By RORY LANCE
In 1985, I rewarded myself after my exhausting first semester of public school teaching with a trip to London to see some shows. The trip itself involved nearly losing my plane seat; making do with a tiny room in a tiny hotel that served a tiny continental breakfast; jet lag that made me miss all but the first and fifth acts of "She Stoops to Conquer" on my first visit to the National Theatre; daily trips to the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square followed by sightseeing; nearly getting killed by a bus; taking an illegal photo of my idol Noel Coward's memorial in Westminster Abbey; a minor Medical Emergency with a happy ending and a very small bill, and a lot of memorable performances, including Roger Rees in "Hamlet," Ian McKellen in "Coriolanus," and finally Daniel Massey and the great Judi Dench in "Waste," an Edwardian political drama by Harley Granville Barker.
It was a rather dreary, talky play of the social ills of the day, but Judi Dench was incredible, holding her own with every comeback and parry throughout the political debates of her scenes. Once the curtain came down on Act I, I turned to the lady on my right and said, “It’s a pretty dreary play, but Judi Dench is marvelous.” “Indeed, I can’t wait to see what she does in the second half,” she said. No sooner did the curtain rise on Act II than we learned that Judi Dench’s character has died in the interim after a botched abortion. I looked over at my neighbor and we both took a sigh of defeat. We would have to sit out the rest of the play, without the electricity of Dame Judi, and just listen to a lot of men in frock coats debate till 11 o’clock. As the play was about to conclude, I reached over and whispered, “At least we’ll see her in the curtain call.” The curtain came down and immediately rose again for the company to take their bows without its leading lady. No Judi Dench. How can that be? Who doesn’t appear for their curtain call? We felt so cheated. It was bad enough that she had died during intermission, but no curtain call? Well, wasn’t this a slap in the face? Judi Dench had some explaining to do. My audience friend and I both left the theatre shaking our heads in disbelief. Now through the magic of memoir writing, we move ahead 14 years into the future. It is spring 1999, and I am going to see the movie "Central Station" with my friends Marilyn and Catherine at the Quad movie theater in Greenwich Village. Now the one thing you need to know about the Quad is that it is completely flat. There is no rake to the floor of the audience section, so if it is crowded all you will see is the head of the person sitting directly in front of you. Since "Central Station" was an award-winning film, the theater was fairly crowded. We were just settling in before the movie started when Catherine jabbed me in my side with her elbow. “What?” I cried out in pain when she immediately shushed me. “What?” I repeated with no sound this time when she mouthed to me, “Judi Dench is sitting right behind us.” “What?” I repeated when Catherine glared at me and quickly turned off the sound. “Judi Dench is sitting right behind us.” “Behind us?” Then Catherine’s glare made it clear that this conversation needed to stop. I tried to see who was behind me without turning my head, which is not an easy task. The key is to look past the point you actually want to look at as if to check something far behind them. And there she was, Dame Judi Dench, the Dame who had done me wrong, the Dame who walked out on me without taking a curtain call those many years ago. We had had this date for a long time.
A few weeks before this, Dame Judi Dench had won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Queen Elizabeth I in the film "Shakespeare In Love." She was also up for a Tony Award for "Amy’s View," in which she was currently performing on Broadway. Catherine and I realized simultaneously that we were now the heads that were blocking the view of this recent Oscar winner, and not wanting to be those heads, we both leaned away, she to the left and I to the right, leaving Dame Judi with an unobstructed view of "Central Station." I watched the whole movie diagonally as if the station in "Central Station" was on the side of a mountain about to slide into Lake Oros any minute, but Dame Judi was able to sit back and relax.
As soon as the movie was over, I was on my feet, ready to turn around and have the confrontation that was 14 years in the making. “Congratulations, on your Academy Award, Dame Judi!” “Thank you so much,” was her sly retort. Catherine and Marilyn of course shared their delight in meeting her and offered their congratulations on her award. Then in the midst of this delightful interaction (and she really was delightful), I interjected, “But I have a bone to pick with you.” “Oh, really?” “Yes, I saw you in the play 'Waste' a while ago and you were absolutely marvelous in it, and I was so disappointed when it was revealed that you had died during intermission. So I was at least assuming I would see you again during the curtain calls, and you never appeared.” “Oh, dear, I’m terribly sorry, but that was just one of those plays where you do your bit and then pop off.” “Well, having this opportunity to meet you was well worth the wait and much better than a curtain call.” I then wished her luck at the Tony Awards and she said, “Well, I’m afraid we are all still working very hard to get it right to have any time to worry about awards.” We all laughed and said our goodbyes and left as if old friends, or in my case, old nemeses.
Rory Lance is the stage and pen name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre.