Contest #92 shortlist ⭐️

Bigger Than The Light

Submitted into Contest #92 in response to: End your story with a truth coming to light.... view prompt

49 comments

Drama Inspirational Transgender

The Isis Lounge has a real dressing room mirror—the kind outlined with a blaze of bare bulbs. That’s one of the things I like about it. To me, it just screams professionalism with 1500 watts. It shows respect for the performers. It doesn’t matter so much that here backstage we have fans heaving through summer nights, trying to breathe some fresh air into the old building, or that, in the fall, shimmering termite wings dust the vanity when I arrive. The place smells like vodka and old pan stick and even older sheet music—sixty years of nighttime absorbed in the faded green carpet. And then there’s the mirror.


I arrive through the back door of the Isis Lounge and I feel like a star before I even take off my daytime uniform—the slacks, the button-up shirt, or the t-shirt I might have thrown on in that liminal space between day and night. I trade it now for a silver sequined gown, then I sit down at the mirror, flip on the lights, and get to work.


My reflection shows a nose too broad and lips too thin, limp, mousy-brown hair, and blue eyes with crow’s feet beginning to scratch patterns at their corners and over my cheeks. But I can change that; I know how to re-shape my face and recreate myself. In the mirror, I become Ava Pulchritude, cabaret goddess. 


The stress of the day disappears under a thick layer of foundation. The time for unengaged students who look everywhere but at me, and their uninspired essays I graded until sunset, has disappeared under the dark sky. Now I blend away the years, the lines, the scars with a triangular sponge. I cover the worry lines between my brows, the small crater in my left temple where a chicken pock ruptured thirty years ago, the thin white line on my right cheek from the first time I got punched. Ava’s face is flawless, serene, a blank canvas for feeling and music to color.


Next I highlight my T-line with white to contour my face. I am a sculptor with the power to carve, refine, reveal the beauty inside. I move deftly after years of practice. I know my face and the lines and brush strokes that connect it to Ava’s face. The muffled piano down the hall tells me I’m right on track as I powder and set. 


The spotlight will wash you out—expose your insufficiencies and flaws. I have to be bigger and brighter than the light.


Now the eyes. That’s the most important part. The eyes communicate so much. The audience wants to be able to see into them, so they need to be open, alive. If they can’t see your eyes, you lose them.


I brush a base of brown over the lids and add white under the brow bone, redefining the landscape of my eyes through tricks of light and shadow. I shade the outside corners and the creases in smokey blues and purples, then extend my eyes with a swooping wing drawn in one confident swoop of the blue liner pencil.


“Blue eyes are the hardest to see on stage,” Daisy Gardner told me long ago. My first mentor, back at the Poisoned Parakeet, who blended the lines my foundation made around my jaw—an amateur’s mask—and calmed the garish green of my lids. “No one can see you under this…” I was nineteen, but I felt like the little four-year-old kid again, who smeared on the makeup Mom left on the bathroom counter.


“People look right through blue eyes,” Daisy said. “You have to give them something to latch onto,” and she painted this shimmering progression of blue that spread the light in my eyes across my face. 


There’s no such thing as blue pigment in the eyes. It’s all a reflection, an illusion. Blue eyes are blue like the sky or the ocean—they reflect the light. So much of life is an illusion. I’ve learned ways of tricking the light, making it reveal only what I want to show.


I finish contouring my face with bronzer under my cheekbones and chin, framing the bridge of my nose, using shadow like a scalpel. I trace a dark liner outside the natural boundaries of my lips. 


“Fifteen minutes to call time.” Gus sticks his shining cue ball head through the doorway.


In the mirror’s reflection I take him in, one beefy hand holding the door frame. “It’s a rowdy crowd tonight,” he says. “Good luck, hon.”


“Guess I’ll have to dial up the charm,” I say.


“There you go! Charm their socks off.” The proprietor knocks on the wooden frame.


“They’re going to be taking off more than their socks when I’m through with them.” In the mirror, I smile at Gus—my slow, wide smile that critics have called captivating. I finish filling my lips with an intense berry shade: Tumultuous


“Hats off to you, Ava. There’s a reason you’re my closing act,” Gus says before he disappears into the shadows down the hall. 


I close one eye and gently apply my lashes. I hate a rowdy audience. They remind me of my high schoolers. But here at the Isis Lounge, I have more crowd control tools at my disposal—my body, my art, my voice. I’m larger than life and shielded by dark and pan stick and piano. I’ll handle them—turn their energy inward. That’s what I do.


The finishing touches—I adjust my wig until a fringe of black bangs hovers over my brow and a smooth bob hugs my jaw line. Tonight calls for my security blanket: the boa. I fluff the pink and purple feathers, the colors of sunset, and then disappear into their mass. 


It was always easier in a feather boa. I remember wrapping Heather Ratliff’s over my shoulders at the cast party, after the recital. We were all parodying each other’s songs (we’d heard them enough times in rehearsals). I disappeared into the soft pile of feathers. They made my voice sultry and soft as I began my interpretation of Heather’s Maybe This Time, lavish twirls of the boa around my hip, an exaggerated shoulder roll—or at least it felt exaggerated until I got into it. 


Lady Peaceful, Lady Happy, that’s what I long to be… and I felt that longing take over. It was exactly what I wanted to be. I felt it in my toes, in my fingertips, in the way my thighs tightened and dipped as I belted out the final notes: Maybe this time… 


This was my time. I had been a lackluster Curly McLain in a cowboy hat, but here I shined.


“Holy crap,” Heather sighed. “I think you did that better than me.”


Heather (petite little fairy!) was four sizes smaller than me. She had nothing to offer me but the boa, and a blessing. “It’s yours,” she said. The feathers, the act, the longing.


Some people give themselves completely to the longing. They become Lady Happy. Some of them truly are happy. Not me. Ava Pulchritude lives only at night. Her voice is meant for soft lights, sultry piano chords, the clink of glassware, lipstick on bar napkins. She wears the night like a cloak laced with starry sequins. 


The light can burn. Too much light and you can’t see straight. Daisy Gardner, for instance, died eight years ago. Overdose.


During the day there are other voices. My voice—my daytime voice—drones. I lose the students. I see my audience drift off. They write notes, doodle in margins, whisper to friends across the aisle. I see their eyes lost in other thoughts. 


Maybe if Hamlet had a piano tinkling chord progressions under his soliloquy, if they could hear him reach for that high B flat at the peak of his agony, then maybe they would listen.


I talk less in class, ask more questions.


“You ready?” Gus interrupts my thoughts from the doorway, tapping thick fingers on the wood. “Come on, you’re making me nervous.”


“Beauty is a tough master,” I tell him as I flip a flaming tail of feathers over my shoulder and follow Gus into the darkness.


I’m not nervous. I got over that long ago, but I still feel a certain electric buzz in my collar bone, in my fingertips. 


I have a routine in the wings, in those final moments before I take the stage. I gaze over the shadowed audience and look for one person to sing to. Maybe the bored man staring into his half-empty beer mug. His wife dragged him here, I can tell. She’s dressed up in a low-cut cocktail dress that she probably wears once a year. She holds her martini glass carefully around the stem with three fingers. She doesn’t care that he’s not excited; she just needed a warm body with her. He doesn’t get it, but he’s here. If I can make him understand what brings me up to the stage, make him feel what’s inside of me, inspire him to go home and fuck that wife—well, it’ll be a good night for all of us.


Tonight I survey the audience while I can, before they’re lost behind the spotlight. It’s a young crowd, college kids trickling back in for the summer, money from temporary jobs as waiters or file clerks burning holes in their pockets. I note the sparkle of empty glasses on the round tables.


“Ladies and Gentlemen…” 


Gus transforms under the spotlight, too. His voice stretches like taffy. His chest puffs and his feet are light.


“Give a warm welcome to our leading lady, Ava Pulchritude!”


I hear a polite smattering of applause, and then a call that chills me: “Mister Polk!”


It was quick—an obnoxious male hoot—but it was too clear to miss. It’s followed by cheers and whistles.


It’s only a matter of habit that my feet step out onto the dark stage. I don’t look at their faces anymore. For almost ten years I’ve kept my daytime life and my nighttime life separate. Alvin Polk and Ava Pulchritude are two people who never meet, except in that dressing room mirror. 


I don’t know what will happen to either of them right now, with the secret apparently out. All I know is that I am a professional. I strike a pose before the spotlight swallows me, but I let the piano vamp for a few extra measures while I collect myself. 


“Mister Polk!” The same voice calls. This could all fall apart.


Here in the spotlight, I am alone with myself. All I can see is the glint of my sequins and the tips of my false lashes. I am Ava, and the show must go on. Make them feel it


I begin.


Living in the shadows, hiding from the sunlight, hiding from the one light that might help to guide you...


I dig into Henry Mancini's low notes, shading the song with my own uncertainty. My voice does not break, but it feels fragile.


Still, I sing and I remember why I do it. Here, blind on stage, I become notes and feelings; I am music and emotion, cut free from a body that’s too heavy, too rough, too achy. I become the spirit that stirs the corners of their eyes, that makes them reach for the person next to them, slows their breathing and quickens their heartbeats. I become pure beauty. 


No, not pure. Not like some aria. It's more complex. It's a beauty that weaves together the pieces of me—the mirror, longing, the fear, the electricity.


I can't see where that voice came from, but I want to make him feel everything. Here, I can make him listen. I am bigger than the light.


Pulchritude is the ugliest word I can think of for beauty. That's why I chose it—because beauty isn't always pretty. Sometimes it's just achingly true.


Tonight I admit the truth. My voice builds and soars up to the climactic A, hovers, and drifts back down.


Soon you will be seeing what you're all about. Living in the shadows, you'll never find out.


The room is quiet after my voice and the piano fade away. I can’t see their faces beyond the spotlight. I hold my final pose for two seconds, three, four. I wait until the room erupts in applause.


May 08, 2021 01:45

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49 comments

Scout Tahoe
13:51 May 11, 2021

I wrote a story about a drag queen for a contest a few weeks ago but didn't end up posting because I thought it was too short. This, however, is so inspirational. The representation is so enlightening and Ava is a character I'd like to meet someday. Thank you for writing this, Anne. Really. Your descriptions stood out but I felt connected to her, somehow. I don't mean to be rude, but I saw this was labeled under transgender. If I'm not mistaken, drag queens/drag kings are not transgender. It's very uncommon they keep their on-stage pronoun...

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A.Dot Ram
13:28 May 14, 2021

Thanks, Scout. Drawing on my own experiences in the spotlight. You bring up a good point with the transgender label, and i guess it was lazy, in that i haven't officially decided that about my character. Alvin feels comfortable as Ava, who in some ways better represents them. Part of them longs to be Ava all the time, but that's not the life they chose. I'm not sure the trans label completely represents this duality, but if it's a spectrum, they're somewhere on it. Ava is less an act and more of an expression of an existing truth. Thanks for...

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Scout Tahoe
01:24 May 15, 2021

Nice! What did I tell you?! Congrats!

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A.Dot Ram
01:40 May 15, 2021

You did! I'm glad you were right.

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David Gottfried
12:51 May 08, 2021

Oh, man. This is really great. The structure, the plot layers, the way you build this character. You've got a ton of talent. I figured pretty early on that this was a drag show, but that wasn't the true reveal. The big turn was that the singer/teacher is finally able to keep the attention of the students. This may be my new favorite of yours.

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A.Dot Ram
15:40 May 08, 2021

Wow, thanks! I barely eeked this one out, but i couldn't ignore the prompt, especially once i decided that the spotlight revealed the truth. I'm glad i stuck it out.

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David Gottfried
15:24 May 14, 2021

Congrats, yet again. Do I even need to say it?

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A.Dot Ram
16:44 May 14, 2021

Yes. It still feels good to hear it. It never gets old. That might make me a very flawed person, but i suspect i'm not alone in it.

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David Gottfried
16:52 May 14, 2021

Not flawed. Just human. We need affirmation.

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A.Dot Ram
17:01 May 14, 2021

Here's some for you: you'r story is making me write this week. I told myself, putting little daughter to bed last night, write the scene. And started a little something.

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Nina Chyll
10:13 May 12, 2021

I love stories with little to no dialogue if they're executed in a way that draws me in, and this one had me hooked from the very beginning. Also, great take on the prompt: the narrator admits a truth about themselves in the blinding spotlight. I have little to say other than I read this with great pleasure and well done. A really touching story. Thank you for sharing.

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A.Dot Ram
13:34 May 14, 2021

Thank you. Sometimes it's easier for me to write without much dialog--more interior monologue, like my actual day (or especially night). I imagine lots of people think much more than they actually say, and that tension interests me.

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Nina Chyll
13:37 May 14, 2021

It’s actually a very poignant observation in terms of this story. As much as it’s interesting to explore dynamics between characters, which is most easily done through dialogue, it is great to be able to sketch out a protagonist without standing him up next to others, and especially here by means of “putting on a face”. It’s very telling how we see ourselves and how we choose to tell our stories in our heads for sure.

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Claire Lewis
16:49 May 10, 2021

Stunning, Anne! I’m always intimidated to write from a perspective that’s different from mine, mostly because I’m afraid I won’t do the story justice. But I think you’ve absolutely nailed this. It’s lyrical, meaningful, and even the little things like the makeup scene add to the beauty of the character. I’m always inspired by your attention to detail, how you craft little images into a story in a way that adds depth and gives the story a life of its own. I hope this one wins.

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Claire Lewis
15:29 May 14, 2021

Congrats on the shortlist!! I would have revolted if this story wasn’t up there haha

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K. Antonio
23:32 May 14, 2021

I'm with Claire on this! I knew this story was going to shortlist the moment I read it.

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H L Mc Quaid
16:23 May 08, 2021

Lovely story with some snappy lines like, "she had nothing to offer me but the boa, and a blessing." I caught on very early that she was a drag queen, but then I am a HUGE fan of RuPaul's drag race, and have watched in wonder as the contestants transform themselves with makeup and a bit of padding (okay, sometimes a lot padding). This story reminds me of my 6th grade science teacher who hated me and I didn't know why (because I was really good in science and an attentive student). Turns out one my older brothers found some old polaroid ph...

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A.Dot Ram
16:38 May 08, 2021

There's a good story, with your science teacher! It would be even better id the boa constrictor now lived in her classroom, like it was a companion through several phases of life. And the reason the brothers recognized the teacher wa actually because they recognized the snake, their class pet! I came up with the idea for this story while listening to a radio interview with the creator of "Pose."

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H L Mc Quaid
16:43 May 08, 2021

That would make a good story! Thanks for the suggestion (and the idea of the snake being in the classroom). I've heard Pose is good, it's on my watchlist, and I might move it up a notch or two. :)

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H L Mc Quaid
16:22 May 15, 2021

Congrats on the shortlist, again! Wow. Well-deserved. :)

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Kristin Neubauer
13:55 May 08, 2021

Oh wow, Anne....I was loving this story as it developed ....all the details, the insights pouring out through the make up application....all the details throughout the entire story. As always, you bring us so deeply into the character that we know them so intimately....or so we think. I was not prepared for the reveal or Mr. Polk. But what an amazing twist and beautiful way to wrap up an already beautiful story. I could feel the lights and the sound and the applause and the triumph of Ava. Stunning work - all of your work is my favorite...

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A.Dot Ram
15:35 May 08, 2021

Oh, i'm so glad Mr. Polk was a surprise! I felt like people were going to see it coming from a mile away. I wrote in a different way this week, all out of order and in little flashes of imagery because i only got the chance to write in little flashes. Like this chunk is #3 and i plug it in here...I think it was Wednesday before i realized that the stage was my place to explore light and shadow. But i connect to that personally.

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Kristin Neubauer
16:23 May 08, 2021

Whatever you did, it worked! I hope this gets a win or - at minimum - a shortlist. It was wonderful.

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21:34 May 14, 2021

You're killing it! I'm always very nervous to write something that isn't nearly nonfiction, I'm worried I'll misstep in trying to represent something that isn't practically myself, so this is inspiring me to step further out of my comfort zone.

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A.Dot Ram
23:13 May 14, 2021

I hear you! I'm intimidated about getting characters "wrong" too. I had this debate with someone recently, with me maintaining that it was best to stick to conceivably close-in characters. But i think the conversation stuck with me, and I've been taking more risks with my characters, while keeping their motivation grounded in things i can relate to even as characters veer demographically away from my self.

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Corey Melin
16:20 May 14, 2021

Very well done. I have always been open to stories of all types. A few that I stopped reading due to not being into it and my mind wanders, but this one is good. The chicken pox remark made me chuckle since I have facial scars. The story ran very smooth like going down the lazy river on a raft. Superb.

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A.Dot Ram
16:47 May 14, 2021

Thank you. Haha, the scar. You never know what details will resonate. I made it the mirror image of my husband's on the right temple.

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Corey Melin
16:53 May 14, 2021

That is hilarious. I have one on my right temple, and one on the bottom of my chin.

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A.Dot Ram
16:58 May 14, 2021

It's pretty universally humanizing, if you're older than the vaccine. I have a little one on my forehead.

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Shea West
15:09 May 14, 2021

Congratulations on another shortlisted story Anne!

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A.Dot Ram
07:11 May 15, 2021

Thank you. I am nearly dumbfounded by this streak.

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13:21 May 10, 2021

i. am. in. love. the twist was so dang well orchestrated. usually, i'd find the makeup scene too excessive or long, but it was just *chef's kiss.* it's necessary. his (her? their? i'm going to go with their) uncertainty, self-consciousness, and the way they handle the transition between two people was beautifully written. oh- and i almost forgot, but there's a minor spelling error- when it says, 'i flip a flaming tale of feathers over my shoulder' (beautiful description, by the way) it should be 'tail' instead of 'tale.' or is there some boa...

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A.Dot Ram
16:10 May 10, 2021

Thank you! I got the "tail" change in just minutes before the story was approved and locked.

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K. Antonio
16:26 May 09, 2021

Ugh, I loved this SOOO MUCH! That's all I got really. This story is something probably so uncommon to find, not just on Reedsy, but the world really. This character was so well-developed, and I loved the layers in this story. This character had it all, the dialogue, the feelings, that NUANCE, THE REPRESENTATION, this was some good stuff.

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A.Dot Ram
18:04 May 09, 2021

Thanks. I'm really glad you found the character authentic. I always wonder, when a character is different from me, but it's interesting how different people share similar motivations, and thus can relate.

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David Drew
11:31 May 22, 2021

Wow, some lovely phrases in there. You have a knack for turning your words!

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Jewel Robbins
18:13 May 17, 2021

Fantastic story! Immensely enjoyable. It was so powerful at the end when they decided to sing to the person who called out their secret. I love how each flaw tells its own story in this passage: "I cover the worry lines between my brows, the small crater in my left temple where a chicken pock ruptured thirty years ago, the thin white line on my right cheek from the first time I got punched." Favourite passage that will haunt me for weeks: "Pulchritude is the ugliest word I can think of for beauty. That's why I chose it—because beauty isn...

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A.Dot Ram
19:25 May 17, 2021

Thank you for that close read. That last line you quoted is something I've worked a long time at putting into words, not just for this story, though it ultimately fit here and tied the story together. And yes, every scar has a story that has shaped a person.

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17:09 May 16, 2021

Loved the way you have put it. Enjoyed reading this story a lot!

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17:40 May 14, 2021

Three shortlists in a row! Congratulations!

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A.Dot Ram
07:08 May 15, 2021

Thank you, and thanks for reading!

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12:07 May 15, 2021

No problem!

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Rheo Graham
02:07 May 13, 2021

Really enjoyable! I love the concept and the execution behind this one and the writing is pretty solid.

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Shea West
03:38 May 08, 2021

Anne, I will come back to this when I'm at my computer and write more. I think it might be time to start your fan club.... Think about it😉

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A.Dot Ram
07:23 May 08, 2021

This is it; this is the fan club.

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Shea West
13:16 May 08, 2021

I'll get the button maker out.

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Shea West
19:34 May 08, 2021

The first thing that stuck out to me was the deep and rich setting that you created. I used to live and work in Las Vegas. You described this type of club so well, I felt as if I'd been whisked back to the city itself with all the drag shows! You didn't just describe a performance by one person, you took us way deeper into his like and dislike of self. How they describe their self here-"My reflection shows a nose too broad and lips too thin, limp, mousy-brown hair, and blue eyes with crow’s feet beginning to scratch patterns at their corner...

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A.Dot Ram
06:03 May 09, 2021

How I love Arrested Development and Gob! "They're not tricks, Michael--they're illuuuusions." Thank you for that deep read. I've spent time under the spotlight myself and I'm fascinated with the way lines between truth and illusion start to blur as a performer brings things to life inside of themselves.

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