Behind the Seldom Scene
So I was reading Audition
last night by Michael Shurtleff--a fascinating "how to audition" guide for aspiring actors. What makes it special is the very fact of its fascination for me: I have zero plans for pursuing an acting career but nonetheless found it interesting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a consistent and consistently appealing recounting of real life stories that hang together to make a series of coherent points or "guideposts," as he calls them. It's interesting, informative, and argumentative. I was dumbfounded by his comments on love. Love, he said, is not this sort of stale, admirable, romantic idealism that we all imagine: the knight in shining armor, the perfect Gentleman Caller, and all that. Romance, real romance, is full of intrigue, let-downs, climactic passions, and emotional tightropes.
Allow me to make my own JVC Guidepost for the last four and a half months. Simply this: LOVE IS MESSY. I will use a real life story full of intrigue, let-downs, climactic passions, and emotional tightropes about the day of the Seldom Seen Acting Company's performance of Sleeping, It's a Wakeup Call
. I will make the case that love, the same love Jesus spoke about 2000 years ago, that JVC purports to exist when it claims "you don't have to like our roommates, you just have to love them," that we all go through when seeking mates, and that Mr. Shurtleff would be sure to support, is very messy indeed.
December 10, 2005 was the performance date set in stone nearly six weeks earlier. What Shurtleff encouraged his actors to approximate we lived and breathed: the day was so powerful precisely because it contained opposite emotional reactions from the same individuals. This date was the whip under which acting company horse progressed. The date inspired excitement, nervous anticipation, and greatest of all, fear. Rehearsals, the roots of which go all the way back to July, had doubled in pace starting in November from once to twice a week. Like any deadline December 10 motivated us and we hated it.
Some context is necessary to fully understand the relationships which bubbled over in both rage and tenderness that day. The acting company was composed of eleven men, six of which were “on the street homeless,” one that lived with his ailing mother, one who teetered in and out of his girlfriend’s residence, two who were in semi-permanent housing situations thanks to the work of the Champion Guidance Center, and me. “On the street homeless” means, except for occasional rotations at the homeless shelters, these men literally live on the street. Of the six, one made camp in an old car, two near the lake, one downtown, one in an unknown spot, and one behind the Convention Center and next door to our performance site, the Oakland Museum.
These were the men who survived homeless life’s extenuating circumstances for four and a half months, participated significantly in rehearsals over that time, and showed up on performance night. Imagine yourself completely broke financially and emotionally: no job, no money, no house, few enough possessions to fit in a garbage bag, a beat up car with no registration if you’re lucky, no family, no children, and no friends. Now throw on top of that no healthcare, a constant fear of the police, and an incessant depression. Next imagine yourself committing to twice a week rehearsals and a performance which promises nothing less than to bare your problems to the world. The greatest fear of a homeless person—it’s so logical if you just stop and think about it—is to be known as homeless. Why? Because homeless men and women are the modern-day untouchables. But that’s the point of another blog.
Some were present from the beginning, while others were newcomers. The Company itself was descriptive of the “fluidity” inherent in our facility: men come, men go, some recover, some relapse, some dip in for short periods of time, while others become permanent parts of the fabric. About three men were “founding members,” rehearsing since July. Is there any other acting company in the world that would tolerate 70% turnover?!
Out of this backdrop imagine the star performer. His monologue was 100% his own, his voice carried to the wall, he had the looks, he had the charm, and most of all, as the Helpdesk Coordinator, he had power and influence over the rest of the Company—if not explicitly during rehearsals than implicitly as a result of his ability to influence their lives every other day of the week. Now, in a “normal” company you may have heard about the personality antics unabashedly shown by the star and unabashedly catered to by his/her entourage of support staff. So imagine the “pre-madonna” capabilities available to a formerly incarcerated, formerly homeless, recovering drug addict and dealer who suddenly found himself the central figure in a play about homelessness. He was our star and he was fully prepared to prove it by breaking the boundaries of appropriateness, knowing we were powerless, or at least powerlessly unwilling, to stop him.
He was supported by a staff hell-bent on success. We had a respectable venue in the museum, a concert pianist, a symphonic oboist, catering, an event coordinator, and four professionally decorated Christmas trees which we raffled off. We even had professional carolers set to welcome guests as they approached the museum for Christ’s sake! We made a slide-show presentation to music and we had two dozen men and women hand sign 270 Christmas cards reading “Peace be With You” with a collage of digital reprints of our men making signs of peace. We made laminated, colored flyers, we printed up custom-designed theatre tickets, we got a write-up in the East Bay Express and the Catholic Voice, we contacted two televisions stations, the newspaper, and Jerry Brown himself who politely but in writing declined our invitation.
Those were just the external pressures.
We had been rehearsing for months, the dress rehearsal was over, tech week was done, we had undergone more than a dozen script rewrites, we had a volunteer director who contributed more than 200 hours, and a “black sheep” reputation within our own organization to boot.
So…nestled alongside the dramatics of working with and for homeless men and the pressures of professional life surrounding a significant public event, we have a single star and his half-brother, reunited after a decade, who surfaced deep psychological pains and channeled them, as timing would have it, at me.
The day was December 10, 2005, a Saturday, which is also a day the Champion Guidance Center is open for services. Remember the actors in the Company are also the staff that helps run the center and the center’s daily operations, mind you, are seldom stress-free—there are complaints to head off and tempers to assuage constantly. After any “typical” day the staff is understandably worn out. Compound the daily stressors with the impending performance and “tense” is an understatement of the center’s atmosphere.
Despite this the normal activities were coming to a close without major incident. As the center was closing we assigned our star the task of clipping dollar bills to thank-you cards we planned on handing out to the audience after the performance. The message was simple: “take this dollar bill, a gift from Steve, and use it to manifest prosperity in the lives of the men at the Champion Guidance Center…an example would be taking one of the men out for coffee.” Ever optimistic we had $217 in singles ready to hand out in case of a sell-out crowd. Needless to say, in a homeless drop-in center, the fewer people that know about the presence of $217 the better. So, the star was holed up in the storage area—the same place where we were storing coats which we just happened to be distributing the very same day. During a break in the pinning process, I entered the storage area to get more coats which I was distributing outside. I came back into the center amidst intense yelling. Apparently, the star’s brother found out about the dollar bills and made a joke: “yeah, that’s why you’re slipping those bills into you’re pocket.” Steve stepped out and, cutting off the commotion, boomed “STOP! Just stop! You guys are needed today!” The star’s justification elicited the following from Steve: “well how did anybody find out about the dollar bills anyway?”
I had left the door unlocked.
After I immediately took responsibility, the two brothers separated and I responded, “this is a small thing.”
The star then exploded into a supernova. He was only inches away from my face and I saw every vein pumping, not just the two major ones extending down his neck, but facial veins I didn’t even know existed: ones down his cheeks and around his eyes. He had become rage. My eardrums were exploding, my heart was in my throat, and I could feel the saliva on my face. He informed me that accusations of theft are anything but small.
After the two brothers separated I retreated to the Dining Room. As I previewed the slide show with the Company’s director—pictures of homeless men reaching out—I wept. Put to inspirational music, the slideshow was a symbol that we actually do Care and Help Assist Men Prosper In Our Neighborhood (CHAMPION). The emotions pulsating through me, however, were evidence to the contrary. I rested my head on Steve’s shoulder sobbing, “do they ever get out?” Briefly, I had become hopelessness.
I returned to the center and decided to speak with the star. I thought we couldn’t get through the performance unless the two brothers got back on speaking terms. I told him we needed to find some way to communicate again, for the good of the show, the good of the center, and the good of all the guys who put in months of effort. He was having none of it: “I don’t got shit to say to that motherfucker and I’m tired of your fairy tale bullshit.” These sentiments were succinctly expressed non-verbally when he kicked a ladder over.
We commenced the scheduled pre-performance pizza dinner. The brother returned. Time marched on slowly, painfully, tensely. As final preparations for our exit were made, however, the Company was in for one last pre-performance performance, starring none other than the star himself. A third actor, the most quiet and reserved of the crew, asked for a few cards to hand out to his friends. These cards, which had no dollar bills in them, were in a box on top of the money cards. The star jumped to conclusions, “I thought you was taking some of those dollars.”
“Well you thought wrong,” was the third actor’s response. Undeniably confident that he had a “behavioral blank slate,” the star physically charged the third actor. I was in between them with a panic-toned voice, “Please stop. Please stop. Please stop.” The star backed down and the third actor left the premises. Yet another actor chased him down, calmed him down and pleading, “Yes, you shouldn’t have to put up with that. But we need this. I need this. I’ve worked too damn long to let this go up in smoke.”
The third actor relented, walked through the center and by the star who hissed fighting words, “yeah, you better not look at me you piece of shit nigger bitch.”
Fortunately for all involved, the reserved one chose not to respond and we piled into the vans.
It wasn’t the first supernova or even the blow up on the innocent third actor. It was these fighting words which dug me deep. This was unadulterated malice; this was callous disregard for all involved; this was implosion. It would be hard for me to trust him again.
But the show, as they say, must go on.
And go on it did. Each monologue, you see, was a description of the actor’s real life story. These were homeless men facing their biggest fear: being labeled as homeless. Some were explicit, others metaphorical.
My piece was entitled “Amends to the African Americans.” Inside I was wondering, who owes who an apology? But if you reflect deeper on the “why” of the star’s earlier reactions we come up with, not a justification, but perhaps an explanation. To be black is to be history’s unwanted race; to be homeless is to be the present-day unwanted race. To be black and homeless must give somebody a towering perspective on abuse.
So at 8:00pm I find myself apologizing, and shaking the hand of the same man who was in my face just four hours earlier. He accepted my apology saying “God bless you unto all generations; truly you have waited long; I bless your children.”
After the performance I saw the brothers embrace on stage. Few in the audience knew that embrace to be anything more than celebratory.
You should have heard the question and answer session following the performance. My roommate admitted to weeping. Each question was prefaced with an affirmation, “I am astounded by your courage.” It was as if the audience recognized, for those brief moments, the play was a bridge from homelessness to shelter, drug addiction to sobriety, incarceration to freedom, unemployment to a job, depression to joy, and fear to hope.
During one particular response the star began delving into our relationship. He began talking about how he told me his story, how pleased he was to find out that I refused to judge him, and how indebted he was to Steve. Both he and his brother stepped off the stage to embrace Steve who was in the audience. The audience and the actors gave Steve an ovation of his own.
It was beautiful, hugely successful. We received a standing ovation.
Love filled the air. But it was messy. Damn messy.