Portia Has Missed Her Entrance

It was a failed play.

It had taken too long to write, and it only ever got a few productions. But one of those productions was at an elite Southern school that had the resources to fly me out to see it and to work with the cast.

The theatre space had been described as a black box, but that was one serious black box. The play—Nowhere—was mostly set in an alternate universe, and the longtime tech director had outdone herself in creating it. Characters flew in. They climbed up ladders or emerged from entrances one hadn’t realized were there.

The director had staged it in the round—the square, actually– and had done so wonderfully. Each night, the two of us watched from a different side, and the square did exactly what arena staging is supposed to do: it gave the same story but differently nuanced depending on the vantage point

On the final night, fifteen minutes in, something was off, but I couldn’t tell what it was. The director whispered to me, “Portia missed her entrance.” A few days earlier, Portia had landed wrong while rehearsing on the zipline that flew her in. She’d fallen and suffered a concussion, plausibly the reason she’d missed her entrance.

Unfortunately, Portia was an Otherworld guide. She had an enormous amount of exposition that she spouted, unbidden, without which the next hour and a half were not going to make any sense. (Like I said: a failed play.) As sometimes happens in a crisis, a leader emerged, self-appointed.  He was small and, by the standard of theatre kids, shy But he took control.

Portia hovered at an entrance, waiting to fix the problem. But he locked eyes with her and shook his head in a way that made it look like he was stretching: it was too late.

His character had no way to know the information and so, again disguising a gesture,  he signaled to a character who could exposit the world. She channeled her inner Glinda and explained the rules of the world to the newcomer.

At the end of her monologue, she became a little grand and said to another character: “And what else should I tell you?” (To this day I’m not certain if she didn’t remember everything or if she simply wanted to parse it out it out in a way more expert than I had.)

That character took the baton, filled in the gaps, and the play moved on. Only two members of the audience knew what had just happened, and one of them had sweat covering his entire face.

Later, it occurred to me that I’d seen this situation before, but only ever in theatre. Only during a play can a group be called upon to confront a crisis in front of two hundred people without those people ever knowing that there is a crisis. Some combination of training, quick thinking and attentiveness to the other actors come together and the problem is solved.

After the show, I was watching the delightful ritual in which young performers enter the lobby, usually still wearing a bit of make-up, and get flowers and hugs. I was near the near the back of the lobby because I wanted to congratulate the beloved tech director, who I still hadn’t met. I’d seen her hovering backstage.

But she slipped out a side door. The rehearsal accident that had injured Portia had been deemed her fault and she’d been quietly let go.  At that point, only the director knew. The students would be told the next day.

It was a reminder— if one needed one—that theatre sometimes creates real problems as well as pretend ones, and that those problems can’t always be fixed.

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Why I Love Theatre Teachers

I love theatre teachers.

There are obvious reasons. I love their enthusiasm as they do a really hard and really important job. I love that they’re invariably easy to talk to, and funny. But there’s a bigger reason that I love theatre teachers, and to explain it I’m going to talk about a play that I wrote a long time ago.

In the late ‘80s, I had submitted a play called Sex Lives of Superheroes to a program called Plays in Process. I have no idea what Plays in Process was. You can’t even Google it. It’s gone from the earth. All I know is that at the time it was the most important thing in the world, and I was checking the mail every day. And when the decision arrived, the envelope was tellingly thin, a form letter probably containing the words “wish you luck.” But along with the letter, out slipped a short, handwritten note. It said, in its entirety:

 

Dear Mr. Gregg

Just a personal note—I loved the script, and even though it’s corny to say it, I laughed out loud about fifty times while reading it – I stopped to call several friends to read them the Maji speech. I plan to tell people about the script. Keep me informed about future work.

 

It was signed, Tony K. And the K was for Kushner.

Over the years, I’ve had fantasies about running into Mr. Kushner at a cocktail party, mentioning my name, and him saying, “Steve! I’m so glad to finally meet you! “

I have no idea what I was reading or watching in my mid-twenties that made me think that cocktail parties would be a part of my later life.    But to explain the bigger problem with my cocktail party fantasy, I need to tell a different anecdote, a story within my story.

*********

About four months ago, I was working with a high school that was producing my new play, Crush. I was only going to be at the school for a couple of days and so on this day I was the de facto director while the real director sat to the side.

After we ran a scene, I asked an actor a question, the way one does. I thought I had made it clear that I was asking the question of the character but, somewhat unforgivably, I had not. In front of the entire cast and crew, the young man answered my question not as the character might, but as himself. The question was, “when you arrive places, are people glad to see you, do you think? “ And his answer was, “… I’m not sure. Maybe not that much.”

That night, I was having dinner with the director‑—David Hastings, who teaches at Olathe South, in Kansas —and he told me that after the rehearsal, he had taken the actor aside, and told him that he was glad he was there, that everyone in the play was, and that he was doing a great job.

David’s low-key intervention reminded me of the real reason we love theatre teachers. It’s because of the encouragement that they give to young artists or, bless them, to young people brave enough to attempt an unfamiliar art form in public.

********************

Which brings me back to Tony Kushner and the note he slid into that envelope. The note is dated April 29h, 1989. That’s four years before Angels in America. I hadn’t heard of Tony Kushner. I don’t think most people had. He was in that phase of a playwright’s career when you work for a nonprofit and part of your job is to send sad letters to other playwrights

The story of the note he wrote to me isn’t a story about me at all. It’s a story about Tony Kushner and the generosity of spirit that infuses his plays. Kushner would not remember me today in part because, I guarantee you, he has written many, many of those notes.

I didn’t save that note because it came from Tony Kushner. In a way, it didn’t. I didn’t realize that until years later what I had.

But I did save it. It meant a huge amount to me.

It’s easy to underestimate the asymmetry of encouragement. Praise is a lever; you push and the other person rises disproportionately.

I still remember my own theatre teacher’s reaction to the first play that I wrote. Mickey Prokopiak had had his Acting II class read the one-act without telling them who’d written it. Then he told me how they’d reacted. I don’t remember the conversation well; I was too excited. But I remember that he used the phrase “incredibly enthusiastic,” and that two-word phrase has stayed with me for thirty five years. It’s part of why I’m a playwright.

Creative life, like life in general, is full of thin envelopes. You’re constantly being wished luck in your future. You have to be resilient, and part of what gives you resilience is having those people in your past who promised you that you could do this.

Often, those people are theatre teachers, the people who taught you the craft in the first place.

And by the way, the Crush story ends happily. That young man is the lead in the play, and the play’s going to be on the main stage at the International Thespian Festival this summer. So if you’re at Lincoln and you see him, don’t tell him that I told you this story. But do tell him that you were glad to have seen him.

An Apology

Playwrights almost always owe other playwrights debts. Usually, the debts are in the form of influence. But there’s karmic debt as well. And I owe some of that to the playwright Jose Rivera.

In the late Eighties, I was an intern at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City. I served as the assistant stage manager on Jose Rivera’s play, The Promise.

The Promise is full of magic and spectacle. Flowers fall from the sky. A man’s soul rises out of his body. A dead woman materializes holding a bloody heart. When the play was performed in Los Angeles, the spectacle was accomplished through the use of wires and pyrotechnics. For the act one finale, a real bulldozer plowed onto the stage. When it was performed in New York, at the underwhelmingly equipped EST, the magic was mostly me, the sound of a bulldozer (on a sound system like a really good clock radio), and two spirits: Earth Spirit and Sky Spirit.

The spirits were the director’s idea: a terrible idea, actually. They were onstage during the entire play. Sky Spirit wore a blue leotard. Earth Spirit wore a brown leotard. For the most part, they had nothing to do except crouch and look mysterious. It was as though a pair of Solid Gold dancers had wandered into the middle of the Long Island backyard where the play was set.

But the spirits may have been the only thing wrong with the show that wasn’t my fault. Early in the run, it became clear that I was not up to the task of assistant stage managing.

First, there was the Balloon Incident. In the play, a backyard wedding is decorated with a bunch of helium balloons. The spirit world is not happy about the wedding and lets its displeasure be known by suddenly popping all the balloons. I have no idea how this effect was accomplished in Los Angeles. At EST, the spirits used the ends of artificial flowers to pop the balloons as quickly as they could.

During the last preview performance, for no clear reason, the balloons would not pop. Bam bam bam! The Spirits whacked those balloons again and again. Nothing happened.

It must have appeared to the audience as though the Spirits, trapped onstage with nothing to do, had gone insane and started to attack the set. Relatively soon, Sky Spirit realized it was futile and backed off. But Earth Spirit was on a mission. She appeared to think that the theatre had become infested with balloons and only she could save us. She jumped on them, twisted them, kneaded them, and when she finally did manage to pop one, she’d leap on the next.

It was strange, jaw-dropping performance. It was also, apparently, my fault.

After the show, Earth Spirit let everyone know that they had not been able to pop the balloons because the assistant stage manager had not filled them full enough.

Whether or not she was right, what happened the next night certainly was my fault. The first bit of magic in The Promise is that a flower blooms, suddenly, when two lovers kiss. This was my job, and it was simple. All I had to do was stand behind a fence and push on a piece of wire. In my opening-night excitement, I pulled instead of pushed, jamming the flower into the tube that held it. Panicked, I tried desperately to jar it loose, not realizing that my hands were visible. Instead of a flower blooming, the audience saw a pair of hands, writhing and twisting, a strange portent from the netherworld.

The stage manager screamed into the headsets to leave it alone, so I ran to the other side of the stage (at EST this meant running behind the audience) and got in place for my next job, which was to hand a bloody heart to an actress who waited behind a scrim. I pulled a black mask over my head to keep the audience from seeing me behind the scrim. But alas, I forgot the gloves.The same audience that had just seen a pair of hands squirming above a fence now saw the same hands floating mysteriously backstage, gesturing, then giving a little thumbs-up sign. Surely this was a motif.

While it would be comforting to attribute the mistake to opening-night jitters, the truth is, I never really settled into the production. It was rare that a performance wasn’t somehow marred by something I did or failed to do. Worse, the mistakes didn’t seem to get smaller. For spectacle, nothing surpassed what happened on the second-to-last night.

The quite spooky, oddly lovely final image of The Promise is that a row of corn plants planted in the backyard start to bleed. This was also my job, also quite simple. Backstage, I’d flip a lever, stage blood would flow from a pressurized tank, through some tubes and down the ears of corn.

One night, the corn bled too slowly. The audience couldn’t even tell it was happening.

By this point in the run, everyone knew who to look at when something went wrong. The stage manager screamed at me to make sure that next time there was plenty of pressure in the tank.

Now a confession. It may be that there was a touch of passive-aggressive zeal in me as I pumped up the tank the next night. It may be that I was thinking about all the other times I had been yelled at: The Sign Incident (which was, in fact, my fault), the Cooking Disaster (also my fault), the Pocket Watch mishap (actually, no), the Coffin Debacle (yes). I hope that is not the case.

At any rate, there was plenty of pressure in the tank.

Did you ever see the movie Carrie? Imagine that the title character is a telekinetic ear of corn, and you have a pretty good idea of what happened

The poetic final moment of the play became a gore-fest. The corn stalks whipped back and forth as blood spurted into the air, soaking the stage and cast members. As I recall, it got a round of applause.

So, Mr. Rivera, I apologize. It’s clear that I did not hinder your career.

Still, you deserved better.