Getting tickets was a nightmare—the chances were slim to nothing. One in a quarter billion. But somehow, the odds worked in your favor. Seems pretty arbitrary, if you ask me. You were offered a front row seat under one condition—you would stay for all of it.
You are the only one in the theater—or at least you think you are. It’s dark in there—too dark, in your opinion. So dark that you can’t even find your playbill. Did they even give you a playbill?
The stage is dark too. You cannot not tell if the play has started, so you sit patiently. You grow impatient, and kick the seat in front of you (try not to do that). And then: the opening. A burst of bright light—a bit too bright, in your opinion—assails your senses. You feel exposed, and enter a hysteric rage. The following scenes whiz by, leaving you bewildered. Characters hum in and out. You are miserable, exhausted, unsatisfied. Some characters linger. Some disappear for good.
A woman with soft, sleepy eyes steps on stage. She narrates the indescribable flood of lights and sounds. Haphazardly generating alphabets, she stirs around phonetic lumps in the uncomfortable void which she calls “sai, lance.” (Silence.) These lumps are called “words,” and you finally understand.
She says your name. That is what she will call you, the audience. It invites emotional engagement, doesn’t it? Just wait for the second act.
The first act is confusing and makes you feel miserable for reasons you cannot describe. Characters laugh and scream and cry all at once. But by act two, your memories of the first act are vague and bizarre. You are even able to laugh about it. Pictures are taken, which become folded into your arbitrary chunks of memory. Had you not been diligently taking notes, you may not have remembered any of it at all (you are taking notes, right?).
Some characters feel unnecessary. They yell at you, or offer fake smiles. They pull you out of the moment, remind you that you are in a theater—awareness of the stage is a thespian’s nightmare. At some points, you think someone will jump from the stage and attack you. Or maybe hug you. But they never do. You notice a few misspoken lines, stumbles, missed cues, shattered props. You wonder if these are mistakes. Were they in the script? Is there a script? I advise you not to overanalyze the details, or you will miss important moments.
You sometimes become distracted, and completely lose track of why you came to the theater in the first place. You don’t even like theater. But the musical numbers bring your attention back to the performance. There are some tributes—some Beethoven in the first act. A long, loud compilation of Green Day in the second. Recurring free-form jazz in the third.
Three acts in, you realize that there is probably no intermission. Your back is becoming sore and you’re feeling heavy and hungry. You think back to the first two acts and feel like you missed some parts. Had you focused on the wrong dialogue? Dedicated your attention to the wrong voices? You regret all of the moments of boredom. The moments in which you heard, but did not listen. No one ever told you where to look. No one ever told you when to listen. How were you supposed to know? It all seems so obvious now.
The themes are expected but the plot feels thick, impossible to predict. You find yourself searching for a narrative—some cohesive storyline to scribble down in your notebook. But every time you think you’ve find the plot, you lose it. Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon an avant-garde play? How cultured of you!
You lose track of beginnings and endings. Everything starts to blur together—characters, songs, memories. You started to question the play. Is there a director? Are you the director?! You stand up, wave your hands in the air, and scream, “Stop! Stop the show! Go back to act two, the part with the nice boy who paid for your $8 coffee at that snooty coffee shop in the West Village!”
The actors freeze and stare at you. You sit back down.
The play keeps going. You do not know when it will end, and this scares you. You fear there may be no resolution to a play that doesn’t even seem to have a single continuous plotline. And the more you fear the end, the more distracted you become. You find yourself staring at the ceiling (beautiful, isn’t it? They painted it way back at the beginning of the universe). The play becomes tired, myopic. The characters are less interesting. You even find yourself staring at an empty stage for a few seconds, or maybe hours. You lost track of time. You grow anxious when alone in your thoughts. Your favorite characters are long gone.
You look around you—you are indeed the only one in the audience. In fact, had you not written anything down, who is to say the play ever happened? The awning outside would be stripped and recovered. The set would be destroyed in the workshop out back (hopefully recycled, though). The props, donated.
After the show you walk outside. It feels strange, to leave the set behind—the only tangible evidence the show ever existed. You feel you have missed so much. Does anyone have a script? Or a recording? A piece of the set, even? Where did all the actors go?
You only have your notebook, in which you managed to scribble in when the light from the stage was bright enough. You stand on the corner, and your cheeks feel full of life and your eyebrows furrow. You remember that old Shakespeare play—the one where he compared life to a stage, where every man must play a part. Or that Macbeth line about how we swagger and fret our hour upon the stage, all for nothing. Or was the word stagger? Strut, maybe? You wish strutting was that easy.
What a show. You’ve seen nothing else like it, you tell yourself. You would recommend it. But you would not see it again.