Single Set Drama

In high school, our Drama Club competed each year in a one-act play festival. We’d square off against other high school drama clubs in an orgy of hormones, showtunes, and Ben Nye pancake foundation. It was horrifying. It was glorious.

The challenge, each year, was to come up with something brief-yet-substantive, with a set flexible enough to travel and to fit onto more than just our own stage. As a result, someone sitting through a typical round would see a lot of single set plays. Living room dramas, dining room farces, kitchen confessionals. Keeping things small and compact typically ensured our repeated success.

I think back often to those festivals, and to the time I spent in Drama Club in general. Despite a great deal of turmoil on the home front and a deeply complicated relationship with my father, the time I spent onstage, backstage, on buses to and from competitions and to and from New York City, was a time in which I was the most comfortable with myself. In that environment, I felt utterly safe and valued. It provided a near-daily shot of magic into a life that was otherwise fraught with a lot of uncertainty. I never wanted to stop the process of transformation. So I went on to study theatre in college.

But then I “grew up,” which is to say that I started engaging in activities that I thought were pretty sophisticated, and more real than those which had protected me as a teenager. Those activities typically involved a lot of alcohol, and rather spontaneous “romantic” encounters. And even after I’d settled down on the latter front, on the former I drunkenly raged through the rest of my twenties and into the beginning of my thirties, long after drinking had any sort of even remotely magical effect on me. Oh, it was still transformative, to be sure, but I no longer transformed into anything pretty, witty or bright.

The other thing I began to notice was how very small my world was becoming. Because I was no longer particularly interested in alcohol as a social lubricant. I had no desire to be social. No, what I really liked to do was buy an asspocket of Jack Daniels, retreat to the “music room” (which in any normal house would have been the dining room, but I felt no need to entertain people in that kind of way, and so it became the room in which we put my records, the turntable, and our various and sundry stringed instruments) and drink. Drink, and listen to the same two or three songs over and over again. Drink until I felt better, which is to say nothing, and pass out.

This is what happens when alcoholism creeps up on you: you become the solitary performer in a single set play, only there isn’t any audience, or if there is, they’re walking out in the middle of it. It happened to my father, who by the end of his drinking lived in one room. It happened to me, hiding in one room and mentally staying in that one room even when I left it to go to work. It’s not particularly interesting to watch or be a part of, even as we convinced ourselves that we were the principal characters in our own great tragedies.

It’s an act that goes nowhere. Dramatic stasis. It will go on and on just as it’s going unless something comes along to change it.

So my father and I had to decide if it was worth writing a second act. It was. We did. It’s still in revisions. Generally speaking, we don’t give a shit what the critics will say.

In sobriety I found that comfort again. I’m not able to memorize lines quite as quickly as I used to, but I surround myself with magic, and with magic people (a couple of whom were in Drama Club with me all those years ago). I am acutely aware of what sustains me, and I don’t ever want to wander away from it again. And when the curtain goes down, I want this production to have been a success.

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