Saturday, February 13, 2010

And cue the writer. "You're on, writer."

You are standing in the wings, awaiting your cue to enter.

The stage manager, a substantial, bulky presence, stands before you, clipboard in hand. He makes eye contact, nods. "You're on," he whispers.

You nod, step around him and are now on stage with other characters who appear to have been doing things. It is a bit odd to see other characters on stage, but this is a new director; rehearsals have been scanty, and in many ways, you are still not completely comfortable.

"O for a muse of fire," you begin, "that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment."

One of the actors is looking at you with mounting alarm. "What are you doing?" she whispers. "This is not fucking Henry V, and you are not the fucking chorus. And how are you going to get us out of this mess?"

More often than not, your time waiting in the wings to go on is spent near the screen of your computer or at a corner table in Peet's hunched over a lined note pad, a brimming cup of latte close to hand. You have a sense of where you--no matter which of your characters you are at the moment--are coming from, where you are going, and what your overall agenda is. Purpose is all about you, and instead of the shifting in their seats or the occasional cough from the audience, you are aware of another kind of live presence, the crackle and static of tension radiating from the story points and the vast minefields of misunderstanding between the characters. Sometimes you deliver lines that surprise you by their directness and confrontational swagger, themselves an awareness that you have somehow caught hold of the tiger's tail that is each character's individual handle.

On good days, you get pages down, the time seemingly subtracted from your day like an agent's commission removed from your royalty check, effortlessly, quickly, inevitably.

But today is not so good a day. You are out there because that is what you do. You wait in the wings of your drama for a cue, then you enter, but most of the time you enter not merely in character but in recognizable character, every word and gesture cloaked in nuance appropriate to the moment.

The more you have time to reflect on the actor's nightmare of not knowing which story or which characters today's appearance involves, the more you realize that the writer's nightmare is even more acute; the writer must not merely learn lines and interpret them to the point where they bring life to the story, the writer must learn to see and speak and write all over again with each new project because the writer's nightmare is to believe in all sincerity that it is all right to bring forth the same performance, the same device, the same thing that worked well in the last story as a part of confronting this present story. The writer knows this sort of hubris can lead to being derivative; the writer recognizes any number of derivative individuals whose works are readily accessible, even looks at the numbers with some jealousy, until the time comes to step into the wings and wait for the cue. At that moment, an enormous vulnerability opens. The writer can cringe, then attempt to charm his or her audience, then feel the sinking platform under him at the sense that no one is buying the charm, least of all his characters.

It has through practice and habit become easy to costume up and step into that limbo before being on and being exposed to the audience, completely red-handed in having nothing to deliver at the moment. But if you stop to think about it later, you will realize that the greatest humiliation of all is also part of your muscle memory; you have heard the equivalent of "What do you think you're doing out there?" from friends, writing groups, instructors, literary agents, editors, and yes, reviewer/critics, and come back this one more time, making eye contact with the stage manager, and strode forth onto the stage. "O for a muse of fire," you begin. "Or maybe not." And before you realize it, the other characters are looking at you with amazement, put off by your audacity, then beginning ever so slowly to see the possibilities and react to them.

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