back in his chair and ran his hands along its padded arms. He had to admit that his day was over. And he’d need to find Dave who served as the production’s Extra Coordinator. Although he had been given a line, George remained firmly in that category.
Two prop handlers gripped either side of the desk. “Off the set, pal,” one said. “Play time’s over.”
And that’s when George thought of a grand idea.
It wasn’t too difficult to get lost. Oftentimes, tourists walked through the lot guided as best they could by young, hopeful wannabes. Periodically, these groups would disembark their trams to gape at empty sets from long-cancelled TV series. So for George to find and blend into the crowd proved quite easy. He had a knack for that sort of thing. And he stayed.
After having a fabulous dinner of meat loaf and bread pudding at the commissary; in fact, sitting three tables from the star of the new hit show, “Karen Fixes Everything,” he returned to a building he’d discovered earlier located at the far end of the lot. From its appearance with rusted equipment propped against its outside walls, trash collected in odd corners and some windows boarded over, he assumed that this particular building was no longer in use. After finding an unlocked door, he made himself at home. The floor proved a little uncomfortable, but he felt safe from discovery and fell fast asleep.
Warm morning light filtered through a dirty warehouse window, lighting on George’s face and waking him like a sweet kiss from his beloved mother. He stretched his stiff back, but that ache would soon go away. Today was a new day, and he felt absolutely alive with possibilities like never before. At around ten, he joined a group led by a man wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard much like what Dave had been sporting on George’s first day. Eight hours later, George received the handsome sum of sixty dollars. On their way to the front gate, he split from his group and eventually returned to his new back lot home.
The next day, after his morning kiss from Mother Sunshine, George found a group of extras parading to another production. He joined them, but today, resolved not to hold back from displaying his true talents. Like on his first production, “The Wonderful Mrs. Whitfield,” he made sure he was in the right place at the right time.
Success! He received three lines of dialogue, which he delivered so well, they brought him back for the rest of the week. Each night he returned to his back lot room, and each morning he showed for work. The following week, after more schmoozing with the right people, a series shooting at Studio A-12 had a new bit player. Two weeks later, after some fantastic work, according to the director, he worked his way up to series regular.
While on the lot, he’d found and moved a bed into his warehouse room, added several lamps and even a TV which didn’t pick up any channels, but looked nice on his new cherry wood dresser. Although he could have returned to his sister’s home where he normally resided, he didn’t want to risk jinxing his new found success by leaving the lot. Why rock the boat? Why change horses in midstream? Why subject himself to the insults of his brother-in-law who had made it perfectly clear it was time for him to go?
Seven weeks in, his show’s star abruptly quit. Rumors on the set circulated about the guy’s drug and alcohol addictions, but George tended to believe the one where he had left because the writers continued to give George all the funny lines. When he heard that one, George could only laugh and shrug his shoulders. What could he do if he was naturally funny? Soon after, the producers promoted George to the starring role of the show.
As he lay in his bed that night, he couldn’t help but imagine how much further he could go. Emmy awards would soon come, followed by syndication and the money that would bring, and finally he’d move on to the silver screen where he’d really shine. Maybe then and only then, would he tell his sister that he’d be moving out.
He closed his eyes dreaming of the future.
George’s eyes blinked open to find the big blonde looming over him, her long hair tickling his nose. He sneezed.
“Oh, that’s just great. Right in my face.” She leaned back and yelled. “He’s awake, guys. Cancel the paramedics.”
George squinted from the blaze of light surrounding him. This was not his usual morning sunshine.
“Someone get him up. We need to move on,” the deep voice shouted from behind its veil of darkness.
George eyed the leg of a desk he last remembered from the “Whitfield” set… so long ago. He pulled himself to his feet and noticed someone else sat in his chair.
“What’s she doing there?” George said.
“She’s playing the new secretary,” the blonde answered. “You need to go find Dave.”
“Your services are no longer needed.” She handed him an index card. “He’ll explain everything.”
“But what about my show? I have a call time at three.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said and pulled over a passing production assistant. “Take him to see Dave. He’s done for the day.”
The PA smiled at George. “You took a nasty fall there. You must have been out for almost five minutes. You sure you’re okay?”
“Of course I’m okay.” George puffed out his chest. “I’m a star.”
“Maybe you should take it easy.” He placed a hand on George’s shoulder. “You might have jarred something loose.”
George shrugged him off. “Nothing’s loose. I don’t belong here. Why don’t you people understand?”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.” He handed George a water bottle. “Look, don’t go anywhere. Besides, that’s not allowed without a badge.” The PA fingered his red bordered badge complete with its one gold star. “I’ll go get a doctor.”
George unscrewed the cap and took a sip from the bottle. The cool liquid tracking down his throat provided little solace from this new situation he still didn’t comprehend. Why was he back here?
His head hurt, but not as bad as a few minutes ago. The more he rubbed though, the more his dream drifted away. He must have passed out, the PA said for five minutes, and he must have imagined all that had transpired in the past few months. That could be the only explanation for a rational man.
And above all, he was a rational man.
Despite the warnings, George didn’t wait for his escort to return. He wound his way to the nearest exit and escaped outside. The fresh air helped some, but when he held his face to the sun, its light no longer felt like a warm kiss.
“Momma?” he mumbled, rubbing his cheek.
A five-story building loomed ahead which he recognized from when he left for the shoot with the other extras – had it really been only this morning? Maybe he should talk to Dave after all and get things straightened out.
George rubbed his head again, trying to make sense of it all. He remembered receiving highest honors at the Knightly School. That much rang true. So why couldn’t he have his own show?
“Why not?” he said to no one in particular.
A crow cawed from a low-hanging branch and fluttered to the ground ahead of him. It grabbed a solitary French fry in its beak, spotted George and panicked, flapping wildly to escape and left its prize behind.
, George thought. If only it had not been scared, all would be fine with its world.
George bent to pick up the scrap, thinking maybe he’d somehow coax the bird back and then at least one of them would have what they wanted. As he did so, a flash of color caught his eye. He stepped closer, pushed back pine straw from under a bush and picked up a lot badge with the same red border and the same gold stars as the PA’s.
But it was different. Instead of just one star, this one sported five.
And that’s when George got his most grand idea.