When asked if they're ready for opening night, he smiles wanly. "We need an audience and we need some polish, but I'd say we're ready." He leads me through a maze of fluorescent-lit hallways emblazoned with software posters to a large conference room buzzing with activity. Men in makeshift military uniforms submit their faces to women wielding Wet 'n' Wild; girls wrap their hair up in hot rollers, chattering excitedly; and everyone sings along with the music blasting over the sophisticated sound system.
I sidle up to Glenn Frankel, a lean man in conspicuously gorgeous shoes. This program manager of Microsoft Office fumbles with the brass buttons on his costume. "[The troupe] was founded in 1995 and we've done 11 full-length shows. Every show has raised money for a different charity, and Microsoft matches the ticket proceeds. So, we've raised about $90,000 and we hope to break $100,000 with this show." He squeezes his eyes shut as a woman intently shellacs his dark hair with Aqua Net. "The Starlight Children's Foundation of Washington is our chosen charity this year. You know, the folks who grant a wish to a child before they pass away?" A woman with the telltale headset and look of severity that belies her position as stage manager rounds him up with the rest of the cast members and herds them into the cafeteria.
Only Grant Thornley stays behind, his bulky form stubbornly bent over a burrito. There is a quality of aggrieved dignity emanating from this assistant lead for Microsoft Publisher that betrays his role as Juan Perón. "He was a fascist. He was a dictator. He was not very friendly to the people... at all." He dabs carefully at his damp mouth with a crumpled napkin. "I don't know if you know much about Argentinean history, but it's just an endless series of fuckups." When I ask him how he got involved in this production, his eyes light up. "I got a degree in theater, but I haven't performed in a very long time. It's a very deep experience for me to be able to do this show." I leave him to the bedraggled remains of his dinner as the rest of the cast members return from their nightly task: erecting a pyramid of risers like an army of cheerful slaves in pleated khakis.
I sit down with a handful of women cautiously trying to approximate the dramatic face of the '40s. Avril Watson, one of the few members of the cast who has defected from Microsoft but not the addictive lure of its stage lights, lines her full mouth in blood-red pencil. "I was a theater major. I went to L.A. for almost three years, and it disgusted me. You can't make a living at it. Now, singing and dancing are a little release after a long workday."
A systems administrator for Headcount Accounting, Jennifer Carlin, a full-figured woman with her hair up in curlers, nods with grim sympathy. "I have a bachelor's degree in theater... a very useless degree." When asked if she also tried to succeed as an actor, she answers defensively, "Yeah, I tried to get a job. But I didn't know people, so I didn't get hired. I'm glad that Microsoft has things like this--ways to get creativity out of our systems." Ways to get creativity out of their systems. Her offhand remark stabs at my heart. "I don't necessarily love my job, but I have to appreciate how much Microsoft values their employees," she says. "They actually have a budget here for morale."
Back in the cafeteria, the cast warms up by singing "American Pie" while the boyish-looking producer, Ken Ray, who writes device drivers for something called O/S core, whispers insinuatingly in my ear, "The real genius behind this show is Brian. He has all the ideas and all the vision." I nod, distracted by the sight of 18 people who labor away in cubicles all day long doing a bump and grind to the single most unsexy song ever recorded. "Like, he says, 'I want to see some chairs of various sizes on the stage,' and we magically get chairs of different sizes." I glance at the stage. There are indeed many chairs of different sizes right there.
He continues as Stephen Dolan, a blond, blue-eyed Che Guevara, takes the stage with a microphone conspicuously taped to his cheek. "Somebody will say, 'I just saw your play and I didn't realize there was so much talent here.' Because they think to themselves, 'Oh, it's Microsoft people doing Microsoft things.' Even though you're in a cafeteria right now, doesn't it feel like a real theater?" He waits for my affirming smile. "Our audience invariably ends up thinking, 'There's real talent here!'"
The show starts and Che gestures broadly to the empty risers, "You let down your people, Evita. You were supposed to have been immortal. That's all they wanted, not much to ask for, but in the end you could not deliver." The birdlike Evita, played by Pam Anderson, a test lead for a Microsoft website, sings back with wavering sincerity, "But when we were hot, we were hot. I know you'll look back on the good times we've shared." Neither of them seems even slightly aware that they could be singing the theme song to Seattle's own hot love affair with Bill Gates and the tech economy. But with his blessing and without a trace of bitterness or irony, they raise their jazz hands to the cafeteria ceiling and sparkle like the stars they were meant to be.