Acts of faith

sign on a parking meter
Faith in glue.

Seeing Judy’s show last night reminded me of Fred’s ‘Fuck cancer’ tee-shirt. A few months before he died, he emailed a picture of himself wearing it. I remember the look in his eyes – that typical Fred look of combined amusement, affection, and a sense of having seen this all before, perhaps a hundred years ago. In the photo he had that same look but it was intensified. Perhaps a thousand years ago.

In Judy’s show, ‘Fuck cancer’ was on a hat. There were photos of hats and tee-shirts you can expect to receive if you get cancer. “Of course they’re fake. My real ones tried to kill me.”

I went to her show after watching another show at Second City, a solo class showcase a friend was in. My friend did a hilarious monolog and song about the exquisite tortures of auditioning. Another guy did a piece about recovering from a stroke. His cane, which he’d been given at the nursing home, was feeling a bit unwanted now that he no longer leaned on it every day. His piano was also feeling left out. Occasionally he still played with his right hand, but he seemed to get too frustrated about his unworking left hand, so there were no more duets with the man’s wife, no more music making long into the night.

Most other pieces were about breakups. One guy’s girlfriend cheated. One woman’s husband strayed permanently. One guy’s boyfriend dumped him in a text. Illness and breakups, those were the themes last night. It was odd how the breakup stories seemed to begin and end with the fact of the breakup, how much it hurt, how sweet revenge could feel, how lonely it was. Whereas the illness stories began with the illness and went on to explore the new reality, new values, new discoveries. On the whole, illness seemed like a more useful experience than breaking up, though of course most of us would choose a breakup over cancer any day.

It’s easy to make fun of solo shows and people do it all the time, but standing on stage alone is an act of faith in more than yourself. It’s an act of faith in human experience, to believe that your slice of it is worthy of a stranger’s time. It’s a sign of faith in community, bringing together a group of people who will be changed simply by being together, facing the stage. When Judy said good night, a woman called out, “My teacher!” and some of us cheered. I thought of my teacher, Fred, and his tee-shirt, and his smile.

During Judy’s show I worried at first that my friends would think it was too depressing, too personal, too detailed. But I heard Johnnie and Paul laugh when Judy brought out her hated cancer socks, which they lived through when Paul had to wear stroke socks. Toots and I exchanged awed looks when Judy sang about the uncanny string of holidays that hosted every one of her cancer and recovery milestones. Afterward, we went out and celebrated our very first evening of all going out together. We made multiple toasts. We were giddy.

Theatre vs. Drama

Django in a wig
Historical reenactment.

I went to a play last night. It was at a very fine theatre. It was a famous play by a renowned playwright. The theatre was in a wealthy suburb. I couldn’t believe how much parking there was.

The play was about a middle-aged man who lets an old homeless man stay with him for a while. The audience was mostly senior citizens, in pairs. The play is set in one room, with piles of junk all around. The audience is placed within the room, in rows on all four sides.

It can be hard to stay awake sometimes. But by my count, three people were already sleeping when the play began: one guy in the left section, second row; one woman in the far section, second row; and one man in the right section, first row. Next to him, his wife had her eyes open, but she wouldn’t look at the actors. Whenever they were near her, she faced away from them. She was sitting right next to a pile of junk. During scene one, a character removed the junk to reveal a bed.

The acting was excellent. The conflicts between the kind middle-aged man, the alternately ingratiating and arrogant old man, and the unpredictable third man who owns the room were well-drawn. But for real drama, it’s hard to beat watching a gray-haired woman refusing to look at a gray-haired actor playing a stinking old man who is pretending to sleep right next to her.

Rejectness & Acception

Off Fellows picture
Buildings of the Odd Fellows’ Orphans’ Home, framed, submitted to alley, accepted by me.

I got my favorite rejection of the year in the mail the other day. As a writer, I’m supposed to be used to rejection, but I’m not. I never got rejected from this particular place for that particular piece before, so it’s always happening for the first time.

And as someone who’s done my share of rejecting, I should remember that not everyone’s performance or piece is right for whatever I’m casting or curating, so I should remember it’s not often so much about rejection as it is about incompatibility, but I don’t.

And as my job hunting friends tell me, I should be grateful even for rejections, because someone cared enough to say no, thanks. Apparently the trend in employment these days is, if you don’t hear from us, consider it a no. Thanks. Yeah, I guess, but it still stings. Except for the times when it doesn’t. Like this one.

It wasn’t one of those personalized “Your play is amazing but we don’t have the budget for your time machine set piece” or “The writing is so brilliant even we don’t understand it “ sorts of letters. There wasn’t even a scrawled postscript about how I should send in something else because they liked my voice. It was just a form letter on cheap paper telling me that my play, “Charlie,” wasn’t selected for their ten-minute musical project. Two things stopped me from feeling bad about it, maybe three.

First, the letter said that not only wasn’t “Charlie” selected, but no one’s play was selected. Which made me feel included instead of excluded. I like feeling included, which apparently is okay because that’s part of being human.

Also, the letter advised all us rejects to pay more attention to story, because plot was mostly where these pieces disappointed. It recommended more adaptations. I can take or leave the advice, but at least I have a sense of why they didn’t like my very small story with some big songs (composed by creative wonderbox Charlie – oh, btw, Charlie, we didn’t get in – Hopper).

There’s something lovely about a rejection that reveals just a little of what’s behind the no. It demystifies the whole process in a way that makes me feel less generally inadequate, and more specifically incompatible.

Rejections also feel better when tempered with acceptances. This morning, I got an email with a link to a tiny radio play I wrote, “Go,” which is presented as part of this week’s episode of Chicago Off Book. It’s a smart, fast, funny show that makes me want to go see more theatre. I hope you’ll listen to it—and not just to my 60 seconds of silliness. Arlene Malinowski also has a mini-play in this episode, and there are interviews with Michael Halberstam and Darrell Cox.

Ironically, when something of mine is accepted, I don’t feel a huge rush of artistic triumph. I just think, oh, good, for some reason that worked for them. It boosts my confidence enough to think about sending out more work, and more importantly, it’s the point of the whole endeavor – to share my work, my view, my experiences, with whoever might care to listen.

Like most things I write, both “Charlie” and “Go” are on actual events: one I overheard at a bookstore, and one I saw backstage at a theatre. The more I write, the more I discover specifically what kind of writer I am: an interpreter of the small and forgotten. And I’m proud of it. If you too are someone who auditions, submits, sells, offers yourself parsed out in words or images or knitted hoodies or carved dogs, I hope you’ll keep at it. Because there may be only a few people in this entire universe who really “get” your handmade astrology-themed earbud cozies, but wouldn’t it feel good to connect with them?

Translations

It made more sense after Dave translated.

We’ve eaten out a lot this week. Dave’s dad is in town and he is both a great cook and a lover of fine food. The other night we went to one of his favorites, Les Nomades. Serene lighting, sumptuous appointments (that is, chairs and stuff), and waitstaff who anticipate your every need without calling attention to themselves. Your water glass, your napkin, your every dining comfort IS the most important thing on the planet. And the staff’s comfort is the least. Maybe the point of restaurants like this is to let average people feel what it’s like to have servants—like, royalty-grade servants. You pay the price and you receive the experience.

Maybe that’s why a jacket is required. The Queen doesn’t dine in blue jeans. And there’s the food itself. A thimble-full of inspired parsnip soup,  a salmon appetizer prepared three ways, each better and smaller than the last, a presentation of warm apple tart contrasted with a melon-baller scoop of green apple sorbet. Tiny mouthfuls of gold.

But the experience changes with translation. The first or second time at Les Nomades, I didn’t try to understand, I just ate and drank and sank gratefully into my banquette as they invisibly pulled the table back for me after a trip to the ladies room. Which had a couch! But this time, I thought more about how it all works. Somehow, I couldn’t help analyzing the waiter. He was so formal in his language that I kept thinking he was kidding. “Would the Lady and Gentlemen care to order?” It was sort of like being at a renaissance fair, except I think in that time period Queen ate with her hands. At first, I tried to talk normal, but I am a chameleon and soon I transferred info formalese. “Perhaps a glass of the Springbank?” “Very good, Madame.”

At one point, he bowed in to ask, “Are the Lady and Gentlemen finding the meal to their liking?”

“Oh yes, it’s lovely.”

“Very good.” But when he bowed away, I saw him stop at the white serving table and make a small mark on a card. Suddenly I thought, is there a set number of times they have to check in with each table in their station, and the card helps them keep track? Doesn’t he really care? Did he only check with us so he could mark his card? I know, it’s all a business, like any other, and I appreciate that they run this business so well. But for a moment I felt like that king in the play, I think it’s by Ionesco, where he says to his servant, “Don’t you think I know that as soon as I go to bed you blow out the candles and turn on the electric lights?”

And the servant says, “So should I turn on the lights?”

And the king cries, “No. I want my candle. Bring me my candle!”

I started a new playwriting workshop this week. The teacher, Will Dunne, has already made me start thinking about writing plays differently than ever before. He had us do an exercise he called Translations. For the play you’re working on, you identify 12 words or phrases that come up in the play and then translate them into various actions or lines of dialog or images. When we went to see Clybourne Park at the Steppenwolf last night, I thought about what those 12 might be for that play. Racism, civility, institutional ignorance, what’s the point, burying your dead… It made it easier to identify what was so powerful in the play, and also to sense the few ways in which it could have been more powerful – at least to me. What were they? I forget now. Something about what was at stake in Act 2, but something more specific. Ignorance? Yes, I thought if the story of the suicide were more distorted by time, it would have strengthened the idea of ignorance being dangerous, or at least destructive. But maybe that wasn’t one of the playwright’s 12. Or maybe he didn’t have 12. This was only one exercise, in one class.

After the play, Dave translated his Dad’s classic reticence about what he felt like doing into agreement that a bite after the show would be good. At the table, when I was explaining this playwriting exercise, Dave’s dad said, “Music is music. It is what it is. No translation necessary.” That launched a discussion between Dave and his dad over who was the best composer, Bach or Beethoven or Mozart—or more specifically, what made each of them so good.

And that reminded me that at intermission, Dave’s dad stood up and said, “Back then, everyone listened to the same music.” Act One took place in the 50s, and closed with a Bing Crosby song that only Dave’s dad recognized. I was glad to hear him make a voluntary comment, but I almost replied with a disagreement. I remember my dad telling me about how, when he was growing up in the 30s and 40s, he used to have a radio in his room, and late at night, when the signals were stronger, he’d turn it to “the dark side of the dial” either the lower or upper end, I don’t know which. If he tuned it just right, and the night was clear, he could hear Black music, the blues and jazz he couldn’t get in the middle of the dial. But it didn’t seem worth pointing out, because it’s possibly pointless to disagree with a memory. Or maybe that’s why the world is so messed up, I’m not sure.

I don’t know if it’s okay to write “Black music.” We don’t say that anymore. But it’s how my dad described the music he loved. I guess we all pick our battles and our translations. Walking back to the train, I saw a For Sale sign. At first I thought the line at the bottom was the realtor’s name, and I was impressed that someone with such a strikingly foreign name would be selling such a swank property. Turns out it was a swank property, but I was still reading it wrong.