Escape (5th Sunday of Lent)

by Gwen Adams, (c.) 2010

“Only in charity do we climb out of the isolated self.”
—Thomas Shaeffer from “Up From Alienation”

John was an actor, as his parents had been before him. They were trained in Commedia dell’Arte as children and played all over the country, the father as Pantalone, the mother as Columbina. But when that kind of theater ceased to be in vogue, John’s parents shed this technique. This was long before John was even born. When John was older, his parents encouraged him to explore less constricting modes of theater. He tried a few theater companies and felt out of place or aimless, as did most of the actors he met. However, there was this difference: many of them liked being frustrated—it made them feel complex. In real life, John was not over-dramatic or emotionally demonstrative and to see people on and off stage acting “tortured,” first irked and then bored him. Indeed, he began to find all of theater life supremely boring. But, for lack of a better job and always hopeful that he might find the right place to act, he settled down with a new company in the Twin Cities where, like the previous companies, most of the actors were “trying to find themselves.” They were called the New Maneuvers Theater Company, and as far as John could tell, did not have a director. This was part of their technique. The actors used to meet weekly at a local coffee-shop in Dinkytown and discuss or vote on what to produce.

Roger was the first actor John met, and then there was Jane, and a host of others. Roger usually kept a finger to the wind to see what would please the critics. Jane, who had a talent for improvisation, rebelled at playing the same kind of role twice and always demanded to be cast as something new. At John’s first meeting, she had her hair pulled back in a very severe pony-tail and wore a pair of those narrow tortoise-framed glasses. She was playing an intellectual in one of their current productions and pretending to like iced black coffee. She held a pencil the whole meeting and waved it in circles when she was making a point, a habit which particularly annoyed John.

Roger crossed his legs. He was forever doing that these days since he was playing a sensitive man in a show uptown. He wore loafers without socks, played light jazz in his dressing room, and always asked Jane her opinion. “I suggest,” said Roger. “Sartre’s No Exit. It hasn’t been played here recently, and the critics say it will be well received. What do you think, Jane?”

Jane’s arms were folded, but she released one to wave her pencil. “It is very deep. I say yes.” The others agreed, and John who hadn’t read it before, agreed also.

John had to complain months later at the first coffee-shop meeting after No Exit closed. He was very irritable that day because he was playing two roles, one a high-powered financier with a local community theater and the other a vegan poet with New Maneuvers. He found it extremely challenging to role-play the conflicting parts. For example, before the meeting started he stood for a long time at the counter just trying to decide between black coffee and a soy latté.

“Are you a wealthy poet?” asked Jane sweetly. She was hanging on his arm, practicing for her emotionally dependent heroine role in another show with New Maneuvers. She was wearing a lavender twin-set and had ordered a coconut steamer. This irritated John.

He wanted to say “Stop hanging on my arm like that,” but he hated confrontation. Instead, he simply said, “I’m a poor poet.”

“A poor poet can’t afford a soy latté,” said Jane.

“So I should drink nothing?”

“Why don’t you order the cheapest black coffee as if you were a tight-wad financier but also a poor poet who wishes he could have a $4.50 soy latté?”

“But I am trying to be a financier who throws down big bills.”

“Then why,” asked Jane. “Are you wearing a black turtleneck? What?” she said following him. “What is it? Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad!” Her voice had a little quaver in it.

John said nothing to her and sat down sourly with the group. Roger was pretty pleased with himself. He was congratulating the group on another sensitive season when John interrupted. “I have to say,” said John gathering steam. “That I hated every minute of No Exit. And I dislike our new play, too.”

“But it asks the big questions,” said one of the actors who was playing a therapist.

“Nothing happens!” said John.

“That’s kind of the point,” said Roger. “Don’t you see the irony?” But they chose a different play, and John thought he might like it since each actor could give it direction. There were no sets, costumes, props, or lines, all improvisation. When John made his weekly call to mother, she was bothered by this and feared it might be a return to the old Commedia roles. “Trust me,” said John. “There are no roles in this play.”

This play was more difficult than they had first expected, and the actors were constantly bumping into each other or stepping on each other’s lines. There was an older man with glasses and a tweed sport-coat with patches on the elbows who used to come and sit in the back of the theater, night after night, possibly to come out of the cold. No one seemed to mind him, but John often wondered what he must think of their company, especially when their practices were particularly bad. Like the night John accidentally stepped on Jane’s speech for the hundredth time, and she lost her temper.

“I’m sorry,” said John. “I thought you were finished.”

“Lies! More lies!” cried Jane scornfully.

“Excuse me, Jane?” said John with confusion.

Jane groaned. “I’m not Jane, I’m Dr. Hanson—hello!? I’m trying to save the scene!” Jane looked around appealingly. “Did that sound bad? I said the first thing I could think of—how am I supposed to go on when he keeps interrupting me?”

They did three more plays like this, and John wondered what could possibly be more tedious when Roger suggested and New Maneuvers produced Six Characters in Search of an Author. “This,” said Roger sipping a chai. “Will be an autobiographical work for us.” Everyone looked very deep, but John laughed, a little hollowly.

He found the rehearsals pure tedium, and suddenly during a practice one day, blurted out, “Doesn’t anyone find this boring?” There was a slight pause, and all the actors exchanged a look. This irritated John because he realized they’d all had a conversation about him behind his back. “John,” said Roger. “I think it’s good to confront this issue. Your role is what you make it. And you seem to lack versatility, agility, plurality in your technique. All your roles are characterized by boredom—”

But John exclaimed “What roles? All we ever do is get up here and pretend we know what is going on!’”

Roger suggested he take a break. That year John began trying all sorts of roles in and outside the company, looking for a theater with a point. He played Regan in a contemporary play based on King Lear where all the characters are unrelated and unmarried—Goneril and Albany have an understanding and they both work as secretaries for Mr. Lear. Another time John juggled five different characters in one play and came on every scene as someone different, including a father who turns out to be evil, a villain who was just misunderstood, and a youth coming to grips with maturity. Once he played in a very avant-garde show about a man that falls in love with a turkey. This was the first thing to disturb John’s mother. “I don’t know,” she said over the phone. “You won’t do anything silly, will you? I don’t know how I can celebrate Thanksgiving the same way.” Jane and Roger loved the show. “It’s so creative!” said Roger (he was playing an intellectual these days). “No one has ever been honest enough to do this,” said Jane (she was playing an activist).

But John found this, too, was boring. “I mean,” he used to ask himself in the dressing-room mirror. “How do I woo a turkey? I mean, what do I say?”

“Let it come from your heart! Be authentic!” said the coach (he hated to be called director—“We’re all in this together,” he said.)

“My heart?” thought John. “I love you?” he said aloud to the turkey as the mist machine pumped a romantic haze all around.

“Too cliché! Too old-school!” cried the coach.

John inwardly fumed. He had become the last thing he wanted to be: a temperamental artist.

One night during practice at New Maneuvers, he walked off the set in a rage and stormed out the back door to the alley. He nearly collided with a man behind the theater. It was the man who always sat in the back. “Oh, excuse me,” said the man.

John was about to pass by but suddenly recognized him. “You’re the man at the back of the theater,” said John. “Can I ask you something? Why do you always sit there? Do you like these plays?”

“No,” said the man. He had an honest face. “I like the actors.” He extended a hand. “The name’s Edwards; I’m the director.”

John was so flummoxed he forgot to introduce himself. “What? Why don’t you direct? This group’s been messing around for ten years doing rotten plays.”

“The people like them,” said Edwards mildly.

“They think they do; what else is there?” said John. “Seriously, there’s must be something better than this! I go onstage every night and never know what to say or do. Other people tell me what to say—they vote on it, whether it makes sense or not—or I just say whatever pops into my head. This is good theater?”

“Some actors find that very liberating,” said Edwards.

“It’s paralyzing!” snorted John. “And weird. Have you seen some of the stuff I’ve played? Say, why don’t you direct?”

“Your company doesn’t want me. The board of directors fired me,” said Edwards. “Not that I wouldn’t if I could.”

“Well,” said John. “Do you direct anywhere else?”

“Yes, I do, but it’s pretty traditional if you like that sort of thing” said Edwards. It was beginning to rain, and he turned to leave. John stopped him.

“I would like to try. Are you holding auditions? Here, let’s get out of the rain. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee, and we can talk,” said John eagerly.

“I don’t drink coffee this late,” said Edwards. John’s face fell. Edwards smiled: “Oh, we can talk, but let me buy you a beer.” So they went to Sweeney’s and sat inside until the rain cleared away and they could go out by the big fire and look at the ivy and trees and lights overhead. And they drank two glasses of beer apiece and John agreed to come and read the following Friday. When Jane and Roger heard, they were aghast, but John didn’t care. His mother was worried, too: “John, be careful; next thing you know, you’ll sign some contract and get stuck playing Harlequin or something for a year.”

John laughed. “If I get good at such a role, it won’t matter. I intend to be like this great actress Mr. Edwards told me about. She played a lover, but was so good at it, and so delightful, she turned her role into a brand new character.”

When John came to the address Edwards had given him, he found a group of eleven self-conscious and uneasy actors trying to make conversation. They were all standing beside a stage for theater-in-the-round. Edwards came up to them and the very first thing he said (which made John laugh) was, “All of you, stop posing and get on stage!” They did as he said.

“Briefly,” said Edwards putting on his glasses and glancing at a paper he took from the pocket of his jacket. “You’re here to experiment with me. You’ve all been in theater before and so you’ve heard this is cliché. But I don’t think theater works well any other way, and I don’t think you can be great actors without succeeding at this.” He opened his briefcase and took out scripts for King Lear. “You can start looking these over.”

“Oh,” said John. “I’ve done this before, well, something like this.”

“Are you nervous?” asked a girl next to him. “I am. I’ve never played anything this structured.”

“A little,” said John. Actually, he was very nervous.

“Are you going to . . . cast us? If that’s the word I want,” asked one man.

“That’s the word,” said Mr. Edwards with a smile. “This is what I’ll do, and you may find this easier to take, especially with your background. I’ll give you your role, but you will create your identity. I have an idea of what identity would best suit you, but, in the end, it will be for you to decide who you’ll play. So, John, for example, will play a servant in Lear’s household. But whether he turns out to be a servant like Kent or a servant like Oswald will depend on him, how he acts, what he says.”

“But Oswald dies at the end,” said John. “Who would want to play him?”

“Now there,” said Edwards smacking his hand. “That’s a very Oswald kind of thing to say. A comment like that aligns you with him. Kent would be Kent whether he died at the end or not. If there’s someone you want to be, I’ll help you, but you’ve got to become that character to play him on the stage. Now, I have given you some restrictions. You, John, can’t play one of Lear’s daughters or secretaries,” he winked at John. “Is this a fair bargain for you, everyone?”

Everyone nodded.

Mr. Edwards smiled. “You’re always free to go back to the other theaters, after all; they’re almost all like that. You’ll find this theater has a different kind of creativity, it’s rather more practical, but then, rather more fruitful. We work five days a week, 7-3 with shows on the weekends, and dinner at my club, that is, Sweeney’s, of course. Drinks on me afterwards.”

So that was how John learned to like acting, which he’d been doing for years and hated. He ended up playing Oswald the first year they ran King Lear, but when they revived it a decade later, Mr. Edwards said he would make a fine Kent. And so he did.

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