the first time

It was the first time I felt naked on stage. Really exposed, vulnerable, out of control, careening, falling even, into my self, out into the street, cars bearing down on me, stuck in the brights like that perennial deer.

The play was about some kids and their families; messed up kids, messed up families. The girls, best friends, played in the same marsh where my cousin and I used to play, out behind his Grandma’s house. They got muddy. They got ticks that had to be burned off with a struck match. They let their imaginations run as wild as the underbrush over the Indian burial ground off the easement by my cousin’s Grandma’s house.

I say my cousin’s Grandma because technically that’s true, but technically he wasn’t even my cousin. Relationships never work when hinged on technicalities. Doris was my grandma too. My third gram, the one with her very own first name, the one with a whole big family that was mine, too, until they weren’t anymore.

The play wasn’t about all that stuff except for how it was exactly about all that stuff. My family, my memory, my broken relationships, the love underneath, the kind that hurts so much you shut it off, and it shuts you down.

Decomposition in Blue and White took place in the family’s house, and way out back, near the unused railroad tracks that led straight past the marsh, whose mud stuck so fast and whose reeds wrapped so tight that it was hard to get free. The girls who played out there, Cissy and Sophie, tried to get free of everything. But I’d written the play, and I knew their fate was sealed.

The set transformed between home and marsh. When it became the marsh, the stage crew– me and Dave’s brother J– would fold the walls in on themselves and reveal the pool beneath the stage. The last bit of transformation was that I would place cat-o-nine-tail reeds into slender, embedded, plastic tube vases in the stage. This always took the longest. J was finished with the whole rest of the set change before I was through with my one small task. I could feel the hushed light on me as I finished, could feel stage manager waiting for me to insert the last reed and get off stage so she could light the stage.

The reeds were long and spindly, with a big brown puff on the end. I’d gathered them myself, from a marsh near the side of the road in New England, near where I grew up. My uncle had come with me, and together, gleefully, we cut down the best ones and loaded them into the back of his pickup.

It was a strange feeling, kneeling on stage before these tiny vases, before the audience, in my own dim light, carefully inserting each stem, setting the scene for the final act of my play. I would  move quickly but take my time, not wanting to falter, wanting the moment to seem still. As I stepped off stage, I rushed through back stage, and around into the theater, to stand at the back, and watch the end of the play. My breath caught short, it was like I couldn’t watch, it was like everything that I am was being revealed.

On the admin side, we worked really hard to get people to come to this show. There were a few articles written about it in advance, but we never had the kind of houses that made Dave and I go home at night and not worry about where audience was coming from for the next performances. Marketing, honestly, has never been our strong suit.

A few of our friends decided to stand out in front of the theater and tell passers-by about the show. Lots of people actually came in that way, some paying, some not, one or two homeless guys. I stood in the lobby with one of the theater owners at Theatre Double, in whose amazing, vintage tv studio theater we were doing the show, and he was upset about the lack of cash we were getting from these audience people. Rightfully so, I knew he had other concerns, like how to pay the bills. All I cared about was the work, having people come in and see the it. I told him that, and he knew. He’s an artist, and he knows what that feeling is. The need to express brings along with it the need for someone to express it to.

That was in 2001. Now it is 2014 and I feel the same. I’m still not so great at marketing, and it feels like a gift to me when people come to share my work, to experience it, to be part of it. And lots of people do.

There are so many really, valid reasons why a person can’t just go around giving away their art work. Notably among them is that free things are valued as worthless in our culture. Free things are looked upon with skepticism and disgust.

So I’m not giving away tickets to my new show, Puff Puff. We don’t give away tickets to Sticky, although if I end up standing near the door I have to yell at myself to not just comp everyone, to calmly walk away and let the door guy do his job.

But you should know that I want to, I want to give away tickets, I want to comp everyone, because that’s how much I value the work. I value the work itself, and being able to share it, way more than money.

Ali, Mike D and I in rehearsal. We laugh when we say these filthy things I wrote.
Ali, Mike D and I in rehearsal. We laugh when we say these filthy things I wrote.
The family in Decomposition and Blue and White. from left, Wharton Tract, Judith Leopold, Sheila mar, Jeffrey Marsh.
The family in Decomposition and Blue and White. from left, Wharton Tract, Judith Leopold, Sheila mar, Jeffrey Marsh. photos by Kisa Charles.
Cissy and Sophie, played by Jennifer Harris.
Cissy and Sophie, played by Jennifer Harris.
Behind the reeds. The play was directed by David Marcus, set design Thomas Bruce.
Behind the reeds. The play was directed by David Marcus, set design Thomas Bruce.


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