A guide for backstage reading

Yepikhodov: How nice it is to play the mandolin.

Dunyasha: That’s not a mandolin. It’s a guitar.

Yepikhodov: To a man crazed with love it’s a mandolin.

I started to develop a philosophy for backstage reading while working on a production of Sweeney Todd in Stockton, California. Reading Jack Kerouac didn’t do the trick. It wasn’t that it had me too often escaping to the dusk falling on the vines in Tracy, or the rainy night slices of apple pie with ice cream in Iowa, or the night that blew itself out with Denver jazz. It was that there wasn’t enough to hold on to. Only one passage: when Dean foresees the days when Sal will grow older and “sit in parks,” and Sal, feeling old, erupts at Dean, who leaves his uneaten plate of food steaming on the table and spends “exactly five minutes” outside the restaurant before returning to explain that he had been crying. The reconciliation scene that follows is one of the finest I’ve ever read.

Backstage books need to wrestle with us for our attention. They can’t just be mirrors to our mindfulness: we have mirrors all around us, and we’re constantly looking at them. Just as we are looking at the door swinging open at us, or the actors and actresses running shirtless down the hallway, or the wigs springing out of their pins, or the mugs of tea being spilled in a shock of steam, or the sweat melting our mics and our glittery makeup off our faces.

Being in the Sweeney ensemble was a costume-changeless vacuum of “Are they still singing ‘Kiss Me’ who turned down the monitors?” and “Which swing your razor is it this time?”

Under these conditions, I needed a book to sink my teeth into–and my heart.

This time around, I’ve been reading Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” It had me from the first stage directions: “A room which is still known as ‘the nursery.’ ” It had me with the first line: “The train’s arrived, thank God. What time is it?”–isn’t it always with the Russians a story of what time the train is arriving? And by Mrs. Ranevsky’s entrance–even before I could gaze out at the frozen cherry blossoms under the moonlight, or breathe in the orchard air, or hear the birds singing–I could feel the sleepiness of a midnight journey in their bodies and smell the coffee: “I’ll just drink this coffee, then we’ll all go. Thank you, my dear. I’ve got used to coffee, I drink it day and night.” And I could taste the salt of tears.

In the interest of not spoiling the ending, I will say nothing more of “The Cherry Orchard” other than to say I have been afraid to read another Chekhov play for about a week. (As I said, it had me.)

I wish I could talk about all the books that carried me through other recent productions, but I know that I cannot offer a reading list that will appeal to everyone. (In honesty, most folk who hang out backstage are more interested in telling the whole green room what show they are doing next or singing the songs from a different show or actually interrupting our reading to ask us what show we are going to do next.)

Nevertheless, no one should have to brave a backstage experience alone. Here is a set of guiding questions. Here are all my hard-earned principles. May they provide the direction you need the next time you have to get through that “poignant” scene at the start of Act Two that gets longer by about two minutes every time you look at the clock.

When choosing a backstage book, ask yourself:
#1. Is it something you want to pick up? This will protect you from staring at the flicker of the fluorescent lights for twenty minutes or watching your castmate change while he tells you what he ate for dinner that night. It might be a challenge, but you need to find a book that you think will be more interesting than what your castmate ate for dinner.

#2. Is it something you can easily put down? It can’t be a page turner. It can be something by G. K. Chesterton or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Something where you have no idea what’s going on anyways and–like the feeling you have when on a spree in an art museum–you just drift from image to image thinking, “It’s all so beautiful! Yes. Yes, that! This is it! Thank you five minutes to places.”

#3. Will it make others more interested in you? Sometimes this is positive–and who doesn’t bring a book with a colorful cover to their early rehearsals to help spark conversations with people they are too afraid to approach? But be careful, because your backstage reading can be self-defeating. I remember the time I was trying to finish Balzac’s La Cousine Bette during one matinee performance and everyone was like, “You read French?” and all possible sarcasms aside, all I wanted to say was, “I’m just trying to be freed. Please let me finish.” I take Balzac that seriously. No one else.

#4. Does it pair well with your show? The answer should be “No.” Not literally. Don’t believe me if I told you I was reading Virginia Woolf in an effort to preserve the socio historical consciousness of the 1910s when I stepped off stage. This was for a production of Mary Poppins. But believe me if I told you I had picked Mrs. Dalloway because of its language, both mind-bending and commonplace, its glimpses into the darknesses of the human soul along with its flashes of color, its climaxes that felt dizzying but at the same time like a gulp of fresh air.

I can’t say that every show will be like this. But, like a fine wine pairs well with the meal about to be brought out–we can’t see it yet but we know that it is coming, the steam is rising, our stage manager has told us the house is open, already the orchestra is tuning, and the voices of the gathering crowd are beginning to buzz in the monitors–the books we choose to read should help us savor the show we are about to feast on, with the people we will feast with, for hours on end, every night.