Last night’s performance of INVINCIBLE SUMMER was disrupted when eighty seven members of a Christian group walked out of the show en masse, and chose to physically attack my work by pouring water on and destroying the original of the show outline.
I’m still dealing with all the ramifications, but here’s what it felt like from my end: I am performing the show to a packed house, when suddenly the lights start coming up in the house as a flood of people start walking down the aisles–they looked like a flock of birds who’d been startled, the way they all moved so quickly, and at the same moment…it was shocking, to see them surging down the aisles. The show halted as they fled, and at this moment a member of their group strode up to the table, stood looking down on me and poured water all over the outline, drenching everything in a kind of anti-baptism.
I sat behind the table, looking up in his face with shock. My job onstage is to be as open as possible, to weave the show without a script as it comes, and this leaves me very emotionally available–and vulnerable, if an audience chooses to abuse that trust. I doubt I will ever forget the look in his face as he defaced the only original of the handwritten show outline–it was a look of hatred, and disgust, and utter and consuming pride.
It is a face I have seen in Riefenstahl’s work, and in my dreams, but never on another human face, never an arm’s length from me–never directed at me, hating me, hating my words and the story that I’ve chosen to tell. That face is not Christian, by any definition Christ would be proud to call his own–its naked righteousness and contempt have nothing to do with the godhead, and everything to do with pathetic human pride at its very worst.
And it wounded me in my heart, because I trusted these people. Scared parents and scared teachers running from a theater because words might hurt them, and so consumed by fear that they have to lash out at the work, literally break it apart, drown it. They’ve made me afraid of my audience, afraid of my craft, just the smallest amount, and that’s the trust I will have to relearn tonight and every night. That’s the work–the only way out is through, I tell my students, and it is true for me and it is true for everybody.
I tried to engage with the group as they fled, but they ran out like cowards, and not one of them would stand and discuss with me what they’d done. That cowardice still takes my breath away–that they wouldn’t stand and speak like men and women and tell me in their voices their grievances. In spite of everything, I still believe–Jean-Michele says that’s one of the reasons I’m a monologuist–and I fought to the end to get a single voice to speak and reckon with me, but they ran and didn’t look back.
I had to stay onstage and tend to my audience, who was wounded and reeling–they looked stunned and shaken, as Jean-Michele and Kevin cleaned the table I talked to everyone, normalizing the pressures, rebuilding connections. We talked a bit, then I restarted the show, which was intense from a cold start–like passing a six pound kidney stone–and hesitantly, shakily, they came with me and we comforted each other with the story. At the end of the show they gave a standing ovation, which I didn’t earn–they applauded because they had been through the same thing, and worked as hard as I did to carry the story to its conclusion. They were magnificent.
After the show I told the audience something, and it’s been rolling around in my mind. It’s common to think things will never happen where you are–never in Cambridge, never in New York, never in Seattle–that sort of thing, whatever it is, never happens here, not in our community. Then it happens, right in front of you, and you realize you were blind to it, that you forgot that intolerance and zealotry and viciousness are human currency everywhere, and it takes your breath away. You want to curl up and pretend it never happened, because they were fools, idiots–you make excuses and move on. Do the next show. Breathe. Forget.
But they are not simply fools and idiots–I saw them. They are young and old, they are teachers and students, they are each and every one of us. We are the same family, even if it hurts. The hard truth is that you reap what you sow, and I will not sow hatred and discontent–I refuse. I will not forget what that man, older than I am today, did to my work. I will not forget the cowed silence of those who left. I will not forget their judgment and their arrogance–but I will not hate.
I will listen. I will listen and learn and remember what has passed here, and when I tell it back it will be louder and longer and clearer. When I tell it back there will be place in the story for you and you and even you.