“How did you get to be here, Mr. Shepard? How did you get to be here?” The soundtrack to Merrily We Roll Along was on loop in my head as I listened to my words being spoken from twenty feet above the stage.
There is a gentle slope that takes you from the foyer of the theatre to the back of the house at Arena Stage. It was January in Washington and the weather made no promise of cherry blossoms or green grass on the mall. It was cold and shrill and the Potomac was unsettled. Not the kind of cold that keeps you inside. Not Massachusetts’ cold. Not Maine cold. The kind of cold that lets you wander the streets but threatens to cloak you with melancholy for the rest of the day. It wasn’t a bleak cold, it was a grey cold.
There is a gentle slope that takes you from the foyer of the theatre to back of the house of the Kogod Cradle. Every time I paced the gangplank the wood beam walls felt like Noah’s ark as they stretch up to a dark ceiling. As you come to the top of the winding path you can look through the basket-weaved wooden planks to see the stage below. The closer you get to the back of the theatre, the higher you are, the more of the stage you can see through purposeful chinks in the walls. I was sitting on the concrete poured ramp and listening to the sounds of dialogue that I had written the night before in my hotel room.
My producer, Sean, and I had been working on this play for years. YEARS. That’s the thing that most people don’t realize about plays. They take weeks, months, years, decades to cook. In the theatre next to us, they were preparing for a new musical that no one knew about called Dear Evan Hansen while we were in the Kogod working on my play. I could hear our director, Tom, stop the rehearsal to ask a question of one of the actors and I held my breath hoping he would not call for me to ask a question.
Directors like to ask playwrights questions. Playwrights don’t always like to answer them. Sometimes we know the answers, sometimes we don’t. And more elusively: sometimes we know an answer that will throw the production into a tailspin, so we keep it to ourselves. I watch the rehearsal below through the basket-weave wood beams in the wall and rest my head on the floor. I had gotten to sleep late the night before- or rather, I had gotten to sleep early in the morning. New pages of dialogue were due for the 10 am rehearsal and rather than write in the morning, I wrote through the night.
I watched rehearsal to see if they would call on me. Tom re-blocked the fight between the brothers. Silence. Going on. I breathe a sigh of relief. There were no more questions for me at the moment. That’s really all I could ask for. “Pick yourself a road, get to know the countryside, merrily we roll along, roll along, bursting with dreams.”
The last time I had been in Washington was for a fellowship the second year of my masters’ degree. NYU had arranged a visit with the Library of Congress and a private audience with the head of library services for the performing arts. It didn’t prove to be a fruitful trip, but he was one of the world’s leading experts on Stephen Sondheim, so we spent the majority of the visit talking about obscure lyrics and what they meant. That may have been the reason that Merrily We Roll Along was stuck in my head as I paced up and down the concrete walk. “How did you get to be here? How did you get to be here?”
My mind was drifting and it kept drifting to the same place: a small rehearsal room, where I had 75 kids gathered for a production of The Sound Of Music that I was Artistic Producing. I was here and elsewhere they were there. The opening night for my play in Washington was to be their first rehearsal and I had recorded a video message to send them in my stead.
Telling the truth requires a level of honesty and telling the truth to yourself is sometimes impossible. As I watched the rehearsal happening on the stage below me, I could not reconcile the feeling that I was not where I should be. I was a kind of person. I was kind of a playwright. I was kind of a producer. I was kind of a teacher. I was kind of an administrator. But I was definitely not kind of fulfilled.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am DEEPLY circumspect of math. I don’t like it or understand it, and I’m not particularly good at it. Meaning that I still don’t quite believe two plus two always equals four. I am open to the possibility that on every-other Monday in leap years two plus two can equal seven. But mathematicians tell me that four quarters add up to one whole. The problem is that in life four quarters don’t always add up to a whole. Kind Of a producer plus kind of a teacher plus kind of a playwright plus kind of an administrator was not cumulative. If anything it seemed that the more I did- they less I felt fulfilled.
Sitting in that theatre watching the rehearsal of a new play that I wrote should have made me deliriously happy, but I kept thinking about those damn Von Trapp children. Not the real Von Trapps. They’re fine. They have a chalet in Vermont. I meant my Von Trapp children. How happy they would be when they came into rehearsal. How colorfully they would decorate the front of their scripts. I began to plan lessons for when I returned and what the rehearsal schedule for the following three weeks would look like. I sat in that theatre feeling that I was missing something. You shouldn’t be thinking about fish sticks when you’re eating a lobster roll.
It was just my producer and I in the dressing room after rehearsal. Everyone else had left and I had pried myself off the floor to give notes. The room was warm from the bulbs around the dressing room mirrors and you could see yourself on all sides. “I don’t think this is really what you want to be doing,” he said. “I know that you don’t want to be here.” I protested as much as I could for a cold January Wednesday. “You want to be with your kids,” he reiterated. I walked out of the dressing room with a pit in my stomach because I knew he was right. I didn’t want to be where I was. I wanted to be where I wasn’t.