This article was first published at Bitter Lemons http://socal.bitter-lemons.com/learn/article/3241.
You’re working your @$$ off up there, then you glance over and there’s this big blond doofus in the audience with his eyes closed. And you try not to let it bug you, but it bugs you. How could you have failed so badly? The weeks of rehearsal, the actor homework you struggled over, that moment in the show when everything kicked up a notch like it never had, then you glanced over and saw: me. Sleepy McBlondie, with my head tilting to one side and my eyes shut tight. Now it’s all ruined and you want to give up the acting thing forever because man the show was good that night except for that one damn guy with the ultimate critique of closed eyelids.
But like that ex-lover who you never fully believed, I’m here to say: it’s not you, it’s me.
The mechanism of storytelling is so damned interesting precisely because it is bidirectional: you don’t ever tell a story in a vacuum. Around the proverbial campfire, the teller of tales relies on cues from his or her audience to shape the story as it’s told; theatre artists are all aware of the charge we get when an audience is truly engaged in what’s happening onstage, or on the other hand, how we know a moment needs to be revisited when an audience consistently fails to engage; even art forms that seem to be one-way, like movies or novels or paintings or records, are still ultimately dependent on audience reactions, which can be, to put it mildly, a bit variable. One quick story to illustrate the point:
I don’t know who the lady was who cried out during a screening of Dead Man Walking all those years ago. But in that moment (yeah yeah, spoilers, blah blah) when the curtain is pulled back on Sean Penn’s character, strapped Christ-like to a table shortly before his execution, a woman in that audience made an anguished sound somewhere between a gasp and a sob. (Me, I thought the moment a bit heavy-handed.) And when she did, the rest of us in the audience had a heightened reaction to the moment on screen, as we all wondered: was this woman someone with a relative who was or had been on death row? Had she lost someone to a killer who had subsequently been executed? Was she a Christian offended by the imagery? A particularly sensitive critic who also thought the moment heavy-handed? I can’t know, but the experience has always lived in my head as a reminder of the fact that whatever stories we’re telling are, and must be, informed and shaped by the stories of the people we’re telling to. It’s a kind of narrative dialectic: my story meets your story, they dance and spin, and with luck a new kind of truth finds its way to light.
Or, in my case, I fall asleep during your show.
A couple weeks ago I went to see A Gulag Mouse at Sacred Fools. As soon as I walked in, I looked around and my heart sank: alley staging. The performers in the middle of the space with the audience, sitting on shallow risers of only three or four rows, on either side. So no matter where I sat, I would be very visible to all of the performers and to about half of the audience. Naturally the friend who’d suggested we go that night plunked himself down in the front row. Then he told me that the playwright, Arthur M. Jolly, was sitting almost directly across from me in the other section. This was going to be terrible. Half an hour later, despite my very motivated efforts to remain awake, and despite my fiancee looking over regularly to check on me, I was asleep.
(Extra weirdness: over time, I’ve gotten better at hiding from my fiancee that I’m falling asleep. She’s a good sport who has made it part of her own theatre-going experience to nudge me when necessary; but without deliberately trying to, I seem to have developed a balancing ability to mask my sleepiness from her alone. To look awake on my right side but asleep on the left. Why would I do this? Your guess is as good as mine. People are strange.)
But I’m your audience, this is part of my story, and it accompanies me just about everywhere I go. I fall asleep during movies, during meetings, during classes and seminars and workshops. Back in Chicago, riding the L, I used to stand with my back braced against one wall of the train at rush hour, reading, and would often find myself falling asleep, sliding into a heap where I stood. (So glad this was in the days before camera phones were everywhere…) My writing partner is so familiar with the look of my mental switchoff that he no longer tries to revive me but just says “Okay, we’re done for the day.” Oddly, I don’t fall asleep while driving. This is not about narcolepsy—the natural anxiety of driving keeps me awake, which would not be true if I were narcoleptic. I don’t nod off at the gym, I don’t collapse at the grocery store, I’ve never tumbled to the ground while out on a walk. (Except from sheer clumsiness, which is a different part of my story.) Rather, it seems to be the comfort and relaxation of being in a place I love—sitting in an audience—that perversely makes me zone out on the very thing I love so much.
I’ve done a sleep study at UCLA and we have working theories on why I fall asleep so often, but more doctor visits will be required before any kind of real headway is made. Suffice it to say that my regular nighttime sleep gets all these mini-interruptions, so I’m always a bit sleep-deprived. And when I’m out in the world doing things, headlong in the rush-rush go-go of the everyday, there is of course no chance to catch up. So as soon as I reach a place where I don’t have to do something, where there’s no rush-rush and no go-go, my brain seems to say to me, “Finally! Geez, dude, thanks for slowing down a little at last. Time to grab some Zs. How much did you pay for this show? Ah well, such a shame, now down you go.” (This may be why I’ve been unconsciously trying to fool my fiancee: I love that she’s trying to keep me engaged during the show, but apparently I need the sleep even more.) This is, I suppose, good for my health, to be catching up on sleep somehow; but as someone who really genuinely loves theatre and movies and reading and all the rest of it, it’s a source of massive frustration and embarrassment.
I’m sorry. I really am. It’s disrespectful, if not downright insulting, to those of you up there working so hard. But after a couple decades of this, the work of trying to cure it is both ongoing and, as far as I can presently tell, without resolution. And all I can say is, again, for better and sometimes worse, I’m part of your audience. Storytelling is a many-laned road. And this is the story I carry along on my back, interacting with the one you’re trying to tell.
But here’s the chain of logic that I’m hoping we can all run with. Since I only fall asleep when I’m comfortable, relaxed and happy, then ipso facto, if I’m zonked out during your show, it means I’m having a good time. Therefore all your hard work has not been for naught, and my tilted head and slumped shoulders are really a sign of success. You can go home and say to the loved ones in your life, “Tonight’s show was awesome! The big blond dude was out in three minutes flat!”