How to Succeed at Romance Without Really Trying Out

At the crossroads of my theatrical career, I exited right.

March/April 2013

Reading time min

Illustration of a man falling off a stage towards a woman in the audience

Illustration: John Cuneo

In early 1984, shortly after a divorce and a fresh-start move to Santa Barbara, I fell in love in spite of my resolve to stay unattached as long as possible.

At about the same time, I read a notice that a theater group associated with Santa Barbara City College was holding auditions for a production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

It was a show I knew cold, having played the lead in a production of How to Succeed put on by a community theater in Menlo Park, Calif. Eighteen years later, I still had the entire script virtually memorized. I could, I knew, show up for tryouts and walk out with a decent part. I'd grown too old to play J. Pierrepont Finch, but would shine as any other gray-flannel suit in the World Wide Wicket Company.

Boy, had I been good, back in 1966. Rave reviews, congratulations from friends, hugs from strangers and, best of all: applause. Laughter, too, but most of all: applause.

The experience had lured me into the net of amateur theater. Off and on for the following decade I appeared in play after play with community theater groups. I usually won the best comic role in a show and I heard, over and over, the sweet sounds of laughter and applause.

I suppose there's nothing wrong with applause. It appears to be an innocuous freebie. It doesn't appear to be addictive. Certainly not dangerously so. . . .

Oh, but it is. Succeeding in a role of any consequence in a live performance is the most seductive drug I've ever sampled, other than that rare cocktail of new love, spontaneous romance and sex.

So there I was, reading that tryouts started Monday night at the drama department building for the musical that would put me back in show business, in a new city where I knew almost nobody. I'd meet people, party with them, go on to act in other plays. I'd be welcomed to this new hometown with hugs, laughs, reviews and applause. I had a recidivist itch as strong as any convict's.

Yet I knew for sure that being a community theater junkie was incompatible with having a steady relationship. Being in a show turns a devoted companion into an egotistical pleasure-seeker, one willing to be out of the company of his beloved five nights a week for six weeks of rehearsals and both weekend nights for four weeks of performance. It means chasing laughs, reviews and applause at the expense of love. Why did I know this? That divorce was my second one.

As I said, I was new in town and newly in love. Did I know this would be a steady, permanent relationship? No, we hadn't gotten that far. But I did know, with no doubt whatsoever, that at that moment in my fast-changing life I wanted to spend my evenings with Susan, not in a rehearsal hall across town sipping instant coffee out of a Styrofoam cup.

I never showed up for that audition, and I've been grateful ever since. Theater wasn't the only thing wrong in my first marriages. Eschewing the stage wasn't the only thing I did right the third time around. But somehow I either got smart or got lucky enough to recognize a more rewarding form of success, and to realize that a smile (the right smile) from an audience of one (the right one) beats all the reviews and laughter and applause I could have hoped for at that time and for all the time ever after.

John M. Daniel, ’64, 67-68 Stegner fellow, and his wife, Susan, own Daniel & Daniel Publishers in McKinleyville, Calif.

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