Black Box Theater

Being in the audience can put you on stage.

There was someone screaming in my direction, for which I'd paid $10. My friend, a coworker in IT named Gustav Hardler, had confessed his acting ambitions to me while I joined him for a cigarette on the office porch, and a few days later, with manipulative vulnerability and an explanation that unless he brought 3 people he would not be able to go on, he invited me to see him perform in a friend's one-act play.

There were two plays before his, at least 30 minutes to go. Gustav is 33 and divorced for two years. After the divorce he took up improvisational comedy, but his tastes have since deepened, and now his muse is drama.

Quieter now, the actress said: “Come into my car, says the man,” she said. “Chase me, says the man. And there is no escape.”

I could see her makeup, eyeshadow and rouge. The only thing on the stage—well, floor—was an unmade bed and a music stand, which threatened that the performance might include singing. I began to bite my inner cheek.

Not because I wanted to laugh, but because I wanted to keep my face neutral. If I showed my true feelings, if this woman had looked at my face, zeroed in on me out of the 8 in the audience, she would have known the embarrassment I felt for her, my horror. I was worried that, if she saw that, it would throw off her performance and hurt her confidence.

So I bit my cheek and thought of drinking. I'd given up three evils two days before: smoking, booze, and misogyny. I sweated some sort of awful fluid, a punishment from my body for being denied its beloved poisons. As the woman lamented, I began to itch, and, when I told my body that, no, there would be no booze or cigarettes, my mind filled with evil. I imagined the actress in flames, devils coming out of the walls, snakes slithering around the metal of the chair legs. I imagined the bomb hitting, right then, and imagined spending the next weeks sealed in this room until we could dig our way out. Cannibalism would ensue.

Whom would I eat? Typical skinny New Yorkers, most of the audience lacked much meat. There was one chubby man who'd entered wearing a fedora who looked nutritious, if unappetizing.

Maybe I should move closer to his seat. I contemplated an affair with the actress, during which both of us would give the other permission to eat the one who died first.

Now she went to the music stand, and sang “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton, without accompaniment, frowning, and at that moment, her reedy voice filling the tiny room, as I tried to decide whether I could bring myself to eat her given this choice of song, she looked directly into my eyes, and I was thrust back into the awfulness of her performance, and in an effort to keep my compusure, I bit through my cheek.

It was a gusher. “Algh,” I said, pushing my fingers into my mouth. When I pulled them out they were covered in blood. I looked up, and she had seen. She was looking back and forth, a few feet away, still singing, carefully avoiding my direction.

The song ended and the lights came up. As the audience clapped I pushed past the curtain into the hall and found a water fountain. The cold water felt good against the cut, and the flow of blood was already stanching. I lingered for a moment, with no desire to go back into the theater.

Then she came out, the actress, now shod. She was waiting for the water fountain. I let it run for a moment to wash the blood from the drain.

She smiled, a challenging, pretty smile.

“What'd you think?” she asked.

“Pretty guh,” I said, pulling my finger from my mouth. “I enjoyed it.”

“Are you okay?”

“I cut my cheek,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, sighing. “For a moment I thought I'd run you out of the theater.”

“Of course not,” I said. “I've just been, uh, playing with a little cut all day, and it, kind of...”

Clearly disgusted by my admission of playing with my inner cheek (a mood that would fade when it became clear that my haunches were all that stood between her and starvation), she smiled and moved in for her drink of water. At which I braced myself, squared my shoulder, and returned to the darkness for two more one-acts.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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