Maybe it was a mistake to come back to her university as an old lady. She couldn’t remember why she had wanted to, but she couldn’t remember a lot of things anymore. Maybe that was it — she was trying to remember herself. Or maybe it was just that she’d stumbled onto a YouTube interview with John Lahr about his biography of Tennessee Williams: “Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOac-ZgbhtA Tennessee Williams had been a sort of specialty of her acting career.
The big double front doors were locked — it was summer and she was only a little surprised. The building only had classrooms and offices — the little auditorium was used for rehearsals mostly since the big new drama building had been finished. But there was a screen door at the side, open for ventilation — still no air-conditioning. A loud vacuum cleaner was running inside. Nothing to do with acting — just a custodian. It made so much noise that she was able to slip inside and move backstage without being noticed.
Things were not much different. The modern way seems to be to just abandon old structures and build new — new materials and, of course, so many more technical things to be added, the lights run from an iPod tablet held by someone sitting with the audience -- via Blue-Tooth or something, a lot of projection, a proper sound system. But — reassuringly — up above there were still flies hanging from battens and a pin-rail for their ropes. There were still flats, still the grit of paint particles underfoot. She was wearing flat sandals and knew what her feet would look like when she took the sandals off at home. For some reason the stage lights were on, with that familiar scent of scorched metal and gels. She crossed through pools of light. The roaring of the vacuum went right on.
Furniture and props were here and there. She sat in a wing chair. It felt familiar, but surely not. Decades had passed. Lately she had almost been wishing that she hadn’t been so idealistic about remaining a theatre actor, because it takes stamina to be onstage for a couple of hours, it takes brains to remember all the levels of awareness, and focus to keep the playwright’s intention moving through to the destination. If you are only in front of a camera, you can reshoot or shoot in pieces, which would be a godsend now that she couldn’t remember more than a few sentences of lines. They could even hold up prompting placards for you.
Sometimes there were memories that came back all out of order and with unknown significance. The interview about Tennessee had made her think about “Summer and Smoke,” the first play she had ever read. When she turned in her book report, the junior high teacher looked at her with raised eyebrows and asked, “Do you think you really understood it?” She was maybe fourteen and didn’t date. But she thought she understood.
At university she used Alma for acting class exercises. On this very stage. Tremblingly, she had sung, “Rock of Ages,” and confounded her classmates. They couldn’t tell how much was acting and how much was just her, repressed and head-tripping, far too idealistic. “Notional,” someone said. To be an actress she had to get grounded. The famous Method professor said, “Cut. Flunk. Next.” But that didn’t make her quit.
A few lines came into her head . . . “I loved you as long ago as the time I asked you to read the stone angel's name with your fingers. Yes, I remember the long afternoons of our childhood, when I had to …” She couldn’t remember.
“You never could learn your lines properly!” said a voice from the back of the stage. By now the roaring of the vacuum had gone out to the foyer and the audience work lights were turned off. The old wooden seating had been replaced by traditional red plush, but the stage lights only spilled onto the first few rows. Then she recognized the voice behind her — it was the man who had generously played John, the doctor. She’d been terrified to ask him to do it, but he was good about it.
He walked downstage to the light. She grinned at him, delighted, and said, “I was surprised that you never went on in the theatre. You were so good!”
“I much prefer writing, but the acting training helped.”
“Even though you don’t write plays?”
“Drama is in everything.” He found a short stool and pulled it under him as he sat in one graceful movement. “I hear you were a big hit in your last performance as Amanda Wingfield.”
“Did you see that YouTube interview with John Lahr about his bio of Tennessee?”
“Yes. Very interesting.”
“Do you think he had it right, that Tennessee’s mother was a kind of fulminating narrator who spilled out plot lines for others to act out, so overwhelmingly that all boundaries got swept away and everyone had to run away to avoid being engulfed? That she imposed her inner fantasy life on everyone around her?”
Her old friend laughed. “He called her an hysteric, which is a kind of old-fashioned term, but if you can keep from lecturing about women’s wombs, the category seems fair.”
“And then do you think he himself was a male hysteric? Not at first but later after the success, the way Lahr thought he became?”
They chatted on for a little while, catching up on friends and colleagues. Pretty soon he had to leave, though he was plainly enjoying himself, but she still sat in the wing chair, mulling over her first topic, the Method of mixing one’s own characteristics with the role. By now she was so used to crossing boundaries between her acting, her practical daily life, her inner story that ran along underneath it all, that sometimes everything merged a bit. Did that mean she had become an hysteric and that’s why she was a good portrayer of Amanda? But maybe her mind was slipping away and she was ready to be Laura, lobotomized and peaceful, just as Tennessee was reputed to be when he was stoned.
She jumped and quickly looked around. There was a head sticking up from the orchestra pit.
“Sorry, Missus. It’s just that I’m going to lock up now. I’m turning the lights out.”
“Thank you.” She staggered a little bit when she stood up. Balance was going. What WAS that word written by that kneeling stone angel and her two hands together, offering water?