Magic

By  |  September 3, 2019
“offSET #75, Los Angeles,” by Lacey Terrell “offSET #75, Los Angeles,” by Lacey Terrell

 

Iwanted to do Equus. Audience members sit on the stage and confront real issues about sex and shame and the ways the brain copes with the information it can’t bear. That’s the kind of play that can change people. 

We’re doing Hello, Dolly!

“There is nothing wrong with giving an audience something it will like,” Patrick says. 

“There is nothing wrong with giving an audience something to think about.”

“There is nothing wrong with making sure we still have an audience.” 

He is not mentioning the updated version of Medea I directed five years ago. It had fewer audience members on opening night than it did at dress rehearsal. 

Now Patrick is the director, so he’s God, and I’m the stage manager. We do the play that he selects, and we do it the way he wants. Patrick and I have worked with the Pauley Island Players for ten years, so I know how things will go down. We are staging a production of Hello, Dolly! that is every bit as artistic as that show can be. At the moment, the cast is high-stepping and belting out “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” pretending that they’re wearing spats and carrying parasols. They love this show. Bill Leaf’s voice wobbles like a spring, clearly audible over everybody else’s. Patrick cast him as Cornelius Hackl, a lead, and gave me a look to remind me that I can’t sing, either. But I don’t try out for musicals.

Judy Crashaw, playing Ermengarde, is now singing in the dark, and I flip through my Act One notes to check the lighting. Patrick will want to correct her, and I need to make sure my notes match his directions or I’ll risk the lecture about unified effort and artistic community.

Once, when we had been drinking after a rough rehearsal, he started talking about his “vision.” I said, “Who are you, Joseph Papp?” Gin.

“Are you going to say the Pauley Island Players are too lousy to need vision?”

Yes. “No.”

“That’s pretty fucking elitist. You’re saying that art is only Shakespeare in the Park, which isn’t that great, by the way. I’ve seen it.”

There is no one in a four-state realm who doesn’t know that Patrick has seen Shakespeare in the Park. “I’m not saying that.”

“The real artist, the one with vision, is able to find the saving humanity in The Odd Couple. In the end, that’s a greater artist than the one who has the audience in tears at the end of The Cherry Orchard. All you have to do is read The Cherry Orchard and you’ll cry. Try crying at The Odd Couple.”

“I always cry at The Odd Couple.”

He laughed. I wouldn’t try that joke now.

Hello, Dolly! is awful, and Patrick knows it. The sets and costumes are all Crayola colors and the music is mercilessly perky and nobody can say a word without shouting and clicking their heels. It’s the kind of feel-good musical that makes you want to slit your wrists. Nobody wants to do Medea again, but there are plenty of audience favorites out there better than Hello, Dolly! Patrick must have picked this in order to please somebody, but he’s not willing to tell me so. I hope it’s a potential donor, and not somebody who sings Barbra Streisand when he comes.

Either way, Patrick doesn’t owe me any explanations. Fine. But we’ve got thirty-six people here who are coming to the Pauley Island Community Theater every single night for eight weeks, whose families are going without dinner and whose spouses are getting jealous, for the honor of putting on Hello, Dolly! They know that this little, dusty building is as close as they’ll get to theater magic, and they love the uneven, rickety, creaking stage and moth-holed brocade curtain. Even in rehearsal, you can glimpse the magic—Bill Leaf’s face transformed as he briefly leaves boring loan-officer Bill behind and becomes ambitious Cornelius Hackl, the sharp young thing with stars in his eyes and a future ahead of him. “Every community theater has a stage and a wardrobe. We’ve got heart,” Patrick said once, and I believed him. I’m here too, with my theater BA and my heart. Does Patrick even remember he said that?

He’s rocked back in his seat, mouthing shit, shit, shit, which might be his reaction to Judy missing her light cue and might be about his new Streisand-singing lover. We’ve got three weeks till opening night and everything from lighting to set construction is behind. Everything is always behind. This is community theater. It’s the stage manager’s job to remind people, prompt people, chivvy and scurry and dash in the service of the director’s vision. The stage manager delicately takes the director’s notes when the director’s face is buried in his hands and goes over lighting cues and blocking. If Patrick has dived so deep into his own asshole that he thinks he’s the only one to make magic happen, he should try it without me.

Every member of the cast is still on the stage, waiting for Patrick to enumerate the things they did wrong. The shine is gone from Bill’s face; he looks gut-punched. They all can count, and they know that twenty-one rehearsals aren’t enough to fix a Cornelius who can’t sing, a Dolly who can’t act, and a staircase for the finale that slides sideways every time somebody steps on it. 

This doesn’t make up for Medea, but it’s pretty damn gratifying. As the forlorn silence winches tighter around us, I imagine Equus, which we would have had spinning like a top by this time. 

I give myself a count of five, and then I’m up on the stage with my three-ring binder. “Okay! We’ve got some tightening to do, people. Judy, honey, you’ve got to be on your mark before Bill starts to sing. Where’s Bill?”

While I’m administering theatrical CPR, I glance at Patrick, who’s still got his face in his hands. His shoulders are shaking with sobs. Honey, whatever happened with whoever, I don’t really care. It’s time for you to pull on your big-boy pants. The show must go on! An idiot, I say that idiot phrase out loud.

“What did you say?” Judy says.

“You heard the man,” Bill says before I can explain my way out of this. Joy crowds his words. He winks at me, one theater guy to another. I feel slightly nauseated but glance again at Patrick, who’s upright now. Thank you, he mouths at me. 

I nod. We’ve got three weeks.


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Erin McGraw is the author of seven books of fiction, most recently Joy and 52 Other Very Short Stories. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, STORY, Tin House, and many other magazines and journals. She lives in Tennessee with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins.