At the end of the summer of 2010, I was cast in the most laughable stage production of my acting career. The play – whose title I will refrain from posting here – was a new work based loosely on the characters from Gilligan’s Island and set in the waiting room of a psych ward. A friend and former colleague from college was co-producing the show and had sought me out all the way from Berlin to offer me the role of “Ginger.” In our correspondence earlier that year, the project was pitched to me as a “chatty dark comedy about how overloaded we are in today’s multi-media world.” I was intrigued. When she told me it was a paying gig and would play as a rental at the venerated off-off-Broadway venue, P.S.122, for a two-week run in September, I was sold. After two years of acting for free at the Flea, this felt like a step up. I accepted and didn’t think twice. I didn’t even ask to see the script.
As I quickly learned, Martin*, the playwright – a sixty-something native of San Francisco with a dwindling inheritance and pocketfuls of wishful thinking – had come to New York with his twenty-something Polish mail-order bride to produce, direct, and star in what he was convinced was a seminal work. Forget that he had never penned a script. This was the play to end all plays. It was what the theater world had been waiting for. And Martin was vested in the project in the way only a true egoist could be: he had put up over fifty thousand dollars in private capital for the two-week run, convinced that, with his directorial vision and writerly gifts, the production would be Broadway-bound in less than a year.
The night of the first read-through, I realized my mistake. We convened at the National Arts Club in a mahogany-paneled second-floor drawing room that overlooked Gramercy Park. The NAC is a stuffy “cultural” organization founded in 1898 by and for connected artists from old money. Martin had been a longtime member of the club and was staying there with his wife Anya* while we were in rehearsal. When I walked through the doors, the club had an off-putting air that made me uneasy. My instinct later proved spot-on: that fall, an investigation was launched against the club president and Martin’s good friend for his manipulation of the club’s apartments, which he had allegedly used to hoard roomfuls of personal junk and rent at below-market rates to family and friends.
I showed up to the read-through in a long silk red maxi dress with a plunging neckline – a cheeky homage, I thought, to my character. I’d never met Martin, but when I glimpsed a man in head-to-toe white linens with a slicked-back comb-over talking excitedly to one of the other actors, I was pretty sure it was him. When he saw me, he made his way over and introduced himself with a little too much empathy and an obvious enthusiasm for my breasts.
“Giiinn-ger!” he said, extending a Rolexed hand. “You must be Laurel. Martin Redele. I’m honored you’re here. Really. Just. Honored.” He spoke with an affectation that had a slight faux-British twinge.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Martin,” I smiled diplomatically. “Really looking forward to working with you,” I added, wishing I’d chosen my wardrobe more wisely. I was grateful when Anya swooped in between us to say it was time to begin.
We all gathered in a circle and went around introducing ourselves. When it came to Martin, he proceeded to talk for nearly two hours about the process by which he came to write the play, what it signified to him, where he hoped it would go, and, above all else, how crucial it was to remain true to the text. As I sat in my footed leather wingchair willing a bathroom break, I knew the production would be a disaster. Martin was disorganized, emotive, and – based on our initial interaction and the way in which he spoke about Ginger’s fetishized character – was mildly misogynistic. My tolerance was waning quickly and we hadn’t even read the opening stage directions.
Martin had cast himself opposite me in the role of “Rambler,” a greasy, lecherous cowboy who ogles Ginger throughout the show. Ironically, as the rehearsal process dragged on, Martin struggled somehow in memorizing Rambler’s lines – lines he himself had penned. We had several scenes together, and invariably, our rehearsals would dissolve into prompting sessions. I knew his lines better than he did. I’d gently remind him of the lengthy speech he gave about his beloved text, and he in turn would beg forgiveness, then chalk it up to how exhausting his responsibilities were as producer/writer/director/actor.
“There just isn’t enough time in the day for one man to do it all, Laurel,” he shook his head condescendingly during a break at rehearsal one afternoon.
Livid, I snapped and retorted back, “Then maybe you should find a replacement who can,” and stormed out of the theater to the nearest coffee shop for a cappuccino and some fresh air.
When opening night rolled around, Martin had given up all hope of retaining his lines and decided it was best to tape his longer speeches into the copy of Playboy that his character perused on stage. But he had failed to tape them securely into the pages of the magazine, and during one performance, a speech came unglued and fluttered to the floor, landing face-down underneath his seat. Luckily, the five audience members in the house that night were too busy either napping or playing Angry Birds on their iPhones to notice.
To document the evolution of the show, Martin had hired a close family friend as the videographer, who, in retrospect, I’m almost certain was in the adult film industry. The man had an eye patch, wore shirts unbuttoned to his navel, and took enormous liberties filming behind-the-scenes footage – backstage, during breaks, and, once, even in the women’s dressing room prior to a performance. One night, we were all half-naked powdering our faces and quietly cursing the show when he barged in with his camera and boom mic. I turned on my heels and looked squarely into his good eye.
“You come in here again, and I’ll have Equity on your ass so fast you won’t know what hit you.”
To Hell if I wasn’t actually a union actor. Throwing around empty threats helped lance some of my wrath.
And then there was the real-life octogenarian duo who played “The Powells.” After decades of chain-smoking, Mrs. Powell was permanently hooked to a portable oxygen tank she wheeled around the stage. Mr. Powell, we discovered, was slightly narcoleptic and tended to fall asleep halfway through their scenes. Mrs. Powell would speak to him not realizing he’d dozed off, and in the awkward lull of waiting for a response, the sound of her hissing oxygen tank filled the quiet theater.
The sole convenience of the production was its rehearsal schedule, which took place at night so the actors could maintain their survival jobs during the day. At the time, I was employed as the personal assistant to celebrated former film critic, Judith Crist. My job consisted of opening her emails, feeding her petulant cat, and maintaining the semblance of an office environment in spite of the fact that most days, Judith spent finishing her crosswords and reading about political scandals and drug busts in The Daily News.
Judith, then eighty-eight, had a fusty and profound suspicion of computers and the Internet. I was therefore required to print out and physically file her entire email inbox. On Fridays, she would spend the morning cutting every film review from the Times, which I would then paste, label and file away in her overstuffed office cabinets fifty years deep with film reviews. A sharp-tongued ninety-pound old bird who smoked like a fiend and lived for her five o’clock cocktail, she would chastise me for leaving the watering can empty (“If I catch a newspaper on fire with my cigarette, what on earth do you expect me to put it out with? My martini?”), for filling the watering can too high (“It’s too Goddamn heavy for me to lift when you fill it to the brim!”), and for not removing and preserving the stamps provided on return envelopes enclosed in begging letters (“It’s a fucking waste of postage!” she exclaimed one day when she found a stamped envelope I’d discarded. “Do you know what an individual stamp costs these days?”)
Judith alone I could handle. And the play probably would have been tolerable had I not been working for her. But the combination was overwhelming, and by mid-August I was calling my entire life into question. I suddenly felt beholden to an outdated, unsustainable dream and was unsure if I wanted to be an actor as bad as I thought I once had. It was hard to fathom I’d really spent four arduous years and all that college tuition to scoop cat shit out of a litter box and be asked to consume a banana suggestively on stage. If this is what “paying my dues” meant, I wasn’t sure I could cough up the collateral. I was on the verge of cracking.
On a weekday afternoon in late August, I had returned home from work via a coffee date with a friend and had enough time to make a quick grocery run before that evening’s rehearsal. My apartment, which I shared with a friend from college, was in the Meatpacking District just across from Chelsea Market. I tore home to drop off my gym bag and slip into a pair of jeans before dashing to Manhattan Fruit Exchange.
At the intersection of 15th and 9th, I reviewed my lines in my head. I was on edge that afternoon: Judith had been especially cantankerous, and I was dreading rehearsal. When the light turned green, I crossed the street and checked the time. I had twenty-nine minutes before I needed to catch the L across town.
In the cool den of the store’s produce aisle, I was bent over a bin of fresh arugula when my phone buzzed to life in my back pocket. I was surprised to have service. With all the brick and concrete surrounding the block-deep building, I’d had too many dropped calls in Chelsea Market to count.
A crepuscular picture of a woman in a lilac dress holding a glass of red wine and smiling coyly appeared on the screen. MAMAN it read. A twinge of guilt for just having purchased a new pair of shoes with our shared “emergencies only” Visa constricted my diaphragm.
“Hey Mom, in a huge rush. What’s up?” I answered brusquely.
“Hi baby,” Mom’s voice chirped on the other end, odd and off-key. “What are you up to?”
“Uh, just grocery shopping before rehearsal,” I said, eyeing a sign for discounted chèvre across the aisle. “Why? What’s up? Everything okay?”
“Are you— Well, are you sitting down?” she hesitated. “Or, no. How about I call back. When you’re home?”
I lowered my basket onto the nearby case of cheese.
“Mommy, are you okay?”
When she didn’t respond, I started to panic.
“Mom!” I yelled into the receiver. “Talk to me!”
She paused and inhaled with a toothy sharpness.
“Laurel, they found your father.”
BODY FOUND 21 YEARS LATER ON GLACIER: Climber perished in 1989 on Mount Snow Dome in Jasper National Park
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Edmonton Journal, with files from Ben Gelinas
After 21 years buried under ice and snow at the foot of the Snow Dome, the body of American William Holland was found this month perfectly preserved in his full climbing gear, spiked boots on his feet and rope slung over his shoulder.
On April 3, 1989, Holland was climbing a frozen waterfall on the mountain’s northern face — a treacherous kilometre of ice known as slipstream.
The route is threatened by avalanches of snow and ice, and climbers must cross dangerous glacial terrain pockmarked by deep crevices just to reach its base.
An account from Parks Canada said two parties set up the mountain early that day. Local pair Rick Costea and Ken Wallator headed up first, with Holland and his partner Chris Dube, who had come up from the United States on a climbing expedition, following shortly after. The climb up was uneventful, with both teams safely reaching the summit by the mid-afternoon.
But visibility at the top was poor, and thick clouds and howling winds made for whiteout conditions. Holland walked out onto a hardened lip of snow hanging over the cliff’s edge to search for a safe route down, prodding the ground with a ski pole and his coil of rope at the ready for quick deployment. As he neared the edge, the ground gave way and Holland disappeared over the side.
The violent weather punished the other three climbers on the descent, battering them against the ice.
Costea dislocated his shoulder as the three men made the hard retreat to base camp.
Wallator and Dube had to leave Costea at camp and ski down to the highway to summon a helicopter.
Attempts to recover the fallen climber’s body were held at bay by deteriorating weather and winter storms.
At one point a search and rescue team combed the waterfall’s base with a rescue dog, only to return the next day to find the area had been obliterated by a monster ice fall. After a week of searching, the extreme hazards posed by the mountain brought an end to attempts to recover the body.
"This was a well prepared mountainist, and he was by all means up to the task of the climb," said Steve Blake, a public safety specialist with Parks Canada.
"He just made a judgment error getting to the edge."
Blake has been involved in several rescue attempts on slipstream. He said it’s not uncommon for people to spend longer than they intend to on the mountain because of the size and difficulty of the ice climb.
"It’s big, serious, imposing, all of those words," said Cyril Shokoples, a local guide with 35 years climbing experience.
Slipstream is a frozen waterfall that stretches to the top of a 3456 metre peak called Snow Dome, which reaches up between the Athabasca and Dome glaciers.
"Getting to the top of slipstream you’re really only halfway," Shokoples said.
"The other half is getting yourself off in one piece."
Shokoples said there are two ways down: the long way around then a walk down the Athabasca Glacier, or a lengthy rappel down the waterfall.
The last time someone died on slipstream was in the mid 90s, when an avalanche took three climbers. Over six months, all three bodies were recovered.
Blake said it’s rare for a climber to just vanish, but when they do, it’s even rarer to find their body intact two decades later.
More often climbers will find pieces of equipment like broken axes and frayed rope — worn relics matched to descriptions of people lost in the mountains.
Holland’s body and his gear were discovered intact on Dome Glacier. A pair of hikers out on an Aug. 15 day trip found his body lying on top of the ice, apparently carried down the mountainside by melting snow.
Blake said Holland’s remains likely spent the last 21 years buried under mounds of snow or hidden inside a crevasse, waiting to be freed by warmer weather.
Costea, reached in the Yukon by satellite phone Friday night, said he could hear Holland’s cries for help in the dark, carried by wind down the mountain.
Costea lay alone at base camp, nursing his shoulder. It was dislocated when he pulled Wallator out of a gap between the glacier and the mountain during their descent with Dube.
Costea called out to Holland, but he’s sure Holland couldn’t hear him.
"He probably died overnight but there was no way I could go out there," Costea said.
"The voice haunts me, that’s for sure."
The helicopter came up with the morning sun and before it flew Costea down the glacier, they took a spin around Snow Dome to see if they could spot Holland.
Costea saw where the ice broke off, but there was no sign of Holland.
Though it’s been more than 20 years, he remembers much of that climb up slipstream, how he and Wallator took their time, while Dube and Holland scrambled up the ice, actually passing them on the way up.
When Costea and Wallator made it to the top of Snow Dome it was stormy. The only signs of the Americans were footprints heading away from where they should have been going, Costea said.
The men followed the footprints and that’s where they found Dube, alone, pacing in the blowing snow.
Holland was gone.
"I’m glad his family has closure. They took it really hard, his death," said Costea, who has lost two friends in other incidents on slipstream.
"It’s an evil route."
* name changed