Friday, December 01, 2006

On closing night, in the last hour before curtain…

Today's post is a reflection in response to this week's Sunday Scribblings prompt, In the last hour. As you'll see, it serves a couple of other purposes, too.

Several years ago, I lived in a community with an active and vibrant theatre community. It was local theatre, not professional, but the people who consistently participated had a passion for doing professional quality work and for genuinely exploring artistic expression and creativity.

During the time I lived there, I participated in a number of interesting productions, was cast as a wide variety of characters, and met a number of people with a broad range of personalities, interests, and lifestyles.

As an actor, I really enjoyed being able to explore ideas I might not have otherwise considered and working with a people I probably would not have met otherwise.

One man, in particular, comes to mind this evening. The play itself took a fictionalized look at Amelia Earhart, the people in her life, and the relationships involved. The play was told as a series of stories told to a newspaper reporter chronicling her disappearance.

The play was written by a local poet and had been selected for full production after a highly successful preview as a staged reading. The director of the staged production was so impressed by the staged reading that she asked the actors to reprise their roles in the full production. All but the reporter accepted.

Because we had already worked together before, there was an easy camaraderie between the returning actors during the first rehearsal. The new reporter, "Dennis," easily fit in with the rest of the cast as we began working to bring this new script to stage for the first time.

Dennis was disciplined and professional. He was always prepared, listened carefully, and gently shared ideas that helped lead to stronger and more authentic performances. He gave energy and responded to the energy he was given. All in all, he was a delight to work with.

Listening is one of the most important skills for an actor. Yes, you speak memorized lines in response to your cues and your movement across the stage is carefully choreographed for sight lines, composition, and audience focus. Yes, everything is staged, so to speak.

You repeat performance each night throughout the run of the show. You have to assume that no member of the audience has seen the show before, so you work to make each performance as fresh as the first. In my experience, the best actors do this by paying attention and listening actively.

By listening, you stay in the moment and are able to respond naturally to the innumerable variations that occur between each performance. Dennis was a master of this. He focused clearly on what the other actors were saying and, in doing so, kept the audience focused on the story unfolding before them.

During rehearsal, Dennis had an easy grace and was gently humorous. There are times, in a rehearsal, when you wait for the scene to continue. (Lighting rehearsals and costume fittings are notorious for this.) Some actors find this frustrating, as they feel they are pulled out of character just as they were getting into character.

Dennis, on the other hand, slipped in and out of character with the grace of Fred Astaire. Dennis would quietly chat while we were waiting for rehearsal to continue. During the weeks of rehearsal and performance, Dennis and I became casual friends. I enjoyed and learned from his professionalism. He was several years older than me and I'd started to think of him as a bit of a mentor.

On closing night, in the last hour before curtain, Dennis and I were preparing for the show. As he finished getting ready, I noticed Dennis taking some medicine. I asked if he was OK. He said he was. I said, "Good. I'd hate to see anything happen to you."

It was a comment meant to express my admiration for his work and the simple fact that I'd really enjoyed being in the show with him. It was a thank-you for making an artistic experience more enjoyable. I casually asked him what he was taking.

"AZT," he replied.

I looked at him and struggled to say something sympathetic and reassuring; however, he stopped me with that easy grace of his and reassured me that everything was going to be fine.

We went out and did the best performance we had done throughout the entire run. In one of the scenes that I had with Dennis, I marveled to myself how professionally and how focused he was on the show. His performance never wavered. He listened as actively as ever and gave his full attention to the performance.

A few leeks later, Dennis died.

While we weren't close, I was devastated, in part because this was the first time AIDS had touched someone I knew, someone I respected and had learned from. I wasn't unfamiliar with the details of the disease. In a current affairs course in college, I studied Randy Shilt's And The Band Played On. For my senior project, I and two other young men co-produced and co-starred in Harvey Fierstein's Safe Sex.

(The latter was "unusual enough" for the community that the local TV station taped a segment to run on their late night news program. We were also interviewed by the local NPR station. Raising what she thought was a delicate question, the interviewer said she assumed we were all straight men and asked what it was like to play a gay man. Without missing a beat, one of my partners replied that it was no different than asking a gay man to play a straight one. While marvelling at the elegance of the reply, I jealously wished I'd thought it first.)

I thought of these experiences as I grieved for my friend and realized that my previous understandings of the disease had changed and become more personal. Even in death, Dennis was still teaching me how to listen and how to focus.

I mention Dennis tonight because today is World AIDS Day.

In parting, I offer this small memoriam for my friend and everyone who's been taken or touched by this horrific disease.

Your body betrayed,
Your spirit fled. Yet, my friend,
In my heart, you live.

(Image borrowed, with minor edits, from Wikipedia.)


Anonymous Michelle said...

I have read And The Band Played On. It is an awesome book. I had a close friend who died in 1996--how I wish we had had the drugs we have now then. We turned such a blind eye.

My friend was an angel. He taught the Blood Borne Pathogens class at work. He listened to some pretty insensitive and cruel comments. He was able to shrug it off. I wish I could be more like he was.

Stan lives in my heart too. I'm sorry for your loss.

4:25 PM  
Blogger ren.kat said...

Thank you for this. I am still trying to track down my friends from those years when the "gay flu" was taking lives so quickly. I am also sorry for you loss.

I think we all lost something vital- faith in the warm humanity so many of us thought was an integral part of our communities and that disappeared when AIDS gave people an excuse to roll in their prejudices.

5:32 AM  
Blogger paris parfait said...

Excellent post and lovely tribute to your friend. I wrote about AIDS as well; too many friends and bright spirits have succumbed to its ravages, long before drugs were available. Once in San Francisco a guy was involved in an experimental drug trial for AIDS, which was conducted at my doctor's office. He asked me - who just happened to be the doctor's last "regular" patient of the day -to witness the legal agreement, as he had no one. I looked in his eyes and felt so sad, because he was dying and that drug was his last hope. It knocks me out how many people have been lost worldwide by the pandemic of AIDS and HIV - yet some people still protest teaching young teens about safe sex.

10:30 AM  

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