I built stuff last night. The put-on-your-crappy-jeans and get-your-hands-dirty kind of stuff. Real stuff to create a theatrical set. A few years ago, I made the jump from happy but shy theater-goer to curious and eager theater-doer. The conversation went like this:
MANAGER: “You’re here [at Live Arts] all the time [watching shows]. Would you like to get involved?”
ME: “Oh no, you don’t understand. I’m a scientist, I don’t have a creative bone in my body. And I don’t know anything about theater.”
MANAGER: “It’s ok, we’ll teach you.”
That was 2008. Since then, I’ve been a backstage dresser, a stage manager, a light board operator, a dramaturge, an usher, a house manager, a bartender, and a set builder/painter. Yesterday was the first set build for an upcoming production of Sarah Ruhl‘s IN THE NEXT ROOM, a show I have the immense honor of producing for Live Arts (producer? Yikes, why do I feel like Leo Bloom all of a sudden?). Live Arts is an all-volunteer theater, from the directors and actors and all the way down to the ushers and stage hands. It draws from the incredible wealth of talents that bathes the greater Charlottesville community. And from healthy enthusiasm and willingness to learn something new, when talent is not obvious. Last night, I worked with J, whom I met at Live Arts a few years ago. Our friendship was forged over masonite, three-inch screws and many slices of pizza. Our job was to trace the lay out of the stage onto the floor so that we could later arrange the platforms more easily. Armed with measuring tape, a level, a square, Sharpies, spike tape and a snap-line, we drew out the stage – an octagon. After the last line was snapped and corners were spiked, we checked our handy work by measuring the distance between the two far corners.
J: We should have 14’6″ across
ME: Um, we have 14’4″
J: Crap. [PAUSE]. Well, let’s just split the difference and add an inch at each corner. It’ll be fine.
I adjusted the spike tape, worrying the front end of the stage/set would look wonky. I thought about our careful measuring and taping. Where did we loose two inches? Did we mis-measure? We planned the job well, but in the end it came out a little off. That made me nervous.
What is it about measurements and planning and? We go about our lives making plans, big and small, and we expect life to “go according to plan.” We like our calendars filled out months in advance and our sock drawers neatly arranged – but seriously who really does that? We know from past experiences that plans don’t always work out, unless you’re a silly character in a ridiculous movie (The Wedding Planner, anyone?). We understand that plans change but we can’t help wanting them to be set in stone. What is it about plans that is so appealing? Plans bring a sense of control and, implicitly, a sense of security – control over a life that, whether we accept it or not, can never be neatly divided into little boxes and told by a single linear narrative. Because life is messy! Life is a kaleidoscope of soul-elevating highs, devastating lows and daily little mishaps that collide all at random. And maybe, just maybe, that is actually a wonderful thing. How about not fighting the detours and setbacks, but instead pausing to observe them? How about minding the gap between the plan and the outcome? From the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “to mind” (intransitive verb) 1. to be attentive or wary; 2. to become concerned; 3. to pay obedient heed or caution. Minding the gap is the opportunity to reflect, learn, and come up with an alternative. A chance to be creative. Sometimes, it’s just a two-inch gap, and it can become part of your new plan effortlessly. The audience will never know that we messed up our initial measurements once the set is completed, dressed, and lit. Sometimes it’s a massive gap – a divorce, in my case – and it sucks and it hurts and it brings everything I thought I had figured out into question. But it is also an incredible opportunity to redesign my life, rethink what really matters, mind the gap and get to know myself better. And love the end product, because I will have crafted it carefully and compassionately.
Whether onstage, backstage, or offstage, theater is a safe yet often brutally honest space for quality introspection. The life-changing kind, if you’re willing to mind the gap.