Small Animals

13625378_10208590462653305_9197893018731847063_nI thought Sardi’s was a tourist trap.  And I thought I could not afford it.  My way of going to see Broadway shows has always been to eat a slice of pizza beforehand, because after paying for a ticket that is all that seems prudent.

I happened to be meeting a friend in Times Square, though, it is halfway between us, and I thought of Sardi’s.  It was lunch, maybe we could swing it for lunch.

The waiters had jackets, the walls were the caricatures, and were the red I think a restaurant should be.  All restaurants should have red walls.  Except Greek restaurants, which should have white ones, and Mexican restaurants, which should be yellow.  The ceiling had acoustic tile, which reminded me this was a real place.

Amazing places are also real, hard to absorb, but true.  The pyramids in Egypt are, I guess, a real place.  I know the Louvre is real.  It was hard for me to believe it, though, when I was there.

We ate and had a good chat.  It was a late lunch, and there were only three tables of us left, the place had cleared out from the Wednesday matinee crowd.

“He’s in the bar area,” our waitress said to the couple next to us.

“Excuse me, who were you asking about?” my friend asked, thank God, because I was trying to figure out how to get them talking.

“Her brother, Arthur Miller,” the man said.

Then I had a heart attack and couldn’t think what to say.

For six years, I taught The Crucible.  “Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer,” I thought, rather than “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another!” which would have been cool.

Every time I taught it, with my five sections of juniors– so that is thirty times I read it– I would stop there and say, “Why does he say that?  Does beer not freeze?”

The kids were in chemistry that same year, and usually there would be one kid who would explain, “Alcohol doesn’t freeze.”  It was a test to see who knew about chemistry, or about liquor, as a junior in high school.  “You can put a bottle of vodka in the freezer,” someone might say, and I would think, Well, that tells me something about you.

I did not know about the freezing point of alcohol when I was a junior in high school because I was a nerd.

I wanted desperately for Arthur Miller’s sister to begin telling us her life story and I would have sat rapt the entire time, but I couldn’t think what to ask because I was stuck on, Arthur Miller was a real person, with a sister, and Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer.

For the record, I don’t think anyone would say my justice would freeze beer.  I would say, the quality of mercy is not strained, it drops as the gentle rain from heaven, another dramatic quote that sticks with me, this one from driving past the words engraved in the sign at the public hospital next to where I worked.

Arthur Miller was a real person, not a saint, wait, saints were real people, too.  Once.

Arthur Miller’s sister is not her name.  What was her favorite play?  I managed to ask.  She is an actress.  “Between jobs,” I said; she chuckled.

Death of A Salesman,” she said.

Well, I would have to read that again.  It had been a long time.

My imagined Broadway in New York is the ’40s and ’50s, those shows, their clothes, good wool and high heels and clothes that gave women shape instead of them being expected to provide it, and small drinks, little wine glasses, little martini glasses, automats.  Everything drier and sleeker and smaller.

This isn’t to say I don’t love being here now, a woman who isn’t married and doesn’t have to be, with current Times Square, much more money, much more diverse, less provincial, less formal.  I love the people dressed in cartoon character costumes, now confined to blue-painted patches of the sidewalk so they don’t get in the way of we civilians.  I love the embarrassing capitalist mess of it.

Joan Copeland is her name, and she was one of the first members of the Actors Studio, along with, you know, Elia Kazan.

I’m glad I didn’t know this while chatting with her, I would have lost my shit even more.

I was conscious of not asking her about her brother, being a sibling to someone so famous must be kind of a drag.  “What was your favorite part?” we asked.

She talked about playing parts in soap operas.  Which reminded me of my favorite old man I ever met in New York, a retired violinist for the Met.  I met him at MoMA, and he told me about hanging out with Rothko (who was also a real person, I know), and when I asked him what his favorite opera was, he said, “The shortest ones.”  Work is work.  And I wasn’t sure how clear her thoughts or memories were, she’s of an age to have so many thoughts and memories they could get crowded and jumbled.

“Has Sardi’s changed?” we asked.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I used to have that corner table every night,” she said.  “They saved it for me.”

“Wow,” I said.  I could also say that.

“When my brother was blacklisted, you couldn’t go eat in the restaurants if you were thought to be a liberal, you know, they said communist then, but a liberal, really.  Vincent not only let Arthur eat here, he would be out in the street and yell down to him, ‘Welcome, come on in.'”

I asked if I could take my picture with her, would she mind, she said no.  I sat next to her and she asked if she needed lipstick.  I said yes.  She pulled out her beautiful black satin clutch, fooled around in it for the lipstick and applied it to her bottom lip perfectly, looking into her palm as if it had a mirror in it but it did not.  Her fingernails were red, her blouse was just the right shape for her figure, her earrings dangled just below the length of her hair.

Someone mentioned men going bald, and she started singing, “A bald man…. don’t kiss a man/whose name you don’t know….  What song is that?”

We didn’t know.

“I usually think it’s a good idea,” I said, “but not always.”

She was in thirteen shows on Broadway, lots of soaps, and had bit parts on television and in movies.  She was an understudy for Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn.  She knew Marilyn Monroe from the Actors Studio, but did not know Monroe was dating her brother.  (“I’m not much up on gossip,” she reportedly said.)

I walked down subway stairs in love with her, “I am in love with her,” I thought, which made me start singing, in my head, “I’m in love/ I’m in love/I’m in love/I’m in love….”  That is maybe my favorite show.

I would rather, actually, meet Joan Copeland than Arthur Miller.  Most of us artists are small animals, the squirrels and sparrows of the art world, not lions like Arthur Miller.  We’re all related, though, all in that family, and it was lovely to meet a grandmother.


1620640_10202153579775256_1180488683_nThere was a sign in front of the hospital that said: “The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.  It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”  I used to drive by it every day.  It was in front of the public hospital, the place built on the land where two hospitals used to be, one black, one white, and where, my friends and I used to say, you wanted to be taken if you got shot, but not for any other reason.  Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, “the quality of mercy.”   That surprised me.

The title of Peter Brooks’ latest book is The Quality of Mercy.  I haven’t read it.  I went to see him speak because I happened to see his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream recreated at my high school, as well as a production of Marat/Sade.  I had this incredibly rich public education, sending me out of high school with Mozart and Brecht and Shakespeare and Van Gogh and pretty much guaranteeing I would be all right, and that I could go to any city in the western world and feel at home seeing and hearing these heavy hitters.

Peter Brook is a terrible, I mean terrible, interview.  Not Gene Simmons terrible, but worse than Stephen Sondheim.  I don’t think artists we love owe us anything more.  They’ve had a hard enough time producing the stuff we love.  They don’t have to be good people or good interviews or let you get your picture taken with them or anything.

It was amusing how bad the interview was.  Already, in line for the event, I was feeling a little funny, like, this is a line of people who know something.  New Yorkers (this isn’t an event big enough to come from anywhere else) who like theater, and serious theater.  I sort of felt like I belonged, having read The Empty Space and The Open Door, though some time ago.

As a beginning writer, theater books were important to me.  The same way I learned more about Christianity by reading Buddhist books, I learned more about writing from theater books.  Directing is like writing: you direct your characters and your story.  And acting is like writing, too: you channel these other people through you, and you have to get your head straight about what is happening when that happens, and what it means and doesn’t mean about you.

Theater books were more accessible.  And I spent a lot more time with theater people then.  They seemed very cool.  They knew how to talk to each other and hang out, which I had no idea how to do.

Later I was to spend more time with visual artists.  Maybe just because it was cheaper.  Theater costs money.  Gallery openings are not only free, but have free drinks, too.

Brook covered: exercises are not commandments.  They serve particular purposes.  He refused to be pinned down to anything, which made it seem like he was one of my friends.  He emphasized the importance of alertness, awakeness, like a Buddhist.  He said we do everything for the joy behind it.

Without particular concern for politeness, he dodged questions from earnest seekers wearing fabulous glasses.  He would not tell how to direct or act, leaving them with, “God knows!” or “I have no idea,” or “I hate questions like that.”  He refused to confirm anyone’s suspicions, solidify any practice, or state an opinion about any piece of theater anywhere, any time, let alone right now.

His teaching is his person, and he knows you can do it, too.

A great part, he said, “acts like a can opener.”  Parts of you you didn’t know “tingle, come to life.”  He was willing to say that acting is a balance between accessing your own emotions and accessing something “greater than oneself.”

The last question came from a guy who was either insane or a deeply committed absurdist.  This guy said some stuff no one understood, rambled about cycles and years and beginning and endings.

Instead of saying what the rest of us were thinking, which was, “What the hell?” Brook started suddenly speaking thoughtfully about the Indian calendar and how things were becoming “cruder and more vulgar.”  He wrapped up by telling us that theater should leave people with “a tiny bit more hope and courage.”  Although there were eight minutes left, no one, certainly not the whipped interviewer, was going to ask another question.

Two seats over, a man with white hair woke for the last time.  He had spent most of the lecture asleep.  Why he spent $30 and two hours to take a nap sitting up, I will wonder for a long time.

If I had been a disciple of Brooks’, I probably would have cried.  I agree with the guy, though: you can hardly ever teach anyone anything about anything, and I don’t think he was being a dick by refusing to be anyone’s idol.  Who cares what he thinks about this show or that?

Tonight we read this from Paul: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Not taking the opportunity to boss people around or tell them what’s up is mercy.  Dodging questions is being weak, is being foolish.  Refusing to let the exploration of art become a fossil, a code, does not feel good, but is honest.

Deleted Scenes

I’m storytelling on Sunday as part of America, Now and Here.  My yarn is about being abroad and mouthing off.  Because my time is so limited, I offer a few subplots that will, regretfully, be omitted:

When I was visiting London, I picked up this child.  I mean, I chatted up this guy, and it turned out he was about 19 1/2  (to my ancient 30), and he went to KU.  Me?  I learned to drink martinis at the Granada.  And the cousin I was visiting in London not only went to KU, he was in the middle of March madness, trying desperately to somehow watch all the games while overseas.  Of all the gin joints, right?

The boy was adorable.  And an English major.  I invited him to the party that I’ll discuss Sunday.  We snuggled up on the couch and he quoted long passages of Shelley.  I didn’t mind that.  I hope that as a young, poor college student, he appreciated access to unlimited Bombay Sapphire gin.  (We were in Britain, after all.)  He proceeded to get gleefully drunk, and then insist he would find his way back to his far-flung hotel alone, on foot, at 3 am.  Luckily, another departing guest volunteered to accompany him on the bus.

The other man I met in London was much too old.  I lined up for rush tickets to “The Tempest” one afternoon.  “The Tempest” is my favorite Shakespeare.  I had already seen Patrick Stuart (ya know, Captain Picard) in a different production of the same play on Broadway.  This is how spoiled I am!  That Broadway production was one of the most powerful pieces of theater I’ve ever seen.  Stuart doing the last speech of Prospero’s ripped me open.

Anyway, I’m lined up in this little theater.  The first time I’ve been in a London theater.  I’m imagining Dickens there.  There are two men in line ahead of me.  Since we’re there for hours, we start chatting.  The man old enough to be my father is a Shakespeare professor at some small British college.  He is charming, and we chatter on and on about Shakespeare and literature.  His son, who is my age, stands there silently and says nothing.  He clearly finds the idea of a Royal Shakespeare Company production to be only slightly less exciting than clipping his toenails.

We all scored tickets to the show eventually, and then I had barely had time to run to my cousin’s flat.  I absolutely would not go to the theater in regular old daytime attire.  I stopped, panting, in front of my cousin’s building, and the buzzer would not work.  My cousin was up there.  I could see him from the sidewalk.  I ducked into a cinematic red British phone booth, right across the street, and stared at the instructions.  I had one pound and a phone number with too many digits.  I managed it somehow, though, flew upstairs, threw on a lovely evening outfit, and ran back to the theater in heels.  Too young, too old– yes, every unhappy romantic encounter is unhappy in its own way.  But at least unhappiness makes better stories.

Storytelling is: Sunday, May 15, 6-9 pm, at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore, KCMO, 64108