“All the World’s a Backstage”
By Marvin Payne
Okay, backstage again. Well, not really backstage. Really lying on the floor in my little recording studio. (I keep a Backstage Graffitor-sized foam pad in here, usually against the wall and draped with a Mexican blanket. Creative partners and clients come in here to work on stuff and think it’s part of the acoustic design. This’ll just be our little secret, okay?) Except that when you’re doing a show, the whole rest of the planet feels like “backstage.”
(The show “Jane Eyre” is up and running ((and gasping and sighing and singing and shouting and throbbing with passion and pulsing with light and hope and redemption and tickets are two bucks less on Wednesdays because everybody forgot about Mutual night and hey, where you gonna get baby-sitters? So Wednesdays are your best bet.
[Note to the Editors: Could the above subtly embedded link somehow appear in kind of lurid fluorescent green, flashing on and off alternatively with hot pink? About 48 point? Just asking.]
Oh, along with “throbbing” and “pulsing” I should have written “bleeding” and “burning” – every night we go through at least a slather of fake blood. My character has this loony wife in the attic who’s fond of assaulting people she loves, resulting in at least one actor needing to proceed from his final exit directly to a washing machine and shower, and Rochester (((that’s me))) having to run offstage and staunch the tracks of her claws on his forehead (((which wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the unusual expanse of this particular actor’s forehead))). It’s really a pretty visceral show. My favorite soaring lyric illustrating this viscerality is, “Her life has infected every wound and every pore.” (((This would be the modern musical theatre echo of “I’ve got you under my skin.”))) Something of the epidemiologist in me thrills every night at that moment–not to mention the hypochondriac.
(((And “burning.” I promised burning. Well, first of all, I do ((((almost)))). Then the loony wife ((((entirely)))), along with the venerable manor and, symbolically, all the wretched secrets lurking there. We’d thought of issuing gas masks to audience members, but then determined that the masks would rob them of the immediacy of the moment.))) )) .)
[Note to the Readers: I realize that my report of all this violence and gore and smoke is making this show sound less and less like what it really is, which is a chick show. This impression would be a disservice to Ms. Charlotte Bronte, who, along with Jane Austen, has done more for men on this planet than any male author. This is because any time a guy shares with his sweetheart any form of Austenbrontiana, she will irresistibly think he is more sensitive than he really is. Emotional slam dunk.]
So I get up in the morning, thinking that I’m in my room, certainly not “backstage,” and suddenly the first consideration of the day is, “Wait, do I put on my wedding ring? Am I going straight from today’s appointments to the theatre, where my character is (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) “not married” (DON’T GO IN THE ATTIC!)? And what about my right hand? Is this a performance night? It is? Then I’d better put on Rochester’s big turquoise ring, and not the CTR one. (A couple nights ago some little kid in the dead center of the audience whispered with the approximate decibel level of the new 800-passenger Airbus, “He’s wearing a CTR ring!” You can bet your ticket stubs that the blocking for the rest of that scene was nuanced in the direction of Rochester admiring the fingerprints on his right hand, employing every light the theatre owns to reflect to all the Known Universe his Big Silver Turquoise “Don’t-Give-Any-Particular-Thought-To-What-You-Choose” ring. I mean, I acquired this ring on a remote and romantic beach in Mexico, and I’m not about to have it mistaken for something you can buy at Deseret Book, a store whose door the likes of Edward Fairfax Rochester of Thornfield Hall would not deign to darken. ((If Deseret Book really did “care about what Rochester cares about,” its shelves would be liberally salted with books on shooting things, gifts a French mistress would flip for, and how-to texts on techniques of perpetually concealing the existence of loony wives in the attic, particularly from quite perceptive governesses in the same house (((it helps that it’s a pretty big house))) whom you have somewhat recklessly determined to marry.)) )
(How does this happen?! I mean, with the parentheses? Oh well, think like an onion and your column winds up looking like one, I guess.)
Maybe Shakespeare had it wrong with his “All the world’s a stage” idea. Maybe it’s really “All the world’s backstage.” (Except the part that really is a stage, of course.) I mean, I look in the mirror and there (sort of) is my hair uncharacteristically “chocolate cascade.” Actually, I should say “characteristically chocolate cascade,” because it’s my character whose chocolate cascade it is, not me. I’m gray. And way not “cascade.” So suddenly my bathroom, too, is no longer merely my bathroom, but a corner of “backstage.”
It’s not just geographical. It gets social, too. You’ve just given maybe the most helpful home teaching lesson the Spirit ever blessed you to give, and as you’re leaving the mom catches your elbow at the door and whispers, “You guys somehow knew just what we needed. Really, thanks for caring.” And you just smile and say, “Hey, of course we care. Your life has infected every wound and every pore.”
And you’re walking into the Target store from the parking lot and these rumbling, dark, mysterious, brooding noises are rising from your throat – not quite words, we’re talking pure emotion here. And a lady coming out of the store looks at you like, “What in the Sam Hill Are You Doing?” And quite suddenly you realize that this whole “backstage” thing is somewhat relative – not everybody is “there.” Or, more accurately, everybody is there – they just don’t know what “there” is.
Which brings me to a kind of a, well, point. You’ve heard that thing (a titch too long for a bumper sticker, more’s the pity) that goes something like “We’re not earthly beings having a spiritual experience – we’re spiritual beings having an earthly experience.” In that vein, try this: “We are not real people preparing to pretend – we’re pretenders preparing to be real.” (Given that you could actually find a bumper that long, this is the kind of thought that could actually cause accidents on the Interstate.)
Right Here would be a good place to fiddle with the word “pretend.” “Pretend” can only mean “pretend,” but if you take your Leatherman tool to it, you wind up with a combination of roots that mean “acting before the tendency” or, in simpler terms, “doing what you planned.” This would be as opposed to, say, waiting until the truth happened and examining just how it was that you acted in said truth. A “pretender,” then, can be a person who somehow (by prophecy, revelation, imagination, or just lucky guessing) preconceives the truth and acts like it’s already here and true.
Or not. But hey.
You see, an actor who’s in a show is somebody who’s always, somewhere inside himself, preparing to do something beautiful, to use his gifts to testify to the truth of what the Giver holds sacred. (Wow! Did that get suddenly way serious, or what?! Sorry – blame it on the onion.) For the duration of the run, then, real life takes on an extra usefulness: it prepares him to testify onstage. Its tenderness makes him transparent. Its love makes him strong. Its constantly swirling “cloud of witnesses” to the Lord’s grace makes him confident. Its pain makes him pliant.
Our Alpine Playhouse is small enough that the real “backstage” is also “make-up” and “wardrobe.” Backstage is where you can slowly transform into your character, discover with some “golden tan,” “misty violet,” and an eyebrow pencil what the guy looks like, withdraw a hundred seventy years into the past, breathe deeply, stretch your muscles and imagination a little, roll your voice around a little, maybe touch a couple of other players and plan the refinement of some small detail in the action, quietly wish everybody a broken leg, test out the feel of striding around in a long nineteenth-century coat and boots, and look around at other players and their preparations and be immersed in respect for them and for the story you’re all about to tell. All in a kind of reverent hush.
Okay, let’s call the foregoing vision “A.”
“B” is how it actually is: you’re trying to do all the stuff in “A” (to be fair, a couple of other players are, too), but the orphans from Jane’s school scenes are doing a dance they saw on some James Bond movie credits, a couple of the aristocratic teens are jitterbugging (imagine that in tiaras and ascots), some of the nicest people you could ever imagine that are in your cast are discovering that others in your cast are the nicest people they could ever imagine and of course most of the manifestations of their niceness are occurring in the Twenty-first Century and must be discussed and celebrated in the language, volume, and style of said Century, and the “Tumble-inas” or the “Tumble-ettes” or “Tumble-rocket-propelled-grenade-launchers” or whatever the squad of 8-year-old gymnasts is called are bouncing like popcorn through our backstage, because our backstage (not the “backstage” that is the Known Universe, but the “backstage” that is the actual real estate contiguous to and roughly in back of the stage) is also a dance studio right up until curtain.
But I close with an observation, in which may be embedded a principle if I get lucky. This show, company, and production, all of which I love, opened two weeks too soon for the theatre’s infrastructure to support. (Some nights we have, with great passion and pretty straight faces, actually recited certain of our songs because the prerecorded accompaniment didn’t come on. Apart from Charlotte Bronte suddenly sounding like Dr. Seuss, no problem. Wondering if you have the talent to compose new melodies to the lyrics you have to sing when the wrong accompaniment begins has become kind of a common thing to wonder. The night the accompaniment CD sort of whimsically skipped around like a faun in the woods was kind of a “creative,” not to say “different,” performance. Stuff like that. The irony is that last night was to have been closing night, but it really turned out to be opening night. I say that because the only other smooth night was the night before last, which was, in fact, just about as smooth as a final dress rehearsal should be. Happily, it was determined back before the run began to double the performances, so now we’re finally slipping from the dock into the harbor, champagne staining our bow, confetti arcing through the air like a shower of stars.
And after two weeks of coming to the theatre every night and singing and dancing and soaking up applause like so many sponges, all the actors rather suddenly have a clear vision of how beautiful the show can be (of how beautiful they can be) – and it’s actually quieter backstage. (HINT: The place in the column at which the principle may be embedded just might be right here —> “Preconceive perfection, and watch your world change.”) Now the actors, the pretenders, cluster around the video monitor, just checking to see if everything’s as magical as they now know it to be. And, loyal to the metaphor, maybe the Known Universe is “pretending” reverence.
Welcome Backstage. When do you open?
Break a leg.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)