1. Lines removed from a play
The answer’s in the desk. Oh, yes! This PROBABLY cures cancer. Meta! THE OL’ ONE-TWO! A dog eats a cell phone and it keeps ringing in its stomach. Oh, no! …eats the whole thing. …as explained by a Chorus. Baby talk. NO! Animal talk. NO! Baby talk. NO! ANIMAL TALK!
2. “You are a savior.”
Every theater company, everyplace, is desperately seeking men. Fat men, thin men, blue men, lazy men, boys. As engineering and mathematics departments at American universities seek women, so do theater companies seek men.
And thus it was with flailing, nonselective arms that Theatre Intime embraced me when I signed up to act in last Saturday’s 24-Hour Play Festival. No experience? No worries! I was a dude. They even put my name up on the Theatre Intime website.
3. “Theatre,” “theater,” or “THEE-AH-TAH”?
24-Hour’s M.O. is this: writers arrive at midnight, writers write until actors and directors arrive at 9 A.M., As and Ds A and D until performances start at 8 P.M., applause, afterparty. The plays run fifteenish minutes, and have a cast of two to four. They are propelled—as came into sharp relief while attempting to describe the conceit of the thing to my parents on the telephone the next day—by an intense awareness of and catering to the 24-hour format, a dramaturgical farting contest of whose dialogue can appear more thrown-together and raunchy, whose acting can be rougher-edged and more unrehearsed, whose direction can seem more puckish and spontaneous, whose props can be more impertinent, who can look the most tired at the end of the day.
I was tapped to do this piece last Thursday evening, which is maybe 40 hours before I was to show up at Theatre Intime ready to act. I had never come close to acting before, not since I played a singing, twirling tuft of grass at summer camp in second grade. “Why, I am a Grand Old Man of the Thee-ah-tah,” I’d say, extra histrionically, to friends when they asked why I was participating in the Festival. My wilted sarcasm impressed no one, though some people promised to come watch my performance nonetheless.
4. “Are things going to blow up?”
On Saturday morning, we actors gathered in the Charrier Room of Murray-Dodge. There was Panera—bagels and coffee. Everybody was very nice. I wish there a way to express this last idea in even plainer and more direct a way, meaning as one might in saying, “Everybody breathed air,” or, “Everybody wore blue shirts.” What misfortune, that we have burdened our simplest, most honest words with such pliant, multilayered meaning that to utter one is to be construed as concealing ten more.
5. You forgot to scratch yourself.
I was cast in what turned out to be the sole “serious” play to be performed in the Festival, an outcome which I owe to my bum audition that morning. Everyone got the same passage to read for audition—a sauced-up radio spot for Gilette razors—but each received a different, kooky direction of how to read it. I was to read as though I were trying to clandestinely scratch an itch at the same time. I just sort of jiggled a bit while I read; this got some laughs from the directors, but when I was done, they expressed disappointment that I never actually scratched myself. “It was clandestine, just like you asked,” I said; this garnered even more laughter, which spilled out generously and splashed about the empty, echoey auditorium.
6. Someone contracts a terminal disease and it isn’t really funny. At all. Honest.
I am, as it turned out, a terrible actor. This was not a surprise; it’s rare that I exceed a priori expectations of my abilities when I try something new. I recently took up squash, for instance, as the leaves turn and decent tennis weather slowly slip-slides away. I play squash like a tennis player, I tell myself, to distract from my inefficient swing and my misguided instincts about the little ball’s physics. But really, my deficiencies as a squash player can be traced back to the same things that plague my involvement in other sports: general unathleticism; rubbish hand-eye coordination; lazy, uneager footwork. It must be marvelous to try something new and find yourself naturally, wholly outstanding at it.
7. Something actually is/is not rocket science.
Seriously, though: there is no getting around that I am a bad actor. My voice is too monotone, my posture too cowering, my slouching demeanor too slouching. My poor director—working with a talky script in which neither of the leads ever move or cross the stage—had to expend her day’s talent and energy on telling me to speak up, not cross my legs when talking about parakeets, use my eyebrows, smile less, smile more. I played a guy called Greg, who is trying to get back together with a girl called Lottie. They’re in a diner, and it’s raining. It is a somber, reflective occasion, I think. We are meant to watch quietly in our seats and reflect.
8. A word on acting, if I may
Acting is not the same as living. Living is the sine qua non of acting, but in hewing so closely to its physical experience, theater-acting has tunneled its own language out of the vocabulary of living to paraphrase that which should already be immediately comprehensible to living observers. Indeed, the best way to criticize Acting, it seems, is not to simply be—to have a body, to go about a life, to speak—but is instead to Act yourself.
This is a problematic way of looking at these things, I’m sure. But it speaks somewhat to actors and their manner of Living, as distinguished from their manner of Acting. Of almost axiomatic truth, I learned, in theatre-acting: at every opportunity to overact, overact. There is something to be said here about actors overliving at every opportunity to overlive, but I am a perpetual underliver, and am probably not qualified to be the one to say it.
9. Robert Redford. Slam poetry. You do the math,
The walls of Theatre Intime bear framed photographs of zaniness past, black-and-whites of young men and women frozen in a line conveniently parallel with the proscenium, a gaggle exploded and splayed out unnaturally so that the audience can see them all at once. They wear descriptors, not expressions, on their faces: “surprised,” “agog,” “contrite,” “dismayed.”
10. And another thing
Your body is not your own when you’re acting. It is a convection device that serves the audience, your character, your script, and the other cast members; your expressions and movements and utterances are your own only insofar as the flesh that displaces in this process occurs on your body. David Foster Wallace, writing about Roger Federer, speaks of competitive sports as venue for expression of human beauty: “The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
The kinetic beauty in which theater-acting traffics might be called the opposite of D.F.W.’s: it exists in exclusive indenture to illustrating and realizing cultural norms. You need simply examine the widely divergent standards for “good acting” across cultures and nations to see that this is the case.
11. Mer-people. BUT THE OTHER WAY.
I got pretty good at memorizing my lines, I thought, as long as nobody flipped if I paraphrased a bit.
I could not, though, remember for the life of me a weird little bit about whether Greg and Lottie are going to remain friends after breaking up: “So are we going to stay friends? Or will it be weird?” “I don’t know,” Lottie says, to which Greg says “Ah. OK.” I didn’t like the, “Ah. OK,” and so jokingly attributed my persistent memory flaps to psychological repression. What do you do with “Ah. OK.” anyway? Something resigned, with defeated smacking of pursed lips? Faux-comprehending, with drawn out vowels and smug lift of eyebrows?
12. Tonight’s theme: Themes
When it came time to perform, I wore a newish suit—a black Men’s Wearhouse number—over a black undershirt, and called it a day. Greg was supposed to have come from his dog’s funeral; my digs, my roommate quipped, might have located the funeral at a gallery opening instead of a cemetery.
The Intime stage was cluttered. Everyone was to perform in a slightly-more-cleared-out space surrounded by antique office furniture, box springs, groaning shelves, derelict television sets, suitcases. Intime is institutionally scrappy, proud simultaneously of its devotion to craft and its student-run, guerilla cred. Pump-up music—the Rudy theme, the Chariots of Fire theme, Europe’s “The Final Countdown”—was piped in as the House filled up. Everybody knew everybody, and little clumps of people—organized around who was in which past shows, mostly—agglutinated around the auditorium. My heart lunged despicably at my ribs. I was nervous.
13. Ordinary people
“Theater person” is a term I told myself to be on the lookout for, either referenced explicitly or revealing itself indirectly. A friend, himself an actor, called “making conclusive, hyperbolic statements on topics about which you know nothing” a dangerous symptom of theater-personness. To have earned this diagnosis, I had, a moment earlier, called “Love Lockdown” the best song ever written. We’d been chatting and drinking, my friend and I, maybe an hour after my performance was over. I was being facetious, I thought, but not theater-person-facetious.
Theater-person-facetious, like theater-person-quirky or theater-person-cheerful, refers, I’ve decided, to a specific way of experiencing things that is more strongly felt, more possessive than most people can muster. There was an afterparty for the Festival in Dod Hall later on Saturday night, but I didn’t attend. Everyone there probably had a lot of fun, maybe even too much fun, you know?
14. An inanimate object that is also a DIRTY LIAR!
Kids’ 24-Hour plays ranged from not-great to quite-good. There was a pretty sustained level of hollering and heckling and laughing in the House, even for the not-great productions: friends of the cast calling out names, snarky bits about using vulgarity as a crutch for poor writing, ow-ow so hot right now. Yeah Intime!s—see, Yeah Disiac!, and, Yeah BodyHype!—were, surprisingly, absent.
15. Oh, I forgot to mention
The writers had to include eight out of ten randomly selected lines, events, or themes into their plays. These constraints included merry things like taxidermy, crying while vomiting, someone existing only as a quantum cloud of probability, and, “Break into song? Yes, you. NOW!” This really amped things up.
16. Gary Busey.
It was thrilling, performing my day’s work on the stage. Not as thrilling as everyone says, maybe, but thrilling like opening your oven to find the challah you mixed and braided not overbaked and with fully-shiny, lacquery crust. I did better under the bright lights and for an audience than I had in our classroom/rehearsal space in East Pyne, I think, better and looser and freer and Greg-er.
I decided, leaving the stage, that the 24-Hour Festival is predisposed to the kind of deliberate, self-effacing dilettantism that I had enacted throughout the day as a defense mechanism. Before the darkened audience, we were all dilettantes, memorizing dashed-off lines with terrible jokes and dead-end dialogue written by dilettantes and directed by dilettantes, all at a point in our lives when our life-experience still was more honestly measured by how many plays we’ve seen or how many novels we’ve read instead of any severe, meaningful metric of actual human experience.
17. They. Should. Have. Sent. A. … POET!
Reading over this, I wish I had said “Theatre Intime” in some places where I used “theater [in the abstract]” instead. I also wish I had the insight to know which places those were, exactly. I have said too much here, staked too much territory on a topic about which I still—even after 12 hours of a clear, sunny Saturday in October—know fundamentally nothing.
18. Stick around for sandwiches
I didn’t literally decide that last part, about dilettantism, as I was leaving the stage. More likely, it was the day after, sometime during that cloudy, partly unspectacular Sunday. I was pretty “frustrated” to be “busy” working on some things most of the day, but “happily” squeezed in a quick dinner, had a “cheerful” telephone conversation with my parents, and even made time to chat “convivially” with friends. At some point, I was probably “agog” to finish this piece, too.