He’s right. The acting exercise appears simple enough: tell your partner that you either love or hate them. I refocus on the body in front of me. Yes, just a body. But as I look at it, the It becomes a Her, and then a person, then a name. Like a microscope slowly coming into focus, my partner gains a reality, and then–
“I hate you.”
“I love you.”
The negative startles. I rush to reset to neutrality, but I change my mind and allow the surprise to settle.
“I hate you.”
“I hate you.”
I don’t need to act. I already know what I will do next, my body knows it too. But before I can do anything I accidentally catch a glimpse of the dark stage lights, the plain white shirts and typical navy blue gym shorts, and my reality falls flat. I look at my partner, but she is gone too; replaced once more by an It.
Stop. Return to neutral. Now, as the director begins his remarks on today’s rehearsal, I listen with one mind, feeling with another. I look at the empty seats, the bare wooden stage; they will both be filled in time. I’m not going to miss this emptiness. I long for it to be filled with the lights and sound and costumes. I long for the empty bodies that surround me to be filled with life, or anything other than the nothing that is now. Someone opens the door to the theater lobby and I feel the bitter, spear-like loneliness of a winter New England squall.
Four months later, New England found itself in the throes of a seasonal twilight, and I found myself out of a job. For what felt like forever, I had known myself as the entertainer, the performer, the actor. Now I was a bum, wistfully watching lacrosse players stride into the fields with reckless abandon. I felt old in comparison. And while the cold died around me and the sky melted from ice-white into dull grey, I walked from classroom to classroom, devoid of any real impetus, thinking as hard as I possibly could to occupy the long hours. And on a particularly cold and grey day I found myself shaken awake from my stupor by an alarm bell. Another day had ended, apparently. I wandered out of the classroom until I found myself, once again, at the steps of the theater. I thought up an excuse and walked once more through the familiar doors. The stage was dark, save for a single row of lights that the director always left on. I met that director backstage, and we proceeded to have what was perhaps one the best conversations that I’ve ever had. The topics ranged from Hamlet to Stanislavsky to Quentin Tarantino’s apparent reverence for Japanese pop culture and the oddly serendipitous ways in which he orchestrated mass violence in Kill Bill. What I remember, though, from that conversation was a line that I heard repeated twice afterwards, in one form or another. He said: “I really appreciate your work. You put some kids on a stage and they’re so well trained that they take the spotlight and never turn back. But you, you’re never alone on stage.” I heard the same sentiments echoed in a Sondheim musical called Into the Woods, and in that graduation speech by David Foster Wallace, where he expressed the same idea in different terms.
Of all the life lessons I’ve ever learned, I’ve found nothing quite as heartening as knowing that I am not alone. On any stage, theatrical or otherwise, a life well lived is one in which we truly connect with our fellow actors. Doing so makes our shows ring with a clarity and genuineness that we could not otherwise form. It is how we breathe life into our otherwise lifeless bodies.
I believe in the potential of life; I really do. I know that we are all inevitably doomed, in some way to another, to live a life of pain and suffering. But I also know we are given the chance to take that which makes us cower and bring it out into the light, where we realize that it is, in fact, even more terrifying than we imagined. Just as Zeus left Echidna’s monstrous brood for future heroes to conquer, so has each generation of children received a world that is dark and confusing and utterly ridiculous. But we are not alone. No one is alone.