I recently finished a mind-bending 6-week run of The Anarchist; a play by that genius David Mamet. It was by far the most difficult thing I have ever done…But let me back up.
When I was asked to do the play, I thought “Ahh, yes! Going home to the theater! This will be fun, this will be easy!” I was feeling confident; I had just finished Season One of American Crime playing a tortured, racist mother whose son had just been murdered, and I thought, “Nothing could be harder than that!” This adventure was going to be a little vending machine of joy; I would put my quarter in and get a delicious chocolate covered dose of adoration…with nuts.
The director, Marja Lewis-Ryan, was unknown to me, but I was assured she was a skilled professional. When she dropped off the script at my house, in her khaki pants and green vest, I thought she was selling Girl Scout Cookies. Literally, I wondered if this “director” had hit puberty yet. I have socks that are older than she is.
And then rehearsals began…in my living room.
My furniture was pushed up against walls or shoved into bedrooms, there was masking tape all over the floor marking the stage, and my husband and daughters were relegated to walking across the lawn to reach the kitchen. When we had people over for dinner they all sat against the walls – it looked like a Pentecostal Revival Meeting.
90% of the time, in rehearsals, I had no idea what I was saying, or more accurately what any of it meant. I kept having recurring dreams that I was drowning, or wishful dreams that my costume transformed from prison garb to a princess dress.
My friend, Rebecca Pidgeon, and I were the only two actors “onstage,” talking non-stop for 75 minutes straight. The play was short–but if you measured it by meaning, density and brilliance it was a marathon.
Finally, we moved from my living room into this tiny, run down theater in Hollywood where the seats were broken and the bathroom was around the corner by the dumpster – the same dumpster where homeless people or desperate people (I think I just described the same people) often took dumps or vomited.
The first few weeks in front of an audience felt like I was committing Seppuku (but without the honor part); flinging my guts around the stage for 75 minutes while speaking a different language. I was not serving the play well, to say the least. The audience left saying things like, “Wow, that was a lot of words she had to learn!” Or, “Oh My! Did that place have air conditioning?”
But wait! There’s more; having done TV for years, I’ve become very comfortable with a distant audience i.e. people judging me from the comfort of their very own couch. In this theater the front row was literally 6 feet away from me. As I wrestled with my lines, I saw every yawn, every butt shift, and every dig in a purse for the crinkly mint. And to a certain young man with size 14 white sneakers I wanted to say, “STOP BOBBING YOUR FUCKING FOOT. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU’RE DIRECTING A 747 TO LAND ON STAGE!”
Where was that vending machine of adoration?
Which leads me to the idea of desire and expectations. Most of the time there didn’t seem to be an upside to this project … at all. I was working to the max of my ability, I was climbing Everest with no oxygen, and no one got it or cared. It was like engaging in this weird antiquated endeavor like shearing sheep, carding, spinning, weaving the wool, and then sewing your own clothes. At most people could say is, “Wow you did that…why?“
Why was I doing this incredibly difficult thing for no reward, no recognition, and no money?! And it wasn’t leading anywhere. I felt shallow and petty for asking these questions, but this was not what I wanted for my quarter! I picked the wrong vending machine! I wasn’t getting a chocolate covered treat, but an exhausting dose of failure.
Let me cut to the chase: the play was a success and ultimately we learned to do it well. I might even venture to say we did it justice. And I was in front of the correct vending machine; I just wanted the wrong thing with my quarter.
Okay, here’s what did drop down.
-I was in service to something greater than my petty desires. The Anarchist is a brilliant play and 70 people a night were gripped by the genius of one of our greatest playwrights, at his best.
– Marja Ryan-Lewis, IS an ace, she has vision, guts, and talent. I hope to work with that “girl scout” director for many years to come.
-The play became a family undertaking; my girls came with me to the theater most nights. They worked the box office, hung out backstage and tried to keep the dog (yup, brought the dog too) quiet. They also stepped in as post – show bartenders. They now make a mean margarita.
-I was lifted and supported by friends that I have known since NYU. Robert gave volumes of life saving notes. Sarah, Todd and Kate showed up for early previews and guided me away from the false and toward the true …over whiskey sours. Scott, whom I met freshman year in philosophy 101, spent hours on the phone with me, explaining what the multilayered play meant.
-I got to know the “Brasil Coffee” guy next door who often times made artistically obscene pictures in my latte.
-I met up with an old and trusted friend, the audience, who always let’s me know when I’m a little full of shit.
So, I was mistaken about the kind of vending machine I was in front of. I didn’t get my expectation of easy gratification and recognition. I got a chocolate covered dose of humility, love, education and gratitude – and in this season of Thanksgiving – I am reminded of that. What more can I ask?
Happy Turkey Day,