Shortly after graduate school, I join the Philadelphia company of Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral. This is an interactive play in which audience members arrive at “The Helsenrott Jewish Mortuary” and mingle with actors who portray the family of the deceased. After the coffin arrives sticking out the trunk of a car, the service begins and whacky relatives do inappropriate speeches and prayers and songs. I play Stuart, the performance artist grandson, who insists on being called “Skyboy.” In my worst Philadelphia accent I tell strangers of absurd “pieces” that I perform. When it’s my turn to give a eulogy, I enact a ritual dedicated to grandma. I mount a candle on a gefilte fish can, don an apron as if it were a prayer shawl, and perform a blessing that includes such lines as “Aleph bet, gimel daled, Stuart have some whitefish salad.” It’s a fun gig.
One day in the pews during the fake rabbi’s speech, the actor who plays my mentally challenged brother Marky is sitting next to me as usual. He gets my attention and then, right there in a row with spectators nearby, he exposes his penis. Then, he gives me a naughty boy smile.
This is funny stuff. In the dressing room after the show I waste no time letting everyone know how the actor playing my brother flashed his penis in mid pew. I take this to be the sort of fooling around that sometimes happens with bored actors during a long run—one time, an actress flashed me during the Hand Jive in a dinner theater production of Grease—but the actor playing my brother isn’t kidding around. He claims he is “in the moment.” Furthermore, he insists it is not his penis. It is his character’s penis.
In the context of an interactive, partially improvised show, some audience members react in unpredictable ways. Most are comfortable if an actor pretends to be someone else on stage, but some people don’t like that in a so-called “real” interaction.
One day I join the line waiting to get into the funeral in my usual getup: black jeans, striped vest, black tailcoat, and head bandanna. On the lapel of the coat, I have a button that reads “Call me pisher.” I am carrying a cumbersome bag and a folding snack tray. I also wear a three-inch brass “ear ring,” not through my earlobe, but hanging on my ear the way you’d hang a coat on a coat rack. I am obviously in costume, and when someone asks who I’m supposed to be, I say “I’m Skyboy. Did you know my grandma?”
I recognize in line the wife of my high school drama coach. I am looking forward to playing with her, but before I can even approach her, she announces in a loud voice “You’re Fred Siegel.” Of course, this is not the first time someone in the audience denies the “reality” we are trying to create, but this makes it nearly impossible to be in the moment. I try a lame “I guess I look like someone else,” but the drama coach’s wife won’t have it. “No,” she says, “you are Fred Siegel and my husband used to direct you in school plays!” She is strangely triumphant, as if she has uncovered some big conspiracy.
In the recent Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, Phillip Seymour Hoffman says “I am not a dime a dozen. I am Willie Loman and you are Biff Loman.”
Strictly speaking, this is a lie. But I bet no one in the audience ever stood up and contradicted him.
These days, I’m in an improv group called “Tongue and Groove.” One of our distinguishing characteristics is that we aren’t only about getting laughs. We try to mix it up—some serious scenes along with the funny ones. Of course, the exciting thing about improv is that it’s all made up, performed in that instant, and never performed again. It’s important to be “in the moment.”
One night I’m doing a father/daughter scene with Carrie. To be more precise, it’s a bemused father/impossible daughter scene. Carrie and I have done these before. We fall into these roles easily.
In this particular scene, Carrie is being expelled from school and her accusations and excuses become increasingly absurd. I am trying to be serious and appropriately stern, but she talks relentlessly and I can hardly think of what to say to counter her. Bobbi comes to the rescue with what we call a “swinging door.” This is a brief scene from the past that will illuminate what’s happening and that will move the scene forward. Bobbi enters, grabs my shoulders, and turns me away from Carrie, who stops talking momentarily. This is what Bobbi says, in a measured, loving way:
“Honey, you’ve always been the nice one and I’ve always been the tough one. But you know I’m not going to be around much longer….”
(And tears—real tears—start to well up in my eyes.)
“… and it’s going to be up to you. You’re going to have to be the bad cop. Do you understand?”
“But without you,” I say, from out of nowhere, “I’m nothing.”
And Bobbi kisses me on the mouth. The kiss lingers. In the moment, it is real love.
As Bobbi turns me back into the scene, I have a split second to wipe away teardrops. When I reenter the original scene, I flip at my daughter. And I have increased empathy, because I understand the source of my daughter’s problems.
After the Tongue and Groove show ends, Carol, our harmonica player, is waiting backstage to give me a post-show hug. This is not unusual; we often hug after shows. But Carol seems determined, and when I try to de-hug, Carol holds on tighter.
After a few moments, I say “You know my wife didn’t really die.”
“I know,” she says. “I know.”
Carol is a psychologist; she understands transference.
For several days after that performance I relive “the moment.” I cry quietly at home, at work, in the car. I’m not depressed. My wife is healthy. I don’t even have a daughter. Still, I wallow in the moment of pain and sorrow and revive it over and over.
Sometimes, performance conditions make it hard to be in the moment. There are bad light cues, beeping cell phones, distracting audience members. You can’t always get there. But when you do, you are floating liquid in a vivid dream and, at the same time, you are outside watching and aware of every ticking watch, every flickering lip, every halting breath. Your fake wife may die tragically, your fake daughter may try your patience, and your fake brother may show you his penis. In the moment, fake is real.
The moment is where you want to be.