It’s both. Life imitates art, and art imitates life. I know this now.
I met Don Bridge in 2008. A mutual friend introduced us because Don was putting together an ensemble farse called “Moon Over Buffalo” and had no actor to play opposite stage staple Kimberly Corrigan, who also appeared on the local news broadcasts in Southern Pines.
Up to then, I had taken the stage only twice. I took a supporting role in the Rod Harter-directed “Enchanted April” at the Sunrise Theater and did not exactly deliver an engaging performance my first time out. However, I met Loretta Aldridge, whom I would work with repeatedly. I also played Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Pinehurst Fair Barn. That went well, but only because I taught the play to my students, and I knew it by heart.
“Moon Over Buffalo” is a quick-witted comedy with a lot of fast-moving parts, and the cast nailed it, Don playing a travelling actor, and Don’s wife Lisa assuming the role of his character’s actress wife.
Things changed a lot in that production. I changed a lot.
I reported to rehearsal partially off-book (knowing one’s lines and not needing the script). I rehearsed. I paced. I wanted to be good, and I didn’t think I was. Then Don happened. He pulled me aside with mock concern.
“Are you having any fun?”
Don fixed that. I looked forward to rehearsal, to his one-liners and his “joke grenades” — off-color observations he would drop on me and then casually stroll away, leaving me to process and laugh. Our banter was sometimes better than what was in the script.
We had fun, and it showed. The play was a hit.
In 2010, I was cast in “Dearly Departed,” a dark comedy constructed around a funeral. Loretta Aldridge played my mother. I was reunited with Kimberly Corrigan, and at the helm of this ship of silliness was Don as the director.
We had fun, and it showed. I began to miss those guys when the plays were over. It was almost like Don Loretta, Kim, and I became a band. We would cobble back together every so often and go back on tour with some additional players.
Don, Loretta, and I returned for “Over the River and Through the Woods” in 2011. It was the most challenging thing I had done yet, even though I was landing commercials and minor film roles. It was a part where the lead also breaks the fourth wall and functions as a narrator, and I was on stage almost all the time. Don and Loretta played one set of Nick Cristiano’s Jersey-Italian grandparents maniacally trying to fix up Nick with a local love interest. It was a great play for us because we had become some semblance of a family, and Don and Loretta reminded me of my great aunt and uncle in New Jersey.
There was one touching scene where Don’s character wants to tell me of his health struggles, but he refrains. Instead, he speaks in an endearing metaphor and then passes away while my character is out West. It was heartbreakingly like my last conversation with my Uncle Bill.
In 2013 I failed to land a role in some Neil Simon comedy. Don noticed. He lured me to the next audition at the Sunrise.
“I think you should read for this one, said Don. It’s funny. It was a movie. Trust me.”
I auditioned for the lead and for a supporting role for which I was too young. Two or three actresses were reading opposite me. I finished and walked off the stage and up the aisle, pausing before Don, who was lounging in an aisle seat and motioning me to join him.
“Take a load off,” he said, still watching the stage.
“You’re not done yet. I’m waiting for someone.”
Don turned, smiled, and looked me in the eye like a Bond villain revealing his masterstroke.
A moment later, my old pal Kim strode down the aisle toward the stage in a harried flurry of blonde hair. She had moved from the area long since, but here she was about to audition.
Rod Harter motioned me to join her and thus began our run as Corie and Paul in “Barefoot in the Park.” Don took the role of Victor Velasco, a perpetually broke lothario in his 50s with a colorful — and probably invented — past. Don ran with it, and I could not stop laughing. Kim and I were as comfortable with each other as if we were married. We ran lines as my toddler daughter stumbled about the Sunrise aisles.
Don and I had one more run at the Sunrise before he moved and resumed his acting life in Manteo, North Carolina, somewhere around 2015, I think.
In December 2020, Don Bridge passed away. I could not remember the last time I laid eyes on him. He would have liked to see the toddler who complicated rehearsals nine years ago land her little roles in the stage production of “Annie Jr.” My daughter’s first time on stage got me thinking, so I began making inquiries about the Richmond Community Theatre though I have not been on stage in years.
I’ll show up to the Spring auditions — probably sans headshot or resume — and I’ll shake off the rust and deliver. Because that’s what he would do.
One more time, Don, for us. I can’t get the band back together, but I can have some fun.
Sean Patrick Smith is a freelance writer and the author of “Three Miles of Eden,” a mystery set in Seven Lakes (seanpatricksmith.com).