September in the year of our lord 2020, Andrea was not looking forward to what her university Theatre Conservatory’s take on current events (re: racial inequality, police brutality, and pandemic-having) was going to be. So when the invitation for COPS: An Immersive Theatrical Experience arrived, she was less than thrilled to find out that it was mandatory content to attend, lest she wanted to receive an F at the beginning of the semester.
Sitting in a “socially distanced” blackbox theater in-the-round, Andrea unfortunately was able to see of both performers and audience members, all of whom were seemingly spellbound. White girls with expressive eyebrows and their bisexual boyfriends were eating every moment up, from the director’s (inaccurate) Land Acknowledgement to the interactive moment where the audience had to stand up if they knew the names of Rico Nasty songs.
Andrea is typically a connoisseur of white-guilt theatre, but something about having to do this while risking contracting a deadly disease made the flavor less sweet. Knowing that this is the height of these students' activism and that they'll talk about this for the next three years, it's all a little disheartening. So, she bitterly sat through most of act one planning what restaurant she was going to order take-out burgers from, but something strange happened about 15 minutes before intermission.
While a cast member doing a monologue about being 1/32nd Chippewa was pausing for people to snap emphatically along, Andrea rolled her eyes to the left, and she accidentally made contact with somebody else. An older woman.
Eye contact was to be expected when one can see most of the audience, this energy hit a little differently. There was a crackle. Andrea and this complete stranger couldn't stop looking at each other, like two deer simultaneously caught in the headlights of a bulldozer.
It’s a remarkably lonely experience being the only person in a theater to realize how bad something is. It’s like waking up in a room full of violent space aliens and being told you have to abide by their customs, or else. You’re doing your best to play along with rules no one ever gave you, and if you don’t laugh or snap at the right moments, you’re the asshole (or in the aliens metaphor, you die).
But when Andrea and the older woman from across the theater made eye contact, they couldn’t look away. Desperate not to waste this potential human connection, this brief and rare instance to escape the ever-tightening grip of human loneliness, Andrea widened her eyes and gestured to the performer as if to say, “?!?!?!?!?!”
This was a pretty risky move. The older woman from across the theater could have just been making pleasant eye contact because she wanted to acknowledge Andrea’s presence. Maybe she was staring because she was disgusted that Andrea was in the theater. Maybe she was making eye contact for absolutely no reason, and will be confused that Andrea is trying to make grand meaning out of the trivial act of not-having-anywhere-else-to-look.
In a stunning twist, though, the older woman saw Andrea make first contact, and smiled. She smiled! She nodded slowly like a fellow hostage would across the floor at a bank robbery. She looked at the performer and looked back at Andrea and shrugged, as if to say “get a load of this guy…”
While it was uncouth to laugh during the performance -- the director made it very clear that there were No Instances of Humor in the piece -- Andrea couldn’t help but let out a chortle of relief. Is this really happening? Is this lady on the same page? Is the silent power of the human eyelid enough to make a connection in this unforgiving black box theater?
Andrea tried it again. She lifted the playbill up to her face, looked at her watch cartoonishly, and made a face as if to say “this is really gonna be another hour-and-a-half?”
The older woman laughed. She laughed! Oh, the sweet, sweet ecstasy of a shared painful theatrical experience. The actors, who were now freestyle rapping over a video of a Korean girl winning a game of Monopoly, were unaware of the magic happening in the folding chairs that they had to set up before the performance.
This became a delightful game to play. Andrea and the older woman cringed at the same time when an actor misused the word “finna.” The older woman snorted so loud she had to cough to cover it up. Andrea felt a little bit less tense, and let the hand crumpling the side of her jeans relax just a little.
When the Immersive Experience ended (with the audience having to play a game of fuck, marry, kill -- the options being Racism, Sexism, or Homophobia), Andrea was sure to stick around and find out this older lady’s deal. Unfortunately, there was a mandatory talk-back for the entire audience in lieu of bows. (The actors don’t want to be celebrated for performing, they want to change minds.)
It was during this talk-back announcement that Andrea could see the wheels turning in the older woman’s brain. She doesn’t appear to be a student -- making this exercise in self-flagellation unnecessary for her to attend. She also doesn’t seem to be a parent, but it would be absolutely hilarious if she was. Maybe she’s a teacher, or a local woman who lives by the university who just wasted a whole night. Either way, the gears in her head cranked her knees to bend up, her posture to crack into place, and the jaw bones in her mouth to loosen, allowing her to bellow the phrase:
“Oh, absolutely not.”
Absolutely not. The proud declaration of a woman who has no more time or attention she needs to pay to these students, who maybe would have benefited from a few Google searches before putting together this show. A shout into the abyss that, at the very least, these people aren’t going to waste everybody’s time. A siren song luring those who listened to practice actual self-care.
As the woman sauntered out of the theater and everybody stared, she did not waver.
Andrea wanted her to turn around, which was a thought she did not expect to have. She wanted her to turn around like Orpheus to Eurydice, walking out of hell, foolishly making sure she’s following. Andrea wanted her to look back, but she doesn’t. The old woman doesn’t need anyone else to validate her choice to simply leave. Orpheus and Eurydice would have totally survived if they were both women, Andrea concludes.
It had never occurred to Andrea that she could simply leave, until she did.
And she sighed. And it felt nice.