Friday, April 6, 2012

I Love Ethel by Lisa Joffrey

I got the call from my manger a year and a half ago to audition for a new musical called I Love Lucy – Live on Stage. I jumped for joy. My dream of playing Lucy was about to be realized. Just like Lucy breaking into Ricky’s show at The Tropicana; this was my chance.

I’ve been studying Lucy ever since I was a child. I used to practice her song Sweet Sue complete with the little jig all the time, driving everyone crazy. I even performed Vitameatavegamin at my 7th grade Talent Show. It didn't go well but no one said anything because I was also the producer. Her famous clown bit “Slowly I turn step by step inch by inch”, made Tina Miragillia and I laugh so hard in 8th Grade Homeroom, that Sister Claire finally asked us to step outside to compose ourselves. I never liked Sister Claire. I remember my sister running into my room screaming, “Hey Lisa, guess what?" "What?" I answered putting down my Twinkie. "I just saw an I Love Lucy episode I’ve never seen before!” As if she’d just won the lottery.

I could never change the channel if Lucy was on. No one can. I think it's a Cardinal Rule. Watching Lucy provided me comfort when I left home, and moved to New York, London, Paris, finally settling in Los Angeles. I was seeking the same fame as Lucy was. I have seen all of her movies, various TV shows, and specials. I became a collector when an old boyfriend started me on a few knickknacks, lunch boxes, coffee mugs salt and pepper shakers and the like. Like potato chips at a Weight Watchers meeting I couldn’t get enough of Lucy’s face.
Did I mention that my boss’s father Charlie Douglass did the laugh tracks for I Love Lucy. Talk about a sign from above. I loved Lucy!
Ethel... not so much. She wore dumpy clothes, a side kick, never getting the good laughs; always criticizing Lucy’s plans. Ethel’s husband wasn’t good looking like Ricky plus she sang weird. I never dreamed of being Ethel Mertz. Until my manger told me I was auditioning for Ethel in 48 hours. What? Yes! Ok, he was right; I looked more like Ethel now. I had to understand that my extra weight I’d put on over the past few years didn’t make for the glamorous Lucy silhouette.

Well I went on a crash diet of nothing but Ethel footage for the following days. And guess what? I fell in love with Ethel. Her internal pace is so controlled and subtle. Her clipped, mid-western twang was always ready to scold or lay out a sarcastic crack. Oh, did I mention her scarves, hand gestures, and pockets! Apparently she hated using hand props; didn’t know what to do with her hands. She insisted on pockets being sewn into all of her dresses to have somewhere to put her hands. Today there is very little I don’t know about Ethel May Potter Mertz.
I am thrilled to report that after a callback and a blessing from CBS, I got the part!
Why have I fallen in love with playing Ethel? Her humanity, sarcasm, and her drive. She does not give up; she always goes along with Lucy’s crazy plan to become famous. Even though we know it never works out, she will get up and try again. I tap into this each night because it’s the truth about actors. We never know when we are going to “make it” but we keep trying in the face of defeat, rejection and a pie in the face.

Each night at least one person comes up to me after the show and tells me Ethel was their favorite character. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to re-create that experience for them. I owe it to Vivian Vance to get Ethel right. Vivian once said she travels the world as everyone’s best friend! I love that...I Love Ethel.