Theatre and Identity: A Ramble
By Jessica Powell '72
I am sitting backstage, in the cramped space that passes for both green room and coed dressing area in a converted storefront in Old Oakland, cramming for my next audition by the dim light of my makeup mirror. Stacked against a far wall are flats, lumber, wiring, rolled carpet strips, tubing--all the detritus of a small theatre that's forced to use its backstage as the scene shop. Huge, red-painted steel beams make a gigantic "X" from floor to high ceiling directly in front of the dressing area, and Terry, our Saladin, has thoughtfully duct-taped thick foam at head-height. No doubt the beams are earthquake retrofitting, and they're tested during the run when a largish tremor passes beneath us. Everyone, backstage and on, freezes for a moment, then goes on.
In front of the lumber stacks, someone has erected our "pillars of nutrition": two 12" dia. cardboard construction tubes with a short plank on top, holding the various offerings cast members have made toward the general welfare. Tonight it's a tub of Trader Joe's licorice, some dark chocolate-covered soy nuts (also TJ's), a tube of dark chocolate Droste pastilles (note the theme here), the remainders of a box of "Cutie" tangerines, a can of mixed nuts, and someone's Peet's coffee cup, Starbucks being a dirty word in these parts.
We're performing Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Lessing, given a brisk and witty new translation (Edward Kemp's, for those interested) from its original 18-century German iambic pentameter, and the company is a plucky one-man affair whose artistic director chooses timely, well-written plays on politics, justice, race, and equality. Soon I'll enter as the Jewish merchant Nathan's Christian housekeeper, trying not to trip over the pipe in the narrow walkway or someone's errant purse in the up left entrance. For this I make minimum wage for my 20-hour week but, alas, no credits toward my union health insurance or pension. Still, the three of us who are Actors' Equity do it because it's good stuff, it's meaningful and we hope important, and hey - it's work. Plus, the audience obviously identifies with it, laughing, nodding, murmuring with recognition.
For the 30-plus years since I left Calvin, I've been paid to be someone else. These have included five or six mythical creatures; a wolf; various mothers, wives, and aunts; young girls; some women of questionable background; a couple of murder victims; quite a few men (seven in a three-year period); a mysterious vamp; brisk and bossy housekeepers; queens, countesses, and duchesses; an explorer; and a dirt-poor factory worker with blue hands that glowed in the dark. I have been world-weary, romantic, commanding, angry, wry, murderous, zealous, jealous, puzzled, loyal, faithless, encouraging, despairing, exultant. In other words, I have been ... us.
Often, during those 30 years, I've wondered why I chose this life, as certainly not the most
qualified Thespian of that era: the racing heart and dry mouth before the first entrance; the auditioning and the waiting; the demon of self-doubt who sits on my shoulder and whispers, "You can't really do this, you know"; the disappointment when the casting director calls to say they "decided to go in a different direction" (what - east? southwest?); the constant need to find the next job, and the next. But sometimes, the really juicy role comes. And once in awhile, there's a performance when everyone - actors, audience, musicians, tech crew - breathes as one being and the words soar and are caught and tossed back, and relationships crackle, and the very air might burst into flame. We are "riding the dolphin," as I call it, totally in harmony. The story is being told and accepted, and that is why I do it.
I do it because the story must be told. I once believed that the strongest negative human force in the world was fear; certainly it's at the heart of many evils. But I'm beginning to think that the strongest positive human force is the overwhelming urge to tell our stories. We are constantly watching movies, television, plays, operas; reading books; writing journals. The Resistance Museum in Oslo, Norway has many striking exhibits, but the display that stays with me is the diary kept by a prisoner using the only media available: a straight pin with which he pricked his words onto toilet paper. We have to tell- and hear - our stories because that's how we learn they're all our stories, the universal stories.
I do it because human behavior fascinates me - not just my characters', but that of the people around me. "Why did he say that? How does she react? What do they do then? Where did that action spring from? What does that look on her face mean? Is she thinking of someone she loves? Is he telling the truth? Does he even know if he is or not? Can I understand this moment? Can I identify with this bit of humanity? Does it reaffirm me, or awaken a new knowledge in me? Does it help me know who I am? Is this story like my story?"
Sometimes a character comes and "sits on my head"; other times I have to wrestle her (or him) off the page. Most of the information comes from my character's words or actions, or what the other characters say about or do to mine, and how mine reacts. That gets filtered through my own observations and experience, and then I can add the fun stuff-, the "what ifs." "What if this aging Irish woman was once the belle of County Sligo? And she married an Englishman and her whole community rejected her, so they sailed for America, but she still dreams of the dances and the fiddles?" "What if Goneril were abused in her childhood but always, only, wanted her father's love?"
I do it because I yearn to communicate. We have to accommodate this powerful need to tell and hear the story. Maybe the reason I've tried to learn different languages (French, American Sign, Italian) is because I want to know what other people think, what they eat, what's different about their lives and their worldview, and at bottom, what's the same.
The differences are often delightful (peanut butter is hard to come by in Italy, but the fresh ricotta is a revelation), yet it's discovering the similarities that make us nearly weep with Joy.
Why is that? Because in recognition there's safety? "The more similar you are to me, the less of a threat"? If you're like me, you therefore understand me, and if you understand me - see me, acknowledge me, accept me - you confirm my identity. In some way, you complete me.
In 1993, I toured Bay Area schools with a production of Ed Mast's beautiful children's play, Wolf Child: The Correction of Joseph. Our director said she chose the play partly because of its poignant opening line, which she knew would resonate with every child (and every adult, for that matter). The Stranger, who plays several roles but also hovers, watching, outside the action, stands alone at the beginning of the play and addresses the audience:
"I am not like you. I am here [touching head] and here [touching heart] have different."
Joseph is a "wild child," raised by wolves before being taken in by a minister's family. At first, Joseph communicates easily with his wolf family by howling, but his new human family (who all wear identical half-masks) tries to civilize him and teach him human language.
At one point, Joseph hears the guns of the hunters who killed his wolf mother, and panics. As the minister's daughter comforts him, the Stranger, unseen by them, removes her mask, and suddenly Joseph sees that they're alike. Soon, all of the humans have removed their masks. But when the minister's rigorous and uncompromising educational methods fail, Joseph runs back to the forest, only to find that the wolves now wear masks, and they cannot understand each other's howls. He has lost the ability to communicate clearly in any society. So he wanders the world as the Stranger, unable to tell his story, knowing only that he is unlike us.
Once we've communicated these stories to each other, what else are we looking for? Well, truth is a biggie, but here things get really complicated. During our tour of Wolf Child ... , we always held a Q&A. After the first week, I became the default answer-giver for the question always asked by some kid, no matter how privileged or tough the neighborhood, no matter how young or old: "Is this a real story?"
I learned to answer that, while parts of it were based on a real story ("wild child" Victor d'A veyron), all of it was true in the sense that, as Madeleine L'Engle said, it resounded in our hearts and minds as identifiable right from that first line: "I am not like you."
German protege, Heisenberg, visited his Danish mentor in occupied Copenhagen. Margrethe opens the play by asking,
But why? .... Why did he come to Copenhagen ... ?
Bohr: He did explain later.
Margrethe: He explained over and over again. Each time he explained it became more obscure .
Bohr: . . . I doubt if he ever really knew himself.
By the time we closed after 73 performances, I'd realized that we can never know the truth of what we do because most of the time, we hide our real motives from ourselves as soon as the action is finished or the words said, if not before. As with Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle, the very act of observing our motives obscures them. Nevertheless, the characters circle "back and back again," searching, lapsing into their personal silences until finally concluding:
Bohr: Before we can lay our hands on anything, our life's over.
Heisenberg: Before we can glimpse who or what we are, we're gone and laid to dust. ...
Bohr: When no more decisions, great or small, are ever made again. When there's no more uncertainty, because there's no more knowledge.
Grim as this sounds, the characters have finally come to an uneasy, exhausted acceptance of themselves and each other. They've told their stories, identified or defended what rang false, insisted on digging deeper.
I do it because I had to try. Still have to, in fact. My plan had been to teach English in high school, which is certainly a worthy aspiration. But I loved theatre even though it terrified me, and I didn't want to die wondering what would have happened if I'd given it a shot.
Besides, Ervina Boeve apparently thought I could get somewhere, and she helped me line up auditions for acting schools and coached my monologues. I can still see her face on one of those days, her eyes incredibly intense, pushing me for more, bigger, truer. Ervina's idea of me - her image of me - has been one of those that sustained me then and now. For we do depend on other people to affirm for us who we are and what we can do. Her vision of me is still a goal I hope to fulfill.
Identity, truth, self-knowledge are slippery concepts. This has, indeed, been a ramble, but I can't end without telling this awful old theatre joke:
Director (to actor auditioning for a role): How old are you?
Eager Actor: How old do you want me to be?
Because we all do that, too, hoping that someone out there knows who we are and will give us a clue. If we took that joke seriously, God would be the director and we would ask, "Whom do You want me to be?"
Ironically, we will never, in this life, achieve our goal of self-knowledge, of identifying ourselves. St. Paul said, "For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then we shall see face to face." I believe God designed us to search for that perfect image of ourselves, the Image we were created in. We hope to see our "true" face in the mirror; we eagerly look for understanding and confirmation of our indefinable selves, not realizing that the image we truly long for is God's. In the meantime, we'll keep telling the story.
Actors thrive on other people's words, and I will end with those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with deep thanks to Dr. Henry Baron for introducing him to me.
As Kingfishers Catch Fire
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves-goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is---
Christ--for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.