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FOR OTHERS: A CONTINUUM
By Jennifer Clements
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” — Peter Brook, The Empty Space
If a tree falls in the forest and no one stands within hearing range, we can debate at length whether or not it makes a sound. But it is a statement of undeniable fact that with no one around to witness it, the falling of the tree cannot be counted as a theatrical performance. At best, it might be deemed a rehearsal.
Tallulah Bankhead famously said, if you want to best serve the American theatre, “don’t be an actress, darling — be an audience.” While we most often hear this from the mouths of marketing teams and box office staff, there’s something more to her sentiment, something removed entirely from ticket sales and bottom lines and having everything to do with the shared experience that is born only when observed meets observer.
Because there is power in that observation. In granting one’s careful, dedicated attention to the parts of the world that cross her path. It brings whatever’s happening into the realm of the collaborative, the transactional, giving legs to something which otherwise would have remained stagnant. Ask any performer of any kind - the energy multiplies when someone is watching.
Neither role can exist without the other. They are inexorably bound.
The well-trained performer knows this, and exerts as much energy giving back to his scene partner as delivering his own lines. The sentiment extends beyond the performance. Audiences are everywhere. And many of the most powerful performances are witnessed by the smallest audiences, on sidewalks or in classrooms. This exchange lives in all of us.
I am standing on a Broadway stage with a young woman named Meg who, for some reason, looks at me like I can accomplish six impossible things before breakfast.
The Broadway stage is a borrowed space, our playground for a few hours. Neither of us is working here, we’re only taking a tour, but through a series of lucky connections I’ve been able to get us a personal walk-through of the historic venue. Jake Gyllenhaal’s dressing room is behind that door. Mesh bags stuffed with white balloons flank the stage walls, further offstage, in case any of the dozen onstage pop or float away. We’re looking out across six hundred empty seats, intricate ornamentations of ivory and gold filling the walls and reaching toward the vaulted ceiling. No Exit premiered here in 1946. Hair played here in 1977. It’s a surreal thing to stand and absorb that kind of energy, and it’s not something I would have done on my own. Meg — a former intern, twenty-one years old and exuberant about the possibilities ahead of her — hopes to land an apprenticeship at a professional company in New York after she finishes her last semester of school in Virginia. I’m just trying to help her get there.
The stage door closes behind us, returning us to the frigid anonymity of a side street in Times Square. Meg explodes into a fit of unfettered happiness, flurries of laughter and exclamations strung together, eyes wide as she says over and over, “Did that really just happen?” It occurs to me that her enthusiasm has as much to do with the future - with how tangible some of her specific dreams might now seem - as the behind-the-scenes tour we just completed.
It is an interesting position to be in. I don’t feel as though I’ve done anything particularly remarkable, in fact I am grateful to my young friend for providing me the opportunity to be a small catalyst in her journey. Taking her for a weekend in New York, to meet with theatre professionals and dip a toe in the waters of this life before diving in headfirst, seemed necessary, and I had some leftover grant money I could put towards our bus tickets, hotel room, and seats to a limited-engagement show she’d wanted to see. None of it seemed remarkable — I simply was doing what I could to help.
And yet I recognize the look on her face, that look that makes plain that she couldn’t have expected any of this. Doubted that she deserved it. Because I can close my eyes and inhabit a former self, one wearing that very expression, dazzled and awed by the people who seemed nothing short of extraordinary, who went to remarkable lengths to use their powers for good and for others. That former self never understood why they would expend such powers on me. And to this day, I believe those people can accomplish six impossible things before breakfast.
As I walk with Meg through New York City, I feel myself stretching to be for her what others were for me, saying words they might have spoken, making surprising and unapologetic choices too. The older women in my life embodied bold, selfless, magical, dimensions I yearned to develop. And all throughout my formative years, I watched them earnestly and took notes.
Standing here on West 47th with the sun beginning to go grapefruit pink on the horizon, I can feel a bit of their magic tingling in my fingertips. It is windy and freezing, but my heart warms as I think of Meg next, how she certainly will hand down this feeling to an eager young artist someday. And she herself will have done the six impossible things. She’ll only realize it when someone looks at her with that expression of wonder and awe.
I’m a sophomore in college, standing with a favorite professor in her office as I did several times a week, chatting about Zbigniew Herbert and Mark Doty. She pulls a hardback from her ceiling-high shelf — a collection assembled by Frederick Busch, Letters to a Young Fiction Writer. She flips to its final chapter, where generations of writers have been woven together through workshop notes, a formidable network tracing its way from Flannery O’Connor to Joanna Scott and eventually, to the woman standing in front of me. The professor hasn’t published her own novel yet, but she’s given me workshop notes parallel to what Joanna wrote to her.
It doesn’t take a great imaginative leap for me to picture some future edition of this book, once she’s published her book, with the professor’s name included as successor to this literary continuance and workshop notes she’s written to me or one of my peers, who would then assume her position as last in line, enshrouded in the anonymity of a first name and notes on an early draft of a story.
Now it’s four years later. We are in Krakow, in a coffee shop, and a favorite poet is there too. I might not have recognized him if I hadn’t known we were meeting him for drinks; his once caterpillar-thick and coal-dark eyebrows have whitened, and this change is enough to separate his likeness from the image I’ve seen on the dust jackets of his poetry books. Three years earlier, I’d borrowed a stack of those books from my professor. She’d quoted his stanzas and told me someday we’d travel to Poland to meet him. Of course I didn’t believe she intended to bring me across an ocean to see a poet — who would? But she’s somehow made good on her word, and I witness my surroundings from both within this moment and outside of it, able to see it through the lens of her long-ago promise and how I might retell this memory in the future.
She casually promised to take me to Poland and introduce me to one of our shared favorite poets, and then just as casually, she did.
Much has been written about the performative nature of appearances, how clothes and makeup and grooming convey notions of self intended as much for others’ interpretation as for the personal satisfaction of looking a certain way. Less has been written, perhaps because it seems more obvious, about the performative aspects of behavior. That the things we do and model are carried forward by those who observe them. They may not be driven by the desire to be noticed, but almost certainly they are noticed, and when the person taking notice can connect with the example before them, it is one of the most resonant, influential, and important gifts.
I return to the metaphor of the stage performer. The unguided moments, when she has no scripted lines nor prescribed stage business, often reveal more about her portrayal of a character. What choices does she make when she doesn’t recognize that people are giving her their attention?
It is one thing to do for others, and another to simply be as though you understand that others may be watching. Perhaps similar to what the actor learns — to never pretend, and instead find what’s true. The difference between acting and being.
Movies like Sliding Doors or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ask us to consider how events might have unfolded had just one thing happened differently. The profound gratitude I have for the mentors throughout my youth comes both from understanding how entirely generous these women were... and how the rows of dominoes would have fallen very differently for me had I not met them.
Not a week goes by when their influence doesn’t resonate in some way. I try to hold myself to the standard they set for me. Some of that has to do with the ways we knew each other, as artists trying to accomplish meaning in our lives and creative pursuits. For a little while I worried overlong about disappointing them, about — in the crassest of terms — not being a good return on the emotional investment they made in me if I didn’t accomplish this thing or that. One of the greatest realizations about now standing in the mentorship role is understanding just how silly that is: I hope the young woman I’ve brought to New York fulfills all the dreams in her heart, but if for some reason that doesn’t happen, I would never change the experience of knowing her.
“For others” is a borrowed phrase. One championed by a friend and mentor to whom I’ve been a grateful audience for decades. I have tried and failed at distilling her influence to one anecdote, though if I’ve done this right, it is palpable beneath every page of this collection.
She will deny her worldly prowess, but this phrase remains the clearest, tidiest expression of art and altruism I’ve encountered. There is no personal pronoun, nor even a verb. The grammar and brevity use structure to reflect the idea that For others is the purest answer to infinite questions, that there are changeling subjects, verbs, even direct objects that might be plugged in. The meaning is endless enough that specifics become incidental.
For is purpose. It is giving. It is a reason offered in anticipation of something or someone, the others inexorably tied to their forward-looking preposition.
For others. This is actor and audience. Designer and technician. This is writer and reader, teacher and student, and myriad other pairings that yield profound reciprocal effects, each granted significance by the other. Art allows us to engage with mankind in this way, moving beyond something enjoyable and expressive into something transformative, something that teaches through experience, something that informs and inspires in unexpected and often life-changing ways. It is symbiosis in the most surprising and generous sense, and the best we can hope to accomplish using the talents we have been given.
We are lured toward art by promises of self expression, then grow to understand the self is the instrument, not the reason. When we are at our most genuine, that's when others are watching. And all of those truths and all of those values we might hope to instill into our art are right there, the nucleus of that moment. Perhaps this is the closest thing to bringing the elements of art into daily experience, finding those moments of collaboration and earnest truth. Pay it back. Pay it forward.
For every why that might be asked, this may be the answer. Because the things we do - on paper, on a stage, in a classroom, or out in the world, are only granted their value by how they are received. The work itself is fleeting (as, eventually, are we). We do what we can in our time to grant beauty and meaning that, if we’re lucky, might surpass the power we believe we contain.
And it only takes an audience of one for those things to make all the difference in the world.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.