The late Mary Payne (1932–1996), founder and longtime director of Island Theatre Workshop (ITW), was utterly shameless about drafting people into theater (or theatre — you choose). I was one of them. She needed help with PR. She knew I was a writer. QED.
As I recall, it was Molière’s The Miser that was in rehearsal when she “suggested” I show up at Katharine Cornell Theatre at one of several possible times. Finding the place was easy — it’s above the Tisbury Town Hall on Spring Street — but I had to walk on by several times before I mustered the nerve to go up the stairs and through the double doors. Timorous newbie that I was, my imagination conjured a cavernous space filled with people I didn’t recognize going about their business with no interest in me.
What I found was a bustling but cozy place with light streaming through tall windows and two or three small dogs scampering here, there, and everywhere in complete violation of the rules. My most vivid memories of that production include Terry Zaroff playing Frosine in impossibly high heels and Christopher Lyons playing musical commentary on the grand piano at the front of house right. For the lead Mary had drafted Jonathan Revere, whose previous acting experience, if any, had been decades before. He proved perfect for the part and went on to play many more.
I wrote the press release and delivered it to the papers, picked up posters from Tisbury Printer and helped distribute them around the island, and was listed in the program under Publicity.
That first encounter turned out to be portentous, fortuitous, and, in a word, transformational. I went on to stage-managing, first as the assistant stage manager in a reprise production of Macbeth. With Medea I got to watch a production grow from casting through rehearsal though the last performance. That Medea, with Lee Fierro in the title role, was intense almost beyond bearing.
I was giving readings fairly frequently in those days, so I picked up plenty from watching Mary direct and actors act. Mary coached me from time to time. The most important bit of advice she gave me when performing my own work was to come to it as if someone else had written it. Don’t assume that just because you wrote it you can put it across to an audience. Rehearse, goddammit.
I started writing with performance in mind, reading everything out loud as I worked on it. One of the best things I’ve ever written was a poem-monologue, “The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom After a Performance of Macbeth.” You can guess where that came from, and you can read it at the end of this post. I performed it often, and usually “off book,” i.e., from memory.
Having learned a bit about how a show was put together, I fell into theater reviewing for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. I’d reviewed plenty of books before I got to the Vineyard, but this was different. For one thing, with a theater production you couldn’t flip back to see if you’d missed something, and deadlines being deadlines you usually couldn’t see the show twice.
For another, you were reviewing performances by people you’d often worked with and would almost certainly run into on the street the day the paper came out. At the time the prevailing “rule” was “Never say anything negative about anybody.” My goal was to give readers an idea of whether the production was worth the time and ticket price or not, and to maybe give cast, crew, and/or director something they could use.
My friendship with Mary Payne frayed somewhat over this. We had a rather fraught exchange on the op-ed pages of the M.V. Times and a shouting match on the staircase of the Vineyard Playhouse, which I think had to do with my then-partner’s decision to take a role in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, a play Mary hated as lesbophobic. This was a big reason that most of my theatrical activity in the 1990s took place at the Vineyard Playhouse, then under the direction of its co-founder Eileen Wilson.
Eventually, not surprisingly, I dabbled in acting, usually at the Playhouse, especially in the wonderful short-play festival that ran for a few years in the mid-1990s and also in staged readings for the New England new playwrights competition that the Playhouse sponsored in those days.
Also not surprisingly, I dabbled a bit in playwriting, turning out three one-acts, including one inspired by my experience as an extra in a Tisbury Amphitheater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In my A Midsummer Night’s Alternative, all the couples were gay or lesbian. If I do say so myself, it was stylish, funny, and all in iambic pentameter.
After the mid-1990s the grassroots theater scene dwindled. Island Theatre Workshop was never the same after Mary Payne died unexpectedly in October 1996, and the Vineyard Playhouse took a turn for the professional, becoming a mostly Equity theater. If it had continued to thrive, I almost certainly would have written more plays.
But what I learned doing theater is all over my fiction. To learn more about my characters, I write monologues in their voices — a trick I learned from one director I worked with. As writer, I’m often the stage manager or director, watching my actors move about the stage, giving the occasional direction or prompt, thinking about what blocking might be more effective. And I have to say I’m pretty damn good at dialogue.
Last fall, strange but true, I was hired to write a full-length script from a concept developed by someone who died in 2015. It was a stretch in multiple ways — not only had I never written a full-length play but this play includes music (which I don’t have to write), is set in the 1850s, and involves working with an advisory board — but the second draft of the project just had its first read-through and it went well. For more about it, see “Fundraiser for 1854.”
The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom
After a Performance of Macbeth
Who am I? Let me tell you what I do.
Within these walls I manage time and space,
make sure the pitcher’s on its hook before
its bearer wants it, warn the messenger
he’s on soon, check to see his torch is lit
and that the backstage lights are out. Right now
I’m cleaning up debris from this night’s show.
Is this a dagger I see before me?
It is, but split in pieces. I’m the one
who tapes it back together after hours.
Tomorrow night this plastic dagger turns
to steel, honed sharp enough to pierce a haunch
of gristly meat — or Duncan’s royal breast.
Before each show I sweep the stage. I see
green needles strewn where Birnam Wood has come
to rest the night before. I shiver, chilled,
as if I’d slept and woken centuries hence
with all my friends and family dead. And then
I sweep them all away. “Out, out, damn trees!”
I cry, “You haven’t come here yet! Begone!”
Here, separate ages stream like shimmering strands
in one great waterfall, and time dissolves.
Mere mortals we, what havoc do we wreak?
Elizabethan Shakespeare conjured up
Macbeth, medieval Scottish thane, and we
invoke them both, in nineteen eighty-six.
I watch the people enter, choose their seats,
and rustle through their programs. Normal folk,
it seems, and yet this gentle summer night
they’ve purchased tickets to a barren heath,
a draughty castle primed for treachery.
Right now the lights are up, the theatre walls
are strong, the windows fixed within their frames.
At eight o’clock the howling winds begin,
the wolves close in, the sturdy walls are gone.
These common folk, I wonder, have they bought
enough insurance? Have they changed their bills
for gold and silver coin? If challenged by
a kilted swordsman, how would they explain
their strangely tailored clothes?
No loyal lord
or rebel threatens me. Between the worlds,
or through this velvet curtain, I can move
at will. I warn the sound technician, “Ten
more minutes,” then I pass backstage to say,
“The house is filling up.” The Scottish king
is drinking ginger ale; a prince-to-be
in chino slacks is looking for his plaid.
The Thane of Glamis is pacing back and forth,
preoccupied with schemes to win the crown,
or trouble with his car. I prowl backstage,
alert for things and people out of place.
Last night I found a missing messenger
outside the theatre, smoking cigarettes.
I called him back in time: Macbeth’s bold wife
demanded news — What is your tidings?; he
was there to gasp, The king comes here tonight!
No phone lines run to Inverness, no news
at six o’clock. (Walter MacCronkite’s face
appears and says that base Macdonwald’s head
was nailed upon the wall, that Cawdor’s fled
and Glamis has been promoted; polls predict
he might go higher still.) The kingdom’s nerves
are messengers who run from king to thane
to lady. Take the Thane of Ross, who comes
to tell his cousin that her husband’s flown
to England, leaving her unguarded; then
he takes himself abroad, to where Macduff
and other rebel lords are planning war.
Macduff’s unguarded lady fares less well.
A breathless runner pleads, “Be not found here;
hence, with your little ones!” but on his heels
come murderers, death-arrows from the king.
Two sons, a daughter, and their mother die
with piercing shrieks that vibrate in my spine.
With piercing shrieks vibrating in my spine,
I contemplate a different line of work;
this sending harmless people to their deaths
is bad for my digestion, and what’s more,
it’s happening much too often. First I let
King Duncan in, and he gets killed in bed.
Could I have known so soon that Cawdor’s heart
was rotten? No. But shortly after, I
send scoundrels to the banquet hall; Macbeth
himself has called them. Not the kind of guest
that Duncan entertained! And then I tell
Macbeth’s friend Banquo and his son it’s time
to join the party. What about the thieves
I know are lurking on the gate road, dressed
to kill? But Banquo is a fighting man,
well-armed, and Fleance does escape. Not so
Macduff’s fair lady, and her kids. Could I
prevent their deaths? What if I plied the brutes
with Scotch? They might get drunk enough to lose
their maps, or drop their knives, or fall asleep.
What if I whispered in the lady’s ear,
“Don’t go outside today — and bar the doors.”
I doubt she’d pay attention. Each one goes
to meet the dagger destined for his breast.
Perhaps I’d get my point across if I
could speak in rhyme and paradox, the way
the witches do, with fair is foul, and foul
is fair. The witches manage time and space
like me; you could call me the unseen witch.
I wonder, are they working from a script?
You’ll see: the second sister sweeps the stage
as I do, clearing them the space they need
to cast their circles. We both summon kings
and apparitions out of time, although
our methods differ some. “You enter soon,”
I warn, “stage right.” Mundane, compared to how
my sisters work, with Double, double, toil
and trouble, cauldron, fire, and lengthy list
of weird ingredients — the eye of newt
and toe of frog, the blood of sow that ate
her piglets — but we get the same results.
Our audience is moved to awe, and then
proceeds along its merry way to rendez-vous
with fate, or Birnam Wood, or man not born
of woman. They get blamed for it. I don’t.
The witches disappear, and one last time
prince Malcolm calls his kin to see him crowned
at Scone. The set is struck, costumes returned
to cardboard boxes, wooden banquet bowls
and Scottish flag to rightful owners; kings
go home to mow the lawn or fix the car.
Where did the blasted heath go off to? I
am leaning on my broom again. What stays
when all the parts spin off? Just memories
of daggers, prophecies, and anguished screams?
The air still tingles here. The gates remain
but smaller, well concealed. I might reach in
and conjure back that knife, that messenger.
“There’s knocking at the gate,” the lady says,
“Give me your hand! What’s done cannot be undone.”
To bed, she says. To bed, to bed, to bed.