We opened in September to good reviews and ticket sales; those were not the issues. Kenny wanted to keep working on what would make this more enriching for me, for Michael, and for an audience who is seeing live theater precisely because they do not want a polished product of robot actors knowing exactly what they’re doing.
I went to his office, above his family’s apartment, on my day off. It was rainy, and in that magical space of time where I had no context for where their building was, though I now pass it every day. The door had stained-glass triangle windows, and the carpeted stairway was stuffy in the humidity, and little punctums like the desk lamp or drawings of their pets, by his daughter, made me feel at home. He had old Daniel Clowes comics, all the posters and programs for previous casts of the show (pressure!), and some of the same rare action figures that Warren collects. LI cast nostalgia over all their family photos, and felt myself disappear while looking at a framed picture on the mantel of the old high school friend that Warren was based on. I was living, at last, in the Other: that precious dimension of time and space where life and fiction overlap.
I sat across from him on the green plushy couch. We did one of the few acting exercises he said he believed in. “I’m going to say Warren’s line and you’ll say your line and then we’ll do it over and over and it’ll be different each time. Not because I want you to think about different ways to interpret the line and different words to emphasize. Just say it and keep saying it and let it change.”
I was sure that I was failing at it somehow. “I feel like I need to be consciously tracking what she’s doing so I can make sure she’s coming across the right way. She’s so misunderstood. You said people always play her wrong, like as a snob or a bitch. I don’t want her to be unlikable.”
“Yes, she’s not a perfectly evolved person and she can say the wrong thing sometimes and be incredibly uncomfortable to watch. But she is a thousand times more likable when she feels like a person.”
I promised Kenny I’d try to just do it, with no anticipating and no reflecting, at the next night’s show, even though he couldn’t be there to watch. I silenced every thought that entered my mind onstage and off, then realized there’s also a freedom and immediacy in being able to let those things pass through and know that they won’t completely throw you. Like maybe a falter in focus didn’t make me a terrible actor and artist and person. I tried to stop wondering if I deserved to be there, and instead told myself, “YOU’RE ALREADY HERE,” and that allowed me to shut down any inkling of self-doubt, not because I necessarily disagreed or agreed with my own self-criticism, but because it was too late, I was already doing this thing, and there was no way fear would help me. I stopped fueling my superstition and obsession, didn’t focus so much on perfecting my stage makeup like usual. I tried to remember the momentum that school plays always had; you weren’t worrying about being good, you just believed the story, and wanted to be in it and be surprised by what could happen. I think I let the words simply fall out of my mouth on cue, in whatever emotional way they felt like doing so. Kenny texted me afterwards.
KENNY: The word on the street is that you did great. Please let me know how YOU felt before tomorrow’s show, even if it’s just: “Felt (INSERT ADJECTIVE). More tomorrow. Love, Tavi.” Love, Kenny.
ME: I think I just went for it though it’s hard to remember (which I know is supposed to be the sign of a good show but I felt bad about it probably because so much was different and I don’t know if I told the story really). I noticed that it changed a lot of the pacing, like the stuff with the hat, and that threw me off.
KENNY: I have no doubt at all that you told the story. From your own description is sounds very much the way to go so yes, keep going. It’s good to feel thrown. And I bet you woke Michael right up, which is good for him too.
After the next day’s matinee:
ME: Hi Kenny. All noted. This afternoon it started to feel really great. I still have one nagging fear which is that if I Just Do It, so to speak, I will end up just playing myself saying someone else’s words.
KENNY: You will not be playing yourself saying someone else’s words. Neither the script nor the story nor the very detailed inner and outer circumstances that you have worked out so specifically will allow you to be you. They allow you to be Jessica. Doing what you’ve been doing this week allows you to be fully alive and present as Jessica. It’s really being her IN THE MOMENT, instead of practicing being her regardless of what’s happening in the moment. Hope that makes sense. If not, just trust me and keep going ’til we can speak again.
Our next exchange was in my dressing room, before the next show.
KENNY: Just remember what we talked about—actually, don’t! Don’t think about a thing! It will be so rewarding if you just let her guide you. I don’t want to overwhelm you with information because that’s the last thing you need now, but one more thing I want to say is about Joan of Arc, and the Shaw play, which is completely amazing if you don’t already know it: When King Charles tried to stop Joan of Arc from leading an army into battle, she said, “I shall dare, dare, and dare again!” And that’s what you’re going to do tonight.
ME: Wow! OK. Yeah. Yes. I will do that. But also, OK. Let’s say I do that. And it feels real to me. But none of it comes across to the audience, or it just throws off Michael, and, um, we’re all fucked.
KENNY: Well, Dunois said to Joan of Arc, “Not a man will follow you,” and she said, “I will not look back to see whether anyone is following me.”
KENNY: She was totally amazing. You’re like, Supergirl at taking notes. But you can do this thing too. I’m positive. Just trust me and trust yourself.
I did. It was terrifying. My voice changed and my body stiffened and I couldn’t tell you much else. When I looked at Michael while talking about the photos on the wall I felt I’d alienated him and everyone watching. I felt like our argument had gotten away from me. I felt totally helpless and too far from the plan to save the scene.
But before I could even try, it slowed, as if entirely on its own. We sat at the suitcase of his antique toys, and he started telling me about them, and it was like a Moment of Strange Magic, and then it was like dancing. Then after he talked about his dead sister, it slipped again, so Jessica started actually dancing. And then he did too. It was joyous and beautiful, and as frustrated as I am that, for the first time in my life, I have no tangible record of something I have made, what would be the point of acting, being, doing, if it all could be reduced to description?
Act II is when things spin out, when the look on Warren’s face right before I left the apartment was so maddeningly full of blame and pity and asking for me to take pity on him. Whatever led up to it was unclear. The guys finished their scene while I ran up to my dressing room and stood in the middle of the carpet and tried to review the choices I’d made to assure myself they’d translated but it was physically, mentally impossible. I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe what I had done in front of hundreds of people, and my fear of some kind of innate brokenness was confirmed.
What is the line she says at the very end, when she doesn’t know why she’s turning down Warren other than that she has no clue what the right decision would be? “It’s like my instinct is just broken.”
I felt so destabilized, so suddenly homesick, that I called my high school boyfriend. We had not spoken since breaking up, six months prior, and so: an eternity. As soon as I heard his voice, the world became smaller, as did I. I had not entered the Other after all, just a city one could locate on a map, and which was not in fact that far from Chicago, my high school, my teenage bedroom, my journals. It was brief. We agreed it would be best not to engage. I bowed during curtain call in a nauseous daze.
Kenny came back to my room afterwards.
KENNY: How did that feel?
ME: Kenny, that was my worst show.
KENNY: I’m so sorry to break it to you, Tavi, but that was actually your best show.
KENNY: This is how it feels. And now you have to do it every night. But it will only become more and more alive and fulfilling for you, even in these moments. You should be totally proud of yourself. [A line from the show.]
ME: But I was like…
KENNY: You are like my hero. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I wrote it, and I couldn’t anticipate anything.
ME: That’s good, I guess.
KENNY: I can’t tell you how much this means to me. I’m so moved. I am so touched. I am so happy.
ME: So this is what I do now?
KENNY: If you want to continue to grow as an actor, you will do this every night. ♦