The Joys of Impracticality
by Marvin Payne

Backstage again at Sundance, feeling a perverse impulse to defend impracticality (more on that later). Forty-three “Funny Girl” performances down, eight to go. I’ll miss the company, and even the little guy I play.

But I’ll tell you what I think I’ll miss the most. The drive. This would come as a great surprise to the actors who grind their way nightly down from Salt Lake and Ogden. But I live in Alpine, near the mouth of American Fork Canyon, and every night I meander up around the backside of Mt. Timpanogos. And down again at midnight, through the dark corridors of leaf and stone and starlight. It’s three miles shorter than the front way, which has highways, lanes, tunnels, and halogen lights. Between my house and Sundance I have to pass through one stoplight and one stop sign. But I don’t count the stop sign, because it’s on my actual corner where I live.

7 August 2001
“Last night after the show, the moon was so gorgeous, rising yellow through racks of black cloud with gray-feathered edges, that I swung the Samurai around in a turnout to face it, sat on the roof and just watched it for awhile. I was high enough above Sundance and Aspen Grove, so much forest in between, that I could see no lights, and heard nothing but an owl in a distant pine and the soft patter of wandering raindrops in nearby aspens.

“Driving up late this afternoon I was thinking about that magical turnout. When I emerged from the woods at that point today I saw, right where the moon had been, a rainbow rising. I drove down into Sundance through mist lifting off the road.”

21 August 2001
“Last night we rained out. When I got to the theatre, the only soul there was the stage manager. So it was still a little light on the drive home. It was black and lowering on the east side of Timp, but climbing up to the summit, the sky began to glow through the aspens ahead. Coming over the top, the sky was pink and gold, and so wet that it felt like an ocean pushing right up against the cliffs and peaks to the south. Far below me, wraiths of cloud floated against the pines, dark with pockets of aspen graying, threatening to burst into flame. I shouted. Repeatedly.” I imagine the shouting was pretty impractical, but there you are. Suddenly the applause we get at the end of “Funny Girl” seems pretty impractical–people slapping their hands together like that. Let’s not even get into whether or not “Funny Girl” itself is practical. It rained out, and nobody appeared to be wounded by its not having occurred. No wounding, but I wonder if anybody missed the healing that might have happened that night. Not real healing, of course. Just emotional plaque and spiritual sclerosis and beauty-deprivation–things of that sort. Less practical things.

Because it had rained all day in the valley, I’d borrowed my sister’s truck, which, unlike my old Samurai, has a roof. (Now that’s practical!) There was a tape in the player, country and western, various artists. I found myself wanting very badly to do for Utah what Dolly Parton was doing right there in my sister’s truck for Tennessee–making it sound like a nice place, a place where truth resides and thrives, making me want to be there and feel what she feels about the place. I have three guitars hanging on the walls of my cabin, you’d think I could take one down and sing about Utah a little bit. I want to do it. Look out, maybe I will. Country and Western.

I’ll admit it might have been the cowboy hat I was wearing. Sort of like Frosty the Snowman. “When we put it on his head, he began to dance around.” I got it for my birthday last Monday. The hat. It’s like the guys wear who sing at the end of the movie “Toy Story 2.” And like Roy Rogers wore. (I’m not really a cowboy. I’ve ridden horses in movies and looked confident while doing it, because I’m a competent actor. But I’ll admit to having worried a little bit about whether or not I’m fooling the horses, who, after all, aren’t generally where they can see my acting.) Also, because I had just sold a pedal steel guitar amp I’d inherited from my son (See? I’m conversant with the tools of the country and western artist) I was able to buy myself a birthday present I’ve been wanting for some time, the some time being about a year. Another cowboy object, actually. A big rifle that was originated by Winchester in 1892, they call it the Model 92. (Insertion of a Time-honored Principle: It is a time-honored principle that one does not sell fine guitar amps to pay bills. End of principle. End of discussion on this point. Just in case any of my creditors are reading this.)

My wife named the rifle “Betsy,” and she (Betsy, not my wife) and I went out hunting this very afternoon. The primary game was beer bottles, but we did some pretty serious damage as well to a microwave someone had left on the ridges west of town. Let me tell you Word of Wisdom fans, there are many bottles up there on those ridges that will never hold beer again. The .22 Winchester I’d been using pretty much reduces their capacity–this new .357 Magnum makes them wish they’d never been born.

I have these rifles because of the theatre. (Do you have rifles because of the theatre? Just asking.) Two summers ago, I played Papa Charlie in a production of “Shenandoah,” a Civil War piece. Having been required to shoot somebody on stage (which is what the story is all about, and which is why the movie isn’t as powerful as the play), the prop master had handed me a Winchester Model 94 rifle (having been originated in 1894) with blanks in it.

Trouble is, the actual Civil War was originated in 1861, and I felt suddenly like I’d been sent out on stage wearing Reeboks. It bugged me. Then I saw in a catalogue a replica of the Henry Rifle, introduced before the war ended, and used by a goodly number of Union Officers (who had to buy them with their own money, because neither Union nor Confederate bureaucracies could discern that whichever side had repeating rifles would win the war in about a week).

So (Voila!) repeating lever-action rifles existed during the Civil War and, although the Model 94 didn’t look a great deal like the Henry, I thought maybe I could get away with it. The actor in me relaxed visibly. (Actually, when the show finally opened, I decided the rifle was too wimpy anyway, so I used a pistol–a period-appropriate 1851 Navy Colt that was John Brown’s gun in The Trail Of Dreams–that made a much bigger noise. Anyhow, that’s how I got interested in lever-action repeating rifles in the Winchester tradition.

And now I have a couple. But I think the main reason I have rifles, instead of just reading about them and lecturing prop masters about them, is that they have nothing whatsoever to do with my upbringing (California suburban) or (unless I use one as a prop again someday) what I do for a living. Sort of why some people are Utah Jazz fans. Sublime impracticality. Like Joseph Smith’s bow when it’s unstrung. It’s probably why I write with a fountain pen in my journal–not only a fountain pen, mind you, but a fountain pen that I have customized with a whetstone to get an Italic effect. A fountain pen with no spell-check or word count utility. Impractical. But it connects me, somehow, to Thomas Jefferson, like the model 92 connects me not to John Wayne, but to the people John Wayne was trying to connect to.

On the subject of connecting to things, let’s connect this to this column’s justification for existing: Don’t let me catch you asking if writing in your journal is a practical thing to do. It is, but if you keep asking yourself that question, you might write all the wrong things.

Well, it’s intermission. The show is going well this evening, maybe because Jerry Herman is in the audience. He wrote “Hello Dolly” and “Mame” and some other shows that I promise you’ve never heard of, and I think everybody’s trying a little harder. So, good show. Unlike last night, when somebody uttered the name of The Scottish Play backstage and there quickly followed three badly stubbed toes, a leading man suddenly behaving as though his pre-show cigar had been soaked in something illegal, a leading lady fleeing frostbite, several very tiresome philosophical discussions in the dressing rooms (these were the worst effect), and a near fistfight in the wings. The near fistfight was over whether or not uttering the name of The Scottish Play in the theatre could be counted on to cause misfortune. Hmm… I tried to defuse this dangerous situation by inventing and telling the following joke:

“Hey lads, what do you get after eating at McDonald’s?”

“Gee Marvin, we don’t know. Tell us.”

“MacBREATH!”

It didn’t work. Next time: Is It Safe To Read Marvin Payne? (No, really.)

 


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