Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Show Must Go On

by Kathryn Miller Haines

Something awful* happened to me the other day. It’s the fourth time it’s happened in the last three years and its frequency isn’t making it any easier to deal with.

My day job, helmed by the best boss in the world, told me to take off as much time as I needed. Unfortunately, my theater company couldn’t do the same. In fact, each time this has happened I’ve had to commemorate the Awful Thing by doing a show within 24 hours.

We have understudies, but they’re not exactly on call 24/7 and so if they’re not available we’re stuck. As a result cast members have performed with broken hearts, laryngitis, pinkeye, pneumonia, and any number of colds and flus (and yes, people -- we perform around food). It’s the nature of the business. Theatre is one of the few jobs were you can’t call in sick.

Besides, it’s my company (or half mine anyway) and if we were to cancel a show because of me, that would mean four other people weren’t getting paid and the audience, which in many instances has been planning this event for months in advance, is disappointed or worse: litigious.

There have been times when we’ve done shows when we knew the audience was dealing with their own Awful Thing. We performed on Sept. 12, 2001, for a consulting firm that had lost two people in the twin towers. We’ve been approached by people after shows who wanted to tell us that this is the first time they’ve been out since they lost their child or spouse, or just found out their cancer had reoccurred. It’s always great to hear that you’ve given someone a respite from whatever pain they’re suffering by doing a silly little show. In fact, I think it’s the main reason why I’m still doing it after all these years.

It’s weird to be on the other side of the Awful Thing though. If we’re doing our job well, the audience never knows when we’re suffering, never suspects that minutes before we walked on stage we were brushing away tears or downing a Vicodin and praying it kicked in before the big dance number. And they’re no kinder for their ignorance (I’ve been heckled hours after the Awful Thing happened and desperately wanted to grab the nut and scream, “do you have any idea what happened to me today?!”). But then that’s not the audience’s job. They’re not there to be sympathetic to a suffering actor. They’re there to be entertained.

It sounds weird, but performing has become part of my healing process. Putting on a costume and pinning on a bad wig allows me to be someone else for a while and forget whatever it is I’m going through. I’m not Kathy the girl experiencing the Awful Thing, but Shirley, a 1920’s whore whose greatest tragedy is when she has to make change for a client (quite an embarrassment when you’re only charging ten cents to begin with). Emotionally I get to disconnect and lose myself in the ritual of performance. It’s nice being part of a world, however temporarily, where you know exactly what everyone is going to say and do next.

I’m trying to make writing function in the same way. In the past, I always let the Awful Thing serve as an excuse to stop writing for a while, which inevitably made returning to a project difficult not only because of the delay, but because the project became emblematic of the time before the Awful Thing happened. But I’ve realized that diving into a project is an extremely effective diversion from whatever I’m dealing with. It allows me the same temporary escape as performing and provides an outlet for emotions that desperately need a release.

So what about you? How do your own Awful Things affect your creative process?

P.s. it’s 17 days until the launch of The Winter of Her Discontent at Mystery Lovers Bookshop! If you’re in the area, please join us from 7-9:00 PM on Friday, June 27th.

[*in case you’re curious and inclined to skip ahead, I’m not going to explain what my awful thing is. I think we all have terrible things in our lives that we can plug in and equivocate to my experience.]


Tory said...

A couple months ago when my own "awful thing" reared its ugly head after a several-year respite, I was writing a seed grant. I told a friend of mine, "I'm submerging my pain in data." She assured me that many of her friends did the same (she's a professor at Pitt.) Something about those cold, hard numbers was immensely reassuring.

Sorry to hear about your "awful thing"!

I'm planning on making your book party, but don't have anything 40s to wear and can't imagine finding anything that will fit. Any alternatives to 40s garb?

Joyce said...

Sorry to hear about your "awful thing." I'm also one of the escapist types. If something bad happens, I just don't think about it, hoping it will just go away. It doesn't, but it's easier to deal with that way.

Tory, I've been doing some research on 40s fashion. A knee-length, or just below the knee-length skirt and one of the new blouses with the puffy sleeves can come close enough to work. Wide leg pants would work, too. As for shoes, the Mary Janes with the clunky high heels, or wedgies will work.

I also found directions for a 1940s "updo" for short hair. It involves a lot of pincurls, which I remember my mother doing to me as a kid. Hey, at least pincurls beat using the curling iron that she used to heat up on the stove. That thing fried your hair!

martha reed said...

Kathy, very thought-provoking post! You can take the 'awful thing' idea a bit further when you notice that the day-to-day things never happen to our characters - no one ever needs to go to the bathroom or eat in most work - we seem to negate that in order to tell a pure story.

I wonder if that's what we do when we write (or act) it? We still function in this place, eating and sleeping, etc., but when we go in to write (or act), we leave our daily existence behind?

Is that escape? Or liberation?

kristine said...

Kathy, I'm sorry you've had to go through an "awful thing." Whatever it is, I know you have the strength to get through it.

I find the arts (reading, writing, theater) to be great for escaping reality, where "awful things" happen. We can't control life or take away the bad stuff (if only we could!), but we can slip into a different world, at least for a few hours.

Hang in there. ((Big Hugs))

Congratulations on your new book!

ramona said...

Kathy, I'm sorry about your Awful Things, and the ones that came before it as well. I'm glad you have an outlet, or distraction, for your pain.

Writers have a saying: "It's all material." Meaning, whatever terrible thing you are experiencing, the upshot is that you can use it in your work. This is often true, but sometimes not. The only time I kept a journal of sorts was during a particularly difficult time in my life. I have never re-read what I wrote. The idea of using an Awful Thing as a plot device is a bit too callous for me.

I think when you are experiencing an Awful Thing, just getting through the day is a performance of sorts.

Thanks for writing this. It is a thought-provoking blog.

KathyMH said...

First off: please don't stress about the '40's clothes. It's by no means a requirement to come to the party;) I'll be happy to see you no matter what you're wearing (but please, for the love of Mary Alice and Richard, be wearing something).

That's an interesting observation about fiction, Martha. The other side of the coin is, much like soap operas, they're full of awful things happening one after another, none of which we've usually experienced firsthand ourselves.

I've been painting my kitchen as my way of submerging, Tory. Since I don't do numbers, the simple physical activity seems to have a similar effect. Now if I can just get the dogs to stop leaning against the wet cabinets.

Annette said...

Kathy, what???? NO NUDISTS at your party???

I, too, am sorry for your awful thing. Having gone through a whole year of assorted awful things recently, I can also say that I try to escape. Sometimes you can't. But delving into the life of my character and getting my head into someone else's problems definitely helps.

And, Ramona, it's been my experience that you don't have to use THE awful thing as a plot device, but you can definitely use the emotions you've felt to bring a deeper truth to your writing.

That is, IF you're willing to visit that dark part of your psyche and mine it for those gold nuggets.

Gina said...

Kathy -
I'm also sorry to hear about your awful thing, but I know from personal experience that using the horrible emotions from awful things in our art can help us heal. As trite as that sounds, it really is true.

nancy said...

Kathy, I'm sure you already know this, but your book is going to help a lot of people through their own Awful Things. Your writing will brighten someone's afternoon---a gratifying and yet humbling feeling.

Mary said...

When I was still teaching, I noticed that "awful things" disappeared while I was teaching a class. I might deflate completely at the end of the day, but while in front of a class, I was THERE (sometimes my voice wasn't, but pantomime and writing on the board would work; our students had a policy of being very helpful when I was under the weather and saving their "tricks" for another day). I find the same thing with storytelling. I flew to Utah for a conference right after a serious fall (at the police station). Much pain, but not when I gave my workshop or told my stories! It's magic! (and may you always have enough of it)