I was enjoying my usual nightmare until I realized that I was the nightmare. I had become someone else’s nightmare.
It's the default actor's nightmare: I’m standing offstage in the wings. The play has already started. Lights rise to a blinding intensity, and an actor I don’t recognize anymore allows the first lines to fall from his or her androgynous mouth into a lapel mic. The wall-mounted speakers expectorate that line into the seat-planted audience, composed mainly of the actors’ obliging relatives and thoughts-and-prayers-level friends, most of whom have decided that they won’t “get it” long before the play even starts.
I don’t know my lines, but I must be a character. I’m wearing a suit. What character, and when do I go on? I ask the stage manager, but she’s too focused. What play is….? Oh. Halloween. The annual Spoon River Anthology.
“You know this is a closet drama, right?” I say. “Why do we stage it at all?”
The stage manager says nothing. She’s on the wrong side, anyway. These people have no understanding of conventions and standards. Community theatre! It could be an outlet for local writers to offer local color. Instead, trailer park humor and re-hashed pseudoclassics.
“So which one am I?” I’ve played several of these over the years. “Which one am I this time?”
“You’re dead.” The stage manager didn’t answer. Behind me, leaned against the wall, his hand bracing himself up against the breaker box--Bob Tulley.
“Mr. Tulley? You’re the director this year, right?”
“No, James. Not this year. Not for these past eleven years.”
“I have to find out who I am.”
“You are James Crain.”
“I mean in the play this year.”
“Yeah, everyone’s dead. It’s Spoon River Anth…. Wait. Bob. Bob Tulley. I thought….”
“Ten years ago, I guess. Right over there.”
“You died in the theatre,” I said. “That’s right. Right over there.”
“Yep. Jeff Germain was hanging that fancy new light--the smart light they called it. They could control it from the booth until the warranty ran out. Then, they were all the time fixing it. Even during rehearsals. When Jeff decided safety chains were for pansies, he let it drop while I was trying to teach a kid playing a lion to roar like a man. Those were my last corporeal words, yelling into a crying boy’s face, ‘Roar like a man, you little….’ And that’s when the smart light struck my crown, hammering me to the ground.”
“But you’re here,” I said. “I mean, was I wrong? I guess you didn’t really die.”
“You just admitted,” he said, “that you didn’t attend my funeral.”
Even in death, Bob could be so snippy sometimes.
“Well, I mean, you know....I had a thing. Anyway, you’re here.”
“And so are you.”
The lights jumped to a complete blackout. Only a few blue lights guided the actors and the tech crew as they shuffled around backstage, asking each other which scene was next.
“I can help you,” I whispered to the stage manager, “if you’ll tell me what scene we’re in. Hello?”
“She can’t hear you,” Bob Tulley said.
Slowly, they moved painted boxes made of OSB to the stage so that two actors could stand on them. The two actors reviewed their scripts and took deep breaths before returning to the stage.
“Don’t they know the audience is sitting in pitch dark waiting for a scene?”
“Every year,” Bob Tulley told me. “Every doggone year. It’s the Masters Curse.”
“Who is the master?”
“No, the Masters Curse. Edgar Lee Masters.”
“The author. Spoon River.”
The scene started. The lights rose. A faint but audible moan emanated from actors and audience alike as their eyes adjusted after having sat in the dark for so long during set change. After years of this ritual, the horror seemed to be that we--actor, audience, crew, production--all grew accustomed to dying in here during long set changes only to return to a bright, unnatural light that would, within minutes go out again. And stay out. For several more minutes. Everyone died and returned to life, a Dionysian ritual after all.
The acting pair had certainly memorized every syllable of their lines. And they were going to deliver every syllable. It was their right to express themselves, and for their audience members, their duty obliged them to watch and interpret the lines of a play that was not even meant to be staged. Who would agree to continue such absurdity, and who would have the stamina to do so this badly.
“Wait,” I said. “I don’t act anymore. I’m the director.”
“You were the director. The stage manager has taken over now. That’s the business.”
“Besides, you’re dead.”
“But I’m here, right where….”
“And so am I,” he said.
“As am I.”
“Just yesterday, I was--”
“It was three days ago.”
“Whatever. I was directing this very scene trying to explain this scene to the actress, trying to explain how important her lines were to small-town human life and to the striving beauty of the people who live in our towns. The brilliant, yet fragile potential in the human spirit! The vital important of the individual! Rather than memorize the lines, I wanted the actress to…. What’s the actress’s name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Anyway, I wanted her to understand and personalize the lines, share her vision with the audience, make that live human connection in the way only live productions--”
I was interrupted by a squeal from the opposite side.
“Stage right speaker. Vince was working on it when he got electrocuted. Now they say it’s the ghost of Vince.”
“Jeez!” said the voice of a man wearing all black, standing in the far back corner. “It was messed up before I died. That’s why I was on the ladder fixing it. The powerline has a cut that, as luck has it, sits right under a small leak in the roof. Somehow that’s what causes the feedback. Especially when the volume was turned up so high.”
I hadn’t thought about that. The volume was up terribly high. I always taught actors to project. You don’t hit off the tee in men’s league softball.
“And you weren’t having much luck, as I recall,” Bob Tulley said.
“You mean with the actress,” I said with air quotes. “No. I explained, and I ran through it myself, and I--”
“Escalated and escalated.”
“Yeah, and…. I don’t remember whether she ever caught on.”
“Honestly, she was actually sort of relieved when you had the heart attack.”
“The Masters Curse.”
“Stop saying that.”
“We come in for dress rehearsal and we go out with the strike. Every year.”
“The Masters Curse,” I said.
“Now you got it.”
“Great. And what happens in the between time?” I asked. Bob Tulley rolled his eyes, but I insisted that he answer. “What happens between one Halloween and the next? Where do we go? What do we do?”
“There aren’t words to describe--”
“Find the words,” I demanded.
“OK, we go from the stage to the cinema where we watch bad movies, but we are allowed to make fun of them.”
“No. You wanted an answer. I gave you an answer. The truth is that I can’t explain it to you. You’ll see for yourself in two and a half days.”
Blackout. Then, in the blue light beside me--Gabrielle Wilson. She made every costume look fabulous, and she made no costume look even better. She embodied everything I loved about theatre. Every method I’d studied, I learned to impress her. And ultimately I did, though not in the way I’d wanted. I loved her in the art I’d found her in, and she loved the art she’d found in me. She inhaled as was her method and walked to an empty stage.
“OK,” Bob Tulley said, “if you want to know about God and the afterlife and the meaning of--”
“Shut up, man!” I said. “She’s going on.”
“I know that he told that I snared his soul,” she said as Mrs. Benjamin Pantier, “with a snare which bled him to death.”
“Why are there no dead women backstage?” I asked.
“They’re on the other side of the stage,” Tulley told me, “avoiding the stage manager.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “You know. Women.” And he shrugged his shoulders.
“And then, suppose,” Gabrielle continued her part, “you are a woman well endowed….”
“Anyone who dies in the theatre,” Tulley explained “becomes a part of the Masters Plan.”
“I thought it was a curse.”
“Take it in what sense you feel it,” he said. “Your passion kept you alive, and your passion brought your demise. Quod me nutrit, me destruit.”
“She is the only one left with any passion,” I realized.
“Yeah, maybe she’ll be joining us soon.”
“Wait,” I said. “What?”
“Everyone here had a passion for the art itself. And here we are,” Bob Tully said, “trapped backstage for the annual Halloween production. Gabrielle is the only one left. The rest wear costumes and talk about all the lines they have to memorize.”
He could tell I was depressed by this news, and as Gabrielle exited and the lights blacked out, Bob Tulley told me to follow him.
“Here,” he said, “this’ll cheer you up.” He took me backstage into the greenroom where actors waited, doing anything besides staying in character or learning from each other’s performances. As soon as we walked through the closed door I could hear the faint sounds from the television monitor. The actors backstage could see the performance as it was shown from a remote camera in the booth. They could hear it if they wanted to, but the monitor was turned down woefully low.
“I always remained backstage,” I said.
“They’re about to go backstage,” Bob Tulley said. I couldn’t believe we could speak in normal tones and be ignored by the actors in the greenroom.
“Observe,” Bob Tulley said. He walked straight into the television monitor sitting on a rolling stand. He zapped into the back of the old-style console and disappeared in a flash.
That was cool, I thought. Then, the screen went black in the middle of someone’s line. I thought someone had missed a cue, but then Bob Tulley’s face entered from the left--from stage right had it been a stage. He revealed only his neck up, and a wreath of laurels adorned his head.
The actors weren’t paying enough attention to see this, so he coughed into his hand to get their attention. When he had it, he said, “Beware the Ides of March.” He used his best spooky voice, the one he’d been using when he told me about the “Masters Curse.”
“Beware the Ides of March!”
The three actors offered a high-pitched squeal as they jumped up and ran out of the room, the male actor leading the way.
“Beware….” Bob Tulley’s own laughter interrupted him. “Beware…,” he said, trying again but to the same result.
Then, he sank from the screen and popped out of the tube with the same flash as when he entered. The screen was black, but this time, the darkness showed the darkness on the stage, another infernally long blackout.
“Yeah, we come in here all the time and do that,” Bob Tulley said. “We talk to them from the TV and pretend to be all sorts of things: the characters they’re playing, a demon, a politician, whatever.”
“We don’t get out much. A week or so each year. Why not be gods?”
“Yeah. Deus ex machina. You know, god from machine. Get it?”
“Got it,” I said.
The door opened. Gabrielle Wilson.
“Watch this,” he said.
“Wait. Can I do this one?”
“Knock yourself out sport.”
He showed me how to walk into the TV. “Just walk. You’ll pop right in.”
And I did. I could see the hole just to my left, and when I peeked out, I could see Gabrielle. She wouldn’t be here long. She was just changing costumes, meaning Bob Tulley was out there watching her. He doesn’t get out much.
I wanted to save her from her eminent fate, even though I didn’t have enough experience to know exactly what our fate was. I wanted her to join us, sure. Maybe in death…. That seemed selfish. I would warn her, but I didn’t know if she would listen to me. I imagined myself giving her advice as someone else, maybe acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski. As soon as I imagined the father of modern acting, my face became his. My receding hairline became his white rolling helmet of hair.
Stepping into the screen, I called her name. “Gabrielle.” Wait, why would I use the spooky voice? Before she turned around, I tried to affect a Russian accent--a normal one. I didn’t actually know any Russians who didn’t do mean things to moose and squirrel.
“Wait, Gabrielle. Don’t be afraid.”
“Who are you?
“It is me. Uh, Constantin. Uh, Constantine, uh, Stanislavski.”
“What? Who are you and how do you know my name?”
“I am the father of modern acting, and I--”
“I know who you’re pretending to be. I have to be on stage in ten minutes.”
“I am, um, Const…. I am Stanislavski, and--”
“Look,” she said, “any other week this would be funny. But we’re in the middle of a run, and with James dying…. I can’t do this right now.” She turned to leave.
“Please. Please. Go on. Wait. This James.”
“I don’t know who you are, but if you have access to the TV feed, you know who James is. You know what he meant to this place...to everyone. Especially to me.” She stopped herself from crying. “Whatever you’re doing, it’s not funny.”
“Wait. James. He meant a lot to you? As a friend?”
“A great friend, yes. And if you didn’t know him, you missed out because he died doing what he did best.”
“I might have known him.”
“I thought so. What do you want?”
“I have to be on stage in six minutes.”
“I wanted you to know that James really enjoys your performance. Tonight, you are great. You share your soul and inspire every audience we’ve ever had.”
“So what happened to your ‘Russian’ accent?”
“It doesn’t matter. James will be here at the matinee tomorrow, too.”
“Your voice…,” she said.
“That doesn’t matter, either. What matters is that you know how important you are to everyone who sees you perform, that you never lose faith in yourself or the art, and that you have a perpetual fan. Now get out there.”
“And one more thing: If you do Spoon River next year, come back to the greenroom. Same time next year, huh?”
“Now go out there and knock ‘em dead.”
With that, I slid below the screen and, with a flash, snapped back into the room. Bob Tulley was nowhere to be found. Gabrielle lingered in the dressing room, staring at the TV until the stage manager came to get her.
“You’re on right now. What are you doing?”
“I know, honey. He meant a lot to all of us. Do you want to skip your scene? I mean, they’re all just independent scenes and--”
“No.” Gabrielle’s face snapped back into the beautiful beacon of determination I fell in love with. “No. No. They deserve better.” She followed the stage manager out, but looked back at the monitor to say, “You deserve better.”
I wait before walking through walls into the wings beside the stage.
“Couldn’t do it, could ya?” Bob Tulley says.
“Yes,” I say. “I could have. But it’s not my nightmare.”
“Shut up, man. She’s on.”
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