The theater business is no place for defeatists. It requires intense willpower, passion and perseverance to continuously seek out bigger and better roles. While Wade Dooley understands the challenge of pursuing a career in acting, he found an ingenious way to guarantee himself a starring role. Bay Street Theater’s 2019 Mainstage season opens with the world premiere of The Prompter, a comedy marking Dooley’s debut as a playwright and leading man.
Dooley recalls getting the idea to write his own play from a former acting teacher, an idea which would not only secure him a starring role but would also serve as the ideal character reel—a chance to showcase his skills for future directors. “Portraying a role that you wrote gives you the opportunity to make it a sampling of what you do best,” he says. “If I have the opportunity to put in a little taste of everything that I feel like I do really well [including a Carol Channing impression], then I’m going to do that,” he chuckles, adding, “I think I’m confident to say that nobody else could play the part better than I could.”
The Prompter, directed by Bay Street Artistic Director Scott Schwartz, is a theatrical amalgamation of Dooley’s experiences in theater, narrated by Wade (the character) as short stories taking place over a six-month period. These vignettes weave together the story of Wade’s relationship with the fictional Irene Young, a veteran actress set to return to the stage after a 40-year absence. When she finds herself unable to remember her lines, she enlists Wade to be her prompter. “I really do think, at the core of it, it’s a universal story,” Dooley says. “It strikes a chord with everyone, whether you’re a theater person or not, everybody has had this experience with a mentor or a teacher, or a romantic experience that they’ve had, where you’ve sort of dreamed of a relationship with this person, but things don’t always work out as you’ve dreamed.”
Although Irene is the leading lady of The Prompter and the only onscreen character besides Wade, it wasn’t until audience members shared their feedback after the play’s reading at Bay Street’s 2018 New Works Festival that she became a fully realized character. “From the reading to today, it’s more and more a two-person show, not a one-and-a-half-person show. I think Irene, at that time, wasn’t as realized as she needed to be,” he notes. “I think both of us are deeper, more developed characters now.”
According to Dooley, Tovah Feldshuh, star of Golda’s Balcony, the longest running one-woman Broadway show, was an easy choice for Irene, as he’d been a longtime admirer of her work and Schwartz had worked with her previously, as director of Golda’s Balcony. “I need to have a bracelet made that says, ‘What Would Tovah Do?’ because she’s very fearless onstage, and she’s always ready to try something,” Dooley muses.
In addition to the complex characters at the forefront of The Prompter, the play also draws the audience into its world through an impressive set, designed by Kevin Depinet, and sound design by Jon Weston. “[The set] immerses the audience both on the stage and backstage, where you feel like you’re surrounded by the action. And most importantly, you’re surrounded by the sound of the play,” Dooley explains.
“I think sound in this production is like the third character in the play,” Dooley continues. “You’re listening to what I’m saying in [Irene’s] ear; you’re listening to what’s happening onstage; there are other characters that are just voiceover that happen within the show. A lot of this show is birthed from my memory, and I think sound is going to play a really interesting part to transport people and allow them to use their imagination to see what I’m seeing and feel what I’m feeling.”
Dooley is thrilled to debut The Prompter on the intimate Bay Street stage and hopes the audience will share many laughs and a few tears with him during the play’s three-week run. “It’s an experience where I sort of pinch myself every day,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s a show about relationships, friendship and love. It’s a story about the theater. Anybody who has ever been involved with the theater or has been an admirer of the theater from afar, I think, will fall in love with this play.”
The Prompter runs at Bay Street Theater from May 28–June 16. Visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500 for tickets.