Pamela Painter ~ Off Stage

The first day of Playwriting 320, I open the door to the class­room and nod hel­lo to four­teen stu­dents with expec­tant faces, weird garb, new tat­toos. Earlier today, I con­sid­ered ask­ing my TA to pass out my syl­labi, make intro­duc­tions, assign home­work.  I con­sid­ered not leav­ing my sister’s hos­pi­tal room where any day or week now she will sure­ly die. But a pro­fes­sor her­self, she insist­ed that every­thing flows from a first class.  “Go. You need to be there,” she said. “Get the fuck out of my room and give them grief,” then she coughed a laugh I couldn’t echo.  When the meds again pulled her under, I made sure the nurse had my cell, then I head­ed to cam­pus three miles away, the mobile of glass birds for her birth­day next week chirp­ing in the back seat.  I’m think­ing of giv­ing it to her lat­er today.

We do intro­duc­tions:  where from, roles played, and one unusu­al fact.  Most facts are too com­mon except the girl with black, black hair who is a triplet.  The short young man is a Bungee jumper; a stu­dent with a neat blond beard says he was almost  kid­napped when he was sev­en, and they all mur­mur “wow.” I can’t stop myself from think­ing my sis­ter is being kidnapped.

I drag myself back from that precipice.

It is time to explain the exer­cise I always do the first day.  I tell them we’re going to start a play– now. Eyes widen, eye­brows rise.  Dutifully they get out note­books, pens.  Their cell phones rest in front of them, out of sight in envelopes I pro­vide. It takes the pres­sure off.

I’m going to do some impro­vis­ing.”  I close my eyes, tell them to close their eyes to see.  “Setting:  kitchen/dining area. Table with four, no, five chairs.  Maybe Ikea or used fur­ni­ture from the alley. The wall clock says 8:30.  You decide AM or PM.”  I open my eyes to watch them con­jure up tables and chairs and decide the virtue of night or day.

Now we need char­ac­ters.  I’m going to come up with a cast for our play.  You’ll do your own next week.  First char­ac­ter is– female, ear­ly 30s.” I refrain from say­ing around my age.  “The script says:  female enters from stage door left.  She is hold­ing a small box.  She drops the box and looks–looks hor­ri­fied.”  Some stu­dents nod.  I enjoy cre­at­ing worlds that come alive for them.  For any audi­ence, which in my own mod­est career as a play­wright is a new pro­duc­tion every three or four years.  Right now I’m stalled and I know my sis­ter blames herself.

Let’s add anoth­er char­ac­ter.  Script says:  ‘a young man—I’ll make him about 22– enters from door stage right.  He takes off his wet t‑shirt and throws it over the back of a chair in dis­gust.’    One more char­ac­ter:  ‘Script says sec­onds lat­er anoth­er young man enters from door stage left.  He looks sur­prised.’  So, we have three char­ac­ters.  You can open your eyes.”

They hur­ried­ly set to tak­ing notes.

When I ask what the emo­tion­al cues are, one stu­dent with an eye­brow pierc­ing calls out,  “Well, the woman is hor­ri­fied when she drops the box. So maybe “hor­ri­fied.”

’Disgust.’  The guy throws his t‑shirt down– in dis­gust, a stu­dent in the  Cowboys t‑shirt says.  I remem­ber he’s the bungee jumper.

Yeah, and the sec­ond guy is ‘sur­prised.’”  They got it.  So I explain how every pro­fes­sion­al actor, first thing, cross­es out the emo­tion­al cues put in the script by the play­wright. ’Horrified,’ ‘dis­gust­ed’ and ‘sur­prised’ get blacked out.  Black per­ma­nent mark­er.  Actors only go with the dia­logue, which is why dia­logue has to con­vey everything.

Here I ask how many have seen a play?  I’m pleased that most of their hands go up.  Someone asks if Shakespeare-in-the-Park counts.  Absolutely.  How many have act­ed in a play.  Again most hands go up, so I switch to high gear.  I ask what’s off stage, what’s behind those doors, or cur­tains or walls?  “The wings.  What is in the wings?”  There’s a catch in my throat that I cough to hide. More fidgeting.

What’s in the wings?” I ask again.  One stu­dent ten­ta­tive­ly says, “cos­tumes” and I nod.  Another says, “props, like the box the woman is car­ry­ing.  Maybe more kitchen chairs.”  When I tell them to keep going, a stu­dent says, “Sound equip­ment, a fog machine.”

Everybody laughs when anoth­er stu­dent says, “Water—hopefully beer.”

When a young man in red glass­es says “lights” a girl with a star tat­too on her cheek says, “No.  Lights are done from the bal­cony, if there is one.  But some­where across from the stage.”

They wind down with “Roadies who move the fur­ni­ture around.”

So I step in. “You are all wrong.”  I love this moment:  They shrug and look at each oth­er, then back at me.

Now I’m stand­ing in front of them, near the door.  “Here’s the mag­ic of the­atre,” I say, look­ing each stu­dent in the eye.  “Every character’s entrance on to the stage is real­ly an exit from some­where that mat­ters to their indi­vid­ual sto­ry.  Every entrance is an exit from some­where else.”

A stu­dent in the front row repeats “some­where else.”  And I hope their stage is  expand­ing with the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what is hap­pen­ing in the wings.  I move on.  “Now what I want you to do is give every char­ac­ter their first line, and add a clue about that “some­where else’–begin to decide what the play is about.”

With one line?” a stu­dent says.

It’s the first day, I remind myself.  They need coach­ing and I need to hur­ry things along. “Okay, here’s the woman’s open­ing line.  Remember she is car­ry­ing a box. What if she comes on stage and says, ‘Help.  I just passed the 7/11 and some guy with a nylon stock­ing over his head ran out, hand­ed me this box, and dashed away call­ing not to wor­ry that he’d find me lat­er.’”  They get this sto­ry with hoots and whis­tles.  “Give our woman some oth­er pos­si­ble lines, oth­er sce­nar­ios,” I say.

I’ll give it a try,” the girl with the star tat­toos says.   “The woman comes in and says, ‘I expect­ed my husband’s ash­es to weigh more than this.’”  She lifts her hands palms up as if weigh­ing some­thing.  That qui­ets them down.  Me too.

Another stu­dent says, “The woman comes in and says, ‘Tomorrow’s our sister’s birth­day and I splurged and spent way too much mon­ey on her present.’”

It’s a bit tame and I can’t stop my frown.

In my fic­tion work­shop we learned to raise the stakes,” says anoth­er stu­dent. “What about this?  ‘Tomorrow’s our sister’s birth­day and I spent way too much mon­ey on her present.  We have to pre­tend she isn’t dying.” 

The stu­dents gasp.  “Shit,” the cow­boy says.  They are alarmed and grat­i­fied by what has been set in motion– some­where else.  Do they see the hos­pi­tal room I see, smell the dis­in­fec­tant, stand by a sister’s hos­pi­tal bed?

My cell phone vibrates in my pock­et.  A text from the nurse to say my sis­ter is awake.  If I give her my gift early—the mobile of col­or­ful glass song birds to sing above her bed—she’ll know why I didn’t wait a week.  Can we han­dle this?  The ster­ile stage she’ll nev­er leave alive.

Hurriedly gath­er­ing up my papers, I tell them that’s all for today, I tell them set a stage and give me two char­ac­ters for the next class.  A great first line.  They sit there, slight­ly stunned, then they too begin to gath­er up their books and back­packs, pull out phones.  Next week, I’ll tell them more, how when the play says “exit” that means the char­ac­ter is return­ing to the sto­ry they came in with.  How, even today, we’re each in a play of our own.

I don’t say I’ll see them in a week because my voice fails.  I wave as I take my exit.  A lit­tle puz­zled, to a one they wave back as if they almost know I am going some­where else.


Pamela Painter is the author of four sto­ry col­lec­tions, most recent­ly Ways to Spend the Night.  She is co-author of What If?  Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her sto­ries have appeared in Harper’s, Five Points, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and Ploughshares among oth­ers and in numer­ous flash fic­tion antholo­gies. She has received grants from The Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the  National Endowment of the Arts, has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’s The John Cheever Award for Fiction.