I ditched the prompt book I was using; the prompts were too boring and general. I’ve just googled “prompts” and this website was the first result.
The first prompt is “set your story backstage at the theater.”
Well, I don’t want to write a story, so I will instead use this as a prompt for nonfiction, which is easy because I spent a woefully large portion of my young life backstage at the theater (I am a recovering actor), and so I have an infinite number of stories that spring to mind.
The first one that I thought of, however, was from the first play I did in college. It was a production of Inherit the Wind, and the two leads were career actors that had been cast and flown in from New York. One of them had lost his short-term memory, but nobody realized that until after he was cast and rehearsals had begun.
It’s sort of an in joke among actors that if you tell anyone you’re an actor, one of the first questions is “how do you memorize all those lines?” This is a really stupid question, because it has nothing to do with the art of performance. It’s a boringly prosaic question that underplays what is exciting or impressive about acting. It’s like asking an astronaut “how do you shit in zero gravity?” (Which of course is one of the main things we do all want to know.) But also, memorizing lines is simply not difficult; it’s never an issue. The stupidest people on earth (and a huge portion of the stupidest people on earth become actors) can memorize a lot of lines. It’s true that I still have nightmares today where I’m about to go on-stage and I suddenly realize that I haven’t memorized my lines, but in real life, this was never something I worried about.
However, in this production, we all discovered that if someone were incapable of memorizing lines, it could pose a lot of problems! We all got to experience this as the play wore on, because this actor was just winging it every night and you never knew when he’d drop a scene altogether or just go blank and fish-mouth at you in the middle of things. This was particularly trying for me because we had a lengthly scene where he interrogated me on the stand, and while in many scenes, you could improv your way out of him forgetting his lines and drive the scene where it needed to go, there wasn’t really a realistic way for me to lead myself through an interrogation. This particular scene required me to break down in tears, which I wasn’t good at, and it was very difficult to get there emotionally while also being alert to the possibility that I might somehow have to figure out a way to fill ten minutes of dead air. The director finally allowed him to carry his highlighted script on stage, poorly camouflaged in a clipboard as “attorney’s notes,” but anachronism aside, it didn’t even help. He’d do a lot of “LET ME CONSULT MY NOTES” and then flip through the pages.
Everyone in the cast (and especially the director) hated him because he wasn’t really a very nice person on top of the forgetfulness issue. He behaved like a diva, he was pompous and a braggart, and he was creepy to me personally in the way that old men are often creepy to pretty young women (we had to be nice about this sort of thing back then; I don’t think girls have to be so much anymore, which is awesome). I had no empathy for him. I didn’t really have empathy at all at that age, and especially not for people who were causing me trouble.
But one night, I was passing backstage to get in the right place for my next entrance, and I passed the actor tucked back behind a flat sitting hunched over a desk with a booklight and his highlighted script with his head in his hands muttering the lines for his next scene quietly to himself over and over. He was always there, doing that, but for some reason, I especially took notice of it on this one night.
And I realized all in a flash what a horrible experience he was having. Here he was in probably the twilight years of what was likely never an especially lucrative or flourishing career, and he was discovering that he was no longer mentally capable of doing the one thing he knew how to do. He’d been flown down to this hick town as a big deal professional actor who had been on Law & Order!!! (this was impressive to a bunch of 19-year-olds in Tennessee) and he looked a fool in front of all of them. He was deeply disliked by all of us and he knew it; he was being mocked behind his back by a troupe of teenagers. And it probably didn’t help that his fellow actor was doing an incredible job and was furthermore beloved by all of us (he was a super chill guy with great stories). Every night he was experiencing the deep sick panic that all actors dream about — losing all of his lines and blocking in front of a packed theater — but it was actually happening to him. And then he had to show up the next night and go through it all again. And there was not one thing he could do about any of it. I realized that most of his boasting was overcompensating for his fear and self-loathing.
I don’t mean to give him too much credit here: I do not think he was a very nice person at the best of times, but this would have been an especially low moment for anyone. I did have more empathy towards him after that, and it made it easier for me to perform with him.
But because I was an asshole with no self-esteem back then, I still made fun of him with everyone else whenever I had the opportunity.