Reflections on making theater, and my family reacting to it.
My grandpa – my dad’s dad – was an academic, and a school administrator. He had PhDs in both religion and physics, I think, from Princeton?
He was also a big fan of opera. They had a TV upstairs in the bedroom – this was the 80s, early nineties. And we would all pile onto the bed, or pull up chairs, to watch The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni or whatever. There must have been subtitles. This was on VHS, I don’t remember.
I loved the part where they drag Don Giovanni to hell, The orchestra swells, there’s smoke and red lights coming through the stage floor, and I think hands reach up to drag him down? Like, can you imagine anything cooler?
Probably. But, I couldn’t.
For context, this was Indiana before the Web went World Wide! And my dad – maybe rebelling against his own father – became a car mechanic & a farmer. Working with his hands. So I grew up splitting firewood, and throwing hay bales.
But every summer, my uncle Bruce would come stay with us. That’s on my mom’s side, her brother. He was a stage manager at the Indiana Repertory Theater, and would get 3 months off every summer.
And eventually he started doing Shakespeare in the Park while he was in town. And he would cast me as one of the fairies in A Midsummer Nights Dream, or part of the Night Watch in Much Ado About Nothing. Which, nepotism? Great job, if you can get it. But honestly, it’s a small town. The auditions were not exactly packed. If you really wanted to be in the show, you probably were in the show.
So I’m in Much Ado – maybe middle-school at that point, I’m not sure. My uncle’s directing, and my dad is cast as The Friar. We’re both in this show together, and I can’t drive yet, so dad is my ride home after rehearsal, and… He spends that time telling me all the things I got wrong – explaining to me why I’m not a very good actor. I need to work a lot harder, or, you know, stop deluding myself. Find something I’m actually good at.
And after that show, and a few more rounds of that fatherly feedback, I mostly stopped acting (until recently). But I did keep doing theater. I found my place off-stage – lighting design, and then writing and directing. Pointing the spotlight at someone else.
And he seemed to like that batter. I was not in the room, but I overheard him once, telling a friend that he liked a play I wrote. So, big win for me. Since then he’s said it to my face, but that’s the first I remember hearing it.
Still, what he usually said to me was that it’s good to make art, but not healthy to be an artist. “Every artist I know is in therapy. It’s bad for you, emotionally, to play make-believe all the time. You also have to do something to keep yourself grounded. Something with your hands.”
And I was like, ok but counterpoint: therapy is actually pretty great, and you should try it sometime? That didn’t go over well.
I do now make my living writing code and stuff on the World Wide Web. So I don’t know if typing counts as using my hands, but I’m not just an artist.
When I get to college, I’m studying theater, but I also start running a theater company downtown with some friends. So we’re rehearsing at the college every night, like 6-10, then grab a snack, head downtown, and rehearse our own shows until 2 or 3am.
And at some point my mom is like: does it really make sense to run a theater company while you’re a full-time student? And I’m like: no, not really. You think I should drop out of college?
That’s not what she thought.
Grandma would always come to our shows, but then had concerns about the violence, or the swearing. I mean, she also recommended I watch A Clockwork Orange, so it’s not like she couldn’t handle the occasional artistic violence.
But she’d point to Shakespeare, like you know, he doesn’t say the F word even once! And I’d try to argue that Much Ado About Nothing is basically a single extended sex joke for three and a half hours.
If you don’t know, some people have… dangly bits. And other people do not have those same bits. Some people have… nothing. And so this play is just people getting all hot and bothered about… nothing! It’s like 16th century American Pie.
Grandpa, the opera lover, would also come to my shows. And he generally liked them, but then every time he would suggest ways we could explain the show better? Like if it was magical realism, he’d be like “that’s great, I love all the magic, but wouldn’t it be more clear if it was just realism realism?”
He also would ask me about what classes I was taking in college, of course, but then he’d realize they were all art classes, and ask if I was studying anything real, you know.
I think it was his brother, or maybe brother-in-law, who asked a writing professor: Why would anyone write fiction, it’s not even true? So there you go. It runs in the family.
Somewhere around that time, in college, I got married, and then divorced. That’s another story. But my ex used to say that all theater is pornography. And not in a good way, she was not getting off to it!
I mean, I think she liked theater fine when I wasn’t doing it, but then… I’d be at rehearsal late, with other women, and… You can’t trust actors, right?!
You can trust me, I’m not an actor. I’m just on stage, holding a script.
But ok, my senior year – my second senior year? – I was there 5 years and never graduated, so maybe mom was onto something, I don’t know.
I was asked to write subtitles for the big spring opera production – one of grandpa’s favorites – The Marriage of Figaro. They were performing it in the original Italian, and they wanted subtitles to help people follow along.
And I’ve been training for this my whole life!
But Figaro has the same problem as Much Ado, right? It’s written in Italian, in 1786, and it’s a sex comedy?! Somehow I missed that as a kid, watching it on VHS with grandpa, but that’s what it is. And these Italian sex jokes are not going to land well in Indiana two-hundred-some years later. Even worse, if the jokes did land, it would be a fucking scandal!
So they’re not asking me to translate – there are plenty of translations out there – what they need is someone to make it funny, while keeping it G-rated? Which… I tried, and I guess it caused some faculty fights? Theater department loved what I was doing, but the music department thought I was basically spitting on Mozart’s sacred grave.
The show was fine, my subtitles were mostly there, redacted slightly, and grandpa came to see it. And then, for the rest of his life, another 15 years, we have this one conversation over and over.
My Grandpa died early in the pandemic, but for the last few years of his life his memory was getting worse. And he sort of latched onto a single thought, or a single question he had, for each person when we would visit.
For my brother, the question was: “how do cordless phones even work? There’s no cord! Is it like wifi or something?” But for me, the conversation was always about that production of Figaro, and my subtitles.
He loved it? He loved the subtitles. So creative, and so much fun! He would laugh every time just thinking about it. But… had I considered? It might have been more clear, if I had just done a literal translation? Word for word, you know? Like on the VHS?
(Yeah, probably. I miss him.)
Eventually my company fell apart, and I moved to Denver. Now I have my web work, the bands, other art I’m doing. I got an accountant to help with self-employment taxes. And the accountant says “That’s really cool that you like doing so many different things, but some day you’ll have to pick one thing to actually focus on, right?”
And like, ma’am: I’m almost 40. So… no. But I love that you’re giving it a go as a life coach! That’s excellent for you. Do you still do taxes, because I really need help with my taxes.
There’s another cousin, I think maybe grandma’s cousin – once or twice removed, I don’t know – we just called him “uncle Chuck”. As kids, he was like an extra grandfather from out of town, kind of clown-like, entertaining. We thought he was cool.
But in 2005 he was dying, and I drove with my parents to visit him in the hospital. And he wanted to talk to me, specifically? He pulls me in close, and says:
“I dedicated my life to theater”. Which, I had no idea actually. But really, I think, he dedicated his life to Drama Therapy. He was a psychologist, I think? Which is different. But what am I going to do, fact-check him in the hospital?
Uncle Chuck was also an evangelical, a missionary. Something I didn’t really understand as a kid. But when I was going through my divorce, he sent me this bulging envelope: pages of clipped articles from Focus on The Family or whatever – explaining the sacred permanence of marriage, one flesh, etc, and the psycho-spiritual damage I would cause (or suffer?) if I ever had sex again? I don’t know.
He didn’t live to find out that I’m a queer trans woman, and that’s fine.
So we’re there, in the hospital, and he says “I dedicated my life to theater, but now I see all these movies coming out of Hollywood, full of drugs and sex and swearing and violence. It’s evil. I thought theater was good! I thought I was doing something good with my life. You do theater. Was I wrong? Was it all a lie? In the end, is theater evil?”
And… I don’t know, Chuck. Yeah, probably.
Anyway, here we are now. I have a new show opening in a couple weeks. It’s a one woman show with two women, a tragedy but also a comedy, and it’s dealing with identity and change. I wrote it. It has a lot of swearing, and some violence, for sure some weird bits that grandpa would cut… and I would say, some Significant Ado about Very Little.
And I’ll be on stage again. Acting? And I think my parents are flying out to see it? So… I hope dad likes my acting better this time. But we’ll see.
Framed | Born To Choose This Way @ The Narrators (podcast)
A reflection on change, desire, choice, and the stories we tell about ourselves