Love, Lies, and Live Theatre
Or: Don’t Call it a Comeback
When I was a boy, I wanted to make up stories and tell them to people who would believe me.
I was a passionate liar and often lost TV privileges as punishment for attempting to deceive my mother of some fancy little white lie that might make my reality a little more fantastic than it was. I was young and green—I had not yet begun honing my craft—and I often got caught. So, I practiced. I would deceive myself and pretend my fancy little white lies were true. This youthful self-delusion was heightened play pretend and felt like something I could really master with practice. Perhaps if I really believed in my fancy little white lies, I could convince those around me they were true, and then true they would be! The most successful lie, after all, is simply truth itself. And if I succeeded at such a transformation, I could have my cake and eat it, too, i.e. tell a nice, successful dinner-time lie then wash it all down with the latest episode of Spongebob Squarepants!
In school, I loved extemporaneous speaking and debate, supporting my positions with fantastic inventions of opinion and context that I employed charisma to convince my captive audience was truth. On weekends, I sharpened these skills in improvisation classes at a local extracurricular organization for young people.
In the fifth grade, I was tasked with writing and directing my first play. The assigned subject of my commission was the first Thanksgiving, something I felt even then was too morose or austere or beyond to entertain or inform. Under my pen, it developed into a very loose adaptation—something just shy of a panto, all broad strokes and broader humor. I spun my lies about what had happened into a comic tragedy (likely well ahead of its time) that was enacted garishly by classmates alternately overzealous and excruciatingly shy. We shared the story with our community—stimulated fellow students, troubled teachers, and patient parents.
Energizing such an event felt to me like discovering a fleeting, untrained, raw superpower—I rendered my lies true enough that others spoke them, showed up to hear them, and believed them! Or, at the very least, they didn’t punish me for telling them. They laughed or made little noises of recognition. How incredible! I had unwittingly unleashed something very powerful that was quite obviously inside me for quite some time, but then, I did not really know what exactly it was, how I could use it, or if I would ever wield it again. All I really knew was that my fictions were fun.
I started writing them down more and more. When I was in the seventh grade, a teacher encouraged me to write, direct, perform in, and edit a short film to fulfill an long-term assignment. Yes, I joined the rank of American cinema’s auteurs at the age of twelve.
The film was called, The B.C. and it was a pre-teen fever dream frankensteined from my favorite TV shows of the era—Grey’s Anatomy, The Office, and, its namesake, The O.C. See, the title of my film debut referred neither to the period prior to the birth of the Christian messiah nor to the New England Jesuit higher education institution but to my home county, Bergen, where all sorts of scintillating drama transpired among us young and beautiful junior high students. It also featured a very hip indie-pop soundtrack, Star Wars-style scene transitions, and a needless character death. Somehow, it won some Panasonic children’s film contest. Yes, I still have a dusty DVD of it somewhere. No, you cannot see it.
Now that I was a feted American auteur—Northern New Jersey’s chubby closeted teen answer to Paul Thomas Anderson—I felt perhaps this was how I would rediscover and hone that special superpower inside with which I once danced a fleeting, fateful dance. The only hitch in my plan was, well, high school. One couldn’t necessarily go to high school and focus on filmmaking. High schools usually make one do other things that required less money and fancy equipment that teenagers are likely to break. Unfortunately, I thought, my follow-up to The B.C. might have to gestate a few years.
My ever-supported mother, now long deceived and delighted by my fancy little white lies and no longer punishing me for them since they had a proper outlet, suggested I consider performing arts school—for theatre. It wasn’t such a bad idea to cut my chops on the stage. The best filmmakers know how to really work with their actors, and what better way to get inside the actor brain than to dabble a bit myself.
I applied to a nearby performing arts high school and was accepted. My freshman year began, and I engaged with the craft I was supposed to study with the cool, stealthy remove of a double agent spying on the other side in order to bring intel back to his camp. For this and whatever other preclusive awkwardness I lived at the age of thirteen, I didn’t quite dive in and I was the only member of my sixteen-person class of aspiring theatremakers to not be cast in our winter musical, The Secret Garden.
I was crushed. I was humiliated. I was suddenly desperate to be involved however I could.
My brilliant teacher and our director on the project, Victoria, devised a role for me. I would be… drumroll, please… historian and lobby designer. My hubris had knocked me from my former auteur status, and I would have to work my way back from the ground up—or, in this case, from the lobby in.
So I did! I absorbed as much of the dramaturgy of the text as I could and translated it into as immersive and informative a lobby exhibition as I could. I had all the parent volunteers who worked our lobby selling snacks and flowers, ushering and handing out programs, dressed as early 20th century Englishfolk. And night after night, after I energized and engaged the pre-show as best I could, I would sit in the back of our massive auditorium and watch the play.
There and then, it all clicked.
The first night I saw the show, I wept with the final curtain call. To see all my brilliant new friends and all those older students to which I so looked up work together to create a living, breathing fiction that moved and delighted and inspired so large a captive audience simply floored me. That was the superpower I knew I had and needed more than ever to unleash.
I have been working at that ever since.
After high school, I attended Boston University to pursue a BFA in Theatre Arts—my focus on both acting and writing, superpowers that would allow me to author and perform the most fabulous fictions ever dreamed.
Early in my training there, I had to write a poem about me and my life, my hopes and dreams, my fears and fantasies—all of which were, by then, so wrapped up in the cultish craft of theatremaking and the age-old ancient ritual of storytelling as a means of transcendent connection and communication.
The last line of the poem, in all its adorable earnestness and brilliant self-seriousness, claimed the kind of storymaker I wanted to be as I crafted a career of the fancy little white lies and fantastic fictions that had so long beguiled me, bound me to those I loved, and bewitched audiences familiar and foreign: “infinite angel of love.”
It is a lofty aspiration built on a passion for lying that couldn’t be more completely true.
Last year at this time, I was mired in the muck of what I thought was a good post-graduate life decision—a full-time job working as an administrator for a local college’s finance office. I loved my co-workers, they treated me excellently, and I excelled at my work. Better still, I was paid relatively handsomely for it.
But—and ugh, what an ugly but it is—I was so, so sad. Administrating accounting for a large, corporate, educational non-profit was far from likely to invite the “infinite angel of love” I had long ago identified as my most ideal self to come play.
That being said, I don’t know if there’s a common base salary for “infinite angels of love,” but it doesn’t strike me as something that would earn me a better paycheck than the one I was making as a Senior Administrative Associate. Such is the world in which we live: we pay administrators better than angels.
For as keenly as I knew that then and still recognize that now, I could not remain dedicated to that pursuit.
In October, I left my job. In October, I was cast in my first full-length play in over a year. I would play the doomed romantic Baron Tusenbach in the Tracy Letts adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters for local professional company Apollinaire Theatre. The timing of it all could only have been coordinated by the most professional angels—administrators be damned.
This past weekend, the sold-out, extended, and acclaimed performance run of that production came to a close, and after two strange but necessary post-graduate years in the well-paid wilderness of role-playing in corporate America, I am recalling my superpowers as they have been so far developed. I am remembering my passion for fancy little white lies and fantastic fictions. I am rediscovering the truth beyond the greatest, strangest fiction that is my “infinite angel of love.”
Three Sisters is a play about the search for something more from life. The title characters are attempting to forge their own respective paths forward in the wake of the deaths of their parents, and through the trials and tribulations of everyday life and with a coterie of supporting loved ones, they discover the foibles and follies of such an attempt.
Pretty relatable for a play that is over a century old, no?
My character, the Baron, is a hopeless, reckless romantic whose ideology dooms him following the single-minded pursuit of love that reveals itself to be a lie in which even he cannot believe. He is sad and lonely and very smart. He is beautiful.
He may very well be an “infinite angel of love,” himself; all shortsightedness and hubris considered, he dedicates his life to work and love as agents of the gradual refinement of mankind. Though his pursuit ultimately reveals a lie with which he cannot live, he is invested in only the truest and most transcendent experiences.
Following my two (admittedly measly) wilderness years away from such experiences, I was grateful for my two and a half months with the Baron.
In an argument with his friend and superior in his brigade, Colonel Vershinin, he claims, “life will always be hard and mysterious and have the occasional happy day. A thousand years from now, people will still say, ‘life is hard,’ and they’ll still be afraid to die.”
It’s only been about one hundred years since Chekhov wrote him those words, but it’s hard to not feel that way about our society’s current plight. It was harder for me not to relate to the struggle of which he speaks still fearing the depression and anxiety that marked my years away from my craft.
Still he remarks on the occasional happy day. I could never forget that—in rehearsals, performances, and now, in reflection.
So much of my time working on this role and this play with the company of generous, brilliant artists we shared were my occasional happy days. In fact, the whole process may have expanded my quota of occasional happy days for the boundless joy we shared cultivating a complex exploration of life on this planet over ten weeks.
At our last curtain call for our Three Sisters this past Sunday evening, I closed my eyes and returned to the seat in the back of the house of my high school auditorium, watching my brilliant peers make something beautiful for all to share from afar. I opened my eyes and I was there, onstage, with them.
Even better, this company had allowed me the time and space to rediscover what it meant to be an “infinite angel of love” as a professional and reveal it to them. They made me stronger and more honest for not just doing so, but for furthermore crafting their individual fictions into our ultimate ensemble truth. And thus, we made a play of which we were genuinely proud.
I move forward restored and renewed. My dedication to realizing and revealing the truth beyond our fancy little white lies and most fantastic fictions is as strong as it’s been in years. And my reserve of love feels deeper, more alive, and ever increasingly infinite. May my “infinite angel” revel in many the occasional happy day ahead.
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