On Violence

Lately I've been obsessed with violence.

I hasten to say that this is not the X-box fueled, consequence-less, mere vacuum-sealed brutishness prepackaged and mass distributed ad nauseum, although such things are, inevitably, related.

Somewhere--I can't remember where, exactly--I read a formulation of this thing I'm obsessing over, described as an encounter between 'an implacable object vs. an unstoppable force.' The Iliad is replete with this: opposing heroes, closely matched, practically identical, really, except for some one little thing, an entirely arbitrary distinction consisting merely of who happens to be at which end of a particular bronze-age weapon.

This is where Homer pulls out endless thumbnail sketches, five-second obituaries: Joey Hoplite born and raised in the tough streets of South Thebes, he loved his golden lab 'Argos', his Ma made his favorite spanikopita every day expecting her baby boy to come back from that strange war overseas, but Joey would never see his mean old neighborhood again, for black swirling death found him there on the sands by the Scaean Gates.

Precious as such bits are, there's something deeper going on. I think Homer is in the business of describing moments, in time and space, where incontrovertible pieces of reality directly confront one another, and then a fundamental transformation takes place. Reality shifts; that which was certain is changed, in a deep way, and nothing is as it was.

That moment, to me, is the truth of violence. This is independent of any gloss of judgment that can be imposed--these truthful moments occur equally in volcanic eruptions, murders, and car accidents, but also in quiet deaths, collapsing balloons, melting candles. Homer describes his violent deaths as though they captured qualities about each of those things all at once, suffusing his battle dead with the totality of their lives gracefully, fleetingly, but indelibly.

There is the cliche that time slows down during a car accident, or in any kind of traumatic event. To me, the effect extends in all directions: colors sharpen and heighten; pain or pleasure intensifies; tastes and smells lodge in the back of the palate and don't go away for days and days to come.

Thence the fact that, when it comes to these truthful moments of profound change--i.e., violence--everything that has happened before and everything that will happen after is and will be profoundly affected by that moment. Interpretations of past events resolve into completely different patterns of meaning; all events to come will be underscored by this which happens now.

I remember a pack of hip cycling pirates that passed me on the Marquam Bridge, wearing black and red tights and stripes and big red flags with skulls and crossbones spraypainted on, but the skulls were actually gearcranks and the crossbones wrenches. Laughter, and bantering. Moments later, descending the long decline on the Eastside of the bridge, I saw their flags waver and plummet, and a telltale diverging of cyclists around a space, like a current suddenly blocked, or magnets pulling filings away. Somehow I also incongruously thought of crop circles.

G is 6'4", maybe 220 lbs, mid-40s. He was about 5 minutes ahead of me on the bridge pedal, riding a souped-up mountain bike. I would surmise he was coasting at 30 mph on his bike, when a rider ahead of him dropped a water bottle. His bike tripped the way my foot trips on a curb. He went headfirst over his handlebars, cracking his helmet in three pieces.

When I got to him, two other cyclists and a volunteer with a walkie-talkie were diverting the rest of us and calling for an ambulance. G presented unconscious, fetal/recovery position on his left side, urinating, yellow mucus and blood at his nose and mouth, unresponsive dilated right eye and a closed left eye with a pronounced contusion, possibly prolapsed. In other words, he had suffered a major concussion, probable internal bleeding and hematoma, and he'd hit the ground so hard that I suspected he had popped his left eye out of its socket, though I couldn't be sure.

In this situation, all I or any of us could do (without a full ambulance rig and the training/credentials to use it) is ensure that he stays safe and relatively stable until the ambulance gets there, lights and sirens blazing. I did a quick check to see if anything else was broken, determined that I didn't want to move him out of the fetal position and kept a finger on his pulse to make sure he was still with us. He started snoring regularly, which is a sign that while his airway might have some problems, he's breathing well enough for the time being, enough that I didn't want to intervene.

Then we waited. We waited what felt like an unconscionably long amount of time, but it was probably only five minutes. A pair of bike-EMTs came by and took over, turning him on his back, repeating the checks I did, and starting PIC lines and saline for starters. G started coming to a bit, tried to get up and deny medical assistance--all good signs that at least he could still try to do those things--so we had to do some convincing and gentle coercion, to keep him still while the EMTs worked. Then we waited for the ambulance to get there.

Cyclists passed around us, slowing to gawk, some even dangerously stopping, causing all kinds of trouble and a lot of nervousness. A doctor ostentatiously asked us if we needed her, playing up her status the way someone does when they don't really want to help, but want to be noticed for offering. She didn't move to look at the guy, only those of us around him (all of us clearly occupied). When she recognized colleagues from her hospital, more full-throated bonhomie energy went to them than anywhere else. "Fancy seeing you here!" "Shouldn't you be offering to help?" "Nah, looks good but I'm off the clock."

Throughout which we were still waiting for an ambulance, cringing under the backslapping doctors, wondering about the nature of this place, where so many different realities seemed to be converging and mingling at once. For how can G, with seriously life-threatening injuries entirely beyond our scope, coexist in the same space as these disinterested doctors, or those crowds of silently shocked cyclists, or the frantic volunteer with the walkie-talkie, or me with the saline bag at chest level, or the sweating and nervous EMTs with their skimpy little kits... how could we all be on the same bridge at the same time? The sun was climbing, the river shimmered far beneath us, and G was lapsing in and out of consciousness while we hovered around him, bravely resolving our faces to somehow mask the panic.

The ambulance took an excruciatingly long time to get to us. By the time it arrived, G was conscious but disoriented, indistinct and contradictory in his responses, blanching in the heat. We strapped him onto a backboard and the paramedics took him away.




Excerpt, E-letter to C

The following is a response to an open question on a listserv I picked up on. C asked what the standard arrangements for non-union actor pay in Portland are. Lots of people responded on the tax end of things, and no one publicly responded more specifically, understandably. I didn't either; the following was sent directly to her, as I suspect others have done. (I doubt the wisdom of broadcasting what we're being paid, as it may engender bitterness/envy/revision to the detriment of us all.)

(I post here because A. it's useful in tracking the trending of my own thinking on the matter, as it has developed over recent years; B. this is my sandbox; and C. I much doubt how widely Polyform is read these days. Which suits me just fine.)


Dear C,

First, THANK YOU for teaching high-school theatre. You rock, you're deeply needed and deeply appreciated, the arts in the schools being what they are.

Taxes aside, I have yet to discern a working 'standard pay rate' in non-union theatre in this town. This is, incidentally, one of the strongest arguments for pursuing a union career.

The most I've ever been paid for a theatre gig in Portland is $3000, for a six week run and a four week rehearsal period. The least is, of course, nothing. Small-medium theatres are being generous if they can afford to pay $500 for a comparable time commitment. That covers everything from staged readings to full on performances, run crew to solo work. If your students want to work primarily in the Portland area, they should expect dependence on a day job at least for the time being, until they sort out whether to move elsewhere or pursue Equity or not.

I have my own reasons for not pursuing an Equity card, and it is by no means the correct choice for everyone. But not pursuing union status means very specific trade-offs: in what to expect in terms of pay, but also professionalism, artistic integrity, intentionality, relationships, family, etc., etc. Race and gender also inevitably play--and should play--very important roles in this, which is ultimately a personal decision.

For your students who are devoted to theatre as an avocation--that is, as something yet more meaningful than a day job, with higher standards and a deep commitment to growth and survival--I advocate as broad a meaning for that avocation as possible. That is, be as open and accepting of developing your art backstage as on-, and, at least initially, push your boundaries and your comfort zones as much as you can. Maybe that means you need to be the annoying emo kid with the two hour monologue show for awhile. With time, everyone learns what is beyond the pale, and what is absolutely unacceptable, and those are necessary lessons that can only be learned the hard way.

Then, once they do accrue that experience (which they may well already have), absolutely do not compromise on those learned lessons. For some people, that means getting paid a certain minimum, or never taking off their clothes onstage, or never commuting past the West Hills, etc., etc. These instincts are every bit as valuable and necessary as our onstage performance instincts. They keep us healthy and sane.

My last suggestion is to find and support a day job that is healthy and engaged and engaging with the rest of the world, whether theatre or non-theatre. Your identity as a citizen of the world can only be reinforced by as vibrant and sustaining a day-job as possible, to complement your position as a theatre artist. Now, clearly, oftentimes this ideal is impossible, but it's meant to be a moving target, a constant process to discover and perfect one's conscience and integrity in all respects, not just the onstage bits. The healthier the private person is, the heathier the artist will be. This can translate in multiple ways for every individual; for me, working at non-profits and government jobs in addictions recovery and emergency services has been my bag. For others, it's making comfortable wages in the service industry, or plugging through med school, or finding a sugar daddy, or whatever. There's no judgment in this that's relevant, other than your own.

I say all of this because it's an inherently co-dependent and unhealthy thing, to be committed as an actor and nothing else, and then to face the inevitable dry spell, when the work is scarce, or unfulfilling even if plentiful, and to find one's passions limited and constrained because nothing else in your daily world supports you in a meaningful way. In my experience, while the money is important, facing yourself with integrity is all the more so, and should be. But we should remember that, unless you choose to, you don't have to answer to anyone else for these personal choices. I say that for myself as much as anything.

So that went a bit beyond the terms of your question, but I do still think these are important and interrelated points to make.