The Drama of Drama
By Rebecca Poole

"Leonatos short daughter"

I'm 22, still a virgin, and "Hero" in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre. In my first play since grade school, I’ve never had an acting class and am clueless. But the production’s fifty-year-old director saw me perform in a ballet concert and chose me for the part, so I feel confident, valued, and special. While I’ve always loved reading and studying Shakespeare, in rehearsal for Much Ado, I discover the physical act of saying his words is tactile, sensual, like I am biting into a piece of ripe fruit with body and spirit. Offering words up to an audience is even more thrilling, full as the breath before a summer thunderstorm or walking alone through a forest at dusk.

The type of acting inclusive enough to engage an audience requires that I interpret the events of the play’s story from my character’s point of view and use the words the author has given me to get what I (as the character) want. It also forces me to take what other characters say to me personally. At its core, drama exists as a form of heightened reality, so if there is nothing at stake for each character, there is no reason for the audience to watch. Playwright, essayist, and director David Mamet refers to such essential actor-character identification as the "what if" factor. Within the context of Much Ado, what if (believing false accusations that I’ve been ridden more than the village bicycle) my father turns his back on me on my wedding day and says he wants me dead?

Dost thou look up?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life!

But intact-hymen aside, I have absolutely nothing in common with Hero, I believe. My parents are quite liberal. They do not ignore me and, in fact, boast of my intelligence and achievements. So night after night, I am bewildered when those words reduce me to a bawling puddle of goo. Stranger yet, the experience simultaneously proves freeing, exhilarating. I begin looking forward to the opportunity for emotional/ physical release this scene affords me. I slowly realize that I am not allowed to "make a scene" in my real life. When I do so, I am punished. When my parents do so, I run for cover. Something veiled, nascent and terrible flutters in my stomach, resonates when I retort:

Prove you that any man with me conversed
At hours unmeet, or that I yesternight
Maintain'd the change of words with any creature,
Refuse me, hate me, torture me to death!

Eventually, I get it: in my real life, I have long felt refused, hated, and tortured by the people who say they love me. I’ve had to kill parts of myself to survive. I must come to terms with my fear of challenging their vision of me, with my inability to define my little grey, amorphous self. I begin therapy and take an acting class.

Endgame - Hamm and Clov

I am 29 and in my last year of graduate school for Acting. In my non-theatre life, I discover that my lover has lied to me for years and is still addicted to pain-killers and cocaine. He’s put me in physical danger while high, explained his erratic behavior as stress-related. Still, he accepts me as my parents do not, and I have mistaken that for love, have believed I owe him love in return. Simultaneously, my relationship with both parents is in the toilet. I’ve confronted them about their hurtful behavior and voiced my boundaries, but their response is silence and absence rather than dialogue to form a new connectedness. I feel powerless, naïve, and pathetic, which infuriates me.

As one of my final project performances in school, I am "Clov" in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Playing opposite me (as "Hamm") is the smartest, funniest, most talented actor in the program. We’ve already worked together well in Peter Barnes' Laughter (a fluffy little two-act comedy concerning Ivan the Terrible and Nazi bureaucrats), so I am relieved to be paired up with such a dependable, competent, emotionally available person in light of my chaotic private life. As with Much Ado, I am playing the child of a manipulative and emotionally abusive parent; however, Endgames' post-apocalyptic setting ups the stakes on any choice I (as Clov) make. If I leave the bunker in which Hamm (Clov’s father) and I have lived, I may die from radiation. If I remain with the blind, wheelchair-bound Hamm, I’ll die from the emotional and spiritual torture:

I say to myself--- sometimes, Clov, you must learn to suffer better than that if you want them to weary of punishing you--- one day. I say to myself--- sometimes, Clov, you must be better than that if you want them to let you go--- one day. But I feel too old, and too far, to form new habits. Good, it'll never end, I'll never go.


Then one day, suddenly, it ends, it changes, I don't understand, it dies, or it's me, I don't understand that either. I ask the words that remain -- sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have nothing to say.


I open the door of the cell and go. I am so bowed I only see my feet, if I open my eyes, and between my legs a little trail of black dust. I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit…

Clov eventually chooses unknown over known terror: at the play’s end, she crosses the bunker’s threshold and goes outside, in effect, abandoning her sightless, crippled parent.

Making such a clear decision in real life is too scary for me, and I push the need for change out of consciousness. But during a movement class exercise in which each person begins with an idea or image, and then responds with free-form movement across the room, eyes closed, I realize I’ve never known what unconditional love is. I ask to experience it. Boom: I slam into someone sitting on the floor. My eyes still closed, I simultaneously know it is my Endgame acting partner and that I love him. Lightning bolt. I’ve gradually come to know all aspects of him intimately over the two years (five to eight hours per day, five days per week) we’ve spent together in grad school. I don’t trust myself and don’t know whether or not to act on my feelings. Luckily, he suggests we have a talk. We walk by the dumpsters behind the theater, and I am shocked when he confesses his attraction to me. I mumble something about feeling the same way, but also being conflicted as I am both mourning and trying to understand the dying relationship I am in with another man. He says, "I really want to kiss you, but I can’t." "Well, what if I kiss you?" comes out of my mouth.

We make a date to visit the 14-foot tall Korean Buddha in a local museum the next week. He cooks for me at his apartment, apologizes for the food, which tastes amazing to me. I can’t stop staring at his lips and eyes. We kiss, and I find myself against the wall, sliding down the wall, moving backward on the floor under him until we get to his bed. There’s a moment of hesitation, but I decide, "Okay, um … I’m gonna take off my clothes now." We fuck for hours, turn "visiting the Buddha" into a euphemism. We are married a year later.

Standard of the Breed

I am thirty-four, and my husband and I have started our own theatre, The Spartan. Our second production is John Steppling’s Standard of the Breed, a play in which the fate of a kennel of Mastiffs in the Nevada desert symbolizes the lot of humanity’s potential nobility and goodness.

9/11 happens five months before opening night. From a half-mile away, I hear the first plane, see the second hit, balls of flame echoing those in movies my mother always forbade me to watch (they’ll give you nightmares). I’m in the streets, pushing my way North with thousands, pushed into traffic by photographers more interested in getting a great shot for their blog than in the danger they are creating, move past the woman curled fetal in the maternity store doorway at 6th and 23rd, by street vendors’ radios that broadcast What the Hell is Happening, by the Hassdic man who yells "Are they bombing?" When the first tower falls, people scream for miles, but I will not let myself look. When the second goes, I turn and see what no one ever should.

I know why Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt, looking backward, frozen to the spot with old tears.

Both my husband and I lose our jobs within weeks of the attack. The city and national economies are worsening, but people seem in denial. My president’s and mayor’s advice regarding how to cope with my fear of destitution/obliteration is that I should go shopping. Standard seems to fit the reality of the world I now wake to, and I think it could resonate with the lives of others. I play Teela, an Ely, Nevada cocktail waitress who decides to go to Los Angeles to pursue her singing career after being laid off by a casino. Within twenty-four hours she is robbed and abandoned by her boyfriend in the middle of nowhere. Early on, she explains her general mistrust of human beings:

I see all these people. Families…real American families. And I can see the parents are drunk, always fighting. And they hate each other…deep down, they hate each other. And you can see the kids – they hate the kids. They don’t know they hate them like they know they hate each other, but if you just look at these crazy little fuckers, if you just look at the kids, you know there is something wrong…

So we got all these nuts, raised by nuts, and I wonder how it all keeps going. Do you see? How does the paper get delivered, and so on?
I have no idea how anything keeps going. I am diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which (though triggered by my experience on 9/11) stems from my emotionally abusive childhood. After buildings stop falling in my mind and loud street noises stop paralyzing me, ancient memories invade my waking life, play over and over like an endless loop tape. I can’t turn off the summers of the musical toy clock (I was too stupid to learn time), the math flashcards, me not "living up to my potential," no mercy when I cried, my mother screaming "Wrong! Six times eight is 48; six times eight is 48! It rhymes! It! Rhymes! I will give you something to cry about," her hand thumping the table like a metronome: age five, six, seven, eight (six times eight is 48). My father always watches from the doorway in silence. My eyes beg him for the intercession that never comes. "And you better not be like him," thrown at me after he leaves to go swimming.

When (as Teela) I sing Bill Monroe’s "What a Wonderful Life," I cling to the life raft the lyrics afford. As precarious as Standard's world is, it still seems sturdier than my own. But somehow, over the course of the play’s run, I make the leap and take up the mantle of survivor that Teela wears. How I feel and what I have experienced does not equal who I am at my core. Hurtful incidences do not result from my flawed character or lack of ability/ worth. Like Teela, I am able to survey the destruction at my feet, mourn it, and move on: say, "Lots of fun shit here, huh?" as the sun rises. ++



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