Monday, August 9, 2010

I Went to See the Mother . . .

But I never saw the play. Instead, I participated in it; a couple of times as a cop, once as a strike breaker, and for a few scenes as a coat rack. I didn't want to seem over eager, but the audience was of similar size to the cast, and they needed extras.

The Mother is written as a didactic play, a Lehrst├╝cke according to Wikipedia. Brecht meant to break down barriers between audience and actor as between worker and consumer, or so I learned. And I had been all ready here to give plaudits galore to Kurt Schneiderman and his Subversive Theatre for something completely new and different! Hesitation always being the better part of valor . . .

But really, what a great way to get the audience's attention. You mill about the space, sometimes part of the action, sometimes sitting on the floor, sometimes getting pelted with (fake) rocks. As I like to brag here, I witnessed lots of experimental theatre Off Broadway back when that meant something, and in London; all back in my youth. Of course I remember no particulars, and it didn't change my life, apparently. I mean I'm not a theatre person and being a witness in the audience gives me no more authority than to claim that I know the law because my father is a lawyer. But I've witnessed uncomfortable experimental theatre, let me tell you. It was plenty unsettling, you know, just like the absence of a happy ending from a Hollywood movie. About as pointless?

But you aren't doing the same thing when you participate that you are when you are sitting in an audience. It's really hard to know whether to smile knowingly or appreciatively the way you might in solidarity or competition with your seatmates, or whether someone is watching you, and you should put on a show of trying to act.

A couple of times I was meant to act like a cop; a nasty. But I felt that if I was going to act like a cop I should at least show my own fear and ambivalence about what I was being ordered to do. There was no director, exactly, to tell me how to behave. But I did feel exposed and vulnerable, hoping mine wasn't the live bullet, that no-one's eyes were on me. I shot into the air over the protesters' heads. For real?

Sure, we got quickie instruction in what would happen and rough general indications of our roles. These were offered by fellow actors with whom we'd bonded by a bean-bag toss game before the show began. Or had it already begun?

These same actors had invited us in by including us in their foul language and general tired and jaded camaraderie as they got ready for the show. They weren't being paid to do this either, and maybe it wasn't all acting to feel tired and jaded. But they hadn't paid to get in, and presumably this was something they really really want to do. Act, um, on stage? Well, act anyhow.

But they acted grateful to us, and slightly pissed toward everyone absent, just as we "audience" members might have felt toward our absent crowd-mates. I was a little taken aback when someone asked me if I was OK after being pelted by fake rocks. Were they serious? Do I look that frail? Or was that person more properly still  in character than I was? I'd already sat down again to watch. I answered sincerely "I'm fine" as though the thought that I wasn't fine was a ridiculous thought. Oh!

And why weren't they just jumping at the chance to recruit me when I made eye contact after no-one was raising his hand to volunteer for missing roles? Do I look that old? That far from being able to act? Or you know, maybe it takes one to know one, like it's OK to say out loud on NPR that gay men might like Real Housewives, because of the implicit role-playing of those, um, real actual (NOT) housewives, but that no real man could stand the show. So, yeah, like women are all role-playing all the time, and can't not watch, so they said, like a trainwreck, other women making fools of themselves, but only gay men would do that? Well, it's an interesting concept, but a little politically incorrect if you ask me.

Affirmed in my manhood, still it's hard to know how to behave as an audience member thrust into the act. The play was about "the Mother," an illiterate woman who was worried about what would happen to her son if he continued to buck "the Man." It was about a teacher who couldn't see the good of literacy for people destined to remain denizens only ever of the working class. It was about co-opting workers of one stripe - a butcher, say - against workers of another and making them think that they were special for a day or a minute or the duration of a confrontation. At least you've got a job. We're rewarding you handsomely to take our side against the ruffians.

Take orders. Take direction. Or just do what comes to you or what comes naturally. The play's the thing. The mother gradually did learn to read. Unwittingly, she became the de-facto rallying point for the cause. She was that out of place, and who would attack a mother protective of her son? The teacher learned to value reading himself, and wanted to be called comrade in the end. I wished I'd had a role.

Well, I did have a role of sorts. I ran the elevator for the night, and I needn't have bought a ticket, but, well  I felt responsible to contribute, even though I'm unemployed, and don't always give handouts, but after the show there were, indeed, a few people who would have been quite challenged to take the two flights of long stairs back down. It felt like it should have been a part of the play, you know, a huge freight elevator with signs all over saying that other than the operator and his freight, people were not allowed. I tried for a paranoid joke as I crashed the gates down. You won't be getting out of here. It went over OK.

And then I brought the cage back up, in case there was someone left behind. And sure enough there was one of the actors, grateful for the lift. Er, I mean the descent. On the way down, he proceeded to tell me about how he had just had back surgery, and had gotten himself out of the hospital early because the show needed him. He'd done the earlier performances in the face of excruciating sciatica. This one nearly rigid with post-operative pain. And I'd thought that the cop complaining of his recent back surgery during the show was speaking a memorized line. A cop too lazy to work in the face of hurting striking workers. Making excuses.

I was struck that this actor's speech was halting - not what you'd think of as an actor's smooth diction. But he'd just delivered - led, really - this almost perfectly pitched and timed high speed projectile dialog. An argument. A staccato performance worthy of something David Mamet would produce. How does this work? The pivotal moment of the play, the catapulting into heightened consciousness of the importance of standing firm in protest, delivered by a man who couldn't strain his back?

Am I changed? Is my consciousness lifted? Could I have something to say if I were offered a stage on which to say it? Would I ever stand up against the Man? Well, I wouldn't pull the trigger if ordered. Not unless it was an act for the greater good and the director was shouting at me exactly what he needed me to do. This director, young Bob Van Valin, was so disarming, though. Really nice, like a tour director. So polite, when he wasn't being foul-mouthed and drawing imagineary lines we weren't to cross.

But in the end, good show old man!! Jolly good! (I'm affecting a little accent there, and, um, pretending Kurt's an old man)


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