Fledgling lovers, like beginning actors, try to present consistent characters. As kids, we’re taught to color inside the lines, learn the right answers and avoid the wrong questions. As teens, we look in the mirror and try to banish our inconsistencies along with our acne. Then we fall in love and try to bring our best faces forward as spokesmen for the disorderly horde who actually inhabit our skulls.
A wedding photographer in our play Descent of Inanna says:
I snap the bride and the groom in a very happy pose and then they try to hold that pose for the rest of their life.
Funny. In our writing and acting, our first search is for the contradictions, just as a drummer’s off-beat syncopations give life to the 4/4 beat. Mixed feelings, secrets, hidden agendas— we’ve always understood these in our fictional work. It took much longer to see and accept these within ourselves and one another. Our first mating cries involved lots of mating, lots of crying, and the progressive discovery of the multiple beings who whispered inside us as we said, “I do.”
Before our first date, I was murdered. Conrad had edged his way into the stage directing class, where normally only juniors were allowed, and he asked me to play a role in his directing scene from Woyzeck, a German tragedy in which a soldier lures his mistress into the forest, accuses her of infidelity, and stabs her to death.
We worked together retranslating the text. I had a modest grasp of German, having had a mad crush on my high school German instructor, and together we made a text that felt right. Our soldier, a sophomore named Vance, did agony quite well, but Conrad kept the scene very contained, almost tender, with a focus on the silences, those painful boundaries that can’t be crossed by words. Then the explosion into brutality— a knife in the face— and again the forest’s quiet.
The class was stunned. And for me . . . Never before in my acting had this happened, this process of just being there in the reality of the moment. I felt that this director actually saw me, that I existed on multiple levels, as a person, as an instrument, and as someone expected to collaborate in the making. That was new. And that little scene established something between us. We trusted each other. We played for high stakes. We aimed to stun the audience, to give them something memorable. And we did.
Then he asked me to go to a movie.
We got on the El in the early chill of the Chicago autumn. At the Clark Theatre on the Near North Side you could see a double feature, changing every day, for fifty cents. We saw some foreign films because he was into that, then caught the subway back in a rush to get to the girls’ dorm before curfew.
I had very mixed feelings about Conrad. He wasn’t really my type. Historically, my tastes ran to dark Leos, louche and reckless and vaguely dangerous, whom I could depend on for unhappy endings. Conrad was odd and brilliant, but with a gentleness at the core that was foreign to me. I didn’t feel the familiar spark. But on the way back from the movie, I was in an altered state.
I’m struggling to hold back tears. I’m looking at our reflections in the train windows as the lights of North Chicago whip past, with the roar of the train and the scream of the tracks as it curves and jostles. Why am I crying? I can’t talk. He’s just sitting there while I have my fit. I’m totally wired and shaken, shuddering and weeping. I’m giddy and I’m scared blue. My God, this is the one.
I was baffled. Why was she crying? She didn’t like the movie?
Much later, I understood that some part of me had gotten a faint glimpse down the decades. In that cold journey back to a tedious dorm room, the veil had parted for an instant, and I saw the long path, the joy and terror and labor and overwhelming changes that were to come. It scared the bejeezus out of me.