Stage Fright (Valparaiso Fiction Review)

Julia splurged on a bucket-shop, round-the-world ticket, a month of travel between leaving San Francisco and landing in New York to start rehearsals. She’d be spending everything she had on the trip, with just enough left to get a cheap place to live in New York. Her older brother Robert was furious with her, first of all for leaving their own company, but also, apparently, on behalf of the honor of experimental dance-theater in general. He said, “You have some idea that doing Shaw in New York will make you a real actress. You’re a real actress here, even if it’s not all talk-talk-talk. But fine, go for a year. You’re going to hate all that artifice and clawing for position. Just let me know when you’re ready to come home.”

But her new home was out in the world, a bigger life on bigger stages. She promised herself not to call anyone until she was settled in New York, to live in the world without having to describe it to her family or cannibalize it for theater. It was enough just to look. In Fukuoka, all the gardens had shrines: Buddhas, exact arrangements of bamboo and water. In Tokyo at night, extravagant palace rooftops reflected the neon lights of the big hotels. Bangkok’s mosaics and gold statues, like light shining off the water, said this is what matters.

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News of the World (Ploughshares)

We were the News-of-the-World Theater Collective, moving from city to city together; we were all married to each other and to the idea of what you could pull from the streams of the news that ran over and around and through our lives. We wanted no one to let that information splash over them without thinking, so much unnoticed linguistic and conceptual sewage. Selene and I were with the company for six years – in the Tenderloin, in various U.S. cities during the year when we were touring by bus, and then back home in San Francisco, where it all broke apart for us.

We’d begun working with the news by accident. Our first performance that meant anything to us, before we even had a name, took place in the living room of the tiny apartment shared by our co-directors, Robert and Julia. We’d rolled up their futons and set up chairs all around the perimeter of the room: we had an audience of about thirty-five, almost all of whom were friends or friends of friends.

We began with the material we’d rehearsed. Selene and I pinned each other’s arms, then dripped red paint on each other and let it run down onto the newspapers we rolled on. I slid across her, my breasts against her belly, my legs imprisoning her. She shook me off onto my back and let her dark hair fall across her face, aware all the time of her beauty as a theatrical element that had to be managed. Boyce – a Midwestern farm boy, a dancer who’d turned to the theater in his thirties ­– moved towards us, his hands held in menacing positions: starfish, fists, a pantomimed knife thrust.

Meanwhile, at the back of the room stood Robert, primary director, impresario, and writer. He was very tall, with short dark curls; his face had a Cubist look, as if it had been smashed with a hammer and put back together a little too quickly. A small gang of neo-Nazis jumped him when he was a fourteen-year-old, smart-mouthed, half-Jewish street fighter who hadn’t yet gotten his height. They’d seen the blue numbers he’d taken to inking on his forearm: real numbers, from people who’d died in the camps. No one had been able to get him to stop; the outrage of others, their efforts to explain just what was wrong with what he was doing, were central to whatever he was after. His broken nose and damaged cheekbones hadn’t, somehow, discouraged him either.

As we danced, he read Milton in an ominous voice: “First, Moloch, horrid king, besmeared with blood/Of human sacrifice and parents’ tears…” Julia climbed a rope toward a hook we’d hung from the ceiling.

Our tiny audience was clearly annoyed, but, more than that, we could feel it wasn’t happening, for them or us.

And then Robert, in a moment of inspired desperation, maybe remembering Augusto Boal’s exercises, dropped Paradise Lost, picked up a section of smeared newspaper from the floor, and read from it. I wish I could remember the passage. Something violent and ordinary you’d never notice if you read it on the train, in the bathroom, over breakfast, on a break. If you felt a little sick afterward, you’d put it down to too much coffee or your breakfast muffin. But when Robert read it, it got through.

In response, Julia, Boyce, Selene, and I began to improvise: pulling each other into new shapes, geometric and tense. We could feel the audience, a live animal, breathing with us for the first time.

From then on, Robert, backstage center, would read lists of the dead from a current war or border conflict, or maybe vivid stories of local crimes and disasters. Julia, upstage, responded with facts and statistics about the oncoming water and food shortages, tsunamis, desertification. Boyce and Selene and I, with our bodies, made news of dance – or vice versa – trying to find new ways of embodying, without miming, the texts. Our strategies to get people to hear the news worked for years, and we thought we could do it forever.

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