Excerpt from my Letter to B, 20 November 2009

Dearest B--,

Last Tuesday I was handed this script... I was expecting something abbreviated, powerful, perhaps unfinished but bursting at the seams—in short, a typical PlayWrite play, as such things go.

I’ve coached and acted once before at this location, under PlayWrite’s aegis, and that was a profoundly overpowering experience, difficult and delicate work that paid off handsomely in the end, for the writer I coached and in the performances, too. So I had some idea of what I was signing up for in this round, and I went about it cheerfully and diligently, as best I could.

But I did not expect, nor could I expect to encounter a script that tore me up as powerfully as this one did. I was given to play Dirty Belly, a dirt clod, a terrifying and an anguished little guy filled with anger, and harrowingly vulnerable. On the surface, Dirty Belly is the antithesis of his author, S., a stout, powerfully-built young man who habitually hides behind a mystifyingly dry sense of humor, and a curtain of soft black hair that reaches to his chin. S. is the kind of teenager who commands a room by his silences; whom every girl watches even if he may not himself possess movie-star looks; at first glance, he is a massive, lumbering presence—until he picks up a basketball, which is when he brazenly displays a startling aptitude for cunning audacity. (At one point, he slapped away a shot attempt like I’d just disparaged his sister. Admittedly, my basketball skills are silly at best—a point I blame on the heartbreaking experience of being a Blazers fan in the early ‘90s—but still, to slap away a shot mid-air is a thing to see.)

We had a hard time reading S. throughout the workshop; he was often late, reluctant to engage, and his dry, unvaryingly cool and arch affect tended to distance himself from the coaches. But one-on-one, his work tended to be deeply engaging and rich, but this in fragmentary flashes, apt to dissolve away in his almost caustic humor, as quickly as it appeared. At the group check-ins at the end of the day, he seemed genuinely moved—as if himself quietly surprised at how personally involved he was becoming—and afterwards, in our own daily debriefings, we coaches would gather and puzzle fruitlessly over whether S. was truly with us.

The first week of PlayWrite is all group work, with the one-on-one stuff spliced in here and there, and we coaches make a point of continuously rotating so that, ideally, every writer will have worked with every coach at least once in the course of that first week. Week two sees an assignment of coach-to-writer for the rest of the workshop. I often feel like we all then slip over the horizon from each other, locked in our own careful, desperate little duels. We still gather as a group at the end of each day, and again as coaches to debrief, but these do little to suppress the lonely, quietly exhilerating and painstaking quality that now characterizes our work, as distant from one another as undiscovered continents.

In those debriefings, we caught flashes of what S. was doing via his coach, G., but of course I was too deep in my own writer’s work to fully grasp the implications. G. worked like a hero through S.’s surges and ebbings—and she is a far stronger and more experienced coach than I—but even so, at the end of Week Two, S.’ play seemed drawn up short, only just about to cut deeper into the heart of things. As scripts were assigned to the coaches-as-actors, G. took the unusual step of appending an entire extra blank page to his typed-up draft, to be filled in on the day of performance.

Myself and one other actor were assigned his play on performance day, with little time to prepare or rehearse. Having done these readings quite regularly for some years now, I know that only the most cursory forethought is given to these casting choices. All our customary efforts in performing a play professionally are necessarily abrogated in favor of concentrating on our writer’s needs. And rightfully so—often I’m given cause to wonder at how much more and better work would be accomplished if a few of these professional theatres could more closely follow our line.

G. and S. were both equally aware that the play could, and ought to go farther, but G. was understandably reluctant to push too hard, lest S. get trapped in a panic of perfectionism and lost time. T. (the other actor) and myself were mostly confined to a single read-thru, offering and asking for such input as we could, but mostly holding back, while G. and S. improvised a final, cautiously rushed writing session.

This, I think, is the heart of why the piece went on to overpower me so completely: I witnessed, in a removed, almost offhand way, a process which I myself had guided other writers through at least half a dozen other times before. Each word, each feeling is phrased so carefully that it indelibly affects the actor’s task. Whereas typically, I construe my obligation to be to find meaning and emotion in a given text, here it’s much deeper, unavoidably more personal: I must parse through the high flood of meaning and emotion running so vividly before my eyes, choosing the pieces that cry out most clearly, in the hope that I, as the actor, can in turn reflect and amplify my writer’s original passion.

This act of witnessing was unique to S.' situation. As a coach, the actor’s task is glimpsed at two or three removes; but as the actor, already cast and seated immediately before the writer, my whole attention was completely contained by the quiet, tense silences, and then the raw work unfolding in front of me, S. and G. both hurrying to catch every possible moment left to us.

Thus I never really got to take in his script, as such. Every spare moment was another line added, a word tweaked, another question answered or asked. We had once chance to run it on our feet before the audience arrived, and even that was just to get the words out loud.

Playing Dirty Belly live practically tore me apart. Laden with the knowledge of who S. is, and all the previous days’ history of dissembling and vulnerability, something of S. himself seeped into what I was doing with Dirty Belly, and quite to my own surprise, I found my own emotions ranging beyond my control. This is a dirt clod scared to death of being torn apart, yet who yearns to dissolve into a dust cloud; who loves—revels in being dirty, yet passionately hates the names he’s called as a result.

In the course of the play, Dirty Belly falls into a dark, filthy, terrifying garbage can. I was given a stage direction to scream—really scream—and in that moment, something deeply rooted in me tore loose. I’ve been told, by a number of people who were there, that my scream shook everyone visibly, but that S. himself was utterly still, intent. The play ends with Dirty Belly wailing in the dark, faced with the choice of grasping a fishhook lowered from above, thereby risking being torn apart in the process, or remaining alone in the suffocating dark. S. believes the play is unfinished.

Clearly, this play continues to haunt me. Dirty Belly, and by extension S., and now to a startling degree I myself, am still stranded alone in the deep bottom of the garbage can, and the fishhook gleaming overhead. I can think of nothing else except to write this out and send it to you, with my love, and the hope that this finds you well and thriving—

Stay warm, and travel safely—

1 comment:

Sallyacious said...

I've been lucky enough to be involved in a very similar process with a group of middle school students at the Coeur d'Alene Tribal School. A couple of them showed such promise as storytellers, but none had pieces as deeply moving as this one sounds.